Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Stranded (1992)

I had no idea what I wanted to play this week, so I rooted around in the archives at random and came upon Stranded, a text adventure for the Sinclair Spectrum ZX home computer popular in the United Kingdom.  It's yet another escape-the-alien-planet tale, written by Dave Hawkins and published rather late as text adventures go, coming out in 1992 courtesy of the dedicated adventure publishers at Zenobi Software.

The game was written in PAW, a descendant of the popular authoring system The Quill.  The Spectrum's generous 48K of RAM allows for lots of detailed text, so while the game is fairly simple there's a lot of detail on display.  The game's interface is impatient -- if we're not providing input, it assumes a WAIT command from time to time -- but this doesn't seem to cause any gameplay problems, and I may only have noticed it because I spend so much time taking notes while playing.

Once again, I encourage interested readers to get Stranded themselves before proceeding below.  This is a pleasant and generally logical adventure, marred only by some hidden items and a few parser struggles.  My playthrough diary commences shortly, and there will necessarily be a comprehensive and ruthless series of...

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

We begin, as is usual for these sorts of adventures, in the cockpit of our space transport, the Talisman, following the also-traditional emergency landing.  The ship is still spaceworthy, but not functioning properly, so our primary goal seems clear -- we have to figure out what ails our trusty spacecraft and get her back into the air.  At the outset, we have no inventory and are wearing "nothing," so it seems we are ill-prepared for an adventure across an alien world, but we will likely be able to find the necessary items if we poke around the neighborhood enough.

The ship's control panel has a red button and a black button.  The red one does nothing at the moment, but the black one opens the doors to the west; we actually have to PUSH BLACK BUTTON, the usual PUSH BLACK shortcut isn't recognized, suggesting that this parser handles -- nay, insists on -- adjectives.  A cargo hold to the south contains a flat droid battery (flat means dead, I presume, not shaped like a watch battery) and some mining explosives, as well as Maxwell, the service droid, who is currently powered down.  The engine hold south of the cargo hold contains an empty cuplink, meant to hold a power crystal that isn't there, so now we know what we're looking for.

Outside the Talisman we find ourselves on a rocky plateau.  We can DETONATE EXPLOSIVES (there's a visible switch on the mining explosives for the purpose, but PUSH SWITCH and PRESS SWITCH don't do the job), but this is only useful if we wish to kill ourselves while we're holding them.

West of the plateau we suddenly find ourselves in a jungle, with animal tracks leading in several directions, as though we've stepped out of one adventure genre and straight into another.  A clearing to the northeast contains a strange tree in its center.  We can't climb it, though it seems the obvious thing to do, as some bees surrounding it begin to sting us when we try.  We'll probably need some protective gear.

Further north is a sweet-smelling cave entrance, guarded by a rare two-headed Bagalurk.  West of this area is another path leading to a temple; we can acquire some dried grass on the way.  The temple is dedicated to the Flarg god Jhyopi, presumably phonetic spellings of an alien language that our narrator fortunately understands.  An antechamber to the north seems dangerous -- the floor is lower than the incoming steps, and we hear stone scraping against stone after we enter.  Are we about to plunge into a pit of spikes?  Ah, no -- that was the sound of the temple door opening outside, and it instantly closes again when we leave the chamber.  We'll probably want to put something heavy in here to keep the door open.

The western section of the jungle is blocked by heavy vegetation, for now at least.  We can try to go U to a rocky ledge but are informed that "You can't reach!"

The southern path through the jungle forks, leading southeast to a Flarg village (the Flarg being the aboriginal culture here, to a stereotypical degree -- they live in small grass huts with a huge stone idol nearby, presumably for regular worship services.)  A hut we can enter contains a can of Lubri-plus Lubricating oil and a large coiled Groba-rock snake who will bite us before slithering off if we simply GET OIL.  After being bitten we start feeling much weaker (per INVENTORY) and are probably not long for this world... yes, we're dead in ten turns or so, so we're going to have to restore an earlier save and forego taking the oil for now.

A burial mound east of the Flarg village is haunted by a wailing spirit, guarding some Flarg luck beads with its intense wails and shrieks.  We're not able to take the beads due to the noise, and there doesn't seem to be any way to grab them from a little farther way.

At some point we may encounter an attractive Flarg woman, though it's not clear whether human or Flarg standards are being applied; the use of the word attractive makes me wonder if we're not actually on an alien planetoid after all, but have simply taken a wrong turn and ended up in the village of Flarg.  She seems confused, much like the player, though we can't understand her language as we try fruitlessly to EXAMINE or KISS her.  I tried to follow her and ended up near the Flarg idol -- the local chieftain was not happy to see me, and killed me with a flint axe.  So we should avoid that area for now, though before our untimely death we did see an empty power crystal there, which we will definitely want to obtain at some point.

A plexiglas dome to the west features a pile of wood and a happily chirping bird.  We can try to TAKE BIRD, but it struggles free and flies out of reach, without leaving the room.  Oddly, if we try to KISS BIRD we end up with it in inventory, and can then DROP and TAKE it easily; I think this is a bug, as there's a cage hidden elsewhere in the map that's probably meant to solve this little puzzle the right way.  The dome is impenetrable, but its exterior features a small credit-card-sized slot.

With the wood, the flint and the dried grass, we can go to the strange tree and MAKE FIRE (BURN WOOD and BURN GRASS don't work) and see that The acrid smoke soon disperses the thick swarm.  And now... well, we still can't climb the tree, because the smoke is too thick and we start choking every time we try.  Can we EXTINGUISH FIRE or COVER FIRE?  Apparently not; we'll just have to hope Smokey the Bear doesn't show up to disapprove.

Can we help the wailing Flarg spirit at the burial site?  GIVE BIRD TO SPIRIT accomplishes nothing, except that the happy little bird vanishes from the game world; this seems to happen any time we use GIVE in an inappropriate or an unexpected manner, so we soon learn to avoid using it.  But we will need to try it on occasion --  EXAMINE WOMAN reveals that the Flarg beauty is about 19 years old, and is carrying a plastic security card.

I was getting stuck here -- the world was pretty much mapped out but I was not making any progress on the puzzles.  Dorothy's walkthrough at CASA suggests that we can not only EXAMINE items, but we can SEARCH parts of the environment for different results.  This was useful -- searching the vegetation finds a rusty cage, though it seems we don't need it thanks to our deviant bird-kissing ways.

We can't carry much -- 4 items seems to be the limit, though there are exceptions when solving a puzzle stuffs a new item into inventory.

We can DETONATE EXPLOSIVES at the burial site, if we drop them first so we don't detonate ourselves in the process.  The explosion doesn't do the same thing as digging, it just makes a small crater.  But the explosion temporarily deafens us, making us immune to the spirit's wailing so we can grab the beads.  We can then give the beads to the Flarg woman, obtaining the card in exchange.

Now we can enter the plexiglas dome... except INSERT CARD just drops it on the ground.  We have to PUT CARD IN SLOT, which causes the door to open; the card is returned to us for reuse, though in point of fact once we've used it we don't need to unlock the entrance again. 

Entering the dome, we find ourselves in an elevator with a red, blue and black button.  The color-coding is consistent here, it seems; PUSH BLACK BUTTON closes the elevator door.  PUSH BLUE BUTTON does nothing at this point; PUSH RED BUTTON causes the room to feel like it is revolving, and the opposite is true after we've pushed the red button once, allowing us to switch between the two areas accessible from the elevator.

A storeroom south of the elevator contains a boiler suit, a blank holograph disc, and a big metal table, 6ft by 4ft and ... made of high-tension plexi-chrome.  It's heavy and we can't pick it up, but we can PUSH TABLE NORTH... so maybe we can get it into the temple room far to the north.  We can, but it doesn't seem to be heavy enough to keep the temple door open.  Drat!

Well, what else can we do in the dome?  The boiler suit is dirty and old, apparently belonging to a worker; we've seen security patrolling the western corridor, so perhaps we should wear it as a disguise.  The security guard doesn't seem to bother us as long as we are wearing it.

The Power Plant room contains a battery recharger; we can't PUT BATTERY IN RECHARGER (misleadingly, the parser indicates that I don't think putting that there is going to help at the moment) but we can CHARGE BATTERY.

This is good, because we may need Maxwell the service droid to help out, as some doors to the north are blocked by a keypad with a 12-pin droid interface.  The Spares Room to the west has a high shelf with something on it we can't quite see.  If we SEARCH PARTS at ground level, we can find an Electro-spanner.  I'm now realizing that I was probably supposed to push the table into this room so we can see what's on the shelf.  A control room upstairs has a complex instrument panel we can't understand.

Using the table, we can LOOK SHELF (EXAMINE SHELF fails) to discover a twelve pin interface extension arm for the C class droid.  We will likely need this, but I can't figure out how to take it -- it doesn't seem to be a TWELVE PIN INTERFACE, an EXTENSION ARM, or an ARM, or a TWELVE PIN INTERFACE EXTENSION ARM.

Well, first things first.  PUT BATTERY IN MAXWELL wakes him up; we can't command him with the Infocom convention, i.e., MAXWELL, FOLLOW ME, but he clearly wants to repair the ship and will follow us once he's activated, expressing general doubts about our abilities all the while. 

Back in the factory, GIVE ARM TO MAXWELL fails because we're not holding it, so ARM appears to be the right word.  Ah -- the parser is being picky again, as TAKE ARM does not work but TAKE ARM FROM SHELF does. Now can we get Maxwell to open the door using the panel?  USE PANEL, CONNECT MAXWELL TO PANEL, and MAXWELL, OPEN DOOR all seem to fail.  I had to reference the walkthrough to learn we must instead SAY TO MAX "OPEN DOOR"

We can now access a loading bay, and another storeroom containing a holograph projector and a full-length mirror.  The projector is also a recorder, apparently, with on/off/play/record buttons.  We can use it to record our surroundings using the blank disc we found earlier... PUT DISC IN PROJECTOR, PUSH ON, PUSH RECORD -- but I'm not sure why we want to do this.  Maybe we can use it to conceal our presence in the room later on.  The projector is portable, but the disc can only be used once, so I restored in case a more useful opportunity presents itself.

Stumped again, so I was glad to learn that we can SEARCH HOLD in the spaceship to find a towel -- shades of Douglas Adams!  We can also use the table to climb the "rocky shelf" in the jungle (an intentional word choice, it seems) to reach an Outcrop, leading to a Small Dell where a stream flows.  Now we can SOAK TOWEL, and hopefully put out the bee-smoking fire... hmmm.  COVER FIRE WITH TOWEL doesn't work, the parser thinks the fire is much too hot to touch.  I tried to THROW TOWEL, and again EXTINGUISH FIRE... no luck.  I tried to WRING TOWEL and SQUEEZE TOWEL... ack.  Ah... we have to WEAR TOWEL, presumably over our face, and now we can climb the tree without choking, and discover a beehive, though we must GET HIVE and not foolishly attempt something entirely stupid like trying to GET BEEHIVE.  We may observe that Maxwell the service droid happily follows us up and down the tree, sporting a highly advanced propulsion system that makes R2-D2 look like a Roomba.

Now what to do with this hive of bees, so long in the fetching?  The first thing I tried worked -- we can THROW HIVE, and the honey-loving two-headed Bagalurk chases it.  Except... he doesn't leave the area, so we still can't enter the cave.  Ah!  Walkthrough to the rescue -- we have to THROW HIVE WEST so he will leave the area; he continues to hang out in that location, but he's never really a threat, we just needed to clear him away from the cave entrance.

Inside the cave we find a Flarg witch doctor's costume.  Disguises seem a common device in this game.  If we WEAR COSTUME, the Flarg chieftain doesn't immediately throw a fatal axe in our direction.  But if we try to TAKE CRYSTAL, the chief yells and snatches it back.  Hmmm.

We can get the oil from the hut by THROWing the BIRD at the snake, who slithers off.  I had to reference the walkthrough once again to learn that we can EXAMINE WALLS in the cave to find a strange, green glowing rock.  And that we can SAY TO MAX "WAIT" to get him to stay in the temple ante-chamber and keep the door open for us.

Before we enter the temple, it seems we've used most of the available items now.  Can we use the holograph projector to distract the chief?  Yes -- I recorded some footage of the cave, dropped the projector in the idol area and turned it on in PLAY mode, allowing me to take the crystal while the Flarg leader was inexplicably mesmerized by static footage of a cave situated within a short walking distance from the village.  I guess the Flarg are pretty hard up for entertainment.

Now we enter the temple -- presumably the glowing rock is illuminating the area so we don't have to stumble around in the dark.  A huge stone statue of the Flarg god Jhyopi sits cross-legged on the floor, with an altar in his lap.  A chamber to the north contains a winch handle, which is rusted, hence the need for the oil can.  Turning the handle opens the roof, allowing a beam of sunlight to shine down into the temple.  What now?  I put the crystal on the altar, along with the glowing rock, but nothing seemed to happen.  (We can also TAKE [object] FROM ALTAR to retrieve it.) 

Oh, wait -- bad assumption on my part, the sunlight isn't necessarily shining down on the altar.  It's time to go back to the industrial dome and grab the mirror found in the boiler area; we DROP MIRROR with the roof open, and now the light strikes the crystal with a blinding flash.  Good thing I made a map -- oh, wait, it's not literally (or at least not permanently) blinding.

The crystal is now fully charged.  We put it in the Talisman's engine room cuplink, close the door, PUSH RED BUTTON and... You seem to have left some cargo behind.  Oh, no, is this one of those collect-all-the-available-junk-to-stretch-out-the-gameplay puzzles?  Ah -- Maxwell is still holding the doors open at the temple.  Maybe he's the key cargo we need, and he's ready and willing to follow us back to the ship with a simple SAY TO MAX "FOLLOW ME" command.  That was the sticking point -- now we're on our way home, victorious!

Stranded was a bit of a mixed bag for me -- it has some interesting puzzles, but it never really establishes a strong sense of an alien environment, aside from a few high-tech gadgets that might as well have been magical in nature.  The parser struggles provided the biggest challenges, though there were certainly enough obtuse puzzles (like using the explosives to deafen ourselves) that I don't think I'd have gotten very far without help. 

Still, while Stranded is derivative, it's competently written and coded, with readable prose and proper grammar and spelling.  Mr. Hawkins wrote a couple of other adventure games, and I wouldn't object to sampling more of his work someday.


  1. Another "throw bird at snake" puzzle, just like Colossal Cave Adventure?

  2. Exactly! These early games wore their influences on their sleeves -- even though this game is from 1992, it uses the classic Colossal Cave trope.

  3. Great to see you doing more Spectrum stuff.

    A lot of the parser issues (e.g. TAKE [object] FROM SHELF, or SAY TO MAX "[whatever]") are the standard behaviour of the PAW parser and wouldn't be a problem to anyone who'd played a lot of PAWed games.

    And as PAWed adventures were practically the only ones still being released for the Spectrum in 1992. most of the target audience would be familiar with them. (By then it was pretty much an incestuous, ever-decreasing circle of semi-professional PAW fans writing games for each other, with no newcomers or outsiders expected to buy one.)

  4. Wrestling with the parser is part of the charm of these old games -- I just like to document all the things I tried that did NOT work, for entertainment purposes mostly.

    I think a lot of the parser issues I ran into were more from a lack of playtesting -- of course, the author knew we should MAKE FIRE and not BURN GRASS, or that TAKE [object] without mentioning FROM SHELF would act as though the object was completely non-portable, and that the switch mentioned when we examine the explosives was not recognized or functional and needed to be bypassed with a DETONATE verb, but I didn't. And the KISS BIRD bug allowing us to take the bird without ever bothering with the cage is probably a testing issue too. The only real issue I have with these situations is that the game provides no real indication that I'm doing something close but insufficient -- a miss is as good as a mile when only a specific approach is recognized, and that's not a PAW issue but a general design challenge for the text adventure genre.

    I've heard much about the Quill, and its descendants PAW and AdventureWriter, but I apparently need to spend some more time with these games to get used to their idiosyncracies. :)