Monday, April 17, 2017

Game 248: Alternate Reality: The Dungeon (1987)

While there were some precursors--think early Ultima and its obsession with food--Alternate Reality really pioneered "the environment is the enemy" gameplay. In most games, you have to worry about the goblin standing in front of you and that's about it. In Alternate Reality, you have to worry about the goblin plus hunger, thirst, heat, cold, disease, poison, curses, alignment, intoxication, fatigue, and encumbrance. In most games, you buy the best sword and armor you can afford; in Alternate Reality, you might buy a slightly lesser sword and armor so you can still afford a warmer coat, a meal in the tavern, and a better bed in the inn.

Some players love this sort of gameplay. They're the kind who install the "Frostfall" mod to Skyrim or play Fallout 4 in "survival" mode. I admit I enjoy these considerations at times, usually when they're introduced in such a way that I can understand how they work and know how to solve them. I don't mind if the solution is difficult, even, as long as it isn't bewildering. A lot of games feature poison, for instance, but the manual tells you that to cure it, you need a "Cure Poison" potion. Cool, you think, I'll purchase a couple at the alchemist's before I head out on my adventure. Alternate Reality is the sort of game that would start you with no idea how to cure poison, no idea where the nearest alchemist is, and no money anyway, and then get you poisoned in your first combat.
A typical The Dungeon screenshot. I'm exploring the sewers, and my square has some items, bodies, or both. My character is Level 2, thirsty, and about to die from hit point loss unless he can get healed.
We saw recently how the author of Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) had adopted these dynamics. While his love for Alternate Reality is clear, he made it too easy to solve the problems. Even if you don't collect a few mages with spells that counter every ill effect, there are inns and chapels on every corner, and the proceeds from a single combat can handle your needs for months. In Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, meanwhile, my Level 6 character, wielding his magical ice sword and Wand of Paralysis, still runs screaming from every encounter with a mold because it might release spores and disease him, at which point his only option is to hope that a wandering healer comes along, and even then he probably won't have enough money to afford the cure.
Curing disease takes the equivalent of 10 gold pieces. I'm not sure I've ever had that many.
I know I'm sounding negative with all of this, yet Alternate Reality: The Dungeon is quite a bit of fun. I'm enjoying it much more than Alternate Reality: The City (1985; link to my coverage), which was a hub with no spokes--the town level of a dungeon crawler with no dungeon. Lacking a plot, a quest, and fixed encounters, it offered no particular reason to explore or press on, and yet its legendary difficult did make it mildly exhilarating the first time I was able to kill a thief and loot a handful of gold pieces. It was the closest an RPG could come to make the player feel like a hobo, grateful whenever he had enough money for his next night of room and board. Still, I didn't see any point in playing it for more than a few hours. I only played long enough to get my character up to Level 5 and amass a little wealth, so he'd be prepared for The Dungeon.

Even that turned out to be a waste of time. When I started the Atari 800 version of The Dungeon, seeking to import my character, it wouldn't recognize him on the character disk. I realize now that the character actually had to be saved at one of the dungeon entrances, but I didn't understand that at the time. Owing to some other problems with the Atari 800 version--among other things, I couldn't find a way to skip the 5-minute opening credits and go directly to the menu--I decided to try the Apple II version instead and create a character from scratch.

This turned out to be beneficial, in a way. After an opening sequence that recaps the character being abducted by an alien spaceship's tractor beams, he walks through a portal of randomly-spinning numbers and gets assigned his stamina, charisma, strength, intelligence, wisdom, and skill attributes. My new Dungeon character started 1-6 points higher than my Level 5 City character in every skill. By the time the new character was Level 5, he was 7-24 points higher than his City counterpart.
Character creation is the same as The City but with the player facing a dungeon corridor instead of a city square.
But it did make the beginning of the game slow going. I died in 3/4 of my combats until I hit Level 2. I had no equipment other than a ratty robe and a few silver pieces, and I had to scrimp and skulk for an hour before I could afford so much as a dagger. I spent far more time reloading than playing, which would have been infuriating in 1987 with the slower speeds and need for physical disk-swapping.

Yet, in many ways, I find The Dungeon easier than The City. You begin the game in a "well-lit" area (meaning you don't need to use torches) with a shop, bar, and inn all nearby. The inn will let you rest for whatever you can afford. The random encounters in this area are generally with the easier monsters in the game. Any of them can curse, poison, or disease you, I hasten to add; the "ease" is relative to the rest of the series. But it's something.
The shop is thankfully only a few steps from the entrance.
As we discussed in my entry on The City, the creator of Alternate Reality, Philip Price, had big plans. The City was supposed to be the hub of a huge game world that would have seen expansions in The Wilderness, The Arena, and The Palace, along with plot resolution in games titled Revelation and Destiny. The Dungeon wasn't even supposed to be a separate game; it was just supposed to be the first game's sewers. By 1987, Price had gone to work for the military-industrial complex, leaving his notes with Datasoft. A team led by Dan Pinal and Ken Jordan took them and wrote this sequel. They never completely abandoned the idea that the character would be able to transition between expansions, and even here the game will occasionally call for a disk from a title that never existed.
I'd like to enter the scenario; you just never built it.
Here, the ostensible quest is to get out of the dungeon and either return to Earth, somehow, or "seek revenge on your captors."  But the manual also promises--and, my, is it accurate on this--that you'll almost always have some kind of short-term issue to solve before you can really focus on your long-term goals. It's rare that my character isn't hungry, thirsty, weary, poisoned, diseased, cursed, or on the verge of death. He is often lost and chronically poor.

All of the potential conditions that you can experience are there for the difficulty, sure, but are also part of the game's dedication to details. In most games of the era, you can figure out the combat rules in a few minutes and while some combats might be more difficult than others, generally nothing occurs that's completely out of the ordinary. Alternate Reality, on the other hand, is always throwing new things at you. "Enemies" can be friendly, hostile, or indifferent. They can holler to their allies and summon help in the middle of battle. They have their own equipment and potions and might (for example) chug a healing potion in the middle of combat. An attack might send your weapon flying from your hands, never to be seen again, or it might break the umpteenth time you use it. A character might curse you with his dying breath and you literally end up in "cursed" status. The store might run out of food and water when you need it most. A thief might pilfer your compass or your last torch. You can use those torches, by the way, as makeshift weapons, along with the sticks they leave behind when they run out. Enemy corpses and their unwanted stuff litter the dungeon floors. There are a dizzying array of magic items with their own rules. Even 6 hours into the game, every 10 minutes or so, I find myself exclaiming "I didn't know that could happen!"
Thieves often try to rob you before attacking.
Beyond that, The Dungeon has all the trappings of the typical RPG dungeon: secret doors (more, in fact, than regular doors), locked doors, one-way doors and walls, teleporters, and squares with fixed treasures, encounters, and combats.

Time passes as you stand around, so unless you hit "pause," enemies will frequently attack standing characters, and if you're not quick enough in your combat action selection, you'll lose your move. Stopping to take a screenshot in combat often leads to death and a reload.
Death is frequent in this game.
It took me a while to get a character going. My first few had poor statistics and unlucky adventures, falling victim to poison or disease in their first few combats. One character survived for a while but ran out of money and couldn't seem to earn any more. The one who went the distance did so amidst so many reloads that it would horrify you, but that's really the only way to successfully play the game: save when something good happens and reload when you die or otherwise find yourself in an untenable situation.

The manual kindly provides a starting map, showing that the first level is 64 x 64 squares. Apparently, there are 4 levels in the game, with each subsequent level 1/4 the size of the one above it. The last level is supposedly only 8 x 8.
The manual starts you with this map. The sewers ring the entire map, so if you can find your way to them, you can get almost anywhere.
My map so far of the first level. Teleporters moved me to and from that western area.
I've been making my own map, of course, but the game's dedication to pseudo-continuous movement instead of 10-feet-at-a-time makes mapping difficult. I was constantly over- or under-estimating the number of tiles I'd traveled in long corridors. It wasn't until I found a "map stone," which identifies your precise coordinates, that this problem finally went away.
The compass and map stone are vital to accurate mapping.
Enemy difficulty seems to be associated with the zone you're in, as well as perhaps your own level, though I'm not sure about that. There's so much variability it's hard to tell. Basically, once you leave the starting area, all bets are off. You might encounter a rat or a demon lord. In combat, you have options to make a regular attack, a charge, or an "aimed attack" which sometimes delays until next round. I've found that the odds of success and failure of the three options seem almost equal, and the "aimed attack" does the most damage by far. Aside from attacking, you can use items and cast spells, but I don't have very many of either yet.

Basic combat options. You can also hit "C" to cast and "U" to use.

An "aimed attack" routinely does double the damage of other attacks.
By far, the biggest difficulty in the game is getting healed. You can only sleep in the inn, from which it's easy to get pretty far afield. Although wands and potions of healing supposedly exist, I've yet to find any. The only way I've been able to restore hit points is to find a wandering healer and pay him--which poses its own problems because money is so tight. Having to shell out for healing, food, water, and torches, it's only been towards the end of my first session that I was able to afford even some basic armor. Most enemies don't drop any wealth at all, and the store doesn't purchase used weapons and armor. It's a big deal when an enemy leaves even a few gold pieces.

I've been a little luckier on equipment. When I was Level 4, I killed a master thief and got a "Kriss Knife," which served me well for a while. Then, while exploring, I stumbled upon an enchanted katana called "Razor Ice." A lot of creatures can only be damaged with magic, so this has been a real boon.
Treasures in fixed locations are a feature of this game.
Various battles have left me with several "Wizards' Eyes," which cast a light spell and detect secret doors; other eyes that damage enemies in combat; a variety of one-time-use "trump cards" that do things like kill one monster or summon a healer. Mystifying are several horns. According to the manual, they're supposed to do things like heal me or replenish my food, but all they ever seem to do is summon parties of berserkers that I have to fight.
I prepare to use an "emerald eye" in a fixed battle against 6 homunculii.
I've been trying to keep my alignment good, refusing to attack humanoid creatures until they attack first, giving precious coppers to paupers, and so forth, but apparently I'm messing something up because the only two guilds I've found so far--the Guild of Order and the Wizards of Law Guild--say that my soul is too dark to join.
The game rewards you with experience not only for kills but successful actions of several types. Just striking an enemy provides some experience. Leveling up confers increases to both maximum hit points and some random selection of statistics. My "skill" score has been a bit mystifying. It started at 17 and got up to 22 after a few level-ups. Then one moment I looked at it, and it was suddenly 56. I have no idea how it got that high. Later, I looked again and it was down to 40.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • In addition to the things that they drop, you can pick up the corpses of most slain enemies. I can't imagine why you'd want to do that.
  • Each room or corridor has its own name, although no detailed descriptions. I'll have more on the dungeon layout next time.
  • A lot of doors require (interchangeable) keys to open. The game didn't really open up until I'd found a few of those. You can't buy them from the store.
And sometimes keys don't work because the door is barred or magically-locked.
  • Knights occasionally show up and demand that you yield to their passage. I've been saying "yes," but I'm not sure what to make of the encounters.
In another RPG, I wouldn't yield to bullying, but in this series, you don't fight when you don't have to.
I did make what might be progress on the main plot or quest. In the eastern side of the map is a large inaccessible area that seems to require the never-produced Palace disk, but there's a small room adjacent to this area, behind a secret door, where I found a guy named Ozob. He said he was the former apprentice of a slain mage named Acrinimiril. When I unlocked his chains, he rewarded me with a "Fugue" spell (the only spell I've acquired so far) and teleported me to the "puzzle of three doors."
A fixed encounter that perhaps has something to do with the main quest.
I don't think I quite solved the puzzle, which involved a lot of teleporters, but I was far away from the starting area and a little freaked, so I slowly made my way back. On the way, I found a chapel, where I had options to pray, listen to a sermon, consult with a priest, and make a donation. In consultation, the priest confirmed what the guilds had been telling me by saying that my soul could go either way. How many paupers do I have to throw coins at?!
Listening to a sermon in the chapel.
The manual hints that the player should really try to find the Oracle of Wisdom, which occupies the same coordinates as the Floating Gate in The City--roughly the middle of the map. I also need to see if there was anything else to solve in the "puzzle of the three doors area." It's nice to have goals, which I never did in The City.
I forgot where I got this, but it was a good sign.
I feel like my character is finally getting strong, but in general you never want to fall into the trap of thinking you're doing well in an Alternate Reality game. The next random combat might cut you down to size fast.


  1. This game sounds very cool. I usually love it when games make you desperate for resources in the beginning, and it sounds like this one does that very well. Perhaps too well, but it sounds like you're enjoying it anyway.

    1. I always enjoy the low level parts of RPGs, when you scramble for gold and a potion of healing is a treasure. The final parts, when you're hurling thunderbolts and wielding Blackrazor, can sometimes get tedious.

      I used to wonder why people would play like that, and even refuse to finish the game so they could keep effortlessly wiping out random monsters. Where's the fun in that? Turns out, it has nothing to do with the *game*. What they love is the feeling of control they have over what's happening. They go to work they're not in control, their family life they're not in control, and god dammit when they sit down to a goddamn computer game you bet your ass they're going to be in control.

      This is also why people play Skyrim for hundreds of hours on the same character long past the point where combats are in doubt, or play Civ and manage a gigantic empire and never go for the win. I feel like I'm in the Baron Munchausen movie:

      Vulcan: You just sit comfortably thousands of miles away from the battlefield and simply press the button.

      Berthold: Well, where's the fun in that?

    2. Well, that part is fun for a while, as long as the game lets you run rampant over the foes that used to give you hell.

    3. I like the option, at least, but overall I agree with Harland. I get annoyed when people complain that Skyrim is too long and gets too easy. No one is forcing you to play every questline in the game. If you limited yourself to one faction plus the main quest, you'd end the game with a Level 20-ish character who probably had to specialize in only a couple of skill trees.

  2. Title typo: "Alter(n)ate Reality"

    1. It's like I have to proofread EVERYTHING.

  3. I'll have to fire this up on my Atari 800XL and see how it is. I tried The City when you were playing it and enjoyed the music, but the semi-realtime movement made it really difficult for me to get my bearings. I didn't get far with it.

  4. Maybe your alignment would go up if you handed the beggars the coins instead of throwing it at them :)

  5. In a lot of games, 'survival' modes just amount to additional busywork. While there was a bit of that in Fallout 4 (food, drink, sleep) I did like the way it turned off fast travel (distances became real), disabled saving, and made your weapons and that of your enemies do much more damage. Survival mode in New Vegas was basically just the irritating parts.

    1. I feel like 'survival' is not something you can just attach to the game. Either that's the primary focus when you're designing the game or you shouldn't have it in there at all. Skyrim's survival mods work, but I never felt like they added value to the experience.

    2. Find it hard to play Skyrim without survival mode now that I have used them but before I did I use to play as if I had them anyway

    3. When it comes to RPGs, "the environment is the enemy" makes me think of the Realms of Arkania games. The first is still a ways off, but I wonder if the Gold Box-ish combat will compensate for all the survival micromanagement.

    4. Its funny, I like the food/drink/sleep aspects of FO4 survival, but hate the lack of fast travel and saving! Distances are "real," sure. But they're also boring after you've gone back-and-forth enough times. I use the Rulebreaker mod to restore those aspects to survival mode.

  6. Glad you're enjoying it more. To skip the opening sequence in Atari emulators you can press F2 or F4 I think. I also have a single load version of the Commodore 64 version somewhere - let me know if you'd like to give that a try.

    A couple of other comments. The healers will treat you even if you don't have enough money. Monster corpses are supposed to serve 2 purposes, although I've only ever found one of them to work. Certain ones might be considered a culinary treat. Also keep an eye open for the Amethyst Rod - Very useful. Regarding your alignment there is a hidden guild near the beginning of the game which you might be able to join.

    1. I found the rod late in my second (long) session. Now I have to go around and re-visit all the doors I couldn't open the first time.

  7. I remember buying this from TOYS R US when it first came out for the C-64.. I was 20, in the USAF... Good Times :) DECADES ago. Anyway, the continuous movement did THE CITY in for me- I couldn't map it so didn't play it. Thank you for sticking with it these many decades later :)

    1. Out of curiosity do you remember your impressions of the game after you bought it? While I was a young kid in the 80's, I remember games were numerically just as costly as AAA titles today, but more expensive relative to peoples' purchasing power then. Was it a waste of money for you?

    2. Well, I tried playing it for a day but the movement turned me off so badly I never played it again after that first day so yeah, it was a TOTAL waste of cash for me. I was 22 when I bought it, approx, in the USAF, and I had bought my c-64 in 1982 and this was approx 1984/5/6.

    3. The movement is one of those things that's technically interesting but actually makes gameplay far more annoying and difficult.

    4. Especially since I was looking for more "Bard's Tale" and this was NOT it :)

  8. Those colors... oh Old Apple times...

  9. I don't know what it is about that typeface, but I kind of like it. The way that some letters are different sizes or have unnecessary flourishes. Looks like someone with better handwriting than mine annotating their playthrough, table-top style.

  10. Out of curiosity, would it be easier/cheaper to heal or equip yourself if you made occasional forays back to the City? Especially if your character is significantly more powerful than your city character was (and presumably better able to survive up there).

    1. I'm also really interested in how easy it is to "travel" back and forth between the two. I tried the city for a while, but gave up after the lack of goal was apparent.

    2. No, I wasn't clear about that. You can't go from The Dungeon back to The City. Presumably, if they'd ever finished the other modules, you would have been able to return via those locations, but the manual is clear that THIS entry to the dungeon is one-way.

  11. Alignment answer, which I don't expect you to actually read:

    V oryvrir bar uhaqerq gjragl-rvtug vf gur nafjre gb lbhe dhrfgvba nobhg ubj znal orttnef lbh arrq gb guebj pbvaf ng. Lbh ner tnvavat n cbvag rirel gvzr lbh qb gung (be lvryq cnffntr gb n xavtug), naq V cerfhzr lbh'er abg fynhtugrevat cnhcref sbe KC be lbh jbhyq unir xabja jul lbhe fbhy jnf qnex naq jbhyqa'g unir nfxrq gur dhrfgvba, ohg gb vzcerff gur puncry, ng yrnfg, lbh arrq znkrq nyvtazrag: gjb uhaqerq svsgl-svir.

    1. I read it. I think the problem was I was availing myself of some encounter options that are "evil" at the same time, so my alignment was remaining neutral. Once I stopped doing those things, my position seemed to improve.

  12. IIRC the music can tell you if an encounter is with a good or evil character. Never attack good ones unless they attack first. I have to say I never played the Dungeon back in the 80s but I played a hell of a lot of City and read a ton about the dungeon in the magazines of the time.
    Are you aware of the remake that is in the works ?

    1. That's interesting about the music. I've been making sure that all human-type character attack me before I attack them. If there are "good" slimes, bats, rats, etc., then I guess I might be in trouble there.

      If it's the same remake I mentioned at the end of my The City posting, then yes.

  13. This RPG is way ahead of its time. 3D with textures, the environment factors as described, weapon attributes, guilds..

    Thanks for the writeup, this brings back good memories

  14. I really like the idea of managing food/water, struggling to buy your first dagger, etc., even if very few games are able to balance it right. I feel that a lot of people say "it's a game, it's supposed to be fun! It's not real life!" But for me, fun is being convinced that "yeah, maybe this character really could beat the odds and come out a hero if they're just lucky and talented enough." When they don't have to eat and can comfortably carry ten rocket launchers in their backpack, it kind of breaks the illusion.

  15. I used to play The City on my Atari 800XL. I never could find anyone who had The Dungeon. This series reminds me of the Task Force Games aborted World War 2 series, called "Liddell Hart". Both had great promise, but were never completed and have an elevated reputation.


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