Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Seastalker (1984)

This week, we're diving (get it?) back into the classic Infocom line of interactive fiction, with Seastalker, originally marketed as a Junior-level game aimed at younger players.  Written by Stu Galley (The Witness) and established children's author Jim Lawrence, the story casts the player as a young inventor who has managed to put together an undersea lab, an observation dome, and a number of impressive technologies for moving about and living in this environment.  We're playing Revision 16, using the modern-day Windows Frotz interpreter; the various flavors of Frotz have done much to keep the Infocom flame burning on many platforms never dreamed of when these games were originally published.


I remember being seriously intrigued by Seastalker back in the day, because it was the first Infocom game made available for the humble, 32-characters-per-line TRS-80 Color Computer.  It was distributed only by mail order through Radio Shack's educational software division, and I was sorely tempted to buy it -- but then Infocom released some of their major titles for the CoCo, and I lost myself in ZORK I, Planetfall and The Witness instead.  So I'm just getting around to playing it now.

Interested readers are always encouraged to spend some time with this week's Adventure before proceeding with my commentary below.  Seastalker is meant to be introductory, so don't expect a major challenge, but Infocom's stirring prose and sophisticated parser are almost always worth a visit, even if the puzzles are simpler than the norm.  It's more fun to discover some of these things by oneself, but in the interest of history, I will be documenting the entirety of the game as I experienced it. That's right, there are multitudinous...

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

The game begins with a traditional attempt at personalization, by soliciting the player's first and last name, but it starts to get a little gimmicky.  I signed in as Gaming Afterforty -- we are interrupted by a shout of, "Gaming, snap out of it!" by one Tip Randall, and our facility is referred to as the "Afterforty Research Lab," which sounds incredibly boring.  For those of us who are not new to interactive fiction, the game notes that our lab is based near the town of Frobton, in reference to traditional Infocom Frobozz-speak.

The game does a fine job of introducing the concept of interactive fiction to new players -- the initial "puzzle" involves answering a videophone call and making use of the device, with a need to TUNE VIDEOPHONE and TURN ON THE MICROPHONE along the way, with generous hints from the game and sidekick Tip Randall (who seems to take his first name very seriously.)  We learn from Commander Bly that our underwater facility called the Aquadome is under attack by some sort of huge monster.  I should note that Commander Bly is female, which seems like a very progressive touch in a game published in 1984... until she shouts, "Gaming! Gaming! Our transparent dome enclosing the Undersea Research Station is being battered by a huge monster!"  Portrayals of women in power still needed some development, or at least better dialogue.

Tip Randall, who sounds like the chiseled-chin man-of-action type, is found upon closer inspection to be holding a magazine and a Universal Tool, both of which he will give up for the asking.  The magazine cover features fanciful sea life, and an article inside (after we OPEN MAGAZINE) tells us that one Dr. Jerome Thrope claims to have created artificial life that has since evolved.  His creatures' chemistry is reportedly based on the Amino-Hydrophase (AH) molecule, a nice bit of science fiction that seems like it might make for some plausible and educational puzzles later on, but does not.

The game is consistently friendly and helpful, hinting to the player that he or she may want to reference specific hint-loaded Infocards in the Seastalker package, and also making suggestions as the game goes along. There are 100 points to earn, and they are often doled out one at a time for minor successes, a nice way to reward the player's incremental progress.

Even though this game's dialogue is often lacking, the Infocom parser remains good at certain types of conversation -- BLY, TELL ME ABOUT THE MONSTER yields a little information.  The lab's divers have nicknamed it the Snark (Lewis Carroll, anyone?) and Bly isn't sure how long the facility will hold out.  It's beginning to look like dealing with this creature may be our major objective.

Thinking we should get on our way, I HANG UP the videophone -- and immediately lose three points?  I thought that I had been overeager, but closer inspection reveals that the videophone has conked out and I can't turn it on again; this interruption is by design, and happens even if we don't hang up.  Tip suggests I use the Computestor; I find it in the north part of the facility, and all we have to do is turn it on and ask it about the videophone to learn of... 6 different possible issues.  Suggestion #2, "A short in the undersea coaxial cable linking transmitter to the Afterforty Research Lab, if signal is coming from Aquadome" seems most promising, but we'll have to do some further investigation.

There are some mechanical, electronic and chemical supplies in other parts of the lab, but we can't search for anything interesting.  Outside the lab is a corridor leading to assistant Sharon Kemp's office, and a large circuit breaker panel on the north wall.  Closer examination establishes that one circuit is open -- it provides power to the videophone and its network, so that's probably the problem.  We just have to CLOSE BREAKER to get 3 points back, as Tip says, "How did that happen? You didn't overload the circuit."  Was this sabotage?

We can enter a storage closet to the south, where Tip's constant assistance becomes a little overbearing and/or creepy -- we are told There's so much junk in here that there's barely enough room for you., yet still Tip follows you into the storage closet.  He's a submarine technician, so maybe he's just most comfortable in close quarters, but still!

Kemp's office contains a file drawer filled with a lot of business papers.  So far the miscellaneous supplies and junk have not been searchable to any productive effect, and these papers are no different.  While there's an office door, we can't exit -- There's nothing outside to help your mission!

Now the videophone is functioning again, but it displays a test pattern and an attempt to CALL THE AQUADOME yields only There's no answer.  The crew must be busy with the Snark. To the south of the main lab is a test tank, where our advanced submarine the SCIMITAR reportedly awaits our command.  We can enter the sub -- Tip takes up a position at the instruments, and there's a sonarphone onboard.  Before we take off, though, we should explore the walkway surrounding the tank -- there's a catalyst capsule here.  As an antipiracy measure (or perhaps a research teaching tool) we can't EXAMINE many of the important items and characters in-game -- we are often told, "(You'll find that information in your SEASTALKER package)" instead.

At this point, I accidentally crashed WinFrotz by misusing the SAVE command, but it was a worthwhile reset, because if we start over and enter the office early, we find Sharon Kemp hastily going through the file drawer (as in Infocom's mystery games, characters often have their own agendae and movements.)  If we ASK SHARON ABOUT FILE DRAWER, she claims, "I can't find the magazine I bought for my mother this morning.  I wanted to take it to the hospital for her to read."  Sounds fishy (get it?) to me.  We can give her Tip's magazine, but that doesn't seem to solve her issue (get it?)  She says, "Uh... That's not the magazine I'm looking for."  Not very convincing.

Leaving Sharon to her haste, and bringing up the videophone again confirms that we don't have to hang up -- it conks out all on its own, so this is just a progress/regress clue about how the scoring works.  We can also confirm that Sharon Kemp is gone now -- right after the circuit breaker just outside her office was thrown.  Definitely suspicious.

It looks like it's time to get the SCIMITAR underway.  The control panel is fairly complex, with 9 variables to manage, although we don't have to do anything with some of them.  There's also an open power reactor onboard; we load in the capsule we found earlier, turn it on, and the electrical systems are now activated.  We can't just TURN ON THE SCIMITAR yet, though, as the test tank is empty -- drydock isn't going to get us anywhere.  The controls to the west of the sub allow us to FILL THE TEST TANK.  Returning to the sub, we open the gate by remote control, turn on the SCIMITAR -- actually, TURN ON THE ENGINE -- and earn some more points.

To pilot, we have to set the throttle speed (slow, medium or fast) and move the joystick in the direction we want to go.  We are also reminded to CLOSE THE HATCH before we go anywhere.  SET THROTTLE TO SLOW, PUSH JOYSTICK EAST, and we are on our way -- with 24% of the points, and a reminder to SAVE.

Ocean travel in Seastalker uses the unofficial but useful "sea squares" system of measurement.  The surface of the bay is dangerous -- we almost get hit by a speedboat ---so we need to DIVE for safety then LEVEL OUT as the depth finder warning bell sounds.  Infocom must have playtested this game a lot, compared to the competition -- the first verb that comes to mind almost always works, and we rarely have to fight with the parser.

We do have to fight to get the sub safely out of the inlet and into the ocean -- we have to avoid obstacles visible on the sonarscope and shallows, getting some assistance from a map of the bay included in the package.  The sonarscope displays a map in classic text-based style -- it's quite effective and cross-platform compatible:

For some reason, this particular Infocom game does not support the AGAIN verb, so it's a bit of a pain to keep an eye on the sonarscope with repeated LOOK AT THE SONARSCOPE commands.  But just as we are getting annoyed, Tip says, "You wouldn't have to keep looking at the sonarscope if you set it to automatic."  SET SONARSCOPE TO AUTOMATIC keeps it onscreen, which is very convenient, and we can WAIT for a specified number of turns (default 10) if we like, knowing the game will helpfully interrupt is if some emergency arises.  We have to avoid crashing into the shallows and various ships entering the harbor; this all gets a bit tense and is nicely handled until eventually we make our way to the open ocean.

Now we can turn on the autopilot, which automatically heads for the Aquadome, and we can even SET THROTTLE TO FAST if we like.  But we can't just wait for the whole trip -- this is an adventure game, so eventually we have another crisis, as Tip summons his own bad dialogue mojo, crying, "Look at the way that control circuit temperature is rising!"  We can SET THROTTLE TO SLOW to level out the gauge, it appears, and observe impressive sea life as the SCIMITAR's brass search light kicks on in the growing murk of the depths.  We will keep overheating, so eventually I opted to CLOSE THE THROTTLE to let the control circuit cool down for a while.

No sooner is the ship's operating temperature under control than a blip shows up on the sonarscope, and Tip asks us to aim the searchlight to starboard -- we observe a whale swimming past, and can hear its crooning cries over the hydrophone.  It's beautiful down here, but it also seems like the ship becomes more sensitive to overheating as we travel deeper.

Fortunately, as we approach the Aquadome, the sonarphone rings and Zoe Bly answers, so the facility is okay.  But all may not be well, as she tells us that "I'd like to discuss a private matter with you, as soon as possible."  We have to dock with the Aquadome's docking tank, with ample help from the game as we settle into a cradle and emerge from the SCIMITAR.  We are informed that the Aquadome was invented by our youthful hero, apparently, along with all the other high-tech stuff in the game.

Commander Bly and the Aquadome crew wear badges that track the Aquadome's air quality, supported by a central Air Supply System.  When a badge turns red, air is no longer breathable, and while we're busy trying to ASK BLY ABOUT THE MONSTER and being incongruously directed to Infocard #6 in the package, we suddenly notice that everyone is gasping for breath.

So it looks like we have to fix the Air Supply system -- it's nearby, fortunately, with a purportedly helpful but rather vague sign reading, "To repair Air Supply System, first open access door with special Fram Bolt Wrench hanging on hook at right."  Time is clearly running out -- some crew members will suffocate in ten turns, while others who have emergency oxygen gear will survive for twenty.  Yikes!  It appears more sabotage is also afoot -- the Fram Bolt Wrench is missing, but the Universal Tool opens the access door.  Something has been unscrewed from a conspicuously empty space -- and something is lying on the bottom of the housing.  We can TAKE THE OBJECT to discover it is an ELECTROLYTE RELAY, and we can SCREW RELAY INTO SPACE (to the moon, Alice!) to get the air supply working again.  We can feel mildly heroic -- this saboteur is a rank amateur -- as we confirm that everyone is okay, and we are up to 49 points.  We may also be tempted by recent parser revelations to try to SCREW COMMANDER BLY -- we are asked, hilariously, What do you want to screw Bly in? -- but this is not that kind of game (I don't know the word "rumble seat.")

We need to know the crew members' names, and EXAMINE THE CREW just shows their status, though sometimes we are given specific notes about their actions.  The packaging material tells us they are Antrim, Siegel, Greenup, Horvak, and Lowell, and later on they announce themselves more distinctly.

Bly, oblivious to our dirty thoughts earlier, now asks us to discuss the private matter, and we go into her office (with Tip along, presumably to chaperone.)  She says, "There's a traitor here at the Aquadome!", which is hyperbolic and already fairly clear.  But it's odd that as we depart, we see the Fram Bolt Wrench lying under her desk...

Mick Antrim wants to install an Emergency Survival Unit in the SCIMITAR.  No reason we shouldn't, I guess correctly, earning 5 points for that straightforward decision.  In case Mick is the traitor, we are reminded to use the SCIMITAR's test button before we set off in her again.  Bill Greenup installs the part under the seat, and Amy Lowell handles the rest, per Lowell's report after the work is done.  Apparently the unit contains a hypodermic syringe, which is a bit disconcerting -- apparently it's designed to jab the pilot awake if he or she falls unconscious in an emergency.

There are separate female and male dorms, and only Horvak's locker in the male dorm seems worth noting -- it's locked, we need a key for it that never materializes.

In the Aquadome lab, Doc Horvak says the team has detected a high concentration of AH molecules and asks if we know anything about such a phenomenon. Since we are incredibly well-read on the topic, having chanced across a short popular article in Tip's copy of Science World magazine, we bring up Dr. Thorpe's work.  Doc Horvak gets excited -- he apparently knows exactly what drug will tranquilize the monster.  "Shall I make some up?" he asks, in his best Peter Lorre voice I imagine, and I answer YES... just don't be so eager, dude, it's freakin' me out a little.

Now things are heating up -- while Horvak works on the drug, Bly suggests we need a major weapon, and I don't have a clue about that yet.  If we answer NO to her question, Tip comes up with an idea to mount a bazooka on the extensor claw of the SCIMITAR, which sounds good to me.  Dr. Bly wants us to get going, but we're not quite ready so it's NO for now.  Doc Horvak shows up with the drug-equpiped dart gun, and asks, "What shall I do with it?"  Telling him to MOUNT IT ON THE EXTENSOR CLAW works, and now we're up to 74 points.  The endgame is already in sight!

Again, Bly asks if we are ready to take off now, but I feel like we haven't explored the Aquadome thoroughly yet so I put her off again (a decision I will later regret, as the turn clock is constantly ticking in this game.)  There's a comm center, a galley, and another storage room.  We can SEARCH FOR GUN, establishing that the dictionary knows of a dart gun and a bazooka -- the game helpfully reminds us that both of these are already mounted on the SCIMITAR's extensor claws if we try to FIND either item.

As we prepare to depart, Marv Siegal yells that two blips have appeared on the Aquadome's sonar scope.  Tip suggests we look out the window instead of looking at the scope, but it's shortly too late -- with very little warning, we learn that The Snark has flopped down on the Aquadome!  It cracks under the impact, everyone drowns and the game is over.  Take that, kid!

After a restore to earlier, happier days, I head straight to the SCIMITAR and push the test button, discovering that the Emergency Survival Unit is not properly connected; it has a heat sensor hooked up to it, and Tip says he doesn't like the looks of the hypodermic syringe.  He suggests we take it to Doc Horvak for analysis, which takes up 4 precious turns, but is worth it to discover that the hypo is full of arsenic -- so definitely dangerous, then. 

It looks like Bill Greenup might be the traitor here, as he did the underseat (get it?) installation.  We ASK GREENUP ABOUT THE SYRINGE, and he definitely acts guilty, fleeing to the SCIMITAR.  Commander Bly invites us to her office -- with the docking tank control panel we should be able to prevent his escape.  The tank is already empty, and we can LOOK AT THE MONITOR to see Greenup heading for our prize submarine.  We don't actually have to look at the Infocard -- I never did look at one, actually -- because the game suggests we look at Infocard #5 and fill in the blank with the words "docking tank electricity."  So it's not hard to guess we should TURN OFF THE DOCKING TANK ELECTRICITY.  We don't know much about Greenup, other than that he used to be a beach bum.  But now he's trapped and handcuffed in the galley, and we have 84 points.

We can't seem to ASK GREENUP ABOUT [anything of import], as he just claims ignorance or sneers at us.  We can hit him with the Fram Bolt Wrench, and he says something unprintable, but he's just not talking about anything useful.

So let's get into the SCIMITAR and see if we can wrap this adventure up.  Just as we get ready to set sail, the sonar goes off and the monster is near.  But we don't have time to do anything -- the game seems to end at 424 turns, consistently, so I have to conclude that I wasn't efficient enough, wasting  too much time fruitlessly searching for things in the various rooms of the Aquadome at 7 turns per search.

Backtracking again, we quickly find the issues with the ESU, have Horvak analyze the syringe, and trap Greenup... and now Zoe Bly presents some questions pointing to a happier ending.  She asks, "Can you use the SCIMITAR to hunt the Snark instead of waiting for it to attack?"  I think we want YES to be the right answer here.  Next, she wonders, "Do you wish to arm the SCIMITAR for attacking?"  We already have, so when she offers to let us go to the Aquadome lab there's no need to waste time; clearly the designer anticipated a different order of events here, and we can go straight to the docking bay.

As we pull out of the docking tank, Tip says, "I've got a bad feeling about this.  I don't think we should go out there without a fine grid."  And we soon discover after turning on the sonarscope that he's right -- he rubs it in a bit, saying, "Our sonarscope shows each sea square as 500 meters across.  When we're in the Aquadome, ask me about a fine grid."  ASK TIP WHY HE DIDN'T MENTION THIS WHEN WE WERE STILL IN THE AQUADOME yields no productive response.

Restoring, we now know we should ASK TIP ABOUT A FINE GRID before we try to take on the Snark, and he gets it installed quickly.  We have to make sure the docking tank electricity is back on, close the hatch and the tank's roof, fill the tank, open the gate, turn on the engine, open the throttle... and now at last we're off to hunt the Snark, remembering to SET SONARSCOPE TO AUTOMATIC.

I thought at first that the Snark was to the north, but that's the Aquadome.  I thought that we might need to travel around, looking for the Snark, but found it incredibly easy to miss it -- while I was circling around, a call came in on the sonarphone indicating that the Snark had attacked and everyone would soon be dead.  Hmmmm... we don't seem to see it on the sonar, and it always attacks around turn 425.

Pushing the joystick to the southeast after leaving the Aquadome produces some feedback indicating we're on course to hunt the Snark, so we should probably do that.  Suddenly Tip sees a big cloud of silt ahead.  The brass search light reveals the Snark and one of our Sea Cats, a bottom-crawling rocket-equipped machine of our hero's invention.  Now, suddenly, the voice Dr. Thorpe comes over the sonarphone, with Sharon Kemp, the other traitor -- no surprise there -- by his side.  Except that as he is telling us all the details of his dastardly plan, Sharon knocks him out with a wrench!  She's on our side after all!  I hope she found that magazine!

Tip interrupts to ask how Thorpe controls the monster; it's a good thing he's along, I hadn't even considered that possibility.  Sharon tells us that the Snark is sensitive to sonar signals on its right side, as the story takes over a bit here, prompting us with simple YES/NO responses.  Sharon tells us that Thorpe's accomplice (probably Greenup) installed a sonar box on the Aquadome to attract the monster, but it was thwarted somehow, and we can now guide the creature safely to a cavern for scientific study.  That sounds good to me -- if we say YES to Sharon's suggestion, we will be using the tranquilizer gun to do so.

Of course, Thorpe regains consciousness before we can tranquilize the Snark, and takes us out with a rocket from his commandeered Sea Cat.  If we do succeed in tranquilizing the Snark, Thorpe can aim at us with his Sea Cat's lethal rocket again.  If we collide with the Sea Cat, it is disabled but its rocket is not.

This climactic sequence is fairly tricky to pull off -- we have to pull right alongside the moving Snark, aim the tranquilizer and shoot at it before we lose the aim.  The Sea Cat stays in synch with the Snark, on its right side, but we can't easily target it without being rocketed to death; we have to move beyond the Snark's tail to get a clear shot, and Thorpe generally fires first.  The sonarscope shows the Snark, the Sea Cat, and its rocket's broad firing range to help us assess the situation.

After many unsuccessful tries to tranquilize the Snark and then deal with the villain, I discovered that it works best if we first cripple the Sea Cat with our bazooka.  But it almost works a little too well -- Sharon immediately takes over and handles the remainder of the details, including the luring of the Snark to an underwater cavern for further study.  I'm sure it can be done much more efficiently, but we've finished the story, with 100 points out of 100 possible in 420 turns:

Seastalker is not a difficult game to finish in an evening, but it's not badly done... even though it's aimed at younger adventurers and there are no really difficult puzzles, it has some worthwhile character interaction (despite the occasionally grating dialogue) and a degree of tension in its plotting.  I wish we got to learn more about the Snark itself -- a whole new chain of life based on novel chemistry is a fascinating idea -- but clearly that's left to the player's imagination.  Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence went on to author Infocom's Moonmist, another Introductory-level adventure, and someday I'm sure I'll get around to playing that one.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished Seastalker tonight for the first time. I missed it as a kid. Wanted to let you know that although there is no key to the Doc's locker, you can open it with your trusty Universal Tool. The contents reveal some interesting backstory. Have fun.