Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adventure of the Week: The Lurking Horror (1987)

In the week leading up to Halloween, it only seems appropriate to venture into unearthly realms with Dave Lebling's The Lurking Horror, published in 1987 by Infocom.

It's a classic pure-text adventure, but this title was augmented with digitized sound effects for extra eeriness, with sound engineering by Russell Lieblich to take advantage of then-improving computer audio capabilities.  The audio elements are VERY short samples that loop, sometimes with volume variations, because storage space was still at a premium, especially given Infocom's tradition of products that fit on a single floppy disk.  I wouldn't have it any other way -- the text is rich and evocative, the map is large, and the puzzles are complex and detailed.  There's definitely something to be said for NOT devoting any of the limited disk space to graphics.

The game is set on the George Underwood Edwards Tech university campus, reportedly modeled on the MIT campus where Zork was born, though speaking from personal experience I can say that it bears a certain resemblance to any technical/engineering college.  Infocom fans will note that G.U.E. also recalls the Great Underground Empire, and there's at least one other Zorkian reference in the game.

The setup is a traditional college student scenario -- it's the end of the term, a paper is due, and the general circumstances are not encouraging:

Of course, once the player attempts to meet the stated objective, things start to get weird and horrific very quickly.  The game has a nicely understated sense of humor, especially in the details, and it doesn't pull any punches in creating a sense of Lovecraftian horror.  There's some very nice plotting as well, which I will provide more details about in the spoilers section below.

This was a tough one for me, with plenty of ways to die and even more ways to screw up irrevocably -- even with the official Infocom InvisiClues on hand, I had to keep past saves handy and retrace my steps to accomplish everything necessary.  And I had to wrestle with the parser here and there -- Infocom's Z-machine was much more sophisticated than the two-word engines of the early 1980's, but it's still no mind reader. But the struggle was well worth it -- Infocom was known for a certain standard of quality, and The Lurking Horror is no exception.  The prose is expertly crafted, the puzzles are challenging but generally logical, and it's a very entertaining, spooky experience (especially with the sound effects on.)

Be forewarned -- for purposes of discussion and documentation I will give quite a few things away in the following section.  If you've never played The Lurking Horror and wish to be surprised when you do, read no further!

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

Early in the game, we encounter a futuristic PC, at least from a 1987 perspective -- the specs are no longer as impressive as they once were:

This is a beyond state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection.

I had to adjust to the more sophisticated Infocom parser after playing quite a few early adventures in recent months -- my two-word habits kept tripping me up.  LOOK CHAIR doesn't work, as the interpreter insists that I be more precise and LOOK AT, or LOOK UNDER, or EXAMINE it.  Similarly, SIT CHAIR is not accepted, but SIT IN THE CHAIR works.  And trying to GO DOOR yields Please use compass directions instead, even when it's not clear in which direction the door lies -- but GO THROUGH THE DOOR always works.

The game's setting is mundane and naturalistic at the beginning, but there are a couple of Zorkian fantasy references as the story develops.  Infocom fans will appreciate the Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping), and the university has a Department of Alchemy, where all the trouble starts.

In keeping with the setting, there are also some funny and accurate nerd-tech references, like the hacker's dialogue, and "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."  Computer games weren't yet mainstream in 1987, and it was presumed that people interested in this sort of thing would know what assembler code and routers are, and get the "dismountable disk" and "YAK text editor" jokes.  And any college student will appreciate the ability of (unlicensed) Classic Coke to ward off sleep for another hour or two.

I appreciated the game's honesty in concisely informing the player that The offices are inaccessible, and saving me considerable time trying every office door.  Thanks, Mr. Lebling!

Favorite moment:  At one point, the signature on a discovered note is noted as being oddly familiar, but no further details are provided.  A few moves later, the player character remembers that it's the name of a missing grad student, whose body was found smashed and broken at the base of the tallest building on campus.  Looking at the note again now mentions that he was an Alchemy Department student.  It's a really smart approach to simulating the way our brains work, when something rings a bell but isn't quite coming into focus when we want it to -- the game delays the reveal just long enough for the player to turn his or her attention to other matters, so when it pops up it really feels like the information has just come to mind.

I played the game using the IBM PC Frotz interpreter under DOSBox.  It handles the sound effects fairly well, although there were times they didn't turn off and became annoying; I had to quit the game to restore silence.  There is a $SOUND command to toggle the effects on and off, but it's not able to cut them off once they've started playing.  I don't know whether the original Infocom interpreters handled this better or not.

As with most adventures, the game rewards experimentation -- most items and characters have a purpose, even if it's not immediately visible.  There are a number of hints provided, although some are so loose and generally associative that they're only recognizable in hindsight.

The flashlight duration is fairly generous, but does eventually dim -- I restarted once so I could accomplish all the things I knew how to do more efficiently, and started keeping my potentially-unneeded inventory items in a lighted area, in order to conserve flashlight power.

I did find a rare Infocom grammatical error in the version I played (Release 221) -- You scramble up ladder.

There's a fun real-world puzzle early in the game, requiring heating up some cold Chinese food to the hacker's satisfaction.  Depending on the microwave level and timing used, it can end up cold, warm, hot, volcanic or radioactive.  Hot and volcanic are the right targets to aim for.  After eating, the hacker provides a master key -- he says it opens three out of five doors, which turns out to be exactly right.

The game makes its inspiration explicit here and there, especially when the word "Lovecraft" turns up on the computer systems.

I had to use the InvisiClues to get past one section -- they are cleverly crafted, and are willing to mislead the player a bit before giving the answer in detail.  I was having trouble dealing with the rats in the steam tunnel, triggering the following clue/response cycle: You need more strength to open the rusty valve.  So I tried eating the Funny Bones snack food, but that was no help.  The next clue was:  Leverage is an elementary principle of physics.  I agreed, but couldn't immediately see how leverage would help to turn a valve.  Loosen the valve by hitting it with something heavy made more sense, and employing the crowbar did the trick.

Even death can be informative in this game.  While dealing unsuccessfully with the rats, I was able to see a strange symbol on their leader's neck.  After handling the situation correctly, that same rat was left behind, dead, which afforded me an opportunity to see the symbol again, in a position to make use of the knowledge.

One of the backtracking situations I ran into was this -- I found a dried, chewed looking mummified human hand, which a flying demon-beast was only too eager to snatch away.  Since he took it instead of killing me, I assumed that was desirable.  It was only after getting hopelessly stuck that I learned I should have obtained something else to throw at the beast, so I could keep the hand.  I had to obtain that object early in the game... using information available only in the original game documentation.  Fortunately, my manuals from Activision's The Lost Treasures of Infocom compilation came to the rescue.

Another complicated puzzle was tough, but entertaining and dramatic.  The Professor at the Department of Alchemy initially refused to let me see his lab, until I let him know I knew something about what happened to his grad student.  He then took me into the lab and attempted to sacrifice me to the titular Horror.  This puzzle was difficult, with tight timing requirements, and I went down several wrong paths while trying to solve it.  To the game's credit, though, it handled most everything I tried in a responsive and interesting manner, even when I poured the Classic Coke on the chalk pentagram in an attempt to wash it away.  After trying many ideas, the solution turned out to be a matter of escaping the situation altogether -- thank goodness for InvisiClues!

My biggest wrong turn/restart issue was that I started wandering around the campus and exploring too much, too soon.  I solved a number of puzzles, and didn't even deal with trying to meet the original objective (writing my term paper).  As a result, I had missed a lot of important exposition, and hadn't obtained a key item.

I found a special symbol in four different places -- on a stone, a rat, the mummified hand, and a bloodstained altar.  The game supports a COMPARE command, which in the absence of graphics came in handy for verifying that it was indeed the same symbol.

Getting down from the catwalk proved a bit of a challenge -- I found a wooden ladder up there, but I had to wrestle with the parser for a while before I was able to PUT LADDER ON CATWALK.  I ran into a similar issue later, where PULL COAXIAL CABLE didn't work or hint at the right way to approach the problem, but DISCONNECT COAXIAL CABLE did.

Once I had the mummified hand, and reanimated it in the Alchemy Lab, I still didn't know what to do with it.  It didn't crawl into the hole in the brick wall for me, or log in to either of the computers.  A few hints established that I could use it to scare the urchin into dropping a vital item, and with a ring on its finger it helped me through a maze near the ending.

I finally finished the game with all 100 points -- some Infocom titles offered different scoring for different/better solutions to puzzles, but I don't think The Lurking Horror can actually be finished without earning all of the points along the way.  There's a lot of good, scary stuff before the actual ending comes up, so this victory screenshot doesn't spoil as much as you might think:

And that's The Lurking Horror, in the grand Infocom tradition.  Well worth playing.


  1. I just stumbled across your website. I thought I was the only one who reminisced about my youth and trying to solve text adventures. I'll see how I go. What about rigels revenge?

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  2. This was my favourite Infocom game, probably because it was the first one I played, at age 12, on my new Atari ST. Scared me silly at the time! I doubt it would have been half as effective with graphics instead of text descriptions.

  3. Welcome, thanks for stopping by! I agree - the "theatre of the mind" can be a lot more effective for horror than any concrete imagery, especially at the time. The use of sound effects was just the right amount of "multimedia" for The Lurking Horror.

    1. There are 14 sound effect .snd files but I encounter only 12. Of the 2 missing ones, number 9 is probably the forklift, and number 16 is probably cutting the wire in the Large Chamber. If I'm wrong, do you have any idea where I should encounter the missing sound effects?

    2. I don't, unfortunately. Do you see any pausing when the files should be playing? Or does it seem to be skipping over them?

  4. WinFrotz handles the sound effects more correctly than regular Frotz.