This is also a game with a unique history, pulled along by the friendly competition between adventure authoring systems. Although Bruce and Marlene did not intend the game to be commercial (instead a springboard to subsequent game ideas that they were brewing), it was unofficially ported and re-released as an advertisement (and sample code) for David Malmberg’s “Adventure Game Toolkit”, a rival development system. That release, retitled The Elf’s Christmas Adventure, is the one that I suspect most players are familiar with.
This Christmas marks the 30th anniversary of Elves ‘87 and I can think of no more fitting time to dig in and explore this piece of holiday cheer. So, spike some eggnog and pull up a chair by the fire, it’s time for a Christmas adventure!
|Visit beautiful Halifax! (Photo by Tony Webster)|
Enter Bruce MacKay and Marlene Abriel. In June 1986, they started work on Elves (later called Elves ‘86), a holiday-themed game based on AdvSys that they could share with their friends in the local Atari users group and perhaps even post to USENET. Bruce was a self-taught programmer, working part-time to port Citadel BBS to Solaris, a popular UNIX variant, for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Bruce was also a consummate BBS-er and spent countless hours (and dollars) dialing long distance to remote systems back in the day before they were all connected via the Internet. He eventually set up a Citadel BBS of his own (running on an Atari ST), “BOA!” or “Burned Out Adventurers!”. Bruce and Marlene collaborated on the game, with the latter contributing most of the story and prose of the game, while Bruce worked on the technical underpinnings. By Christmas that year, Elves was just a toy, a “pretty boring” game by Bruce’s own admission, where you could run around and interact with some objects. They considered the game a flop, but not everyone agreed. In Bruce’s words:
I think it was the '86 version that found its way to California. One December evening just as I sat down for dinner, I received a phone call from Neil Harris, then Product Marketing Manager for Atari. He just wanted to say thanks for the game and to let us know that everyone in their office was playing it and having a good laugh. You have to remember that this was the '80s. No internet. We were in shock that anyone that far away would have seen the game, much less taken the time to get in touch. I suspect Neil had my number because I was registered in their developer program. I don't remember how it would have gone public, perhaps Atari had a BBS that I might have uploaded it to, or maybe I put the files on USENET's comp.atari.st feed.Around this point, Bruce had also started running Elves as a “door game” on his BBS, a game that anyone logged into the BBS could play through their terminal software. This would later serve as the inspiration for a never-completed second game, but more on that in a bit. Of course, BOA BBS only supported a single phone line so the number of people that could play the game that was was limited, even if they were willing to call long-distance.
Even with new features and improved documentation, expanding the game was a slog. Time and again, Bruce and Marlene hit resource limits or bugs which prevented them from advancing. Bruce had to invent a new system that he called “floors” to allow the engine to swap in and out items, to get around size restrictions. By the time the game was complete for Christmas, the pair had built the game all the way up to the system’s limits: it could support no new objects, no new synonyms, and they had to remove a handful of things at the last minute to squeak under the wire. That is the version that I will be playing for this review.
In the months that followed, Bruce and Marlene started work on their sequel project, Inca. Marlene had begun the background research, but the vision was to produce a multiplayer text adventure (similar to a MUD) and that simply wasn’t possible with the technology available to them. Before long, both developers moved on from gaming. Bruce transitioned into general software engineering (and eventually IT) while Marlene became a database administrator for a local hospital. Marlene unfortunately passed away a few years later. The Elves ‘87’s story doesn’t quite end there as it will be adopted and ported to create The Elf’s Christmas Adventure, but I’ll talk about that more after my review.
Enough of that! Let’s play the game!
|I’ve heard of contagious yawns… but sneezes?|
I explore my surroundings and there is a ton to see: a mirror, a dresser, a closet to the south, and more. Working my way through the dresser, I find a lantern of “elfish” design in the top drawer. Score one for a Zork reference right off the bat! (Although in Zork, it is the sword that is elvish, not the lamp.) The middle and bottom drawers are locked and I’ll need to find the key. I enter the walk-in closet and there’s no light switch so I have to turn on my lamp. Inside is a parka which I put on, after some initial confusion. There is no “wear’ verb in this game and so picking it up is the same as wearing it. Being the seasoned adventure gamer that I am, I root through the pockets to discover a gold key in the left pocket and a brass key in the right. Very convenient!
I start trying the keys and the brass key immediately breaks in the lock on the middle drawer. Is this the kind of adventure with dead ends? Probably. I restore and don’t use it in that drawer, but it does successfully open the bottom drawer where I find “idiot mittens” and long johns. The latter are far too big for an elf, but I won’t question how Santa’s underwear ended up in an elf’s dresser. The “idiot” mittens are like the ones that you little kids wear, with a string connecting the two mittens so that they cannot be easily dropped or lost. I had to look up this definition so it may be a regional term.
|My map of the North Pole|
- The main workshop room was just to the west of the elves’ bunkhouse. That’s where all of the hard-working elves are building gifts for all the good little girls and boys. It also seems to be the center of the complex. There are a ton of items listed in the room description, most of which I cannot pick up, but I do manage to snag a pile of toys.
- Just to the west is Santa’s garage where the sled is presumably kept. I cannot seem to get the door open (and the game insists there is no door), but there is one of those white styrofoam coolers in there containing some beer. After I open it, I get a message in a few turns that our beer got warm. No one wants warm beer! Just in case I screwed something up, I restore and leave the beer there untouched for now.
- South of the workshop is gift-wrapping, where all the presents get the fancy wrapping and bows. Like before, there are tons of objects references in the description, but I am only able to pick up some cheap plastic poinsettias and some “To/From” cards.
- Further south from there is Santa’s personal office. There is a ton of unread mail there (which I can pick up but not open), an Atari ST computer with a weather report calling for dense fog, as well as a locked desk and filing cabinet. The gold key from the parka works in the desk but I’ll have to keep looking to find a way to open the filing cabinet.
|These days, an Atari ST can most easily be found in a museum. (Image by Ranma, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)|
- October 5, 1871 - Reveal of a Penguin Colony in the Antarctic with some important items and the recommendation that you never go there without a map.
- December 24, 1871 - The most perfect Christmas Eve on record.
- December 12, 1873 - Explanation of how Santa fits into the chimneys. He has the ability to shrink and blow by filling himself (or draining himself) of air like a balloon.
- December 3, 1899 - Explanation of how Santa’s sack works. It’s matter-to-energy transmission to another dimension, of course. That should have been obvious. (Or maybe you just thought it was a Bag of Holding?)
- February 1, 1901 - The elves just finished a month of vacation and have to resume working for next Christmas.
- December 15, 1901 - Explanation of how Santa visits all the kids in one night. It’s because he lives in a higher energy sphere, able to move at 36,000 times the speed of an elf.
Now, how much of this is important and how much is flavor text? I honestly have no idea. The bit about the Penguin Colony seems suspiciously like it’s a hint, plus the note about another dimension if you try to enter Santa’s sack. I’ll be on the lookout for both the sack and an Antarctic map or penguin.
Now, let me backtrack a bit and talk about the parser. Overall, the parser isn’t terrible. It supports full sentences but not as robustly as the Infocom one. We cannot use pronouns, “wear” things, or “look under” them, for a few examples. Figuring out what you can interact with is a chore. The gift wrapping room listed tons of items and yet I can only pick up two and most of the time the game doesn’t even know the words for the others. In the main workshop, I lose a sentence or two of the room description because it scrolls off the screen before I can see it. It may have been slower on an Atari ST, but some pagination would have been nice. I should also mention that the game makes use of Canadian English terms which I had never heard before. Did you know that a “two-four” of beer is a 24-pack, for example? I already mentioned the “idiot mittens” as well, but there were a few other places where the noun seemed a bit strange; I am sure this reflects some regional terms that I hadn’t heard before. I blame this on our Halifax-based development team, but it really wasn’t too much of a problem.
|Fun Fact: The North Pole at Christmas is approximately -40 degrees Celsius.|
- South of the Workshop is Santa’s personal cabin, a gingerbread house. Outside is a thermometer showing the current temperature to be 10 degrees Celsius. That is too warm for Christmas at the North Pole! Santa is inside, running around drinking mixed drinks that he’s making in a blender and searching for a belt to hold up his pants. The image is… charming, to say the least. He asks us repeatedly for a belt so I expect that is one of the puzzles. I don’t have a belt, but I do manage to steal Santa’s blender.
- A runway is to the west, complete with a reindeer barn. Unfortunately, it’s not designed for warm-weather operation and so it’s too muddy. Even worse, I discover Rudolph ill in the reindeer barn, his nose completely failing to glow.
- At the farthest end of the runway, whatever warming is affecting the North Pole seems to begin to fade and there is just enough snow to make a snowman. Naturally, I do! He doesn’t come magically to life.
- In the far north is, naturally enough, the North Pole although there’s nothing obvious yet to see or do there.
The reindeer barn has an “interesting” feature. When you enter the barn, it’s just empty. It is not until you “search” the barn that you get an interesting message: “Odd that you didn’t notice the enormous set of double doors leading to the northeast into the corral.” I can’t say that I like this much because I only typed “search” because I wanted to see if there was something hidden in the straw or whatever. From here, I go back and type “search” in every room just to make sure there’s isn’t a similar “joke” anywhere else, but I do not find any.
I have explored everywhere that I can find to explore, so I set off to solve some of the puzzles. At this point, my key leads are the middle drawer in the dresser, the filing cabinet in Santa’s Workshop, the cooler with the beer, and Santa’s belt. In all of this, I managed to leave my lantern on so I had to restart the game anyway and that gave me a chance to look over it all again. Giving Santa the beer didn’t help, even if I dragged the cooler there so it would be cold on arrival. Nothing I do seems to help Rudolph or to make “Frosty” come to life. I struggle for a bit with the mittens to see if I can get the string out, possibly to give them to Santa as a belt, but no good.
Just as I am about to give up and take a hint, restarting reminds me of the octagon room and how I never got back there. This time, I notice the mirror in the elves’ bunkhouse and try to enter it. Is that how I got here? It works and I am transported to a much colder winter wonderland: the South Pole.
|This is hard to read, but single walls are passages and double walls are deadly.|
The ice floe area is also the area with the biggest surprise of the game so far: Percival the Penguin. Up to this point, every character in the game has been static, no more of a character than a light fixture. Percival is different, a scripted character that randomly walks around the ice floes, occasionally stops to fish or to give us a nice little kick, and-- if you keep following him for long enough-- he gets pissed at you and knocks you in a random direction where you are almost certain to die. All in all, he is pretty well-written, even given only a few bits of dialog. He’s the most “mature” aspect of the game so far. He also has pockets in his tuxedo which I cannot seem to access (since the game mistakes me asking about the pockets in my parka) and is happy to (permanently) take any object that I hand him. I spend a good amount of time trying to find some object that he will react to, I take off the parka and try to access his pockets that way (but die of exposure in the cold), and try to survive being kicked and find him again to see if he does something differently. In the end, I had to give up for now.
Percival aside, exploring the floes rewards me with two special rooms (the ones marked with asterisks): a crystal garden where I can find a magical locked orb containing an ice flower, as well as a “Great Ice Hall” where I can find an “old silk hat”. When I am ready to leave, I have to take the northeast exit which somehow returns me back to where I started from. I take the mirror back to Santa’s Workshop.
|Alas, no Penguin Village. I was hoping to meet Arale.|
I return to trying to solve puzzles, eventually realizing that the brass key (for the elves dresser) amazingly opens the orb and I can remove the ice flower that is inside. That hardly makes sense, but sure. I try planting it at the North Pole, giving it to Santa, giving it to Frosty or the Penguin, etc. Nothing seems to do anything.
- The first puzzle you are supposed to solve is Santa’s belt. In this case, I was right on thinking that the mittens’ string had something to do with it, but I was using the wrong verbs. If you “untie mittens”, you remove the string and can hand it to Santa. He then thanks us and reveals why he summoned us here: we have to get Rudolph’s nose to glow because of all of the fog. I should have figured this out and feel dumb now that I missed the verb.
- The next step was that I missed some pages in the diary that I found in Santa’s workshop. One of the pages that I missed said that if Rudolph’s nose ever stopped glowing, I can solve it using a potion made of pureed poinsettia blended with the first snowflake of Christmas Eve. I don’t have either of those items, but I do have a blender. I didn’t try reading the diary enough times after the pages started to repeat.
- Frosty is the solution to my poinsettia problem: once he is brought to life, he will bring the plastic poinsettias to life if you hand them to him. That is the only object that he will do anything productive with and I do not think this was hinted anywhere. I had given him a TON of objects to see what would happen, but I must have missed this one. I figure out on my own that you can use the blender to create poinsettia juice from the plant.
|We saved Christmas! Again!|
Time played: 4 hr 05 min
|OMG! An actual title screen!|
Before moving on to the final review, I’d like to pause for a second to take a deeper look at the remake. (Don’t worry! I’ve already jotted down my scores so that it won’t bias me in any way.) I reached out to Mr. Malmberg and he doesn’t have any strong recollections of the update, only that he felt that the original was a very good game. (And I agree!)
The history of the remake is somewhat tricky to piece together, but it started in 1989 when David Malmberg took the original AdvSys source and ported it to his “Adventure Gamer Toolkit” under the name The Elf’s Adventure. I have not looked at that version in specific, but it may have been the more common version pre-Internet as I find a review of it as late as 1993 in Red Herring magazine. In 1992, with the release of the Master’s Edition of the Adventure Game Toolkit, Mr. Malmberg took another pass at the game to produce The Elf’s Christmas Adventure and included the source with copies of the Master’s Edition that he sold through Softworks. This is the version that I just finished playing. At some point prior to 1994, subsequent iterations of the “Master’s Edition” stopped including the Christmas Adventure as one of the sample games.
The remake was explicitly designed as a technical demo, to show off how much more powerful AGT was than its predecessors. Even so, you can tell there is a lot of love that went into this conversion, done by someone that knew the game fairly well. Many of my interface issues have been resolved, with room descriptions clarified and an easier time telling what you can interact with and what you cannot. There are also more verbs, including that we can “wear” the parka now, and exits are easier to find. The layout and interface makes good use of color and the game plays some tinny PC-speaker-style Christmas music to keep you in the mood. I managed to keep it on for almost five minutes before hitting “mute”. The introduction is clearer with more help to guide a novice adventurer. The most egregious addition is that there is now a sign just outside Santa’s Workshop that is a three-page advertisement for the “Master’s Edition”. Commercialism at Christmas!? Blasphemy! Overall however, this is a more mature product.
A note in the game materials also stated that David Malmberg wrote a solution for this game, selling it for “no charge” plus $1 in shipping. I reached out to Mr. Malmberg and unfortunately he no longer has copies of this solution. If anyone purchased one back when the game was new, I would love to see it.
|A newly written help system.|
|Even a menu mode!|
Gameplay-wise, the story works out mostly the same. It is clear that AdvSys still had some advantages over AGT as my two favorite interactive-characters from the former, Percival the Penguin and Frosty, are much less interactive this time around. Percy now stays with you throughout the ice floes, rather than wandering around himself. Frosty is now completely stationary at the end of the runway, a sad testament for a snowman that likes to dance around! Puzzle-wise, it appears that they realized the final puzzle was a bit too tough and offered an alternative: the ice flower in the orb is now a poinsettia and I suspect you can use it for the final concoction, although I did not try that myself. Everything else appears to play out identically.
As much as anything else, this has convinced me that I need to spend more time learning about text adventure builders of the 1980s and 1990s. I have indirectly reviewed several (AdvSys, The Quill, and Tartan’s Adventure Builder System) and the differences are fascinating in terms what they were were trying to accomplish. AGT’s “Master Edition” is by far the most mature of the several that I looked at, although it is also chronologically the latest.
|The updated ending scene. Note the old version name.|
Now that I’ve played it, we come to the difficult part: the rating. I’ve let the game stew for a couple of days and so I think I can be objective. The truth is, this is a tremendously promising game and a fantastic freshman effort. In the end, I think the designers were let down by the poor quality of the parser more than anything else and much of the time they could have used for polish and playtesting instead went to trying to work around parser bugs and limitations. Just a few more hints here, a few more alternate verbs, and a bit more work on some of the prose and this would have been a commercial-grade effort. As it was, it was still quite good.
Just a reminder that we forego our usual “PISSED” rating system for the suspiciously-similar holiday themed rating system: “EGGNOG”. And for new readers, keep in mind that we are scoring against an idealized graphical adventure game. A “low” score doesn’t mean a failing grade, especially with text adventures already being handicapped by not having graphics.
Enigmas and Solution-Findability - There is a ton of good ideas here, but the reach exceeds their grasp somewhat. The setup of the game was creative and the ice floes are a fantastic take on a maze; I could easily have imagined that in an Infocom game. I also loved the diary as a way to hint at the puzzles, although I was unlucky and missed one or two of the critical pages. I score this category low for two reasons: first, that I do not believe this game to be solvable in its current state and second, that there are too many “fake” puzzles that don’t go anywhere. The first is just a polish issue as a hint here or a clarification there would have gone a long way. Was there any hint to the thermostat puzzle? To Frosty’s transmogrifying powers? What was up with the ice flower? Or Percival and his many pockets? So many good idea, but they needed a bit more time. My score: 2.
|A diary page about Santa’s incredible balloon powers.|
Gameworld and Story - Here’s where the game starts to shine: the diary is fantastic! It would have been nice for a bit more hand-holding to get you started in the game since I didn’t even solve the “first” puzzle to fully understand the story, but that is probably as much my fault as the game’s. I wish there had been more to Frosty and Percival. My favorite aspect was one that was in the diary entries that I missed: there is a suggestion that Christmas troubles are somewhat cyclic. We are dealing with Rudolph II (or III?), for example, as the previous generations once had the same problem and the original Rudolph was from the 19th century. I just wish that the rest of the game incorporated this brilliant backstory a bit better, and had it connect to the South Pole puzzles or something else. My score: 3.
Noises and Pretty Pixels - I loved the ASCII-art map, but there’s no other graphics to speak of so we have to give this category the same score as every other text adventure. My score: 0.
Overworld and Environs - The authors depict a great little Christmas world complete with cute explanations for some of Santa’s secrets. I also am particularly fond of the South Pole segment and the whole thing manages to feel like a Christmas game. My score: 3.
Gregariousness and Thespianism - The prose was decent throughout and I especially loved how much personality they could get out of Pervival with only a few lines of code. This category takes a hit because there just isn’t much NPC dialog, except a few lines from Santa about his belt. I would have loved to have Frosty talk, for instance. My score: 3.
I am going to use my discretionary point to add one more because the above doesn’t quite feel like it captures the true charm of this game. It’s nicer than it should be and it’s just that it is a bit too difficult (or incomplete) to really be all that it could be. Let’s tally it up: (2+2+3+0+3+3)/.6 + 1 = 23 points!
The 1992 remake would have scored better on the puzzles thanks to clearer room and object descriptions, user interface, and the additional of the background music. I would have scored that a 27.
I hope you enjoyed this look at a fantastic Christmas adventure. I had a ton of fun. I especially want to thank Bruce MacKay who provided me an insane amount of information for us to use in my write-up, as well as David Malmberg who was kind enough to answer a few questions. I look forward to seeing what kinds of Christmas mischief we can get ourselves into next year. Merry Christmas!