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The Neo-Classical Interactive Fiction of 1995

For all that it was a period with some significant sparks of heat and light, we might reasonably call the time between 1989 and 1994 the Dark Ages of Interactive Fiction. It was only in 1995 that the lights were well and truly turned on again and the Interactive Fiction Renaissance began in earnest. This was the point when a number of percolating trends — the evolving TADS and Inform programming languages, the new generation of Z-Machine interpreters, the serious discussions of design craft taking place on Usenet — bore a sudden and rather shockingly verdant fruit. It became, one might say, Year One of the interactive-fiction community as we know it today.

The year is destined always to be remembered most of all for the very first Interactive Fiction Competition, better known as simply the “IF Comp” to its friends. Its influence on the design direction of what used to be called text adventures would soon become as undeniable as it was unwelcome in the eyes of some ultra-traditionalists: its guidance that entries should be finishable in two hours or so led in the course of things to an interest in depth in place of breadth, in literary and formal experimentation in place of the “gamier” pleasures of point-scoring and map-making.

But the Comp’s influence would take time to make itself known. This first edition of it, organized by an early community pillar named G. Kevin Wilson, was a relatively modest affair, with just twelve entries, six in each of the two categories into which it was divided: one for TADS games, one for Inform games. (This division would fall by the wayside in future Comps.) The entries did prefigure some of the self-referential experimentation to come: Undo by Neil deMause placed you at the very end of a (deliberately) broken, corrupted game and expected you to muddle your way to victory; Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents Detective by C.E. Forman made somewhat mean-spirited, television-inspired fun of a really, really bad game released a few years earlier by a twelve-year-old author; The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees took place all in one room, thus becoming the perfect treat for mapping haters. Yet in my opinion none of these games join the ranks of the year’s very best works.

In retrospect, the lineup of games in that first Comp is perhaps most notable for becoming the venue for the first polished work of interactive fiction by Andrew Plotkin; his influence on the future direction of the community, in terms of both aesthetics and technology, would be comparable only to that of Mike Roberts and Graham Nelson among the figures we’ve already met in previous articles. But his A Change in the Weather, a punishingly difficult meta-puzzle of a game which one couldn’t hope to solve without many replays, stands as a fairly minor entry in his impressive oeuvre today, despite winning the Inform category of that first Comp.

So, I’d like to reserve any more discussion of this and subsequent IF Comps for future articles, and focus today on what I consider to be the real standout text adventures of 1995, of which there are a gratifying number. The games below evince no concern whatsoever about keeping their playing time down to a couple of hours. On the contrary: all of the games that follow are big enough that Infocom could conceivably have released them, while at least one or two of them are actually bigger than Infocom’s technology could possibly have allowed. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that works like these are my personal sweet spot for interactive fiction: big, puzzly works which are well-written but which aren’t afraid to be games — albeit games which incorporate the design lessons of those pioneers that came before them. Neo-classical interactive fiction, if you will. (Yes, I’m aware that we’ve jumped from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with dizzying speed. Such is life when you’re making broad — overly broad? — historical metaphors.) If your preferences are anything like mine, the games that follow will be heaven for you.

In fact, let me close this introduction with something of a personal plea. I’ve noticed a reluctance on the part of many diehard Infocom fans to give what came afterward a fair shake. I do understand that nostalgia is a big part of the reason people read sites like this one and play the games that are featured here, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Although I do try very hard to keep nostalgia out of my own game criticism, I firmly believe that no reason to play a game is ever a wrong one, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And yet I also believe, and with equal firmness, that the games you’ll find below aren’t just as good as those of Infocom: in a lot of ways, they’re superior. There’s nothing postmodern or pretentious or precious here (all of these being labels I’ve heard applied to other strands of post-Infocom interactive fiction as a reason for not engaging with it), just good clean old-school fun, generally absent the worst old-school annoyances. Please do consider giving one or more of these games a try, if you happen to be a fan of Infocom who hasn’t yet explored what came afterward. Nostalgia is all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to make new memories.


You haven't seen your brother Malcolm since he received his fellowship at Biblioll College - pressure of work was his excuse not to come down to London. So when you received that telegram from him you leapt at the excuse to come up to the university town of Christminster for the day and visit him.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Gareth Rees’s “interactive conspiracy” Christminster as a sort of Curses-lite. It shares with Graham Nelson’s epic a droll, very English prose style, an arch sense of humor, and a casual erudition manifested in a love of literary quotations and classical references. Indeed, the connections between the games go deeper still: Graham and Gareth were not only both Oxbridge academics but friends who helped one another out creatively and technically. If you spend enough time poking around in Christminster‘s library, you’ll discover that their games apparently belong to the same universe, when you uncover numerous references to the Meldrew family of Curses fame. But going too far with this line of description is doing Christminster a disservice. It may be smaller than Curses — to be fair, very few games aren’t — but it’s plenty rich in its own right, whilst being vastly more soluble by a reasonably motivated person in a reasonable amount of time.

Christminster takes place in the fictional English university town of the same name, but is obviously drawn to a large extent from the author’s lived experience.[1]For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.” The time in which it occurs is kept deliberately vague; I vote for the 1950s, but one could almost equally opt for any point within a few decades to either side of that one. You play Christabel, a prim young lady who’s come up to Christminster to visit her brother Malcolm. But she soon discovers that he’s nowhere to be found, and that a shadowy occult enterprise seems to be afoot within his college’s ivy-covered walls. And so the hunt is on to find out what’s become of him and who is responsible.

None of this need be taken overly seriously. The game’s milieu of bumbling, slightly cracked old dons comes straight from the pages of Waugh, Amis, and Wodehouse, while its gloriously contrived central mystery would doubtless have pleased Agatha Christie. Thankfully, Christminster runs on plot time rather than clock time: the story evolves in response to your progress rather than placing you in thrall to some inexorable turn counter, in the way of the polarizing early Infocom mysteries. This leaves plenty of time to poke at every nook and cranny of the musty old campus and to enjoy some ingenious puzzles. In a few places, the design does show its age; the very first puzzle of the game is one of the very hardest, leaving you trapped outside of the college’s walls with nothing to do until you solve it — not exactly the most welcoming opening! But by all means do try to carry on, as the English like to say. If you do, you might just find Christminster to be one of the best cozy mysteries you’ll ever play.

John’s Fire Witch

It’s a cold weekend in December of 1990, and it’s been far too long since you have seen your friend John Baker! But you’ve finally managed to take some time out of your schedule to drive to Columbus and spend some “quality time” together. Quality time, of course, means that you and he are going to sample every bar that Ohio State University’s High Street has to offer.

John was to meet you at a favorite pizza and beer spot to start off the evening, but he hasn’t showed up. John’s always been rather spontaneous (read that as ‘erratic’), so you think he’ll show up eventually. But as the night wears on and you tire of downing beers by yourself, you decide to drive to his place and see if he’s left a note or something for you there.

You find his front door unlocked and John nowhere to be found. Pretty tired from your earlier drive, and also buzzing a bit from the beer you drank, you quickly doze off in the living room.

It is now morning. A terrible snow storm is raging outside, the worst you’ve ever seen. You can’t believe how much snow has piled up over the night. You still haven’t heard from John, and you seem to now be trapped in his apartment.

John’s Fire Witch by John Baker is an example of what we used to call “snack-sized interactive fiction” back in the day. Although the shortest game featured in this collection of reviews, it would be considered medium-sized today, with a typical play time in the range of two to five hours — i.e., not much if any shorter than, say, Infocom’s The Witness.

But no self-respecting member of the interactive-fiction literati would dare to release a game that opens like this one today. Waking up in your slovenly friend’s apartment is just one step removed from that ultimate in text-adventure clichés: the game that starts in your — or rather the author’s — bedroom. Make that half a step removed: note that the guy whose apartment you wake up in and the author of this game are the same person. “John, like many IF characters,” wrote David Welbourn in an online play-through of the game, “seems to live in a pigsty and eat nothing but snow.”

So, John’s Fire Witch is willfully unambitious; all it wants to do is entertain you for a few hours. Poking around your vanished friend’s apartment, you discover that he’s gotten himself caught up in a metaphysical struggle between an “ice wizard” and a “fire witch.” It’s up to you to rescue him by completing a number of unlikely tasks, such as collecting a handy grab bag of the seven deadly sins for a certain pitchfork-wielding character who dwells in the Down Below. (Luckily, good old John tends to partake in just about all of them on a regular basis, so his apartment makes a pretty good hunting ground.)

For two and a half decades now, critics like me have been intermittently trying to explain why John’s Fire Witch succeeds in being so appealing almost in spite of itself. Its prose treads that fine line between breezy and tossed-off, its thematic aspirations are non-existent, its puzzles are enjoyable but never breathtaking. In the end, maybe it just comes down to being good company. Its author’s personality comes through in droves, and you can’t help but like him. Beyond that… well, if it it never does anything all that amazingly great, it never does anything all that egregiously wrong either.

The real John Baker disappeared without a trace after making this modest little game — good luck Googling that name! — leaving it behind as his only interactive-fiction legacy. He tells us that he’d like his players to send him $6, for lunch: “My favorite lunch is a soup & sandwich combo at a restaurant on Sawmill Road.” I for one would be happy to pay. Just drop me a line, John.

Lethe Flow Phoenix

A cool wind whips across the peak you stand on, sending tiny dust-devils whirling about your feet. The stars above you seem especially bright tonight, their silver light reaching across generations to speak to you. It is midnight, the hour of magic. The moon is not in sight tonight. All is still. All is waiting.

Perhaps it was a mistake to come and camp out here on this night. Not something you could have predicted in advance, of course, but still ... perhaps it was a little foolish. All Hallows’ Eve is not the most auspicious of nights. Still, you packed your bags up, tossed them next to the one-man tent in your trunk, and drove out here to spend a few days and get your life sorted out.

You were awakened in the middle of the night by something. You weren’t quite sure what, but you could tell something was wrong when you woke up. The desert was too quiet, too dark ... too eager. Like a sleep walker, you stumbled to the cliff nearby. You stood for a minute, catching your breath, and looked around. Behind you, at the other end of the shaky dirt trail, your car and tent wait patiently for your return. In other directions, you have a wide-open view of the desert, and can see it stretches in all directions, until it touches the feet of the mountains. The missing moon, curiously, does not concern you, nor does the fact that you can see as well now as if it were there.

You absentmindedly take another step forwards. If possible, the night becomes even more quiet, and the stars even brighter. Another step, and then another. You stand silently at the very edge of the cliff, looking outwards.

Then the ground gives way. “I’ve gone too far,” you think, almost casually. Not even screaming, you fall from the edge of the cliff.


There is a sudden sense of a presence around you as you fall. When you are rescued in mid-air, the event seems almost natural – bluesilver wings surround you, feathers caress you, and merciful darkness embraces you.


You awaken, and find yourself in a grassy field. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a brook babbles gently as it flows along. A small tree grows in the center of the field, its branches ripe with apples.

If John Fire’s Witch is the My Stupid Apartment sub-genre of interactive fiction elevated to a weirdly sublime pitch, then Dan Shiovitz’s Lethe Flow Phoenix does the same for another hackneyed perennial of the post-commercial era: the Deeply Meaningful Exploration of the Subconscious. One always seems to find one or two games of this stripe, generally the products of younger scribes whose earnestness is almost painfully palpable, sloshing about in the lower rungs of any given IF Comp. Alas, their attempts to reveal inner truths through surrealistic imagery tend to come off as more banal than profound — rather like reading the diary of that angst-ridden fifteen-year-old so many of us used to be.

Dan Shiovitz was himself a fairly young man when he wrote Lethe Flow Phoenix, a game whose labored Latinate title doesn’t appear to bode well. Yet it turns out to be far better than one would ever dare to hope. Shiovitz has a knack for devising and describing beautifully twisted landscapes, through which he then proceeds to thread a series of deviously satisfying puzzles. At times, this game almost plays like a textual version of Myst, with much the same atmosphere of stately desolation and the same style of otherworldly but oddly logical dilemmas to overcome.

And then, around the halfway point, Lethe Flow Phoenix turns into something else entirely. Shiovitz provides an explanation for his protagonist’s personal problems, and it’s not at all what you might expect. I hesitate to say too much more here, but will go so far as to reveal that aliens from outer space — as opposed to just alienated humans — suddenly come into the picture. Again, this development should be disastrous, but somehow it works. The game manages to maintain your interest right up to its happy ending.

Dan Shovitz went on to write several other text adventures after this one, perhaps most notably Bad Machine, an exploration of the frontiers of language sufficient to set any postmodern linguistic theorist’s heart aflutter. But even that experimental masterstroke shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow this early piece of work. Yes, the author of Lethe Flow Phoenix is clearly a young man, but this particular young man is also an observant, talented writer. His protagonist’s final redemption is genuinely moving, the journey to that point satisfying on several levels. Lethe Flow Phoenix pairs heart with craftsmanship, and the results are pretty great.

The Light: Shelby’s Addendum

A strangeness has fallen. You first became aware of it with the darkening of the skies: the majestic, threatening storm clouds that seemed on the verge of deluging the earth in a torrent, yet hung motionless, impatient, as though awaiting further instructions from some unseen and malignant higher power. Of course Holcroft had on many occasions disproved to you the existence of such higher beings with his charts and calculations, and you do not believe in such foolishness as ghosts, gods and goblins, but events such as those unfolding before you now are causing you to question all that you have learned.

First the clouds, then the sudden silence of the birdsong, and the people. Where were the people? The village was deserted as you passed through. Not a soul to be seen. You knew you had to alert Barclay and Holcroft that something was terribly wrong with the balance of things, but before you had reached even the main gate an impenetrable mist had rolled in from below the cliffs and obscured the path to the lighthouse.

You decided to wait in the drum shed until the mist had lifted, rather than risk life and limb on the cliff walk, but you were weary from your journey and fell into a deep sleep. When you awoke it was near nightfall. The mist had barely dissipated, but your task was too important, so you took your chances on the cliff walk regardless. It was so dark. Why hadn’t Barclay or Holcroft lit the beacon? In the two years since beginning your apprenticeship you had never known the Regulators to neglect their duties. On the contrary, you found them to be slavishly by the book. “Routine begets knowledge,” Barclay once told you. (He had obviously never cleaned the septic tank every month for two straight years).

When, at last, you reached the courtyard entrance, something even stranger happened. You began to feel suddenly and inexplicably weak, as though the very life were being drawn from your bones. You had eaten well on the train journey from the Commission’s headquarters in the capital city, and passed your last physical with glowing colors, yet you felt as though you were at death’s door.

You had to see Holcroft. He, perhaps, could explain....

Colm McCarthy’s The Light: Shelby’s Addendum is another game that’s better than its ambiguously pretentious name. You play the eponymous Shelby, a junior — very junior — apprentice in a lonely lighthouse that provides more than just illumination: its beam maintains a delicate balance between our reality and other, alternate planes of existence. The hows and wherefores of its functioning are never explained all that well; ditto just when and where this story is supposed to be taking place. (We’re definitely on the Earth, probably in the near future, but is this our Earth or an alternate Earth?) In the end, the vagueness matters not a whit. A more thorough explanation would only interfere with the game’s atmosphere of mysterious Lovecraftian dread. You can almost smell the fetid seaside air as you play.

As the game opens, you’re returning to your post from a much-deserved holiday, only to find the lighthouse and even the village near it devoid of their usual inhabitants. Worse, the beacon itself has gone haywire, and the multiverse is slipping out of harmony as a result, producing unsettling effects all around you. Exploring the environs, you turn up evidence of the all-too-human disputes that gave rise to this slow-moving cosmic disaster. It looks like you are the only one who can correct the fault in our stars.

A big, lavish game, carefully written and implemented in most ways, The Light does from time to time trade in its polished personality for a more ramshackle old-school feel. If you don’t solve a pivotal puzzle within the first 100 turns — and you almost certainly won’t the first time through — it’s game over, thanks for playing. And there’s a mid-game submarine ride where the atmosphere suddenly changes from Lovecraftian dread to a scene straight out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Like most reviewers, I can only shake my head at this bit’s existence and wonder what the heck McCarthy was thinking.

Still, such breakdowns are very much the exception to the rule here. I’m nonplussed by some reviewers’ struggles with the puzzles; I solved the entire game without a hint, a feat which I’m happy to consider a testament to good design rather than any genius on my part. I’m kind of bummed that the sequel Colm McCarthy promises us in his denouement has never materialized. I’d love to know whether poor Shelby finally got a promotion after saving the multiverse and all.


Another day, another dollar! Life is good at the moment, the property market is booming. Still, it does have its down side; when showing those Mulluer Corporation executives around that old theatre dump, err, opportunity you must have left your pager down in the basement. Better hurry, you have to meet the others at the opera in an hour, and be careful. It wouldn’t do to show up with your clothes all dirty.

Brendon Wyber’s “interactive night of horror” Theatre does us the favor of including its inspiration right in the game itself. As Wyber writes in his introduction, he made Theatre after reading an allegedly true haunted-house story by Joel Furr, one of the early Internet’s more prominent online characters, whose claims to fame include popularizing the term “spam.” Furr’s story, which is readable in its entirety via an in-game menu, is riveting whether you choose to go on to play said game itself or not. It involves the Lyric Theatre of Blacksburg, Virginia, a rambling old place stemming from 1930 that has been restored and is enjoying a new lease on life today, but was at its lowest ebb when Furr made its acquaintance in the early 1990s. As a Kiwi, Wyber had never been to the Lyric, yet that didn’t stop him from using Furr’s description of it as the basis for the setting if not the plot of his game.

You play a yuppie real-estate agent who rushes back inside the old theater he’s trying to unload to retrieve his forgotten pager — this is the 1990s, after all! — only to emerge again to find his car stolen. Rather than venturing out into the seedy neighborhood around the theater on foot, you opt to spend the night inside. Let the haunting begin…

Our frustrations with the medium understandably cause us to spend a lot of time talking about the things that textual interactive fiction, and adventure games in general for that matter, struggle to do well. For better or for worse, we tend to spend less time on the medium’s natural strengths. I’ll just note here, then, that setting must top any list of same. All of the games I’ve featured in this piece make this point, but none do it better than this one. Its name is no misnomer: the theater truly is this game’s main attraction. Its geography expands slowly and organically as you solve puzzles to open up new areas; there’s always some new cranny or crawlspace to uncover in the building, always some new aspect of its sinister history to bring to light. And it’s a fresh spine-shivering delight every time you do.

Before you become a full-fledged participant in the proceedings, you learn about the horror story at the center of it all through the journal pages you discover as you worm your way deeper and deeper into the theater’s bowels, deeper and deeper into its past. I must say that I like the first two-thirds of the game best, when it has a Gothic flavor in complete harmony with Joel Furr’s story. In time, however, it goes full Lovecraft, and not even in the relatively understated way of The Light. Still, one can’t accuse Wyber of pulling any punches; the big climax is as exciting as you could ask for.

Through it all, the real star remains the theater itself, whose faded elegance and delicious decay will remain with you long after you’ve exorcised the malevolent spirits that roam its spaces. You might want to save this one for Halloween.


New Year's Eve, 1999, a quarter to midnight and where else to be but Century Park! Fireworks cascade across the sky, your stomach rumbles uneasily, music and lasers howl across the parkland... Not exactly your ideal party (especially as that rather attractive stranger in black has slipped back into the crowds) - but cheer up, you won't live to see the next.

As the follow-up to his two-year-old Curses, Graham Nelson’s “interactive history” Jigsaw was the most hotly anticipated text adventure of 1995. This game is even bigger than Curses — so big that Nelson had to employ a new, post-Infocom incarnation of the Z-Machine, a version 8 standard with the ability to handle story files of up to 512 K in size, in order to run the full version.[2]Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file. Although it will never be able to compete with its predecessor in terms of its importance to the history of its medium, in this critic’s opinion Jigsaw is the more accessible and enjoyable of the two games to play today.

It definitely doesn’t lack for ambition. Written just as millennial jitters were beginning to find a home in the minds of many of us, it’s a time-travel caper focusing on the horrible, magnificent century that was about to pass away, ranging in time and space from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the day of the Wright brothers’ first flight to Berlin on the day the Wall came down. The principal antagonist and possible love interest — a timeline-wrecking “rather attractive stranger” of indeterminate gender, whom the game refers to only as “Black” after his or her choice of wardrobe — is misguided rather than evil, attempting to alleviate some of the century’s many injustices rather than bring on any apocalypse. But such retroactive changes are out of our mortal purview, of course, and can only lead to worse tragedies. “The time is out of joint,” as Hamlet said. Now, it’s up to you to set it right.

The amount of research required for the game’s fourteen historical vignettes was considerable to say the least — and that before a universe of information was only a visit to Wikipedia away, when one still had to go to brick-and-mortar libraries with printed encyclopedias on their shelves. Nelson doesn’t always get every detail correct: I could nitpick that the Titanic was actually not the first ship in history to send an SOS distress signal, for example, or note that his depiction of the Beatles of 1967 (“lurching wildly from one project to the next, hardly collaborating, always arguing”) seems displaced in time by at least a year.[3]Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on… Likewise, he’s sometimes a bit too eager to place ironic twists on the things we learned in our grade-school history classes. In light of what Nelson took on here, though, we can forgive him for all of this. He does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of each historical event. I also appreciate that his choices of historical linchpins aren’t always the obvious ones. For every voyage aboard a Titanic, there’s a visit to the cork-lined Parisian flat of Marcel Proust; for every trip to the Moon, there’s a sojourn in the filthy and disorganized laboratory of Alexander Fleming, the luckiest microbiologist who ever lived.

The episodic structure keeps Jigsaw manageable despite its overall sprawl, in marked contrast to Curses. Nelson, who had been thinking and writing seriously about design since his first game, went so far as to include a helpful little gadget which can alert you as to whether you’re leaving behind anything vital in each time period. Meanwhile the puzzles themselves are never less than solid, and are often inspired. One of them, in which you must decode a secret message using an only slightly simplified example of the German Enigma machines from the Second World War, has justly gone down in interactive-fiction lore as one of the best ever. Like so much of Jigsaw, it teaches even as it intrigues and entertains. I missed an important clue when I played through the game recently, which made this particular puzzle much harder than it was supposed to be. No worries — I enjoyed my two or three hours as a member of Alan Turing’s legendary team immensely, and positively jumped for joy when I finally produced a clear, cogent message from a meaningless scramble of letters.

My one real design complaint is the endgame, which takes place in a surreal fantasy landscape of the sort we’ve seen in too many other adventure games already. It feels both extraneous and thoroughly out of keeping with what has come before — and too darn hard to boot. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: by the time an adventurer reaches the endgame, especially of a work of this size, she just wants to be made to feel smart once or twice more and then to win. The designer’s job is to oblige her rather than to try to make himself feel smart. I must confess that I broke down and used hints for the endgame of Jigsaw, after solving the entirety of the rest of the game all by myself.

But the frustration of the endgame pales before the other delights on offer here. Nelson would never attempt a game of this size and scope again, making Jigsaw only that much more worth cherishing. Curses may be his most important game, but by my lights Jigsaw is his masterpiece.


Graham Nelson on Jigsaw

Curses had been written under the spell of the great cave games – Colossal Cave, Zork, Acheton. Games delving into a miscellany of doors, light puzzles, collection puzzles, and the like. Games written incrementally which ended up with epic, sprawling maps, but which started out only as entertainments written for friends. Each of those things is true about Curses as well.

But not Jigsaw. Once again Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker were the playtesters and de-facto editors, and the two games were recognisably from the same stable. There are many similarities, even down to having a one-word title, which I liked because it meant that the filename on an FTP server would likely be the whole title. It was always going to be a Z-machine story file once again, written with Inform. And it was playable under the same .z5 format as Curses, though I also offered a sort of director’s cut version with some extra annotation using the new .z8 format. (This was a sneaky way to try to persuade interpreter-writers to adopt .z8, which I worried people might think bogus and non-canonical, and so would not implement.)

Unlike Curses, though, Jigsaw was conceived holistically, had a rigorous plan, and was meant for the public rather than for friends. I set out to make the sort of rounded cultural artefact which middle-period Infocom might have offered — Dave Lebling’s Spellbreaker and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are the obvious antecedents, but not the only ones. (Let me also praise Mike Dornbrook here, who was instrumental in making those games into clearly delineated works.) Those mature works of Infocom were satisfying to start, and satisfying to finish, and distinctive from each other. Infocom wasn’t big on historical settings (a shame that Stu Galley never completed his draft about the Boston of 1776), but in presentation, Jigsaw wouldn’t look out of place in their catalogue. In that sense, it’s rather derivative, even imitative, but this wasn’t seen as an eccentric or retro choice at the time; more of a mark of quality. But in any case, Jigsaw had other ambitions as well, and it’s on those other ambitions that it stands or falls.

Jigsaw strains to be a work of art, and though the strain shows from time to time, I think it mostly gets there. There are little embedded prose poems, generally at hinges in the story. Certain images – the nightjar, for example – are suggestive rather than explicated. There is also something a little poetic — and here I’m perhaps thinking more of the modernism of Ezra Pound’s cantos than of his more famous friend Eliot — about the interleaving of old formulations, old turns of speech. Jigsaw plays on the tantalising way that past times were so confident at being themselves. Nobody using an Apollo Guidance Computer thought of it as twee or retro. And you could say the same about a tram-ticket or a gas lamp, things that people used without a second thought. We have absolute confidence only about our own present moment, while the past seems hazy and uncertain. But the people who lived in that past felt exactly the same about their own present moments. For historical fiction to work, it has to side with them, not with us.

And on the other hand, while it is a modernist impulse to clash the old and the new, it’s a Romantic one to re-enact the old, to imaginatively take part in it. I’ve always liked the biographer Richard Holmes’s observation that to write a biography is an inherently Romantic act.

As I wrote Jigsaw in 1995, the twentieth century was coming to a relatively placid end — I hope anyone caught up in the Yugoslav civil wars will forgive me writing that. It was zeitgeisty to see the story of the age as being mostly done, even with a few years still to go. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992) was less sceptically received at the time than its later reputation might suggest. People were already gathering and tidying up the twentieth century. So I wasn’t the only one to jump the gun in writing about it.

Jigsaw has a classical IF structure, with a prologue, a middle game, and an end game. Less conventionally, a form of the end game – an area called “The Land” – is seen in a ghostly way throughout, while the middle game is divided into a grid of what amount to mini-games. Notably, these have named chapter headings.

The prologue takes place on the final night of 1999, on the margins of a public festival. I anticipated an event at a London park, and that was indeed the English response, though it turned out to be the ultra-modern Millennium Dome at Greenwich (begun in 1997) and not my more Victorian-sounding “Century Park”. The setting has something of the flavour of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but in fact I semi-lifted it from an episode of Charles Chilton’s iconic BBC radio serial Journey into Space. That involved an enigmatic character named Whittaker who had been taken out of normally-running time in 1924 from a London park celebration (“There are special trains from Baker Street”). Other than scene-setting, the prologue’s goal is to make the complex jigsaw mechanism comprehensible. It’s a familiar IF travel-around-the-map mechanism, with the puzzle pieces serving as objects of desire which unlock further play. But at the same time, it is also the game’s organising metaphor. So these mechanics have to seem natural and fun to players. Getting the textual display and command verbs right was a major concern in early play-testing.

With prologue out of the way, we enter the past. Jigsaw claims in its banner to be “an interactive history”, which is awfully bold of it. As we’ve already established, it’s a work of fantasy. But perhaps the claim to be “a history” can just about be made. Attempts to define what that even means — cf. E. H. Carr, “What Is History?”; Richard Evans, “In Defence of History” — end up devoting much of their space just to enumerating lines of approach, after all. Mine is odder than most, but less odd than some. At its crudest, the historian’s choice is between asking “who took what decisions?” and asking “what was life like?”. Is 19th-century Europe the story of Napoleon and Bismarck and Garibaldi, who started wars and redrew maps, or is all of that froth compared to railways, manufacturing, anesthetics, and newspapers? Jigsaw goes the second way, with Lenin being I think the only world leader seen close up.

The Titanic sequence, the first one I wrote, is the one I would now leave out. Rich people drowned, but other rich people took their places, and history wasn’t much dented. Perhaps it left a greater sense of possible catastrophe in the popular imagination, but the Sarajevo 1914 sequence makes that point better anyway. Besides, having an accidental time traveller arrive on the Titanic is a very hackneyed plot device. (I’ve just been dismayed to find from Wikipedia that it’s even the pilot episode plot of Irwin Allen’s spangly TV show The Time Tunnel.) Still, the ocean liner was fun to recreate as a period piece. The bit where a passenger says, “Never mind, worse things happen at sea,” is my favourite joke in the whole game. And researching this did lead to one happy accident. Going through a heap of books and pamphlets in the Bodleian Library, I chanced on something I remembered from somewhere else, and this led to a short paper in the literary-discoveries journal Notes & Queries. That squib of a paper is still occasionally cited, and I was amused to see “Nelson, Graham” back to back with “Nietzsche, Friedrich” in the bibliography of a monograph as a result.

A better choice was the Apollo programme. The lunar module was controlled using VERB and NOUN commands, which made it pleasingly IF-sounding: why not send the player to the moon? I also wanted to have something about the mid-century zenith of big-state action — a world in which Kennedy could just decide that the United States would do something immense, and it would happen. (The Manhattan Project is another example, but Trinity had already done that.) Another take on Apollo would be that it changed our sensibility, forcing us to see ourselves from the outside. The cover art for Jigsaw is the Apollo 8 shot of the earth rising from lunar orbit, maybe the most reproduced photo of the century. But I also tried to evoke Apollo’s troubling sense of abandonment. First steps were last steps. The century’s most powerful civilisation did something astonishing and then just lost interest. To me, the question about the Pyramids is not why the pharaohs built them, but why they stopped.

In fact, even as I wrote, Apollo’s posthumous reputation was beginning a slow comeback. A new generation of geeks devoured Andrew Chaikin’s landmark book A Man on the Moon (1994). Also, the Internet had arrived. In 1995, Eric Jones’s Apollo Lunar Surface Journal became an extremely useful website. I corresponded a little with Eric at the time; he was, tellingly, having trouble finding a publisher. But thanks to his work, the Apollo sequence of Jigsaw — whatever its fantastical additions — is quite true to the actual Taurus-Littrow valley of the moon, and not a grey abstraction.

Fourteen historical vignettes is too many. It was hard to do much in so few rooms and items each, especially as they had to be playable in multiple orders. A fundamentally un-cave-like quality of Jigsaw is that you can’t wander about from era to era, and it is only rarely that something in one era is helpful in another. (Even then, alternative solutions are sometimes provided.) But I worried that the lack of space made these mini-games too easy, and over-compensated with highly convoluted device-based puzzles. Fly your very own B-52! I truly repent of how difficult that sequence is to play.

A happier example was the Enigma machine. I’ve used one in real life, encoding a very short message on a surviving Enigma which belongs to the science writer Simon Singh. Still, this section was really based on the oral histories of Bletchley Park edited by Hinsley and Stripp in 1993; accounts which, a bit madly, had only just been declassified. I imbibed some of the recherché jargon of the codebreakers, who lived in a strangely appealing world of their own. I was very taken with the vulnerability of Enigma, caused by the frequent presence of double letters in German words. One of the myths of Bletchley was that the invention of the computer flat-out defeated Enigma, as if you just had to press a button. It would be fairer to say that the computer made breaking the code just on the edge of what was possible. A certain cunning was still needed, and luck as well. They found ways to make their own luck, but there were also terrible periods when they failed, and when many sailors went to the bottom of the Atlantic as a result. My grandfather served on two Royal Navy convoys to Murmansk, and he was fortunate that those coincided with a good run at Bletchley, though he never knew it. That, and the thought that I might have been there myself if I had been an Oxford maths post-doc in 1942 rather than 1995, made this vignette more personal to me.

Fourteen vignettes is also too few. I chose Marcel Proust and the Beatles as my artists of the century, for example, and with them I had used up the entire space available for cultural history. My fourteen moments have to spread themselves very thinly over a lot of ground, and there is clearly no single or perfect solution to this. Still, Jigsaw has a clear Western bias. I probably should have chosen the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Africa appears only tangentially, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, which has to stand for the whole of postcolonialism. Even then, my main inspiration was Christopher Hampton’s autobiographical play White Chameleon, and Hampton is British. China does not appear at all, which from a 21st-century viewpoint seems very jarring. From the vantage point of 2021, civil rights also look pretty salient, but in 1995 it did not seem that way: the movement for women’s suffrage is all you get. Why no M.L.K.? That now seems very odd, except that I had plenty of the 1960s already. Some potential topics were also dropped just for lack of puzzles about them, or because they didn’t really fit anywhere. Though I don’t know to what extent players were ever aware of it, the connection points on the jigsaw pieces tried to suggest thematic links. The Wright brothers to Apollo, and so on.

Another consideration was, for want of a better word, taste. Fascism seemed mostly done in 1995, but it had clearly been a big part of the story. It isn’t a big part of Jigsaw because, in the end, is there any ethical way to recreate the experience of being massacred for no reason? The Holocaust does have a presence in Jigsaw, but very indirectly. Buried somewhere is a little anecdote about a young Jewish boy in Berlin in the 1930s, who had picked up a shiny badge in the street with no understanding that it was Nazi regalia which he could be killed just for touching – one of the few moments in Jigsaw told to me by an eye-witness, the boy himself, who survived to be a retired professor. What I really did not want to do was to recreate a version of Auschwitz which came with an escape hatch. And then of course Vietnam, Cambodia, the genocide of the Armenian Turks, Kosovo, Rwanda, you name it. Quite the charnal house we made for ourselves, you have to say. In a room of the end game which, if memory serves, was called the Toll Gate, there is a cumulative graph of humans deliberately killed, plotted against time. This graph surges at the World Wars but it certainly isn’t flat in between them.

There are a few other grim moments like that in the endgame, too. The endgame is the strangest part of Jigsaw and probably the least successful. But here’s what I think I was trying for. The Land does partly bring in concerns not tied to specific moments – pollution, for example, though not global warming, which we were all cheerfully ignoring in 1995. (But not now, right? Right?) At the same time, I didn’t want bleakness to dominate, and I wanted to end on brighter, more fantastical colours. There is supposed to be a sort of Eden-like rebirth as another century is coming, with this endgame area as the Garden of that Eden. Underlying all of history, but often invisible from it, there is always the goodness of the world, our one place of happiness. The chapter title for the endgame is “The Living Land”, and it’s about life in opposition to death.

But it is also too fiddly and is not the enjoyable romp I intended it to be. I don’t like the self-indulgent references to past IF games: what are they even for? The extent of the Land was a more understandable mistake — it’s because of the structural obsession of Jigsaw with its key mechanic. Rooms in The Land correspond to the original pieces, but that meant having quite a lot of them, which in turn meant padding out this space with puzzles. In fact, the endgame is so long that it has a little endgame of its own, taking us back to Century Park. But that was absolutely the right way to end. When you are composing a set of variations, finish on a da capo repetition of the original theme.

Finally, whereas Curses has no significant characters other than the protagonist, in Jigsaw the player has a significant other, called Black. In timecop sci-fi novels, the hero generally does battle with a rival time traveller. One tries to rewrite history, the other to keep it on track. Well, that is basically the situation here. Emphasising this, Black is a symbolic and non-human sort of name: White’s opponent in a game. (The Apollo lunar lander shared with Black has the call-sign “Othello”, and this is a reference to the strategy game, not the Shakespeare play.) The neutral name Black also worked better for blurring gender than having to use contrived unisex forenames like Hilary, Pat, or Stevie.

In retrospect, this genderless romance is the main thing people remember about Jigsaw. I wouldn’t make much claim for the depth or solidity of that romantic subplot: but at least it was there, and was something you wouldn’t find in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sort of milieu of most earlier IF. There is even, however glancingly, a presence of sex. That much was deliberate. But when I was writing, the absence of genders seemed just another narrative choice. I wanted a certain universalism, a sort of every-person quality to the player. And I didn’t want some sort of performative nonsense like the barroom scene at the start of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, where you demonstrate your gender by picking a bathroom, but have no way to demonstrate your orientation.

Anyway, this seemed like a statement only after publication, when I began to get rather touching emails from players. I think Jigsaw may have been quite widely played, and this was easily the aspect most responded to. Happy emails were often from women. I did also get a smaller amount of homophobic mail, and that was invariably from men, who reacted as if they’d been catfished.

We easily forget now that in 1995 gay relationships were socially invisible. There were no openly gay characters in The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handful of New York sitcoms were just starting to go there, but for the most part, in popular culture, gay people existed as people with problems. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia in 1993, but it’s a movie about a closeted man with AIDS. Sleepless in Seattle, the same year, could easily have played some non-binary games with its two lovers, since they don’t meet until the very end. But it doesn’t. In the 1990s, romance in popular culture was almost exclusively straight. Nobody thought that odd at the time, and nor did I. I didn’t write a gay romance at all, I simply wrote a romance which was whatever you wanted to imagine it was. I would like to say that the gender games in Jigsaw were a nod to the gradual emancipation of love in the twentieth century. But that was the one thing about Jigsaw which was completely unplanned.

One of those emails I received was from the young Emily Short, though we did not meet for many years, and it was in another century that we married. History is full of surprises.

(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and are playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)


1 For example, Graham Nelson informs us that “the appalling Professor Bungay,” the principal villain of the piece, “is a thinly disguised portrait of [name withheld], a Cambridge tutor, an awful man in a number of respects though not quite so bad as Gareth makes out. There is a wonderful bit where he can be heard gratuitously bullying a history undergraduate, winding up with a line like ‘Perhaps you had better change to Land Economy.’ This was an eccentric Cambridge degree which combined the second sons of the gentry, who would actually have to run large landed estates as their career, with a random selection of hapless students washed out of more high-brow subjects. Switching to Land Economy was Cambridge jargon for failing maths.”
2 Nelson did also provide a version of Jigsaw that could run on older interpreters by moving his historical notes and some other bits to a separate story file.
3 Still less can I agree with his opinion that “a good deal of their music was dross by this stage.” I’ll be the first to argue that the Beatles never made a better album than A Hard Day’s Night, only different ones, but come on…

Posted by on September 3, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Last Works Before the Renaissance

By 1993, textual interactive fiction was reaching the end of the unsettled, uncertain half-decade-and-change between the shuttering of Infocom and the rise of a new Internet-centered community of amateur enthusiasts. Efforts by such collectives as Adventions and High Energy Software to sell text adventures via the shareware model had largely proved unfruitful, while, with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, advertisement and distribution were major problems even for someone willing to release her games for free. The ethos of text and parsers seemed about as divorced as anything could possibly be from the predominant ethos in game development more generally, with its focus on multimedia, full-motion video, and ultra-accessible mouse-driven interfaces. Would text adventures soon be no more than obscure relics of a more primitive past? To an increasing number even of the form’s most stalwart fans, an answer in the affirmative was starting to feel like a foregone conclusion. Few text-adventure authors had serious ambitions of matching the technical or literary quality of Infocom during this period, much less of exceeding it; the issue for the medium right now was one of simple survival. In this atmosphere, the arrival of any new text adventure felt like a victory against the implacable forces of technological change, which had conspired to all but strangle this new literary form before it had even had time to get going properly.

Thankfully, history would later mark 1993 as the year when the seeds of an interactive-fiction rebirth were planted, thanks to an Englishman who repurposed not only the Infocom aesthetic but also Infocom’s own technology in unexpected ways. Those seeds would flower richly in 1995, Year Zero of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance. I’ll begin that story soon.

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about some of the more interesting games to emerge from the final days of the interstitial period — games which actually overlap, although no one could realize it at the time, with the dawning of the modern interactive-fiction community. Indeed, the games I describe below manage to presage some of the themes of that community despite being the products of a text-adventuring culture that still spent more time looking backward than looking forward. I’m fond of all of them in one way or another, and I’m willing to describe at least one of them as a sadly overlooked classic.

The Horror of Rylvania

The hiking trip across Europe has been a wonderful experience for two recent college graduates like yourself and your friend Carolyn. From the mansions of England to the beaches of Greece, you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Crusaders and seen sights that few Americans have ever seen.

Carolyn had wanted to skip the Central European nation of Rylvania. “Why bother?” she’d said. “There’s nothing but farmers there, and creepy old castles - nothing we haven’t seen already. The Rylvanians are still living in the last century.”

That, you’d insisted, was exactly why Rylvania was a must-see. The country was an intact piece of living history, a real treasure in this modern age.

If only you hadn’t insisted! As night fell, as you approached a small farming village in search of a quaint inn to spend the night, the howling began. A scant hundred yards from the village, and it happened...the wolves appeared from the black forest around you and attacked. Big, black wolves that leaped for Carolyn’s throat before you could shout a warning, led by a great gray-black animal that easily stood four feet at the shoulder. Carolyn fell to the rocky path, blood gushing from her neck as the wolves faded back into the trees, unwilling, for some unknown reason, to press their attack.

If she dies, it will be your fault. You curse the darkening sky as you cradle Carolyn’s head, knowing that you have little time to find help. Perhaps in the village up the road to the north.

The Horror of Rylvania marks the last shareware release from Adventions, a partnership between the MIT graduate students Dave Baggett and D.A. Leary which was the most sustained of all efforts to make a real business out of selling interactive fiction during the interstitial period. Doubtless for this reason, the Adventions games are among the most polished of all the text adventures made during this time. They were programmed using the sophisticated TADS development system rather than the more ramshackle AGT, with all the benefits that accrued to such a choice. And, just as importantly, they were thoroughly gone over for bugs as well as spelling and grammar problems, and are free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings that were once par for the course in amateur interactive fiction.

For all that, though, the Adventions games haven’t aged all that well in my eyes. The bulk of them take place in a fantasy land known as Unnkulia, which is trying so hard to ape Zork‘s Great Underground Empire that it’s almost painful to watch. In addition to being derivative, the Unnkulia games think they’re far more clever and hilarious than they actually are — the very name of the series/world is a fine case in point — while the overly fiddly gameplay can sometimes grate almost as much as the writing.

It thus made for a welcome change when Adventions, after making three and a half Unnkulia games, finally decided to try something else. Written by D.A. Leary, The Horror of Rylvania is more plot-driven than Adventions’s earlier games, a Gothic vampire tale in which you actually become a vampire not many turns in. It’s gone down in certain circles as a minor classic, for reasons that aren’t totally unfounded. Although the game has a few more potential walking-dead scenarios than is perhaps ideal, the puzzles are otherwise well-constructed, the implementation is fairly robust, and, best of all, most of the sophomoric attempts at humor that so marked Adventions’s previous games are blessedly absent.

That said, the end result still strikes me more as a work of craftsmanship than genius. The writing has been gone over for spelling and grammar without addressing some of its more deep-rooted problems, as shown even by the brief introduction above; really, now, have “few Americans ever seen” sights advertised in every bog-standard package tour of Europe? (Something tells me Leary hadn’t traveled much at the time he wrote this game.) The writing here has some of the same problems with tone as another Gothic horror game from 1993 set in an ersatz Romania: Quest for Glory IV. It wants to play the horror straight most of the time, and is sometimes quite effective at it — the scene of your transformation from man to vampire is particularly well-done — but just as often fails to resist the centrifugal pull which comedy has on the adventure-game genre.

Still, Horror of Rylvania is the Adventions game which plays best today, and it isn’t a bad choice for anyone looking for a medium-sized old-school romp with reasonably fair puzzles. Its theme adds to its interest; horror in interactive fiction tends to hew more to either H.P. Lovecraft or zombie movies than the Gothic archetypes which Horror of Rylvania intermittently manages to nail. Another extra dimension of interest is added by the ending, which comes down to a binary choice between curing your friend Carolyn from the curse of vampirism, which entails sacrificing yourself in the process, or curing yourself and letting Carolyn sod off. As we’ll shortly see, the next and last Adventions game perhaps clarifies some of the reasons for such a moral choice’s inclusion at the end of a game whose literary ambitions otherwise don’t seem to extend much beyond being a bit of creepy fun.

The Jeweled Arena

You let out a sigh of relief as you finish the last paper. “That’s the lot.”

“Good work, ma’am,” says Regalo, your squire. “I was almost afraid we’d be here until midnight.”

“Don’t worry, Regalo, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, especially on my first healthy day after the flu. In any case, Dora wants me home by eight. The papers look dry, so you can take them to Clara’s office.”

As Regalo carries the papers to the adjoining office, you stand up and stretch your aching muscles. You then look through the window and see a flash of lightning outside. It looks like quite a storm is brewing.

“I’m beginning to think my calendar is set wrong,” you say as Regalo returns. “Dibre’s supposed to be cool, dry, and full of good cheer; so far, we’ve had summer heat, constant rain, and far too many death certificates. Perhaps this storm will blow out the heat.”

“I hope it blows out the plague with it, ma’am. I’ve lost three friends already, and my wife just picked it up yesterday. No one likes it when the coroner’s staff is overworked.”

“It doesn’t help that Clara and Resa are both still sick. If we’re lucky, we’ll have Resa back tomorrow, which I’m sure your feet would appreciate. I presume Ernando and Miranda have already left for the day?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now I’m really worried. The only thing worse than being the victim of one of Miranda’s pranks is going a day without one of her pranks -– it usually means you missed something. Perhaps she decided to be discrete [sic] for a change.”

“I didn’t get the impression her sense of humor was taking the day off, but I don’t know what she did. It can wait until tomorrow. Is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?”

Written by David S. Raley, The Jeweled Arena was the co-winner of what would turn out to be the last of the annual competitions organized by AGT’s steward, David M. Malmberg, before he released the programming language as freeware and stepped away from further involvement with the interactive-fiction community. Set in a fantasy world, but a thankfully non-Zorkian and non-Tolkienesque one, it’s both an impressive piece of world-building and a game of unusual narrative ambition for its time.

In fact, the world of Valdalan seems like it must have existed in the author’s head for a long time before this game was written. The environment around you has the feeling of being rooted in far more lore and history than is explicitly foregrounded in the text, always the mark of first-class world-building. As far as I can tell from the text, Valdalan is roughly 17th-century in terms of its science and technology, but is considerably more enlightened philosophically. Interestingly, magic seems to have no place here, making it almost more of an alternative reality than a conventional fantasy milieu.

The story takes place in the city of Kumeran as it’s in the throes of a plague — a threat which is, like so much else in this game, handled with more subtlety than you might expect. The plot plays out in four chapters, during each of which you play the role of a different character. The first chapter is worthy of becoming a footnote in interactive-fiction history at the very least, in that it casts you as one half of a lesbian couple. In later years, certain strands of interactive fiction — albeit more of the hypertext than the parser-driven type — would become a hotbed of advocacy for non- hetero-normative lifestyles. The Jeweled Arena has perhaps aged better in this respect than many of those works have (or will); it presents its lesbian protagonist in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way, neither turning her into an easy villain or victim, as an earlier game might have done, nor celebrating her as a rainbow-flag-waving heroine, as a later game might have done. She’s just a person; the game takes it as a given that she’s worthy of exactly the same level of respect as any of the rest of us. In 1993, this matter-of-fact attitude toward homosexuality was still fairly unusual. Raley deserves praise for it.

Unfortunately, The Jeweled Arena succeeds better as a place and a story than it does as a game, enough so that one is tempted to ask why Raley elected to present it in the form of a text adventure at all. He struggles to come up with things for you to really do as you wander the city. This tends to be a problem with a lot of interactive fiction where the puzzles aren’t the author’s primary focus; A Mind Forever Voyaging struggles to some extent with the same issue when it sends you wandering through its own virtual city. But The Jeweled Arena, which doesn’t have a mechanic like A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s commandment to observe and record to ease its way, comes off by far the worse of the two. Most of the tasks it sets before you are made difficult not out of  authorial intention but due to poor authorial prompting and the inherent limitations of AGT. In other words, first you have to figure out what non-obvious trigger the game is looking for to advance the plot a beat, and then you have to figure out the exact way the parser wants you to say it. This constant necessity to read the author’s mind winds up spoiling what could have been an enjoyable experience, and makes The Jeweled Arena a game that can truly be recommended only to those with an abiding interest in text-adventure history or the portrayal of homosexuality in interactive media. A pity — with more testing and better technology, it could have been a remarkable achievement.


You are standing at the top of an ocean bluff. Wind is whipping through your hair and blowing your voluminous black cape out behind you. You can hear the hiss of the surf crashing far below you. Out towards the horizon, a distant storm sends flickers of lightning across the darkening sky. The last rays of the setting sun reflect red off the windows of the grey stone mansion to the East. As you turn towards the house, you catch a glimpse of a haunting face in one of the windows. That face, you will never forget that face......

> wait
The surf and cliffs fade from sight............

You awake to find yourself in your living room,lying on the couch. Your cat, Klaus, is chewing and pulling on your hair. Static is hissing from the TV, as the screen flickers on a station long off the air. You look at your watch and realize that it is 3 AM.

You must have fallen asleep on the couch right after you got home from work, and settled down to read the newspaper.

I noted earlier that the Adventions games are “free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings” that mark most early amateur interactive fiction. That statement applies equally to The Jeweled Arena, but not at all to Carol Hovick’s Klaustrophobia. The other winner of the final AGT competition, its personality could hardly be more different from its partner on the podium. This is a big, rambling, jokey game that’s anything but polished. And yet it’s got an unpretentious charm about it, along with puzzles that turn out to be better than they first seem like they’re going to be.

What Klaustrophobia lacks in polish or literary sophistication, it attempts to make up for in sheer sprawl. It’s actually three games in one — so big that, even using the most advanced and least size-constrained version of AGT, Hovick was forced to split it into three parts, gluing them together with some ingenious hacks that are doubtless horrifying in that indelible AGT way to any experienced programmer. The three parts together boast a staggering 560 rooms and 571 objects, making Klaustrophobia easily one of the largest text adventures ever created.

Like the Unnkulia series and so much else from the interstitial period, Klaustrophobia is hugely derivative of the games of the 1980s. The story and puzzles here draw heavily from Infocom’s Bureaucracy, which is at least a more interesting choice than yet another Zork homage. You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to appear on a quiz show, but first you have to get there; this exercise comes to absorb the first third of the game. Then, after you’ve made the rounds of not one but several quiz shows in the second part, part three sends you off to “enjoy” the Mexican vacation you’ve won. As a member of that category of text adventure which the Interactive Fiction Database dubs the “slice of life,” the game has that time-capsule quality I’ve mentioned before as being such a fascinating aspect of amateur interactive fiction. Klaustrophobia is a grab bag of pop-culture ephemera from the United States of 1993: Willard Scott, Dolly Parton, The Price is Right. If you lived through this time and place, you might just find it all unbearably nostalgic. (Why do earlier eras of history almost invariably seem so much happier and simpler?) And if you didn’t… well, there are worse ways to learn about everyday American life in 1993, should you have the desire to do so, than playing through this unforced, agenda-less primary source.

The puzzles are difficult in all the typical old-school ways: full of time limits, requiring ample learning by death. Almost inevitably given the game’s premise, they sometimes fail to fall on the right side of the line between being comically aggravating and just being aggravating. And the game is rough around the edges in all the typical AGT ways: under-tested (a game this large almost has to be) and haphazardly written, and subject to all the usual frustrations of the AGT parser and world model. Yet, despite it all, the author’s design instincts are pretty good; most of the puzzles are clued if you’re paying attention. Many of them involve coming to understand and manipulate some surprisingly complex dynamic sequences taking place around you. The whole experience is helped immensely by the episodic structure which exists even within each of the three parts: you go from your home to the bank to the airport, etc., with each vignette effectively serving as its own little self-contained adventure game. This structure lets Klaustrophobia avoid the combinatorial explosion that can make such earlier text-adventure epics as Acheton and Zork Zero all but insoluble. Here, you can work out a single episode, then move on to the next at your leisure with a nice sense of achievement in your back pocket — as long, of course, as you haven’t left anything vital behind.

Klaustrophobia is a game that I regard with perhaps more affection that I ought to, given its many and manifest flaws. While much of my affection may be down to the fact that it was one of the first games I played when I rediscovered interactive fiction around the turn of the millennium, I like to believe this game has more going for it than nostalgia. It undoubtedly requires a certain kind of player, but, whether taken simply as a text adventure or as an odd sort of sociological study — a frozen-in-amber relic of its time and place — it’s not without its intrinsic appeal. Further, it strikes me as perfect for its historical role as the final major statement made with AGT; something more atypically polished and literary, such as Shades of Gray or even Cosmoserve, just wouldn’t work as well in that context. Klaustrophobia‘s more messy sort of charm, on the other hand, feels like the perfect capstone to this forgotten culture of text adventuring, whose games were more casual but perhaps in some ways more honest because of it.

The Legend Lives!

A pattern of bits shifts inside your computer. New information scrolls up the screen.

It is not good.

As the impact of the discovery settles on your psyche, you recall the preceding events: your recent enrollment at Akmi Yooniversity; your serendipitous discovery of the joys of Classical Literature – a nice change of pace from computer hacking; your compuarchaeological discovery of the long-forgotten treasures that will make your thesis one of the most important this decade. But now that’s all a bit moot, isn’t it?

How ironic: You were stunned at how *real* the primitive Unnkulian stories seemed. Now you know why.

David Baggett’s The Legend Lives! is the only game on this curated list that dates from 1994, the particularly fallow year just before the great flowering of 1995. The very last production of the Adventions partnership, it was originally planned as another shareware title, but was ultimately released for free, a response to the relatively tepid registration rate of Advention’s previous games. Having conceived it as nothing less than a Major Statement meant to prod the artistic growth of a nascent literary medium, Baggett stated that he wished absolutely everyone to have a chance to play his latest game.

Ironically, the slightly uncomfortable amalgamation that is The Legend Lives! feels every bit as of-its-time today as any of the less artistically ambitious text adventures I’ve already discussed in this article. Set in the far future of Adventions’s Unnkulia universe, it reads like a checklist of what “literary” interactive fiction circa 1994 might be imagined to require.

There must, first and foremost, be lots and lots of words for something to be literary, right? Baggett has this covered… oh, boy, does he ever. The first room description, for the humble dorm room of the university student you play, consists of six substantial paragraphs — two or three screenfuls of text on the typical 80-column monitor displays of the day. As you continue to play, every object mentioned anywhere, no matter how trivial, continues to be described to within an inch of its life. While Baggett’s dedication is admirable, these endless heaps of verbiage do more to confuse than edify, especially in light of the fact that this game is, despite its literary aspirations, far from puzzleless. There’s a deft art to directing the player’s attention to the things that really matter in a text adventure — an art which this game comprehensively fails to exhibit. And then there are the massive non-interactive text dumps, sometimes numbering in the thousands of words, which are constantly interrupting proceedings. Sean Molley, reviewing the game in the first gush of enthusiasm which accompanied its release, wrote that “I certainly don’t mind reading 10 screens of text if it helps to advance the story and give me something to think about.” I suspect that most modern players wouldn’t entirely agree. The Legend Lives! is exhausting enough in its sheer verbosity to make you long for the odd minimalist poetry of Scott Adams. “Ok, too dry. Fish die” starts looking pretty good after spending some time with this game.

And yet, clumsy and overwrought though the execution often is, there is a real message here — one I would even go so far as to describe as thought-provoking. The Legend Lives! proves to be an old-school cyberpunk tale — another thing dating it indelibly to 1994 — about a computer virus that has infected Unnkulia’s version of the Internet and threatens to take over the entirety of civilization. The hero that emerges and finally sacrifices himself to eliminate the scourge is known mostly by his initials: “JC.” He’s allegedly an artificial intelligence, but he’s really, it would seem, an immaculate creation, a divinity living in the net. An ordinary artificial intelligence, says one character, “is smart with no motivation, no goals; no creativity, ya see. JC, he’s like us.” What we have here, folks, is an allegory. I trust that I need not belabor the specific parallels with another famous figure who shares the same initials.

But I don’t wish to trivialize the message here too much. It’s notable that this argument for a non-reductionist view of human intelligence — for a divine spark to the human mind that can’t be simulated in silicon — was made by a graduate student in MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab, working in the very house built by Marvin Minsky and his society of mind. Whatever one’s feelings about the Christian overtones to Baggett’s message, his impassioned plea that we continue to allow a place for the ineffable has only become more relevant in our current age of algorithmization and quantization.

Like all of the Adventions games, this one has been virtually forgotten today, despite being widely heralded upon its release as the most significant work of literary interactive fiction to come along since A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. That’s a shame. Yes, writers of later text adventures would learn to combine interactivity with literary texture in more subtle and effective ways, but The Legend Lives! is nevertheless a significant way station in the slow evolution of post-Infocom interactive fiction, away from merely reflecting the glory of a storied commercial past and toward becoming a living, evolving artistic movement in its own right.

Perdition’s Flames

*** You have died. ***

All is dark and quiet. There is no sensation, no time. Your mind floats peacefully in a void. You perceive nothing, you feel nothing, you think nothing. Sleep without dreams.

All is hazy and gray. Sensation is vague and indistinct. Your mind is sluggish, sleepy. You see gray shapes in a gray fog; you hear distant, muffled sounds. You think, but your thoughts are fleeting, disconnected, momentary flashes of light in a dark night. Time is still frames separated by eons of nothing, brief awakenings in a long sleep.

All is clear and sharp. Sensation crystalizes from a fog. You see, you hear, you feel. Your mind awakens; you become aware of a place, and a time.

You are on a boat.

Last but far from least, we come to the real jewel of this collection, a game which I can heartily recommend to everyone who enjoys text adventures. Perdition’s Flames was the third game written by Mike Roberts, the creator of the TADS programming language. While not enormous in the way of Klaustrophobia, it’s more than substantial enough in its own right, offering quite a few hours of puzzling satisfaction.

The novel premise casts you as a soul newly arrived in Hell. (Yes, just as you might expect, there are exactly 666 points to score.) Luckily for you, however, this is a corporate, postmodern version of the Bad Place. “Ever since the deregulation of the afterlife industry,” says your greeter when you climb off the boat, “we’ve had to compete with Heaven for eternal souls — because you’re free to switch to Heaven at any time. So, we’ve been modernizing! There really isn’t much eternal torment these days, for example. And, thanks to the Environmental Clean-up Superfund, we have the brimstone problem mostly under control at this point.”

As the game continues, there’s a lot more light satire along those lines, consistently amusing if not side-splittingly funny. Finishing the whole thing will require solving lots and lots of puzzles, which are varied, fair, and uniformly enjoyable. In fact, I number at least one of them among the best puzzles I’ve ever seen. (For those who have already played the game: that would be the one where you’re a ghost being pursued by a group of paranormal researchers.)

Although Perdition’s Flames is an old-school puzzlefest in terms of categorization, it’s well-nigh breathtakingly progressive in terms of its design sensibility. For this happens to be a text adventure — the first text adventure ever, to my knowledge — which makes it literally impossible for you to kill yourself (after all, you are already dead) or lock yourself out of victory. It is, in other words, the Secret of Monkey Island of interactive fiction, an extended proof that adventure games without deaths or dead ends can nevertheless be intriguing, challenging, and immensely enjoyable. Roberts says it right there in black and white:

Note that in Perdition’s Flames, in contrast to many other adventure games, your character never gets killed, and equally importantly, you’ll never find yourself in a position where it’s impossible to finish the game. You have already seen the only “*** You have died ***” message in Perdition’s Flames. As a result, you don’t have to worry as much about saving game positions as you may be accustomed to.

I can’t emphasize enough what an astonishing statement that is to find in a text adventure from 1993. Perdition’s Flames and its author deserve to be celebrated for making it every bit as much as we celebrate Monkey Island and Ron Gilbert.

Yet even in its day Perdition’s Flames was oddly overlooked in proportion to its size, polish, and puzzly invention alone, much less the major leap it represents toward an era of fairer, saner text adventures. And this even as the merciful spirit behind the humble statement above, found buried near the end of the in-game instructions, was destined to have much more impact on the quality of the average player’s life than all of the literary pretensions which The Legend Lives! so gleefully trumpets.

Roberts’s game was overshadowed most of all by what would go down in history as the text adventure of 1993: Graham Nelson’s Curses!. Said game is erudite, intricate, witty, and sometimes beautifully written — and runs on Infocom’s old Z-Machine, which constituted no small part of its appeal in 1993. But it’s also positively riddled with the types of sudden deaths and dead ends which Perdition’s Flames explicitly eschews. You can probably guess which of the pair holds up better for most players today.

So, as we prepare to dive into the story of how Curses! came to be, and of how it turned into the seismic event which revitalized the near-moribund medium of interactive fiction and set it on the path it still travels today, do spare a thought for Perdition’s Flames as well. While Curses! was the first mover that kicked the modern interactive-fiction community into gear, Perdition’s Flames, one might argue, is simply the first work of modern interactive fiction, full stop. All of its contemporaries, Curses! included, seem regressive next to its great stroke of genius. Go forth and play it, and rejoice. An Interactive Fiction Renaissance is in the offing.

(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)


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The Text Adventures of 1991

Coming exactly halfway between the shuttering of Infocom and the release of Graham Nelson’s landmark epic Curses, 1991 was the most exciting year of the little-remembered interstitial between interactive fiction’s commercial era and its supposed rebirth as an endeavor of dedicated hobbyists. The games of 1991 show what a misnomer the word “rebirth” really is in this case; the text adventure never actually went away at all. The tools available to amateur authors were certainly rougher than they would be in years to come, design standards as well less thought-through, but the fact remains that not a single year has gone by since Adventure first took the computing world by storm in 1977 when at least one or two worthy text adventures haven’t been written. In fact, hobbyists did considerably better than that in 1991. Amidst its blizzard of activity, that year yielded the four games I’ll be writing about today: two classics, one enjoyable journeyman, and one heart-breaker which came that close to being one of the finest text adventures ever written. Not bad for a dead form, eh?


It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

As a self-employed computer consultant, working at home was the logical decision: no more long commutes, no expensive office to lease, no boss. Unfortunately you also have no secretary, no janitor and no weekends. Your living room has become a glorified break room and your only human contact is by Electronic Mail.

Thank God for your computer.

It is 3:30pm on Friday the 7th of September, 2001. Everyone else in your time zone is finishing up work and looking forward to a relaxing evening. But you, R.J. Wright, overtired undernourished overeager programmer that you are, have promised to deliver a finished program to a client by 8:00 tomorrow morning.

Time to get to work....

I’ve always been entranced by the personal aspect of so many vintage text adventures of the amateur stripe. In this respect, they stand apart from almost all other games of their era, which preferred to emphasize the science-fictional, the fantastical, the epic. Even when those other games aren’t demanding that we leave the world we know for some strange new one, they almost always prefer the macro to the micro: wars and battles lost and won, the rise and fall of civilizations, the grand sweep of history. But text adventures, by contrast, can give us an intimate view of a single person’s life, whether said life be that of a PhD student at Harvard or a community-theater volunteer in a small California town. To state the case in literary terms, these are the quieter novels of ordinary people that, for some of us at least, become far more interesting than the latest swords-and-sorcery doorstops as we get older.

Cosmoserve, a game written in AGT by a Celtic harpist and sociologist-to-be named Judith Pintar, has the added advantage of providing a window into a world I’ve just spent the last two months on this blog doing my level best to capture: that of the commercial online services of the 1980s and early 1990s, which pioneered so much of what has since become daily life on the Internet. The game’s title is of course playing on that of CompuServe, the most popular of these services for well over a decade, and a service to which Pintar herself was an active subscriber for many years.

Cosmoserve is ostensibly set in 2001, but we can’t award Pintar too many points for her skill at prognostication. She manages to simultaneously underrate and overrate the pace of technological change to come. In her version of 2001, the wide-open World Wide Web never came along to bury the closed ghettos of the commercial online services, Windows never entirely replaced MS-DOS, and Intel never abandoned their old “x86” nomenclature for their microprocessors. And yet, at the same time that Pintar’s fictional universe was progressing more slowly than ours in all these respects, full-on online virtual realities — the sort of thing that’s just starting to become imaginable for us in 2017 — had already become a thing there by 2001.

But then, prognostication isn’t the point of Cosmoserve. Rather than an extrapolation about computing’s future, what you’re actually getting here is a gentle satire of the computing present which Pintar knew as she was writing the game. If you were already a computer freak in 1991, you’ll find yourself chuckling at things that are barely remembered today but were a major feature of the landscape of those times. For instance, do you remember the way that Intel, thanks no doubt to some marketing genius of an MBA inside the company, used to release crippled “SX” versions of their latest chips — versions that in some cases actually performed worse than the chips of the previous generation? I barely did myself, until Pintar reminded me:

This is the newly-released Orfland 786SX. Most of the advanced features of the revolutionary 786 chip were factory-disabled for the SX model: it hasn't got enough memory to run a graphical interface and it chugs along at about 12Mhz, but hey, its still a 786!

The plot of Cosmoserve is a classic shaggy-dog story in text-adventure form, the same approach that would be used to more famous effect by Curses two years later. Playing the role of a harried free-lance computer consultant, you need to get a patch for Turbo Pascal — another blast from computing’s past; the Borland product was by far the most popular development tool in the world in 1991 — in order to complete an assignment for an important client. You should be able to get the patch on Compu… err, Cosmoserve. It’s when you fire up your computer to go online and fetch it that the game, after having started out as a slice of life set in your own house, begins to show its real cards.

Most of Cosmoserve plays as a simulation of that whizz-bang Orfland 786SX computer of yours. First you’ll have to navigate the DOS prompt to get yourself online; in the some-things-never-change department, remembering your password will pose a particular problem on that front. Then, once you do manage to get online, the simulation extends yet one level deeper, allowing you to roam the Cosmoserve service, visiting forums, chat rooms, file libraries, email — all the things I’ve spent so many recent articles describing — along with a few futuristic touches, like the virtual-reality area, presented in recognition of the fact that we’re allegedly in 2001. It eventually emerges that getting the Turbo Pascal patch and finishing your assignment will first require you to stop a computer virus that threatens to take over the world. For those who aren’t aware: yes, viruses were already a problem in 1991. I really could go on forever about this game’s palimpsest of the familiar and the obscure, how it constantly signals all the ways things have changed in computing and all the way they’ve remained the same.

As a purely technical achievement, Cosmoserve is remarkable, especially considering that Pintar wasn’t an experienced programmer. AGT was by the standards of text-adventure authoring systems to come a very primitive tool indeed, riddled with assumptions about the sorts of games it would be used to create that can be almost impossible to completely override. And yet Cosmoserve manages to push AGT farther out of its comfort zone than any other game I’ve ever seen. If its simulations of DOS, of a terminal program, of CompuServe/Cosmoserve itself — even of a text adventure within this text adventure which you can play from the DOS prompt — aren’t always perfect, they’re far better than they have any right to be.

From the standpoint of the modern player especially, Cosmoserve does have some drawbacks. It’s never an unfair game according to its own old-school lights, but it is a demanding one. If you’ve never used MS-DOS, or have forgotten everything you once knew, you’ll likely have to consult a reference manual in order to get anywhere at all. And you’ll certainly have to pay careful attention and make some notes if you hope to solve this one.

More controversially, Cosmoserve plays on a clock. Timing is tight, you have a lot to do, events happen online at specific times… meaning, yes, this is one of those try-and-try-again games which require you to make a series of losing reconnaissance runs to get the lay of the land before you put everything together for your victory dash. This design approach is absolute anathema to some people; if you’re one of those people, nothing I can say will persuade you otherwise. The good news, though, is that in this case at least I don’t really have to.

Judith Pintar revisited Cosmoserve in 1997, adding some further polish to the experience and, most importantly, greatly easing the time pressure. Which version you choose to play must be a reflection of your own preferences as a player. Personally, having been raised on the Infocom mysteries, I don’t mind the try-and-try-again approach overmuch, if it’s done within reason and if I know what I’m getting into. I thus actually prefer the earlier Cosmoserve, which feels like a purer expression of its designer’s original intent to me. But of course those of you who aren’t as old-school — masochistic? — as me should feel free to go for the later version.

Either way, I think you’ll find the experience worthwhile. Whether considered as a pure gaming challenge or as a cultural artifact of its very specific time and (virtual) place, Cosmoserve has a lot to offer; taken on either terms or both, the wit, humor, and humanity of its author shine through. It was given co-winner status in the 1991 AGT Competition, alongside a more traditional text adventure called The Multi-Dimensional Thief. The latter game, a confusing  mashup of Guild of Thieves and The Wizard of Oz that delights in insulting its player when it isn’t dead-ending her, hasn’t aged very well. Cosmoserve, on the other hand, has only become more essential as the online life it chronicles has faded into oblivion and its time-capsule qualities have come to the fore.

Although either the original or the updated version of Cosmoserve can be played most easily on modern computers using the AGT interpreter AGiliTy, you’ll lose much of the atmosphere provided by occasional sound effects, not to mention MS-DOS’s familiar old green text on a black background. I therefore recommend playing it under the original AGT interpreter, in DOS, to get the full effect. To make that as easy as possible for you, I provide versions of Cosmoserve and Cosmoserve 97 — take your pick — ready to run in the DOSBox emulator. Whether you have a Windows, MacOS, or Linux machine, just install the version of DOSBox for your platform and follow the instructions included in the zip file to get the game going.

The Dungeon of Dunjin

You are in a dark, mysterious and confusing forest. Tall fir-trees form a dark wall around you. A cold wind is blowing from the mountains, and in the far distance you can hear wolves howling. Faint trails lead east and south. To the north the forest seems to continue forever, and to the west the vegetation is so dense that it would be impossible to go in that direction.

If you’re anything like me, you may prefer the idea to the reality of the sprawling text adventures that ran on the big institutional computers of the 1970s. Still some of the largest works ever created in the medium of text and parser, games such as the original Zork and Acheton offer immense worlds of hundreds of locations and almost as many puzzles — worlds to get lost inside for weeks or months. They seem absolutely amazing at first. When you start to play them a little more, though, you come to realize that you just can’t trust these games. Standards of good and bad design simply didn’t exist at the time they were being made, meaning that they tend to be riddled with as many terrible puzzles as brilliant ones.

The Dungeon of Dunjin, written by a Swede named Magnus Olsson over the course of about five years, answers the question of what Zork might have been like if it hadn’t, as Robb Sherwin once so memorably put it, hated its player. The setup is as old-school as it gets: you, the nameless faceless adventurer, have arrived near the entrance to the titular dungeon with treasure on your mind. As you play, another plot line does begin to emerge, but it never feels all that compelling. At bottom, The Dungeon of Dunjin is best accepted as a game about looting a landscape and dropping your spoils in a repository for points — a concept that was beginning to feel a little retro already by the time Infocom left Zork behind in 1983. Olsson’s 1991 backward glance comes complete with a sprawling geography of some 180 rooms, filled with locations that in typically old-school fashion often fail to connect with one another in the expected ways; going south and then going north, in other words, isn’t guaranteed to return you to your starting position. (In light of this, you’ll wind up happy that the game engine doesn’t recognize secondary compass directions like northeast.) Needless to say, light sources, trolls, and dragons figure prominently in the puzzles and plot.

But the thing that separates The Dungeon of Dunjin from its legendary forebears is that all the really annoying old-school nonsense is blessedly missing. Olsson has clearly made a conscious, thoroughgoing effort to design a game that the motivated player can actually win, and without being bored to death by petty logistical problems in the process.

The game engine is home-grown, written in Turbo Pascal. (I did tell you it was everywhere in the early 1990s…) It’s nowhere close to the level of even the PDP-10 Zork, possessing only an extremely basic world model and a parser that’s for the most part limited to two-word verb-noun constructions. Many a designer forced to work with such an engine has wound up stretching it past the breaking point, stumbling into the territory of guess-the-verb puzzles and sheer logical incoherence in an attempt to make a more difficult game than the engine can really support. (I would argue that the entire Scott Adams catalog after the fifth or sixth game can be seen as extended proof of this thesis.) But Olsson is too smart to be caught in that trap: he knows how to work within his tools, avoiding puzzles — like those involving intricate mechanical manipulations — which his game engine just can’t handle. There’s enough that it can do, he realizes, to make a perfectly satisfying old-school adventure game.

The most unfortunate aspect of the writing actually comes right up front, in the horrid title. The Dungeon of Dunjin is no literary masterpiece — that’s hardly the point of a game like this one, is it? — but the writing acquits it surprisingly well for that of a non-native English speaker. (Olsson does poke a little fun at the thing many people still think of first when they think of Sweden by making one puzzle revolve around an Abba record.) Like Adventure and Zork before it, the game never takes itself too seriously, freely mixing contemporary culture with high fantasy, placing computer labs practically next door to slavering dragons. Sometimes a sly Zorkian wit peeks through, as when you find a human skull in the dungeon that’s made of plastic and has “Made in Taiwan” printed on the side. The dungeon itself, meanwhile, proves in the end to be a closed-down tourist attraction; shades of the bizarre postmodern endgame of Adventure.

Filled with little homages to its predecessors like these, but perfectly playable if you don’t know a rusty rod with a star on the end from a lonely white house, The Dungeon of Dunjin is one of the better old-school puzzlefests I’ve played in my time, consistently surprising and amusing, consistently challenging — not least as a result of the combinatorial explosion that stems from its considerable size — and yet never insurmountable and only very rarely actively annoying. I enjoyed playing it immensely, and fancy that any of you who are up for a big adventure that will absorb quite some hours of your time and who don’t mind making a map and checking it twice — thankfully, we have Trizbort these days! — may just do so as well. Being a native citizen of MS-DOS, it can only be played through an emulator on modern computers. I’ve therefore prepared a version for you that will make that as easy as possible. Just add DOSBox.

Save Princeton

According to the brochure that the admissions department gave you, Princeton University is one of the last bastions of intellectual pursuit, where students can engage in the quest for learning unencumbered by worldly cares. As far as you can tell, though, the place looks like any one of a thousand clones of Cambridge University that clutter the American academic landscape. Still, you figure there must be something at least vaguely interesting about it, considering the reputation that the place has managed to accumulate over the past 250 or so years.

You decide, therefore, to take an Orange Key Tour. Minutes into it, though, you realize that you have no interest in being shown buildings with cannonball scars from the Revolutionary War. So, as the guide leads you through yet another archway, you break off from the group and wander through a nearby door. You find yourself in an entryway, standing in front of a door labeled with the number 21. When you turn the handle, the door swings open, and you enter, hoping no one will catch you being a voyeur.

As you poke around, the sound of gunfire coming from outside in the courtyard startles you. You dive for cover beneath a desk and remain there, shaking, until the tumult dies down. When you come out, you can sense a tension in the atmosphere. Clearly, something strange has happened.

Written by a Princeton University student named Jacob Weinstein with some assistance from his fellow student Karine Schaefer — “she just helped plot it, and left the geeky stuff to Jacob” — Save Princeton is another entry in a weirdly overstuffed sub-genre of interactive fiction: the collegiate text adventure, a category that includes such earlier classics as The Lurking Horror and A Dudley Dilemma. This game isn’t on the same level as either of those, but it has its charms.

As soon as you start Save Princeton, you’re smacked in the face with how much some things have changed since 1991; a plot involving terrorists taking over a major university would never be treated so flippantly in these times of ours. Here, though, it’s just a mechanism for pushing you to explore the campus and lap up — or, more likely, scratch your head at — the endless in-jokes. While nothing really stands out about the game’s puzzles or construction, there’s nothing notably objectionable either; this is all pretty standard fare, albeit delivered in a pretty user-friendly way, without the inscrutable puzzles, mazes — well, there is a fake maze — or parsing issues that were still typical of most amateur text adventures of this era. Doubtless helping the game’s cause is the fact that it’s written in TADS, a much more powerful and polished system for programming text adventures than AGT, if also a much less popular one in 1991. The writing is actually more ramshackle than the technology or the puzzle design, with the tossed-off feel that was also so typical of early amateur text adventures.

But it isn’t Save Princeton‘s merits as a piece of timeless game design, much less as a piece of writing, that makes me want to cautiously recommend it. It rather comes down once again to that personal quality of so much amateur interactive fiction.

Weinstein fills his slice of life not just with the architecture of Princeton, nor just with the pop-culture detritus of 1991 — “there are posters of such charming items as Laura Palmer’s corpse” — but with himself, along with the friends he has at university. Go to the “Girls’ Common Room” and there’s Lisa, “working on the New York Times crossword puzzle”; there’s Melisande, “buried in an Orson Scott Card novel.” Go to the boys’ room and there’s Eric, “humming the violin part of The Rite of Spring“; there’s Otis, the “fairly accomplished computer programmer” who “won the Mr. Princeton bodybuilding contest his freshman year.” Eventually you’ll also meet Karine — yes, Weinstein’s alleged coauthor — sitting in the romantic glow of a lava lamp, dreaming of Anthony Hopkins of all potential heartthrobs, “making an acidic comment regarding the cultural inferiority of every city in the world except for New York.” Somehow I suspect that Jacob was crushing hard on Karine, to the point of giving her a dubious authoring credit on his game, only to be stuck permanently in the Friend Zone.

Of course, I don’t really know what was going on with any of these young people. Nor have I ever even been on the Princeton campus, meaning that every in-joke is utterly lost on me. And yet — and you can chalk this up to my going all American Graffiti in my middle age if you like — there’s something about this unassuming little game that I find almost unbearably poignant. It so happens that I’m almost the exact same age as the kids we meet in it, and I can’t help but feel a connection with all these entitled little dreamers, so full of grand plans for the future, so convinced that the meaning of life can be revealed to them by the right song, book, or film. Where have their lives taken them? If they were given this game to play today, would they be surprised to meet the people they used to be?

Call me a sentimental fool, but Save Princeton, patently envisioned by its author as just a light-hearted adventure game, kind of puts a lump in my throat. Your own mileage may of course vary, but it’s certainly not a bad little game even if it doesn’t prompt in you the same ruminations about the cycle of life. You can download it from the IF Archive and play it using any of the many freely available TADs interpreters.


You awake from uneasy dreams. Since you're no longer on easy street, maybe that's the way your dreams are going to be from now on. Exactly where you are becomes clear as you sort out the sounds of the river to the east, the rustlings of birds to the north and west, and the sweet scent of sleep-inducing poppies wafting down from the northwest. Apparently, after a day of determined walking about, you burrowed down next to the river and let consciousness drift.

What exactly induced this bout of walking? Well, two nights ago, Count Zero handed you your walking papers and extracted your latchkey to the museum in exchange (little does he know that you keep a spare hidden in the topiary). It's just as well that you were dismissed from the museum--your duties as combination custodian and librarian involved either re-shelving books and dusting off clocks or rewinding timepieces and dusting off books. However, you were onto something. Exactly what is unclear since the pieces of the puzzle seem to disconnect with sleep. You resolve not to sleep until you've recollected and reconnected their jagged edges. You can be just as calculating as the Count. You can even reach beyond the Zero . . .

I had one of the most magical gaming experiences of my life with T-Zero.

About fifteen years ago, I was working the graveyard shift at a computer-services firm in Dallas. From 7 PM to 7 AM, three or four nights per week, I’d sit in a nearly deserted data center babysitting the servers and mainframes, just in case anything should happen. Most of the time, it didn’t, meaning I had a lot of free time on my hands. Boredom was a big problem. There were enough curious eyes wandering about the place doing their system modifications and whatnot that playing anything that looked like a game would have been a really bad idea. Text adventures, however, were a different story. I could sit typing away into a window filled with text, looking for all the world like I was hard at work on something vital. Thus I played a lot of text adventures during this period, delving back into a lot of forgotten games — often justifiably forgotten! — from the early issues of SPAG magazine. One of the games I played was T-Zero.

I was playing it one night when a message popped up out of nowhere, apropos of nothing I was actually doing in the game at the time. “It’s a full moon tonight,” it read. “Go outside and take a look.” So, curious whether this already very old game knew what it was talking about, I did.

Well, the game did know what it was talking about. Outside a huge harvest moon hovered low over the warm night. I’d always loved the silence of the predawn hours, when the only sounds you could hear were the omnipresent Texas crickets. Now the peaceful scene, blanketed in the moon’s silvery sheen, seemed to fuse with the peculiar beauty of the game I’d just been playing. I stood there in front of my employer’s antiseptic corporate building for quite some minutes, marveling at the beauty that can visit us at the most banal times. As I turned to go back inside, I knew that I’d never forget this night. And, as this little reminiscence demonstrates, I was right.

T-Zero truly is a magical game in some ways; at its best, it almost attains the same heights as Trinity, my all-time favorite work of interactive fiction. Indeed, comparisons between the two works strike me as unavoidable. T-Zero at the time of its release had the most subtly textured writing that had been seen in a text adventure since Trinity. More than that, though, it resembles and even pays homage to Infocom’s finest hour in many respects: a sundial and a gnomon, to name an obvious if superficial example, figure prominently in T-Zero as well as in Trinity. Less superficially, both games share an abiding obsession with the mystery of time, and both have a smile-through-tears quality, a gentle whimsy laced with melancholia.

T-Zero was written by one Dennis Cunningham, a person about whom I know nothing beyond his description of himself as “a programmer with literary leanings.” He is or was obviously very talented in both fields. For someone like me who loves words, T-Zero is a source of constant delight. As an example of its love of clever wordplay, consider that you begin it by waking up in the location known as “River Bed” — or consider the “buxom bell” you’ll soon be ringing. Unlike so many self-consciously “literary” interactive works, which tend to get buried under the weight of their own aspirations, T-Zero‘s writing dazzles without ever seeming to try to do so; Cunningham’s writerly touch is light where the others are heavy. I can perhaps best convey his game’s atmosphere by borrowing a line from one of his room descriptions: “Either your vision is becoming near-sighted or this scene has all the pointillist charm of a Monet painting.” Like an Impressionist painter, Cunningham is more interested in the interplay of light and shadow than he is with concrete forms. Maybe that explains why the moonlight affected me so on that one magical night.

I hesitate to trample over the delicate poetry of T-Zero too much more with my leaden reviewer’s prose, but will note that it takes place in the slightly surreal landscape which surrounds a strange museum where you until recently worked as a low-grade custodian and librarian. You will eventually learn that the time is out of joint, and you will have to learn to travel through time to visit the same locations in other millennia, learning of the other inhabitants who dwelt and will dwell here. These inhabitants are not human; nor is it ever entirely clear whether you yourself are. Again, T-Zero isn’t concerned with the concrete. It’s a dream and a meditation, and it’s all the better for it.

T-Zero has a spirit of unabashed intellectualism to it — a complete disinterest in talking down to its player — which looks forward to Graham Nelson’s Curses. Cunningham peppers his game with allusions: to Miguel de Cervantes and his deluded knight, to Edgar Allan Poe and his bells ringing in the night, to Douglas Hofstadter and his Eternal Golden Braid, to the Beatles and their Walrus. This sort of thing can veer into rank pretension in a hurry. But, again like Nelson, Cunningham’s erudition reads as intriguing rather than off-putting, sending you scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about the references you don’t entirely get.

With so much going on at the literary level, it may seem almost belittling to focus on the technology that underpins the game, but I’d actually be doing its author a disservice not to mention it. Like Magnus Olsson, Dennis Cunningham chose to write his game from scratch rather than use a text-adventure authoring system like AGT or TADS. And here I have to break out the superlatives yet again: the engine he created is quite simply the best bespoke text-adventure engine I’ve seen. Ever.

Cunningham doesn’t just meet the Infocom standard that was still the aspirational ideal among amateur text-adventure makers in 1991, he actually exceeds it in a number of respects. The parser handles even the most complicated constructions with aplomb, and the game is rife with little conveniences seldom seen during its era: things like undo, like a generous command-history buffer, like a menu-based restore command that doesn’t expect you to remember the name of every save file you create. The world model is complex and coherent, and the addition of carefully chosen shades of color, rather than just looking gaudy as color so often tends to do in an all-text game, adds to the rich atmosphere.

Just look at this! T-Zero offers a menu for disambiguation as one of the conveniences it’s absolutely rife with.

But now, having praised T-Zero to the skies, I have to tell you about its one tremendous flaw: this game is just way, way too hard. A goodly chunk of the puzzles involve wordplay of the Nord and Bert variety, the sort of thing that delights some players and drives others — especially players who don’t have English as a first language — absolutely crazy. This in itself may thus be enough reason for some of you to reject a game, but we’re just getting started with the litany of barriers to solving it. T-Zero muddies the waters further than Nord and Bert did in that it doesn’t have discrete sections devoted to discrete kinds of wordplay; you never know, in other words, whether it’s looking for an idiom or an anagram or an allusion. Or, for that matter, whether it’s looking for something else entirely: there are also plenty of traditional puzzles here, grounded in real-world — or at least text-adventure — physics. And then we have to throw onto the pile the fact that this is a big game with a lot of locations to explore, and over several time periods at that. Because the descriptions of these intricate landscapes are drawn in such loving detail, it’s really, really hard to know for sure which locations contain puzzles waiting to be solved and which just exist for you to drink in on their own terms.

Not helping the situation is a tendency for the parser, so flexible in most ordinary tasks, to suddenly become needlessly persnickety in some specific situations, with failure messages that can be not just unhelpful but actively misleading. For instance, at one point you need to tear the flyleaf out of a book. You need to type it exactly like that: “tear flyleaf out of book.” If you try to “pull flyleaf out of book,” you’re told that “your pull is next to nothing when it comes to the flyleaf.” Far worse, if you just type, “tear flyleaf,” you’re told that there’s “no reason to play the vandal”; if you’re foolish enough to take the game at its word here, you’ll never solve it. There aren’t heaps of situations like this one, but there are more than enough to ruin an otherwise brilliant game for its player even absent the other questionable design choices.

That said, it must also be admitted that there is a partial solution to all these problems built right into the game. Among its other technical wonders, T-Zero includes a full-fledged adaptive hint system that keeps track of your progress and doles out context-specific hints for each location — the first such system I’m aware of in the history of interactive fiction. It breaks my heart, but I have to recommend to any of you who choose to play this game that you use it liberally, typing “hint” as a matter of course in each location you visit. Sometimes doing so gives away the full answer to the puzzle; sometimes it at least leaves a little for you to work out on your own. The former in particular is far from ideal, but what else can you do if you’d prefer not to beat your head for hours and hours against this brick wall of a game? The shame, of course, is that there are some very good puzzles here which you won’t be able to enjoy thanks to the bad ones. Ah, well… at least T-Zero‘s wonderful version of the maze-that-isn’t-really-a-standard-maze, almost as venerable a text-adventure tradition by this point as mazes of the old drop-and-plot variety, isn’t entirely spoiled by the hint system.

Having to recommend that you play T-Zero in this way really does pain me, not least in that it destroys all the critical goodwill I have toward every other aspect of the game. As you regular readers know, I’m deeply skeptical of the idea of the “great, as long as you have a walkthrough” species of adventure game. Adventure games are interactive works, and when their interactivity fails them it’s hard for me to see why one should bother with them. As I once put it, “an adventure game that cannot be solved unaided, or for that matter that can be solved only through sheer doggedness and refusal to give in to tedium, is a bad game.”

But I will say now that this particular bad game comes closer than any other to making me recommend that you go ahead and play it anyway using the hints, just to experience the prose and the beautiful environment it evokes. In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether this failure that by all rights should have been numbered among the all-time greats is worth your time. Once again, you can download an almost-ready-to-play version from this site. The only other thing you need is DOSBox.


Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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For text-adventure fans confronting the emerging reality of a post-Infocom world, AGT was a godsend, allowing amateurs for the first time to create games that at a quick glance might appear to match those of Infocom. Still, AGT was far from the answer to every prayer, for the fact remained that it would have to be a very quick glance indeed. David Malmberg, the developer of AGT, was ingenious and motivated, but he was also a self-taught programmer with little background in the complexities of programming languages and compiler design. He had built AGT by adding to Mark Welch’s profoundly limited GAGS system for creating generic database-driven text adventures a scripting language that ignored pretty much all of the precepts of good language design. What he had ended up with was almost a sort of technological folk art, clever and creative and practical in its way, but rather horrifying to anyone with a deeper grounding in computing theory. The best argument in favor of AGT was that it worked — basically. While the system was undoubtedly more capable than anything that had been available to hobbyists before, it still didn’t take much poking at an AGT game before the rickety edifice’s seams began to show.  A number of authors would push the system to unforeseen heights, in the process creating a number of classic games, but it was obvious that AGT could never work quite well enough to create games as polished as those of Infocom. To do that, a language would be needed that was truly designed rather than improvised. Enter Michael J. Roberts with his Text Adventure Development System, or TADS.

Roberts had first started programming on his school’s DEC PDP-11 system in the 1970s at the age of 12, and thereafter had ridden the first wave of the PC revolution. In those early days, text adventures were among the most popular games there were. Like so many of his peers, Roberts studied the BASIC listings published in books and magazines carefully, and soon started trying to write adventures of his own. And like so many of those among his peers who became really serious about the business, he soon realized that each game he wrote was similar enough to each other game that it made little sense to continually reinvent the wheel by writing every one from scratch. Roberts:

It occurred to me that lots of the code could be generalized to any adventure game. So, I tried to write a little library of common functions — the functions operated on a set of data files that specified the vocabulary words, room descriptions, and so on.

This was a nice approach in some ways; the idea was that the game would be described entirely with these data files. The problem that I kept running into was that I’d have to write special-purpose functions for certain rooms, or certain commands — you couldn’t write an entire game with just the data files, because you always had to customize the library functions for each game. What I really wanted was a way to put programming commands into the data files themselves, so I didn’t have to modify the library routines.

Once you start putting procedural code into data files, you essentially have a programming language. At first, I tried to avoid the work of writing a real language interpreter by making the language very limited and easy to parse. That was better than just the data files, but it was tedious to write programs in a limited language. I eventually saw that you really needed a good language that was easy to use to be able to write decent games.

Roberts, in other words, was discovering for himself the limitations and inelegancies that were inherent to a system like AGT — the limitations and inelegancies of grafting a scripting language onto a generic database engine.

But it wasn’t until he went off to the California Institute of Technology that his experiments progressed further. Despite his official status as a physics major, Caltech offered plenty of opportunity for a motivated young hacker like him to immerse himself in the latest thinking about programming languages and compiler design. In the air all around him was computer science’s hot new buzzword of “object-oriented” design. By allowing the programmer to gather together data and the code that manipulates that data into semi-autonomous “objects,” an object-oriented programming language was an ideal fit for the problems of constructing a text adventure. (Indeed, it was such an ideal fit that Infocom had developed a heavily object-oriented language of their own in the form of their in-house adventure-programming language ZIL years before the buzzword came to prominence.) Following yet another trend, Roberts based his new adventure language’s syntax largely on that of C, the language that was quickly become the lingua franca of the world of computer programming in general.

On the theory that a worked example is worth a thousand abstractions, and following the precedent I set with my article on AGT, I’d like to show you a little bit of TADS code taken from a real game. You may want to refer back to my AGT article to contemplate the comparisons I’m about to make between the two languages. Taken together, the two articles will hopefully lead to a fuller understanding of just how TADS evolved the text-adventure-programming state of the art over AGT.

The game we’ll be looking at this time is Ditch Day Drifter, a perfectly playable standalone adventure that was also used by Mike Roberts as his example game for TADS learners. Once again following my AGT precedent, I’ll focus on that most essential piece of equipment for any old-school adventurer: a light source. Here we see Ditch Day Drifter‘s flashlight.

flashlight: container, lightsource
    sdesc = "flashlight"
    noun = 'flashlight' 'light'
    adjective = 'flash'
    location = security
    ioPutIn( actor, dobj ) =
        if ( dobj <> battery )
            "You can't put "; dobj.thedesc; " into the flashlight. ";
        else pass ioPutIn;
    Grab( obj ) =
         *   Grab( obj ) is invoked whenever an object 'obj' that was
         *   previously located within me is removed.  If the battery is
         *   removed, the flashlight turns off.
        if ( obj = battery ) self.islit := nil;
    ldesc =
        if ( battery.location = self )
            if ( self.islit )
                "The flashlight (which contains a battery) is turned on
                and is providing a warm, reassuring beam of light. ";
                "The flashlight (which contains a battery) is currently off. ";
            "The flashlight is off. It seems to be missing a battery. ";
    verDoTurnon( actor ) =
        if ( self.islit ) "It's already on! ";
    doTurnon( actor ) =
        if ( battery.location = self )
            "The flashlight is now on. ";
            self.islit := true;
        else "The flashlight won't turn on without a battery. ";
    verDoTurnoff( actor ) =
        if ( not self.islit ) "It's not on. ";
    doTurnoff( actor ) =
        "Okay, the flashlight is now turned off. ";
        self.islit := nil;

Unlike the case of our AGT example, for which we had to pull together several snippets taken from entirely separate files, we have here everything the game needs to know about the flashlight, all in one place thanks to TADS’s object-oriented design. Let’s step through it bit by bit.

The first line tells us that the flashlight is an object which inherits many details from two generic classes of objects included in the standard TADS library: it’s both a container, meaning we can put things in it and remove them, and a light source. The rest of the new object’s definition fleshes out and sometimes overrides the very basic implementations of these two things provided by the TADS library. The few lines after the first will look very familiar to veterans of my AGT article. So, the flashlight has a short description, to be used in inventory listings and so forth, of simply “flashlight.” The parser recognizes it as “flashlight” or “light” or “flash light,” and at the beginning of the game it’s in the room called “security.”

After this point, though, we begin to see the differences between TADS’s object-oriented approach and that of AGT. Remember that adding customized behaviors to AGT’s objects could be accomplished only by checking the player’s typed commands one by one against a long series of conditions. The scripts to do so were entirely divorced from the objects they manipulated, a state of affairs which could only become more and more confusing for the author as a game grew. Like those created using many other self-consciously beginner-friendly programming languages, AGT programs become more and more of a tangle as their authors’ ambitions grow, until one reaches a point where working with the allegedly easy language becomes far more difficult than working with the allegedly difficult one. Contrast this with TADS’s cleaner approach, which, like Infocom’s ZIL, places all the code and data pertaining to the flashlight together in one tidy package.

Continuing to read through the TADS snippet above, we override the generic container’s handling of the player attempting to put something into it, specifying that this particular container can only contain one particular object: the battery. Then we specify that if the player removes the battery from the flashlight when the flashlight is turned on, its status changes to not lit — i.e., it goes out.

Next we have the flashlight’s “long description,” meaning what will happen in response to the player attempting to “examine” it. TADS allows us to insert code here to describe the flashlight differently depending on whether it’s on or off, and, if it’s in the latter state, depending on whether it contains the battery.

Finally, we override the generic light source’s handling of the player turning it on or off, to tie the written description of these actions to the specific case of a flashlight and to reckon with the presence or absence of the battery. Again, note how much cleaner this is than the AGT implementation of the same concepts. In AGT, we were forced to rely on several different versions of the flashlight object, which we swapped in and out of play in response to changes in the conceptual flashlight. In TADS, concept and code can remain one, and the steps necessary to implement even a huge adventure game can continue to be tackled in relative isolation from one another.

Instructive though it is to compare the divergent approaches of the two systems, it is important to state that TADS wasn’t created in reaction to AGT. Computing communities were much more segregated in those days than they are today, and thus Roberts wasn’t even aware of AGT’s existence when he began developing TADS. Beginning as a language tailored strictly to his own needs as a would-be text-adventure author, it only gradually over the course of the latter 1980s morphed in his mind into something that might be suitable for public consumption. What it morphed into was, nevertheless, something truly remarkable: the first publicly available system that in the hands of a sufficiently motivated author really could create text adventures as sophisticated as those of Infocom. If anything, TADS had the edge on ZIL: its syntax was cleaner, its world model more thorough and consistent, and it ran in a virtual machine of its own that would prove as portable as the Z-Machine but was free of the latter’s brutal size constraints.

As TADS was rounding into this very impressive state, Roberts set up a company with a friend of his named Steve McAdams. In tribute to Roberts’s degree in physics, they called it High Energy Software, and, following in the footsteps of David Malmberg’s little AGT enterprise, planned to sell TADS as shareware through it. Version 1.0 of TADS was released in September of 1990, alongside two games to show it off. One was the afore-referenced freebie example game Ditch Day Drifter, while the other was Deep Space Drifter, a bigger game released as a shareware product in its own right. Both games tread well-worn pathways in terms of subject matter, the former being yet another “life at my university” scenario, the latter a science-fiction scenario with some of the feel of Infocom’s Starcross. Both games are a little sparse and workmanlike in their writing and construction, and some elements of them, like the 160-room maze in Deep Space Drifter, are hopelessly old school. (It’s not a maze in the conventional drop-and-map sense, and the puzzle behind it is actually very clever, but still… 160 rooms, Mike? Was that really necessary?) On the positive side, however, both games are quite unusual for their era in being scrupulously fair — as long, that is, as you don’t consider the very idea of a huge maze you have to map out for yourself to be a crime against humanity.

But undoubtedly the most ambitious and, in their way, the most impressive of the early TADS games came not from High Energy Software but rather from a pair of University of Maryland students named David Leary and David Baggett, who started a company they called Adventions to sell TADS text adventures via the shareware model. Of all the folks dabbling in shareware text adventures during the early 1990s, it was Adventions who made the most concerted and sustained effort at building a real business out of it. Their flagship series came to encompass three big unabashed Zork homages — Unnkulian Underworld: The Unknown Unventure, Unnkulian Unventure II: The Secret of Acme, and Unnkulia Zero: The Search for Amanda — alongside Unnkulia One-Half: The Salesman Triumphant, a free snack-sized sampler game.

When the first Unnkulia game was released remarkably quickly on the heels of TADS itself — Mike Roberts can’t recall for sure, but believes Leary and Baggett likely developed it with an early beta copy of the system — it stood as easily the most immediately impressive amateur text adventure ever. The text was polished in a way that few text-adventure developers outside of Infocom, whether amateur or professional, had ever bothered to do, being free of the self-conscious meta-textual asides and atrocious grammar that had always marked the genre. Adventions’s text, by contrast, looked like it had actually been proof-read, and possibly several times at that. Likewise, the game took full advantage of the sophisticated TADS world model to offer puzzles of an intricacy that just wasn’t possible with a tool like AGT. The first Unnkulia game and those which followed were almost in a league of their own for some time in all these respects.

On the other hand, though, the Unnkulia games strike me as curiously unlikable. You can get a good idea of their personality just by looking at their names. If the name Unnkulia — be sure to say it out loud — strikes you as hilarious, congratulations, you may have found your new favorite series. If it instead just strikes you as stupid, as it does me, perhaps not so much. (I admit that my attitude may be affected by having to type the damn thing over and over again; no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to remember how to spell it.) Much of the humor inside the games for some reason involves “cheez” — and yes, it’s spelled just like that. The humor has always been, at best, polarizing, and I have no doubt on which side I stand. In addition to just not being all that funny, there’s a certain self-satisfied smugness about the whole enterprise that rubs me the wrong way. At the risk of over-personalizing my reaction to it, I’ll say that it feels like the work of two young men who are nowhere near as witty as they think they are. In short, there’s something about these games that I find insufferable.

In terms of design, the Unnkulia games are an equally odd brew. It’s clear that they’ve been quite rigorously tested — another thing that sets them apart from most text adventures of their era — and they’re free of mazes, guess-the-verb puzzles, and the other most-loathed aspects of their genre. Yet the puzzle design still isn’t all that satisfying. There’s an obsession with hiding objects behind, under, and inside unlikely things — an obsession which is ironically enabled by the TADS world model, which was the first to really allow this sort of thing. Sometimes, including in the very first room of the very first game, you even have to look twice to find everything. Hiding surprises in plain view is okay once or twice, but Baggett and Leary lean on it so hard that it quickly starts to feel lazy. When they do get more ambitious with their puzzles, however, they have a tendency to get too ambitious, losing sight in that peculiar way so many text-adventure authors have of how things actually work in a real physical environment. Let me offer a quick example.

So, let’s set up the situation (spoilers ahoy!). You have a bronze plate, but you need a bronze coin to feed to a vending machine. During your wanderings in search of that among other things, you come upon the room below. (These passages should also convey some more of the, shall we say, unique flavor of the writing and humor.)

Inner Temple of Duhdism

This chamber is the temple of Duhdism, the religion of the ancients. It's rather a letdown, after all Kuulest told you about it. A small altar with a round hole in the center is in the center of the chamber. Carved in stone on the far wall is some writing, the legend of Duhdism. The only exit from this chamber is back to the east. You feel at peace in this room, as if you could sleep here - or maybe you're just kind of bored.

>read writing
"The Legend of Duhdha and the Shot to Heaven:

One fine summer day, Duhdha was loading a catapult with rocks. When his students asked what he was doing, the great Duhdha just smiled and said, "Something real neat." Soon, the catapult was full, and Duhdha pulled the lever as his students looked on. The stones crushed the annoying students, leaving the great man to ponder the nature of mankind. Not only did the rocks eliminate distraction from Duhdha's life, but they fell to the ground in a pattern which has since become a standard opening for the intellectual game of "Went." Since then, the altar at the Temple of Duhdha fires a small stone into the air soon after a worshipper enters, to honor Duhdha - who taught his students not to ask stupid questions and to pretty much just leave him alone."

>x altar
The altar is about two feet by one foot, and about three feet tall. There's a small round hole in the exact center of the top surface. The altar is covered with rock dust. There's nothing else on the Duhdist altar.

Time passes...
A rock shoots into the air from the hole in the altar, shattering on the ceiling and spreading rock dust on the altar.  From the outer chamber, you hear the old monk cry "Praise Duhdha!."

We obviously need to do something with this rock-spewing altar, but it’s far from clear what that might be, and fiddling with it in various ways offers no other clues. Putting things on it has no effect on either the thing that’s just been put there or the rocks that keep flying out — except in the case of one thing: the bronze plate we’re carrying around with us.

>put plate on altar

Time passes...
A rock shoots from the altar at high velocities, puncturing the plate in the center. The rock shatters on the ceiling, spraying rock dust. You hear a tinkling sound as a tiny bronze disc falls on the floor. From the outer chamber, you hear the monk shout "Praise Duhdha!"

*** Your score has just changed. ***

When you reach this solution either by turning to the walkthrough or through sheer dogged persistence — I maintain that no one would ever anticipate this result — you might then begin to wonder what physical laws govern the world of Unnkulia. In the world we live in, there’s no way that the flying rock would punch a perfect hole neatly through the middle of a bronze plate that happened to just be lying on the altar. Without something to hold it in place, the plate would, of course, simply be thrown into the air to come down elsewhere, still intact. The ironic thing is that this puzzle could so easily have been fixed, could have even become a pretty good one, with the addition of a set of grooves or notches of some sort on the altar to hold the plate in place. Somehow this seems emblematic of the Unnkulia series as a whole.

Like everyone else who dreamed of making a living from shareware text adventures, Leary and Baggett found it to be a dispiriting exercise, although one certainly can’t fault them for a lack of persistence. With some bitterness — “It’s disappointing that although there are so many IF enthusiasts out there, so few are willing to pay a fair price for such strong work,” said Baggett — they finally gave up in time to release their final game, 1994’s very interesting The Legend Lives! — more on that in a future article —  for free before exiting from the text-adventure scene entirely.

The same dispiriting lack of paying customers largely applied to makers of text-adventure languages as well. Mike Roberts estimates that his rate of TADS registrations peaked “on that same order” as David Malmberg’s pace of 100 AGT registrations per year, or “maybe a little lower. I’d remember if it had been much higher because I’d have been spending all day stuffing envelopes.” Whatever their respective rates of registration, far more AGT than TADS games continued to be released in the early 1990s. While that may have struck some — not least among them Mike Roberts — as disappointing, the reasons behind it aren’t hard to divine. AGT had a head start of several years, it had an annual competition to serve as an incentive for people to finish their games, and, perhaps most of all, it presented a much less daunting prospect for the non-programming beginner. Its kind and gentle manual was superb, and it was possible to get started making simple games using it without doing any programming at all, just by filling in fields representing rooms and objects. TADS, by contrast, offered a manual that was complete but much drier, and was on the whole a much more programmer-oriented experience. The initial learning curve undoubtedly put many people off who, had they persisted, would have found TADS a much better tool for realizing their dreams of adventures in text than AGT.

Some time after the Adventions guys and David Malmberg gave up on their respective shareware products, Roberts and his partner Steve McAdams also decided that they just weren’t making enough money from TADS to bother continuing to sell it. And so they made TADS as well free. And with those decisions, the brief-lived era of shareware interactive fiction passed into history.

But, despite the disappointments, Mike Roberts and TADS weren’t going anywhere. Unlike Leary, Baggett, and Malmberg, he stayed on the scene after giving up on the shareware thing, continuing to support TADS as open-source software. It took its place alongside a newer — and also free — language called Inform as one of the two great technical catalyzers of what some came to call, perhaps a little preciously, the Interactive Fiction Renaissance of the mid- to late-1990s. So, I’ll have much, much more to write about TADS and the games made using it in years to come. One might even say that the system wouldn’t really come into its own as a creative force until Roberts made that important decision to make it free.

Still, the importance of TADS’s arrival in September of 1990 shouldn’t be neglected. Somewhat underutilized though it may initially have been, it nevertheless remained the first development system that was capable of matching Infocom’s best games. If the amateur scene still largely failed to meet that lofty mark, they could no longer blame their technology. On a more personal note, the emergence of Mike Roberts on the scene marks the arrival of the first of the stalwarts who would go on to build the modern interactive-fiction community. We’re still in an era that will strike even most of the most dedicated fans of modern interactive fiction as murky prehistory, but some people and artifacts we recognize are beginning to emerge from the primordial ooze. More than a quarter of a century later, Mike Roberts and TADS are still with us.

(Sources: SynTax issues 17 and 36; SPAG issues 5 and 33; Mike Roberts’s interview for Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, which Jason was kind of enough to share with me in its entirety. And my thanks to Mike Roberts himself, who answered many questions personally via email.

Ditch Day Drifter and Deep Space Drifter are available on the IF Archive for play via a TADS interpreter. The Adventions games are available there as well.)


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