Thursday 28 November 2019

Missed Classic: The Institute – WON! and Final Rating

by Will Moczarski

Last time I explored the first of four dreams that make up the bulk of The Institute. I presented it as a streamlined narrative for your convenience, rather than describe all of my errancies. On my first run, for example, I examined the bronze statue from the inside as well. The bronze key let me unlock its door, and I was able to enter. I found myself in an empty chamber but looking up revealed a rope I could climb. At the top of the statue, there was a platform but the air was unreasonably thin. I suffocated and found myself back in the closet.

This is one of the core mechanics of The Institute. You need to die in every dream in order to wake up. Later ports redeemed this by enabling you to simply type “wake up” but in the original version, if you were stuck, you had to find a way to die. There are only a couple of dead ends I know of, and my first playthrough prompted me to plunge right into one of them. By not picking up the umbrella but rather suffocating inside the bronze statue with my father’s face (don’t you just love those sentences that only make a certain amount of sense in the context of game descriptions?), I didn’t have a key item for the second dream. Now you don’t get to choose: If you eat the powder for the first time, you’ll enter the first dream, and then you always enter them in the same order which means that you need to hold on to some key items like the red bottle with the powder, the cup of water to wash it down and – the umbrella. If you enter the second dream without the umbrella you can neither escape nor die but remain floating and eventually have to restart the game. Also, if you leave the red bottle or the cup of water anywhere outside the institute proper, you can’t enter another dream. I withheld all of this from you in order to provide a more readable account of my playthrough. It is in the same spirit that I will not relate all of my frantic dream-hopping in the second part but rather smooth it all over in order to provide some orientation.
Second Dream: My Heart Will Go On

After eating the powder for the second time, I arrive in a strange and opaque place. I am in the dark, and hot air and smoke are rising up from beneath me. Having tried out all of my items to get out of this conundrum on the first try (including eating more powder which does not work inside a dream), I quickly figured out that I needed the umbrella (as described above). This time, I’ve got it, and opening it triggers one of the characteristic scripted sequences courtesy of Jyym Pearson. I am floating upward for a few turns until I can make out where I am: above an ocean liner on a moonlit night. Apparently, my dream started with me being stuck inside a smokestack. After floating down, I gently land on the deck of this “huge ship”. I find a life preserver with the name of the ship written on it: I am aboard the “S.S. Titanic”.

There are only two other rooms here: Firstly, I can open a door to enter a luxury suite with plush furnishings. Old paintings line the walls, and after going through my usual routine, I attempt to move them. I am told that one of the paintings is attached with screws, so I will probably need some tools to get it off. Just to make sure, I type “unfasten screws” (an old Vietnam war trauma) but, predictably, it doesn’t work. The second “room” is the stern of the ship where I discover that some huge icebergs are already dangerously close. After two moves, I can hear a horrid noise: an iceberg struck and the ship is sinking. I try to “jump ship” and it works: I find myself in the cold water of the Atlantic.

It’s a rather hopeless situation. If I look, I see nothing special. If I try to swim, I am told that it’s no use. How motivating! As it’s not my first Pearson game I know it may be possible to dive, so I give it a try. It works, and I find an iron bar which is somehow...floating here? Or did I dive all the way to the bottom of the freezing Atlantic? Dream logic is similar to moon logic, it seems. I still need to get out of here, though, and diving again does the trick. A shark attacks me, and I awaken. The other possibility is to wait out the crash and sink with the ship – it also makes you wake up but you don’t get the opportunity to find the iron bar.

Third Dream: Funny little men searching for their mummies

After eating some more of the good stuff, I am at the entrance to an ancient, pagan temple. There is a huge stone door to the east, and there’s a plant growing through a crack in the door. Now this is a classic adventure game puzzle: feed or water the plant to climb it (Adventure, Maniac Mansion). It works here, too, albeit in a slightly different way: the plant grows rapidly but you don’t need to climb it (for now), as it widens the crack and lets you enter the temple. Inside, there’s an altar and I pray that I don’t need to dig for an imaginary helmet. The altar is bloodstained, so it may be used for sacrifices. There is also a huge steel door to the north with the figure of a lizard on it. With nothing more to do, it takes me quite a while to die here but eventually I find out that you can climb the temple from the outside and fall to your death. Time to see what the fourth dream is all about.

Fourth Dream: Alive when they start to eat you

I find myself “in a prehistoric rain forest far, far back in time.” To the east, there is a large saber-toothed tiger guarding a chest. I can go there but if I try to do anything, it devours me and I wake up. I soon find out that this dream is particularly small, even smaller than the second one. There is only one other “room” to the south where I find a shallow stream and a large rock. Moving the rock reveals a lizard which I can pick up. Hmm, where did I see this before? Exploration is hindered because I get killed by the tiger a lot and there’s no save feature. After a few attempts I am pretty sure that the fourth dream only consists of three rooms.

Revisiting the Dreams and Endgame

At least I’ve got some leads to work on but I still don’t know what to do with the bronze statue if there’s anything to do there at all. It’s only when I look at each screen again that I find something has changed in the first dream: a large plant has grown beside the tiny stream. After recovering my shovel from some other dream, I try to dig, and the game asks me “dig what?” “Dig plant” lets me pick up the “weird plant” which is still pulsating in my hand. Eww. I don’t know what to do with this but maybe something will come up later. Also, I try to open the Acme tool box with the iron bar but that doesn’t work as I seem to need a key.

There are no noticable changes in the second dream but I’ve got an idea for the third one – you probably guessed it, too? The inventory limit becomes quite the issue, however. I have to cycle through the four dreams a lot of times to get it right as three spots are always reserved for the red bottle, the cup of water and the umbrella. Back in the pagan temple, I can’t kill the lizard as I thought might be correct. Counting on the Pearsons’ faible for unusual verbs, I try out the most straightforward solution next: “sacrifice lizard.” There is a huge bang and the steel door is history. I can now climb upwards to a stone anteroom with horrid paintings on the walls: men with reptilian heads! Another ancient stairway leads me further up but this one is trapped: a gas vapor on the stairs burns my lungs out and I awaken in a sweat. Now I have to say that having to cycle through all of the dreams to get back to the puzzle I am currently trying to solve is truly becoming a nuisance, especially because the ‘floating’ part in the second dream takes up a lot of time. I really have to make it count this time, or I’ll be back to the beginning without having achieved anything. Now what could I possibly do about gas? In Escape from Traam I had to find a helmet beneath an altar that would protect me from it. Could this be the solution again? I try to examine everything even more thoroughly but don’t discover anything new. Maybe I can just...wing it? In Escape from Traam, when I was really frustrated after a while, I tried to hold my breath to no avail. I try it here and it works! The trapped stairway leads me to a religous (sic!) chamber with statues of hideous ancient gods. There is nothing I can do here but to the west there is another room, a high ceilinged throne chamber. A huge stone sphere with a hole inside appears to be missing some crucial part. I try to insert anything that sort of makes sense, and the mirror does the trick. The light reflects into the hole and a rumbling sound builds. After two more turns the sphere breaks open revealing a chunk of raw meat and a Captain Spud comic book. I’m no expert when it comes to comics but this is probably the metaphorical garnish for the meat, right? Unfortunately, I can’t read the comic book as the words are too big. This is kind of realistic – for a dream – isn’t it? Can you ever read inside a dream?

I examine the room some more and find out that the throne has a handle. When I pull it, it turns out to be a toilet. No further questions, Your Honour. I climb back into the gas in order to die, as I’ve got an idea where the raw meat may be useful. Exactly, the prehistoric rain forest! I can throw it to the tiger which makes him leave straight away. I half-expect the chest to be locked but there are no more obstacles now and I can easily obtain the screwdriver. Hmm, screwdriver. Sounds familiar. Yes, back to the Titanic! Somewhere back I have triggered a chain of events and now I can play it out puzzle after puzzle. However, there’s a problem: How do I manage to die now that the tiger’s gone? Even if the rain forest only has three rooms I get stuck here for a couple of minutes – until I notice the stream, that is. Its water is apparently poisonous, and I awaken in a sweat.

Back on the Titanic, I try the slightly inelegant “unscrew screws” to presumably pick up the painting. However, it’s not the painting I’m after: Behind it there’s a small key! Even better, as I already know what I may need it for. After drowning, suffocating and poisoning myself once more, I am back inside my first dream. And what do you expect to be inside the Acme tool box after all this wackiness? That’s right, a wrench. What the hell do I need that for?

I walk around all four dreams for quite a while. And once more I’m really lucky. After a while I decide to climb to the platform inside the bronze statue again – where I previously suffocated after a couple of turns. This time I coincidentally have the weird plant in my inventory (I’ve been shuffling things around quite a bit) and what do you know? “The plant fills the room with oxygen.” That probably means something! I have enough time to discover a steel door now. Its lock is covered with numbered buttons and at first I’m stumped by this. Numbers? I look at my notes and...of course, the billboard at the beginning of the game! I enter “56621” and proceed into a small octagonal room. On the floor there’s a steel cover which I easily remove with my Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 skills (“lift cover”). Underneath I find a large steel bolt. This must be what the wrench is for! I turn the bolt and the entire statue collapses. Wow, some dream! At least I am thrown clear and land on top of a key. Must be some powder, too! Without anything left to do, I wander around for a bit until I get the idea that this might be the key I have been looking for all this time. “The key to your insanity is your father” is what the counselor said – now that I’ve blown up his statue I hold the key to my sanity in turn, I suppose? It took me much longer to figure this out than I’d like to admit but there is absolutely no indication that I’ve all but solved the game at this point – no victory message, no hint, no nothing.

I carefully drop the red bottle and return to the counselor’s office. Finally, I unlock and open the door there, and that’s it! I’m free!

Ports Comparison

As I remember the ending to be a bit different, I am looking forward to revisiting the ports of the game. The Institute was ported to the Apple ][, Atari 8-bit machines and the Commodore 64 in 1983, and the ports all use the same graphics by Rick Incrocci. Norman Sailer was once again responsible for the programming involved and interestingly, the ports are attributed to Jyym and Robyn Pearson. These ports also have the distinction of being two ‘firsts’ in our marathon: they are the first games published by Med Systems’ successor Screenplay (they renamed their company in 1983) as well as the first ones to feature music.

The Apple ][ version begins with a short fugato in a pseudo-baroque style, possibly likening the game to the gothic horror atmosphere of Curse of Crowley Manor. Even the title screen hints at a haunted house game rather than a surrealistic ‘escape the sanitarium’ adventure. There is no music in the game itself, however, it appears to be reserved for the title screen. As the Apple ][ features the worst graphics of the three ports resolution-wise and the illustrations by Rick Incrocci are the same for all three games, I will play through the Commodore 64 version only. However, here are the opening screenshots from the other two ports for comparison:

The Atari version features very different music which is more simple, less melodic and much more in keeping with what you usually hear in psychological drama films from the 1960s. Still, it’s definitely less elaborate. Also, the parser screen looks different. While the Apple ][ version employs that machine’s standard font (and look), the Atari version uses its own, meaning that parser screen looks like the ones in all of the text adventures we’ve previously played on that system.

The Commodore 64 version is the one I remember from way back when. As this platform is the most advanced of the three, it doesn’t come as a surprise that this one looks best. Or does it? I am surprised that this version has no music and doesn’t look as good as I remembered at all. Still, I want to play it, if only for nostalgic reasons.


The first change is that the “disfigured dwarf” now tells me that I’m here for “political reasons”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I wonder whether they’ ll pick up on this somewhere in this port (spoiler: they won’t). The coffee cup is now an old mug but it’s still old and dirty. Strangely, there’s a closed door in my room but I can’t open it in any of the ports. I wonder what went wrong there, the view from the hall makes more sense spatially. The denomination of the mirror is also simplified: I can pick up a mirror instead of a jagged mirror now. Also, there’s a cute little sound effect when I break the mirror but I still wonder why they didn’t use the famous SID chip more! The red bottle is now a “funny bottle” but the description is the same. There’s another confusing door in the dispensary, as if the illustrator had entirely different maps to work with. When I look at the ward room, the plaque that says “peace=death” is shown in a close-up which helpfully emphasizes its significance for a later puzzle. I accidentally find out that I can talk to the patients: an old man talks of the gods of Babel, a woman just stares at me and cries, then everyone starts howling in unison. As I’m sure that I tried this in the TRS-80 version, I take a quick look at the source code and verify that it was possible in the original. I must have overlooked that option!

The counselor is a stereotypical psychoanalyst: glasses, full beard, half bald, looks a lot like Billy Crystal. The door to his office is now a “private door”. His utter evilness is further emphasized when looking at him reveals that he is drooling at the mouth – must be a bad man, indeed! When I’m locked up, the denomination of the rope is, again, simplified: it’s just a rope now, not a long rope. They saved some adjectives in the remakes. When I cut the padding, the image changes. Also, when I drop the mug, it’s right there on the ground. I am pleasantly surprised that I can visibly interact with the gameworld. The description of the “cup of water” is once again simplified: I am carrying only “water” now.

The images of the first dream are really beautiful, I like them a lot. When I climb the cliff, I see a dark figure seemingly hiding in the bushes and remember that when I last played this, I tried to interact with it for a long time. Now I know that it’s supposed to represent the statue seen from a distance but images apparently can and will be misleading sometimes. When I look through the telescope, not every step is illustrated – only the billboard gets its own picture, once again emphasizing the importance of the numbers for a later puzzle. I could have sworn that I remembered the view of the planet, then the continents and so on but it must have been all in my head.

The major advantage of the pictures shows when the corpse turns up – all of the changes are now visible and I don’t have to type “look” again to see whether something might be different. Next to the bubbling stream, there is now a small blue owl who warns me that “whoooosoever passes here..must have read the plaque.” This probably refers to the “peace=death” sign in the ward room but it’s not really helpful at this point, so I wonder why they put it in. I think that a hint for the ‘glow’ puzzle might have been in order but this seems slightly useless. There is one small change with it, too, however: I drink from the stream until I am glowing but this time I am glowing green which makes more sense as I still can pass the green man when I’m glowing (nondescriptly) in the original. The midget now indeed looks a bit like Harry Truman in a diving suit. I still kick the former president (sorry) and there’s a very nice first person perspective shot of him attacking me.

The hole in the log is now a “large hole” but it’s still not my favourite puzzle. Moving on, the huge green man now looks distinctly “oriental”, wearing a turban. The other natives look like caricatures of stereotypical “natives”, however, and I must say that these two pictures are not Incrocci’s best efforts in a couple of ways. When I’m waking up from the first dream there’s a rather random picture of fireworks. Also, this formerly only non-violent way to die now makes me slip and fall to my death. Aboard the Titanic I now have to look at the deck to discover the life preserver; apart from that, nothing has changed. The iron bar is now a crowbar, everything else is largely the same. A shark now “had me for lunch”, marking another small change in the text. And the pictures are still very nice here.

Watering the plant in front of the pagan temple makes the whole image break apart. I remember that I assumed this to be a bug way back when but now I’m not so sure – it may be an odd stylistic choice. The picture of a lizard on the steel door is now clearly visible, making the altar puzzle a bit easier. In the prehistoric forest, the tiger is visible from the first screen which is in keeping with the description. There is a pteranodon in the sky above the poisonous stream. When I drink from the stream, I now awaken “with the cramps”.

I should consider myself lucky that the lizard didn’t put up a fight or I may have lost!

The “weird plant” puzzle is now a tiny bit easier because I can see it grow next to the stream. It still seems like a stretch that it keeps me from suffocating. I understand the connection, surely, but it still feels unusual to me. When I return to the temple, the image has almost melted – it must be a bug after all. The lizard turns out to be a giant creature when I sacrifice it. I wonder how I managed to carry this beast around with me! The “raw meat” is now a steak and the illustrations of the temple are also quite nice. It’s only now that I notice that it would be possible to use the closet as a stash house without the risk of losing anything inside a dream. How stupid of me to ignore this possibility completely! Also I notice that last time I have neglected to simply look at the gold key to find out that it has “The Institute” written on it. That would have saved me some time in the end game.

Speaking of which: When I now return to the counselor’s room, he’s gone. Is it because I shot him in my dream? Outside the institute, there is a new epilogue, and this is the one I remember: two “alien life forms” in the shapes of Jyym Pearson and Norm Sailer await me, and I can talk to them. Two programmers who stylise themselves as aliens? This was still years before the first Space Quest came out, mind you! They have a short congratulatory message complete with some advertising for me: “’ve conquered ‘The Institute’ But just wait till ‘Lucifer’s Realm’!” Indeed, I will play that, too, and soon. “Lucifer’s Realm” is up in 1982, and it has a reputation of being notoriously hard. Will I solve that one without hints, too? It’s unlikely but stay tuned, maybe my past experiences with the Pearsons’ games will help me once again.


Summary: The 1981 Adventures by Jyym & Robyn Pearson

Speaking of which: I’d like to take another short detour before the PISSED rating to evaluate the five Jyym and Robyn Pearson adventures I have played through so far. They were all written in 1980 and 1981 according to their copyright stamps, although I’m not sure whether Saigon: The Final Days was maybe only released in 1983. Apart from some trademark moves (verbs they seem to have liked, recurring situations), they were all very innovative – even the stinker that was Escape from Traam. I’d like to point out some of these innovations and ask myself what Jyym and Robyn Pearson attempted to do differently with the still very new adventure game genre around 1981.

1. Scripted Sequences

Now this one is pretty obvious, and I just kept pointing them out whenever they occurred. There are long passages in which the control over the parser is taken away from the player to insert an interlude or a textual cutscene of sorts. This is not completely unheard of in other games but in 1981 it would have been novel. Also, I can’t think of many writers of traditional text adventures who used this feature so excessively.

2. Innovative Settings

This is no D&D territory. While Adventure and Zork were firmly rooted in fantasy settings, Scott Adams already tried to move away from them with Pirate Adventure and The Count in the late 1970s. Lance Micklus wrote his Dog Star Adventure in 1979 and science-fiction even turned up in Peter Langston’s early Wander games dating back as far as 1974. Hence, Curse of Crowley Manor and Escape from Traam are not as innovative. However, Earthquake – San Francisco 1906 and Saigon: The Final Days boast historical settings that were even marketed as well-researched and realistic backdrops to the games. While one can argue about that, both games are still very unusual in this regard. The Institute even tries to be sort of avantgarde by presenting its story in a highly surrealistic fashion, splitting the gameworld into one reality and four different dreams. Also, in the first five games, they have managed not to repeat themselves which is highly commendable.

3. No Treasure Hunts

The most famous adventure games of the early 1980s were treasure hunts: almost all of Scott Adams’s adventures, Roberta Williams’s Mystery House, Zork (minus the endgame of Zork III and the mainframe Zork) – you name it. Curse of Crowley Manor deviates from this norm a lot. The other three games we’ve seen also avoid treasure hunts but they’re essentially escape plots which is the other conventional if rarer plot structure around that time.

4. Experiments With Death

Another issue is death. While most adventure games dealt with it as a means of punishing the player for a misstep or elongating their playtime, the Pearsons’ games feature a very lenient approach to restarts. If you happen to die in one of the early games (which still happens frequently, mind you), you can restart from the beginning with your inventory intact. Sometimes this leads to otherwise avoided dead ends but in general it’s a very player-friendly alternative. The innovation doesn’t stop there, though. Death increasingly becomes important for the storyworlds of their games. In Saigon: The Final Days it becomes a distinct device responsible for most of the atmosphere: you will die very, very frequently and quite plausibly, thus it never feels like punishment but rather adds to the superb atmosphere of the game. The Institute makes you die over and over again. There is but one way (I discovered) to die inside the institute but in order to wake up from a dream you actively need to find ways to die there. In other words: to jump from mini-adventure to mini-adventure, you need to reset the situation. In a way, this is an elaborate variation of the ‘start again with your inventory intact’ mechanics of Jyym Pearson’s first three games.

All things considered, it was a great experience to explore these gifted authors’ games back to back because their personal style was clearly palpable. The Institute may well be the most impressive of the bunch, but will it also turn out to be the best according to our trusted PISSED rating?


Puzzles & Solvability: The puzzles were great! There was a lot of variation because the game had these discreet dreamworlds and the inventory limit made me think twice about everything I tried. Most things were pretty logical, too, if the player took heed and examined everything as thoroughly as possible (like I did). I stumbled onto two solutions by accident, and these two particular puzzles might otherwise have spoiled the game for me: there is no indication about the plant keeping you safe in the oxygen-free zone atop the statue, and no-one in their right mind would think that they had to drink from a stream around ten times to start glowing and then use yourself (!) as a light source in a dark hut. The latter one, especially, was really absurd, and there were no hints at all to help me with it. I just lucked out. As all of the other puzzles were really nice and balanced and we’re still in 1981 here, I’ll be a bit lenient and say 6.

Interface & Inventory: Just as good (and bad) as in the other games. No guess-the-verb games (“focus telescope” is a possible case but even that wasn’t too bad) and the inventory limit is put to good use for once – as what can truly be described as a meta-puzzle. They’ve learned from their mistakes, so 4 it is.

Story & Setting: Innovative and ambitious. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and isn’t utterly complicated as a whole (escape from the Institute, John! You’re not insane!) but it makes good use of its different settings. The dreams felt a bit unbalanced as two of them had only three or four rooms while the others were substantially bigger. I’ll say 3.

Sound & Graphics: The same as always but I like these decorative pictures: 1 point, as usual. The 1983 ports have (for the most part, I have to criticise the stereotypically “ethnic” natives) really beautiful pictures this time – for a 1983 game, I’ll give them 5 points.

Environment & Atmosphere: The whole game has that certain Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland flair with a dark twist. Many of the suggestions and allusions are never explicitly followed up on but this fragmentary feeling is suitable for the game’s overall composition. Compared to Saigon, it’s a bit less involving which may be because of its artificiality. It’s still pretty strong in this regard: 5.

Dialogue & Acting: More NPCs who have something to say but it’s in the nature of the game that most of it is nonsensical. It continues the trend of Saigon but adds an Orwellian perversion to the nature of language in general (a bit like 1980’s The Prisoner in that regard). For a 1981 text adventure, that’s still commendable, so I’ll give it a lenient 2.

That makes 35 points for The Institute which marks the pinnacle of the Med Systems marathon so far. And it seems entirely reasonable. I may have enjoyed Saigon a bit more but The Institute is really an impressive game, all things considered. Zork I has the same score, and Zork I may have fewer flaws but the comparison doesn’t seem completely off. If we were to judge those games on their historical merits, there would be no competition between them at all but if I compare them both based on my own experience, a tie seems quite alright. The version with graphics would be rated even higher and receive a (hypothetical) 42 points – I say hypothetical, though, because the graphics may alter some other categories as well and I can’t really judge it after having just beaten the text-only version.

Next up we’ll have a recap of the games we skipped in 1981 as well as what little can be found out about the history of Med Systems Software during that year. After that, we’ll have the sequel to Asylum already, and I’m really looking forward to that one as I have very fond memories of it – it’s the game that sparked the whole marathon for me, after all. Stay tuned!

Session time: 3.5 hrs
Total time: 5 hrs

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 (1981)
(b) Escape from Traam (1981)
(c) Earthquake - San Francisco (1981)
(d) Saigon: The Final Days (1981)


  1. "Can you ever read inside a dream?"

    Traditionally it's understood to be possible with certain limits: the idea is that the brain comes up with Lorem Ipsum nonsense, then throws it out... if you read the same text again, it's supposed to return different results, and is often considered to be a good trigger for lucid dreaming, if you have the presence of mind to realise that the text was different the second time and therefore... you must be dreaming!

    1. I was wondering if I should mention it but I do dream often and vividly, and have in the past tried to read things in my dreams. And yes it just turns out to be a bunch of nonsense as your subconscious desperately scrambles to make up something coherent then fails miserably.

      On your topic of death- it even becomes progressively necessary in the later games, in Saigon your guide HAS to die and here too you HAVE to die for the game to continue. Very deep and mature for the period it was written in.

    2. Interesting, thank you both! I don't remember it ever having been possible for me to read while in a dream.

      @ShaddamIVth: Absolutely, it seems like an interesting experiment with the form. Also, in "Saigon" you needed to die symbolically by hiding inside a body bag in the end to escape Vietnam (and the game).

  2. Vetinari was right on the money with his guess of 35 (ironically, while stating that he was consistently wrong about the PISSED ratings of this marathon).