Thursday, May 28, 2020

TaskMaker: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Can my reward be a haircut?
United States
Storm Impact (developer); XOR (publisher)
Released 1989 for the Macintosh
Remade and re-released as shareware in 1993
Date Started: 15 May 2020
Date Ended: 25 May 2020
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
TaskMaker is perhaps the perfect Macintosh game. A challenging game with an easy interface, TaskMaker takes the player on a top-down quest to complete 10 tasks for the titular lord, each one progressively more ominous and evil, until at the end the player has a fateful choice. Gameplay is like a combination of early Ultima and a roguelike, with challenging combats made easier through a vast inventory selection. An unusual set of attributes governs success and gets stronger when exercised. Many of the dungeons have complex puzzles involving teleporters, switches, and hidden doors.
The best metaphor I can find for my TaskMaker experience is that I just had an excellent lunch. It was tasty, filling, and didn't do anything wrong except lack the gravitas of dinner. It won't unseat Ultima on the GIMLET--no game that lasts only two entries is going to do that, any more than a great lunch place is going to show up on a city's "best restaurants" list. But for the meal that it offered, it offered it perfectly. I need a way to distinguish such games beyond the raw quantitative score of the GIMLET. 
I wonder if a truly epic, dinner-worthy RPG has been created for the Mac. It's not like the hardware and software wouldn't support it, and of course it receives ports of such games. But something about the operating system seems to encourage games (or, indeed, perhaps all applications) that are the equivalent of dragging files to the trash can: tidy, cutesy, intuitive, and yet a bit groan-worthy to someone who grew up typing DEL FILE.TXT and still finds it easier to do so. TaskMaker avoids the worst of other Mac games in this regard--its main character is not, for instance, a smiley face--and it admirably backs up almost all mouse commands with keyboard controls, but it still has that sense of being an "app" rather than a program.
Making cute drawings out of the dungeon wall pattern is something that a Mac game would do.
Still, the focus belongs on the positives. The titular TaskMaker had ten tasks for me:
  1. Retrieve a package from Skysail Village.
  2. Retrieve a chessboard from within the castle.
  3. Invade the silver mines, kill the usurpers, and bring back a golden chalice.
  4. Dig in the sands of Porta to find a magic item.
  5. Remove his belongings from the Quagmire Estates.
  6. Steal the coat of arms from the Enitsirhc Family, which "resists [his] reforms."
  7. Slay and bring the head of the leader of a rebel faction in Dripstone.
  8. Raid the crypts at Pentamerous and bring back the body of the previous king.
  9. Bring back the crown of the land from Vidair's Tower.
  10. Murder the prisoner in the TaskMaker's island prison.
The steps needed to accomplish these tasks are designed exactly as they should be in a game of this nature. Too many developers, in such a situation, would mistakenly try to create "symmetry" among the tasks by giving them all a similar structure and length, or even worse make them escalate in complexity. But TaskMaker does it right. Some of the tasks are easy, some are hard. Some are long, some are short. To the extent that any are challenging, the challenge is a bit different for each. The variety keeps things interesting and prevents the player from learning to dread the next task.
Digging holes in the desert was boring but easy.
Even better, while the task order is linear, the game world is not. The player could perform all of the tasks before speaking to the TaskMaker once, then stand in front of him and turn them in all in a row. Nothing is gated. If he knows what he's doing, or just has a bit of daring, he can plunder some of the best equipment early in the game. It would be fun to do a speed run of TaskMaker just to see how quickly you could complete it. 
Mapping out a teleport puzzle in one of the last dungeons.
I particularly love that the author didn't put up artificial barriers to two slightly game-breaking options: The "Teleport" spell, which moves you to a random place in the current map, and various items that let you walk through walls (e.g., Ethereal Potion, Passwall Scroll). Most games would offer these options but keep you from using them when they really counted. Not this one. I got lucky with a "Teleport" spell on Task 9 and bypassed most of what was probably the game's toughest dungeon. That in some ways, it's too bad that you can do this is outweighed by how awesome it is that you can do this.
The easiest tasks were #2--the chessboard was just down the hall, though guarded by some tough early-game foes--and #10. The toughest were the ones that had long, large dungeons: #3, #6, #8, and #9. The game specialized in Dungeon Master-style puzzles like switches, teleporters (visible and invisible), energy barriers, and illusory walls. Vidair's Tower consisted of about 50 small areas interconnected by such devices. They ultimately frustrated me, even though I could have taken the time to map them, and on a different night may have had a great time doing just that. On the particular night I was playing, my impatience led me to try "Teleport" and I was tickled to see it rewarded.
A choice of three staircases and a teleporter. Instead of mapping all these paths, I rolled the dice and got lucky.
The combat difficulty I reported in the first entry got easier as the game progressed and I got better equipment. I still probably over-relied on the "Instant Vacations" that my deaths unintentionally replicated, but those deaths became rarer as the game went on and, in particular, as I learned how to effectively use the spells. This is another area that the game does quite well. There are ten spells given to you at the outset, and all are useful. Even if you don't use "Teleport" to bypass dungeon puzzles, you can use it to get out of combat. Even a melee player should use "Attack" frequently because it applies your physical attack to all adjacent foes. "Haste" lets you escape monsters (as well as fight them more efficiently). Even better, NPCs give you additional spells throughout the game, called by casting the "Invoke" spell and then typing their names. HOME is a particularly useful invocation that warps you out of wherever you are and back at the starting location. As I speculated last time, casting spells is what exercises "Intellect" and "Spirit" (and to some extent, "Health") and causes those maximum bars to increase.
TaskMaker also gives you a lot of inventory resources to take the edge off combats, first in the form of increasingly good stuff to wear and wield, but also in a fun variety of usable items like scrolls, wands, and potions. It is in this area that the game starts to feel a bit like a roguelike, although without the interaction between objects that characterizes that sub-genre. 
It probably doesn't surprise anyone to learn that the TaskMaker is actually evil--he does call himself "The TaskMaker," after all. From the game's earliest moments, his over-reactions if you return to him without completing the task show at least a lack of kingly composure, if not outright malevolence.
Lord British never gave me this kind of quest.
You start to get real confirmation of his villainy during your invasion of the castle of the Royal House of Enitsirhc (the developer must have known someone named "Christine"; there's also a Scroll of Christine in the game). NPCs say things like, "No one must serve the TaskMaker" and "Please help us. Kill the TaskMaker." In Dripstone, you get the sense that the rebels are more like freedom fighters than terrorists. As a reward for Task 8, the TaskMaker says "may this keep you ever faithful" and then gives you "DRUGS!"
The TaskMaker's instructions on the final task are also a bit of a clue.
Unfortunately, you can't do anything about it until the final task. If you try to turn on the TaskMaker and slay him during any of the previous game, he just laughs at you. You don't really get any choice until the final task, when you visit the incarcerated prisoner, apparently another rebel leader. "He wants absolute power of the kingdom," the man says, clearly speaking about the TaskMaker.
If at this point you choose to kill the man, he says "you just killed a good guy" as he dies. From then on, every NPC in every town is hostile to you. When you return to the TaskMaker, he mocks you for following all his orders and then apparently has you killed. The game isn't 100% clear.
Also, he's either undead or really good at illusions.
If instead you leave the prisoner alive, the TaskMaker attacks you upon return, also bringing his guards into combat. I didn't find the battle very hard. I don't think I had to even dip into one of my "Instant Vacations" or healing potions. 
Fighting the TaskMaker in the final battle.
When he dies, you get the message at the top of this entry, but even better, you get a new special menu called "Master," which gives you godlike powers over the game world. You can conjure any object, NPC, or monster; change the tiles to any type of floor, furniture, or wall; and toggle time stop, x-ray vision, and ethereal movement. Among other things, this gives you the ability to fully investigate dungeons you may have only partly mapped. It turns out there was a lot to find in the TaskMaker's very own castle. What a fun reward.
Using my new powers to block my throne room with fire.
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory doesn't break any new ground, and there isn't much lore, but I like the way that your actions have permanent consequences (which you can reset!) and the way that the "Info" command gives you a little history of each new location. I just wish the TaskMaker hadn't been called such in-game and the game had taken his story and yours a little more seriously and thus put a real dagger blade on the twist ending.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The creation process (specifying qualitative attributes) is creative, and I like that your development is based partly on how you act. I like that it's possible to gravitate towards a warrior or mage "build" based on what skills you favor. I do wish that the game offered more options than just warrior or mage, and that it made better use of its own alignment system.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Unfortunately, I think NPCs were a lost opportunity for this game. Instead of using them to introduce game lore, the developer just gave them each one or two lines (depending on whether they have anything different to say after you bribe them). None of them are really necessary, and only a tiny percentage are even helpful.
Even when bribed, the rebel leader tells me nothing I don't already know.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Foes are just names and how hard they hit. There are no special attacks or defenses, and a lot of the time, I didn't even pay attention to the names. The non-combat encounters, in the form of puzzles, were more interesting.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. It seems like you just stand in front of enemies and exchange blows, but as I mentioned, the game's approaches to magic and inventory give you a lot more to do in combat than just keep hitting "fight." I like the magic system with its "extra" spells, many of which I didn't discover.
An NPC gives me a new spell keyword.
  • 7 points for equipment. The game is generous with useful inventory, inventory slots, and backpack space. It lacks the descriptions, crafting, and interactions among items that would be necessary for a higher score.
  • 5 points for economy. It's useful until about halfway through the game, when you amass so much money the store no longer sells anything you need. The ATMs are a fun touch, though one of many things that make it hard to take the world seriously.
  • 4 points for a main quest, in manageable stages, with a couple alternate endings and side-areas.
The "evil end" of the game.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets most for the interface. I found the graphics a bit too detailed for what the resolution was actually able to deliver, and the sound with its recorded voices contributes to that "cutesy" Mac quality I talked about. The first two times I heard "what is it?" when I went to identify something made me chuckle. Then I turned the sound off.
  • 7 points for gameplay. It's as nonlinear as it can be for a game that presents tasks in a fixed order. It lasts a perfect amount of time for its scope and offers a near-perfect challenge. It's also extremely replayable--I know I missed a ton of content in my first pass, and this is just the sort of game that would make speedrunning fun.
That gives us a final score of 45, significantly higher than the highest score I'd previously given to a native Mac RPG (Shadow Keep's 36), high enough to put it in the top 15% of games played so far.
TaskMaker was written by David Cook, whose company, Storm Impact, was based in Illinois. David did most of the coding for the company's games, while Tom Zehner did most of the large-scale illustrations, including the TaskMaker title screen and TaskMaker portrait. Dan Schwimmer and Dave Friedman helped with playtesting and map design. The team had met in high school and college and were in their first years at college when they founded the company. While TaskMaker sold reasonably well, the company's most successful game was MacSki (1990).
For years, the original version of the game was lost, but reader LanHawk wrote directly to David Cook and asked him for it, and David obliged. I later corresponded with David by e-mail. He said that TaskMaker began as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (This is probably the source of the incorrect statement, found on several web pages, that TaskMaker was originally a board game.) In porting it to the Mac, Tom says he was influenced by Ultima and The Legend of Zelda. But he intended to create a persistent world in which multiple characters could operate even if they couldn't exactly play together. Future characters would have to contend with the detritus of slain ones. This separation of character state and world state created the unintended item replication bug.
The color in the remake makes it easier to tell what the graphics are supposed to be depicting.
Version 2 of TaskMaker was released in 1993. This is the one that more players are familiar with. Having experienced a couple hours of it, I don't believe it's different enough from version 1 to warrant a new game number and set of entries. The most significant changes that I can see are:
  • It's in full color (but otherwise uses most of the same graphics).
  • It comes with a tutorial to get you used to the conventions.
  • Some keyboard commands have been changed.
  • Some spell names have been changed and the "Teleport" spell is gone.
  • There's no character creation process. Everyone starts with equal values in all attributes.
  • The score only increases; it doesn't decrease over time.
The remake comes with a tutorial with magic mouths. Somehow this makes it feel even more like a Mac game.

  • The save states for the world and character are unified, so the item duplication glitch is gone. You can no longer "reset" a map or the game world.
  • There are a few additional sound effects.
  • The runic language is gone; wall messages are now in English.
  • Combat is quite a bit easier.
  • Food depletes at a much slower rate.
  • Task #4 no longer has you digging randomly in the desert but rather sends you to a new "Arbalest Catacombs" map.
Visiting in the TaskMaker in the remake.
The increases are mostly an improvement, and I suspect that if I'd played the 1993 version from the outset, the GIMLET would have come in at maybe a 47 or 48.
Storm Impact dissolved in the late 1990s, but David Cook still sells TaskMaker and the company's other titles on his web page.  I can look forward to 1997's Tomb of the TaskMaker. For now, I think I've had enough of a break from The Black Gate to give it another shot.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Abandoned Places: Empty Frame

Spider webs posed a (mild) obstacle on some of this session's dungeons.
A second session with Abandoned Places has shown it to be an adequate but unmemorable Dungeon Master clone. Most of the things I initially liked about it--elements in which it departed from the usual Dungeon Master template--have not really compensated for a certain lack of imagination and challenge.

You'll recall that the plot involved the resurrection of four long-dead heroes to save the land of Kalynthia from a new threat posed by a threatening figure named Bronakh. It turns out that I was missing a large part of the backstory, kept in a book separate from the game manual called The 23rd Chronicles of Kalynthia. The 40 pages of this book tell a Tolkienesque history, full of allusions, partial biographies, and heroes lost to history except for their names. It's an impressive effort, one that suggests epic ambitions for the series that were frustrated by poor sales or lack of interest.

It's probably not worth trying to summarize all of it, but I'll cover it in broad strokes. Thousands of years ago, Kalynthia was an icy world with a technologically advanced population. The manual is written from the perspective of someone who doesn't understand the ancient technology ("armored carriages that could release explosions of fire"), but the population clearly had firearms, bombs, airplanes, and tanks. Some leader named Zander united this world through a combination of diplomacy and conquest. A million-year peace followed in which the population built shining cities and fortresses, tunneled deep into the earth and built entire cities underground, and mastered the art of magic.
A long backstory is delivered in a 40-page book with thick text and no illustrations.
A warming of the world caused this ancient population to decline and vanished, replaced in dominance by the human creations of two gods, Kiri-Sam and Gardi. After several thousand years of tribal living, a figure named Drexel the Great established the first major civilization. Guilds of craftsmen and storytellers thrived in this civilization, and the most powerful of the guildmasters became the world's first kings and queens.

Several generations later, a queen named Solara ruled a Camelot-like kingdom when a mysterious, dark, charismatic stranger named Zorin became her steward. Her husband died under mysterious circumstances, and she remarried Zorin, bearing from him a child named Bronakh. A "strange and willful" child, Bronakh exerted a power over his mother that caused her to disown her previous children and make one desperate attempt after another to please him. As she descended into insanity, Bronakh was raised by his wetnurse, a gypsy witch named Xonia. As he grew, he became lovers with Xonia's daughter, Ellida. Anyone who spoke against him or Xonia suffered a mysterious death.
Here's a random shot of the guy who runs the jewelry shop in town.
When Solara died, Bronakh declared himself king and Ellida used enchantments to help him win the support of the people. Solara's older sons (Nikor, Igon, Drel, and Erik) raised an army to oppose Bronakh, but Ellida filled their heads with mistrust for each other, so that when the battle came, the brothers' armies turned on each other and left Bronakh unharmed and victorious. However, Bronakh was mentally exhausted by the many glamours that he'd cast to get this far, and he ended up retreating to an island in the northwest and establishing his kingdom there. On the mainland, with the help of a great Council, the four brothers established four separate kingdoms.

Generations passed and peace reigned for a while, but eventually Bronakh stirred and began sending abominations to the mainland to threaten the populace. The citizenry had to retreat into walled cities to avoid certain death. The rulers of the four kingdoms decided to commission warriors and mages to clear the world of these monsters. Lacking the resources to establish a true army, they selected the 12 most talented specialists in war, magic, and healing, commissioning a Great Contest to suss them out. Bronakh tried to sabotage the contest by sending his own son, Ignis, to compete, but King Soron discovered the plot and destroyed Ignis by pouring a jug of holy water on his head. The 12 heroes did their jobs, and ultimately Bronakh was bound and tossed into a volcano. But the rulers knew that he was immortal and would eventually return, and thus they used magic to turn the 12 heroes to stone and stuck them in the Temple of Heaven's Light to await the world's need.
So this is all nice to know, but what strikes me more is how little it would have affected my experience of the game if I'd never found this document. Because as with Dungeon Master, the story is simply a framing story. Telling a more elaborate framing story is like putting a more ornate frame around a painting--it may be an interesting object in and of itself, but it doesn't fundamentally change the experience of the central piece. What's annoying is that Abandoned Places at first shows every intent of abandoning the framing story as the main plot device. It has an overworld with numerous interesting-looking locations. Wouldn't it be nice if visiting those locations produced NPCs and encounters that referred back to the story? Perhaps a couple of places where knowledge of the story helps you solve a puzzle? Alas, the story hardly references actual locations on the map (it mostly contradicts it), and the places you can visit either have generic menu towns or nothing at all. You can't even visit the different dungeons out of order. Thus, the overworld just becomes an interlude between dungeon levels in a game that otherwise plays like most other games in its sub-genre.
I forgot to include the overworld map in the last entry. Here it is.
We began last session with four of the heroes awakened. It is unclear why there were only four, who awakened them, and what happened to him. The four heroes had to fight their way out of the Temple, make their way to the mainland, and visit over a dozen locations before finding anything to do at Souls Abbey. There, it wasn't even clear that the (unidentified) person who greeted them knew who they were or why they were there; he simply sent them on a "prove yourself" quest to clear out monsters from a dungeon.
The dungeon was a single 22 x 22 level with the same sort of navigation puzzles already described: buttons and levers on the walls, keys and keyed doors, squares of fire or water that you must avoid or take damage crossing, pressure plates, and illusory walls. There were enemies in the form of flying skulls and zombie-like humanoids.
How did skulls acquire wings? How do they affix?
When I cleared the monsters and returned to the abbey, the unidentified representative--again not suggesting that he knew anything about us--suggested we go seek the Book of the World in the "old library" at Kal Kalon. Kal Kalon is the capital of the land, with a full set of services, so I certainly didn't mind the visit. I sold some excess equipment and leveled up before clicking on the "sage" icon option. There, another unidentified old man gave me permission to enter the library.
Souls Abbey.
The library was three levels, but fragmented so that they really only took up two 22 x 22 level spaces. Other than the textures suggesting books at certain points, the only thing the dungeon introduced was furniture that I had to push out of the way and cobwebs that I had to destroy. (The only way I could find to do it was with the priest's "Fire Path" spell, but I feel like there must be other options.) Enemies included what looked like ghosts of priests and hairy monsters with long claws and razor teeth. In the end, I got the Book of Worlds and returned to the abbey.
I don't even have a placeholder name for these guys.
It turns out that when you activate the Book of Worlds, it activates a little auto-map in the lower right corner. But it shows only a small space and doesn't annotate puzzles or anything. I haven't been mapping very faithfully for reasons I'll discuss below, but if this were the sort of game where you really had to map, I don't think the automap would do much to help you.
Note the automap in the lower right window.
Back at the abbey, the priest finally figured out that we were four of the 12 heroes from hundreds of years ago. He then said we'd find a valuable scroll at the Steps and sent us away again.

The Steps are a mountain range southeast of the abbey. From the manual, I learned that when searching for a dungeon entrance over a large area, you need to turn the "search" option on in the overworld interface. From a commenter, I learned that you needed to be dismounted for this to work. Eventually, we found the dungeon entrance.
The Steps featured the first pit, and thus the first use of a rope.
It was another pair of 22 x 22s. This dungeon introduced a pit that we had to climb down, explore for a while, and climb back up. Ropes we'd found plus my fighters' "climbing" skills did the trick.
Finally, in this dungeon, we found our first item of armor--a suit of ringmail. I had begun to wonder if the game even had armor given that there's no explicit slot for it. It turns out that the character figure in the inventory section has been reflecting armor all along. When I dropped the ringmail on a fighter, he gave up his previous suit of leather.
My fighter wears a fancy new set of ringmail as we fight some kind of warrior.
Enemies in the Steps were mostly skeletons and large, armored warriors. The culmination was a scroll that I couldn't read. I took it back to the abbey, and the priest couldn't read it either. He told me to take it to the "wise" at Kal Kalon. He, in turn, said that the scroll discussed the Ruling Symbols.
The Ruling Symbols are some kind of magical items. They were created by a group of powerful spell casters to keep evil from Kalynthia. The work was completed too late. Evil got to them. Then after an adventurous fight of mighty heroes the items were brought back to the Council of Elders. They decided that these items may help forthcoming generations. So they cut the items into pieces, and hid them around the empire. Only the worthy ones can find them. You will need all of these artifacts to destroy Bronakh.
The Ruling Symbols turn out to be three items: the Sword of Darkness, the Staff of Supremacy, and the Globe of Forthcoming. Each is in three pieces, leaving nine total pieces to find. For each piece, the first one will somehow lead me to the others. The scroll describes the location of each first piece: the Broken Isles, the Sands of Fire, and Seers Point. So it appears I have a bit of freedom at this point. I can start in any of those three locations and then either finish finding an entire item before moving on to the next, or find all "first pieces" before the seconds, and so on.
The wise man doesn't seem to care one way or another if I save the world.
We've seen that Abandoned Places doesn't break much new ground, although it initially seems to, in its narrative or game world. That leaves how it plays as a dungeon crawler, and as I said before, it distinguishes itself in neither mechanics nor challenge. To start, I haven't suffered a single character death the entire game so far. In fact, I don't think any of my characters have seen their hit points drop below 50%. Enemies hardly ever hit, and when they do, they don't hit that hard.

Combat itself is unsatisfying. The cool-down period for attacks is just a little too long, so a lot of the time you and the enemy are just standing there looking at each other. Even if combat was faster and harder, the game lacks many of Dungeon Master's tactics. Closing them in doors doesn't work. Combat waltzing (check the glossary!) doesn't work because enemies are always facing you. Enemies have fixed patrol zones, so you can't do the backpedal.
Fighting a ghostly librarian in the library. Trying to close the door to crush him just closed it behind him.
Meanwhile, the puzzles have also lacked any real challenge. They've all been of the find-the-switch-here-to-open-the-wall-there variety. I've been stuck a couple of times, but mostly because I failed to note a wall switch, or because I hadn't yet tested every wall to see if it was illusory. As the game has progressed, the puzzles haven't gotten harder so much as more distant, so a switch might open a wall on the other end of the dungeon, or even another dungeon level. Usually in games like this, I map everything I can without touching anything, then start experimenting witch switches and plates. I do it carefully because you never know when a switch might be temporary, or a plate might open one door but close another. But here, the causes and effects are so rudimentary that I've started activating every switch the moment I find it.
The brick above the cursor is a button.
Abandoned Places retains two quirks of Dungeon Master that have always annoyed me: inability to see the names of your enemies and inability to see weapon statistics. At least in Dungeon Master, you could track the damage done to enemies and basically figure out which item was better, but in Abandoned Places, the only feedback you get is whether you hit or missed. Naturally, the ease of combat makes it a lesser consideration for now. My characters have upgraded from clubs and daggers to short swords, maces, and axes. I've found two magic weapons: a magic club and a magic dagger. I gave the club to my cleric, who almost never gets to act in combat and thus has the lowest experience point total of the group (he gets most of his experience from "Minor Cure Wounds" and "Create Food" spells). To help him get more, I have him attack to the rear. After my fighters attack forward in combat, I spin around and give the cleric an attack or two. My mage remains aiming forward, as she can cast offensive spells past the fighters.
Opening a chest with a key. You can see the mage's spell list here.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • So far, no dungeons have allowed enemies to respawn. If I did end up feeling I needed a little grinding, I'd have to do it with random encounters in the overworld.
  • The game's font makes a w look like an m. It's driving me crazy.
The mise maits for a second before telling me mhat is mritten. (Or the roise roarts for a second before telling me rohat is roritten.)
  • I've found some missile weapons, including a bunch of shurikens, but picking them up after battle is annoying even in games where you desperately need them. There's no chance I'm doing that here. 
  • I found a reasonable amount of gold in the last dungeon, plus lots of items to sell for more gold. I'm just hesitant to spend any of it.
This dungeon room had piles of gold on the floor.
  • Food depletes very fast, and "Create Food" doesn't create much. I probably have to spend 5 minutes casting "Create Food" multiple times, passing it around, and eating it to get 15 uninterrupted minutes of dungeon crawling. Once characters are starving, they periodically lose 1 hit point, accompanied by an "oof!" I'm not sure, but I think the standard hit point regeneration might be faster than the 1 point they're losing by starving, but the "oof!" is so annoying that I feed them. The whole system exists only to annoy you.
  • Half the time you try to visit some place in town, you get a screen saying that it's "closed now." Most of the time, if you acknowledge the message and try again a couple times, you can get in. Yet another thing that seems to exist solely to annoy.
  • Spellcasters get spells automatically on leveling up. So far, I've been relying heavily on the mage's "Mage Bolt" and "Mage Cloud."  My priest has a spell called "Death Clow"; I don't know if it was supposed to be "claw" or "glow," but either way it doesn't seem to do anything. There are some other mysterious ones, such as the priest's "Create Water" (characters don't need water separately from food) and the mage's "Teleport," which seems to be the "recall" part of a "mark/recall" spell except I can't figure out how to specify the "mark" part.
Moving from the abbey to Kal Kalon.
Late in this session, I was Googling around to see if I'd missed any documentation on spells. I took note of a walkthrough, checking out only what it said for the parts that I'd already played, and I realized that an entire facet of the game had escaped my notice. The Soul Abbey is one of only three possible places that you can wind up where they give you the initial series of quests. The other two are the castle called Twilight and Vo Marris on the Isle of Mists. Each one of them sends you to a different starter dungeon. The library at Kal Kalon is the same for all three, but then each sends you to a different place to look for the scroll. The three potential paths converge at the point where I am now. It's an interesting approach that enhances replayability.
I'm considering whether to declare that I've explored this one enough and just move on, not because it's bad, but because it seems likely to take another 20 hours without offering anything substantially different. I'll give it at least one more session and perhaps a quick scout of other sites to see if someone else has documented the endgame.
Time so far: 9 hours

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Game 367: Taskmaker (1989)

This is a pretty morbid way to organize your "to do" items.
United States
Storm Impact (developer); XOR (publisher)
Released 1989 for the Macintosh
Remade and re-released as shareware in 1993
Date Started: 15 May 2020
TaskMaker is a slick little game, probably the best I've played so far on the Macintosh. It uses the platform's strengths in graphic detail and sound but offers a fuller RPG experience than most Mac games of the era. While it has that inescapable "cutesy" look of most Mac games, it's relatively long and hard, and it has enough good, new ideas to break out of the "Ultima clone" status that you might otherwise assign it at first glance.
It's typical of a Mac game to offer menu options for movement. At least this isn't the only way to move.
We owe reader LanHawk yet another appreciation pin for tracking this down, in this case writing to the original developer for the files. Because almost everything written about the game is about the 1993 version, being able to cover the original is a nice coup. I'll have more on the development and the two versions on a subsequent entry; I'll probably take a run through the 1993 version while I'm covering the game rather than saving it for 1993.
The backstory is relatively short: The land was once at peace, under the direction of a wise king. When the king died, the "governing body split into three confrontational factions." The main character is an adventurer who remembers the way things used to be. He decides to restore order by becoming Master of the Land, but lacking experience and guidance, he seeks out the TaskMaker, an advisor of the former king.
The TaskMaker introduces himself.
Character creation is a process of selecting a name, then selecting five personal attributes from a list of 20. Your selections calibrate your maximum totals for seven attributes: food, health, spirit, strength, agility, intellect, and stamina. Current totals for these attributes are represented with a bar, and they deplete as you walk around the kingdom and fight. You find various potions and objects to restore lost attributes. Most important are those that restore health, because it depletes fastest in combat, and food, because everything else can be restored with rest.
Creating a character. I imagined this one something of a bard.
The game world is a relatively small 100 x 100, dotted with castles, dungeons, towns, and caves. The TaskMaker lives in a castle to the center-east of the land, and the basic setup is that you go to him, he gives you a quest, you go out into the world to find and complete the quest, and you return to the TaskMaker for a reward and the next quest. Quests take place in towns or dungeons. The game doesn't make a lot of distinction between dangerous areas and safe ones, as dangerous monsters can appear in towns or castles, including the TaskMaker's, and NPCs can appear in dungeons. 
The game opening has you sailing to the TaskMaker's shores. Too bad you don't get to keep the boat.
The equipment system is pretty advanced, offering slots for helmets, armor, cloaks, amulets, belts, gauntlets, bracers, boots, rings on both hands, and an item in each hand--either a weapon and shield, a two-handed weapon, or dual-wielding two weapons (I found the latter to be much better). No matter how much money you make, the shops (which only show you items you can afford) always seem to have a better item available. 
Buying items in the shop.
Choosing between two helms.
Monsters are a mix of traditional (goblins, orcs, kobolds) and somewhat original, although most of the original ones are also kind of silly, like happy faces and evil computers. I haven't met any so far with much in the way of special attacks or defenses. None of them seem capable of magic or attacks at range, for instance. They're simply differentiated by how many hit points they can whack away in a single combat round.
The "Evil Mac" is a goofy enemy.
Combat is of the early Ultima type, where you hit (F)ight and hit the creature in front of you, although it has a little more complexity with spells and usable items. Combats are quite tough, even well into the game. For the first few hours, I had to repeatedly use what we might call "exit-scumming," by which I would lead an enemy to the exit of an area, fight as long as possible, retreat to the outer area, rest, and re-enter to continue fighting. This is made possible partly by your one advantage: you can carry a huge amount of equipment--more than 60 items. That's enough food, potions, or whatever to outlast any enemy. But I occasionally found myself in impossible situations where enemies would appear both outside and inside at the same time.
Battling some goblins on a bridge.
This is where we get into another of the oddities of the game: when you die, you don't die permanently; you go to Hell. You can escape Hell by fighting your way through demons and solving a maze (if you die in Hell, you just reappear in Hell), but you then have to go find your non-equipped equipment back on the surface. You also lose your gold in the process.
Wandering through Hell's maze.
This system unfortunately introduces a weird way to cheat. The game tracks the world state independently from the character state. This theoretically allows you to have multiple characters active at once, although I don't know how this works with the TaskMaker. Thus, if you die and reload instead of escaping from Hell, you'll still find a pile of equipment where your character last "died." You could use this to infinitely replicate useful objects like potions or expensive objects that you can sell at the store. I didn't deliberately cheat this way, but it's annoying and hard to get out of Hell, and there were times that I reloaded and then picked up some of my old, duplicated items if I happened to come across them. To avoid temptation, I've been trying to reload before I die in times when death seems inevitable.
The separation of character from world means that you can also take advantage of commands to reset a particular map or the entire game world, keeping your character as-is. It's a good option if you want to clear the same dungeon twice, finding double the treasure and experience. 
Little piles of stuff mark the location of previous deaths.
The controls are quite good, offering keyboard backups to all of the menu commands. Spells are cast with SHIFT and the first letter of the spell. There's an "Invoke" spell that lets you type in your own spells that you might find during the game, but it is apparently also a way for the developer to introduce cheat codes and interface changes. I've been slow to explore spells; the one I've used the most is the "Strike" spell which casts a bolt at enemies. I tend to use it on fleeing enemies so I don't have to chase them.
Sound is also quite well-done. Much of it uses spoken voice recordings. (In fact, one voice they used, a deep bass, sounds eerily like my own.) When you first start the game, the voice says, "TaskMaker." A different one says, "What is it?" when you use the (I)dentify commands. There are screams for deaths on both sides and solid attack and spellcasting effects.

The TaskMaker's first task was to retrieve a package he left in Skysail Village. It was in an area of the village amidst a horde of monsters and required me to figure out a switch puzzle. The game is fond of puzzles involving doorways blocked by electric forcefields for which you have to find a switch to deactivate. When I returned the package, he rewarded me with five "Instant Vacation" scrolls, invaluable items that replenish all of your meters.
His second task was to retrieve a chessboard in his own castle. It was in an area north of the bar. Getting it involved fighting a few monsters, but it was otherwise pretty easy. He gave me a double-bladed sword.
My reward for the second quest.
For Task 3, he wanted me to travel to some silver mines, where he owns a share, and kill some conspirators who had taken over the mines, bringing him back a golden chalice as proof. This was a tough mission; the mines were full of numerous tough monsters, but also some nice treasure rewards. By the time it was done, I had mostly magic gear and a magic sword in each hand. The TaskMaker's reward was a suit of platemail, a huge armor upgrade from the leather I was wearing before.
Battling a "war wizard" in the silver mine.
I'm still working on Task 4, which is to find an unknown magic item in the "sands of Porta." He indicated he doesn't know where the item is buried, so I might be "in for a lot of digging."
The TaskMaker gives the fourth mission.
As you quest, you amass experience and gain levels (I'm on Level 7 now) and your attributes increase. I guess they must increase proportionally to the skills you actually use because my spirit and intellect (which governs magic) have barely gone up but my strength, agility, and stamina are almost at maximum. Health and maximum food didn't budge for a while but increased a bit during the last few hours.
Other features of the game: 
  • The game tracks your karma based on how many good, neutral, and evil creatures you've slain and other acts like stealing from shops and houses in town.
Checking out my personal statistics. I'm "basically good."
  • There's also a score. It increases every time you solve a quest or kill a creature and slowly decreases as you move around in between those moments. High scores are tracked on a scoreboard.
  • There's an "identify" command that will tell you what's in front of you. An "action" command will use it if it's usable.
  • A "get info" command tells you a bit about the history of whatever area you're in.
The TaskMaker's castle.
  • The game has its own "runic alphabet" used for shop and city signs. It's not translated in the game manual, so I suppose you have to figure it out by noting the runes in places where you can guess what they're saying. I haven't been bothering with them, but I wonder if I'm missing hints and clues because of it.
As I'm in Skysail, I'm guessing those runes say "SKYSAIL."
  • NPCs aren't terribly valuable in this game unless you bribe them by giving them things. Even then, they rarely tell you anything you need to know.
The game pokes fun at Lord British. I didn't realize his adoption of a more executive role was well known in 1989.


  • If you drink alcohol, you start to go the wrong direction when moving. I think Ultima introduced this, but I don't remember what edition. IV, probably.
  • There's a fun system where you can find valuable objects like gold bars and necklaces and "cash them in" at ATMs. It feels like ATMs were pretty new in 1989. I think my Maine hometown may have only gotten one that year. 
Finding an ATM in a dungeon. This dungeon happens to be full of treasure, so it was a relief to find it.
  • There's a set of miscellaneous game options I've never seen in any other place. I feel like every game could benefit from these. I don't know what "wandering monsters" does, though. Un-checking it doesn't seem to stop them from appearing.
Setting various game preferences.
  • A shop in the castle offers an invisibility cloak. If you put it on, the shop will no longer transact with you because you're invisible.
Come on! You're the one who sold it to me!
I rather enjoy this basic approach: offer an open game world with a variety of small missions. You don't have to follow the TaskMaker's quests exclusively; nothing stops you from simply exploring the towns and dungeons in a random order, or even from solving some of the quests before the TaskMaker even gives them to you. We've seen this approach before, going all the way back to Akalabeth, but this is perhaps the first game to use it with such a variety of lengths, difficulties, and objectives.
But while I'm having fun, it's tempered by an inability to ever feel like I'm getting more powerful no matter how much my statistics and inventory increase. Every time I think I'm doing well, some new enemy suddenly pops up in a familiar location and kicks my butt. Frankly, if it hadn't been for the extra Instant Vacations I've been able to loot from locations where I've died, I'm not sure I would have been able to make it this far. I think eventually a cycle of starvation and poverty would have put me in a permanent downward spiral. I've watched videos of the remake, and it looks like the developers took the edge off the difficulty level between the two, although the remake still seems challenging.
The number of entries will be determined by the number of tasks, I guess. Ten would be just about perfect. I suspect the TaskMaker is going to turn out to be evil based on the things he's having me do and how he reacts if I happen to pop by with a task unfinished.
Time so far: 6 hours.