Quarterstaff: “Deathbots” vs. “Ordinary living things”   2 comments

One of the most eye-popping claims in the marketing for Quarterstaff is this excerpt from The Status Line, Fall 1988:

In Quarterstaff, monsters are not merely “deathbots,” whose only purpose in life is to maim and destroy, but ordinary living things whose actions are guided by real life drives such as hunger, anger, and the need for friendship.

Monsters even learn from their mistakes and accomplishments through an artificial-intelligence learning system. Some creatures will react negatively to your party, resorting to combat and force. Others, however, will try to help your party, or even join forces with you; and so, though you begin the adventure with only one character, you’re sure to quickly acquire a formidable band of adventurers.

One of the things I was most curious about with Quarterstaff was, does the above claim hold up?

Before getting into that: a status update.

Level 2 consisted mostly of an annoying series of traps. Every time the players got knocked over or fell in a pit the party would separate, so the interface trick I found last time of being able to “de-select” members of a party ended up being mostly useless. I sometimes killed off all my characters except one just so I could explore a little without feeling like I was being hit over the head by a brick repeatedly.

I can’t totally drop having other characters, because sometimes one character will hold a secret door open or otherwise help another character. In one frustrating instance, I tried having my character “on hold” use the GUARD command to wait around after holding open a secret door while my other two characters went in to eliminate enemies. However, I ended up stuck, because there doesn’t seem to be a way to end the GUARD command (it ends itself if there is an encounter, but none were forthcoming); so after 15 minutes of combat and fiddly inventory managment, I had to restore to a saved game and undo all my progress.

(Both the box and the Status Line promotion mention continuous play without the frustration of constant “saves and restores”. Ha ha. Ha. Hahahahaha. No.)

The traps in level 2 have no warning. Only this spot is polite enough to warn about danger, but there’s a locked door I haven’t gotten through so I have no idea if it’s really more dangerous than the other parts.

Incidentally, if you’ve been annoyed by hunger puzzles in adventure games, this game has hunger, thirst, *and* sleep. In the middle of a combat and one of your party member starts feeling thirsty? Better juggle a wine bottle over to them, otherwise they’re start suffering 3 damage per turn. Except the moves you wasted juggling the wine bottle also gave the monsters extra turns to hit you, so you’re probably dead anyway. Guess it’s time to restore again.

Level 3 starts out with what I’m sure everyone wanted, which was to turn off the handy auto-map feature and put the player in a straight-up old school maze. I had to get out Trizbort.

After the maze I found a puzzle with a large number of colored balls, with a hole, and the message I was supposed to insert the one that was different. The appropriate solution was oddly meta and one of those circumstances where I was reminded strongly this was a Computer Game and not just a World. More detail encrypted in rot13: Zber fcrpvsvpnyyl, lbh arrq gb xrrc na rlr ba gur “jrvtug” gung lbhe punenpgre vf pneelvat va bar bs gur zrahf. Vs lbh cvpx hc nal bs gur abezny onyyf, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 1. Vs lbh cvpx gur fcrpvny bar, lbhe jrvtug tbrf hc ol 2. Fb gur onyy jvgu gur jrvtug bs 2 vf gur bar lbh’er fhccbfrq gb vafreg.

After the maze I found two new characters (including “Sandra” the dwarf) and a throne which concealed a secret portion of the map.

Here I am stuck. I think the puzzle I’m supposed to be solving involves a room which says “no man can pass”. You can send a female character through, but that room has the message “no woman can pass”. So either I need some clever teleportation or a method of gender-swapping my characters.

In any case, back to the artificial intelligence. I did experiment quite a bit, and I’m not that impressed. For one thing, there seems to be a fairly strict delineation between hostile and friendly; I haven’t had a situation yet where I can just make friends with an enemy, although I suspect it’s possible in a few places.

In some cases, the monsters clearly aren’t here to make friends.

In general, I haven’t seen them do much past being “murderbots”. You attack an enemy, and keep attacking and they keep trying to hit you back. The very first fight had a scripted element (you are fighting a “chief torturer” who tries to lock one of your party members in manacles, and will try to run away if he gets hurt enough) but I haven’t seen any evidence of “hunger” or “anger” somehow being influences.

It’s quite possible if you had time to sit an observe a particular NPC they might stop to eat or show some other sign of life. However, every meeting so far has been either friendly or hostile so the game is unable to produce evidence of this number crunching. How much evidence of life can a monster give when they live for only a couple turns? While AI often systems have admirable goals, if what they do is indistinguishable from a little custom scripting, what’s the point?

On the other side of the coin, friend-making is a matter of using the SMILE verb repeatedly and possibly using BRIBE with whatever treasure you have around. (If they join your party, since you have control of them, you can just have them give any treasures back.) There’s no intermediary state descriptions of what the NPCs are thinking; you just wait some set number of turns and they join. Again, there might be some complicated machinery behind the characters, but with zero transparency, their behavior might as well be random.

(I write this with the back my head knowing the fact that three interactive fiction luminaries now work at Spirit AI, whose whole goal is to make more realistic AI characters. In fact, they’re all probably reading this. Hello there! I’m sure your AI system rocks!)

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Posted April 28, 2018 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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2 responses to “Quarterstaff: “Deathbots” vs. “Ordinary living things”

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  1. I don’t find the solution to the coloured-balls puzzle meta: you’re making the same judgement that you’d make in real life — it’s just that, with the limitations of the computerised interface, you have to use that interface’s way of telling you what your senses would tell you in real life.

    • I’m not sure if “meta” is quite the right word, but it wasn’t conventional either. My solution did come down to thinking about the GUI and not the puzzle.

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