I expressed in an earlier post disappointment that most games in the adventure genre copied their model from Crowther and Woods meaning we didn’t get as many odd experiments as early CRPGs.
However, there is one person who seems to have gone completely his own way: Robert Lafore.
He wrote five games in an “Interactive Fiction” series published by Adventure International (the Scott Adams company) which are unlike most anything from the era.
Interactive Fiction 1: Six Micro Stories (1980)
Interactive Fiction 2: Local Call for Death (1979)
Interactive Fiction 3: Two Heads of the Coin (1979)
Interactive Fiction 4: His Majesty’s Ship Impetuous (1980)
Interactive Fiction 5: Dragons of Hong Kong (1981)
The dates are very definite because they show up in the source code from the author himself. It appears Six Micro Stories was written third, even though it was published as if it were first. The ad copy suggests it is a good introduction to the format, although I find it weirder and more experimental than the 1979 games.
Speaking of the ad copy, I think it’s interesting enough to reproduce in full. This is from the Summer 1980 Adventure International catalog; keep in mind this is not referencing their entire library of adventure games, but just these Robert Lafore creations.
WHAT IS IT?
Interactive Fiction is story-telling using a computer, so that you, the reader, can actually take part in the story instead of merely reading.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The computer sets the scene with a fictional situation, which you read from the CRT. Then, you become a character in the story: when it’s your turn to speak you type in your response. The dialogue of the other characters and even the plot will depend on what you say.
IS IT A GAME?
No. In a game the situation is rigidly defined and you can select from only a limited number of responses. But in Interactive Fiction you can say anything you like to the other characters. (Of course if your response is too bizarre they may not understand you.)
IS IT IMPORTANT?
Interactive Fiction is the artform of the future. Just as the birth of the novel had to await the invention of the printing press, so does the widespread use of micro-computers make possible Interactive Fiction.
In all previous literature the information flow was one-directional: from the work (novel, story or poem), to the reader. Now the computer provides the medium to change this. The reader, instead of merely absorbing it, can now influence the story, explore it in his own way, become a part of it. The story will be different each time, blending the imaginations of reader and writer. And this is only the beginning. Technology will soon permit Interactive Fiction to become a verbal medium, as synthesized speech and speech recognition techniques eliminate the need for typing and reading. The user will be able to actually speak with the other characters in the story. Later, holography and animation will permit the user to “see” the characters he is talking with and we will have Interactive Movies!
Don’t miss this opportunity to participate in the birth of a new artistic medium.
For the game I’m going to be discussing:
Local Call for Death is a detective story in the style of Lord Peter Whimsey. Considerably more challenging than the above program [referring to Six Micro Stories], this one will put your analytic skills (and social savoir-faire) to the test.
The Scott Adams adventure games show up earlier in the catalog. Esentially, the writer(s) of the catalog considered the concept of Interactive Fiction an entirely different idea than adventure games.
So, back to the game — it feels like an evolutionary route from the genre of “solve it yourself” mysteries that date back to at least 1929 with Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. I was also reminded while playing it of reading one of the old Two-Minute Mysteries books.
All responses are “open prompt” where you are essentially typing what the main character says.
Later on, the game is even very picky that conversations have in complete sentences. I admit this won me over and had me role-playing reasonable wodges of text, even though I am certain (via the most advanced AI a TRS-80 can muster) the game was simply responding to key words.
To start the game off, though you are prompted for a name, gender, and background location
and then thrown into a setting that tries very hard to be British.
There’s the occasional prompt for verisimilitude (asking what you do in America, and if you play bridge) but otherwise the opening scene runs on a straight track.
Later there’s a crime scene:
At this point you are allowed to type single words corresponding to examining items in the scene. (Hint: Type ROOM to go back to looking at the whole room if you get stuck.) This gives a feel of an actual investigation.
I shall quibble that about half the words I tried were unrecognized, but this section was otherwise solid. Then Sir Colin starts asking you probing questions. This is where the complete sentences come in. You have to attempt to logically justify various arguments about who did the crime and what the evidence is.
And part of the time, the magic worked — I typed a totally logical argument, and Sir Colin not only understood it the way I meant but it advanced the plot.
There were also times here I struggled to communicate, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as some guess-the-verb experiences I’ve had (typing >GET UP from the opening room of The Count still burns). If you struggle for too long Sir Colin will even prompt you with suggestions.
There are also moments where you will be prompted to go back to examining the scene to help make more deductions.
I am intentionally being a little vague with spoilers (please note the game makes the identity of the murderer terribly obvious, so I’m not spoiling there, the proof is the hard part) because this game was enjoyable enough I’d recommend it for playing. (I’m quite serious — I was shocked by how good it is.) Even though it’s a circa-1979 TRS-80 game there is fortunately an easy way to play:
Give things a moment to load. After everything boots up, type RUN “STORY” at the prompt.
There is no save game feature so give yourself about an hour before you sit down with it. You’ll want to take notes.
The end is worth getting to — Sir Colin does a very satisfying period-mystery-appropriate spiel where he lays out all the facts.
If you like the era, Christopher Huang has very recently written two interactive fiction mystery games set in the same era (and a traditional book, if that’s more your style).