Friday, November 27, 2015

Shadowkeep: A Novel Approach

The author of Star Wars, several Star Trek novelizations, The Black Hole, and Alien goes slumming.
Sasubree was the largest and most powerful city on the High Plains, alive with merchants and traders, farmers come in from far and near to market their produce, craftsmen, wandering soldiers-of-fortune, and all manner of adventurers from several intelligent species. It was a thriving, impressive community. Exactly the kind of place where one would go to find an impressive hero.

Thus begins Shadowkeep (1984), the novelization of the game by Alan Dean Foster--an author who built a career in large part around novelizations, including both the first and most recent Star Wars and Star Trek films. Today, it is hardly remarkable when a novel tie-in accompanies a successful game, or when novels contribute to a video game universe, and even by 1984, there were plenty of video games based on novels, including Dracula (1982), Ten Little Indians (1983), Dragonriders of Pern (1983), and any number of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit adaptations. But until Shadowkeep, it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to go the other way. Wikipedia claims that Shadowkeep is the "first video game that inspired a novel" (which is not quite true, as Shadowkeep's publishers specifically commissioned the novel), and I can't find any evidence to contravene the claim. 

It is an odd game to have such a distinction. With virtually no NPCs and an extremely derivative plot, there doesn't seem to be enough stuff in the game to build a novel around it. Already in the first paragraph of the book, we see two proper names that show up nowhere in the game documentation. The game has only three named characters--Nacomedon the wizard, Dal'Brad the demon, and Raddath the innkeeper/salesman/otyugh--and yet the book still manages to change Nacomedon's name to "Gowyther" and Raddath's to "Norell." (Or, more accurately, I assume the developers changed or invented the names after having given Foster the notes.) More than half the book concerns itself with the formation of the party. It isn't until Page 132 (of 243 total pages) that the characters enter the Shadowkeep and thus join the progress of the player.

During the first half, the novel is well-written and interesting. It begins as a mysterious figure named Spinner visits Shone Stelft, a famous-adventurer-turned-smith whom Spinner hopes to lure out of retirement to end the threat emanating from Shadowkeep. In a fun reversal of the normal trope, Stelft stodgily refuses to leave his forge and family, but his apprentice, Practor Fime, is inspired to go instead. As Practor journeys to the Shadowkeep, he stumbles into a variety of adventures through which he slowly assembles the rest of his party: a friendly Roo fighter named Sranul, a beautiful Thaladar mage named Maryld, and a Zhis'ta warrior named Hargrod.

The party is attacked by two "barguests" and a gargoyle.

Once in the dungeon, the book follows the encounters in the game. The characters come upon the same altar, anvil, pile of rubbish, and pedestal that I encountered on Level 1 of the dungeon. When one character starts messing with the altar, it knocks him across the room, just as happened to my character when he tried to climb it. Upon reaching the "podium," they divine that one of the gems sold by the innkeeper would probably fit within it (though they decline to go back and purchase one). All that's really missing is the dozens of random combats and any sense of a maze between the rooms. At least so far, for instance, the book does not describe any one-way passages or doors. The characters have to find the staircases upward; the levels don't all branch of a central staircase like they do in the game. Presumably Foster was given the text of the encounters but not the actual dungeon maps. This would explain why the book has no analogue to the game's Level 2--a twisty, confusing maze that has no special encounters.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fall apart at this point. The special encounters in RPGs of this era didn't really lend themselves to sensible narratives. As the book's party careens from one silly puzzle to another, discovering magic items lying in wait for them and fighting hordes of trolls along the way, the narrative starts to feel forced. Foster tries his level best, I should add, but you can sense him struggling with a very different sort of adaptation. I haven't finished the book yet to avoid potential spoilers, but I'll quote more from the text as I encounter the same elements in the game.

As for my playing, I've mapped only two more levels since the last post. The game is relatively slow-going, with random encounters every 6-10 steps. Nonetheless, I've discovered two things about the game since the last post that makes it likely I'll continue until the end. First, the game probably doesn't have 25 levels. It seems likely to only have 9 or 10. I must have gotten the "25 levels" idea from the "hints" part of the manual, which I somehow interpreted as 1 hint per level. Instead, some levels have multiple hints.

The second major factor is that there is character development of a sort. As characters successfully strike foes, parry attacks, and cast spells, their associated skills have a chance of increasing by a point. It's not much, but it gives the game more RPG credentials than I originally thought. However, attributes, hit points, and spell points do not seem to increase, which means that the game scales only very slightly in difficulty from level to level.

"Wa" is up to 50% on his attack from a starting 30%.

Reflective of this, the second level that I mapped was Level 4. The pedestal/"podium" that I discussed last time turned out to be a teleporter that took me from 1 to 4--hardly necessary, as Level 4 was already accessible from the stairs. The Level had a small number of special encounters:

  • An "office" in which searching a desk revealed Gloves of Cold.

  • A wall with the Rune of Death on it. I couldn't figure out anything to do here, but when I cast the "Perception" spell, I got a message that said, "PASS uttered with determination allows passage into the sixth door of death."

  • A room containing a single silver rose, which I took.


Level 2 as I said, was just a big maze. It seemed to have more random encounters than the other maps, but there were no special encounters. I learned the hard way that I really didn't want to run from enemies because when you flee, the game moves you to a random place facing a random direction, and getting back on target in such circumstances was nearly impossible with this layout. There weren't even any doors to use as markers. I resorted to dropping "soggy sticks" (burned torches) in key places to avoid getting lost.

Level 2. I think I screwed some things up in the northeast, so don't rely on it for your own game.

When I was done with the level, I returned to the inn to see about spending some of my rapidly-increasing gold on magic items. (My starting gold had been enough for the best regular weapons and armor.) The game manual faithfully describes what each magic item does, but I remain slightly confused about which ones operate by simply wearing or wielding them and which have to be INVOKED. I'm also not sure which ones operate for a limited duration, and which will stay with me indefinitely. For instance, the Gloves of Cold disappeared a few hundred steps after I put them on.

I reloaded and took them off in case this was the only pair and I needed them later.

A lot of magic items seem to simply duplicate spells. The 500-gold-piece Eldritch Staff, for instance, simply casts the "Perception" spell and gives you a hint for the level or the specific location. I purchased a few largely random items to test them out before making a commitment to a larger purchase.

The magic items sound cool but mostly replicate the spell list.

Level 3 would seem to be the next stop, but here's something interesting: the PASS codeword I found on Level 4 opens up the doorway to Level 6. Oddly enough, the book mentions this: "Doors are often sealed with spells of warding, released only by the timely use of magical words discovered by those who made the journey before you. The passwords that are known are..." and it goes on to list 5 of them, including PASS. On a lark, I tried them all on the ninth level, and one of them--HOME--opened it. I have no idea why the manual just gives you these words, but I'm half-tempted to skip right to Level 9 and see what happens.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • You have to READY your weapon every time you enter the dungeon after exiting.
  • If a character doesn't have enough money to buy something, the game automatically deducts the difference from another character. That's handy.

  • Now that I know skills increase with use, I've been having my warriors "attack and parry" each round instead of always putting their energy into "attack twice." I've also been having my mages cast spells even when they're not strictly necessary.
  • The stairway is always a safe place to rest and replenish spell points, which can be used to replenish hit points. I don't know why you'd pay Raddath for healing unless you created a party with no monks (the class that starts the game with "Heal").
  • I've found several scrolls scattered about the hallways. These can be used to learn spells by character classes who wouldn't normally have access to those spells. I had one of my warriors learn "Luminance" (light) so I wouldn't have to deplete a real spellcaster's points with the spell.
  • With few exceptions, all enemies seem to drop exactly 51 goldens. A 4-enemy party will drop 204.
  • So far, there have been no "boss" battles on any of the levels. 

I haven't died yet, but I've come very close a couple of times, usually because of an ambush. Ambushes are particularly annoying because they scramble the party and you have to take a while to get your warriors back up to the front ranks.

So far, Shadowkeep is a little on the easy side and a lot on the boring side, and I hope the number of special encounters increases as we ascend. I've barely used a fraction of the 400 words the game supposedly understands. Now that I'm home for a little while, I can start interspersing Shadowkeep sessions with Martian Dreams.


  1. Ahh yes, the game novelization. I admit back in the day I read some the Bard's Tales novels. I think there were two of them, or at least two of them was all I ever sat down to read. If I recall correctly those novels were written by Mercedes Lackey.

    1. I bought one a few years ago--Castle of Deception--intending to do a post about it. But I didn't see anything at all in common with the actual game. I think perhaps the novels just made use of the BT name rather than being true game novelizations. (Of course, that's what I'd think about SK if i hadn't read far enough.)

    2. There's also at least one Might and Magic novel out there (The Sea Of Mist, written in 2001), not sure if there's others.

    3. I bought 'Castle of Deception' specifically because of the Bard's Tale tagline, and was disappointed that it didn't have any apparent connection to the game. I read the whole thing, just in case. I don't remember thinking it was much of a novel, either.

      I've read a fair bit of Alan Dean Foster over the years, some novelizations, some original novels. I'm sure I must have at least lingered over this one in a book store at some point, but it doesn't seem familiar now. One thing I can say for sure is I'd read that apprentices name as Factor Prime every time.

    4. There were some Choose Your Own Adventure style books based on the Zork text adventure series that came out sometime around 1983 or 1984, so those would be contemporaries with the Shadowkeep novel as some of the earliest books based on computer games.

      There were some other actual novel adaptations of Infocom games in the late 80s. I think I read the Enchanter one, but it didn't leave much of an impression so I'm guessing it wasn't very good.

    5. That's an interesting bit of trivia. I hadn't heard of the Zork books. Whether they or Shadowkeep gets the prize depends on how you define "novel," I guess.

    6. I had a quick look, there were 2 M&M books written in 95 and 96, and a third that was cancelled in 97. The first 2 titles were The Dreamwright, and The Shadowsmith.

    7. I agree that CYOA books are not novels, so I would still give the nod to Shadowkeep, but it's interesting that the idea of branching out into other media seemed to be happening in at least a few companies at the same time.

      Once we get into the 90's a lot more books start to appear. There were some King's Quest books at that time, along with the more RPG relevant Betrayal at Krondor just to name a few.

    8. Zork would frankly be a better contender. The games offer what might be best described as "allusions" to the overall game world (the Great Underground Empire), but a novel could have fleshed out the back story and added depth to the games.

      Writing a novel based on Shadowkeep is like making a film based on Battleship. There isn't enough substance to inform a proper work of fiction, so the author really could have shoehorned the "game" into any old plot.

    9. The Zork book I read was by George Alec Effinger and while it's not quite as good as his original fiction (usually true of work for hire), the man was an amazing writer and it's well worth trying to locate.

    10. Battleship makes more sense than making a movie out of tetris, which they are now doing:

  2. I play this silly game to annoy my kids, it involves swapping the first 2 or 3 letters in a word pair. So I might say, "Does anyone want to gay a plame?" When I mean ,"play a game". Brilliant, right? Bugs the sh#t out of them.
    So when I saw the name Practor Fime, I immediately swapped the letters and came up with Factor Prime.
    Do prime factors play an important part in solving puzzles in this game? Have prime factors shown op at all? Am I finding clues where there are none?

    1. I haven't encountered any explanation for the name yet--and remember, the name doesn't occur in the game itself. I think Mr. Foster was just being silly in the same way you describe.

    2. Because I'm sure you all needed to know this, I wanted to share that that type of word play is called a Spoonerism. I only know this because there is a bit in the irregular Infocom game Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It that centers around Spoonerisms. You're welcome.

    3. Thanks for the locabulary vesson.

    4. I remember reading about Mr Spooner in 6th or 7th grade and he's definitely the inspiration for my game. Or maybe he cursed me depending on how you look at it.
      What makes the prime factor thing stick out to me is the game Swordquesr: Earth World for the Atari 2600. The game came with a comic book with words hidden in some of the artwork. A poem on the first page hinted that only those words on pages that were prime numbers were legit clues to solving the puzzle.
      Most likely the author really was just being silly or engaging in some writer's craft when he came up with the name but it makes me want to take a look at that book or maybe the game manual or hint book.

    5. Fat the whuck you guys talking about?

  3. This is totally off topic, so I apologize, but I'm curious as to your thoughts or reactions about the upcoming BG inter-quel (if I may use the neologism) Siege of Dragonspear. It ought to be released soon, and I imagine it would be tempting to leave off blogging the oldies to play some new content for an old favorite.

    1. I honestly hadn't heard about it until your comment.

      As much as I like Baldur's Gate and all the Infinity Engine games, I probably won't play it. I have my hands full with work and my existing list.

      It's weird, but even though I've wasted plenty of time with X-Box games during the 6 years I've had this blog, I haven't played a single PC game that wasn't part of the blog. I don't know why I've been able to resist temptation in my office chair but not on my couch.

    2. I used to be a PC gamer until I bought the (1st generation) X box, and from that point on I was an exclusive console gamer. No more fiddling with hardware/graphic card issues, much fewer crashes, shorter load times...just pop the disc in and play.

      But as of the last year, I've been using GOG to replay some of the classics (I'm finishing up BG 2 right now) and I've forgotten how well written these games are compared to the AAA blockbusters. Don't get me wrong, I'm probably going to play Fallout 4 some time in the future and the next Elder Scrolls game...but I've got enough PC games to last me until I can find the Fallout 4 GOTY edition with all DLC in the bargain bin for $14.99.

  4. I remember being nine years old and buying the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book thinking it would help me with the Infocom text adventure. Heh.

    1. Speaking of Douglas Adams productions, I bought the Starship Titanic book when it came out and was greatly amused at how deftly it avoided giving any spoilers for the game.

    2. I did much the same thing with the Labyrinth movie and adventure game. It didn't help much, but some of the more random game elements made more sense.

  5. The author of Star Wars, several Star Trek novelizations, The Black Hole, and Alien goes slumming.

    Granted, getting paid to write fan fiction rather than being served with cease and desist letters was a coup (also: being the first outsider whose contributions became canon in both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes), but it's not like his previous works were paragons of literary quality. He had a workmanlike approach, and it served him well.

  6. Alan Dean Foster's novelisations of the Alien trilogy was the first time I'd encountered books based on movies. I enjoyed them when I was a teenager but nowadays I don't really see the point.

    I had several of Nintendo's 'Worlds of Power' novelisations. I don't think they should be read by anyone over the age of ten. I believe Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate got the treatment, but I didn't dare read them. By that age I knew better.

    1. "Worlds of Power" are pretty much a snapshot of how game consoles became known as kiddy toys in the first place - they really showcase Nintendo Of America's obscene censorship and simplification policies.

    2. The Torment "novelization" is an obscenity, though there's a not-terrible unofficial fixup novel compiled from the in-game text.
      Here's the fixup, with a link to the obscenity at the end of the page.

    3. I really liked the novelization of Blaster Master when I was a kid. That said, even I know it doesn't hold up, and it was annoying as it ended at the start of the game, thus it doesn't have a real ending.

  7. I never much cared for supplemental literature of games, but I've recently been playing the Torment beta and one of the characters resonated so strongly with me that I can't help but regret I didn't opt for the Kickstarter tiers that allow access to her extra stories. I guess that's what happens when you have a game written by some of the luminaries of fantasy writing.


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