December 06, 2003

You have been eaten by a grue

A long time ago, in Dragon magazine, there was an article about role playing games that left a huge impression on me. In it, the author talked about a team of adventurers who were exploring a dungeon (what else), and at one point they were confronted by a Balrog.

I just realized how simple LOTR has made this explanation for me, because now you all know what a Balrog is, and just how formidable it can be.

Anyways, the author tells how the Dungeon Master controlling the game built the scenario up with words, and each player had to envision the action in their heads, and at the end they barely managed to defeat the demon by the flukiest once-in-a-thousand longshot magic spell.

He went on to tell about another game played later, this time using little lead miniature men and monsters and graph paper maps and such. At the climactic point of the adventure, the Dungeon Master ominously announced "Your path is blocked by a Balrog". Then he placed a two-inch tall painted figure on the map.

And that Balrog didn't seem nearly the obstacle that the first one was, and the team beat it. They had won the game, but that first group had had an adventure!

Some of you may remember Zork, the classic text adventure by Infocom. If you remember it well, you understood the title of this post right away. For those that don't, Zork was the best known of text adventure games, where all information was presented to you in story format, and you interacted by typing in words and short phrases as commands. For instance:

"You are on a forest path."


"You see a house."


"It's a small one-story house painted yellow. There is a window on this side."



...and so on. The idea was to figure out what was going on, and then complete the objective (not always obvious), usually by poking around and exploring things and solving problems. Some of these problems were devilishly tricky! In one early game (not Zork) the scenario was that you were on a submerged submarine, working inside an airlock, when a traitor among the crew used poison gas to kill everyone. It was just you and the traitor (or traitors), and you were stuck in an airlock. First step was figuring out how to get to an oxygen mask. Then it got really tough.

The key to all of these games was that you had to use your imagination to build on the vivid descriptions of the landscape and action, just like in a book. Much different from the graphic-intensive games of today. And in my mind, this was a strength, because more thought and creativity went into the story itself, and not the glitz and glamour of the graphics and user interface.

One interesting review of these games, written by someone too young to play them when they originally came out, was that because they were text based (and old), they were small, which made them perfect to play on a Palm or other PDA. Hmmmm... now there's a thought!

I'll be digging around a little bit and I'll post updates as I find out more. I owned a lot of Infocom adventures in various formats for various machines, and I'd like to find compatable copies again. They're that good.

Posted by Ted at December 6, 2003 08:57 AM
Category: Square Pegs

If you haven't seen it yet, check out It's got darn near every abandonware and freeware game you've ever heard of, including a lot of the old Infocom titles.

Posted by: gnotalex at December 6, 2003 11:32 AM

We had Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (on our Commodore 64). Though I never did get off the Heart of Gold...

Posted by: nic at December 6, 2003 04:27 PM

Also, there are interpreters for the Infocom game language, so you can run those games on just about anything.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at December 7, 2003 03:43 AM
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