DROD: User Interface

drod-doorsI’ve come to really like the improvements that have been made to the DROD user interface. Basically, each episode makes more information available.

For example, one of the basic mechanisms in DROD is orbs that open, close, or toggle gates when struck. The City Beneath also has pressure plates that do the same when trod on (which means you can trigger them from a distance by inducing monsters to walk over them). But the orbs and pressure plates are not necessarily near the gates they affect. In the original DROD, if there were multiple orbs in a room, the only way to know what they did was to try them out, which you could only do for the ones that are acessible at any moment.

Well, ever since Journey to Rooted Hold, you can click on these controls to highlight the doors they affect, in colors indicating whether it opens, closes, or toggles each door. I didn’t use this feature much when I learned about it, but it’s become a very big deal. One of the basic DROD room patterns is making the player hit a series of checkpoints in a specific order by giving each an orb that unlocks the door to the next. With the new UI, I can know in advance the order I’ll have to hit them in, and plan accordingly. Even in rooms where all the orbs are accessible from the beginning, it’s nice to not have to try them all out (and possibly render the puzzle unsolvable in the process because you let the cockroaches out too early or something).

Once they implemented this click-to-highlight system, the designers started using it in various other ways, such as clicking on an Evil Eye to show its line of sight, or (new in The City Beneath) clicking on a bomb to highlight the area that will be affected by its blast. This was never secret information. All bombs in the game have the same blast radius. So displaying that radius on demand is just a convenience. You know something? Conveniences are nice.

I actually didn’t notice most of these features in Journey to Rooted Hold, which wasn’t as aggressive about pointing them out as the new episode, but there was one enhancement that was hard to not notice: it added a clock to the screen whenever there was a timed event pending. Mainly this meant timing the spawn cycle of Roach Queens and Tar Mothers, both of which cause new stuff to appear every 30 turns. Knowing exaclty how soon that’s going to happen is often crucial, and it was easy to lose track when playing the original DROD.

The general principle here is that providing easy access to crucial information helps the player, by making the process of solving the puzzles easier, but doesn’t actually make the puzzle itself easier. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but an important one, and one that’s illuminated by my recent experiences with Roberta Williams’ Time Zone. Williams chose to make things inconvenient for the player, making you reload saves and do things over again because you used the wrong weapon or brought the wrong selection of objects into the endgame. She chose this, I think, because she was trying to create a difficult game, and the understanding of the time did not differentiate between difficulty in solving a game and difficulty in playing it.

The designers of DROD have a better idea of what their gameplay is about. It’s not about keeping secrets from the player. It’s about applying known rules in complex and novel ways.

drod-tar1It’s interesting, then, that they still choose to retain the possibility of hiding information in some ways. Let me explain: I’ve just reached the point in The City Beneath where the Living Tar makes its appearance. Living Tar, and its variant Awakened Mud, form DROD‘s version of ooze monsters. In its simplest state, tarstuff (the word applies to both forms) lies in inert pools covering multiple tiles, not crossable and only partially vulnerable to attack: Tar is invlunerable on its convex corners, while Mud is invulnerable everywhere but its corners. Either must be cleared away one tile at a time.

Now, until cleared, tarstuff conceals any terrain features in the tiles it occupies, including orbs, pressure plates, gates, and even walls. This is significant information-hiding. The original King Dugan’s Dungeon had some puzzles that relied on tarstuff’s concealing properties. For example, there was a maze completely covered in tar, which you had to cut carefully lest you wind up with an invulnerable tar corner blocking the path you needed to take. This isn’t really in the DROD style as I’ve described it above, but it’s typical for the first game in a series to have a few klunkers.

drod-tar2The City Beneath provides a way to see what’s under tarstuff, but it isn’t a user-interface feature like the other things I’ve been describing. Rather, there’s an in-game “token”, a special tile type that effectively gives Beethro X-ray vision when activated, rendering all tarstuff translucent.

I can think of three possible reasons why tarstuff visibility isn’t handled through a simple click like the other new information features. First, it could be that there will at some later point be puzzles that rely on concealing information with tarstuff. I hope this isn’t the case, because it’s difficult to imagine the result being anything more than a guessing-game, and I think the DROD designers are past that now. Second, it could be that the designers wanted to preserve the ability to play levels created in the older engines without drastically altering the play experience. I don’t know that that’s a great priority for them, though: surely some of those old levels are drastically altered by the ability to click on an orb to see what it does. Third, it could just be the difficulty of creating a user interface to deal with it reasonably. If you click on tarstuff to see under it, and you click on orbs to see what they affect, how do you see what’s affected by an orb concealed by tarstuff?

The Dark Crystal: Final Thoughts

dark_crystal-endHas it really been more than a week since my last post? Believe it or not, I haven’t abandoned the Oath. I just haven’t played any Stack games in the last week, owing to a confluence of (a) tax preparation, (b) nice weather, (c) the release of the new DROD demo (about which more soon), and (d) a certain amount of dread about continuing The Dark Crystal from where I left off, stuck near the end on one of those one-turn guess-right-or-die puzzles that plagued Time Zone. A nudge from a list of recognized verbs got me through that one, and the rest of the game was smooth sailing, aside from some more difficulties guessing the right commands to do things that I knew I needed to do. This game seemed to have that problem more than the other two games, perhaps because of the way that the necessary actions were chosen to fit a pre-existing story rather than designed to fit the game engine.

The guess-the-verb problem is basically how most people remember text adventures. This may seem like an ignorant prejudice to a fan of modern IF, but it has its foundation in these older games. Especially the early illustrated games, where, as I’ve said, the emphasis in development was on the pictures rather than the gameplay, the story, or the prose. I keep being reminded of the ad campaign that Infocom ran in 1983, extolling the ability of prose to create more vivid images than graphics. Sierra’s games were a large part of the reason this was so convincing at the time.

And yet, I think that if you wanted to make a better adaptation of the movie, the graphics, not the prose, is the main thing you’d have to improve here. The Dark Crystal is a more visual movie than many, and the Apple II is stretched to its limits just making a skeksis recognizable as a skeksis and a landstrider as a landstrider. It must have taken a great deal of work to get it even this far — creating graphics was a laborious process in the days before the mouse, and it looks to me like this game contains far more vectors per illustration than its predecessors. But even if you filled the game with still frames from the actual film at full cinema resolution, it would be less than satisfying: the puppeteer’s art is about movement. To really do this movie justice, you need animation.

I understand that there’s a sequel to The Dark Crystal in the works. I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially with the original creators uninvolved, but I definitely look forward to the inevitable game based on it. May it be a better representation of Froud and Henson’s world than this one.

The Dark Crystal: Plot and Characters

dark_crystal-chamberlainI’ve reached the point in the story where Kira, the female lead, shows up. This makes all of the background illustrations different. They could have generalized the problem of adding another gelfling to all the pictures by overlaying an unvarying image of Kira on the same images, like they do with dropped objects. But they chose not to, and it’s probably a good thing. Unless the room graphics are very uniform in layout — which they’re not in this game — that approach frequently winds up displaying things floating in the air or in the middle of a river or something. I wonder again if the experiences gained in making this game led to King’s Quest, with its uniform perspective and sprite-based engine.

Kira’s presence causes the landstriders, which have been present in one room thoughout the game, to suddenly become ridable, something I don’t think I’d have guessed without knowledge of the movie. The Dark Crystal follows the movie pretty closely. It inserts puzzles into the movie’s framework — for example, you have to solve a puzzle to find the double flute that Jen was playing in the movie’s first shot of him — but a significant amount of the game consists of simply replicating Jen’s actions from the movie. The whole thing would probably be bewildering to someone who hadn’t seen the original, but that’s really to be expected. It’s a rare adaptation that really stands on its own. But here, we have the additional handicap of lacking one crucial piece of the game designer’s art, one that hadn’t really been developed yet at this early juncture: cut scenes.

Yes, cut scenes. Strange to think that there was a time before them, seeing what a simple idea they really are, but it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1980s that they started showing up to any significant degree. It just wasn’t part of people’s idea of how games worked. And without some means of showing things that aren’t happening to the player character, this game has to leave out everything that goes on in the Skeksis castle before Jen gets there. That’s a big chunk of the plot. Instead, the Chamberlain, a major character in the film, just shows up in Jen’s path with no precedent or explanation, and disappears shortly thereafter.

The Dark Crystal

dark_crystal-stonesI have a perverse fondness for games adapted from movies. There’s a kind of art to them that isn’t found in original works, a balancing act on the designer’s part that I find fascinating, like a highly constrained poetic form. Much of the enjoyment comes, not from the gameplay itself, but from seeing how they used the techinques of the new medium to try to reproduce the feel of the original.

Of course, the answer is often “badly”. Sturgeon’s Law applies, and games based on movies don’t have to try as hard to get an audience. And so it has become common wisdom that games based on movies are hackwork, and best avoided, with the possible exception of those based on the Star Wars franchise (which are more often original works set in the Star Wars universe than adaptations per se). But I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, movie adaptations cannot be judged by the same criteria as other games.

And in the case of The Dark Crystal, it’s also separated from the bulk of games by history. This seems to be one of the earliest games based on an official movie license — it was released in 1982, the year that also gave us the Tron coin-op game and the infamous Atari 2600 E.T. It was certianly the first movie to be officially adapted as a graphic adventure. So, unlike today’s adaptations, it didn’t have a lot of established techniques to work with. Roberta Williams had to figure the whole thing out from scratch: how close to adhere to the source material, how much to add.

Probably the strangest choice she made was to include Jen, the player character, in the illustrations. Understand that there is no animation, and that Jen’s picture is not a player-controlled avatar. He’s just part of the illustration for each room. This probably makes it the first adventure game with third-person graphics. Appropriately, the text is also in the third person: instead of the Infocom-standard “You are in the Valley of the Stones” or the Scott-Adams-style “I am in the Valley of the Stones”, it’s “Jen is in the Valley of the Stones”. This is very unusual for an adventure game, but I can understand why it was done this way: the illustrations are mostly based on still images from the movie showing Jen, and once you have that, you’re clearly not seeing it through the player character’s eyes. Also, unlike previous Sierra games, Jen is a character distinct from the player, rather than a projection of the player into the gameworld. This would become the norm for them, even as they dropped the third person grammar and addressed the player as the player character (“Oh no, Sir Graham! You’ve fallen off a cliff!”)

I wonder how much these experiments with presentation inspired the development of King’s Quest? The on-screen player character seems like it could be a stepping-stone towards the fully-animated player-controlled avatar. Perhaps this game’s importance to the history of the medium has been grossly underestimated, due to its being regarded as merely a movie adaptation.

In other respects, the environment has a lot in common with both King’s Quest and Time Zone: it’s mostly a grid of exterior scenes, sparsely scattered with usable objects. This is actually pretty appropriate to the source material, as The Dark Crystal is in large part a travelogue of a bizarre fantasy world, with lots of shots devoted to showing off the sets. I only wish the game had more interactive details. The setting is more fully implemented than in Time Zone, at least to the extent that you can often get one-sentence descriptions of scenery objects, but it doesn’t do justice to the film’s twitching, chittering wildlife. There’s a bit in the film involving what I can only describe as mountain sea-anemones. They lie still, looking like tentacled plants, until, at Jen’s approach, they all simultaneously and busily withdraw into their crevices in the rock. I’d love to be able to trigger that kind of reaction in a game.

Time Zone: Finishing Up

time_zone-endI have reached the end of Time Zone by dint of repeatedly referring to walkthroughs. I would have liked to have gotten through it unaided, of course, but I think I solved as much of the game honorably as any reasonable person could expect me to (and possibly more), and don’t regret cheating one bit. It turns out that this game rates the top slot on the Zarfian Cruelty Scale. 1It’s always struck me that Andrew Plotkin was a little brilliant to recognize that Cruelty is distinct from Difficulty. They’re related, but they’re not the same, and one can like difficult games without liking cruel ones. I knew from early on that it was easy to make irreversible mistakes — that much is clear as soon as you accidentally destroy something through time travel, which is likely to happen the very first time you travel in time. But it turns out that one of these irreversible mistakes is simply failing to wait in one location for five turns after you reach it for the first time. Go exploring and you miss a crucial event, with no indication that you missed anything (other than your eventually becoming stuck). A colleague of mine refers to the period when this game was written as “back when games hated you”. It’s a whole different ethos, and one which we’ve done well to abandon.

I’ve already spent far more words on this game than the game itself contains, so I’ll just say a few more things about the overall experience before I clear it from the Stack.

First of all, the map is large, and not just by Apple II standards. My maps are not exhaustive, but I count something close to a thousand rooms. However, most of them are undistinguished, and there are only a modest 30 or 40 takable obejcts. If you eliminated the padding, I think this would be a substantial but not extraordinarily large game. And in addition to mere padding, the game devotes a lot of space to red herrings: ten of the 35 2The official count is 39, but that seems to include Antarctica in every visitable time period. Antarctica, in all periods, consists of a single room where you die if you don’t just get back into the time machine immediately. It seems to be implemented as one room for all periods, and I see no reason to count it as separate zones. visitable zones are useless towards solving the game.

time_zone-samuraiSecondly, there’s an awful lot of violence. Enough that it doesn’t seem in character for Roberta Williams, who’s best known for family-friendly disneyesque stuff. King’s Quest 1 in particular was known for providing violent and nonviolent solutions to the same problems (such as killing an ogre or waiting for it to fall asleep), and awarding more points for the nonviolent ones. Later episodes in the King’s Quest series eliminated the violent solutions entirely. But then, she also wrote grisly stories such as Mystery House and Phantasmagoria, which revel in their gruesomeness in a way that Time Zone doesn’t. Instead, the violence here is as casual as the violence in an action game: if someone’s in your way, you kill him, and that’s that. time_zone-aborigineAnd, since you’re globe-trotting, and the game only affords minimal descriptions and cartoony graphics, the people you kill are often ethnic caricatures. I commented before on something similar in GTA3, but it’s arguably worse here, because the author isn’t even trying to be shocking or transgressive. Instead, stereotypes are used here for the traditional reason: as an alternative to creating individual characters.

Oddly, the author seems more willing to let you kill humans than animals. When you successfully attack a hostile animal, you wound it and it escapes, whereas humans are usually killed outright. At first I thought this might be a matter of the author sympathizing with the animals more (they’re not really morally culpable and all that), but now that I think about it, the only times humans leave corpses is when they’re carrying objects that you need.

Thirdly, I’d like to take back a couple of the things I said in earlier posts. The game does not make much use, if any at all, of the destruction of anachronistic objects to force different solutions to similar puzzles in different time periods. I wrote that with one particular example in mind, and that turned out to be a misunderstanding on my part. Also, contrary to both my comparison to Timequest and my statements about general time travel tropes, Time Zone does allow you to try to alter history by preventing Julius Caesar’s assassination. But if you do, Caesar dies at the appointed time anyway, stumbling over his own feet and conking his head on the floor. So you can alter history, but you can’t alter it much.

Finally, let me talk about the endgame a little. It takes place in the largest zone, and the only one to span two disks, the planet Neburon in the year 4082. The goal of the whole game is to prevent the ruler of Neburon from destroying the Earth; I didn’t mention this before because only in the endgame does it become relevant. From the point of view of the endgame, the whole purpose of the time-travelling portion of the game is to collect tools (including Caesar’s ladder) that are useful for solving the endgame’s puzzles. In a sense, this can be said of any other zone, but it’s different in the endgame. This is another one of the parts where the game hates you: past a certain point, there’s no going back, so you need to be already carrying all of the tools you’ll need, and it’s not clear which ones those are, sometimes even after you’ve seen the obstacles that require them. Due to the inventory limit, you can’t bring everything you’ve found. Due to the red herrings, you can’t be sure that you have access to everything you need yet, or which of the objects you haven’t used yet are needed. It’s all designed to make you restart the endgame repeatedly, and was probably intended to make the experience last longer — remember the author’s remark about how long it would take for anyone to solve it! But extending gameplay by making the player do things repeatedly is only a good idea if they’re things that the player enjoys doing. Action games can get away with repetitive activity (and indeed would be impossible without it), but the enjoyment in adventure games comes mainly from finding the solutions, not from typing them in after you’ve found them once. Redoing things is tolerable within limits, and restarting a game afresh after getting quite advanced can even be enjoyable, as the later parts of the game can allow one to see the earlier parts in a new light. But that’s as far as it goes.

So with the repetition and the casual violence, I’d say that the main lesson Time Zone had for the industry, apart from a warning about overcharging (it listed for $99, and was a commercial failure), is that puzzle-based adventure games don’t work like action games, and that similar techniques will leave a different impression in an adventure than in an action game. This may seem obvious now, but Time Zone isn’t alone among early adventures in using action-game features for no good reason. Even the venerable Colossal Cave adopted the arcade standard of three lives per game, despite also allowing the player to circumvent this limit by saving.

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1. It’s always struck me that Andrew Plotkin was a little brilliant to recognize that Cruelty is distinct from Difficulty. They’re related, but they’re not the same, and one can like difficult games without liking cruel ones.
2. The official count is 39, but that seems to include Antarctica in every visitable time period. Antarctica, in all periods, consists of a single room where you die if you don’t just get back into the time machine immediately. It seems to be implemented as one room for all periods, and I see no reason to count it as separate zones.

Time Zone: Historical Context

Time Zone was released in 1981 or 1982. (Again I’m finding contradictory claims. The edition I’m playing says “Copyright 1982”.) It was the sixth of Sierra’s “high-res adventures”, and the fourth designed by Roberta Williams. Graphic adventures had been around for about a year, but they were still a novelty, and Sierra didn’t have any real competition. I said before that it uses the same engine as Mission Asteroid, but there was one significant enhancement to it: the use of multiple disks. If I understand correctly, the only previous multi-disk game from Sierra was Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, and the only thing resembling a multi-disk adventure game predating it that I know of is the Eamon adventure/RPG system (which isn’t really the same thing, because instead of being parts of a whole, the disks there were unconnected modules, sharing only the character data on the loader disk.) Sierra was pretty much the first to need multiple disks, because they were filling those disks up with graphics. They’d continue to make multiple-disk games even as disk capacities increased, ultimately turning out several multi-CD FMV behemoths. As far as I can tell, their code for handling resources spread across multiple volumes didn’t change in any fundamental way from King’s Quest 1 onward. But in these earlier days, the Apple II days, things were a little shakier, the seams more obvious. As I mentioned before, different areas in Time Zone recognize different verbs; this seems to correspond to what disk you have currently inserted.

In content, Time Zone reflects a medium in transition. The earliest adventure games, such as Zork and Scott Adams’ Adventureland, were imitations of the original Adventure: treasure hunts set in caves, in an eclectic vague fantasy setting. There’s no story to such a game, there’s just a player’s progress in exploring the cave and collecting the treasures. But after a while, adventure games started mutating into interactive fiction. I think of Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall as something of a watershed in this regard: it was the first adventure game I played that really tried to provide a believable setting and a story that’s revealed by that setting, rather than a premise that’s just an excuse to put the player through a bunch of puzzles, and a backstory which is brought up at the beginning and the end and otherwise ignored. Planetfall was released in 1983, after Time Zone, and while Time Zone isn’t a dungeon crawl, it’s also everything I’ve just said that Planetfall is not. It belongs to a period when the people creating adventures were branching out into other settings, but still treating them like dungeon crawls.

I’ve noted that Time Zone has a repeated puzzle type involving enemies, both human and animal, who will kill you one turn after you enter their rooms unless you first defeat them with some appropriate weapon. This is turning out to be the dominant type of puzzle in the game, not just because it’s used so often, but also because it takes so much longer to solve than other puzzles. It’s basically guesswork, and guessing wrong ends the game, making you restore a save, which involves swapping disks. It’s a terrible piece of design, and it’s repeated over and over. And it may well be the game’s most influential feature. In 1985, an adventure authoring tool called GAGS was created, incorporating foes governed by a slight variation on this mechanic (GAGS monsters don’t necessarily kill you after one turn, but they do prevent you from leaving the room). I may be mistaken when I attribute this to direct influence, but the resemblance is strong. GAGS games tended to use monsters of this sort a lot, because GAGS was a rather primitive system, capable of only a few predefined puzzle types (also including locked doors and darkness). GAGS later became the basis for a more advanced tool called AGT, which was the first really popular adventure engine available to the public. There are scores of freely-available AGT games on the net, many of them entries in an annual competition held on the Compuserve Gamers Forum. And a lot of them contain the monster mechanic that AGT inherited from GAGS, and which GAGS stole from Time Zone.

Time Zone: Dirt Quest

time_zone-caesarWithout a doubt, the one game I know that was most influenced by Time Zone is Legend Entertainment’s Timequest, a 1991 graphic adventure by Infocom alumnus Bob Bates. Whether the influence is direct or indirect, I don’t know. But Time Zone and Timequest share an overall structure, based on a grid of location/time period combinations, as well as a few specific scenes: both games contain run-ins with Robin Hood, Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar. The encounter with Caesar in particular reminded me of Timequest: in both games, you get an audience with him through a victory in the arena. What you do with that audience differs, however. In Timequest you need to be on hand to prevent an assassination attempt — not because you want Caesar to live, but because history requires him to be assassinated later. Whereas in Time Zone, you need to borrow his ladder. 1That is, steal it.

This is a common adventure game device: heroic efforts to obtain mundane household items. Timequest isn’t completely innocent of this particular crime against mimesis either. What makes it particularly absurd in this game is that you actually have the option of visiting your home in the present whenever you like. There, realistically, you would have easier ways to obtain a ladder (and a canteen, and a flashlight…) It’s just one of those adventure game things, stemming from the genre’s origins. In a cave crawl, it makes a certain amount of sense: if you’re trapped in the Dungeons of Doom, you have to make do with whatever tools you can find in situ, and a ladder could be a major find. Likewise for various other settings: desert islands, post-apocalyptic ruins, and in general the sort of isolated and solitary environments that adventures have always found most comfortable.

It’s a common enough syndrome that it really should have a name, but it doesn’t seem to have one. I suggest “dirt quest”: questing after something that is, or should be, as common as dirt in the game’s milieu.

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1. That is, steal it.

Time Zone: Tropes

time_zone-lostOne thing, more than anything else bar the graphics, establishes Time Zone as having been written early in the history of the form: although it’s a time-travel game, it lacks the usual time-travel tropes. There are basically two tropes, with sundry variations, pioneered by Infocom in the mid-80’s and almost obligatory since then:

  • Avoiding changing the past. Taking care to clean up anachronisms and/or paradoxes, lest you rupture the space/time continuum. Sorcerer and Spellbreaker both had memorable scenes of this sort, and many time-travel games, including Timequest and Jigsaw, make it the player’s primary goal.
  • Deliberately changing the past in order to affect the future: planting acorns so you can climb oak trees a century later and suchlike. Zork III may have been the first game to play with this, but Timequest and Day of the Tentacle are whole games organized around puzzles of this sort. And on the larger scale, changing history is the player character’s chief motivation in Trinity 1Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game. and Lost New York.

Time Zone doesn’t do any of that. The time periods are effectively islands, connected only by the fact that you can carry objects between them. And you often can’t even do that: anything that would be anachronistic in the era you’re going to (such as dynamite in 1000 AD, or any manufactured item in the age of reptiles) gets vaporized in transit. So you can’t alter history by leaving ahistorical technology lying around, accidentally or deliberately. More direct alterations, such as assassinating Christopher Columbus, are prevented by the poverty of the game engine: if you try it, you’ll just an error along the lines of “I don’t understand that”.

More broadly, the tropes I speak of (or at least the second one on the the smaller scale) are reliant on non-local effects. Internally, past and future are modelled as separate rooms. For the past to affect the future, you have to have a mechanism whereby an action in one room can affect the state of another. The engine used in the Sierra High-Res Adventures might not in fact have this capability. Judging by the way that some verbs are understood in some areas and not in others, it seems like different areas are in some way treated as separate programs. It seems a little incredible, but having tinkered with the various King’s Quest engines, I can attest that they did something similar, albeit with less noticeable side effects.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the author was used to thinking in terms of local effects, because that’s how early adventure games generally worked. The whole idea of non-local effects was a major leap in sophistication for adventure games, arguably more significant than the full-sentence parser. (See the T/SAL “Phoenix” games for examples of what can be done with a two-word parser and a sophisticated world model.)

At any rate, if it’s not doing time-travel puzzles, what is the game doing with all that space? To a large extent, it’s establishing its own tropes. There are certain puzzles that are repeated with different details all over the map:

  • Dark tunnels that need a light source
  • Dangerous people or animals that, when you enter their location, you have one turn to use the right object to keep them from killing you.
  • Merchants and traders who will give you something you need in exchange for a specific other item. (In most cases, they’ll only accept one other item, but won’t tell you which.)
  • Expanses of hazardous terrain (either desert or frozen wastes) that you can’t cross without some way of getting food/water/rest/warmth.

Notably, even when two places have identical problems, they’ll have different solutions. The vaporizing of anachronisms, which seemed cheap when I first encountered it, is important to making this work: it provides a general rationale for the solution in 2082 AD not working in 50 BC. I mean, it’s still cheap to bar objects from certain areas by permanently destroying them, rather than by, say, preventing the time machine from launching until you ditch them, or just automatically leaving them behind. But at least there’s some justification to barring them at all.

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1. Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game.

Time Zone: More Whinging

Several hours into Time Zone, I’m just starting to get past the initial exploration phase and start finding solutions to problems. In most adventures, the exploration phase includes a certain amount of experimental poking at objects and scenery. That hasn’t really been the case here, as there aren’t very many objects around, and those few have limited pokability. Exploration has been a matter of exploring the map, with its neat grid of hundreds of filler rooms, each of which pauses to stroke in its graphics whenever you enter. I should turn off my emulator’s governor.

time_zone-surpriseThen there’s the instant-death areas. Since this game is both (a) old-school and (b) written by Roberta Williams, there are plenty of them. It’s easy to forget, in the post-Monkey Island age, about the ubiquity of death in the old days. The way that games would kill you for walking in the wrong direction, off a cliff or into a river, where newer games would stop you with a warning. And no “undo” feature. When you die, you have to start over, which means swapping back to disk 1, even if you’ll want to immediately restore a game on a different disk. Of course, since I’m running the game under emulation, there are no actual floppy disks involved. Swapping disks is a matter of selecting a disk image from a file-selection dialog. Still, this is a minor nuisance, and not something I want to do very often. Perhaps I should look for a better emulator, one that has its own snapshot quicksave/quickload interface, so I don’t have to rely on the in-game save/load system.

I really have to close this post, though — I’m running out of time until my self-imposed deadline, because I’ve been spending so much time playing the thing. I’ll try to have something more to say about the content next time, after I’ve seen some more of it.

Time Zone

timezone-parisMission Asteroid was just an appetizer. Now for the main course. Time Zone, which uses the same engine as Mission Asteroid, originally shipped on twelve Apple II floppies (or possibly six double-sided floppies; my information is a little iffy here), making it easily the largest microcomputer game ever released at the time. I vaguely remember that Roberta Williams said it would take well over a year for anyone to complete it, and was disappointed when someone managed it within a week of its release. But this story may be apocryphal, or might be true of a different game entirely.

It’s a time-travel game featuring eight areas (seven continents plus one alien planet) in eight time periods, which makes for 64 possible combinations (65 if you include the “Home” setting), although apparently only 39 of them are actually visitable. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet. I’m still in the wandering-around phase, and will remain wandering around for some time. There are a great many filler rooms: mazes of featureless streets, King’s Quest-like grids of empty wilderness. This was released at a time when the size of an adventure game was often measured in rooms, an idea famously discredited by Level 9’s Snowball, with its thousands of useless algoritmically-generated locations. At least Time Zone gives each filler room a unique illustration, which accounts for most of the disk usage.

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