Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Missed Classic: Moonmist - Second Verse, Same as the First (with Final Rating)

Written by Joe Pranevich



Moonmist is an oddity. Instead of telling a single story from beginning to end, we have seen two very different mysteries play out with the same cast of characters and setting. In both cases, we try to save our friend Tamara from a vengeful ghost, the “White Lady”. Also in both, we are sent on a scavenger hunt by the late Lord Lionel to search for a hidden treasure somewhere on the castle grounds. The details however are quite different. In the “red” variant, Lord Jack attempted to murder his ex-girlfriend Deirdre but she survived a fall down a well and came back to “haunt” him (and prove his guilt) by masquerading as the White Lady. The goal of the scavenger hunt was to locate a Zulu royal war club disguised as a walking stick. In the “blue” variant, Deirdre may have committed suicide due to her torn loyalties between Lord Jack and Vivien, her lesbian lover. Vivien haunted the castle to seek revenge for her lost love. In that case, the scavenger hunt revealed a fossil skull hidden inside of a bell.

This week, we will wrap up the final two variations, “green” and “yellow”. Will the final two cases be fun? Or is the game starting to show its seams now that we have beaten it twice? There is only one way to find out.

A slightly less impressive entrance gate. It needs dragons.

Before I begin, a reader over on my Facebook site, clued me in to the origins of the fictional “Tresyllian Castle”: the rather less fictional “Tresillian House”, a manor house and estate in Newquay, England near the Cornish coast. Other than a name and general location, it doesn’t share much with our game’s location. Although advertised as being near the “best surfing beaches in Cornwall”, it is not located on the coast directly. It’s less than an hour outside of Penzance (famous thanks to the Gilbert and Sullivan play), but whether or not that is supposed to stand in for the game’s “Frobzance” is unclear. Other than the name-- a Cornish term meaning “place of eels”-- it does not appear as if Lawrence and Galley borrowed any other aspect of the manor’s history for their own.

The good news is that Tresillian House is for rent! Do you have fifteen friends and want to spend a few nights in beautiful Cornwall? Do you want to have a private party with up to thirty friends on the estate grounds? Do you want a base of operations to visit the “famous” nearby Dairyland Farm World amusement park? You can make a reservation on their website. I was unable to discover their prices, but my guess is that it will be a bit too expensive for our first annual Infocom-lovers retreat.

Enough of this diversion. Let’s play the game!


“It's not that easy bein' green.” - Kermit the Frog

Green

As we begin, I would love to tell you that the differences in this version and the other two are worthy of a deep dive. They are not. As such, I’m going to keep both this and the following case brief, just touching on the differences and clues in each. If you have somehow stumbled on this post without reading the previous ones, you will be quite confused.

This time around, I chose a male name, “Mr. John Greenish”, as my player character. This triggers a few differences at the beginning. Lord Jack, for example, greets me with a handshake instead of a kiss. Other party guests flirt with me less and I am positive there is a great, if subtle, statement here about sexism in detective stories. Just to see what would happen, I played through the opening with all three in-game genders and recorded the result

First, as a woman:
“My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian,” Tamara introduces him. “Jack, this is my friend from the States, Ms. Jane Doe.”
“So, you’re the famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Ms. Sherlock!” says Lord Jack. “Tammy’s told me about the mysteries you’ve solved -- but she never let on that you looked so smashing! Welcome to Cornwall, Jane luv!”
Before you know it, he sweeps you into his arms and kisses you warmly! Let’s home Tamara doesn’t mind -- but for the moment, all you can see are Lord Jack’s dazzling sapphire-blue eyes.
Then as a man:
“My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian,” Tamara introduces him. “Jack, this is my friend from the States, Mr. John Doe.”
“So, you’re the famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Mr. Sherlock!” says Lord Jack, shaking hands. “Tammy’s told me about the mysteries you’ve solved!”
His keen blue eyes size you up with a friendly twinkle. Yet his friendliness seems to be all on the surface -- it may take time to find out where His Lordship is really coming from.
And finally as the hidden “gender”, when the game isn’t quite sure what you intended:
“My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian,” Tamara introduces him. “Jack, this is my friend from the States, Androgyny Doe.”
“So, you’re the famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Young Sherlock!” says Lord Jack, shaking hands. “Tammy’s told me about the mysteries you’ve solved!” She seems to think you can unravel the mystery of Tresyllian Castle.”
Beyond the flirting, I was surprised to discover that our character is depicted differently in each gender. As a woman, we are bowled over by Lord Jack’s obvious charms and find ourselves lost in his eyes. As a man, we are immediately suspicious of him and his motives. The third option features neither, but we are given a strange reminder that we are here “to unravel the mystery of Tresyllian Castle” which seems unnecessary and out of place. It feels like the third gender was intended to be “kid”, but that doesn’t seem quite right either.


I wanted to put a funny picture here about sexual harassment,
but it is too serious of a topic to make light of. 

Progressing through the small talk, I observe a few small differences. Both Hyde and Wendish claim to have seen the ghost now; Hyde saw it flee into the tower while Wendish saw it flee into the basement. Vivien is thankfully still interested in Deirdre; I am glad that subplot wasn’t limited to just the “blue” version.

I expected the first important difference to be when the butler spoke to us in our room, but that was surprisingly the same! Once again, he caught the ghost searching the New Great Hall for something on the floor, looking like she had lost her glasses. Will it be the contacts again? I also learn that Bolitho discovered the scene when Deirdre died. He found a tent pole and a twisted off piece of heel from her shoe near the well, plus bits of white gown that had snagged on its jagged and rocky sides. She also lost her red necklace in the scramble. As in all of the other cases, he offers me an aerosol spray to defend myself.

I wash up and go downstairs for dinner, pausing briefly in the New Great Hall to search. Just like last time, I locate a contact lens on the floor. This time, Vivien admits to wearing contacts and even pops them out to show me! Dinner proceeds as before with the first clue under the punchbowl (a picture of an Amazonian hunter aiming a blowgun) and the second having been given to Jack (again) in advance. It reads:
My first is an ‘I’, but find an ‘eye’ that sees not.
Adding to my sense of deja vu, the maid’s note repeats her previous complaint of someone talking (or rather, writing) to themselves. I’ll be on the lookout for another diary. I’m disappointed by how much of a retread this case seems already.

The solution to the first riddle is trivial since I explored the house so well earlier: it’s the stuffed rhino upstairs in the game room. It has eyes that no longer see. I head up there and am “rewarded” by having to pull out a second clue from the taxidermied rhino’s empty eye socket. Ewww?
My second is in never but not in ever, and lies in a hidden ‘end’.
Before I solve the riddle, Dr. Wendish appears in the game room and begins searching. If the previous cases are any indication, this means that he’ll be the criminal. It doesn’t make sense that only the criminal in each case does the scavenger hunt-- especially as Lionel tells everyone to do it-- but that’s how it’s been so far.


Be free little rhino.

The second clue is trickier to solve. I think that we have a word puzzle going on with the first two letters being “I” and “N” (the letter in never but not ever), but what is the hidden end? And why is “end” in quotation marks? I search the house for clues and discover a journal in the library that mentions the legendary (and eponymous) “moonmist” as a deadly and rare poison. If that is the treasure, then that gives me a good idea where to look even without more clues: the INK well in the office. Sure enough, someone stashed a deadly and valuable poison in the dumbest possible place! Now, I just need to find the criminal and solve who is tormenting Tamara.

I’m sorry, but I more or less cheat. Knowing that Dr. Wendish is the explorer this time around, I make a beeline for his room. Inside, I discover the contact lens case, ghost costume, and the blowgun. That’s not quite enough for the game to convict him and I am left searching again, but I eventually find his lab notebook in the library. It documents “fiendish experiments” that Wendish conducted on patients at his clinic. That is enough to accuse him of murder. How does that connect with the White Lady? I have to read the game’s official solution to find out:
Deirdre strongly suspected that her grandfather died because of Dr. Wendish’s fiendish experiments on his patients. She wrote a letter to Lionel, begging him to use his influence to investigate Dr. Wendish, which he did. However, Dr. Wendish found out what they were up to, and silenced both of them. He has masqueraded as a ghost to hide his midnight searches for the hidden treasure. He intended the attacks on Tamara to create the belief that Deirdre might still be alive.
I should mention that the game entered a crash loop the first time I accused Dr. Wendish. I had to restore and play half the case again, but I do not trigger whatever bug that is in the second go-round.

The solution feels dissatisfying. It doesn’t explain how he managed to kill Deirdre or Lionel, or why Lionel would have allowed himself to be treated by someone he suspected of murder. It explains a bit as to why Lionel would have had the notebook-- and how the maid could have come across it-- but otherwise it’s a bit dumb. Attacking Tamara was irrelevant. Let’s see if the final case is any better.


I’m just mad about saffron. - Donovan Leitch

Yellow

For all that I zipped through the green variant, I have even less to say about the yellow one. The opening sequences unfold just as they always do. This time, the butler tells us that the ghost was looking for something on the drawing room carpet-- probably the jewel from the necklace again. I check on my way down to dinner and I am exactly right; the game only has two different versions of the butler’s clue. That’s a shame.

At dinner, the first clue is a Polynesian diver holding a knife. Jack, for the third time, is the one that Lionel slipped the second clue to. It reads:
...Yet the ear distinctly tells,
how the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the ____s
That riddle is simple enough: “bells”. Before heading to the bell on top of the tower, I grab the maid’s note. I am relieved that it is different than before, this time complaining that a pet store in Frobzance sells more than just “harmless puppies, kittens, and budgies.” Did one of the houseguests bring a cat? That seems a silly reason to quit your job, but maybe she’s allergic. A “budgie” is a type of parrot, btw. Maybe you knew this already, but I did not.

The third clue is right where I thought:
... And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side 
Of my darling -- my darling -- my life and my bride,... 
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
That leads us downstairs to the hidden tomb in the basement. I pass through the elevator in the iron maiden (still no good explanation for who installed that!) and locate the fourth clue in the crypt:
If you search for ‘A Cask of Amontillado,’ don’t get trapped!
This clue is actually quite clever and sends me off in a few different directions. “A Cask of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s short stories, about a man who is walled up alive in a house after being promised fine wine. The story echoes that of the White Lady herself and that is likely no coincidence. I check the library and the wine cellar, but find nothing interesting in either location. However, the basement underneath the tower has something that I have never seen before: loose bricks. I open up the wall to reveal the dead body of Lady Tresyllian, imprisoned there centuries ago by Sir Thomas Tresyllian. Someone has been here more recently however since her skeleton is wearing a black pearl necklace, the treasure! Lionel must have discovered the castle’s secret at some point in the past and used it for his macabre game.

While exploring, I notice that Tamara is searching the house this time. I guess she did it. I also stumble on the blowgun and ghost costume just sitting in the secret passage. Examining the costume closely reveals one of Tamara’s red hairs. I head to her room and find her already asleep, but there’s an earring with a missing jewel in her jewelry case, plus a diary and receipt under her bed. The receipt is for a poisonous snake. The maid must have discovered it while cleaning. I wake up Tamara and accuse her. The game ends with the case summary:
Tamara doubted that she could hold Lord Jack’s love. She was both jealous and fearful of Iris as a rival who might someday take Jack away from her. So she tried to defame Iris by making it appear Iris was a vengeful ghost bent on killing Jack’s new love, Tamara. Deirdre’s death was purely an accident.
That case is disappointing but discovering the hidden tomb should have been amazing. I wish that I had not figured out that the criminal is always the one wandering the house. It’s too obvious of a “tell” and makes little sense in context. It also makes the final phase of each case far too easy. Besides, why the heck would Tamara invite me (a famous detective!) to Cornwall if she was the source of all the problems?

We’re all set with all four cases. Only one thing left to do.

Time Played: 1 hr 45 min
Total Time: 8 hr 30 min


Why are there no Dragnet games?

Final Rating

My big question as I sat down to write this review is whether I should be looking at just the first case that I played or the four cases taken together. There are pros and cons to each. I had more fun solving the game the first time than I did the other three. The game became repetitive. Ultimately, I decided to review the four as a set.

Let’s break out the categories:

Puzzles and Solvability - Moonmist balances a Deadline-style mystery with a more “traditional” adventure game scavenger hunt. There are no constructed puzzles such as we might see in a Zork game, but puzzles are ingrained into every other aspect of the narrative. In that respect, it is successful. Unfortunately, the rhyming clues are never very difficult and the overall solutions to the mysteries become repetitive before the end. The realization that the character exploring the house is also always the criminal is practically game-breaking. My score: 3.

Interface and Inventory - Infocom’s usual high score in this category must be tempered by the bugs that I experienced. This was without a doubt the buggiest of the adventures in the Infocom catalog by far. My score: 3.

Story and Setting - The true winner for Lawrence and Galley is the setting. Excusing for a moment that many of the descriptions are only in the “tourist brochure”, the game does a great job of building up Tresyllian Castle as a “real” place. The walls have history to them and I love the way the old keep-style castle connects to the “newer” manor house, the way that the servants move in their separate corridors, and even the secret passages. It seems strange to wish for more story when we just played four of them, but four badly written plots with shallow characters don't add up to a whole. My score: 5.

Sound and Graphics - As usual. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - I expected this to be the best category, but I need to dock a point for forcing me to look in the manual for a third of the room descriptions. It robs the game of immersion right when it needs it most. The spookiness level worked for me otherwise, especially since this is intended to feel like a “Nancy Drew”-style mystery. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - Unlike the previous mysteries, the characters did not have distinctive voices. Very often, the game used identical wording when different characters answered the same question! The game was (once again) not helped by putting some of what could have been its most evocative text in the manual. My score: 3.

Adding this all up ((3+3+5+0+4+3)/.6) and we land at 30 points.



This score makes Moonmist the lowest rated game in the Infocom canon so far. Is that deserved? Did I really like Cutthroats and Infidel more? Honestly, I’m not sure. Had Lawrence and Galley tried to tell a single story, I am sure that they could have done amazing job. As it was, they spread themselves (and their testing team?) too thin, resulting in a game that feels incomplete at times. I don’t hope to play any of them again any time soon.

With that, Adam Thornton is our winner! He will receive CAPs at the conclusion of our next regular game! Congratulations!

This is not the end of Moonmist, however. While researching the gender differences for this post after beating the game, I discovered two more nearly-complete cases in the source code (“Orange” and “Violet”) as well as… drumroll please… a plan for twelve total variations instead of four. We will take a quick look at the unfinished cases next week. Hollywood Hijinx will have to wait just a little longer.

16 comments:

  1. I also began Hollywood Hijinx last night and have enough material for the first post! With luck, that should come immediately after the "bonus" Moonmist post.

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  2. It’s less than an hour outside of Penzance (famous thanks to the Gilbert and Sullivan play), but whether or not that is supposed to stand in for the game’s “Frobzance” is unclear.

    I think it's quite clear Frobzance is a wordplay on the real-life Penzance. "Frob" is a favorite nonsense syllable in Infocom games -- see frobnitz in the Jargon File or frob in the Zork Wiki.

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    1. Right! But the manual mentions both Penzance and Frobzance so it's not like they are the SAME place. But one is clearly inspired by the other.

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    2. Yes, I picture Frobzance as a fictional place meant to be in the general neighborhood. Compare the fictionalized eastern European flavor of "Frobnia" in Border Zone, for instance.

      The story given as "The Haunted Orchard of Penzance" is a real Cornish legend (see https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/myths-legends/penzance.htm) so perhaps the others, other than the Tresyllian White Lady, may be as well and are included as flavor text.

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  3. Well, I feel redeemed for flaking out on Infocom after giving this a shot.

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    1. If this was your only Infocom game, I cannot blame you! Please pick just about any other one. There are a lot of great experiences.

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  4. I think now that we are in the final stages in Infocom life, the remaining games will not longer get scores as high as the previous. If i'm allowed, i bet 10 caps that none will get more than 35 points (At least the ones with no graphics)

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    1. If I'm allowed, I'd like to bet 10 caps against this. While I understand Leo's point, I think that a few will break the 35 barrier.

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    2. Alright, let's make the bet official! Whoever of you is right, gets 10, while the other one loses the same amount of CAPs.

      Personally, I suspect either Lurking Horror or Plundered Hearts might do the trick.

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    3. I am partial to "Border Zone", personally.

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    4. Yeah, when i made that bet i forget about The Lurking Horror and Plundered Hearts, later when i checked the list of remaining games i realized about that. Well, i stand by my guns, lets wait Joe's judgment about those games

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    5. I was just remembering the other Douglas Adams Infocom game, Bureaucracy. If I remembered that Lurking Horror was Infocom, I would have tried going all in.

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    6. There are a lot of games coming. I hope they are not all <35 points!

      I am most looking forward to Stationfall at this point. That and the two Zork games are the only ones coming that I have played before at all, but I didn't get far in any of them.

      (Actually, I may have played a bit of Nord and Bert as well.)

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    7. @MorpheusKitami, for my money HHG is the better game, even given its unforgiving puzzles. I know part of the "meta" of Bureaucracy is that it's intended to be especially frustrating, but a lot of it is just too out there and "AUGH" for me.

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  5. I am very interested in discovering the other planned variations, but I also agree with you that probably the game would have turned out better if they stuck to a single plot instead of half-assing four different ones.

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  6. Amazing. I guess my lack-of-memories of this one were spot-on!

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