Friday, 6 February 2015

Going Back To BASIC(s) Part 2: Adventure Games Made BASIC.

So, here we are again, and we're back to the Usborne BASIC books. But instead of a mish-mash of genres, we're looking at three books from a single genre: Text Adventure Games, aka Interactive Fiction. There were a lot of IF games back in the day, and authors like Steve Meretzky and Scott Adams made... Well, a lot of IF games. The earliest was made around 1976, Colossal Cave Adventure (ADVENTURE for short), and, for a long while, they bloomed. Even now, there are folks who write Interactive Fiction, some of it extremely witty or thought provoking!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Still played today, still people complaining (Rightfully) about that fucking dog.

But we're in the wayback machine right now, and the three books in question are "Write Your Own Adventure Programs For Your Microcomputer", "Island of Secrets", and "The Mystery of Silver Mountain"

This, ladies and gents, is where we get into "More planning" territory. And the authors of each book know this damn well. They even, in some circumstances, tell you how much memory you're going to need if you expand the game. Because hey, RAM was a limited resource back in the day, and tricking the system into doing things cheaper was the way to go. But we'll deal with that soon enough, let's move onto the books.

Requires... 16K? But... Isn't That Tiny?

The latter part is still true, especially now, when descriptions are pretty much expected.

Adventure Programs (to shorten a somewhat unwieldy title), as with the other two books in this post, has a listing for only one game. Like the other two books, it's a book of two halves: The first half deals with what goes into the game, how it's pre-planned (And how you should too), and the second is the listing, with modifications for relevant systems as needed. The program is no slouch-fest to type out, at 214-280 lines (Depending on which 8-bit computer you were wearing out the keyboard on), and needs, at minimum, 16K to run (Your average BBC Micro B had 32K, but later models near the end of the BBC's lifespan had as much as 512K... Less common as they were...)

280 lines of code doesn't sound like much, until you realise that's 64 rooms, with 25 verbs (Actions) you can perform, and 30 items. Another 17 lines adds four (Admittedly awful) sounds to the game, and all of this is done, with deaths and an ending... In a tiny amount of space, for a tiny amount of RAM.

And if you hadn't read the first half of the book, you're not going to understand most of what it's actually doing. It gives you a hint on Page 7, but it takes the rest of the first half to hammer home how very true the first statement on that page is: "An adventure program is really a kind of database." The room names are data. What is in those rooms is data. The Verbs are data which have special cases attached to them, and all the game is doing is checking that if VERB+ITEM is used in ROOM, then a thing happens. Or doesn't happen. Or displays a different, and quite tragic result (Yes, it's an oldschool adventure game, so things can kill you.)

It sounds so simple. But at least three of those 280 lines of code are big, honkin', itemised lists.

Oldschool Values

Baticide: Noted as AEROSOL in the item database. No descriptions for items.

Thing is, this is also a relic of its time, and it shows. All of them do. All three books have treasure to collect. Adventure Programs even states how you can change the concept of treasure to Clues or Spaceship Parts, or whatever the hell... But it will still think of it as treasure throughout the book. Score is another thing. Nowadays, a lot of IF games only use "score" in the abstract, although we've rarely moved completely away from "score", or, more accurately "High(er) Score"... But since this is an 80s adventure game, the Skinner Box is in full effect, and every action towards completing the game rewards you with points. Which you can compare to the total. And bilk yourself out of.

In a reference to Colossal Cave, Light is important. And is in limited supply. There are no death states in the game that I can spot, but it would be pretty easy to put them in. And since there are no descriptions loaded, beyond simple names, you have no actual way of knowing (Except, of course, by being the poor schmuck who typed all this in) that the Aerosol is actually Baticide (Yes, it's Bat-Shark-Repellent.) So it's got its fair share of dick moves, too. How very 80s game design. Also, all three books share the VERB+THING parser that was to be common in IF for... Not a whole lot of years after this book, actually. Oh, did I mention it was called Haunted House? Maybe I should have.

The other two books, in fact, aren't as nice to you, albeit in different ways. The settings differ too: Silver Mountain has a treasure hunt, several uncooperative NPCs, and death states (including at least one Dead Man Walking if you miss an item you won't be able to get back to), all set in a fantasy world with an evil wizard, tyrannical mongol warriors, and, of course, trolls, goblins, and elves. Island of Secrets is somewhat similar, being Science-Fantasy, but has a time limit, strength and "wisdom" (mental strength) counted and changed, and some truly mindbreaking puns (The hero is Alphan, the villain is Omegan. AUUUUUGH!)...

A typical Dead Man Walking scenario. At least the book tells you it will be!

...Look, let's just say the writing of the games themselves is definitely not its strong point. The artwork, on the other hand...

That's one of the character spreads, from Island of Secrets (EDIT: Er... Later in the page). The location spreads are good enough that someone could probably use them as concept art for locations in their own game (So long as they don't mind some places being generic, but looking nice), and, just like every other book in the Usborne BASIC series, the explanations are also riddled with little illustrations showing you analogies for how various programming or gaming terms "work". While Haunted House was 280 lines, Silver Mountain and Island of Secrets both hit at least the 400s, up to 500 lines of code on some systems...

So, What Are We Learning, Here?

For all the flaws inherent in the programmed games, as modern game design would see them, these do adequately teach the more mind numbing side of things. A platformer, even today, is not as difficult as a graphical adventure game. Which isn't as complex as a good Realtime Strategy. Which, in turn, isn't as complex as a good Turn Based Strategy. And the more complicated you get, the more book-keeping you have to do, and the more planning you have to do. In this respect, only Adventure Games gets a free pass, because it tells you the kind of planning you're going to need for a good 10-20 pages. The other two, by contrast, spend most of the time making the locations and characters a hell of a lot more interesting than they mostly end up.

From top to bottom: Swampman (1 interaction), Omegon (3 interactions), Boatman (1 interaction). I do like the art style though!

I like to think of Adventure Games as the low-intermediate end of this set of books, showing you what needs to be done, while the other two show what can be done (Without, necessarily, doing it all).

Next time, we'll be dealing with just one book, that I consider the high end of things... Before we finish up with more of the beginner level stuff, which is, to my mind, the weakest.

...But still important,

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