Hibernated 1: This Place is Death (R6) by Stefan Vogt
Stefan Vogt has released the first part of a planned trilogy of interactive stories for the Commodore 64. It is authored in Quill, a text adventure editing system from Gilsoft. The original version of Quill was released commercially in 1983, but the software is still maintained and runs on a variety of 8-bit platforms.
In my review, I will apply modern standards and expectations. Much has happened since the Colossal Cave Adventure was written over 40 years ago. Interactive fiction is by now a mature art form, both in terms of literary qualities and puzzle design.
Of course, there’s a certain charm in using vintage systems, and exploring an oldschool adventure can be enjoyable on its own merits. I also understand that this is a labour of love, and I am very happy that people are still making games for the Commodore 64. That alone is enough reason for me to encourage everybody to try this game!
Still, I have to be fair. Let’s begin with the writing.
Hibernated 1 tells the story of Olivia Lund, who has been “in hypersleep for more than 200 years” on an “interplanetary exploration mission”, but something has gone terribly wrong and now she is awake, alone in space, and there’s a gigantic alien vessel nearby.
Room descriptions are succinct and to the point, as one would expect in a story designed for a 40x25 display. There are occasional cutscenes and bits of backstory that are more verbose, and this provides some variety, which is welcome. The biggest problem with the writing, in my opinion, is the irregular tone. Most of it is stoic, pragmatic, even bland:
>EXAMINE CABINET It contains various medical supplies. >EXAMINE RIFLE This weapon supports two modes: paralyze and disintegrate.
Some of it is melodramatic:
The more you see, the more you fear that death may be the only thing waiting here for you, underneath the surface, lurking in the dark.
And some of it is humorous:
>EXAMINE COMPUTER Ready to mess around with some gene pools?
>EXAMINE LOCKER As if the Bauhaus style and the thing from another world conceived a child.
These various styles are so different, and the contrast is so jarring, that it becomes difficult for the reader to remain immersed in the story. At points, it is difficult to know how much of the story reflects the stream-of-consciousness of a protagonist who likes to jump to conclusions, and to what extent an omniscient narrator is supplying additional information that the protagonist couldn’t possibly know:
All walls seem to be made of an unknown red metal. The colour may have had a calming effect on the alien builders.
This computer controls the functions of the alien ship. Like all positronic systems, he or she must have an own consciousness.
In that last quote, the narrator veers into technobabble. This happens increasingly in the later parts of the game, and it is probably a deliberate stylistic choice by the author, because it is so common in science fiction in general. Personally, though, I find it annoying.
I hasten to add that there’s good writing too. The setting is evocative, and most locations make functional sense in the context of the story. I felt a little bit scared going into some places on the alien spacecraft. There’s a nice, memorable passage in the ending cutscene, that I obviously can’t quote for spoiler reasons.
There’s a really clever in-story rationale for why everything is laid out in squares and right angles: “The 24th century is known for the emergence of crystalline architecture […]”. In fact, that’s exemplary interactive fiction writing! A technical restriction is given just the right amount of lampshading, and we get a bit of world-building, all in a few, economical words.
But then, in other places, the suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. At the very beginning, we wake up in interstellar space, and the only exit is EAST. How does that I don’t even.
Of course, compass directions are a genre convention, but in games where it would seem counter-intuitive to use them, one would expect some kind of diegetic rationale. Some games that take place aboard (space-)ships use FORE, AFT, STARBOARD and PORT (F/A/S/P), but that shouldn’t be necessary. Just be sure to include a few words about why the protagonist decides to use compass directions.
The implementation of the game world is very shallow by modern standards. This may in part be due to platform restrictions, which is unfortunate because it gives the work a sloppy appearence.
Surely, Olivia’s primary task in her situation would be to investigate, explore and examine. But in the game, in most situations, it turns out that examining is “not an option”. Even the most conspicuous of objects lack descriptions. The following is a typical exchange:
BRIDGE The heart of the Polaris-7 is dominated by a huge 180 degree window. A large object obscures the stars in the field of vision, certainly of extraterrestial origin, slowly drifting like a dead giant in icy waters. Two cockpit chairs are located in front of the main console, where countless lights dance. The exit is located in the SOUTH. >EXAMINE WINDOW This is not an option. >EXAMINE OBJECT This is not an option. >EXAMINE CHAIRS This is not an option. >EXAMINE CONSOLE This is not an option. >EXAMINE LIGHTS This is not an option. >EXAMINE EXIT This is not an option. >HINT Examine a lot for useful information.
Now, in this game, room descriptions tend to be followed by an explicit list of objects that “you notice”. Given the constraints of the platform, this is a fair compromise, as it keeps the program small. But sometimes there are words in the room descriptions that do have corresponding examine-text, despite not appearing in the explicit list. So in order to fully explore the game world, the player still has to examine everything that’s mentioned, which means that the player has to wade through all those error messages, which hurts immersion.
The parser is very primitive. Again, this is a constrained platform, but even in the 1980s, InfoCom were releasing text games for the Commodore 64 with a much more sophisticated parser. I will add, however, that the Quill engine responds to commands faster than InfoCom’s Z-machine does.
One particular problem with the parser is that the verb PUT (which is distinct from DROP) only takes a direct object, and ignores the rest of the sentence. Before I realised this, I experienced some confusing moments, such as the following:
You notice: [...] specimen cube interface cube [...] >PUT SPIDER IN SPECIMEN CUBE You put it in the interface cube.
But after I had realised it, I began using PUT as a default action verb, that I would just try with various random objects in different rooms to see what happened. “PUT IO” was a hit in several locations.
Generally, I found that I was spending more time trying to figure out what exact phrase the author had in mind, than trying to solve the mystery of the alien spacecraft, or solving the practical problems that were impeding the progress of the protagonist.
>USE CONNECTOR This must be built into Io to help you. >PUT CONNECTOR INTO IO This must be built into Io to help you. >BUILD CONNECTOR INTO IO This is not an option. >PUT CONNECTOR This must be built into Io to help you.
But then, trying the same thing in the laboratory:
>PUT CONNECTOR Io: "That is a useful upgrade!"
After the fact, I can sort of figure out that perhaps the connector was built into Io using the tools available in the laboratory. But I think this should have been narrated more clearly.
There is a well-known litmus test for the quality of a text game. It is as simple as it is effective: Does the author credit any testers?
In the case of Hibernated 1, the answer is no, and it shows. Any author will of course test their own game thoroughly. But in interactive fiction, players are supposed to solve problems. The brain works in mysterious ways, and it turns out that when you know a solution to a particular problem, it becomes really hard to think of alternative solutions. Authors cannot look at the in-game puzzles that they created, and see what the player sees. External testers are the instrument by which authors can observe what is otherwise invisible to them.
The following frustrating exchange could easily have been anticipated by testing, and then improved by adding more constructive responses:
>EXAMINE RIFLE This weapon supports two modes: paralyze and disintegrate. >USE RIFLE Specify a mode. >USE RIFLE IN PARALYZE MODE Specify a mode. >USE RIFLE TO PARALYZE DROID Specify a mode. >SPECIFY MODE It's not gonna work that way. >SPECIFY PARALYZE This is not an option. >SET RIFLE TO PARALYZE This is not an option. >PARALYZE DROID This is not an option. >PARALYZE SPIDERS Using paralyze mode: sleep tight!
I think a big part of the frustration comes from the fact that parser errors (phrases that don’t make sense to the game engine) are communicated using the same messages as failed actions (things the protagonist refused to do, or tried without success). When an action fails, the response should ideally contain a subtle hint to nudge the player towards the intended solution.
Testing would also help smoothe out some rough corners:
ANY DIRECTION allows you to leave. >UP You can't go in that direction. >SE You can't go in that direction.
I repeatedly ran into situations where I’d obtained an object in some way (cutting something off with a knife, taking a sample, writing a note), and then walked across the entire map to try to use it somewhere, only to discover that it had been left on the floor rather than in my inventory. I am positive that proper testing would have revealed this problem to the author.
If we look past the problems with the parser, I’d say that the puzzles in this game are fairly good. Most of them could be described as straightforward fetch quests or lock-and-key problems, but even so they’re quite varied. There is one particularly good puzzle that requires some lateral thinking.
In conclusion, this is a nice game with a frustrating parser. The puzzles are solid, althugh in many cases the writing could have been improved to support the puzzles better, to ensure that the player has some sense of what their goal is before they accidentally stumble over the solution. Some of the puzzles are insufficiently hinted, in part due to the primitive parser and the very limited set of responses to failed actions. The writing is occasionally good, but hampered by an ill-advised attempt to combine the eerie with the zany.
Looking back, I’m happy that I played this game to completion, even though there were some flaws and annoyances. I strongly encourage the author to go ahead and write the sequels as planned. But this time, please, please, please find some testers!