Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mindtrap: A Game That Could Have Been

           
Over two years ago, a reader named Keith alerted me to a bunch of Apple II games that weren't on my master list. One of them was Mindtrap: The Quest of the Seven Diamonds, which immediately set off alarm bells when Googling didn't produce a game of that name. Nonetheless, the disk images existed, and Keith e-mailed them to me. I wasn't able to get very far with them, so I cast about for some more information and ultimately found a new disk image with a readme file, which filled in some of the background.

Mindtrap was never a game, just a demonstration written by a talented programmer at Origin Systems in the late 1980s. The idea was to blend the graphical exploration and role-playing of the Ultima series with the "unlimited interactivity" provided (or at least theoretically provided) by text adventures like Zork. To do this, the creator programmed an interface unlike anything I've ever seen. To get around, you move with the UIO/JKL cluster--in hexes rather than squares--but when you want to do something more elaborate, you hit the ENTER key and type a more detailed set of commands at the parser. The plan was to recognize about 3,000 total words. Hitting ENTER again on a blank line returns to movement mode.

To play the game, you need one knight, one cleric, one mage, and one thief. For some reason, this group has been exiled to a planet called Yriearth, in a city called Belsaena, from which their first quest is to escape. Unfortunately, the text doesn't give any indication why the game is called Mindtrap or what seven diamonds has to do with anything.
        
Character creation. I don't believe I've ever seen "deftness" or "affinity" before.
            
The creator of the game was John Miles, who was at Origin in the late 1980s, with programming credits on titles like Ultima V, Ultima VI, and Martian Dreams. We'll see his later work on Eye of the Beholder III (1993) and Dark Sun (1993). In the readme file, Miles made up a pseudonym for the author and said he died "from complications arising from Bachman's Syndrome," referring to Stephen King's famous nom de plume. He also made up a backstory that related the game to the Ultima universe, with the four characters having been exiled to Yriearth for collaborating with Blackthorn, but in an e-mail exchange with me, Miles admitted that this had never been part of the original pitch. Ultimately, Origin rejected the approach, but Miles kept the disks in a drawer and sent the images to the Interactive Fiction Archive in the late 1990s, hoping some developer might be inspired by the interface.
                
Arriving in the game. The writing is solid.
          
I tried to play a bit, but I couldn't get far because the commands that work are undocumented, and using dialogue-based commands, which are pretty important, produces an error message. I would say that the concept needed a bit of work. There's a good reason that most iconographic games offer simple single-letter commands for common tasks like opening doors and talking to the NPC standing next to you. Having to stop and type OPEN CHEST every time would have become tiresome. Of course, it's possible that the final version could have found some shortcuts. I also don't like that you can't look at specific objects by indicating a direction. I don't know for sure what the icons are depicting half the time.
         
If I can't donate, I'm going to steal.
        
On the positive side, I love the detailed text descriptions of rooms as you enter them. (In classic Infocom style, you can toggle between "brief" and "verbose" to have those descriptions come up every time, or not.) Abstract iconography can only convey so much. There are very few games, even in the modern era of crystal-clear graphics, where it wouldn't be occasionally useful to have a textual description of what you're looking at.
         
Another example--so much more interesting  than just looking at icons bustling around.
           
I also like the idea of being able to use a text parser to engage in complex interactions with the environment, although a clever programmer can make a lot of things possible without going so far. Ultima V and Ultima VI are already extraordinarily interactive games without having to go beyond the 26 letter keys. Nonetheless, a text parser would definitely allow for more complex puzzles and would have fit well with Origin's tradition of free text for NPC dialogues.

If any developer out there wants to carry the idea forward, I can promise that I and John Miles will play it.


21 comments:

  1. What a fascinating stub! The interface looks like a hodgepodge of Ultima 3, 4, and 5.

    The Ultimas did have an "other command" and a "yell" command, but there were only a few options used there.

    Glad you find these little oddities that are out there.

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  2. That was really interesting. I'd love to see more random articles like this between your regular posting. 1988 will be over soon

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  3. Nowadays every game is dumbed down, you can press the C key to open a chest. How much it is a nicer way to type OPEN CHEST. The perfect way would be to type WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO OPEN THAT CHEST PLEASE.

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  4. Hiding options behind a text parser doesn't really appeal to me. There's only so many ways to interact with a game. I liken the frustration of struggling with a bad parser to pixel hunting in adventure games.

    It's an interesting concept for the time, but I don't see it working today.

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  5. I think a problem with combining text parsers and an RPG is that the combination becomes more cumbersome than either alone. In an interactive fiction game, you're in a room and can then "GET KEY" or what you may want, and in an Ultima-style RPG you can walk up to the key and pick it up. A combination where you have to move over to the key and then pick it up with a parser would get in your way in comparison.

    Perhaps it could be more like a point and click adventure and walk your character over to the right spot, e.g. you enter a room and then go "GET KEY" and the game walks the party over to pick it up. But that would have to account for enemies moving around too.

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  6. I would guess that Deftness and Quickness are the result of splitting the commonly used Dexterity into two different aspects. I don't know if it's often done, but it's a sensible idea that many RPG developers must have considered. Fast running and quick reactions aren't typically going to be associated with lockpicking skill, and yet most games treat them as aspects of a monolithic personal characteristic.

    Affinity sounds like a new name for Charisma. Again, it makes more sense to me given the typical contexts in which charisma is used in games.

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    1. Yeah, those are that. Though I'd thought that Affability would be a better word than Affinity.

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    2. It certainly is. Affinity makes no sense whatsoever in this context. But it has a nice sound to it, I guess :).

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  7. It'd be funny if this game had been the antagonistic spin-off of Ultima; with the Mage as Berlin, the Cleric as Palos, the Thief as Deadeye and the Knight as Brunt.

    Pity. We could've had medieval GTA so much sooner.

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  8. Wow! John Miles. That's one of those names you don't hear very often in video games, yet whose influence on games is incredible. I struggle to think of any other games he would have directly contributed to, beyond the ones already mentioned. But look up his other creation, the Miles Sound System. It was used in several Origin games in the mid-1990s (Crusader is the main series I recall using it), and then, after being sold to RAD Game Tools (the Bink Video people), it's continued to be developed and used in... a mere 6000 games or so. Granted, I don't know how much of Miles' original code would still be left in MSS today, and I don't know if he himself continued to contribute to it after selling it, but it is nonetheless founded on his original work.

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  9. Fascinating subject. Makes me wonder what other directs crpgs could have developed it. Without the blog I would never have heard of this one. Thanks, Chet!

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  10. A text parser could theoretically offer very deep and complex ways to interact with a game world. The difficulty lies in a) creating a game (-world) that actually allows this type of complexity, and b) communicating to the player that certain actions are even possible and when they are required (and when not). Also, many text adventures focus too much on simple interactions with objects, and there are many other ways to do that that don't require a parser, almost all of them better.
    That said, interactive fiction can draw you in like no other genre and I don't think it's a question of whether they're obsolete or not. They're obviously in their own niche, but they provide an experience that other games can't, whether you like them or not. I just wish they would focus more on exploration and atmosphere instead of navigation- and object based puzzles. (And maybe many of them do, I haven't played a modern IF game in a while...).

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  11. So, it looks like Chrono Trigger got ported to Steam, meaning it now meets your criteria for playing it. I doubt you actually will, but I figured I should still mention it.

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    1. Has it gone thus far, that Steam has now become an OS?

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    2. I've only just realized we've come full circle: console RPGs getting shoddy PC ports.

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    3. Any time someone tells me that a game is available "on Steam," I have trouble believing that it's not just wrapped in an emulator, even if the emulator is invisible. Surely, someone didn't go back to 25-year-old code and interpret it from scratch for the "SteamOS," did they?

      Either way, an update to Rule#2 settles the issue, I hope. "Console games do not appear on my playlist unless they also had PC releases during their original release schedule (generally within 2 years of the console release). Exceptions made and ambiguity resolved at my discretion." The fact that decades-old code is so easy to port and/or emulate that just about any modern machine can ru it does not make the game a "PC game."

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    4. You'd be surprised at how far programming has progressed. There are softwares that can decipher hexadecimal of programs written in one programming language and converting it to another. It's a tedious process that requires a lot of debugging and fine-tuning but much faster than doing it from scratch.

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    5. A number of companies are trying to push that emulators are illegal and wrong and refuse to use them, and would rather pay silly amounts of money to programmers then use them. Frank Cifaldi talks about it in her GDC talk. http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023470/-It-s-Just-Emulation

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  12. Steam has been an actual OS since 2013: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SteamOS

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    1. Yeah, it's a Linux derivative initially designed for the Steam boxes (basically PCs that only run Steam). They had some driver issues at first release; I'm not sure if those have been resolved.

      I assume Valve allows people to download the OS for their own use.

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