IFComp 2020: Amazing Quest

I’ve been making a point of not mentioning authors’ names in my Comp writeups this year, so as to keep my attention on the content of the game under consideration rather than its place within an oeuvre. But I’m going to have to make an exception here. I don’t think this game can be properly understood without that context. Indeed, I don’t fully understand it with that context either.

Nick Montfort is a respected name in the IF community, known for both his use of wordplay in IF and his scholarly analysis of the form. He’s also a poet, a procedural generation enthusiast, and one of the few people still writing programs in Commodore 64 BASIC — often minimalist one-line things that are meant to be appreciated as poems, source code and effect together.

Amazing Quest, then, is at an intersection of these interests. It’s a twelve-line C64 BASIC program, played within a provided emulator, that purports to represent an Odysseus-like hero trying to return home after a great victory. On each turn, it gives you a setup like “You alight on a dry outpost” or “You detect a pious port”, the words clearly fitted together on the fly. You then have one of a handful of possible actions suggested — “Sneak up and raid?-Y/n”, or “Send gifts?”, or “Sacrifice to the gods?”, or a few other possibilities. (Reading the source code afterward made me aware of something I hadn’t noticed while playing: all of the possible actions begin with S.) Possible outcomes include winning loot of various kinds, being attacked and losing a ship, or just witnessing a randomly-selected wonder. After enough iterations of this, you finally get home, and the program exits to the C64 BASIC command line, where you can type LIST and view the source code. It’s too long to fit on the screen all at once in that form, though.

When starting to play this, it’s natural to try to strategize, to look for patterns that will let you know when it’s beneficial to raid and where the gods prefer sacrifices and so forth. But it doesn’t take long to get the impression that it’s just completely random and that it doesn’t matter what you choose. Reading the source code bears this out. The outcome of each turn is simply a die roll, unaffected by either the situation or your choice — your input is simply disregarded, making the designation “interactive fiction” questionable. It’s interactive in the same way that a slot machine is interactive, except that a slot machine has meaningful payoffs, and the outcome of a scenario here is purely cosmetic, and forgotten immediately.

But — and here’s where I start wondering about authorial intent — the entire thing is accompanied by a “strategy guide” giving spurious advice like “As you continue to play and imagine your journey in more and more detail, you will have a better basis for your choices” and “GIFTS will be more welcome in some places. You also need to consider if you’ve suffered recent losses, depleting what you have to offer.” Is it all a troll, a joke at the player’s expense? An experiment to see whether state tracking is really necessary? Either way, it fails somewhat by being too obvious. Or maybe you’re expected to suss it out, and the whole thing is a critique of how games exploit pareidolia. For that matter, it could be read as reflecting its source material: the ancient epics that attribute everything to the will of gods now generally regarded as figments. There’s a bit of tragic sympathy to be found in a player character who never notices the meaninglessness that’s obvious to the player.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, victim of pareidolia around the game if not within it. But I do think that, as a poet, Montfort is capable of creating a piece like this with multiple meanings in mind. If nothing else, it’s a strong contender for the Banana.


I recently read Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam, a book about the Atari 2600, with a particular focus on how the games written for it were affected by the limitations and affordances of its rather odd hardware design. I highly recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. The Atari 2600 was my childhood console, and reading about it made me nostalgic enough to pull out a game written specifically to prey on this very nostalgia.

The original Combat was the first cartridge to be bundled with the 2600, and, along with Pong, one of the two games that the platform was specifically designed around. Apparently it was an adaptation and extension of an arcade game called Tank, although the cartridge also featured airplane modes. It was a 2D shooter that required two players — there was no expectation of computer-controlled opponents in those days. Matches lasted exactly two minutes and 16 seconds — I have no idea why they chose that specific number — at the end of which whoever got the most hits on the other guy won. Some playfields had obstacles that blocked movement and fire, others were completely open. It was all very simple and abstract: the tanks were single-colored and blocky, the walls even moreso.

But that’s not what I’m playing. I’m playing the 2001 remake, part of the wave of “classic” game remakes that hit the stores around that time. And of all the remakes I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the game it’s based on. It’s a single-player level-based 3D shooter, where the goal on each level is to reach an exit point. The designers kept the tanks (and ditched the airplanes), they adapted the simple abstractness into a sort of Tron-like stylization, and they kept the complete lack of backstory (a laudable decision, and one made by too few of these remakes). Everything else about the original, they just ignored.

And honestly, if it had been up to me, I’d probably have made similar decisions. I suppose that Team Fortress 2 has proved that pure time-limited PvP combat is still viable, if you’re willing to spend years honing it. But this game was made with the constraint of trying to be recognizable as Combat, and that must be difficult for a modern game. Even the most formulaic adaptation possible (which this one is pretty close to being) has to add an awful lot. Heck, a formulaic adaptation has to add more than a clever one, because the original was made with a mindset so far-removed from where the game industry eventually wound up going. I’ve joked before that the general formula for the remakes churned out during this period was to just support 3D acceleration in some way and add power-ups, but the original Combat doesn’t just lack 3D and power-ups, it lacks basic concepts like levels, and lives, and an ending.