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Two Adventuring Cultures

By the time that Adventureland had its first anniversary, adventure games on the TRS-80 were already amongst the platform’s most popular software offerings. And now, thanks to Scott Adams’s portable adventure engine and the fact that virtually all non-Adams adventures were still written in relatively standard BASIC, they had begun to pop up on other microcomputer platforms as well. A new art form was on the scene. As early as its June, 1979, issue, SoftSide published an “Engagement Announcement” between the TRS-80 and “Fantasy”:

The staff of SoftSide is eagerly anticipating the birth of a new art form as a result of this match. We feel that one of the most creative art forms of the future will be the participation novel, in which you assume the role of a character and alter the direction of the story by your own actions, instead of simply reading what the original author conceived and wrote.

Right now, creative people who’ve been writing elaborate simulation games are working on computer adaptations. The progress they’re making is exciting, with greater things to come! In our December issue, we presented Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio, breaking new ground in simulations on computer. [Written by Reverend George Blank, Paravia was an adaptation / expansion of Hamurabi, a resource management strategy game dating back to 1968 and eventually ported to BASIC by David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine. As the first computer game to explicitly ask the player to play a role in a storyworld of sorts, Hamurabi is of great historical and theoretical significance in its own right.] In May we presented you with Dog Star, bringing us one step closer to the electronic novel. We foresee the time when elaborate simulations of high literary and artistic quality will captivate the leisure hours the way television does today, in much the same manner that television replaced radio drama, and radio drama led to a decline in reading for pleasure.

In March, SoftSide was contacted by the publisher of The Dungeoneer and Judges Guild Journal, two magazines specializing in the simulation game Dungeons and Dragons. In a copy of The Dungeoneer we were surprised to find a list of sixty-one other magazines also specializing in fantasy, war and simulation games. We also discovered that many of these people are starting to use the TRS-80. [I’ll be exploring this linkage between the nascent computer-game industry and the rapidly expanding world of tabletop role-playing games very soon.] Once the creative work they’re doing is suitably married to the computer, the electronic novel will be born! We’re certain the day is not far off, and we intend to be part of it!

Shortly afterward, SoftSide began using the rather awkward term “compunovels” to refer to these new works, the first of many attempts by writers, commentators, and players to get away from the somewhat limiting labels of “adventure games” or (a bit further on) “text adventures” to something reflective of more literary aspirations.

Of course, the idea of the “compunovel” was more aspirational than it was reflective of the reality of 1979, when the Scott Adams games with their childlike diction, “weirdly errant grammar” (in the words of Graham Nelson), and merest stubs of plots were the class of the adventuring field. Indeed, for many contemporaries these claims for literary grandeur must have seemed downright delusional given the reality of the time. It’s to the great credit of the writers at SoftSide that they could see the potential of the new form once freed of the technical constraints of 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage, and of the artistic constraints imposed by programmers attempting to get by as writers.

Still, there was another culture that was largely free of the first if not the second set of constraints: the institutional hacking culture that had birthed adventure games in the first place. By 1979 the big machines hosted quite a variety of them: Zork at MIT; Stugan, the first adventure game created outside of the United States and the first in a language other than English, at Stockholm Computer Central; Acheton at Cambridge University in England; Mystery Mansion at (of all places) the Naval Warfare Engineering Station in Keyport, Washington. Meanwhile others, free of the commercial considerations that were already coming to dominate the microcomputer software market, set about improving and expanding upon the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, creating a dizzying number of variations that have come to be referred to by their maximum possible score. The original game, which offered 350 potential points, is sometimes called Adventure 350, while its successors include Adventure 365, Adventure 550, and many others, finally many years on culminating in the inevitable Adventure 1000. Even Woods himself created an expanded 430-point version before leaving adventure creation behind for good.

The most immediately striking characteristic of all of these games today is their sheer size; they still remain some of the largest text adventures ever constructed in breadth if not depth, boasting hundreds of rooms each. Their scale was a byproduct of the culture that created them. In the hacker ethic, no program was ever considered truly finished; there was always room for more tweaking, more features, just more. Since these games were not commercial endeavors, there was no necessity to declare them done and ship them out the door at any given point. They therefore often remained in a sort of playable development stage for literally years, growing in fits and starts as the interest levels of various contributors waxed and waned. (Another thing which distinguished these games from their microcomputer counterparts, and indeed from most IF of today, is that they tended to be team efforts.) Zork, for instance, first appeared on MIT’s computer system in May of 1977, hot on the heels of the Adventure phenomenon, but was not finished until February of 1979. Even at that point, the game was not really done in any thematic or design sense. Its creators had simply managed to fill up even the cavernous one megabyte of memory on their DEC machine, and thus were physically unable to continue to build yet more new rooms.

If you’re thinking that such a development model might ultimately be as limiting to narrative possibilities as were the absurd hardware limitations of early home computers, well, you’re pretty much right. The team that created Zork, for instance, contained some genuinely talented writers, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the adventuring world of 1979. Yet their best efforts were continually undone by the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome, with descriptions of real imagination and elegance juxtaposed with others of a Scott Adams-like terseness. And the design itself is similarly sprawling and unfocused, with great ideas layered upon less great ones in seemingly random fashion. Zork and other, possibly even larger games like Acheton are vast and chaotic almost to the point of incomprehensibility. In this light the technical constraints of microcomputers, which forced authors to create games that were thought-through, structured designs rather than random sprawls, don’t look quite so bad. Or, to put it another way: bigger is not always better. It’s telling to note that none of these games had a narrative arc anywhere near as tight and coherent as that of The Count.

Still, TRS-80 owners working their way through the constrained environments of Adventureland, Dog Star Adventure, and The Count might be forgiven for casting some jealous glances in the direction of all those rooms, all those objects, all that space for text. It was therefore kind of a big deal when the daddy of all those institutional extravaganzas, Adventure itself, first came home. If Adventure could be made to run on a TRS-80, it seemed reasonable to think that other larger, more ambitious games should soon be possible on microcomputers as well — which was of course exactly what ended up happening. Indeed, within a few years adventure-game development on the big machines would pretty much dry up entirely.

The name of the company that first brought Adventure home via the TRS-80 might just surprise you. More on that, and them, next time.

 
 

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The Count

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

The Count title screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Busy 1979

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

Voodoo Castle and The Count advertisement

Mission Impossible advertisement

Mysert Fun House advertisement

Strange Odyssey advertisement

Pyramid of Doom advertisement

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

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

Alvin Files dedication in The Count

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

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

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

 

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A Few Questions for Lance Micklus

I recently was able to pass along a few questions to Lance Micklus, author of Dog Star Adventure, and I thought some of you might find his replies interesting.

Jimmy: Scott Adams mentioned in a couple of places that you convinced him he should recode his adventure engine using assembly language rather than BASIC. Do you happen to remember how this transpired?

Lance: I don’t recall talking with Scott about this but it was good advice. BASIC would have made these programs very portable – meaning they could easily be ported over from one system to another. But assembly language gave these programs speed and efficiency – and a better overall experience.

Jimmy: Anything at all you can tell me about the creation of Dog Star Adventure would be hugely helpful. As one of the first text adventures to appear after Scott Adams showed it was possible on the TRS-80 and the very first to have its source published in a magazine, Dog Star is quite historically significant, you see. As such, I just played through it yesterday, and I’m just starting to write a little piece about it for my blog.

Lance: In the mid 1970s I worked for Vermont’s public television station as a studio engineer. I also did some computer programming for our station. Since our station was part of the University of Vermont, we used their computers when we needed to. One of those computers had the original text adventure game installed on it. I believe this game was known as Get Lamp [actually, Adventure, of course] and that it was written in Fortran around 1972 [make that 1976 for Crowther’s original experiment, 1977 for the completed game]. It was very popular with the students. I began to play it when I had time, although I never really got into the game too deep.

Eventually, when the University upgraded their computer systems, we lost access to Get Lamp. It was about this time that I got my first personal computer – the TRS-80. I began writing programs to replace the ones I once played on the University of Vermont computers. Dog Star was my attempt to replace Get Lamp.

The story line for Dog Star was influenced by Star Wars. My story takes place on something similar to the Death Star. Star Wars had a Princess Leia. In Dog Star there was a Princess Leya.

One of the influences from Get Lamp that I carried over to Dog Star was the use of a common story telling device known as “the ticking bomb.” In Get Lamp the batteries in the flashlight go dead after a certain amount of game play. After that happens it is impossible to complete the adventure. In Dog Star it was a cheeseburger that got cold.

One of the techniques I used to write Dog Star was to give objects properties. There were actions and there were objects to perform actions on. Eating a cheeseburger was one action that caused something to happen – there was no more cheeseburger after you ate it. Talking to the cheeseburger was another possibility but it didn’t do anything.

Jimmy: This is even more open-ended, but: I wonder if you could talk a bit about what led you to buy a microcomputer at such an early date, and (especially) how you immediately started cranking out such a huge quantity of software. I understand from your web page that you worked in radio and television prior to the TRS-80. What kind of background (if any) did you have with computers?

Lance: I first became interested in computers in 1953 when I was 8 years old. One of my favorite TV programs was Superman starring George Reeves. One of the episodes from season 2 was called “The Machine That Could Plot Crimes.” It was about a machine named Mr. Kelso that was tricked by a bad guy to plot perfect bank robberies. I was fascinated by this machine. After watching the episode, I asked my mother if there really were such machines. When she told me that there were, I decided I had to have one.

Superman's computer

Mr. Kelso's computer from "The Machine That Could Plot Crimes"

In 1964 I got a summer job as a computer operator at IBM in Poughkeepsie. This gave me an opportunity to toy around with a 1401 computer in assembly language. Although computers fascinated me – and still do – I also wanted to pursue a career in broadcasting. Much of my life has been spent going back and forth between these two careers.

Purchasing the TRS-80 in the fall of 1977 was the fulfillment of the dream I had when I was 8 years old – which was to have my own computer. I enjoyed writing computer programs and did it just for fun. I got into publishing my work as a way to share my creations.


As seems to keep happening on this blog, this interview puts the lie to a couple of assertions I made in my previous post. Namely, Lance did have some exposure to the original Adventure, albeit apparently quite briefly given the very limited window of time between Adventure‘s widespread distribution in the spring of 1977 and the release of the TRS-80 that fall. Still, Dog Star is also markedly similar to Scott Adams’s early efforts, such that I can’t believe the similarity is coincidental. Also, Lance’s background with computers was a bit more extensive than I had described it. Ah, well, living and learning is part of what this blogging thing is all about, right?

Just for fun, here’s a picture of Lance from the glory days of the TRS-80:

Lance Micklus, circa 1980

And here’s him and his lovely wife Dianne today:

Lance and Dianne Micklus, 2011

These days Lance is hoping to produce a Christian-themed movie based on the legend of Santa Claus. He’s a very, very nice man.

Next time I really will get back to Scott Adams, and talk about (among other things) that switch to assembly language I asked Lance about.

 

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Dog Star Adventure

SoftSide's Dog Star Adventure issue

Flipping through early issues of SoftSide magazine, one can’t help but notice a handful of people who are absolutely everywhere, churning out games, tools, applications, even feature articles at a dizzying pace. There’s Scott Adams, of course, who in addition to his adventures also wrote a variety of other card- and board-game adaptations and simple strategy games. There’s the Reverend George Blank, who in addition to editing the magazine and writing a pile of games and utilities for it also authored an article speculating on the possibilities for computer gaming:

Few good computer games have been written so far. Of the good ones, some are adaptations of games like chess and Othello [also known as Reversi] which existed first in another form. These games are good if they add a dimension to the play of the game that is not present in its original form (such as the possibility of solo play), and do so in an aesthetically pleasing form. My personal opinion is that such computer adaptations will play a trivial role in the future of computer games and the best ones will be those which take unique advantage of the computer’s capabilities.

And there’s the man who authored Dog Star Adventure for SoftSide‘s May 1979 issue, Lance Micklus. Before doing so Lance had already written and sold: Concentration (an adaptation of a classic game show); Robot (a maze game); Mastermind I and II (board-game adaptations); Breakaway (a pinball game); Treasure Hunt (a mapping exercise in the Hunt the Wumpus tradition); Renumber (a programmer’s utility); KVP Extender (keyboard utilities); and Personal Finance and Advanced Personal Finance (financial software). Most of all he was known for having written Star Trek III.3, a port of a classic space strategy game that originated on HP Time-Shared BASIC; and a suite of terminal emulation software that allowed TRS-80s to communicate with larger institutional machines and with each other via modem. Quite a portfolio, especially considering that Lance was not a seasoned programmer when he came to the TRS-80, having spent his career working as an electrical engineer in television and radio.

The TRS-80 was perhaps the ideal platform for fostering such Leonardos. Since its graphics capabilities were one step above nonexistent, art assets weren’t exactly a big concern. And then of course its sound capabilities were completely nonexistent, so strike that off the list. Combine this with the fact that 16 K of RAM places a sharp limit on possibilities even for the most ambitious, and virtually any program that was conceivable to implement on the TRS-80 at all was doable — and doable relatively quickly — by a single skilled programmer. There’s something kind of beautiful about that.

Another nice facet of these more innocent programming times was a blissful unawareness of intellectual property rights. Certainly the many adapters of copyrighted board games, not to mention that hugely popular Star Trek game, hadn’t signed contracts with the owners of their respective properties. Dog Star Adventure was “inspired” by the middle act of Star Wars, when the crew of the Millennium Falcon is trapped aboard the Death Star and must rescue Princess Leia and escape. It seems somebody got just a bit nervous this time, however, so the Death Star became the Dog Star, Princess Leia became Princess Leya, Darth Vader became General Doom… you get the picture.

As soon as you start the game the debt it owes to Scott Adams is obvious. Here we see the bridge function that Adams’s early games served in action; Dog Star Adventure was inspired by Adams’s work, having been written by someone without exposure to Adams’s own inspiration of the original Adventure. (UPDATE: Um, not quite. See my brief interview with Lance for more on Dog Star’s influences.) Note the “Obvious Exits” convention, and the shift from second-person to first-person narration that Adams initiated with Adventureland:

The game is somewhat easier than Adventureland, with fewer howlingly unfair puzzles, but it still has its dodgy moments, such as the storage area filled with “all kinds of stuff.”

The storage area with its "all kinds of stuff"

Yes, you need some of that stuff; and yes, you have to guess what is there and what the game wants you to call it. I can’t quite decide whether I like this or hate it; there is a certain element of cleverness to the “puzzle” (imagine my satisfaction when I entered GET BLASTER and it worked).

There are also packs of stormtroopers wandering the complex. Fortunately, you can use the aforementioned blaster to take them out.

Taking down a stormtrooper

Unfortunately (but inevitably), your blaster has a limited amount of ammunition, and you can only GET AMMUNITION once in the storage area. So, you’ll be seeing this quite a lot:

Captured!

Superficially, your goal in Dog Star Adventure is the same that it was in Adventureland: gather a collection of treasures into a certain location (in this case, the cargo hold of your spaceship). Clearly Mr. Micklus didn’t get the memo about the Sexual Revolution, because even the Princess herself is implemented as just another takeable treasure.

The Princess, a treasure worth 50 points!

Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find there’s something going on here that is very interesting. Instead of just collecting for hoarding’s sake, all of these treasures (presumably including the Princess) are actually good for something in the context of the plot. You’re collecting fuel for your spaceship; the Princess’s necklace, with a hidden computer chip that encodes “the location and strength of her Freedom Fighting Force”; General Doom’s battle plans, which you have recorded onto a TRS-80 cassette tape (maybe you should have made a few backups?). Nor does the game end immediately when you have collected all the treasures; you must still get the space station’s hangar doors opened somehow and launch your ship. It’s not exactly compelling drama, but there’s the skeleton of a real plot arc here, climaxing in triumph for the Rebel… er, for the Forces of Freedom.

Freedom for the galaxy

In addition to being available on tape from The TRS-80 Software Exchange for the low, low price of $9.95, the complete Dogstar Adventure was also published as a BASIC listing in that May, 1979, issue of SoftSide for the budget-conscious (or the masochistic). One of the things about this era that feels bizarre today even to those of us who were there is how much software was purchased in this excruciatingly non-user-friendly form well into the 1980s. Not only were program listings a staple of the magazines, but bookstore shelves were full of books of them. When we complain about the illogical puzzles and guess-the-verb issues that plague virtually all of these early games, we should remember that it was possible for anyone with modicum of programming knowledge to find answers for herself just using the BASIC LIST command. When Dog Star‘s parser started to frustrate, for example, I hunted down these lines:

30650 VB$(1)="GO":VB$(2)="GET":VB$(3)="LOOK"
30700 VB$(4)="INVEN":VB$(5)="SCORE":VB$(6)="DROP"
30750 VB$(7)="HELP":VB$(8)="SAVE":VB$(9)="LOAD":VB$(10)="QUIT"
30800 VB$(11)="PRESS":VB$(12)="SHOOT":VB$(13)="SAY"
30850 VB$(14)="READ":VB$(15)="EAT":VB$(16)="CSAVE"
30900 VB$(17)="SHOW":VB$(18)="OPEN":VB$(19)="FEED"
30950 VB$(20)="HIT":VB$(21)="KILL"

Right there are all 21 verbs understood by the game. I would submit that source-diving was not only unpreventable but also anticipated, even relied upon, by authors. In this light some of their design choices are perhaps not quite so cruel and bizarre as they initially seem.

As it happens, I got a little bit too well reacquainted with the tribulations of the BASIC transcriber when I played Dogstar in preparation for this post. In one section of the game there’s a security robot who blocks you from escaping the jail area with Princess Leya. This robot likes McDonald’s hamburgers (in another era I would suspect a marketing deal, but as it is I’ll just have to chalk it up to really bad taste in burgers). Luckily there just happens to be a hamburger lying in the crew’s lounge. Thanks to my BASIC source-diving, I thought I had divined the correct syntax to use to feed it to the robot, but the game obstinately refused to accept it. It turns out that the version of the game I was using had a tiny typo, in this line:

7350 X=22:GOSUB21450IFY<>-1PRINTM6$:GOTO2125

It should have read like this:

7350 X=22:GOSUB21450:IFY<>-1PRINTM6$:GOTO2125

That’s the kind of damage that missing a single colon can do when typing in hundreds of lines of BASIC code by hand. Once corrected I could feed the hungry robot at last.

The hamburger-loving robot

And yes, the original listing is all crammed together like that. The TRS-80’s BASIC interpreter doesn’t absolutely require spaces to separate the elements of each statement, and spaces use memory — so off they go, along with other niceties such as comments. Readable Dog Star Adventure is not.

Which makes the important role it played rather surprising. Remember all those hobbyists interested in creating their own text adventures? Well, as a competently put-together game conveniently provided to them in print (printers were still a rarity in these days), Dog Star gave them a model to follow in doing just that. (While Scott Adams’s adventures were also coded in BASIC, none was printed in a magazine until 1980, and their interpreter/data-file design made them more difficult to deconstruct than Dog Star‘s admittedly less flexible all-in-one approach.) Lance Micklus himself became increasingly absorbed with his communication products, forming a company of his own later in 1979 to market them, and never coded another text adventure. And yet his fingerprints are all over early text-adventure history, as countless bedroom coders built their own designs from the skeleton he had provided. That, even more so than its hints of actual plotting, is the biggest historical legacy of Dog Star Adventure.

Next time we’ll drop in on Scott Adams again, who like Lance Micklus had a very busy 1979. In the meantime, if you’d like to try Dog Star Adventure I won’t make you type it in from scratch. Here’s a saved state for the MESS TRS-80 Level 2 emulator — and yes, the hamburger-eating robot works correctly in this version.

 

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