Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Darkpit (2013)

Regular readers may be aware that, in general, I avoid covering "new" games here -- the spoiler-heavy nature of my "Adventure of the Week" posts, meant to document these experiences for history's sake, makes covering brand-new, commercially available games something I try to avoid.  But I'm going to break my self-imposed five-year embargo this week, to cover a game whose development started in the TRS-80's heyday but finished several decades later. 

Darkpit began its life circa 1980, written by Robert A. Wilcox, but was only brought to playable form in 2013 by the author's son, Roger M. Wilcox, whose own adventure games have consumed many virtual column inches here over the past year.  The game's now available in Windows format, free to download at Roger's site.

The storyline goes a bit meta right away, as we've apparently fallen into this deep pit while playing another adventure game, whose designer assumed we were dead, as one does.  We have nothing in inventory, and the room is dark -- even the game's color scheme is white on black.  Presumably, our goal is to get out of the Darkpit.

As always, interested readers are encouraged to tackle Darkpit before reading my remaining commentary.  It's an old-school adventure with a unique emphasis on the player as a character existing physically in its world, and it's not too hard to solve if you're willing to experiment a bit.  Beyond this point, there are certain to be...

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

The game launches with an unusual set of challenges, and it took me a while to get the story moving. 
LOOK yields only That's stupid, perhaps because it's so dark down here, and we can't SEARCH or EXAMINE anything, nor does the parser recognize the scattered debris as a noun with which we can interact.  So we're going to have to navigate around a little bit and see what we can find... except the traditional N/W/E/S commands are also not available, nor is the more verbose GO NORTH style palatable to the parser.

Can we DIG?  Yes, though responding to dig what? with DIG FLOOR is unproductive -- Don't be silly.  We can WALK FLOOR to end up lying on the floorCLIMB WALL yields only, No magic allowed here (these "negative" responses are randomized from a collection of possibilities that don't always fit.)  FEEL WALL is unhelpful -- You don't feel any wall here, which seems unlikely.  FEEL FLOOR points out what we already know about the floor from the initial description that starts the game.

YELL produces an answering growl from somewhere out in the darknessFEEL AIR notes a very light breeze, suggesting there is at least a way out of here.  I finally realize that while we can't navigate using the traditional compass points, we can TURN RIGHT, TURN LEFT, WALK FORWARD, and so forth.  But I still can't seem to get out of this starting room -- it seems like I've turned in a circle and every time I try to walk forward I end up lying on the floor. 

Ahhhh!  I was still lying on the floor, so every time I tried to walk, I was just staying right where I was!  It's important to STAND UP after falling; now, when we WALK RIGHT, we turn right and then walk forward.  (I didn't realize that when we are lying on the floor we can't walk anywhere -- I thought I was bumping into walls and ending up on the floor!)

Now here's what's interesting -- in an old-school attempt at replayability, the game's map is very straightforward, but object locations are randomized each time we start the game!  Fortunately, the junior Mr. Wilcox has thoughtfully provided a Debug Mode which displays a 5 x 5 map of the dungeon, including the player's position and current facing direction, which makes things much easier to handle.  Now we can focus on the story and its challenges -- since your mileage will almost certainly vary, I'm just going to describe the objects and puzzles found in the maze from here on in and leave out any navigational detail.

We can't see anything, but we can FEEL OBJECT when we stumble across one.  Object number 9 (per the Debug map) turns out to be a large wooden chest with metal reinforcing and a rusty but intact lock.  It's too heavy to carry, as it turns out -- if we pick it up, we find ourselves lying under a very heavy wooden chest.  Fortunately, object 12 (a brass key) happened to be in the adjacent room, in my playthrough, and something round falls out of the chest after it's unlocked -- a stick of something wrapped in heavy paper.  We can only carry one object at a time, so we'll have to leave the brass key behind to take the stick, which I am guessing might be dynamite.

Object 8 is a shovel, always handy in these games, and given the tight inventory limit I decide to accumulate items in this room, the southwest corner of the map, for ease in finding them later on.  We can use the shovel to try to dig at Object 3, a large mound of loose dirt, but the rocks are wedged too tightly and won't budge.  Perhaps we need another sort of tool?

Object 13 is a pile of bones; 11 is a moldy putrid dead body, partly eaten.  It glurgs when you push on it, which may make the player glurg a bit as well.  Object 10 is a case of bandaids, and we can take a box of them along for emergencies.  Object 7 is a packet of safety matches, so we seem to be gathering a decent assortment of traditional adventuring equipment, if only we could carry more of it with us.

Object 16 appears to be an icy lake -- upon entering the room, we plunge underwater and must drop any item in inventory, as even a packet of matches is enough to weigh us down, fatally.  But I couldn't figure out how to get out of the water after swimming to the surface, and discovered that eventually You freeze and die, rotting bones found by another adventurer.  So we should try to avoid this location!

Object 1 is -- yay! -- a serviceable and roomy backpack.  And now when we pick something up, it gets put in the backpack.  Much more convenient, and a reassuring indication that the inventory limit was intentional design, not a coding limitation.

Object 6 is -- dang it, scattered shards of broken glass, possibly an old lamp.  And now we're cut and bleeding profusely!  Where are those bandaids again?  We can't WEAR BANDAID or REPAIR CUT or FIX CUT, but we can BANDAGE CUT to solve that little issue.  After giving ourselves medical attention, we seem to be immune from further damage, and while we can't GET SHARD, we can GET GLASS to acquire a sharp tool of sorts.

Now that we've found all the objects (I think), the likely path seems to be to blast our way through the cave-in suggested by the mound of dirt and the breeze.  We'll stop to DIG BONES first -- Wow! Terrific bones, man! is the comic payoff, a 1970s computing gag that hasn't resurfaced much in recent years.

So let's try to use the stick to blast through the mound.  It appears it's lacking a fuse?  TIE ROPE -- Say again, but specify what you want to tie the rope to suggests that we can TIE ROPE TO STICK, but I don't know what "rope to stick" is.  Ah -- TIE SHOVEL results in The length of rope is now tied to the large shovel.  Okay.  This doesn't help with the fuse situation, but now we can walk into the watery pit room without falling in -- The shovel clatters loudly as it jams across the opening.  You grab the rope just in time!  And we can CLIMB ROPE to escape the pit, avoiding the watery death I encountered earlier.

We can LIGHT MATCH -- but the glare is blinding, and we don't see much before we have to drop the match as it burns down (and, when I played, after we're returned to darkness, under some circumstance I couldn't nail down, the game seems to hang.)  We can't CUT ROPE, either, though that seems like a way to make a fuse.  SMELL STICK reveals that It reeks of nitroglycerin, so we're probably on the right track here.

What else haven't we tried?  Well, with the rope/shovel spanning the pit, we can DROP ROPE to let go and fall into the water, SWIM DOWN, and DIG FLOOR (by hand) to find a bit of cord in the muck before we hurriedly climb back up and out of the pit.  It works better if we leave other belongings elsewhere, as it's tricky to pick things up in the pit room -- at least GET ALL seemed to get me into a state where I couldn't carry anything else.

The cord we picked up has a waterlogged end, which is likely to make it hard to light, so we can CUT CORD to remove the unburnable part.  But we still can't LIGHT CORD or BURN CORDLIGHT MATCH causes it to fall directly onto the stick, igniting it and ending the game.  Hmmm...

Aha!  (Actually, I had to peek at the source code to verify that I was on the right track and finally figure this out.)  We have to get the waterlogged cord out of the way by leaving it in another location, and now the match falls as intended on the cord we're trying to use as a fuse... and then The flame races down its length toward the paper-wrapped stick... and then the game seems to hang?  Restarting and restoring my saved game allowed me to sidestep this issue, and we now have one move available to get a safe distance away (one room away is enough.)

Now we can feel a tunnel in the floor, opened by a recent explosion.  In keeping with the game's approach to physical navigation, we have to specifically LIE DOWN before we can CRAWL TUNNEL -- to victory!

I never encountered the source of the answering growl my early yell provoked -- a bear, apparently, looking at the source code -- and that's fine by me! 

What I like most about Darkpit is its willingness to avoid the conventions of the genre -- the stand-up, lie-down, turn-and-walk navigation and the randomized map make it something of a hybrid of a dungeon crawl and a traditional adventure game.  The puzzles are straightforward, but it's always historically interesting to see different takes on the format from the days when the "rules" were still being formulated, and another direction in which the industry might have gone.  The only other turn-and-move adventures I can recall are Roger Schrag's graphic adventures like Spook House, which came along a few years later.

Nice work by the Wilcox family, and special thanks are due to Roger for finishing Robert's work so we can all enjoy it!

1 comment:

  1. I can still remember from way way back when my dad was first implementing this on the TRS-80. The game opened with just the ominous word "FALLING...", which lingered on the screen while the variables initialized. I remember my dad saying how he imagined playing this with all the lights turned out, and with the screen brightness turned down enough to make the background really BLACK. Then, when the player lit a match, the screen would flare into dazzling bright solid white, temporarily blinding the player just like in the game.

    I wanted to preserve the *ambience* my dad had been going after when I ported it to a modern .NET platform. I made the background black, unlike the white background I'd used in all my own text adventures. When launching, I made the game show the word "FALLING" in giant letters and shrink into the center, as though the word itself were falling away from you. I had lighting a match cause the entire window to rapidly blink black-and-white for a second or two. (Perhaps it was this blinking that froze the app on your PC. All I can offer is that tired old excuse of every lazy software developer: "It works fine when I run it on MY system!")

    I also took the opportunity to do something that I'd never gotten to do when porting my own adventures. Since the original was never finished -- my dad didn't even remember how he'd intended the game to end! -- I had carte blanche to make the text interpreter a lot more forgiving than in the original. I added "SMELL" as a verb, and gave each item its own scent. (Two of these were clues: the paper-wrapped stick, as you discovered, and the length of cord, which smelled of pentaerythriol tetranitrate. And, yes, I had to look up that chemical on Wikipedia. :-P ) I made sure every angle on the falling-in-the-well problem worked as intended, which was why I added that hypothermia timer that froze you. (I didn't want you stuck thrashing around in there with no rope forever.) I made falling into the well *necessary* for winning the game, as well as picking up the broken glass, opening the chest, and lighting a match. (My dad's original intent for these items had been "Ooh, this sounds like something that would be neat and/or scary to have in a dark pit!")

    I do regret the fact that I accidentally tweaked the game, probably a couple of months ago, in such a way that the bear would never show up. I found and fixed this bug just yesterday, too late to make it in for this review. If you HAD encountered the bear, (s)he wouldn't've killed you, but (s)he WOULD hurl you into another room -- and randomly change your facing, which would be frustrating without Debug Mode. (Incidentally, Debug Mode was also in my dad's TRS-80 original of this game; it's what gave me the idea.)

    All in all, though, it was FUN. It reminded me of the fun I'd had coming up with my old TRS-80 adventures in the first place. Now that I'm out of old TRS-80 games to revive, though, I'm kind of at a loss for what to do for an encore. Perhaps I'll transcribe some of the science fiction stories I wrote on a typewriter as a teen-ager.