Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Game 18: Aldebaran III [aka A3, designed using Wander] (1978)

The closest thing it has to a title screen.

Aldebaran III is the second of three existing games created using the Wander system. The first was Castle, which I covered last year. It was surprisingly sophisticated for being the very first text adventure, although it should always be remembered that most mainframe-based games were developed over a number of years.  It was less sophisticated in its story-telling, with the ultimate "reward" being sex with a prince or princess, whichever of the two you rescued. (Okay, yes, you could also have sex with both of them at the same time. Okay, yes, I did fix the bugs in the game's code so that I could get that ending. Can we move on here?)

Aldebaran III, like Castle, was created by Peter Langston (the creator of Wander) and Nat Howard.  It's more generally known by its filename of A3, but as no title appears within the game itself I've decided to give it a name that's more descriptive.  It might make googling this thing a bit more difficult, but who cares. I like it better, so I'm sticking with it. I may have the date wrong for this game; the source code lists the final update as being in 1982, but the esteemed Renga in Blue has the creation of the game pinned down to 1977 or 1978, so I'll go with that.

Aldebaran III is a sci-fi game, possibly the first text adventure in that genre.  (Greg Hassett's Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure is the only other contender, if you count Jules Verne pastiches as sci-fi.)  In it you play as Jaime Retief, under-secretary to the ambassador for the "Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne". You've been sent to the planet of Aldebaran III to avert an uprising by the natives against Terran nationals, which is expected to come to a head at the end of April.

Just from that little snippet, you can see that the storytelling here is a lot more advanced than any other adventure games I've played so far.  This is probably also the first adventure game in which you play a distinct character, rather than a generic stand-in for the player.  There's a reason for that increase in sophistication: Jame Retief (it's spelled differently in the game) of the CDT is a pre-existing pulp sci-fi character, and the star of around 50 short stories. I haven't read any of them, but from what I can tell it doesn't appear that the plot of Aldebaran III is taken directly from any of them.  Certain elements are definitely cribbed, though, and it explains the nagging sense I had throughout the game that I was missing something.  I suppose that makes for another first: the first adventure game to be based on an existing property (albeit unofficially).

Aldebaran III begins when I (as Retief) disembarked in the spaceport.  There was a credit card on the ground, which I picked up and examined. (The parser didn't recognise GET, to my annoyance, but it did recognise the obvious alternative of TAKE.) I'm not sure why it was on the ground, as it belongs to me; I suppose it's so important that the designers didn't want to hide it in the player's inventory.  Speaking of which, my inventory contained my identity papers, and some notes that I had taken on the planet and its inhabitants. Looking at the papers is the only way I know of to learn that you are playing as Retief, although the mention of the CDT in the intro would have tipped off fans of the series.

Groovy Super Phat Crazy Trainee?

The notes span multiple pages, and I had to to read them multiple times to get all of the information, as Retief kept getting too bored to continue.  I learned the following relevant info from them:

  • The planet's atmosphere is close enough to Earth's. It's day lasts for 18.628 Earth hours (although they still use a 24 hour clock). It's axial tilt is such that the planet has no variance in the seasons and the length of it's days, which is a really clever way to explain why sunrise and sunset always take place at exactly the same time in the game.
  • The ruling species on Aldebaran has six legs, a human torso, and a "brain-case" with tendrils that give them exceptional senses of sight and smell.
  • Some of them have larger brains, and can alter the appearance of their bodies at will.
  • Aldebaranites are deeply religious, and place a great importance on certain "magic" artifacts.
  • The Aldebaranite language has a lot of dialects, and differs greatly from region to region.
  • The head of state is known as "the Rep".

There's a bunch of other stuff, but the clues above are the ones that play into the rest of the game.

As you might have noticed from the first point above, Aldebaran III keeps track of the passage of time.  The game begins at midnight on April 1st, and time advances by an hour for every action you take. As mentioned above, you have until the end of April to stop the uprisings. I finished the game well within that time-frame, but I decided to loiter around to see what would happen. On the dawn of April 29th you get a message that "Tensions seem on the breaking point".  Then again on April 30th. Then again on April 31st. Hang on a second. Then again on April 32nd.  As far as I can tell, April just extends on forever, and there's no actual deadline implemented, which is a shame. I wouldn't be surprised if the intention was there to put one in, but for whatever reason Langston and Howard never got to it. Sure, the only way I ever got close to the deadline was by waiting around doing nothing for weeks on end, so it's not a genuine threat, but it would be nice to have something happen. Even a message saying "You Have Failed" would be enough.

The opening area of the game is the Aldebaran Spaceport. Its most notable feature is a vending machine, which you can buy various items from: cigarettes (10 credits), mystery grab bag (10 credits), biorhythms (25 credits) and subway tokens (25 credits). You only begin with 50 credits, so at this point in the game it's a tough choice, because you can't buy everything. You don't need the cigarettes. Getting your biorhythms read is an excuse to drain you of your money and make a joke about it. The "mystery grab bag" at first gives you a condom, which gave me some uncomfortable flashbacks to the ending of Castle, but I never found a use for them in the game. Buying the grab bag a second time gives you an electronic all-dialect dictionary, which is essential to reading various messages in Aldebaranite scattered through the game. The tokens are also essential, because the subway is the only way to travel between regions. You don't need to buy them here, though, because there's another area that sells them much cheaper. I didn't discover it until much later in the game, so I spent most of my time wasting half of my money on a mere 2 subway tokens.

Okay, good one. Ya got me.

Leaving the spaceport involves a trip through customs, where you'll need to show your papers and declare the items in your inventory. Some of the items in your possession (the cigarettes, condoms, dictionary and your credit card) come with a customs fee, which is another drain on your credits. Even without buying the cigarettes and taking the condoms, I was left with 0 credits by the time I got through. You can save 5 credits by dropping your credit card in the spaceport, where the wind will blow it through an electrified fence and into an alleyway outside, but it's hardly worth it.

The customs official also gives you your first taste of the casual racism of the native population, calling you a "Terry" and being condescending in general.

The game is split into five sectors, and you begin in the spaceport sector. It has the following interesting locations:

  • An alleyway, where you can find some keys and an old wine bottle. Looking at the bottle gives you this image, which is reminiscent of some of the images from Zork.

    Supervisions?

    You can also find your credit card here if you dropped it in the spaceport. Sometimes when you enter the alleyway you'll be robbed by ruffians, who steal your credit card. (You can find them in the bar afterwards, beat them up and take it back.)

The only time in the game where you get to kick ass.

  • A bar, which has sign (in Aldebaranite, so you need the dictionary to read it) telling you that you can't leave without showing the bartender your papers. If you do, he sees that you're a UNIX user and offers you a free drink. (And yes, if you check your papers it mentions that you're a member of USENIX.) The bartender has more to offer than free drinks, though. If you type ASK BARTENDER he leaves a map on the counter, which you can take and read outside. It has a message on it: "Find Ignarp in Crystal City -- secret password is 'Axolotyl'." The plot progression of the game is a little obtuse, but I suppose that the bartender is a Terran sympathiser, and after seeing your papers directs you to the person who can help. It just about works.
  • There's a series of maze-like streets, which you can only progress through by typing LEFT or RIGHT. Choosing correctly takes you to the next street, and choosing incorrectly dumps you back to the beginning. If you get to the end, you'll be rewarded with a shovel (and a lot of alliteration).
  • When leaving the street with the shovel, you get a message that says "Not always..." I've come to be suspicious of non sequiturs like this in adventure games, so I made a note of it as something to come back to later. I'm glad I did, because solving it became one of the keys to the game. If you type SOMETIMES, you are taken to the Information Booth in the Hoople St. Sector, and you can get back from there by typing the same thing. In that sector is where you can buy cheap subway tokens, which allows you to save some credits.
  • Finally, there's an iron gate with a slot in it. If you insert a subway token, you gain access to the  Subwalk Station, where you can access the other four sectors: Hoople St, Boardwalk, Imperium Worlds and the Government Sector.

The Hoople St. sector, which you can gain access to by the secret way I mentioned above, or by the subwalk, is a much smaller area, and only has two things of notes.

  • A machine from which you can buy tokens for 1 credit each (much cheaper than paying 25 credits for two tokens in the spaceport). You need the dictionary to translate the sign above the machine, though.
  • A tourist information machine that will tell you the location of various things and people in the game for the price of 2 credits. Given the note on the bartender's map above, the obvious thing to ask about is Ignarp, which gives you the message "Ignarp is where you find Him." Asking about HIM or GOD doesn't produce any results, but if you ask about CHURCH it tells you to "Subwalk to Imperium Worlds Station, rub ring and ask directions." This would be a good clue to follow after obtaining the map, but I completed the game without ever using this machine.

The Boardwalk Sector is an interesting one. It begins by noting that ground is made out of white paper, which seems odd at first, and only gets odder when you realise what it's getting at.

  • A jail, which you can't enter unless you have the keys. If you do go in, the guards close the door behind you and confiscate the keys. The only way to get back out is to BRIBE the guard, which only costs 1 credit and also allows you to get your keys back. I'm don't think there's anything else to do in there.
  • A riot happening on 'Park Place'. If the rioting Aldebaranites see you, they will beat you up and steal your subway tokens. If this happens, you'll be saved by a disguised "TerrySymp" (Terran Sympathiser).
  • The Terran Embassy, where your intended boss, Ambassador Pouncetrifle, lies dead under a pile of rubble. Only his hand is visible, and his ring which you can take. The ring has some writing on it that's too small to read. Looking in the source code, I see that it's supposed to be magnified using the wine bottle, but I can't get it to work; either the code is wrong, or I'm using the wrong command. It says that the ring can only be activated on a clean surface.
  • A paper-covered street named 'GO'. The ground is marked with a gridwork pattern, with black and white stones placed like so:

    I have no idea.

    It's the boardgame Go, obviously, which is not a game I've ever played. You need to move the white stones (marked with the @ symbols) into a winning position in order to win some credits. Not knowing how Go works, I did it through trial and error. You can leave and come back as many times as you want, which is very helpful; saving and restoring with every failure would have been tedious. Winning gained me the sum of 10 credits, which seemed a bit paltry to me. That's because I hadn't fully solved the puzzle. You can win 200 credits by just typing PASS. Because if you pass Go...  Yes, it's a Monopoly Board. Don't ask me why. It's a puzzle that I never solved, and would have saved me some grief later on; I wouldn't have had to work out that SOMETIMES puzzle. This sort of nonsense fits really well in certain types of adventure games, but Aldebaran III set itself up as more naturalistic than the standard treasure hunts that have come before. Finding a city sector modelled after a Monopoly board was incongruous to say the least.

The Imperium Worlds sector is where the plot comes into focus, and most of the action of the game happens. You can skip Boardwalk and Hoople St. altogether, but you can't win the game without visiting Imperium Worlds. As soon as you try to exit the subwalk, you'll be told that "I don't think you're quite clean enough for this neighborhood". The trick is to type CLEAN, which sends you through a hidden autobath, and dumps you on a spotless street. It's not a puzzle that's obviously singposted, but I solved it on a whim. You can get a hint to the answer by rubbing the ambassador's ring while in the station; a local appears and tells you that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Also in this sector is a church, where you meet a strange man who demands to know your identity. He doesn't trust your word or your ID papers, but if you ask for his identity by typing SAY NAME something weird happens. He tries to tell you that he is Ignarp, but something about the church makes it impossible for him to lie, and he reveals that his name is really R. Nixon Shilth. He springs to attack you, but if you fight back it gets even weirder: he undergoes some sort of internal struggle and morphs into a female. This is the true Ignarp, who was slipped a "Groaci drug" by Shilth that gave him dominance over her for a time. You can't so anything here unless you have the password from the bartender's map: AXOLOTYL. If you give this word, Ignarp explains the plot to you.


Look! A story!

So it turns out the riots are being orchestrated by Shilth, who wants the land that the Terran Embassy sits on. Shilth stole three sacred art objects and sold them to Ambassador Pouncetrifle, who proudly displayed them as his own. Pouncetrifle was arrested as the thief, but managed to negotiate things so the return of the objects as well as a fine of 1,000 credits would settle matters. Pouncetrifle paid 985 of those credits, but the art objects have once more been stolen and hidden by Shilth.

So that's the objective of the game: collect the three art objects, and return them to the Rep along with 15 credits. The objects are a "green zwerf", and "alabaster yangst" and a "pale xyller". I had one clue: they were rumoured to have been hidden in an area near Pont St. Michel.  It's a little unfortunate that for all the great work done in the intro to create an interseting story, it all boils down to a treasure hunt.

Pont St. Michel is a street not far from the church. It leads over a flimsy bridge, and ends at a locked gate. You can only carry one item over the bridge, which can result in some problems later. Getting through the gate requires the keys, but this is where things get a little contentious. As I did with Castle, I needed to alter the code here to beat the game. I spent hours trying to get this gate open, until I gave up and went into the source code. Here's the problem: it's coded to open if you have a "key" in your inventory, but the one you find in the alleyway is listed in the code as "keys", plural. There's nowhere else in the code that refers to a singular key, and the game itself doesn't even recognise the word. So I feel justified in changing the code to work with the keys I had; I'm 100% sure it's an error on the part of the designers.

Beyond the gate is a graveyard area, which functions like a small maze; all of its areas are described identically, and you can't go back through the gate. All three of the art objects are buried in the graveyard, the yangst in one specific area and the other two found at random.  I was expecting an extensive treasure hunt, but to be honest I wasn't disappointed to be denied one. Sometimes I just want a game to be easy.

The way out of the graveyard is through a crypt, which loops back to the locked gate. Inside the crypt is a coffin, and if you open it a "Transylvanian Count" pops out and invites you to rest with him. Yes, this game has Dracula in it.  Normally I'm quite happy to have Dracula pop in any type of narrative you care to name, but even I'll admit he's out of place here. He gets very annoyed if you try to leave, and stops you from getting past. He tries to kill you, but he never managed it against me. I simply kept moving around the graveyard with Dracula in pursuit until the sun came up and vaporised him. It's an odd addition to the game, made even more pointless because you can just ignore the coffin entirely and he won't come out. Perhaps this sort of thing is consistent with the original Retief stories, but somehow I doubt it.

One! One anachronistic vampire! Ah Ah Ah!

With zwerf, xyller and yangst in hand, it should be a simple matter to return them to the Rep, shouldn't it? Well, no, there are still some obstacles to solve. The first is taking all three of the objects across the bridge one by one, which sounds easy enough but is complicated by the nature of the items: if any two of them are dropped in the same area, one will come alive and consume the other. This is signalled when you pick them up: one of the items will quiver in your hands.  Still, the solution here is just to drop them in separate locations, which requires a couple of loops back through the graveyard but is no real hassle.

The real problem is that if you ever drop your subway tokens, they will be almost immediately stolen, and you can't take them across the bridge because you need the keys to unlock the gate. Without fail, every time I've gone to unlock the gate my tokens have been stolen before I could get back.  And without tokens, there's no way to get into the subwalk station, and no way to return the art objects.

This is the puzzle that stumped me the longest, but the solution is quite clever, and well signposted. The clue is that in this sector you will occasionally see a message telling you that a speck of dust has landed on the hyper-clean streets, and vacuum cleaner pops out to suck it up.  The proper solution is to type DROP DIRT, which results in the cleaners sucking you up and spitting you out in the subwalk station.  That's not exactly how I did it though...

A valid solution.

Yes, I got frustrated, and as most people do when they get frustrated with a text adventure I started typing obscenities into the parser.  Wouldn't you know it, I typed SHIT and was promptly whisked to my desired destination. I'm not proud of it, but I chuckled for a good long while.  So yeah, I solved this game with vulgarity, but a win is a win.

From there it's no problem at all to head to the Government Sector, which only has two things of note: the hall from which the art objects were stolen, and the Rep's house. I marched into the Rep's house, and despite his extreme rudeness I handed him all three of the art objects as well as the credits. Getting the credits can be tricky if you spend all of them in the spaceport, but you can get the required amount by playing Go, or buying the cheap subwalk tokens.

"My Yangst!" he crows: the catchcry of the late-90s teen.

I beat the game, but unfortunately I haven't been able to get a screenshot of my victory because the stupid game dumps me back to Windows as soon as it's over.  This is the winning message:

"You Terries aren't so bad after all," admits the Rep as he flicks a
switch that cuts the power to all the androids that were leading the
uprising. "Why don't you stay for dinner?" Which, of course, you do."

Not exactly a gripping finale, is it? And too bad about all of the murder and destruction committed, when apparently this douche-nozzle I'm about to sit and have dinner with could have stopped it all with the press of a button.  Still, I can take a bad ending, or even an anticlimactic one. What I really hate is being unceremoniously booted from the game. I'd fix the code for it if I knew how to do it.

And now, for a Final Rating!

Story & Setting: This one starts off really strongly. Even though the setting and characters are taken from the Jame Retief stories, they're well-realised and entertainingly described, at least at the beginning. And there are a lot of clever touches, such as the explanation for the game's unwavering timescale.  Even the plot is original, at least for adventure games: a race riot orchestrated by an evil businessman looking to make a land-grab is the sort of thing that hadn't been seen to this point. Hell, just having a plot beyond "collect these treasures" is unique in 1978. Too bad it eventually does boil down to a scavenger hunt. Add in the incongruous elements such as Dracula and the Monopoly board puzzle, and it falls apart a bit. There's a lot to like here, but Langston and Howard couldn't quite move past the standard adventure game tropes. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters in this game actually have character, which is a novelty. From the condescending racism of the customs officer, to the rudeness of the Rep, everyone you meet in this game has at least one trait you can recognise. You can't interact with them much, though, and there aren't a lot characters you can meet. I'm not rating it very highly, but aside from Zork this is the first adventure game I've given a score higher than 1. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: There's no sound or graphics, but the writing is quite good, if a little clumsy in places. It also has a charming and quirky sense of humour. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is quite sophisticated for the time, able to recognise commands of up to five words. It has a few problems with word recognition, though (not recognising GET, for instance).  And then there's the matter of the code for the graveyard gate being bugged.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a short game, but none of the puzzles were too challenging, and I thought that one of them was even quite cleverly done. Weirdly enough for an adventure game, the most challenging thing was probably resource management, in that you had to find ways to save your credits unless you figured out the Go puzzle. Probably a little too easy on the whole, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence:  I would say that the influence of Aldebaran III is negligible, as the Wander games were never all that widely distributed.  It's innovations come on the story-telling side of things, as it's the earliest text adventure to have anything even vaguely resembling a plot and a deeper setting. (Actually, Zork has a bit more going on than a standard treasure hunt, now that I think of it.) Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: I got some mild enjoyment out of quirky setting of this one, and some of the writing. The Imperium Worlds station puzzle tickled me, although that may just be the way I solved it.  I wasn't ever all that eager to sit down and play it, though. Rating: 2 out of 7.

It doesn't get the bonus point, as I'll probably never play it again.  The scores above total 19, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 38 for Aldebaran III.  That puts it dead level with Castle, which was more innovative, but weaker in the storytelling, and riddled with bugs.  It sounds like a fair assessment to me.


Next: It's The House of Seven Gables by child prodigy Greg Hassett.  And I've already finished it!!! I can't blog fast enough now that the games are so much shorter!

7 comments:

  1. What a bizarre, little adventure. Much like the previous Wander one, it seems like it comes off a little half-baked. I suppose that can tend to happen when you're not planning on making a commercial product out of something. I've never heard of the Retief stories before, but this makes me a little interested in checking them out. Mid-20th century sci-fi has been interesting me more and more these days, and I've read so little of it...

    It's funny. In reading your write-up, I was too hung up on the Monopoly references to figure out that there was a Go game, too. Not that I would have necessarily typed 'PASS' at any point... The Aldebaranians clearly have some odd fascination with Terran games.

    That's a hilarious solution you stumbled onto for the subwalk station puzzle. It almost seems more natural than "DROP DIRT". Were you even explicitly holding dirt in your inventory at that point?

    I spotted one little problem. You said this in the section about the alleyway, but didn't provide a picture. Did you mean to? "Looking at the bottle gives you this image, which is reminiscent of some of the images from Zork."

    Looking forward to the Hassett, as always. I've been trying to track down a copy of his "missing" game, Mystery Mansion, with no such luck. It's not even in the IFDB, but I know it exists from reviews and ads in magazines from 1980. I also know that trs-80.com has it in his archive, but he doesn't make that available unless the game author gives the okay. So all I need to do is find Mr. Hassett... :)

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  2. No, I'd never heard of Retief either. I might check them out, but I don't find much time to read prose these days.

    I wasn't carrying dirt, no. So I guess the solution is a bit obscure if it's asking for something you don't have.

    Thanks, I'll add that image later.

    I have Mystery Mansion on my list but had no idea it was lost. That's going to eat at me if I can't find it. Hassett would only be 50-odd by now, has anyone ever tracked him down?

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  3. To my knowledge, no one's talked to him recently about adventure games. I think I've found his parents' address through the power of the Internet. I was thinking of sending a polite letter to them to try to make contact with Greg.

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  4. To update the Hassett Hunt, I have now definitely found him on LinkedIn. After a stint in Silicon Valley, it looks like he's back in the Boston area. I'm trying to figure out how to directly contact him. When I do, I think I'll just see if he's willing to send trs-80.com an e-mail to make his adventures publicly available. I'll keep you posted as to what happens.

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  5. "Langston and Howard couldn't quite move past the standard adventure game tropes."

    That seems a little harsh: since this seems to have been written independent on ADVENT and ZORK, it was created in an environment where there here no standard tropes. It might be fairer to say that it independently reinvented (or in some cases anticipated what would become) standard tropes.

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    Replies
    1. I suppose it is a bit unfair to criticise the game on this point, given the year it was made. I wouldn't be so sure that it was developed independent of Advent or Zork. Langston's first game, Castle, definitely reacted to XYZZY in a later revision. I'm not sure what the time-scale there was, but I'd be very surprised if he hadn't at least seen Colossal Cave Adventure by the time A3 was being written.

      I guess I was just a little disappointed that the game started so promisingly and innovatively, only to go to the same well as most other adventure games of its vintage.

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    2. Yes; it's a recurring frustration in playing these early games that they existed in so many versions -- or, often, not even in distinct versions but just ever-evolving code. So it becomes impossible to know what CASTLE or A3 looked like before their author saw ADVENT.

      Odd that, if Renga is right, A3 (1977) is a full three years younger than CASTLE (1974).

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