Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Haunted House (1979)

Ah, Haunted House.  This was actually the first text adventure game I ever played, and as far as I recall the only one that would work on my bare-bones, entry-level 4K TRS-80 Model I with Level I BASIC.  It was programmed by Device Oriented Games and published by Tandy Corporation/Radio Shack in 1979.  I wrote about Haunted House in passing several years ago, before I started my regular adventure game series, so I'm going to cover it properly now.

Because memory was so incredibly tight, Haunted House features minimal descriptive text and a very limited parser dictionary, and even then it had to be loaded in two phases, with the second half of the game running largely independently of the first.  I'm running a later "fused" version of the original cassette version created by TRS-80 hobbyist "Lord Apollyon" in 1999, using the TRS32 emulator with 16K of memory.  This early microcomputer game design has no windowed display, just simple scrolling text like the mainframe teletype interfaces that spawned the earliest adventure games.

Interested readers are always encouraged to play these games for themselves before reading my comments below -- but be warned that, while Haunted House is necessarily short, it can be aggravatingly obtuse.  The simple engine provides no list of available exits or any feedback as to whether we've actually gone somewhere or just stayed where we are, which makes mapping a bit of a challenge.  So, dear reader, you have my usual urging to play the game, but also my full encouragement to save yourself some frustration and jump straight into the...

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

The game starts without much in the way of orientation -- the title announces itself as "HAUNTED HOUSE!!" (the tight memory budget allowing for two exclamation points, it seems) and we are then informed that we're standing outside the house, with a closed front door and a crumpled piece of paper on the ground.  The parser is limited to just a few verbs -- TAKE PAPER fails, but GET PAPER works.  READ PAPER yields, "MAGIC WORD - PLUGH" -- an homage to the earlier Colossal Cave mainframe text adventure created by Crowther and Woods.

Because memory is tight, room exits are not described, but it's not too hard to discover that movement in any direction at this point only brings us back to the same location in front of the house.  We have nothing in inventory other than the crumpled paper, so SAY PLUGH is the only available option, and so doing, we now materialize inside the house, at the foyer.

We can go south to the empty den, then east to the kitchen, where we find a bucket of water on the floor.  We can't EXAMINE anything in this limited game, but we can GET BUCKET.  We can POUR WATER anywhere we like, but the bucket magically refills after wetting the ground.

South of the kitchen is the breakfast room, where AN ANIMATED SUIT OF ARMOUR THROWS YOU OUT! and we're back in the kitchen.  North is the dining room, from whence we can travel west to the living room, where we see that A KNIFE IS LEVITATING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GROUND, with a mysterious scroll lying on the ground.

Avoiding the knife for the moment and returning to the foyer, we find we can travel west to the east end of the hall, and further west to the west end of the hall, where A LOCKED DOOR BARS THE WAY SOUTH.

North of the west end is the Blue Bedroom, where this sparsely-detailed game mentions that THERE'S A PANEL ON THE EAST WALL.  This appears to complement the panel on the west wall of the Green Bedroom, north of the east end of the hall.  We PUSH PANEL and we find ourselves in a secret passage, with a rope nearby.

Now what?  We can try to DROP ROPE in the Living Room, but SUDDENLY THE KNIFE WHOOSHES DOWN AND SLITS YOUR THROAT!  YOU ARE DEAD.  So while this game may be introductory in size, it's by no means player-friendly.  (This bit of graphic violence raised no public objections at the time, the obscure world of microcomputer games being far removed from the mainstream in 1979.)  When we die, the game just freezes and has to be reloaded from scratch (or, more conveniently, from a save state using a modern emulator.)

Trying again, I take a chance (based on faded memories of playing this game more than three decades earlier) and find that, yes, we can just GET KNIFE before it attacks.  Now we can READ SCROLL to learn that "THERE IS ESCAPE FROM THE SECOND FLOOR!"  So we'll need to find a way upstairs.

Returning to the breakfast room to see if we can deal with the suit of armour, we are pleased to discover that A SUIT OF ARMOUR HERE FLEES WHEN IT SPOTS YOUR KNIFE.  Now we can reach the SERVANTS [sic] QUARTERS, where THERE IS A CABINET ON ONE WALL.  But OPEN CABINET notes that it's empty, and we can't move it or enter it or even close it.

I seem to be stuck now... trying PLUGH again yields only SORRY, ONLY ONE PLUGH PER CUSTOMER.  And now an old, confusing bit of Haunted House lore resurfaces in my memory -- this is a deceptive part of the map, because the Servants Quarters actually occupies two rooms, one north and one south, and there's no way to distinguish the two onscreen.  OPEN CABINET in the south end opens an empty cabinet, but at the north end, it's a different cabinet that contains a key.  (This isn't impossible to discover, as thorough mapping demonstrates that we can't go W from the north end of the room back to the breakfast room -- but I got seriously stuck here as a novice adventure gamer and had to call Tandy to get a hint way back when!)

Now we can go back to the west end of the hall and OPEN DOOR using the key, gaining access to the Master Bedroom, where A WALL OF RAGING FIRE BLOCKS THE WAY EASTPOUR WATER does nothing, nor does THROW WATER or DOUSE FIRE or EXTINGUISH FIRE as none of these verbs are recognized.  What we have to do is attempt to go E through the wall of fire, and respond to the cagey "ARE YOU JUST GOING TO WALK RIGHT THROUGH THAT RAGING FIRE?" prompt with a simple YES.

Now we're in the Library, where a hole in the ceiling allows us to DROP ROPE -- INSTANTLY THE ROPE UNWINDS AND LEVITATES TO THE HOLE IN THE CEILING!  We CLIMB ROPE, and we're in Part 2 of the game, having conveniently dropped everything to get up the rope so that the game doesn't have to carry over any state variables from Part 1.

We're now in a dimly lit room with a magic sword, which we can readily GET.  South is another dimly lit room, with a ghost.  KILL GHOST actually works, as YOUR MAGIC SWORD ENABLES YOU TO KILL THE GHOST!  -- though the aftermath is a bit hard to visualize, as we note that THE BODY OF A DEAD GHOST IS ON THE FLOOR.  We can do the same in the rooms west and east of the starting point on this floor.  Going further west from the western one, we find another ghost -- and this time, THE GHOST IS IMMUNE TO YOUR ATTACK!

The immune ghost doesn't seem to bear us any ill will, but at the same time will not let us pass.  READ SWORD indicates AN INSCRIPTION READS, "GHOST KILLER" -- apparently a slightly hyperbolic claim.  And even if the immune ghost is not actually a ghost, we discover to no great surprise that YOU CAN'T KILL A GHOST WITH YOUR BARE HANDSPLUGH and even XYZZY are of no help.

I didn't remember this part of the game at all, and while there isn't actually very much to do on the second floor compared to the first, solving this puzzle is a bit of a meta-game in the face of the game's wall of silence concerning movement.  I had to do some experimenting to notice that in the rooms where we can kill the ghost, the ghost WILL NOT LET YOU PASS in any other direction -- but in the room with the immune ghost, we can travel in any direction, we just can't KILL GHOST.  And apparently some of the ghosts beyond this room are illusory, as trying to KILL GHOST yields THERE'S NOT ONE HERE once we're past all the real ghosts, even though the room description still indicates the presence of one.

So... we need to kill the ghost immediately to the west of the entry point to the upstairs, then drop the sword, and then do some exploration and optimistic mapping, with a bit of luck perhaps, given that there aren't any objects we can carry and drop to distinguish the identically-described rooms.  We finally discover that we can go north, then west, then south from the immune ghost's location to arrive at yet another dimly lit room, with no ghost and a rusty sign on the ground.

The sign reads, "THERE ARE THREE EXITS FROM THIS ROOM. ONLY ONE IS TRUE. YOU MUST KNOW, BUT NOT BE BURDENED BY, THIS CLUE!"   This is a none-too-subtle hint that if we try to leave with the sign in hand, YOU FALL THROUGH A TRAP DOOR TO YOUR DEATH!  Dropping the sign instead and going in any direction out of this room leads to victory!

I once called Haunted House the worst adventure game ever, and having played through it again for the first time in a long while, I have to say that I still think it's a pretty poor design.  The challenges are linear and rely largely on trial and error, and the engine's limitations are too often used to hide valuable information from the player -- for example, not being able to "see" that there are actually two cabinets at opposite ends of a large room is an artificial constraint that doesn't feel like an honest puzzle. 

Still, cramming a complete adventure game of any kind into 4096 bytes (okay, 8192 with the dual-load design) of Z-80 code was a technical achievement in its day.  And my re-visit to Radio Shack's Haunted House was quite entertaining for me personally, if only as a bit of nostalgia.  Call it Proust's take on Sisyphus, if you will, and I hope to be back with something more recommendable next time around.


  1. In defense of _Haunted House!!_'s decision not to display the available exits, I note that Colossal Cave didn't display all available exits to each room either (although some rooms indicated their exits in the flavor text).

    The tradition of listing all exists seems to have gotten started with Scott Adams.

  2. It's not so much that the exits aren't listed in the Scott Adams style, or even described in any of the text -- it's that, unlike any other game I can recall playing outside of intentionally obtuse maze sections, there's no direct way to tell whether movement in the intended direction was impossible, or actually occurred but led to an identical-looking room. And there aren't any objects available in the final section of the game's second floor to support drop-to-distinguish maze mapping, either.

    It just makes the final stage of the game less of a puzzle and more of a trial-by-error exercise than I'd like. On the other hand, I suppose, this approach does attempt to make a virtue out of the engine's fundamental limitations. It's just a constraint I'm glad has been left in the past!

    1. Yeah, I remember that particular quirk from when I played _Haunted House!!_ back in the day, too.

      At the time, I thought they did that so that they didn't have to waste 36 bytes on storing a "THERE IS NO WAY TO GO THAT DIRECTION" string in memory. (Though I believe the strings were actually stored in a compressed form to take up less space.)

      Now that I think about it, though, they might have done it as a way to avoid needing codes for "no exit this direction". If the programmer wanted there to be no exit to the east from room 5, instead of coding a "0" or "-1" there he could just code a "5", indicating that going east brings you back to the same room. (Kinda like Witt's End in Colossal Cave.) That way, their exit-the-room routine didn't have to waste three -- maybe even FOUR -- whole machine language instructions on comparing the exit room number with the no-exit code.

  3. This blog has been extremely useful to introduce myself into the Text Adventure's world. Thanks for that mate!

  4. Ever since I read about it in "Compute!'s Guide to Adventure Games" (1984)I had wanted to play it.

    That was 32 years ago. Getting an emulator up and running was nearly as challenging.

    So was it worth it ? As a child I would have never figured it out. As an adult though... same thing.

    The limitations really make the game much harder than it should. The cabinet puzzle wasn't clever. Neither was the ghost maze.

    But I am glad I finally played it. Surprised at how short it was. I was honestly hoping for more of a haunted house experience, but I guess that was as much as could be packed in memory.

    I may port it to Inform 7 as I took notes of everything I could. This way people can play it without having to fool with an emu and loading from virtual cassette etc..

    Thanks for the blog. I couldn't have finished or even started the game without your help.

  5. Reading the posts here really bring back the visceral memories of playing this game. Like being frustrated by the double cabinet, terrified by the knife, etc. My cousin and I wrote an adventure interpreter on the TRS-80 so we could create similar games when we were about 15 years old. And I even emulated "Haunted House" using it. Recently I made the game ever closer to the true game. If you want to try playing this game on-line without firing up a TRS-80 emulator, visit my page:



  6. It makes me laugh that people (like me) still remember the word "plugh" fondly :-)

  7. Oh the levitating knife! I still have this game somewhere, totally forgot about it. Thanks for the memory


  8. Despite the primitive gameplay I respect the sophistication of the "meta" humor here. The game anticipates several common gamer reactions and subverts them. It knows you aren't likely to try and GET a menacing KNIFE until you've tried a lot of other things. The "Are you really..." gag has been done to death since, but this must have been an early example. I wouldn't be halfway surprised if READing the NOTE had revealed "It's just some misleading B.S. about a maze. The important thing is now you have a piece of paper. Could come in handy...."