Before Adventure, Part 3: Caves (1973)   5 comments

Let’s start things a little differently.

Visualize you are living in 1973, where there are almost no computer games at all, and those that exist tend to be conversions of board games and educational games, with a smattering of simulation games and Star Trek.

WELCOME TO THE CAVES

IS THIS YOUR FIRST VISIT (1=YES, 0=NO)? 1

DO YOU WANT AN INTRODUCTION (1=YES, 0=NO)? 1

IMAGINE YOURSELF AN EXPLORER OF THE FAMOUS
DUZZLEDORF CAVES. YOU'VE BEEN UNDERGROUND
FOR DAYS, TRIPPING THROUGH THE CAVERNS AND
TUNNELS. UNFORTUNATELY, YOU'RE LOST, AND
YOUR FOOD HAS RUN OUT.

THERE IS ONLY ONE PATH OUT. SEE IF YOU
CAN FIND IT.

WHEN I TYPE A '?', YOU GIVE ME THE NUMBER
OF THE CAVERN YOU WANT TO GO TO. LIKE THIS:

WHERE NEXT? 7

ADVICE: MAKE A MAP AS YOU GO - IN THE HARDER CAVES
YOU SOMETIMES HAVE TO GO BACK AND TRY ANOTHER
WAY, GOOD LUCK!

YOU'RE IN CAVERN # 1
# 2 # 3 # 4 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO
WHERE NEXT? 4

YOU'RE IN CAVERN # 4
# 5 # 6 # 7 # 1 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO
WHERE NEXT? 5
DEADEND
WHERE NEXT? 6
DEADEND
WHERE NEXT? 7

YOU'RE IN CAVERN # 7
# 8 # 9 # 10 # 4 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO
WHERE NEXT? 10

YOU'RE IN CAVERN # 10
# 11 # 12 # 13 # 7 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO
WHERE NEXT? 13

!!! SUNLIGHT !!!

!!! FRESH AIR !!!

... REPORTERS ...

WELL, AT LEAST YOU'RE OUT

CONGRATULATIONS, INTREPID EXPLORER
OF THE FEARSOME CAVES. IF YOU WANT TO
EXPLORE AGAIN, YOU CAN CHOOSE A HARDER SET
OF CAVES OR ANOTHER ONE JUST AS DIFFICULT

AGAIN (1=YES, 0=NO)?

Again: take a moment, visualize, imagine your take of the transcript above as of you-in-1973, not you-in-now. Hold that thought.

From People’s Computer Company newspaper, May 1973.

The first mention of Caves, aka Caves1, aka Lost in the Caves, is from PCC May 1973, which gives a “sample transcript” of the game being played, and labels it as being by Dave Kaufman. It does not provide source code, which doesn’t appear until a special “Games” PCC publication from 1974, presumably because the game is fairly long by PCC standards.

Back to you-in-1973: what do you think? Is it a different experience, at least? Does it make you want to try again, at a harder difficulty?

From a 2019 perspective, the game doesn’t offer much: it’s a pure-exploration game in a morass of undifferentiated rooms. To summarize: you’re dropped in a cavern that is numbered, with other caverns attached, and need to navigate from cavern to cavern until finding the exit. Although not clear from the transcript above, every map is in the form of a “tree”, with each cavern branching down.

For 1973, there was definitely some novelty. While prior games had placed “you” in a simulation context (most notably in HIGHNOON from 1970) this was “you” as an explorer navigating a space at a “first person” level.

But in 2019 … argh. Although the author doesn’t state it outright, I suspect there was a pedagogical purpose of exploring a computer science structure; the end result is a very mechanical feeling to gameplay. The higher difficulty levels aren’t much better; sometimes you have to backtrack, but there is very little surprise. This is map-as-topology rather than map-as-exploring a real place, and the difference is fairly clear after a few playthroughs.

Of course, you don’t have to just trust me, you can try it yourself. The source code isn’t easy to get to these days, so I hand-typed the entire thing from the PCC publication.

Caves1 BASIC source

This is in a modified version that QBASIC can handle. While I’m not selling the game very well, it does verge close enough to Adventure Games to be worth a try by anyone interested in the genre.

Perhaps sensing the gameplay needed more complexity, the author tried very hard to add “meta-game” activities. Here’s one example, from the book What to Do After You Hit Return:

As shown above: play through, pick a room, swap places with your friend, and have them try to find the room you picked.

This is the sort of thing people do all the time with video games (i.e. playing Halo by ignoring the objective and trying to do stunts instead) but I’ve rarely seen endorsed. Board games, sure. But video games always present a veneer of only the “official” rules being used. Anyone else have some more examples of playing video games in an “alternate” way?

One of the newspaper clips above mentioned Caves2, Caves3, and Wumpus. Wumpus deserves its own post, but let’s get Caves2 and 3 out of the way. They’re both “create your own” games.

Caves2 has the exact same structure as Caves1, except you enter the maze yourself first, rather than having the computer randomly generate it. The idea is that you can then challenge friends to solve your maze.

The problem here is, again, the “tree” structure is highly limiting. There’s not much to differentiate a “creative” maze from one made at random. I suppose someone could try alternating patterns, or embedding Fibonacci sequences, or spelling words based on the numbers the dead ends are at.

Caves3 is a bit more interesting; now connections can be arbitrary.

PCC September 1973.

With Caves3 it might be possible to make something approaching a real map, but without distinguishing factors like names, the rooms are still just undifferentiated topology. There needs to be either be a.) some activity other than pure map-making which makes otherwise “blank” rooms gather narrative value or b.) some extra element to the rooms themselves that make them interesting to look at.

In the remaining posts for the Before Adventure series, we’ll be looking at a set of games that does (a.) first, followed by a fascinating attempt at (b.)

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Posted March 20, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Before Adventure, Part 2: Mugwump, Hurkle, Snark (1973)   8 comments

Before leaving Project SOLO, I’m going to quote from an essay by Dr. Richard Bellman printed in one of their early newsletters, Number Four from October 16th, 1970.

We are citizens of a large and successful society. Consider, for example, the following statistics. We tolerate one-half million serious auto accidents a year plus 60,000 fatalities; we support an 80 billion dollar a year military establishment of our own in addition to subsidizing those of Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam and North Vietnam, (albeit involuntarily and indirectly), and others; we can allocate 40 billion dollars to a TV spectacular on the moon using a hand-held camera. This is impressive evidence of success.

The essay carries this same tone for 7 pages. This is kind of hardcore for an educational program partly funded by the National Science Foundation. However, it does give a good sense of the dread and optimism permeating this era: massive global strife cojoined with massive technical innovation.

I mention this because it helps explain the front page of the first issue of People’s Computer Company, October 1972.

Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them
time to change all that —
we need a …
People’s Computer Company

The People’s Computer Center (and the accompanying People’s Computer Company newspaper) was founded in 1972 by Bob Albrecht. At the time, the only feasible way to use a computer was either to be associated with a large institution like a university or have the good fortune to attend a K-12 school that had access. There were unfeasible ways, of course, but it’s safe to say computers were Not for the Public. (Personal computers also weren’t an option: the first wasn’t released until 1975.)

PEOPLE’S COMPUTER CENTER

is a place.

…a place to do the things the People’s Computer Company talks about.
…a place to play with computers — at modest prices.
…a place to learn how to use computers.

We have a small, friendly computer . . . an EduSystem 20 (see Page 14), a timesharing terminal that connects us to the world and a Textronix programmable calculator, and some small simple calculators and books to help you learn …

Most relevant to us is to remember that the People’s Computer Center was open enough that it consisted of young children all the way up through adults. Games might be targeted at one, neither, or both.

The folks at PCC somehow had gotten hold of Hide and Seek (aka Project SOLO Module #0201), because they mention it as the inspiration for a game called Mugwump, which itself was the inspiration for a game called Hurkle.

Via PCC, Feb. 1973.

A game called Snark appeared a few months later. All three games shared the idea of finding something hidden in a 10 by 10 grid. Unlike Hide and Seek, which had 4 “players” to find, each of the three games had only one.

I. Mugwump

I’m not going to spend too long on this one, as it was a direct adaption of Hide and Seek. The only changes were

1.) to reduce the number of “players” to 1

2.) to change the “player” to a “mugwump”

3.) throw grammar to the wind and write UNIT(S) as UNIT, leading to the possible phrase “YOU ARE 1 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.”

4.) to modify the maximum number of guesses from 10 to 4. (The exact value is tweakable by a line in the source code.)

THE MUGWUMP IS HIDING. TRY TO FIND HIM.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?0,0
YOU ARE 9 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?9,0
YOU ARE 1 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?8,0
YOU ARE 1.4 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?9,1
YOU FOUND HIM IN 4 GUESSES!!!

Note the rounding is still in effect: this is why I was told the mugwump was 9 units away at (0,0) even though (9,1) is a little more than 9 units away. I don’t mind the issue since it makes the game slightly less mechanical.

Also, while it’s not relevant enough for us to get too deep into, there were multiple versions of Mugwump within PCC itself. The first version (based on the February 1973 transcript) had a limit of 4 guesses, whereas a version printed in 1974 had unlimited guesses. Perhaps there was some interplay between “pedagogical tool” and “game”; as a game it’s (maybe?) better to have the ability to lose and add tension to a fourth guess, whereas when trying to teach the specific topic of distance on a coordinate grid it might be better not to cut the player’s calculations short. (Although again, maybe? … perhaps the tension would be more motivating to find a good method of winning, as opposed to trying repeatedly.)

II. Hurkle

Hurkle changed the thing hiding from a “mugwump” to a “hurkle”. Instead of giving a distance after making a guess, the game gave a direction of indicating which way where the hurkle was hiding relative to the last guess.

THE HURKLE IS HIDING. TRY TO FIND HIM.

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?5, 5
GO SOUTHWEST

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?3, 3
GO SOUTHWEST

WHAT IS YOUR GUESS
?1, 1
GO EAST

?2, 1
YOU FOUND HIM IN 4 GUESSES!

This essentially took a relatively complex mathematics exercise and turned into one for younger children. Again, the original game had a guessing limit (5) that was removed in a printed 1974 version.

Technically it’s possible to always win in 4 moves. Think of the first coordinate alone: it could be at any one of

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Pick 5 (guess #1), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 2 3 4 or 6 7 8 9. Suppose it is the longer of the two lists:

0 1 2 3 4

Now pick 2 (guess #2), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 or 3 4. Suppose it is 0 1:

0 1

Now pick either choice (guess #3), which if it is the right choice it means you have the right number for that coordinate, and if it is the wrong choice then there’s only one possibility left (which can be used for your guess #4).

The other coordinate can be treated independently with the same method.

In practice, this easier than I’m making this sound, which is why I said this game was for younger children; just go “halfway” in the right direction at each prompt and you’ll make it to the hurkle in time.)

III. Snark

Snark’s concept is somewhat a hybrid of Mugwump and Hurkle. You guess a position and a circle radius, and then the game tells you if the hurkle is inside, outside, or on the circle that you guess. To guess an exact spot, the radius should be 0.

SNARK IS HIDING … START GUESSING!

COORDINATES
?3,3
RADIUS
?3
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?3,2
RADIUS
?2
THE SNARK IS OUTSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?3,4
RADIUS
?2
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?2,4
RADIUS
?1
THE SNARK IS INSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

COORDINATES
?2,4
RADIUS
?0
YOU CAUGHT HIM IN 5 GUESSES!!!
GOOD SHOW!

This was the most complicated of the games to play, and I never ended up settling on an optimal strategy.

IV. Observations

These certainly came across more as math exercises than as games. The only reason I enjoyed playing them was the historical creation angle.

For one thing, you might expect that Hurkle (the easiest game) was made first, but since Mugwump was a direct adaption from elsewhere (including parts of the same source code) development happened in reverse: the next game added simplicity rather than complexity. Snark went both directions; aesthetically, simpler, since it’s just stating if a point is inside, outside, or on a circle; in gameplay practice, more complicated in that the best general algorithm for winning isn’t as obvious.

Additionally, two of the three games insert a slightly-ambiguous creature as the thing being sought after, whereas one is … a humorous political word?

Mugwump, as discussed by the Oxford English Dictionary blog:

The word mugquomp, meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for ‘officer’, ‘captain’, and ‘duke’. By the early 1800s the form ‘mugwump’ had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss.

One of the PCC publications admits directly that Hurkle comes from the short story The Hurkle is a Happy Beast by Theodore Sturgeon. As discussed in this science fiction blog:

In a “different universal plane,” there is a planet called Lirht. There, during a disaster, the door to a lab is carelessly left open, and a hurkle kitten wanders in. Hurkles are pets on this world. They’re small and cheerful and purr by emitting radiation.

Snark is from the most famous source, The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, but no easier to visualize. Quoting directly from the poem:

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

This is “narrative by association”, so to speak, but it’s still a little stronger and more vivid than the “players” of Hide and Seek.

A picture of the “mugwump” from the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It looks like the mugwump was meant to be a fictional creature as well, although the only references I can find are like the Oxford one where it’s just a name for “leader”. Anyone know of a 1973-or-earlier story that uses the word in a different sense?

V. The Next Link

We need a little more of the chain for anything we’ve seen so far to link to adventure games.

For our next step, we’ll look into a game which was the first to bring game perspective to “first-person exploration”: in a cave, navigating via room numbers from place to place.

Those familiar with it may be thinking I’m talking about Hunt the Wumpus.

But: I’m talking about a different game that came before it, also at the PCC, that seems to have been entirely forgotten in the annals of computer game history.

Posted March 15, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Before Adventure, Part 1: Hide and Seek (1972)   10 comments

I’ve always liked seeing the starts of things.

The earliest known fossils. The earliest known poet. The earliest known trees. The earliest existing piece of film. The earliest known melody.

Note the word “known” repeated above; for each category, even film, there’s a vast amount of unknown. We can surmise and hypothesize about predecessors and successors that may exist etherially, but each snapshot is necessarily incomplete.

Part of the fun of the All the Adventures project is, with a few exceptions, we have access to everything. It’s possible to see all the evolutionary steps, all the false starts, all the connections, all the broken ideas.

This is the first in a series I might call pre-steps. I wouldn’t necessarily consider anything I’m going to talk about an adventure game, but there’s clear evidence some early works had direct influence. I do have to draw the line somewhere, so I’m not just including “all narratives”, because once you start tracing that back you’d need to study every book that was ever written (less exaggeratedly: every choose-your-own-adventure and gamebook, which sounds like a good project but isn’t mine). [1] [2]

Project SOLO was started in 1970 by Thomas A. Dwyer as an experimental program in “exploring the potential of computers in the hands of high school teachers and students.” The name was meant to reference the transition of a pilot learning to fly, from “dual” flying with an instructor to “solo” flying alone.

The program included many “modules” written in BASIC, mostly on mathematics, but with a little of every subject. For our story, the relevant bit of material is the June 1972 Project SOLO newsletter. It includes

  • “A module on computer graphing with an x-y plotter”
  • “Several student-written programs in elementary and advanced mathematics, French, and U.S. history to show how peer teaching can be accomplished with a computer”
  • “Four simulations–lunar landing module, crazy eights, rectangular billiards, and elliptical billiards.”

and most importantly

  • “four computer games: hide-and-seek, NIM, MODULO, and space war.”

Hide and Seek, also known as “Project Solo module #0201” was written by “the students of mathematics teacher, Bud Valenti.”

The goal is to “FIND THE FOUR PLAYERS WHO ARE HIDDEN ON A 10 BY 10 GRID.” You are given 10 guesses; each guess you pick a point on the grid, and are told the distances to each of the hidden players. (If your guess is right where a player is located, then you get credit for finding that person.)

The grid is the first quadrant of the Cartesian coordinate system, with (0,0) in the lower left of the grid. More sample points are below:

Image made using Desmos.

As far as I am aware the source code hasn’t seen sunlight since the early 1970s, so I typed the source from the newsletter by hand.

Link to original source code

Link to the modified source code that works well in QBASIC for DOS

As the second link implies, rather than trying to recreate an old mainframe environment, I made a version of the game that could run under DOSBox. (More modern versions of BASIC diverge quite a bit from the original, whereas QBASIC is pretty forgiving of 1972 code.) And since I am here to play games, I then proceeded to play:

ARE YOU READY TO BEGIN? YES

? YES

TURN NUMBER 1 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 4, 3
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 6.4 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 6.4 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 2.8 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 1 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 2 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 5, 3
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 7 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 5.8 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 3.6 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 2 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 3 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 3, 9
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 3.1 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 5 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 4.1 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 6 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 4 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 3, 3
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 5.8 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 7 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 2.2 UNIT(S).
YOU HAVE FOUND PLAYER 4

My first runs just had me picking points by instinct. I noticed, generally, that when the distance didn’t have a decimal point involved, the hidden player was on the same row or column as my guess. I say “generally” because there is a little wrinkle: the system rounds to the tenth, but always rounds down. For instance, the points (0,0) and (5,1) are approximately 5.099 units apart (just using the Pythagorean Theorem) if you are 5-and-1 away from a target the game will say you’re a distance of 5.

What’s a good strategy for winning in the fewest turns? The Project SOLO newsletter suggests the method of triangulation. If you pick a point at, say, (7,3), and find out a hidden is a radius of 2.1 away, draw a circle of radius 2.1 with a center at (7,3). Repeat for two more points. The place where the three circles intersect must be where that player is hidden.

This turns out to be overkill, because when two circles intersect, they can intersect at most two points. If the points you test (that is, the centers of the circles) are both at the “0 row”, then one of those two circle intersections must fall outside the play zone.

One intersection is at (2, 1). The other would be at (2, -1) but it is “off-grid” so doesn’t count.

Since each guess gives us information about all four players, winning is simply a matter of

1.) testing the point at (0,0)
2.) testing the point at (9,0)
3.) drawing arcs from (0,0) with four different distances that were given
4.) drawing arcs from (9,0) with the four different distances that were given
5.) using four more turns to locate all the hidden players.

Step 1, 2, and 5 cumulatively mean the win can generally happen in 6 moves. (Of course, it’s possible to get lucky, but I’m talking a general strategy here.)

A complete playthrough is below, with my notes; given high school students in 1972 probably wouldn’t have calculator access, I tried to play “authentically” with pencil and paper.

TURN NUMBER 1 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 0, 0
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 8.2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 7.8 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 8 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 2 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 9, 0
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 9.2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 2.2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 5.8 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 1 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 3 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 8, 0
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 8.2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 2 UNIT(S).
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 5.3 UNIT(S).
YOU HAVE FOUND PLAYER 4

TURN NUMBER 4 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 8, 2
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 8 UNIT(S).
YOU HAVE FOUND PLAYER 2
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 3.6 UNIT(S).

TURN NUMBER 5 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 0, 2
YOU HAVE FOUND PLAYER 1
YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 6.7 UNIT(S).6, 5

TURN NUMBER 6 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
? 6, 5
YOU HAVE FOUND PLAYER 3

YOU HAVE FOUND ALL THE PLAYERS IN 6 TURNS!

DO YOU WANT TO PLAY AGAIN?

If the above summation started to make you pine for the days of unsolvable mazes at this blog, I want to reassure you we’ll be back to things resembling adventures before long. But first, notice a strange detail: the game has a narrative. Mind you, a very crude one, but the program could have just said “find four points hidden on the grid” — instead, it said there were “four players”; that is, there are characters who are actively playing with you as part of the game. Also, the instructions to the game suggest carrying on the “playing a game with others” conceit on if you “lose”:

IF AFTER 10 TRIES YOU ARE UNABLE TO CARRY OUT THIS TASK YOU MAY CONTINUE TO BE ‘IT’, BUT THE PLAYERS WILL BE PERMITTED TO MOVE TO NEW LOCATIONS.

This glimpse of narrative is just a spark, but it will get much bigger.

[1] Demian’s Gamebook Web Page currently lists over 11,000 titles dating back to 1927 all the way up through the present day. 2018 saw the release of Therapy Quest: An Interactive Quest through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a combination self-help book and fantasy story which involves fairies somehow.

[2] You might naturally ask “what is an adventure game?” at which point I will pretend I just received a phone call, throw my phone at the wall, and slip out the back door while you’re confused and distracted. [3]

[3] Fine, there is some purpose to thinking about the question. For an all-encompassing review like All the Adventures it sets limits on what to collect, and while the interlocking web of influences in creating game ideas doesn’t technically know any bounds, it’s much easier to see the threads of ideas when sticking with one genre.

There are also clusters of elements that “mesh” with particular genres, and visible clashes when two gameplay genres are used at the same time. (Quarterstaff is a strong example of this.) [4]

[4] I guess I still didn’t answer the question, huh. I’m going to punt this one to the end of the Before Adventure series, for Reasons.

Posted March 14, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Break, and Preview   2 comments

I’ve been managing lately to get up regular blog posts, so I hate to break momentum, but I’m going to be taking next week off. I have some work and personal things, but I also am preparing a series of posts for the week after (starting March 11th) which involves

  • a history tale starting all the way back in 1970
  • clearing up misconceptions about a very famous game
  • unearthing not just one but multiple pieces of source code thought to be lost to the ages
  • an innovation far ahead of its time
  • some really nice art

Thank you for reading! If you get a chance while I’m out, maybe share the All the Adventures project with your friends?

Posted March 1, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

Reality Ends: The City Falls   2 comments

I thought for a while I definitely would have to bail on this one, but I had a lightning soaked victory in the end.

A somewhat relevant public domain picture for spoiler space.

I had two sticking points:

(a.) something close to guess-the-verb, although it was more like guess-the-chain-of-events
and
(b.) me reading a word incorrectly.

Let’s start with the more inglorious (b.)

Early on I found a “deep ravine” in a room with “mail”. The game suggested you need to jump over the ravine to get to the mail, but doing so led to falling and death. Fortunately, I quickly realized a horse elsewhere in the map was useful here, and after I did RIDE HORSE I was able to jump the ravine and retrieve the mail. And then … nothing. I tried >READ MAIL. I tried >OPEN MAIL. I tried >DEILVER MAIL. I tried all sorts of strange things, but the purpose of the mail eluded me most of the game.

Later in the game, I was trying to work out how to fight a “fanatic leader”. I had a sword but trying to do battle led to “NICE SWORDSMANSHIP, BUT YOU CAUGHT A CHEST WOUND” and death.

Much later in the game … well, perhaps you’ve already put these parts together, but it dawned on me that “mail” was NOT the kind of mail you open and read and find coupons in. No, this was mail as in armor that you wear. After WEAR MAIL:

To be fair, this is a good reason why it helps to be able to examine your objects! But I was still just a little sheepish.

So, for (a.):

Trying to get the plants just led to sinking in quicksand.

I had some rope that I had tried to use in many ways, including attaching to other things and the like, until I finally hit upon THROW ROPE:

THE GRAPPLE END HAS ATTACHED TO A LARGE SHRUB.

The next appropriate command is PULL ROPE

YOU ARE NO LONGER SINKING AND THE PLANTS ARE IN REACH

whereupon then you can finally GET PLANTS.

After getting the plants, I went back to a tavern where I previously came across a fatal brew.

This time I did EAT PLANTS beforehand

TASTES BITTER, BUT AT LEAST IT DID NOT KILL ME.

and I was able to safely drink the brew.

YOU GET HEARTBURN BUT DO NOT DIE. THE KEEPER IS IN FEAR FOR HIS MISERABLE LIFE.

I ignored the suggestion for revenge and just took the empty stein. All that process was to be able to go to a place that had acid rain and FILL STEIN. Then I could take the acid to a locked box and POUR ACID breaking it open, revealing some silver.

Back in the acid rain place I also got some diamonds, and was able to go to Israel to trade them for guns. No, really:

Remember, the conceit here is you are not traveling through “rooms”, but “parallel universes”, including, apparently, an Israeli gun market circa 1980.

My next task was going to the “City of Margon” which had an “Amulet of Sangi” and fight Margon to be able to get the Amulet. It turns out if you hire marksman and give them guns you can try to put up a fight … and he kills you because “GUNPOWDER DOESN’T WORK IN THIS UNIVERSE”.

???!?

The solution turns out to be: after you buy the guns in Israel, you can USE POLISH to have them make gunpowder out of some jeweler’s polish you find in a different universe. It turns out Margon will *still* kill you unless the bullets are also silver, so you can USE SILVER (the silver from the locked box) and the gun shop will helpfully turn those into silver bullets for you.

Finally, being prepared with an army of marksmen using silver bullets, you can go back to the city and KILL MARGON:

Let’s skip ahead a bit: once you get the Amulet of Sangi, you just need the fanatics (that I mentioned earlier), a staff (which happens to be sitting on the ground next to the endgame room) and a magic word CIMAL (which you can get by stealing a book of lore from a minotaur). Then it’s just a matter of going to the CITADEL OF BALDIR which threatens the DISSOLUTION OF REALITY and letting fury reign:

So, that was a curious introduction to the library of Med Systems, to say the least. They’re going to appear twice more in 1980 with first-person 3D perspective adventure games Labyrinth and Deathmaze 5000.

Yes, 3D first-person perspective in 1980. If you’re dying with anticipation, the Adventure Gamer covered Deathmaze 5000 in their “missed classic” series so you can see some glorious screenshots.

Posted February 28, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Reality Ends: Text Landscape Generator   Leave a comment

I’m still prodding without much luck at the main game, so I’d rather make a bit more progress before I report on that. However, I worked out how the room descriptions were generated, and I thought it was worth recording for posterity.

The game is entirely on a grid 12 rows high and 18 columns across. You start in the lower left corner and the endgame (the Citadel of Baldir) is 1 room down from the upper right corner. Starting from the beginning and going east, the room descriptions look like this:

YOU ARE IN A FOREST. IT IS MOUNTAINOUS AND VERY COLD. THE AIR IS CRYSTAL CLEAR. PERPETUAL TWILIGHT PREVAILS.

YOU ARE IN A FOREST. IT IS MOUNTAINOUS AND WARM. THE FOG IS VERY THICK. PERPETUAL TWILIGHT PREVAILS.

YOU ARE IN A FOREST. IT IS HILLY HERE AND VERY COLD. THE AIR IS CRYSTAL CLEAR. PERPETUAL TWILIGHT PREVAILS.

YOU ARE IN A FOREST. IT IS HILLY HERE AND WARM. THE FOG IS VERY THICK. PERPETUAL TWILIGHT PREVAILS.

There are some repeating patterns here: the description is really five parts, filled in Mad Libs-style:

YOU ARE {A}. IT IS {B} HERE AND {C}. THE {D}. {E}.

They aren’t filled in at random; it’s based mathematically on where you are in the grid, in a way easy for the computer to calculate.

Position {A}

The grid has a “forest zone”, “grasslands zone”, and “dead place zone” each taking up a third of the map.

Left: YOU ARE IN A FOREST. Middle: YOU ARE ON GRASSLANDS. Right: YOU ARE IN A DEAD PLACE.

This makes a fair amount of sense, giving the impression as one approaches the Citadel of Baldir (the place of dooooooom and all that) the landscape gets steadily worse.

Position {B}

This time the grid is divided into strips two columns wide each, and there is a repeat every six columns.

The blue areas: IT IS MOUNTAINOUS. The pink areas:
IT IS HILLY HERE. The yellow areas: THE LAND IS FLAT.

Perhaps this is meant to suggest some sort of rippling earthquake that originated at the far east of each biome.

Position {C}

The “AND ” that comes after the “level of hilliness” part of the description is a repeat every two columns.

Dark blue: AND VERY COLD. Light yellow: AND WARM. Dark red: AND QUITE HOT.

Even though this one was a regular pattern, during gameplay it was the one I felt most was switching at random due to the asymmetry in placement.

Position {D}

The descriptions of biome, hilliness, and temperature are followed here by air thickness. The pattern repeats every two columns.

Light blue: THE AIR IS CRYSTAL CLEAR. Grey: THE RAIN IS FALLING STEADILY. Black: THE FOG IS VERY THICK. Green: THE WIND IS BLOWING.

Position {E}

This position reflects whether the sun can be seen or not, and is a simple alternating pattern by rows.

Grey: PERPETUAL TWILIGHT PREVAILS. Orange: THE SUN CAN BE SEEN FAINTLY.

Thoughts

The setup here feels related to procedural generation, the algorithmic generation of content. I suppose, technically, it is? — but usually, procedural generation is done in a way that simulates naturalness and hides pattern, and here the intent is to create pattern, and at least some of the patterns are done to provide a logic to the story (progressing from Forest to Dead Place, flickering between visible sun and darkness). You could say this is standard procedural generation, but without the usual addition of a random element to twist things out of place.

Theoretically, really quite something for 1980! In practice … well, the landscape description is unimportant to gameplay, so I fairly quickly started to ignore all the description text. Still, I would call it a worthwhile experiment.

For Further Reading

James Ryan recently posted his dissertation Curating Simulated Storyworlds dealing with the generative world problem in regards to narrative. It’s nearly 800 pages long, but if you’re short on time, jump to Chapter 13 (the Conclusion) which gives a good idea of what both game designers and theoreticians are dealing with.

Posted February 27, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Reality Ends (1980)   4 comments

For the first time, I don’t have a name of an author. Reality Ends is an even-more-obscure-than-usual title from Med Systems Software, most famous for Asylum from 1981. This particular game isn’t listed on Mobygames, Wikipedia, or The Interactive Fiction Database. It’s only indexed on the Casa Solution Archive because the crew over there is even more obsessive than I am.

Given how many of these companies started as one or two person operations, the author could be Frank Corr, Jr. of Deathmaze 5000 from the same year, but since I haven’t played that game yet, I’ll shelve my suspicions for now.

My first encounter with Reality Ends was the clip above, via the Med Systems Spring 1981 Catalog. The “over 200 parallel universes” bit definitely had me puzzled until I opened the game itself.

The room description fills the top of the screen, your inventory is in the lower left, and the lower right has a map. The actual grid is 12 by 18, so there are 216 “parallel universes”, one for each “room” in the game.

Back when I was writing about Haunt I referenced adventure games that play roughly on a grid. There was an underwater section on a giant cube that I got out graph paper for. This time I went a step farther and went full spreadsheet.

Making a spreadsheet to play a game crosses a threshold of some sort, but I’m not sure what from or what to.

You’ll notice a lot of blank space; this is a compact way for the game to claim more than 200 locations when only some of them are implemented. Fortunately, navigation is less irritating than you’d think because there are no NORTH / SOUTH / EAST / WEST commands, you navigate by just pressing arrow keys.

Besides the map, I haven’t made much progress other than a few early pick-offs. I got food and did >FEED DOG to get a loyal companion, I went to >HIRE MARKSMEN and managed to >USE GOLD to get them to follow me around, and I used an umbrella to fend off some acid rain and pick up some diamonds. Technically speaking, the game doesn’t seem like it has to be a long one (excluding rooms with just objects out in the open, there are only twelve of significance) but we’ll see what kind of new frustrations this can conjure up.

Like this one. Ow!

Posted February 26, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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