Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Hoosegow (2010)

This week, I'm tackling a more recent work of interactive fiction -- Hoosegow, written by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch for the Jay Is Games "Escape" competition in 2010, using the Infocom Z-machine-compatible Inform language.  (It was not a commercial release, and the authors have published a walkthrough, as well as providing in-game hints, so I'm making an exception to my usual five-year self-embargo.) 

Hoosegow is billed as a Wild-West Wreck and is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, but it still presents a richly detailed and imagined Western scenario within a very confined location.

I discovered this adventure using the iPhone Frotz app, but downloaded the .zblorb version from http://code.google.com/p/hoosegow/ for this playthrough, using a Windows-based Frotz interpreter.  As an unsuccessful petty criminal in the Old West, the player's objective is to escape the town's one-cell prison, the titular Hoosegow, before the next morning's expected hanging.  As always, and especially because this adventure is readily and freely available, y'all are encouraged to try escaping the Hoosegow before proceeding here.  Sure as shootin' there's gonna be some...

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

The game opens as our hero, Rick, and his ne'er-do-well partner in crime Muddy Charlie are being picked up by the Sheriff after a silver dollar theft gone wrong.  We're left in the custody of the sloppy deputy, Jimbo, because the Sheriff is off to discuss his invention with some investors in Wichita.

A third occupant is in the cell, a sleeping pastor we will eventually come to know as Pastor Pete.  Searching him turns up a tin of tobacco and a religious pamphlet for "The Prairie Gospel Church of Uncanny Righteousness (copyrighteous 1871)."  Pete's pronouncements sound vaguely biblical, full of awkward metaphors and judgment-day imagery.  Our pal Muddy casually but accurately calculates the number of eyes on the traditional Beast -- 291,840 -- as we are reading the pastor's theologically unusual pamphlet aloud.  Searching the clergyman again finds nothing that he wasn't born with.

We're carrying a pocketwatch, reading 7:22 PM at the moment I first checked it and ticking away at one minute per move, so there is a time constraint here.  We also possess a scrap of paper detailing the ill-fated silver theft plan, and a detailed outfit with hat, pants, overcoat, left boot and right boot.

The default responses are charmingly Western-ized, for example, "You don't find nothing at all" and "You ain't able to see no such thing."  Tellingly, the left boot has spurs broken clear off; we can take the right boot's spur off, the game noting that we are being careful not to cut yourself in the process.  So we have a potential weapon in hand, it seems.

Muddy mentions that he has a plan, which in short form amounts to, "I'm a-going to tell you my plan.  Here it is: we got to break out of this jail before we get strunged up."  But he does mention his plan needs lots of ingredients -- if that means anything.

There's a food bowl on the floor a few feet from the cell, apparently nailed there.  (The iPhone Frotz version just says it "seems to be nailed to the office floor," while the current downloadable edition emphasizes it as "nailed (yes, nailed!) to the office floor."  So that's apparently a significant detail.)

A broken stool on the floor, with two legs where there should be three, bears a bronze plate indicating it was "Donated to the Crawdad's Gulch Municipal Hoosegow by the Gunslinger's Widows Association, Chapter Forty-One."  There are also some initials carved into the stool, prompting amusing anecdotes from Muddy.

Under the wooden bench where the Pastor is sleeping, we find some rancid meat, a can of beans, and a spoon.  OPEN CAN WITH SPOON doesn't work, but the spur does the trick, and we earn 5 of the possible 24 points for this so it must be important.  There's a minor bug here -- if we LOOK IN CAN it's treated as a container and we are told that The can of beans is empty, but if we EXAMINE CAN we are informed that The can is full of plump, glistening, little beans.

The Sheriff's invention is a primitive cappuccino coffee machine, basically a furnace standing in the office with a lever that can be made to point toward the front door or the rear of the office, currently in a neutral position.  It seems we might want to influence that, just because we're given such detail about it.

A window high up on the cell wall has the green tip of a vine poking in; the bars are thick and unmovable so it doesn't look like we'll be getting out that way, and while we can pull the tip of the vine, nothing really happens as a result.

If we GIVE BEANS TO MUDDY, he's hungry and asks for a spoon.  He eats the beans, and a few turns later starts complaining of indigestion, as the can's warning label suggests may occur, especially the "By opening this can, you agree to the terms of service posted in town" clause.  The silent-but-deadly results send the deputy out the door with his whiskey bottle, presumably to the saloon across the street he has been staring at all evening.  But he returns shortly, hooking his trusty (albeit fat and lazy) dog Flash up to the boiler -- if we try to escape, Flash will surely set off the rooftop steam whistle and summon the deputy.

We can open the tin and CHEW TOBACCO, spitting it at various things to no apparent affect. SPIT AT LEVER misses the thin lever, sending the plug of chaw down the boiler pipe.  EXAMINE BARS reveals that one of the bars is as short as a table leg; this gray bar is loose, but still held in place by a large screw that connects it to the ceiling.  And the rusty screw is too high to reach.  MUDDY, REMOVE THE SCREW yields "(Muddy first taking the screw)," followed by "Muddy ain't having none of your balderdash," and he doesn't actually do so.

Muddy occasionally can be seen tapping a harmonica on his arm -- we can't see it if we EXAMINE MUDDY, but we can TAKE HARMONICA FROM MUDDY -- he doesn't actually know how to play it.  And if we PLAY HARMONICA, the screw starts to come loose with the rattling bars, making way for a Dr. Who "sonic screwdriver" joke on Muddy's part (yes, it's anachronistic, but fitting on that very point!)  Several rounds of mouthorgan noise are required to free the screw; it rolls out of sight under the deputy's desk, but a two-foot long metal tube falls from the ceiling, the gray bar we were trying to retrieve earlier.  We can't, however, ATTACH GRAY BAR TO STOOL to fix it... oh, wait, we have to PUT BAR IN SOCKET to do so, based on the stool's detailed description.

Now we can stand on the stool and look out the cell window -- the vine we could see the tip of before is more visible now, and it's covered with small red berries.  We can take one (trying to PICK BERRY results in a parser complaint about there being too many choices to select from), but examination indicates that it Don't look so edible.  If we try to EAT BERRY anyway, Muddy stops us, warning that it will put us to sleep for quite a while, too late to escape, which seems like a hint.  We also can't throw the berry at the lever or put it in the dog's bowl.

The metal stool leg/tube is apparently quite thin -- we can remove it from the stool, PUT BERRY IN TUBE and then BLOW BERRY AT things.  It doesn't move the lever, but the deputy left a dinner bell hanging on a hook by the doorway, in which direction Flash occasionally throws a longing look. BLOW BERRY AT BELL rings the bell, and Flash gets up, yanking the lever toward his food bowl instead of toward the exit, causing the machine to dispense a white cup and fill it with coffee.

We can't reach the coffee, but we can get another berry from the vine and blow it into the cup.  The berry splatters its juice into the coffee, so if the deputy returns we may be able to get him knocked out.

Now what?  It's 9:40 PM according to the pocketwatch, and we've done quite a bit with the available objects here.  What about the meat we found under the bunk?  It smells like it should be buried.  And if we EXAMINE SKY, we can see a wake of vultures wheeling through the air.

How to attract them?  Well, we can take off our boots, which results in an Are you sure? prompt; the resulting smell from removing the left boot makes Muddy's eyes water and Flash back off a ways, pulling the leash taut.   With the other boot removed, the odor overwhelms the poor dog -- Flash pulls the lever, setting off the steam whistle and summoning the deputy as Muddy urges us to put our boots back on.  It didn't help bring any vultures nearby, but this is an interesting result too.

The deputy staggers in shortly, drunkenly trying to put his pants back on, as Flash breaks the lever clear off the machine.  Before departing in a state of high, inebriated dudgeon, Deputy Jimbo drinks the coffee, and immediately collapses to the floor, outside the bars.  But he's just wearing his pants, with no gun belt or boots or keys.  Oddly, we can't quite reach him if we try to TAKE PANTS FROM DEPUTY, but we can SEARCH DEPUTY from within the cell and take a federal warrant and a small brass key.

The warrant calls for our arrest and hanging for various "iniquities, infringements, infractions and indeed immorality" -- Muddy is inspired with another plan, and asking him about it suggests that if we can come up with a pen and some ink, he could somehow alter the warrant in our favor.

Crushing berries should make for some ink, or tobacco maybe, but we can't seem to put the berries or the tobacco in the can, and the tin seems to contain an infinite supply of unchewed tobacco.  While I'm experimenting with this, a vulture lands outside the window to check out the deputy -- so that was the right idea, if not the expected path to get here -- and seems to be interested in the rotting meat.  We can't PUT MEAT IN WINDOW, as it's not a container, but if we stand on the stool again and LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, we can see a barrel just below, and we can PUT MEAT ON BARREL.  I tried to TAKE TAIL FEATHER FROM VULTURE, as its tail is waving near the window while it feasts, but the parser only recognizes TAIL as part of the vulture; I had to TAKE FEATHER FROM TAIL.

Muddy happily accepts the feather for use as a quill pen, but he still needs some ink.  Fortunately, it turns out that he doesn't actually need any help with the ink -- we can just GIVE BERRIES TO MUDDY and he's all set, as the most important section of the warrant is written in red ink.  Handing him the warrant as well yields a modified version, requiring that our heroes now be held only for "proper hanging of the Sheriff's portrait on the office wall."  Seems a bit contrived and transparent, but this is an adventure game.

The pastor never figures into things -- some of his vague pronouncements when we WAKE PASTOR sound hint-ish, but nothing really pans out as a useful suggestion.  If we GIVE PAMPHLET TO MUDDY, our pal will identify the drowsy minister as Pastor Pete, but he drops back off to sleep again after Muddy's enthusiastic greeting.

Anyway, we're now free to go based on the warrant, it seems. We can't UNLOCK GATE WITH KEY -- that would be too easy, and it doesn't even have a keyhole.  The padlock is a solid, arcane lump of metal.  But there is another lock in the room -- a small lock visible on the desk drawer, which we can't reach at the moment.

I tried to OPEN DEPUTY, just for fun, which woke him up -- presumably SHAKE or WAKE would also work. He's bleary and addled enough for Muddy to convince him that the warrant is legit and that we are not criminals, but truly the Sheriff's "guests," and we'd better get that portrait hung before we all get in trouble tomorrow.

Now we can GO GATE, into the office, and unlock the drawer.  It contains a folder with a telegram, a patent, a note, and a receipt.  The telegram suggests that the Sheriff is buying machine parts for his invention -- with 5000 dollars in silver coin, suspiciously similar to the "evidence" confiscated from our bungled robbery, which he is claiming he won in a lottery.  The patent details his coffee machine, clearly an expensive proposition to build and market.

There's also a repudiatory note from Ella, the Sheriff's former fiancee, who is disgusted with the scoundrel's recent behavior, and a receipt noting the Sheriff's account with his machine parts supplier is sorely in arrears. So now we have a little something on the Sheriff. 

And we'll probably need it, because as we try to leave, we are confronted by the Sheriff and Federal Marshal McLuhan (is the interactive fiction medium the message, then?), who believe we have murdered the fallen deputy.  WAKE DEPUTY readily disabuses them of that notion, and HANG PORTRAIT ON WALL discharges our official duties, as the Marshal criticizes the Sheriff for using suspects to do his office work.  Muddy notes that Marshal McLuhan seems a reasonable man, setting up the endgame if we play our evidential cards correctly.

Showing the Marshal all of the documentary evidence conveniently tucked away in the Sheriff's desk, piece by incriminating piece, does the job -- the Sheriff never mentioned the existence of the silver haul as evidence in the case, and clearly wants us both executed ASAP, raising the Marshal's suspicions.  Now he's in big trouble, and the newly-promoted Sheriff Jimbo is looking for a few good deputies.  We win, and we even get to look like the good guys!

I had missed two points, and had to check out the Inform source code to learn that these points are available by eating some beans and in the process overcoming a repressed childhood memory related to the musical fruit.  We must do this once, or three times, as we lose a point on the second mouthful but regain it on the third, before giving the can to Muddy.  The game can also end in a different way -- if we simply leave the sheriff's office without dilly-dallying looking for evidence, we can high-tail it out of town before we get caught, poor but free.  It can also, of course, end less happily if we try to shoot the Sheriff with an unloaded gun, or if we show the Marshal the warrant, as he's smart enough to see through Muddy's amateurish ruse.

I had a lot of fun in the Hoosegow -- it's a modern effort, using this older but entirely serviceable technology to provide lots of detail in a tightly focused interactive story.  This is the kind of thing the text adventure form is really good at -- plenty of incidental detail waiting to be discovered, puzzle solutions at macro and micro levels, and verbal and descriptive humor.  Very nice work from the authors!

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