Friday, March 12, 2010

Game 9: Alternate Reality: the City (1985)

In a post a few days ago, I mentioned that I was unable to get Wizardry II to work, and now I'm having the same problem with Wizardry III. Both the second and third editions of Wizardry are essentially just expansions to the first, and they require that you export your characters from Wizardry I. The problem: I can't get the import/export routine to work. It seems to require a floppy drive. The Internet has been no help. I've ordered The Ultimate Wizardry Archives from Amazon, so hopefully it will contain playable versions. If it does, I'll return to those two games.

On to Alternate Reality: the City, a game I had never heard of until I reached it on Wikipedia's chronology. The premise from the manual is unique: "You're kidnapped by an alien spaceship [shown at the cutscene above] and find yourself in a room with only one exit. Through this doorway you see the City of Xebec's Demise. Overhead is a panel with constantly changing numbers. As you go through the door, the numbers freeze. This sets your level of stamina, charm, strength, intelligence, wisdom, skill, wealth, and hit points."
This is a unique character creation method.
With the alien abduction and all, I expected a science-fiction setting, but the moment you step through the gate, you're in a high-fantasy style city complete with thieves and swordsmen. I know because they keep killing me. Every few seconds, whether you're moving or standing still, there seems to be a chance of a random encounter, which gives you several options, shown below.
No matter what you do, there's a chance it will fail and the creature will attack you. Innocuous-sounding individuals, like merchants, couriers, and guards, are shockingly violent and attack you without provocation--rendered all the worse because it seems you start the game with no weapons or armor.

There are shops, inns, and taverns scattered about in "Xebec's Demise," which seems to be quite large. The natural thing would be to enter a shop and spend some of my copper pieces on some equipment. The problem is, the game starts you off at 6:00 in the morning (you determine this by visiting an inn and checking the time) and the shops don't open until 8:00. I can't keep my characters alive for this two-hour interval! In fact, no matter how long I wander around, desperately trying to stay alive, the time never seems to advance!

If I can get past this hurdle, there seem to be a number of things about Alternate Reality: the City to like. First is the underlying mystery: how did an alien abduction land me in this fantasy world? Second, the technology of the game is a huge leap forward from other games of this era. You can't tell it from the screen shots, but the first-person perspective is continuously-scrolling. As you move forward, the world smoothly moves around you. I was not expecting this in a 1985 game (I'm playing a 1988 DOS port, but I would guess the basic interface is the same). The sound is also compelling, with each creature having its own little leitmotif. Finally, the graphics, in color and detail, are far beyond the wire-frame views of Wizardry. Check out this lovely screen shot of an inn:
So what, in God's name, is going on in this game? What does this medieval setting have to do with aliens? Why is everyone trying to kill me? What is the goal of the game? My rules forbid me to read walkthroughs and spoilers, and the manual offers no help. But I did leave myself the option of soliciting input from readers. Have any of you played Alternate Reality: the City? What advice do you have for me? 

Later Edit:
I decided on a new rule: after I decide to stop playing a game, or win it, I will allow myself to look up FAQs to see what I missed and to answer my questions. Wikipedia has a good article on the Alternate Reality series, and there's also an extensive FAQ here. It turns out that the City was the first in a planned six-game series, but only the City and the Dungeon ever got made. There is no way to "win" Alternate Reality: the City, and the only reason to play really is to build up your character for the Dungeon, which never received a DOS port and thus isn't on my list. Life's too short to play just to mess around. Next game.


Update from 28 February 2016: Over six years after this post, I spent another dozen hours on the game. I didn't end up liking it any better, but at least I understood it better when I was done. Read the updated posting.


  1. Nice post. One of the things I like about this blog is the exposure to unknown games. Most of us know all about the Ultimas, Wizardries, Gold-Boxes, etc. These unsung games of old are just as interesting to hear about and it's surprising that the view/movement was so far ahead of its time.

    Love the blog - keep it up!

  2. Indeed, I'd never heard of this one either. ... and it doesn't look like I was missing out!

    1. You for sure missed out, Alternate Reality is, IMHO, the best CRPG to come out, not surpassed till Fallout 3 (and only because the game was never finished). The Game interactions were effected by things like your charisma, the clothes you wore, whether you were ill, your alignment. Your ability to join guilds depended on similar factor (which effected which spells you could have access). Some weapons would attack you if your alignment didn't align with the weapons magic. Monsters varied by where you were in the city and what time of day it was. There were weather patterns and night and day.

    2. Well, "not surpassed till Fallout 3" certainly discredit your entire passage...

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  4. The PC version of The City is generally considered the worse version of Alternate Reality and apparently has some form of 68000 emulator which is interpreting the code from the Atari ST version. It also lacks the music of the original versions and the second Dungeon scenario which addresses may of the issues you mentioned.

    I'm actually working on a remake of Alternate Reality for the PC which brings together the City and the Dungeon based on the 8bit Atari versions which are considered the best. It's still in the early stages though.

    My pages are at:

  5. I appreciate the background, Torben. I admit to a certain bias against games that do not allow you to "win" them, so in that sense I'm not sure I would have liked the Atari ST version better. Best of luck on your remake, though. Do share the news when you complete it.

  6. Alternate Reality was way ahead of its time, and was so spellbinding it didn't need things like a plot for it to work. I played this game on my Atari 800 for countless hours.

  7. I can see where it would be addicting if it was new. With so many games on my list, though, I didn't feel like I had enough time to spend on a plotless one that you couldn't win.

  8. I really think you should expand to other systems just for this game, maybe when you're done, or you get tired of your main task... This game *really* shines on the Atari 8-bit systems when combined with the Dungeon. :)

  9. *shrug* Limiting by operating system is a sensible boundary, much as we'd like to see someone experience each game the way we did at first. The task he's set is already pretty large, after all.

  10. Thanks, Pipe. I hardly ever get anyone defending me on this position.

  11. I second Jason's comment. Let me add that yeah, you shouldn't even bother with Alternate Reality if you're not going to play the original Atari 8-bit version. With each port, this game lost something, with the PC version ultimately becoming a weak shadow of what it used to be.

  12. This was my first CPRG and perhaps the most frustrating thing I ever played on computer. I wonder why the rain always brought the muggers out. This is probably the most immersive of CPRG's for the early group. I wish I still had it.

  13. from what i remember its something about Aliens using you as a test subject by putting you in a medieval world/simulation program for their pleasure, the plot would have unfolded in later installments but sadly it ended with AR: The Dungeon.

    i had both of them pirated for my C64, but never finished them from what i can remember.

  14. When I was a teenager, I played the heck out of Alternate Reality: The City when it first came out on the Macintosh. At the time I had access to a Macintosh with 512k RAM(even though that old Macintosh computer was limited to black and white graphics, it had very robust sound capabilities for the time, when it came out in 1985, it was also the first computer to get a game with digitized sound). The Macintosh version, as with the PC version, was a 16 bit version of Alternate Reality: The City. It had extra features such as the ability to do jobs and join wizards guilds to learn new spells that the 8-bit version did not have.
    Also casting stat enhancing spells sometimes allowed you to raise your stats permanently(though most of the time the stat raise was just temporary), and my character ended up with a 255(the maximum a stat would go) in a few different stats due to that. I had a friend who at the time had the Atari 8-bit version, he was jealous of the 16 bit features of the game I had acccess to that his version of the game did not have. The sounds and music in the Mac version of the game were quite good(especially for an 80's game), I especially enjoyed the sounds and music of the intro(the Macintosh intro had at least one unique part where the text of the lyrics of the song that was presented as the opening song played mentioned taking the colors away, which was a reference to the Macintosh only being able to portray black and white graphics on it's monitor. I also enjoyed the lyrics and music of the various inns in the game. Few people I've ever met were big time Macintosh gamers in the mid to late 80's, but I was one of them(up until Macintosh games started to really dry up in the early 90's, and I switched to PC games), and I enjoyed a few old games that were Macintosh only and never came out on the PC(the best was an old 80's Macintosh crpg called Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth, a great game from Infocom that had color graphics and was ahead of its time, for an 80's(I believe it was first released in 1988) game optimized for the color graphics capable Macintosh II.
    But back on topic, I had eagerly awaited being able to transfer my character from Alternate Reality: The City to Alternate Reality: The Dungeon. Unfortunately, The Dungeon was never released for the Macintosh, and I eventually got bored of playing The City, and moved on to other games. I played it a heck of a lot more than 6 hours though. The most intersting thing(and the strangest thing)I can recall about the game was when I had reached lvl 13 or so and ran into an assassin that hit me with a watch, that did over 100 damage per hit(no, I was not drunk or on drugs at the time). Needless to say, the assassin with the deadly watch killed me. I never ran into him again. Made me wonder, what was up with that?

  15. (continued from the above post)
    Something I experimented with was using unnoticeability and noticeability potions. Using unnoticeability potion caused less frequent encounters, noticeability potions caused more frequent encounters. I ended up getting the encounter level just right to my liking, to where I'd get an encounter at least every 10 seconds or so. I know that sounds like a lot, but I wanted to get as high level as I could as quickly as I could, so having frequent encounters was useful to me. I did not attack the guards and merchants and good citizens of the city(and they did not attack me), I only attacked the evil ones and the monsters. Tricking and charming was what I usually used in encountering evil beings(the musical sounds that would play at the start of each encounter made me realize which was evil, neutral or good), several tries on each one, if that failed, then I'd switch to casting fireball spells.
    It's been a long time since I played the game, so I'm sure I'm forgetting important things, that's what I can remember off the top of my head. I didn't see the game as pointless, because I wanted to build up an awesome character to face the challenges of the Dungeon. When I found out the Dungeon wasn't going to be released on the Macintosh, I was very disappointed. But I still had fun with it while it lasted.
    Being a young computer gamer at the time who'd been only playing games a relatively short time and had alot of free time on his hands after school, weekends and during the summer vacation probably gave me a lot more patience than an older more jaded gamer who is going back and playing what they call "moldy oldies"(games from many years in the past) games that usually pale in comparison to present day games.
    All in all, I think Alternate Reality: The City(16-bit Macintosh version), was a great game for it's time. I only wish the developers had gone on to create all the sequels they had planned. Actually, if I remember right, original developers of the game came back many years later to work on a game called Alternate Reality Online, but unfortunately, the project was never completed.

  16. 'Nym, I appreciate all of the additional information. You mention a whole host of things that I never encountered in the game, since I barely gave it a chance.

  17. A surprising game that seems ahead of its time. I'd hoped that you would spend more time with this game since you have played Rogue for months. Even Wikipedia states that the series has achieved cult status among many fans of RPGs.

  18. Reading that huge faq you posted and all the other sites I found for this game makes me quite disappointed that it was never finished. It really sounds like it would have been one of the all-time greats. Seeing as hwo it wasn't even close to finished (and I spoilerized myself reading all the documentation about it) I won't be playing this one, but man I wish it got finished. I notice it also had a number of curious things that I'd never seen anywhere else that made it verbatim into a mud I played for like 15 years, makes me wonder if they hadn't played this game and been influenced by it.

    1. Yeah, there was a real missed opportunity here. I should have played it longer, I guess, but I find games without main quests somewhat pointless.

  19. I played the hell out of both The City and The Dungeon on the Apple IIC (contrary to an earlier post, The Dungeon WAS released for Macs). The Dungeon is particularly fun -- full of weird magic items (A katana called "Razor Ice" engraved with snowflakes that does cold damage as well as being generally badass; various cards based on the tarot deck that all have different effects; etc. etc.), a lot of interesting options for encounters, unique creatures and general oddity.

    BTW, if you ever want to go back to The City, the key is to generate a character with as high intelligence as possible (I think 23 is the max, at least in the version I played) and Trick everything. This leads to the wonderful elliptical message "You have tricked it! It has died!" Since this requires no equipment, you can stay alive long enough to buy what you need to defend yourself when the city guard inevitably comes after you...

  20. I just got an Atari 800XL and the first game I loaded was this one. I was surprised when I searched on the Master List that you had "played" this and wondered how I missed it. Now I know.

    I've never played the DOS version, but the Atari version really is something to behold. Excellent music, real-time 3D scrolling (in only two directions though) and even karaoke of the game's songs.

    I'm still trying to get a hang of the game. With no tile-based movement it is a bit of a chore to map out correctly.

    Apparently there were multiple games planned after Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, each with your character growing more powerful and esteemed in the city's society. I read somewhere that it was planned that you'd be able to, say, have one character as a ruler of the city, then start a new character with the first one still ruling.

    Sadly, that proved far beyond the capabilities of the time and for the reason the series never made it past the second game. Nothing like that has been done since.

  21. Alternate reality was a tremendous game, way ahead of its time. I also played the hell out of it and the dungeon. The Comodore 64 and Amiga versions were also awesome and way ahead of its time.

    To stay alive, use your torch as your primary weapon. Make sure to hail the good and neutral people. Go to the shop and buy a dagger. The tavern in the NE city wall is the cheapest, and the Inn in the SE corner sells a spot to sleep on the common floor for 5 copper. Even with just the two games, the City & the Dungeon, there was Soo much to this game. You should re-visit it, because it was one of the best.

  22. I do not see this fact posted anywhere above, so I will throw it in:

    If you are playing AR: The City and everyone is attacking you, it is because the game has detected that you are playing on an illegal copy.

    This was part of the anti-piracy protection for AR. It would let you seem to play the game, but you could not actually get anywhere.

    I believe that AR was eventually cracked with playable version on most platforms, but early "free" downloads were almost always useless.

  23. Alternate Reality: The City.. I was always envious of those who had the opportunity to play it. My experience started in the sewers of 'The City' as I played through 99% of what we know as AR: The Dungeon. I want to start by saying this was hands down, without question, my favorite CRPG for the C64 (ported from ST?) ever made. Interesting story, wonderful quests, massive grid based dungeon to explore with nothing but a compass/grid type tool to tell you your coordinates. The excitement of finally finding a new temple, lair, guild.. I cannot even begin to describe it. If only I knew to use the mirror shield in the control room of level 4 maybe I'd have completed 100%! It is a true shame that they didn't go on to make the other installments (I believe they were to be The Palace, The Forest, and I cannot recall the other two..). As iterated earlier.. such a lost opportunity on a fantastic concept. Razor Ice? Best weapon ever! Too bad those devourers became as common as mice in the later levels (the game seemed to scale with your character level, not the area you adventured in). They were such a buzz kill.. ahhh... the memories!

  24. I think The Arena was supposed to be the third. I still have my Amiga version of the game, and the box and the manual. What a game. It was not so hard to map, once you figured out how many 'steps' equaled on 'square'. I will never forget the sense of accomplishment I felt when I memorised how to get to the Star Wizard's Guild. What a game, and the sequel, man, it was even better.


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