Robico's brilliant new Adventure game
Software reviewers have a pretty nice life, you must think. A constant stream of free programs to play with and, if you don't like the program, you can at least vent your feelings in print. Well, you're quite right of course, but adventure games are something of an exception because they take a long time to evaluate and if you don't actually like the game this can be quite a drag.
Over the past few months I have looked at quite a number of adventure games for A&B whose enjoyability has varied enormously. I had been trying to formulate my thoughts on what makes a good adventure, when I was greatly assisted by the arrival of a game as near to my ideal as any I have played. The latest release from Level 9 or Acornsoft? No, a game called Assassin from a small company - Robico Software - and only the second adventure written by Robert O'Leary.
His first adventure, Island Of Xaan, I had found most enjoyable for its splendidly atmospheric and witty text, though the puzzle construction was rather patchy. Assassin, however, gets everything right. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy it when I booted the disc and read the title page describing me as Rick Hanson, special agent (none of your asexual Kim Kimberley stuff here).
It is not clear before you start playing what you are supposed to be doing, but pretty soon you find a message instructing you on your mission. This also tells you where to head for and get further instructions. When you eventually find them, they are encoded and you have to break a cipher to continue. Great stuff - this game actually took over my entire household until we had played right through to the end, with just one phone call to the author when we got stuck in a huge maze late in the game.
As you might gather from the above, solvability is one of my requirements for an ideal adventure. In describing my ideal, I find it easier to declare what I do not like in adventure games.
I was open minded, even quite enthusiastic about the idea of graphic adventures when they first appeared but I am now firmly against. I am referring here to text games illustrated by graphics rather than games played graphically such as the remarkable Castle Quest from Micro Power.
Why am I against graphics? Partly for technical reasons so far as the BBC Micro is concerned - memory limitations enforce shortened text as in Twin Kingdom Valley and Level 9's Emerald Isle, and the use of Mode 5 screens alternating with Mode 7 for text is also unsatisfactory. There is a deeper reason, however. An ideal adventure should approach the concept of an "interactive novel", and like any good novel illustrations would serve only to constrain the imagination.
In this respect Assassin refutes the concept of graphical adventures perfectly. Its mass of brilliantly written text has left enduring imagines in my mind far more vivid than those that can be created by crude computer graphics. I strongly hope that Robico will stick to the traditional text adventure form and not get sucked into the current fashion for graphics with everything (to my mind regrettably) has recently happened to Level 9.
Real time adventures
Another fashion instigated, perhaps, by the popularity of Melbourne House's The Hobbit, is for "real time" adventures which are "different every time you play them". Personally I can't stand characters who come and go while I am trying to think, I don't like random elements since I believe that one should be able to reason out solutions to puzzles and I certainly don't like to feel any kind of time pressure while playing.
I know from my own attempts at writing relatively small adventures that constructing puzzles of the right difficulty level is very tricky. Some puzzles you imagine to be quite simple seem to defeat everyone who tries the game. For this reason, adventures need to be field-tested before their final release. I suspect, however, that some companies insert obscure puzzles simply to be able to boast that their game takes months to solve. To my mind, puzzle quality should be measured in terms of the satisfaction one derives from working out the solution. I get far more from reasoning out a logical answer than from chancing on a solution after many hours of frustrating trial and error. The puzzles in Assassin are extremely satisfying in this respect.
I may be a traditionalist on construction of adventures but not on content. Why do so many game writers still expect us to endure dwarves and trolls with associated magical (and thus arbitrary and illogical) problem solving? Originality of content is thus a strong point in an adventure, and once again Assassin is a perfect illustration.
The technical construction of Assassin is outstanding - all machine code with masses of compressed text which appears almost instantly on the screen. I have deliberately said little about the content of the game since I don't wish to spoil your enjoyment of playing it. My final advice is obvious - if you want to know how good an adventure can be, buy Assassin and find out!