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After a fashion, it's a follow-up to Treasure Island, February 10, 2023
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.