Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Game 223: Seas of Blood (1985)

Seas of Blood
United Kingdom
Adventuresoft UK (developer); Adventure International (publisher)
Released 1985 for Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 14 May 2016
Date Ended: 15 May 2016
Total Hours: 9
Reload Count: 6 characters, about 15 total in-game reloads among all characters
Difficulty: Easy-Medium (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 16
Ranking at Time of Posting: 32/220 (15%)

A little over a year ago, I checked out two computer adaptations of gamebooks from the storied Fighting Fantasy series: The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom. Neither did it for me. Penguin Books had done nothing more than copy the literal text and choices to the computer, creating in effect a book that you read on a screen. Neither game used the power of the computer to transcend the limitations of the gamebook (for instance, by allowing backtracking), and neither improved in any way upon the experience of reading a physical book.

I had resolved not to try any more gamebook adaptations, but frequent commenter Joe Pranevich hoodwinked me back into the genre by promising me that Seas of Blood outperformed its predecessors. It was, among other things, developed by Adventuresoft UK, an actual game company, and programmed in part by Mike Woodroffe, whose work we'd later see on Elvira and Elvira II. Joe was planning to write a review for "The Adventure Gamer" and thought we could have a little cross-blog synergy. The reviews also time well with TAG's upcoming interview with Woodroffe.

Seas of Blood is fare more an adventure game than an RPG.
Having finished the game, I think we should have collaborated on a different one. It isn't an RPG, first of all--there's no character development or even much of an inventory. As an adventure game, it doesn't fare much better. Both its puzzles and its parser vastly underperform the better titles of the time. Nonetheless, it does fix some of the issues we saw with the two previous Fighting Fantasy adaptations. The world is fully open--no artificial barriers to backtracking--and you interact with typed verbs and nouns instead of choosing from gamebook-style lists. In that sense, Seas of Blood does what a gamebook adaptation should do: adapt the story and setting from the book using the superior tools of the computer. They just didn't go quite far enough. In particular, the computer game preserves an issue that many of the book readers complained about: too many sudden deaths and other arbitrary outcomes to player choices.
Man, this book was brutal.
The game is set on the Inland Sea south of the city of Tak, "the greatest den of thieves, pirates, and cut-throats that the civilized world has ever seen." You're one of them. Your goal is to sail your pirate crew around the seas, assembling a collection of 20 treasures that you must take to the top of the mountain on the island of Nippur to the south. I never received any logical explanation for why you'd want to dump a bunch of treasures on top of a mountain, but there you go. (The plot in the gamebook is slightly more sensible. The player and his arch-rival, Abdul the Butcher, engage in a contest to determine who will be King of the Pirates. Whoever reaches Nippur with the most gold within 50 days gets the title.)

I've seen some reviewers praise the game for the opportunity to "role-play a bloodthirsty pirate," but in truth you don't spend much time pirating. You have to attack one innocent vessel, I guess, but otherwise you're indistinguishable from the hero of a typical game.
The Fighting Fantasy system generally has the player roll for skill, stamina, and luck, with various items and encounters able to damage or enhance the initial scores. Seas of Blood increased the complexity by having the player keep track of a second set of statistics relating to the ship and the crew: "crew strike" (basically, crew skill) and "crew strength" (the number of crew members, basically equivalent to crew stamina). The player also had to track a "log" of how many days he's been at sea.
The computer version of the character sheet.
The computer adaptation eliminates luck and takes a step back from its predecessors by offering no character creation. Everyone starts with 9 skill, 20 stamina, 9 crew strike, 20 crew members, and 50 provisions. Without introduction, the game dumps you into the Inland Sea at its northern border, in a location I presume is south of Tak. Despite building it up considerably, the game doesn't actually let you visit Tak.
The first screen of the game...
..contrasted to the first paragraph in the book. I like that the game makes you navigate to these locations instead of just choosing options.
While on ship--called the Banshee--you navigate with commands like SAIL EAST and SAIL NORTH. There's only one place to go on the ship, DOWN to the hold. You can visit other ships and shipwrecks with commands like SWIM and GO, and if you find a promising island or port, you GO ASHORE, at which point you navigate with the regular cardinal commands.

The Inland Sea is only 7 squares wide. I don't know how many it is south--at least 45--but I never found the southernmost extent without running out of provisions. Functionally, you never have to go more than 30 south since that's where Nippur lies. Within those 210 explorable areas of sea are maybe 12-15 islands, ports, and other locations where you have to leave the ship and explore (without your crew) a small land map, collecting treasures, fighting battles, and overcoming associated encounters. 
In some ways, this part isn't much different than Pirates!
The "provisions" statistic hampers your ability to sail around infinitely. You start with only 50, and every direction sailed at sea uses 1, no matter how many crew members you have. I found three locations--an oasis, a giant crayfish, and a pirate ship--where you can get 15 more, but even with them, you can't possibly explore all 210 sea squares in a single game. Seas of Blood is thus like many adventure games where you field a bunch of doomed characters before your final character takes the optimal path through the encounters. A fair number of instant deaths and walking dead moments only enhances this fact.
All I did was choose one direction over another.
Joe's post at "The Adventure Gamer" does a great job with the blow-by-blow of each location and encounter, so I'll let you read it if you want all the gory details. For my part, I'll say that there aren't really any classic "puzzles" to solve. In almost all the encounters, the only challenge is figuring out what combination of verbs and nouns the game wants you to use. The manual lists about 20 commands that work, but there are quite a few more needed to navigate the game, and more than once my success or failure boiled down to trying a bunch of synonyms until one took.

An example: at one point, you come to a wreck in the ocean with holes in the bow and stern. SWIM WRECK gets you over there. SWIM BOW results in an instant death as a "giant sea anenome [sic] grabs you." SWIM STERN puts you underwater in the ship's hold, where you meet some sea sprites guarding some kind of magic potion. After some fumbling about, I found that TALK TO SPRITES has them say, "A krell has stolen our Skull of Salt. Please help us."
Okay. What now? OKAY and YES produces nothing. Neither does AGREE nor SURE, BUB, WHATEVER YOU WANT. It took me about 10 minutes of screwing around before I found that the needed command was HELP SPRITES. This violates a core convention of adventure games in which verbs and nouns are about direct action rather than general intent. 

The book version is at least clear about what you're doing.
I'll admit there aren't a lot of these, though. A couple places required knowledge from a previous encounter to answer a riddle, but generally speaking success is about exploring every crevice, EXAMINING literally everything, opening every box and chest, fighting every enemy, and just reloading when you die. Slowly, you assemble your collection of treasures as well as items needed to solve puzzles elsewhere. To avoid over-encumbrance, you frequently have to dump your inventory in the hold.
I got the answer to this riddle from a shrine.
There are a few islands and ports where, when you try to GO ASHORE, the game tells you, "this is a very unfriendly place. Forget it." I don't know if these locations just exist as landmarks or if more content was originally planned there. You can do things at these locations in the book. There are several other locations that simply waste your time or stamina and offer no treasure. Until you're confident that you found all the treasures, it's hard to tell which of these areas are superfluous and which you simply haven't solved yet.
None of the locations in this game have been friendly.
Land combats are entirely fixed, I think. There are three random sea combats when another ship attacks you, and a couple more fixed ones. You get four separate stacks of gold coins from these ship combats; each counts as one of the 20 treasures.
One of the random ship combats. These are generally over early in the game.
Whether on land or sea, combat is a pretty boring affair. The enemy rolls two dice and adds his skill score (land) or strike score (sea). You do the same. If your roll is better than his, you damage him; otherwise, he damages you. Repeat until one of you is dead. Most enemies start with a far smaller crew strength or stamina than you, and usually lesser skill, so battles rarely last more than a couple rounds. But there's no way to restore stamina or crew strength in the game (there's a Staff of Healing in the captain's quarters but I could never figure out how to get it to work), so a few unlucky combats can leave you without enough points for the endgame.

Fighting some goblins on land.
The distressing thing is that combat dumbs-down the system offered in the book, where you could use your luck as an alternative to skill and to increase the damage done to enemies or mitigate damage done to you. There are no such choices here--no choices at all, really. Even worse, there are no items that enhance your skills. As far as I can tell, your inventory has no bearing in combat. You start the game with a sword and later find a silver cutlass (one of the treasures), but your skill is the same even if you drop these items and fight with your bare hands. (There is one undead enemy that can only be hit with the cutlass.) Similarly, a helmet that you find doesn't seem to improve your skill or stamina, and a looted crossbow is never fired.

Just a few random screenshots of game encounters:

I was never able to find a way to get this ruby. Fortunately, it wasn't necessary.
I feel like this exact thing has happened in about 12 other games. There was a sapphire in the nest, naturally.
There's never really anything to do in ports. I want to visit the governor!
Examining everything is really the key to the game.
If you screw around too long on the burning barge, it's destroyed before you can collect all the treasure, putting you in a "walking dead" situation.
The endgame is boring and unsatisfying. When you have your 20 treasures in the hold, you sail to the island of Nippur, climb the mountain, and start dropping them. You can't carry them all at once, of course, so you have to tediously make several trips between the mountain and the ship, picking up everything individually (the game doesn't recognize AND) and dropping it. When the 20th treasure hits the ground, you get a message that, "You have all the treasure. You are clearly the greatest pirate of all." Game over.

This is honestly the "winning" screen. I have 21 items on the ground here; I'm not sure which one of them isn't an actual treasure.
My sense of dissatisfaction is enhanced by the fact that in my Commodore 64 version, at least, this endgame text appears with no paragraph breaks at the bottom of the screen where I've been dropping all my stuff.

My GIMLET gives the game:

  • 3 points for the game world. The setting had some promise. The map is basically the Mediterranean rotated 90 degrees, with the "Rivers of the Dead" standing in for the Nile, the "Isle of Volcanoes" standing in for Sicily, the "Three Sisters" standing in for the Canary Islands, and so forth. The encounters lightly use themes from the region.
The map of the Inland Sea provided in the gamebook. The computer game is relatively faithful to it.
  • 0 points for character creation and development, as there is none.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. This is the type of game where "NPCs" are inseparable from "encounters," but in any event, there really isn't anyone in the game to talk with.
  • 3 points for the gamebook-style encounters.
My crew is turned to animals. I learned in an earlier visit, resulting in an instant death, that I shouldn't EAT.
  • 1 point for the boring combat.
  • 1 point for equipment. There are treasures and puzzle items, but nothing to enhance your abilities.
  • 0 points for economy. The gold you find is a plot item; there is no buying, selling, or bartering.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for adequate graphics, no sound, and a sometimes difficult interface.
  • 4 points for gameplay that's non-linear and has the decency to at least be short.
The final score of 16 comes in lower than the previous Fighting Fantasy adaptations, which at least offered character development, useful equipment, and a crude economy. I like what Seas of Blood did with the exploration and encounter options better, but it did everything else worse.
I must have missed this encounter in-game.
Overall, I think we're seeing the same lesson repeated: gamebooks don't really make good computer games. Not unless you scrap everything except the story and setting. In the Fighting Fantasy books, the skill/stamina/luck/two dice system is a limitation imposed by the medium; why adapt it literally to the computer (and even subtract from it!) on which much more complex mechanics are possible? As I'm sure they'll agree over at "The Adventure Gamer," adventure games designed specifically for the computer vastly outperform these gamebook adaptations.


  1. From the graphics I was sure you were playing the Speccy version!

    1. Yes, they *are* Spectrum graphics ported to the C64. Adventuresoft UK games all did that, as far as I know. On the other hand, they did have graphics in the cassette versions, unlike the Adventure International (US) games, that typically only had graphics in the disk versions (the tape versions were text only).

  2. In my defense, I said that the game *existed* not that it was good...

    You can find the first part of the TAG review here:

    We'll be posting the second half and final rating early next week.

    1. You said it was the best game that ever existed. Better than Ultima V, you said.

    2. Wow, that's a real sucker punch there, innit?

  3. "Overall, I think we're seeing the same lesson repeated: gamebooks don't really make good computer games. Not unless you scrap everything except the story and setting."

    That's generally true of the adaptations you've seen, but I wouldn't go quite that far. The folks at Inkle seem to be doing a rather good job of adapting Steve Jackson's Sorcery series. They've kept a fair amount of the "book" while inserting more "game," which seems to help quite a bit (e.g., graphical combat with text descriptions, navigation by map). And to think about this more abstractly, many of the more popular titles had a fair amount of gamebook content in them. How much time was spent reading and making multiple choice decisions in Baldur's Gate? I'd put it at one-third to one-half of game play, and that's nothing more than reading and making choices.

    1. The choices in Baldur's Gate weren't as arbitrary and fixed as they are in these early gamebooks, though. You get a lot more information before making a choice and even when you make the "wrong" choice and get, say, into a more difficult battle for it, you still have plenty of possibilities to influence the outcome in your favor.
      Moving into a random direction and then getting told that you were killed isn't all that exciting.

    2. I wouldn't conflate encounter options and dialogue options. Before games like Baldur's Gate, NPC interaction was relatively primative. You sat there and listened to what they had to say, and that's about it. Even in the best games, like Ultima IV-VII, what you have is less "options" and more "keyword prompts." Thus, BG added significantly to a game's choices by offering those options. This is far different than what gamebook and gamebook adaptations do, which is to reduce choices by applying them to the world at large rather than just a conversation.

      I suppose the more important thing is that dialogue options are the best way to role-play a conversation in a game, at least until we get to a point in which games have so much content that you can actually speak your lines right into the computer. In contrast, gamebook adaptations that start you at an intersection with three choices of a path subvert the natural mechanics of movement and exploration of a good RPG.

    3. Re-reading what I just wrote, I don't think my point came through. What I was trying to say is that BG's dialogue options might look the same as classic gamebook options on a superficial level, but in reality they add significantly to the game's role-playing options rather than simplify them.

    4. I also highly encourage checking out Inkle's 4-part Sorcery! adaptation. They're through the first three, and each one is bigger, more complex, and adds more features than the last.

      As a fan of the original 4-volume saga, I'm frankly stunned at how much they've taken a pretty satisfying gamebook experience and have turned it into something so so SO much more than it ever was!

    5. I agree that Baldur's Gate is more complex than your run-of-the-mill gamebook. The use of dialogue trees and numerous variables allow a much more tailored and nuanced set of choices. Gamebooks tried to do this as well, but the medium just was too clumsy for it (cf., Fabled Lands' use of codewords to determine if certain events had taken place). But when you get right down to it, the mechanism is the same: you're presented with text, and you make a choice from a list of options. That later games tend to use it for dialogue and gamebooks tend to use it for encounters doesn't change the underlying format of decision making.

    6. Yes, the format is the same. The difference is, with BG, you're getting choices for something that most games weren't offering choices for, thus ENHANCING role-playing and content.

      When a gamebook adaptation asks me: "Do you want to A) light a torch and enter the cave; B) go down the forest path; or C) explore the swamp," it is substituting with text something that most games would handle through natural game mechanics, as well as artificially restricting my options, thus REDUCING role-playing and content.

      In other words, it's not the specific mechanism I object to; it's what it's used for.

    7. I hear what you're saying. But that doesn't change my initial point that Baldur's Gate (and many games today) are part gamebook, if one defines a gamebook as "reading text and making a decision from a list of choices, which in turn has effects upon the outcome of the game." Saying "but Baldur's Gate does it well!" and "Citadel of Chaos does it poorly!" doesn't alter the gamebook DNA of many games.

    8. In some ways BG's dialog choices (it wasn't the first game to implement dialog trees by the way, Dark Sun did it some years before) were a regression compared to games like Wizardry 7 or Daggerfall that allowed to make story-altering choices through gameplay.

    9. Chet, would a better way of putting it be to say that in BG the gameplay loot is essentially explore->fight/quest->loot->become tougher->explore, and the dialogue options represent one of several ways of deepening that loop...

      ... whereas in stuff like Citadel of Chaos, the choices *are* the gameplay loop?

      Or perhaps that the choices in BG give you a way to customise the *way* you play the game, but in a gamebook they *are* how you play the game?

    10. Yes, that's a succinct way of saying what I was trying to say.

    11. That's why I said that BG was "part" gamebook and not completely a gamebook. Looking at the dialogue/multiple choice part of the game (which is easily one-third to one-half of play time), it is essentially a gamebook embedded into a larger game.

  4. The pirate wearing a WASP singlet on the title screen might be the best thing about this game.

    1. The "WASP" part is some kind of hacker nonsense. The original opening screen didn't have it.

    2. That's a crack-mark and not in the original art. Those darned 1980s "hackers" having to tag their games like graffiti... very strange subculture in retrospect.

    3. I'd have you know that those tags were important. Letting people out there know who hacked those games garner them hackers respect. Respect, in turn, becomes fame.

      This fame allows them to get hired to do many different types of software related jobs, like programming, bug-testing, and even DRM mechanics implementation.

  5. Good news! This may be the last Fighting Fantasy proto-PRG for a while. Adventure International UK released two sequels, but neither were proper RPGs: Rebel Planet (1986) and Temple of Terror (1987).

    Both of those games appear to have dropped all the RPG pretense in favor of being vanilla adventure games.

  6. The German "ASM" rated the Game with 10/10.
    The author praised it in every aspect ;)

  7. I think the thing that frustrates me about gamebooks - despite a deep nostalgic love for them - is that they are games about choice where so many of those choices are meaningless.

    I write elsewhere about there being only three kinds of meaningful choices in games - the test, the expression and the customisation.

    "Tests" are where there's a right answer and a wrong answer, or some answers are more right than others. Most gameplay choices are of this sort - when do I hit the jump button to clear the gap? What tactics do I use to fight? Do I parry or dodge? For this to be meaningful, the player needs to be given, or given the opportunity to acquire, the skills or knowledge necessary to evaluate the choices and their likely outcomes and rationally and reliably pick the more correct ones. Tests where the player is forced to try something at random may as well be a roll of dice. "Learn by dying" tests are generally poor design but some games are able to handle it well - ideally learning by dying will teach you something that helps you understand the system of the game as a whole rather than just the nature of one individual choice. Tests reward a player's choices by allowing them to progress or grow in some fashion.

    Expressions let the player express themselves onto the game and react in a way that shows their individuality. Pure "roleplaying" choices fall in this category, if their effect is to influence the story without having differentiated impacts on the gameplay or difficulty. Expression is the way a player differentiates their story of the game from another player's. It rewards players by significantly reflecting their choice in the way content is presented.

    Customisation is a choice by which the player alters the gameplay experience to suit their preferred play, where no choice is "worse" but the game will still play differently in gameplay terms. Examples include choosing a fighter or mage class, preferring stealth or combat, or choosing to wow a king with charming words or feats of strength.

    Gamebook choices generally don't offer either enough information, or consequences, or consistency of design to fall into any of these categories, and thus they frustrate. Even when you learn by dying you've only learned "don't do that at that specific time" - the lesson doesn't carry forward.

    And I think that's the core of why Bioware choices tend to feel fun, while Forest of Doom feels arbitrary.

    1. I don't know if I would have used the exact same terms, but overall I like your system of classification. I may reference this in the future.

  8. " It took me about 10 minutes of screwing around before I found that the needed command was HELP SPRITES."

    This may have just been a misunderstanding on your part, very possibly exacerbated by your assumption that the commands would follow a specific format. I think it's fairly clear that when "ENTITIES say 'please VERB us'", the correct way to acquiesce in this system is to "VERB ENTITIES".

  9. There are 2 things that this game improved upon over its tree-killing counterpart:
    1) It had sound.
    2) It had colors.

  10. Is the "Recent Comments" widget broken? It hasn't shown anything for the last week or so.

    1. Thanks for alerting me. It seems like every couple months, I have to hunt down a new bit of code because the old one stopped working. I just replaced it and the new one seems to be working...for now.

  11. I never finished many FF gamebooks playing straight. I didn't make maps, and eventually I would get frustrated and either play the books with max stats or just ignore the dice-rolling component entirely and treat them as a choose your own adventure.

    Seas of Blood did a few neat things: You played a bad guy, there was a degree of the open-world exploration feel, you weren't tasked with defeating a big bad, but rather your cash total represented something of a score received for your efforts. Unfortunately it just wasn't that fun to play.

  12. Hey guys,

    The second half of the TAG review is now up for your reading pleasure:


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