Ed Hall, AC Staff Columnist
Text Adventures: A Fading Genre?
If you're interested in writing, you might have toyed with the idea of doing a text adventure. After all, it's composed entirely of words, and has occasionally attracted the attention of established writers like Thomas Disch and Douglas Adams. Synapse and Broderbund brought out a line of text adventures dubbed "electronic novels," while the folks at Infocom called their games "interactive fiction" and billed themselves as "the master story-tellers."
Unfortunately, text adventures have less to do with good prose than good puzzles, and today the genre seems all but defunct. What happened? Are text adventures dead forever, or can they be resurrected? In the months to come we'll examine these questions, and discuss tools and references for those interested in learning how to write their own. In the meantime, I'd like to profile a British company that produced some of the best text adventures on the market, yet remained poorly known on this side of the Atlantic. The company is Level 9 Computing, and it was begun in the early 1980s by three brothers: Mike, Nick, and Pete Austin.
A Quick Overview
One of the most interesting aspects of Level 9's development was its support of tape drives. As far as I know, every adventure they produced was available on cassette, even its last one, which came out in 1989. This had a marked influence on program design, resulting in games which loaded entirely into memory and needed no further media access during play. It also made possible three other commands much appreciated by players: RAM SAVE, RAM RESTORE, and UNDO.
Later on, to get around the size limitations imposed by the use of cassettes, Level 9 began releasing games in the form of trilogies. These were either anthologies of older games, or newer ones broken up into three parts. For tape users, this meant three cassettes, while disk users got a single disk in 1050 "dual" density.
At the heart of any text adventure is a parser, and Level 9's is top notch, able to handle input such as:
EXAMINE ALL BUT THE WATCH, SPANNER AND TORCH AND GO EAST. DROP EVERYTHING BUT THE FLASK. OPEN IT AND GIVE IT TO THE ROBOT.
Early in its history, the company experimented with graphics, but finally resolved upon a course which reserved pictures for the newer, more powerful machines such as the Amiga and Atari ST. Level 9 ported its games to a wide variety of machines, provided comprehensive clue sheets, and in many games unleashed a superb sense of humor. Though packaging was not as elaborate as Infocom's (usually consisting of a novella which set the game's background), Level 9's prices were correspondingly lower.
Tracking the lineage of Level 9 games is something of a quest in itself. Initially the company released games under its own label, then subsequently enhanced and rereleased many of them for Rainbird, which distributed them in both the U.K. and America. Eventually Level 9 grew dissatisfied with this relationship and switched to other distributors, Mandarin in the U.K and Datasoft in America. (Datasoft never released any Atari 8-bit versions, even though they were available.) Level 9 produced its last text adventure in 1989. Declining sales finally convinced the Austin brothers to abandon the genre.
Jewels of Darkness
Level 9's first text game was Colossal Adventure, a version of the "Original Adventure" written by Crowther and Woods on a mainframe. Level 9's version has 70 additional locations with a Middle Earth theme: an appropriate choice, since Tolkien's work had influenced the original game. Two more games, Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure, continue this theme. Later on, Level 9 added graphics, made a number of improvements, and released all three games in a single package. The name they wanted to use was Middle Earth Trilogy but their distributor, Rainbird, decided upon Jewels of Darkness.
Reception in North America was definitely mixed. ANTIC thought the games were top notch, Computing Gaming World said they weren't "completely bad," and QuestBusters excoriated Rainbird for not acknowledging Colossal Adventure's debt to Crowther and Woods.
This is another trilogy composed of three games originally issued separately. Kim Kimberly stars in Snowball and Return to Eden, while his/her descendant is the hero in Worm in Paradise. It all begins when Kimberly awakens aboard the spaceship, Snowball, which is headed on a collision course for the planet Eden. The ship's name is a double pun, for it refers both to the ship's cargo of cryogenically preserved humans, as well as to its chances for survival.
Graphics were originally incorporated into Worm in Paradise, but not (I believe) Snowball and Return to Eden. However, the latter two were retrofitted with illustrations when released by Rainbird as Silicon Dreams.
This game represents a turning point in Level 9's history. To begin with, it was the company's first attempt to make humor and fantasy key elements in a game--a successful formula which would be used again in the future. Secondly, Knight Orc seems to be Level 9's first tripartite game designed as a unit; none of its parts (Loosed Orc, A Kind of Magic, and Hordes of the Mountain King) had been previously released. Thirdly, the game represents a departure in Level 9's handling of graphics. In previous games, the pictures were simple line drawings employing only a few colors- certainly a disappointment for people with 16-bit machines. With Knight Ore, Level 9 addressed this problem by furnishing illustrations which took full advantage of the more advanced machines. At the same time they eliminated graphics from the Atari 8bit version (and possibly did the same for the Apple II and the Commodore 64 versions). Finally (on a negative note), though Level 9 produced an 8-bit version which Rainbird released in England, Knight Orc (as far as I'm aware) didn't make it to these shores. Nor, to my knowledge, did any subsequent Level 9 game for Atari 8-bits.
Knight Orc begins with a wonderful role-reversal, casting the player as one of the traditional bad guys of fantasy, an orc. In fact, so despicable are you that even when you die, you are quickly turfed out of heaven (and returned to the game, of course). As you make your way through the various scenes, you hear the plaintive cries of other hapless adventurers, some pleading for help, others wondering aloud where all the gold has gone. QuestBusters liked this game a lot, praising its humor and calling its parser "the smartest ... of the year."
This appears to have been the last game in Level 9's collaboration with Rainbird, and it continues the trend begun with Knight Orc. It stars Ingrid Bottomlow, an accident-prone gnome, and takes place in a fantasy realm where humor and alchemy seem mixed in equal parts. North, for example, is spelled "gnorth" and the prompt is "What gnow?" Not side-splitting stuff, but typical of the playful whimsy which makes the game so much fun. A reviewer in the British magazine New Atari User liked it even better than Knight Orc.
Time and Magik
This is the last of Level 9's trilogies patched together from past releases, and the first brought out by Level 9's new distributor, Mandarin Software. The first episode, The Lords of Time (designed by Sue Gazzard), came out in 1983 and was intended to be the first in a series. However, the Austins weren't satisfied with Gazzard's subsequent work, and the series went no further.
Two years later, Level 9 brought out Red Moon to much acclaim, and in the following year its sequel, The Price of Magik. Both were designed by David Williamson, take place in the realm of Baskalos, and involve (respectively) the search for a red crystal and the defeat of an evil sorceror. Unlike The Lords of Time, both had graphics.
After a bit of editing, these games were repackaged as nine and Magik, and distributed by Mandarin in the U.K. and Datasoft in America. Following the pattern established by Knight Orc, the Atari 8-bit version came without graphics (though this meant removing those originally present in Red Moon and The Price of Magik), while 16-bit versions had illustrations worthy of their capabilities. Again, Time and Magic elicited a glowing review in QuestBusters, and was declared one of the top five games in this genre.
The second and final game released by Mandarin for Level 9, Lancelot continues the formula established by Knight Orc and Gnome Ranger-minus the humor. It is based fairly closely on Malory's version of the Arthurian legends, though there are of course a certain number of alterations.
One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the way in which it was marketed. Purchasers of the game were given a chance to compete in a real-life grail quest, with the winner receiving a silver chalice worth 5000 pounds sterling. Despite this bold attempt at promotion, it seems Lancelot may not have been one of Level 9's more successful games. The review in New Atari User wasn't negative, but neither was it effusive. QuestBusters, however, was quite definite about its shortcomings.
With this game, Level 9 went back to distributing its own titles, and also returned to its successful formula of fantasy + humour. As the title suggests, it's a sequel to Gnome Ranger and stars Ingrid Bottomlow once again. The three episodes (Little Moaning, Steamroller at Dawn, and Ridley's End) chronicle Ingrid's fight to save her village, Little Moaning, from being razed by a land developer, Jasper Quickbuck. Part 2 parodies a famous scene from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Part 3 finds Ingrid carrying her battle to Jasper Quickbuck's home, Ridley Manor.
This is the final text adventure produced by Level 9, and it has a twist which adventurers will appreciate: you begin the game already dead. Your task is to thwart the drug dealers who killed you, a challenge which at first seems formidable since, as a ghost, interacting with the physical world is a little difficult. According to the review in New Atari User, Scapeghost "oozes atmosphere and humour" and is "another winner." It was released in 1989.
Yes, there's more. Emerald Isle is a text-only game released around the same time as Red Moon (1985), and was set in the Bermuda Triangle. It seems to have been intended as a beginner's level game.
Two others are The Archers and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Both are illustrated but have no parser. On numerous occasions throughout the game, the player is presented with a choice of actions, and each decision becomes a branching point in the story. Both games were distributed by a company called Mosaic, but I'm unable to say exactly when.
There could well be other Level 9 adventures that I'm not aware of. Most of my information about the company and its products has been pieced together from reviews and articles in various magazines, including **ANTIC**, QuestBusters, Computer Gaming World, and the British magazines Atari User and New Atari User.
The Best Part
If any of this has piqued your interest in Level 9, then the good news is that some of their games are still available, though you'll have to order them from England. The best way to find out about the availability of Level 9 software, as well as other great programs that never reached North America, is to subscribe to New Atari User. The magazine has just celebrated its 10th year of publication, and continues to be an extremely valuable resource for all dedicated 8-bitters. Two-thirds of each issue is devoted to 8-bits, with type-in programs, useful articles, and best of all, reviews of many sparkling NEW programs which continue to be released in Europe. Write to:
Page 6 Publishing
P.O. Box 54
Stafford ST16 1DR
Subscription rates are reasonable- a oneyear sub (6 issues) will cost you 21 pounds sterling (less if you opt for sea mail). VISA and MasterCard are accepted. [Editor's Note: for potential USA subscribers, the currency exchange rate is roughly $1.50 to the British pound.]
New Atari User also has many back issues available at bargain prices. For text adventurers, I recommend issue #34 (July/August 1988), which is packed with information and features the work of two excellent reviewers, Garry Francis and John Sweeney. In #34 you'll find John Sweeney's seven-page interview with Level 9, and his reviews of Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger, and Time and Magik. From Garry Francis there's an extensive bibliography of adventures containing many titles you won't have heard of before, and six pages of hints for numerous games. The issue also has two type-in text adventures, Klepht's Castle and Demon Adventure. Finally, if you order the disk, you get two bonus adventures, Moonstone and Dedridge Castle.
(By the way, it was John Sweeney who eventually walked away with Lancelot's silver chalice.)
If you want a break from text adventuring, try Lizard, the new shootemup just released in England. The graphics were done by Robert Stuart, who publishes Excel, the disk magazine mentioned last issue. Excel's prices were recently lowered to 2.50 pounds sterling per is sue (current and back).
Till gnext time...