Thursday, October 8, 2015

Questron: More from the Creator

Charles and John Dougherty pose for a shot included in the Legacy of the Ancients box art.

I haven't been playing any games over the last month or so, but I have been having a great conversation with the man responsible for my CRPG addiction in the first place: Chuck Dougherty, creator of Questron. Like many of the developers who occasionally visit my blog, Chuck proved extraordinarily friendly and informative despite my criticisms of many of his game elements. I've selectively quoted some of his correspondence below, but please note that the entire text appears at the end of this posting.

Dougherty's series--Questron, Legacy of the Ancients, Questron II, and The Legend of Blacksilver--represent an unusual branch of the RPG family tree. Although they may look like Ultima or other games, their mechanics are very different--with both good and bad results. Some examples:

  • The games eschew the typical D&D list of monsters in favor of a highly-original list of (usually) two-word oddities, including sparrow piranhas, flesh renders, soul buyers, brain leeches, crusher rocks, stilted drebs, and dirt weirds.

As if a regular whale wasn't dangerous enough.
  • Monsters deliver no experience and only the smallest amount of gold, so they serve more as a temporary annoyance to exploration than a core element of gameplay.
  • Stats can increase through the use of mini-games. These stat increases are generally overridden, however, by those caused by plot developments. You might start with a strength of 15, increase it to 19 by playing some game, and then have it automatically boosted to 40 the first time you visit a castle.

My Legacy of the Ancients character increases his endurance by fending off fireballs in a minigame.
  • Each game features castles that you must plunder, slaughtering guards by the scores, to progress.
  • Getting rich involves, in part, mastering a series of gambling mini-games.
  • You amass spells by purchasing them individually; you can only cast them in dungeons.
  • Improvements in weapons and armor only arrive as you spend more time in the game, not just because you become richer. You might win a million gold pieces in the first hour, but you still have to play another 8 hours before the long bow starts showing up in shops.
  • As the game goes on, the evil wizard actually starts destroying towns.
  • Hit points are treated like currency. Where a D&D game might take your fighter from 10 to 60 hit points over the course of a 40-hour game, in Questron your character can easily go from 100 to 50,000. Towards the end of the game, random events might blithely strip you of thousands.

A few of these elements show up in Ultima, too--particularly the lack of experience, the odd approach to hit points, and the senseless massacre of guards. Questron feels like a game created by a gifted programmer who only had experience with Ultima and wasn't aware of the conventions of other RPGs.

It turns out, that's exactly what it is. Dougherty admits that he had "almost no experience" when he started creating Questron in 1981. He had spent 18 months teaching himself BASIC and assembly language on his Apple II Plus and then serendipitously encountered Ultima for the first time. "I'd never played anything like it," he wrote. "I really didn't have experience with RPGs, so it blew me away with the sheer adventure of it....I think it's fair to say that I didn't know what the 'norm' was."

A comparison of the outdoor areas of Ultima (top) and Questron (bottom).
But while Questron might look like Ultima, and share a few of its mechanics and plot devices, Dougherty correctly points out that there are many differences under the hood. "Lack of experience points was sheer ignorance," he wrote, "but there were other parts of the game that were very intentional." The attribute-increasing arcade games, for instance, are his original creation, as are his approaches to gambling games. (RPGs featured gambling back to some of the PLATO games, but I think Questron is the first to offer full mini-game versions of fairly complex games like blackjack and roulette.) He thinks that Legacy might be the first game to offer a graphic engine in which players walk up to an exterior view of a building and the roof disappears as they enter (I can't think of an earlier example).

This is one of the game's graphical innovations that I didn't note at the time.

One thing about Ultima that disappointed Dougherty was the ending: "There was essentially no reward. Given the amount of work a player put into that type of game, how could there not be honor and a celebration?" Hence, his dedication to providing a uniquely memorable ending to Questron, which almost every player and publication commented on. I know in my own case, the quality of Questron's ending spoiled other RPGs for a long time.

In our discussions, Chuck revealed an aspect of his games that I never commented on because it was so subtle: a detailed hint system dependent on the passage of game time. "If players couldn't figure out the next step," he wrote, "we always gave bigger and bigger hints until they knew what to do. Our hope was that each player would consider him/herself a genius for figuring it out." Now that he mentions it, I see places where the hint system comes into play, but it's extremely well-done, and I admit I felt a sense of accomplishment when I figured out the next steps based on small hints (which I assumed were the only hints). It makes me wonder what other subtle, non-obvious game mechanics I've overlooked in other games.

Presumably, if I failed to find Mesron, the game would give me more explicit hints about where to go.
Among his answers to my questions, Chuck helped clear up the issues that led to Richard Garriott receiving credit for the "structure and style" of Questron. While frankly admitting that he was inspired by Ultima, Chuck felt he had made enough changes that his title stood on its own. Then, after Questron was already finished, Ultima II was released. Although he had "never seen Ultima II prior to sending Questron off to the publishers," he was horrified to see that "Questron was far more similar to Ultima II than it had ever been to Ultima."

Dougherty never had any direct contact with Richard Garriott, but he heard from Brøderbund, Questron's first publisher, that Garriott had seen a preview of Questron at a trade show and was angry. ("Knowing what I know now, I don't blame him.") Brøderbund asked him to "make Questron look less like Ultima." He re-drew tiles, changed the nature of the controls, and updated the graphics, but when he was all done, Brøderbund said that Questron "was no longer fresh" and dropped the game.
Chuck kept shopping the game and found another publisher in SSI. It was the management at SSI that "worked out the license arrangement with Garriott--I'm not sure how that transpired and I'm not even sure I had a say in it." While he regrets that he never had a chance to speak to Garriott directly, Chuck admits he learned a valuable lesson from the experience and re-wrote future games from the ground up to look a lot less like Ultima and exemplify his own style. I certainly agree that by Questron II, the only significant elements that the game shares with Ultima is a top-down interface.

By Legacy of the Ancients, with its 3D museum and associated exhibits, the series had already diverged considerably from its Ultima roots.

(Dougherty's recollections jive reasonably well with Richard Garriott's comments in an America Online chat recorded in 1984 and quoted in part by commenter Stu in my first Questron posting.)

Chuck was joined by his twin brother John in future endeavors and founded Quest Software, but unfortunately the company never "turned the corner financially." Already sick of 6 years of 70-hour weeks, their efforts suffered a death blow when Epyx declared bankruptcy after acquiring the rights to publish The Legend of Blacksilver. The game was barely marketed, and the Dougherty brothers never got anything beyond their advance. "Seemed like a good time to quit," Chuck wrote. "Both of us found it far easier, less stressful, and far fewer hours and ultimately more lucrative when we returned to programming for businesses."

Chuck thinks that The Legend of Blacksilver was the company's best game. It's the only one I haven't yet played, so I look forward to checking it out when I get around to 1987 again.

The full text of my Q&A with Chuck Dougherty appears below. I really appreciate his contributions to my reviews of his titles.


Q. I'm curious what experience you had with computer RPGs and/or tabletop RPGs before writing Questron. You feature some mechanics--primarily the leveling-through-plot-development rather than experience--that are a little odd for the genre. One of the things I talked about in several of your games--complained about, frankly--is that monsters don't deliver any experience, so there's hardly any reason to fight them except that they're standing in your way. Were you deliberately trying to buck the norm here, or did you just not have experience with games that did it differently?

A. I had almost no experience. I’d purchased an Apple II Plus about 18 months prior to writing Questron, and had taught myself BASIC and then assembly language from a book. Then I played Ultima and loved it. I’d never played anything like it. I really didn’t have experience with RPGs, so it blew me away with the sheer adventure of it. Bear in mind that I was just this young guy living in Michigan, working full time at another job, and then kind of stumbled into this.

So I think it’s fair to say I didn’t know what the “norm” was. My primary focus was to create something that was fun to play; something that I would have liked playing. I saw the monsters as more of a way to elongate the game and make it challenging. So lack of experience points was sheer ignorance, but there were other parts of the game that were very intentional.

Q. In all of your games, the majority of monsters are original to them. I was curious about your creative process in coming up with all the names and descriptions. Did you start with monsters in other fantasy settings and simply devise new names, or did you create each creature from scratch?

A. Most all creatures were created from scratch. I would brainstorm with a friend of mine (Jeremy), who then ended up joining me in the endeavor as a creative consultant. He came up with many of the wildly creative ideas and then I kind of pulled it together, coming up with descriptions, etc. It was fun thinking of offbeat and quirky descriptions, something we did even more of when my twin brother joined me for the next three games.

Q. The historical record leaves some confusion as to why Richard Garriott is credited for the "structure and style." Some sources say you or SSI did it preemptively; others say that Garriott sued (or threatened to sue) to get a cut of the royalties. Either way, your game was hardly the first to adapt the "structure and style" of another title, so being forced to credit Garriott is a bit unusual. Do you remember how this came about, and do you have any feelings on the matter?

A. Parts of that first version of Questron were quite similar to Ultima (a naïve choice on my part--at the time it seemed like every game was copying every other game). The outside terrain originally was very similar to Ultima, the menu system and overall screen layout was quite similar. But the other thing that happened was that somewhere around the time I was finishing Questron, Ultima II was published. Bear in mind I’d never seen Ultima II prior to sending Questron off to publishers, but when it was released I realized that Questron was far more similar to Ultima II then it had ever been to Ultima. This was horrifying, and the changes/advancements I’d made to not be too similar to Ultima were often quite similar to what turned out to be natural advancements between Ultima and Ultima II.
The infamous credit on Questron's opening screen.
Everything else I have to say is hearsay because I wasn’t there for the conversations. What Broderbund told me was they were at some trade show showing a preview of Questron and Richard Garriott saw it. Apparently he was upset--and knowing what I know now I don’t blame him. This was of great concern to Brøderbund, and they were no longer sure they were going to publish. Of course I was devastated and felt foolish.

In any case, I was asked to figure out how to make Questron look less like Ultima. The changes were fairly easy. I think I redrew the outside terrain squares, added joystick control, made some cosmetic changes, etc. However, when I finished a couple months later Brøderbund told me the game was no longer fresh and they withdrew their offer to publish.

So I shopped around again for a publisher and SSI was interested. They worked out the license arrangement with Garriott--I’m not sure how that transpired and I’m not even sure I had a say in it. I don’t recall if it lessened my royalties, but the whole thing was an embarrassment. And a lesson.  One of my regrets was never calling Richard to talk about it. But bear in mind he was a big name, I was a nobody living disconnected in the Midwest, and Brøderbund and SSI were telling me that he was pissed. I had no idea what to say to him.

So on the one hand I think I was a bit unlucky, but I have no trouble understanding how Garriott might have felt, especially because he would probably have assumed I’d seen Ultima II. Interestingly enough, in the years to follow other RPGs borrowed some of the innovative things we originated in Legacy of the Ancients and The Legend of Blacksilver. To the best of my knowledge, Legacy was the first game where the player walked up to an exterior view of a building and the top disappeared to reveal the insides (my apologies if I’m mistaken). We may have also invented arcade style games of skill to increase attributes (OK, some felt that was quirky) and games of chance to earn gold. We had also made huge graphic advancements at the time in the dungeons. All other games that I ever saw (of that day) were far more obviously composed of blocks, whereas our looked quite different

Q. Each one of your games features the merciless slaughter of castle guards, something that also featured heavily in Ultima. Did you ever have pangs about forcing players into such a situation? Did you ever receive any criticism for it?

A Questron II character prepares to plunder and massacre.

A. Yeah, I never loved that. A big problem we dealt with was the memory and disk space constraints of the machines of the time. It was almost impossible to pack a large external world with one set of graphic and controlling code, “3D” style dungeons with other coding, towns with a third, and castles with a fourth. So what you saw with the castles was largely the constraint of trying to do a lot of graphics and having not enough room for other things. I always wished I could have put a lot more plot into the games, a lot more dialogue, a lot more interactions, and more puzzles. The fact that we were trying to do a large world and high quality graphics (for the day) really meant we had to cut down on other things. I can literally remember multiple times we spent an hour or so rewriting a section of perfectly good code to save somewhere between 2-12 bytes, just to make something fit the space.

Q. For your game series, I get Questron, Legacy of the Ancients, Questron II, and The Legend of Blacksilver. (I've played all but the last.) Are there any other titles that you worked on that aren't on the standard database lists? Any that were in development that never saw publication?

A. These four were all the games (unlike the others we didn’t write the Questron II code ourselves). Some stuff in development but not enough to really talk about.

Q. What ultimately happened to Quest Software? I get the impression that game development was always a side-career for you and John. Did you simply decide to focus on your primary careers?

A. This effort was full time work for about 6 years, not a side development. Basically we found that we never “turned the corner” financially. We never made enough money to hire an adequate staff; hence, John and I averaged about 70 hours a week and on our toughest weeks worked up to 110 hours. It was brutal. Both of us found it far easier, less stressful, far fewer hours and ultimately more lucrative when we returned to programming for businesses.

We’ve realized in retrospect that we made the wrong marketing decisions. We were programming for a niche that was too small. Our goal was to create an adventure world that was generally larger, more varied, graphically rich, more animated, more detailed storyline than typical games. But what we gave up was the detail of the fighting and magic system and primarily that was what the RPG world wanted. Our decision to keep top-down towns, castles, dungeons, museum and outside required essentially 5 different game engines, which made creating each new game quite difficult. Also, we never used the same engine for any game, feeling that each game had to be better. That required a lot of new programming each time because computers of that day didn’t get any faster (until we’d given up the business).

By the way, we thought The Legend of Blacksilver was our best, but it was released to Epyx which went bankrupt after having the rights to our game. After bankruptcy filing hey shrunk from something like 80 staff to 3 staff, so they had no real ability to publish but they owned the rights and we were stuck with nothing but the advance. Seemed like a good time to quit. Perhaps we should have pursued legal action to get our game back and publish elsewhere (both EA and SSI had made us offers prior to Epyx), but that would have been a messy business pursuing a career that wasn’t panning out to be that great.

Q. Perhaps the most notable feature of Questron is the ending, complete with the celebration and fanfare. Hardly any game of the time or since have offered this kind of satisfying denouement. Were you aware you were doing something special here?

A victory for a champion.

A. The ending was very much intentional, of course, but I didn’t know much about how it compared to other games. However, the few that I had played had little fanfare/celebration, which seemed wrong to me. I remember playing Ultima and being shocked at the end when there was essentially no reward. Given the amount of work a play put into that type of game how could there not be honor and a celebration? When writing my game (and later with John when writing our games), the goal was always to think about the player and try to “tune” the game for maximal enjoyment.

Speaking of tuning, we really did try to tune the games to maximize the fun. If players couldn’t figure out the next step we always gave bigger and bigger hints until they knew what to do. Our hope was that each player would consider him/herself a genius for figuring it out. It didn’t matter that some figured things with no hints and others practically had to be told what to do. Each player would get the same feeling of achievement.


If you're wondering about changes to my "recent and upcoming" list, the short answer is this: before my unintended hiatus of the last month, I was having various degrees of issues with almost all the 1991 titles on the list. Rather than figure them out, and to make it easier to get back into gaming, I decided to blast the list and reconstitute it with new random selections. All of the games that were originally on it will reappear, just a little bit later in 1991.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Antares: Anlagen und Geräte

This monster portrait freaks me out for reasons I don't understand.

At the conclusion of the last session, I had been visited by a "projection" that told me to travel to Akrillon and see an Umbeke named Ranishtar. Before I left, I wanted to check out the one un-explored dungeon in Nomiris: Tiefencastel.

Despite its name ("deep castle"), Tiefencastel ended up being about 17 squares. There were a couple of trite messages ("Life is expensive, even after death!") along the way. The hallway ended in a barricaded door and there was no way to progress. "Despite being a bit disappointed," the game said, "you're nevertheless glad that the way ends here. Everything you've seen from these corridors so far didn't exactly inspire confidence." I don't know if some other event will bring me back here or not.

It's nice that the skull and crossbones has universal meaning.

So much for that. I returned to the transport hub, entered my found PIN, and set off for Akrillon. I'm not entirely certain whether the three places I can travel from the transport hub are different planets in the Antares system or different cities on Kyrion.

Akrillon was much like Nomiris: a 20 x 20 city in which every wall is a door to a building. I explored them all and found a lot of empty houses, four food shops, one equipment shop, a storage depot, and two dungeons: Tornac and Dominia. There was no sign of Ranishtar in any of the houses, so I reasoned that he was probably in one of the dungeons.

The city of Akrillon.

The storage depot was a nice touch. It allowed me to stuff any of the equipment I was carrying in a locker for later retrieval. I put almost all my "Electerium" there, a bunch of food for when the stores were closed, and a couple of items that I was afraid to discard but I didn't know what they did. This freed up a lot of inventory space. This might even be a CRPG first. I can't remember a previous game that allowed me to store items in a central location.

A nice touch for an inventory-limited game.

I decided to try Tornac first. It turned out to be a two-level dungeon, each level consisting of two 6 x 19 areas connected by a 3 x 7 corridor. In general, the developers of this game did a good job varying the size and shapes of the levels while still making them symmetrical enough that you can identify likely secret areas. They also did a good job with different textures in the dungeons.

One of the symmetrical levels from my latest exploits.

I didn't find Ranishtar in the dungeon, but I did find a bunch of messages related to the mysterious Questonaten race. "It's strange that the Umbekes' best friends carry such a 'questionable' name," the first read, opening a mystery I haven't yet solved. Another indicated that the race can assume a spectral, ethereal shape, and a third said that they were telepathic.

"Our masters are exceedingly reserved. In all of their history, they have chosen to bother with only three other cultures--us being one of them." I assume this one is talking about the Vuroners, but I'm not sure. "You'll see us," a final one promised, "and then, at the latest, you'll recognize us." Okay.

The main quest reward from the dungeon.

On Level 2, I found some kind of medallion that the game assured I would need later. Then, after navigating a room with invisible walls ("Do not trust with your eyes what they're not able to see," a clue offered), I ran into what I assume is a member of the race. He asked me telepathically to name him, and the answer--QUESTONATEN--opened the way back up to the exit. So I guess the medallion was the real purpose of the dungeon.

Encountering a member of the Questonate race.

The dungeon was also unique in that it had a shop in the middle of Level 1, run by a guy named Ernesto Samson. The shop sold a variety of objects labeled "container." I suspect these are supposed to be boxes that allow you to expand your inventory, but unfortunately every time I try to open one, the game crashes. I hope this doesn't turn out to be plot-relevant.

I have no idea what these containers do except crash the game.

As I explored, I did my best to puzzle out all of the various items of equipment in the game. To help future players Googling the terms, I've pasted the full list (so far) at the end of this posting. Of particular note are a series of devices that help with dungeon navigation. A "Detektor AR-1" alerts you to messages within a few squares of where it's pointing; a "Detektor AR-2" warns you of messages and traps. I haven't found any way to avoid or disarm traps, though, so this is of limited utility.

The Detektor alerts me to a trap.

An "Auto-Mapper" does what it suggests, although it only lasts for the active level, so you can't really rely on it for all your mapping needs.

It would be nice if this meant I no longer had to do my own mapping, but alas...
Other notes:

  • In an earlier post, I mentioned how difficult it is when your fatigue meter gets to 0 and you're forced to sleep, even in the middle of a dungeon. Well, I found a loophole to that. On the initial encounter screen--where it tells you how many enemies you face and asks whether you want to fight or flee--time still passes. I can remain on this screen indefinitely, letting my party members get a nice, long rest, before either fighting or fleeing. Unfortunately, light and food also deplete during this period, but they're not as much of a problem.
  • Blue laws are apparently in effect on Kyrion. Shops are closed on Sundays.

Man, the Puritans made it everywhere.

  • Akrillon, unlike Nomiris, had a bunch of houses that I couldn't enter.
  • One of my victories produced an "Atari ST." I have no idea what to do with it. It would be the coolest thing ever if, when I "used" it, it opened up a mini Atari window and let me play a basic game. But we're way too early for such things.

The computer only an alien would own.

  • Based on the percentage of paragraphs in the translation document that I've accessed, I'm only about 20% of the way through the game.
  • I rather thought I'd find an NPC to occupy that sixth party space by now. Did I just miss the ability to add that sixth member during character creation?

You can't say I'm not trying my best with this one, but I'll continue to intersperse posts on other games in between Antares articles. Let's check out Enchantasy.

Time so far: 21 hours 
Reload count: 23


Aluminum-Platte: Aluminum plate (armor) - 100
Armschutz: Bracer (armor)
Aspirin: Aspirin (mental healing) - 50
Asthanen-Steak: Steak (food) - 120
Atari ST: Computer (unknown use)
Auto-Mapper: 450
Beruhigungspille: Pill (mental healing)
Biospalter-Ragout: Food - 20
Blei-Mantel: Lead coat (armor) - 450
Container: Containers of various types all crash the game
Demograllampe: Lamp (utility) - 30
Detektor AR-1: Warns you about messages ahead - 140
Detektor AR-2: Warns you about traps - 190
Druckverband: Bandage (physical healing) - 40
Eisenstange: Iron bar (weapon) - 120
Electerium: Use in landing craft to resurrect characters - 423
Glasfaserkabel: Fiber optic cable (unknown) - 20
Halogenlampe: Halogen lamp (utility) - 20
Handschuhe: Gloves (armor) - 80
Handtuch: Towel (unknown) - 20
HiFi-Center: H-Fi Center (makes music) - 210
Hut: Hat (armor) - 60
Isolierband: Insulating tape (armor) - 60
Jogging-Schuhe: Jogging shoes (armor) - 50
Kichererbsen: Chickpeas (food) -
Kompass: Compass (utility) - 50
Kompass "Ali": Compass (utility; stays on longer?) - 60
Kreuzring: Cross ring (unknown; "increases self-confidence") - 180
Marmorbuddha: Marble Buddha (unknown; "increases self-confidence") - 300
Marschallstab: Unknown
Megaphon: Megaphone (does group psychic damage in combat) - 374
Messer: Knife (weapon) - 50
Nomiris-Vodka: Vodka (food) - 90
Pflaster: Bandage (physical healing) - 20
Poisodan: Unknown - 60
Refraktor: Unknown - 120
Rippenknocken: Ribcage (weapon) - 30
Roboterhand: Robot hand (unknown) - 150
Roter Hering: Red herring (unknown) - 60
Sandspargel: Sand asparagus (food) - 10
Schlüssel: Key (unknown) - 20
Schutzanzug: Protective suit (armor) - 150
Skrit Reference: Translation book - 12
Stahlschild: Steel shield (armor) - 200 Sonnenhut: Sun hat (armor) - 30
Stablampe: Flashlight (utility) - 20
Taschenmesser: Penknife (weapon) - 30
Tokero: Does mass physical damage - 309
Totenkopf: Skull (unknown) - 100
Trash: Trash (unknown) - 400
Walther PPK: Gun (weapon) - 250
Wasser: Water (food) - 10
Wochen-Abo: Unknown

Monday, September 7, 2015

Revisiting: Adventure Construction Set/Rivers of Light (1984) (Won!)

The title screen from the original C64 version.

Rivers of Light
An adventure that was created with, and accompanies, the Adventure Construction Set
Stuart Smith (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1984 for Commodore 64 and Apple II; 1986 for Amiga; 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 27 October 2010
Date Ended: 6 September 2015
Total Hours: 13
Reload Count: 4 in this last session; wasn't keeping track in 2010
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

It's rare that I return to a game that I've already abandoned and rated, but if any piece of software is worth some additional attention, it is Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set and its accompanying adventure, Rivers of Light. I blogged about it in my awkward, often-confused first year, when I still thought the primary purpose of my blog was to have fun personally. Looking at the posts now, I can't believe that 9 months into the project, my DOSBox screenshots still had title bars. What was I using to take the shots? ALT-PRNTSCR? Jesus.

I'm returning to the game not because I didn't fully document it--I made up for the part I didn't play with text and screenshots from a YouTube player's winning session--but because I didn't understand its historical context. I was playing Stuart Smith's last game without having played any of his prior ones.

Prior to Adventure Construction Set, Smith's series consisted of Fracas (1980), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981), and The Return of Heracles (1983; links to my reviews). Each of the games is reasonably enjoyable as an RPG, but there's something more--a certain zest, a joyful irreverence--that is difficult to describe in writing and in rating scales like my GIMLET. Part of their charm is their frenetic pace. You don't have a lot of time to pause and think in a Smith game--not with 40 thieves, Greek villains, or other potential enemies wandering freely through the landscape and attacking at any moment. Combat in the games is a true "fracas"--not much strategy, but lots of fun as you and your enemy exchange blows and are often interrupted by other NPCs deciding to join the battle. Death is frequent and often random, but the games are short enough that you almost don't mind. Plus, both Ali Baba and Heracles let you play multiple characters, either concurrently or consecutively.

My character explores the Fertile Crescent in Rivers of Light.

A lot of other features characterize Smith's games: a foundation in classical mythology rather than Tolkienesque high fantasy (though this doesn't stop hobbits from appearing in Ali Baba!); cooperative or competitive multi-player options; rapid changes in scale from campaign level to room level; hidden, one-way, and otherwise often confusing portals between screens; and limited reliance on traditional RPG inventories and mechanics. In fact, it's hard to detect the influence of any previous CRPGs on Smith's series. Except for a few nods to the tabletop RPG genre in some of the attributes, you could easily imagine that Smith never played an RPG in his life.

Perhaps the most notable element of the Smith games is the way that they handle NPCs and monsters--which are essentially the same thing. There are no generic orcs or goblins in the games; each creature that occupies the world is named and has a specific set of equipment and statistics. Each belongs to a particular faction as well, and monsters of opposing factions will attack each other. Fracas allowed monsters to level-up by killing each other. I don't think the other two had this mechanic, but NPCs and monsters in all games can pick up gold and equipment. A few of them are confined to their starting screens, but a lot more have the run of the map. You could play the three games without fighting a single foe--instead, just watching as other NPCs wander along and mop up the enemies in your path.

Rats ignore my character and decide to steal grain instead.

Given how much Smith's games differ from traditional CRPGs, it's ironic that he would create the first graphical RPG construction set. (Technically, the all-text Eamon was first.) Numerous Internet pages claim that he was inspired by Pinball Construction Set (1983), but in a comment on my blog, Smith said that he'd never heard of that game; that instead, he was inspired by his previous work on an accounting program that would automatically write a report-generating program. However, in naming Smith's game, Electronic Arts was clearly referencing its previous title.

Adventure Construction Set came with two adventures: The Land of Aventuria and Rivers of Light. The former, written by EA's Don Daglow, is a set of mini-adventures that walks the player through the capabilities of the set. But Rivers of Light is a full-fledged game, based on The Epic of Gilgamesh, requiring some creativity and a good 8-10 hour investment. My previous attempt at the game ended after 8 hours, when--at least 3/4 of the way through the game--I came to an area called "Two-Hero Valley" in which you need--you guessed it--two heroes to open the way forward. I declined to roll up a second character and get him all the way to that point, although it later turned out that it wouldn't have been as hard as I thought.

A screen from the Land of Aventuria. My character icon is an axe.
I still don't know what other CRPGs or adventure games influenced Smith, but in the Rivers of Light, we can see him making some concessions to them, such as respawning of random creatures and a more standard set of RPG statistics and RPG inventory. Some monsters still roam freely across screens and attack each other (as well as you), but in a less frenetic, unpredictable way than in the previous games. There's a clear distinction here between monsters and NPCs; the latter are immobile and can't be attacked. They just wait until you walk into their square and then offer some dialogue on title cards.

A late-game character sheet in Rivers of Light.

Rivers of Light is stronger than the other games in its mythological basis. Ali Baba was loosely based on Arabian myth, and Return of Heracles was loosely based on Greek myth, but neither game was afraid to introduce characters and themes from other traditions. Rivers is more firmly in Mesopotamia, and as the character walks the path of Gilgamesh, he must contend with some of the same foes (Humbaba, Shedu), meet some of the same NPCs (Utnapishtim, Urshanabi), and solve some of the same puzzles, like using cedar poles to cross the Waters of Death.

Meeting the Sumerian Noah.

Consistent with the era, a sword made of iron is fantastically rare and the best melee weapon in the game, and barley serves as the game's currency.

Rivers of Light begins.
Rather than recap all my earlier posts, I'll just quickly summarize. In choosing the character icon, the player can select any of the game's tiles, including monsters, equipment, and terrain. After the player gives a name, the game randomly generates constitution, wisdom, strength, and dexterity statistics.

Missile skill, melee skill, armor skill, dodge skill, and parry skill are all attributes that increase as you successfully use them. This is not the first time we've seen that dynamic, but it's still pretty rare for the era. Encumbrance is an issue, with every item you carry reducing the length of your turn.

A character with a skeleton icon starts the game.
There is an impressive variety of monsters throughout the game, some fixed, some random, including bulls, trolls, rats, asps, bandits, master thieves, ghosts, alligators, bats, and scorpion men. In one notable place, you have to fight a clone of your own character, equipment and all.

The game's action takes place between Mesopotamia and Egypt, in locations like Great Assur, Ashurbanipal's Great Library of Knowledge, and the great pyramid at Gizeh. As he explores, the player gets a number of clues and items necessary to solve puzzles in other areas. The game culminates on an island in the middle of the Nile river, where the player must use his assembled items, powers, and clues to pass through three gates and encounter the spirit of the god Osiris.

Preparing to cross the Sinai peninsula, Chester stocks up on water.
As I said, I was mostly there back in 2010, but I got annoyed in Two Hero Valley, thinking I'd have to build up another character until he was strong enough to make his way across the Sinai Peninsula and join the primary hero. Some commenters alerted me to a "shortcut," but I still didn't think it was worth it and declined to return to the game.

Getting "Helper" over here took a trivial amount of time.
Little did I know that the shortcut was laughably close to the start of the game. This time around, it took less than 2 minutes to create a character and bring her over to Two Hero Valley. There weren't even any combats on the way. I can't believe I gave up that easy in 2010.

Approaching the final area, Chester uses a "power" to quench the fire.
Given that your goal is eternal life, the endgame text is a little disappointing:

You have found the "sealed thing in darkness with fire about it." The essence of Osiris himself rejuvenates you. You can feel a new body forming about your disembodied spirit, bringing your seven souls back together from their wanderings.

Rapturously entertained by a chorus of your past lives giving a joyful rendition of your life and struggles, you are taken to a land of milk and honey where you are born again. Wiser now, you may retire with honor or move onward to more adventuring.

On the next screen, the character reappears in the Fertile Crescent and can run around fighting random combats or be saved to the disk for other Adventure Construction Set scenarios.

Better than the DOS prompt.
I gave the game a 30 on my GIMLET back in 2010. Reading over my comments, I want to make a couple of adjustments. I gave it only 1 point for the economy, reasoning "there's not much to buy," but that isn't quite true. The game does a good job duplicating some quest items among the shops and giving you backups for weapons that break or are lost. It's still not a great economy, but it's worth at least 2 points. Gameplay, meanwhile, deserves a bump from 3 to 4; on my replay, I found it just about the right challenge and length. Moving NPC interaction from 2 to 3 would be more consistent with how I've rated things since then, and the quest deserves 3 rather than 2 points for its originality. That raises the score to 34, a couple points higher than The Return of Heracles, which makes more sense.

The game's approach to buying and selling items is a little odd and cumbersome.
Aside from Rivers of Light, it's worth discussing how well Adventure Construction Set serves as an RPG maker. The answer is that while it serves reasonably well for 1984, it would have gotten outdated very quickly. The interface is quite bad, requiring (in the DOS version) the player to constantly hit the INS key to acknowledge messages and choose commands. (In the C64 version, the joystick serves as the sole input and is no less cumbersome.) The inventory system is under-developed: it has a single armor slot and a single weapon slot, the latter constantly switching between melee and missile weapons. The magic system is also bare-bones, with spells appearing as items.

But it was popular enough at the time. Ported to four platforms, the construction set generated enough enthusiasts that they formed a club, published a newsletter, and reviewed and traded adventures. It's hard to find many of them now. A current ACS fan page that wants to catalog all user-created adventures has only 10 of them, almost all for the Commodore 64.

Every ACS adventure starts with an introductory title card.
I spent a little while on one of them: The Hobbit, by Neil Tiedemen. The description promises to replicate the book. It started predictably in the Shire, with Gandalf as a nearby NPC. I played for a while, but I was confused when I was attacked by another hobbit and had to kill him.

Where are the dwarves?
Later, I got trapped between a troll and a skeleton and I was killed. It seemed like it would have been a serviceable enough game, but I wasn't motivated to restart.

This didn't end well.

Contemporary reviews of the Adventure Construction Set were somewhat bad. The rudest comes from (naturally) a British C64 magazine called ZZAP!64, which made fun of the graphics and lack of sound and called it "a waste of time and money." The mystery of the review comes from the beginning of that sentence, which is, "Compared with programs already available for writing your own adventures...." What programs is the reviewer talking about that existed in 1985?

Much later, in 1989, Orson Scott Card wrote a Compute! article in which he called ACS's adventures "quite playable" but opined that the interface "was designed by the Kludge Monster from the Nethermost Hell." The best review comes from Scorpia, in the February 1989 Computer Gaming World, who extensively discusses the set's flexibility in things like graphic editing and monster behavior, but complains that even a simple project can take a long time to create.

Good or bad, Adventure Construction Set was all we had for a while. Barring some discovery based on the ZZAP!64 quote above, I think the next RPG creation kit was 1991's Bard's Tale Construction Set, followed by Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures (1993). If lists I can find online are exhaustive, there aren't really that many of them. That makes Smith's contribution all the more notable.

Unfortunately, it was his last game. Seeking financial stability, he moved on to other industries in the late 1980s. He left us a small but unique set of titles, and I'm glad I had the chance to play and talk about them all.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Antares: Langsame Fortschritte

I get the ability to travel to several new places.

Since my last post on Antares more than a month ago, all I've accomplished is the exploration of one dungeon--though as we'll see, it appears to be a pivotal moment in the game.

Before I recount my brief adventures, let's recap the plot: my crew of 5 are the only survivors of the Earth spaceship Auriga, which was shot down on the planet Kyrion while trying to figure out what happened to a previous expedition, the Hope. We soon found the Hope's survivors scattered in cave-like dwellings in the area of the planet called Lauree. The small human population is sterile and has no way to leave the planet. We received some intelligence on the alien races. The Vunoren are the iron-fisted rulers of the planet. Two other races, the Umbeken and the Questonaten, serve under the Vunoren and may be fomenting rebellion against them.

I left the opening area via a dungeon called Eriankeller, which connected to a long, linear dungeon called Philgoel-Tunnel. This latter one emerged in a new city, called Nomiris. An exhaustive exploration of Nomiris revealed two more dungeons branching off of it--Sakral and Tiefencastel--as well as a transport hub where I couldn't do anything because I lacked a PIN.

In this session, I explored Sakral, a six-level dungeon. Three of the levels were 5 x 5 squares, but two were larger, more complex diamond shapes.

The 5 levels of Sakral. I just realized there's probably a secret door that I missed in the upper-right of the last one. Damn.
Before I described what happened there, let me explain why exploring dungeons is a logistical nightmare and why I have to force myself to get started with every new session. The first set of difficulties are in-game. As you explore, you have to keep constant attention to a few things: your fatigue level, your hunger level, and your supply of lamps. Of these, hunger is the least perilous, because you can bring some food to cook and there's a good chance that you'll find some food on slain enemies.

Lighting is a little more annoying. Each character only has 6 inventory slots, and 4-5 of them are taken up by weapons, armor, and special items. I might only have 3 or 4 empty slots, total, among my party members at any given time, and a six-level dungeon easily consumes 3-4 halogen lamps.

Fatigue is the worst. It slowly drains for every character except the android and does not last 6 dungeon levels. Inevitably, the characters need to sleep. Unlike most games, you can't just bed down for 8 hours of rest and wake up refreshed. Instead, you sleep in real time, as you explore or stand still. Since there's no place safe from enemy attacks, this is a risky thing to do in a dungeon--but inevitable since this particular dungeon had a one-way door on the third level.

The game warns me that, "From here, there is no turning back!"
The internal logistics, which might just be "challenging" in a satisfying way by themselves, are complicated by external ones. To play the game, I have to have five windows open at all times: the game itself, my Excel map book, the Word document to which I copied the translation you all did, Google Translate for the small bits of text that weren't translated in the big document, and a notepad for taking notes for the blog entry. This is all tough to arrange on a single laptop screen, so I've been saving Antares for when I'm home with my second monitor, which is almost never.

While the game is tile-based, it's not turn-based. Hunger increases, fatigue increases, lamp life decreases, and enemies can attack while standing still. This makes it difficult to take notes, review translations, and add to the map during game time. Yes, there is technically a "pause" function, but the emulator captures the mouse, and anything you do to get it to release the mouse also unpauses the game. I have to remember to move to a different window, then click on the emulator window header (if I click in the middle of the screen, it re-captures the mouse), then hit the "P" key to pause.

Finally, the dungeons feature a lot of small messages in various squares, most of which weren't translated in the commenter document (that's not a criticism; I appreciate all the help you offered). This means I have to type them myself into Google Translate. Of course, while I'm doing that, there's a chance that a random encounter can appear and override the message, forcing me to fight the encounter, win, leave the square, and re-enter to get the message again. This cycle might repeat 3 or 4 times before I finish translating.

I could easily get attacked 5 times while trying to translate this drivel about needing to exercise the mind.
Overall, you can see why it's been tough to prioritize the game. At least one thing is a bit easier: commenter Anym was correct that the scroll bar to the right of the message window controls the text speed. This has been a god-send.

"Once again, you enter the empty, bare rooms of an underground labyrinth. You try to find something positive in that, but most of you are only human...." It's like the game can sense my ennui.

As for Sakral, on Level 3, I encountered the skeleton of a dead inhabitant of Kyrion, chained to the wall. The encounter noted that I found a small steel plate on his wrist that said "KOMC40." I guessed immediately what this was for--more in a bit.

Most of the important stuff was to be found on the final level, where a series of squares brought me face to face with the same Projektion that helped me in the first dungeon. The projection asked me three questions in different squares. In general, they seemed to be tests of the game's lore. For instance, the first was: "Once, she was Kyrion's most important city, but she fell victim to a Vunorian act. She was destroyed, utterly. Only a ruin tells of its former glory." Now, there's some back story here that I didn't know, but overall, I guessed correctly that the answer is LAUREE, the opening, trench-filled map.

The second question, "What does everything on Kyrion revolve around?," was even easier. The answer is the star for which the game is named: ANTARES.

This was a freebie.

It was the third one that stumped me: "They exist as particles--if not in this, then surely another dimension. They have a name--if not in another, then surely in this dimension." At first, I thought the answer must be SCHEMEN, the game's name for those ethereal party members that don't seem to have any physical form. (It translates as "specter.") Alas, that was not it.

Tell me this doesn't seem to fit perfectly.

After trying a few more options, I fear I couldn't help caving in. The translator of this section had put the correct answers in ROT-13 after the text, and it turned out that the answer was TACHYONEN, or "tachyons." Now, I understand what tachyons are, or are supposed to be, but I don't know if this was a straight riddle (if so, a difficult one) or whether I was supposed to find the answer in-game. The translated document doesn't mention tachyonen anywhere else, so I suppose it's the former.

Whatever the case, after I answered the three riddles correction, the projection (which the game seems to call a "she") congratulated me:

Congratulations, you have proven that you're intelligent enough to persist in more dangerous areas. I think that together we could succeed in breaking the dominance of the Vunorians. I possess the knowledge, you possess strength and stamina. And please, don't fret too much about my appearance. I cannot and don't want to divulge my real identity yet. This is safest for me and you as well, rest assured! As a sign of trust I will help you onwards: Travel to Akrillon and seek out an Umbeke named Ranishtar. He counts himself among the most tenacious opponents of the Vunorians and their eons-old friendship with the Umbekes. If you manage to earn his trust and survive long enough, he'll be a great help. But first you'll have to reach him. That he is still alive is proof enough that he's a force to be reckoned with, and a sign that his Questonates will confront you with serious challenges.

The helpful projection moves the quest forward.

As for traveling onward to Akrillon, the path was as I suspected: When I returned to the surface, I re-visited the transport hub and typed KOMC40 when prompted for my PIN. I then got the ability to travel to three new locations: Akrillon, Remoria, or Sistar City. I still have Tiefencastel to explore in Nomiris, though.

Entering the PIN.

A few notes: 

  • There are dozens of odd items found at the end of combats and in stores. Although I've translated some of them several times, I keep forgetting what they are and what they do: megaphon, tokero, poisodan, isolierband, krach-bonbon, marmorbuddha, schutzanzug, refraktor, and so forth. To figure out what they do, you have to ask a technically-skilled character, whose answer of course must be translated and is often somewhat cryptic. Because of these issues, and because of very limited inventory space, I'm probably not getting all the use out of the game's items that I could be. 

A megaphone does mass psychic damage in combat. I'm not sure what the other two items are.

  • As I discussed before, the types of weapons you can carry are limited by your physischer kampf skill. My first two characters are currently brandishing Walther PPKs, which never run out of ammo.

My lead character's current inventory. I'm not 100% sure what any of the first three items are for.
  • Sakral had a lot of secret areas that, in Wizardry tradition, could be entered by walking through a wall. I don't remember any such secret areas in the previous dungeons; I should probably return and check.
  • Nomiris has no items for sale that heal physical or mental damage. I either need to find the items on slain enemies, wait a long time, or trek all the way back to Lauree if I want to get my party to full health.

Although apparently, according to this message, there will be healing available in Remoria.

  • Combat is extremely variable in difficulty, but in general not overly deadly. I've lost more characters to traps than to battles. When a character dies, I've just been reloading rather than make my way all the way back to the beginning of the game and resurrect him in the landing craft.
  • My characters are up to Level 8. I don't really know what leveling does for you. Neither statistics nor skills seem to increase. I suppose maximum health must increase, but you don't see that numerically.

I haven't otherwise included a combat shot in this posting, so here's one.

I remain a bit confused and lost as I play the game, much as I often am when visiting a foreign country. In this case, I haven't been able to determine if my confusion is related to the foreignness of the game, or if the game is just a bit inept. I'd really love to see a native speaker's account of the game and to see whether you have the same issues I do with inventory and the abruptness of the storytelling. Can I persuade any of you to fire it up?

Time so far: 17 hours 
Reload count: 23