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.


  1. Boy, you're tickling a long-buried memory with this one. I'm pretty sure I had this game for my C64--probably one I copied from a friend and, without the manual, had no idea how to play.

    I'll be interested to hear how you approach note-taking and mapping in your adventure games. Both are important, yet difficult.

  2. I never owned a C64 (I had an Amiga), but this game seems to hold fond memories for many gamers that did.

    I remember trying to play a pirated copy of King's Quest III in late eighties, not realising that it required the manual to cast spells. It's not as critical for Below the Root, but it sure would be difficult.

    I'll try to comment on my techniques for note-taking and mapping when relevant. For this game, I took a screengrab of every (unique) piece of information I was told. I then saved each of them in a folder with appropriate titles. I ended up with around 60 images with dialogue. Obviously this technique wouldn't work for modern games.

    As for mapping, I opened up the actual map in full screen (in paint) and literally typed notes wherever I felt something might have relevance. I typed in red to show any characters that were hostile.

  3. I played and finished the Apple II version of the game. I don't remember anything about it, so I am enjoying reading about your playthrough of it. I do remember liking the game.

  4. I had the Apple IIc version, along with "Alice in Wonderland", which was actually a better game, though not so open-ended.

  5. I wonder if anyone of your readers have read these books; Are they any good? Was the ending really that bad?

    I feel bad for the author: Had they waited just a few years the technology would have advanced enough for her to publish a new ending in the game. It was a cool idea though, kind of like what they tried to do with Enter The Matrix.

    1. I've read all three of the books, and I liked the entire series. The second book is a re-telling of the first book from another point of view that adds a lot of depth to the story. The third book continues the story, but IMHO, is not as good as the first two books, but still worth reading.

  6. Never even heard of this game, but quite intrigued at these early adventure games.

    Looks there was a C64 version too, with somewhat less eye-searing colour schemes.
    Does the DOS version have music?

  7. I sure hope the PC version had some music. That was a large part of the experience.

    1. At this time and period, it would have been PC beeper making it, which wouldn't have been real joy to one's ears.