Friday, June 27, 2014

Game 151: Fallthru (1989)

I'm playing this a little late. MobyGames has 1990 as the release, but that's this version. The copyright dates are 1988, 1989, and it seems likely that version 1 was released in one of those years.
United States
Independently developed and published, at one time offered through PC-SIG
Released 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 27 June 2014
There aren't enough text RPGs. You could count the "pure" ones on a single hand: Dungeons & Dragons (1980), Eamon (1980) and its adaptations (SwordThrust, Knight Quest) . . . what else? There are several more that are hybrids, like Beyond Zork and Zyll, and of course a number of graphical games that use a text parser, like the first two Quest for Glories and Dungeons of Daggorath. After that, we hit a wall. Why? I would think that text better replicates the experience of tabletop RPGs and would be far easier to program. I'm surprised we haven't seen dozens of other shareware titles like Fallthru from the 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps they were there, but not catalogued as faithfully in modern game databases.

While I always enjoyed text adventures like Zork and Enchanter, I always wanted more from them--more randomness in the gameplay, such as wandering monsters; a character that I could build and improve; actual tactics in combat with a variety of options. But I still wanted the quality of Infocom's writing. Among the few text RPGs we have, we don't have anything that evokes worlds as well as Zork but offers an RPG experience as well as, say, SwordThrust. I don't get why it was so hard. Imagine the kind of amazing text world that could be created today with modern storage space and even a twentieth of the budget of big titles like Skyrim.

HELGEN                  HIT POINTS: 80/100                SCORE: 1

You pull your head from the chopping block and leap to your feet. Around you is pandemonium, as citizens, soliders, and Stormcloaks alike flee the dragon's attack. A hot wind sweeps through the streets, fanning the conflagration that already engulfs half of the city's houses.

You are in the southwest corner of the city. To the east, a little boy cowers in the streets as his father beckons to him from a place of safety. To the north rises Helgen's guard tower, the top half of which has been reduced to rubble by the dragon. You catch a glimpse of Ulfric Stormcloak and his followers charging through its doorway.
The tightness of the ropes around your hands restricts the flow of blood to your wrists. You gaze longingly for a second at the sharp edge of the discarded executioner's axe, but you have only moments before the dragon unleashes another barrage. You must get to safety!

Here you see:

a dragon


Following Ulfric and his soldiers, you race into the tower as another blast from the dragon's throat sears the air behind you. You leap over the body of an unlucky Imperial Legion soldier just inside the doorway. His armor has been burned beyond repair, but his iron sword lays on the cobblestones. Ulfric and his men race up the stairs ahead of you.

Here you see:

a sword
a dead soldier


Your hands are still tied.


I don't understand the word "Cut."


So far, Fallthru comes as close as any game on the quality of text, at least. The descriptions aren't long, but they're well-written, and the game has an excellent INFO command that gives you an encyclopedia-like entry on major locations, events, characters, items, and bits of lore.

Information about one of the game's cities, retrieved by typing INFO ODETN.

Fallthru falls short on solid RPG credentials. The only "attributes" are related to health: hunger, thirst, "fatique," and injury, and the game almost misses being an RPG at all (under my rules) except for a nebulous character "level." It was only when someone pointed out this latter element that I decided it was enough of an RPG to play.

The documentation is also a bit sparse. The manual sets the game in a quasi-medieval land called "Faland" but offers little information about it, nor anything about who the player character is. The suggestion is that the PC is the player himself, having found himself in the mysterious world through mechanisms unknown, and the only main quest is to find your way "home." (Every time the word "home" appears in the manual in such a context, it has quotes around it, making me wonder if there's some twist later in the game.) The game begins in a city called Or'gn. The player's name is the only character creation option. Everyone starts with 20 "ralls" (the game's currency), and just to the west of the starting location is a marketplace with sundries like lamps, daggers, backpacks, rations, and canteens for sale.

As a foreigner, you are given the status of warrior and treated accordingly.  You cannot own property or run a fixed business. You are, neverthless, expected to make a living through your own efforts. You can buy and sell goods and can, if you choose, do quite well as a hunter. Some merchandise (i.e. wood, sand, and oil) are available as natural resources and can be claimed by anyone finding them.  It is also possible to find and salvage various items of treasure (principally religious ikons of stone, bronze, silver, or gold and various items of jewelry).  Treasure becomes the property of the finder and can be disposed of as the owner sees fit.  You may also gain wealth as a fighter, winning tribute in battle with honorable warriors or taking money from renegades.

Interaction with the world is much like a standard text adventure, with commands for navigation (NORTH, WEST, UP), combat (SHOOT, THROW, FIGHT), trading (BUY, SELL), and general adventuring (EAT, DIG, LIGHT, UNLOCK). But the game is a little too in love with logistics. To buy something, you can't just BUY DAGGER; you first have to LAY DOWN or DROP the appropriate number of ralls. In fact, to interact with anything in your inventory, you have to put it on the ground. One of your first purchases must be an expensive backpack, because you swiftly grow overloaded trying to carry everything in your hands. At one point, I had purchased a canteen and put it in my backpack. Later, I found a well where I could fill it. A reasonable game would just let you FILL CANTEEN, assuming that you removed it from your backpack in the meantime. Not this one. This is the sequence of commands I had to enter:


It would be nice if combat was similarly logistical, but it's not. You mostly just type FIGHT, or perhaps THROW or SHOOT if you have the appropriate weapons. You can YIELD or RUN, too, but there are otherwise no tactics.

A lot of the game is thus about simple survival. "Hunger" and "Thirst" scores tick down steadily every couple dozen moves, so you need to get out there and make a living.

On the road, you meet a variety of NPCs: a girl with golden hair, an old man, an unclothed child playing in the dust, and so on. Saying HELLO to them (which appears to be the game's only dialogue option) often gets you a bit of random lore, such as "black water is beneath the hill near Odetn," "against all injury, the golden amulet is a powerful moderator," and "you can see many things when you are high in a tree." NPCs often ask for a bit of charity, like water or food. Alternately, you can kill them for the valuables that they display. I assume the game keeps a karma meter somewhere under its hood.

This NPC tells me that "beyond the farms the eagen attacks the weak," then asks for some water.

In addition to random NPCs, you also frequently meet warriors. The documentation sets up Faland society as being very martially-focused, with warriors sporting identifiable heraldry and challenging each other to combat on the roads. Saying HELLO to them usually gets them to reveal their strength level, and based on that and their equipment, you can make a decision whether to FIGHT him. I haven't been able to win a combat yet; I assume I need to practice on monsters and wilderness creatures first.

Perhaps the game's strongest innovation is the ability to accommodate 3 players at the same time. The manual notes that they can play competitively, attempting to out-do each other in wealth or strength, but "the game is principally intended to be cooperative." It's an interesting dynamic. Each character gets around 20-25 turns before gameplay passes to the next one (I don't know if specific actions or circumstances vary the number of turns). If one of the characters types RESTORE, it restores the saved game for everyone, so the manual cautions that everyone has to come to an agreement before someone does this. That must have caused some fights back in the day. Players can individually put their characters in stasis or quit the game, too.
It all sounds cool, but it's hard to imagine playing the game this way in reality, in a similar way that it was tough to imagine getting a group together to play Star Saga. Jason Dyer is also looking at Fallthru over at his blog, and I briefly considered asking him if he wanted to play jointly, e-mailing the saved game back and forth or something, but after getting a taste of the size of the world, I'm convinced we'd still be playing come next Christmas.

As to that size, I can't even tell you. Just for fun, I kept going west from the starting area, but I starved to death before hitting any kind of western border; I think it was around 200 squares. Since the manual describes Or'gn as being in the "northeast," I tried going north instead and finally hit the world's edge at 125 squares. East, I went 136 moves before I was killed by a pack of hyenas, and south took me about 100 moves before I got lost in a forest maze. So we're talking about a world that's at least 225 x 336. Most of these locations are just stock descriptions of road or grass, but I guess I still have to map each one to be sure. Let's say it ultimately ends up being 300 x 400. That's a cheery 120,000 squares to map on my piece of virtual graph paper. I hope they're not all necessary to win the game.

The question you start to ask, facing such a large game that will require so much effort--particularly when playing a shareware game--is whether it's a truly rewarding game, or whether you're just indulging the lunacy of some basement-dwelling mouth-breather. So far, I haven't seen evidence of the latter. Aside from the sparse documentation (which might have been intended as a plot point), the game is well-written and serious. The author, Paul H. Deal of New Mexico, is 78 now, so he would have been in his early 50s when he started working on the game. And though he originally marketed and distributed it himself, it eventually received distribution through PC-SIG, a California-based company that marketed shareware titles between 1984 and 1992, so someone thought it had commercial potential.

Of Deal, he seems an interesting character. His Amazon profile says that he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he "writes, hikes, and tutors elementary aged children." He has about a dozen books on Amazon, all self-published, only a few of which have any ratings or reviews. One of his books is called Fallthru: The Mentat Warrior (2003), which seems to be a novelization of the game. I thought "Mentat" might be a reference to the drugs in Fallout, but it turns out it probably refers to characters in Frank Herbert's Dune universe who mimic computers.

The Kindle edition of Fallthru was only a few bucks, so I bought it, but I'll save talking about it for next time.

In this first session, after screwing around a bit to get used to the interface, I started a new character and began exploring and mapping in earnest. The city of Or'gn has a separate mini-map off the main game map, but it was only 7 squares, so not a lot of mapping involved.

In the marketplace, I went to the weapon shop and bought a knife, which an NPC suggested I get for both combat and utility purposes. Armor (of which there appears to be only one type) and swords were well out of my price range for now. Across the way at the "ikon" shop, different religious symbols were also beyond me. A use of the LORE command tells me that ikons are frequently found treasures, have "little value except as a source of income," and can only be sold in Or'gn.

I returned to the main market, READ the price list, and tried to figure out how to make the best use of my remaining 14 ralls. I settled on a backpack (7.5), a canteen (0.6), three food rations (0.36), a blanket (0.90), a lamp (2.10), a flint (0.90), and a bottle (0.30) with three doses of oil (0.27). The latter four items are all necessary for the lamp: no GET LAMP and LIGHT LAMP here. I moved from here to the well where I FILLed my canteen.

The price list in the market.

There's a huge door, bound with chains, blocking a vault in the southern part of Or'gn, but no way to get in there for now.

Right outside the front gate to the city, I met a stranger and said HELLO. He related that a place called "black water cave" is beneath a grass-covered mound, then asked for a rall for his poor family. I gave him the one rall I had left. He smiled and hurried away.

A sign at the front gates put inns in three directions and cities in all four. With no other clues, I decided just to head north until I found something interesting. The first square told me about a tall tree to the east, so I went one square over and went UP the tree, where the view showed me Or'gn to the southwest and Odetn to the northwest. Since I immediately recognized the other city by name, does that mean I actually am from here?

A few other squares to the north and a warrior named NOAQE-JE arrived and challenged me with his axe. I said what the heck, typed FIGHT, and in three strokes I was dead. When you die, you can immediately hit "C" to continue, with no negative penalty that I can see except the game keeps track of your "lives." Every resurrection or use of the RESTORE command to load a saved game adds a point to this ticker. I'm not sure what consequence it has for later gameplay.

"NOAQE-JE" has the smell of a randomly-generated name.

I reloaded and continued exploring, but after a few dozen moves, I died of hunger. I hadn't found any game and didn't have the ralls to buy more rations. I learned at this point that resurrections don't always help. They re-start you at your food, fatigue, and water levels from just before you died. I found myself in an endless cycle of dying after just a few moves.

I started a new character and saved him just inside the gates of Or'gn after he'd made his purchases. I determined to explore until he died, then reload and explore in different directions. I figured I'd play the "real" character after I got a sense of the overall map. In further explorations, I mapped about 150 map squares and found the nearby city of Odetn, plus a farm that sells rations in between. A wandering NPC told me that there were "rabir" (which INFO describes as basically rabbits) about a dozen moves to the northeast of Or'gn. I wasted a bunch of time exploring in that direction to the northwest before realizing my mistake. Heading to the northeast instead, I marched around an area "about" a dozen squares from Or'gn and still found no game to hunt.

My growing map of the world. I'm highlighting cities in the dark color that I think is blue, other special locations in yellow, and paths and roads in gray.

So far, it's certainly an intriguing game, though it shares with Dragonflight a certain vastness and lack of clues on the main quest. I also find it a bit unforgiving to the new player. By next post, I should be able to tell you if I'm having any fun.


  1. I think the reason that you're not finding more text RPGs is:
    -It's awkward to describe a tactical situation without using pictures, so you don't get very sophisticated tactics in most Text RPGs.
    -There were a ton of amateur text RPGs (MUDs, etc) written in the 80's and 90's, but most were hosted on BBS's and/or servers and played multiplayer. So getting together an environment to run a BBS game from the 80's might be a challenge, and you'd lose a lot of the spirit of the game playing it single player.
    -Roguelikes pretty much took over the text RPG genre because they organized character information better (easier item management), used fewer commands, and provided tactical text maps that showed where the player was in relation to the baddies.

    1. "It's awkward to describe a tactical situation without using pictures, so you don't get very sophisticated tactics in most Text RPGs." True, but there's no reason a text RPG couldn't switch to a tactical battle map for combat. That would be a near-perfect hybrid.

    2. You mean an interface like Zork when travelling but switches over to Final Fantasy Tactics when enemies are encountered?

      Hmm... why didn't anyone think of that?

  2. In contrast, Might and Magic 1 has 5,120 overworld squares. That's a 24x difference. Admittedly, it seems that there are a lot more blank space in this map and that could make the mapping more tedious overall.

    But that said, this looks VERY INTERESTING. If I had the time, I'd play along, but I suspect that it is too long for me. Having just finished QfG2, I think I'm heading to QfG3 next. Very well paced games that do not over stay their welcome.

  3. btw, there is a moderm hybrid of interactive fiction and roguelike called Kerkerkruip

    1. Was also about to mention it. Pity that it was first released in 2011. Maybe Addict's heirs will reach it.

  4. This looks like a single-player MUD.

    1. I say this because I remember making grid maps like that with mostly fields or forest, with "roads" and the like. Ugh.

  5. Textrim would be a cult hit.

    I'm enjoying your exploration of fallthru. I hope it has enough meat per time to be worth sticking with.

    1. I would certainly enjoy playing Textrim. Someone should make this thing happen.

    2. Anyone could do it ... given enough patience, lots of spare man-hours, extensive knowledge of a decent interactive-fiction language (Inform 7 if you don't program, TADS 3 if you do), and the willingness to either: 1) release the fruits of your labor for free; or 2) get sued by Bethesda Softworks. I can't imagine why nobody's done it yet!

    3. You could dodge the lawsuit if you could come up with a way to make it count as a parody...

    4. True enough, but there's still the remuneration angle. "Only a blockhead writes but for money."

  6. With Quest for the Key of Night Shade coming up, I thought I'd save you a bit of research time and supply some information. You may well find that it doesn't make the cut of your standards for a CRPG, but I hope you do give it a shot, as it's a very odd duck indeed (with a bizarrely high difficulty level).

    Here's the Feb 1983 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine, where it was originally published. I guess 80 Microcomputing is the publisher since it's a type-in game (albeit a fairly ambitious one). According to the magazine the programmer was a 16-year-old named David Schmidt, and the game was his submission to 80micro's first annual competition for young programmers, which he won. See p. 84 of the magazine for that, and then the program and documentation start on p. 85; be sure to check out the docs, which are amusingly detailed (though I suppose you're probably used to that sort of thing by now). BTW the article has no space between Night and Shade, but the game's title screen does.

    As for a disk image, there appears to be a downloadable one that's findable on Google, but if you can't get it to work let me know, as I have one tucked away somewhere in my files. (You'll also need a TRSDOS disk to get the system to boot into disk access mode.)

    I'm not sure that my copy is 100% correct as the game is brutally, almost unplayably hard, and I can't see how anyone could beat it on anything but the lowest difficulty setting (1 of 20). There's a letter on p. 17 of TRS Times (Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov./Dec. 1990; link here) which seems to confirm my suspicions, and includes a few cheats (I think I did much the same as a kid by BREAKing out of the game and reprogramming RAM values). Impressive that people were still talking about it 7 years later, or maybe that just reflects the limited library for the TRS-80 Model I/III series...

    1. Sounds like a game I'll look forward to writing about even if I don't enjoy playing it.

    2. Yeah, I may have to skip this one. I don't see the character development, nor does it have a classic RPG inventory.

    3. Heh, I just saw your description in your master list -- "excruciating pseudo-RPG". I can't really argue with that!

    4. I apologize if you were looking forward to it. In many ways, it's similar to Bob Clardy's Wilderness Campaign, which also wasn't "really" an RPG, but WC had positive gameplay elements to compensate. After 30 minutes of QfTKONS, I was happy to find any excuse to boot it.

    5. No, no worries at all, I frankly wasn't expecting it to make the cut. It would've been fun to read your comments on the world of sneeths, terolts, and kilgards, but there are better and more fully realized games out there that need your time. If you didn't beat it within 30-60 minutes, you're not missing anything by moving on.

      Still, you have to hand it to the kid programmer. I just wish I knew why the difficulty is so wildly out of control!

    6. Oh, and also -- imagine being a kid who grew up reading Electronic Games and learning about Ultima et al., but whose family couldn't afford to get any of the computers in that magazine: all I had was a Tandy CoCo, with no disk drive until much later. Add to that intense curiosity about D&D, but no one nearby enough to play with (rural area).

      Now imagine having your mom bring home a TRS-80 Model III for work, and having Quest for the Key of Night Shade be on one of the discs. (This was in the narrow window between the fall of Atari and the rise of Nintendo.) When you have such few options, a game like QftKoNS can be a revelation: finally, I get to take one of these RPGs on! So for me, there's a fair amount of nostalgia associated with the game, even with all its flaws.

  7. I can imagine that each new discovery, a city, a dungeon, an object, is really surprising here. I mean, in visual games you usually see what's coming, here you don't. There's something fascinating about this, you're completely at the author's mercy.
    There's a bit of a "gap" in the classic range of genres. This one might not be a CRPG in the classic sense, but the survival aspect was certainly a part of the whole experience back in the days. The "logistics" of life, so to say. Adventure games don't really have this, they're mostly puzzles. But I think one could make a case that these aspects, food/drink management, getting money and simply surviving are also an interpretation of an RPG. Those games are usually called "simulations".

    1. Having to micro-manage food and water was something I was prepared not to like, but the difficulties associated with it only last for a brief initial phase.

  8. I love this game, and I'm glad you gave it a shot. Here are a few non-spoilery tips:

    Don't try to lawnmow the map! It's way way bigger than you've found so far, and the environment is fearsomely hostile. If you're on a road, you can at least find civilization; if you're off the road, you're probably lost and may soon be dead! Use real-life intuition here: Would you wander off into the Black Forest in medieval Germany holding a knife and a canteen? Use lore and landmarks to navigate. You can often see things from several steps away.

    I wouldn't recommend using multiple characters at the same time for one metagame logistical reason: there are resources that don't replenish between characters. One character with 6 things is probably better than three characters with 2 each.

    Unless you really really like typing, learn the shortcuts. K 2 instead of DRINK; DRINK, etc. Call canteens by their numbers: C01 instead of HAND CANTEEN. The file "comlist.txt" gives a nice tutorial; you can display it from within game using P.

    You might want to think about the game as being semi-roguelike. Your initial characters tend to go out and die horribly. The next character will be smarter; your survival strategy will be a bit more refined. There's definitely an inflection point between where you're dying because you can't scrape together enough resources to live or forget whether a squir or a hyen is more likely to tear your limbs off and where you start dying only due to hubris.

    1. Thanks for the tips. The "lawnmowing" thing seems particularly important given the unlikelihood of ever stepping on every square. I'm not even sure it makes sense to map.

    2. The old-school text adventure "Snowball" by Level 9 comes to mind: mapping is prohibitively difficult; instead, you need to solve a research puzzle in order to break through the bottleneck and find out where to go. So don't even bother to map; just keep a lookout for any directions that people offer you so that you can find plot-important MacGuffins/Foozles/Shangri-La's.

      By the way: the fantasy rabbits are called "rabir", and you start in "Origin"? With all due respect to Mr. Deal, creative names weren't his forte.

    3. Oh, it gets even better. See next post.

  9. Inform 7 is the perfect tool if you want to create your own textual CRPG. It can handle THOUSANDS of variables, objets, NPCs, strings of descriptions and so on. It's an author's dream.

    1. (with the most easy and natural programing language ever)

    2. I took a look at the official site. It sounds like a great interactive fiction tool, but how would it support strong RPG mechanics, such as monsters with various strengths, weaknesses, and resistances, or skills that increase when successfully used in combat?

    3. (Bleah, comment system ate my first comment.)

      Anyway, for a somewhat more worked example than Stéphane's response below, see this page. It is written for a CYOA-style game (hence the use of "pages"), which arguably makes some aspects of it more cumbersome than a traditional room-based approach, but hopefully gives a suitable sense of things.

    4. Most of the games entering the IF competition (, were written with this software.
      With that attack combat extension provided by Jason, you could make a Lone Wolf series.

  10. It supports that perfectly.

    You can create as many kinds of NPC / objects as you want, and they can have as many variables as you want.

    Exemple :

    A troll is a kind of person.

    A troll has a number called stupidity.

    After attacking a troll (called T) :
    increase the stupidity of T by 10.

    (I didn't simplify, you really code like that)

    1. If you have precise questions (how could I do that, that and that), don't hesitate.

    2. Obviously, I won't be creating any myself, but it's nice to have all this for readers' reference.

  11. AFAIK, there's no library extension for TADS 3 or Inform 7 (the two state-of-the-art languages for programming IF) that allows for effective switching from all-text UI to a map with tactical combat (especially with a roguelike-variety UI, where commands are one-hit keystrokes).

    I'm sure that it could be done; people have already ported Rogue into Inform, for instance, and there are efforts like The Reliques of Tolti-Aph. But writing up the whole GIMLET-worthy shebang would be a lot of work for (presumably) little or no money.

    That said, if anyone were to make a roguelike/IF that combined Infocom-level writing with NetHack-like complexity (with bonus points for using a hex map), I would be all over that mofo.

    1. I know of at least one such IF/roguelike game:

      It's written in I7 and also does an excellent job of showing the potential for graphics and music in modern IF.

  12. I love text adventure games. I agree that a text RPG would be a glorious experience, but haven't really seen it implemented, as a single player experience.

    MUD's, on the other hand all seem to be the same, and somewhat silly in their mechanical construction. The exception I found was the Discworld MUD. The roleplaying opportunities presented by that game are staggering. It also boasts a robust combat and magic system, as well as millions of rooms.

    And, while they are not RPGs by most definitions, the text adventures of Malinche games are worth mentioning. Pricey, to be sure, and the author of those games has acquired a bit of a bad reputation for his attitude to criticism, but they are novel quality (and length) text adventure games made in the modern day. I had to give a couple a try, and I was pleased. I also enjoyed the variety of settings the games offered. I opted for a modern-day horror as my first purchase.

    Not trying to advertise for the man, I know most people aren't going to spring for such old-fashioned games. I was just pleased to find that someone went and took the text adventure game to a new level so many years after the genre had all but vanished.


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