Monday, 8 August 2022

Missed Classic: Lurking Horror - Creepy and Kooky

Written by Joe Pranevich

It’s Halloween in August here at “The Adventurer’s Guild” as we play several horror-themed games in rapid succession: La Crypte des Maudits (1991), A Personal Nightmare (1989), and Lurking Horror (1987). I enjoy the spooky interplay between these titles, seeing how each approach the genre. It’s a coincidence, but it’s delightful. 

Last time out, I died again. Instead of a zombie janitor, this time I was sacrificed by an evil professor to a dark creature of the abyss. It had tentacles. The idea of a dottering old professor with a pentagram in his office is a fun one, but underscores that Lebling walked a fine line between horror and humor in this game and may have hit “funny” more than intended. Even compared to Stationfall, this game is not particularly scary. In that game, we always felt one step away from being killed by an appliance. This game has zombies that explode after slipping on floor wax.

A nerd. Possibly also a zombie.

One Key to Rule Them All

It became obvious last time that I didn’t have the item that I needed to escape the professor’s pentagram. Looking over my list of puzzles, I returned to the locked door on the roof of the Brown Building. I knew that I needed the master key to open this door. (Exactly how I learned that is a bit of a bug. While I don’t recall the exact command I used, I received a message along the lines of “you don’t have the master key”, ergo my assumption that you need the master key to open it.) While the hacker has plenty of keys on his keyrings, he doesn’t appear to have the “master” key. He responds evasively when asked about it: “Who ever said anything about master keys?”

The game implies this is a bit of a puzzle. Our eyes are drawn to four keys on his keyring when we examine it: a green aluminum Medeco key, a green brass Yale key, a green aluminum Yale key, and a red aluminum Yale key. It’s natural at this point to assume that one of those is the master. Incidentally, I am shocked that our character can tell Yale keys from Medeco keys on sight, or even knows there is a difference. I didn’t learn there was a difference until right this moment.

Around this time, the hacker starts complaining about being hungry. I mentioned this last time, but the solution is simple enough: we reheat the Chinese food from the kitchen. The magic is that– even though we do not know the hacker has a master key– we can “trade food for master key”. He accepts our trade, eats the food, and hands over the key. Problem solved. Was there another way to know that he had such a key before we offer the trade? I’m not sure.

As I write this, I restore back and ask for one of the four “notable” keys instead. He agrees to the trade and eats the food, but STILL hands over the master key. Is this a bug? Or a half-hearted way to make finding the master key easier. Perhaps only one key was ever coded into the game? Whatever it is, this solution undermines the perception that there was a puzzle here. Perhaps I’ll learn more when I search for cut content after the game is complete. 

Let’s head for the roof!

Exactly like this. You can see why it’s good for Tetris.

Man vs Bat-Man

I try the key on the locked Brown Building rooftop door: it works! I emerge next to a large, semi-transparent dome. This isn’t just Lebling’s imagination: a dome-shaped weather station exists on the roof of M.I.T’s real-life Green Building. I enter the dome and discover a peach tree, but I am not alone. A large, bat-like creature senses my entry and begins to smash itself against the side of the structure, searching for a way in. 

I discover that the peach tree’s soil has been disturbed recently. As the creature breaks into the dome, I dig to discover a dried and tattooed human hand. There is no time to investigate further as the creature descends on me. It is unfazed by the axe, but flees when I toss the magic stone at him. It bounces off the side of the dome, but that buys me some time. I escape, but it’s for nothing as the creature ambushes me outside and eats the mummified hand right out of my grasp. I restore and try again. Something tells me that escaping with the hand is important.

I restore and try the sequence again. It’s “timed” such that I need to get in and get the hand before the creature enters the sphere, otherwise it snatches it from me– sometimes, over my dead body. After trial and error, I hide the hand in the empty container of floor wax. (Good thing I am a hoarder!) He blocks me as I try to leave the roof, but he flees when I throw the stone again. The stone soars off the side of the building. I escape back into the building. I am relieved to find that my stone is safe and sound outside in the Brown Building courtyard. The mysterious mass is still there, but the bat-creature is gone for now. Victory!

Like this, but in the basement of an institute of higher learning. (You can buy one here.)

Cleaning Up After Human Sacrifice

I’m at 45 points and nearly halfway through the game but with few leads. Despite giving me a human hand and a scare from a bat-creature, getting onto the roof doesn’t seem to win me anything. I try the master key all over the place, but that isn’t fruitful either. (Notably, it doesn’t open the door to the Department of Alchemy so I cannot sneak in there without the professor seeing me.) I don’t think I should be approaching the end of the game yet, but defeating the professor and getting access to the “Lovecraft” computer could be the final puzzle, especially if his sacrifices are the cause of the student disappearances. 

I run through the professor’s scene a few more times. He clearly breaks the chalk line with a knife that he pulls out of his pocket, but I do not find a way to steal it from him beforehand or anything else that does the trick. I search the game for a different knife, but find none. I truly hoped that it would be in the kitchen, just for the irony of defeating great evil with plastic utensils. 

I search everywhere to look for something that I missed. That’s when I discover the route down from “Renovated Cage” that I alluded to last week. Descending takes me closer and I realize that the “slab” is in fact a sacrificial altar made of “New England granite”. Evil buys local! Lying on the slab, just waiting for an adventurer to come by, was the sacrificial knife that I had been hunting for. Next to the altar is an iron plate covering a passage underneath the altar. It’s been smashed upwards, as if something in there was trying to get out. I save my game out of caution and open it:

You peer through the hole, shining your light into the stygian darkness below. The commotion below is growing louder, and suddenly you catch a glimpse of things moving in the pit. Without consciously realizing you have done it, you slam the panel shut, reeling away from the source of such images. Now you know what has been done with the missing students

Umm. What has been done with the missing students? Were they eaten? Were they turned into zombies? If I’m expected to be scared here, I could use a bit more description than that. Don’t leave me wondering! I make a note to come back here later in case there is a way down into that pit. The game won’t even let me try to open it again out of primal fear. 

Before I leave, I realize that there is a symbol on the altar. I compare it to the one on the stone and it is the same! It’s also the same as the tattoo on the mummified hand. All three objects are related somehow and we’ll probably need to figure out how. But first, since I have the knife, it’s time to try the professor again.

Pay special attention to the wave-form equation for eldritch horrors.

Tenure: Rejected

I knock on the professor’s door and try my luck with the knife. In a second “timing puzzle”, we must iterate until we figure out what works and do it all in one go. If I pull out the knife too early, for example, he just takes it from me. I must wait until he’s inside his pentagram to cut my line:

> cut line with knife

You cut the outer lines of the pentagram. It no longer completely encloses you. The professor sees what you’ve done out of the corner of his eye. He stares, horrified. “Stop, don’t move!” hesays between verses of the chant. The chant takes on a pleading tone.

> leave pentagram

You push your way through a soft spot just over the scuff marks, and are outside the pentagram. The air is thick and close.

A think black mist begins to form in the room. Parts are darker, and parts are lighter, and the dark parts form a disturbing shape. The professor chants and calls more loudly now, clearly terrified of what may happen, and you realize the calls are being answered. 

Once out, it’s not immediately clear what to do. We cannot leave. We cannot get the computer to turn on. Even though I am not trapped, the professor’s summoned mists encircle and drag me off for tentacled torture if I wait. Before long, I remember the trapdoor that we found in the northern tunnel. I move the lab bench and there it is! The professor panics. 

> move bench

It’s heavy, but it moves, revealing a hinged metal trapdoor beneath.

The black mist swirls wildly around the room, and a deep bass voice gibbers out of thin air. “No!” screams the professor, and jumps towards you out of his own pentagram. He realizes what he has done, and tries to reenter, but the mist grabs at him. 

If I waste any turns at all, I am unable to move the bench and descend into the tunnel before being eaten. With a few more tries, I escape into the tunnel below while the professor gets his just desserts:

From above, you hear a thunderous noise, a manaical scream, and then the sound of equipment smashing. The trapdoor slams shut, but around it pours a blinding flash of light. Finally you hear an almost inaudible whimper, then nothing. The light fades, leaving you in the dark.

I must immediately turn on the flashlight or die, but it’s little difficulty to reopen the trapdoor and climb up to survey the damage. It is extensive. The professor has been reduced to a bloody stain on the wall. His class ring (a “brass hyrax”, in parody of M.I.T.’s “brass rat”) sits on the floor. I grab it. Despite how hard he worked to keep it from me, it seems normal enough.

I turn on the “Lovecraft” computer but it is missing its boot disk. I hesitate to believe that a network server required a boot floppy, even in 1987, but it is useless to me now. Will I find the boot disk later? I don’t know. Somehow, I am starting to doubt that finding my term paper is the ultimate goal of the game.

I finally check out the vat of tarry liquid that has been sitting on the workbench this whole time. It is labeled “Elixir of Life”, but it is too thick to drink. Experimenting a bit, I place the hand it. The concoction begins to bubble and the hand twitches in the water. A few seconds later, it’s alive and tries to climb out of the vat. Should I be scared? No! I just pick up the hand and it sits on my shoulder like a trained parrot. The brass hyrax perfectly fits the hand as well; could this be a sign that the ring originally belonged to this departed student? Where is the rest of him or her?

Useful for pilfering.

Wrapping Up

Armed (get it?) with a human hand that thinks it is a parrot, I explore again to find a place where he/she is useful. It doesn’t take long to discover that the urchin is absolutely terrified of a living hand and runs away, dropping a pair of bolt cutters in his wake. Unfortunately, I have nothing that must be cut. Before long, I come to the realization that I am stuck again. And that is where I will leave it. 

My puzzle list is very short:

  • Can I descend into the tunnel under the altar?
  • Is there anything I can do with the non-booting “Lovecraft” server?
  • What is the mysterious mass in the Brown courtyard? Was it the bat-creature?

I know Dave Lebling was aiming for Steven King, but he really only makes it as far as The Addams Family. This game is far too silly to be taken as a “horror” game and having a living hand that rides on your shoulder (an obvious reference to Addams’s “Thing”) seals it. We’ll see how the next sessions work out tone-wise.

I’m rapidly running out of mysteries.

I apologize that this week and last week’s posts are a bit shorter than usual. I planned to put them both together (as might be clear from the note about the altar), but my writing time was insufficient to do them both well. I’m not sure at this point whether I’ll be able to win the game in one more post or two. 

And one final suggestion: There is a Change.org petition to have the upcoming NASA Artemis lander named for Nichelle Nichols’s “Uhura”. If you are interested in signing the petition, you can do so here. In her honor, I am considering playing Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative as one of my upcoming games. I have heard that it is terrible so please feel free to talk me out of it.

Time played: 1 hr 30 min
Total time: 3 hr 20 min
Score: 60
Inventory: bolt cutter, human hand (on my shoulder), smooth stone, master key, knife, crowbar, plastic container, fire axe, flashlight, brass hyrax (on hand), rubber boots (worn), and electrical gloves (worn). (I deposited other unused items outside the computer room.) 

17 comments:

  1. Torbjörn Andersson8 August 2022 at 18:23

    "Was there another way to know that he had such a key before we offer the trade? I’m not sure."

    Outright, complete spoiler: If you nfx gur unpxre nobhg gur xrlf, ur jvyy fubj bss "n xrl lbh unqa'g abgvprq orsber" naq rkcynva gung vg'f n znfgre xrl.

    I never even realized ubj rinfvir ur jnf orsber lbh qb gung. I guess earlier games had conditioned me to nyjnlf nfx rirelbar nobhg rirelguvat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure why I didn't get that hint or why he responded differently to me than in your playthrough. There must have been some event or thing that you did that made him friendlier, while he remained aloof with me up until the point where I fed him. Perhaps I'll dig into the code once to done to see why.

      Delete
    2. Torbjörn Andersson9 August 2022 at 18:13

      It looks to me like "nfx unpxre nobhg xrlf" will always work, even on the very first move of the game, while "nfx unpxre nobhg znfgre xrl" will only work after ur unf fubja lbh gur znfgre xrl.

      A quick glance at the code seems to confirm that ur jvyy erznva fhfcvpvbhf hagvy gur tnzr unf zbirq ZNFGRE-XRL (gur "xrl lbh unqa'g abgvprq orsber") bhg bs vgf bevtvany ybpngvba, TYBONY-BOWRPGF.

      I guess he's just doesn't like you second-guessing him.

      Delete
  2. Torbjörn Andersson8 August 2022 at 18:36

    "Umm. What has been done with the missing students? Were they eaten? Were they turned into zombies? If I’m expected to be scared here, I could use a bit more description than that. Don’t leave me wondering!"

    I remember being puzzled by that bit back when I first played the game as well. Dave Lebling has said in interviews that he would have loved to make The Lurking Horror as a larger-sized game because some "good scary stuff" had to be cut or never implemented. Perhaps that also included some of the back story?

    Though if that was the case, you'd think they would have added it to the feelies instead...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am looking forward to trying to work out some of his ideas for the "cut stuff" post. (And I need to come up with a better name for "cut stuff" since I change it every game. Maybe this one should be "Missing Limbs"?) I also recall reading from an interview while I was researching the history that he hoped to do more.

      Delete
  3. IIRC they did finally play Tetris on the Green Building but I was also told that it's 1 column narrower than a normal tetris board.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! I heard about that. I didn't realize that it was one column narrower. (Or rather, I didn't expect them to even be that close.) These days, it's much less difficult to do the lighting using colored and controllable LEDs; I imagine the MIT hackers had a tougher time of it.

      Delete
  4. AFAIK the game actually predates the first appearance of The Addams Family's Thing as a disembodied hand (in the 1991 movie). In the 1960s TV show Thing appeared as a distinctly non-disembodied human arm that emerged from various holes/boxes/catflaps/etc. in the Addams mansion, which was presumably connected to some never-seen creature somewhere on the estate. I remember hearing that the change was mildly controversial back when the movie came out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting because I watched Addams Family as a kid and always assumed that Thing was a disembodied hand but that the technology didn't quite let it go there. In fact, I seem to recall an episode where his box was on a table and you could see underneath it (with some simple camera trick, no doubt) and he is just literally a hand in a box. Or maybe I'm making that up because that's how I mentally pictured it?

      In any event, I don't recall having any problem with it when it came to the first film. (But for my money, "Addams Family Values" is the superior flick and far more quotable.)

      Delete
    2. If I'm recalling right, the idea of Thing as a disembodied hand had already been established by other media in the years between the 1960s TV series and the 1991 movie, but none of those things had the cultural cachet of either, so lots of people weren't aware. I know I was certainly upset that everything since took a hard line that it was a disembodied hand rather than a "something you never see in its entirety", but it seemed to me like everyone else had assumed it to be a disembodied hand all along.
      IIRC, in the original Charles Addams drawings, The Thing is never seen at all, only referenced.

      Delete
    3. The Addams Family episode of "New Scooby-Doo Movies" ("Wednesday is Missing") from 1972 split the difference, if I recall correctly. Thing still emerges from his box, but the animation shows thing emerging from the box being carried, etc. Obviously not possible if Ted Cassidy was playing him.

      "Thing" in general is a play on the term "handservant" which I imagine was already rare in 1960.

      Delete
  5. On the subject of the Star Trek game, I've heard that its poor reputation is overplayed, but I'd err on the side of caution and not play it for two reasons. The first is that Return to Zork is ever so slowly coming up, and the amount of games between here and there still seems vaguely doable. The second is that I was actually planning on doing those ST games, admittedly not soon, but since you brought it up I can bump it up to the game I play after Personal Nightmare.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Let's talk! I'm still doing "Star Trek: Judgement Rites" when we get there and that could be enough Trek, but I would love to experience these games for myself. I wouldn't mind if you do the official review of some or all of the "missed classics" along the way, but that doesn't preclude me playing along or playing them for myself. You've certainly earned the right to play games you are interested in!

      As for Infocom, I have a good pace going and hope to keep it up. There is still too much for me to cover before Return to Zork (though I will try), but I'm also not able to just play Infocom games back to back without going a bit crazy. I'll probably jump to some fill-in games now and then.

      My "maybe" list currently includes:
      * "Mindshadow", Activision's first adventure game from pre-Infocom (I covered their third, "Borrowed Time" already.)
      * "Sherlock", my Melbourne House, perhaps to cover the most popular Sherlock Holmes game prior to Infocom's. (And I covered "The Hobbit" which is the same engine already.)
      * "The Mist", the first real Steven King adventure game.
      * "Portal", the Activision experiment in gamified storytelling. (They are advertising it heavily in the same materials as Lurking Horror and Stationfall, so it feels "contemporary" to what I'm already reviewing.)

      Or maybe I'll just jump straight into "Nord and Bert". I *really* want to get to Beyond Zork ASAP.

      Delete
    2. Well, as far as I can tell, there are 5 of them that are definitely adventure games, and then 1 that's a bit questionable as an adventure, The Rebel Universe. That one is described as being like a graphic adventure, but also seems to be a full-blown space sim. There's also one that's from the TNG era, so that one might be best to wait on a little while. Its entirely possible for us to alternate between them, with one of us doing one of them while the other one does something else.
      I didn't realize you didn't already cover that Sherlock game. As to The Mist, considering concerns you have regarding horror titles, are you sure that's a good idea?

      Delete
    3. I believe that there are 4 S&S games under the Trek license, but I could be mistaken. Those are the official licensed games before the license went to Interplay for the 25th anniversary. In addition, there are several fan-made unlicensed Trek games that could arguably be an adventure. The "first" one might be "Trek Adventure" for the C64 in 1983, but there are so many almost identically named Star Trek games that I wouldn't be surprised if there are a dozen more.

      The 1972 "Star Trek" for PDP-10 (which Wikipedia calls the "script game") is probably not an adventure by our definitions but I haven't yet looked for a playable version to see if it's worth an entry as an early curiosity.

      Nerds (including me!) loved Star Trek and so there is no shortage of these and no doubt we'd find more fan games when you start trolling through the per-platform databases for C64, Spectrum, etc.

      Delete
    4. As for "The Mist", I love to try to play one thing to get context for playing another. ("Drive-In" before Leather Goddesses, "Labyrinth" before Bureaucracy, "Borrowed Time" before Batman Returns, "Crash Dive!" before Trinity, etc, etc.) I picked that up to possibly play before Lurking Horror and only did like 15 minutes before I decided that my impossibly long delay playing Stationfall did not really endear anyone to my finding a way to delay the next Infocom game. But I still have it and might knock it out if it is short.

      I'm completely unable to deal with visual horror but probably fine with written horror, especially if I'm working with the detachment of a critic...

      Delete
    5. Mobygames under their licensees includes 5 games by S&S:
      https://www.mobygames.com/game-group/star-trek-licensees/offset,75/so,1d/
      I must have forgotten to remove one from the first number when I singled out The Rebel Universe, which seems to be described as possibly an adventure game, possibly not. And as you say the limitless fan games that are in existence, a great many are adventures. IFDB's wiki lists a ton of these, seemingly to the loss of everything else. I think Jason Dyer would probably know a bit more about the number of ST adventure fangames, since he probably keeps track of that somewhere. (he has covered, that I know of, 1980's Trek Adventure and 1982's Space Gorn)
      Just try to miss the movie based on The Mist, since that gets pretty spicy.

      Delete