Sunday, December 3, 2017

Game 272: Quarterstaff (1987)

The original Quarterstaff title screen.
       
Quarterstaff
United States
Simulated Environmental Systems (1987 developer and publisher)
Infocom (1988 re-developer and publisher; with subtitle Tomb of Setmoth)
Released in 1987, 1988 for Macintosh
Date Started: 29 November 2017
   
The interesting thing about many Mac games is that they make use of, rather than override, the conventions of the operating system. When you play a PC game, even today, you're used to the game taking over completely, remapping your keys, seizing your mouse, changing your graphic resolution, filling the screen, and monopolizing your sound, to the extent that you can't even use your usual keyboard shortcuts to do things like increase or decrease the volume. In the era before GUIs, of course, this was absolutely necessary; none of the major personal computers available pre-Windows had much of an "interface" with which to integrate.

The Mac was different. It pioneered the graphical user interface. It made popular the conventions of menus and overlapping windows. And games went ahead and used these conventions. You open an RPG on a Mac, and it looks like you've never left the operating system. In fact, you haven't. Quarterstaff opens with a few default windows, and if you want, you can close them all and see the regular Mac desktop and yet the game is still running. You can arrange the windows--and at points in the game, you may have up to eight of them--in any way that you want, essentially creating your own "interface." If you're a Mac user, of course, this is great--the game is using your operating system for its strengths. If you're emulating the Mac 20 years after you last used it on a routine basis, it's not as fun.

It's not hard to see why so few games received a Mac port. You could basically only import the rules, text, and some graphical assets--and you probably wouldn't want to import the graphics, since the Mac featured far more advanced graphical capabilities than any other platform (except color, until 1987). The core programming had to be designed from scratch. As a result, Mac ports of popular games look and feel almost nothing like their counterparts on other platforms. The shot of Wizardry below, for instance, is almost unrecognizable.
       
      
These issues also explain why games designed primarily for the Mac almost never got ported to other systems, which of course reduced the profitability of those games, which of course reduced the number of developers willing to work on the Mac as a primary platform. Thus, the few original RPGs designed specifically for the Mac have a certain cult status today, Quarterstaff perhaps most notably of these.

Quarterstaff was originally written and published by California-based Simulated Environmental Systems--perhaps the worst name for a gaming company in history--in 1987. It appears to be their only game. Early reviews were complimentary of the approach but noted numerous bugs that prevented completion of the game.
       
The title screen for the Tomb of Setmoth update.
       
The following year, the rights to the title were purchased by Infocom, of Zork fame, which itself had just been acquired by Activision. Infocom upgraded the graphics, altered the interface, punched up the writing, an re-released it with The Tomb of Setmoth as its subtitle. In the Fall 1988 The Status Line, Infocom's quarterly newsletter, they advertise the game as "our first entry into the fantasy role-playing genre." This wasn't strictly true, as Beyond Zork had featured RPG elements a year earlier. Nor was it the cornerstone of a new RPG series that the article suggests, as Infocom only published a couple more games with RPG elements, and none are RPG enough for my list.

Infocom's purchase of the game wasn't completely random. Even as designed by SES, Quarterstaff plays like an Infocom game, including Infocom conventions like OOPS to undo mistakes and switching between BRIEF and VERBOSE room descriptions. The developers, though not originally affiliated with Infocom, were clearly Infocom text adventure veterans.
       
A key encounter from the original version . . .

. . . punched up with a graphic in the Infocom version.
         
The SES version gives only the briefest backstory: that a party of adventurers is looking for the missing druids of the Tree Druid Colony. It starts with three players, Titus, Brutus, and Eolene, at the entrance of a cave. One window offers an automap; the other waits for text inputs. Menus offer the most common verbs plus the most obvious contextual commands for the present moment, including inventory commands.

LOOKing at each of the characters gives a little more information about their backstories. Titus is a muscular, intelligent blacksmith who went on the adventure because he lost a bar bet. He starts the game with a broadsword, torch, match, sleep potion, and four pretzels. Eolene is an elven archer with a bow, quiver, rapier, black potion, and elven gourd. With her ancestral forest leveled by human development, she now works as a mercenary. Bruno is a big, slow, fearless barbarian with leather armor and a gnarled tree branch as a club. He's here because Titus told him to be here.
     
The three leads.
      
The Tomb of Setmoth update has more information in the manual's backstory: The country is called Rhea. Its security, and that of four neighboring kingdoms, is maintained by a network of druid sects, organized in a Druid Council. Lately, the members of one of the sects, the Tree Druids, have been acting erratically, withdrawing from their lands and service. Envoys who have traveled to the Tree Druid colony, hidden beneath a great oak tree, have not returned. The Druid Council has sent the warrior Titus to find out what happened to the druids as well as three adventurers who preceded him, Bruno, Jaroo, and Eolene. In this version, Titus starts alone at the cave entrance but encounters and recruits Bruno and Eolene in short order.

Both versions use a series of windows that the player can size and position according to his preference. The most important of these are the map window and the text window. A graphic window occasionally appears to complement the textual description of people, monsters, objects, or places. The Infocom version introduces a "Help" window. Other windows pop up when necessary to help refine commands. For instance, if the player types LIGHT TORCH and he has two torches in inventory, a pop-up window will ask which one he wants to light.
     
Most games would say "which torch do you want to light?" and you'd have to type the whole thing again.
      
Commands are all text-based, and would be familiar to anyone who grew up with Zork, Enchanter, or the other Infocom text adventures. LOOK, GET, ATTACK, READ, OPEN, THROW, DROP, DRINK, and GREET are all commands that it understands, in conjunction with the appropriate nouns and adjectives. The game supports complex sentences, multiple commands separated by periods, and the use of IT with a clear antecedent: TAKE THE SMALL LEATHER POUCH. OPEN IT. TAKE THE BRONZE KEY. GO SOUTH. UNLOCK THE DOOR.

Although typing is easiest, menus give you the ability to structure your sentences based on what verbs will work in the area and what objects exist in the area. The room descriptions are long and often require scrolling, so the menus help ensure that you don't miss objects and people in the areas you visit. Also, both versions allow you to use the arrow keys to move without having to type GO NORTH and such.
      
Some of the many commands recognized by the parser.
      
Infocom did a great job upgrading the interface for the Setmoth version. The original version, like most previous text adventures, often "plays dumb," requiring you to step out every single action. For instance, early in the game there's a door that's unlocked with a bronze key. To go through it and continue south, you have to type a sequence of commands: UNLOCK DOOR WITH BRONZE KEY. OPEN DOOR. GO SOUTH. In the Infocom version, as long as you have the bronze key in your possession, typing GO SOUTH is enough: the game automatically unlocks and opens the door. The update also removes some micro-managing about what hand each character is holding various inventory items in.

Infocom also improved the text, making it both briefer and more vigorous. The original text wasn't horrible, but it featured a fair number of misspellings, run-on sentences, and unnecessary capitalization. It also tended to be longer than necessary. For contrast, here is a description of some skeletal remains at the cave entrance.        
SES version
On the broken, burned and dead creature SKELETAL REMAINS (in the CAVE ENTRANCE) are a glowing OLD RING, a SMALL LEATHER POUCH and a SMALL POTION. The remains of your predecessor, Jaroo. You recognize his blue Druid robe even in its tattered condition. Either Jaroo didn't get very far or he was on his way out but before he was able to exit his life was taken. Another possibility crosses your mind, one even more chilling. Perhaps the body of Jaroo was placed here as a warning to future possible interlopers!
   

Infocom version
On the SKELETAL REMAINS are a COIN, a lowing OLD RING, a PARCHMENT, a SMALL LEATHER POUCH and a SMALL POTION. TITUS recognizes the blue Druid robe, even in its tattered condition--these are the remains of Jaroo, who adventured here before. Whether he fell in honest battle or was placed here, his body is a warning to all who enter!

                   
Another comparison:
                
SES version
Travelling along this passage you wonder again what happened to this once great and prosperous people. The Dark Druids, world renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappearing without a trace. Men would travel from the far parts of the globe to be healed by the Dark Druid Lore. Now the place is only an empty shell of that greatness. But most importantly, where could the two score inhabitants have gone? This thought keeps haunting you as you travel down the damp cool passage.
     

Infocom version
The Tree Druids, world-renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappeared without a trace, leaving this empty complex. Where could the two score inhabitants have gone, so suddenly? The thought haunts you as you travel down the damp, cool passage.
              
In both cases, the edited text cuts unnecessary words, fixes errors, and saves ALL CAPS for items and people you can actually interact with.

I'm continuing forward with the Infocom version since it simply seems to enhance, rather than completely overhaul, the story and interface. But when I'm done and I have a sense of the entire plot and how to win, I may try to buzz through the original version and see if any major substantive changes were made.

The game opens at the cave entrance, where you find the body of Jaroo, one of the adventurers who preceded you. His corpse holds a coin and a parchment that duplicate some items that came with the game package, an old ring that seems to cause levitation, a small pouch with a bronze key, and a small yellow potion.

Moving south, you come to a door with an inscription. A bit of verse tells of the druids that live beyond it "within the roots of the Great Oak Yassadril," a clear play on Yggdrasil from Norse mythology. On the other side of the door, in a large cavern that the game oddly calls a "quandary," you run into Bruno.
       
My first companion.
     
The game doesn't seem to give a lot of options for NPC interaction. You can generically GREET them, and I guess both TALK and ASK are programmed in, but I couldn't get any responses with them. While I was fiddling with the various options, Bruno joined my group.

Once a group has more than one character, inputs become slightly more complicated. Every round, each character has a separate input line, although only the lead character must take some kind of action. Each character maintains his own inventory. Once you control a character, you can split him off the main party and form his own group with NPCs that he meets. It sounds like it could ultimately be very confusing.

So far, the game sounds less like an RPG than a straight text adventure, but there are some RPG elements. Each character has a set of "proficiencies" and "resistances" which will apparently change throughout the adventure. Titus starts with proficiencies at 32% in sharp, cold, acid, and blunt; Bruno has 50% in blunt, 35% in acid and cold, and 30% in heat. Titus starts with some heat resistance; Bruno has resistances in heat, cold, and sharp. Apparently, I'll need thieving proficiency at some point, but as each character can only specialize in four things, it will have to be another NPC.
       
Statistics for Titus.
     
A few other notes about the game:

  • The Infocom manual promises that the game avoids "walking dead" scenarios or those in which reloading is the only way to proceed. I guess we'll see.
  • The original manual promises some fairly advanced enemy AI, with NPCs and monsters who roam around, pick up and use items, and act in logical ways depending on hunger, thirst, fatigue, mood, and attitude towards the characters.
  • The original manual also contains a warning, and I don't know if it's real or a joke. It cautions that "the degree of realism may be too graphic for some players" which could cause them to "lose the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality." 
  • The original game has a "Boss is coming" command which opens a fake "Excel Folder." Its utility is somewhat limited in that a) it doesn't maximize when it opens, so your boss could still see the game windows behind it; and b) one of the files in the folder is titled "resume."
          
I'm not playing a game, boss! I'm just looking for a new job.
         
I haven't gotten very far, but I'll wrap up here because the entry is getting long. Before I go, I want to mention that my ability to cover this game is due to reader Arthegall, who did things I don't even understand with the disk images for the SES version so I could actually play them. Most Macintosh download and emulation sites assume that you'll be doing the emulation on a Mac, but with Arthegall's help, I learned how to transfer files to a Mac disk image, unzip them, and mount multiple images in the emulator. He kept me from giving up on this endeavor as well as previously with The Dungeon Revealed, and I forgot to thank him there.

34 comments:

  1. The two Castle of the Winds games had a similar GUI philosophy in Windows, as did the strategy game Metal Marines.

    The "Boss" screen made me chuckle. These days if you aren't working on your resume every day you're likely to find yourself in trouble. It must have been nice in 1988 to actually have some job security while working with computers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Other games that had Windows-style GUIs that I've played include Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol and Thexder 95.

      Mordor is probably going to be another short entry for Chet when he gets to 1995. He doesn't seem to bother too much with RPGs that are hundreds of hours long, mostly of grind, but which technically have a goal, and I can't really say I blame him.

      Delete
    2. There were actually many strategy games in the early Windows days that utilized its' interface capabilities. Civilization 1 and Empire Deluxe for Windows being prime examples.

      Delete
    3. Civilization 2 was probably the most high profile game doing it. It was a great game, but I'd rather if it had a more distinct interface.

      CivNet and freeCiv also did it I think. (Yes, I did spent a lot of time playing civilization)

      Delete
    4. @RuySan

      As one should. Civ should replace homework. I learned more playing Civ and had more fun. And uhh, I guess in many instances it actually was replacing homework.

      Delete
    5. Some Japanese game make use of Windows interface. Lunatic Dawn RPG series in particular. Two games translated to English make full use of Win95 capabilities.

      Delete
  2. Amiga also had ability for games to be played on it's own UI windows or separate screens for that matter but we don't talk about Amiga since you hate Amiga. :C :P

    Amiga Nethack for instance has all the commands as a mouse interface with their binded keys next to them which was handy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I do remember some games using the Amiga OS windows, but I don't really like games using the OS interface, it makes them seem more work-like and rob much of the atmosphere.

      And I recall Chet disliking the Amiga magazines and not so much the Amiga itself. Because if he does, then I automatically hate him. (Or maybe he also doesn't like Amiga fan boys)

      Delete
    2. When I starting reading the post I was thinking the same thing. I remember a few Amiga games that worked the same way, with separate windows and what-not. Plus they were in color and the mouse has 2 buttons. Shadowgate is the only specific game that comes to mind, but I know there were others.

      The Amiga was awesome, but I don't begrudge anyone from disliking it. I hated Macs but looking back they had their positives. I'm not sure what those positives were, but I am told they had them. :P

      Delete
    3. I don't dislike the Amiga, exactly. What I dislike is trying to emulate the Amiga. RuySan is also right that I have developed a bias against British Amiga magazines of the early 1990s.

      I didn't mention the Amiga in the discussion because I've yet to encounter a game that makes use of its interface.

      Delete
    4. The Amiga is a bit of a nightmare to emulate if you want to get the OS to install correctly and to install hard drive load versions of games. Just straight up 'here's a stock standard A500 and a floppy image of a game' is simple enough. Nothing compared to the terror of emulating the mac, I have found.

      Delete
    5. My issues with Amiga emulation ARE somewhat old at this point. My prejudice is mostly an artifact.

      Delete
  3. Since this is a multi-tasking environment, it'd make more sense for "boss-key" to just task-switch you to a spreadsheet program underneath.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's true. Perhaps no platform needed a "boss key" less.

      Delete
  4. Kudos to Arthegall. I'm looking forward to Chet's review of this one, since my early experiences with CRPGs were all on Apple II and, later, Mac.

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  5. Hey I noticed a pretty severe typo in this post. You erroneously said that Simulated Environmental Systems was "perhaps the worst name for a gaming company in history" but you clearly meant to write the opposite because "Simulated Environmental Systems" is the best name for a gaming company I've heard in my entire life. After all, most games do technically simulate an environment of some kind - you can't say they're lying to you! The best names are the ones that make you pause and go "...Yeah I GUESS that makes sense, kinda".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or, maybe it sounds like a company that simulates the operation of HVAC systems.

      Delete
    2. I assumed they would be working for NASA myself...."Okay this time we wanna simulate Venus if smurfs lived there!"

      "Ummm is that really a viable envir..."

      "Shaddup I work for the government and have a budget to use dammit!"

      Delete
    3. That's what I ws thinking, Bluerazor. A group of people that you pay to show up at your house and say, "If you had an air conditioner in this window, it would be SO cool in here right now."

      Delete
  6. As an Infocom completest, I tried playing this game once via Basilisk emulation. I got it running but could not stand all the disjointed separate windows. Staying in the OS is fine for time-killer games like Minesweeper, but for an RPG or adventure games requiring full attention, it's a total immersion killer.

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    Replies
    1. I had completely forgotten about this game until I saw the screenshots. I don't think I ever finished and can't for the life of me recall why not.

      Delete
  7. shouldnt this be game 272? not 271

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, thanks. I started to write it before KoX and forgot to update the number.

      Delete
    2. Actually KoX is an excellent abreviation for that game.

      Delete
  8. This looks like a game I'd have enjoyed a lot in my youth. I loved the infocom games and always thought more could be done with the game play. The rpg mechanics and an actual party seem like a good start.

    As an aside, I browse this blog on my phone. I browse it so often, in fact, that my autopredict suggests crpgaddict.blogspot.com as the top choice when I enter text into the address bar.

    Don't know if that's a statement on the quality of the blog or on how I spend my free time. Either way, kudos!

    ReplyDelete
  9. While a few years removed from Tom Hank's "Mazes and Monsters" and Jack Chick's infamous "Black Leaf" track, the mysterious warning in the manual may be a cover-your-ass from the developers over the D&D panic of the early '80s

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    Replies
    1. I should have paid more attention. I was deep in the game when Irene came into my office and I impaled her with a sword.

      Delete
    2. Had you been playing KoX things may have turned out very differently.

      Delete
    3. This one from 1984 https://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp

      Delete
    4. Ohh even better found a web site for RPG hate from the 80's :D

      http://www.theescapist.com/strangerthanfantasy.htm

      Delete
  10. Interesting...an CRPG with the charme of an excel chart. Those titles must have been pretty good storywise to attract players, because they do surely look pretty boring.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    Replies
    1. I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth, Anuj, but given how far you had to stretch to find even 100 barely literate sites about RPGs, I feel like your comment was more an advertisement for your service than an honorific for my blog.

      Delete
  12. That's great! So cool to see you playing Quarterstaff. If you get stuck, let me know and I'll see if I can give you a few hints.
    Scott Schmitz (one of the co-authors of Quarterstaff)

    ReplyDelete

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