Demoniak

Demoniak is a 1991 text adventure that I mainly think of as Suspended taken to an extreme: it has a cast of about 50 characters, acting autonomously in the world, and with only a few exceptions, you can switch control to any of them at any time, including the antagonists. There’s a core team of five heroes with special powers, although only one of them thinks of herself as a superhero. Their mission is to stop a dimensional breach that will allow Demoniak, god of destruction, to enter our world and wreak havoc. The overall feel is one of comically over-the-top and somewhat puerile sci-fi brutality and nihilism, like an old 2000 AD comic — which is no coincidence; the credited writer is regular Judge Dredd writer Alan Grant.

I’ve written about a failed attempt at playing Demoniak before; basically, it uses key-word copy protection, prompting the player for words from specific pages of the manual, and my copy of the game is on an ill-thought-out shovelware disc that includes the manual only as plain text, unpaginated, making the key words impossible to find. At the time, one of my readers mailed me a cracked copy. I still have that email, but gmail now refuses to let me download the attachment, claiming it’s malware. Ah well. Fortunately, there’s another solution now: a PDF of the original manual can easily be found online.

Even with that overcome, it’s a difficult game to get started in. It lacks conveniences like scrollback and undo, and it doesn’t use the familiar Infocom-derived shorthand: I, for example, doesn’t take inventory, X is short for “list exits” rather than “examine”, and issuing commands to other characters is done with quotation marks, like SONDRA “FOLLOW ME”, rather than with a comma, like SONDRA, FOLLOW ME. (In fact, the in-game help leaves out the space, like SONDRA”FOLLOW ME”, making it feel even stranger.) And even ignoring all that, it took me multiple restarts to cope with the mere mechanics of operating in this world. It’s very easy to miss essential exposition just because you’re in the wrong room, or inhabiting the wrong body, or fumbling around with inventory instead of following events as they happen. I feel like this isn’t a game you can simply play through once, that the first sessions have to be all about learning how to play it. The manual explicitly suggests making the hero characters attack each other for no reason, just to try their powers out. I have to remind myself that I’ve been over this hump before, that all adventure games were like this once.

The thing is, the gameworld operates on Melbourne-House-Hobbit-like proceduralism. Those 50-or-so characters are going through their routines all the time, whatever that may mean. It might be a good idea to spend a few sessions just inhabiting various NPCs to figure out what’s going on. Or not actually switching to control them, because if you do that, they stop performing their automatic actions. But there’s a better alternative: Sondra Houdini, the psychic party member, who can read people’s minds even at interplanetary distances. This puts the game into a split-screen mode, letting you see everything a character sees without controlling them. I’ll give that a solid try before my next post.

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