Written by Joe Pranevich
One of the tenets of the Cthulhu mythos (as I understand it) is that prolonged exposure causes insanity. It is perhaps for the best then that we have reached the end of our playthrough of The Lurking Horror. We here at “The Adventurers Guild” cannot be responsible for bouts of madness among our readers... although we’re all spending our evenings playing adventure games from thirty years ago, so how sane can we be? Please write your answers in the space below in the form of a limerick.
Last time out, I accomplished a lot: fought a bat-monster on the roof of a campus building, scared away a street urchin, and defeated an evil professor by accidentally letting him sacrifice himself to a dark nether god. As I have now found the (broken) computer that houses my lost term paper, I am not sure what I am supposed to be doing in this game. I assume that I’m supposed to be finding and defeating the evil that has invaded campus, but with the Professor of Alchemy gone, surely that is accomplished?
As I wandered the now-empty halls of G.U.E. Tech, I had no choice but to give up and take a hint to find out what I was missing. The answer: I’m missing something that I was supposed to do with the elevator.
|Elevator Action, but not like this.|
I return to the campus computer center to take a longer look at the elevator. I explored it early in the game and found the flashlight in an emergency compartment, but now I dig deeper. Using the call buttons on each floor causes it to go up and down, that much is the textbook definition of an “elevator”. It doesn’t take too long for me to realize that I can force open the doors while the elevator is on other floors and enter the shaft. I discover a hook on the bottom of the elevator car. (What for? I have no idea.) Descending, I also find a hidden compartment just below the basement level. It looks to have been the entrance to a passage, now bricked up. Whomever sealed the passage appears to have left a chain lying around. Of course, this leads to inspiration: I can fasten the chain to the hook! The chain doesn’t reach very far, so if I’m going to attach this to something, it must be nearby.
I return to the bottom and take a closer look at that wall. There are loose bricks, too difficult to pull out by hand but easy to deal with using the crowbar. Once I make a hole, I see a rod or a bar behind the wall. I wrap the chain around the bar as there isn’t enough slack to tie it and run upstairs to move the elevator. It pulls the chain off the bar, but does no damage. I try a few more times to see if there is a way to fasten it more tightly but have no luck. I run through my items and don’t have anything to fasten it with either.
Despite that awesome hint, it appears that I am stuck once again. What am I missing?
Part of the real “Tomb” on the M.I.T. campus.
My second hint is far more stupid: I missed an exit. The stairwell in the Aeronautics Building leads both up and down. Somehow, I never noted that it leads further down and I missed a complete explorable area under the building. I should have noticed it when I re-explored campus as I thought I re-read all of the descriptions, but sometimes it’s easy to let your eyes skip over important things. This is not the type of mistake a seasoned adventure like myself should be making!
The “Subbasement” below is empty except for a narrow crack leading to the northwest. Much like a similar puzzle in the original Zork, I must drop most of my larger items to pass through, including the axe and wire cutters. Slipping through, I find myself in a “Tomb”, but not in the way that we might expect. This is the “Tomb of the Unknown Tool”, a real-life secret location on the M.I.T. campus. No doubt Lebling discovered or visited this area in his own college days. On the floor is an access hatch to the steam tunnels, locked with a padlock. Fortunately, the master key works in that lock and I can pass below into another set of creepy tunnels below the last set of creepy tunnels.
The tunnel appears to be a service duct both for the campus heating system as well as the campus network. I hear a noise to the west and investigate, only to stumble upon a giant swarm of rats. They attack immediately, climbing up my boots. I try to run away, but one climbs up my body and rips out my throat. As I die, I notice that the rat has a familiar tattoo. I have to ask the obvious question: what kind of evil mastermind individually tattoos his rats? That’s as useful as monogrammed toilet paper.
Restoring and heading east, I discover a pressure relief valve for the steam, but it’s stuck closed and I have no large tools with me. Continuing, I find a dead end with a suspiciously damaged southern brick wall. I have found the other side of the elevator! I’d be more excited about this, but the rats catch up to me and eat me again. I restore one more time, grab the padlock, and then return upstairs. I think I see what to do.
A steam tunnel, minus the rats.
I reassemble my elevator contraption again, but this time I fasten the chain to the rod using the padlock. That should stick! When I set the elevator moving, I am rewarded with a satisfying crash down below. I climb down and find myself (as expected) in the same steam tunnels underneath the Aeronautics Lab, but this time I have my tools with me!
Moving west, I can arrive at the pressure relief valve shortly before the horde of rats arrive. It takes two or three tries, but I cut open the valve with the bolt cutters and time it so that the rats are boiled in the hot steam. Many die and the remainder run away. The tunnel is now blocked by hot steam, but I can creep back around through the Tomb to get past it. I’ll still need to drop my tools, but I think I have enough time that I can drop something on the western side of the steam valve before the rats come. I’ll keep exploring to figure out what item.
The steam tunnel gradually becomes just a muddy passage and then opens into a larger chamber. It’s difficult for me to visualize, but the room is covered by person-sized “slots”, each with a wire or vine going into it. I peer in and discover motion… a lot of motion.
Slowly, painfully, things emerge from the slots. They are pale, thin creatures with red mouths and staring eyes. Mold grows in their hair and wirelike streamers wrap their heads and join a bundle on the floor. You realize that these are urchins.
Urchins! I vaguely recall the urchin upstairs complaining that his comrades were going missing. Is this where they ended up? I assumed that they were sacrificed by the Professor. Is this his doing? How is this connected to the occult stuff going on upstairs? I work out quickly that the wires attached to their heads are the issue, but with no bolt cutters, I don’t have a way to deal with them. I restore and set my plan in motion, but discover that there is no need: one can simply close the valve. I had imagined that I was cutting off the valve, but the game expected that I was using the bolt cutters just to turn it instead. That’s good for me but anytime our own impression of what is happening doesn’t match the game’s, it’s a blow to immersion.
To make a long story short, I cut the urchins’ wires:
> cut wire with bolt cutters
You strain and push the two handles of the bolt cutter together with all your strength. At first, it looks like nothing will happen, but then, with a loud click, the jaws cut the wire!
The wire, as though under tension, rapidly begins to curl up, disappearing down the tunnel and away. The effect on the urchins is electric (perhaps literally). They twitch, jerk spasmodically, and fall to the ground almost in unison. They have lost all interest in you.
One more obstacle dealt with. What’s next?
|My map of the Lurking Horror maze.|
A Maze… In 1987?
Descending further into the muddy area, I find myself in a “Wet Tunnel”. I realize pretty quickly that I’ve landed in a traditional text adventure maze. For those of you that aren’t old hacks at adventuring, this is a style of maze (invented and perhaps popularized by the original Colossal Cave) where all of the rooms are identical and have non-symmetric entrances and exits. Traveling west and then east does not usually lead back to the original room. We must make the rooms distinct in some way, usually by dropping an item in each one. Evil games make it harder by using more items than are available, having a NPC or an event move around the items, etc. The Lurking Horror has none of those and I make short work of mapping all 12 rooms of the maze. Infocom was famous for mazes in their first games but quickly decided that wasn’t the type of game they wanted to make. It’s been forever since we had a traditional maze in this marathon, but not surprising that Dave Lebling would be the one to do it.
At the end of the maze, I discover a curtain of corrosive mold. If I touch it, it clings to me and causes my painful death in a few turns. Everything in this game causes death in a few turns. While it takes a bit of trial and error, I work out that we can use the flask containing liquid nitrogen on the curtain. That freezes the slime and exposes the ancient door behind. Somehow, even that door opens to the master key and I descend deeper into the catacombs.
Wait! Before I go on, an interruption from future-me. When I played through a second time while writing this post, mapping the maze wasn’t necessary. My friend the hand pointed the way:
The hand points its mutilated ring finger north and grips your shoulder tightly.
What did I do differently the second time? I am not positive, but I believe that I had the ring on the hand’s finger on the second playthrough, while the first I had it on my finger. My assumption is that the ring belonged to the hand’s former person. The Professor of Alchemy, obviously not thinking about what it would look like to wear a dead guy’s ring, kept it as a memento. That could be why he was so reluctant to let me see it, although I don’t think the game makes this explicit.
|Like this, but less evil.|
I step through the ancient doorway and discover what may be the heart of the problem, the “Inner Lair” of some foul beast. Or perhaps it is a foul beast’s wiring closet. Having experienced a few of those in my career, I can assure you that there is often not much of a difference. As we’re in the endgame now, I’m going to let the game (and Lebling’s prose) speak for itself. I “solved” this section on my first go; this will be a near-verbatim rundown of my thoughts as I played out the “final exam” of the game.
The floor here is a stagnant, slime infested pool of water. It feels to be about six inches deep. Rope or wires tumble down the slope, where they enter a large whitish mass which takes up much of the chamber. The noise is loud here, and comes from the mass, which undulates in synchrony with the noise. Wan, sourceless light illuminates the chamber.
Set on the wall, incongruous in its surroundings, is a metal box. On one side a coaxial cable enters the box. On the other, a cablelike appendage leads from the box to the mass. There is a metal cover on the box.
Suddenly, the hand leaps from your shoulder into the slime-encrusted puddle. It dives beneath the water.
One of the first rules of data centers is that you shouldn’t have stagnant pools of water in them, so that’s a mark against the lair right there. Lebling paints a wonderful image here, one where technology and magic literally interconnect in a small junction box. It’s a perfect metaphor and I love him for it. Of course, I shouldn’t be too distracted from the strange undulating mass that it is connected to, but the idea is wonderful.
I’m going to take the hand jumping off my shoulder into the water as a strong hint, so I feel around down there.
> search water
You root around blindly in the gooey, slimy water. You feel something thick and slippery! A tentacle? No, it’s cold and dead. It seems to be a line of some kind, just below the surface.
You hear noises outside the door.
The hand has led me to a line under the surface of the water. My first thought turns to it being a power line. I don’t know how things were in 1987, but when I was doing data center networking in the early 2000s, it was common for network cables to run across cable trays on the ceiling and power to run under the raised floor. (In environments without raised floors, both would be done through the ceiling.) Whatever it is, it must be important so I start to yank. I don’t even pause to consider the “noises outside the door” yet.
> get line
You pull a length of line out of the water. It’s like holding a large, heavy snake.
You hear a stumbling noise behind you, turn and see the hacker staggering into the cavern.
The hacker stares at you, shocked. “It’s you! When I gave you my key, I never suspected you’d get this far!”
Oh no! Is the hacker working for the eldritch horror? Or the Professor of Alchemy? I could pause to deal with him, but I’m pretty focused on this line. Whether it’s power, network, or magic, I don’t care. I’m going to cut it. I could try to cut it with the axe or the bolt cutters, but the axe just feels more tactile, plus I just used the bolt cutters on the urchin.
> cut line with axe
You strike the line with the axe, making a deep gash in the insulation.
The hacker stares at the thing in the cave. “I got very suspicious about your problems with the net. I began to trace some coax, found some bridges and repeaters that weren’t on the layout charts, and started following them. Anyway, here I am. That thing there, whatever it is, and those wires, are interfaced to the whole campus net. And that means it’s tied into all the nets, commercial, government, even military, potentially.
That works! I’m feeling confident that I’m on the right track. It also seems as if the hacker is on “our” side. I’ve known network people that were exactly like this. They are saints and sometimes the opposite of saints, but you want them on your side in an emergency. Tracing an entire network over a lost file on a share seems somehow within the realm of reason. I’m going to keep cutting.
> cut like with axe
Your blow cuts through more insulation and into the conductors.
“I guess I better do something. It could be a serious compromise of system integrity if this thing isn’t dealt with.” He peers at the mass, as if evaluating it. He then reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small pair of wire strippers.
I love the matter-of-fact way that he approaches the impossible. Or perhaps the implication is that he doesn’t see the horrors? Is there something special about me (perhaps the magic stone) that allows me to see and understand what is going on, while he cannot? I’ll keep cutting.
> cut line with axe
The line parts! The two ends begin to sink towards the water as they straighten out.
The hacker advances on the mass, apparently planning to cut some of the wires leading into it. As he approaches it, the sound stops completely, and the wires begin a frantic, looping, twining dance. The mass begins to flow towards the hacker almost as quickly as he walks towards it. They reach each other and begin to merge together. He screams; a long, undulating cry that echoes through the cavern. Then he is engulfed.
Oh no! The thing ate the hacker! That cannot be good. I pick up the now-severed power line and consider what to do with it. I’m glad that I am wearing electrical gloves and rubber boots! I could try to shock the mass, but that seems too straightforward. I turn my attention instead to the junction box. Inside, I see two sockets: one with a coax data connection and one with a tentacle from an unspeakable horror. I unplug the coax. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but I haven’t died yet and that is a good sign. Let’s try things!
Unfortunately, the hacker emerges from the beast as a hacker-zombie:
The hacker pulls himself out of the side of the mass. As he does, you think you can see many pairs of eyes appear briefly in the semitransparent mass, watching curiously. Wires and tentacles trail from his body, and tiny, rat-like creatures cling to his body everywhere, crawling about like ants. He walks slowly, jerkily towards you. “Be one!” he says, haltingly but feverently.
I have a feeling that this is a timed sequence, but I’m not wasting turns yet. I try plugging the line into the now-empty coax socket. I’m either giving a creature of the damned the shock of its life or direct access to the Massachusetts power grid.
> put line in socket
You shove the exposed conductors into the socket, producing a shower of sparks! The tentacle connected to the other socket begins to jerk and twitch spasmodically. The mass it’s connected to quivers, and a horrible noise, almost like a huge machine running without oil, issues from the thing. The hacker screams soundlessly and drops into the water.
The mass begins to change shape, compacting, darkening. You can briefly see human outlines within the gray, gelatinous mass. They surround something larger, of a shape not human, not animal, like nothing you’ve seen before.
The gelatinous mass solidifies and compacts, leaving behind a litter of smoking debris. In the debris squats a being. Huge, misshapen, it stares at you with baleful yellow eyes. Its scaly wings beat slowly, driving a fetid stench through the stale air of the cavern. A barbed tongue slides across its broken, daggerlike fangs.
The smooth stone vibrates. It starts to feel warm.
I hardly need a hint now: this creature seems to be the big brother of the one on the Brown Building roof. In that case, I was able to chase it away by lobbing the magic stone. Given that the stone is now warm, that seems like a good guess what to do now as well. This actually took me two tries, only because I tried calling it “mass” the first time and it wasn’t recognized.
> throw stone at thing
The stone smashes into the creature, sticking to its ichorous hide. The thing thrashes about, trying to bite at the stone, which is glowing brighter and brighter. Small hands issue from beneath its scales to tug in vain at the irritant. The creature begins to show gaping holes of dark, light-devouring nothingness around the stone. Its wings spread painfully, as though it were trying to fly away, and then fold. It widens its jaw in an almost human scream of agony. The black hole of its maw overwhelms it, and indeed the creature appears to be swallowing itself. At last, a gray cloud of greasy smoke surrounds the glowing stone, still suspended in midair. Then even that vanishes, and the stone drops to the ground, no longer glowing. The thing is gone.
Now what? I think that there must be something else to do. I still haven’t found my term paper, after all. I start by picking back up the stone. To my surprise, I win!
You pick up the stone. It has a long jagged crack that almost breaks it in half. As you pick it up, you feel it bump to one side. Then, as you are holding it in your hand, something pushes its way out through the crack, breaking the stone into two pieces. Something small, pale, and damp blinks its watery eyes at you. It hisses, gaining strength, and spreads membranous wings. It takes to the air, at first clumsily, then with increased assurance, and disappears into the gloom. One eerie cry drifts back to where you stand.
Something rises out of the mud, slowly straightening. The hacker, mud-covered and weak, staggers to his feet. “Can I have my key back?” he asks.
Time played: 1 hr 35 min
Total time: 6 hr 45 min
I need a minute to process. I cleared the ending in one go, without having a real idea of what I was doing. I’m impressed with myself! I usually play by stumbling and restoring over and over again, so guessing what I needed to do here is an accomplishment for me. Still, I don’t need to pat myself on the back too much: the hand and the vibrating stone both led the way. The only intuitive leap that I made was that I should cut the wire and stick it in the socket.
I’m also uncertain of the ending. My magic stone was really a magic egg? And it just hatched a cute baby version of the dark spawn? Is it a sequel hook? So much is unexplained, starting with how I was transported to the strange world in the beginning and got the stone in the first place. And what happened to the hand? Did it “drown” in the water? Was it no longer animated once the magic was destroyed? The game ends so quickly, we cannot even find out.
The final moment with the hacker was a fun one, but I can’t help but feel a bit of unearned “Floyd” here. The hacker is a cute character, but we only interact with him three times in the whole game. We have no real attachment to him, although he could have been an author-surrogate for Mr. Lebling. Having him come back undercuts the horror of the scene and the horror of the game over all. I like the implication either that he is implacable or that he simply doesn’t see the “magical” stuff going on, but even at the end I have no idea which it is.
And what about my term paper? Did I save the universe only to fail my way out of G.U.E. Tech?
Smaller than a typical Infocom game?
A few days later, I am back to write the final rating. At less than seven hours of play, Lurking Horror is one of the shorter games of the canon. Infidel, Seastalker, and Wishbringer were all shorter, although the latter two were ostensibly games for kids. (The first and third Zork games were also shorter, but I credit my speed there to playing through mainframe Zork first.) Let’s see how this game stacks up.
Puzzles and Solvability - The puzzles in this game are reasonable, but occasionally border on too easy. Several of the puzzles kept their key objects close to them, such as the chain we used with the elevator, and both the axe and floor polish that we used with the janitor. Some solutions were also repeated: we defeated a monster by throwing the stone twice, and we had to cut two power cords with the axe. The “timed” sequences weren’t difficult, but most of them required a few attempts to know what to do and to do things correctly and quickly. I even bungled my way through the ending in one shot! My score: 4.
Interface and Inventory - A standard Infocom adventure game is still a best of breed text adventure. I noticed a few spelling errors and the game feels less polished than some, but the engine worked fine. My score: 4.
Sound and Graphics - Despite multiple attempts, I still do not have the sound version of the game working yet. I have it loaded in an Amiga editor, verified it’s the correct release, and still nothing. To score this category, I watched a playthrough on Youtube with sound enabled. Some effects are one-off, some loop, but none of them seem that critical to the game. As usual, we had no graphics. My score: 1.
Story and Setting - The more I played, the more I loved Lebling’s love-letter to M.I.T. and the hacker culture. Much of the story doesn’t quite hang together and there are so many unexplained details, but I suppose that good horror requires a certain level of mystery. I’m probably scoring this higher than I should, but so be it. My score: 6.
Environment and Atmosphere - What mood was Lebling aiming for? Tense and scary? Campy? Somewhere in between? The “mad science” of campus life is reflected well and the game holds together better if we’re imagining it as the Addams Family instead of deeper horror. My score: 5.
Dialog and Acting - Lebling’s prose is serviceable if sparse at times and I struggled with visualizing some of his spaces, but overall he did well. I love the disembodied hand, even more so now that I see he can help us through the maze. The hacker was also a fun character, though less developed than Lebling needed in order to stick the ending. My score: 4.
Sum that all up: (4+4+1+6+5+4)/.6 = 40 points!
A score of 40 puts the game smack in the middle of the Infocom pack. It scored closest to Leather Goddesses, Ballyhoo, and A Mind Forever Voyaging. That feels about right. It’s a shorter game, produced on a short timeline and a budget, but it’s well-crafted by a designer that had a lot of experience under his belt. Lebling will be back just one more time in this marathon, for 1989’s Shogun.
Your score guesses were quite close. Our average guess this time was 43, but Michael won the pot with a guess of 41. Congrats! You’ll get your CAPs award when we finish the next mainline game.
Up next for me will likely be a direct jump to Nord and Bert. The Lurking Horror “cut content” post should come in a few weeks, depending on whether or not I find enough to talk about. I also hope to visit the M.I.T. campus and do a direct comparison, but that may wait until I can get a plan and an invitation. I have already started into Nord and Bert and am not sure how to cover it. We’ll see what I decide to do once I start writing. For our non-native English speakers, would you like me to put together a glossary or similar of some of the wordplay? Or would that be insulting? Jokes that are spelled out are rarely funny. Let me know.