ESCAPE FROM THE MODERN WORLD
Richard Price look at some contemporary adventures.
WHEN YOU are on the hunt for a new adventure what is it you are looking for?
You will naturally expect the game to have playability - that combination of technical factors most of us take for granted when we buy commercial programs. You have a right to demand a decent vocabulary, good response time and a flexible interpreter which comes across with some sort of personality during play. You will assume the writers have devised carefully designed puzzles set into a coherent structure.
Those are the requirements of any good game but it is fair to say that an adventure's success and the satisfaction it gives you will be decided mainly by the quality of its plot and the atmosphere it generates.
All of us want an escape into other worlds at times to savour the pleasure of being someone or somewhere else. That fantasy is the core of the appeal of computer adventure. Fantasy, though, is fragile and, whether you prefer herioc, modern or futuristic scenarios, the setting you make your journey in must hold your belief right to the end.
Quite often people will say that fantasy works by suspending your disbelief. Tolkein himself did not think that was a convincing explanation of the way the mind handles fantasy. In Tree and Leaf, his short work about fairy stories, he put forward the idea that the writer - or games designer in our case - creates a 'secondary' world which your mind can enter. Once inside it you believe the general setting, the characters and action are true - meaning that they all obey the proper laws of their own world. The spell held over you may well be broken by some jarring intrusion from the real world or simply because the characters behave in a way that is out of kilter with the logic of their surroundings.
Far too many programs feature plots which, for instance, ask you to rescue a princess, find the scattered bits of some talisman or simply slash your way through a monster-infested cave riddled with rising damp and littered with treasures which no sorcerer in his right mind would leave lying around.
You may not be too happy to be regularly cast as a Conan-clone whose fist is bigger than his brain. That must be desperately aggravating for female adventurers who are expected to undergo a mental sex-change before powering up their Spectrums. If software companies are going to survive then they had better start looking for games which will appeal to a much wider public than is currently the case.
To be fair, there is a growing variety of styles and plots in the adventure genre but games that use real story lines are still pretty thin on the ground. The concept of bookware, though, seems to be taking off. Creating computer implementations of successful stories has some obvious advantages as the books have already proved that their 'secondary' worlds can hold people's attention and imagination. It still does not mean that the program will necessarily match up to the excitement or invention of the original but if the programmers are sensitive about the adaptation there is a chance of a good fit. Of course, the memory size of home micros also imposes rigid boundaries and limitations.
If you are an amateur programmer searching for a theme there is nothing to stop you turning your favourite pulp fiction into an adventure for home consumption.
If you are bored with magic and monsters history can provide equally exciting themes. Your heroine or hero could attempt to infiltrate the lair of the Old Man of the Mountains, the original master of the feared Assassins at the time of the Crusades. Deserts, strange nomads, wild mountains and grim fortresses guarded by fanatical killers all have their place in this adventure.
There are some programs which meet all or most of the criteria for successful secondary worlds and yet mirror the preoccupations and paranoias of our own times. They reflect different angles of life and often carry some sharp social comment.
Urban Upstart from Richard Shepherd Software depicts the grim emptiness of inner-city life. Imagine any decaying ex-industrial town in Britain and you will have an idea of what it is like to live in Scarthorpe. No jobs, no money, nothing to do. No one will wander the streets. Thuggish skinheads and paranoid police rule here.
You must comb the town and find the means to escape. Your own character is pretty suspect and not above theft and fraud to raise much-needed cash. The mean streets are depicted in location graphics but the format is traditional text adventure and tricky at that.
The game may not seem like escapism and it is not difficult to recognise parallels with Cut Throat Alley or Grime Street. Definitely a slice of social realism with a gritty, dangerous, feel to it, though not without flashes of humour.
If you are one of those gamesters who thinks adventures written on the Quill cannot match the real thing then Hampstead could provide a cure for your scepticism. The technical presentation may be defined by the utility but the subject matter and approach is new and genuinely funny.
There you are, stuck in your nasty smelly flat somewhere in the wilderness of north-west London, parked in front of 3-2-1 on the telly. The only way is up - so you think - and you nip out in search of the dole office to get your giro. Outside the back yard, gleaming in the sunlight, is a sign pointing to Hampstead. Nothing can stop you now, so you cross your personal Jordan and pedal towards the Promised Land only to find you cannot attain Hampstead simply by going there. You will have to change your style and your gear, read the right books and do the right things with the right people.
Not being totally stupid you will lie, cheat, even steal to get to this Nirvana of NW10 but you must avoid violence at all costs. The game is not merely about finding the right objects - it is also about attitudes as you must work out ways of making the correct deals. The answers are devious.
This is good situation comedy from Melbourne House and the game is attractively presented with a hilarious handbook. It is arguably one of the best Quilled adventures to date.
From this comfortable tweedy fantasy we descend into a shifting, threatening underworld of conspiracy, espionage and fear. A series of audio messages are recorded on your answering machine. Their growing urgency and the sound of a final shot leave you in no doubt - Valkyrie 17 is active again, a cell of neo-Nazis whose deadly tentacles stretch around the world.
Thanks to the dying gasps of your agent you know their ruthless leader is holed up in an exclusive Austrian skiing resort at the Glitz Hotel. Your job is to seek him out and neutralise him. Take care; one foolish move and you will find yourself face down in the snow rapidly becoming a member of the great majority.
The level of paranoia is pumped up by ringing phones which, if answered, threaten you and make it clear that your cover is already broken. Everything a good thriller needs is here - locked safes, half-overheard conversations, blood on the crisp snow of the piste.
Valkyrie 17 is produced by the Ram Jam Corporation, a new outfit, and features detailed atmospheric descriptions. The location graphics are interactive and will change to show the results of significant actions. No help is given and you are absolutely on your own in a race against danger.
Isolation and danger are also the major themes of System 15000 from AVS. This is no standard text adventure but it is definitely one of the most gripping and compulsive Spectrum games so far. A brief note informs you that Comdata Company has been ripped off for a cool million or more bucks in a computerised bank fraud. Lurking behind the heist are the mob, ominous and menacing. Your single lead is one phone number.
On loading you will find only the user screen of the 15000 network and the basic instructions on how to operate it. From that beginning you must penetrate the files of the other computers which use the net to uncover the twisting threads of the plot. The giant mainframes of the international banks are well protected against intruders and police data protection squads will shut the system down temporarily once they get a sniff of what you are up to. Stay cool and keep dialling - piece by piece you will edge your way towards the truth and attempt to restore the Comdata lost millions.
Your only input routines are phone numbers and an occasional cryptic note on the message board. There is no need to take on any role - this is you against the network in the here and now, deep in the loneliness of the long-distance hacker.
After hours of tracing leads you will find yourself cheering in triumph as you enter the files of the Reserve Manhattan Bank with its glittering stars and stipes logo or you will curse in frustration as yet another faceless machine informs you that your data is bad. You will begin to sense the network as very real, a vast jigsaw of numers, names and details. System 15000 is utterly absorbing and compelling and recalls the atmosphere of the BBC series Bird of Prey. Absolutely recommended.