Thursday 24 October 2019

Missed Classic 75: Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 (1981) – Introduction

by Will Moczarski

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit the famous Northern Californian town 113 years ago on April 18 with a magnitude of nearly 8. Almost 3000 people died in the event and over 80 percent of the city were destroyed. It remains one of the biggest natural disasters in California’s history to this day. This particular historic event marks the setting of Jyym Pearson’s third adventure game for Adventure International which also served as the fourth and final OtherVenture for the company. It also marks a significant if temporary departure from the gothic horror and science-fiction settings of Pearson’s previous two games – a trend he followed with Saigon: The Final Days the same year in a joint effort with his wife Robyn.
Introduction: Setting the Stage

Adventure International sure played up the realism in their marketing efforts for Earthquake – San Francisco 1906. “CAN YOU SURVIVE!?!”, they ask you before introducing the setting: “On April 19, 1906 at 5:18 a.m., one of the most violent earthquakes of modern times decimated metropolitan San Francisco.” Wikipedia thinks it took place one day and six minutes earlier, though, and is hardly alone with that. This is especially odd as Jyym Pearson’s “finest Other Venture to date” was, according to the same description, “[p]ainstakingly researched with close attention to detail and historical accuracy[.]” For comparison: the calendar in the first room of the game simply tells you that it’s April 1906. I’m not here to nitpick, however, but rather to set the stage for what the game was probably meant to be in a world of bare-hands dragon slaying and sunken underground empires: an alternative. No, it’s not realistic in the strictest sense of the world but it tries to use a historical event as a backdrop for its in-game atmosphere. In 1981, this was a rather new thing. More quotes from the description: “The city’s remains are awash with flame; buildings burn and crumble, and death’s dark sentry stands watch over all.” All of this is true – the game does a good job of evoking the air of disaster through its well-written descriptions. I’m still not sure that I’m okay with that, however, and I’ll try to tell you why.

Although the historic background spells ‘serious game’ and it works remarkably well as a marker of distinction in the text adventure scene of the early 1980s, it also seems to put quite some responsibility on the young programmer’s shoulders. A natural disaster with a death toll this high surely seems a courageous choice for the setting of a game. The plot somehow underlines this (potential) discrepancy as you start the game in a hotel room before the earthquake and subsequently experience the disaster firsthand. However, your primary agenda is to get rid of your debts because else your wife will be killed by thugs. You will proceed to do this by any means necessary, and although your motivation is nothing less than the prevention of a potential personal tragedy this makes you walk the ruined streets of San Francisco in April 1906 rather selfishly, taking note of the burning houses and the people dying around you, saving the occasional small child from one of those burning buildings but otherwise you remain strangely uninvolved. I have to say that although the game is fun (so far) I had to get this out of the way first even if it means jumping ahead. As much as I have to commend Jyym Pearson for trying to strive for realism in a time of mostly D&D settings, the premise is not really thought through. I’ll try to judge the game on its merits regardless but in a realistic setting like this I am inclined to compare my actions in the gameworld to reality more than usual – and I have already had to bribe one soldier with a gold watch I found in the rubble and shoot another one point-blank. If this is meant to represent the anarchy and turmoil after a natural disaster, I’m not sure if it’s a hundred percent consistent. But let us go back to the beginning of the story and I’ll try and put you in a position to judge for yourselves…

The first hour of gameplay

I start out in a plush hotel room. There is a closed door to the east and a wad of bills is the only visible item. On the dresser, I find an envelope with a letter in it. It says “Deliver the money today.. Portman Hotel Oakland.. or your wife dies.” It looks like this is my main quest. Let’s see how it turns out. I am probably not inside the Portman Hotel yet but I don’t know much about my surroundings yet. The “money” as notated on the wad of bills seems to be thousands of dollars. How will I be able to turn up such a magnificent sum in such a short time?

The calendar on the wall is surprisingly sparse. “Its 1906” [sic!] is all it says. Well, the title kind of gave that away already. I note that there is no cute little picture on the right side of the screen this time. Looks like it’s going to be zero points in the S rating already, game.

To the south, there is my bedroom suite with a large bed. Looking out my bedroom window, I can see Telegraph Hill. The bed has obviously been slept in but since this is not a detective adventure I don’t know what to do with this information. Pushing the bed reveals a crowbar. Unfortunately, I can’t find a use for it: it’s no good for opening the window nor for opening the door. I play a little guess-the-verb until there’s a tremendous earthquake causing the hotel to collapse. I am lying half buried in rubble but seem to be among the lucky ones who survived. What an opening!

In-game graphics are saved for after the earthquake.

Now there’s also a picture of some partially destroyed buildings on the right side of the screen. The game proper has only begun. Pushing the beam with the crowbar lets me escape from my predicament. I am now standing in a wrecked hotel, and I quickly learn that once more you have to examine everything as meticulously as possible. Looking at the walls (!) reveals a handgun. I pick it up but find my way blocked to the north, east and west. The only exit – a door apparently intact – lies to the south. Beyond the door there’s a smashed fruit stand. There is an apple but the owner shoots me at point blank when I pick it up and wait for just one turn. Wow, Downtown San Francisco must have been a tough spot in 1906! The game is pretty lenient when it comes to restarting, though, and I can start over inside the wrecked hotel just after the earthquake.

This time I try to talk to the owner, and he says that I have to pay for the apple if I want it. How do I go about that with no penny to my name and a wad of bills worth thousands of dollars? It could not be as simple as… or could it? “Pay owner” works. The trigger-happy citizen thanks be and tells me to be careful because “the soldiers are shooting looters.” Are they now!

Moving along to the south, I find myself on “once beautiful Fremont Ave.” which is now only a pile of rubble. I can climb that pile but do not find anything by looking at it. This seems suspicious, so I look, listen, feel and smell a few more times before calling it quits. To the east, there is a grand opera house which is described as intact. When I attempt to enter it, a second quake occurs and the opera house lies in ruins, too. It is now only crushed masonry which reveals nothing upon closer examination.

With nothing left to do, I go back to the hotel where I find that the eastern wall has fallen and is now forming a mountain of bricks. Heading up there leads me to the foot of a stone stairway where I encounter a soldier with a rifle. He tells me that martial law has been declared and he won’t let me pass – he’s serious about it, too. After my past experience on Traam it’s not past me to try and shoot the soldier with my newly-found handgun but the game only tells me that I am “too kind.” That’s obviously not the right solution. I can’t show the soldier anything, and dropping my items does not trigger anything either. Attempting to bribe him makes me tell me that if he was found with my cash he’d be shot. That sounds like a hint. What could I offer him besides cash?

With nothing else to do, I decide to investigate all that rubble lying around once again. Digging in the rubble turns out to be the solution, and I find a gold watch buried in the 20 foot pile that once was Fremont Avenue. The same treatment works for the masonry that used to be the stairway leading up to the grand opera house. I find an iron box there which is locked. Once again, the crowbar is no help at all. However, I think I know what that gold watch is for. Although I desperately need the cash I could sell it for, I need to bribe that soldier first. He takes the watch and I can now move on to Telegraph Hill where I can see many fires and a locked iron gate to the east.

Two locks and no key make Earthquake a dull game. However, there’s a hidden exit to the south leading me into a narrow side street. Looking reveals nothing new but listening now lets me perceive a child’s voice crying from above. When I look up, his father pleads with me to save his child because his arm is broken. Without hesitation I climb up to the second floor window, grab the small child and climb back down. The father thanks me, takes the child and leaves. While I would think that this is a reward in itself, I’m still playing an adventure game here! Fortunately, the child drops a gold key which I can pick up. It’s the wrong key for the iron gate but maybe it’s the right one for the iron box.

Of course it is. I swap the gold key for a silver key and head back to the iron gate which I can now unlock. This leads me to the crest of another hill. Below me, the shattered city burns. I can see the bay from there, and soldiers start fires hoping to contain the blaze. Moving east, there’s a steep street but a burning building blocks my way. The heat is terrific, and this screen only goes to show that it pays to use all of the words from the descriptions in this game. Looking at the street reveals a manhole. I can lift its cover to enter a storm drain but this seems to be a hideout for a later event or something. Maybe it’s even a maze. Nothing changes when I move around, and I don’t find any other locations.

I try some more exits from the other locations in case I’ve missed something on my first walkabout. It’s a bit of a nuisance that I have to unlock the iron gate every time. South of the narrow side street where I rescued the small child from the burning building I find another exit I have previously overlooked. This is a dead end but when I look suddenly I am buried beneath a collapsed building. At first I think that I’ve found a deathtrap but I can actually still interact with the parser. It tells me that it’s dark and I’m buried but maybe someone will hear me. Shouting does the trick and a voice from above tells me “I hear you..” A soldier digs me out and then runs after a looter, leaving me alone in the narrow street. I look at the rubble again and find that the street is full of lumber, and I can even pick up some of it when I look at the lumber once more. Unfortunately, this would exceed my inventory limit of six items. I decide to get rid of the crowbar as it was of no use to me howsoever. And I’ve decided to turn this into a little game for those who read the introduction all the way to the ending: Apart from guessing the final score, you can guess whether I will need the crowbar to finish the game or not. I’ll make a random decision among those who were right and award them ten extra CAPs. How does that sound?

Session time: 1 hr
Total time: 1 hr

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 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 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.

Med Systems Marathon Overview:

(a) 1980 Summary :
(b) Reality Ends (1980)
(c) Rat’s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d) Labyrinth (1980)
(e) Asylum (1981)
(f) Microworld (1981)

Jyym & Robyn Pearson Mini-Marathon Overview:
(a) Curse of Crowley Manor
(b) Escape from Traam (1981)


  1. I will guess 25, and of course you will need the crowbar, because this is an adventure game! What adventure game worth its salt doesn't make you use a crowbar?

  2. I am going for 26 and I am sure the crowbar will be handy again in the future. The setting is risky in the more sensitive context of today but back then I don't think they cared much.

    1. I agree but looking at it from a 2019 perspective I felt I had to bring it up. They used the "realism" of the game as the central marketing factor, to distinguish it from other games of the time. It's not unsuccessful in its realism, either, but there are some points where I felt that it just didn't work out. But I'll save all of that for the second post.

  3. 18, and the crowbar is probably useful, but I'll say you don't need it. Maybe it'll be the first red herring of a useful item.

  4. Will, thank you for keeping the gameplay pouring in as we have hit some snags in our main game scheduling. It is appreciated!

    For my part, I missed the deadline for today but I am expecting the Consulting Detective post in the Saturday update (unless the next Ween post is available, which would take priority). I have struggled to write in the thirty minutes between when I am done for the day and when I get too exhausted to think, but it's just about all together now and I have started into the final case.

    I'm looking forward to the conclusion to this game. I love these Adventure International-adjuncts and hope to play them myself some day. I also recently read "Earthquake in the Early Morning" to my son which is a Magic Treehouse adventure that takes place during the earthquake as the kids travel there to find something that is supposed to help save the magical land of Camelot. If that doesn't make any sense to you, well I cannot help that you don't have a six-year old!

    1. No problem, Joe! I'm glad to have been able to help out.

      Looking forward to your upcoming Consulting Detective post, too! I can see that it's hard to concentrate on putting it together in such a small time frame, as I would certainly find it hard to describe these cases in a way that makes sense at all. I find the Consulting Detective games to be quite confusing although I didn't put in any real effort back then, to be honest.

      Also, your description of "Earthquake in the Early Morning" actually does make sense to me and I'll jot it down as a recommendation for the future (since my six-year old is not six years old yet ;-)

    2. The Magic Treehouse series has been a fantastic thing to read to my son. It's introduced him to a ton of new genres and historical periods. We've read probably 30+ of them now and he just devours them. That particular book isn't particularly good, but it just happened to involve the earthquake. The later books get better, not that I think my son can tell the difference.

      The most jarring thing in the series as an adult is that Morgan Le Fay is a good magician and serves as the master librarian of Camelot. But other than that, the series is essentially "Doctor Who" for kids since they get taken to a different historical or fictional period in each story and have some sort of an adventure.

    3. That sounds very good, thanks for the thorough description! I'll look into it and start from the beginning to get an impression, although it will still be a few years too soon for my little one. It sounds like something we might enjoy a lot, though.

    4. Hey, to be fair, Morgan is on Arthur's side in the earliest tales. It was only later she turned evil.

  5. 21, and I suspect that the first use of the crowbar (moving the beam) will be the only one in the game, and this is just junk that will sit in your inventory for some time.

    Although, did you try using it as a weapon instead of shooting? Perhaps Jyym programmed some alternate solutions? Naaaaaaah.

    1. "Although, did you try using it as a weapon instead of shooting? Perhaps Jyym programmed some alternate solutions? Naaaaaaah."

      I tried, and you're right: he didn't.

  6. I'm going with 23. And I concur with Michael, the crowbar is a single use item.