Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Oo-Topos (1987 ver.)

This week, we take a look at a classic Penguin/Polarware game created by Michael Berlyn of Infocom fame, with Muffy Berlyn: Oo-Topos.  The game started life as a text adventure, published by Berlyn's own Sentient Software in 1981; this upgraded 1987 release added vector-and-fill graphics that ported well to multiple platforms, thanks to Penguin's Graphics Magician toolkit.  For this playthrough, I tackled the IBM PC edition in 4-color CGA; former Polarware principal Mark Pelczarski has graciously made the IBM and Apple II versions available for free download here.

The plot is standard sci-fi text adventure fare -- captured by aliens, the player needs to solve puzzles and round up items to repair his/her ship and escape.  But the execution is very solid -- the illustrations are clean and attractive, the text is evocative and detailed, and the puzzles are challenging but make logical sense.  It's one of the best executions I've seen of a classic interactive fiction trope; if you played one escape-the-alien-ship adventure in 1987, I hope it was Oo-Topos.

Oo-Topos isn't overly easy, but the puzzles are fair and it's a great game, so I urge interested readers to go and play this one before continuing here.  As always in this series, I will be documenting the details to illuminate this title's place in the genre's history -- which means there are plenty of...

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

The player starts out in a prison cell, with nothing but a bottle of liquid, some food, and a locked door.  I liked the way this puzzle sets the tone for the game -- a little examination reveals that our alien captors have used a rather cheap means of securing the otherwise impenetrable door, and BREAK LOCK (three times) gains us some measure of freedom.

The first sequence requires tight timing, building a solid sense of drama -- we have to emerge from the cell, turn off the alarm, and avail ourselves of a laser gun to take out an alien guard.  I was initially disoriented by Berlyn's substantial text, because it scrolls behind the graphic illustration, and the four lines visible at the bottom of the screen aren't always enough to keep track of what's going on.  I quickly learned to use the ENTER key to toggle between graphic and text mode, where the exits are usually listed as part of the room description.

There are fatalities, but they are gently presented -- getting caught by the scaly Oo-Topans just sends us back to the cell, stripped of progress, and other deadly situations like poison gas, radiation sickness, and unprepared airlock access involve passing out before anything graphic occurs, with a press of the R key to restart the novel.  It's a pleasant approach, one that allows for unhappy endings but doesn't gloat over the player's demise.

Most of the shipboard puzzles are practical and mechanical in nature -- it's too dark to see in many rooms, but a light-rod that lasts for a reasonably generous 200 turns can be found with a little exploration.  There are no neck-breaking falls in the dark, so with familiarity it's possible to navigate without switching the light on and off (note that LIGHT LIGHT-ROD does not work, probably due to the parser's dictionary; we use the more sensible and intuitively complementary TURN ON LIGHT-ROD and TURN OFF LIGHT-ROD.)  There are colored buttons with sensible functions we can discover with experimentation, and a strange warp zone that behaves consistently and can be mapped to provide shortcuts around the large alien ship.  My only disappointment was an intriguing-looking alien game discovered in progress -- I expected to have to learn and master an interesting new challenge, but a simple PULL HANDLE generates an instant win.

The path of most resistance in the game's first act involves a sentinel robot that protects a critical translation device.  To disable the pesky droid, we have to obtain a flask of acid and the laser, using one to open up its reflective laser-proof armor and the other to knock it out for good.  I ran into an odd bug here when my attempt to POUR ACID ON SENTINEL failed -- I was knocked back, but until I figured out I had to THROW ACID instead, the room displayed the remains of the sentinel robot AND an active sentinel, which continued to harass me with its sonic blasts.

Compared to earlier Polarware graphics adventures like Transylvania, where the illustrations were fairly crude, the graphics of Oo-Topos are excellent.  They're rendered in formal perspective, with clean, sharp lines and good use of color, even on the CGA IBM PC.  There are some limitations -- objects are only visually displayed in their initial locations, so we must rely on text if we drop something and have to go looking for it.  And the illustrations inadvertently make the "strange zone" mapping much easier, as the abstract room drawings vary and make it possible to navigate based on visual cues, rather than dropping objects, moving north-west-south-east-up-down, and laying out a map in the traditional fashion.

One oddity of the text/graphics approach is that whenever we drop something, the response includes the phrase, Here, there is:, followed by the name of the item just dropped.  It doesn't show everything in the room, just the item recently deposited, which can be misleading on quick review.

I'm beginning to think this is a personal bias on my part, but once again I find myself appreciating the well-explicated, sensible science fiction on show here.  We get to explore futuristic technology and meet strange creatures, with plenty of room for the imagination, but the rules make sense and puzzles can generally be figured out without resorting to magic words or nonsensical actions.  Even ENTER 4-D MIRROR seems plausible, because the mirror is clearly presented as some kind of transdimensional window into other locations.  I did get stuck at one point near the game's climax, needing a mission code I had failed to discover; it's actually in the documentation (and apparently was different in the text and graphics versions of Oo-Topos, so walkthroughs may confuse the issue.)

The game exhibits a refined and accommodating old-school sense of humor in its responses, anticipating actions both successful and unsuccessful.  EXAMINE PODIUM yields Be daring! Go on up there!  An acid-dispensing nozzle refuses to accept the plastic bottle, or any object other than approved lab equipment, i.e. the flask.  And objects often have multiple uses, or attempted uses -- WEAR GOGGLES darkens our vision, enabling us to see in a painfully bright room.  The goggles don't do anything to help resolve our confusion in the mirror room, nor can the mirrors be broken (also anticipated), but they do reveal a bit of graffiti added to the illustrated edition:

As it turns out, the energy-absorbing plasma sphere obtained by wearing the goggles is not strong enough to soak up some nasty radiation blocking our access to a Navchip.  To do that, we need the energy converter guarded by the Grix -- a creature with incredible lung capacity, whom we can distract by caging and releasing a cute, furry Snarl in the medical theatre.

The game's story is well-developed early on, but ultimately it's a creatively-framed, two-pronged object hunt.  We have to round up quite a few parts to restore our ship to working order, AND find enough treasures to convince the ship's AI that we can raise the cash needed to make our way home.  More plot-related, to ensure a successful escape we have to turn off the Oo-Topan tractor beam and AVOID calling the pirate fleet back -- fortunately, we get an early warning that the fleet will return in ninety minutes, giving us time to restore and avoid the poor decision.
The tractor beam isn't the only Star Wars reference at hand; when we discover a holographic crystal containing all knowledge of the human race, and insert it into the handy holographic projector...

At one point we learn that the aliens piloting the ship on which we are held captive haven't really figured it out either -- the biolab has been unused for years.  This idea doesn't figure into the plot much, but it does explain why so much of the ship is deserted, and it's an intriguing concept that enriches the game world.

The translator, hard as it is to obtain, doesn't ultimately prove very informative.  A mural caption reads Battle of Androli Kalaptus; the bottle reads Save for emergencies, a useful hint about its life-saving properties should we be bitten later by a crab on the beach.  The only required use of the translator is to read a pillar with a transporting sphere that reads taka ele leva in the Oo-Topan dialect; TAKA takes us to another location, LEVA brings us back.

I didn't have much luck with the gravtubes scattered around the map, until I found the central chamber and pushed a button to activate the gravtube system.  It can be used to navigate around the map, and is the only route to a garbage disposal area.  Here, we have to use the goggles to find a button that shuts off the disposal system; otherwise there isn't time to retrieve our spacesuit, helmet and gloves no matter how efficiently we move.

Oo-Topos is a substantial game -- I thought I was about done as I entered the airlock, but eventually found myself in an alien jungle with quite a bit more to accomplish.  Going E or N from the airlock is a fifty-foot drop; my first attempt proved fatal, and I spent some time looking for a way to make a softer landing to the east before attempting suicide again, and landing softly on the north side.  Fortunately, we can (and must) get back up to the alien ship by using the gravcar parked in a tunnel to the south.  It travels up or down only, passing through a natural airlock, and if we leave it parked at the upper end and jump down from the airlock, we're stuck.

I had to rely on a walkthrough for a little help in this area.  It wasn't clear to me that a jungle flower was a manipulable object in one jungle location, where we have to GET or TOUCH FLOWER to reveal an emerald.  I also wouldn't have realized that THROW [object] INTO SEA gets rid of the collecting robot guarding the shield generator -- the reed is a good item to use, after mesmerizing a creature called the Huja, though it appears any item will work (and be lost in the process.)

I also had a hard time figuring out how to disable the force field in the TAKA/LEVA catwalk area -- it kept me from exploring freely, but I couldn't figure out how it worked or how to turn it off.  I tried wearing the gold ring found in the airlock, but that didn't make any difference, nor did exhausting pretty much every other puzzle in the game.  Even the walkthroughs I found online were not directly forthcoming about the actual solution, though they incorporated it into their procedures -- we have to bring the shield generator along, as it apparently counteracts the force field in some way.  There's not much to do in this area once we're free to investigate, but it does contain several of the parts we need. 

In case you get hung up as I did, the MISSION CODE prompt expects a bit of text from the documentation -- different versions appear to accept TSE957X or VUG957A.  The onboard computer recites quite a litany of missing parts at this point; fortunately, the STATUS command will reiterate and update as we fill in the blanks.

Once all the missing parts are found and installed, the computer refuses to launch as it doesn't know if we have enough money to buy fuel at the Mealy Sukas outpost so we can make it the rest of the way home.  We have to go through our inventory and VALUE [item] until the computer has confirmed that we possess 497.9 frods' worth of treasure -- and of course, it's fairly easy to get to 497, but reaching the stated goal requires a bit more thoroughness.  I liked this -- it was a creative way to handle what would otherwise just be a treasure hunt with no direct bearing on the plot.

Once the computer is satisfied, the rest of the game is straightforward, assuming we haven't left the tractor beam on or otherwise impeded our escape.  The computer prompts us to close the airlock, sends us to the bridge, and we're off -- the rest of the story is wrapped up with text and illustration.  We arrive back on Earth to greet the cheering throngs, in one of those unfortunate moments where graphics diminish the scope of the text.  But it's a happy ending nonetheless:

I thoroughly enjoyed playing Oo-Topos -- Michael Berlyn's prose is solid, the world is fun to explore, and the game features worthwhile challenges that aren't obtuse or aggravating.  It's the closest thing to an Infocom game I've seen among these early graphic adventures, and holds up well today.

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