Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Adventure of the Week: Infocom Sampler (1984)

I think I've misremembered slightly in the past, as in fact this was my first real encounter with a major publisher of interactive fiction -- the 1984 Infocom Sampler, including short excerpts from several games, along with a tutorial written specifically as an introduction.  I played this on the TRS-80 Color Computer back in the day -- oddly enough, this sampler was marketed and sold at Radio Shack stores, but the actual games were not.  They had to be mail-ordered directly from Infocom, and I suspect they didn't do particularly well on the Color Computer as a result -- I distinctly remember that, while Infocom games on store shelves had nicely printed labels for IBM PC, Apple II, etc., the CoCo "grey box" releases featured dot-matrix stickers.

The included excerpts are from seminal Infocom classics -- ZORK I, Planetfall, The Witness, and Infidel.  These games will be or have already been covered here in detail, so I'm going to focus on the tutorial section in this post and cover the demos briefly.  This isn't a substantial experience -- if memory serves, I bought this and played it through one summer afternoon back in the mid-1980s.  For this playthrough, I'm using the modern WinFrotz interpreter and a Z-machine file obtained at the IFArchive.

You won't be suffering much if you read beyond this point, as the Sampler is only meant to provide a taste of Infocom's products.  But there may be a few minor giveaways, so I'll pause here per usual to note that there might be...


The game opens up with a little brochure-speak, letting the user know what's ahead, before launching into the Tutorial.  We find ourselves in a Living Room, with an oak door, a mahogany door with a faded sign above, and a table with a brass lantern sitting on it.  Our goal, we are informed, is to catch a prized butterfly in the room behind the mahogany door, and we are given a number of helpful hints about how to interact with the sophisticated Infocom parser.

My first instinct is to GET LAMP, of course -- but as this is a tutorial and subject to pedagogical constraints, we have to first LOOK and then take INVENTORY, following quite a few specific orders before control is given over to us.  At least the Infocom sense of humor is in evidence: "Oh, well.  You weren't carrying anything to start with, but you might have been, so it's good to have checked."

Now we are marched to the east, where as we suspected It is pitch black.  You are likely to be eaten by a grue.  The tutorial commentary notes: Luckily, we have seen a lantern in the living room. As the main said, "Go west!"

A little more control is given to us at this point, but the tutorial's "suggestions" are still requirements -- I'd like to GET LAMP, which we can now do, and then READ SIGN, but we're advised to (Try sticking to sentences dealing with the lantern, which is useful if we're going to see anything in the closet.)  Sigh.

Now we can enter the dusty closet and acquire a butterfly net and a skeleton key -- at least we're allowed to TAKE ALL and not forced to pick up each item separately -- and now we can READ SIGN to learn: "Butterflies are free. Bring your net."  We UNLOCK MAHOGANY DOOR (and the tutorial explains that the parser has assumed the skeleton key should be used.)

Now we can open the mahogany door and head south into the Butterfly Room, where Flying around in graceful arcs is the most beautiful butterfly you have ever seen.  The tutorial hints that we should be careful not to let it get away, and SAVE is not supported in the Sampler, but just for fun I'll try to CATCH BUTTERFLY without closing the door.  And now the story is over, as the butterfly really and truly escapes, ending the game!

One gets the impression that Infocom was slightly on the defensive in an increasingly competitive adventure game market when this closing promotional text was written, as the closing text takes pains to explain why Infocom has "no pictures in our stories" and "why we don't simply translate works of popular fiction directly into interactive fiction" (this before Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published, one guesses, though that wasn't really a direct conversion.)  It's interesting to see that the closing text mentions a number of platforms even more obscure than the TRS-80 Color Computer -- Infocom's highly portable Z-machine interpreter was also running officially on the HP 110 and 150, DEC Rainbow and DECmate, Osborne 1, Kaypro II, CP/M and TI Professional computers, and of course today various flavors of Frotz keep the original story files compatible with pretty much every device out there.

I can't let this story go without a proper ending, so I restart the tutorial and remember to close the door this time.  We can't simply GET BUTTERFLY, we have to be more specific and CATCH BUTTERFLY IN NET (or some variation on that theme.)  An easily-won victory is ours:

The tutorial now resets completely, but we can play any of the four demos by typing its name at the initial >> prompt.  I'll assume some familiarity with the source material and just summarize these excerpts here.

ZORK I --  The "Demonstration of ZORK I" drops us in the usual starting point, west of the white house with a mailbox.  We can explore the environment -- it seems this is the complete game map.  SCORE mentions that the entire ZORK I has 350 points possible, but doesn't say what our scope is here.  We can go through the trap door and get killed by the troll's bloody axe, and our belongings get scattered around after reincarnation -- with no SAVE feature, there are no easy wins here!  But eventually we take out the troll, ending the game on a successful note.  There doesn't seem to be a specific point goal here -- we can stash the jewel-encrusted egg from the bird's nest in the trophy case, or not, and the story always ends after we successfully dispatch the troll.

Planetfall -- This demonstration also starts at the beginning of the full game -- all we have to do is escape from the ship and survive to reach planetside and get out of the pod before drowning.  Heading up into the building nearby, the story ends as we meet Floyd the robot, much earlier than in the game proper.  It's good storytelling but not particularly interactive, so while it's a valid promotion for the full game (with Floyd's sales pitch: "You'll buy the real Planetfall and come back and play with Floyd, won't you?"), there's not much to actually do here.

Infidel -- We begin at the beginning, as the supply plane makes a drop at our now-deserted campsite.  We obtain the black box, which reads out our current latitude and longitude in this pre-GPS era, and can find a pick axe and shovel to open the padlocked trunk in our tent.  In the trunk we find a stone cube and, unlike the full game, a map with the target longitude and latitude provided, instead of finding it in our game package as a copy-protection measure (we are cautioned: "This is not necessarily the location of the pyramid in the real game.")  We can then grab a drink of water at the Nile and work fast before we get hungry to navigate to 24/11/7 N, 32/12/43 E, dig until we find the top of the pyramid, and PUT CUBE IN OPENING.  The demo ends just as we are about to enter the pyramid.

The Witness -- I had forgotten this detail, but Infocom answers exactly the question I had as I started this section up: "The Witness is so richly interactive that there is no small portion which could be broken out for this sampler."  So we're just given a canned, completely non-interactive transcript that demonstrates the writing style and gameplay of the full experience.  As a 1940s gumshoe, we arrive at the Linders' estate and are greeted by Mr. Phong, who escorts us in to meet Mr. Linder and his daughter, Monica.  Rain starts to fall as we get a drink, turn on the radio, and read the threatening note Linder received... then, suddenly, we witness his murder by... "Stiles!"?

And that's it for the Infocom Sampler!   Just a taste, with some interesting variations on the full games to fit the demo concept.

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