Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Xenos (1982)

One of the best things about writing this blog series has been the discovery of lost gems -- adventures I would have loved back in the day but somehow missed out on completely.  A reader recently made me aware of Robert Arnstein's Xenos, published by Radio Shack for the TRS-80 Model I disk system.  I played and enjoyed Arnstein's Pyramid 2000, Raaka-Tu, and Bedlam when they were released, but I never owned a disk drive for the Model I and had moved on to the Color Computer by the time this game arrived.

The plot of Xenos centers around a reported UFO landing, with the player cast as an investigator sent to the desert town of Purgatory to find out what's happened.  We arrive on foot, apparently, standing on a lonely highway west of town:

Arnstein's earlier games were written to load and run completely in-memory, and it's interesting to see how the availability of disk storage for this title affected his design approach.  The map is huge and tricky to navigate outside of town; descriptions are much more detailed, and there are numerous red herrings and interesting areas to explore that enrich the story and atmosphere but aren't essential to completing the game.  There are also dead ends and surprise fatalities, in the old-school adventure tradition.

For specifics, read on...  and I always say this, but it bears repeating: those who wish to experience Xenos for themselves are advised to do so before continuing here.  I'm pleased to document the interesting details of these games for the record, but my comments aren't meant as a substitute for the actual experience.

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

From a technical perspective, Arnstein did not adopt the Infocom approach of cacheing text into memory as needed -- instead, Xenos keeps all the critical variables in memory, but uses overlays to replace whole sections of the game map and text at once.  The effect is generally seamless, aside from the obvious loading times.  The only drawback is that the game is smart enough to use brief descriptions for rooms we have already visited -- but once we cross the overlay boundary, the verbose text returns as though we are entering for the first time.

The game is nicely designed from a progression perspective -- one initially gets the impression that the highways and deserts outside of town are infinite, but they actually are mappable, and they don't loop back on themselves for quite a distance.  But it's best to ignore the outside world and focus on the town at the beginning, in order to collect items that will be needed later.

Mr. Arnstein clearly enjoyed the freedom to write lengthy descriptions, but he goes to naturalistic extremes in town -- in every location, we can see what's nearby, as well as what's down the street a few "rooms" away.  It's useful detail during initial orientation, but as we discover that every room describes our perspective in extensive detail, it starts to seem unnecessary.  And it becomes annoying later on that such detailed information is NOT provided in the desert areas that are so tricky to map -- a few landmarks visible in the distance would make it easier to keep our bearings, without damaging the game's naturalistic style.

There are some intriguing artifacts and locations that don't ultimately lead anywhere, and seem like design leftovers from story elements ultimately cut for space.  At the beginning, the Last Chance gas station presents us with a jack, a skeleton key, a padlocked gas pump, and a crowbar.  The jack can be used to replace the flat tire on a jeep parked in back of the gas station -- we can even GET IN JEEP and attempt to START JEEP, learning that the battery is dead -- and the skeleton key can be used to access the gas station's restroom.  But there's no ultimate reason to do any of these things.  There's also a mysterious alcove in town, which the game pointedly tells us is NOT VISIBLE FROM THE STREET OR THE DESERT; but we can neither enter nor examine it.  A radiation detector occasionally flashes in its vicinity, but nothing ever comes of it.

I like the way the story is developed in general -- there are some subtle details that work well.  The radio in Harvey's Bar & Grill briefly mentions a strange UFO landing, then goes back to playing music.  We run across a key for Slim's grocery store, but it's already been broken into and ransacked when we arrive.  The puzzles in town aren't particularly difficult -- it's mostly a matter of doing things in the right order -- but the sense of hasty abandonment is evident everywhere we go.

Dealing with the dangerous snake lurking in the north end of Bob's Hardware store feels a lot like the RPG-esque monster battles in Arnstein's Raaka-Tu at first blush.  I made several attempts to bludgeon the snake to death with a nearby shovel, and was able to do so -- but never without being fatally bitten in the process.  Failing to find any sort of armor, and not wanting to waste the dynamite, I finally liberated the shotgun from the sheriff's office and found it to be a safer, more efficient solution.

The SAVE GAME feature requires a formatted disk in another drive, and only allows one save per disk, making it difficult to keep and go back to a "good save."  For efficiency's sake, I tried mounting two save disks in (virtual) disk drives 2 and 3, but even when I specified disk 3 as the target, the game always wrote to the first disk it found, in drive 2.

I thought the number 33 might be a clue of some kind -- gas is priced at $0.33 a gallon, the bank has $33,000 in assets -- but I never found a connection.

The puzzles in town are generally realistic, with some useful clues about what we should do next -- there's no magic or alien technology involved in the early going.  A sign in the hotel informs us there's a storm shelter on the west side of the saloon; we can dig our way into it to find the stick of dynamite.  But the game's not intrusively guided -- on my first attempt, I used the dynamite to liberate the bank's assets from the vault, which worked just fine, but made it impossible to finish the game when I later encountered an immovable boulder.  There's nothing truly useful in the bank's vault, just money which has no purpose within the scope of the game.

A bottle in the bar purportedly contains whiskey, but is poisonous if we drink it.  I'm not sure if that's meant to be a clue, a commentary on alcoholism, or just a nasty trick.  I though it might be useful for sterilizing the wound from the snake's bite, but I found no way to apply it.

The game doesn't have much of a sense of humor -- it's generally played straight and bleak, though there are glimmers of the author's voice here and there.  If we don't have the shovel, we can try to clear the entrance to the bomb shelter manually, but DIG SAND WITH HANDS only yields I DIG IT TOO, MAN!

We only encounter one other human being in the game, a prospector in the desert whom one imagines has graduated from the Gabby Hayes School of Cantankerous Acting:

One interesting RPG-style feature in Xenos is that there are some size/weight factors considered in the inventory handling -- we can carry many keys around, but only a few of the larger items.  Most games of this era just put a limit on the number of items; the limit here is not overly restrictive, but it does require a bit of planning and risk-taking.

Even though it was not a good idea and I had to backtrack, I was glad I experimented with the dynamite in the bank before needing it later on under duress.  There are instructions printed on the stick of dynamite telling us to STRIKE FUSE and evacuate the area.  I found that I could not THROW DYNAMITE AT BANK or THROW DYNAMITE INTO BANK.  And I also learned that if I dropped the dynamite first, STRIKE FUSE would cause me to pick it up again.  It takes a few turns for the dynamite to explode, so the correct usage is to STRIKE FUSE, DROP DYNAMITE, and skedaddle.

The game's scoring mechanism is simple, reporting the mission's overall percentage complete; there are ten milestones, each worth ten percent, and not all of them have to be achieved.

The shotgun has two shells in it, and we can use it to kill the dangerous shaggy alien encountered in the desert.  But another one always shows up shortly, so it's best to just keep moving if we can avoid being successfully attacked by these creatures.  If we are hit, we find that we now have A POISON in our inventory -- but we can't DROP it or even EXAMINE it; we're just marked for death within a handful of turns.

Mapping presents the most difficult challenge of Xenos.  There are many, many rooms -- the desert does not simply loop or wrap around on itself, at least not consistently, and the alien ship has color-coded portals that seem to be part of a giant state machine -- doing the same thing in the same room does not necessarily take us to the same place it did before.  I succeeded in finding some interesting elements in both environments, but only a few turned out to be important.  The desert is particularly frustrating because we can only survive the exposure and the constant alien attacks for so long -- there are some trails and paths to follow, but they are not the shortest possible routes to the key areas.

The story's second act starts to kick into gear when we discover a dying alien being in the desert, who says "GLEEPOOP!" in the time-honored Squa Tront! Spa Fon! tradition of making alien languages sound like gibberish, and points west before expiring.  We acquire the green cube and the rod with the green sphere for later use when we find the alien ship.

As it turns out, the green sphere mounted on the rod is a hazard detector.  We are occasionally told that the GREEN SPHERE IS SLOWLY FLASHING AND BEEPING, but its only significant behavior occurs when we near the alien ship's engine room, at which point it begins beeping louder and finally flashing wildly.  Of course, it's too late once we're inside the MOTOVATOM ENGINES room -- we shortly become nausesous and die of what I presume is radiation poisoning.

Exploring the alien ship requires navigating a series of small rooms, pushing colored buttons to open portals to other locations.  I had to break myself of an old habit borne of the Scott Adams adventures -- it's actually necessary to PUSH BLUE BUTTON, and I kept trying to abbreviate the command to PUSH BLUE.

There's a whole alien world to explore if we SQUEEZE HANDGRIP in the ship's recreation room; we're beamed to a fairly large area that distinctly resembles our own culture, as is so often the case in science fiction.  There are thousands of aliens going about their business, and fun areas like a museum and a disco (remember, this game was published in 1982.)  There are even references to American landmarks like GRAND CENTRAL STATION, PITTSBURG [sic] and DETROIT.  We can even pick up some alien language here, though the decoding is straightforward -- NURGLE, ENURGLE, SORWIT and WITSOR represent the cardinal directions; ESNEL = DOOR, and UKORK variously means LOCKED and/or KEY.  The parser does give the translation away a bit - at one point I typed EXAMINE FLASM and was told THERE'S NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT THE WALL.  I wasn't able to find my way back out of this area, and discovered no real reason to be there -- but it's a fairly large section of the map, and it's entertaining to explore before getting back to the mission at hand.  I did find a coded message in this area that I wasn't quite able to make sense of -- it had no apparent bearing on finishing the game:

There are a number of other areas to explore on the ship -- the sick bay contains a vial referenced as TSOM SOLUTION, useful for refreshing hydration later on, since we have used up our initial supply of water just getting to the alien ship.  And I learned it's a bad idea to push the maroon button on an intriguing glass cylinder in another room - it closes, fatally:

At last we reach the ARMSMITAN WEAPONRY room, which has a viewing screen, a white button, and a green button. All we have to do here is turn on the weapons system by pushing the white button, then POINT AT MOTHER SHIP to see the alien base destroyed in an instant by an energy beam.

After that, we still have to get back out of the ship and find our way back to town, which is primarily a mapping challenge.  Once we hit the city limits, the ending is surprisingly abrupt:

I enjoyed Xenos quite a lot in the early going, but the mapping started to become a pain after my umpteenth death in the desert.  The puzzles are logical and not particularly difficult, but I was glad to have a walkthrough handy later on -- by the time I emerged from the alien craft, I had covered several sheets of paper with boxes, loops, and arrows crammed in as best I could, and was no closer to finding my way around efficiently.  I was anxious to get back to town and see if I could fire up the jeep -- which proved unnecessary in the end.  Xenos features some really good interactive storytelling, and is well worth playing -- but I prefer my mapping challenges in much smaller doses.


  1. Wow! This is the first time I've seen such an in-depth review of a TRS-80 game! Awesome! I remember seeing a TRS-80 emulator a couple years back. Time for some BASIC programming! ;)

  2. The coded message appears to be just English words with the vowels removed- here's what I could figure of it: "except crash scout ship, invasion planet earth going well. mother ship in orbit and will soon start purge of life forms. report to your splnrblb in three flnspts."

  3. That makes sense... it was the "splnrblb" and "flnspts" I couldn't parse, it didn't occur to me that they might just be alien gibberish words! I was wrestling with "report to your Supervisor Lenny Rebulbo... Superior Lieutenant Reb Lebo..." Thanks for the insight!