Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Standing Stones: Won!* (with Final Rating)

The Standing Stones
Independently developed; published by Electronic Arts.
Released 1983 for Apple II, 1984 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 13 December 2015
Date Ended:
26 December 2015
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: 18
Difficulty: Hard-Very Hard (4.5/5) in its intended difficulty, moderate (3/5) with save states
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at Time of Posting: 21/203 (10%)

The Standing Stones had some weird surprises before the end.

The main part of the dungeon was, as I said last time, 15 levels up and down. I found that if I took the time to walk on my way down and was careful about my magic expenditures, I could usually use "Jump Plane" to climb the levels one-by-one to the surface. Monsters naturally got harder on the way down, but the rewards were greater. Armor +2 gave way to +3 and +4; I found rings of various types and agonized over which to keep (you can only have two at any given time); and a helm +5 rounded out my protection.

On Level 13, I found Excalibur, and on Level 14, I found the mithril armor. I was cheating pretty heavily by this point, not only using Andrew Schultz's maps but also using multiple casting of "Etherealize" to fully explore each level, noting treasure locations, and then reloading to get the treasures for real.
Finding Excalibur.
I realized belatedly that carrying gold makes you a target. The more you carry, the more enemies swarm you. Thus, I began dropping it as soon as the game gave it to me. The extra experience points were not worth having to slog through 30 battles per level. I probably wouldn't have even survived it.

I still don't know what underlying mathematics govern success or failure in combat, but something weird is going on. I found that as long as I had perfect health (99 at my maximum; I'm not sure if this is the game maximum), I would easily defeat most enemies without losing any hit points. But the moment I lost 1 or 2 hit points in combat, in the next combat, I was far more likely to lose 5 or 6. Once I'd been knocked down by 10 or 15 points, I routinely lost that many. By the time my hit points reached half their original level, combats would often become fatal or near-fatal. Essentially, the game seems to regard hit points as a kind of "strength" meter and the more you lose, the more you lose.

A similar thing happened with spells. When I was perfectly hale, they would succeed almost all the time, but when I needed them most, enemies would be most likely to laugh them off. Losing health in the game thus becomes a swift downward spiral.
This never happens when my hits are higher.
Level 15, as I suspected, was a navigational nightmare with a slew of one-way doors and walls continually funneling me into dead ends that required a "Passwall" spell to escape. Fortunately, I had Schultz's maps and I was able to reach the center square with just a couple of quick teleports.
The endgame begins.
Upon reaching the Chamber of the Grail, the game got very weird. It prompted me to insert the second disk, and when I did, I found myself in an adventure game interface:
This could have been interesting, but it was short and most of the commands were obvious. An old man stood at the entrance to an ancient temple. I said HELLO. He asked me to sit down and I typed SIT. He asked me my name and quest, and I typed CHESTER and GRAIL respectively.

Then, in the first of what would be several unfair questions, he asked my current experience total "give or take ten thousand." If you get it wrong, he kicks you out of the chamber. I had to reload a save state, check it out, and then re-enter the chamber.
Weird language, breaking the fourth wall, an idiotic puzzle, and a contradiction of the game's own back story all on the same screen.
It continued to get more bizarre. He handed me a test booklet and said I'd have to pass in order to enter the chamber. The game asked me a series of five multiple-choice questions that were both unrelated to the game and astonishingly unfair to a contemporary player without save states and Internet access. Some relied on arcane game details; some required technological knowledge external to the game; and a few were just random trivia. And it was timed! The player has to answer each question in about 10 seconds, so back in the day, you couldn't quickly shuffle through documentation to find the right solutions.

Here are the questions I got:

  • Which spell is most effective against a spectre on Level 2? (SLEEP, DISPELL, LIGHT CANDLE, or PRAY). Well, all right, "Light Candle" is the most effective cleric spell against undead on any level, so that one wasn't too bad.
  • Which processor does this machine use? (6510, 8080, 6800, or 6502). Seriously? I'm not sure I would have known that even when I owned a C64. I had to abuse save states to enter the correct answer: 6510.
  • What is RAM an acronym for? (READ AND MODIFY, REACTANCE ACTIVE MODULE, RESISTOR ARRAY MEMORY, or RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY.) Naturally I know this, but enough with the questions that have nothing to do with the game. 
  • Who is the leader of the gang that's made for you and me? (DONALD DUCK, RONALD REAGAN, MICKEY MOUSE, or MENACHEM BEGIN.) First of all, it's the club or band, not "gang." Second, there are two acceptable answers in the list depending on who's doing the singing. Third, I think the developers just screwed any reader born after 1980 or outside the U.S.
  • How tall is the average elf? (THREE TO FOUR FEET, FIVE TO SIX FEET, SEVEN TO EIGHT FEET, or UNDER THREE FEET.) This sounds like manual arcana, but in fact I don't see it in there anywhere. The answer is the first one, which naturally hoses anyone who's thinking of the Tolkien elf.
"M-E-N-A, C-H-E-M, B-E-G-I-N. Oy vey!"
These questions had been drawn randomly from a larger pool. Schultz's walkthrough offers the rest of them; many of them require a knowledge of completely unrelated trivia, and some are just unsolvable except by guessing:
  • How many knights does it take to change a lightbulb? (The answer is apparently ONE.)
  • What is the Turing Test? (Would the average gamer of the 1980s have known this?)
  • How many bytes of RAM can the Apple's processor access directly? (I assume this was replaced by a similar one for the C64.)
  • How many home runs did the Sultan of Swat hit? (Pretty unfair even for U.S. players, many of whom, like non-U.S. readers, are likely to be unaware that the "Sultan of Swat" is Babe Ruth and that the answer is 714.)
  • What is Durin's Bane? (You'd have to read Lord of the Rings to know that the answer is BALROG.)
  • Who killed Arthur? (At least this one comes from the game's setting, but you'd have to have external knowledge to know that it's MORDRED.)
  • What is First Officer Spock's father's name? (The game incorrectly spells it as SARAK.)
  • How many crew members were on the U.S.S. Enterprise? (I mean, the show had been off the air for 14 years by this time, and you'd have to be the biggest Trek geek to know that the answer is 430.)
Anyway, if you get this ridiculous test correct, you get to ENTER the Chamber of the Grail, which is guarded by the dragon Drungankham. I'll save you a trip to your nearest Arthurian dictionary to tell you that neither this name nor the old man's, Kormath, appears in Arthurian literature.
The game compounds its blasphemy.
I missed out on the final dragon fight. This is how Schultz describes it:
You will see the dragon as a dot. You are in a 20x20 room. You face east. You can go 2W before setting off an alarm, or 9N or 9S. Items show up at random. You can probably go 1N then back west and east until you get the potion of fire resistance, or the smoke bomb or hand grenade or missile launcher.

If you go outside the boundaries, there will be an alarm. All you need to do is go one north (you are facing east) then east past the dragon. You can loop around him if you want. Just don't run into him. Attack him from behind--you should have picked up a few items. It should not be too bad since he takes two turns to move and face you. With very good armor protecting you, you should find he does very little damage.
It sounds like an interesting little mini-game. This is what I got instead:
I suspect the reason my "battle" was so anticlimactic is that one of the rings in my possession was called a Ring of Dragon Control. Apparently, I willed the creature to kill itself rather than fighting it traditionally.

The game isn't done screwing with you at this point. You find yourself in a room with the Grail, where a colorful series of letters asks, "What wilst thou be if thou doth not succeed in thy holy quest?" A square box held a prompt for the answer.
The game's own death screen, which I encountered many, many times, gives the nonsensical answer:
Whatever the hell that means.

The correct answer finds the Grail in your possession. You then have to make your way back up 14 levels to the exit. I still had enough spell points to "Jump Plane" all the way there, but in addition to occasionally randomly sending you down instead of up, casting the spell occasionally causes you to drop the Grail, meaning you have to return to Level 15 to get it again--that is, if you're not abusing save states.

Reaching the exit produces the message "You have completed your holy quest" and the image at the top of this post. The titular standing stones literally jump up and down in the image, until one of them topples over.
In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 2 points for the game world. I feel that's even a bit generous. The Arthurian nonsense is a framing story, not in any way integral to the gameplay, and the developers didn't make any attempt to stick to Arthurian themes or characters.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There isn't much to creation, and the one hit point per level plus a couple of spell slots are only mildly rewarding, but at least you level rapidly.
  • 0 points for no NPCs to interact with.
Preparing to blast a vampire.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The weird gallery of monsters is indistinguishable from any D&D-derived game except when it has you fighting TRS-80s, silver spoons, and cereal bowls. A couple of friendly monster types don't add much to the game. There are no "encounters" other than monsters except for the end-game quiz, and you're not going to see me awarding points for that.
  • 1 point for magic and combat. There's only one tactic: fight or cast a spell.
  • 2 points for equipment. Scattered scrolls and potions plus some magic armor and weapons as you get lower in the dungeon.
My late game character sheet.
  • 2 points for the economy. Except for paying for healing and un-cursing items in oases, money is just for conversion to experience.
One of the few uses of money in the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options or side-quests.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, all going to the interface, which is easy enough to master.
  • 1 points for gameplay. Highly linear, unreplayable, and way too large and difficult. I was able to beat it with maps and save states, but with permadeath this game would be spectacularly unfair.

The final score of 17 is relatively low, but I'm going to lower it to 15 by subtracting 2 points for that absurd end-game quiz. If I had fought my way down 15 levels legitimately only to lose the game because I didn't know Babe Ruth's home run total or my computer's processor number, I would have been marching on EA with torches and pitchforks.
This isn't a video game box. This is a Yanni album cover.
As I noted in my first posting, I played this game a year late. I had originally tagged it as a 1984 release, but it really came out in 1983. In my post about this early era, I talked about some of the themes The Standing Stones exemplifies, including roots in the PLATO games (in mechanics, The Standing Stones is a fusion of The Game of Dungeons and Oubliette), innovative dead-ends, and sparse in-game content. The Standing Stones feels very much like a 1983 game. It adopted some good elements from its PLATO parents, but clumsily, and where it departed from the PLATO titles, it did so in ways that did not deserve to endure.

Kicked back to where it belongs in the timeline, it appears that The Standing Stones was the first RPG published by Electronic Arts. The company had only been founded the year before, and its first titles didn't see publication until 1983. Eager to grow its catalog, EA must have been willing to take a chance on a game that wouldn't meet its later standards. It's next RPG was Interplay's The Bard's Tale.

I exchanged a few e-mails with author Peter Schmuckal last week, although I need to talk to him again to get some explanation for the bizarre endgame. The youth of the authors is clearly part of the issue: Schmuckal said he was 16 when he started working on the game after his brother, a student at the University of Illinois, introduced him to the PLATO titles. It took Schmuckal and co-author Dan Sommers 5 years to write the game in between high school and college classes; lacking their own personal computers, they wrote most of it on display PCs at a Langrange, Illinois computer store called Byte Shop. Schmuckal admits that neither he nor Sommers were "big gamers" and had little exposure to RPGs other than the PLATO titles. He admits they spent "little effort trying to create a cohesive universe." Neither of the authors went into gaming after The Standing Stones.

We're still not quite finished with the early era. After thinking I was all done with 1979-1983, I belatedly found out about Doom Cavern (1981), Dungeons of Death (1983), and Wizard's Tower (1983), which we'll have to deal with before we can finally wrap up 1984. In the meantime, I'm really trying to make some progress in Disciples of Steel (1991), which should be the subject of my next post.


  1. Congratulations on your win! When you need to use save states/maps/etc. just to balance out the game's cheapness, I call it a fair victory.

  2. The average gamer would know about the Turing test. Do you remember the movie Blade Runner from 1982? :-)

    1. Do they refer to it by name in the film?

      I'm afraid I can't stand that movie, especially that speech by Rutger Hauer that everyone's always quoting. You know what? I once saw a really nice sunset in San Diego. That memory doesn't deserve to be lost any more than you c-beams glittering off Tannhauser Gate, you pretentious git. ALL of our memories are going to be lost like tears in the rain, and yours aren't any more special just because they happened far away. Time to die indeed.

    2. They used the Voigt-Kampf test in Blade Runner and the book that inspired it, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The VK test was a souped up Turing test used for sussing out suspected androids among humans. The VK test looked for responses, subliminal and reflexive ones, that demonstrated empathy while the Turing test only tries to reveal if a person is talking to a machine.
      They never say anything about Turing tests in Blade Runner, but Hauser briefly explains the VK test.
      Only people big into cyberpunk or programming would have known what a Turing test was at that time. So only computer geeks would have known the answer.
      But it is a terrible way to end a game, asking the player questions they'd have little chance of answering in time an even then only if they were familiar with US culture.
      The Monty Python angle seems it would be a riff on the bridge keeper skit where the keeper asked 2 mundane questions (what is our name and what is your quest) and then hit the traveller with a question of such obscure trivia anly an expert in the subject would be able to answer.
      This end game quiz does not fit that mold.

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    4. The average gamer hadn't heard of the Turing Test just because Blade Runner came out in 1982. First of all, in 1982 there weren't "gamers", people whose lifetime occupation is playing computer games. Back then it was just something that people did if they wanted. Moreover, just because a movie came out doesn't mean the entire population saw it. What if your local movie reviewer was a git and gave it a bad review? What if it didn't even play at a theater near you? So, so many things wrong with the statement above.

    5. @Mr. Pavone, the old man actually began by asking Chester's name and his quest (the Grail), so it is indeed a reference to Monty Python.

      Never saw Blade Runner, but hey even if many players knew what the Turing test the other questions make it unfair. I imagine that I would have kept my computer on and taken a trip to the local library to find the answers to these questions lol.

    6. Also, I'm more into Star Wars than Star Trek (because I hate seeing guys prancing around in tights). I'd definitely throw this game out the window if I had played it to the last stage.

    7. Seems I was wrong. Just re-watched the movie and indeed, the Turing test was not mentioned in it. My bad.

  3. Not defending the quiz, but perhaps explaining it? Sounds like it was a riff off of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    Had the the developers not played Wizardry yet? And am I right that this is around the time Ultima III came out? Interesting to see how the big influences had not yet had their impact on other developers yet this early in the history of CRPGs.

    1. I've never watched MPatHG all the way through, so can you elaborate?

      My understanding is the developers hadn't played anything but the PLATO games that inspired this one. You are correct that U3 was released the same year. There are a lot of titles around this time that show little awareness of the broader RPG market.

    2. This is the scene:

      ARTHUR: He is the keeper of the Bridge of Death. He asks each traveller five questions--
      KNIGHT: Three questions.
      ARTHUR: Three questions. He who answers the five questions--
      KNIGHT: Three questions.
      ARTHUR: Three questions may cross in safety.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yes, that's the scene, Sir Anon. And the riff is that the questions are ridiculous.

      Of course, pretty cruel and unfair to foist upon a player who has bested 15 levels of permadeath.

    5. Q1: What is your name?
      Q2: What is your quest?
      Q3a: What is your favorite color?
      Q3b: {Insert any random & obscure scientific trivia}?

    6. The same thing happens in CotAB.

      Old man stands in your path.
      What is your name?
      What is your quest?
      Copy-protection code-wheel question

  4. The "strength" meters of health and magic reminds me of how Morrowind used your character's fatigue to influence spell-casting and weapon usage. If you had full endurance you were basically operating at 100% of your skill levels. As your endurance decreased penalties would pile up against successfully casting a spell or striking an enemy.

    It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this despite one of the generic NPC conversation topics suggesting to basically take it easy and not push myself too hard.

    While fighting with zero endurance wasn't suicide, it was unnecessarily frustrating and I believe this system was removed for Oblivion and Skyrim.

    1. Most RPGs don't simulate that but HP as strength make a lot of sense.

    2. Lots of mechanics were removed for Oblivion and Skyrim. Endurance, reach weapons, physical damage types, whole classes of spells... The trend of the series has been to favor player reflexes more over character attributes. I expect by Elder Scrolls 8 or 9 it'll just be a standard FPS with automatic leveling...

    3. Funny thing, I'm currently playing Legend of the River King 2, a japanese game for the Game Boy Colour that's mostly about fishing but throws in some tacked on RPG-encounters with wild life. And as superfluous as they are, this little game actually includes the "HP as strength" thing too. You do less and less damage to enemies as your HP go down. It also influences your max casting length when fishing. Odd to find it in this game of all games.

  5. Wow, what a rough ending. Hard to feel bad about using walkthroughs when faced with something like that. And you shouldn't feel bad anyway- getting half the experience is better than none at all.

  6. Glad you were able to complete the game.

    I think I made it through about a quarter of the game on my Apple II before I gave up due to a corrupted save game. I remember enjoying the game up until that point.

    Now I realize I didn't miss anything. There is no way I could have completed the game. Even now I can't answer many of the end game questions without resorting to Google.

    I don't recall the Standing Stones being very popular. None of my game playing friends played it.

  7. Well, I'm glad that I never made it that far into The Standing Stones as a kid. I can only imagine the frustration I would have felt back then being confronted with that quiz. I have to second Malcolm that I would never complete that quiz now, much less then.

    Congrats though on completing yet another item in CRPG history!

  8. Harr harr, I'm responsible those three games you mentioned! You'll NEVER stop playing these obscure old crappy proto-RPGs, Chester, hear? NEVER!! I got DOZENS on my secret anti-Chester-list! HARR HARR!!!

  9. The endgame reminds me of the "Proof your old enough questions" in Leisure Suit Larry - just that they were at the beginning of the game. But they were annoying enough for a non-native speaker living in Germany...

  10. Here's how one contemporary player reacted to the endgame.

    1. That's an awesome letter, but he's not reacting to the endgame. It doesn't read like he ever even saw the questions.

      As much as I dislike the game, I can't imagine how he couldn't win with 4.5 million experience points--10 times the number I ended the game with. Maybe he didn't know how to use the spells?

      It's a shame Mr. Glinkie didn't survive into the era of blogging.

  11. The apple version looked more fun. As I recall on my c64 you didn't even have to climb out of the dungeon. The ending sequence came after getting the grail. I was pretty disappointed. I even had to figure out the DM PASSWORD as my dad forgot what he put in there. Only way I could even try was using a fast load cartridge and loading up segments and pouring through words here and there. Turns out the password was "WHAT"



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