Wednesday 8 April 2020

Missed Classic 84: The Pesach Adventure (1993)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Happy Passover! For the last five years, we have had an annual tradition of a Christmas adventure, a special one-off look at a festive game for the holiday season. I love playing and documenting these games, but the truth is that Christmas is not a holiday that my family and I celebrate in the traditional way. While I was raised with Christmas, my wife was not, and we have decided together to not make it an integral part of my son’s upbringing. We still celebrate the Yuletide with my family, but his only idea of Santa Claus comes from watching Christmas episodes on Youtube Kids.

A few years back, my wife challenged me to find and play a Jewish-themed adventure game. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was such a tall order. Jews account for only 2% of the United States population today and so naturally there is a smaller audience for games about Jewish holidays. Now that we have made it to 1993, I can finally play the first known game about a Jewish festival: The Pesach Adventure! (“Pesach” is the Hebrew name for the holiday. Fun fact: English is rare in that it uses different words for Easter and Passover; using the Hebrew name makes it clear you are referring to the Jewish holiday.) Don’t get used to annual Passover games (or Hanukkah, Purim, Sukkot, or anything else) because this is the only game about a Jewish holiday that I know of until the modern era.

If you are unfamiliar with Passover, never fear! I’ll start today with a brief overview of the holiday and its history before jumping into the game itself. If you only want to hear about the gameplay, feel free to skip it. Passover is a beautiful holiday and one of the most important in Judaism, even if it has been overshadowed in the popular culture by a certain winter present-giving holiday.

“Let my people go!” - Moses

Passover 101

Many Jewish holidays can be defined by the expression, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” Passover is no exception. Trying to summarize the history and traditions of the holiday in a couple of paragraphs will be difficult, but I hope you can get the flavor. I apologize in advance for any errors, omissions, or if I seem to make light of any tenets that you hold dear.

In Judaism, one of the most important stories is the Exodus from Egypt. While the book of Genesis tells of the patriarchs and the mythic underpinnings of the world, Exodus begins with the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, before revealing the story of Moses and his encounter with God, leading to the miracles that allow the Israelites to flee captivity and begin to cross the desert towards Israel. (It will take forty years and three more books-- Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy-- for them to reach it, but that is a story for another day.) It is difficult to explain how central this story is in Judaism. Throughout their lives, Jews are asked to think of themselves as if they have personally been delivered from Egypt. This is not only to impart a sense of gratitude, but also an obligation to help those less fortunate and lift them out of their own personal enslavements. You are likely familiar with these stories already as they include the Ten Plagues, the Golden Calf, the Ten Commandments, and the occasionally funny notion that it took 40 years to cross 150 miles of desert.

Passover celebrates the first part of that story: God reveals himself to Moses who returns to Egypt to negotiate with an unnamed (and likely ahistorical) Pharaoh for the freedom of his people. Pharoah does not let them go willingly so God sends, through Moses, a series of increasingly punishing plagues beginning with blood (the contamination of the Nile), an infestation of frogs, and then of lice. Each plague is more terrible than the one before, but still Pharaoh's heart is hardened and he does not relent. (In fact, his own magicians duplicate the plagues, which certainly would not have made things any easier for anyone.) Eventually they reach the worst plague of all: the death of the firstborn. God commands the Israelites to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that the death would “pass over” them. For the Egyptians, it did not matter whether you were royalty or a slave; all firstborn sons must die. This drastic measure forces the Pharaoh to relent and free the Israelites, but they must leave so quickly they do not even have time to bake bread for the journey. Once they are gone, he has a change of heart and sends the army after them all the way to the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds, or any number of other translations). In that dramatic confrontation, Moses performs his most memorable miracle as he parts the sea and permits the Israelites to cross, before drowning the Egyptians that followed. It’s not a “fun” story. Later rabbinical commentary addresses this by saying that God himself mourned the death of so many Egyptians and chastised the angels for celebrating the deaths of “His children”.

Drown like an Egyptian?

One key facet of this narrative is that the Israelites had to carry unleavened bread with them, essentially crackers which would later become known as matzah. Once they were safely on their way, God revealed Himself at Sinai and started issuing rules. Lots and lots of rules. Several of those rules included commands to remember and honor the Passover (Exodus 12:14, 13:3) as well as the “feast of the unleavened bread” (Leviticus 23:5). Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, Passover was honored yearly through a family meal consisting of a sacrificed lamb as well as matzah and bitter herbs (maror). Eating these “foods of affliction” connected these early Jews to the original Exodus and laid the foundation of our modern Passover Seder.

Many years later (around 30 CE), these traditions were still being followed when a certain former carpenter sat down for a final meal with his friends. There is some debate whether the Christian “Last Supper” was an example of a Passover “Seder” or not. I have had some religious teachers say “yes!”, and that our traditions began even prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Others draw a firmer line between the literal eating of a Passover meal (which would have included lamb) and the metaphorical Passover Seders that would come later. I could go on for some time, but suffice it to say that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all state that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, while John states that Passover came after Jesus’s death. I’ll leave working that out as an exercise for the reader.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, everything changed for Judaism. With no more Temple, there were no more sacrifices. Scholars wrestled with and codified Jewish laws and customs into several works. One of these was an early haggadah, instructions and prayers for the ritual Passover Seder, now emerging as something distinct from the previous sacrificial practice. Perhaps the most notable of these rabbinic works is the Babylonian Talmud. One of my rabbi friends called this the “New Testament of Judaism''; it is 2,711 pages of Hebrew and Aramic text that covered all aspects of Jewish life but also transformed it from a religion of literal animal sacrifices into one of metaphor that could spread throughout the world. One of the tractates (“Pesachim”) specifically deals with the traditions of Passover, the rules about leavened products (chametz), and many other customs that are still followed today.

And that is where we finally get to the modern holiday of Passover. While only the most observant still follow all of the rules to the letter, most Jewish families keep some aspects of the tradition. Prior to the holiday, a family is supposed to rid their households of chametz, bread products and things connected to them, to honor that original flight into the desert. In traditional homes, this is taken quite literally with a mad scramble to clean every crumb in the house. On the day of the holiday itself, the family gathers for a ritual meal. (Outside of Israel, for reasons that are too complicated to get into, the ritual meal is held on the first two days rather than just the first day.) Throughout the meal, the family follows a formula recorded in a haggadah which describes which prayers to give, what rituals to follow, and onward through the eating of the passover meal itself. There are many such haggadahs today, each following the same formulas but interjecting their own voice or explanations into the proceedings. At the center of the passover experience is the Seder Plate that includes all of the symbolic foods, including a shankbone to symbolize the sacrifice. During the meal, there is a point where a piece of matzah is broken and hidden for the children to find later. This is the afikoman, which will be important as we play the game, and the kids need to find it in order for the meal to end. It’s a fun activity after a long night of praying, eating, and retelling the story of the flight from Egypt.

Bob Newell circa 2016.

Building the Adventure

The story of The Pesach Adventure starts where you might expect: with a realization and a bit of free time. As we have already seen, by 1993 there was no shortage of Christmas-themed adventure games. I’ve played six of them already and am nowhere close to running out. And yet, in all this time there had never been (as much as I am aware) an adventure game about a Jewish holiday. The closest may be Game of the Maccabees (1983), an action game for the Commodore 64 and other systems which could (if you squint) be called a game about Hanukkah. In early 1993, Bob Newell, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, programmer, and interactive fiction enthusiast came to precisely the same realization. He was living in Bismarck, North Dakota at the time and as far from the center of American Jewish life as it is possible to be. And worse for him (although lucky for us), he was also ill and home sick from work for a couple of weeks with time on his hands.

Let me pause there because while we have already looked at a few tools for building “amateur” adventure games in the 1980s (most notably “The Quill”, used for A Spell of Christmas Ice, and “AdvSys” used for Elves ‘87), the state of the art by 1993 was considerably more advanced. The “Adventure Game Toolkit” (AGT) was getting long in the tooth, but newer options such as the “Text Adventure Development System” (TADS) were maturing (TADS2 was released in 1992) and “Inform” (released in 1993) was just around the corner. These systems were complete enough that a competent and professional-quality game could be written, tested, and released in weeks rather than months with little care needed by the developers to build their own engines or cross-platform compatibility. Sure, text adventures were long in the tooth already, but as Curses (1993) would soon reveal, there was still a market and a community for the next generation of interactive fiction. Newell, whether he realized it or not, was one of the pioneers in this new generation of game designers. He selected TADS2 as his environment and set out to plot and write his holiday-themed text adventure.

“Game of the Maccabees” just screams “Hanukkah”, doesn’t it?

Beginning as he was in late 1992 or early 1993, Newell had a choice of holidays to cover. Purim was the first possibility, falling that year in early March. That holiday features costumes for the kids and heavy drinking for adults (the religious commandment is to “drink on Purim until that person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai”; Haman and Mordechai are the villain and hero of the Book of Esther respectively), but it is not a major holiday in quite the same way. Shavuot, a holiday celebrating the granting of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, fell in late May but that holiday is barely observed by all but the most religious. Passover in April, would be the ideal choice for a game both because it is celebrated even by most secular Jews, but also because it already included game elements: bedikas chametz, the search for hidden leavened products, and the seder-night search for the afikoman. Although Newell had been raised in New Jersey, he patterned his game not on his own upbringing but rather on Jewish life as presented in the works of Chaim Potok, a well-known author who beautifully (and sometimes tragically) depicted the lives of Jews living in New York.

With a plot and setting established, Newell set to work and completed the first pass of the game in an astounding two weeks, sharing it with a few “beta” testers and uploading the completed game to local BBSes in February 1993. He asked his players to share the wealth and “upload like a meshuggah!” to get it the broadest audience in time for Passover. The game was not freeware, but rather “charity-ware” where you were requested to donate $5 (around $9 in today’s world) to a tax-deductible charity of your choice. A walkthrough and teaching materials could be purchased from Newell’s company, Avi Gobbler Publishing, for the low, low price of $2 plus a self-addressed stamped envelope. Initial playtesting on the game wasn’t perfect; by his own admission he made the game too difficult for his target audience of schoolchildren. He formulated plans to expand the game for a 1994 release, but ultimately never completed the work.

“Courting Jane”, his first novel, is a Hawaiian time-travel Regency romance;
several words that I never knew that I would use together in a sentence.

Newell relates that he received very little feedback on his game, except for one email from a young developer that was inspired to write interactive fiction of his own. That developer was Nathan Cull. While that name may be unfamiliar to most of you, he was an award-winning interactive fiction designer of the late 1990s. I already had an (ahem) “secret” plan to play his Frobozz Magic Support (1996) as part of an “Inspired by Infocom” series I hope to do following my Infocom marathon.

Following work on The Pesach Adventure, Newell’s career and other interests led him away from game development, although he continued to have a strong connection to Judaism as well as games in the abstract. For the former, I have to congratulate him for completing dav yomi twice! Each of those is a seven and a half-year cycle of Talmud study. In 2005, he founded The Checker Maven, a weekly newsletter devoted to checkers and draughts. In 2007, he briefly returned to gaming by creating GGZC, a front-end for playing interactive fiction on Linux. He has also studied and written about board games, Linux, Emacs, and other things. He runs a local Jane Austen society, was Treasurer of the Hawaii Chess Federation, and clearly manages to keep himself busy. After his retirement from electrical engineering, he wrote and published two novels, as well as a collection of short stories about checkers. He’s a fascinating individual and I am glad that I have been able to meet him as part of this series.

Time to play the game!

It’s educational. How hard can it be?

Playing the Game
It's the night before Erev Pesach. Tomorrow night is Seder night, a time of year you always enjoy. You and Imma and the rest of the family have worked really hard to get the house clean- Pesach clean, Imma always calls it. You live in a good, observant home, and Abba and Imma have removed just about all of the chametz in preparation. Of course, you and your family always spend some time on this night searching the house for chametz that might have "escaped" Imma and Abba's watchful eyes. Abba and Imma are full of tricks, and they've made a game out of this. It's fun, though, and every year you look forward to this night.

Your job is to go through the house and grounds, making sure everything is in order for Pesach. You'll need to say the right blessings, find the right objects, and remove the things that shouldn't be kept around over Pesach. Good luck!
I don’t even finish the introduction before I start to worry: If this game is a treasure hunt, just with chametz instead of loot, I’ll be fine. But if I have to “say the right blessings”, I’ll be up a creek because frankly I don’t know them. I am less concerned that I may be called upon to make judgements about what is and is not Kosher for Passover since I am unafraid to use Google, but knowing the correct blessings may be another matter altogether.

My concern is amplified immediately because the first action of the game is to answer a trivia question asked by our Abba (father): what is the Hebrew name for the search for chametz? I have no idea so Google comes to the rescue with the term “bedikas chametz”. Fortunately, it is correct and we can start the game properly. (Insightful readers may observe that I knew this term only a couple of pages ago, but the introduction and research was done after playing the game so as to minimize spoilers.)

“Abba” is pretty much every Hebrew learner’s first word
as it uses only the first two letters of the Aleph-Bet: אבא

We start the game in the dining room:
Dining Room 
You are in the dining room. You can see that Imma has begun to prepare the large table for the Seder. There is a chandelier hanging over the table, and a buffet sideboard set up. Through the window, you can see into the back yard. A doorway to the south leads to the kitchen, and a doorway to the west leads to the living room. 
Nu, was ?
Exploring the room, we quickly discover a flashlight under the table and a prayer book on the buffet. Inside the prayer book is a bracha (blessing) which I read for a further five points. With luck, that will be the extent of the blessings I was supposed to say. I head south to discover that the dining room is pitch black. I try to turn on the flashlight, but apparently I cannot do that because it’s too dark. What the heck? I have to head back to the dining room to turn it on before resuming my journey… to the kitchen.

Let me interrupt myself here because I did not fully realize what was going on. It initially seemed asinine that the kitchen (and every other room) would be dark and unexplorable without a flashlight. I live here! I know where the light switches are! The real life bedikas chametz isn’t just a weird type of spring cleaning, it is a “game” where the search is to be conducted by candlelight using a feather to dust the evil crumbs out of their hiding places, not to mention the deliberate bits of chametz that your parents hid around the house just to make sure you were paying attention. The fact that we have to use the flashlight makes perfect sense in that context and I suspect a player familiar with the tradition would have known that already. I’m not the target audience!

And since I interrupted my narrative once already, I’ll interrupt myself a second time to point out that the command prompt in this game is a bit strange: “Nu, was?” “Nu” is an interrogative word in Yiddish, sort of like “well?” or “so?”. I do not know what the “was” means in this case. In context it’s obviously something like “what’s next?” but I welcome any Yiddish speakers to elaborate.

Not having grown up hating matzah, I don’t mind it so much.
You are in the kitchen. There is a doorway leading north to the dining room, a stairway going down to the basement, and a sliding door leading east to the patio outside.
There is an old refrigerator here, as well as a kitchen table, a cupboard, and a storage drawer. You can also see Imma's stove here in the kitchen, and the big double sink. One side is for meat, the other for milk- this IS a good kosher home, you know- Imma takes pride in that.

I discover my first mini-puzzle in the kitchen. Inside the refrigerator are two boxes of matzah, one red and one blue. Reading the labels, I learn that the blue one is Kosher for Passover while the red one is not; it will have to go! But what do I do with the chametz that I find? The introduction didn’t say. I continue searching through the drawers and cupboard to locate a plastic sack; the game is kind enough to let me know immediately that it is the correct receptacle for our discoveries. There’s also a spoon in the sink, a broom in the drawer, and a nearly-empty pack of matches on the table. A pile of crumbs on the stove offers a surprising challenge, but I figure out that while I cannot sweep them directly into the sack, I can sweep them into the spoon and then dump them into the sack. I later learned that this use of the spoon (with a broom substituting for the feather) was also part of the ritual and would have been well-understood by the target audience. Even though I’ve now collected two bits of chametz, my score has not gone up any further. Am I doing something wrong?

It’s a little thing, but I love the detail that this is a traditional Kosher kitchen. A properly Kosher household would have needed two sets of nearly everything, one for preparing and serving dairy and one for preparing and serving meat. I’ve even been to homes with two dishwashers! Although I expect that many people are aware that pork and shellfish are not Kosher, those two examples make up only the tip of a huge set of rules and customs around what can be eaten when and which utensils you can use. It’s a nice detail and a reminder that interactive fiction can put you in someone else’s shoes. I’d better hurry up because Abba is already getting upset that the search is taking too long, and I’ve only explored two rooms!

Maintaining a kosher kitchen is much easier for vegetarians.

I won’t narrate every room with the same level of detail, but you can see the pattern already: as we traverse the house, we must carefully search through (and under) every object in every room to find all those little bits of chametz. Time pressure becomes the hardest part as Abba will stop the search after 100 turns. This means that I have to iterate over the house in multiple playthroughs to find everything then plot out the optimal path. More on that in a bit, but here’s what I find when I explore our household:
  • Beneath the kitchen is the basement with three rooms. There is an oil can at the bottom of the stairs. Off to the west is my bedroom (graham cracker crumbs!) while the furnace is to the east. Hidden in the furnace is a bag of beans. You might be surprised to learn that while beans are not leavened, it is tradition among many Jews that rice, corn, and similar foods are not kept on Passover because of the risk that they have been stored in (and contaminated by) facilities containing flour. 
  • Outside the sliding-glass kitchen door is a patio and a small yard. A grill outside seems like a perfect place for crumbs to hide, but it is empty. Instead, I manage to nearly blow up the house by starting the gas and not being able to turn it off. Not very safe! A shed in the yard has a rusted door, but we would be poor adventurers if we didn’t know to use the oil can. Somehow there are cookie crumbs for me to clean on the lawn mower. I can also lose a point if I come back into the house without shutting the door; I end up starting over just in case that would prevent a win.
  • The living room is off to the west and its sofa, reclining chair, and table offer many places to search. We find cake on the table and a cracker under the sofa cushions, but there’s also a key that we can discover if we sit on our father’s favorite reclining chair. What could that be for?
  • The remainder of the first floor consists of a hallway leading out to a small yard and the street. Like any good Jewish household, there is a mezuzah on the front door. Heading outside, we learn that we are in Brooklyn! Other than spying a trash can outside and another chance to lose a point by not closing the door when we come back in, I discover nothing of interest.

Jewish households, even non-observant ones, often will have a mezuzah near the door. 
  • Working our way upstairs, we find my two siblings’ rooms. My brother’s room has a locked closet containing a pile of scandalous… er… religious magazines, but he’s only using them to hide a box of cookies! Similarly, my younger sister has hidden a candybar in her bed, and not even a properly Kosher one. Into the sack for both!
  • In the bathroom, we find a piece of pie crust hidden in a butter dish in the shower. 
  • The final room is my parents’ bedroom, a place where curious little ten-year olds probably shouldn’t go very often. Looking in the mirror on their dresser reveals a gum wrapper on the floor. Since the gum was packaged with flour (which we can see in the ingredients list), it is chametz and has to go! 
As I stated above, all of that happened over several playthroughs because the 100-turn limit is shockingly limiting for a game that has tons of objects to “search”, “look in”, “look under”, and “move” in every room. I set myself the task of building a “script” to move around the house as efficiently as possible to collect every treasure, but even that requires a bit of cheating as we cannot read the labels or search things. I have to pick up the spoon, for example, before I look into the sink. The game knows it is there and let’s me do it, but wrecks the suspension of disbelief. Even by being as absolutely efficient as possible, it still leaves me with only a handful of turns at the end to solve the final puzzle: what am I supposed to do with this stuff once I collect it?

My first thought is to toss it in the trash outside, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to work. I end up Googling to discover that the typical ending of this ritual is to burn the chametz (usually the next morning), so I resume trying to work the grill. This is one of those embarrassing cases where the command was just “light grill”, but I spent more time that I care to admit trying to “light match”, “remove match from matchbook”, and that sort of thing. Once the grill is lit, I stick the sack on the flames and… lose.

Abba tells me that not only did I fail to find all of the chametz, I also burned something that I wasn’t supposed to. I search through every object that I found and none of them seem ambiguous as to their Kosher for Passover status. I eventually work out that it was the sack itself that I was not supposed to burn, but I can dump the contents out onto the grill easily enough. I still lose, but this time only with a message that I did not find the chametz, not that I burned something incorrectly. A little more mucking around and I realize that the sack was too full for the last couple of items. I have to modify my script to dump our findings on the grill the first time we pass as well, giving me enough room for the rest. Once I burn everything, I win!

I did it!

Winning the first part of the game advances the story to the next day. Our family has celebrated the Passover Seder and we are getting close to the end where the kids have to search for the afikoman, the special piece of matzah that a subtle adult hid during the meal. Unfortunately, this is where I become stuck as I cannot find it. My two siblings, now implemented as roving NPCs that search the house on their own, never find it either. This whole bit unfortunately feels less like an endgame puzzle and more like an incomplete part of the game. Even though it’s now Passover and the meal is nearly at its conclusion, room descriptions have not been updated and many of the explorable items from earlier in the game are broken or not present.

I give up and decide to cheat. The TADS2 development system prevents easy cheating by encoding the text, so I cannot learn anything by using a hex editor like I did playing A Christmas Adventure. With that avenue closed, I look at various paths to decompile the game or otherwise learn its secrets. I’ve been playing with a DOS executable version but eventually discover that someone archived a .GAM version of the game which would have been playable on any system with a TADS2 interpreter. With that in hand, I manage to get an old TADS2 decompiler to work and voila! I have something close to the source to the game.

I discover the issue: the afikoman is placed in a random room at the start of the endgame. The other kids move around the house randomly and you have to try to find it before they stumble on it. Unfortunately, the routine appears to have a bug where sometimes the prize can be placed in an inaccessible room. I play the game over again and this time the ending is simple as the afikoman is just sitting on the floor in my bedroom. Just by luck, I get there before the other kids and win!

I won for real!

Time Played: 3 hr 55 min

Final Rating

We’ve reached the end of our first-- and likely our last-- Passover special. I hope that this has been an enjoyable and educational trip. The game itself isn’t perfect, but it is well-written and provides a look at an aspect of Judaism that I was unaware of. It’s also a fantastic little slice of life about an observant Brooklyn family on one of the year’s most important holidays. Interactive fiction has the power to take us many places and I love that Newell’s game took us to a place that so few games go.

That said, for a game targeted at ten-year olds, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Mr. Newell says as much in his release notes:
News flash: beta testing, in addition to shaking out the usual bugs, revealed that the game as it now stands is both too simple- for an adult with adventure game experience- and too hard- for children with no such experience. A new, expanded version is in the works, with a much richer story line and environment. It won't be done in time for Pesach 5753 but we hope to have it out for Pesach 5754.
That is a great summation of how I feel about the game. Solving the timing puzzle was challenging even today and there was surprisingly little slack. A more kid-focused game might have removed the time limit or made it easier to find all of the objects, but in the end I struggled more with the traditions around an unfamiliar holiday (or rather, an unfamiliar tradition in a familiar holiday) than I did with the search or optimization. Unfortunately, Newell did not come back to the game the following year.

Before I do the numerical score, let me remind everyone that these reviews are based on an adventure game ideal that is somewhat like the world’s most perfect Monkey Island game. A low score doesn’t mean that a game is bad or unappreciated, merely far from an arbitrary (and imaginary) benchmark. Since this is a holiday game, our normal PISSED rating scale just won’t do. Rather than crack out the EGGNOG, I’ll be using our new and suspiciously-similar “MENSCH” rating system. I’m sure you’ll see how it works very quickly.

The less said about this “suspiciously similar” Hanukkah tradition, the better.

Mental Challenges and Solutions - There are only two traditional adventure puzzles in this game, but there is a lot to be said for the slow searching and the determination of what products to keep or throw away. I struggled to work out the trick with the crumbs, broom, spoon, and sack, but perhaps that would have been more understandable to the target audience. For me, the most glaring issue remains the tight timing and the necessity to plot out every action carefully. That sort of puzzle was okay in 1980 with Zork and Colossal Cave, but by 1993 there were better ideas. I also have to deduct some for the hour that I wasted trying to search in vain for the afikomen. There is a lot here that is great, but I wish Newell had come back in 1994 to strike a better balance. My score: 2.

Engagement and Objects - The TADS2 interpreter is powerful and provided a near-Infocom level of functionality with very little overhead. I was shocked how easy the code was to read and understand! That said, the game lacked a bit of polish with commands like “search room” not working anywhere except the one room where you have to use it, plus rough edges around the flashlight, using the spoon, and figuring out how to turn on the grill. I also found bugs where the game would not completely reset state when you saved/restored the game, resulting in things like the flashlight not working. My score: 2.

Narrative and Neighborhood - Newell was right: bedikas chametz is a great topic for a short kid-focused adventure game and it is nice to play with low stakes. Even so, there isn’t much of a story here and no plot progression. That said, I love the setting, the design of the house, and all of the fantastic details that Newell littered throughout the prose. The game is elevated by these inclusions and I only wish that Newell had had more time to polish. My score: 3.

Sound and Graphics - As a text adventure, we have neither sound nor graphics. Sadly, we have the usual “penalty” here. My score: 0.

Circumstances and Emotion - The “atmosphere” category in our rating system continues to bedevil me, but I love so much about the game even as it frustrates me. It feels right, like a real lived-in space by a real Jewish family. I love learning that Abba has never quite gotten around to fixing the cracks on the stairwell, or that I selected the basement room for privacy but regret the long walk to the bathroom. Newell has a talent for prose details that are in evidence here and I may check out one of his novels to see how he matured over a few decades. My score: 4.

High-Concept Text - Although I love those details, the text is sparse at times and I was let down quite a bit when the rooms were not updated for the final afikomen search. It’s difficult to let that slide when the endgame should feel like a culmination of what came before, not as an incomplete epilogue. This category also factors in NPCs, but the two siblings are not sketched in anything more than the most basic way and exhibit no individual personality, especially relative to all that we learned about them by exploring their rooms. Again, I am positive that Newell could have improved this had he continued with a 1994 version. My score: 2.

Let’s add all of those up: (2+2+3+0+4+2)/.6 = 22 points! I will grant a bonus point for being a rare and beautiful look at an Orthodox Jewish family and for reminding us that interactive fiction can take us to unexpected places.

This score fits right along with some of our other holiday-themed games such as Crisis at Christmas and Elves ‘87, both of which share some fundamentals with this game in terms of being a largely amateur (as in non-professional, not poorly made) effort and built to a deadline. I am positive that Newell could have learned from this in later games, had he chosen to do so.

I’d like to thank Mr. Newell for his patience in providing commentary and background on a game he wrote on a lark twenty-seven years ago! Several of his books are available on Amazon, including Courting Jane, a time-travel romance featuring a modern day Hawaiian man courting Jane Austin; Hanai, a retelling of Austen’s Mansfield Park in contemporary Hawaii; and a short story collection.

If you enjoyed my commentary on the holiday, you are welcome to check out my now-defunct blog, Coat of Many Colors. I spent a few years writing about bible stories, mostly in Genesis, and the posts are all still there waiting to be read. I gave it up in 2015 thanks to a lack of readership, comments from well-meaning readers that made me uncomfortable, and a newly discovered hobby writing about and researching games. Check it out.

And finally, I hope all of you are staying safe in our current worldwide health crisis. It seems the world is now divided between people that are stuck at home with too much time on their hands, and people so busy that they are unable to think or breathe. I fall into the latter category as my wife and I balance homeschooling / child care against two full time jobs that are suddenly remote, and all without resorting to excessive use of “screen time”. I count my blessings, but my writing time and energy has been significantly curtailed. I have a few things half-baked which I will try to finish, but depending on timing I may need to either delay Space Quest V or delegate it to another reviewer. Expect a few more one-off posts like this as I burn off my backlog and we’ll see how the world fares in a few weeks.


  1. I haven't even read the gameplay yet, but I just wanted to take a moment and say how much I loved your Passover recap. I'm a religion teacher and not only did you expertly sum up all the important information in a short amount of time, I even learned some things! I never realized the Talmud came out of the destruction of the Temple (though that totally tracks, and it's mostly because I'm focusing more on Christianity at that point. I may have to include that in the future though and explore the Jewish transformation as well), and I never noticed that specific difference in the Gospel of John! I just always assumed it was the Passover meal with the metaphorical Lamb for all of them. Granted, the Gospel of John is a weird exception to most rules, and it was written way later than the other three, but still! Definitely interesting to take note of and why the author went that route.

  2. I love that the game exists and it continued to teach me things. I knew about bedikas chametz and the afikoman hunt, but only in the abstract. All the little details about the spoon, candle, and burning of the chametz was new to me! But most importantly, as you stated, I love that someone had a chance to give a voice to their culture and send it out into the world in this loving and clever way. The 'charity-ware' was the perfect touch on top of it all. A shame he didn't go back and finish it, but a blessing it was able to exist at all.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your writing, this was a really interesting read!

  4. He was living in Bismarck, North Dakota at the time and as far from the center of American Jewish life as it is possible to be.

    I know this was just a figure of speech, but wouldn't that have to be, like, the antipode of New York City? (Which is in the Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Australia.)

    Not having grown up hating matzah, I don’t mind it so much


    I'm intrigued by the kitchen infographic's statement that you can switch an oven from dairy to meat if it can self-clean in between. I suppose some rabbinical authority had to make a ruling on that when self-cleaning ovens were invented! (For anyone out there without such an oven, it runs for a few hours at a temperature well in excess of its ordinary highest setting, and you're left with a little pile of ash that used to be all the food residue.)

    Somehow there are cookie crumbs for me to clean on the lawn mower.

    I get the feeling some, if not all, of these were placed deliberately, somewhat in the manner of an Easter egg hunt.

    I eventually work out that it was the sack itself that I was not supposed to burn

    You did say it was plastic (I pictured a trash bag). That's not something you would normally want to burn.

    1. To keep within American territory, North Dakota *feels* a lot like the opposite of New York city. Considering that there are many large Jewish communities on the coasts, I was imagining that ND (especially in 1993) was likely as far from them as you can imagine.

      I just checked census data which kindly reveals that today, Jews make up 0.0% of the population of Bismarck, North Dakota.

  5. Thank you, Joe, for this informative blog post! Coming from a country where Jews are a very small minority, the only Jewish holiday I had known more about before this was Hannukah, and that only because it has featured so much in Holiday specials of American TV shows (from this side of Atlantic Ocean, it seems like a surprisingly well represented religious holiday in entertainment).

    I have, of course, heard about Jewish Passover and its connection with the tale of Exodus and the Christian Easter, but apart from unleavened bread, I have never really known anything about the actual details how this holiday is celebrated. Thank you (and thanks also for the author of the game) for describing the traditions so vividly! But now I started to wonder - the date of Christian Easter varies from one year to another, but what about Jewish Passover? Is it just an accident that Easter and Passover happen to be so close together this year, or is their dating linked somehow?

    1. Easter and Passover are directly connected and the complicated dating for Easter is in part because of a desire for the Christian calendar to come as close at possible to what would have been the third day after Passover, but then they make it fall on a Sunday, etc. I do not fully understand the complexity of how Easter is calculated.

      All Jewish holidays float on our calendar like Easter does, but that is because they are always set using the Hebrew calendar. Passover, for example, is always the 15th of Nisan. But since the Hebrew calendar uses the lunar cycle instead of the solar one and has different-lengthed months, the holiday appears to move from our perspective.

    2. The funny thing about Hanukkah is that it's mostly important because of its relationship with Christmas. It's not a biblical holiday or anywhere near the "most important" holidays. (In fact, the bible book that deals with Hanukkah isn't even in the Hebrew Bible OR Protestant ones; the Book of the Maccabees is only in Roman Catholic bibles.) And yet, there is a lot more coverage of Hanukkah than just about anything else.

    3. It has to be said that outside of the US and Israel itself Jews are a minority everywhere else. The majority of Western countries know about them but very little of them, and most they know of them they tend to know from the christian bible.

      A very informative post and a game theme I did not expect to see!

    4. Sorry to be clear I know they are a minority in the US as well but not by the margins found elsewhere.

  6. Fascinating article, Joe, thank you! I learned several new-to-me things. I'm also glad Newell took the time to create a game about something so personally meaningful to him. The idea of - even today - writing small text adventure games to explore something of personal interest is a great one! Every game doesn't have to be a hulking magnum opus.

  7. Good review. Like you, I decompiled this and am working on getting my source code functiinal enough to rebuild it. The endgame is that once I have fully functional code, I will remove the game ending at 101 moves, add clues to help teach instead of having to know, and fix a couple bugs I found (like flashlight not working after using RESTART or being able to sweep up the burnt crumbs when not in the kitchen). It actually is a fun game, but the counter ending the game certainly tarnishes it.

    1. I am sorry that I missed this comment last month! Let me know how your tweaks go and how you distribute them. It is absolutely a game worth playing even today and a few tweaks would go a long way.

  8. I guess I never got back to you. I rewrote the game from the ground up in qbasic/qbx/q64. I added a title screen and a winning screen with basic animation and traditional Jewish music. The original story remains but is fleshed out a bit more. Help options are available, as is a glossary of terms. Enjoy!

  9. Website will take you to my finished version.