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CODENAME OBSCURA

by Mika Kujala profile

Mystery, espionage, languages, 8-bit retro-style
2023

Web Site

(based on 11 ratings)
6 reviews

About the Story

It's the year 1987. As an undercover operative Sinus for the T.U.R.T.L.E organization, (Tactical Unit for Rapid and Thorough Lethal Espionage), you have recently been assigned to a task in Italy. A few weeks ago, your colleague, operative Onyx, was sent to Aurelia, a small village in Northern Italy. His task was to gather intelligence and uncover the dealings of the enigmatic Count Schwarzberg. Rumored to be entangled with crime organizations, including the infamous Italian mafia, the Count's activities have so far remained veiled in secrecy.

Your boss, Ember, has recently received a backup and assistance request from agent Onyx. So they need *you* now, operative Sinus, to be urgently redirected to Aurelia to assist and evaluate the situation.

NOTE: This game uses intentionally retro-style, small resolution images and limited color palette. The idea is to release a web-based (HTML) version of the game for this competition. But it has been developed in Adventuron 8-bit compatibility mode, so it would be possible to translate and release it also to the ZX Spectrum Next computer at some point later. I developed the very first version of the game back in the year 1987. but it never got released, in any form, because it became much too demanding for the ZX Spectrum 48K memory.

Content warning: While intended to be fun and recreational, this game does include some amount of kicking, and there is even one dead body. So, not suitable for small children.


Game Details


Awards

21st Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)

Editorial Reviews

P.B. Parjeter at Intfiction.org

CODENAME OBSCURA is the second game that I chose to play during IF Comp. It's a spy game set in 1980s Italy by @MikaKujala. I enjoyed it overall.

I was mainly attracted to the game because of its graphics. The author notes that the images are low-resolution ... but they look great right now. I am looking at the opening shot, admiring the shadows on the bed and curtains. I’m also thinking about the amount of effort that probably went into making the apple recognizable in the blocky still-life painting on the wall. Even if this was not drawn from scratch, the pixel editing is top-notch.

As noted, this is a spy thriller. The story is played straight despite the fact that your spy agency has the slightly silly acronym T.U.R.T.L.E. There aren’t any twists or turns in the plot: you’re simply tasked with retrieving a diamond from a bad guy.

There is lots of flavor in the story, though, mainly in the form of set-pieces, one-time characters, and lots of Italian dialogue. There are also some references to religion, which actually serve as clues.

The author calls the game “fun and recreational,” but it’s nice to have those motifs/touches, even if there isn’t a grand message behind it all.
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Number of Reviews: 6
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Most Helpful Member Reviews


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Floyd I'm ready to be heartbroken, December 7, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

There’s a longstanding tradition in parser IF that authors should eschew the generic USE verb. The conventional wisdom, which I ascribe to, is that there are two major reasons for this: on the player’s side, it removes much of the fun of playing a parser game if you can just mindlessly spam USE X or USE X ON Y without actually thinking through a potential solution, and on the author’s side, you wind up with one mega-verb that can function radically differently in different contexts, which can make debugging really tricky, and can paradoxically make implementation even more work, as the player might expect USE to work as well as whatever more bespoke actions might be needed to resolve a challenge. After playing CODENAME OBSCURA, a spy-themed Adventuron game that’s an intentional 80s throwback, I can adduce a third rationale for avoiding USE: I, specifically, am very bad at figuring out when to try it, such that I had to go to the walkthrough three separate times to figure out what I was missing, and each time it was because I’d attempted everything but USE.

Admittedly, I expect the Adventuron parser to be a bit picky in the best of circumstances, and in each case, it was immediately obvious what to do once I got unstuck, so I shouldn’t pretend my repeated oversights about USE were that much of a barrier to enjoying the game. It makes a winning first impression, efficiently setting up a silly James Bond plot (you’re a secret agent working for an organization called TURTLE, visiting a town in Northern Italy to foil the plans of a German Count who’s stolen a diamond from England and is in league with the Sicilian mafia) and charming with lovely, colorful pixel art. The picturesque opening quickly segues into an action set-piece and then a simple escape puzzle, before setting the player loose to tackle the meat of the game.

There’s a lot to do, from visiting a witch to infiltrating a costume party to breaking into the compound where the Count is building a doomsday weapon. The map is reasonably open, but there’s typically only one or two puzzles where you can make progress at any point in time, which could be frustrating if the game world was much bigger, but CODENAME OBSCURA just about gets away with it. Speaking of the puzzles, they’re typical medium-dry-goods affairs; there’s perhaps a bit too much repetition, with three different blocked-off areas requiring you to WEAR something and/or SHOW something to gain entry, and one sequence where you solve a puzzle to find a password which allows you to find a combination which allows you to find a code, but they’re generally straightforward enough – save for a computer puzzle that combines unclear instructions with a bit of timed text to make for a fairly irritating barrier.

Speaking of annoyance, that USE issue is a real one, however, and bespeaks a game that has a very particular idea of how it wants you to interact with it. There are relatively few actions implemented – despite sound being important at several points, the player can’t ever LISTEN – American spellings for common commands aren’t accepted (PET vs. PAT, PUSH vs. PRESS), there are lots of items that you can’t examine until you pick them up, and it wasn’t just the USE case where I had to play guess-the-verb (the worst offender was a bit where you have to manipulate a part of a statue, and only one very precise syntax will work). CODENAME OBSCURA also does the default-Adventuron thing of bluffing when you try to interact with or examine an object that’s not actually implemented – it just says “you notice nothing special” rather than admit it doesn’t know what you’re talking about – and then makes the problem worse by retaining that same “you notice nothing special” default description for several game-critical items. I suppose that thinness of implementation is part of the game’s intentionally retro vibe, but a bit more testing could have helped the author strike a better balance between that lo-fi feel and player convenience. Likewise, I twice ran into a bug that led to the game hanging and not accepting input; fortunately, I was able to simply reload the webpage and seamlessly pick up from where things went off-track, but it was nevertheless kind of a pain (that’s why I’m attaching three transcripts).

For all these complaints, I did enjoy my time with CODENAME OBSCURA; it’s a far friendlier old-school puzzler than The Witch, and it’s got more meat on its bones than Magor Investigates…, so it did scratch an itch – and I say that as someone who doesn’t have any nostalgic attachment to the old two-word parser games that it mimics. I’d say it needed a bit more time in the oven, but from the blurb it sounds like the author’s been working on the game off and on since 1987, which is quite the gestation period; still, a little more testing and refinement to sand off some of the unintentionally rough edges – and provide alternatives for the USE-allergic among us – would be quite worthwhile.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
From Nostalgia with Love, a 008-bit adventure, December 23, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

Adventuron, that’s a thing! An authoring tool that explicitly enables and embraces 8/32/64 bit adventure games. I love that it exists. It’s like a web-enabled portal to the past. If I read the background right, this particular game was originally developed 35ish years ago and reimplemented today? As a guy who reengaged the hobby after a similar gap, what a powerful way to make cross-time connections in your life - reconnecting with ancient passions and enhancing and expanding with the life lived between. I whole-heartedly endorse. Even if it were fake meta-text, I endorse that spirit.

Adventuron presentation is evocative, well-serving its core mission, not the least of which with its comfort-food font options. The, lemme say 32-bit? graphics are terrifically reminiscent too, presenting a variety of Italian scenery with rakish aplomb. All of it transports the play experience to the dawn of computer imagery, just past mainframe text only, and just before home PCs were powerful enough to do more.

The gameplay here mimics that also, and I am taking the authorship claims at face value here. The game has tight descriptions, bounded interactivity, and many unimplemented nouns. All of which precisely reinforce gameplay of the purported era. There is instant death which can only be avoided through un-deducible and unrelated coincidence. There are puzzles that don’t make immediate sense, but are still the right vibe ((Spoiler - click to show)cf the hacksaw in a bottle). The plot is a PG Golden Age Bond Movie type riff (and a breezy, fun one!), but you are nevertheless talking to Witches and repairing statues. Mapping is not strictly essential, but probably time saving. There is a late losing state very easy to blunder into. I HIGHLY recommend SAVING as you go, certainly once you get to the (Spoiler - click to show)Control Room. It is an interesting alchemy: gameplay is not Mostly Seamless by modern standards, but IS a Mostly Seamless pastiche! It seems very much of its 80’s pedigree and effectively weaves a ‘game out of time’ spell.

So the question I found myself asking as I played it was… what is the value of nostalgia, and how far does it go before it runs out of juice? Offering nostalgia without commentary, without sly subversion, without subtle updates or contrasts with the intervening years’ culture, norms and gameplay conventions… what is the value of a fake time capsule when REAL ones are still available? To be clear, it is not valueLESS, but how satisfying is it, ultimately?

Mental exercise: what if Adventuron somehow became the dominant or even just a prominent authoring tool for IF, does that ultimately help the hobby? Does it hurt? Does it make for soft historical shackles and somehow back pressure innovation and modernization? (A charge that has been leveled at Parser IF for a while now). I mean, it is a fake mental exercise. Adventuron’s presence is really just MORE flavors available, not LESS of other things. But playing modern Adventuron games today, I kind of feel should trade in just a little more. Doesn’t have to be alot!, but just a little. There was a Spring Thing 23 Adventuron game I thought managed this well - while gameplay and presentation were bound to the 80’s there were more sophisticated narrative elements that tweaked the formula just barely enough to make an interesting frisson. Codename Obscura is not about that and doesn’t care to be.

Look, there’s a reason nostalgia exists. It works. It Sparks. This is nostalgia-bait for ME specifically, and I am powerless before its siren call. But at this point, I don’t think nostalgia without a twist gets beyond Sparks.

Played: 10/14/23
Playtime: 1.75hrs, finished, Schwarzberg escaped which I think can’t be avoided?
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Mostly Seamless
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Spy adventure set in Italy with good nostalgic vibes, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 2 hours

There’s a tendency in interactive fiction for people to talk about ‘old fashioned adventures’ or ‘old school’ games , but it means different things to different people, usually ‘similar to games I played as a kid’.

I didn’t really get heavily into IF until I was in my thirties, so I don’t have a ton of feelings for older games. But I do have a couple experiences as a kid; one was trying Zork in my teens and failing to do much of anything (quit at the dam), and the other was playing some obscure text adventures with graphics in 6th grade (one called Hacker and another about rhymes in an Alice in Wonderland type world).

This game really evoked for me the nostalgia of those games, like Hacker. I know other Adventuron games are similar in appearance, but this also really got the feel of games of those time down well. It even reminded me of the feel of games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

Anyway, you’re a spy for a secret organization called TURTLE and you’re called in to rescue another spy who is in trouble. Your goal is to infiltrate the enemy’s secret villa and steal back his diamond while stopping his evil plan.

There are a lot of tropes here similar to the 80s and 90s and early bond movies. Some are a bit outdated, but it has a nice overall action vibe. It’s also very Italian (for me the most Italian moment was finding a monastery where the monks wouldn’t let you in without a crucifix). There’s a lot of Italian text in the game. While I’m not fluent, I could understand most of the Italian pretty easily, but it may be useful having google translate nearby (although you can’t copy and paste from Adventuron, last time I checked).

Puzzles were generally fair and well clued, and had fun features like a computer system and a money system. I had to check the walkthrough near the end about three different times.

Overall, I had a great time. Very fun.

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CODENAME OBSCURA on IFDB

Polls

The following polls include votes for CODENAME OBSCURA:

Outstanding Retro Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best retro game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Suggested...

Outstanding Adventuron Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best Adventuron game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible...




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