Saturday, August 17, 2013

Game 109: The Third Courier (1989)

In just about every way, The Third Courier is an artifact of the past: its Cold War narrative, its setting in a divided Berlin, its plot involving the physical transportation of sensitive materials, its use of Deutsche marks as the main currency, its minimalist graphics and sound (with a film camera theme, no less), and its old-style adventure game approach. One of the first events in the game has the player checking his e-mail by "dialing in" to the server and getting a 9,600 BPS connection. It's a near-perfect time capsule.

A creative approach to character creation.

The game is an adventure-RPG hybrid, and so far it reminds me a bit unfavorably of B.A.T. At the outset, you create your "agent" (codenamed "Moondancer"). The character creation process is interesting: you select your sex, where you grew up, your favorite leisure activity, your cover occupation, and your age group, and the game uses these selections to determine your attributes. It also randomly selects a positive "personality trait" (e.g., charming, acting ability, bilingual) and one negative one (e.g., unattractive, hearing-impaired, allergies).

Figure this one out.

So far, so good, but just like in B.A.T., I'm not convinced that these attributes and personality traits actually make a difference in the gameplay. I've rolled a few characters, and I haven't seen a whit of difference in the nature of the puzzles, how I'm treated by NPCs, or any other factors based on any of the attributes or traits. I suppose "strength" might make a difference in combat, but most of that is performed with a gun. "Health" is the only attribute that unequivocally plays a part in the gameplay.

The game begins in the player's apartment, where you load up on equipment (a handgun, some DMs, a passport, and an ATM card) and log into your computer to get your messages. The screens are entirely static, and unlike some adventure games, nothing is activated by clicking on the screen elements themselves. Almost all action is controlled from the "Action" menu, with contextually-sensitive selections that change based on your location. Navigation and some conversation options are with a separate set of buttons. You can either play with a mouse or with reasonably-intuitive keyboard shortcuts.

Starting off in the apartment.

The opening e-mail provides the game's main quest. A couple days prior, CIA headquarters sent three couriers to Berlin, each carrying a part of "the NATO non-nuclear defense plans to be presented in Brussels next week." Two of the couriers were found dead in Madrid and London, with their respective parts stolen. The third, William Martin, is missing. But it doesn't sound like he's been kidnapped or killed, because a follow-up message has intelligence that Martin has been scouting the black market, looking to sell his part of the plans. This is a bit of a mystery, as his dossier casts him as a former Boy Scout and family man from Arlington, Virginia.

After that, you're out the door and onto the street, and the game gives essentially no clues as to how to begin your search.

My growing map of Berlin.

The action takes place in the Wilmersdorf and Schöneberg areas of West Berlin. The game uses real street names, and the right geographic order, though curiously rotated so that east-west streets appear as north-south streets, culminating in the absurdity of the checkpoints between West and East Berlins occurring at the south of the game map. The game also uses a perfect street grid for less perfect geography, but we'll chalk that up to 1980s programming limitations. The main map is 36 x 45 squares, with nine east-west streets and eight north-south streets to explore.
The comparable real section of Berlin.
Each street segment has at least one enter-able building, but so far, most of them have been generic merchants, restaurant-bars, office buildings, seedy bars, apartments, and hotels, and despite searching, listening, chatting, and bribing in dozens of them, I haven't found anything to do there. I've found only a few named places, and even fewer things to do within them, although I still have a huge portion of the map to explore.
A generic location.
According to this game, the streets of Berlin in the 1980s were dangerous places. Random muggers, panhandlers, obnoxious drunks, police, and assassins show up frequently to menace the player, who can flee, threaten them, or fight them. Taking on random street thugs with my Walther PPK seems horribly irresponsible, but I get experience for it and there don't seem to be any consequences to the bodies I'm leaving in my trail. If the foe is unarmed--as in the case of drunks and panhandlers--I've been attempting to "threaten" first and then fight with my fists if they don't go away.
An armed mugger attacks.
I get killed in about 30% of my combats, but the game allows liberal saving and reloading. If you survive a combat wounded, you have to travel to the "Mission Support" location (more on this in a bit) to get healed before you can continue.

You can't walk around armed all the time without getting harassed and jailed by the police, but otherwise police can be dismissed by showing your U.S. passport. It took me a while to realize that you can "search" bodies after you kill foes; this process has equipped me with a switchblade and a Beretta.

The game awards experience for both successful combat and plot points, and occasionally I see one of my attribute bars go up when I've accomplished something, which would be a nice sense of character development if I felt that the attribute bars really meant anything.

I began the game by just wandering the streets and working on the map above. As you discover new named places, they get added to the "Places" list, and you can revisit any of them by hailing a cab for 10 DM. There's also a U-Bahn station, but I haven't figured out how underground travel works yet.
I hope I don't actually say "CIA Mission Support" when talking to the German cabbie.
Plot progression in my first outing has been minimal. "Mission Support" showed up as a location in my "Places" list from the beginning, so I eventually just took a cab there and later figured out the route from my apartment. Entering this office automatically re-stocks your ammo and allows you to visit a doctor to heal. Visiting the director is an option, but he hasn't been available to me so far. There's also a "supply" office where I got my Walther and various items such as a "bomb sniffer," a "bug killer" (I assume it means an electronic bug) and a "photo-fax."
Further down the street, I found a shoemaker and purchased shoes (for some reason getting 1000 experience points in the process). I thought to bribe him and found that he also sells forged East German papers and West German passports, but I don't know which of these items I need and all are too expensive right now anyway.
At the end of the first day, I found that shops were closed for the night, so I returned to my apartment and discovered I had a couple new messages, one suggesting that I "try the bars and restaurants" in my search for Martin. I tried bribing, listening, searching, and chatting at a few seedy bars and restaurant/bars but I didn't get anywhere. I still have a lot of the city to explore, though.
A few other notes:
  • I'm not sure how the game's economy works. I got 1000 DM from Mission Support and used my "cash card" to take out more at an ATM, but I'm not sure if these are one-time options or repeating options. You don't seem to get anything from killing enemies.
  • The game isn't entirely turn-based; time passes minute by minute if you just stand still. But it doesn't appear that enemies can take actions while you're just standing still.
  • The only sound in the game is bloopish music when you enter certain locations. I turned it off after a few minutes.

You may have noticed a familiar name in the first screenshot. Although the game was designed by Carol and Ivan Manley of Manley and Associates (later bought by EA and renamed EA Seattle), it was programmed by Robert Clardy of Synergistic Software, developer of the "campaign" series of games (Dungeon Campaign, Wilderness Campaign, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure) that I've been reviewing slowly since the beginning of the year. This game absolutely in no way feels like a Clardy game, so it makes sense that he was programming someone else's creation, although for all I know he radically changed his approach in the intervening 7 years. Anyway, Robert has commented frequently on this blog when I've covered his games, so I'll see if I can get him back again.


  1. The style of this game reminds me a bit of the adventure game Deja Vu, although it has better graphics.

    The attribute situation is curious. Why would anyone bother implement character creation etc. and then not use the attributes in the actual game?

    1. Because it sounded like a good idea when they got started programming the game, then they got into making the game itself and forgot about the attributes.

    2. Or, it's just more advanced than Chet's research.

      Just because you don't see a stats check doesn't mean it doesn't occur - Particularly early on in a game where the difficultly is reduced.

      There is a certain logic to only presenting successful stats-check options.

    3. The most confusing game of the adventure-with-stats kind I've ever played was "The Daughte of Serpents". It has dosens of skills which clearly influence something (there's a lot of branching in the story and it unfolds very differently for different characters) - but provides absolutely no hints as to the exact mechanics of that influence. And esoteric subject matter certainly doesn't help.

    4. I'm much further into the game now, and I still can't see any places in which the attributes or traits matter. If they play any role, it's EXTREMELY subtle. Perhaps if we can get Mr. Clardy back, he can recall.

  2. It's really strange how CRPGs, a fundamentally nerdy thing by definition, fail miserably at designing meaningful mechanics for nerdy activities. Which makes intellectual stats either useful only for mages (and how many games out there have a substantial number of non-combat spells?), or useless at all.

  3. Being a German myself I was incredible curious about this game and bought it for my Amiga back then.
    I should have restrained myself when I read the second line of the backcover: "Your code name: Moondancer, master spy."
    Am I Michael Jackson with a gun here?, I thought.
    It also got a very mixed review in the most popular German games magazine at the time but this didn't stop me, either.

    It better had...

    In short: The game resembles a very basic Bard's Tale variant, with all the bad things and none of the good parts left in:

    - Only a single, rather smallish "city", to explore.
    I don't agree that the Manhattan-like city map layout was due to programming limits. Take a look at Skara Brae in Bard's tale - even that looks more organic and was made for 8-bit platforms. On a 16-bit-only game it simply is incompetence!

    - A tiny viewport to see the actual, very simplified gameworld. IMHO this could've been done better, too.
    The 16-bit versions of Bard's Tale even featured a smooth scroll effect when doing a step forward - of course this game doesn't show such technical wizardry.
    On the other hand, the programmers never were known for their platform utilization...

    - No party, but you still get a massive status display (so you never forget your puny stats!) and mouse icons on the right. See Dungeon Master how this can be done intelligently!

    - The text window, using a tiny font, is at the top left, which felt cumbersome to me as most other games used a text window at the lower left like the Ultima series (perhaps this was done for legal reasons or they just wanted to be different).

    - The graphics are barely sufficient for a CRPG of the time but Accolade lost most of their magic when the C64 went under (compare this game to "Law of the West" or "Hardball!", for example). Accolade was also "famous" for their bold Leisure Suit Larry clone "Les Manley" - I wonder if there is a connection to Manley Associates... ;-)

    - I think I can confirm the shoddy work of the sound & music department as I remember absolutely nothing of it at all. I must have turned it off, too.

    All of this can be lived with, though, as the bigger problems are:

    - Deadly combat - I also died a lot in there, too.
    Not only must this be the deadliest "normal" city in CRPG history - the player is also notoriously underequipped.
    I guess with a code name like "Moondancer" one isn't supposed to be an agile fighter but a tiny little fairy throwing glowing dust or so...
    The amount of muggers and "panhandlers" is staggering, to say the least.

    - Running around in a maze of streets that mostly look the same. Very few landmarks to orientate oneself - and this in a city like Berlin!
    One can also take a cab to visit a certain location - but only after you first walked to it, as if this was a wilderness where you discover places like with the Elder Scroll games. Also very logical in a city where there are shitloads of cabbies that know every significant location!

    - I remember the building corridors (aka "the dungeons") being extremely monotonous, too. There were also different levels, too, but they all looked the same to me.
    In essence, the building aren't dungeons, but simply mazes.

    - Lots of fetch and paper trail quests. Go here, meet this guy, go there, deliver that etc.

    I also frankly can't remember that I finished the game but I probably didn't, even though it's very short (see the walkthrough available at Gamefaqs!) - it was a tedious & boring affair.
    I have no doubt that Chet will rip through it, though, and will probably have it finished in the next posting.

    1. "I guess with a code name like "Moondancer" one isn't supposed to be an agile fighter but a tiny little fairy throwing glowing dust"--audible and sustained laughter was produced.

      Your reactions are similar to mine, though I'm a tad more forgiving. It's nice to hear from the perspective of a German, though. Do you know the answer to my question about the U-Bahn?

      I have to say, the game has prompted me to learn a little about Berlin and Germany during the Cold War. I hate to admit this to a German, but until yesterday, I didn't realize that Berlin was wholly within East Germany and that West Berlin was a tiny island surrounded by the Iron Curtain. I KNEW Berlin wasn't in the center of Germany, but somehow I still always envisioned "West Germany" and "East Germany" being divided right down the center of Berlin. I'm glad that myth was dispelled.

    2. Now I'm the one who is surprised! I always thought that the US air bridge after WW2 with "candy bombers" (=planes dropping food supplies) is common knowledge for most "elderly" Americans! ;-)

      For those people not having heard about that:
      The Soviet troops had closed all streets, railroads and water ways to West Berlin at the time (1948-1949) and wanted to take over the three Western sectors (the American, the British and the French ones).
      Without the US openly acting against the Soviet aggression by installing an air bridge (the air space being the only thing the Soviets couldn't control) West Berlin would've swept under the "rug" (=East Germany), which of course, no citizen of West Berlin wanted.

      Therefore, West Germans are still thankful to the US for this, even though it wasn't done for humane reasons but to prevent Stalin from taking over the mostly destroyed Europe and convert it into his special kind of communist paradise.
      They were of course right as the Soviet treatment of Hungary and Czechoslovakia prooved.

      This hasn't been the only Soviet aggression against West Berlin: In 1958 there was a second one, initiated by none other than Nikita "Cuba Crisis" Khrushchev who wanted to unify Berlin as a "free city" (yeah, yeah...). He failed in Berlin, too, but the consequence was that in 1961 the Berlin Wall was errected, essentially turning West Berlin into a completely controlled island.
      This was only logical as the border between East and West Germany was strengthened about nine years earlier to prevent further escapes of East Germans to West Germany. Some tried anyway but very few were successful and many were shot to death at the border.

      No matter how grim the reality of these years - at least the game has provoked some hunger for knowledge in you and in my eyes this is a success, too!

      About the "U-Bahn":
      I vaguely remember having used it only when going into the East Berlin part (which looks even more monotonous).
      (Free hint from the FAQ at Gamefaqs: It's apparently the only way you can smuggle weapons into East Berlin)

    3. I was an exchange student in West Berlin in 11th grade (1971-1972). I attended Kant Gymnasium for one year. It was a very interesting experience, as some of the teachers at that time had been active in World War II. My calculus teacher told me that he had been a Lieutenant. He said he did not agree with Hitler's policies, but felt he had no choice - Had he spoken out, his family would have been endangered.

      I traveled to East Berlin a few times. This involved taking the U-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse, going through a barricade to the East Berlin customs, then taking another train from there into the city. The East Germans were very nice to me, but there were also more signs of poverty - Several young people wanted to know if I had any Western jeans or would trade West German DM's or dollars to them for their East German DM's.

      When I crossed the border, I was required to exchange a certain amount (I think it was at least 20 DM) to East DM. These could not be exchanged back on the way out - It was a way to ensure that some "hard" Western currency made it into the East.

      I bought a few souvenirs including some vinyl record albums. They were very cheap pressings - very thin vinyl - but inexpensive and reasonably good quality. On the West Berlin side, there was a museum about the Berlin Wall to make sure people remembered the deaths and other atrocities that had occurred there.

      As you can imagine, I was very moved when the Berlin Wall finally went down and Germany became re-unified. Until then, we had a case of the same people living in two countries separated by an arbitrary political barrier. Most people who have not been there have trouble imagining that the Wall was a literal concrete barrier dividing a city. Non-Germans could pass through it relatively easily, but Germans were no allowed through except in special cases (express travel to another country or to the rest of West Germany, or one time when I visited Postdam with my German host family).

      This is historical material that is barely covered in American education. It might be briefly mentioned in a unit on Post-WW2 European history, but you can never get the real impact without having been there. I was 15 - 16 years old at the time, but I can still picture the city as a living memory.

      By the way, there was very little violence on the streets of West Berlin in the early 70's. It's hard to get away with much in an enclosed city with strong police and military presence everywhere. I also saw few signs of poverty in the West.

    4. The wall between East and West Germany was not only a simple concrete wall with the usual defenses - it also ran deeply between the people.
      And make no mistake - it wasn't single sided!

      When I was in the West German army at the end of the eighties the East Germans were literally our enemies - or so they wanted me to believe. Our superiors always pictures an invasion of Sovietrussians and East Germans with the best Russian tanks available, including the rape of German women, similar to the actions of the red army at the end of WW2.

      Yes, the anti-Eastern-bloc propaganda was always very strong in West Germany! Another example:
      When I was in high school our teachers always told us that the East German secret service seized lots of letters & parcels sent from East Germans to West Germans, when these described the reality behind the wall too vividly.

      This may very well be the case but in the wake of the Snowdon affair the truth came out: West Germany *itself* destroyed possibly millions of letters & parcels sent from East Germany!
      This was a secret order of the allies to the German chancellor Adenauer - also a strong communist hater - who had no problems issuing this to the German authorities while skipping the German parliament.

      Many letters were read and then burned as one would see that they had been tampered with, others were burned without reading as the time was limited and in the first years after the separation the families sent lots of letters to each other as many knew that telephone calls would be listened upon.

      The West Germans were so naive at the time that they thought that the pivacy of mail communication was still in place - back then it was unthinkable what is common standard today: No communication privacy, no banking privacy at all!

      You can imagine that this was a measure that of course drove the Germans families and people even further apart, something both German governments secretly strived for - until the wall was opened in 1989 "because of the pressure of the East German citizens". Yeah, right...

    5. I just want to share this link, feels appropriate:

      Even visiting as a Dane I get pretty emotional about that time, and I was just born a year before it was opened.

    6. Corey and Anonymous, I really appreciate your recollections, especially Corey's description of taking the U-Bahn to East Berlin, which is reasonably mimicked in this game.

      Anonymous, I thought you made some good points about propaganda on both sides. When I was in basic training in 1990, we shot at targets with clear USSR symbols and had lectures about the nature of the Soviet Army; by the time I went to AIT in 1991, that was all gone, the U.S. Army was already beginning its transition to desert BDUs, and we had lectures about the Middle East and Islam. It was a bit like someone was telling us that we'd never been at war with EurAsia, always East Asia.

      Still, I'm not sure I follow your last paragraph. Are you saying that pressure from East Germans didn't have anything to do with the borders opening? That contradicts what I've read and seen in most documentaries. By the way, I recommend this 6-minute mini-documentary... an alternative to Equlan's if you're not interested in the music.

      There aren't many universal axioms for good governance, but one of them must surely be that if you have to erect a wall to keep people IN, you're doing it wrong.

    7. I suspect that the main reason the Berlin Wall came down was that the East German government was nearly bankrupt. By opening the way to West Germany and then reuniting, they diluted the failure of outdated technology and inadequate industry. Part of that was undoubtedly pressure from East German citizens who envied the lower unemployment and higher lifestyle of the West. But I am far from expert on the subject; these are just surmises.

    8. I thought there was some situation where an allied country opened up free travel to the west, and as a result everyone was simply travelling there and leaving via that path instead? Or am I totally crazy?

    9. I think you're thinking of Hungary, Canageek:

      I don't know if you were thinking allied with East Germany/Soviet or the other side?

    10. I'm no historian either but I read quite a bit about the situation over the years and by reading different sources a certain picture establishes itself.
      Obviously, people were demonstrating, tried to escape and ultimately climbed the wall and tore it down.
      But these are the consequences of political decisions and not the reasons for these events.

      There's a lot of romanticism ("peaceful revolution") in the media but in my eyes it was mostly a show, with the masses being manipulated as so often.
      Remember, that Germans were often lied to - on both sides of the border - and what we saw on TV was the feast after the game has been won.
      The game was played by both superpowers, with the two German governments at best playing the part of supporting actors.

      You see, both Germanies weren't sovereign countries at the time - they were occupied territories and had to follow orders when their respective military pact decided someting (like the stationing of nuclear weapons, for example).
      If the UK was "the poodle of the USA" then West Germany was the canary in the golden cage (not bad for the big evil WW2 aggressor, eh?).

      As is well known today the East Bloc was in major economical trouble at the time and in such a time there are to strategies to survive: Be ultra-conservative or be radical - in Russia the Glasnost policy of Mikhail Gorbatchev was the radical solution. In my eyes they tried to jettison their satellite states so that Mother Russia can survive. The idea was to get West Germany to integrate East Germany (the "unification" is only a nice word for what really happened - see the Wikipedia article on the "Treuhandanstalt" for what happened with East German properties!) and infuse a healthy dose of capitalism into Russia itself (they had the "Wild East" period with the oligarchs accumulating wealth and power).

      People tend to simplify things by thinking it all is a mere accident or somehow happened by chance.
      People usually underestimate other people and don't fathom that there are think tanks envisioning a scenario with an overturned Russia, for example.
      I fully expect the US foreign ministry to not only plan visits to other countries with some nice tea-time talks - there are long-term plans in motion to secure resources and influence (like in the middle-east, for example).

      When I see melodramatic videos like the one linked here I see what happened. But of course I can't see what didn't happen - but *what* exactly didn't happen?
      - No demonstration being violently stopped by police forces or the East German army, similar to what happened on the Chinese Tiananmen Square (also in 1989) with thousands of casualties.
      - No Soviet troops joining the fun with with tanks and killing masses of people. Their "competence" was shown years earlier in Hungary and Czechoslowakia with lots of casualities but nothing of this sort happened here.
      - No border soldiers shooting at the people climbing up the wall and tearing it down. They had killed hundreds of people in the 28 years before this happened. But now they had the order to stand down...

      When the East German government didn't stop the exodus of people via the other East Bloc states they didn't interfere. Why? It would've been easy to stop it. They had experience in that.

      Why all this? Because there was a deal in place.

      Remember Ronald Reagan, the paladin of American conservatism, "challenging" Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to "tear down this wall!"?
      Who knew that Reagan was such a peacenik and concerned of the well-being of the East German people?

      Well, two years later the wall was down - but of course it took time to organize protesters etc. and maybe it took a bit of time for the East Bloc to recognize the bad shape they were in and that they had no alternative except mass-murdering their people like the Chinese government.

      Truth to be told I don't know what or how it really happened as I'm no insider but I smell a deal if there is one.

    11. Very nice exchange. This is why I read all the comments.

    12. By the way, to everyone with an interest in this topic (and the Cold War in general) I can really recommend the Billy Wilder movie "One, two, three". It is informative and hilarious at the same time.

      I could only find this trailer that seems to be self-made, but it's a bit spoilery:

    13. In defence of the "melodramatic" video I only listened to the song. And that I find to not be more emotional or melodramatic than is appropriate given the topic - regardless of what politicking may or may not have taken place prior to the reunification of Germany.

    14. I think he was taking about the video that I linked.

    15. Equlan: yes, Hungary, which was a Soviet Bloc country, wasn't it? There isn't much point in having a Berlin wall, if everyone can just go to Hungary on vacation and cross there. So either you need to send the tanks into Hungary and change its goverment (again) or open the Berlin wall.

    16. Aren't there matters of economics and practicality, though? Not everyone could get to Hungary on vacation. Those that could might have been well-off enough that they weren't desperate to escape to the west.

    17. True, though given how many people risked their lives sneaking across the Berlin wall (and how many died!) I would think that a lot of people would risk everything to try it.

      I don't think it was the sole factor by any means, I mean, the Soviet goverment had already forced Hungary back into line once, but certainly if they were considering it already, it was likely a contributing factor.

  4. This game a very unique concept, it has some obvious limitations on what it can actually do with that concept though, which is unfortunate. Still, looks like a great title, love the character creation screen, shame the perks you get from you don't affect the game as much as they should.

    Miguel C.

    1. On the title, it suddenly occurs to me they were going for a riff on The Third Man. The silhouetted courier on the main screen looks a bit like the famous TM image of the shadowy character at the end of the tunnel.

  5. This reminds me, I saw that Circuit's Edge is on your master list with the comment that it might not be a CRPG. Well, if this one qualifies (and I realize that it might not) Circuit's Edge certainly does, too. The stats aren't that important, but they definitely make a difference. There are a bunch of interesting Adventure/RPG hybrids that came out around 1990 and take a lot of cues from RPGs and it would be a pity to not play them simply because there are "not enought stats". Especially seeing how you're covering one of the worst of them in which the stats seem to be completely useless.

    1. Very good. Nice to have that confirmation.

    2. True that. Circuit's Edge is lot deeper than this game and does it way better.

    3. And the books are highly recommend to any cyberpunk fan out there who hasn't already read them!

  6. You're reliving my youth with all of these games, the difference being you actually figure out how to finish them. This is a game I wanted to get into so much, but could never get past wandering around aimlessly. Thanks for bringing us back through these games and bringing those memories back.

    1. There certainly is a lot of aimless wandering. You have to discover a handful of locations in the maze of streets. Once you have them mapped, though, it progresses a lot more quickly.


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