Apple II graphic adventures

I recently found a YouTube with playthroughs of old Apple II graphic adventure games that I remembered playing, that were really influential. I couldn’t believe I saw them again. They were all terrible adventure games. The writing is especially awful. The art was mind blowing at the time, especially because I understood the advances in Apple II programming that were producing the art in these games.

AppleAdventures on YouTube, has the great thing of hearing the disk drive whirr. It used to tell you whether you entered a command that was actually going to do something, change the game state in a forward direction.I remember Scott Pelszarski writing routines for filing in areas of drawing with borders, with a pattern. Not a color, a pattern. This is what everyone does now. I spelled his name wrong, but he wrote these routines, and then there were games like Death in the Caribbean. There were early things I wrote on my own Apple II, like Xxamu.

There were the Scott Adams games, S.A.G.A., graphic adventures. There was Kabul Spy. Which I remembered as being a SierraOnline vaguely arcade like thing, but was a graphic adventure game, which paid tribute to the original Adventure, with a well house for a large spring, inside is a brass lantern. But that’s the whole problem.

So I played a whole bunch of these Apple II adventure games, that were trying to be puzzle IF, and things that really I was into, like Mask of the Sun, which had a whole thing of figuring out how to write the page of graphics to memory, and play a few of them from buffer to screen really fast, and seem like animation.

I really remembered Mask of the Sun, and I was excited to watch it be played on YouTube, and then, it was really terrible IF. It starts with a story, and then it’s a lot of maze, of roads. Solve maze, go inside, new maze. Almost at random, you get to put a thing from one place to another place.

Especial reward, an animation that was not possible on Apple II. Oh, that’s why I remember it.

After watching three or four of these things, Death in the Caribbean was real bad, Cranston Manor was bad, they’re all bad. They were all thinking, ok, it’s puzzle game. text. Now we can do graphics. We have got an Apple II to draw a hole in the ground with a staircase.

I understand that it was mostly some game programmer geeks who were writing better graphics code, making these games. But they never hired a writer. You are our writer. You have four lines at most, never mind that, you have 280 characters, you have to write with. This is ridiculous to a twitter generated generation.

Nobody ever thought, okay, the player can see that we’ve got the graphics guys to draw a hole in the floor, and some stairs. Don’t write, “YOU ARE IN A ROOM WITH A HOLE IN THE FLOOR, AND A STAIRCASE.”

That’s what I don’t quite understand about this Apple II graphic IF period. Nobody in the room said, “they can see the hole and the stairs, let’s use the 140 characters we can write with, to write something else. something that describes more than that, or adds atmosphere to that. Or goes a whole creative way that has nothing to do with that.”

Obviously this is where we are now. And I mean that, meanly.

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Well, you lived through this time. And so did I. And it sounds like you knew more about the graphics at the time than I did, too.

I guess my question is, do you think you really remember what the time was like? I don’t mean this accusatively. I mean, some people do remember what periods were like. Others only remember some, or none.

I made a lot of Apple II games as a kid, then a teen, and they all copied what was done already. All these graphic adventures you’re talking about come pretty fast on the heels of the first adventure games, and then the first graphics ones. And I bet the Williamses never considered not having text under the picture. The text was the fundamental thing, then they added graphics. As you’d know, it also happened to grow out a feature of the Apple II hardware that could mix the text and graphics on one screen.

I also bet as the Williamses went along, they discovered these semi-troubling sections where they’d add things that were only in the picture, or only in the text. That’s already happening in Mystery House. And they rolled with it in a sort of random fashion. I think part of that is the RAM limitations, too. I also think all the signs are that other authors followed their style, and its querulous bits, because that’s what people in a new industry often do. And as you say, they were programmers with a creative bent first, and in many cases, any other kinds of artists second.

If I have a point, it’s only that when you say ‘That’s what I don’t quite understand about this Apple II graphic IF period,’ I feel I totally understand it. If I thought these games were fundamentally bad, they wouldn’t be in my being as an inspiration for making these kinds of games today. They are the best efforts of their time and context. But yes, by the standard of interpretation of today, people would mostly find them to be bad.

-Wade

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You know that some of these games, like Cranston Manor, originally started off as text-only adventures, right? The graphics were only added later. Memory restrictions contributed to the sparse writing.

You might find it interesting to read about the original version of Cranston Manor… cranston-manor-adventure | Renga in Blue

I much prefer games that keep things succinct. I’d rather play an old-school text adventure than wade through the word treacle of a more modern game; one that’s desperately trying to ape the textual denseness of an Infocom game.

I find the game world of a less verbose game easier to “see” and I can concentrate on the puzzles. Lots of description does not help me personally. Some of that is down to aphantasia.

Anyway, Apple II graphic adventures can be great. I really enjoyed Jason’s recent playthrough of Lucifer’s Realm… lucifers-realm | Renga in Blue

This comes up a lot in Jason Dyer’s playthroughs. The author is kind of screwed either way. If you’re inconsistent, the player’s expectations are thrown off. If all the important info is in the text, then you’ve wasted all the effort on the art. If you have objects only in the illustration, then sooner or later the player fails to recognize something and has to play guess-the-noun based on “irregular orange rectangle, maybe?”

Also, of course, “game writer” wasn’t a job you hired for at that point.

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There’s also the issue that back then, not every game was illustrated on every panel. There was a phase when the writers would not necessarily know which parts were going to get pictures, even if they knew some of it would when they wrote the words. Also, those studios that did have more than one person developing the games often had one person with the idea - and one artist. So that introduced the issue of making sure the text and graphics tallied, before the systems existed a few years later to reliably co-ordinate changes (for example, to have the text be less literal).

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I feel its important to try and meet games, art, lit, etc. where it is. Or at least meet it halfway.

Deadline, for instance, would make for a rather uncourteous contemporary game. It might even be a bad contemporary game. It expects people to read manuals, you can lose without having any idea, etc. It is not, of course, a contemporary game, so we might as well stop measuring it in that way. It’s more productive to see it as a game that had to–in a way that few contemporary games do–invent large parts of itself out of nothing.

While I would not enjoy playing Mystery House or Time Zone (Jason Dyer’s recent exploits notwithstanding), it has to be admitted that those were pioneer days. Homebrewed engines, a complete absence of theory or best practices. Not even a friendly forum where you can ask strangers for code advice. Fun or not, I try to respect these games for what they are and am grateful that others are recording their experiences so I don’t have to play them myself.

Neither my friends nor I could afford an Apple ][ setup. We were CBM people. I was always a bit jealous of the available graphic adventures for Apple.

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I remember loving the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein as a child. As an adult, I bought a copy for my nephew after not having read it for 25 years, and I was shocked and appalled at what a TERRIBLE book it is. It should be called The Cycle of Abuse, or The Selfish Boy. Art is always a product of its time, and most of it doesn’t age well. But we can still find something of value in it and remember how it gave us joy in an earlier era while acknowledging its defects.

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Same time period, I remember I had some truly maddening TRS-80 adventures like Bedlam…and Demon’s Forge that from my recollection, would spend time drawing out an image that was just a green rectangle hillside with a square hole in it. They were unfair and confusing, but they were also fascinating at the time because it was the beginning of a new paradigm for computers and games and entertainment.

I had Sierra’s Black Cauldron on Apple ][e which commanded the premium price of (I think?) $39 (enough that my Dad said “this will count as a Christmas present”) back in the day and it intricately drew sort of Disney-licensed background images on my amber monochrome monitor. That game was so hard, I didn’t get very far.

Labyrinth is a very early Lucasarts/proto-SCUMM tie in on Apple II and Commodore 64 and it was rage-inducing but I went every day after school to my friend’s house (the friend who’s your friend because their family owns a Commodore 64 and an Atari 2600 and you don’t) and we tried to get through it.

Lucas finally did it best (IMHO) with Maniac Mansion which splits the difference between useful interface, graphics that actually are involved in the interaction, and good writing that was able to concentrate on dialog since the graphics weren’t superfluous nor confusing.

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I said Scott. I meant Mark Pelczarski. He has a wikipedia page. His innovation was not just creating the tools to outline and fill shapes with patterns on the Apple II, it was to make the save file a recording of the steps the artist did to make the final graphic, not a bitmap of the graphic itself, so the size of the save files was astonishingly crazy smaller. And that really worked for making graphic adventures the size of an Apple II floppy disk.

What the game Mask of the Sun did, was it figured out a fast way to load those type of graphics into the off-screen buffer, and then flip them on all at once, instead of watching the artist-steps execute. And then trade them for another buffer to flip on, producing animation. And the art seemed like it came from an actual artist. I feel like, I don’t really know, but I feel like Mask of the Sun was a couple of really smart Apple II binary coding guys, who came up with a fast bitmap page buffer flip, and then had the sense to hire an artist to make the effect look great. And then, no writers, or even game-designers, not that it was a thing, back then, to make the game that did these things and showed them off.

I was still inspired by it back in the day. And, I had a copy of The Graphics Magician, the Pelczarski invitation to anyone-out-there. And, somehow, I picked up a bunch of Apple II binary code you could enter and >BSAVE and it would do the draw-to-offscreen-buffer, flip-and-fast-draw-at-once a hires graphic screen, flip to another. So I did a rough Graphics Magician set of drawings that were like the driving-to-another-place sequence of Mask of the Sun, and an AppleSoft BASIC program that would load them and then present them in order, and it ran as slow as molasses, but it was a fake imitation of Mask of the Sun’s thing. I just didn’t know how to make it run any better, or how to draw it better. So I only did the one try, and never took it up again.

I did not know why it worked as well as it did, doing the graphic parts. I did not know why it ran as slow as it did, the basic bits I wrote. I did not understand what I was doing, and I felt young and frustrated, and I stopped. I was typing too many rote programming instructions that I didn’t understand, without getting any better idea of what they did. In retrospect, I understand the basics of what was going on.

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Many of the commercial Apple II graphic adventures were ported to the Atari 400/800/XL/XE (and sometimes vice versa) and that’s where I played them. I have many happy memories of those games, as well as the frustration of sudden death, guess-the-verb, maddening mazes and getting into an unwinnable situation that necessitated a restart. Games like Blade of Blackpoole, Gruds in Space, Gunslinger, Mindshadow, Sands of Egypt, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story and Transylvania come to mind.

I still play those games and still enjoy them today, despite the perceived warts from a modern player’s perspective. In fact, modern writers would do well to learn some lessons from some of those old games.

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If you still play those games and still enjoy them on replay today, I cannot say anything but that I am glad to hear it. This was not my experience, after a decades-long gap.

I especially thought modern writers had something to say to the writers-back-then. I understand that they were not writers, they were players, and loved IF. They were engineers, and it wasn’t until my generation of IF (1995-2009) that engineers were also writers, and damn superb writers. And game designers.

I grew up in a modern age of prodigies. My sense of the past is skewed forward.

Rob

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AppleAdventures is a nice channel but I must admit to preferring spoken commentary over the top versus purely text. That’s just personal preference.

Someone who strikes a really nice balance (and has a relaxing voice which is always appreciated) is Noriko Miyagami - Infocom ZORK I The Underground Empire [TRS-80 Model I] - Full Solution - YouTube

As for the perceived short comings of the old games from the viewpoint of the modern player, you can make an argument either way. It was pioneering and so that in itself will lead to mixed experiences later on when the medium has matured. But some things were just a bit odd. The biting lip thing in Hulk is a particular favourite (as in, favourite oddity) of mine! It’s just so odd! Poor old Bruce Banner would have a swollen bleeding lip 20mins into the game! I’ve never read the manual so maybe the instruction is in there to “bite lip to become Hulk” but if it isn’t then there would have been no way I would ever have thought to do that.

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It is a bit illogical, as the general rule is that Bruce Banner becomes Hulk when he gets angry and not when in pain, but readers of the comic (and watchers of the TV show) would know that when required by the story, this rule is stretched to “any kind of emotional stress can turn Bruce Banner into Hulk”.

The game will also accept BITE TONGUE and BITE CHEEK as solutions. And of course the manual contains a coded solution to this puzzle.

Many of the later Adventure International / Adventuresoft UK games seem to have unusual commands only listed in the manual as a kind of copy protection.

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I have finished searching and retrieving most of the games listed at Renga in Blue.
There are some good eldest games for AppleII.

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The first puzzle in the game is actually more logical… because the perfectly reasonable way of trying to escape from being tied up in a chair… ROCK CHAIR… actually triggers the Hulk transformation. There is no need for the obscure BITE LIP at that stage.

There were plenty of tools out there in the 1980s and 1990s that meant “writers” not just “engineers” could create “IF”. It sounds like your exploration of games of this time has not been particularly broad.

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In the 90s, sure. (That’s the era when Hypercard, for example, had a huge impact.)

But in the 80s? There was a real feeling that computer game companies were places where programmers worked. If somebody there could write, that was exciting and notable. And, as I said above, I’m not sure there was the idea that they hired writers at all. (Probably it happened somewhere – Jimmy Maher’s blog would say – but I don’t remember it being a thing that I heard of.)

(Also “IF” was, in the 80s, a term primarily promulgated by Infocom. It hadn’t been widely adopted as a genre term yet.)

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Yes, plenty of tools… in the UK we had the Quill, PAW, GAC that opened up adventure writing to the masses; not just programmers and engineers… and most of the big adventure companies (such as Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls, Ramjam etc.) had their own equivalent Infocom-style systems, to enable writers to work on games.

The writer/designer role was often distinct to the programming role; even in the 1980s. Just look through the credits in the packaging from big adventure games of the time (both in the UK and the US) and you can see that. Even in really early UK games, like the Artic Adventures; you’ve got non-techy people like Charles Cecil working on the writing/designing side of things with someone else taking that work and cranking it into the adventure system.

Your opinion may vary on the quality of the writing, but to say that there wasn’t a delineation between “engineers” and writers in at least some of the IF games in the 1980s, and early 1990s, just isn’t true.

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Hey, no fair pushing into the early 1990s! :) This thread started out talking about the earliest graphical adventures like Mask of the Sun (1982) and Cranston Manor (1981).

I poked around on Mobygames for a while, and it really is true that these games mostly don’t credit “writers” as a separate thing. (Mobygames tries to transcribe the credits exactly, as far as I know.) Cranston Manor says “By Harold DeWitz, Ken Williams” with no further detail. Mask of the Sun says “Written by (four names); Graphics by (one of those names).” So the “written by” is clearly design, programming, and writing all together.

If you look at, say, Roberta Williams’ page, she’s credited as “Writer” on a handful of 80s games – but when you poke into them, it’s always “Writer and designer” or “Writer and producer”.

In any case, I was reacting to the (offhand!) comment in the original post:

But they never hired a writer.

My point is that’s kind of anachronistic. Roberta Williams, obviously, was never a hired writer – she was a studio head. She hired programmers and artists.

It’s true, those were 1980s systems. I was mentally categorizing adventure toolkits as a 1990s thing – I forgot Quill and PAWS were earlier.

But the archetypical user of those (as with Inform and TADS later) was a writer-designer-programmer, writing the whole game solo! It’s not exactly a counterexample to what I’m saying. :)

Now, in poking around, I was reminded of Portal (1986), which is a good counterexample. According to Jimmy Maher’s post, an Activision producer had a wild idea for an interactive novel, and found a novelist (Rob Swigart) to write it. But that was an unusual case in every respect.

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Another couple that come to mind are HHGttG and Bureaucracy, written (and definitely not implemented) by Douglas Adams and Michael Bywater (although Adams was on the box, but that’s another story).

Sorry if they were already mentioned and I simply missed it.

Yours was the comment that cast the net wider than just the very early 1980s.

Still Apple II and early 1980s, you’ve got games like Amazon (1984) by Telarium where Michael Crichton is the writer! The Michael Crichton.

Just looking across that early Apple II Telarium range… Lee Neufeld is credited as the writer on Fahrenheit 451 (1984), Byron Preiss and Michael Reaves are the writers on Dragonworld (1986), Ronald Martinez is credited as the writer on Rendezvous with Rama (1984), etc.

Writers soon became important and companies created in-house adventure tools that more non-technical writers could work with. Yes, there are going to be instances where writers were also inputting game logic and designing puzzles… that’s part of the writing progress, but my comments were a reaction to the post that said that text adventures in the 1980s were mostly made by “engineers” and there wasn’t a writer in sight. That just obviously isn’t true.

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