Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fallthru: Final Rating

I played for a lot longer than 1 hour and 34 minutes. The game only considers your last session in making its tally.

Independently developed and published, at one time offered through PC-SIG
Released 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 27 June 2014
Date Ended: 14 July 2014
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting: 86/150 (57%)

Well, Fallthru is certainly an odd and original little offering: a text RPG that doesn't really seem to be aware that it's an RPG. It follows few conventions of the genre, and judging by the evidence, I'm not sure Paul H. Deal ever played an RPG prior to developing this one.

It's rare to play a text game that isn't also a text adventure (or, at least, adventure/RPG hybrid). It's even rarer (perhaps unique) to play one with the geography structured as a typical RPG. Most text games elide long transitions between areas, and almost every screen has some kind of useful purpose. Fallthru, on the other hand, revels in its vast areas, with coordinates stretching into the thousands on each axis, at least 10 million explorable squares, and long journey times between important points. As I noted last time, the actual coordinates may very well be infinite. But they're not just a bunch of numbers; drop a coin on one of those generic squares and it will still be there when you return. Every coordinate also has its own odds for a random wildlife encounter or a random warrior or NPC encounter.

In this, the game is more akin to a top-down, tile-based RPG like Ultima V or Dragonflight rather than a typical text adventure. It would be absurd to try to map and catalog every tile in Ultima V just to record the few cities and dungeons that occupy the landscape. Instead, you simply record the locations (including coordinates, if you have a sextant) of the important locations. Fallthru's version of the sextant is the "Wherstone," and once you have it, you technically don't have to map. You can just write down where important cities and dungeons are and let the coordinates be your navigational guide.

Although I sometimes groused about it, the enormous geography of Fallthru actually serves a few valuable purposes. First, it makes it feel like the world is a real place. Go wandering in the woods near your house, and I doubt you'll find a dungeon or treasure every 100 feet. Instead, you'll find a bunch of trees that look the same no matter which direction you travel. Second, the distances help serve the game's "simulation" purposes, by which you have to occasionally find food, water, and a good place to rest. Third, much of the challenge in Fallthru is piecing together bits of lore, logic, and tools to find these key locations. There are virtually no places that you can stumble upon by randomly setting out into the wilderness.

Fallthru is fairly well-written, although almost clinically so. The text is economical--hardly any location features more than a single paragraph--and yet manages to sketch out a strong sense of geography and situation. There are hardly any spelling or grammar errors to break the immersion. But there's also no real sense of wit or humor in the text. I'm not sure the game had a single joke. That's not exactly a complaint--I usually complain the other way, about too much goofy humor--but it is odd to find a game that takes itself so seriously.

The game's primary problem is one of pacing. In the opening stages, you have to grab a throwing knife and find a hunting ground, and you spend hours collecting food for personal use and sale, but after that, you never have to hunt again. By the time you can survive in the far-flung places where animals give you 20-30 rations upon killing them, hunting has ceased to be necessary. A lot of thought was put into other ways of making money (bagging and selling sand, trading grain, even stealing) that also swiftly become superfluous, as a single successful combat against a warrior nets you more ralls than a dozen expeditions with your backpack full of grain.

There's a period where your explorations are confined mostly to the cities and the roads in between, and during this period, you collect lore from warriors and citizens, carefully record warrior levels, and occasionally fight them to increase your own power. But pretty soon, you max your level (and end up with absolute loads of cash) and hardly ever fight again for the rest of the game. For me, the last half of the game was solely about piecing together hints and finding key locations and items.

The constantly-nagging need for food, water, and rest provides a logistical headache throughout the game, but not a hard one. It's comparatively easy to carry loads of food and to find water sources (which are also usually good resting places), so all the dynamic does is force you to interrupt exploration every few minutes and spend a long time typing EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, DRINK, REST, EAT, DRINK, etc. It would have been nice if the author had gone one way or the other with this. The first way would have been to make it authentically challenging: food more expensive or rare, your burro unable to carry much (or no burro at all), watering holes and springs rare features of the landscape, and so on. In such a game, you'd have to carefully prepare for each long expedition, spend time hunting in the field, and actually note locations of springs and wells for later visits.

The second way would have been to allow the player to purchase some kind of "bag of unending food" and "canteen of limitless water" the same way it allows the purchase of the "Flyr" and the burro just when aspects of inventory and travel distances start to get annoying. I would have preferred this.

I mentioned that the game isn't much of an RPG. This is true in a few ways. First, the only development comes from the nebulous "combat level" statistic. There are no separate attributes (although missile weapon experience must be tracked separately, behind the scenes), and your maximum health and fatigue levels never increase during the game. Second, there are hardly any monsters to fight! There are warriors to duel, wild animal attacks (which are binary; either you're strong enough to fend them off automatically, or you're not) and sometimes one monster at the end of a dungeon. Finally, except for hunting animals, you never kill anything--not even the final demon, Zugg. Instead, the game makes it clear that you just beat it into submission or retreat.

I drive a demon to retreat instead of preventing it from ever mauling adventurers again.

The warriors and few monsters you encounter don't have any compunctions killing you, however, and that's where I have to bring up the last major negative: death has no consequences. You don't even have to reload from your last save. When you die, you have the option to continue from a few squares prior as if nothing happened.

Finally, before the GIMLET, I want to address the multi-player options. Fallthru offers the ability for three separate players to play cooperatively, but it's simply impossible to imagine full games in which three people sat still long enough to win this way. With the player rotating every 20 turns, you'd have just enough time to get through an EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, EAT, etc., cycle before you had to turn it over to your friend. The characters can't fight in combat together, so the only benefit to cooperative play is the ability to drop resources and perhaps share key locations. If I really wanted to play this one with a friend, I'd ask him to sit on the other side of the room on his own computer. The game is tedious enough at times without having to wait for someone else to complete his actions.

On to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. Fallthru offers essentially no back story. From the manual, there are suggestions that your character is a "foreigner," just arrived in Faland, who needs basic information about the land. On the other hand, the INFO command allows you to call up detailed information on places, people, and historical events, and it's unclear how a newly-arrived PC would have this knowledge. There is no comprehensive history of the land offered, though some of the INFO entries allude to an ancient king named Morag and the "Demon Wars."

Where the geography of the world makes it feel like a real place, other aspects don't. Everyone is a warrior or a peasant; there is only one unique NPC. The land seems to have no government, the people do little but farm and trade, and warriors only seem to fight each other. Finally, we have the issue of the horribly unimaginative names, like the "Glu'me Forest," "Th'em'ty" desert, "Hi'mtn," and the names for the various earth-like beasts. Overall, a mixed bag. Score: 4.

The LORE command, fleshing out aspects of the geography and history, is perhaps the game's strongest contribution. But how do I know all this stuff?

2. Character Creation and Development. As previously discussed, somewhat poor. The only creation option is your name, and the only development option is your warrior level, which caps at 76, well before the end of the game. There are theoretically some "role-playing" options in that you can attempt to STEAL from markets (failing gets you tossed into the wilderness in exile) and murder peasants for their valuables, but doing either nets you "dishonorable" status and makes the game unwinnable. On the other hand, building honor through good deeds (giving, food, water, and coins to peasants) is a reasonably-fun role-playing dynamic, especially in the early game, when you need all the food, water, and coins that you can collect. Score: 3.

The consequences of thievery.

3. NPC Interaction. NPCs consist mostly of wandering peasants and warriors that you meet on the road. Everyone has a bit of lore to impart, drawn randomly from a lore bank, and dependent (I think) on both your level and the region of the world you're in. These NPCs offer some light role-playing opportunities (in giving them charity), but none of them are uniquely memorable, and you don't have any options in your own dialogue except HELLO. Score: 4.

Collecting a valuable hint from an NPC warrior.

4. Encounters and Foes. Except for NPCs, covered above, there are no real encounters in the game. Even the puzzles are mostly just a matter of having the right item. As for "foes," they're pretty banal. Wild animals attack you, and who prevails is solely a matter of your combat level. Prior to Level 7, you don't want to go into Hyen territory; after Level 7, you automatically drive them off every time they attack. The warriors are identical ciphers with procedurally-generated names. The demons are just generic monsters who deal melee damage, although there is at least one that requires a bow and arrows to kill. The game had INFO entries for some of the monsters you meet but not others.

I suppose I should give some credit in this category for the navigation puzzles in some of the dungeons. I found them more "challenging" than "frustrating," in the sense that logic and creative use of the interface could generally suss out the solution. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. Also poor. There is no "magic" despite the game world clearly supporting magic in the form of magic items. Combat consists solely of typing the FIGHT, SHOOT, or THROW commands, with success dependent on equipment and character level. There really are no tactics, and much of the success or failure is based on random rolls. Minor credit: the game is rare in allowing you to YIELD against warriors and pay a tribute to end an unwinnable combat. Score: 2.

6. Equipment. Much of the main quest is about assembling the right artifact items, but almost all of them have some valuable secondary purpose, such as the silver amulet warning about nearby dangers and the gold amulet healing injuries. There are a handful of weapon types, one armor type, and lots of other bits of equipment useful for adventuring, including salves, shovels, lamps and oil, navigational aids, and packs, sacks, and burros to help you keep it all organized. While it sounds strong, equipment is generally binary--either you have what you need to succeed in a particular place or you don't--and thus it felt like for most of the game, equipment was about puzzle-solving rather than a standard, flexible RPG inventory. Score: 3.

Finally collecting the scimitar was a rewarding moment.

7. Economy. Strong at the beginning, when every rall counts, and you're hoping to save up for a burro, the Flyr, a Navaid, armor, a sword, and other important pieces of equipment. Right about mid-game, you've bought everything already, and yet you continue to amass ralls for no purpose except to buy occasional (cheap) food. Score: 4.
8. Quests. The main quest--to get "home"--is pretty pathetic, given that the game doesn't give you any sense of who you are, where home is, or why you're so eager to get back there. There are steps on this main quest--indeed, the entire world seems structured around serving it--but there are no side quests, no alternate endings, and no role-playing. All of this is too bad, as these things are arguably easier to program in a text game than in a graphical game. I was extremely disappointed in the ending. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. A text game is mostly about the interface and the quality of the descriptive text. As I mentioned above, the text quality here is good. The parser is easy to use, and the game offers welcome one- or two-letter abbreviations for most of its verbs. There aren't many synonyms, but the command list is short enough that it's easy to memorize.

I didn't like how random encounters took a second to appear in each screen, forcing me to pause and wait between movements when traveling over long distances. I also thought the logistics of moving items from one place to another were needlessly complicated. The only sound that the game offered-- a beep when one of the games eight-hour periods changed--was startling and annoying every time it happened. Score: 3.

The game occasionally offers ASCII "graphics" on signs. I never found anything valuable at "Sturk Beach," incidentally. Not even sturks.

10. Gameplay. Fallthru deserves some credit for non-linearity, at least at the beginning, when all you're trying to do is build your fortunes and combat level. The main quest path has a mixture of steps that can occur at any time and those that require some precursor steps, and towards the end of the game, it started to feel very linear. I don't see it as being "replayable," except to try to beat your time. A few elements--the locations of trees and water sources, primarily--are randomized between games.

I think the difficulty is about right but the pacing is poor, and overall the game lasts too long for the depth of content that it offers. Score: 4.

The final score of 32 puts it slightly below what I consider "recommended," at least as far as playing the whole game. It certainly is worth checking out for a few hours. There's a good base here, and a few tweaks--tightening the last act, offering a more interesting plot resolution, allowing the player to buy something that dealt with the food logistics--would have propelled it well above my "recommended" threshold.

I can't find any contemporary reviews of the game, so I don't know what kind of reception it got in its era. (Though Paul Deal's comments, below, suggest people didn't like it, or at least it wasn't what they were expecting.) As a shareware title, it probably didn't receive wide distribution. For at least a time, it was picked up by PC-SIG, a Sunnyvale, California-based distributor of shareware titles and publisher of a monthly magazine focused on shareware. Despite an international distribution network and at least the appearance of success, the company abruptly and mysteriously went out of business in 1993. It's notable that PC-SIG marketed the game as a "text adventure"; I think most text adventure lovers would have found Fallthru confusing and alien, which probably explains its low sales.

I've been trying to connect with Paul Deal himself, to no avail. All the old e-mail addresses I find online come bouncing back, the number attached to him in public directories has since been disconnected, and a message I left at an alternate number has not yet been returned. He posted a comment onto a (non-game-related) bulletin board a few months ago, so I know he's still around. In the comment, incidentally, he indicates that his "day job" was as a microbiologist for NASA, which might make for the coolest dual-classing that I've ever heard of.

Thanks to pdw's sleuthing, we do have a couple of secondary sources for information about Deal and his take on the game. In an interview with Michael Feir in a 2003 issue of Audyssey (an electronic magazine focusing on games accessible to the blind), he indicates that he started programming the game as a "learning project" to help him write programs "to create biological simulations" (sensible, given his career at the time), which partly explains the game's preoccupation with food, water, rest, and the logistics of moving things around. He had hoped to make upgrades to the game (particularly combat) to take advantage of increased memory as the years went by, but player reactions seem to have disappointed him:

I hardly ever heard from anyone who solved the game. Mostly people called to tell me the game was too hard or that it was impossible. Very few actually registered. I finally concluded the game simply did not provide most people with the kind of game playing experience they wanted, and so I abandoned it.

In a letter to SynTax Adventure Magazine in the early 2000s, he indicated that he lost most of the files, including the "strategy document" that he created for registered users, during a move. But he also indicated in both the letter and his Audyssey interview that he was re-exploring the game and working on a new document. My guess is this evolved into his novelization.

It doesn't appear that Deal ever wrote another game. He has self-published a number of books over the last decade (I assume he retired about 10 years ago), seemingly focused on a young adult market. I hope he eventually stumbles on my blog, offers some comments about the game, and reads the comments of one player--and a number of commenters--who, if not "loving" the game, at least can appreciate it.

Despite times that I didn't enjoy the game, overall I'm grateful for showing me something new, and I wish more games had taken inspiration from it, even as I'm glad they didn't exactly replicate it.


  1. Cool. Very fair. One thing I yet wonder though... When I was a kid, we played it with permadeath. Did we do that because we were so used to playing Rogue and Angband that we just assumed that was how it worked? We definitely had PoolRad and other games with normal save systems. I know there are two versions. Did v2 introduce death-reversing restores?

    Based on your level of frustration with the game and some of its more obtuse and lethal puzzles, I'm guessing permadeath would worsen your opinion of it. But on the other hand, it makes the early-game economic decisions a bit more sensible when warrior-dueling is more lethal and less a slot machine that always pays out. It would also heighten the sense of danger in each foray into the wilderness. Thoughts?

    1. I think this game would be very hard with permadeath given that so much of it is based on random rolls. Even a powerful warrior can get unlucky with the dice against a lower-level warrior or a demon, and unlike NetHack, there really aren't any clever tactics and strategies to help you out here. No, I can't see finishing this with permadeath.

      The "Changes" document that accompanies the game suggests that RESTORE was a new addition to this version, but not SAVE. I'm not sure how you restored a save in the previous edition; maybe you had to quit and reload.

    2. This game had a lot of potential though. It could've been a text-based open-ended persistent-world survival RPG with thousands of side-quests.

      What a waste.

    3. That would have been expecting a bit much from a 1990 shareware game, but as I said in the post, I think the developer could have added a FEW improvements without a lot of programming trouble.

      I honestly wonder if Paul Deal ever played another computer RPG. Nothing about Fallthru suggests awareness of any previous game. On the plus side, this produced a highly original experience; on the negative side, he probably could have learned something from other games' conventions.

    4. Writing games when you don't play any is like writing music when you don't listen to any, or writing books when you don't read any. It tends not to turn out well.

    5. I've actually seen a few things on outsider art. It tends to be incredibly creative and original, but very, very strange. Worth looking up if you ever have a chance or stumble across it, even if it isn't traditionally good.

    6. Both you and Gaguum are correct. There are only a very few good stuff created by "outsiders". Those really aren't the norm. Most suck terribly.

      I guess it's like radiation. To most people, it causes cancer. But to a certain individual, it gives him superpowers.

    7. True, I guess you don't see much on terrible drawing on Metafilter (Great site that I'd love to see more of you on: Chet, I'm making a standing offer of buying you a membership as a thank you for all the time I've spent reading this blog.)

      That said, a ton of it, while terrible looking, is really creative. Also has a charming purity to it, since so little of it is made for sale or even to show others.

  2. I think the game didn't have any side quests is because he was re-implementing his novel as a computer game. The novel is linear with only one path; therefore his game was as well.

    1. It appears from what we have seen that the game came first, though you are right and without the author's feedback he may have started the novel earlier.

    2. Correct. The novel wasn't published until 2003, and based on the comment in the Audyssey article, it sounds like he didn't start working on it until the early 2000s.

    3. Well then the idea was certainly there and it had been knocking around in his brain forever. It would certainly explain the lack of anything to do other than the main quest.

  3. Fascinating piece of gaming history, thanks.

  4. I'm enjoying your posts on QFG2 a lot as it is scratching a large nostalgia hit, but I must say that your posts on Fallthru have been just as fascinating. Looking at games such as these are one of the things that makes your blog so special!

    For people who may be inspired to play a text game after reading this, I highly recommend playing A Dark Room on your iPhone. It's not really an RPG (I'm not sure how to categorise it to be honest), but has a similar gloomy atmosphere to what you described here but can be finished in 3-4 hours.

  5. Congrats on finishing this beast and great job unearthing all that background info too!

    1. Seconded! Delving deeply into a game like Fallthru (as a player and as a researcher) and writing about it makes a real contribution to the world's knowledge, throws a lifeline to future explorers, and helps to build a meaningful sociality around this solitary habit of ours.

      (It's also fun to read, natch.)

  6. "but it is odd to find a game that takes itself so seriously."

    Really? I find that every other RPG is full of all too serious quests of saving the world. Often accompanied by NPC:s nagging you about how important and urgent it is to save the world.

    1. Yes, really. Even in the serious games you're referring to, the creators typically find time for light-hearted moments and humor. Fallthru doesn't have even the slightest moment of levity from start to finish.

    2. If a game played itself completely straight as a plausible simulation with a tight narrative, without any kind of winking at the player, it would encourage the player to take it pretty seriously instead of "just go[ing] with it." That means that guys like me will ask a bunch of inconvenient probing questions. You know how that turns out! :-)

    3. @Ragnar - And yet more NPCs, who will tell you to fetch some potatoes from the market and 5 bushels of wheat that will randomly drop from the carcasses of animated scarecrows, rather than to encourage you to carry on with your main quest to save the world.

    4. @Kenny: Would it be better or worse if the scarecrows dropped rubies, glow-in-the-dark armor, and bastard swords vorpalized against grackles?

    5. Better, if you can use them. Worse, if you are to collect them for a goddamn fetch quest.

    6. I don't mind useful fetch quests. After all, a lot of games have fetch quests as their main quests (Ultima IV, for one). The rescue-the-princess quest amounts to the same thing (for example, Ultima V's main quest, with Lord British as the princess!).

      As side quests, I don't mind fetch quests if they're rewarding and/or they further your progress. If a wizard asks you to find his cat and teaches you a new spell as a reward, great. If it's just a question of clearing something out of your quest log and adjusting your karma meter, forget it.

      The thing about fetch quests is that they're ridiculously easy for devs to code and design. Making a player walk across the overworld and back is a great way to extend play time without requiring the programmer to do much more than create a bit flag. That's why poorly coded and designed games depend on fetch quests so much; they provide quantity at the expense of quality. (I'm looking at you, Paragon Software Corporation.)

      Fetch quests can be real content or fake content. The latter predominates, but it doesn't have to be that way. I'd like to see a game like Mindcraft's Bloodstone (Magic Candle 4 or 0, 1993) in which all umpteen quest items should give palpable effects to a party that held on to them (whereas in Bloodstone, they don't).

  7. I'm going to call it pretty soon. I'll do a wrap-up interesting-theoretical-bits post and go back to my usual.

    Sorry I couldn't have played along with this one. Beyond Zork would have been better!

    1. Indeed. I assume you've been reading my posts and had the game spoiled anyway. It would be interesting to read someone else's account of getting through the game--in particular, his or her slow discovery that the game map is limitless and there's nothing to be found by wandering randomly.

  8. I work at NASA and was going to try to contact Paul Deal for you, but he doesn't appear in our global. So, perhaps he has retired....

    1. A NASA scientist here?

      At the rate were going, we're gonna have people among us who works for MI6, a criminal overlord, a mutant talking rabbit or a costumed superhero.

    2. Thanks for checking. Deal is 78 now, so I would have been surprised if he was still active. My guess is he retired at some point in his mid-60s, which explains his sudden self-publishing productivity in the last decade.

    3. Just out of curiosity, what do you do for NASA? Any chance I could get something named after me?

    4. Well, he didn't say he was a scientist, just that he worked at NASA. They do have receptionists and janitors and such (I know one). Naturally, at parties they tell people, "Yeah, I work for NASA", and tell them "It's classified" if they ask what they do there, and let people draw their own conclusions.

      Of course, the NSA is already among us.

      As for mutant talking rabbits, do you mean Usagi Yojimbo?


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