Adventures In Text

No, this isn't about Roguelikes, it's about actual text adventures - a genre I've traditionally not gotten along with. However, I've just completed a text adventure for the first time and I did rather enjoy the experience, despite a few periods of frustration.

I think everyone around my age who had a home computer in the 80s must have tinkered around with The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings (Book One). It seemed mandatory, even if you really weren't interested in the subjects. My experience of them pretty much summed up my experience of every text adventure I tried since; I would wander about aimlessly for a bit, battle against the parser, come up against the first puzzle and give up in bewilderment and frustration (I never got out of the first room in CRL's Frankenstein).

One I remember sticking with for an inordinate amount of time was Rigel's Revenge on the Spectrum. I seem to recall I made a fair amount of progress, but I never finished it. Later as an ST/Amiga owner it became obligatory to try out The Pawn and a few of the subsequent Magnetic Scrolls titles. Always with the same results.

I think my main problem was that I could never quite wrap my head around the concept of an adventure game allowing you to pass a point of no return. Very early on I was introduced to Lucasarts' (then Lucasfilm Games) graphic adventures, and a major feature of them was the fact that you couldn't become irretrievably stuck. You could always go back and get something you missed, and in most of them you could actually never die. Maniac Mansion I think was an exception, though I've personally never played much of it. As far as I remember you had to go really out of your way in Zak McKracken to get to an unwinnable position.

The anomaly here is that around the same time I happily played and completed King's Quest III - a notoriously unforgiving game filled with instant death. With that one I was just thrilled with the setting and the notion of sneaking around to get things done, with the danger of being found out at any moment (the first part of the game has you, as a put-upon wizard's 'apprentice' - though more slave - secretly learning magic and gathering ingredients for spells every time your master leaves the house). It's getting on for 20 years since I played it, but I can only assume there were a lot of failed attempts involved, and a lot of reloading.

So, since then I've really avoided text adventures. Of course the genre died out commercially at the end of the 80s as graphic adventures took the crown for a while, and several years exclusively playing console games didn't exactly keep me up to speed with either the history of the genre or its continued development in the homebrew space. It's always been something that's nagged at me though. I've had a folder on my PC for a couple of years called The Best of Interactive Fiction 1994-2004, which is a huge collection of freeware text adventures and the interpreters to run them. I've never delved into it seriously, but it's there as another one of those things that I fully intend to get round to... at some point.

Indeed, how I initially became enamoured of Infocom and Wishbringer is more to do with my fetish for vintage games and their physical presentation than a desire to actually play them.

Infocom games always came very lavishly packaged. Aside from the game itself there was an abundance of material in the box. Functioning as flavour, background, clues, or just simply cool stuff, each one was made uniquely special by these extras. Booklets, letters, maps, badges, even a scratch-and-sniff card for Leather Goddesses of Phobos... this is the stuff of dreams for a vintage game fan and collector. It's the embodiment of the difference in game packaging between the old and the new. These days it's a disc in a plastic case and - if you're lucky - a little more than a rudimentary pamphlet.

So, I'd been gathering up the old RPGs and regularly browsing places like The Computer Game Museum, and I found my way into the Infocom section. A treasure trove of trinkets indeed. One of my regular ebay sellers had a complete copy of Wishbringer in his store, so I went for it. A few things drew me to Wishbringer over plenty of other choices; it's classed as an introductory level adventure, it was written by Brian Moriarty (who wrote Loom at Lucasarts), and most importantly of all... it came with a glow in the dark stone. Yes, I am quite easily pleased.

Wishbringer concerns the quest of a regular postman (yourself) being tasked with the mission of finding a particular cat for an old lady. Of course that's not entirely the case and nothing is as it seems. You're soon plunged into a twisted otherworld version of your sleepy little village, complete with eldritch vapours in the graveyard, talking platypuses, duelling mailboxes and a militia force consisting of giant boots.

Going with my regime of properly playing the games I own allowed me to get into the mindset required, and possibly the most important thing - making a notated map. This is the absolute key to getting to grips with these games, and it seems such a simple, obvious measure that I'm embarrassed that I never bothered to do it back in the day with my fumblings around The Hobbit and The Pawn. Maybe I would have even cracked Rigel's Revenge if I had bothered to record everything properly. The map and notes are absolutely essential because as I mentioned above - these games are designed to be trial and error. It is very much a part of their nature to allow you to miss vital objects and not be able to return for them, to lose or destroy something you need, to die at the hands of an enemy, to work your way into an inescapable prison.

I restarted a lot. But - having a map and notes meant that I could always return to the same point of progress within minutes. Of course I could save and restore the game at any time, but mostly I'd only be saving a failed attempt anyway. Wishbringer didn't present me with any particularly head-scratching puzzles. It's almost entirely inventory-based. If you have the right item for the thing that needs doing, you'll immediately know what to do. There are a couple of moments of more lateral thinking but on the whole it's very clear. I had to consult online help twice in the game. Firstly because I'd neglected to find a coin before a point of no return (it was in a fountain I'd simply not looked in), and secondly due to a bit of parser wrestling. I'd come to the conclusion that I should try getting a creature out of a pit using a tree branch, but the game wouldn't let me either scoop it up, dig the pit wider, pull the creature with it, or anything else I tried. The solution was to drop the branch in to the pit, at which point the creature would grab into it, then pick up the branch. So really just a semantic conflict.

In the time I've been dabbling about with Wishbringer I've acquired a few more adventures: Stationfall - another Infocom one that comes with a slew of funky stuff - and the Magnetic Scrolls titles The Pawn, The Guild of Thieves, and Jinxter. I'm feeling very confident and inspired to get stuck into them, having learned a thing or two about the quirks and approaches needed for these games from Wishbringer.

Finally, a mention must go to the quality of the writing on show in the game. It ought to go without saying that the quality of a text adventure game would hinge heavily on its text, but it really was a well-crafted and fun experience both ingame and in the supplementary extras. Regardless of this it's clear to see why this genre didn't survive commercially. The satisfaction of a puzzle solved and a story well told just wasn't enough in the face of rapidly advancing graphical games. However, there's something to be said for leaving things to the imagination... I have a vision of a place and its inhabitants in my mind that would no doubt be very different to anyone else's, and that personal touch makes my experience of Wishbringer all the richer.

1 comment:

Ringman said...

I love IF, but like you got frustrated or lost or both rather easily. However I have completed 2 of Infocom's games, and both of them are supposedly up there on the hard level. The first one was suspended. There's no mapping in the game because the map's provided and the real puzzles lie in understanding how to make your robots do what you want them to and to figure out what the heck they are looking at. If you pass an object to every robot each one will give you a totally different description. This is usually the only way to fully understand some objects. The game was REALLY hard because there is a time limit, but I didn't get lost and I took notes so I think that helped me beat it.

The second one was the Lurking Horror. First off unlike Zork (which a friend and I mapped out even the dungeon but never beat) the world layout makes sense. It's a college so its pretty easy to understand how it works. I did map this game however anyway though I don't think it was ENTIRELY neccessary but I did it for ease of rushing through it when I forced myself in a state where I had to restart. Some of the puzzles are just messed up and sometimes just trying anything no matter how crazy was what saved me.
All of them are solvable, you just gotta try everthing with everything else and don't ever make it so an item becomes unusable from the game out or you will end up restarting. (Two items in the game forced me to restart and it wasn't obvious for one until I had almost finished the darn thing). Still great games! I'll have to try Wishbringer, thanks a billion for mentioning it.