Friday, April 7, 2017

Revisiting: Alien Fires: 2199 AD

One day, probably, we'll have computers designing video games entirely on their own, combining modules from popular engines and stringing together bits and pieces of stories and NPC dialogue. At first, those games designed by computers will be completely identifiable as such, but eventually we'll start doubting, and some years after that, we'll be totally fooled.

Alien Fires: 2199 AD doesn't fool me. It was designed by robots. I don't know who "Jeff Simpson" and "Sky Matthews" are supposed to be (I truly don't; Google searches for the most promising subjects don't have anything in their histories about Jagware or game design), but I suspect they're pseudonyms for an advanced AI that combined all of these weird elements into a game.

The AI certainly had access to a lot of pop culture. You can sense it trying to create the perfect assembly of elements that young male players of the 1980s would like. For the plot, it crunched the numbers and figured out that 70% of video game-playing nerds were Dr. Who fans, so it made the main character a "Time Lord" spinning through space in a TARDIS-like vehicle. What do Time Lords look like? We'll make them look like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen! Where should the game take place? Let's search our nerd database again, and--of course! The Hitchhiker's Guide series! We'll just change the Restaurant at the End of the Universe to "Galaxy's End." The AI was on a roll.
The death screen makes about as much sense as anything else in this game.
An alarm bell went off. We're getting a bit too nerdy here. Time to spice things up, perhaps with some material from a pretentious film that young 1980s edgelords like to quote. Apocalypse Now. Perfect! The Time Lord will be on a mission to find Dr. Kurtz. Let's throw some rock and roll into the soundtrack; teenagers love that. NPCs? No problem! Let's just head to the database. Alice in Wonderland, WKRP in Cincinnati, Looney Toons--there's NPCs everywhere! Let's mash 'em together in a multi-level dungeon and we've got ourselves a game.

But where a computer AI could get the elements of a game right, it just couldn't get the tone. Join me in watching this video of the first 4.5 minutes of gameplay (courtesy of sometimes-CRPG Addict commenter Felipe Pepe) and tell me that it doesn't fail the Turing Test.

Those four and a half minutes are about as far as I got when I attempted the game in 2010, and I hope you can understand why. By the time you get to "Dr. Fever," who seems to think he's an organic being and calls you a "boob," your ability to absorb any more of this wackiness has been thoroughly crushed. (Though I do appreciate the part where the elders "see much promise" in a Time Lord who died in 4 minutes and spent most of that time saying "f@#$ you" to every NPC he met.)

Jokes about the creator of the game aside--and I really am only 50% joking--we of course see some starkly original elements in that video. It clearly capitalizes on the superior (for the era) graphic and sound capabilities of the one-year-old Amiga. It has a complex text parser that recognizes full sentences and delivers responses in fully-digitized audio. It has NPCs who get offended when you swear at them. It has continuous movement in the corridors, something we'd only seen up to this point in (I believe) Alternate Reality: The City (1985). Of course, as we'll see, "innovative" doesn't always mean "good."

Let's back up for those who didn't watch the video or who didn't see everything. The backstory casts you as an apprentice Time Lord sent on a mission to Galaxy's End to search for a scientist named Samuel Kurtz. He's created an "awesome device" that "threatens to twist the very fabric of time itself."
The introductory screens give the player his mission.
Character creation is a process of deciding a name, then allocating 99 points of experience to a group of 7 skills, all of which start at 20: fighting, marksmanship, diplomacy, dexterity, understanding, tracking, and quickness. These skills can go up and down during the game based on the assessment of the "Time Lord Elders." Since so much of the game seems to involve talking to NPCs, I made "diplomacy" my highest skill.
The next screen shows some kind of octagonal spacecraft, and I'm not sure if it's supposed to be the player's transport to Galaxy's End or Galaxy's End itself. It oddly says "Octo" on it, which seems to be the name of the organization your enemies work for, so I guess maybe it's the station. Whatever the case, a few presses of the arrow keys puts you in the station's corridors.
A few steps later, you meet your first NPC: Tristar the Mechanic. "Hello," he says. "I hope you have come to help us. There is not much time. You must go to the next level and talk to Angel. But beware: there are Octo agents everywhere."

The speech is fully digitized in the Amiga version, and while there's an initial "wow" factor to this, it swiftly becomes old as you have to ask the same question several times to understand the answer. The digitizer isn't very good. "Supplies" is pronounced as "su-PLEES," for instance. Since the dialogue is digitized, and not recorded, the text must exist in the game files, but there's no way to simply display it. Thus, for all the superiority in graphics and sound of the Amiga version, I'd almost rather play the DOS version where the dialogue is in text and I can actually understand it.
Typing a question to Tristar the mechanic.
The parser is pretty sophisticated. You can't just feed single keywords, except those that constitute complete sentences, such as "HELLO" or, as we saw in the video, "DIE." In the case of Tristar, "OCTO" and "AGENT" produces nothing but "I don't know." But ask "WHAT IS OCTO," and you get an answer. This was my dialogue with Tristar:

  • WHO ARE YOU? I am Tristar, the chief and only mechanic of Galaxy's End, at your service.
  • HOW ARE YOU? I am okay, I guess.
  • WHAT IS OCTO? Octo is a scientific research company. They are very secretive. They often land here for supplies and shipments of [something] from the mine.
  • WHO IS ANGEL? Angel is a reporter for Scientific Galaxian. She's here doing some research on Octo.
  • WHERE IS THE ELEVATOR? The elevator is in the elevator shaft.
  • WHERE IS THE ELEVATOR SHAFT? [Several unintelligible words.] You must talk to [something like "Witty"]; he will tell you how to get there.

The next room had Jessica, a starship pilot. She had most of the same responses as Tristar, except in response to "WHO ARE YOU"? Further along was Dr. Fever, and then Mango-Tango the rabbit-horse, who offered to trade his hunting knife for a pocket watch.
I will always remember this game for Mango-Tango, the pipe-smoking rabbit-horse.
The corridors of Galaxy's End are twisty and angled, with numerous alcoves, nooks, and secret doors. Impossible to map using conventional means, I ended up hand-drawing the level when I got lost, and this is what I came up with, although the proportions are all off. I know there's missing stuff because my map doesn't have a way back to Tristar or the airlock I entered in.
My attempts to map the first level.
As you come upon objects or NPCs, they often take a few seconds to render, and by then you've generally pressed one of the movement keys so that you end up moving past them. You then have to turn around and re-enter their squares.
Mango-Tango gives me his "octo knife." Everything is "octo" in this game.
Eventually, I found Mango-Tango's watch and got his hunting knife, my first weapon. It did nothing to help me in combat against the occasional random Octo agents I encountered. Combat in this version requires you to right-click, select your weapon, and then click furiously on "fight," watching as you and your opponent do damage to your various body parts. I've lost every fight so far and had to reload.
I don't even have time to get a screen shot before I die.
I had hoped to close this entry having gotten further in the game than my 2010 counterpart, but alas I can't seem to find the elevator. I've found this weird looking graffiti-covered wall that looks like it could be the elevator; compare it to the image below of the DOS version elevator.
Where I'm stuck.

The elevator in the DOS version.
Unfortunately, my interface disappears when I walk up to it, none of my keyboard commands do anything, and I can't get it to work. I've tried clicking all around the screen and off it. So, barring rescue from someone who knows what they're doing in the Amiga version, I'll probably have to switch back to the DOS version, which has the advantage of readable text.

Tera was a weird game that turned out somewhat interesting, so I do want to figure this out. But with NPCs like Mango-Tango, Speedy Gonzalez, and Dr. Fever, the groan quotient here is pretty high.

Time so far: 4 hours


  1. Oh my, this looks... special.

  2. For some odd reason the way the corridors scroll in the video reminds me of the more psychedelic Sesame Street cartoons. "One two three FOUR five, six seven eight NINE ten, eleven twelve."

  3. How on earth do you navigate through the map in this game? Is it tile or... 3d walk?

    1. Though it gives the illusion of 3D walk with animated movement, it's essentially tile-based. The ability to move diagonally also adds to the illusion.

    2. Yes, well said. You definitely move between discrete points, but the graphics "slide" between them, suggesting continuous movement, and you can turn and walk at 45 degree angles, AND the shapes of the walls makes it seem as if the "tiles" are different shapes.

  4. Apocalypse Now. Perfect!

    One can charitably imagine they might have stolen from the same source Coppola did and plundered Joseph Conrad 8)

    1. Don't be silly. It's Milius doing the plundering. Coppola just made it look fucking gorgeous.

  5. To be fair, the space station says OctoF. Which I can see being related to something a lot of players will be saying.

  6. Ah, the Amiga speech function... We had tons 'o fun with that back in the day. You haven't lived until you've heard an A500 burping out passages from a 1987 issue of Penthouse Letters while Slayer's "Reign in Blood" blasts away in the background. Good times...

    1. Absolutely, it was *the* hit with my friends. I had the first Amiga 1000 (yes, 1000) in our circle, everyone else was still on C64 and even the occasional Spectrum.

      Having the speech function try to pronounce German (nick-)names was just awesome and the sound is still stuck in my mind like 80s TV commercials. And you all know how uneraseable those are... :)

    2. Yeah, that speech function totally blew me away in 1988. Ah, to be young and easily impressed again...

      BTW, Mr. Addict, you sure Alien Fires were not made by the French? Could explain the Turing Test problem.

  7. Magritte says of one of your captions: Ceci n'est pas une pip.

  8. Indeed PC version is pretty terrible in graphics but that non digitized speech is a clear winner I mean sure that default Amiga voice synthesizer was cool back in the 80's and was used in a lot of games but the novelty of it does wear off quite quickly.

  9. According to the games manual you can use the speech commands "up" and "down" to operate the elevator. Another YouTube link mentions a copy protection at the elevator that could be possibly bypassed if you walk backwards into the elevator. Maybe this helps. Unfortunately i have no setup to test this myself.

    1. Huh. Thanks for linking that. I had a different version of the manual--probably the original, since mine said "Jagware" as the publisher and the one you linked says "Paragon" Those instructions weren't in the original. The second manual also has a lot more backstory.

      Anyway, it works. Now I COULD continue with the Amiga version, but the dialogue thing is annoying me. Plus, the Amiga version doesn't have the "stops with a jerk" joke that the DOS version did.

    2. Interesting, for DOS and Atari ST versions Electronic Arts was Distributor.

      Maybe Atari ST version is better (no dialogue + better looking that DOS version) ?

    3. Interesting that ST has such a bad graphics when it used to be a battle between ST and Amiga in the 80's.

      Maybe they had to rush with the port for ST.

  10. Gah...that speech is giving me flashbacks to B-17 Bomber on the Intellivision. Except I could understand what that game said....

  11. I bought this game back in the 80s for the Atari 800xl, seduced by the graphics on the back not realizing those were for the Amiga. I saw this coming up on your list as was looking forward to your review. Ugh, this game makes no sense but yet i remember it still to this day.

  12. You might reach out to Ray Larabie for info about the game's creation. He was one of the graphic artists, and continued on to work for Rockstar games and earned fame as a font creator. Jagware shows on LinkedIn as his oldest work experience, the year before he left for college.

    1. I am pretty sure that Jagware's "Sky Matthews" is the same guy who is currently a CTO at IBM, but just as you I can't google up conclusive proof of that. But I can dig up an 1980 8th grade yearbook photo of the now-IBM-CTO standing next to one "Jeffrey Simpson" at a private school in Ottawa -- the home city of Jagware for its brief existence. (Isn't the internet wonderful, where random strangers can google up 8th grade class photos of you?) The future-IBM-CTO started college in 1987. The timing is right that he took a couple of slack years after graduating high school, made a video game with a high school buddy, then went on to college and less frivolous endeavors. Unusual name + uncommon city + right timing = pretty sure its the same guy, even if he now leaves it off his resume.

    2. Wait, is this Canadian? That would be somewhat embarrassing fora game this bad to be my countries first CRPG. I guess we eventually give the world some of the best to make up for it.

  13. Glad you're revisiting this, it's an extremely interesting game to me, but I got stuck as well... never got past the first area. :/

  14. Your introduction made me wonder whether you've seen this short film of a screenplay that was generated by a computer program? Someone fed a bunch of sci-fi screenplays into a computer and it spit out a script. Then they had actors act it out:

    1. Thanks for sharing that. Thankfully, it doesn't sound like computers will be taking over scriptwriting any time soon.

      I love how half the dialogue is "I don't know what you're talking about."

    2. Don't be so sure... It makes as much sense as some of the stuff written by Eugene Ionesco...

  15. "You can sense it trying to create the perfect assembly of elements that young male players of the 1980s would like. For the plot, it crunched the numbers and figured out that 70% of video game-playing nerds were Dr. Who fans, so it made the main character a "Time Lord" spinning through space in a TARDIS-like vehicle."

    I think you grossly overestimate how popular Dr. Who was. Until the reboot, references to the series was a cause of bewilderment to most overseas players.

    1. I'm inclined to agree. I had this game back in the day, and while I was extremely excited by the reference to "Time Lords" because I was absolutely obsessed with Doctor Who, I was also basically the only person in my (American) school at the time who knew about it. Even the nerds at my school only really talked about Star Trek. I had learned about Doctor Who from a couple of friends in another city. Doctor Who fandom was extremely niche in the US in the 1980s.

  16. Ah, memories! We had an illegally copied version of this (almost all our Amiga games were illegal copies, which I feel bad about now) along with a photocopied manual so we could answer the copy protection question. My brother and I spent many hours at it even though we could not get anywhere. It is extremely difficult to win a fight. Eventually you can get projectile weapons which do a lot better damage, but ammunition is very hard to come by. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we could not get anywhere without being killed by the first hostile character we ran into, we always set our fighting as all our points and gave no points to anything else. We didn't know at the time that this was why the gumball from the gumball machine always poisoned us. If you were too stupid, you would not recognize a poisoned one and would die. If you were smart, you would get your health restored at the end of each level by eating a (non-poisoned) gumball. I only learned this much later.

    The other problem with our approach is that with our diplomacy at 0, it was much easier to accidentally piss off a character sufficiently that they would attack you. Some characters that are not necessarily hostile will attack you anyway if your diplomacy is 0.

    The "rabbit horse" as some call him is actually named Mangle Tangle (I guess his name goes with his being a badass), and was my favorite character in the game. I think of him as a jackrabbit-centaur. I am pretty sure he's supposed to have the big hind legs and small front legs of a jackrabbit, alongside also having (freakishly long, in comparison) human arms and a human torso. I'm just sorry the art on his back legs is rather garbled so I would always wonder what the deal with his feet was.

    My brother and I were so excited when we did find Angel, but she doesn't really tell you much useful. She tells you to find Darkmoon, but the character you run into who the game identifies (briefly) as Darkmoon if you manage to click the examine button before he starts kicking your ass... always just immediately jumped on us and started kicking our ass. On rare occasions we managed to make it far enough to find the ladder to the third level, and then almost inevitably we would get blown out into space somehow by our lack of dexterity on the ladder (remember how we allocated our points...). I think only one or twice did we make it past that and it required a huge string of luck.

    The other weird thing (of many) about this game is how many bizarre items you find that seem to have nothing to do with anything. We found a "snake symbol" and were sure that was something very significant, and then later found a guy who is half snake, but he has no reaction to showing him the symbol.

    I always found this game to have a very eerie atmosphere because of how empty the station seems even though you come across static characters on occasion, and because of the ominous rock music. It's a shame it was an unplayable game. Worse, we didn't realize it and figured we just weren't good enough at it; the idea that some games were just designed badly didn't occur to me at that age.

    1. I appreciate your recollections of the game from childhood. From the context of your entry, I'm not sure that you realized there was a second entry on the game in which I won it:


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