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Topologika

Topologika

When Acorn Computer foundered on a financial iceberg in 1985, one of the first and saddest victims was Acornsoft, their software arm. Acornsoft was destined to go down into history first and foremost as the house that set British gaming on its head with Elite, but David Braben and Ian Bell, having already made their exodus to Firebird and taken their game with them, were hardly the ones most affected by the collapse. Those developers who didn’t have an easy escape hatch to hand had far more cause for worry. Among them were Peter Killworth and his colleagues from Cambridge University, who had over the previous few years brought a taste of the unique adventuring culture of their university’s Phoenix mainframe to the little BBC Micro by porting some of those games (Philosopher’s Quest, Kingdom of Hamil, Quondam, and Acheton) and writing new ones in their spirit (Castle of Riddles and Countdown to Doom).

Acheton

The sudden loss of a publisher must have been made even more disheartening by the fact that the Cambridge professors had only recently pulled off a technical coup for the ages. All of the Phoenix ports except the last had been just that, hand-made translations into ultra-compact BBC BASIC that were often accomplished only by making painful cuts to the original designs. That last game, however, was different. For it, John Thackray and David Seal chose the biggest whale of all, Acheton, the very first of the Phoenix games and by far the largest. They devised an interpreter to read and play the adventure’s compiled database file, written on the mainframe using their own T/SAL adventure-making programming language, on a 32 K BBC Micro equipped with a disk drive. Acheton‘s database alone was so large that it filled almost every byte of space on a disk side, forcing them to place the interpreter and boot code for the game on the other side of the disk. Showing a bit of mercy to players about to confront one of the most infamously difficult adventure games ever made, they used the extra space on the disk’s boot side for a graduated hint system that included more than 250 individual questions. That number gives some sense of the sheer scale of Acheton, as do its totals of more than 400 rooms to be mapped and more than 160 individual manipulable objects. Acheton was trumpeted by Acornsoft as the largest single adventure game ever written. It’s still amongst the leaders in that category today in terms of breadth if not depth of interaction; the ratio of rooms to objects alone illustrates what a very, very old-school game it is, containing lots of empty rooms, as often as not grouped into fiendishly elaborate mazes of one stripe or another.

Murdac got a splashy title screen on the CPC.

Murdac got a splashy title screen on the CPC.

Olivetti, Acorn’s new owners, sold Acornsoft’s existing contracts and software to an outfit called Superior Software in 1986. Superior, however, wasn’t much interested in text adventures, so the Cambridge professors were eventually able to negotiate back ownership of the games they’d published through Acornsoft. In the meantime, they decided to bring another of the Phoenix games, Jon Thackray and Jonathan Partington’s Murdac, to the popular new Amstrad CPC line of computers. The CPC had a comparatively generous 64 K of memory, while Murdac was one of the smallest of the Phoenix games. These two facts together meant that an outside contractor named Richard Clayton, whose claim to fame was nothing less than having written the BASIC built into the CPC, was able to fit the entire Phoenix database file plus an interpreter into the memory of a cassette-based CPC. After an initial deal with Amsoft, Amstrad’s equivalent to Acornsoft, fell through, they signed a contract at last with Global Software to sell Murdac as Monsters of Murdac; the new prefix was apparently judged to give the game a bit more of that Dungeons and Dragons feel that the kids craved. Even in 1986 a Phoenix game like Murdac felt rather behind the times to many; this was after all the year that Magnetic Scrolls was knocking ’em dead with The Pawn. Amstrad Action columnist Steve Cooke, better known by his handle of “The Pilgrim” and in general one of the more thoughtful and perceptive voices in adventuring gaming, wrote a typical review, saying “it’s not hard to see why” Amsoft had ultimately decided to take a pass: “This is a text-only game of a rather old-fashioned nature where you trundle around underground solving puzzles and collecting valuable items.” He also took time like other reviewers to complain about Murdac‘s lack of an “examine” verb. This particular description, this particular complaint, and even this particular columnist would become all too familiar to the Cambridge colleagues in the years to come. For now, though, Monsters of Murdac didn’t make much impression on gamers, and the relationship with Global Software was soon severed. The third publisher would prove to be the charm.

That arrangement was born of a conversation that Peter Killworth had with a friend named Brian Kerslake about the state of British educational software. It was certainly a topic that Kerslake knew a lot about, having made it into his life’s work. He and his wife Maddy, schoolteachers both, had formed an educational-software developer and publisher called Chalksoft back in 1982. For a few years they had cranked out software covering all sorts of subjects for many age groups, from ABC and basic arithmetic drills for grade schoolers to French, German, and Spanish practice for adult tourists. Chalksoft, however, had never quite found their footing with schools’ purchasing departments, by far the best and most reliable customers for this sort of thing, and had been swept away like Acornsoft by the British computer industry’s mid-decade travails. Undaunted, Kerslake was determined to take what he had learned and try again, this time under the name of Topologika.

In that initial conversation, though, it was Killworth who did most of the talking. Specifically, he was talking — or complaining — about a hugely popular educational text adventure called L – A Mathemagical Adventure, an effort at teaching basic concepts in mathematics that had been written by the Association of Teachers of Mathematics themselves and was now a fixture in British schools. Simply put, Killworth thought he could do better. If he could, replied Kerslake, he, Kerslake, would would love to publish it. Peter Killworth seldom needed to hear a challenge like that twice. A few months later, he handed Kerslake Giant Killer.

Giant Killer

Published for the BBC Micro as Topologika’s first product in April of 1987, Giant Killer is “loosely based” on the old English fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. The choice of names (sometimes also written as Giantkiller by Topologika and others) is obvious based on the subject matter, but may also, one suspects, be a sly dig at L, the educational giant Killworth intended to slay. That said, it’s not all that noticeably different from its inspiration and nemesis in form or content. Like L, it’s a simple text adventure whose various set-piece puzzles can all be clearly seen by a trained mind like Killworth’s as mathematical “investigations” exploring various fundamental properties. For a decidedly untrained mind like mine, they’re just a pretty good collection of logic puzzles, a few of them trivial, most of them straightforward but enjoyable, one or two quite tricky even for an adult (the bottle-sorting puzzle that turns up early bogs me down every time). Surprisingly in light of the reputation of its creator, Giant Killer is if anything somewhat simpler to get through than L, certainly at least noticeably more linear. Occasional references to “Venn cubes” and the like aside, the game never beats you over the head with the ideas you’re allegedly learning, enough so as to make you wonder what really separates this game from lots of other abstractly puzzley text adventures beyond the extensive manual, meant for teachers, that carefully steps through every stage and puzzle in the game. I tend to want to say that Giant Killer teaches logical thinking more so than mathematics per se. But then I suppose some would argue that the two are one and the same.

Whatever the nature of its educational value, Giant Killer immediately became very, very popular, joining its rival L as a fixture for many years in schools across the country. Like The Oregon Trail in the United States, these games are inescapable memories for Britons who attended primary school from the late 1980s to well into the 1990s. For Brian Kerslake, Giant Killer became exactly the sort of reputation-defining title he had been unable to find as Chalksoft, paving the way to the sustained success of Topologika as an educational publisher; he and Maddy wouldn’t bring the company in for a soft landing at last until a quarter-century later. Giant Killer proved so popular that Topologika not only added to their catalog versions for many other platforms but also an add-on “support disk,” which presented the more intricate puzzles in graphical form for students to tinker with on the computer in lieu of pencil and paper before returning to the main game to enter their solutions.

Paradoxically, Giant Killer, by an order of magnitude the most widely played game to come out of the Phoenix adventuring culture, has been largely overlooked or dismissed in histories of that culture. While the original BBC Micro version of the game was done in BASIC on that machine itself, the database used in the ports was rewritten in the T/SAL adventure language on the Phoenix mainframe and run on each target machine through an interpreter. Whatever else it is, it’s very clearly an adventure in the Phoenix tradition, if also a much, much gentler experience than any of its stablemates.

With Giant Killer proving to be such a rousing debut for Topologika the educational publisher, Kerslake was more than happy to provide Killworth and his colleagues a stable home at last for their other adventure games as a sideline. In that first year of 1987 alone Topologika republished four of the old Acornsoft titles, whose rights the Cambridge professors had by now been able to secure again: Philosopher’s Quest, Kingdom of Hamil, Acheton, and Countdown to Doom. They were even able to boast that three of the four were “new and expanded” versions; the disk-based interpreter that Seal and Thackray had developed for Acheton allowed them to move the full versions of Philosopher’s Quest (known as Brand X on the mainframe) and Kingdom of Hamil onto microcomputers directly from the Phoenix mainframe, while Killworth rewrote and expanded Countdown to Doom in T/SAL for its Topologika release.

Countdown to Doom

These games with their cool intellectualism and rigorous minimalism paddled defiantly against the current of adventure games in the late 1980s, which were evolving to place ever more emphasis on story, texture, and accessibility via more and more text, better and better parsers, and better and more pictures that would soon come to replace text and parsers entirely. It’s jarring just to see a review of one of the Topologika games in a magazine filled with pictures of scantily-clad barbarian maidens, well-oiled action heroes, and explosions galore. The people excited by those things, one senses, just aren’t likely to get too excited about spending hours plotting out the mechanics of intricate spatial and mathematical puzzles described in a bare few, albeit generally well-chosen sentences. The problem of an audience being stolen away by other, shinier genres was admittedly one that most text adventures were beginning to face, but with the Phoenix games it was exacerbated to the extreme; these games could be off-putting to even the most dedicated fans of the genre. Most of the reviews hammered on the same few phrases: “old-fashioned,” “no story,” “poor parser,” “difficult puzzles,” and, most of all, “no examine,” which alone could be read as shorthand for everything most adventure-game players wanted from their games by 1987 that the Phoenix games adamantly refused to give them; I’ll try to explain why in just a moment.

One thing made the Phoenix games unique in comparison to other sketchily implemented games: their seeming sketchiness arose from — or at least was claimed to arise from — a considered design position rather than a simple lack of time, will, resources, or technical skill. That’s perhaps a bit convenient given that these games were made on a shoestring compared to the likes of Magnetic Scrolls or even Level 9, much less Infocom, but it was nevertheless a position that Killworth and even Kerslake were prepared to argue with considerable force and passion. A fascinating debate erupted between the Topologika crew and “Pilgrim” Steve Cooke after the latter gave Philosopher’s Quest and Countdown to Doom less than glowing reviews, hitting in the course of them on most of the themes listed in my previous paragraph. Turning to the December 1987 issue of Amstrad Action, I want to consider a letter Killworth wrote to Cooke in response to his reviews and some of Cooke’s own replies at some length because I think they offer much food for thought, not only in the context of the Phoenix games but of the art of interactive fiction in general.

Killworth makes some decidedly dubious assertions in his letter, such as the claim that recently developed conveniences like “ramsave,” used to quickly stash an undo point in memory, are unnecessary in Topologika games because saving is “well-nigh instant anyway, since this is a disk-based game.” To that one can only reply that: a) users of the single-drive 8-bit systems that made up so many of Topologika’s customers, forced as they were to swap disks twice and enter a filename with every save, apparently had a different definition of “instant”; and b) it’s always a dangerous practice under any circumstances as a software developer to lecture users on why they really don’t need the feature they’ve just requested.

Killworth’s assertion that better parsers don’t allow more complex and interesting puzzles also strikes me as rather transparently ridiculous.

The original mainframe Zork is a good example. It’s still around, and in cut-down micro versions, not because of its parser (which has, as do all fancy parsers, lot of infelicities — I know of only one puzzle in one adventure that needs a fancy parser); not because of its graphics (it has none); but because it’s witty, with some interesting puzzles. Well, we strive for wittiness, but that’s in the eye of the beholder; but we do achieve interesting puzzles.

I can only speculate that, if Killworth hadn’t seen more than one example of better parsers leading to better puzzles in Infocom’s games in particular, he hadn’t played very many (any?). The Phoenix games are often remarkable for how many interesting puzzles they are able to coax out of their limited parsers and world models, but this is merely a product of artful designing around the engine’s constraints, not proof that better parsers don’t allow still more varied and interesting puzzles and gameplay in general. Cooke’s very reasonable response:

I must disagree heartily on this one. I agree that the majority of games (even those claiming fancy parsers) can be satisfactorily played using simple inputs. This is, however, a point against poorly designed games, and not against complex parsers. To give a few examples of powerful parsing adding considerably to gameplay, I would cite (1) Level 9’s ability to command a character to carry out actions while you get on with something else; (2) the relative positioning in Magnetic Scrolls games, with solutions such as “smear x on y” or “look under z”; (3) for sheer convenience, the “go to,” “follow,” and “find” commands now used by some companies; and (4) as a personal favourite, the use of the “hide” command in Infocom’s Suspect.

But Killworth is on firmer ground in some senses when we come to the oddly specific topic to which the whole debate surrounding the Topologika games in general seems to continually return: their lack of an “examine” verb. Killworth:

Much of your review of my games Countdown to Doom and Philosopher’s Quest is taken up with the complaint that you expect “examine” to work in all games. My philosophy has always been — and always will be — that the computer is your senses and hands. Anything that you see should and must be passed on to the player immediately. I can’t see the point of:

There is an X here.

Examine X.

You find a Y.

when

There is an X here. It has a Y attached… (or whatever)

is what you, the player, actually see when you look at the blessed thing. Another example which gets my goat is:

There is a piece of wood here.

Examine wood.

It is Y-shaped, and would make a fine catapult if it had elastic

(almost verbatim from one bestselling game). Why not:

There is a Y-shaped piece of wood here. It resembles a catapult without the elastic.

or words to that effect? So I and my colleagues have always eschewed the use of “examine” — it’s a waste of player time and furthermore is really programmer dishonesty: it creates a potential puzzle “free” because the player might forget to do an “examine.”

Cooke’s response:

I quite understand your argument and am even inclined to agree with you — there’s no point in an “examine” that simply serves to draw out the gameplay to no real purpose. However, I feel that in real life we do “examine” objects to see if there is more to them than meets the eye, and in an adventure I believe that occasionally the “examine” command is vital in enhancing the atmosphere of a game. A good example would be the books in the library in Guild of Thieves, where you can “read” (i.e., examine) a large number of objects and have fun doing so. However, there’s no doubt that some puzzles have come to depend too much on the “examine” command, like the catapult you mention. On the other hand, I feel that excluding the command altogether, as you do, is moving too far to the other extreme.

Applied to games in the Phoenix style, I find Killworth’s argument that “examine” is unnecessary convincing enough, even as I find unconvincing his argument that a storyworld without “examine” better simulates our experience of reality. The fact is that we do usually choose where to focus our attention when we enter a new space that’s not entirely or nearly empty. The important difference between Topologika games and those from others was that rooms in the former were entirely or nearly empty as an almost universal rule, but the latter were beginning by this point to simulate richer, more complex spaces. Thus the former don’t need “examine,” but the latter do. I think this is an important distinction to consider because it moves us closer to understanding what’s really going on in this debate in general.

Cooke seemed unable to keep himself from connecting the lack of “examine” to everything else he didn’t like about the Topologika games. See for example the prevalence of unclued sudden deaths, like this one in Countdown to Doom:

In one location near the start, there’s a blob-like thing that slithers across the path towards a cliff. If you just watch it, it soon disappears over the edge (presumably forever) and since you assume that it has some significance in the game you feel reluctant to let it go. You can’t “examine” it, so the only thing to do is to “get” it. This is instantly fatal.

Killworth’s reply:

On the subject of “examine” and the “dangerous blob,” fatal to get: what information would you expect “examine blob” to produce that would tell you that touching it is fatal? Tell me what there is about an earthly jellyfish (which would be long extinct by the time Doom happens) that would tell you not to touch it if you’d never come across one!

This continued fixation on what would happen in the real world is rather missing the point entirely, especially given that rigorous realism is hardly amongst the Phoenix games’ strengths. The real point is of course that this sort of sudden death is just annoying and cruel, as many other game designers had come to understand at last by 1987. Cooke:

My concern about the fatal blob was not altogether due to the absence of an “examine” command and if I gave that impression (I don’t have the review to hand) I apologise for being misleading. It’s just that I have never been enamoured of having curiosity in a game rewarded with death without some form of warning. Some software houses get round this by asking quite directly, “Do you wish to continue?” or “Are you sure you want to do that?”. Although a bit feeble, this at least gives the player cause for thought. Better by far to introduce the warning into the gameplay. For example — if there was a stick to hand I might use it to prod the blob first, whereupon seeing the stick sizzle and burst into flame would enable me to save my skin and congratulate myself on being a clever dick into the bargain!

It’s one of Killworth’s concluding statements that I find to be his most perceptive and most interesting, being as cogent an explanation as we’re likely to find of why he and Cooke so often seem to be talking past one another.

Looking back at your comments, what I think I read is that you like to “live” in the games you play as a primary motive, while solving them is secondary. For example, you like to talk to characters; I don’t. I believe that good plotting and good puzzles are what keep a game going over the years.

It’s the old conundrum of the crossword versus the narrative writ large — game as abstract puzzle or game as embodied experience. Killworth remained doctrinally, ideologically wedded to the former while Cooke was eager to see games in the latter light. Read in the light of this reality, this debate that keeps returning over and over to “examine” takes on a whole new level of meaning. Cooke complains about the lack of an “examine” command. Killworth responds, reasonably enough, that there’s really no need for an “examine” command in Topologika games. Cooke remains unsatisfied because a game so minimalist that it doesn’t need “examine” isn’t a game he wants to play. The lack of “examine,” in other words, isn’t the disease but a symptom of the deeper problem that Cooke can’t quite articulate. The reality was that most gamers shared his preference for more fictionally experiential games, that the medium in general had been moving steadily in this direction for years. And that in a nutshell is why Topologika adventure games weren’t going to set the world on fire.

Subsequent exchanges among Cooke, Killworth, and eventually also Kerslake, which continued for some eighteen months, unfortunately grew progressively more petty and less illuminating, serving mainly as an object lesson to creators that there’s little to be gained in attempting to rebut criticism. In the meantime, new Topologika adventures continued to appear. Killworth wrote and published two sequels to Countdown to DoomReturn to Doom and The Last Days of Doom, in 1988 and 1990 respectively, and in 1989 came Jonathan Partington’s Shakespeare-themed Avon, which had been available to Phoenix users for seven years. Perhaps in an effort to boost flagging sales, both Avon and The Last Days of Doom also included an additional “B-side” adventure: a republished Murdac in the case of the former, another old Phoenix game called Hezarin in that of the latter. Topologika also funded ports of the T/SAL interpreter and thus their entire adventure catalog to quite a number of disk-drive-equipped platforms beyond the BBC Micro, including the Amstrad CPC and PCW, the IBM PC, the Sinclair Spectrum, the Acorn Electron and Archimedes, and the Atari ST. The end of the line didn’t come until 1992, with the publication of Spy Snatcher, a Thackray/Partington game that had been one of the last new adventures made available to players on the Phoenix mainframe itself circa 1988. I’d be tempted to also name Spy Snatcher as the last all-text game to be sold as a conventional boxed product for store shelves, except that by 1992 the Topologika games were so poorly distributed that just about the only way to get one was to call up Topologika themselves and ask for one. All of the old adventures remained notionally available, in the sense that you wouldn’t find them in Topologika’s catalogs but they would sell you a copy from their warehouse stock if you asked them, until 1999, when Graham Nelson and Adam Atkinson convinced Kerslake and the Cambridge professors to release the whole collection as freeware. Those gentlemen and others have since done stellar work preserving not only the Topologika versions but also the Phoenix mainframe originals.

Spy Snatcher

Even in their commercial heyday, such as it was, the Topologika adventures were never more than cult titles, beloved by an enthusiastic but tiny base of players. And by “tiny” I mean really tiny; I would suspect that some later Topologika adventures may not have made it to four digits in total sales. Given this, and given that they were downright reactionary in their refusal to evolve with the times — one can’t help but think of former silent-movie stars railing against the talkies when reading some of Killworth’s comments — you might well be wondering why I’ve chosen to give them as much attention as I have. The historical argument is that T/SAL represents the first custom adventure-authoring language to be made available to the public — assuming your definition of “public” is inclusive enough to stand in for “people with access to Cambridge’s Phoenix mainframe” — and the first game made with it, the monstrous Acheton, was also the first text adventure to be made in Britain, the starting point of a whole national tradition. As such, the later history of T/SAL and the games it spawned are well worth documenting.

The aesthetic argument is more subtle but also more compelling. The Phoenix games represent the most uncompromising examples ever of a certain school of text-adventure design that would see the genre as one of the world’s ultimate tests of logic, organizational ability, and sheer dogged willpower. You don’t so much play a Phoenix game as you assault it, problem by problem, maze by maze, restarting again and again to optimize your play and, often, to save that pesky expiring light source, mapping out meter by hard-fought meter your path to victory against a game that literally wants to kill you every chance it gets. That’s not quite what most of us are looking for when we sit down to play a game. Yet there’s a certain purity, one might even say an aesthetic beauty, to the Phoenix games’ refusal to allow distractions like story texture and player convenience to obscure their diamond-hard spine. They’re like the Lloyd’s building in London, pipes and wiring exposed to see and celebrate. While they are extremely difficult and gleefully unforgiving, they also contain surprisingly little of the bullshit that normally marks such minimalist efforts: no guess the verb, no random puzzle solutions pulled out of thin air. The logic is usually there, somewhere; it’s just a matter of finding it. According to their own lights if not those of our modern times, they’re trying to play tough — very tough — but fair with you.

If that sounds like something for you, I recommend you start with Giant Killer and see how it goes. The other Phoenix games, having all been written by graduate students and PhDs, share more than a little of Giant Killer‘s intellectual — one might even say pedagogic — flavor, and Giant Killer‘s preferred type of puzzle will be very familiar to anyone who has experience with those other games: intricate set-pieces often spanning many rooms that demand pencil and paper and systematic, holistic thought as opposed to just “use this object here.” It’s just that those other games, having been written by said graduate students and PhDs in some of the most difficult disciplines in the world for their peers in one of the most demanding universities in the world, are much, much more rigorous exercises. And of course Giant Killer doesn’t kill you without warning every other turn. There is that. Still, playing it should you give a good idea of whether you want to explore further. If you’re one of the few on the right wavelength, you’ve got months or years of masochistic fun to look forward to. And if not, you can breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that no one dares make ’em like this anymore.

(Sources: 8000 Plus of June 1988, July 1988, December 1988, February 1989, April 1989, August 1989, November 1989, and January 1990; Amstrad Action of December 1985, August 1986, November 1987, December 1987, February 1988, September 1988, December 1988, February 1989, April 1989, December 1989, June 1990, November 1990; Crash of May 1988, June 1988, July 1988, and August 1988; Games Machine of September 1988 and September 1990; Your Sinclair of July 1988; Home Computing Weekly of April 12 1983, May 24 1983, September 27 1983, October 30 1984, April 2 1985, April 23 1985, and April 30 1985; Laser Bug of January 1983, June 1983, July/August 1983, and September 1983; ZX Computing of April/May 1985; Acorn Programs of August/September 1984; Acorn User of December 1984; Computer and Video Games of March 1985. See also the feature on the Phoenix games in SPAG Magazine #58.

To play Giant Killer, you can either download the original BBC Micro version from here or the MS-DOS port from Topologika’s ghost of a home page. The latter will unfortunately not run on 64-bit versions of Windows, so you’ll need to use DOSBox or something similar to get it going. The other games discussed in this article are all available on the IF Archive in one form or another.)

 

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This Tormented Business, Part 1

An advertisement for Imagine's never-released Bandersnatch

As 1983 transitioned into 1984, the British games industry’s fortunes were soaring alongside those of its star platform, the Sinclair Spectrum. Mainstream press coverage soared right along with sales. Having not experienced the arcade- and console-videogame boom and crash to the extent of the United States, the press in Britain lacked a certain ennui that infected coverage of computer entertainment in that country. Thus picking up a tabloid newspaper really could make you think that games and their makers had arrived as mainstream entertainment, while several specialized weekly newsletters devoted to casual computing could be found at any newsstand, full of all the latest gossip. Trip Hawkins and Electronic Arts, who were earnestly trying to manufacture just this kind of mass-market buzz around their games and their “electronic artists” in the U.S. and largely failing, must have been green with envy. Of course, Britain’s homegrown electronic artists were also garnering a whole lot of money as well as a whole lot of press attention, giving Britons their first real exposure to the software superstar, generally in the form of a skinny, socially awkward young man rather incongruously sporting a Ferrari and a designer suit.

Imagine Software was the very personification of all this hype and excess. Founded by a few bright young sparks in Liverpool in 1982, Imagine burst to prominence and crazy profitability on the back of a slick action game called Arcadia, one of the early Speccy showcases which first made that machine the most popular gaming platform in country. Thus when Imagine suddenly collapsed in about the most dramatic fashion imaginable in June of 1984 — employees returned from lunch to find the doors barred and their offices occupied by bailiffs working on behalf of Imagine’s creditors, with the whole thing being filmed for national television — it was tempting indeed to conflate their fate with the prospects of the industry as a whole. In truth, Imagine had worked hard to deserve their fate by being richly, conspicuously stupid. They invested in vanity projects like a misbegotten would-be advertising agency called Studio Sing; they refused to hire a single proper, professional accountant (perhaps because they didn’t want to hear what she might say); they twice moved into bigger, flashier offices before the lease on the previous had expired, thus paying double or triple rents for months at a stretch when they couldn’t begin to fill even one of their properties; they threw huge piles of cash into a never-released “mega-game” to be called Bandersnatch which they planned to sell for £40 (the typical going rate for a game at the time was about £5 or £6) and about which nobody was quite sure what it was supposed to be; they allowed their staff of artists and programmers complete “creative freedom,” which translated into many of them not really doing much of anything at all. Against all this, the Ferraris and racing motorcycles everyone at the company seemed to own represented a fairly modest problem.

It was also true, however, that the British software industry as a whole was bound for a stern reckoning with reality, just as was the American. Unlike the American, the British industry was also forced to contend with what they claimed was a booming trade in not just pirating (that was something the Americans knew all too much about) but commercial counterfeiting, a byproduct of the fact that most software was still distributed on cassettes in Britain. These were easy and cheap to duplicate in large quantities, and the simplistic packaging still common in the industry was also quite easy to copy well enough to get the job done. Counterfeiters, industry insiders claimed, could be found selling their wares at every flea market and village festival in Britain. Some even started their own little mail-order operations, selling through advertisements in newspapers. The industry claimed counterfeiters and pirates were costing them at least £100 million every year.

It’s difficult to assess the veracity of such claims. Certainly the games industry in Britain as well as elsewhere has a long history of overheated, overly alarmist rhetoric on the subject, which can perhaps make one more dismissive than one should be of legitimate concerns. What is clear is that, whatever the cause, the software industry didn’t grow in 1984 like it had in 1983. There were now simply too many publishers competing for the same customers. The prudent professionals like Alfred Milgrom of Melbourne House and David Ward of Ocean survived; the muddle-minded amateurs like the boys at Imagine were left with only their memories of one hell of a ride. The shakeout was inevitably wrenching, enough so that the more heatedly apocalyptic predictions for, as it was dubbed in a trade paper, “this tormented industry of ours” can be forgiven. Roger Kean offered a more balanced take in an editorial in Crash magazine:

There is nothing new in this; it seems inevitable that all “new” industries must start in back bedrooms and move to the conglomerate boardroom. If an industry is worth it, big money will move in. Competition increases, tougher marketing emerges, and the under-capitalized pioneer suffers. The benefits of programmers marketing their games through the larger software houses shouldn’t be overlooked though. The programmer is free to concentrate on what he does best while being linked to sufficient finance to market the game well, and at the same time is freed from the real headache of all companies — financial controls.

Melbourne House aside, most of the biggest of the big boys weren’t heavily invested in adventure games. Britain would never have another adventure phenomenon quite like The Hobbit. What it got instead was something that is in its way more inspiring. To program a sellable arcade game on even a simple machine like the Spectrum required quite a depth of knowledge in assembly language and the quirks of the Speccy itself. However, an adventure game was a less daunting prospect, especially with the aid of a tool like The Quill. Accordingly, new adventure games appeared by the handful virtually every week, sometimes from established publishers but also from plenty of teenagers possessed of an entrepreneurial bent, blank cassettes, and Ziploc baggies. This output dwarfed that of the U.S. in quantity if not in quality; World of Spectrum currently has archived 2217 commercial text adventures for the Speccy alone, and I’d venture to guess that at least that many more have been lost to history. Few of them would ever threaten to crack the software top ten, but they nevertheless fueled a thriving cult of eager players.

To sort through this flood in any rigorous way would require more time and dedication than I can muster. Having already looked at Sherlock, the biggest adventure of the year, we’ll just dip in another toe or two before moving on, checking in on a couple of other friends we already met in earlier articles. Being part of the less roller-coastery adventure scene, both Peter Killworth and the Austin family who ran Level 9 weathered the year’s storms quite comfortably.

The connection between Cambridge University’s Phoenix mainframe culture and Acornsoft continued to hold strong in 1984, with Peter Killworth continuing to serve as the conduit. Having ported the Phoenix game Hamil to the BBC Micro the previous year, Killworth did two more direct ports this year. One, of Rod Underwood’s 1980 game Quondam, is of particular value for Phoenix historians: the original, you see, is one of at least two Phoenix games to have been lost entirely in their original incarnations, and thus Killworth’s version represents our only way to play it today. (Sadly, the other — Xerb by Andrew Lipson — would seem to truly be lost forever.) Killworth’s other port was a technical tour de force that consumed most of a year: he managed to cram all of the monumental Acheton onto two BBC Micro disks, using one as a database to fetch text into memory as needed. That dependence on disk storage cut into sales severely; disk drives were still a relative rarity on British home computers, even on the fairly expensive BBC Micro line. But if nothing else Killworth and Acornsoft had bragging rights as purveyors of easily the biggest adventure game yet to appear on a microcomputer, on either side of the Atlantic. Acheton and Quondam otherwise remain the same sort of exercise in mathematics and masochism as the Phoenix/Acornsoft titles I’ve already discussed, so I won’t belabor them any more here. By now we know what we’re getting into with these games.

Level 9 celebrated the New Year with a new game — literally; they started selling it to mail-order customers on January 1. Lords of Time is unusual in being one of very few Level 9 games not solely designed by Pete Austin. Its germ was a proposal sent to the company by a fan named Sue Gazzard, “mother of two boys and reluctant housewife.” The Austins liked her idea for a time-traveling adventure inspired by a certain long-running British science-fiction series so much that they asked her to design it for them, with Pete in the role of programmer and occasional co-designer. Before release Gazzard’s original title of Time Lords became Lords of Time and the more overt Doctor Who references were smoothed away. Yes, the days when Level 9 could innocently release a trio of games that amounted to Lord of the Rings fan fiction were behind them; they would soon be scrubbing those games similarly clean of their inspiration, yet another sign of a maturing industry.

Lords of Time marked the end of an era in another sense: it was the last Level 9 game without pictures. In the eyes of Level 9, the success of The Hobbit had made them a veritable commercial necessity. Most other publishers seemed to agree. Absent an Infocom to fly the pure-text standard proudly, almost every high-profile British adventure game from here on would have to have pictures, despite the resource drain they represented on little computers already being pushed to their limit. (The Acornsoft adventures were among the few exceptions — but they were already becoming something of a specialized taste anyway.)

Having decided to take the plunge, the Austin brothers managed using their usual technical wizardry to pack an absurd number of pictures into a tiny amount of memory. Pete claimed that they could fit 300 pictures into 6 or 7 K of memory using an ultra-compressed version of the vector-graphics techniques Ken Williams had first employed for Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess in the U.S. The end result was not aesthetically masterful, but there was something to be said for giving the people what they wanted. The first Level 9 game to include graphics was Return to Eden, second in the Silicon Dreams trilogy they had begun with Snowball.

Return to Eden Erik the Viking

They rounded out the year with a third game, which appeared under the imprint of Mosaic Publishing rather than their own. The British equivalent to the American Telarium, Mosaic was busy pushing out an ambitious lineup of bookware, including titles based on books by Harry Harrison, Dick Francis, and Michael Moorcock. Level 9’s contribution was The Saga of Erik the Viking, a ludic sequel to the very popular 1983 children’s book by the improbably versatile Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.

Before I started writing this blog, I didn’t know nearly as much about Level 9’s games as a person who already years ago presumed to write a history of interactive fiction probably should have. Given their popular reputation as “the British Infocom” (admittedly, a title also sometimes ascribed to their later rivals Magnetic Scrolls), I dearly wanted to enjoy their games in the course of remedying that. But I must confess I’m finding that easier said than done. Snowball gave me hope that Level 9 was maturing, both with its more coherent fictional context and its fairer — albeit by no means entirely fair — puzzles, but this trio of games represents if anything a step backward. While I can overlook a lot of parser limitations and some strangled prose in light of the games needing to run on a 48 K machine with no recourse to disk-based virtual memory and now the added requirement of pictures, the unsolvable puzzles and the unnecessary cruelties are harder to forgive. There’s a locked door in Lords of Time that can be opened only by typing the magic word “EUREKA.” The only hint given for this is the fact that the door happens to be in an inventor’s laboratory. Otherwise, zilch — not even a nudge that you’re expected to use a secret word at all as opposed to opening the door by some more physical means. No wonder that programs to list the parsing vocabulary of Level 9 games were such a hot item in the magazines of this period. This sort of puzzle always frustrates me because it’s so… well, somehow dishonest. It’s easy and cheap to make a puzzle, or a game, that’s impossible to solve. The art and the craft come in making one that’s interesting, challenging, and solvable.

Return to Eden and Erik the Viking don’t feature any one puzzle quite so absurd, but in the aggregate are just about as impossible to solve and equally rife with annoyances and boring things required just for the hell of it. Eden, for instance, features a helicopter which constantly patrols overhead looking for you. You must “HIDE” every time it appears, which sometimes seems like every other turn. This goes on for literally most of the game; miss an appearance and it’s instant death. In no universe is this sort of thing remotely fun. Meanwhile the carefully worked-out setting of Eden‘s predecessor has been largely replaced with one more typical of adventure games — i.e., one a bit more on the absurd side.

That said, Level 9’s stellar contemporary reputation isn’t hard to understand. Thanks to their compression wizardry, they offered far more to do in every game than virtually anyone else, while their prose was generally a cut or two above the average and even their parser, while limited, was less limited than most. But I’m afraid their games — or at least those of this era — haven’t aged as well as one might wish. In the defense of Level 9 and others working the British market, I should note again that they were contending with horribly restrictive hardware in comparison to their American counterparts. The fact that they got as much game and as much text and graphics as they did into 48 K or (absent the graphics) even as little as 32 K of memory is remarkable in itself.

Still, the most remarkable and inspiring of all aspects of the British scene were all those amateur and semi-amateur creators making games for themselves with The Quill and other tools. They would become — and far sooner than the bigger publishers dreamed — the eventual face of interactive fiction. I probably haven’t quite given them their due, and probably won’t in the future, but I want to at least give them one more round of resounding lip service here.

Yet text adventures were not the most important games to come out of Britain in 1984. Indeed, for all its commercial uncertainty 1984 was an artistic year for the ages, one full of iconic titles and stone-cold classics, arguably the gaming year of the decade in Britain. I’d be truly remiss to not look at this creative explosion in other genres for which the British computers were, truth be told, probably better suited than displaying streams of hand-crafted text. So, next time we’ll jump into the first of a few of the most important and interesting titles from one hell of a crowded field.

(Paul Anderson and Bruce Everiss, respectively the maker and one of the stars of the BBC’s 1984 documentary on the British games industry that captured Imagine’s downfall, were reunited in 2011 at BAFTA for an interesting discussion. Other useful sources for this article: the Your Computer of November 1984; Crash of July 1985; Computer and Video Games of May 1984; and Micro Adventurer of July 1984. Oh, and feel free to download Peter Killworth’s two games of 1984 as well as Level 9’s three in versions for, depending on the game, the BBC Micro or Commodore 64.)

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Peter Killworth’s 1983

Peter Killworth always found time for a wide array of hobbies and activities, ranging from anthropology to stage magic, to supplement his significant career in oceanographic research, but one suspects that he must have been even busier than usual during 1983. Inspired by the unexpected success of Philosopher’s Quest, he published two original games that year with Acornsoft, and ported a third to the BBC Micro for them.

The two originals were Castle of Riddles and Countdown to Doom. The former feels very much like Philosopher’s Quest II, although it is a completely original effort and not, as is sometimes reported, derived à la Zork II and III from yet-unused sections of Philosopher’s Quest‘s mainframe source, Brand X. The plot, such as it is, casts you as a down-on-the-luck adventurer who is hired by a wizard to recover a certain Ring of Power (where have we heard of that before?) from an evil warlock with a penchant for riddle games. Acornsoft had a good reason to want Castle of Riddles to be particularly difficult even by the rather heartless standards of the time: they made solving it into a national contest. Working in conjunction with Your Computer magazine, the company collected orders during the first weeks of 1983, then shipped out copies to all would-be participants on February 15. First to solve it would get a voucher good for £1500 worth of Acorn hardware and software of his choice, along with a magnificently nerdy “£700 hallmarked silver ring-shaped trophy mounted on a presentation plinth and inscribed ‘King of the Ring.'”

Castle of Riddles contest announcement

When several weeks went by without a winner, there was some concern that Killworth had made the game too difficult, that no one would manage to solve it before the contest’s expiry date of March 31. Thus a 34-year-old businessman named Colin Bignell thought he had an excellent chance when he finished the game at last late one night in March. He immediately dashed to his car and drove through the dawn from his home in Littlehampton, Sussex, to Your Computer‘s offices in London to deliver the code word that the game reveals upon completion. But alas, as he pulled up outside one Peter Voke was already inside doing the same thing; Bignell had to settle for runner-up status.

Contest winner Peter Voke stands third from left; runner-up Colin Bignell first from left.

Contest winner Peter Voke stands third from left; runner-up Colin Bignell first from left.

The Castle of Riddles contest was something of landmark. Many other publishers would launch similar efforts in the years to come. It proved to be an excellent way to build buzz around a new title in the British software industry, which much more than the American thrived on just this kind of hype and excitement. Perhaps less fortunate was the effect it had on the designs involved. They simply had to be damnably, absurdly difficult to prevent a stampede of players beating down the publishers’ doors hours after release. Thus what could already be a stubbornly intractable genre had some of its worst tendencies elevated to the realm of virtual necessity. Indeed, Castle of Riddles itself is the least of Killworth’s games. Even he regarded it with little fondness; it’s the only one of his Acornsoft games that he did not choose to revive for the company with which he later became associated, Topologika.

Much more impressive, and a significant step forward for Killworth as a designer, is Countdown to Doom, a science-fiction scenario. Your spaceship has just crash-landed on the planet of Doomawangara. You have all of about 215 turns to repair your ship — accomplished by gathering the spare parts that are conveniently lying about the planet and dropping them into the ship’s hold — and escape, after which the ship “collapses” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (beyond the wish for an in-game turn limit, that is). As that tight turn limit suggests, Doom is an extremely difficult game laced with the usual sudden, blameless player deaths that are such a staple of the Cambridge approach to adventure games. This game, like its stablemates, sends the dial smashing right through the top of the Zarfian Cruelty Scale and just keeps on going. With only 215 turns to hand, getting everything done makes for quite an exercise in planning even once you know the solution to each individual puzzle. Yet its puzzles, while hard as nails, mostly stay just on the right side of fairness, only dipping a toe or two occasionally over the line. They reward intellectual leaps as much or more than dogged persistence (not that the latter isn’t required as well). Let me give a quick example of how heartless yet kind of magical these puzzles are.

In your initial explorations you come upon a bunch of gibberish written on a wall.

Countdown to Doom

Anyone who’s ever played an adventure game can guess that this must be an encoded message, but how to crack it? Well, later in the game you come upon another strange message on a wall.

Countdown to Doom

This is all the information the game provides for cracking the code. Want to have a go at it? Go ahead; I’ll wait…

So, the solution is to take every fifth letter after the first, cycling around and around until every letter is used. This yields “Say ‘flezz’ to disable the robot.” Sure enough, there’s an annoying little thief of a robot elsewhere in the game.

Even if you cracked the code, don’t feel too smug; you had an advantage. In the actual game there is nothing to connect these two messages together, nothing to indicate the second provides the key for the first. I needed a nudge to make that connection myself when I played, but thereafter doing the rest myself was so satisfying that I kind of love the game for it.

Countdown to Doom is easier to love than many games of the Cambridge tradition. For all its cruelty, it does display some hints of mercy. You’re expected to gather six needed spare parts to solve the most pressing problem, that of escape, but a full score also requires satisfying your greedy inner adventurer by gathering six treasures. These, which are generally the more challenging to collect, are actually optional; it’s possible to escape and thus ostensibly win the game (apart from a chiding message telling you you could have done even better) without collecting a single one. This choice adds a welcome dose of positive reinforcement. It’s more satisfying to win the game with a less-than-optimal score and then go back in to improve it than it is to simply fail over and over.

In contrast to Castle of Riddles, Countdown to Doom remained always one of Killworth’s favorite children. Its design is tight and perfect in its own uncompromising way, its puzzle often brilliant. Games from this tradition will always be a minority taste even amongst the minority that can still stomach old-school text adventures in this day and age, but Countdown to Doom is just about as perfect an exemplar as you’ll find of said tradition.

Killworth’s final effort for 1983 was another minor landmark. Kingdom of Hamil was a loving port of the Phoenix game Hamil, the first to be solely authored by Phoenix stalwart Jonathan Partington, to the BBC Micro. Thus it became the first Phoenix game not authored by Killworth to make it into homes, and the first to retain its original title and to remain basically complete in its new form. The story, embellished a bit over the original on the Acornsoft box copy, has you the displaced heir to the throne of Hamil, needing to prove your worth to prove your identity. This being an old-school adventure game, “worth” is meant literally here: you must collect valuable treasures and drop them in the castle vault. As usual, none of this makes a whole lot of sense. No one would ever accuse the Phoenix games of even storybook realism.

But then you don’t play these games for their stories, and Hamil has some wonderful elements. Partington always had a certain fondness for large-scale, dynamic puzzles that often span multiple rooms while requiring precise timing, the sort of thing that demands to be worked out carefully with pen and paper. His talents are much in evidence here. There’s a chase scene with a dinosaur that spans more than 30 turns yet has to be planned and executed perfectly down to the last move, and a similar sequence in which the terrain literally explodes behind you. Much of Hamil is so fun to solve that you can almost forgive it its few puzzles that cross the line. The last of these, however, does a good job of crushing any spirit of generosity you might still have. It’s one of the classic what-the-fuck moments in adventure gaming, reading like a caricature of the brainy, mathematical Phoenix tradition.

Early in Hamil, you find yet another encoded message on a wall.

Kingdom of Hamil

This is actually easier than the similar puzzle in Countdown to Doom. When a certain locked door starts asking you for a password, it’s not too difficult to figure out that it must be a simple transcription cypher, with the first three words representing “The password is…” By the time you get to the climax of the game, then, you feel pretty confident in deciphering the messages that appear.

Kingdom of Hamil

Cracking the code yields:

WHAT ARE THEIR ORDERS?
WHAT WAS THE PHRASE?
WHAT IS THE SET, SORTED?

But your difficulties are only beginning. I’ve actually now given you everything the games does, so have at it if you like.

Ready to continue? Okay! In the words of the anonymous writer of a walkthrough from long ago:

You must obtain the set of letters from THE PASSWORD IS, which is THEPASWORDI. Then you must sort the letters, resulting in ADEHIOPRSTW. Finally you must encode this string. You do this in the opposite way in which you decoded messages. Thus, if, for example TPM was decoded to THE, THE is encoded as TPM. ADEHIOPRSTW encodes to NYMPHSWALTZ. To finish the game you must type NYMPHS WALTZ. (SAY NYMPHS WALTZ or NYMPHSWALTZ do not work.)

Really, what could be more clear? Again, solving this here and now, while ridiculously difficult, is actually much easier than it would be for someone encountering it in the game. There you are given no more indication than what you see of what “the phrase” is referring to amongst a big game full of phrases (it’s a text adventure, after all). Thus we come to the hate in my love-hate relationship with Phoenix.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve prepared a zip file for those of you interested in exploring Killworth’s 1983 for yourselves. It includes each of the three games as a BBC Micro tape image, the way they were first distributed. (To start one of the games on a BBC Micro emulator, mount the tape image, then type *TAPE followed by CH.””. Note also that at least some of the disk images of these games floating around ROM archives and abandonware sites are corrupted and uncompleteable.) I’ve also included some hint sheets, which you’ll likely need. For what it’s worth, when I play I give myself unfettered access to the first level of hints. This usually provides the sort of little nudges that the games so painfully lack, the likes of which Infocom would have provided within the games themselves as a matter of course by this time. I find this lets me appreciate the games’ qualities and enjoy solving them without the whole thing devolving into an exercise in masochism.

Next time we’ll check in with our other special friends in British adventuring, Level 9, to see how 1983 treated them.

 
 

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A Gallery of Unfortunate Events

A philosopher’s life is a dangerous one…

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Phoenix and Acornsoft

Cambridge was the heart of the early British PC industry, home of both Sinclair and Acorn as well as many supporting and competing concerns. Indeed, Cambridge University can boast of some of the major achievements in computing history, to such an extent that easy characterizations of the university as “the MIT of Britain” or the town as “the Silicon Valley of the UK” seem slightly condescending. It was Cambridge that nurtured Alan Turing, the most important thinker in the history of computer science, and that supplied much of the talent (Turing among them) to the World War II code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park that laid the foundation for the modern computer. Most spectacularly of all, it was at Cambridge in 1949 that EDSAC-1 — the first stored-program fully electronic computer, meaning the first that could be programmed the way we understand that term today — first came online. (The earlier American ENIAC was programmable only by switching logic gates and rerouting cabling in an elaborate game of Mouse Trap that could consume weeks. At risk of wading into a debate that has swirled for years, there’s a real argument to be made that EDSAC-1 was the first real computer in the sense of being something that operated reasonably akin to what we mean when we use the term today.) In 1953 Cambridge became the first university to recognize computer science as a taught discipline.

For decades computing in and around Cambridge centered on whatever colossus was currently installed in the bowels of the Computing Laboratory. After EDSAC-1 came EDSAC-2 in 1958, which was in turned replaced by Titan in 1964. All of these had been essentially one-off, custom-built machines constructed by the university itself in cooperation with various British technology companies. It must therefore have seemed a dismaying sign of the changing times when the university elected to buy its next big mainframe off the shelf, as it were — and from an American company at that. Coming online in February of 1973, Phoenix — the name was meant to evoke a phoenix rising from the ashes of the newly decommissioned Titan — was a big IBM 370 mainframe of the sort found in major companies all over the world. However, just as the hackers at MIT had made their DEC machines their own by writing their own operating systems and tools from scratch, those at Cambridge replaced most of IBM’s standard software with new programs of their own. Thus Phoenix became, literally, a computing environment like no other.

For more than two decades Phoenix was a central fixture of life at Cambridge. (In hardware terms, there were actually three Phoenixes; newer IBM mainframes replaced older hardware in 1982 and 1989). It was used for the expected computer-science research, much of it groundbreaking. But it also, like the contemporary American PLATO, became a social gathering place. It provided email access to a whole generation of students along with lively public discussion boards. The administrators delighted in replacing the stodginess of IBM’s standard MVS operating system with their own quirky sensibility. Phoenix’s responses to various pleas for HELP are particularly remembered.

HELP SEX
Phoenix/MVS, being of essentially neuter gender, cannot help with emotional, personal or physical human problems


HELP GOD
Please appeal to deities directly, not via Phoenix/MVS


HELP PHEONIX
Pheonix is spelt Phoenix and pronounced Feenicks.


HELP CS
CS is a standard abbreviation for Computing Service; it is also a "gas" used for riot control.

Given this freewheeling atmosphere, you’d expect to find plenty of games on Phoenix as well. And you wouldn’t be disappointed. Phoenix had all the usual suspects, from card games to chess to an implementation of Scrabble with an impressively fiendish AI opponent to play against. And, beginning in the late 1970s, there were also adventures.

Both Crowther and Woods’s Adventure and Zork (in its Dungeon incarnation, as “liberated” from MIT by Bob Supnik and ported to FORTRAN) arrived at Cambridge as one of their first destinations outside the United States. Like hackers across the U.S. and, soon enough, the world, those at Cambridge went crazy over the games. And also like so many of their American counterparts, they had no sooner finished playing them than they started speculating about writing their own. In 1978 John Thackray and David Seal, two Cambridge graduate students, started working on a grand underground treasure hunt called Acheton. It’s often claimed that Acheton represents just the third adventure game ever created, after Adventure itself and Zork. That’s a very difficult claim to substantiate in light of the number of people who were tinkering with adventures in various places in the much less interconnected institutional computing world of the late 1970s. Amongst just the finished, documented games, Mystery Mansion and Stuga have at least as strong a claim to the title of third as Acheton. Still, Acheton was a very early effort, almost certainly the first of its kind in Britain. And it was also a first in another respect.

Looking at the problem of writing an adventure game, Thackray and Seal decided that the best approach would be to create a new, domain-specific programming language before writing Acheton proper. The result, which has been retroactively dubbed T/SAL (“Thackray/Seal Adventure Language”) today, but was simply known as “that language on Phoenix used to write adventures” during its heyday at Cambridge, represents the first ever specialized adventure programming language. (Even the PDP-10 Zork had been written in the already extant, if unusually text-adventure-suitable, MDL.) The T/SAL system is something of a hybrid between the database-driven design of Scott Adams and the more flexible fully programmable virtual machine of Infocom. Objects, rooms, and other elements are defined as static database elements, but the designer can also make use of “programs,” routines written in an interpreted, vaguely BASIC-like language that let her implement all sorts of custom behaviors. Thackery and Seal improved T/SAL steadily as dictated by the needs of their own game in progress, always leaving it available for anyone else who might want to give adventure writing a shot. Meanwhile they also continued to work on Acheton, soon with the aid of a third partner, a PhD candidate in mathematics named Jonathan Partington. It grew into a real monster: more than 400 rooms in the final form it reached by about 1980, thus dwarfing even Zork in size and still qualifying today, at least in terms of sheer geographical scope, as one of the largest text adventures ever created.

Yet the most important outcome of the Acheton project was T/SAL and the community it spawned. The system was used to create at least fourteen more games over a decade. Freed as they were by virtue of running on a big mainframe from the memory restrictions of contemporary PC adventures, designers could craft big, sometimes surprisingly intricate playgrounds for a brainy audience of budding mathematicians and scientists that reveled in the toughest of puzzles. For those on their wavelength, they became an indelible part of their student memories. Graham Nelson, easily the most important figure in interactive fiction of the post-Infocom era, was an undergraduate at Cambridge during the heyday of the Phoenix games. He writes in Proustian terms of his own memories of the games: “They [the Phoenix games] are as redolent of late nights in the User Area as the soapy taste of Nestlé’s vending machine chocolate or floppy, rapidly-yellowing line printer paper.” Nelson’s later puzzle-filled epics Curses and Jigsaw show the influence of these early experiences at Cambridge in their erudition and sprawl.

Yet we shouldn’t overestimate the popularity of the Phoenix games. Running under a custom operating system on an IBM design that was seldom open to fun and games at other installations, they had no chance to spread beyond Cambridge in their original incarnations. Even at the university, their sheer, unapologetic difficulty made them something of a niche interest. And authoring new games in the rather cryptic T/SAL required an especial dedication. Fifteen games in over ten years is not really a huge number, and most of those were front-loaded into the excitement that surrounded the arrival of Adventure and the novelty of Acheton. During most years of the mid- and late-1980s it was only Jonathan Partington, who in authoring or co-authoring no fewer than eight of the fifteen games was by far the most prolific and dedicated of the T/SAL authors, that continued to actively create new work with the system. It’s probably safe to say that most of the Phoenix games had (at best) hundreds rather than thousands of serious players. Still, they would have a larger impact on the British adventuring scene outside of Cambridge’s ivory tower in a different, commercialized form.

One of the first at Cambridge to pick up on the T/SAL system was an oceanography professor in his early thirties named Peter Killworth, who had been taught a healthy appreciation for the brave new world of possibility that Adventure represented by his seven- and three-year-old sons: “I was constrained by what I knew about computers, but they treated the terminal as a person. While I was trying to work out what an axe was doing in a computer program, they were chopping the nearest tree down.” Killworth was intrigued enough to start tinkering with T/SAL as soon as he noticed it. He wrote a simple physics problem using the language. Through it he got his introduction to the interconnected web of social problem-solving that made the experience of playing and writing early institutional adventures so different from those on PCs.

“I had a problem which revolved around using a pivot to get up a cliff. Put weight on one end, and the other goes up — but you have to be careful to get the weight right. I programmed it on the mainframe, and left it for a friend to have a look at. When I came back next morning, I was deluged with messages from people I’d never heard of, all telling me where I’d gone wrong in the program.”

Encouraged by all this interest, Killworth decided to make a full-fledged game to house the puzzle. The result, which he completed even before Acheton was done, he called Brand X. It was a treasure hunt fairly typical of the general Phoenix aesthetic in its cruel puzzles and relatively heady (by adventure-game standards) allusions to Descartes, Coleridge, and the Bible. Figuring that was that, Killworth then returned his full attention to oceanography — until the arrival of the BBC Micro and Acornsoft caused him to start thinking about his game again a couple of years later.

Of all the technology companies in and around Cambridge, Acorn worked hardest to foster ties with the university itself. Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser made the most of the connections Hauser had formed there during the years he spent as a Cambridge PhD candidate. With Acorn’s office located literally just around the corner from the Computing Laboratory, the two had ample opportunity to roam the corridors sniffing out the best and the brightest to bring in for their own projects. They considered Cambridge something of a secret weapon for Acorn, taking the university itself into their confidence and making it almost a business partner. Cambridge reciprocated by taking Acorn’s side almost en masse as the British computer wars of the 1980s heated up. The university grew to consider the BBC Micro to be the machine that they had built — and not without cause, given the number of Cambridge students and graduates on Acorn’s staff. Clive Sinclair, meanwhile, who like Chris Curry had not attended university, displayed only a grudging respect for the Cambridge talent, mingled with occasional expressions of contempt that rather smack of insecurity.

Acorn Computers had helped one David Johnson-Davis to set up a software publisher specializing in software for their first popular machine, the Acorn, in 1980. Now, as the BBC Micro neared launch, Acornsoft would prove to be a valuable tool to advance the goal of making as much software as possible, and hopefully of as high a quality as possible, available for the new machine. Just as their big brothers had in designing the BBC Micro’s hardware, Acornsoft turned to the university — where prototypes were floating around even before the machine’s official launch — for help finding quality software of all types. They offered prospective programmers a brand new BBC Micro of their own as a sort of signing bonus upon acceptance of a program. After a friend got a statistics package accepted, Peter Killworth started to ponder whether he had something to give them; naturally, his thoughts turned to Brand X. He rewrote the game in the relatively advanced BBC BASIC, using every technique he could devise to save memory and, when that failed, simply jettisoning much of the original. (Ironically, the physics problem that got the whole ball rolling was one of those that didn’t make the final cut.) He then presented it to Acornsoft, who agreed to publish it under the title of Philosopher’s Quest, a tribute to the game’s intellectual tone proposed by Johnson-Davis’s right-hand man Chris Jordan. It was published in mid-1982, the first game in the Acornsoft line. Killworth hoped it would sell at least 500 copies or so and earn him a little bit of extra pocket money; in the end it sold more than 20,000.

Even in its chopped-down microcomputer incarnation, Philosopher’s Quest provides a pretty good introduction to the Phoenix aesthetic as a whole. An unabashed treasure hunt with no pretensions toward narrative or mimesis, its geography simply serves as the intellectual landscape to house its puzzles. To understand the game’s level of commitment to physical reality, consider that, after swimming underwater for a while, you can still strike a match inside the whale that swallows you. (Don’t ask.) We’re a long way from Zork III and its realistic simulation of the effects of swimming in a lake on a battery-powered lantern.

Yet the writing is as solid as it can be within the constraints of 32 K, with occasional flashes of dry wit and an awareness of culture beyond Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars that’s pretty rare amongst games of its era. The parser is the typical two-worder of the era, but the game doesn’t strain to push beyond its limits, so it only occasionally frustrates. While not huge, the game is amazingly large given the memory restrictions under which Killworth was operating and the fact that he was working in BASIC. He was already an experienced programmer of weather and ocean simulations thanks to his day job, and his expertise comes through here. He would later speak of an “unofficial competition” with the Austin brothers of Level 9, kings of text compression, over how much text they could cram into the miniscule amounts of memory they had to work with.

The puzzles are a mixed bag, sometimes brilliant but always heartless. The very beginning of the game tells you everything you need to know about what you’re in for. You start in a store from which you can only remove two out of four items. You can increase this number to three through a clever action, but there’s no way to know which one of the four you’re not going to need later in the game; trial and error and learning by death are the rules of the day here. Still, some of the puzzles border on the beautiful, including one of my favorite guess-the-verb puzzles of all time. (Yes, like much in the game this puzzle violates the Player’s Bill of Rights in depending on outside knowledge, but, atrocities like Zork II‘s baseball maze aside, this has always struck me as the least of adventure-game design sins, especially in this era of readily accessible information on virtually any subject. I rather like it when a game sends me scurrying to the Internet in search of outside knowledge to apply. And I feel really special when, as in this case, I already have the knowledge I need.)

Other puzzles, however, are cheap and unforgivable in that way all too typical of early text adventures. There’s a vital room exit that goes completely un-described and thus can be sussed out only by beating your head against every wall in every room when you’ve reached the point of total frustration. More than anything else, the game takes delight in killing you, a parade of gruesome if often clever deaths, most of which you’re going to experience at least once in the course of playing; these are not jumping-off-a-cliff-to-see-what-happens deaths, but rather innocently-entering-a-room-only-to-be-trampled-by-an-elephant deaths. The deaths are so numerous and so absurd that they almost come off as parody. More so even than many other old games, Philosopher’s Quest can be enjoyed today, but only if you can get yourself in tune with its old-school sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, it and the other Phoenix games are very polarizing these days. Graham Nelson among others remains a big fan, while still others find them an exercise in masochism; see this old newsgroup thread for a sample of typical reactions.

Peter Killworth continued to write adventures after Philosopher’s Quest, for Acornsoft and later Topologika (who also published quite a few of the other Phoenix games for PCs). Already by 1983 he was earning twice as much from his games as he did from his Cambridge professorship. He later dismissed Philosopher’s Quest and its sometimes arbitrary puzzles as something of a learning exercise, but he always retained his reputation as an author of difficult games. For Killworth’s follow-up to Philosopher’s Quest, Castle of Riddles, Johnson-Davis had an idea that would begin something of a tradition in the British adventure-gaming scene. Acornsoft and Your Computer magazine sponsored a contest with a prize of £1500 worth of Acorn hardware and a £700 silver ring to the first person to solve the game. It took winner Peter Voke, Britain’s equivalent of the American adventure-gaming machine Roe R. Adams III, a full eight hours to solve the game. (Runner-up Colin Bignell made a mad cross-country dash through the night to get his winning entry to Your Computer, but pulled up in his car in front of the magazine’s headquarters just 20 minutes behind Voke.) Killworth also authored one of the classics of the sub-genre of adventure-authoring guides that were popular in the early- and mid-1980s, the aptly titled How to Write Adventure Games. He died in 2008 of motor neuron disease. Even when he was earning more from his adventures than he was from his day job, games were just a sideline to a significant career in oceanographic research.

We’ll likely be revisiting some of the later works of Killworth and the other Phoenix authors at some point down the road a bit. For now, you can download Philosopher’s Quest and Castle of Riddles as BBC Micro disk images. (I recommend Dave Gilbert’s superb BeebEm emulator.) Most of the original incarnations of the Phoenix games, Brand X included, have been ported to Z-Code format, playable in my own Filfre and countless other interpreters, thanks to a preservation effort led by Graham Nelson, Adam Atkinson, and David Kinder following the final shutdown of Phoenix in 1995.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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