Saturday 18 November 2017

Missed Classic 47: Cyborg - Introduction (1981)

Written by Voltgloss

Time to return to the worlds created by Michael Berlyn! As discussed back when we explored Oo-Topos, Mr. Berlyn had published two text adventures through Sentient Software: that game, and Cyborg. With an Apple II emulator up and running well, I’m ready to dive into the shoes of a half-human, half-machine.

Before starting the adventure proper, it’s worth discussing the story setup and unusual interface mechanics Mr. Berlyn put in place for our adventure. The game itself is a character here - the “machine half” of the protagonist, with the player comprising the “human half.” In the game’s own words, “we” have malfunctioned and our power units badly drained, such that both our short-term and long-term memories have been damaged. Yes, it’s an amnesia plot, but with the promise of memory restoration if we can get ourselves properly recharged. The only “organic or silicon memories” we have is that, in us, human and machine are “permanently linked. We are separate entities sharing an organic and metal shell, two minds in one body. A cyborg.” Working “as a team” with our mechanical half, can we find power or will we cease to exist?

As to the interface: we have two “levels” power - a “cyborg level” for the machine half and a “bio level” for the human half, and can assess both with a “body scan.” Instead of the “look” or “examine” commands, we can perform an “area scan” or an “item scan” to get information about our surroundings and objects we find. A “full scan” combines all those scans together in a screen-refreshing full-status update, which also lists our carried and worn inventory. “Help” provides a detailed help menu which resides in-game; it’s essentially the human half asking the machine half for information and assistance. Some of that “help” menu includes basic adventure game instructions, but other options also exist where the machine half can give its opinion on various items and obstacles we’ve discovered. It’s an in-game help mechanic, and one that’s linked to our status - let your cyborg level drop too low, I’ve found, and those help and scanning systems start to malfunction. I’m intrigued by the setup and curious to see how much, if at all, they may change over time as we recharge or otherwise change our cyborg status.


We start our journey in an area that seems incongruous to a sci-fi story - on a dirt path through a forest, with exits east, west, and north. A “tiny lizard wearing a silver spacesuit” greets us from an even “tinier crutch,” asking for “food” in exchange for the “truth.” OK, so that’s two goals clear right off the bat - find power to recharge ourselves, and find food for the lizard to learn the “truth.” We’ve got no starting inventory, a “cyborg level” of 1000 and a “bio level” of 1000, and 0% damage. Let’s get exploring!

Exploring east first, we’ve moved only two locations before we’re suddenly in a room full of “empty, dusty shelves” instead of in a forest. A room within what? We didn’t see any sort of building or other structure discovered in the forest or on the path - we were just walking down the path and suddenly we’re in a room with metal walls and welded seams. Odd. More importantly, we’re now armed: there’s a “microlaser” here! Scanning it explains that it’s an attachment for our forefinger. We scoop that up, wear it, and with no other obvious exits available from this room, return to the lizard.

Trying the west path next, we sense “sweet and alluring” smells from the woods to the south. But it’s a trap! Heading that way subjects us to attack by “a snake with two heads and three arms” exuding a mesmerizingly sweet odor. We come to our senses when it spits venom at us, bringing our damage level up to 3%. Shooting the snake with the laser seems obvious, but when I do I get a prompt I wasn’t expecting: the question “how much energy should we charge the laser with?” Apparently this laser casts from hit points. Without any reference point, I try “20” but only deliver “glancing wounds” - to which the snake responds with a deadly poison bite that immediately brings us to 100% damage, ending our first foray prematurely.

Essentially this, plus three arms.
Trivia question: what’s the source of this image?

The game then… offers to resurrect us, a la Zork. I wasn’t expecting this in a sci-fi game, but now’s as good a time as any to see what this entails. I take the game up on its offer and am back at the start location with the hungry lizard. A “full scan” reveals that it’s not a full restart though - our cyborg and bio levels are still what they were at the time of death (the cyborg level slightly lower - I guess that’s what I used to power the laser), and we’re at 28% damage. I head to the laser room but it’s empty. I head back to the snake, which spits venom again, and the microlaser is there on the ground. So this isn’t a rewind of time - our inventory seems to drop in the place of our death and we come back to “life” mostly but not entirely intact. I wonder if this is going to be used as a puzzle element somewhere down the line.

In any event, the snake doesn’t stop us from re-acquiring and wearing the laser. This time I try shooting with power 50 and the snake “slithers off to die in peace.” Serves it right! I also realize during all this that our cyborg and bio levels both slowly but steadily decrease as we move around. Better find some power soon to keep those topped up, or even resurrection isn’t going to do us much good.

Back to exploring! Killing the snake doesn’t seem to actually help other than by removing a threat - the path there ended in a thicket through which further movement “is impossible.” Back to the path, I check out a “clearing to the north” and find a pipe leaking water into a small puddle. I can’t drink or take the water, but the game recognizes my efforts to interact with it, so presumably I’ll be back here with a container of some kind. I return to the path again and take it all the way west and find myself in yet another incongruous metal passageway. This time the game comments that we passed through “a doorway my logic circuits say can’t exist, rising from the path like a portal into another dimension.” The writing is already impressing me compared to other games of this era. Small wonder, that being Mr. Berlyn’s stock in trade.

The metal passageway leads to three discoveries. The first is a “shoulder harness” that we can wear, with “four tiny foot-stirrups mounted on its top.” I have trouble visualizing this or how it will help us in the future, but hey, more stuff to get. The second discovery is a passage to a “huge, round, wooden-floored room,” that I cannot pass through - an “invisible force” scans us and blocks us from continuing. And the third discovery is a door to “Detox Station 1,” warning that I need “proper ID” for “processing.” Not sure what that’s about as I can pass through the door just fine. The problem is, the other side is dark! Heeding the game’s warning that continuing would be unwise, I try to retreat but it’s too late… “something snuck up on us” and we’re back at 100% damage and death. “Find a light source” is now our third goal.

“Something” snuck up on us, indeed.

I resurrect again and check out the far north end of the path where we started. This ends at a door to yet another “huge, wooden-floored room” - probably the same one I saw earlier, as I again can’t enter it thanks to an “invisible force.” No other exploration options clearly present themselves, and I also realize belatedly that I’ve lost my laser - I guess I dropped it in the dark room when I died and now can’t safely retrieve it. Time for a full reboot of the game and a rethink on my apparently limited options.

The answer comes when trying the old “brute force the exits” trick - I’m not limited to the path for exploring the forest. In fact, I quickly learn that the forest is laid out in a 5 by 5 grid of locations, through which I can freely move without regard for paths. Canvassing the area I make three more discoveries. The first is a “piece of string” that I can’t retrieve, as it’s “in a tangled mess and looped around the tree trunks.” Neither untying it nor shooting it with the laser seem possible. I ask my cyborg half for its opinion and it comments the string is “very strong” - guess I’ll have to come back here later with a better suited tool.

The second discovery is a “power-unit.” Picking it up doesn’t put it in my inventory, but rather automatically installs it and boosts our cyborg level by 425, with the game commenting that this helps but we still need “the permanent one.” Our bio level remains unchanged.

As the game itself says, “More power for the Borg!”

The third and most important discovery is a new location: a raised ramp heading south out of the forest, enclosed by a metal railing littered with “a quantity of dead insects.” Sounds like an electric fence! We follow the ramp south into another sudden shift from bucolic forest to sterile metal passages. Here we’re first greeted by a “vending machine” with a “narrow, horizontal slot.” I can’t seem to do anything with it yet, but my cyborg half comments that there might be food inside. Food for the lizard perhaps?

Further down the passageway leads us past a picture-window showing “a distant, snow-capped mountain range and a verdant valley” - which a closer scan reveals to simply be a hologram. I’m getting the sense that we’re inside some kind of spaceship or space station, with the forest area being either some kind of simulation or a self-contained “garden” of sorts, like the forest area from Starcross.

The passageway ends in what is apparently a library, with a bookcase on the east wall and an “ultrafiche” we can acquire - which my cyborg half tells me can hold up to 2.6 GB of data. Oh, how the future marches on. :) We try reading it but its printing is too small without “the proper equipment.” We also can’t seem to do anything with either the bookcase or a “metal partition” on the north wall, which sports a small slot and a “maintenance personnel only” sign. My cyborg half comments that “force isn’t going to work” to open the partition.

I backtrack and focus my attention back on the electric fence over the raised ramp, as the game makes a point of describing a clearing below. The solution here is simpler than I thought: simply going “down” from the path gets us over the fence and down to the clearing, with just a bit of sizzling (and another 3% damage). There’s a paved path heading east from here, and we also can’t seem to return to the ramp as it’s too high to reach. Having learned my lesson from the beginning of the game, I try other directions instead of heading east first - but this time I’m immediately “lost in the forest.” Blundering around in random directions eventually dumps us back out into the clearing. I’m not sure if this is a maze to be mapped or just something to be avoided; if I run out of leads I’ll come back here.
For now, heading east down the path brings us to two more metal passages. The first heads into darkness - at least this time with advance warning - so I back up and try the other passage. This leads to a storage room with a pair of sneakers (that I can’t seem to wear) and a pack of 15 matches. Is the light source problem now solved? Maybe, but the passage hasn’t ended yet; up some steps to the south I find a “metal cubicle” the size of an “ancient telephone booth.” Inside is another metal partition with a slot - maybe this is the other side of the partition in the library? - and a “black plastic cube” that I can take, but with no immediately apparent features or function.

Not this kind of cube. Hopefully.

I return to the dark room I’d just found and try lighting a match. Success! I’m at an alcove with another “maintenance personnel only” sign and discover a power-pack and a step ladder. The power-pack gives us another 425 cyborg level, and the step ladder proves to be our ticket out of here - bringing it back to the clearing and dropping it gives us the boost we need to return to the ramp.

That’s all for now! Next time I’ll be heading to the other dark room to try my matches there, and from there maybe exploring the forest maze or tinkering further with the cube. I’m intrigued so far and looking forward to where this leads.

My explorations to date.

Inventory: Microlaser (worn), shoulder harness (worn), ultrafiche, pair of sneakers, pack of matches (14 left), black plastic cube

Time played: 1 hr

And of course, please don't forget to get your score guesses in, as well as any bets that I won’t solve a particular puzzle. Thanks all!

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 or some other appropriate cipher for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.


  1. I haven't tried the game, but the interface is interesting and the idea of living and mechanic side of the protagonist has something similar to Berlyn's later Suspended, although in that game there are more machines to control and their link to "me" is thus looser. That originality and Berlyn's prose might give the game some further points from the average, pictureless, non-Infocom text adventure of the period. Let's say 36.

  2. Isn't that image from one of the Lone Wolf gamebooks?

    1. Bingo! Book #3, The Caverns of Kalte, to be precise.

    2. I loved that one as a kid for some reason. I carried around that darned dagger you get at the end for like 20 books. I think you could use it in exactly one place in a later book.

  3. I'm guessing higher than others for no reason - 40 for me.

    Very interested to see how the whole cyborg-human half thing works out over the course of the game.