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IF Only: Magnetic Scrolls In Your Browser

The Pawn: not good, but somehow fascinating

Starting with The Pawn in 1985, Magnetic Scrolls wrote some very successful text adventures. I missed them the first time around. I was strictly an Infocom and Scott Adams player, tied to games released for the popular US platforms. Magnetic Scrolls started out on the Sinclair QL, then moved to Atari and Amiga versions. I don't think I even heard of Magnetic Scrolls in the 80s. By the time I became aware of them as a piece of IF history, it was difficult to get a legitimate copy.

But these days you can play Magnetic Scrolls games again, thanks to a website that presents all of the games in a free in-browser version. The site provides some space for saved games, if you want to start an account and have access to your saves from multiple online locations. These are stories where you're likely to die a lot, so keeping save games is important. Of course, the game engine insists that you use short, all-ASCII file names for your saves with no spaces allowed, so don't go trying to name a save file DIM CAVERN.

I figured that, as The Pawn was the first of the lot, was pretty commercially successful, and pulled in several Adventure Game of the Year awards, I'd start there in acquainting myself with the line.

screenshot of the beginning of the Pawn

The Pawn is massively unfair. You can die in lots of predictable and unpredictable ways. Sometimes you die by attacking a person you shouldn't attack, or ignoring a warning sign, or going into a location without a hard hat when you've been told you need one: okay, possibly fair enough. (You can't UNDO your death move, though. That's an innovation of much later parser IF.) But you can also die at times by stepping through the wrong door.

Even if you avoid sudden death mode, a lot of important points are un- or underhinted. Objects that are sitting out on tables and other surfaces are nonetheless not described unless you specifically LOOK AT TABLE. A lot of things are under other things, so you'll need to warm up your LOOK UNDER muscles.

There's a point where you can't do something in a room until you've closed a door, but nothing in the room description reminds you that the door is standing open, and nothing about the action warns you that the door is in the way.

There are areas — not exactly mazes, but areas of largely identical rooms — where the game will chide you for stumbling about in the forest, except that there's one particular forest room in the lot where something important is hidden.

screenshot of the Forest in the Pawn

There's an inventory limit, but there aren't a lot of clues to let you know which objects you can safely drop and which you should be hoarding for later. In general, most objects are use-once and can safely be dropped after their first application... but not all of them. Meanwhile, naturally, there are some total red-herring items that serve no purpose except to push you closer to your inventory limit and confuse you.

There are points where the parser is actively, aggressively misleading. You discover a pot with a plant in it, but need to deduce that the plant is not secure in the pot, and needs to be planted properly in the pot. >PLANT PLANT gets "you can't do that." >PLANT PLANT IN POT gets "I don't follow you." Only >PLANT PLANT IN POT WITH TROWEL will work, and this course of action only occurred to me because I looked at the walkthrough. I don't think I would have realized it needed doing, and I certainly wouldn't have persisted long enough to figure out how, without these guides and aids.

The games are also missing some Infocom-standard abbreviations, so even if you are used to 1980s text adventures, you might not be used to this style. Less surprisingly, there are a lot of conveniences that the age of amateur IF has introduced — for instance, the convention that if the player tries to go through a closed door, the game automatically attempts to open it, rather than pedantically saying THE DOOR IS CLOSED.

There are things that will instantly break if you drop them, and situations in which you are forced to drop things without meaning to.

This is game design for another age, when we all had more time on our hands, and when it made sense to keep trying and trying a game until you'd stumbled on the one thing that would make it work out right. And you'd expect to collect a whole bunch of save files from different points in the game, different inventory configurations and world states.

Then there's the bit where you run into a "REM statement" on the wall.

> read rem

The rem says:
This is where the player falls down the trap-door.

REM — for those who didn't grow up typing in code from magazines in 1984 — is short for REMARK. This is how you marked a comment line in BASIC. This placard is a joke about the intrusion of the code into the semi-real world of the game environment, but one that has aged to the point of being probably incomprehensible to a lot of modern players. (The Pawn itself is not in BASIC, but in 68000 assembler; but never mind.)

Still elsewhere, we run into this:

Vote for Gringo Baconburger
Help him in his campaign to rid dungeons of phosphorescent moss, magic teleporting words, unrealistic use of verbs and mazes of any form or description.
Remember, a vote for Baconburger is a vote for sensible, no-nonsense dungeons.

As you may be realizing, the fiction is also goofier and less connected than that of many of the Infocom games. To be fair, a lot of Zork doesn't really make much sense, but a lot of the other Infocom games had a recognizable premise and a coherent plot, and the best of them aspired to character and theme as well. The Pawn starts with the protagonist being inexplicably transported from real life into a fantasy pastiche environment, where wizards float around on hover scooters and medieval castles can be found near modern mineshaft elevators, a guru in a hut, and political posters from a banana republic.

screenshot of the guru's hut in the Pawn

Even Jimmy Maher of the Digital Antiquarian, who is usually eager to extend a little benefit of the doubt to older text adventures, can't come up with much praise for The Pawn. He describes the puzzles as some of the worst he's ever seen, and I would be inclined to agree: where they're not incomprehensible, they're totally trivial, a matter of using a wooden key on a wooden lock. There's little that yields to a gradual solution by experiment and discovery, like a good complex-machinery puzzle; none of the zany humor of the Babel fish puzzle; no sudden realignments of understanding. And definitely no moments like my favorite puzzle in Plundered Hearts, when you suddenly realize how to outfox the lecherous villain, and are rewarded with his melodramatic distress, because you don't care that much one way or the other about any of the characters in this game.

So, to summarize: by most of the standards I would usually apply to a text adventure, The Pawn is not good: not well designed, not well paced, not well hinted, not well written, not even well punctuated.

But. There's something here, a streak of grotesquery and weirdness that gives The Pawn a degree of personality many later bad amateur text adventures have lacked.

At least for me, a lot of that comes from Geoff Quilley's illustrations. These are, especially by the standards of the day, genuinely good: colorful, evocative, and big enough to take up a lot of your Amiga screen real estate. They may not be strictly literal representations of the space you're in, and they don't, for instance, change when you pick up an inventory item or demolish a major piece of scenery. There isn't even one illustration per room. But never mind all that. They're often memorable, sometimes eerie. The best, to my taste, is this thoroughly alarming snowman:

screenshot of a creepy snowman from the Pawn

And then there's the sheer 80s-ness of it, something that essentially belongs to the time of Back to the Future and Princess Bride, a brash referential humor that mildly snarks at all the things it secretly loves.

I have to confess, I didn't get quite the whole way to the end. I got almost all the way there — attempted to play on my own, then attempted with help from the walkthrough, then attempted to just type the walkthrough so I wouldn't randomly die so often — but on the very last of six small-type columns of commands, I managed to wind up with a corrupted save file. When I restored it after death, I wound up in some strange limbo, where the parser would let me type, but nothing ever came back.

> argh

> you're kidding

> get rope

> look


...yeah, no. Nothing. It's too bad, but I'm told that there's not really a glorious win screen anyway, just the opportunity to wander from room to room in debug mode.

The later Magnetic Scrolls games are said to be a bit better; and, in any case, it's excellent to see a bit of game history like this made readily available. I'm glad I had a chance to try The Pawn after all these years.

And on that note, I should also say: this is my last IF Only column. Thanks to Rock Paper Shotgun for giving me a place to talk about interactive fiction — I've been a fan of the site for a long time, and it's been a pleasure to have a chance to contribute.

[Disclosures: To the best of her knowledge, Emily has not met any of the people involved in the original creation of The Pawn, nor with those responsible for creating the new version of the site. More generally, Emily Short is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]

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Emily Short