I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island for the first time. As is often the case with far-reaching, pop-culture-influencing entities when one finally experiences them, the source material wasn't quite what I expected. I'd anticipated a lot more looking for the treasure, rather than that activity being confined to the last twenty percent or less of the book. I probably didn't expect such strong characterisation as I found, either. And X does mark the spot, but I don't think anybody actually says, 'X marks the spot.'
These musings sent me back to replay the Apple II version of Scott Adams's second adventure, Pirate Adventure (1978). Doing so in 2023, I'm interested in looking at the game from a few atypical angles rather than thoroughly overall, as the typical ones are well covered by now.
The first thing that stands out about Pirate Adventure is its setup. The player doesn't start the game in a fantastic world or scenario, but in a flat in modern day London. It's their finding in this flat of a copy of the novel Treasure Island that prompts the adventure. An annotation in the book says, "Long John Silver left 2 treasures on Treasure Island". In a sense, the player is really picking up the gauntlet left by the characters of the novel, as if the novel's events were real in this world.
After a bit of puzzle-solving, the player gets from the flat to the adventure proper's island setting by magic. In this light, the fact Adams put the flat in London when he could easily have set it in his home country, or just anywhere else, is a nice atmospheric touch that reflects the way the novel itself begins in England.
The sharp-eyed player will note that the first island visited is called Pirate Island, not Treasure Island, so they won't be surprised that there's no treasure there. Pirate Island is the setting for the majority of the game, and what happens here is all about getting the player ready for their expedition. It's also a home to all the trappings of the novel: rum-drinking pirates, talkative parrots, and the machinations of the tide. These elements make it easy to feel transported in time as well as place, but it's clear the player's still in the present, or has always been in the present, due to the presence of objects like sneakers and water-wings. I don't know how much the author thought about the sense of the whole, but there is a kind of anachronistic time mashup going on in Pirate Adventure. Of course, there's no way for the game to offer any comment on its own setting; there's no RAM available to allow more prose that could do so. It's up to the catalogue of things in the game alone to suggest or create the whole aesthetic.
There are two talking characters, the pirate and the parrot, and though neither says a lot, what they do say amounts to important cueing (of state changes) and hinting. The pirate exhibits enough independence of mind to be a solid NPC. While he offers sailing advice, he also has his own schedule, sometimes needs to be bribed or cajoled, and might tell you to get "THAT ACCURSED THING" off his ship before he'll set sail. In having so many functions that delineate bits of the story, indicating when something's begun or ended or is ready or not ready, the pirate might be the first entity in an Adams game who really makes time in that game progress as a function of the story and puzzle-solving.
The final trip to Treasure Island was exciting for me. Though the island's only a few locations, those locations (including a deserted monastery) suggest mystery and danger of the kind I'd hoped to find more of in the source novel. A joke set up much earlier in the game gets its payoff when the player tries to sic a certain animal on the deadly mambas, and there's also a false anticlimax of the kind that's extremely satisfying in any big treasure hunt story, where the player is temporarily led to believe they've done all that work for nothing.
The side-effect of the pragmatism of scoring in Adams's games can be a degree of inscrutability in the ones that have few treasures to find. All treasures are worth the same amount, and the total for all treasures is always 100 points, whether there are two or ten. In Pirate Adventure, there are two, so essentially the player's score remains at zero until the last five percent of the game, at which point it will become either 50 or 100. Very few players would stagger all the way back to that flat in London with only 50 points. It's a bit strange to me that Adams kept this system in place, but perhaps after Adventureland, he figured that most of his games would make (more) use of it, and it's true that most do.
Pirate Adventure seems to have a bit of a reputation as an easy Adams game. I don't think I ever found it necessarily easier or harder than most, but I suppose that its manner of grouping puzzles into what could be called sub-quests (e.g. the whole of Pirate Island is about gathering the resources needed to leave Pirate Island) means the player's attention isn't split across myriad tasks with completely unrelated solutions, the way it can be in the more danger-oriented treasure quests like Adventureland. If half the game or more is devoted to one larger task, concentration on that task gathers, and belief in that aspect of the story and world gathers, and maybe that's why this is ultimately a particularly charming Adams game.
Voodoo Castle (1979) was the fourth game from Adventure International (AI). It was written by Scott Adams's then wife, Alexis, who had previously assisted on Pirate Adventure, and its opening enthusiastically proclaims that it is "DEDICATED TO MOMS EVERYWHERE!".
The goal of Voodoo Castle is to lift the curse that afflicts Count Cristo, a goal established after the player has opened the coffin in the game's first location and examined the man therein. In the context of the Adams game engine, this is a fairly abstract goal; recall that all of the prose must be extremely minimal (room descriptions generally come in at under 40 characters in length), the parser only accepts two words, and the whole affair has to fit into 16KB of RAM. Doing something like finding treasures and dropping them in a target room, ala Adventureland, is an easy-to-grasp concept in the context of these limitations, but accomplishing a goal as broad as lifting a curse is harder to think about in a vacuum, and potentially a little more intimidating to contemplate when you first fire up this game.
The game's castle isn't actually called "Voodoo Castle", but it is the castle where the action takes place, and Voodoo is clearly afoot. Fascinating paraphernalia can be found lying around in its corridors, including a voodoo doll, a Ju-Ju bag, a witch's brew and a room full of exploding chemicals. With no more to go on than the game's initial exhortation that the player lift a curse, he or she must experiment with these interesting props and advance through the solving of a succession of puzzles, and ultimately of the game. The experience is a lot of fun, and while Voodoo Castle's official difficulty label is Moderate, I find it to be one of the easier AI games. However, I should point out that this was not one of the AI games I had the opportunity to play back in the day. By the time I came to it in the 2000s, I was (a) way older and wiser, (b) had solved a lot of adventure games in general, and (c) had solved a decent number of AI games and acquired a strong sense of their workings.
What is interesting about Voodoo Castle is that there are no antagonists in it. While there are still lots of ways to die or wreck your game, including inescapable rooms and destructible crucial items, there are no people, monsters or other entities that are out to get you. In fact, a theme of Voodoo Castle (if 'theme' isn't too lofty a word in the circumstances) is that people who might seem scary at first are probably not threats, but sources of potential help. Except for the maid, who chases you downstairs if you happen to track soot through the castle. Back in the realm of objects, the cause and effect relationships between a lot of the game's artifacts and things that might happen to you during play are often unintuitive (E.G. "I've recently stopped being blown up by exploding test tubes. Why?") and require much trial and error and game saving to discern.
It would be a struggle to qualify any observations I might be tempted to make about the nature of games Alexis authored or influenced in this series versus the ones her husband authored, but it's certainly fun to speculate. My sense is that when Alexis was involved, the games were a little kinder in tone, though not necessarily in content. The absence of antagonistic characters in Voodoo Castle speaks to this idea, as does its altruistic goal for the player, and the very positive image with which the game ends. Scott of course gave us several games featuring instant death by bear mauling, and he gave us Savage Island Parts I and II, two of the most difficult and masochistic jaunts to ever grace adventuredom. But Adams also opposed the idea of the player having to commit any acts of violence against other creatures to advance in his games. The attitude of the AI games is that violent acts may be visited upon you, usually by nature, if you are stupid or unlucky enough - and we have to take the AI concept of player stupidity with a grain of salt.
Voodoo Castle features a couple of AI's most loveable/hateable guess-the-action and guess-the-verb moments (you won't believe what you have to do with the Ju-Ju bag, and I mean that in a banal way) but fortunately the AI clue sheet cyphers make getting help fun in these games. And I always particularly liked Voodoo Castle's clue sheet. It was the first AI clue sheet I ever encountered, and I encountered it as a kid well before I played the game, back in the Adventurers Corner column of a 1986 issue of Australian Apple Review.
If you haven't tried an AI game before, I wouldn't recommend this one to start with due to the abstract nature of its goal. It's probably best to familiarise yourself with the nature of these very early adventures by first playing a straightforward treasure hunt like Adventureland. But in the scheme of the AI series, Voodoo Castle sports some distinctive features, a castle stocked with lots of interesting objects, and a good dose of that elemental, imminent style of puzzle-solving which is the hallmark of the AI games.
Strange Odyssey, released in 1979, was the sixth of Scott Adams's games in the series today referred to as the Scott Adams Classic Adventures. This game was a childhood favourite of mine and remains a favourite in adulthood. In plain mechanical terms, it's a treasure hunt in space, but its use of multiple alien settings gives it a sense of exploratory danger which feels unique in the series. This isn't to say that the perils in the likes of Adventureland or Pyramid of Doom aren't exciting – it is to say that those games are about exploring one dangerous world, while Strange Odyssey involves visiting a series of unrelated dangerous worlds, never knowing what to expect as you step into each one.
This is a dense game even for Adams, whose Classic series entries each had to fit into 16kb of RAM. Many objects have multiple uses and need to be carted back and forth between different worlds. Time pressure comes in the form of the finite air supply in your spacesuit, and working out how and where you can refill it is a significant puzzle. Odyssey also has more locations than most of its siblings, but the reason it feels more expansive than them is because of its intergalactic nature. Its little text strings have to act as seeds to help the player imagine whole environments at a time, rather than just one room or a corridor.
The fundamental puzzle in Strange Odyssey, the one which is most likely to cause players to stand around for awhile going "Hm," is the one involving working out how to move between worlds. It is quite an abstract puzzle (dare I say Zorkian) in a game canon that rarely supported abstract puzzles due to the simplicity of the game engine and the necessary briefness of all the prose. Another interesting element of this puzzle is the way it mobilises split-second glimpses of text. Unfortunately, this special effect only exists in the original Apple II, Atari and TRS-80 versions of the game. I recommend against playing versions of the game which are missing it (C64, Inform, Spectrum) since the game's quality and sense are hurt by its absence.
Dying and dead-ending are frequent occurrences in Odyssey, so it's wise to save frequently. Just stepping through a door can kill you if the gravity or air happen to be unfavourable on the other side. Several objects can run out of gas or power, it's possible to destroy crucial items with your phaser and most of the wildlife is aggressive. When I was a kid, I loved all of this unheralded danger because I always liked stories in which you never knew what bizarre thing might be on the other side of a door or teleporter. This quality of the game still speaks to me today, and while Adams's games have come in for a lot of criticism over the years, Strange Odyssey's alien dangerousness seems to coincide perfectly with the relatively hostile nature of adventure games from this era. A major reason that a lot of old school adventures are disliked today is that players find it too aggravating that they can mess up by taking actions they might reasonably expect to have inoffensive consequences within the world of a particular game – if that game had much logic about itself. In Strange Odyssey, all of the hardships make sense and thus does the form of the whole. Space is dangerous, the worlds you visit aren't explained and alien hardware doesn't come with instructions. In retrospect, I think Strange Odyssey was one of the designs which best fit Adams's minimalist game system.