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.

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.

Once and Future: True Names

With the hard-bought help of the fairy queen, I’ve only just made it back to Avalon, and can now travel freely between the two realms. So, back to the main quest. But first, let’s reflect briefly on what I’ve come through.

This game was written at a time when Infocom was still the dominant paradigm for IF, which means there are some gratuitous mechanical puzzles, including at one point a Lights Out. Over the years, I’ve come to dislike Lights Out as a pointless waste of time almost as much as Towers of Hanoi, but at least it’s used in a somewhat clever variation here. And anyway, at least the clarity of intent in such puzzles makes it difficult to get truly stuck. I did spend a good few hours stuck on a couple of puzzles in fairyland, but it was always the environmental ones, where it wasn’t obvious what my options were.

The game is full of folkloric and fairy-tale stuff, with a notable repeated motif of Frank being turned into various animals against his will. It seems to be related to the dehumanizing effects of war, particularly in the climax of the Fairyland chapter. There, a masked and antlered being called the Hunter, who had made attempts on your life earlier, decides to keep you as an attack dog instead. And this is notable for a number of reasons. First, it’s the one transformation that you’re capable of actively resisting. Second, it’s one of the few times that the random misadventures tie together, referring back to earlier events — and not just to the earlier murder attack: unmasked, the Hunter turns out to be an elf woman you’d also encountered in a different context. Pieces suddenly come together to form a story, one of someone who can’t bear to be ignored, who will satisfied with being your killer, lover, or master, as long as she’s your something. And the solution, the way to save yourself from her domination? You first have to witness her. To view her life, her story from childhood onward, rather than relating to her purely as an obstacle. It’s only in these flashbacks that you learn her name.

And that makes me think of what I said in my last post about the little girl who Joe killed. Joe is referenced again in this sequence, as one of many whose mortal remains decorate the Hunter’s lair. I’m starting to suspect that sequence may have been subtler than I gave it credit for.

There’s at least one other young girl who needs rescuing: the Oracle back in Avalon, a seven-year-old manacled to a throne, breathing volcanic fumes and giving cryptic hints on a number of topics. I actually broke sequence on this a little inadvertently: in conversations with True Thomas (the fairy queen’s human lover/advisor, who can only speak the truth), Frank references a dialogue with the Oracle on how to free her that I hadn’t actually had yet. When you do free her, there’s a moment when Frank calls her by name, despite him never having learned it — and for once, the game calls him out on it, makes it clear that this slip-up is deliberate. What is going on?

Once and Future: Tour of Duty

That initial island with the unicorn and the fairy ring turns out to be smaller than I had thought, and also a smaller portion of the game as a whole than I thought. My experiences since my last post have been defined by a game design pattern you might call One Damn Thing After Another. I know I have goals waiting for me back on Avalon if I ever find my way back there, but in the meantime, everything has been a chain of events where I’m trapped or in danger and have to solve a puzzle or two to get out of that situation and into a different one where I’m also trapped or in danger.

This has included a sequence where Frank returns to reality as a sort of ghost at various points in time, witnessing a environmentally-ravaged future, seeing what terrible things befell the brothers-in-arms who Frank gave his life for. So, there’s the answer to what I was wondering in my last post. It’s here that the influence of Infocom’s Trinity becomes clearest, except that where Trinity is all about inescapable self-causing time loops, the whole point of this section in Once and Future is changing fate. Your interventions into the lives of individual soldiers prove it’s possible, which means you can also do it on the larger scale.

There’s one vignette that I found striking for its priorities and perspective. One of Frank’s buddies, Joe, goes into an irreversible decline after he’s too quick on the trigger and kills a young Vietnamese girl. You have to prevent this from coming to pass. The thing is, this is all framed not as saving the little girl, but as saving Joe. The girl isn’t even given a name, because she fundamentally doesn’t matter except as a bit-player in Joe’s story. The game is basically anti-war, but it still privileges the experience of American soldiers.

After this whole foray into reality, the game breaks the mood by throwing you into Fairyland, which is even more whimsy-magical than Avalon was, and so jam-packed with wonders that it becomes a little monotonous. But this time, the darkness is more exposed. It isn’t just magical, it’s mercurial, and irrational in a threatening way. Frank has to make ill-advised bargains with a witch, and then, to escape the consequences, with a demon. There may be metaphors for Vietnam in that, but even if not, there’s definitely a mood.

But if you want metaphors, here’s a bigger one: The game’s opening makes it seem like it’s providing the main setting that you’ll be exploring, gives you goals that only make sense there. I’ve been torn away from that setting, and I’m starting to doubt if I’ll ever return.

Once and Future

Kevin Wilson is today probably best known for his work in board games, with over 100 design credits listed at boardgamegeek.com. Back in the 90s, though, he was a prominent member of the amateur Interactive Fiction community — in fact, he created the annual IFComp in 1995, which has since become an entrenched institution and one of the longest-running regular events in the world of game development. When he first started writing IF, he had grand plans. Adopting the company name Vertigo Software, he teased planned titles on Usenet: one about rationing oxygen in a space emergency, another about a blind person being stalked, another about rebellion against a future dystopia — all themes that have been tackled by IFComp entries, so in a way, he did bring these ideas to fruition. He never released them himself, though. Writing a full-sized game turned out to be a much larger task than he had anticipated, and the only projected Vertigo Software title to be completed was Once and Future (originally titled Avalon in these early announcements), a story of an American soldier in Vietnam transported to a realm of Arthurian magic on his death. Perhaps appropriately, it was one of the two titles to get a physical-media release from Mike Berlyn’s Cascade Mountain Publishing, another of the medium’s great bit-off-more-than-he-could-chew stories.

Today, you can get the game for free from the IF Archive, and indeed, that is the version I’m currently playing. But I did purchase the CD-ROM version back in the day, with its collection of printed feelies: various letters concerning Private Frank Leandro, his death, his relationships back home. These feelies are largely the reason I never played past the game’s intro: I felt like I should read the letters first, and a couple of them are in difficult handwriting — difficult enough to make me put it off for more than twenty years. I shouldn’t have bothered; the letters don’t really add anything to the experience, and seem like an afterthought. On top of that, once you’ve deciphered Frank’s scrawls, the game itself starts with an entire page of its own hard-to-read text: an account of Arthur’s final hours in archaic spelling, like “Take thou here Excalyber, my good swerde, and go wyth hit to yondir watirs syde”. I actually read all the way through Le Morte D’Arthur as a youth — cover to cover, even including the interminable tournament scenes — but the edition I read modernized the spelling, even as it kept the 15th-century grammar and vocabulary. I greatly prefer that approach for texts like this: it preserves the antique flavor without interfering excessively with comprehension.

At any rate, Frank is currently still carrying out his initial reconnoiter of the isle of Avalon, which seems to be grid-based and sparse, like an old Sierra game. Here a fairy ring, there a unicorn, Mordred lounging about insulting you at one juncture. At the very beginning, you’re issued several quests: purify the Holy Grail and recover Excalibur and the sheath and belt that go with it. The whole situation is disconnected enough from Frank’s life that it makes me wonder why he was assigned one in the first place. Why a soldier in Vietnam? I trust the author enough to believe that an answer will be revealed eventually, but it’s obscure right now. Apart from a brief mention of his sweetheart back home, Frank’s character hasn’t been particularly reflected in the room and object descriptions. The only thing indicating that he isn’t a natural part of this setting is the army fatigues and dog tag in his inventory.

IFComp 2020 Conclusions

And that’s a wrap! There were 104 entries, initially. One was disqualified for having been released previously. Three were one game in disguise. And there’s one I wasn’t allowed to vote on because I had beta-tested it. That left a nice round 100 games for me to judge, and I actually managed to judge them all, and post about half of them. I didn’t say this before, because I wanted the freedom to change my mind if it didn’t work well, but I had a system for this: I’d play two items from my randomized list, and then choose one of them to write about before proceeding to the next two. I actually think taking them in pairs like this helped me to choose votes, but I also think that the sheer size of the list meant that my standards drifted over the span of it. But that’s why we randomize.

Some notable trends observed this year: Multiple games where you play as a disembodied spirit. Multiple games that don’t have a player character in the conventional sense at all. An unusual amount of Asian representation compared to previous Comps. More serial killer stories than I’d like. Two games where you gradually discover evidence that you’re a vampire, which struck me as a funny coincidence considering how different those two games are otherwise. Several games based on semi-abstract card-game-like rule systems, replacing the player freedom of a full-on parser and the authorial freedom of hypertext with a small but consistent set of actions, where the player spends the first half of the game figuring out the rules and the second half applying them to optimize numbers. It’s worth noting that this experience is basically what the first text adventures were like before we all got used to their conventions.

One trend I find particularly interesting is the number of games that use Twine, or another choice-based interface, to make old-school adventure games based around puzzles, inventory, and free exploration of multiple rooms. It’s not a combination I would have expected to be popular. I always sort of thought that this specific form of description and interaction, the “medium-sized dry goods” model, ubiquitous in games but not particularly in non-interactive fiction, is a product of the underlying technology in ways that don’t really apply to Twine. But apparently people like that model enough to go to some effort to produce it in places where it’s neither necessary nor automatic. And when you see what they’re doing with the combination, it has clear advantages! Eliminating the parser helps to keep the interactivity focused on the meaningful and contextually appropriate. It’s clearly still an area where the basics are still being experimented with, though.

I haven’t more than glanced at other people’s reviews yet, so I don’t have a good sense of what the winner will be. My own top-rated games were Academic Pursuits and The Impossible Bottle, but Pursuits is far more accessible, so that’s my guess. The main thing limiting it is that it’s shorter than Comp-winners tend to be. A Rope of Chalk and A Murder in Fairyland are also strong contenders. Anyway, we’ll have answers soon enough. My prediction for the Golden Banana of Discord (the unofficial award for the game whose ratings have the highest standard deviation) is either Amazing Quest or You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf, both of which I expect to be polarizing.

I’ve spent a substantial chunk of this year judging this Comp and neglecting other projects to do it. I will very likely skip next year, especially if growth trends continue and it winds up in the neighborhood of 120 entries. Maybe I’ll blog the Spring Thing instead. That’s still relatively small.

IFComp 2020: The Knot

The Comp is on its last day. Let’s take one last look at a game that I previously judged without knowing its full extent. You won’t find The Knot in the list of entries, because it’s spread out over three games: “Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane” by Willershin Rill, “Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!” by Tarquin Segundo, and the one I had written up previously, “Terror in the Immortal’s Atelier” by Gevelle Formicore. (The title The Knot is used in the closing credits for the whole.) Note that the author names are part of the title. The putative authors are just as fictional as the game content; each nonsense word they’re composed of, “Willershin” and “Formicore” and so forth, is used in the other two games in some other capacity, as the name of a fantastic creature or a lost civilization or whatever.

The three games are in different genres: fantasy, space opera, Indiana-Jones-style tomb raiding. But they’re exceedingly similar, fitting their content into the same patterns, even reusing essentially the same intro text and room description, just swapping out some words to fit the genre. The connection between them couldn’t be clearer, and the only reason that I missed it when I played Atelier is that I hadn’t even noticed the existence of the other two games yet. The titles even strive to minimize this possibility of this happening: because they all start with quotation marks, they get listed together when alphabetized. But my IFComp account is set up to randomize the order by default (the better to give every game a fair shake), and the unprecedentedly large number of entries made it easy to lose sight of them. So, bad luck there.

The reuse of names had me wondering if the three works were set in the same world at three points in time. Is Dr. Chirlu, the “action scientist” who worked on creating a powerful energy source known as the Knot, the same person as Autarch Chirlu, who rules his world with an iron fist, using a mysterious artifact known as the Knot to maintain his immortality? I don’t think that works, though, because the same words are sometimes used with completely different meanings. “Ilfane”, for example, is a legendary hero in one game, an invading alien race in another, and the device housing the Knot in the third. There is, however, some suggestion of connections between the worlds beyond just the presence of an immensely powerful object called the Knot. Like when the tomb of Ilfane contains a representation of the solar system where the spaceship Teresten is. And it is these connections that form the basis of the puzzles.

As with the fact that the games are connected, the game goes out of its way to make the puzzle clues really, really obvious, to the point of putting “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT CLUE” in flashing letters at the top of the page and saying “Perhaps you should take a note of this if you ever come across [situation found in another game]” afterward. I have a better suggestion than taking notes, though: these games are best played simultaneously, in three browser tabs or, even better, if you have enough screen space, three browser windows, side by side. That way, when you find a clue, you can keep it on the screen while you play the other two games, looking for the puzzle it’s a clue for.

Anyway, there’s not a lot of game past the point of noticing the connections I’ve just described, completely spoiling the experience of discovering them. Two of the games don’t properly end in themselves, just leaving you hanging on a page with a final clue that you need to reach the ending of all three stories in the third. This goes a step beyond the Hat Mystery and into Broken Age territory: a story that needs to exploit the meta to conclude, its characters sharing information through the player that they have no possible in-world source for — unless you consider that they’re sharing it via the one thing they all have access to, the Knot. Which fits at the meta level as well, because, as I’ve said, the Knot is the name for the conjunction of the three games. It’s been said that the ultimate goal of every game is to destroy the world by bringing it to a successful conclusion. Here, the Knot, the in-world manifestation of the trilogy of games, solves all of its protagonists’ problems by deleting itself from their worlds, right at the point where the player’s interactivity ends.

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