Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Missed Classic: Bureaucracy - Working Undercover for the Man

 Written by Joe Pranevich

Welcome back! I know it’s been nearly a month since my last Bureaucracy post and I am sorry for keeping you on the edge of your seat. How will we escape the madman that has us trapped in his basement? Will we ever find our missing money order and be able to afford a cab to the airport? Why exactly does the suburban United States have so many llama farms? With luck, we’ll answer all of those questions in this post. I admit again that a combination of stressful politics and an extremely busy work schedule has made playing games difficult. Exams are graded, the Electoral College voted, and (for now at least) the slowest and least effective attempted coup is remaining firmly in the “attempted” column. As Christmas is almost here-- only the second Christmas in my life that I didn’t go home to be with my folks-- I’m glad I snuck enough time to be able to play and write again. Fingers crossed that I can keep it up. 

We ended our previous post trapped in a madman’s basement, even though we answered all of his copy protection questions. Prior to that, we explored my small town, fed a llama, and tried to undo a mess caused by a shoddy American postal system. Somewhere nearby is a money order with my name on it, worth enough that I will be able to cash it and take a taxi to the airport. My flight to Paris awaits! I still find the tone challenging as the game feels like a distinctly “foreign” idea of what suburban America circa the 1980s felt like. I’m having fun with it, but the experience feels off. We’ll see if I feel that way once I get to the end.

Any one of these houses could hide a deep, dark secret.

I start off in my cell next to my exceptionally well-armed cellmate. The homeowner didn’t disarm him before triggering the trapdoor, but he still doesn’t try to escape by, for example, shooting the door. Or does that only work in movies? Fortunately, I still carry the hacksaw that I picked up at home and work on the bars. I fail, but the guy admires my perseverance and hands me his Swiss army knife. How can that help, you might ask? Allow the game to explain:

This is one of those multi-function Swiss army knives. It appears to have all of the usual blades, screwdrivers, bottle openers, hair dryers and food processors one associates with such devices. In addition, there’s a button marked POWER SAW and a lever marked GENERATOR. 

I press the button and pull the lever; out pops a giant bicycle-style generator and a power saw. It’s supposed to be funny, although the joke feels more like one from Leather Goddesses than Hitchhiker’s Guide. The generator is even too heavy to lift! I plug in the saw but discover that we cannot operate it and pedal at the same time. Fortunately, the armed weirdo is happy to cut the bars while I pedal. Once done, we flee through the basement and up the stairs. I emerge to find the homeowner chasing the weirdo off his property. That gives me enough time to search his pile of mail to discover a flyer (intended for #202) with a “B” sticker on it. I pocket it and escape; the house closes and locks itself behind me. 

These birds could be hiding a deep, dark secret.

I have a few choices where to go next: I have not fully explored the bank, an apartment building, a bookstore, and a mansion, plus I cannot pay for a hamburger. The mansion is closest. It’s a big place with a front door and doorbell plus a path around to a backyard where I found an unlocked porch door earlier. Inside the porch, an angry one-winged macaw guards a pile of mail. Just beyond that is the living room where an elderly homeowner waits, gun in hand, for anyone to ignore her “No Soliciting” sign. I ring the doorbell and quickly run around to the back of the house. When I make it inside, I find her still at the front door, giving me a turn or two to explore the living room. If she catches me, she shoots me. Ah, stereotypical American home ownership!

Once there, I find little of importance. I grab a picture of Ronald Reagan off the wall-- the only object not nailed down-- and retreat back to the porch. Fiddling with that, I realize that the one-winged macaw has adopted some of its homeowners’ political views. If I show it the painting, something amazing happens:

The macaw is clearly deeply moved by the sight of the painting of Ronald Reagan, and starts shrieking a vigorous and relentless R&B number about the joys of political extremism. At the same time, it launches into an energetic roach-stomping flamenco dance which miraculously generates enough aerodynamic lift to catapult it (somewhat asymmetrically) into the air, where it rips up Reagan’s face (which, to be honest, makes little real difference). 

Exhausted but happy, it sinks back to its perch, croons repulsively the first verse of a ballad about pecking the eyes out of the oppressors of the American people, and falls into a satisfied coma. 

The bird falls into a stupor and I search its treasured pile of mail. As usual, I do not find my missing money order, but I do nab a coupon booklet with a “D” sticker. I’m not sure what political point they are trying to make with this sequence. Was Reagan fighting the political extremists? Or was he an extremist himself? Why did the bird rip off his face? 

This tasty-looking hamburger harbors a deep, dark secret.

No sooner do I finish than I discover a new problem: my hunger pangs have become overwhelming and the game nearly unplayable. Every other command is ignored because of hunger. With no other options, I stumble into the fast food restaurant and force myself through the ordering process (twice) to get a burger. I eat it before the waiter even asks me to pay and dart out the back door. I don’t feel proud about it, but there doesn’t appear to be anything else I could do. I hope that I have not dead-ended the game. 

With my hunger sated, I next explore the bookshop. Last time, I observed a salesman guarding a cash register near a software display. I thought briefly about distracting him and robbing the place, but that doesn’t feel like the correct solution for this game. This time the salesman speaks to me in hushed tones about an “unofficial” Boysenberry cartridge that he can sell me. He pulls it out from behind the counter and I stare in awe at a misshapen, “one of a kind”, unlicensed cartridge labeled “recipe”. He won’t sell it, but he agrees to trade it for the copy of Dork I that I have been carrying. I hand it over (scoring a point!) and collect my reward. Unfortunately, it is only a llama recipe and nothing that helps me now. I assume we need it later given the granting of points, but I fail to guess any possible use for it.

As a historical aside, I was prepared to write about how the scenario was a play on the Nintendo licensing drama that went on around this time. In order to publish a NES cartridge, a developer needed to work with Nintendo so that a special chip could be put on the board. This ensured that Nintendo made a fee on all games sold, but also ensured a certain standardization and quality in the manufacture of the games. Atari reverse engineered the copy protection chip and released their own games without Nintendo’s blessing. This led to a lawsuit that Nintendo eventually won. That would have been very cool information to share except that it happened in 1988. I presume that there must already have been a market for off-license carts for some systems by 1987, but I am uncertain what the authors were riffing on here. Were they just prescient? Perhaps a commenter knows more. 

Everyone knows that stamp collectors have deep, dark secrets. 

Checking over my notes, the apartment block and the bank remain. The former is smaller than it appears, with just a single door on a landing to explore. Like last time, I fail to find a way to unlock or break down the door. Unlike last time, I try the obvious thing: knocking. Sometimes, the “puzzles” are our own expectations! We are let into a small room filled with discarded and mutilated mail, stamps, and an old collector sitting in the center of the pile. My first thought is that he would be interested in all of the letter stickers I have been collecting, but that is not the case. Instead, he’s only interested in the stamp on the leaflet, one so rare that it causes him to dance with glee right out of his apartment!  

Once he is gone, I search the room to discover the game’s purported Holy Grail: the money order! Unfortunately, it has been shredded and is now useless. I pocket its envelope and “C” sticker. How am I supposed to get money now? That was my only lead. 

I am also out of time. My plane leaves in less than an hour and there is far too much for me to do. This game trades on the worst excesses of Infocom’s earlier game designs by including both a starvation mechanic (blame Planetfall!), as well as a time limit. I need to play it over again; maybe I will find a clue that I missed on the second pass. At least, I have little difficulty playing through everything again. I nab the “E” (llama), “B” (paranoid freak), “D” (macaw), and “C” (stamp collector) stickers, but I do not see any “A” stickers. When I do the mansion, this time the owners have a Gorbechaf painting instead of a Reagan one, but everything plays out the same. I cannot help but think that that too is some subtle political commentary. I finish no better off than before. 

A bank with a deep, dark secret. And rainbows.

I take some hints. My first is that I am a moron and missed something obvious. While I thought the envelope that I picked up in the collector’s apartment was the one with the money order, it was not. As such, I neglected to open it to discover a collections notice from my American Excess card as I am $75 overdrawn. How was I able to buy the llama food in the beginning of the game if my card was overdrawn? I have no idea. The envelope also, very strangely, contains a check for negative $75 dollars. What does this mean? Who believes that money works like this? I have no idea.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t get me anywhere and I take another hint to learn how to get money out of the bank. I feel bad because I suspect this is one of the signature puzzles of the game, but I doubt I would have figured it out on my own. We need to trick the bank into letting us deposit the negative $75 check as a positive one. That’s called “bank fraud”, but we can go with it. We do this by first going to the withdrawal window to get a slip from the teller. We fill it out as if we are taking $75 out of the bank, being careful to use all the correct information (our address, etc.) from the beginning of the game when asked. We then take that slip to the deposit window and “depot” a $75 withdrawal with a -$75 check. Somehow, this works. 

> give passport to teller

The bank teller looks at your passport and returns it to you. She says, “Let’s see, you are depositing -$75 using a withdrawal slip. Since the withdrawal slip is the negative of a deposit slip, negative of -$75 is $75. It all makes perfect sense. Your new balance is $85. Have a nice day.”

I then return to the withdrawal window and follow the process to extract the $75 from the bank. Congratulations! We just committed fraud and/or a travesty of puzzle design.

A taxi with a deep, dark secret.

Now that I have money, I quickly buy a burger the correct way and I am left with $70.50. Calling the cab is easy, but made annoying in the typical way that this game does: a cab company phone number is on the last page of our address book. If we call it, a cab will probably show up outside our house in a few turns. If it doesn’t show, we have to run inside to call again. The dispatcher yells at us for not being outside, we probably just miss it coming by, and we have to do that a few times before he shows up. After an attempt at smalltalk with the cabbie, we arrive at the airport. The fee is only $17.50, leaving us with $53 dollars for the remainder of the game. 

That will be enough for this week! Next time out, I will figure out how to catch my flight. That should be fun, right? 

Time played: 3 hr 20 min
Total time: 4 hr 30 min
Inventory: Boysenberry computer (containing a recipe cartridge), memo, envelope, coupon booklet, damaged painting of Gorbachev, flyer, Swiss army knife, magazine, eclipse predicting cartridge, Beezer card, wallet, US Excess card, hacksaw, address book, passport, and an airline ticket. 


  1. "I cannot help but think that that too is some subtle political commentary."

    This is a silly pun. Depending on which wing the macaw is missing, it's either a right- or a left-wing macaw and hates the politicians of the other wing.

  2. "As such, I neglected to open it to discover a collections notice from my American Excess card as I am $75 overdrawn. How was I able to buy the llama food in the beginning of the game if my card was overdrawn? I have no idea."

    You used the Beezer card to pay for the llama food, not the US Excess one. If you had tried, the delivery guy would have told you it expired last month (just as it says if you examine it) and suggested that you should get your bank to send you another one. ("Incredibly, you resist the urge to kill the worthless cake-brain on the spot.")

    Now, it is a bit odd that you can pay for the llama food with the Beezer card, because if you try to use it to pay for the hamburger the waiter will tell you that you're over your credit limit. He'll tell you that whether or not you paid for the llama food, so it has nothing to do with the form the delivery guy makes you sign ("which you notice in passing contains a larger number than there are things in the known Universe").

    Of course, the waiters at the restaurant could just be messing with you.

    1. It could be that the llama food is cheaper than the burger, and there is just enough left on the Beezer card for llama food. I am not sure if this is the way it would work with 80's card technology which was still in its infancy though, so it could be that I am completely wrong too.

    2. You are probably correct that I just forgot what credit card I used. That is one of the downside of having long gaps between posts. I will be working on the next post starting tomorrow so at least everything will be more fresh.

    3. Your blood pressure just went up.

    4. It's plausible that the restaurant processes the charge immediately from the register, while the delivery person has to take down the card number (Possibly on one of those cool rolly things that squishes your card against a piece of carbon paper, which no one has used in about 20 years except for the vendors at my workplace because the building is shielded against cell reception) and process it later, so he can check the expiration (it's written on the card) but not if you're overdrawn.

    5. I remember some 20 years ago that i once broke a credit card of a costumer using one of those damn things....

  3. Fun fact: Bureaucracy is a game that's unlikely to run quite correctly on modern interpreters.

    In one particular part of the game, there is supposed to be a 1 or 2 second delay between some text messages. The game implements this as a "busy-wait" loop, where it just spins for a few thousand iterations. Exactly how many depends on which type of computer the interpreter claims to be running on, e.g. on a C64 it needs to loop 1000 times for a one-second delay, but on Amiga it needs to loop 4000 times.

    Of course, on a modern interpreter this happens in a blink of an eye no matter what. DOSBox may be all right, but I haven't checked.

    At this point in time the Z-Machine should have been capable of timed input (e.g. wait for input, but time out after a specified time), which seems like a better way of implementing this. But the game had a long and troubled development history, so maybe that feature wasn't widely available when that part of the game was written?