Sunday, April 23, 2017

Game 19: The House of Seven Gables (1978)

Evocative.

The House of Seven Gables is the second game from Greg Hassett, twelve-year-old rival of adventure game legend Scott Adams.  Hassett's first effort, Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, had all the hallmarks of a game that was incomplete; it was full of red herrings and areas that served no purpose. It also only had one puzzle, making it extremely easy to finish.

The good news is that The House of Seven Gables is a much tighter game. There are still a few things in it that I never found a use for, but it felt to me less like Hassett didn't program them and more like I just didn't solve the puzzles.

If The House of Seven Gables sounds familiar, it might be because there's a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. The game has little to do with the book, although both have elements of witchcraft and the supernatural. Hassett's game is the first "haunted house" adventure I've played for the blog, and possibly the first one ever made. A lot of haunted house games will follow, so it's influential in that respect. (Oddly enough, at the same time I'm playing The House of Seven Gables, I'm also playing House of Hell over on my gamebook blog. That one's a bit more hardcore though, there's some genuine nightmare fuel in that book.)

One rule of my blog is that I try to run the games I'm playing as close to their original version as I can get. Where possible, I'm going to play games for the system for which they were developed. The House of Seven Gables was released for the TRS-80, so I'm emulating that machine. The emulator (found here) was a little finicky to get running. I had previously used it to play some early Scott Adams games, but had completely forgotten how to use it in the interim. A bit of Googling served me well, though, and I was ready to go.

The game begins with you standing at the front door of a house with seven gables. There's a doorbell, and a compass lying on the floor. The compass is an odd thing, because you can't move anywhere without it. As soon as you pick it up the exits from the room become visible, and you can move around. It doesn't make a lot of logical sense, and it also takes up an inventory slot which is kind of annoying. Once you pick it up though you can forget about it, so it's not such a big deal. Just don't lose it, or you'll be stuck in one location forever.

There's nothing to do outside the house except to pick up the compass (GET is recognised, but not TAKE, the opposite of my complaint about A3). You can't open the door, but if you ring the bell you'll be sucked inside to the living room. At this point there's no way out, until you defeat the witch who is in charge of the house (although that's not apparent just yet).

But why am I even here?

What's also not apparent is the objective of the game. Escaping from the house alive is one, but as is customary with games of this vintage there are treasures to collect. There's also a score, with a maximum of 160 points. You earn points by returning the treasures to the Living Room, which is something that I had to figure out on my own. Not that it was that hard, because Hassett's previous game used the same device, and a bunch of other early adventure games have done so as well.

The first thing I do when starting a text adventure is to map out as much of it as I possibly can. I don't think I've described my method before, so I'll quickly give an example. Instead of making a map of the physical space, I simply list all of the rooms that I find in alphabetical order, with exits marked and interesting features noted. Every time I add a new room I place a line beneath it for every possible exit: N, E, S, W, NE, SE, SW, NW, U, D.  I then try each direction in turn, regardless of whether the game tells me there's an exit. If it leads to a room, I note the destination. If it doesn't, I delete that line. It may be an unusual system (I'm not sure how anyone else does it), but it ensures that I don't miss any exits, and still gives me a good sense of the map in my head. Here's an example of what the end result looks like below:

LIVING ROOM
    E - DINING ROOM
    S - TOP OF A STAIRCASE
    W - GUEST ROOM

MAD SCIENTIST'S LABORATORY
Objects: Chemicals
    D - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 4

MAMMOTH ART GALLERY
Objects: Priceless Rembrant
    N - ONE END OF A HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - WEST END OF THE HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
Objects: Rusty Axe
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    S - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    W - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 3

Exploration in The House of Seven Gables is made difficult by two enemies that pop up at random.  The first is the Ghost, who demands a treasure from you. If you don't give him one he kills you, but if you do give him one you can't get the maximum score. I never did figure out how to defeat the ghost, or if you can retrieve any treasures given to him. Once he shows up, though, there's nothing you can do but relinquish a treasure or restart the game.

Running ghosts are a rarity.

The second enemy is the One-Eyed Ghoul, who will show up in a room and kill you on your next move. Dealing with him is less obvious than the Ghost, and it took me a while to figure out how to kill him. The solution is to mix some chemicals found in a Mad Scientist's Laboratory, and throw them at the Ghoul, which melts him. What's kind of lame is that Ghouls just keep showing up and attacking you no matter how many you kill, but the chemicals don't disappear after you throw them so it's not so bad. It's just another item you need to keep in your inventory along with the compass.  You also need to mix the chemicals when you find them, or they're useless against the Ghoul; there's a hint about this in a room of the house where a hollow, disembodied voice cryptically tells you "MIX THEM".

"Heavens!" is perhaps a sanitised exclamation here.

There are eight treasures in the game, which I'll list below.

  • Silver Candlesticks (worth 10 points). These are found right next to the Living Room, so claiming them is no trouble at all.
  • A Rusty Axe (worth 5 points). The axe is found in the middle of a very small maze.  Mazes are an obligatory part of any adventure game at this point, but thankfully this is a small one; the limited memory of the TRS-80 is good for something after all. The axe is not only a treasure, but it's also used to chop down a locked door that leads to a staircase to the upper floor.
  • Some "Valuable Recipies" (worth 15 points). They're written in "Witchish", so you can't read them. They're found on the upper floor, not far from the stairs.
  • A "Priceless Rembrant" (worth 20 points). Really, Greg Hassett might have been well served by spending less time on coding adventure games and more time working on his spelling. The painting is on the upper floor, in an art gallery.
  • A Diamond (worth 15 points). Again, this is on the upper floor, not far from the entrance to the Witch's lair.
  • A Beautiful Rose (worth 10 points), found at the top of the stairs to the upper floor. 
  • The Witch's Hat (worth 50 points). You need to defeat the Witch in order to claim the hat, but more on that below.
  • A "Sulton's Dagger" (worth 35 points). This is one of the more difficult treasures to obtain. It's found in a coffin, which also houses (surprise!) a Vampire. The Vampire can be driven off with some garlic from the kitchen, but later on it will block your path back to the Living Room. The garlic doesn't work on it a second time; you need to STAKE VAMPIRE while the dagger is in your possession.

Stupid game, all Vampires are Draculas.

Claiming all of these treasures earns you the full 160 points. A few times while playing I noticed that my score had dropped into the negatives, and kept dropping with every move I made. At first I had thought that this was to do with losing treasure to the Ghost, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I also thought it might have been the result of escaping from the Witch without killing her, but that wasn't it either. It's a mystery I haven't solved, and not one I'm ever likely to.

As mentioned above, you can't get one of the treasures without killing the Witch. The first hint of her presence is found in a Dungeon, where a crude note is found on the wall: "YOU CAN'T GET OUT WITHOUT KILLING ME FIRST! --WITCHY POO".  Her lair is accessed via an altar on the upper floor that has a button on it; press the button and you're whisked away to her lair. (There's a book in the library with the helpful hint "NOTTUB SSERP"; thanks, I never would have gotten that otherwise.) The Witch isn't dangerous at all; she doesn't attack, and you can easily escape from her lair via an exit which leads to the Living Room.  Killing her is not hard to figure out, but there's a clue you can find by unfolding a paper airplane: "REMEMBER THE WIZARD OF OZ". The answer, of course, is to douse her with water, which you can find by filling a bucket in the kitchen.  Then it's a simple case of THROW WATER when you're in the Witch's presence, and she's done for.

"Her hat remains." I don't know why, but it makes me laugh.

Once the Witch is dead an exit to the north appears in the Living Room, and you can leave the house. This counts as winning the game, regardless of whether you've earned all 160 points or not.  But if you've collected all of the treasures, you'll get the screen below.

Sigh. If only I'd taken one more move.

Hardly the most satisfying conclusion, but it's par for the course at this stage. Really, the most satisfying thing about this was being able to knock off a game in a single day. After the long PLATO slog, it's a massive relief.

Before I give this game a Final Rating, I'll list some of the things that I never found a use for.

  • The house does indeed have seven gables, but I'm not entirely sure that Greg Hassett knows what a gable is. As you progress through the house you'll find areas named "First Gable", "Second Gable", etc.  Hassett must have thought that a gable is a room, but it's actually defined as "the triangular upper part of a wall at the end of a ridged roof".  I kept expecting the Gable rooms to become important, but they have no significance.
  • There's a banana in the kitchen. If you eat it you're left with the peel, but it never became useful. I had thought I might be able to trip the Ghoul with it, but no luck there. You can't drop it in the Witch's cauldron of brew either.
  • In the Second Gable is a black cat. If you try to catch it it disappears, with the ominous warning that it will return. It does show up in other rooms of the house after that, but nothing I've tried works on it.
  • In the Third Gable there is a test tube of fluid. Drinking it results in a black cloud that makes you drop all of your items, which is a game over because it means you lose the compass. Otherwise, it does nothing that I've been able to discern.
  • The compass goes from shiny to tarnished after a while, for no apparent reason.

That's not too bad, compared to the unfinished feeling of Hassett's first game. Now that that's done, it's time for the Final Rating.

Story & Setting: It's a treasure hunt, without even the proper rationale for one. There's no reason given for why you're at the front door of the house, or why you'd want to go inside.  Perhaps one was given in the documentation, but I wasn't able to find any on-line. The setting has all of the standard haunted house trappings, but the writing is so sparse that it never manages to create a spooky atmosphere. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The game has a few characters throughout the game: the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Vampire and the Witch. Interaction with them is minimal, though, and they do little except for functioning as puzzles or obstacles. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The game has no sound, and the graphics are limited to black-and-white text. The descriptions are exceptionally terse, as necessitated by the extremely low memory of the TRS-80, and as such they don't convey much beyond the purely functional. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's a simple two-word parser, and there are one or two instances where the obvious command isn't what the game is looking for, but the game is small and tight enough that it's not a big problem. I also like how it has the room description at the top, with the character's actions and their results below. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The game is pretty easy, though a touch more difficult than Hassett's first game. The major difficulty is with the Ghost: if it pops up, you can't beat the game with full points. Otherwise, the game shouldn't trouble anyone for more than an hour or two. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: In terms of mechanics, it's very much like Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, and the first two Scott Adams adventures. It does get some points for being the first ever "haunted house" adventure, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

This game doesn't get the bonus point, because I'll never go back to it. The above points add up to 13, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 26. This puts it dead level with Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, which is about right. It's a better game, but not a great deal better. From a modern perspective, they're much the same in quality.

Next: It's Acheton, a mammoth adventure game from England that borrows heavily from Colossal Cave Adventure. It's quite a bit larger, though, and much more sadistic. It's so large that I haven't even finished mapping it yet, and I very much doubt that I'll be done with it before my next post.

6 comments:

  1. Here's the solution to the puzzle you failed to solve: srrq tubfg

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  2. Thanks! Not one of the walkthroughs I checked had the solution, so good job. It's a bit of a random solution, but given that nearly every adventure game so far has had a 'feed' puzzle I should have worked it out. Strangely enough, it works even if you don't have the banana in your possession; the banana disappears from whatever location it's in, and the peel appears where you are.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting bug there. That's been corrected in the listing I'm looking at (in the Captain 80 Basic Adventures book) to say "I have no food" if you're not carrying the banana.

      Since I'm looking at a listing, I can address a few of the details you mentioned:
      - the ghost has a 1% chance of appearing every turn, but only if you have 3 or more items
      - the ghoul has a 2.5% chance of appearing every turn, but not if you're in the living room
      - the compass gets tarnished after turn 50
      - you start losing points after turn 175
      - the vampire apparently also likes bananas
      - STAB VAMPIRE also works, as this is only a three-letter parser

      Maybe his games get bigger than 35-40 locations once he switches to coding in assembly? I'm not really familiar with his later work.

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    2. Nice finds! The Captain 80 book is on archive.org; I'll have to remember to check it over the next time I play one of the games that's in it.

      As for Hassett's later work, the only one I've played is Journey to Atlantis. I played it earlier in the blog, before realising that it was from 1979. It's about the same size as this game, and I doubt that his games will get much bigger due to the memory limitations of those early computers. Unfortunately, he didn't stick with it long enough to work without those constraints.

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  3. I was going to comment that Radio Shack's "Haunted House" was first, but I now see that this antedates that one. Thanks for the nostalgia--I played most of the Greg Hassett adventures when they came out, as I found them easier than the ones by Scott Adams.

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  4. From an adult perspective Adams' games are better, but I can see liking Hassett's stuff more as a kid. They're good as entry level adventures.

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