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

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.

Demoniak: Giving Up at Getting Started

Today, another random pick from my catalog of titles I own on CD-ROM.

Demoniak is one of the few commercially-published text adventures I own but haven’t completed. Created by comics writer Alan Grant in 1991, it’s a sci-fi/superhero story mostly remembered for the novelty that it let the player switch control at any time to any character — even antagonists. I obtained it some years after its original release, when Memorex of all companies re-released it in a 2-pack CD-ROM bundle with Darkseed, a graphic adventure based on the paintings of H. R. Giger.

This was clearly a hasty bit of shovelware, because it failed to account for Demoniak’s copy protection. It uses a key word system: at some randomized point within the first dozen or so turns, it prompts the player to type in the Xth word from line Y of page Z of the manual, and refuses to proceed until you get it right. Memorex provided the entire contents of the manual as a text file, but since it’s not paginated, this is of limited use. (Plus, the game occasionally asks for a word from something other than the manual, such as the box or the diskettes.) I suspect that few people noticed this problem. The people responsible for the package presumably tried at most a command or two to make sure that it was working, and probably most of the customers quit the moment they realized that it was a text adventure, something that the packaging tried to obscure.

I already knew all this when I pulled it from my box of games abandoned for technical reasons, but I was hoping that the internet would help me. I mean, it’s 2012. Someone, somewhere, had to have either cracked this game or posted a list of the key words somewhere. Alas, the internet failed me. Even when I found Demoniak on abandonware sites, it was uncracked, and accompanied by less documentation than Memorex provided.

There was a time when my usual response to key word copy protection would be to hack it out. Generally speaking, it’s the easiest kind of copy protection to hack: somewhere in the code, there’s got to be a point where it compares your input to a target string and conditionally branches to success or failure, so once you’ve identified that point (by tracing through the execution with an assembly-language debugger), all you have to do is replace the conditional branch with an unconditional one (or a no-op, as appropriate). But a game whose chief mode of interaction is text is likely to process its key word input by the same means as all other input in the game, and messing with the parser seems risky, even if the game isn’t programmed in its own proprietary byte code format like the Infocom games were.

Today, I’ve gone as far as to install a debugger anyway, just so I can look at memory where the game has unpacked its strings and try to find something promising. But I’ve had no luck yet. If anyone reading this has access to a Demoniak manual, or any other means of bypassing the copy protection, help would be appreciated. I promise my copy is legitimate.