26 March 2009

Classic IF: Transylvania

I’ve loved interactive fiction games (a.k.a. “adventure games”) since I first started using computers in 1979 as a little kid. By junior high school, my friends and I were hooked on Infocom’s increasingly intricate text-based games, and I was already interested in writing my own using the commercial adventure game-writing tools of the time—most of them pretty awful as far as tookits go. To this day, I still have an interest in classic text interactive fiction, and intermittently use the free programming language Inform to experiment with writing my own—but much of this is meat for another post, which will likely end up on Black Gate in a discussion of interesting fiction writing outlets aside from standard prose short stories and novels.

Although the text games offered better stories and parsers during the early personal computing days, the games with graphics still grabbed the attention of us kids because, hey, pictures! We wanted the most out of the Apple //e, so even though the graphic-based games could barely understand the slightest variation in our wording and force us to spend three-quarters of our time just trying to get the damn game to understand what we wanted to do, we still loved them.

One of my favorites from this era is Transylvania from Penguin Software. Transylvania plays like the early Sierra On-Line games, such as Wizard and the Princess (the first graphic adventure game I played) and Cranston Manor. The scene illustration appears on the top of the screen, with a few text lines at the bottom and a space for a two-word command. The commands are limited and often nonsensical, like LOOK DOOR and GO CASTLE. (Go, Castle, Go!) The text description are usually basal reader-lite, since the author figured that the picture was worth a thousands words. (Not in a green-screen, pal.) But Transylvania offers a step up in graphic quality from the Sierra games, generates some good atmosphere, and feels like a genuine “Halloween Fantasy” story with some intriguing puzzles. I have fond memories of the weeks it took me to complete it. Once all the head-slapping frustrations were finished, and with the help of a friend who completed the game giving me occasional hints, I felt I had enjoyed the puzzle-solving experience.

The game has the most hackneyed of objectives: save the princess. Never heard that one before, right? A note near the beginning of the game informs you that “Sabrina Dies at Dawn!” and occasional time warnings tell you how much longer you have until that fateful moment and the end of the game. But you’re more likely to be worried about the incessant appearance of the fearsome werewolf at the beginning than Sabrina’s date with the electric chair, or however the evil vampire nobleman plans to kill her. (I don’t think Transylvania had electricity.) Ah, the werewolf. One of the classic interactive fiction baddies. A frightening black specter on the screen that appears randomly to threaten you. If the werewolf appears, and you don’t have the right weapon to deal with him, you need to move out of that location fast or you die on the following turn, and your next of kin (whom you identified in an opening questionnaire) will get the bad news. The werewolf makes random appearances throughout the beginning of the game, and until you find a way to slay him, your actions will be restricted. This gives the game a nice urgency at the start; you can explore and move around, but a threat hangs over you that you know must be eliminated. Once you take care of the werewolf—finding the silver bullet and the flintlock pistol separated with typical IF illogical wideness—some of the zip of the game vanishes, and your goals seem less clear.

Most of the game hangs together with Universal Horror Movie logic and classic Halloween imagery. The big exception is the jaw-dropping inclusion of an alien landing. What the . . . ? And the aliens leave you with a device that allows you to open the sarcophagus to retrieve princess Sabrina. Huh? Interactive Fiction didn’t have to make sense back then.

Some of the other denizens and dangers of Transylvania include: a witch’s hut with a black cat (don’t let those mice escape or you’ll never solve this puzzle), a goblin who flees from a nonsense word, the vampire moving through the castle, a grave with your name on it, and a magical ceremony with a wizard’s cloak, a magic ring, and an elixir. Fun material. The puzzle that bothered me the most was getting the ring from the castle. If the vampire remains active, the player can’t get hold of it. However, the vampire won’t materialize so he can get re-killed if the player carries the garlic bulb. Now, obviously, when you find a garlic bulb in a game where you know there will be vampires, you pick it up. It has to come in handy, right? Except holding it prevents an action needed to win the game. This is simply too counter-intuitive for a puzzle, and designers today would balk from it.

Some old games still play well, like Pac-Man or the Infocom classics. I have a feeling that Transylvania, if I somehow dredged it up with an emulator, would not fall into the category of a re-playable classic. But it’s pleasant to remember how fun it was back in 1982. An Inform-expansion on the idea would make an excellent game today.

Update: I did find a copy and played it using an emulator. The werewolf is still so damn annoying and persistent! And I had forgotten how long it takes for the graphics to load; it’s torture when you just want to move from one side of the forest to the other. The various directions don’t match up with any consistency, something IF writers should only use in moderation. But . . . not bad. More re-playable than I thought. I like the random atmosphere messages that crop up from time to time; they give a slight sense of unease, even though they don't affect gameplay at all.