Classic Computer Magazine Archive A.N.A.L.O.G. ISSUE 78 / NOVEMBER 1989 / PAGE 33



I think the game could be richer
and more appealing to a wider
audience if there was more to
do than kill anyone who approaches.

Maybe I'm just getting old.
    I was in Electronic Playworld a few weeks ago asking what's new. Richard pointed out a game called Battletech, a graphic adventure from Infocom. Now, that interested me, because I've always had a high regard for Infocom's games.
    "What's it about?" I asked, always a dangerous question.
    "It's based on the Japanese cartoon series," he replied, as if that was all I needed to know.
    Unfortunately, it stumped me. Japanese cartoon series? I wasn't aware that any Japanese cultural figures had made enough impact on these shores to be recognized by more than a few film aficionados. Toshira Mifune is modestly well known enough, thanks to his role as Toranaga in the Shogun mini-series, but mention Kurosawa to Rambo-level moviegoers, and all you get is "huh?" When you've got pop comic stars, you know we're at an intense level of cultural exchange. Does this mean they're reading Batman over there?
    I'm not a television watcher, so I haven't the foggiest idea if "Battletech" is a show. For me, a heavy week of TV watching is four hours, and that's probably two or three hours of PBS specials and a couple of M.A.S.H. reruns during dinner. Anything more strikes me as bordering on addiction. Our set never goes on before 7:00 p.m. and is often off for days at a time. If Battletech has come on the boob tube, it's slipped by me.
    But it's obviously a popular comic-book series. I managed to see a cover in a local comic shop. I'm not a comics fan; I think comics are literature for the hard of thinking. Sure, there's a cult image and a certain amount of fun in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Dr. Atomic, but kids get carried away. One of the local bookstores is going over from literature to comics (where the money is, I'm told), and it fills me with a cold dread to be snooping around for a collection of short stories by Gogol and hear these kids talking about comics as if they're important contributions to culture-serious discussions on characters like Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom and a host of others. These kids analyze the characters' attitudes, motives, attire and so on. It's much like soap operas, I suppose-a fascination with the trivial details of a meaningless pastime. But they act as if comics and soap operas actually have meaning and depth.
    Maybe it's a factor of age. Maybe you have to be young to appreciate comic books. When I was young (back in the Paleozoic), I liked things I have no interest in pursuing now: sweet wines, Mickey Spillane novels, the radical left, cigarettes-all the follies of youth. Maybe when the comic-readers get to be my age, they'll grow into more relevant things. Like sweet wines, Mickey Spillane novels ....
    Of course, when I was a kid, I read a few comics, though there wasn't a fraction of the number available today, and no one seemed to take them seriously. Mostly I chose the Classic Comic series, in part because they helped get me through school without having to read such tedious tomes as The Red Badge of Courage and Wuthering Heights. Instead, I had discovered Orwell, Kawabata, Darwin and Golding and wanted to save my reading time for them.
    Anyway, I bought the game, figuring it would be a challenge since I had no preconceptions about the theme or the characters, and also because I wanted to see what Infocom was up to these days.
    Battletech reminds me a lot of Sundog, an older graphic adventure from FTL and still one of the best ST games around (if you can find it). The interface is similar. Because there's a specific purpose in the game, Battletech is more limited than the freewheeling Sundog in its available options, but overall, it proved quite an interesting game. I think graphic adventures is a direction in which Infocom ought to continue.
    One of the rules of an adventure game is to discover what the rules are, so I won't go and spoil your fun in discovery. However, I will give you this: The beginning is a peanut-butter sandwich game. Got that? No? Here's the theory: There are some games where things happen without your intervention. With these games, you should best walk away and make yourself a peanutbutter sandwich and enjoy it while the system goes about its merry way and does what it must. In this case, the hint is: money. 'Nuff said.
    Of course, the documentation you get with the game gives a few hints, but nowhere near enough. You'll learn, but it takes a few tries before you uncover some of the tricks and secrets. I've only learned a few - like how to get out with an intact mech suit - but they sure count! Mostly, the docs provide a map and mech suit diagram, both of which get used a lot.
    The game isn't copy protected, but has no provisions for using a hard disk (at least none stated in the docs). This is a pain because it does a lot of disk I/O, and nothing grinds my teeth more than having to wait while the disk whirls.
    For a long time I thought the game involved little more than careening about the countryside in your mech suit, mapping the terrain and shooting anyone who came close. That sort of activity soon wears thin. I finally discovered that the point of the game is revealed over a period of time and by certain actions you undertake (and influenced by the order in which you take them). It actually becomes somewhat involved, like a complex scavenger hunt.
    The user interface is well-designed and easy to learn and use. It's very smooth, but there are places I wish I had a simple alternative. For example, in combat, one mech has nine weapons, which can be individually targeted. However, if I want to fire everything at one target (the usual case), I still have to go through the process of clicking each weapon, then each target. An "all weapons/one target" button would be nice.
    Battletech is nowhere near as polished and sophisticated as an Infocom text adventure. The options are severely limited and the available range of actions is pretty narrow; but of course, it has graphics, and they count for a lot. Still, I would prefer to see them apply the same approach to a game like Deadline, rich in characters and options. Also, the logic in the earlier Infocom games had more internal consistency than Battletech exhibits, although this is at most a minor annoyance.
    The main drawback and the point that irritates me the most is that the interaction with 95% of the nonplayer characters has to do with fighting-to the death. It's not as violent as, say, Techno Cop, but once you get your character into a suitable mech suit, you go about blithely killing anything that moves. A major battle between your side and the enemy, resulting in eight or ten deaths, is referred to in the game as "an invigorating scuffle." Wonder what they'd call a nuclear war?
    There's no wildlife in Battletech. I infer from this that the wildlife on Pacifica (what a misnomer!) was previously wiped out by gangs of mech-suited hunters before they turned their weapons on each other.
    It's also a male-dominated game, not surprising given the origin and the topic. Comics and violence seem to appeal more to young males than females. Even so, a few female characters would be pleasant. Not only more realistic, but maybe romantic as well. Yes, female warriors too. Dungeon Master's handling of the sexes shows a more mature approach. But since I've never seen the comic, I don't even know if there are women in the "Battletech" mythos. Maybe it's all guys. Like the Spartans. I guess that appeals to some males.
    I've railed on about violence in games before, and here I go again. I think the game could be richer and more appealing to a wider audience if there was more to do than kill anyone who approaches. Once I got three mechs together and upgraded, I had an almost invincible party. I started to avoid combat, not because I was afraid of losing, but because it became boring. Click the weapon, target, next weapon, target, begin fight. Sigh.
    I'm of the notion that there's too much violence around us already. I do believe that it affects us when we see it on TV, in movies or in games. I think we become desensitized to the real fact of other people's pain. It brutalizes the human spirit to be constantly barraged by violence. A few years back there was a controversy over several video games (one or two of which were for the Atari 800XL) that graphically depicted sex, and in one particular case the rape of an Indian woman by a cowboy. A lot of people howled in outrage over these games, saying they'd affect their kids' perception of sex. Some were even perceptive enough to protest the way the Indians were depicted. The same goes for violence. You can't see it, hear it, read it, play it in your games without being affected by it.
    We ought to have a game-rating system like they have with movies-PG, PG-13, R and so on. Parents should try anything rated R or higher first, to determine if it's suitable for their kids. And maybe stores should be asked to refrain from selling to young kids any game that's not suitable for them. I'd rate Techno Cop XX or maybe even XXX, obscene violence. Battletech would be R. I wouldn't give it to a kid under 14.
    Much to my surprise and delight, I have recently been sent a C interpreter, from HiSoft and marketed on this continent by Michtron. No, I haven't tried it, but it's the next thing on my list. My only worry is that it doesn't come with a compiler. The whole point of the exercise seems to me to create compiled code from whatever language you're using. The back cover promises the code compiles with "any standard compiler", without bothering to name any with which it has been proven. How do I know whether what the English think of as a "standard compiler" is even available over here? If you buy the package and pursue the matter, you'll find mentions of Lattice, Aztec and MegaMax C. However, the information about problems using these compilers, differences between various implementations and recommendations are mighty few.
    A quick glance through the manual revealed several typos. But by now I don't have to warn you about Michtron manuals, do I?
    I have no idea yet how the interpreter works with things like the Resource Construction Set. However, despite the documentation, if the program proves workable, it will be a tremendous boon to a lot of inspiring programmers who want to sink in the C swamp but simply don't want to wade through the compiler morass to get there.
    Michtron also sent me K-Graph3, a graph-construction program reminiscent of the old and cherished B/Graph for the 800 series. On page 15 of the manual, it says, "More information on formats is available in the REFERENCES section of this manual." Needless to say, there isn't a REFERENCES section. And the screen shots were entirely left out and had to be included together on a separate errata sheet. Page 38 says this about the Wilcoxon Rank Test: . . . computes the `W' value for the test."
    Hope you understood that explanation, because there ain't no more coming. Any idea what skewness and kurtosis are? Even though they're inadequately explained on page 36, the index doesn't mention them. Or slope, intercept, quartiles and other concepts that appear in the docs. Another Michtron manual.

Non-sequitur Interruptus

    I adopted two ferrets in June. The lack of information about these animals is appalling. If anyone has any names of books, magazines, ferret clubs, articles, reports or other information I can use, please contact me at: 47 Oakcrest Ave., Toronto, Ontario Canada M4C 1134 or by FAX at (416) 698-8880.


    Ian Chadwick is a Canadian freelance writer who also does volunteer work at the Toronto Humane Society. He and his wife share their small house with dogs, cats and ferrets, and, at odd times, a time-traveling Stenonychosaurus.