Sunday 4 February 2018

Missed Classic 51: Seastalker - Introduction (1984)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Now, where was I? Oh yes, before I was distracted by the amazing Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes (plus a Christmas side trip), I had just completed Sorcerer, the first Infocom game of 1984. That game remains one of my favorites so far and has moved Steve Meretzky into my short list of awesome game designers. Three months later, Infocom followed it up with Seastalker, our first “junior” adventure. One of the key trends with Infocom as they entered into 1984 was a desire to connect traditional fiction writers with their new “interactive fiction” medium. We have already seen two games by Mike Berlyn, a science fiction author, in 1983, but this year will go even farther: three of their five games will be written by an established non-interactive author.

In order to ensure that their first adventure for a younger audience was successful, Infocom sought out Jim Lawrence, a 30-year veteran of middle-grade fiction, and paired him with Stu Galley. Mr. Galley had already proven that he could take another’s ideas and make them blossom when he wrote The Witness, this would be his chance to do so with an author that didn’t understand the medium. You probably have never heard of Mr. Lawrence, but in just the few weeks that I have been researching him, I have become a tremendous fan.

I want a “Discovery Squad” theme song!

How could Mr. Lawrence both be a 30-year veteran of the industry while being almost unknown? Simple! He penned nearly everything he has ever written under someone else’s name. He was a professional ghostwriter. While researching this game, I tried to track down his complete bibliography and it has been a terrible challenge. I doubt I have the complete list. Just from what I know so far, he penned more than forty books, not including ones that he edited or provided plot outlines. The complete list is up on my blog. The vast majority of his books are juvenile fiction with some younger fiction thrown in as well. He also wrote some science fiction pornography and I expect the less said about that the better. The vast majority of the books were written for the “Stratemeyer Syndicate”, a group that published young adult fiction since the early 1900s using contract writers and pen names. The Syndicate is best known today for Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but they launched dozens of others.

For our story, the most important Syndicate series was “Tom Swift”. These were some of the Syndicate’s earliest books (launched in 1910 with Tom Swift and his Motorcycle) and featured the titular young inventor solving problems with his wits and science, occasionally even saving the country or the world. The original Tom Swift gradually grew older in the books and even got married. The original series ended in 1941, but the Syndicate relaunched it in 1954 with a new hero: Tom Swift Jr., the son of the original character. Jim Lawrence published his first novel writing for this series, Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster. Although Mr. Lawrence came on with book #5, he quickly become the lead writer for Tom Swift and penned twenty-four more novels starring the young inventor over the next two decades. He also picked up books in other Syndicate series such as Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

I do not have much experience with young adult literature, especially the kind peddled by the Syndicate. I had never in my life read Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, and I had not even heard of Tom Swift. To get myself into the right mindset for this game, I selected two of his stories to read: his first Hardy Boys mystery, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (1957), as well as his first published novel, Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster (1954). Both books were better than I expected and the Tom Swift book blew me away, actually good enough that I wished I had discovered them when I was younger. No wonder he was picked up to lead the series! I wrote up brief bonus reviews on both of them if you click the links above. I love that the Tom Swift stories paint ingenuity and science as core American virtues; the stories are a product of the 1950s and the cold war, but it would be nice to think of science as a core American value again.

In addition to his books, Mr. Lawrence also penned newspaper comics including James Bond, Buck Rogers, and Friday Foster, the latter of which was adapted into a 1975 film. He wrote radio plays including two episodes of the pre-television Green Hornet series. If there was adventure writing to be done, Jim Lawrence probably did it. I only hope I don’t find out that he was a serial sexual harasser or something because he deserved so much more recognition than he received.

Reagan: A President good at tearing down walls.

Opening up the Seastalker package reveals a surprising amount of content: several maps, a hint system, a letter from the president, and more. The premise of the game is simple: you are a young inventor who works for your father’s company, “Inventions Unlimited”. As the game begins, we have recently completed work on a two-seated submarine, the Scimitar, and hope to take it out for a test run soon. We’ve also just been inducted in the “Discovery Squad”, an organization of important inventors. We even received a congratulatory note from the President himself! (Assumedly, this is President Reagan.) We are told that we will shortly have to use our brand new submarine to rescue an underwater base from a sea monster. Sounds exciting!

The manual goes goes into some detail to list all of the “Inventions Unlimited” personnel that we might interact with in the game, as well as inventions and other devices which we may come across. There seems to be quite the selection! In terms of cast, this game may have more characters than any we have seen since Deadline, but let’s hold off making that assumption until we actually see them all in the game. As characters enter the game, I’ll try to remember to mention what the manual says about them. The included hint system is a bit strange: in the original release, it used the “red plastic” technique to hide spoilers. I know that Infocom sold guides and I assume that this game comes with its own hints just because it is intended to be an easier adventure. I am avoiding the hint system to prevent spoilers. If this is a kid’s game, I probably won’t need them.

I wasn’t able to find a copy with original hints. This image is lowingly stolen from MoCaGH.

Not a Lost Treasure
The final thing I want to bring up before I start to play the game is that this is the very first Infocom game in our series that was not included in the original Lost Treasures of Infocom set from 1991. I do not know if this represents a judgement on the game’s quality, but it is strange that we’ve come twelve games in before we hit one that wasn’t in the initial release. This game was included in the second set (released in 1992) and that is the version that I will be playing. Lost Treasures II was also strange in that the CD-ROM version had three more games than the disk version and you had to pay extra if you wanted Leather Goddesses of Phobos. It’s like the first DLC!

Main menu from the original set.

The sequel doesn’t even try.

I can’t say that it has any impact on the quality of the game, but the two collections have widely different menu screens. The first Lost Treasures set has a brief scene with a strange woman named Zoe. This one has a half-assed set of menus where you select the games using the function keys, except some of them take you to sub-menus. It just feels cheap.

Enough of that! Time to play the game.

That’s one way to start a game...

Before the game properly starts, we are asked to enter to enter our name. I chose “Maxwell Kniggit” as something suitably adventurous-sounding. It says that I can choose to be a hero or heroine, but it doesn’t ask me to specify gender. I assume that the game will just avoid using pronouns to refer to you, but this may be the first Infocom game to have a female protagonist. Many of the others did not specify your gender either, but I suppose I just assumed the characters were male. I need to check my biases. Is Infidel the only game with a canonical male hero? I honestly cannot remember.

The actual game begins with Tip Randall bursting in to tell us that the alert signal is on. We were apparently lost in thought working on the plans for our submarine. The video phone is ringing at our desk. Someone is trying to Skype us! (Somehow, this is less impressive today than it must have been thirty years ago.) I turn on the phone but the sound and the screen is fuzzy. I focus it by turning a knob, as politely suggested by the game. The call is from Commander Bly from the Aquadome.

I try talking to her, but it doesn’t work. Aha! I have to pick up the microphone first. Maxwell really should have invented a wireless headset and this would have gone much more smoothly. Once I have the mic on, I ask her about the problem and she tells me that an undersea monster which they are calling a “snark” is attacking the transparent dome of the research station. I ask her about the Aquadome and she reminds me that all company subs can reach there on autopilot. I try to ask her more, but the video turns off suddenly and I lose three points. What the heck happened? Well, I think I got what I needed to know from her anyway, but I sure would like those three points back.

Spoiler: The snark was a boojum. 

Okay, if you are half as confused as I am right now, then you are still pretty confused. This was all covered in the manual. Here are our cast members at Inventions Unlimited:
  • Tip Randall is described as a jock and my “closest pal and constant companion”. He’s also an expert scuba diver, swimmer, and he can pilot a submarine. All of those skills sound like they could come in handy.
  • Commander Zoe Bly is the no-nonsense commander of the Aquadome base, an athlete and a graduate of the “Galley Institute of Technology”, but apparently her all-business attitude doesn’t make her popular with her crew.
  • Sharon Kemp is my assistant at Inventions Unlimited. We have been friends since childhood (her father is a friend of my father) and she’s only recently out of college. She went to MIT. I haven’t met her yet, but she’s listed as working here on the map.

The included map.

My traditional adventure game map.

I spend a couple of minutes mapping out the layout of the base, though I hardly needed to since it’s exactly like the map included with the game. The game probably doesn’t want me to do this, but I am an annoying adventure game “expert” and I can hardly help if I feel the need to map first. Fortunately, there isn’t too much to find:
  • The main “room” consists of five accessible areas. There are three sets of supplies (mechanical to the west, chemical and electrical to the south), plus an intercom, a security system, and the computestor, a diagnostic machine that I use to test all of my inventions. 
  • Just to the east is a hallway with an electrical panel leading to Kemp’s office and the way out. We can’t leave the building. 
  • South is a large walkway around the holding tank that contains the Scimitar, my submarine. There’s a catalyst capsule on the western walk and we can board the sub to find all sorts of instruments and controls.
While I am exploring, Tip follows close behind as I move from room to room. When I examine him, I find that he’s carrying a magazine and a “universal tool”, whatever that is.

Having wasted a ton of time, I start over and this time, for whatever reason, the videophone doesn’t turn off and I don’t lose three points. I have no idea what I did differently. Since I want to use the computestor on something, I head to it and type “test sub” instead. It tells me that I need to install the catalyst capsule for the reactor plus fill the test tank with water. I already knew both of those things from the manual, but I suppose most people don’t read manuals. It’s no work at all to grab the capsule from the walkway and put it into the reactor on the sub. I board the sub and place the catalyst in the reactor and close the door. I still cannot leave because the sub is not in the water, but we can fill the docking tank by just typing “fill tank”. (There’s a remote control on the ship, naturally enough.) I close the hatch, open the exterior gate, and engage the throttle. We are on our way!

Sneaky! Teaching American children the metric system!

The next bit is tricky and more than a bit of blatant copy protection: we have to maneuver the sub out into the open ocean before we can engage the autopilot. We start at the research lab just five meters below the surface with our exit, a gap in the seawall, to the northeast. We can set the direction of the sub and the throttle, but we cannot “walk” the sub where we want it to go. Instead, we have to set the direction and turn on the throttle to one of three speeds, essentially one, two, or three “squares” per turn. We can also go up or down about five meters per turn. So at any time, we are moving in some direction laterally and we can also be moving up and down. Got that? And it’s harder than it looks because if we are too high, we hit boats or buoys. If we are too low, we hit the bottom of the bay-- and there is a shoal right near the start that will kill us too. We usually get a warning before we hit something so there’s a turn or two to react, but I crash the sub more times than I care to admit. Even in a turn based system, this is difficult! On the bright side, we can get a good idea what our position and risk is by examining the “sonarscope” in the sub.

We’re gonna crash!

Once I make it through the seawall, I can relax and turn on the autopilot… for about one turn. We get a new alert: the circuit temperature gauge is rising and it’s near the danger zone. There is a “test” button that I can press, but it says that all systems are fine. It’s still going up, but the next time I hit the button it tells me something useful: I need to adjust the voltage regulator from the crawlspace. What crawlspace? It’s on the submarine diagram!

“Bioceptor” sounds so cool.

Looking around, there’s an access panel that I need to open to access the crawl space, but I need a special wrench that I didn’t bring with me. Tip was carrying a “universal tool”, but he doesn’t seem to have it anymore. After some searching and more swearing, I restart from the beginning. This time, when I have the call with Commander Bly, the videophone dies again. (Thus proving that Mr. Lawrence accurately predicted Skype.) This time, I solve it by finding that one of the breakers in the electrical panel has been tripped deliberately. Who could have done that? I use the security scanner and it identifies that everyone in the building has an Inventions Unlimited ID. Is there a saboteur on my team? Who could it be? Is that why we are having problems with the sub as well? Even once I get the phone fixed, I cannot contact the base. They are apparently too busy dealing with a sea monster to answer. (Or, they are dead, but this is a kid’s game!)

This time, I grab the magazine and the “universal tool” from Tip while I see that he’s carrying them. I read the magazine and get what I expect will be a major clue: Dr. Jerome Thorp has been experimenting with genetic engineering and he has been able to create specialized sea creatures. They can be stimulated (and maybe even trained!) using ultrasonic pulses. Thorp has recently gone into hiding, but other scientists believe that he may have created the creatures using Amino-Hydrophase (AH) molecules. We also learn that he was engaged to my assistant, Sharon Kemp! Aha! Is she the traitor? I try to call her on the intercom, but she’s not in the base.

I make it back to where I was and am able to use the tool to access the crawl space. This time, I try to fix the voltage regulator, but I kick something and the sub is damaged. Game over. Tip won’t go in and fix it either. What am I missing? It takes me a bit, but I work out that the problem is that I shouldn’t try to fix a submarine while it’s in motion! If I stop the throttle and wait for the engine to fully stop, I am able to repair the regulator. We then close up the hatch and continue on autopilot. At one point we pass a whale which we can examine using our searchlights. The writing is quite good; I am not doing it justice.

This is a whale of a tale so far...

As we approach the Aquadome, Commander Bly calls again and tells me that she needs to discuss something with me privately. I maneuver into the Aquadome, mostly just following on-screen prompts to set the throttle correctly, etc. Once we are docked, we pop the hatch and emerge into the dome. Just where I want to be with a saboteur and a monster attacking!

And that’s going to be it for me for today. Next time, I’ll explore the Aquadome and see what I can find. This game feels very much like a Tom Swift game and I can’t help but wonder if Infocom didn’t consider licensing that property. “Inventions Unlimited” is pretty much identical to “Swift Enterprises”, down to the special security scanner that the Swifts check for intruders. I do not know the characters well enough to see if there are other analogs.

My predictions:
  • Sharon Kemp will be in league with the evil Dr. Thorp. She’s the one that sabotaged my video phone so that I wouldn’t be able to help.
  • It will be Dr. Thorp as the main villain. This is a kids game, after all! He’s created sea monsters and we’ll use sonic pulses to control them in some way.

Time played: 2 hr 10 min
Inventory: Universal tool, magazine, logbook

Don’t forget that this is an introductory post so you can guess a score. This is our first game with Jim Lawrence and also our first “junior” adventure, so I am not sure what I can say. The Witness, Galley’s previous game, scored a gargantuan 50 points, while the Infocom games that I have played so far averaged 38 points. (The Witness was played by Ilmari.) Please also check out my mini review, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (1957) and Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster (1954).


  1. No idea on this one, I bet on a 30 score

  2. "We even received a congratulatory note from the President himself! (Assumedly, this is President Reagan.)"

    Is there any indication in the manual or the game that this is meant to be a contemporary game? (I've always had the impression that the game was supposed to happen in a nearby future, but I might have been wrong).

    I'll guess 37.

    1. I do not think the manual says anything about when the game takes place. I assumed it was contemporary just because it felt so much like Tom Swift and those are all contemporary. Of course, the tech is advanced for the time period, but so is the tech in Iron Man and we still think of that as contemporary.

      But I'll pay more attention to see if I can find any clues to the setting.

    2. The invention diagrams in the manual are all labeled with a "84" date. Since this is pre-Y2K, I am going to assume that they meant 1984 since I expect they would have been more explicit if it was 2084... and the technology, while advanced, isn't quite 100-years advanced.

      I think that locks this in as a "contemporary" game and Reagan is the president!

  3. 37 for a score guess.

    More importantly... "a brief scene with a strange woman named Zoe"

    Hmmm. A woman named Zoe with a tan jumpsuit who gives you a rubber hose... why does that seem familiar... it couldn't be one of the videos on our very own youtube channel, and that EXACT image couldn't be the thumbnail picture for that video, could it? :) :)

    1. Wow! I had no idea that this was a reference to Leather Goddesses! Good catch.

    2. I admit I lol’d at this.