Saturday, 10 February 2018

Missed Classic: Seastalker - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich



Welcome to the Aquadome! Last week, I started into Seastalker and discovered that my father’s company's underwater base is under attack by a sea monster. I was able to finish work on my experimental sub, deal with two acts of sabotage, and navigate a busy and obstacle-filled harbor to finally arrive at the Aquadome. This game is fun so far, half adventure and half mystery, as we have to both save the base and uncover the saboteur. I have a theory who that is, but we’ll see what happens as we arrive at the base itself.

This week starts with a happy reunion as I dock my sub at the base’s docking tank, and emerge into a reception area. The whole station crew is gathered to meet us! Is one of them the saboteur?

Our character, from the back of the box. We haven’t had to use scuba equipment yet.

Strangely, when we arrive at the reception, the game doesn’t tell us the names of the crewmembers, just that “Zoe Bly and her five aquadome crew” are waiting for us. Fortunately, it’s all there in the manual:
  • Mick Antrim, an older gentleman who is an expert at communications, undersea navigation, and nuclear power. We are told that he has a poor relationship with Commander Bly.
  • Mark Siegel, formerly with the Department of Defense, is an expert on sonar gear and has recently learned to scuba dive.
  • Bill Greenup, former “beach bum” and now expert scuba diver for the Aquadome
  • Walt ”Doc” Horvak - marine biochemist with some medical background, also enjoys scuba diving. 
  • Amy Lowell - college student and “tomboy”, she works at the Aquadome during the summer
Tip and I are greeted by the crew and I ask Bly about the problem. She says that she wants to discuss it in private, but Mick speaks up and starts an argument. He says that she is just going to complain about the crew and if she has something to say, she should say it. We do not get that far because we all start gasping for breath. We are told that the oxygen has been cut and depending on whether each individual crew member was wearing their emergency oxygen, they have either ten or twenty turns to live.

I head north because I’m really the most qualified to fix this somehow. The air supply system is in the next room including a helpful note on how to fix air issues. There’s an arrow to a hook where a Fram Bolt Wrench should be hanging to open up the access panel, but someone has taken it! Fortunately, my “universal tool” that I nabbed from Tip still does the trick and I can get the panel open. Someone removed a relay and left it on the bottom of the panel casing. I pick it up and screw it back in. Air quickly returns to the system and the emergency is over. How is the saboteur here as well? Could it be Tip? He was the only person in both locations, although he has been with me the entire time. Could there be two saboteurs? And if there are two, how did someone expect to cut the oxygen without committing suicide? Or did they have extra oxygen hidden somewhere and would have turned back on the station air after everyone passed out? So many questions!


Just like this but underwater.

Once the air is restored, we find Doc Horvac returning from the medical area with Bly’s emergency oxygen. Greenup and Lowell had collapsed, but they begin to recover. I ask about the sabotage and Bly says that anyone could have tampered with the oxygen system while they were watching for my sub’s arrival. Tip adds that whomever did the deed took the Fram Bolt Wrench, so if we find that we may have a clue. Mick Atrium continues his argument from before stating that it shows Bly’s lack of leadership that three crew members-- including herself!-- didn’t have their emergency oxygen on, even though everyone is required to have theirs on at all time. In fact, only he and Doc Horvac was properly prepared. I have to say that he has a point, but not following safety protocols doesn’t exactly conjure up a sea monster.

I ask Bly to continue our conversation before the oxygen literally was swept out of the room and she takes me back to her office. She reveals that there is a traitor aboard (no, really?) and that more than one system was sabotaged. I ask her to show me the evidence and she reveals a black box found on the sonar system. As soon as the box comes out, Tip asks to talk to me alone. What’s up with that? I open it with the universal tool and find that it would have both made sonar readings fuzzy as well as changed the pattern of our systems’ ultrasonic pulses. That sounds important, especially since I know that the sea creatures that Dr. Thorpe was working on responds to those. Before I can do anything else, Bly prompts me to answer questions.
  • She asks if I could use the Scimitar to hunt the Snark. I say yes.
  • She asks if we should arm it for attacking? I say yes again and the game helpfully tells me that I can ask for tips about the “dart gun” and “extensor claw” in the provided hints, if I need to. That gives a bit much away, don’t you think?
  • She asks if I want to go to the Aquadome lab to think it over? I answer yes again. 
  • Once there, we meet up with Doc and he tells me that he saw a concentration of AH molecules before the last attack and if I have seen that sort of thing before. I answer yes, because of the magazine article. 
  • Tip agrees and asks if we should review the magazine together. I answer yes, yet again. 
  • Mick Antium pops in to say that he’s going to take a look at the Scimitar. Everyone seems to be waiting for me to review the magazine, so I hand it over to Doc. He reads it and says that he thinks he knows something that will tranquilize a creature based on AH molecules. Should he make some? I say “yes” again.
  • I then get asked if I can think of any weapon to use as a last resort. And er… no? I read through the manual and it tells me that the Aquadome researchers have an underwater “bazooka” that they use for mining. I answer “yes”. 
  • Doc asks me to show him what I have in mind, but I don’t have one.
That was a strange on-rails sequence. I can’t think of any case in any game that we’ve played so far where an entire sequence is played essentially using yes or no questions. (Plus showing the magazine.) I don’t know where the “bazooka” is or even if it’s the correct solution, but I restore anyway to just after the oxygen incident and before I got into the long barrage of questions. This way, I can explore the base before triggering that story sequence and perhaps find some more clues.


The map from the manual.


My traditional map.

Exploring the whole dome doesn’t take very long: it’s only sixteen rooms, nearly all of which are empty. In the northwest are the lab and the workshop, neither of which are interesting now but the lab is where part of my questioning with Commander Bly took place. In the northeast is the communications center and an empty galley. The comms center has the video phone and sonar equipment in it, likely where Bly found the black box. I search for more clues but do not find any. Southwest are the dorms, all empty. The southeast finally has some useful things, the Aquadome office where Bly takes me first and a storage room. On the ground in the office is the missing Fram Bolt Wrench so either Bly is the saboteur herself or someone is trying to incriminate her. Two areas appear in the included map but which I cannot find any way to access: the exercise track and a set of labeled catwalks. Something tells me those will be important later...

While I was exploring, Mick comes by and says that he’s going to look at the Scimitar. That happened last time during my questions sequence, so it must be on a timer rather than part of “Twenty Questions”. A bit later, he comes back and tells me that we do not have an Emergency Survival Unit in the sub. He asks if the team should install one and I say yes. A few turns later, he reports back that they are done. Awesome!

I finish up my explorations and then head to the sub to see what changed. It is not so much that the ESU was installed incorrectly, as it was turned into a murder machine: under the seat was a temperature sensor and syringe primed so that once the sensor reached a certain point, I would be given an injection through the seat. I think this is supposed to be used for injecting adrenaline or something if the pilot passes out, but it shouldn’t be set to a temperature sensor and the syringe looks suspicious. I have Doc analyze it and he gives me some bad news: it’s arsenic. Someone (Mick?) is trying to kill me.


Charge!

With my exploration done, I start the cycle of questions with Bly and the Doctor over again. This time, when he asks about the weapon, I quickly head to the supply room that I found and search for one. You can’t see one in the room description, but searching for a bazooka there works and I return to the lab. Doc finishes the tranquilizer darts and asks what he should do with them. I say to put them in the extensor claws-- not because that was a sudden stroke of brilliance, but rather because telling me that I might need a hint about extensor claws pretty much reveals that is what I need to be using here. In any event, it scores me points.

You’d think question time would be over, but as soon as I leave the room and we are alone, Tip asks me another set. These question segments are not the most enjoyable part of the game, but I suppose they keep the plot moving.
  • Tip asks if Bly mentioned any troublemakers in the crew. Well, Tip, you were there. I answer yes because there is a saboteur. Duh.
  • He then asks if I suspect Mick, Doc, or Marv. Well, that’s the majority of the crew. Mick is being a troublemaker and is my best lead, but probably too obvious. I say “yes”.
  • Rather than ask me about Mick, he tells me that Marv had access to the sonar equipment. Did Bly say anything was wrong with it? Again, Tip, you were standing right there! I answer “yes”.
  • Do I think someone tampered with it? “Yes”
  • Does Marv suspect you’ve found signs of tampering? Umm. I haven’t talked to Marv at all yet so I say “no”. But is the game tipping its hand who is the real culprit is? I’ll be disappointed if so.
When I say no, he says that he has an idea on how to find out if Marv is the traitor. I ask him for his idea and all I get is that I need to look up Infocard #1 Tip #3 and put in Marv Siegel. So… does that mean that I am supposed to look up the clue? Or that I shouldn’t use Tip’s idea and figure it out myself. I am so confused. Why wouldn’t I want Tip’s idea if he’s about to give it to me in-game?

I don’t turn to it yet because I’m not sure if I’m supposed to use the clues like that. Instead, I take a moment to attach the bazooka to the sub in the other extensor claw. I show Bly’s black box to everyone but only Marv can tell me what it is used for, apparently to modulate sonar pulses. We knew that already.

I keep exploring and a bit later, we are told that there are two blips on the sonar. It must be the monster! Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about it and a few turns later, the Snark attacks and destroys the station. The end.


Snark from the box art. Roar!

I restore back a few turns and try head out in the sub to attack the Snark, but Tip warns me that it’s a bad idea to go out without a “fine grid”, whatever that is. I leave anyway find only open ocean. I restore back to the beginning of the Aquadome to see what I am missing.

This time around, instead of putting the bazooka on the extensor claw myself, I have Tip do it. It doesn’t make much of a difference, but now Commander Bly comes by and asks me if I am ready to leave. Maybe she would have when I put it on myself, too? I may have missed it or didn’t wait long enough. Since I am fully armed, I say “yes”, but Tip cuts in and says that our sonar isn’t precise enough to locate the Snark, especially if it waits on the bottom and churns up silt to block our vision. He then asks if I want to install a “fine grid”, an updated sonar, before we go. I say yes! Why didn’t you offer this twenty minutes ago? Tip checks the supply room and finds both a “fine grid” and a “fine throttle” to install into the sub. With this, instead of operating in units of 500 meters at a time, we operate in units of 5 meters. And when the fine throttle is enabled, we still have three speeds but they are 5, 10, and 15 meters per turn. I hope this will let me find the Snark, but it doesn’t and I just wander aimlessly for a long while before giving up and restoring again. What am I missing?


Lots and lots of nothing.

I restore back this time pay more attention to the installation of the Emergency Unit in the sub. Bill and Amy report back once they installed it: Bill is the one that worked on my seat. I get the syringe and ask him about it and he runs off. I guess he is guilty! We are taken to the control room where we can see him on the monitor trying to steal the Scimitar. Thinking quickly, I fill the docking tank with water and he can no longer get into the sub. He gives himself up and we handcuff him in the galley. I go there to interrogate him, but he refuses to talk to me.

Now what? There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. I talk to Commander Bly about Bill and Marv and she tells me that she has a plan to find out if Marv was in on it. I ask her the plan and once again I am told to look at the hint book. That is frustrating. Am I supposed to look at the hints as some sort of copy protection? I finally give and check the hint that it suggests. Apparently, I am to put the black box back on the sonar equipment and ask Marv to inspect it. If he reports that the black box is there, we know he’s innocent. If he doesn’t mention it, he must be the saboteur. Fortunately for him, he arrives telling us all about the black box. I guess he didn’t do it.

I ask around about the Snark in the base and all I get are more prompts to check for clues. Where do I go when I get in the sub? No idea. So I listen to those clues too and they tell me to look for the Snark in the southeast. (Is there a different way to find out this information?) I do so and immediately find more than I bargained for: the Snark and a Seacat, an underwater exploration vessel pioneered by my father’s company. Dr. Thorpe radios me and reveals his evil plan: he’s going to kill me then send the Snark to destroy the Aquadome. Once that is done, he’ll have access to valuable ore deposits that were recently discovered. Even worse, he has Kemp with him as well. She was the traitor at the office at the beginning of the game. I knew it!

Except… er… she conks him on the head and reveals that she’s not evil after all. She was playing along with his scheme! She sabotaged the equipment at the office, but she had confidence that I could work it out. She was just playing coy with Thorp, waiting for the right moment to double-cross him. Tip breaks in to ask how they are controlling the Snark, and she reveals that they have a special transmitter on the left side of their Seacat. Her “cat” is programmed to stay just to the left and slightly behind the Snark to control it. When it had attacked the lab before, someone must have discovered the transmitter and so it wandered back to its cave when the signal stopped.

We get into another set of questions:
  • Do I want to let the Snark return to its cavern peacefully? I say yes.
  • Do I have anything to tranquilize the Snark? I say yes again.
  • Do I want to capture the Snark for study? Again, yes.
She says that I need to get onto the monster’s left side and if anything happens, I’ll be able to tranquilize it.


The game’s afoot!

At this point, I can use my sonarscope to keep track of where I am relative to the monster. On the screen in beautiful ASCII art, we have my position in the center (with the plus), the Snark represented by a series of “Os” (with a capital “O” as his head), and Thorp’s Seacat as “@” signs. I need to maneuver myself next to the monster, but it is harder than it looks because the monster is moving as well. I have to adjust my speed and try not to lose it.

I follow the monster northwest to figure out how to maneuver and suddenly Thorpe wakes up and we hear Sharon cry out in pain. He tells us that he is going to destroy us now. Fortunately, Tip points out that he’s on the wrong side of the Snark from us to attack. He’ll have to maneuver around and that gives us a chance for us to get him within our striking range. This involves more course changes and lots of accidents; I lose track of how many times I ram the Snark by mistake and die. I end up finding that I need to set the throttle to “full” to maneuver around the Snark then quickly shut down the engines so that I do not overshoot. That puts me in firing range of the Seacat’s rockets, but I aim and shoot first to disable it. I win! Sharon wakes up and tells me that Thorp was knocked out cold by the blast but the Seacat has a full set of backup systems. She guides the monster back to its case for further study and the game ends. I never shot the tranquilizer so I suspect I may have done something the hard way by mistake…


That is… anticlimactic.

Time played: 3 hr 45 min
Total time: 5 hr 55 min




Final Rating

After letting the game settle in my mind for a few days, it is time to rate it. I am finding the rating to be surprisingly difficult. When I first finished the game, I was psyched and thought that this was one of Infocom’s better games, a real “Lost Treasure”. But after a few days to think on it, plus re-reading my own notes to write this, I am not so sure. Let’s see how the points add up:

Puzzles and Solvability - As a “junior” game for young adventurers, the puzzles are a bit simple, but that’s not so bad. You do get a tremendous number of clues, plus the included hint system, so the game is very “solvable”. The two “minigame” sequences, if you can call them that, when the Scimitar had to navigate (and fight) underwater were also well-done. The mystery elements were also strong, a testament to Mr. Galley’s experience with The Witness. And yet, the game isn’t particularly satisfying. I’m still not sure whether I was supposed to be able solve the game without a hint or if the hints were a part of the copy protection. It annoyed me to no end that we’d have dialogs and descriptions where we were either told to consult the hints or to look something up in the manual. My score: 3.


Once Thorp is aiming his rockets at you, our sonar warns us to stay away from his line of fire.

Interface and Inventory - I have awarded a score of four to nearly every Infocom game in this category, in large part because of the excellent parser. I cannot award that here: the parser itself was fine, but the “questions” segments where normal gameplay would end so we can be asked loads of yes-or-no questions, sometimes giving away plot elements that I hadn’t worked out yet. That wasn’t a fun addition and I hope we don’t see them in other games, or at least see them overused as they were here. My score: 3.

Story and Setting - This is a kids story, but actually I enjoyed it very much. It had fun, if shallow, characters with an engaging mystery. Maybe it was the “Tom Swift” and “Hardy Boys” books that I read, but I got into the groove of this game and found it to be a ton of fun. My score: 6.

Sound and Graphics - The ASCII art used for the submarine sequences was well-done but that barely counts as graphics. My score: 1.

Environment and Atmosphere - For all that “Inventions Unlimited” was a take-off of Tom Swift, I rather liked the style and tone that Jim Lawrence built here. It demonstrated his talent as a writer. It’s not high art, but it’s fun. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - Mostly well-written and once again I think this is due to Jim Lawrence’s influence, but the all-too-frequent occasions when we were told that instead of talking to someone we needed to consult a hint, was a poor design choice. My score: 4.

Adding those up: (3+3+6+1+4+4)/.6 = 35!


Perhaps not surprisingly, this places the game right up to par with Zork I but in the lower rung of Infocom games. Only Infidel, Zork II, and Suspended scored lower and, on consideration, that seems about right. This is a game that could have soared to greatness but it was let down by the silly hint system and an inability to work out how to translate those long dialog/question scenes into “interactive fiction”. On the bright side, this was the first Infocom game since Planetfall (four games ago!) to not have a hunger mechanic. With a perfect guess, Laukku wins our score-guessing contest! CAPs will be awarded with the next mainline game.

Up next for me will be another game from the Lost Treasures II set: Mike Berlyn’s Cutthroats. Will it do better than Infidel? God, I hope so.

2 comments:

  1. I can’t think of any case in any game that we’ve played so far where an entire sequence is played essentially using yes or no questions.

    Shades of Braminar!

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    1. Something like that! Paranoia is another game in the same vein, one of my favorite Christmas-themed games which I hope we'll still be around for when we finally get to a Christmas that I can review it in. (I think it's 1993.)

      I still very torn on this game. On one hand, it was quite fun and I feel I'm being harsh, but on the other hand it's still quite flawed.

      Does anyone know if I was supposed to look in the included hints? Having a conversation with the character where the conversation is in the book reminds me a bit of the "Gold Box" games, but I'm not sure if that is the effect they were looking for her or if I cheated by mistake.

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