Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Great Scott Project - Adventure #6

The Great Scott Project blasts into outer space, as we take on Adventure #6: Strange Odyssey! The vintage AI catalog lays out our objectives:

Marooned at the edge of the galaxy, you’ve stumbled on the ruins of an ancient alien civilization complete with fabulous treasures and unearthly technologies. Can you collect the treasures and return or will you end up marooned forever?…
We're back in the treasure-hunting biz, if we can survive long enough to lug our booty home.

I opted to play #6 on the Commodore 64, emulated by Per Hakan Sundell's CCS64. I used to have terrible C-64 envy back in my TRS-80 days -- when it came to arcade-style games, the system's capable sprite hardware and amazing SID sound chip were the best available. So I was surprised and a little bit dismayed to discover that the C-64 Adventure interpreter has so many differences from its peers, and some serious shortcomings.

The C-64 interpreter uses text color coding to distinguish room descriptions, user prompts/commands, and game responses. But the text simply scrolls; it doesn't maintain Adams' most unique innovation, the persistent "room" window at the top of the screen. Instead, it plays like most text adventures, displaying the room description only upon entry (and even that's spotty), requiring frequent LOOK commands to keep track of what's going on. The interpreter also seems to require 4 characters of each verb and noun instead of 3 as on most other platforms, so all my old habits (like using INV instead of I or TAKE INVENTORY) had to be rethought -- I finally started using I instead of repeatedly mistyping INVE.

Enough griping -- the game is entirely playable on the Commodore 64, despite the inconveniences, so let's get to work. The initial setup is deftly established by examining the control console display -- this find-out-yourself theme persists as the game progresses, with other gauges and settings to check, and the design feels very organic:

I didn't find this one to be as tough as #5 -- every object has a sensible use, there are no external events to keep up with/wait for, and there isn't a lot of inventory juggling required. I was able to finish it in a few hours without any hint book references -- I did play it back in the day, but must have only played it once as I didn't really remember the solutions to any of the puzzles.
Adventure #6 is all about discovery and figuring out how an alien universe operates without much hand-holding at all, which makes it a must-play in my book. If you haven't played it yourself, you really ought to do yourself the favor of trying it out before continuing.

****** SPOILERS AHEAD! *******

There aren't really any other characters in this game -- there are some plants and animals, but the absence of other intelligent life forms makes the environment seem very desolate and alien indeed. Signs and readouts, evidence of other intelligences existing elsewhere in space-time, become the closest thing we have to human contact. It's very atmospheric, and the spacesuit's constantly-dropping air gauge lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings that's more personal and dramatic than the external countdowns of #3 and #5.
Mr. Adams' regular commercial message is back, on an "alien sign" that nevertheless proves readable; perhaps we are the aliens, actually. For the first time we learn that there's a little ancillary merchandise on offer:

Get Adventure 7 "MYSTERY FUN HOUSE" from your favorite Dealer! Have you gotten your Adventure T-SHIRT yet?
(Does anyone still have one of those t-shirts?)

What I really enjoyed about this game was figuring out how the unfamiliar machines work. The hexagonal room that serves as a portal to other worlds has infinite settings, but only 6 of them go anywhere interesting, as hinted by the room's shape. Everything makes sense, but it takes some experimentation to put aside our human biases and adapt to the alien world. There are constant reminders that we are visitors here -- PUSH PLASTIC applies too much force, TOUCH PLASTIC works. We also have to learn the nesting habits of the Rigilian Dia-Ice Hound, discover the maximum air capacity of our space suit, experiment with our phaser settings, and take a crash course in Jovian mining safety.

The geography of the small planetoid is covered by just a handful of rooms, and it doesn't take long to discover the quickest route from the player's Scoutship to the Cave where most of the action takes place. It is possible to finish the game on the space suit's initial air supply, with judicious gauge monitoring and WEAR/UNWEAR actions applied at the proper moments. There is an alien machine that will refill the suit's oxygen, but it's advisable to save game before starting to figure out how it works.
There's not really much of a plot to Strange Odyssey otherwise -- this is basically Adventureland in space: wander around, discover the puzzles, come up with solutions given the available objects, confiscate the *TREASURES*. The design is very honest and there aren't any red herrings, but I liked its innovative flouting of one convention: it pays to examine the treasures in this game, as some of them have practical uses.
The end-game is deeply unnerving, as we have to destroy the portal mechanism in order to power our ship home, closing off our oxygen depot and access to all the worlds we've visited. Only after we reach the mother ship and find the traditional SCORE room in the storage hold do we learn whether we've actually discovered all of the treasures -- fortunately, it appears we have:

And so our Strange Odyssey is over, with five treasures recovered and stored at incredible taxpayer expense, and no Greeks bearing gifts, star children, or K. C. Munchkins to speak of. It's a solid work of relatively straight science fantasy, and I really enjoyed the trip. Our next expedition promises to be amusing -- it's Adventure #7: Mystery Fun House!


  1. One quirk of the way Scott Adams' adventure interpreter worked was how he indicated that an item in your inventory was being worn. The game's object list would include objects named "Which I'm wearing", immediately following each wearable object in the list. So if you were just carrying around your space suit, and you took INVEntory, it would say:

    Space suit.

    But if you wore the space suit, and then took INVEntory, it would say:

    Space suit. Which I'm wearing.

    The ornery thing about this, though, was that the "Which I'm wearing" item counted against the maximum limit of how many items you could carry at once. So carrying around a belt loose in your inventory counted as 1 item, but wearing the same belt counted as 2 items.

    This really, REALLY got in my way when I played _Strange Odyssey_. The game has a 6 item limit in inventory, and there's one point in the game where in order to proceed you need to have:

    Space suit. Which I'm wearing. Alien belt. Which I'm wearing. & it's activated.

    In other words, you were really only carrying 2 items, but your inventory acted as though you were carrying 5 items -- leaving only ONE SPACE in your inventory to pick up anything else!

  2. LOL so sorry about that Roger. It was my first attempt at trying to have items have different inventory states! Made it a bit of a chore for the player though :)

    1. OMG, Scott Adams replied to me!

      I was 14 years old when I got my own TRS-80, and I only had enough moola at the time to buy 3 of the Scott Adams adventures. (I think I sent the money to Adventure International as cash stuffed into an envelope, including coins to make exact change. The fact that it survived U.S. postal delivery intact is nothing short of amazing) The 3 adventures I chose, based on things in their advertising blurbs that piqued my interest, were _Mission Impossible_, _Strange Odyssey_, and _Ghost Town_. (_Savage Island_ had not yet come out.)

      I had a lot of fun with each of those, although I never did quite figure out the bonus scoring system in _Ghost Town_. I noticed that some time between _Mission Impossible_ and _Strange Odyssey_ you switched from looking at only the first 3 letters of each word typed to looking at the first 4 letters, which I felt was a change for the better. (I think the version of Colossal Cave I cut my adventure-game teeth on paid attention to the first 6 letters of each word.)

      I quite liked playing _Strange Odyssey_ back in the day. Its quirky inventory-counting I just considered one more part of the overall puzzle that I had to solve.

      The one adventure of yours in which I noted a marked stylistic improvement was _Golden Voyage_. I don't remember if the "Which I'm wearing" quirk was present in that adventure -- I don't think it was -- but the main thing I noticed was that you were no longer desperately re-using message strings in an attempt to shave memory requirements. _Savage Island II_, for example, started out with:

      ONE ITEM.

      ... so that you could re-use the phrases "ONE ITEM" and "I'M STARK NAKED" elsewhere. It got crazy in places, where for example if you tried to read the alien writing the message got broken up into tiny pieces like this:

      I CAN'T
      READ IT!

      In _Golden Voyage_, though, this was no longer an issue, and thus the game text was a lot more pleasant to read.

  3. Golden Voyage was written by William Demas and I did editorial work on it. At the time he was a young teenager who reversed engineered my game engine and then wrote this adventure and sent it in to me. To say I was impressed is an understatement! He was an amazingly gifted kid!

    Also Pyramid of doom had an outside author who did the same thing! Alvin Files. He was a lawyer who was also interested in doing his own adventures.