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The Count

The Count opens with a title screen that would become iconic and almost bizarrely long-lived, finding its way not only to all of the other games in the classic Scott Adams series on the TRS-80 but to all of those other platforms on which the line would eventually arrive as well. Even when the games were ported to the illustrated SAGA system, this screen was little changed.

The Count title screen

Looking at it, a few things are immediately striking. First there is Adams’s indelible, lackadaisically enthusiastic writing style that stamps all of his games better than could their maker’s signature. As near as I can tell, the interpreter is called simply ADVENTURE and is at version 8.2 already (!), while the game of The Count itself (“Adventure Number 5”) is at version 1.15. The plea which concludes the message shows that software piracy was already a significant problem in 1979, and not just a bugaboo of Bill Gates. As time went on, it would of course only become a bigger issue, as pirates formed sophisticated distribution networks and a whole fascinating if amoral subculture of their own; I’ll talk more about that when we get there. Still, Adams was himself not above stretching the truth a bit to get his point across; he obviously didn’t spend “over a year” developing The Count when he released five other games in 1979 alone. (Or perhaps he was referring to the system of ADVENTURE as a whole?)

But, you might be asking, why does the text look so funny? Well, you may remember my saying that the standard TRS-80 did not come equipped with support for lower-case letters. In a sense, that’s only partially true. The character ROM, which contained the glyphs for all displayable characters, did have glyphs for all lower-case as well as upper-case letters; presumably it was, like most components of the TRS-80, an off-the-shelf part that was easier to leave alone than it would have been to modify to remove the extra glyphs. What the TRS-80 really lacked was a way to input lower-case. The ever-inventive aftermarket soon addressed this with various modification kits, one of which Adams had obviously acquired by early 1979. Even with the kit, though, the TRS-80’s display, having been designed with only upper-case in mind, still lacked the concept of descenders. Thus letters like “y,” “p,” and “g” are perched on the line rather than dangling below, creating the decidedly odd appearance you see in the image above. Like everything that doesn’t kill you, you get used to it.

But now let me talk about The Count specifically, and what makes it such a unique and interesting entry in the Adams canon. While Mission Impossible had introduced the use of time in the direct service of plot in the form of a (literally) ticking time-bomb, The Count goes much, much further. As it begins, we wake up in a bedroom of a house that is being haunted by Dracula himself. We have been placed there by the frightened inhabitants of the local village, and given strict instructions to either kill Dracula or die — or, presumably, become a vampire ourselves — in the process. (Of course, thanks to the typically sparse text, lack of supporting documentation, and old-school design we infer all this only when we attempt to leave the house and get killed by an angry mob, all of which leaves one to wonder whether Dracula or the villagers are the more evil… but we’ll let all that go.) The plot unfolds over the next three — or, just possibly, four — afternoons and evenings, during which we must maneuver everything into position to finally administer the obligatory stake through the heart that ends Dracula’s reign.

Not only does time pass over the course of these days, with afternoon trailing into night (with the expected effect on the general lighting situation), but there are actual plot-related events that happen in the storyworld, in the form of a pair of deliveries on the first and second afternoon.

As always, we don’t want to go too far here; this still isn’t anything close to a serious, nuanced story, as the game remains firmly entrenched in the usual jokey Scott Adams style.

What we do have here, though, is a storyworld that is at least in some senses more dynamic than anything we’ve seen before; while Adventure could boast the independently moving dwarfs and pirate that were surprisingly sophisticated in their way, its world was otherwise static prior to the triggering of the endgame, and lacked any sense of time other than the expiring lantern. Notably, The Count adds a WAIT verb, a command that would have been superfluous in earlier games, as the player must plan her actions around the time of day and those all-important package deliveries.

In practice, the game plays out like a whole new type of systemic meta-puzzle, as the player maps out how events unfold and how everything works — dying countless times in the process — to come up with a final plan for victory. The Count introduces nothing less than a whole new paradigm of play for the text adventure, one focused not on geographic exploration (the map is very small and manageable for the era) but on dynamic, systemic thinking that feels much closer to engaging with a narrative. Its system is even sophisticated enough to support quite a number of different paths to victory; virtually every walkthrough for the game I was able to find has its own unique approach.

Still, at times the boundaries between the system of the storyworld and the system of the program are hazy, such that one is often left feeling one is playing the program rather than playing the story. For instance, one travels between floors using a dumbwaiter (the lack of a staircase is one of those sins against mimesis we can forgive in such an early, primitive game). If one passes out and is put to bed (presumably by Dracula) for the night while on another floor than the one containing the bedroom, the dumbwaiter is left on the former floor, locking one out of victory. This of course makes no sense in the storyworld — whoever heard of a dumbwaiter that can only be raised or lowered by someone riding on it? — but is a limitation of the program. Indeed, much about solving the game can be more tedious than fun; the learning-by-death syndrome is one that even Infocom would never entirely solve in its similarly dynamic mysteries. Frustrations like these make The Count perhaps less entertaining as a game than it is interesting as technology and as a concept; nor does its ending exactly pull out all the stops.

Adams himself didn’t do much to build on these concepts, largely retreating to treasure hunts and similarly static designs in subsequent games, leaving this approach to be taken up by Infocom three years later with the groundbreaking Deadline. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

If you’d like to play The Count in its original form yourself, here is a CMD file you can load into the MESS emulator using “Device –> Quickload” from the emulator menu.

 

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A Busy 1979

To say Scott Adams had a productive 1979 doesn’t begin to tell the half of it. For starters, he released a rather staggering six complete new games: Mission Impossible, Voodoo Castle, The Count, Strange Odyssey, Mystery Fun House, and Pyramid of Doom. Of these, four were the sole work of Adams himself.

Voodoo Castle and The Count advertisement

Mission Impossible advertisement

Mysert Fun House advertisement

Strange Odyssey advertisement

Pyramid of Doom advertisement

Voodo Castle was credited to Adams’s then-wife, Alexis. Still, the real situation there is muddled, as Adams has tended to downplay her contribution in recent interviews, saying that she was responsible only for the broadest strokes, leaving him to do most of the writing and all of the programming. What with the passage of years and the difficult feelings that accompany any divorce, it’s probably not possible to know anymore whether Alexis Adams deserves to be credited as the first female adventure-game designer, beating Roberta Williams to the punch by more than a year.

More definite is the contribution of Alvin Files to Pyramid of Doom. Working independently, with no access to source code or design documents, Files reverse-engineered Adams’s adventure-game engine, created a game of his own using it, and sent the result to Adams himself, who tweaked it a bit and released it as Adventure #8, which he acknowledges to be “90 percent” Files’s original work. Pyramid of Doom was released around October of 1979, but an early sign of the budding relationship can be seen in that summer’s The Count, which is “dedicated to Alvin Files.”

Alvin Files dedication in The Count

In sorting out this chronology via magazines and other primary-source documents, I was quite surprised to realize that fully two-thirds of what has come to be regarded (somewhat arbitrarily) as the canonical dozen Scott Adams adventures were created before Adams’s company, Adventure International, was even founded. Said founding occurred just before the end of the year, by which time Adams was already involved in another important step: porting his adventure engine to run on other microcomputer platforms. The logical first target for these efforts was the Apple II, the second most popular machine in 1979, but within a few years the explosion of incompatible machines and Adams’s dedication to supporting as many of them as possible would bring the games to at least a dozen different platforms. While 1979 wasn’t yet the year that adventure games broke really big, it was the year that Adams laid the groundwork for their doing so, for the changing of the calendar left him poised with a new company, a portable adventure-game engine, and a nice catalog of already extant games in a wide variety of genres. He had even created a stripped-down “sampler” version of Adventureland for those looking to test these new waters.

Even on the good old TRS-80 Adams made major technical improvements. At the apparent urging of Lance Micklus, he reimplemented his interpreter using assembly language rather than BASIC between the release of Mission Impossible in the spring of 1979 and Voodoo Castle and The Count that summer, bringing enormous speed improvements. He also implemented a new display system that would become something of a trademark, with the current room description and contents always displayed in a separate, non-scrolling “window” in the upper half of the screen. Given the TRS-80’s 64-character by 16-line display and the attendant tendency for everything of interest to scroll away in no time, this amounted to a major convenience. The new interpreter even supported lower-case output, although prose style, grammar, and even spelling remained all too obviously not a big priority. With these improvements the new system, which was quickly retrofitted back into the first three games as well, made TRS-80 adventuring a much more pleasant experience.

But what of the content of the games themselves? Well, both their limited engine and the torrid pace at which Adams cranked them out acted as a necessary limit on their scope of possibility, but there are some new developments worth talking about. Chief among them is the element of time. Both the original Adventure and Adventureland had of course required close attention to time management thanks to their expiring light sources, but Mission: Impossible introduced the element in a more plot-centric way, in the form of a ticking time-bomb that threatened to destroy a nuclear power plant. And two games on from that we have The Count, a game that is about as conceptually ambitious as Adams would ever get and a significant step forward for the text adventure as a storytelling medium. I’ll look at The Count, by far the most interesting of these six efforts, in some detail next time.

 

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