Archive for June, 2021

Demoniak: Getting Things Together

My last post probably made Demoniak sound easier than it is. Not everything can be accomplished by switching characters. On the default-second planet, Fundamenta, your primary task is to find a hermit named, of all things, Salman Rushdie — presumably not the famous author, given that the game is set a hundred years in the future (which is to say, 2090) — to learn the whereabouts of an artifact you need. I can land my heroes on Fundamenta. I can switch control to Rushdie and exit his hermit-hole. I cannot seem to bring them together. The set of rooms that each has access to have no obvious connection. They may as well be in disjoint worlds.

And that raises an interesting point: that even when you “become” Rushdie, you don’t have access to his knowledge. Same goes for Doctor Cortex, and for the warden on Freezyassov. They all have knowledge of secrets, but the only way for the player to learn those secrets is to bring the characters into contact with the right other characters and observe the resulting automatic conversation.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to regard the anything-goes-ness as more a liability than an opportunity, a way for random combat to interfere with what you’re actually trying to do. Sometimes I’ll switch back to the heroes to discover that one of them got killed while I wasn’t looking. I don’t know who’s picking these fights, but I have suspicions about Sondra Houdini. I’m starting to think I should just get all the supernumerary guards and the like killed in advance by making them fight each other before the heroes enter the scene. But what if one of them knows something?

Demoniak: Am I Doing This Right?

At the beginning of Demoniak, the player controls one Johnny Sirius, whose half-alien parentage allegedly gives him incredible physical prowess, as he arrives late to a meeting called by Doctor Cortex, an alleged genius with an enormous brain and a stunted body who floats around in a MODOK chair. Cortex has a plan to destroy Demoniak’s poprtal into our world by building “the Ultimate Bomb”, which involves retrieving things from two planets, which you can visit in either order. By default, the first is the planet Freezyassov, the ice-covered site of a special prison for special prisoners, where we seek a decommissioned war robot named B-52. The warden denies he’s still there, but we know for a fact that he’s lying — I can simply switch control to B-52 and observe that he’s in his cell.

What do you do about this? Well, you have options. There are some ingredients for adventure-game puzzles lying around: a laundry bag containing a guard’s uniform, for example, and some documentation for the various pipes leading from the site’s power plant. Or you could just start fighting everyone. The game’s combat system isn’t very detailed, but it clearly wants you to use it; too many characters are defined in terms of their superlative combat skills for you not to mash them together like action figures. And once you’ve beat up the guards sufficiently, you can take their keys.

Or you can just, y’know, switch control to the guy who has the keys to B-52’s cell and let him out. That’s the simplest solution. It’s not quite as easy as I’m making it sound, because you can only control one guard at a time, and the others sometimes object to what you’re doing. But not nearly as often as you’d think!

I have some slight qualms about this approach. The manual tells me that it’s possible to win the game entirely as Johnny Sirius, without ever switching control. By abusing the character-switching system, am I subverting authorial intention, missing out on the story they wanted to tell? But then, if they didn’t want me to take advantage of it, they wouldn’t have put it in. I think of the action-figures metaphor again. This game isn’t a story so much as a playhouse to mess around in.

The Art of Demoniak

I’ve played Demoniak only a slight amount since yesterday, so I’m just going to take a moment to describe a very slight feature of the game: the graphics. This is fundamentally a text adventure, but it has occasional full-screen interstitial graphics, either character portraits or establishing shots of locations, displayed just long enough for you to press a key. I’m guessing they took a significant time to load on the original hardware. Also, there’s an intro with a certain amount of animation. In the PC version, the intro is actually a completely separate executable from the game proper; the official way to launch the whole thing, documented in the manual, is to run a .bat file that executes the intro and then the game.

And the thing is, the pictures mainly serve to make the whole thing seem a little more amateurish. They’re the sort of illustrations that I can imagine thinking were the coolest thing you’d ever seen when your classmate in middle school draws them. Lots of squiggly spikes and lumpy gradients, relatively little thought to composition or readability. The irony is that this is the stuff that they had to use in all their promotional screenshots, even though it’s really not representative of the game’s content, because the alternative was to just show screenfuls of text, which would have turned people off even more.


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.

Once and Future: Then and Now

It turns out that it’s possible to finish most of the main quests in Avalon before the detour through Fairyland. I just happened to solve the puzzles that led to getting stuck in Fairyland before doing much of anything else, and this skewed my perception of the story. I could have purified the grail first thing, if I’d had more patience. I could have awakened Merlin first, and gotten answers a lot earlier about what was going on, what I was supposed to be doing and why. That might have grounded my adventures more.

Or maybe not. The truth is frankly bizarre: to save the world from the doom you’ve foreseen, you have to accompany Merlin to present-day Stonehenge to tap into its magic, so he can cast a spell to send you back in time to exorcise and slay the demon possessing Lee Harvey Oswald before he assassinates Kennedy. I guess this means real life is still on the bad timeline. There’s some suggestion that Frank is, too: the ending hints that even in the midst of your hard-earned happily-ever-after, your travails aren’t over.

Or at least, the ending I got does so. Apparently there are multiple endings, depending on what decisions you made and which optional puzzles you solved along the way. I don’t think there’s a great deal of variability in Fairyland, but in Avalon, there was an entire puzzle sequence about slaying a dragon that I simply never solved. Consulting a walkthrough afterward, I find it has to do with Excalibur’s ability to summon spirits the dead. Not a power I recall seeing elsewhere in Arthurian literature, but I did see it mentioned in this game by multiple sources, so I knew it was possible. Nonetheless, no matter who I tried to summon, it simply failed. It turns out that the only summonable spirits are Launcelot and Galahad, and Merlin would have told me this if I had asked him about the right topic. I can’t be too upset about this, though, because you can win the game perfectly well without them.

But I’m not inclined to pursue the other endings and see if they’re better, because that would require redoing the entire Stonehenge sequence, which is the single most tedious part of the game. Stonehenge is represented as a grid of rooms, with individual stones and trilithons implemented as objects, and you’re expected to examine them individually to find the marks Merlin needs for his spell. There’s a modicum of interesting commentary in the rock descriptions, but I suspect that the gameplay here was invented to justify the effort that went into the implementation, rather than to serve the player experience. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad the second time around, though, when you know where everything is. That’s one of the nice things about text adventures: the ease with which you can breeze through the familiar parts. I just gripe because I’m playing from the perspective of the year 2021, where wasting the player’s time and attention is less easily forgiven than it was in 1998.

Meanwhile, the Dallas section uses the division of space into more rooms than necessary in a way that I thought fit the story quite neatly. You’re on a race against time to reach the book depository before it’s too late, so of course this requires more steps than you want it to. That’s exactly what it would feel like.

Anyway, even from a 2021 perspective, I did enjoy this game overall. I just enjoyed it more in the Fairyland section, where the puzzles are stronger and the story is more stylized. The whole story is built around an incongruous juxtaposition, but the end notes indicate that the author was more interested in using Frank Leandro to talk about King Arthur than in using King Arthur to talk about Frank Leandro, and it shows.