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IFCOMP 2007 - Adventure XT

Game #27: Adventure XT
By Paul Panks (writing as “dunric”)
Played On: October 13th (2 hours 0 minutes)
Platform: PowerBASIC (Compiled MS-DOS Executable)
Merk’s Score: 2

     Game’s Blurb:
     Adventure XT is an adventure set in the fabled land of Blarg.

     I didn’t play Adventure XT exactly how Paul Panks intended it to be played. With his previous entry this year (Ghost of the Fireflies), I had tried to recompile it in QB 4.5 so that I could add a transcript ability to the game. That one proved too big to even load in the QB environment, and I never got it working with the demo version of PowerBASIC either (it disables loading and saving of program source, and trying to paste the source into the editor proved to be a mess). Adventure XT is a little smaller, though, and I was able to load and recompile it in QB.

     I made two minor changes. First, I changed the color scheme to gray-on-blue. The green-on-green style that’s hard-coded into the program was none too easy on the eyes. Second, I found verb definitions in a data section near the end, and I changed “examine” to “x”. If I had needed to type “examine” throughout the game, I’d have been very disappointed.

     Then, with QuickBASIC 4.5, I recompiled it. This had the added benefit of handling standard output the right way (where PowerBASIC, for whatever reason, builds its own I/O without regard to traditional DOS stdout). This allowed me to run the game as “ADVXT.EXE > OUT.TXT” which redirects all output to a log file called “out.txt” instead of the screen. If that sounds like jargon, it’s basically a way that I could run a transcript of actual game output, where the game otherwise has no transcript ability at all. It’s a crutch, I know, but I like to record and annotate a transcript as I play IF, since it helps me review everything that happens later.

     But, with output to a file instead of the screen, I needed one more piece. Using a trial version of “Hoo WinTail” (a pretty slick Windows program that works like the Linux “tail -f” command, but with some bells and whistles), I could monitor the log file in real time, shrink the game window itself to just a single line (for input) positioned under the WinTail window, and play the game much like the Adrift and Quest layouts provide. (Incidentally, this made my gray-on-blue customization unnecessary.) I set WinTail’s refresh rate to one-tenth of a second, turned off the separating red-line option that is otherwise shown before each new section, increased the font size, and voila. I had a game to play that’s still everything it was to begin with, but in a more accessible way.

     That’s probably the most fun I had with the entire game.

     Each game Paul Panks writes seems to be the reinvention of his prior games. This is true enough in the reuse and reorganization of familiar story elements (dragons, swords, flat characters that call you “knave” a little too frequently), but even the program seems to be written from scratch. In one game, Paul will support “x” for “examine.” In the next, he won’t. In one game, the response to unrecognized commands is meaningless. In the next (as is the case here, thankfully), the game is able to compare input against known verbs and nouns and at least tell the player which one was unrecognized. Paul seems to have no standard, no re-usable code, no design methodology -- just a twenty-years-outdated point of reference and a penchant for rewriting essentially the same game in different ways.

     Ghost of the Fireflies was broken, but it had a much more interesting story and some trippy, descriptive writing. Adventure XT is almost entirely generic, with room descriptions that scarcely cover the basics, let alone evoke a sense of wonder and excitement. Jesus of Nazareth (perhaps the best and most playable game Paul has written in these past few years) had a sense of style and purpose -- a creative energy that is completely lacking in Adventure XT. Complete sections of this game seem to serve no purpose, consisting merely of similarly-described but empty locations (the burnt forest comes to mind).

     Paul’s goal -- and I’m guessing here, as the game wasn’t accompanied by any of the author’s traditional notes or commentaries -- seems to have been to create a game that’s simple to play and accessible to all. It really doesn’t have puzzles. At most, it’s necessary to find certain items that allow progress. Having a rope, for instance, allows one to climb trees (the “up” direction then works). Having a lantern (with oil) allows one to travel in dark areas. Picking up items is about the extent of it.

     One interesting addition to inventory management (which, most likely, won’t make an appearance in Paul’s next few games since each one is written from scratch) is the container concept. A knapsack, and later a backpack, can be used to hold items that would otherwise exceed the inventory limit. I found this to work reasonably well, although this kind of thing is already inherent to IF programming languages.

     But this is about as deep as the implementation goes. Only creatures and items can be examined. No scenery is implemented -- if you need to interact with it in any way, it will be listed following the room description. Water is implemented as a separate item, so even though you need the bottle to get water, the bottle actually remains empty and the water just kind of “floats” there in your inventory. For that matter, the water is described as both drinkable and undrinkable, depending on what you look at. Only one verb is allowed for any command, because they’re in a rigid and numbered list. It also seems that only one noun is valid for any given item as well (seemingly for the same reason), so that “knapsack” can never be referred to simply as “sack.” You can only drink water from the fountain in the village. Another fountain, found later, has water but the game doesn’t seem to realize it. You can’t put oil in the lantern, because it too just sort of floats in your inventory (possibly in a flask, but I’m not entirely sure -- it just says “oil”) to enable the lantern to work.

     A thirst countdown is generously lengthy, but still needless. The game doesn’t even try to discourage the slaughter of innocent NPC’s. Everybody is fair game, it seems, and there is nothing in the way of characterization (except maybe for the Smurfs -- and I’m coming to that) for any of them. Swap the name of one with the name of another, and you’d probably never know the difference. Turn-based combat works okay here, but you can’t cancel it or run away (if you can, I missed it), and it’s the same thing Paul has done in every other game. Opponents are sometimes said to have “massacred you into small fragments,” yet you live on with plenty of HP to spare. “Get food and wine” says “ok” even though it really only understood “get food” (I only tried this because Ghost of the Fireflies told me it would work, but it didn’t, so I thought maybe Paul got the two games confused when writing the instructions).

     What Smurfs are doing in Adventure XT, I can’t possibly fathom. It’s as though Paul woke up one day, forgot what game he was writing, watched an episode on TV, laughed a bit, and then designed a whole section where you pass by Papa Smurf and Brainy Smurf on the way to Gargamel’s castle to “steal” Azrael the cat so that Handy Smurf can use him as a rug and provide the master-weapon required to defeat the actual boss, Mordimar. (Edit: The inclusion of Smurfs has led to Adventure XT being disqualified from this year’s competition.)

     I made a map as I went along. This is necessary to avoid getting lost in the game’s large maze-like geography. I noticed later that an ASCII map is embedded in the source code, but as far as I can tell, no verb in the entire game will display it.

     I don’t really have much else to say about Adventure XT. I’m probably being more critical and less compassionate for this one than any of Paul’s prior games. This could be because I’m nearly to the end of my random play list and I’ve grown a little cranky. Or, it might just be that Adventure XT is a disappointment on every level. I’ve scored it a “2” (not a “1”), basically because it’s simple (with mapping) and playable but not much else. At least some effort has gone into it, but it still feels like the product of a Random Idea Generator that simply cranked out an arbitrary setting to comprise a large number of empty locations. I won’t say Paul phoned this one in, but it’s by no means his best or most creative work.

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