In the first of a regular series Richard Price examines the history of role-playing and the development of micro adventure games
IT IS NEAR DAWN with only the hum of the transformer and the glare of the TV screen to keep you company. Dog-tired, bleary-eyed and suffering from severe back and brain strain you desperately try to escape a band of roving cannibal orcs amongst the dungeons of a menacing fortress. Your computer is overheating and it seems like a week since you last slept but you cannot give up now. You want to be a hero and the real world can just wait until you have managed it.
Recognise yourself? If you do, then you know you are an adventure addict, hopelessly hooked on the multiplicity of fantasy worlds that the computer can offer for exploration. That jumble of wiring and chips can transport you into the far future aboard a giant spaceship or to medieval worlds where magic and myth rule.
To survive in those places you will need a crossword puzzler's mind and be able to solve complex logical problems by a mixture of luck, cunning, planning and lateral thinking. Computerised brute force will come in handy too when your luck dribbles away and you are face to face with some fire-belching dragon.
It is easy to think that computer technology has made all that possible but there is more to it than just the machine. Mazes, and the symbolic hazardous journey through them, have had a powerful fascination for the human mind for many thousands of years.
At Tintagel in Cornwall, bronze age tribesmen hammered intricate labyrinth patterns into the rocks, perhaps as some mystical depiction of the soul's wanderings from birth to death and back again. Before them the first farmers decorated the huge stones of their communal tombs with swirls of interlocking lines and spirals. Dancing mazes cut into the turf still survive in a few places around the country and, all over the world, there are myths and legends of heroes and heroines overcoming the terrors of the labyrinth or other subterranean places to emerge powerful, fulfilled and triumphant.
Almost all those stories portray a human character facing intolerable danger in threatening places, often lost, often afraid, but succeeding through his or her wit and persistence. Maybe the ordinary, small person has always needed such fantasies as a welcome escape from the humdrum reality of everyday life. With the machine's help it is now possible to enter the unknown and make your own decisions about how the story should develop. No longer a passive listener or spectator, you can become Theseus, Bilbo Baggins or Sherlock Holmes for a day and still get back in time for your beans on toast.
Most people would accept that JRR Tolkien is the father of modern fantasy writing and his plots and terminology run through many of the games that use magical or heroic worlds as their setting. His themes, combined with wargaming rules, were adapted by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as the basis of their role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. In that system a Dungeonmaster designs a complex of caves peopled by monsters, treasure and magicians. Through that place, a party of adventurers will journey. Each of them must take on a character and act out their role in as 'real' a way as possible. The more consistent and inventive the setting, the more pleasure, excitement and satisfaction for the player.
There are now many variants on the original concept, from outer space to Middle Earth, but they all expect the player to do more than just chop up monsters and often demand problem-solving skills and ingenuity. Role-playing games have a vast and dedicated following and their devotees can sometimes seem like members of an esoteric religious cult. Psychologists would claim that the game helps young people to work out their personal problems through safe fantasy.
Absorbing as RPGs are they suffer from a major disadvantage. Creating a dungeon is a painstaking business and the play itself needs the concentrated attention of up to five players all of whom must be willing and able to give up several days, or longer, to their hobby.
That means that a lot of organisation is needed to make a session work well even if you can drum up the group of adventurers. The action itself can also be slow as there are numerous die rolls and consultations with rule books to interrupt the flow of play.
Two computer programmers, Crowther and Woods, translated that sort of single role-playing into computer language and plumbed it into their mainframe. Computer text adventure began with them in the not so remote past of the early seventies. Their original Adventure featured a Tolkienesque plot set in a twisting labyrinth with lots of tricks, puzzles and mean monsters. Once Sinclair had pioneered the home computer the field was open for rapid development of the art.
Computer text adventure comes in all shapes, sizes and eras but there are fairly standard features which define the genre. The interpreter must be able to understand some basic English, often just a verb/noun combination and also carry a set of built-in commands and requests, such as Help, Inventory or Score.
Good programs will always possess a varied concealed vocabulary for the player to discover by trial and error. Getting the right words for the right action is one of the trickiest problems in adventure, especially where magic is involved.
Informative location descriptions and a versatile response from the interpreter are very important as they help to set the scene and make the player feel that the computer has a personality, just like the old Dungeonmaster. Most players would also expect the locations to be properly connected so that a map can be made.
Above all else the theme and the setting ought to be internally consistent. If you are exploring a world where magic is possible then that magic should follow its own rules and not be the excuse for a failure of the writer's imagination. It is also off-putting to wander through some heroic medieval landscape and discover an inn with pool tables or similar oddities. Too many unsuccessful programs hurl a jumble of different eras and technologies together.
The arrival of the Spectrum, with its large memory and graphics capability has inevitably meant that adventure programming has become more and more sophisticated and there are many variations on the format currently available. The purists probably will still argue that text-only adventures are the real thing as they don't waste valuable space on pretty pictures and are often good value for money, tending to have more locations and better descriptions.
Level 9 produces a range of text games that are inventive, involved and usually large. If you're keen to try out a version of the original mainframe Adventure its Colossal Adventure has a lot of similarities but has more locations and a slightly altered set of problems. Other games by the same company carry on from where that game stops.
Level 9 takes a lot of trouble over the plots and settings of its programs and, if you are after an adventure with a difference, take a look at Snowball. You will find yourself in a vast interstellar spaceship that has gone out of control. While swarms of colonists hibernate in blissful ignorance of the danger you must explore the ship and find the main controls. Guard robots menace you and the sheer vastness of the vessel means that your task will be long and involved. The technology is very carefully constructed and the design is extremely convincing with over 7000 locations.
If you would rather be a classic, albeit reluctant, hero, the Ket Trilogy from Incentive Software provides all the magic and mayhem you will need. Mountains of Ket and Temple of Vran feature mad sorcerers, battle-crazed orcs and combat routines which help to bridge the games nearer to their D&D ancestors. It is also satisfying that the story continues from one program to the next. The world of Ket is consistent and exciting and is well worth a visit.
Adventures using graphics, either to illustrate locations or to show the action itself, seem to be becoming the norm. Games, however, like Atic Atac or Halls of the Things are not in that class. Those so-called graphic adventures are little more than glorified arcade games and do not have the features that define proper adventures, exciting and accomplished though they are.
It would be difficult to discuss text adventure without mentioning The Hobbit from Melbourne House. That program has set a standard for future adventures with its use of nearly English 'Inglish' and interactive characters who live their own lives while you are busy trying to get out of the goblin's dungeon. A vast range of input is allowed and the variations of possible actions make it seem like ten games rolled into one, though some may find the routine of talking to characters rather tedious at times.
After The Hobbit programmers looked for more and more innovation. Valhalla combined animated cartoon-style graphics with a versatile text interpreter and has shown the huge potential of the Spectrum. Despite some flaws - like the occasional crash - the game is open to a number of uses. You can follow the quests if you like or develop your character independently, choosing to be evil or good as the mood takes you. The other inhabitants will respond convincingly to the role you take on and they too will go about their own lives, which of course you can sit back and watch if you do not feel like joining in.
Lords of Midnight from Beyond does not quite fit the adventure description. That immense game with its 3D static graphics, multiple leading characters and strategic planning uses an adventure plot mixed in with wargaming concepts. Armies and allies have to be recruited to defend the world against Doomdark, a Sauron-like sorcerer. The four major characters are guided through the meticulously detailed landscape by the player and there are various ways of defeating the powers of evil. The program is very reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings in its theme and you can make the story what you will.
The best adventures are those where a true multiple choice is involved. It is easy to spot a poor program by the linear nature of the action - only one entry is correct and you cannot proceed unless you do exactly what the programmer has put in. In most of the games mentioned there is a reasonable freedom of choice. Remember though - freedom of choice may mean you will find yourself up the creek later on. A bit like real life, in that respect, and that for many is the entertainment in adventure. You will learn from your mistakes, load your saved position and wearily start all over again, but still get a lot of fun and excitement in the process.
|The mysteries of adventures can baffle even the greatest hero or mage at times. If you are hitting trouble on your travels or have hints and tips to offer fellow explorers we would like to hear from you. Scribe your letter to Richard Price c/o Sinclair User, London.|