Wednesday 30 November 2011

Game 1: Below the Root - Reaching Full Potential

My decision to fully explore each grund has really paid off. Every time I enter a new house or building, I mark down on my map whether the inhabitant is friendly toward me or hostile, what they’re offering or selling, and what piece of advice they gave out through speaking and pensing. At the end of my last post, I’d just gained the ability to pense messages, and was uncertain as to whether going back and pensing people I’d already met would offer up new information. The answer is a resounding yes, but unfortunately pensing uses up valuable skill points, so I’ve had to use it sparingly. Pensing the temple gatekeeper for example resulted in a message that “the key is lost”, which suggests I might have to find another way to gain access. Most rewardingly, I attempted to pense one of the friendly animals that appear throughout the map, and found that doing so increased my spirit limit by one! Since finding out this little secret, I’ve moved from grund to grund, searching high and low for animals to pense.

You could have told me that before buddy!

This process has required problem solving (to figure out how to get to certain branches), reflexes (the platform element of the game requires some dexterity) and a bit of luck (sometimes just trying something crazy results in finding something useful). With the action elements in mind, I guess it’s worth questioning whether Below the Root should be considered a pure adventure game or be classified as action adventure alongside games such as Tomb Raider. Personally, I think Below the Root “feels” like an adventure game and, given the fact that you cannot die, that there is no fighting element in the game, and that you can revisit any part of the map as many times as you like in search of clues, it clearly fits the definition. If anything, Below the Root has probably had an influence on games like Castlevania II or Metroid, which were basically platform games with an open-ended map, allowing players to revisit sections to gather clues or items to solve puzzles elsewhere. These games had a much larger focus on combat action however and the player could die if hit too many times.

Castlevania II: Possibly influenced by Below the Root's RPG and open-ended elements.

While figuring out how to access certain areas can be puzzling, the most challenging aspect of Below the Root is managing your rest and food status’. Once you’ve found a few different places you can rest and mapped them, it’s not difficult to keep that statistic fairly high. The problem is that while you’re resting, your food level decreases, meaning not only do you regularly need to rest, you also need to make sure you have enough food to devour straight afterwards or you’ll end up back at your nid-place regardless. Add to this that certain food affects you in other ways (I think roast lapan decreases my skill points) and it's clear this biological management is key to your success in the game. Thankfully, the game starts to give you the skills to make this management easier, which I’ll discuss in a second.

Everyone loves monkey magic! Don't they?!

I’ve managed to find some important figures (the Wise Child and D’ol Neshom), both of which have increased my spirit level, giving me the ability to use the heal, grunspreke and kiniport skills. Heal helps you manage the aforementioned food and rest stats by increasing them at the expense of spirit, grunspreke gives you the ability to make branches grow, giving you access to otherwise inaccessible places, and kiniport acts as teleportation, allowing you to move objects closer to you or even move yourself to another location that’s visible on the screen. Each gained skill gives you the ability to reach new areas, which in turn allows you to gain more spirit skill and so on. I’ve also had more visions, all of which suggest that Raamo is not dead, and will somehow play a role in finishing the game. I can only assume that I now need to venture underground somehow and find this bottomless lake that the visions keep showing me. Before I do that though, I’m hoping my new skills will help me get into the temple. I’m dying to find out what’s in there!

With great power comes great grunsprekability!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

PISSED - The Adventure Gamer Rating System

[This blog page has been retained here due to historical reasons, but up-to-date rules of The Adventure Gamer can be found on a separate page].

As I was progressing nicely through the first game on the list, the fact that I don't yet have a scoring system was bugging me. I promised the CRPG Addict that I wouldn't steal his patented GIMLET, nor would it be very useful when rating adventure games, so I've had to knuckle down and come up with my own.

After writing down a number of categories that I feel are important to discuss when reviewing adventure games, I decided to use an online anagram maker to see if any words would miraculously appear. I'm sure you can imagine my delight when the word PISSED appeared on my screen, and from that moment on I wasn't willing to change a thing.

I considered the ED PISS Rating System, but decided on PISSED at the last minute

The PISSED rating system is fully described below:

Puzzles and Solvability
By definition, games in the adventure genre include some level of puzzle solving. Whether it’s finding clues to solve a mystery, collecting parts required to produce a needed item, or literally trying to solve a virtual puzzle, adventure games give players the chance to use their observation and deduction skills to pass challenges. This rating not only judges the creativity and enjoyment of puzzles in a game, it also takes into account whether or not the puzzles have logical solutions that don't involve combining seemingly irrelevant items in irrational ways.

Interface and Inventory
Interfaces of adventure games have gone through quite a few phases over the years. Initially relying on parser technology (text analysis), the genre really took off during the late eighties with the introduction of point and click interfaces such as LucasArts’ SCUMM. This rating will look at how intuitive a game’s interface is and how managing inventory is handled.

Story and Setting
Given that adventure games are almost entirely story driven, and that combat and action is purposely minimised to allow that story to unfold depending on the player’s actions, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this letter is the most important part of the PISSED rating system. I will rate not only the story as a whole, but how it is implemented into the game setting.

Sound and Graphics
As anyone that enjoys old computer games would know, graphics and sound are not of ultimate importance when it comes to a satisfying experience. Still, there’s no doubt that the visual and audio quality and creativity can help immerse the player in the game world. I’ll be rating the graphics, animation, sound effects and music for each game.

Environment and Atmosphere
I guess this is partly covered in some of the other PISSED categories, but I wanted a specific place where I could attribute a rating to the overall “feel” of a game. I’ve definitely played games where the interface and story are less than great, but the atmosphere sucks me in to the point where I push on (I remember playing B.A.T. as a kid and struggling on to see what happens even though the interface sucked). On the flipside, some games tick all the other boxes but somehow fall flat when it comes to atmosphere. I’ll try and put a numeric value to this extremely subjective quality.

Dialogue and Acting
While voice acting plays a role in most modern adventure games, there was once a time where acting as a whole was a major feature. If you’ve played FMV titles such as The Pandora Directive or The 7th Guest, you’ll know what I mean. Obviously this is not a feature for old games to be judged on, but dialogue certainly plays a part in every adventure game in one way or another.

I plan to rate each of the above six categories out of 10 before calculating a score out of 100 from there. Let's see how it goes and if it's not working for whatever reason, I'm sure I can adjust it while still forming an inappropriate word in the process.

Monday 28 November 2011

Game 1: Below the Root - Maps & Trencher Beaks

My first post about Below the Root, with all the talk of spirit skills and series-specific jargon, most likely gave the impression that this game might only be enjoyable to fans of the books. I thought the same to be honest after my first attempt at playing the game was ultimately a confusing and daunting one. I struggled to know which character to play as, where I actually was without any form of map, and what half the options were in the menu system such as Pense, Grunspreke and Kiniport. Picked up items such as shubas and trencher beaks held no meaning to me either, so it quickly became apparent that, unlike games today with their built in tutorials, I was going to have to read the manual before and during playing Below the Root.

Shall I rest or grunspreke? I just can't decide!

Thankfully, the game and manual do actually give you plenty of guidance if you're willing to put in a few minutes educating yourself. A brief little intro summarises your goal in the game, you can watch a reasonably lengthy example of the games basic actions by choosing Sample Quest from the opening menu, and the manual describes all the menu items and player choices adequately. I highly recommend anyone playing the game pay close attention to the "Some Final Words of Advice from D'ol Falla" section before starting. A lot of my confusion could have been avoided by reading this prior to floundering around Green-sky. I also conducted a more extensive search for the game map as the manual mentions its importance, and as you can see below, I managed to find it here!

Time to get out the pencils!

Having perused all of this material, I set back off on my quest, more adequately equipped to handle the alien world of Green-sky. I have to admit that I didn't think I would be choosing characters to play very often during the creation of this blog. Some adventure games, such as the Quest For Glory series, would eventually toe the line between the RPG and adventure genres, but they were considered quite innovative at the time (in the late eighties / early nineties). I was certainly surprised to be confronted with character selection in the very first game on the Wikipedia list. There are five characters to choose from, three of them being Kindar while the other two are Erdling. They all range in strength (which controls how much they can carry, how far they can jump, and how often they require food and rest) and spirit powers (which governs which of the spirit skills they are capable of using).

I chose Neric as he seems a good, safe mix of strength and spirit.

With my character chosen, the game begins in his home (called a nid-place). Here I picked up some food, a shuba (which I now know allows me to glide) and three tokens (used to purchase items in shops). The graphics have that very distinctive CGA look that appeared in numerous games in the early eighties. Given black, cyan, magenta and white are the only colours onscreen, programmer Disharoon did a pretty good job of making Green-sky feel alive and fairly easy to navigate. Choosing the Status option from the menu brings up useful information such as what day it is (I have fifty days to complete the quest apparently), what time it is, and my current spirit maximum and stamina. Most importantly, you can keep tabs on how long it will be until you need to find a place to rest and food to eat. If either of these reach 0, as I quickly found out, your character will go unconscious and wake up in their nid-place a day later.

Once I left my nid-place and began exploring World-sky, I soon figured out by cross-checking with the map that I was situated in Star Grund (the enormous trees are called Grunds and the map suggests there are eight in total to explore). Not really having anywhere in particular to be, I started wandering around Star Grund talking to the numerous occupants that reside there. I tried out some of the menu options available and found that Pense is particularly useful. Every time your character is close to a Green-sky resident, you can select Pense to see what their emotion towards you is. Those that feel friendly emotions, such as Kindly Warmth, will give you advice or offer you services such as a place to rest or some food. Others will be less sociable and will likely trick you and then trap you. I learnt very quickly not to accept rest every time it's offered, as my first acceptance resulted in me waking up in some sort of prison cell. With no apparent way out, I was forced to "renew", waking up in my nid a day later. If you're as vocabularily (see what I mean!) challenged as I am, you might want to use a dictionary every now and then to see whether residents mean you kindness or harm.

You're feeling what? Can you give me another clue?!

Moving around the outside world is a bit like your typical platform game, with the main difference being that there's not much in the game world that offers up much danger (at least not that I've come across). I occasionally cause my character to hit his head or fall too far, but I'm not sure this does much other than reducing your food and rest stats. At this stage of the game I don't believe there's any way to actually die. Jumping off branches and gliding can give you access to otherwise unreachable areas, normally rewarding you with items such as tokens and food. I've definitely got more questions than I have answers at this point and I'm really quite eager to explore all the grunds and unlock the secrets of the game. Where do I find the key to unlock the Temple Gate? How do I get that sword I could see from the prison cell and what would I use it for? How long will it take to gain enough spirit points to try out some of the other skills?

The monkey seems to like me, but offers little purpose from what I can tell.

I've managed to gather a bunch of clues in my travels such as "Speak with star if you have the power", "Find the wise child of the garden" and "Seek the hermit of Grand Grund", the later of which I managed to achieve during my first couple of hours play. Thankfully, when I came across the hermit's house on the very top of Grand Grund, I'd already got my hands on a trencher beak, allowing me to cut through the brambles surrounding it. In speaking to the hermit I was rewarded with five more spirit points and surprisingly told that I now have the ability to pense messages. I thought I'd already been using the pense function to its full potential, but apparently to this point I've only been pensing emotions and not messages. Perhaps going back and talking to all the residents I've already come across will bear more fruit now?

Respect the Beak! Tame the brambles!

Meeting the hermit also caused me to have a vision describing the body of Raamo sinking beneath the surface of the bottomless lake...whatever that means. The fact that I really want to find out shows how much I'm enjoying Below the Root! My initial concerns have very quickly diminished as I get used to the terminology and gameworld, and not even the primitive graphics and fairly non-existent sound can dampen my enthusiasm to continue my journey. The only way I can do that is if I stop blogging, so...

Saturday 26 November 2011

Game 1: Below the Root - Introduction

Our journey!

Anticlimactically, the first game on Wikipedia's List of Graphic Adventure Games does not appear to have ever been released for DOS or Windows, which means I'm skipping The Portopia Serial Murder Case. Having checked out the game on YouTube, I'm a little sad not to be playing it. It looks like an interesting investigative adventure with innovative features such as multiple solutions to puzzles and a twist ending. The second game on the list definitely was released for the PC though, so this epic journey kicks off with a little adventure game called Below the Root. Prior to researching for this blog, I'd never heard of the game, nor had I heard of the Green-sky series of books it's based on. A simple Google for "Below the Root dosbox download" gave me all I needed to check it out.

The Green-sky Trilogy is a fantasy series of novels written by Zilpha Keatley Snyder between 1975 and 1977. The books had a very strong following, and it seems the majority of these fans were completely disgruntled by the way the third book concluded. Realising there was no way to go back and change the ending now that the trilogy was published, Snyder was disappointed that she'd let her readers down. Around the same time, a programmer named Dale Disharoon approached Snyder to see if she was interested in making a game based on the world she'd created. Immediately seeing this as an opportunity to continue the story, and hopefully produce a more satisfyingly conclusion to her series, Snyder gave Disharoon an affirmative response.

The Green Sky Trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The world of Green-sky is a low-gravity planet and could be considered utopian for the most part. Residents, called the Kindar, live in tree-houses built upon the branches of large trees, and the low gravity allows them to glide between the trees very easily. They have green skin and their hair blossoms naturally into flowers. The community is ruled by godlike leaders known as the Ol-zhaan, who have banned emotions such as anger and sorrow from the pacifistic society. A combination of meditation and narcotic berries helps the people remain calm and joyful at all times. Infants are born with paranormal powers and while these were originally retained right through to adulthood, they’ve strangely faded away earlier with each successive generation.

The Kindar fear the forest floor due to the legendary monsters called pash-shan that apparently live “below the roots” of the trees. Snyder’s trilogy of books follow a novice Ol-zhan named Raamo and his friend Neric as they venture down from the trees to see if these monsters really do exist. Instead they find dark skinned descendants of their own race called the Erdlings who had at some point been exiled from the upper world. They are a more advanced people, making use of fire, metal and even building steam propelled railway transportation. The Erdlings have no restrictions around having “unjoyful” emotions and appear to still retain their powers into adulthood. The rest of the series follows the efforts to release the Erdlings from exile while keeping the status quo of Green-sky. Disgruntled Ol-zhaan and vengeance seeking Erdlings (called the Nekom) cause trouble.

The cover artwork for the Below the Root video game
illustrated by Bill Groetzinger

While I haven’t read the books to know exactly what occurs at the end that was so controversial, it’s at this unstable phase that the video game storyline takes over, officially acting as a fourth volume in the Below the Root canon. I’ve managed to get my hands on what appears to be an OCR’d text only version of the game manual, which will undoubtedly be beneficial given all the information in there regarding the different characters you can play as, the various spirit skills at your disposal, a dictionary of jargon that would otherwise only be known to readers of the trilogy, and a bunch of hints to help you get started. If anyone knows the whereabouts of a PDF version of the manual including images and the map that apparently came with the game, I’d love to hear about it. A quick search for a map online brings up something that looks to be a fan made spoiler rather than the original, so I’m going to avoid that one.
Below is the message in the manual that gives a fairly ambiguous idea as to what I’m supposed to achieve in the game.
You have arrived in Green-Sky just in time to discover a hidden secret of momentous importance that will stop the headlong slide of our land toward certain disaster.

Last night these words came to me in a dream:
  The green light pales.
  The spirit fades away in darkness lying.
  A quest proclaim!
  Godspeed to all who seek. Bid them haste.
  The light is dying.

Only you can solve the riddle of my dream and save Green-Sky.

Ours is a beautiful and fertile world, covered with lush and enormous trees and plentiful wildlife. Yet peril and fear abound. We tree-living Kindar and our Erdling cousins, estranged for many years, were reunited by a spirit-gifted boy named Raamo. Now he is gone, and Green-Sky is threatened with destruction.

As a Kindar or Erdling quester, continue the work of Raamo. Seek the secret everywhere, from thin fronds of the roof trees to dark tunnels that lie below the root. Grow strong in body and in spirit skill.

Meet the inhabitants of our land. Many believe in your quest and will assist you. But beware, some of those you encounter are not what they appear to be.

The map enclosed will help you find your way. Go quickly. May you find the hidden secret and save Green-Sky.

                                            Until we meet,
                                            D'ol Falla

I'm actually pretty intrigued at this point, and finish this post eager to find out not only what all the above means, but also to get a first glimpse into the dynamics of the game.

What's This Blog All About?!

[This blog page has been retained here due to historical reasons, but up-to-date story of The Adventure Gamer can be found on a separate page].

I don't have time for this either!

That might seem like a strange way to kick off a brand new blog, and I guess it would be for anyone that hasn't already paid a visit to The CRPG Addict blog. You see once upon a time I came up with what I thought was an awesome idea. This was an idea so crazy and so geeky that surely I could be the only person on the face of the planet that would consider following through on it. I'd decided I was going to play every role playing game ever released for the PC in chronological order. Not only was I willing to give up a fair portion of my life to this endeavour, I also intended to blog about the experience and see if anyone else out there in cyberspace wanted to go along for the ride.

This idea bounced around in my brain for a couple of months while I put together lists of role playing games and figured out whether enough of the old ones were available to play (using the likes of DOSBOX) for this idea to come to fruition. It was during this research period that I came across The CRPG Addict's blog by mere chance and my idea was crushed quicker than you could say Planescape Torment. Not only was there another thirty-something year old professional out there blogging his way through a seemingly endless list of computer games, he was actually a really good writer with a knowledge and love for the genre surpassing my own!

The CRPG Addict Blog: Stole my idea before I even had it while setting a high bar for any attempt of my own.

I had a couple of options available to me at this point. I could let the idea go and play whatever game I wanted to whenever I wanted to. Alternatively, I could switch my attention to my other beloved computer game genre...the adventure game. This would not only give the completist in me the stupendous project it was looking for, it would also act as a fine companion to the wonderful work the CRPG Addict is producing simultaneously. Being a hard working professional with a family, there's no doubt keeping this blog consistently updated will be a challenge, but I'm going in with every intention of at least finishing the first list I've set my sights on (see the rules below for more details).

So what's my background in adventure games? It's probably identical to most other gamers that began their journey in the eighties! My childhood was filled with Sierra's Quest series', with King's Quest and Quest For Glory getting the most game time. My teen years were taken up mostly by the incredible run of excellent games Lucasarts produced such as the Monkey Island series, Full Throttle and Sam & Max. This was undoubtedly the golden age of adventure gaming and by the time the year 2000 came around, the point and click genre had pretty much died away, with only a handful of games coming out every couple of years. I took this forced hiatus to focus on role playing games by Black Isle and Bethesda, and the multitudes of first person shooters that came out at a rapid pace during this period.

Quest for Glory I: Holds a very special and nostalgic place in my heart.

What brought me back to the adventure game? A little girl called Sophie! When my daughter was born, the second bedroom that contained my $5000 Alienware beast immediately took on the position of nursery. Having only a small unit, the limited time I had to game was forced out onto a laptop in the loungeroom. As good as the laptop is (it's Alienware also), I just couldn't bring myself to play through the likes of Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 on such a small screen in resolutions less than a million times a million. I decided the time was right to play some older, less hardware intensive games that I missed the first time round, and thus began filling my virtual shelf at First up was The Longest Journey, quickly followed by Syberia I and II, and all of a sudden I was once again hooked on adventure games. I've since longed to play through all the early Sierra games that has now made available for modern operating systems, but I'm just as excited by the idea of following the entire evolution of the genre from its humble beginnings through to the modern renaissance.

The CRPG Addict is already 60 something games through his list and since he's gathered a reasonably large fanbase in the process, it just makes sense that I use a similar set of rules to the ones he put in place for his endeavour. I'm sure I will get some criticism for copying his framework and style, but my ambition is to make this blog a companion piece to his, where readers that enjoy The CRPG Addict might also find value in The Adventure Gamer, without having to figure out an entirely different structure. That being said, not all the rules that apply to role playing games make sense when applied to adventure games, and I've decided to place some undoubtedly controversial restrictions on which games I will play.


1. Only Graphic Adventure Games. After much thought, I've decided to only include adventure games with a graphical interface. That means no interactive fiction will appear in this blog. This choice was made for a few reasons, but the main one comes down to entertainment. I've played through Zork I and enjoyed it enough to consider playing the rest, but I'm not sure that this blog would be very interesting if I spend the first year struggling through endless Infocom titles with screenshots of text. I also admit that I'm keen to get into all the Sierra games I didn't play as a kid, so that seems like a good place for me to start if this blog is going to go all the way.

2. Only games that have been released on the PC. I've played games exclusively on PC for the past fifteen years and that's unlikely to change any time soon. Just as with The CRPG Addict, I can't be bothered playing around with numerous emulators and feel the list of games is well and truly long enough as it is.

3. Wikipedia's list of notable graphic adventure games is my Bible. Yes, this does indeed mean that the list I'll be following excludes more adventure games than it includes. That's cheating I hear you cry! Well, Moby Games currently lists 991 adventure games that were built for DOS and 2364 for Windows. There's a chance many of those were created for both and are therefore duplicates, but that still leaves an unquestionably impossible list of games to get through. I'd never make it out of the eighties! Wikipedia's list of graphic adventure games can be found here and at last count there are 278 games on that list. I have no idea how many have been released on the PC, nor do I have any idea what criteria need to be met for a game to be considered "notable".

4. No walkthroughs! I'm likely going to regret writing that, particularly as walkthroughs are all over the internet for pretty much every adventure game in existence. But there's no doubt that solving puzzles and figuring out what to do next when stuck in adventure games is a large part of the enjoyment. If I get REALLY stuck on a game, I hope to be able to get hints from readers, rather than ruining the experience for myself by "cheating".

5. I don't have to win every game, but I must at least make a sincere effort to play it. I will also follow The CRPG Addict's lead here and commit to playing each game for a minimum of six hours. I would like to think that I will quit far less games than he would for the simple reason that RPG's generally take a lot longer to complete than adventure games. All this being said, I retain the right to skip a game on the list if I a) can't find a functional copy anywhere or b) don't think it meets the definition of what is an adventure game.

Enough talking, let's do this!

Note Regarding Point 3: Since beginning to make my way through the list of games, there have been some changes to the way games are selected. Please visit the Companion Assist Points Explained post for more information.