BREATHING LIFE INTO FANTASY
Richard Price examines aids for adventures
AFTER THE LAST goblin has been offed or the top secret plans recovered from some rusty casket in the quicksands, do you sit back with a mild feeling of dissatisfaction and wonder whether you couldn't do just as well yourself?
Even if you can barely manage to program a nested loop in Basic it does not mean you cannot translate your feverish imaginings into electronic reality by creating your own adventure. You could be surprised to find your own game design is at least as exciting as a lot of the average and uninspiring offerings now on the market.
Don't kid yourself, though, that over a weekend you're going to churn out a program that will knock spots off the The Hobbit. Whether you write your programs or use tailor-made utilities, design and careful planning will require a great deal of time and paperwork before you even get started on the keyboard. Assuming you have a theme and a convincing setting the first priority will be a location map and its accompanying descriptions.
Drawing the map is a time-consuming process and it is best to use graph paper, leaving plenty of space between each box for notes, messages and so on. Print 'n' Plotter make a handy Adventure Chart with pre-drawn location boxes which should help simplify the task. The size of a large sketch pad has been produced primarily for players, but should be just as useful for games design.
Once a preliminary map is completed you will feel your fantasy world is taking shape. Adding descriptions will help put living flesh on those bare bones and, if the text is inventive, informative and atmospheric it will increase the game's playability enormously. Take a look at the superb Level 9 games to see how detailed text can add to the overall effect.
A word of warning - if you are a complete novice don't attempt a giant scenario with hundreds of locations. It's easier to practise on adventures with few locations and simple plots. Remember, too, that the Spectrum memory is limited and may not be able to cope with your dramatisation of War and Peace or the two thousand page Chronicles of Ganglewoop you have written in your spare time.
The next step is to work out all the likely interconnections between the locations, listing them meticulously. Objects and treasures - some obvious, some hidden - must be scattered around and you must decide what purpose they will have for the explorer of your world. It is probably that area of design which produces most difficulty as a game will stand or fall on the originality of its problems and puzzles. If they are too tough or obscure players are likely to give up in disgust. If they are too simple there will be little challenge or incentive to continue.
If you realise that a deduction problem will be impossible without help then put cryptic clues in the descriptions or the Help data. Anyone who has played Mountains of Ket will remember the magic word 'Polo' which gets you past the wall in 'mint condition'. Touches like that increase a program's attraction. Once again, you must keep track of all puzzles and the objects or conditions needed to solve them.
Next you face the task of developing the game vocabulary. It is essential to provide a variety of synonyms wherever possible. That increases versatility and should mean that players will not constantly see 'I can't do that' or similar reports on screen. It is occasionally useful to include an action which can be achieved only by a particular word combination but there is nothing more aggravating to the adventurer than searching through the entire Oxford English Dictionary for some obscure synonym.
Having created that large interlocking network of places, characters, objects and actions the major problem of getting your creation into the computer then pokes you in the eye. Don't panic. The market is well provided with books and programming utilities to help you. If you have little programming experience it is essential that you do some preparatory reading and practise. Many routines used in adventure are standard and, once learned, can be re-used time and again with new data.
Not all books on adventure programming are as useful as they may claim on the back cover. One of the simplest and clearest is Write Your Own Adventure Programs from Osbourne. Jenny Tyler and Les Howarth have made no assumptions about their readership and write in an uncomplicated style, taking you step by step through the entire process. The book is not Spectrum-specific but includes a section showing all the necessary conversions into Sinclair Basic. ZX-81 owners will find that they also have not been forgotten. Like most other books it takes a model adventure as its base and uses pleasantly daft illustrations to demonstrate the various processes. At £1.99 the paperback is extremely good value and contains as much information as many of the more expensive tomes on the shelves. However, because it is not machine-specific it does not run a section on graphics - as if they mattered anyway.
Spectrum Adventures - Sunshine Books, £5.95 - by Tony Bridge and Roy Carnell is more sophisticated, more expensive. Like many of the large books it includes a history of the computer adventure whilst the main body of the book concentrates on the creation of a graphic adventure.
It is not to be recommended for beginners but if you want hints on the use of graphics it may prove useful. It contains information on combat sequences, in true Carnell D & D style, and has the full listing of a 48K game.
Adventures do not always stick to the preset location style. Robert Speel's paperback New Adventure Systems for the Spectrum - Fontana, £3.95 - gives listings and advice on a number of formats. Speel makes things easier by slicing up the programs into sections, each of which can be added to a foundation program. He tends to gloss over how the routines work and the use of Sinclair printer listings makes reading a bit daunting.
One of the best and most user-friendly guides is Peter Gerrard's Exploring Adventures on the Spectrum 48K - Duckworth, £6.95. The three sample programs are pure text games and the author discusses data handling concepts with clarity and some sympathy for those who wriggle in panic when phrases like 'numeric arrays' are bandied about.
As a general guide, beware of books which contain vast listings and precious little else. Those programs take time to type in and will not necessarily teach you much about the structures they use. Always go for books which provide adequate explanations.
If you are not prepared to devote the time required for developing programming skills you will have to obtain a commercial adventure-writing program.
The Quill is now justly famous and can produce machine-coded games of high quality and fast response. At £14.95 cheap it isn't but it offers the embryonic games designer a means of creating complex scenarios quickly and slickly without any programming knowledge at all. The program is menu driven and includes a comprehensive instruction booklet, and though the style is sometimes difficult it is worth persisting until you understand it.
Although a simple graphic set is included in the package The Quill is not intended for games needing complex graphics. You will find that there is room for about 30K of data, enough for lots of locations and fine detail. With imagination you will be able to make commercially viable adventures as others have done already - look at the software ads and you will see.
Dungeon Builder from Dream appears slightly more user-friendly than The Quill. It features a graphics capability using a sketch pad style to draw screens. The functions are manipulated by menus and the location map is shone on screen using a system of interconnecting cells. Regrettably, its available memory is quite limited - around 10K - and that is a disadvantage in creating large adventures.
The Dungeon Master - Crystal Computing - is a different kettle of fish. This game program allows you to create a monster-bashing scenario set in an underground labyrinth. All the hazards, treasures and options are predefined and give little scope for exercising your own imagination. You will not be able to use it to make standard text adventures but you should find it entertaining if you enjoy a bit of hacking and smashing.
It is often said that computer gaming is an essentially passive occupation, stunting the imagination and critical faculties. Anyone who has played adventure will know that to be an unjustified and sweeping generalisation. If you decide to go further and create your own adventures you will certainly extend your imaginative range and logical skills. You might even trawl a little brass on the way.