Sunday, November 15, 2020

Game 51: Local Call for Death (1979)

The covers for Adventure International
games are usually very accurate, but this
one has loads of differences from the
actual game.

Today's game is Local Call for Death, a very short bit of interactive fiction for the TRS-80.  And when I say very short, I really mean it: I knocked this game out in about 40 minutes.  I wouldn't mind a long run of games of about this length.  I mean, I might have felt ripped off at the time if I'd paid for it, but when I have a list that's many hundreds of games long ahead of me I ain't complaining.

You may have noticed that I described this game as "interactive fiction". It's not a term I generally go for, preferring to describe these early games with the somewhat less pretentious label of "text adventure".  But with Local Call for Death, interactive fiction really is the most fitting descriptor for it.  Set a couple of years after the Great War, you play as an amateur detective helping to solve a murder mystery, with most of the input being in the form of your own dialogue.  It plays out much like a Sherlock Holmes adventure, with the player in a role similar to that of Doctor Watson, being prodded by a smarter detective to solve the mystery.  (Unlike with Lovecraft in my last post, I've read most of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.)

Local Call for Death was written by Robert Lafore for the TRS-80, and released by Adventure International.  We'll see Lafore again later in 1979, and he has some games in 1980 and 1981 as well.  Wikipedia credits him with coining the term "interactive fiction", so he has that claim to fame, and he also seems to have had a lengthy career in the computer field, as well as writing books on programming.  He would have been in his early 40s when his first games were released, which explains why Local Call for Death feels a lot more mature in tone than many of its contemporaries.

Mobygames says that Local Call for Death was a 1980 game, but the title screen and source code have it as being written in 1979.  Generally I'd prefer to go with the release date, but I've already played the game and started writing this post, so I might as well get on with it.  It came out for the TRS-80, and the documentation indicates that it was also released for the Apple II.  I couldn't find the Apple version, so for this post I'm only looking at the one for TRS-80.  I suspect the versions aren't greatly different.

The title screen.

After a request from the author to "please spell correctly" ("the computer is, alas, not bright enough to correct your mistakes"), the game asks you for some details about your character.  It asks for a title - Mr., Miss or Mrs. - rather than a gender, as well as your first and last name.  (Ms. is dismissed as being inappropriate for the time period.) Finally it asks what town in America you come from.  After the last couple of weeks I know a lot more American towns than I used to, but I still went with the boring answer of New York.

A level of spelling and grammar heretofore unseen in gaming.

The game begins with the player, an American visiting England, dining at a club with three people: famous English detective Sir Colin Drollery, a retired soldier named Major Wormsley, and a financier named Mr. Blackwell.  This section plays out much like the opening scene of a short story, with minimal input from the player.  The major characters converse among themselves, with the player being asked minor questions such as what they do for a living, or whether they want to drink some more wine.  At this point, the player's responses have very little effect on the game.

The conversation is extensive and well written, with quite a number of detours and red herrings, but the relevant details are as follows: someone has won the lottery today, and Blackwell's finance company is currently in some trouble.  The dinner ends after Blackwell's nephew Rodney - a gambling addict and womaniser - calls him to threaten suicide if he is not loaned 500 pounds.  Blackwell refuses, and the call ends with the sound of a gunshot.  It's all played off by Blackwell as another of Rodney's cries for attention, and everyone goes off to play bridge before going home.

The next morning the player is woken by Sir Colin, who has received a call from Blackwell; it seems that his nephew is dead after all, and he wants the two of you to investigate the crime scene.  So off you go, and this is where the game properly begins.  You are given a description of the room, in which Rodney is slumped over his last meal with a gun in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. Sir Colin then prompts you to explore various items within the room for clues.

The scene of the crime.

The first time I got to this point of the game I hadn't been taking notes, so I got completely stumped.  After scouring the room for clues, you're asked if you want to accuse someone of murder.  The preamble was so interminably long that I zoned out and forgot the names of the other characters.  The culprit was obviously Blackwell, but I had no idea how to accuse him without remembering his name, so I had to start again.

The second time through I took lots of notes, and was prepared to accuse Blackwell when the time came.  (You can accuse yourself, Sir Colin, or Wormsley, but all of those suggestions are dismissed as absurd. I tried to accuse the prime minister and King George V, but the game wasn't having it.)  Figuring out who committed the murder is trivial; the meat of the game is finding enough evidence of Blackwell's guilt. I didn't pick up on all the clues, and had to be prompted by Sir Colin once or twice, but I got there eventually.  Some of those clues are:

  • The phone is hung up on the receiver, which is pretty unlikely if Rodney shot himself while calling Blackwell.
  • Rodney has this morning's newspaper on the floor, impossible if he died last night.
  • There's a piece of material caught on the table leg that matches Blackwell's trousers.
  • Rodney is clutching the torn corner of a lottery ticket, and Blackwell has the rest of the ticket in his pocket,
  • Rodney's suicide note matches Blackwell's handwriting, which can be found on a business card he gave me over dinner last night
  • The window is open, and the coffee spilled on the table would be frozen if it had been left there overnight

Lord Colin Drollery lives up to his surname.

That's far from all of it, but it's enough to accuse Blackwell.  Perhaps the biggest difficulty in this section is getting the wording right.  Sir Colin insists that you give your answers in the form of complete sentences; you can't just type NEWSPAPER and move on, even though the game is probably responding to keywords.  The one I had major trouble with was matching the torn material to Blackwell's trousers.  I never did get that one right, but I was able to find enough other clues to make my accusation.

Once that's done, Sir Colin runs through his own reconstruction of the case, as is customary in these kinds of stories.  Blackwell makes some empty threats, and the game ends as you and Sir Colin shake hands over a job well done.

Let's be real, Lord Colin didn't need me there..

Local Call for Death is certainly interesting as a "path not taken", and it's often impressive in terms of how well it responds to the many sentences you can input.  Still, it feels a little bit like too much of a story and not enough of a game.  It's a bit like a micro version of those late 90s JRPGs that felt like they were 90% cutscenes.  What it does, it does well once the game gets going, but it does take a little too long to get to the point.


Story & Setting: Both of these were very well realised, if somewhat limited in scope.  Of course, in comparison to murder mystery literature it's pretty cliched stuff, but it's at the top end of quality in terms of the video games I've played for the blog thus far.  The main complaint I have is a lack of interactivity for the majority of the game.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are only three characters of note in the game aside from murder victim Rodney, but they have more depth than pretty much anything else we've seen so far (i.e. they have actual personalities).  Unfortunately, it's only Sir Colin that you really get to interact with; Blackwell and Wormsley don't do much outside of the heavily scripted opening scenes.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This game is among the more well-written text adventures of its era, and it almost perfectly evokes the tone and style that it's going for.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Puzzles: Rather than having many smaller puzzles and obstacles, Local Call for Death has one large, interconnected one: gathering enough evidence to accuse Blackwell of murder.  This requires observance and logic on a level that's pretty much unheard of at the time; this might be the earliest adventure game I've played where everything makes sense.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is a difficult one.  What this game is doing looks impressive at first, but I had all sorts of problems wrangling with the parser and getting my ideas across to Sir Colin.  At one point I even had him interpret my input as the exact opposite of what I was saying, so it's far from foolproof.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The mystery here isn't all that difficult, especially for anyone who has read a bunch of stories in this genre.  Even if you get stuck Sir Colin is there to smugly guide you, so I'd say most players would get through this on their first try as long as they're paying attention.  For a commercial release it's certainly far too easy.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Fun: I only had to go through this game twice, and it would be very difficult for such a short game to get a minimum score.  I definitely got sick of the opening scenes though, as I do in any game where it takes too long to get started.  Once I was able to play I enjoyed it, but the ratio of story to game was way off.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1. I haven't played anything quite like this game before, so it gets a point for innovation even though it's something of a game development dead end.

The above scores total 17. Double that and add the bonus point, and Local Call for Death gets a very respectable RADNESS Index of 35.  That puts it equal 11th overall, and equal 6th in terms of adventure games.  The last two entries have seen good showings from two short games that do what they do pretty well.  There's not a hell of a lot of game here, but fans of old-school text adventures and mystery stories will probably enjoy it.

NEXT: It's back to the priority list for the third game from Ken and Roberta Williams, called Mission: Asteroid.  I've already finished it, so expect a post in the not too distant future.


  1. Replies
    1. I probably will be, but I definitely needed a blogging break. Expect some posts in the not-too-distant future.

    2. Ah, that's good to see. I'd just gotten into this blog over the last couple months; then I noticed that you hadn't posted anything new since late last year, and given the general state of affairs, I got a little worried.