Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Voodoo Island (1985)

This week, I'm tackling a vintage text adventure game whose quality belies its generic title:  M.  J. Sayer's Voodoo Island, published by Mindscape via Angelsoft, Inc. in 1985.  We're cast as a castaway, a shipwreck survivor who has apparently been silently observed by someone while passed out on the beach.  The game was published for the Apple II and IBM PC computers -- I'm playing the Apple II version here, though I had to detour into the IBM PC edition to check out an issue.

Angelsoft was one of the few American companies competing seriously with Infocom in the pure text adventure field, obtaining licenses for many of its titles (e.g. Stephen King's The Mist.)   The company's prose was solid enough, but the Angelsoft engine (at least on the Apple II) is notably slow to respond, with lots of clunky disk access for text and no apparent cacheing.  (I ended up turning up the speed on the AppleWin emulator I'm using here, just to save some time on my numerous replays, and I don't usually do that.)  Angelsoft's biggest issue may have been timing -- the company was active from 1985 to 1987, when the commercial text adventure market was starting to fade.

As usual, I'll be detailing my playthrough experience below.  I can easily recommend this game to avid adventurers, but I will warn you that the game has a design flaw that blocked my progress for a couple of hours trying to figure out what I'd done wrong.  I finally had to restart and do things the way the author expected (the CASA walkthrough by Jonathan Blask is handy, though not explicit on this point.)  I should also tell you that, if you plan to visit Voodoo Island yourself, the game's copious prose displays more clearly and runs faster on the IBM PC than on the Apple II.  Beyond this point, gentle reader, there are sure to be...

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

We begin on the beach, with a forest to the north and shark fins visible in the water to the south.  Angelsoft was never as successful as Infocom, but the company did try to make its prose original -- an unproductive EXAMINE FOOTPRINTS yields, Your first glance saw all.

We'll head west to the end of a rocky point, where we find our tote (at least I assume we've seen it before, as the game calls it "the tote") -- it's empty, but monogrammed on one side is THE ADVENTURER, so we have an appropriate if generic identity.  This location is a dead end, so we'll travel all the way east to a jungle-bound area, from which we can see a stone citadel on the slopes of an extinct volcano.

As I'm looking around, we're informed that The raft just arrived.  I try to GET RAFT, which apparently is taken as a desire to board -- we are pulled out into the nearby waters, drifting past a ruined graveyard and landing at a small park on the western shore of the island.  We can GET RAFT again to reach a gravel spit on the northern side of the island, and a third time to return to our original departure point.  This island has some very interesting currents!

I wanted to come back here, anyway, as we haven't explored the jungle north of our starting point yet.  A dirt path leads north between trees confined by a barbed wire fence.  We can continue North to a green lawn in front of a large white building to the north.  This turns out to be a deserted but well-maintained hotel, with wicker chairs that for some reason provoke visions of people running away in panic when we inspect them.

We can OPEN DOOR and head north into the hotel; the door closes behind us.  A stairway leads east, and there's an archway to the north leading to the lobby and the front desk, where a clerk dressed in white stands at the ready though there's no sign of any other guests.  The guest register lies open, but its pages are blank when we try to READ BOOK or TURN PAGE.  Strange.

I'll head north onto the porch, after I... well, I guess I can't OPEN the FRENCH DOORS, because they're locked.  We can see a dining room through the western windows, but can't go there, nor can we pass through the ornate golden gate on the eastern wall.

So I'll try heading up the stairs near the entrance -- and the staircase seems to go on forever, the air getting thinner, until we find ourselves in a long white hall heading north.  We head north, where You see the picture frame -- ah, I see now, the engine uses definite articles at all times.  We can see that it's a small, silver picture frame, if we EXAMINE FRAME, and EXAMINE PICTURE describes a smiling island woman cradling a baby, wearing a necklace of shells and... bones?

We can continue north through the hallway, arriving at a room with a brass elevator on the west wall and mahogany doors to the east.  Before exploring either of these, I'll go north one more time to the end of the hall -- a staircase appears to lead up to another floor, and The Booth Suite is denoted by a plaque over a closed door on the west wall.

I feel like going upstairs and getting a general sense of the hotel's layout before I start opening doors and exploring in detail, so I head upstairs to a small, dark alcove adjoining The Beauvais Penthouse to the east.  We can OPEN DOOR to enter the sitting room, with a bathroom to the north and a conservatory to the east.  I'll check out the conservatory first.

We see Doctor Beauvais and Sharleen here, a handsome man and a buxom blonde, respectively.  TALK BEAUVAIS prompts the Doctor to tell us his name is well regarded in France; TALK SHARLEEN proves fatal, as she rests a hand on our shoulder and we are dead after experiencing a brief but excruciating pain.  Death will not be a stranger on Voodoo Island, it appears.

Restoring, I'll opt to OPEN BATHROOM DOOR and head north before I spend any more time with the local residents.  There's a mirror here, which we can't remove from the wall; LOOK MIRROR is disconcerting, as we cannot see our own face, just the walls of the room.  I check out the conservatory again, and this time only Sharleen is here, but Doctor Beauvais arrives shortly afterward.  I try to head E, and am told  that Without Moma's help, you'll never get through here.  Interesting -- I wonder who Moma is?

I can't see anything new or safe to try here (I do try to KISS SHARLEEN, just for fun, with the expected fatal results), so I'll head back downstairs for now.  The disambiguation in the Angelsoft engine isn't quite as robust as Infocom's -- if I try to generically OPEN DOOR in the penthouse, where there is a penthouse door as well as a bathroom door, I have to answer a series of "Do you want to open the [penthouse/bathroom] door?" prompts to help the parser figure out what I mean.

Checking out the Booth Suite on the second floor, we find ourselves in a Presidential-looking suite with an archway to the west and a copy of the Bible on hand.  The book is cracked and mildewed, but we can GET BIBLE and READ BIBLE to catch a legible fragment concerning how "... you shall be defeated by your enemies."  In the suite's bedroom to the west, we find a card reading... well, before we can GET CARD, I need to DROP BIBLE to comply with the game's strict three-item inventory limit.  Now I can finally READ CARD: "THE ISLAND TAXI."  I try to CALL TAXI and the parser gives away the joke: The donkey is not here.

Backtracking south down the hallway, I open the mahogany doors to enter the Ballroom, polished and elegantly decorated, with ragtime music coming from an invisible band.  A mural on the wall depicts island workers in a sugar cane field; we can't MOVE MURAL or LOOK BEHIND MURAL, which is interpreted as a room-level LOOK, but this isn't too surprising as the mural is painted on the wall.

Back in the hallway, I OPEN GATE to try to access the elevator -- but there's no elevator car here, and all I can do is grab onto a hanging rope before the gate shuts again, climbing down into blackness with no apparent footing beneath.  I take a chance and drop D, falling twenty feet and arriving bruised, but unbroken in front of a golden elevator gate.  OPEN GATE here leads to the hotel lobby again (this path is the only way back, actually, as after we climb the seemingly endless stairs we are not allowed to return the way we came.)

I try to SHOW PICTURE TO CLERK, and he comments: "That is a photo of a very great lady and her baby."  I ASK CLERK ABOUT DOCTOR, and learn that "Doctor Beauvais has done much to our island."  Interesting choice of words.  I ASK CLERK ABOUT TAXI, and he says, "The taxi will take you to town," as the French doors that were locked earlier swing open.  Curiouser and curiouser!

We can access the hotel's front porch now, where it seems the only accessible path is north to a white road.  I try to enter the shrubbery to the east, anticipating a dead end, though not of the sort I encounter as we are suddenly attacked and killed; our unseen assailant chuckles: "Welcome to my tropical paradise."

The same happens in the western shrubbery, so we'll head north to the road, marked by a sign as Pudding Lane.  We see a seaplane flying overhead, and The donkey is here.  Before climbing aboard, I head into the cane fields on the other side of the road and get lost, wandering in the maze until I find a walking stick.  I'm out of inventory slots again, and finally realize I might be able to PUT CARD IN TOTE to conserve space -- this does in fact work, though I can't do the same with the larger picture frame, as the tote is only the size of a soda can.

EXAMINE STICK proves interesting -- it's five feet in length, with blood-stained chicken feathers tied to one end by a vine.  This looks more like a voodoo artifact (or at least a Western idea of one) than anything else we've encountered so far, so it is likely important.

I wander in the cane fields some more, lost, and encounter someone named Bob, who appears to be a college student circa two decades past, with pasty white skin.  But when I try to ASK BOB ABOUT TAXI, he reaches out silently, just like Sharleen did, and we're dead again.

On the next try,  I take some time to map out the cane maze... but it's fairly large, with more rooms than I can carry inventory items.  I do manage to figure out that if we enter the maze, then go W and N, we find a giant spider web and can head W to get back to the road, though the donkey has moved on while we were away.  We can also walk E into the sticky web, for eventual disposal by its maker, though that's not a good idea.

I do some more mapping and figure out that if we enter the maze and travel S, N, and N again, we find the walking stick... but it seems to be randomly placed, or to move on of its own accord before we can GET STICK, or perhaps Bob is stealing it.  The map also doesn't seem entirely consistent here, though I may just be doing a poor job of mapping it.  I also discover that the donkey can wander into the maze (he doesn't actually get lost, though that wasn't clear at first), so it seems like a good idea to restore and skip this area for now.  Maybe a map will turn up later.

I decide to retrieve the walking stick, at least, and try to travel on foot without the donkey.  The road leads west from the hotel past an abandoned airfield.  It's overgrown, but a short runway appears functional.  And there's a cemetery to the west, from which it seems our new acquaintance Randall has emerged; I try to ASK RANDALL ABOUT RUNWAY and am once again fatally paralyzed.  The same happens if I WAVE STICK, so that's not going to help us with these zombies.

We can avoid Randall and head into the cemetery, adjoining a park to the north -- ah, this is the same park where the raft stops on its journey around the island!  I was wondering when this map was going to start to cohere, so this is a good discovery.

There's also a crypt in the cemetery, though we can't ENTER CRYPT -- we can only OPEN CRYPT to see "the necklace," which looks just like the one the woman is wearing in the photo.  I'll opt to WEAR NECKLACE in case it confers any protections -- at least, it doesn't seem fatal to put it on.

Returning to the road, I encounter an island girl, beautiful and graceful.  Most of my attempts at interaction -- ASK, TALK, KISS -- just cause a shadow to cross her face, though SHOW PHOTO TO GIRL indicates that she looks very sad.

I head north along the road past the airfield, encountering a crowd that appears to be guarding a town.  Cane fields are to the east (entering the cane maze at the same point we did from the other location), and the park is to the west.  I'm pretty sure the crowd won't let me through, but we can travel north into their midst.  They won't let us go west, as expected, but we can return south or head east.

The road to the east leads to a banana plantation -- we can see the tin roofs of the town to the west, where the crowd won't let us go.  I'll avoid the cane fields to the south, assuming that we'll just be back in the maze, and continue east to a banana grove.  When I attempt to enter, however, we hear an old woman's voice calling out: "Neither you nor any of Beauvais' slaves will ever enter this grove -- at least, not on foot."  Hmmmmm.  I find the donkey again in my wanderings, but he currently won't let me RIDE DONKEY, though when I try to PAY DONKEY we're told he's here waiting for us so I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work.

I think I've mapped this area out pretty well, though I don't see any obvious puzzles or solutions yet, so we'll hop on the raft at the park to revisit the gravel spit.  Fortunately, the parser allows us to WAIT FOR THE RAFT, a much-appreciated time saver, and there does not appear to be a ticking clock of any kind in this game.

The spit adjoins a dock to the east, with a dark tunnel visible in the cliffs to the west, apparently guarded by unnaturally large crabs.  I'll check out the dock first -- a seaplane is parked here, but its door is locked and the pilot scowls when we try to RIDE SEAPLANE.  The parser suggests that we need to fix something on the island before we can depart; the plane leaves, at any rate, while I'm poking around.  I try to enter the caves, but the crabs tear me to pieces, so that's not productive at the moment.

What else?  I discover that I've made a bad assumption -- the donkey is simply stubborn and randomly puts up resistance.  I can't initially RIDE DONKEY -- The donkey brays, but will not let you ride -- but then it seems I can TAKE DONKEY to ride from Pudding Lane to the banana grove, and from there to the cane fields.  Finally, the donkey obliges by taking me into town -- though I get the temporary, incorrect impression there's no way to TAKE DONKEY again at this location, and even if I WAIT FOR DONKEY he leaves before I can climb aboard again.  It just takes persistence to use the local transportation system.

The town appears deserted, with a single main road leading north to a church, the local park visible to the south, and an alley leading west to a pier.  On the pier, we see a wrecked ship that we could "probably swim to" except for the rough seas; we can't actually SWIM, I never found a way to get there and it doesn't enter into the plot at all, so I think it's just window dressing.

The church steps lead to a rusting iron door, and we can OPEN DOOR to enter.  The aging Father Xavier is here, dressed in a white cassock, and says: "I wish I could be of more help, but you know I can't leave my church."  He's not happy with Beauvais -- "That wicked man has driven the dead from their graves" -- but all he can do is shake his fist, though he does note that "My church is one place that evil man dares not enter."  Asking the good Father about other characters we've met notes that there are few people left on the island, and SHOW NECKLACE TO XAVIER confirms that "Many Voodoo objects have extraordinary powers."

Interesting -- when I try to SHOW PHOTO TO XAVIER, he asks me to take it out of the picture frame so he can see it better, and I realize I went back to an old save to try the donkey out.  But when I try to resume from where I was, the donkey seems much more stubborn (this turns out to be because I didn't keep the Island Taxi card in inventory.)  So I'll go from here and revisit the other areas as needed.  Once I have the photo out of the frame, Xavier says: "From the necklace around the woman's neck I'd say it has something to do with Moma."  ASK XAVIER ABOUT MOMA reveals something important: "Moma is the only one who can help you against Beauvais.  Perhaps you should go and see her."   So we're talking about a person, and not the Museum of Modern Art, then.

So where is Moma?  Ah -- repeating the question to Father Xavier indicates that she can't leave the banana grove.  That's probably the voice I heard earlier!  As luck would have it, when I leave the church I am able to TAKE DONKEY again, and he drops me in the banana grove.  The banana trees are occupied by oversized black spiders, and there's a weather-beaten shack to the east.

Moma is here, in a white turban and colorful dress, puffing on her pipe.  She indicates that if Beauvais were dead, her people could be freed and his monsters quieted.  She also confirms that Sharleen, Randall and Bob are zombies, and that the hotel clerk is one of Dr. Beauvais' followers.  When I ask her about the island girl, she says: "Bring her to me."  How do I do that?

I take the donkey again, and he drops me off at the airfield.  I notice a wrecked fuselage to the south, which I didn't visit last time I was in the neighborhood, and explore it to find a skeleton, bleached white and sitting in the passenger seat.  While I am poking around, though, Randall turns me into a zombie.

I find the island girl in the road near the airfield after a restore, and when I ASK GIRL ABOUT MOMA a tear trickles down her cheek.  GIRL, FOLLOW ME doesn't work, though, and I can't just GET GIRL.

The donkey is being stubborn again, so I don't think having the necklace or the walking stick is really an issue as long as we have the card; I just have to persist.  So I round those items up again... except the walking stick has moved from where I found it originally, probably thanks to Bob (or some randomness in the game initialization, I never did figure out what's going on here.)  We can't enter the banana grove except by donkey, even though we've visited Moma once already.

I SHOW NECKLACE TO MOMA, and she says it is very special.  I GIVE NECKLACE TO MOMA, and she smiles.  But it isn't until I check a walkthrough that I realize I have to TRADE NECKLACE TO MOMA, receiving a linen shirt in return, "one of my most powerful pieces."  It's probably a good idea to WEAR SHIRT.  I also learn that I didn't do enough at the wrecked plane -- we have to EXAMINE SKELETON CAREFULLY to find a small pouch, containing an herbal powder.

I still need to reclaim the walking stick.  I run into Bob in the cane field maze and EXAMINE BOB CAREFULLY -- his eyes reflect the image of Dr. Beauvais, but he's not carrying the stick.  I decide to backtrack a bit to an earlier save, as I don't see a way to find the stick once it vanishes.  But I'm having trouble taking the donkey?  Ah, this is when I realize I need to have the Island Taxi card in my possession -- but I can't seem to find it anywhere.  I think I might have dropped it in the cane maze.

I find Bob in the cane fields, but when I try to HIT BOB WITH STICK I just join the walking dead, and KILL doesn't work either.  Maybe it's easier just to restart, so I'll do that.  The walkthrough advises us to break the mirror in the penthouse bathroom, leaving a piece we can take with us, though it's too big to store in the tote.  Ah!  I also learn that we can read the guest registry a second time, to see notes from Sharleen, Bob and Randall enthusing about their vacations here.  So Dr. Beauvais has been turning the hotel guests into zombies!  Seems like that would be bad for tourism.

I find the walking stick in a different location than before, suggesting some randomness or movement afoot.  And I can CUT WEB WITH MIRROR to create a hole we can wiggle through, allowing us to access a thicker part of the jungle to the east.  We see a huge snake coiled through a skull, and encounter a strange mob of human-face monkeys, picking at our clothes, and can go no farther.

Getting back to my intended agenda, I reassemble my inventory and try to HIT RANDALL WITH STICK after I get and wear the linen shirt.  And yes!  Randall falls to the ground, the unnatural glow fading from his skin.  Can we GET RANDALL?  Yes, to my surprise, though I put him back down again.  I grab the pouch again, but it's too big to store in the tote.

The herbal powder smells strange -- jasmine and rotted fish?  Can we use it to subdue the island girl?  I try to THROW POWDER ON GIRL but have to juggle inventory so I can remove it from the pouch before I do.  This causes her to pass out, mumbling, "I gave the doll to... You must..." before she closes her eyes.

Another series of donkey rides gets us back to Moma's shack.  I GIVE GIRL TO MOMA and am relieved to learn the girl is Moma's long-lost daughter, not a sacrifice of some kind.  Her daughter is saved, her eyes now clear, but, Moma says, "all the tormented souls who wander must be put to rest."

That probably means I should have put Randall's body in the crypt, so I'll do that, closing the crypt just in case.  And we'd better do the same thing with Bob before we try to take care of Sharleen in Beauvais' penthouse.  Okay, good, that worked as planned (or so I think.)

I head into the hotel to face Beauvais.  I try to KILL BEAUVAIS WITH STICK to no avail, as he summons a zombie to deliver us to his operating table; apparently zombification on Voodoo Island is a medical procedure, and  has nothing to do with voudou magick or cosmic radiation.

What was that about a doll?  I can't ASK GIRL ABOUT DOLL -- she actually disappears from sight after we bring her home -- but Moma tells us, "You can use it against that wicked man.  Break it in his presence and he will be destroyed."  Ah!  So easy once you know how it's done.

Of course, I don't know where this doll actually is.  Who did the girl give it to?  Let's look in the voodoo jungle area.  It looks like I can CLIMB TREE near the monkeys, but they won't let me do so, crowding in to prevent my access.  LOOK TREE reveals a rag doll, but I can't GET DOLL from ground level.  I try to go south and east, but the twelve-foot snake bites and instantly kills me.  I can't KILL SNAKE WITH STICK either.

The herbal powder is too fine to gather up, so I can't use it to subdue the monkeys.  I ASK MOMA WHERE DOLL IS, but "That you must find out for yourself."  And she knows nothing at all about the monkeys, it seems.

I try going to the penthouse to stick it to Sharleen and see if that helps.  I'm able to put her to rest, and Dr. Beauvais doesn't seem to take exception to this.  So I put her in the crypt... and I still can't climb the tree.  I visit Moma again -- asking her about the snake confirms that it guards Beauvais' citadel -- but I can't pick any bananas here to use with the monkeys, so that's not an idea.  I EXAMINE STICK CAREFULLY and EXAMINE SHIRT CAREFULLY, finding some voodoo markings but no clues about how to proceed.

So -- I always hate to do this midstream, but my game doesn't seem to be jiving with the walkthrough and it feels like we're so close to victory that I have to figure out what's going on.  So I switch to the IBM PC version, published at the same time, and see if there's a difference here.  This version plays much faster, too, so it won't take long to retrace my steps... and... nope, the monkeys are just as aggressive in this version. 

Reading the Bible or bringing it here and throwing it at the monkeys makes no difference either.  What about the cave with the crabs off the spit?  We still can't enter it, so that seems unlikely to be fruitful.  I go back and grill Moma some more, but don't learn anything new.  I ride the donkey's full circuit, back around to Pudding Lane.  And I realize that it is Beauvais' citadel we can see from the shoreline near the start of the game, but that doesn't help us get there.

AHA!  Trying the IBM version again, just following the walkthrough, Moma tells us that she's put the snake to sleep.  This appears to be because I've put Randall and Bob away in the crypt before bringing Moma's daughter back to her, so instead of telling me there are other souls to put to rest, she goes ahead and helps out.  And yes, now I can climb the tree!  The description hasn't changed at the monkey room level, but I am allowed to clamber up and retrieve the rag doll, almost human looking, dressed in Bermuda shorts.

Into the citadel we venture, opening the iron gate and heading through a high arched opening into an area with curtains in all three directions.  A study to the west contains Sharleen -- we'll KILL SHARLEEN WITH STICK to put her to rest.

Heading west from the study, we find Doctor Beauvais in the conservatory of his penthouse suite -- and BREAK DOLL is sufficient to freeze him and end his power, though he seems to keep wandering around, zombie-like.  I head east now, through a parlor and upstairs to the bad Doctor's operating room.  Going upstairs again brings us to a museum of death, with a coffin handy.

It seems only right to put Sharleen to rest in the coffin, so we'll do that.  I find a teddy bear in a bedroom on my way out -- and when I try to GET BEAR, it turns out to be a wanga, a fatal voodoo trap laid especially for us!  So close, and yet so far!  (And while the PC version runs fine in DOSBox, it's hard to SAVE GAME with its 1985 assumptions -- it believes there's only one disk drive and refuses to write to the game disk folder, no matter how much space is available, and I can't swap in a save diskette.)

So we'll go back to the Apple II, where in my current game Moma simply will not put the snake to sleep no matter how many times I ask, even though she now knows and confirms that Randall and Bob are at rest.  So I start over one more time!

That's much better -- instead of just commenting that the other souls need to be put to rest, Moma is very helpful.  The design expects the player to follow a specific sequence of events -- we have to put Bob and Randall to rest, then bring Moma's daughter to her, even though she gives us no inkling of priority when we talk to her beforehand.  It doesn't seem that there's any way to jog Moma's recognition that we've done everything she asked if we do it in the "wrong" order; this strikes me as a design flaw, and not an easy one to ferret out.  But we're back on track -- now she's put the snake to sleep, allowing us to climb the tree and retrieve the rag doll.

Now we can put Sharleen to rest, and explore the rest of the citadel while we're looking for the evil Dr. Beauvais.  Downstairs, below the bedroom, we find a number of cells crammed with human beings.  I try to go through a tunnel to the east, but run into evil crabs and die -- this must be the same guarded passage we can see from the gravel spit, and we're not going to get through it this way either.

I find the Doctor wandering around and do my amateur voodoo magic on him, incapacitating him once more.  I try to OPEN CELLS to free the imprisoned people, but that can't be done -- Moma will have to help them, I guess.  I go to the dock (the long way around) and WAIT FOR SEAPLANE.  It arrives, and then we simply RIDE SEAPLANE to safety and...

Uh-oh.  The pilot's been possessed by Dr. Beauvais' spirit!  I apparently should have left the voodoo doll behind.  Doing that on the retry works better -- we return safely to friends and family, and tell them all about our crazy adventure, which somehow gets taken seriously enough to spur a search for all the missing tourists (apparently they weren't otherwise missed.)  Victory is ours with a happy ending!

Voodoo Island is an entertaining work of interactive fiction, though it's not quite on the level of the Infocom games, and that substantial design flaw caused me quite a few problems.  M. J. Sayer apparently never created any other games, but this effort is a well-written if traditional adventure story, and I'm encouraged to check out more of the Angelsoft titles.

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