By Leigh Alexander on July 30th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.
[I've been doing a series of Let's Play videos exploring old advetures, text games and lost design forms from the 1980s Apple IIe and Commodore 64 era. In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones. Come along on a visitation of a different era that's one part meditations on my childhood, one part adventure game criticism, and one part preservation effort. Bonus: Everyone says the quiet talk, lo-fi handmade feel and keyboard tapping triggers ASMR responses. Please enjoy!]
In my excavations of text-based graphic adventures from the 1980s, one of my favorite discoveries has been the late Jyym Pearson’s “Apple Other-Ventures”. Each one begins with a dead-serious provocation: These are “state of the art”, with dynamically-changing, “breathtaking graphics”, “psychological realism” and “the plot quality of a fine novel.”
This seems like funny stuff when you remember we’re talking about 1982 — games making David Cage-style promises of ultimate immersion even when I was one year old is an interesting juxtaposition. But the more I mine these “Other-Ventures”, the more I think Pearson was ahead of his time. As clumsy and even sad as these works look relative to their ambitions, as scratchy and primitive as they were, these games are not the random, blunt instruments of cruelty they appear to be, but are actually quite thoughtfully-designed, and mature for their age.
I’ve lately gotten my hands on a copy of Bob Redrup’s rare Adventure Gamer’s Manual, an out-of-print book that’s part strategy guide for players, part critical analysis and classification tome. Redrup was apparently a Church of England vicar in a busy Cornish parish, while known as “The Mad Hatter” when writing in BBC Micro & Acorn magazine The Micro User. He is no longer with us, but his son told me computer games were one of his dad’s great passions.
Most young gamers today hear “adventure game” and think Monkey Island; the number of requests I’ve gotten to play LucasArts and Sierra games on my channel is stunning and a bit unfortunate, as adventure games have a form and heritage that far predates the whimsical “bribe tuba with souffle” school of puzzles that eventually led us to infamously make cat hair moustaches out of honey.
Adventure games are formally rooted in logic, process of elimination, and mapping, and Bob Redrup’s case studies show that in a well-designed game, even the tersest prose offers subtle information to the player about how to stay alive, navigate space and prioritize puzzles. Thinking about them this way also helps illustrate why spatial, parser-based exploration games — the sort that still get beautifully made within the interactive fiction community — are different from hypertext games even though both are “text games”, and are different from latter-day graphical adventures led by their writing and characters.
Curse of Crowley Manor isn’t exactly brilliant, but it is “pure” in that sense — and as a classic Scotland Yard mystery that quickly shifts into a genuinely-spooky mansion horror experience. The constraints of the form actually serve the horror mandate very well: The sharp, spare text, the way the graphics for each room materialize slowly, long hallways etching agonizingly around unsettling shapes, and the way information itself is in unsettling reserve.
As you’ll see some of the puzzles are absurd — to get a letter opener and a handaxe from a locked cabinet, I had to put a brown growth that I found in a pool of blood on a dining room table — but the way the game leads me to that action is rule-clad, and stunningly logical.
And as you’ll see, the “visible objects” conceit particular to these Other-Ventures tends to make it fairly clear which items are for interacting with and which ones are background dressing — that was actually something of a design challenge as the era’s text-only dungeons were working on how to incorporate rich imagery without distracting or confusing the player.
Shut off all the lights and see the video! Then try Curse of Crowley Manor for yourself.
The entire Lo-Fi Let’s Play series is available and regularly updated at my YouTube channel if you’d like to subscribe, but my friends at RPS are graciously syndicating them here from now on, with some additional written analysis and commentary.