Lo-Fi Let’s Play: The Curse of Crowley Manor

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.

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19 Comments »

  1. Maxheadroom says:

    The Level 9 adventures (Red Moon etc) on the C64 were at the centre of my mis spent youth but they did help me develop some wicket keyboard skills for my age. I could speed type “Examine” & “Inventory” faster than any other 10 year old around

    It’s probably what led me to being a developer. (either that or a quantity surveyor)

  2. NeutronSoup says:

    Ooh, do one with Tass Times in Tonetown! That was a crazy game.

  3. Modliszka says:

    In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones.

    Was “young man” really necessary over there? Rather than make gender neutral statement without any kind of bash pointed at anybody, there had to be this bit. From someone, who is somewhat in the forefront of discussion of sexism, I’d expect better.

    • HyenaGrin says:

      How was she bashing anyone? Where is the insinuated insult? Where is the factual inaccuracy? What is the basis for your offense? Are you offended by the mere reference of a demographic that has consistently maintained the loudest voice, and the source of the vast majority of sexist vitriol in this community? It’s no big secret to anyone that online shooters have become vile and unpleasant places for minority groups. Should those who have been the target of sexism in this community refrain from drawing attention to it? Are ‘young men’ so desperately in need of protection that even a reference to their existence is sexist?

      Do you recognize the irony inherent in calling out a woman for sexism in a medium and a culture which has traditionally taken a sexist stance toward women? Because to me, it does not actually sound like sexism is your primary concern in this comment. It sounds a lot more like an effort to silence.

      • Jenks says:

        So many questions in defense of sexism.

        • HyenaGrin says:

          And yet, no explanation of how it was sexist.

          When those who have historically been in control of the dialogue begin to use the tools of minorities and the vulnerable against them, you know they are desperate to maintain the status quo.

          There was no sexism in what she said, and you know it perfectly well. After decades of being treated like second class citizens, of being called horrible things by a community they did not feel welcome in, of being spoken to like an object, this is your way of clinging to that status quo. You are trying to undermine the word ‘sexist’ by attempting to apply it every time a woman speaks. You are trying to diminish its power. It’s the same tactic that has been used against minorities since the civil war.

          You have never experienced sexism, and obviously, you wouldn’t recognize it if it bit you.

          • Modliszka says:

            It’s a generalisation targeted at specific group of people. If I were to write that “while young girls squeak over new date sims on the webs, I will talk softly over this old-school RPG”, I’d have two dozens of comments accusing me of sexism. Would argument like “where’s the factual inaccuracy?” stood up in that situation? No, that comment is completely out-of-place here. Why couldn’t it be just “mainstream” used here? And it’s not drawing attention to toxic behaviour so common in ANY multiplayer title, it’s just bashing young males. It’s filled with prejudice toward young males perceived here as neanderthals jocks. It doesn’t matter that “young men” aren’t in need of protection, that doesn’t justify the bashing. And it is sexist to a degree (via Wikia Sexism or gender discrimination is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Sexist attitudes may stem from traditional stereotypes ). I’m not smart enough to distinguish whether we’re talking about prejudice or sexism here and I don’t have time to contemplate about it, but that doesn’t matter as comment in question is still bothersome.

            And hey. Sexism has many, many faces. It can be experienced in myriad ways. Say if I did something tomorrow, I don’t know, said something, it doesn’t make me sexist pig. Nor does it devalue the author life’s work here. It’s just a misstep.

            Some time ago I wrote similar thing on Twitter in response to criticism towards another Leigh Alexander piece. And it was a valid criticism. Here it is https://twitter.com/deadlybit/status/485890941723881472

            We should all try to be better people, women too. Nothing is and should be excluded from criticism. Few days ago Rhianna Pratchett, another prominent woman, criticised recent episode of Anita Saarkasian’s Tropes vs. Women video. And there was nothing wrong about that. It didn’t dismissed the whole of it. It didn’t undermine the message of the series. It was just a criticism. Valid one too btw :) Same here, It’s just a criticism of a bit of a larger whole. It doesn’t mean that Leigh is stupid and everything she writes too. She is very talented journalist and I’m really waiting for her LPs of different games as I don’t hold much interest in these presented here but am a fan of her commentary.

            And while I do recognize irony in calling out woman for sexism, it’s doesn’t mean that said call out was invalid. I can be full on board in fighting sexism and have some disagreements with people aboard too. Being a women and living in mostly misogynistic and patriarchal society doesn’t grants any authority nor does it cleans from sexism.

            And you’re very inconsiderate when stating that I apply word sexist against every women that speaks up when you’ve seen only one message from me. Also what power does that word hold? It’s just a word with a meaning behind it that’ll likely never change. And for formality’s sake every person in the world experienced sexism multiple times at some point in their lives, I did, in very marginal ways, it wasn’t remotely close to a fraction of what I’d say 99% of women face, but it doesn’t mean that I’m blind to it. I think by now I’m very capable of recognizing it and I’m only getting better at it.

          • HyenaGrin says:

            “And it’s not drawing attention to toxic behaviour so common in ANY multiplayer title, it’s just bashing young males.”

            So it is not drawing attention to anything toxic, and yet it is bashing young males? How is it bashing them? Are young males offended by referencing shouting during action titles? Are you really trying to compare ‘shouting over action games’ to ‘young girls squeak over new date sims on the webs’? Do you seriously, honestly, sincerely and truly not see the difference between these two things? Do you not see how one of these explicitly implies weakness while the other does not?

            “It doesn’t matter that “young men” aren’t in need of protection, that doesn’t justify the bashing.”

            I don’t think anyone deserves to be bashed. Sexism is something which causes harm because it is institutionalized, and engrained in culture, and these sexist notions and ideas actively hold people back by teaching society that due to their gender, a person is less capable in some capacity. You have not demonstrated that ‘while young men shout over action games’ at all harms men.

            And yes, we should be more sensitive to the needs of people who have traditionally been at the receiving end of the worst and most frequent (and still commonplace) examples of sexism and racism. Because these are the people who are hurt the most, and these are the people who have the larger battle ahead of them. I am not insensitive to sexism against men; I get upset when women on daytime talkshows can joke about women mutilating male genitalia. Because that is sexist and it’s harmful. But what Leigh said is not part of an engrained cultural sexism. A cultural sexism that does exist for women, which continues to put pressure on women to a) stay out of perceived ‘male’ communities, and b) puts pressure on women not to talk about that pressure. And that is what you are doing here. Intentionally or not, you are exploiting sexism to attack a woman for saying ‘young men shouting over action games.’ What she said is not sexist, and you have not even attempted, not even once, to actually explain why you think that phrase harms men in any way.

            The whole idea of sexism and racism, is that these ideas infest culture in order to undermine a group of people. These people are often a minority but they can also simply be an underprivileged demographic, such as the poor, or the uneducated, or women, who are not necessarily in a minority but have not always enjoyed full status as citizens. Racism perpetuates a problem by assuming a race is bad, and through that assumption, prevents people of that race from achieving equality. Sexism perpetuates a problem by assuming a sex is bad, and through that assumption, prevents people of that sex from achieving equality.

            ‘Equality’ is the measure upon which sexism is judged. Some people go so far as to say that racism and sexism (as opposed to prejudice) in respect to the ‘dominant’ group, cannot even exist, because they already hold a superior position, and there is no ingrained cultural bias toward undermining that position. That is a whole other subject that is up for debate, but since I am not convinced one way or the other on that facet, and since it has no bearing on why I think you complaint is wildly off-base, I won’t get into it.

            You need to have some awareness. You need to pick your battles. What Leigh wrote was not remotely sexist, it wasn’t even prejudiced any more than saying ‘while young men listen to rock music’ or whatever. And even if you want to keep arguing and finding excuses as to why it’s offensive, searching for a reason to think it’s sexist, even if you could convince me that there is a grain of prejudice there, you are still a male on the internet nitpicking to find fault with women in order to protect the demographic for which the term ‘sexism’ was fashioned. You obviously put a lot of effort into your post, so I don’t think you are doing this out of a deliberate sense of malice, but please understand there there are actually people who do this very thing out of a sense of spite, because they want to shut down the conversation.

            And yes, you can undermine the strength of words. When you take a word that is meant to refer to something terrible, and intrusive, and culturally damaging, that a demographic of people do to an underprivileged group, and you start applying it to protect that demographic of people from perceived slights that are orders of magnitude less harmful and do not contribute to a culture of bias then you have rendered that word – that tool – far less powerful in the hands of those who actually need it to defend themselves.

          • iainl says:

            Isn’t “young men shout(ing) over new action games” a fair description of the most popular “Let’s Play” channels? I mean, I might personally have gone for “deliberately ridiulous simulation games” rather than “action games myself, but otherwise that’s spot on. From PewDiePie to Yogscast, the big Let’s Play stars I’m aware of are all guys, and all fairly young (though to my decrepit eyes, several of the RPS staff are, for that matter)

            Young men (and indeed teenage boys) shouting abuse in-game on multiplayer titles seems less directly relevant here.

          • Modliszka says:

            So it is not drawing attention to anything toxic, and yet it is bashing young males? How is it bashing them? Are young males offended by referencing shouting during action titles? Are you really trying to compare ‘shouting over action games’ to ‘young girls squeak over new date sims on the webs’? Do you seriously, honestly, sincerely and truly not see the difference between these two things? Do you not see how one of these explicitly implies weakness while the other does not?

            It’s only my opinion, but I consider being presented as weaker, but more intelligent and rational as far more favorable scenario to being painted as dumb jock. I think most people would agree with me on that. Writing that parallel I thought of your words “where’s factual inaccuracy?”, as it’s not mystery that these games are played mainly by females. Regardless you can easily see prejudice in it (both of them) though, again, statistically it’s fairly accurate. Only thing I regret was writing “girls” instead “women”. Somehow it slipped in and I overlooked it. Aside from that I think parallel holds up.

            And you can see very apparent trend, especially among extremist feminist, of referring to males as “dudes”. To me that’s synonymous to “young males shouting over video games” and both of them I read as pejorative terms (and BTW, women too do shout over video games, witnessed it many times and when irritated do curse like a sailor, another thing why that sentence in article rubs me the wrong way), I don’t think there’s perfect counterpart for “dude” in polish, but the way I see it, I wouldn’t want anybody to think of me that way. Not even stranger in the crowd. Now it’s not making sexual object out of me and is like few good tiers below on dehumanizing scale so it’s not ideal parallel, but try imagine it as being thought of as ass or chick. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but it would hurt a little.

            If word “teens” or “mainstream” or something different was used, I wouldn’t have a problem. But for some reason it’s young males with only visible context being Leigh talking softly over old-school adventures in contrast to that, to young males shouting over action games. I don’t need to tell what connotations both these carry, one is blatantly negative, other positive. And I’m not finding excuses or searching for reasons as to why I think it’s sexist/prejudiced. Putting it that way sounds offensive. And me being male on the internet does not strip me from right to criticise something. And yes, I will protect “this” demographic as I will protect any other. As you said, nobody deserves to be bashed and such unjustified bashing does deserve a criticism.

            And about picking my battles: I don’t look at this as a battle. Just a criticism. If I send a criticism to creator of a game, my only intent for it is to get better. And as said before, criticising one tiny part does not neglect entire piece nor does it undermine someone’s entirety. It does only for immature people and trolls that enter conversation with preset stance, bias and goal. It’s unfortunate in this case due to what I said in first comment. Also wouldn’t describe it as nitpicking, that sentence strucked me right away as I read it.

            On a subject of words and their strength I must disagree :) I just hold different opinion and I’m not convinced otherwise.

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    Epic Fael says:

    Oh my word, I remember Curse of Crowley Manor vividly from my childhood… Such an evocative game, or at least so it seemed to my 8-year old self. Spoilers ahead I suppose… I recall being stuck near the end and resorting to that most time-honored method of progression: calling a friend’s dad. I asked him what I needed to do at a certain point, and he told me to wait. I waited politely for a while, then asked again. Wait, he told me. This went on for a while before I realized that I needed to type “wait” several times to progress the story. Fun stuff.

    • Leigh Alexander says:

      I love stories like these. I remember an action-oriented skiing minigame in Escape from Rungistan that I could not complete. I asked my uncle, who did skiing as a hobby, for as much information as I could get about skiing in the hopes it would somehow improve my twitch-skills. It did not.

      You seem to have gotten farther in Crowley Manor when you were a child than I did when I was an adult, though. Here’s to you! Thank you for watching my Let’s Play!

  5. HyenaGrin says:

    This was a lot of fun to read and watch. The commentary in the video has that wonderful quality of seeming both utterly sincere and perfectly tongue-in-cheek at the same time. It really does bring me back to a time when these kinds of games seemed so visually striking. It’s easy to glance at them today and brush it aside, assuming Lo-Fi equals boring, but there definitely was a time when this sort of thing captured my imagination, and you bring me right back there.

    I’m going to have to go back and see what else you’ve done in the series, this is the first I’ve noticed it.

  6. mr.black says:

    Me being the child of 80es, but not understanding enough english till much later, I skipped the whole genre of wordy games (there wasn’t much use for recording the pirated tapes in my country for them anyway). But now I want to know a bit more about some other forms of adventure gaming, apart from P&C and Twine, and the topic of IF games is very interesting for me.
    I’m glad RPS decided to leave some space for them. I’ learning very much and Leigh’s videos and articles are informative and charming (as per usual RPS standard). Keep ‘em coming!

  7. bill says:

    Write more stuff for RPS! It’s been years since you were here last.

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    Sinomatic says:

    Graphics that you have to wait for to fill in. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget details like that. Text adventures, even ones without graphics, are what I believe spurred on my ability to read and write (as well as great parents, of course). I remember being about 5 and being able to read (and getting scared by!) the text in Dragon Mountain or The Poseidon Adventure on the Dragon 32. I’d start reading the sentences as my mum played it – I was too much of a scaredy cat – then go hide when it got to a bit where something bad was happening.

  9. rubyvalentino says:

    “In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones.”

    Just so you know, there’s nothing special about what you’re doing. People of all genders are making “Let’s Plays” of every imaginable type, from big-name AAA first-person shooters to obscure old PC adventure games. Some of them are shouty, most of them aren’t. I think the negative reaction you’re getting above might be partially because your opener makes you seem quite full of yourself.

    • tauntegdiher says:

      this is such an easy thing to do… to say to someone else “You aren’t doing anything different. You think you are, but you aren’t, so just get over it.”

      what an ugly, hopeless and dethmaking way to act about things.
      it’s gatekeeping and it’s hall monitoring in someone else’s house.
      and to tell u the truth, it’s an easy way to become a ghost. just in case you ever wanted to look into that.
      cuz you know why? everytime you tell someone that, you’re just telling yourself that too.
      which i know, sounds hokey as hell, but it’s also really true.

      there is plenty ‘special’ in this article/post/video thing we are talking about. it is someone’s thoughts spoken the way they want to say them, written the way they chose to say it. it has personality and it has style. what could be “not special” about that?

      maybe you don’t like it. but that’s such a cheap tactic. To find something you don’t like or to find anything that pops up and makes any statement about itself and then to bop that thing on the nose and act jaded about it.

      it really is a ghostly thing, becuz it is trying to get in behind someone’s own eyes and just color the world in meaningless and whatever tired and tedious, resentful tones.

      why don’t you just come out and say what you wanna say?
      instead of nullifying?
      why don’t u talk about what you don’t like?
      cuz you didn’t say nothing in your ‘criticism’. you just nullified and then referenced someone else’s criticism that had nothing to do with yours.

      not saying much, really, is it?

      it’s not just this article, but on this website, you get the smarmiest, cleverest little passive aggressive duncemasters running around talking trash thru their second tongues. word play shenanigans, plenty to go around apparently. your gaming culture is a little fortress of Frazier Crane’s hidden wonders. huzzah. and huzzah. and huzzah. kudos, bro/sis/bro/sis.