Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Adventure G - Ground Zero (1984)

This week, we return to a vintage British adventure game series from Artic Computing Ltd., with the seventh game in the series, Adventure G - Ground Zero.  Published in 1984, and written by Colin Smith, this was the last "lettered" game in the tape-based series for the Sinclair Spectrum computers, and was created using The Quill, a commercial adventure game creation tool, unlike the others which ran on a unique engine.  Unlike the illustrated Adventure F - The Eye of Bain, this one returns to pure text mode following its title screen.


Unlike most early text adventures, Ground Zero is fairly serious in tone, an artifact of the end of the Cold War era when the threat of nuclear war was still very real.  It's also very naturalistic, with few "puzzles" in the traditional sense, although it has some technical oversights that make solving it almost impossible.  Thankfully, Mark Chester and others have provided hints and solutions at the CASA Solution Archive, with the help of the Unquill decompilation tool that reveals some critical secrets otherwise unavailable to the player.

As always, I urge interested adventurers to explore independently before proceeding here, though I would encourage guilt-free use of the online resources as this game is woefully unfair (due to QA sloppiness, I believe, not any evil design intent.)  Beyond this point, we will explore the game's world, storyline, and technical implementation, and there will no doubt be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

The Artic Adventures generally made good use of the Speccy's generous 48K of RAM, and this one features some nice, detailed descriptive text, despite its tape-based, single-load nature.  The Quill engine is not sophisticated -- the display scrolls, and doesn't maintain a frozen description window like the Scott Adams style, though it starts out looking that way.  Some objects are mentioned in the room descriptions, while others are listed specifically, and available navigation directions are highlighted which is handy.  Due to the scrolling, we must use R to redisplay, not the more traditional LOOK, which solves one problem (EXAMINE vs. LOOK) but creates another, really.  The game also has a 4-item inventory limit, which becomes almost too tight for comfort toward the end of the story.




We start out in a living room, and while the parser is generally a two-word system, we can use exceptions like TURN ON TELEVISION to learn some important information about growing international tensions.  The broadcast informs us that we should try to "Build a shelter from a door and mattresses piled against a strong internal wall and provide food, water and toilet facilities."

Ground Zero features a fairly detailed house and grounds, and we will spend much of the game exploring the house and interacting with its contents to find various important items.  We can LOOK WARDROBE in the bedroom to find some banknotes; the bedroom window is jammed, so we cannot open it.  One room contains some tea chests, and we can LOOK TEA (not LOOK CHEST) to find a Radio.  Just for fun, we can USE WC in the bathroom (the parser filters out . characters, so W.C. becomes WC)  to yield, OK.  Ahhh! That's better!

USE TELEPHONE fails, unfortunately, as during the present emergency "Normal telephone services have been discontinued."  A sign outside our house says "Dun-Roamin", as a jokey estate name.  The kitchen cupboard contains ONE WEEK'S RATIONS, and there's a KITCHEN KNIFE about which could come in handy later.

The back door accessible from the utility room is locked, and so is the garage door.  Both are locked from the inside, which is odd, but it's an adventure game so we can guess we might need a key.  There's also a bicycle in the garage, which seems like it might be useful if we could just get the garage door open.

We can go out and explore the city, which is not nearly as detailed as the house, consisting of a few nondescript streets, a roadblock, a traffic light, and a grocery store.  Armed soldiers are maintaining order, so we should be careful not to get shot.  We do see some other civilians, queued outside a grocery shop, and keeping us from entering, as we repeatedly get kicked back to the end of the queue!  But if we THROW BANKNOTES we can get into the shop to find A SMALL LOAF, guarded by the man behind the counter, who is armed with a pick-axe handle.  These are tough times indeed.  We can't TALK MAN -- He ignored me!!!  KILL MAN is extreme, and also unsuccessful as we are unarmed.  But we can GIVE RADIO and then GET LOAF.  (Any other offering produces He just laughed in my face!!!)

The biggest dangers here seem to come from our fellow human beings, not the impending bomb itself.  To the west of the intersection is a motorway with a soldier-manned roadblock.  If we try to go further W, without so much as a warning we learn that Argggh! ... I've been shot... I'm dying...   The High Street runs some distance to the north, where we can observe a riot in progress; there is a riot going on, and soldiers with rifles are busy trying to quell the disturbance.  If we have left the front door open and unlocked during our trip into town, we find that our house has been stripped by looters when we return, and it's time to restart the game.   This isn't a desirable situation, obviously, but I was impressed by the extensive post-looting revisions of the room descriptions, with some evocative detail.

Eventually we are informed that I CAN HEAR A SIREN WAILING!!! by a message flashing onscreen, then the bomb drops a few turns later, and we are done.  So we have a fairly tight timeframe available to accomplish our goals.

So what do we need to be doing?  We need a door and a mattress, and possibly some other supplies.  Trading the radio away is okay, as it doesn't have a battery, and an attempt to LISTEN RADIO is taken as an INVENTORY command, probably interpreted as LIST.  We can LOOK SHELVES in the lounge to find a bunch of keys, and in the back garden, LOOK SHED to find AN OLD WOODEN DOOR.  (LOOK SHED, but not GO SHED, actually transports the player into the potting shed.)

In general, Ground Zero seems a lot easier than the preceding Artic Adventures -- perhaps the time limit necessitates simplicity, or the goal was to be detailed and realistic at the expense of traditional adventure game puzzles.  But unfortunately there are some critical details not given to the player, which makes the game difficult if not impossible to complete.

We can't LOCK the back DOOR once we have opened it, but we can CLOSE DOOR and hope that the high conifers and brick wall around the back garden will keep intruders out.  With the MATTRESS and DOOR, we can BUILD SHELTER to produce a HOME MADE SHELTER.  Without both items, the attempt returns I'm not Superman you know!, just like JUMP WALL does; with neither item in hand, it returns the helpful OK...I'm game! What with?  Fortunately we can BREAK SHELTER back into its component parts if we have built in the wrong location, as it can't be relocated once assembled.  During my playthrough, it seemed better to me to build it in the bathroom, though the garage, built into the hill, might also work well.  Or so I thought, anyway.


ONE WEEK'S RATIONS from the kitchen should count as food, along with the SMALL LOAF from the axe-handle-wielding grocer.  We could probably GET WATER in the bathroom, except that I've got nothing to put it in!  We can't move the potted plant or EMPTY POT, so we need to find some other sort of container.

We can CLIMB the apple TREE in the back garden and see our neighbor Mr. Hodges staring up at the sky, but that's not obviously helpful and we can't TALK HODGES.  Do we need the SMALL LOAF as additional food, over and above the rations?  One way to find out -- with the shelter built, we can WAIT for the siren... oh, and figure out that we have to USE SHELTER to get inside it, though it doesn't really change our location after telling us, I'm inside the shelter! Nice 'ere, innit!

Leaving the water problem alone for the moment, it seems that the shelter isn't quite enough to provide protection as the house collapses on top of it:


So it's back to the survival drawing board.  We can LOOK BICYCLE, apparently catching the designer offguard, as the game yields, Ummm...It's a nice blue one with handlebars, a frame, two wheels and a saddlebag.  But we can LOOK SADDLEBAG to get WIRE CUTTERS, though I doubt we'll be disarming any atomic bombs in this game.

These few new discoveries didn't seem to do much to help, so I resorted to Mark Chester's walkthrough at the CASA solution archive, and learned that, mysteriously, no cupboard apparently exists in the Entrance Hall, but if we LOOK in the invisible CUPBOARD there we find a TORCH (of the United Kingdom flashlight variety.)  And also learned that we can TAKE LADDER in the garage, though we won't know that's there either unless we EXAMINE GARAGE.  According to Mr. Chester's notes, he had to use the Unquill utility to find out about the cupboard, and without his invaluable walkthrough I would have been good and stuck here and you would be reading about some more compliant adventure game this week.

We can now return to the brick wall in our back garden and CLIMB LADDER - OK. Where to? - SOUTH.  Once we're on top of the wall, moving D responds similarly with a Where to? prompt.  We can actually just move in the desired direction as long as we have the ladder, and the game will assume we mean to climb the ladder to travel in that direction.  But we have to remember to GET LADDER on top of wall (even though we can't see it there) to come back the way we came!

We can't GO SHED in the neighbor's yard, but we can ENTER SHED to find a bucket in his Tool Shed; I think the Quill standard doesn't really have a GO command, so LOOK and ENTER tend to take its place.  We can also examine Mr. Hodges' woodworking detritus and LOOK SHAVINGS to find A SMALL AXE.

We can't TRIM CONIFERS or CUT CONIFERS until we have the axe, but once we do then we will also want to cut the wire fence beyond the trees with the wire cutters, to find a genuine, military-grade fall-out shelter that should presumably work better than our homemade version.  We need to avoid the guard hut to the west though, or we will be shot on sight, per the warning notice posted on the fence.

Outside the shelter is a box with a button, and we can PUSH BUTTON to receive the intercom query, "Who is it?" -- we're in the U.K. circa 1984, and QUEEN and PRINCE work as acceptable answers, but KING does not.  PRIME MINISTER is also acceptable, and as the Quill parser uses 4 characters to distinguish dictionary words, PRINCE must be an intentional alternative.  Purple rain, purple rain.

It's too dark to see downstairs in the shelter, of course, so we will need the torch, but as it turns out the fence has been repaired after we've gone through it, making it impossible to return and get what we now know we need.  So it's time to LOAD GAME and plan more carefully with our limited four-slot inventory.

We know we will need some drinking water, but we can't FILL BUCKET directly in the bathroom -- it won't fit under the tap, so we have to FILL BATH and then FILL BUCKET.  I considered entering the shelter with A BUCKET OF WATER, ONE WEEK'S RATIONS, A KITCHEN KNIFE and A SMALL LOAF, but that didn't leave room for the torch.  We actually have to SLICE BREAD into six slices and then drop the knife to free up one of the four inventory slots.

Now we should be set -- but LIGHT TORCH fails, while TURN ON TORCH works, confirming the British usage of the word.  Once we're inside the shelter, nothing seems to work.. we can PUSH BUTTON in the sleeping area, and PULL LEVER in what seems to be a utility room, but Nothing happens.  I tried to WAIT for the bomb to drop, to no apparent effect, and finally figured out that to move the climax along we need to CLOSE DOOR to the shelter, at which point an alarm goes off and we can hear someone banging on the door.  I tried to OPEN DOOR and got shot for my trouble, so altruism will apparently not be the order of the day.

With the door closed, now we can WAIT, and while the shelter gets jolted by the atomic bomb's impact, we find ourselves still alive.  We have to DRINK WATER and EAT BREAD or RATIONS, SLEEPing in between.  This is a long process, as A DAY PASSES each time we go to sleep and it takes a few weeks for the outside environment to improve.  And we have to PULL LEVER to recycle the air on occasion too.  There's a radio speaker in the bunker, and we can TURN ON RADIO, though there's nothing coming through.  Eventually ONE WEEK PASSES, and we keep going; we do need both the rations and the bread to survive the two-week period.  Fortunately the torch's light lasts for the entire period, apparently on very strong batteries.

The radio's operation confused me at first due to what seems like a bug -- while we can turn it on and off directly, there's also a button on the wall, and PUSH BUTTON turns the radio on briefly and then turns it off; TURN ON RADIO leaves it constantly on, with crackling static.  We have to PUSH BUTTON after two weeks to hear an announcement from the surviving remnants of the government; simply leaving the radio on doesn't work, and so I wasn't quite sure what to do when I ran out of supplies after two weeks.

Now we can leave the shelter, and we have survived.  But it doesn't feel like much of a victory -- things look pretty bleak:



There are some interesting political and game design concepts at work here -- the instructions on the television heard at the game's beginning are apparently just meant to pacify the populace, as hiding under an old door and a mattress just doesn't cut it.  We have to masquerade as a government leader or royalty to survive the attack, and even then we barely get through it.  And there are no magical puzzles or odd/comical item solutions -- the game has a resolutely real-world style, with strong attention to detail, and I like its rather unique approach.

Artic Computing published several additional adventures on the Spectrum platform, but stopped using the alphabetic lettering system after this seventh entry in the series.  So while we will almost certainly tackle the rest of the company's output as time goes on, the next one we see will definitely not be Adventure H.

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