Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Escape from Colditz (1981)

This week, we're looking at another early-1980s text adventure that's already developed a confusing history.  The trouble originates because Stuart Wilkinson wrote a prison-escape adventure game in June of 1981 entitled Escape From Colditz, which was published in type-in format.  Almost three decades later, we find two distinct versions floating around the Internet.  One copy has a title screen bearing the obfuscating legend, Keyed in by P. Knott 11-82, and billing the game as a SYSTEM 80 release, in reference to an Australian version of Radio Shack's TRS-80.  The other version is properly attributed to actual author onscreen; both versions include the proper S. WILKINSON credit on line 1100 of the BASIC source code.

The distinction is significant, because thanks to a couple of fatal typos players will NOT be able to finish the P. Knott version:



Whereas the Stuart Wilkinson version is entirely playable -- so accept no substitutes!


This adventure game was inspired by the real-life Colditz Castle, used as a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.  A popular TV series about Colditz aired in Britain from 1972-1974, which may explain the existence of several other similar games for UK platforms -- the Spectrum received a version of this title, as well as a completely different game called Castle Colditz, and the BBC home computer saw yet another game entitled Colditz Adventure.  There was also a Parker Brothers board game named Escape from Colditz, to which this game bears no direct resemblance.

There are some other subtle differences between the two extant TRS-80 versions, and as I have not been able to track down the original magazine listing, it's very likely that each contains its share of errors.  But the Wilkinson version seems closest to the author's intent and requires no code surgery to complete.  I will reveal more details about the actual gameplay, with a walkthrough below the fold that I have also uploaded to the CASA Solution Archive.  There's no SAVE GAME support, but this adventure is fairly short and can be replayed from scratch with minimal time lost.  And if you plan to play on your own, I urge you to do so before continuing, as there are...

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

One strange difference between the P. Knott and Wilkinson versions is that the "bad" version allows the player to OPEN PARCEL without picking it up, while the "good" version initially responds, WHAT PARCEL?  To accomplish this minor feat in the more-correct edition, we have to GET PARCEL, then OPEN PARCEL.  The Wilkinson version also has a tighter limit on inventory items.  Neither version supports navigational abbreviations -- we have to explicitly GO NORTH, GO SOUTH, etc. to get around the prison.

The object of the game is simple, as spelled out at the start -- we have to gather a compass, an official document, a map, a uniform, and a meal to escape.  We are also advised to attend >APPEL< whenever it's sounded -- we have the option of ignoring the summons, but the risk of being caught significantly outweighs the inconvenience of a temporary delay.  We don't lose any inventory items, despite the contraband we are likely to be carrying when APPEL is sounded,  and it doesn't actually happen that often, so complying with expectations is a good way to stay under the enemy's radar.

Nothing says "old school adventure" like a classical first-move death: trying to escape (in an obvious way) by GOing NORTH from our starting location results in death by firing squad.  So we're better off engaging in a scavenger hunt for the six needed objects before we entertain thoughts of leaving in a more discreet fashion.

The Escape from Colditz parser is limited and often very specific - for example, in the Vestry, we are informed that THE EASTERN WALL IS OAK PANELLED.  But EXAMINE WALL, KICK WALL, FEEL WALL, POUND WALL, and KNOCK WALL fail to produce any interesting results.  I eventually discovered that HIT WALL works to open a secret passage, but only once; after the passage is opened, HIT WALL yields I DON'T KNOW WHAT A 'WALL' IS, which is not particularly accurate.  Keeping track of our belongings may be puzzling as well -- INVENTORY, I, INV, and TAKE INVENTORY all fail to register - only INVENT works.

The first important item to find is a pass card in the Dentist's Surgery; this allows us to access the guard house, from which we can reach a few important additional locations.  We will also learn that some nouns require us to spell out the full two-word name -- we must SHOW PASS CARD, for example. 

There are a number of red herrings and unexpected, borderline nonsensical finds in the game.  A locked cupboard in the canteen kitchen remains locked and serves no purpose, but the parcel in the PARCELS OFFICE has a meal in it.

In the OFFICER'S MESS, we find a compass, another integral part of our prescribed escape kit.  But if we try to READ COMPASS, we learn only that I DON'T KNOW HOW TO READ A COMPASS, so it seems unlikely to do us much good in the German countryside.

Another clue is found on a tag in the Orderly's Quarters; it reads 'DER BEUTELMAUS.'  We don't need this claim tag to obtain a uniform, actually, it's just a hint about its existence; we can just go to the prison laundry and GET UNIFORM.  (The room description doesn't mention any such item, but it seems reasonable to find one there.)

Dealing with the outer perimeter of the prison presents most of the game's more difficult challenges.  We can try to facilitate our escape with a quick STAB GUARD -- but it develops that THE GUARD IS DYING, BUT HE MANAGES TO MAKE IT TO THE ALARM BUTTON!  Game over, Allied Joe.  The second guard can't be STABbed, according to the parser at least -- STAB GUARD at the Gatehouse erroneously tells us that THERE ISN'T ONE HERE.

We can actually just walk past the guardhouse without being questioned further, but another guard at the gatehouse asks for the password, which turns out to be DER BEUTELMAUS, following the standard "cryptic and heretofore irrelevant phrase" rule of adventure gaming.

There's a button in the Interrogation Room, where GO WEST mysteriously notes A BLANK STONE WALL BARS THE WAY WEST.  The room is described as having A BUTTON, but PUSH BUTTON yields only I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO THATPRESS BUTTON is more productive, as we are prompted WHICH BUTTON? - THERE ARE TWO. A RED ONE AND A BLUE ONE.  Forgetting for the moment that we thought we saw only one button a moment ago, we learn that selecting the BLUE button sets off alarm bells, and we die.  But pressing the RED one opens a secret hidden panel in the west wall, and having defeated the Nazis' clever 50/50 security system, we enter the FILLING ROOM with a FILLING CABINET.  In my experience with such office accoutrements, this misspelled turn of phrase is in fact more accurate -- but it's actually meant to be a FILING cabinet, and here we find the DOCUMENT.





The game's presentation is more than a little artificial at times.  We can't go north from the gatehouse without all the "treasures" -- we are told YOU CAN'T ATTEMPT AN ESCAPE HERE - YOU HAVEN'T GOT AN ESCAPE KIT!  Assembling the kit is complicated by a guard who randomly appears and searches us -- but he's not very bright, it seems, as if we don't have a COMPLETE escape kit he leaves us alone.  There's nothing suspicious about our contraband uniform and stolen documentation, I guess, because if we don't have, say, a meal on our person, we are clearly not planning to make an escape.

The knife is easy enough to come by in the sewers beneath the prison, but GET KNIFE randomly gets us bitten by a large sewer rat, and we have to spend ten days recovering in solitary before continuing the adventure, fortunately without any other impact to our progress.

Trying to GO DOWN in the Exercise Yard, as is seemingly encouraged by the barbed wire fence and manhole cover, seems consistently fatal -- as we try to get into the sewers in search of an escape route, a searchlight flares, and we are dead.  So we need to look elsewhere.


The prison theatre is deceptively large -- clearly the castle's former owner enjoyed entertainment, but one doubts the prisoners here are putting on a production of Stalag 17.  We can GO EAST twice in the theatre, to no apparent effect, but the third such move leads to a stage with a ladder.  We can access a storeroom here that leads to one of the two possible exits from the prison.

The most difficult item to find is the map.  I had to dig deeply into the source code to identify room 38 as the unexplored ALCOVE IN THE TUNNEL, accessible from room 18, which places it west of the CANTEEN KITCHEN.  A locked door barring the way implies that a key exists -- and it turns out to be in Room 8, THE GUARDHOUSE CUPBOARD, a rather large, walk-in sort of cupboard, apparently.  Even knowing this, I was stumped for a little while in-game -- I couldn't UNLOCK DOOR, and finally realized that
no UNLOCK verb exists in the game at all; unlocking is implied by OPEN, and it only works in a few locations.


Here's where I got seriously stuck -- I began to think that the instructions were wrong, as I had all the objects mentioned, but could not seem to convince the game that I was in fact prepared to escape.  It turned out that the P. Knott version contains an evil, evil typo in line 2045 that prevents the game from recognizing assembly of the escape kit.  But this issue ultimately led me to the discovery of the correct version and cleared up the game's authorship for the record, so I really can't complain.

Less fatal but equally frustrating is the fact that it seems to be impossible to finish EITHER surviving version of the game with 100% reliability due to some climactic randomness.  My guess is that the DISUSED STOREROOM map data in line 20026 is also buggy, but it's the same in both extant versions so this is pure speculation on my part.  It effectively makes one of the two possible victory scenarios impossible to access -- we cannot GO EAST to the rooftop with the rope and escape to win, because no such pathway exists.  A GO NORTH from the same location also leads to the rooftop, but if we have the complete escape kit in hand, the program treats this move as if we had tried to navigate north from the rooftop, in which case the searchlight comes on and we are instantly dead!  So close, and yet so far.

As it turns out, it's not necessary to mess with the knife, rope, ladder or wire at all -- and the entire sewer and theatre areas are extraneous, as are the chapel and shed.  The only victory scenario that actually works (at least in the surviving versions of the BASIC code) still allows only a 50/50 chance of success, frustrating odds after we've played through the game up to this point with no ability to save.  All we have to do is get to the Gatehouse with our escape kit in hand, cross our fingers, and walk out to the north:



I enjoyed this game more than I probably should have, largely because of the accompanying meta-mysteries concerning its authorship and technical issues.  Aside from the frustrating bits, Escape from Colditz is a pretty straightforward prison-escape adventure.  My walkthrough is provided below the fold.

***** WALKTHROUGH *****





General Notes:

Avoid the version with a title screen reading "KEYED IN BY P. KNOTT" - it is not solvable.  Look for a copy with "STUART WILKINSON" credited as the author.

If randomly called to APPEL, it's best to say Y and then navigate back to wherever you were.

A guard may randomly appear to conduct a search.  In the P. Knott version the result seems to always conclude "NOTHING. YOU MAY GO FREE."  In the Wilkinson version, it's fatal if the player already has an Escape Kit assembled.


Specific steps:


GO SOUTH
GO EAST
GET PASS CARD
GO WEST
GO NORTH
GO NORTH
SHOW PASS CARD
GO EAST
GET KEY
GO WEST
SHOW PASS CARD
GO WEST
GO WEST
PRESS BUTTON
RED
GO WEST
GET DOCUMENT
GO EAST
GO EAST
OPEN DOOR
GO SOUTH
GO SOUTH
GO WEST
OPEN DOOR
GO WEST
GO DOWN (pitch black, but can still navigate)
GO NORTH
GET MAP
GO SOUTH
GO UP
GO EAST
GO NORTH
GO WEST
GET PARCEL (in Wilkinson version)
OPEN PARCEL (meal)
GO EAST
GO UP
GO NORTH
GO EAST
GO EAST
GET UNIFORM (not visible)
GO WEST
GO WEST
GO WEST
GET COMPASS (have civilian escape kit assembled, only recognized in Wilkinson version)
GO SOUTH
GO EAST
GO DOWN

There are two possible ways to go from this point (the spiral staircase landing).  Neither offers guaranteed success, but one will sometimes work.

-- This path is risky but can work on occasion:


GO EAST
GO EAST
GO NORTH
SHOW PASS CARD
GO NORTH
GO NORTH
DER BEUTELMAUS
GO NORTH (sometimes this doesn't work - random 50% chance!)

-- This path is longer but always fatal (a bug, I think, but it exists in both surviving versions)
 

GO SOUTH
GO EAST
GO EAST
GO SOUTH
GO EAST
GO EAST
OPEN DOOR
DROP KEY (required in Wilkinson version)
GET LADDER
GO NORTH
CLIMB UP
DROP LADDER
GET ROPE
GO NORTH (caught!)

4 comments:

  1. Hi there,

    I remember the Spectrum version of Castle Colditz, and have this week, put it on ebay for sale!! With other games and the computer itself.

    My son and I spent hours and hours on this game, with a little help from magazines, and contact from others, I eventually solved it!

    I even have the map I drew out, it is huge, I knew I was near the end when I drew the map on graph paper, I could see where the exit should be. It must have really got to me, as I actually had a dream of how to end the game - I awoke the next day, an as soon as I could, tried my theory and it worked!!!

    Brilliant game - I wish there were games like this today!! Some are too sofisticated and difficult.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for sharing your memories. I agree that these simple early games have a special appeal -- their difficulty often succumbs to persistence, and they can be played and enjoyed in small doses. I'm glad you and your son got to play through it and conquer it. There aren't many new games in this vein being produced, none commercially, but there's a rich history of such games available online and I have had no problem finding a new one to play each week.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello again,

    You said above that there are games like this to play online.

    Can you point me in the right direction please? It would be interesting to try again.

    I have just read your 'About me' page, unfortunately I can give you a few years. But sad as it sounds, I would like to try this type of game again. I use an Apple mac computer, don't know if that will hinder the process.

    When the old speccy goes, it will be sad in a way, but it has been in the loft for between 15 and 20 years, it was always frustrating, playing games, it took ages to load and sometimes you couldn't save your position, but we had a lot of fun!

    Thank you for your reply above.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Welcome back. One straightforward source for playing a number of old text adventures is at:

    http://www.ifiction.org

    These games play in a standard web browser and should work fine on the Mac.

    Beyond this type of interface lies emulation -- running a program that behaves like an old PC, using modern computing power to reproduce the original system's behavior as precisely as possible. You can find disk images for many computers including the Speccy at:

    http://www.ifarchive.org

    Spectrum disk images can be found at this specific page:

    http://www.ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archiveXgamesXspectrum.html

    You'll have to track down a Mac-compatible Spectrum emulator like Mac Spectacle. Good luck and enjoy!

    ReplyDelete