Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventure of the Week: Stephen King's The Mist (1985)

The annual Gaming After 40 Halloween week celebration continues with this week's text adventure: Stephen King's The Mist, adapted from King's 1980 novella by Angelsoft in 1985.

Angelsoft was co-founded by author Mercer Mayer, best known today for his Little Critter children's books, and the company did its best to publish literary adventures in the Infocom style, with distribution handled by Mindscape.  The game's designer is not credited onscreen, perhaps in deference to Stephen King as the marquee name, but it was written by one Raymond Benson, who also wrote both of Angelsoft's James Bond adventures and went on to write a number of post-Ian Fleming official 007 novels.

We're playing the IBM PC version, which as an early release for that platform is designed to run on a single floppy drive, swapping diskettes to save progress.  Because of this, I actually had difficulty running the game under the DOSBox emulator, which doesn't support floppy disk changes on the fly.  This meant that I couldn't save the game, a major problem thanks to some randomized events near the story's climax. But to my pleasant surprise, the vintage IBM PC GAME.COM executable runs in plain vanilla text mode, and there are no timing-based events, so this 25-year-old program runs perfectly fine under a Windows Vista command prompt, allowing successful SAVE GAME operations to the current directory.  The only reason to use DOSBox at all is to invoke the separate title screen executable, which presents the only graphics we'll be seeing:

The game opens with a screen or two of text to establish the situation (details below), and then we're in control.  There's a move counter at the top left of the screen, and the day of the week (SATURDAY) is displayed in the upper right-hand corner, though I never saw it change during my playthrough.  Unlike the Infocom games, the status line does not include the current location, and there's no score as such.

The writing is quite good, approaching Infocom quality, though the parser is definitely not up to the same standard.  And the game itself is fairly linear, aside from some seriously obtuse conversational puzzles I would likely never have worked out without the CASA walkthrough handy.  I'll give away all the gory details in the remainder of this post, so if you plan to wander into The Mist on your own, be forewarned that there are thorough...

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

In classic Stephen King style, the player is cast as a hapless New England Everyman, a father standing in the checkout line at Federal Foods as the game begins and The Mist appears.  We start with nothing in your hands, and have only your clothes on your back as people begin to panic in the supermarket.  The town is called Bridgton, and the player's ultimate goal is to find his son Billy, who's "safely" some distance away at the lake when the power goes out and the mist hits the fan.

The initial phase of the game can be mapped out fairly easily -- while there are quite a few rooms in the supermarket, there are only a few items of note left by the panicking crowd, and most of the puzzles lie in the dangerous world outside.

There are only a few human characters, but they're well-written and nicely detailed.  One Mrs. Carmody leads a growing group of followers around the store, preaching an end-of-the-world gospel that can eventually result in the player's demise, as a blood sacrifice to the nascent cult's expiation theology.  It's a twisted but believable take on fundamentalist Christianity, and an unusual theme to see broached in a game of this era.  In practical gameplay terms, Mrs. Carmody and her followers are just there to keep us moving and instill a sense of social hysteria.  The Mist focuses on human characters quite a bit, but the player's interaction with them is limited.  We witness the tentacle-napping of Norm the bag-boy in the storage area, for example, but it's just a set piece -- we have no opportunity to talk to him or prevent his untimely demise.

Outside, the pressure continues, as there are four nasty monsters lurking around which we will eventually have to dispatch --the Bug, the Spider, the Bird and the Dragonfly, all oversized, mutant versions of familiar creatures.  They tend to patrol specific areas of the map, but when encountered, they block the player's movement and kill the player within a few turns, so leaving the store unprepared is not advisable.  For example, death by Dragonfly is swift and unpleasant:

The slug-like Bug can be dispatched with a box of table salt, and the Spider with a can of bug spray.  I pause to note that in these early days of computer gaming, nobody concerned themselves too much with trademarks -- so we have genuine Morton's Salt and Raid-brand insecticide on hand here, lending a nice sense of naturalism to the horrific proceedings.

The parser makes the mistake of trying to seem smarter than it is -- when a non-understood phrase is entered, it won't admit to its lack of understanding, but instead tries to nudge us along with general hints and reminders about our objectives, e.g. It won't do you any good to tell yourself it's only a game.  Sometimes these phrases imply that the engine understood what we were asking it to do, when that is not in fact the case.  For example, START TRUCK yields only Please try to be rational, but trying to go S while we're in the truck usefully reveals that You're not going anywhere without the truck key.  Another parser oddity here is that there is no GET [object] verb, only TAKE and GET OUT, and I and INVENT do not work; we have to type out INVENTORY or use the official abbreviation, INV.  Most annoying, invalid commands still consume a turn, which means that if we type GET RAID instead of TAKE RAID after entering the Bugblasters store, the Spider will have us for supper before we ever get a chance to SPRAY SPIDER.  We should also drop the Raid can immediately after doing so, because otherwise we will have trouble if we try to SPRAY with the insecticide sprayer later on -- the parser always assumes we want to use the empty can of Raid if we're still carrying it, unintentionally robbing us of a vital weapon later on.

Horror is surprisingly difficult to manage in an adventure game -- sudden scares and gory descriptions can be effective, but maintaining a tense and oppressive atmosphere is a challenge when the pacing is largely at the player's discretion.  The Mist tries to keep us on edge with random frightening events, like a tentacle that reaches out of the mist to touch us, but then wanders off.  But after a while we've seen all of these set pieces, and the effect wears off.

My biggest complaint about The Mist is that several puzzles depend on guessing that the right phrasing is needed, without any real clues to point us in that direction.  For example, it isn't initially clear whether we can do anything with the dumpster in the garbage dump south of the supermarket.  OPEN DUMPSTER reveals that It's already openLOOK DUMPSTER ignores the noun and repeats the general room-level description; and EXAMINE DUMPSTER only indicates that This is a battered, green Dempsey Duster.  I had to resort to a walkthrough to learn that EXAMINE DUMPSTER CAREFULLY reveals a notebook lying on top of the garbage -- though, in fact, the information in the notebook isn't critical to finishing the game, so I can't claim that this adverb dependency is a fatal flaw.  But it still seems odd that we don't notice this with a more casual examination.

For the most part, The Mist plays it straight.  There's a nice little Stephen King in-joke in town, where the local cinema is showing T E DE D Z NE (the David Cronenberg film adaptation of King's The Dead Zone was then current.)  And the mutated creatures allow room for some humor -- the Spider dies like a cartoon bug, and there's a set-dressing caterpillar licking its lips in one location.

The parser's disambiguation works fine in some cases, for example OPEN DOOR - Do you want to open the office door? - YES - The office door is now open.   But in other situations it breaks down, most annoyingly when dealing with the aforementioned truck key.  The game has two keys in it, one of which the parser recognizes as KEY, the other of which must be specifically referenced as the TRUCK KEY.  We have to obtain the key from Mrs. Reppler, and the truck key from Ollie, the Federal Foods manager.  Unfortunately, Ollie will readily tell us that his truck is parked in back of the supermarket, but when we ask him for the key he feigns total ignorance that such a thing exists.  He will only give us the truck key if we specifically ask for it as the truck key.  This means that we can ASK OLLIE ABOUT TRUCK, but we can't ASK OLLIE FOR KEYS or GET KEY FROM OLLIE or ASK OLLIE ABOUT KEY.  The game consistently gives the impression that Ollie doesn't have his own keys for his truck -- OLLIE, DO YOU HAVE THE KEYS? - "No, not today."  So how did he get to work?  Oh, right, he's only able to think and converse like the game's parser -- only if we ASK OLLIE ABOUT TRUCK KEY do we get the desired result.

The Bug is described as slug-like, so we can conclude that the Morton's Salt can be used to dispatch this dangerous foe.  We have to THROW SALT AT BUG, as we can't POUR SALT or DROP SALT (at least, not with the desired target in effect.)  THROW SALT is accepted, but too general, as we just throw the salt randomly around the location and can't reasonably gather it up again.  It's also smart to OPEN SALT BOX before we face this foe, as the Bug has little patience for inventory management and attacks quickly.

We can't carry the bodies of the insects around with us, and they don't revive, so once they're dead, they're dead.  Unfortunately, while I figured out how to kill the Bug and the Spider in traditional adventure game fashion, the Bird and the Dragonfly remained fatally dangerous pests.  I tried hitting them with the bug sprayer, spraying them with it, knocking them out of the air with my bare hands -- no luck.  I returned to the walkthrough to learn that there's a gun in the game, if we have had the spontaneous prescience to ASK OLLIE ABOUT GUN.  He seems like the last person who would own a firearm, actually, and he's far too nervous to use it, but he has one.  But he won't give it to us until we say OLLIE, RELAX first.

There's a gas station in town, but I never had reason to visit it -- the truck is ready to go once we have the key.  There's some nice detail here, though -- the station calls itself Giosti's Mobil,and the 70-year-old proprietor, Bill Giosti, is inside.  We can ASK GIOSTI ABOUT MIST, and he recalls the Black Spring of 1888, when a similar phenomenon apparently occurred.  This doesn't directly tie in with the backstory as it develops in the game, nor is visiting Mr. Giosti essential to finishing the adventure, but it's a nice little optional scene that helps ground this fictional world with a sense of its history.

First move deaths are always amusing -- in this case, we can die immediately after starting the game by simply going N, where we get stepped on by some kind of giant foot in the mist.  Most of the other deaths provide some degree of warning, even when they're instant -- we can see sparks flying in the Central Maine Power Office from outside, so getting fried by the hot sparks upon entering is not completely unfair.

Another Angelsoft parser convention that's a little odd is that it always uses the definite article, making every item sound very specific even if we haven't encountered it before.  This isn't too jarring when we find the salt box in the store, but when we're immediately told that You see the dead soldiers in the supermarket's refrigerated meat locker, we immediately start to wonder if we have met them at some point.

The text has a pleasant, timeless quality -- the only circa-1985 reference I spotted is a description noting that all the store's produce was "scarfed up" earlier by desperate citizens.

Since this is an adventure game, the outdoor map has to be constrained -- most of the possible roads out of town are blocked, but at least the fatal obstacles are varied.  Some areas cannot be explored safely on foot, which is why we need the truck.  Even so, there are still limits -- heading east on Shaymore Road only gets us swept up and devoured by something huge and unseen.

We need the non-truck key to get into the hardware store.  ASK MRS. REPPLER ABOUT KEY inspires her to mention that she dropped it on the way to the store.  With Ollie's gun, we can SHOOT BIRD, and discover the key on the ground afterward (but only if we have asked Mrs. Reppler about it -- apparently the act of asking retroactively changes recent history!)

In the hardware store, we find the broom, the old ammunition clip (with three bullets) and the shovel.  We can only carry four items, so this trove makes for some interesting inventory juggling.  If we've dispatched the Bird and the Spider, the pistol's polished clip is down to one bullet.  There's no way to combine the bullets in the old clip with those in the polished clip.  In fact, TAKE BULLET OUT OF POLISHED CLIP is interpreted as TAKE POLISHED CLIP, unfortunately.  So we have to take the polished clip out of the gun, drop it with its remaining bullet, take the old clip, and put it in the gun.

This isn't a serious problem, as the information is optional, but again the parser is a little too unhelpful.  When we try to READ NOTEBOOK after carefully finding it in the dumpster, we are told that You'll have to open the notebook first.  Trying to do so indicates that we don't have it.  So we have to TAKE NOTEBOOK, OPEN NOTEBOOK, and READ NOTEBOOK to learn that radiation experiments with insects are responsible for all the trouble.  I knew it!

In the truck, we can travel out of town to reach a dead-end dirt road.  Here, we can DIG HOLE WITH SHOVEL (DIG HOLE just tells us we need a better tool, even if we have the shovel in hand) to create a tunnel into the top-secret military base, which is heavily fortified against any external threat, as long as it's not carrying a shovel.  Next, we have to shoot a nasty Centipede three times, successfully, and as we only have three bullets, and randomized misses enrage the beast to a fatal degree, it's critical that we SAVE GAME here.  Once the many-legged critter is dispatched, we can explore the deserted base and get to the bottom of this whole misty mess.

There's a tank in a lab, secreted behind an air lock, that contains a weapons-grade pesticide (most likely the one referred to in the notebook.)  On my first attempt, I discovered that it's dangerous to go into the lab without protection -- even the fumes prove fatal after a few turns.  But fortunately, there's a rubber hazmat suit in Captain Jones' closet nearby. Um. At least I am assuming it's a hazmat suit.

There's also a memo on Captain Jones' desk, which we do not have to take or open before reading.  It indicates that the military effort codenamed Project Plague is responsible.  If only these people would choose more responsible names for their biolethal weapons programs, instead of creating these self-fulfilling prophecies all the time!

Now we can fill our not-handy-to-date bug sprayer with the military-strength pesticide, or at least we can if we can get past our most persistent enemy: the parser.  EMPTY SPRAYER reveals only that You can't do that to the sprayer.   Nor can we FILL SPRAYER WITH PESTICIDE.  Instead, we have to POUR INSECTICIDE FROM SPRAYER -- which makes some sense -- then POUR PESTICIDE INTO SPRAYER -- which doesn't, quite, as the pesticide is in a huge vat and we seem to have no real way of pouring the stuff from it.  But the command works.

However improbably girded for battle, we can now drive out to the lake where Billy (remember him, our son?) was last seen.  When we pull in, we are told that The Giant Thing is here, but if we try to SPRAY THING WITH SPRAYER from inside the truck's cab, the engine is forced to contradict itself and tell us that The Giant Thing isn't here.  After we open the door and get out of the truck, we are wise to SAVE GAME to insure against random fatalities, and then spray the giant beastie three times with the deadly insecticide. All we have to do to wrap things up now is enter the bait shop (stepping over its dead proprietor) and make our way downstairs to the basement, the first and only time in the game that we travel up or down.

Here, we find Billy innocently sleeping, apparently having concluded that there's no way Dad is ever coming back, what with all the deadly monsters running rampant and killing everybody, so he might as well get some shuteye while the carnage continues.  Victory, of a tentative sort at least, is ours:

We celebrate our good fortune by being dumped unceremoniously out to the command prompt, leaving us to yell helplessly at a program long since shut down.  "Dad!  Put that kid in a seatbelt!  Holding him on your lap and driving blindly through the mist to destinations unknown while whispering in his little ear is a good way to ensure everybody we've grown to care about still ends up dead!"

Well played, Mr. King.

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