Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Michael Crichton's Amazon (1984)

I went looking for this adventure game based on a vague memory of its existence, half-certain my aging memory banks had conflated Oo-Topos creator Michael Berlyn with a popular fiction author.  But no, it's true -- back in 1984, Trillium/Telarium Software published Amazon, an epic adventure game written by speculative fiction novelist Michael Crichton, creator of Westworld and Jurassic Park, among many others.

The game's setup bears significant plot resemblances to Crichton's 1980 novel Congo, with the intelligent great apes replaced by native Huni warriors, and communicative simian Amy replaced by a talking parrot named Paco.  It's immediately clear why so many of Crichton's books were adapted to film, as this 4-diskette Apple II game devotes much of the space to production value.  The story kicks off in cinematic style with a pending satellite transmission:

Crichton's approach to interactive fiction has some unique qualities -- it's interesting to see what an established novelist inexperienced in an interactive medium comes up with, and the plot has a tight sense of pacing.  But the gameplay is consequently limited by the author's ideas about what must happen next -- some elements are just there for the sake of interactivity (like asking the player's name and using it at every opportunity), and there are many moments where the player is constrained to a small set of commands, or even one.

Still, it's clear that the author thought about the story's structure and wanted players to experience the whole adventure -- many puzzles have alternate solutions or can be ignored/avoided altogether, and the game does a lot to nudge the player along.  To his credit, Crichton also shifts freely between formats -- it's surprising how innovative it seems when the graphics go away for the sake of denser text, or when an animated display takes over for a videogame-style segment.

Fans of the genre (or of Michael Crichton's work) are encouraged to play Amazon for themselves before reading further.  As usual, I will shortly be giving some significant plot points away for the sake of historical documentation.

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

After the dramatic satellite transmission sequence, our boss Murphy wants to see us in his office.  Crichton's "steering" approach to interactive storytelling becomes clear here -- if we try to LOOK or otherwise get our bearings, we are told YOU BETTER GO TO THE OFFICE, and only GO OFFICE is accepted as a productive response.

Interactivity remains very limited as we "converse" with the boss.  He asks our name, which the game uses mechanically in several places later on, and asks us some questions, generally ignoring our answers; MURPHY NODS UNDERSTANDINGLY whether we say YES or NO.

It's nice to see some fresh, literate verbiage that breaks away from the Scott Adams/Crowther & Woods standards; for example, Crichton's game tells us YOU HAVEN'T ANY POSSESSIONS when INVENTORY is empty.

The game also offers three difficulty levels -- I opted to play as a medium-level Seasoned Explorer.  Research indicates that some new puzzles appear, and others are harder to solve as the difficulty increases, but there's not a big difference between the options.  Still, it's a nice idea that delivers some replay value.

There really isn't much to do in the early part of the game -- we just GO places as directed, like the OFFICE, the AIRPORT, and MIAMI.  We can't even go to the wrong place.  It's a shame because there's a nice sense of realism otherwise - we have to tune in the satellite transmission, and review the posted airport schedule.  We just can't do anything with the information that Michael Crichton doesn't want us to.

Even though the game occupies 4 diskettes, the text is generally sparse, and sometimes surprisingly amateurish, as in:


Despite the author's guiding fist, there are many fatal scenarios -- upon arriving in Miami, if we don't insist on going to the Archaeological Institute as suggested, the taxi driver beats and robs us, sending us back to Washington in disgrace and ending the game.

We arrive to find police cars and an ambulance at the Institute, another nod to Hollywood that works very well.  But the varied settings do start to seem dry after a while -- there's very little LOOK or EXAMINE feedback to bring them to life.

I also ran into some parser issues -- GO INSTITUTE, as it turns out, does not mean the same thing as ENTER INSTITUTE, causing me to get unnecessarily stuck for a while as the game seemingly refused to let me do anything at all.

The name bit becomes gimmicky very quickly -- various people keep asking the player's name, which doesn't do as much for interactive realism as the author hopes it will.  Especially when Paco the extremely talkative parrot asks.

In Dr. Beneker's office, we can't OPEN REFRIGERATOR until after releasing Paco and talking to him.  The game is quite blatant about it, too -- there's no reason given for the parser's stubbornness, other than that we have to wait and do it later.  Getting out of the office is another parser sticking point -- we GO DOOR to enter the room, but GO DOOR after we're there just yields NOTHING OBSERVABLE HAPPENS.  We have to LEAVE ROOM.

Paco provides quite a bit of help -- his first assist is useful in haggling with the Institute's mercenary director.  Paco also jokes lamely -- refusing to fly with the luggage, he says "THAT'S FOR THE BIRDS!"

It's a bit confusing that some items have multiple, but single, uses.  When I played, I had to bribe an immigration officer in Guatemala with cigarettes.  But later, when I encountered the Kemani tribe, they gestured with two fingers to their lips as Paco yelled, "KEMANI PEOPLE WANT SMOKE!!"  Unsatisfied, they dumped me unceremoniously in the jungle and let me go on my way.  Thinking I needed something the tribespeople might have given me, I went back to a previous save and tried to bribe the officer with other things, like gold and money, to no avail.  As it turned out, I didn't need the Kemani people's assistance after all.

There are some nice spot sound effects in the game, especially by Apple II standards -- effective static, and some excellent bird sounds.

As we arrive in the Amazon, there's a nice narrative jump to the post-parachute landing -- we remember nothing at first, but memories flood back after we sit up.  Of course, we are forced to acknowledge the repeated PERHAPS YOU SHOULD SIT UP prompts by finally typing SIT UP before anything else of interest can happen.

I liked this -- if we don't listen to Paco's direction, we get lost in the jungle. But if we DO listen to him, we also get lost.  The unreliable guide is a novel and funny idea.

The jungle map is constrained in various fatal ways.  Trying to go DOWN from the impassable cliff yields SPLAT!!!! YOU NEVER SHOULD HAVE TRIED THAT.  We encounter a wild boar and a jaguar in the woods -- they back off, but if we go in the same direction they did we are attacked and killed.

Michael Crichton always likes to use sci-fi technology in his books, grounded in reality to at least some degree.  There's an advanced portable laser in this game, but I was disappointed that I never found a use for it other than in a brief arcade-style sequence.

There are several cases where we have to rely on a portable computer to navigate to a safe haven -- it's like mapping a maze, but I never did make sense of the coordinate system.  At least we can completely avoid danger while we're "in the computer" -- we just have to keep moving N/S/E/W until we reach the target location.  It's a novel idea at first when the computer tells us we're at "AU, F1" and there's a safe campsite at "WP, T1", but it gets old by the third round.  AND when the system suddenly switches to a graphical view for an action segment where we have to track down a monkey who stole our backpack, it leaves us wondering why this handy-dandy grid display didn't pop up earlier!  It would have saved us considerable mapping and frustration.

I was glad I had the parrot along at this point -- fortunately the parser doesn't actually recognize many WRONG gestures, but Paco helpfully told me to SMILE, AMIGO:

The third act of the game becomes fairly challenging and/or frustrating, with lots of ways to die (but thankfully few dead ends requiring backtracking to address earlier mistakes.)  The inflatable raft leaks; we can't turn on the computer; a hippo charges if we don't wait for him to leave peacefully; the river is full of piranhas and alligators; the rifle we find has a bend in it that causes it to explode in our faces if we actually try to fire it.

Finally, we find a native boat, but it has a hole in it.  We can FIX BOAT - and are prompted WHAT WILL YOU USE?   I spent considerable time trying to USE RAFT - the game lets us make a patch, but then informs us we have no way to hold the rubber in place.  I wandered around trying to locate some sort of adhesive, before finding out that USE PARACHUTE works with no fuss.

Another parser oddity -- TRANQUILIZE is taken to mean the same as SHOOT, with the weapon (dart gun or rifle) selected automatically depending on the intended target.  We tranquilize Paco, but attempt to shoot other animals with the rifle. 

Crichton's design treats the USE verb in an unusual way -- most games take it to mean the most obvious thing to do, as in USE SHOVEL meaning DIG.  But in Amazon, USE means something more general -- we USE RIFLE like a bludgeon to beat the alligators away, for example, and USE GUN to convince a frightened Paco to cross a bridge.  In neither case is the weapon fired, which made both of these puzzles difficult to solve until I broke down and consulted a walkthrough.

Another scenario that can't be avoided, even though a priori knowledge tells us we should try, occurs after reaching the final campsite.  We're supposed to call Washington before we fall asleep -- while we sleep, monkeys steal our backpack, and the home office yells at us in the morning for not calling in sooner.  But it's actually impossible to follow our orders -- the plot dictates that sleep must happen, and so it does.  In the morning, the plot keeps charging along as our computer starts beeping; if we try to take INVENTORY before answering its incessant call, we are told NO TIME FOR AN INVENTORY NOW. YOUR COMPUTER IS BEEPING.   And if we try to explore or go searching for our belongings without calling in, we learn YOU BETTER FIND OUT WHAT TO DO BEFORE YOU GO ANYWHERE...  Sigh.  At least Crichton's constraints have a sense of humor -- after we recover the backpack, we are told THE MONKEYS ARE PELTING YOU WITH SOMETHING SMELLIER THAN STONES-- it's only spoiled by the following directive BETTER GO EAST.

I was disappointed to be nudged out of an interestingly worded jungle maze -- various rooms are labeled TEDIOUSLY DENSE JUNGLE, FEARFULLY DENSE JUNGLE, and so forth, but if we try to actually map it out the game eventually tells us YOU SHOULD HAVE READ YOUR INSTRUCTIONS!  Which turns out to mean we are hopelessly lost and must RESTORE, as there is actually no way out of the jungle or anything interesting to find there.

After we avoid the jungle maze and find the Lost City of Chak, we learn we have five days to find some emeralds, which has the unfortunate effect of reducing this whole affair to a treasure hunt.  Each night, Huni warriors attack our campsite, and we must fend them off Space Invaders-style:

Inside the lost city, we find a piece of paper with a code on it:

I enjoy cracking ciphers in games, but this one isn't something we can solve ourselves -- instead, our trusty computer improbably translates it as:


At first I thought it was a matter of trial and error deciding which doors to open, but then I realized there are visual sequence clues posted above the doors.  Oddly, both sets of doors used the same sequence -- OPEN 132; maybe this varies with the difficulty level.

After we find the emeralds, the volcano Macuma erupts, and the lost city collapses.  We must escape with no room for wrong moves, and no useful hints either; even Paco is no help, responding with YOU'RE CUTE. SQUAAK!! as we desperately flee for our lives.  Many saves and restores eventually established that we have to run south for several moves, climb up, then go west, and finally ENTER CHOPPER (unlike those idiots who would stupidly attempt to GO CHOPPER):

A quick flight back to the home office, and victory is ours:


I enjoyed playing through Amazon, despite Michael Crichton's insistent authorial voice piping up a little too often for my tastes.  If nothing else, the game clearly establishes that the skills required to create compelling interactive fiction are quite different than those for movies and books.  And it's a difficult balance -- the player needs to have the freedom to make mistakes, experiment and figure things out, while at the same time feeling like he or she is participating in is a larger story arc.  Amazon is at one extreme; mindless treasure hunts are at the other.  Somewhere in the middle lies greatness.


  1. Great review! This game is my favorite early computer game memories!

  2. Yes it was a ripper game. I remember playing it on my old Apple II. I played all the levels and couldn't get past the the Third antechamber (the one with 9 doors to open) as expedition leader. I found out the combination several years later by chance when online. OPEN 348. OPEN 159. OPEN 267. Would be great if it was re-released.

  3. I was reminiscing about this game and found your article. It really takes me back. Thanks!

  4. I can't believe I came across this! My search terms were: computer game, amazon, paco. So funny! I was 8 or 9 at the time that my dad came home with Amazon on a DOS disk for the computer. I would play every day and could never get past the boat scenario.

    I'm 34 now with a 1-yr old, who will never understand the beauty of text computer games. Time flies! Thanks so much for the review!!!

  5. Thanks for stopping by. This is a fairly popular post, seems lots of people have fond memories of this one.

  6. I really wanted to play this game again! But cant find it anywhere...

  7. game can be downloaded here: http://www.old-games.com/download/1197/amazon

    you may need to run it on DOSBox

    1. You can also find it on Abandonia.com

  8. Playing this great game, I find I can not save a game from the moment when it is required to insert a floppy in disk b. I have only one (USB) floppy drive and that automatically get named A:. Anyone with a solution other than buy another floppy drive.

  9. Playing this great game, I find I can not save a game from the moment when it is required to insert a floppy in disk b. I have only one (USB) floppy drive and that automatically get named A:. Anyone with a solution other than buy another floppy drive.