Sunday, February 28, 2016

Revisiting: Alternate Reality: The City (1985)

The screen that actually has the title is boring, so here's a shot of an alien spaceship capturing people in a tractor beam.
Alternate Reality: The City
United States
Paradise Programming (developer); Datasoft (Publisher)
Released 1985 for Atari 8-bit; 1986 for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari ST; 1988 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started: 12 March 2010
Date Ended: 26 February 2016
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 17
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 30
Ranking at Time of Posting: 113/209 (54%)
Ranking at Game #452: 273/452 (60%)

If you had to give any 1980s RPG series the designation of "cult status," it would have to be to Philip Price's grandiosely-planned, unfinished Alternate Reality. Originally intended to cover six games, the series never got further than two. But their technological achievements coupled with a uniquely weird setting make The City and The Dungeon (1987) live longer in memory than the typical titles of the era.

According to a Wikipedia article so poorly written and cited it's being considered for deletion, Price had recently left a U.S. Navy enlistment when, "living in a shack with no running water and...using a Jeep for power," he began writing his first commercial games, starting with The Tail of Beta Lyrae (1983) and progressing to Alternate Reality, which he published through California-based Datasoft. According to another poorly-sourced site, he hardly made any money from the games because his contract allowed Datasoft to deduct 100% of the conversion costs from his profits; and they ported the game from the original Atari 8-bit to the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Atari ST, the Macintosh, and DOS. Discouraged, Price left the gaming industry for a variety of programming jobs at military contractors. He made a failed effort to turn Alternate Reality into an MMORPG in the late 1990s.

Alternate Reality uses a first-person interface in which the player navigates a large map and encounters monsters, NPCs, and shops. In its basic approach, it superficially resembles The Bard's Tale from the same year and thus draws on a Wizardry tradition. Although the setting is high fantasy, the opening screen shots make it clear that the character is in that setting because he's been abducted by aliens. The specific nature of the world is left a mystery: Has the character been transported there in body or just mind? Is it a real place or a simulation?

The nature of the plot, and the ultimate plans for unfolding it, make up half of the games' appeal. The other half is due to a series of memorably innovative technologies and elements. These include:

  • Continuous incremental movement between tiles.
  • Weather effects, including continuous rain.
  • Visible sunrises and sunsets, including changing the colors of the terrain to represent the lightening and darkening days.
  • Multiple methods of dealing with enemies, including tricking them and charming them.
  • The ability to work regular jobs in some establishments to make money and pass time (in some versions).
  • A complex set of hidden character statistics, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, heat, cold, disease, poison, and encumbrance.
  • An alignment system that responds based on player actions.
  • The ability to invest money in banks and earn interest, at various rates of risk and return.
  • In-game drunkenness manifesting itself in difficulty manipulating the game interface.
  • Artfully-composed music and lyrics specific to the various settings of the game.
When you're drunk, your character staggers around independent of your keyboard inputs. It's raining in this screenshot, too.
These innovative elements are coupled with a heavy difficulty curve. Characters start with a handful of copper pieces and some basic clothing and have to immediately contend with hostile enemies wandering The City. Stores don't necessarily sell low-level adventuring equipment, so even if the player scrapes together enough money for a dagger or short sword, he might not be able to find a shop that will sell one. Surviving even a couple of days and assembling a basic set of equipment is a major victory. And death is generally permanent unless the player backs up the character disk.
From the C64 version. It's going to be a while before I can afford anything here.
The original goals for Alternate Reality were lofty. The City was going to serve as the central hub for the game, and from there, the player would be able to move in and out of The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness, each with its own selection of sub-quests and winning conditions. For instance, the player would be able to retire after becoming champion of The Arena or take over the city after negotiating The Palace. The idea was that players would be able to transition seamlessly between these areas even though the actual disks might be released years after The City--much like characters in Skyrim can move back and forth between Skyrim and Solstheim.
The Atari 8-bit version calls for a disk that never existed.
I'm not sure how the two final planned games--Revelation and Destiny--would fit into this "transition" model, but together they would resolve the plot of the series. I'll talk more about that later.

In any event, the series never even got to the second of the planned games. The City was split into two games: the one bearing that title, and The Dungeon, which was originally just The City's sewers. The Dungeon has a winning condition, but exploration in The City is both open-ended and goalless, with the exception of creating a good character for The Dungeon.
From the DOS version. This doesn't seem very champion-like.
For the last six years, since I briefly covered The City in a short posting during the first month of my blog, I've been feeling bad about how I treated the game. Since The City didn't have a winning condition, I didn't feel like putting up with its difficulty, and I eagerly moved on to the next title. You understand, this was before I started to take my project seriously. I was only in the game to have fun, not to properly document the historical development of RPGs, and I wasn't even bothering to look up basic things like developers' names.

This time, I was determined to explore The City long enough to create a viable character for The Dungeon in 1987. This meant that I would need to play one of the versions for which The Dungeon was released: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, and Apple II. As you may have gathered from the comments in my recent "1984/1985" posting, I had some trouble with this. I downloaded multiple versions of the games for each of the platforms but encountered a variety of crashes, bugs, and obstacles caused by the game's sensitive copy protection system, which diseases and slowly kills the character. The C64 version is notably bad, sending a seizure-inducing series of flashing colors at you every time you encounter a monster or NPC or enter a shop.

Amid this, multiple readers wrote opining that the Atari 8-bit version is "the original, therefore the best" and a couple of them finally sent me working copies, so that was the one I ultimately stuck with, even though it brought its own challenges. My first character, for instance, was unable to enter any of the smithies--after a bunch of disk swapping, he was immediately kicked out. Also, the version lacks any obvious mechanism for exiting a bank once you enter. Ultimately, in my modern emulator-based experience, instabilities, bugs, unexplained deaths, and inconsistent requirements for disk-swapping marred every version of the game that I tried to play.
With no "exit" option for the bank, you have to use the joystick controls to get out.
The opening graphics show an alien space craft hovering over a modern city, firing tractor beams or something that scoop up random citizens, including (presumably) the player's character. The title graphics come in over a field of stars. The game thus establishes the theme of the series: although the world of The City may resemble some medieval fantasy, it's really taking place in a simulated reality on a spaceship after the character has been abducted by extraterrestrials.

The original Atari version does something that I didn't see in the others. As the star field whizzes by and music plays, lyrics appear on the screen to accompany the music, with individual words highlighted as their accompanying notes play in the background:

The early morning
Turns into early day
A sunset comes they
Take the colors
Where you are
Alternate Reality

A bit like home yet
Unmistakably new
A morning rain then
Evening stars come
And view
What is your
Alternate Reality

You walk around each
Corner hoping to see
A way to get back
Home a way to
Break free
And to leave
Alternate Reality

This is your
Alternate Reality
I think I could just turn off the computer.
I can't say much for the meter or rhyme scheme, and there are some obvious errors (e.g., "and view" instead of "in view"), but it's definitely a "first" in the RPG world. There are other little songs throughout the game. For instance, after you wander into a tavern, this little ditty scrolls by on the screeen: "Walking in / sitting down / naturally you / glance around. / On the floor / about to dance / with smallish legs / in smallish pants / a character / with features drawn / from ages past / and yet to dawn. / You down an ale / and few a forth / you watch the dance / you watch the dwarf."
Attributes scroll by as you contemplate entering the city.
Character creation begins with a name, after which you find yourself in front of a portal with continually-scrolling values (between roughly 3 and 20) for your stamina, charisma, strength, intelligence, wisdom, skill, hit points, and copper. They scroll too fast to watch more than one or two, so you have to prioritize when to accept the values. Stepping forward through the portal freezes the values and lands you in the City of Xebec's Demise, with no idea where to go or what to do--but then again, you wouldn't have any idea in a real scenario, either.
Arriving in Xebec's Demise.
Xebec's Demise (no explanation is given for the name of the city) is a huge city--64 by 64 squares. I started out trying to map it, but the incremental movement made it hard to figure out how many "squares" I was passing through. Ultimately, I gave up and just bumbled around. The city is full of banks, inns, taverns, smithies, other shops, healers, guilds, and random encounters in between. Notable is the ability to take a job at some of the shops and earn a little extra coin (in some versions, at least; I don't think I encountered these options in the Atari 8-bit version).
Visiting the bar in the Atari 8-bit version. I've ordered a meal.
Everything in the game takes place in real-time, and if you don't make liberal use of the (P)ause key, you'll get approached and attacked while standing still. During combat, when the options change, you only have a couple of seconds to choose your selection or the game assumes you take no action and the enemy gets a free hit. This is not a game in which you want to crank up the emulator speed.

Outside combat, you have options to view your stats, drop items, ready items, pause, drink potions, and save the game. In the Atari 8-bit and C64 versions, movement is accomplished with the IJKL cluster.

Creatures approach at random intervals, including enemies like orcs, muggers, and giant rats and friendly NPCs like couriers, knights, and merchants. Nighttime and rain cause more dangerous monsters to appear. I can understand nighttime, but I have no idea why so many monsters come out in the rain.
From the C64 version, I contemplate my attack options as the rains fall.
Once you encounter an enemy or NPC, your options change to charm, ignore, sneak, trick, engage, use, ready, cast, and leave. Tricking and charming, if successful, immediately kill the creature but are considered "evil" acts if done against non-evil creatures. If you "engage" him or he attacks you, your options then change to lunge, attack, parry, disengage, use items, ready items, cast spells, or "give up," the latter of which immediately kills you. (You wouldn't think this would make sense in a game, but in a real-life scenario, if I suddenly found myself kidnapped by aliens, thrust into a medieval alternate reality, and attacked by a goblin, it might very well be my default choice.) As I struggled to find a shop that would sell me my first weapon, I managed to get past a few enemies with "trick" and "charm."
Having enough money to buy a weapon and finding a shop that will sell one for that price is a major event in this game.
There are lots of elements hidden from the player at the outset, revealed as the player enters various guilds. These statistics include a physical movement speed, "noticeability" (i.e., how often you get encounters), stealth, likelihood of finding treasure, and an alignment score. The latter apparently goes down when you attack friendly creatures; I'm not sure how it goes up. The game is also ahead of its time in the way it awards experience points--some for damage, some for each kill, and some for finding treasure--and the way that attributes can increase as you successfully use associated skills.

For this post, I invested about 12 hours into the game, 6 with characters and versions that ultimately went nowhere, and 6 with a semi-successful character named Chester, aided by some save-scumming. He started strong, with attributes all in the teens. Like all characters, he began outside the entry gate, near a couple of shops, a smith, a bank, and several inns and taverns. This "city square" area is a relatively safe part of town, and I learned to hang out there until I was strong enough to explore other areas.

Trying to survive the early stages is an exercise in masochism. You don't have enough money to buy anything the shops are selling, and there's no easy way to make more. You have to trick, charm, or kill a monster with your bare hands or slave for a couple of weeks in a bar--at which point you can perhaps afford a dagger--if you're lucky enough to find a shop that will sell you one. Meanwhile, you're worrying about depleting food, water, and stamina--but of course staples and sleep also cost money.

The difficulty does create a couple of good aspects. First, there's a real incentive to be evil and prey on innocent, defenseless townsfolk. It's rare to find an RPG in which you (realistically) turn to evil out of desperation. Second, I admit that the difficulty does make things all the more satisfying when they start to get incrementally better.

In the case of Chester, the turning point was tricking a gremlin to death and finding a couple of potions on his body. The game has an interesting potion-identification dynamic, not unlike NetHack, in which you have to take cues from the color and what happens if you sip it. For instance, a red potion that tastes "bitter" is a Potion of Strength and a white potion that tastes "alkaline" is poison. There are several dozen combinations. A player would have to learn these combinations through extensive testing and record-keeping and more than one character death. Anyway, the two potions the gremlin carried were Strength and Treasure Finding. The latter increases the associated hidden statistic, and after I drank it, I started finding more money with subsequent kills.
My fortunes change for the better.
Soon after the gremlin, I managed to kill a mugger with my bare hands. His corpse delivered enough gold that I could afford a small weapon, and fortunately the nearby smith had one for sale. The difference that one small dagger makes is huge, and in the next couple of hours, I was able to kill more gremlins, thieves, and even a couple of zombies. Later, I killed a thief who had a battle hammer and took it as an upgrade, then killed a swordsman and got his shield. Slowly, I worked my way up to Level 4.

Fighting a zombie in front of a smithy.

I started exploring the city and found a variety of shops with different names but basically the same stuff. Eventually, I wandered into one of the guilds of the city. When you enter a guild for the first time, the wizards always increase the associated statistic. Some of them tell you your hidden scores, like alignment and treasure finding. Despite an option to do so, there's no way to "join" a guild. I suspect this was supposed to be how you would acquire spells, which otherwise never seem to appear despite a "cast" option. (I understand you can join the guilds in the Amiga version, though.)

visiting a guild.
As I discussed above, there were grandiose plans for The City as a hub for other, more meaty adventures. Characters would explore the plots of The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness, moving back and forth through The City and using its shops, taverns, and inns. Unfortunately, because the reality of the game fell so far short of the plans, The City is left curiously pointless--a hub without any spokes--as if it were a normal dungeon-crawler released with only the town level.

But even though the game lacks a specific goal, certainly we have the general goal of developing a character for The Dungeon, right? Well...maybe. While I was in the middle of playing the game, a fan named Allen wrote with a bunch of tips, including this one: "veteran City characters are worse off in the long run than newly generated Dungeon characters in terms of ability scores, equipment, and the hazard level of encounters." He went on to explain that new Dungeon characters start with attributes higher than all but the luckiest City characters and that The Dungeon has level-based encounter scaling that punishes City characters at an already high level.

This means that the answer to the question of how long you play The City is "as long as you're having fun." And for me, that was no time at all. I apologize to fans of the game--I hope you at least agree that I gave it a fair chance this time--but I have a worse impression of Alternate Reality now than I did at the end of my 2010 posting. I have no idea how it developed such a positive reputation. It seems to expect its intentions and technical developments to override slow, punishingly difficult, buggy, and ultimately pointless gameplay.

The technical innovations don't even make for a good experience. Take the scrolling movement. Once you get past the initial reaction ("Huh. Cool."), you realize how difficult it makes mapping when you can't tell the moment you cross into a new square. The rain...sure. I might have been impressed in 1985. It's hard to get excited about some straight blue lines today. As for all the attributes--heat, cold, hunger, thirst, fatigue--the need to scrimp for every penny at the beginning, and the ability to work menial jobs--let's just say that I'm looking for an RPG, not Oregon Trail.

Thus, when I hit Level 5 and had more than 10,000 copper pieces, I entered the bank and invested most of them in a medium risk account...
...retired to the bar, ordered the lobster, and bought a round for the house...
...saved my character for The Dungeon and ended the game. If kidnapped by aliens, Chester would prefer to spend his days in the bar instead of fighting gremlins on the street, trust me.

My previous attempt at a GIMLET, calculated a few weeks after I played the game, came to a 24. Without looking at the individual scores, I tried again:

  • 3 points for the game world. The plot is original, and I like the way that Xebec's Demise is a "living city," but ultimately you can't do much with it. While I can look up the series' backstory on Wikipedia today, the game earns a low score judging from what its own documentation gives you.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is all random, but development is somewhat satisfying, with multiple ways to increase experience and alignment consequences to your actions. But too much is random and too little is self-directed.
  • 2 points for NPCs. NPCs are really the same thing as monsters--miscellaneous knights, merchants, townsfolk, and couriers that you encounter just like enemies. There's no way to productively interact with them, but interaction does affect your alignment. Shopkeepers are also quasi-NPCs, given how they react to your attempts to low-ball them. Neither, unfortunately, imparts any information about the game world.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are fantasy standards with the usual slate of special attacks and defenses. There are no special encounters or role-playing choices.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The numerous options don't amount to much since you can't always use all of them. There's theoretically an option to cast spells, but I never found any in the game.
Fighting a knight outside the palace.
  • 4 points for equipment, a very important part of the game, to include weapons, armor, clothing, food, water, utility items, and the potion system.
  • 6 points for economy. In a game that's half survival simulation, this category takes on a lot of importance. I liked the currency, banking, and gem system.
  • 0 points for having nothing like a quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. You want me to give points for the graphics, but I find them ugly and crude no matter how innovative the color-changes and raindrops are. You want me to give points for the music, but I don't care about music, and the other sound effects are primitive. The keyboard input works okay.
  • 4 points for gameplay. I admire it for being open-ended and large, and slightly "replayable" given how random the encounters and events are.

This gives us a final score of 30, a little below what I would consider "recommended," but a little better than I expected. Its improvement from my 2010 attempt reflects the fact that I understand the game better.
My thoughts are echoed in Scorpia's November 1986 review in Computer Gaming World. She praises the attention to detail but criticizes the game for monotonous mapping, lack of anything interesting in the huge city, and lack of a plot. I think her review would have been even less charitable if she had known then that the planned 5 games would never happen.

Regardless of how the liberal media treated Alternate Reality, the sheer oddness of the game ensured that it would develop some die-hard believers. I've received e-mails from a lot of them, and I'm sure this comments section is going to be filled with notes from people who insist I missed many of the game's nuances. (I welcome that; please help me better document this game from multiple perspectives.) There are several fan sites, with no shortage of people who call Alternate Reality the best game ever made for the Atari 8-bit, or indeed for any platform. In 2011, a British company named Elite Systems released an iPhone version (though it no longer seems to be available), and a commenter named acrin1 is currently working on a nice-looking Windows version that combines The City and The Dungeon (you can download the current version in progress).
From acrin1's remake.
If I ever get a chance to talk with Philip Price, I'm going to ask about his influences. I said earlier that it comes from a Wizardry tradition, but that's mostly in the first-person interface and a few of the encounter options. It's possible that Price never played Wizardry. Some of the elements, such as the guilds, call to mind some of the PLATO titles, but I can't find any evidence Price was ever near a PLATO campus. The weird sci-fi setting, the emphasis on simulation, and the banking system suggest a familiarity with the Empire and Space titles from Edu-Ware.

Around 1990 (I'm having trouble finding the original source), Philip Price revealed to a fan his entire original plan for the series. Revelation was going to end with the character finding a metallic door at the end of a cave, leading to "corridors gleaming with technology" and a room with an immense window looking out onto space. (Given what's revealed in the opening shots, I'm not sure that's much of a revelation.) In Destiny, the character would acquire a bunch of high-tech equipment, fight through a bunch of aliens, and find a chamber with humans stored in pods. It would turn out that the aliens were using humans' experiences in The City (and the other expansions) for their own entertainment, and that the character isn't even corporeal but one of the bodies in the pods. The series would end with a number of choices involving remaining incorporeal (and immortal) or returning to the body, fighting or aiding the aliens, and continuing on to alien worlds or returning to Earth.

Great ideas--anticipating elements of The Matrix and Lost, even--but ideas are a dime a dozen, and the reality is that this "cult classic" never got out of its own sewers. I'm not interested in joining the cult. I think this series has been coasting for too long on its own mystique. We'll see if I feel any differently after playing Alternate Reality: The Dungeon in 1987. For now, let's revisit another game that I didn't engage long enough back in 2010: Autoduel.


For further reading: Unsatisfied with my conclusions? You might be happy to know that I enjoyed Alternate Reality: The Dungeon (1987) quite a bit more. And check out my coverage of two games heavily inspired by Alternate Reality: Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) and Legends of Valour (1992).


  1. Dear Chet, you are pretty much on the money. There are so many innovations and the game is beautiful, but there is no point. There is no end, except death or quit in frustration.

  2. I remember seeing that shot of the city gates in a magazine -- it must have been Computer Entertainment, which was the short-lived successor to Electronic Games -- and being incredibly intrigued.

    There's no way the game could have lived up to what I imagined based on that shot, and it sounds like the reality of it (no pun intended) is a lot like what -- 30 years wiser (?) -- I would now expect: ambitious, attractive, but not the transparently immersive experience my imagination might hope for.

    So I'm glad I'm reading about this one instead of playing it, though as with all ambitious things that end too soon, I'm saddened by what might have been.

    1. Also:

      Regardless of how the liberal media treated Alternate Reality

      Heh. Made my day with that, or at least my hour.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Haha. Me too! :) (Great review as always Chet!)

    4. The joke doesn't even really make sense. But I'm glad it worked for some people.

    5. Actually, nowadays, you attack the "mainstream media". Everyone gets in on the cynicism!


    6. The joke doesn't even really make sense. But I'm glad it worked for some people.

      It's the non sequitur absurdity of it that makes it work. And, perhaps, some of us have heard that phrase used in contexts equally as absurd, and enjoyed the fact that you were riffing on that. (cf. the ironic use of "Thanks, Obama")

  3. I think your assessment of the city is bang on, as it was basically just a hub that was designed expecting the other parts of the game to come out.

    Ultimately, I think the vague sci fiish intro and the plans of future games (I recall the manual for the dungeon talked about them, at least for C64 version. I never owned the city) are responible for people having fonder memories of the series than they otherwise might have.

    It's is a damn shame the later parts never came out, as it was a really interesting idea, having multiple games you could move between, and being able to import a character between games is something I really like (Nobody really seems to do that these days)

    I've never heard that imported city characters are worse off in the dungeon though. Does this just apply to the Atari versions? (As I owned the C64 version of the dungeon when younger, I only ever really paid attention to those.)

    1. "I've never heard that imported city characters are worse off in the dungeon though. Does this just apply to the Atari versions?" I'd like to get more opinions about whether it even applies to the Atari version. My helpful correspondent really seemed to know what he was talking about, but plenty of other sites talk about the importance of building up a character in TC.

  4. I have played both the DOS and Atari versions. The Atari never offered side jobs, but the DOS version did. Back in 86-87 it was my favorite game as there was nothing else like it. Later Gold Box knocked it off the throne, but that was in part because Gold Box were complete games. I have seen this before, a promising game cut off and the result is, for some, a lost masterpiece. I have the first two parts of an old TSF game, "History of Second World War". The first two installments, of nine total, were published, but the project went bankrupt before they could finish. It's interesting to think about what effect Price's game would have had on the CRPG industry if he had published all modules.

  5. Years ago, when I first heard about the game, I tried to get into it, but decided it wasn't worth it because the other games were never made. I guess that was the right decision. It's still interesting to read your account of it.

    I know you don't care about (game-) music, but I always liked the intro tune of the C64 version:

  6. I almost wish you weren't revisiting Autoduel. You might have given it a very short look, but I think it falls right in that category of "good GAME, not a good RPG". I would be surprised to see a lot of change in the rating, although you may find more to say in your article with the benefit of more time.

    1. It will be interesting to see whether Chet likes it second time around given that in his original posting he stated "Autoduel was about the least fun I've ever had with a CRPG".

    2. I played through it (with a walkthrough) a couple of years ago. I enjoyed it, but it isn't much of a CRPG. Of course, I was a fan of the source material (Car Wars) which is a board game (admittedly it was adapted into GURPS Autoduel as an RPG, but the system in the computer game is based on the board game).

    3. Yeah, Autoduel is the Car Wars board game on computer, with a campaign tacked on so that there would be reasons for the battles. It qualifies as an RPG if you look at your whole party as your character's stats. Wait, am I thinking about Roadwar 2000 instead? It's been a long time.

      A lot of 70s/80s computer games were translations of board games. They drew from the same audience. The attraction was great: people were already familiar with the game, a good-selling game would become a good-selling computer game, and best of all, the computer enforced all the rules.

      I think we don't appreciate this these days, but back then it was a big deal. Even if you didn't play with rules lawyers or outright cheaters, people forgot or misplayed rules all the time. It didn't help that rulebooks were written by people who knew everything already and were just writing a reference to themselves so that they didn't forget anything. Coming as someone who didn't know the game, the rulebooks could be utterly baffling. Magic Realm was the biggest offender in this category. A self-contained, vast, open-world RPG released in the late 70s, the rulebook was utterly incomprehensible and the only way to learn the game was to have someone who already knew how to play teach you.

    4. I think Autoduel is pretty unambiguously an RPG, it was just that Chet didn't come across the quests in his first playthrough so it just seemed like cars battling without a whole lot of context.

    5. Even I don't end up liking it any better, the fact is I bailed on it under a misapprehension--that it didn't have a main plot--so if nothing else, I'll correct that aspect of my posting and get another "win" in the appropriate column.

    6. I don't dispute its RPG credentials. It has a character with use-based skills advancement, a meaningful inventory (cars), and a main storyline. I just think the major attraction is the configuring of different car variants and the actual battles (or road missions) themselves.

  7. Well, it's nice to get a little more detail on the game. Probably also nice not to have it hanging over you any more, even if there wasn't really much more to add. I think updating the GIMLET ought to address the desires of the clamoring fans.

    I'm curious to see how the replay of Autoduel goes. I don't know anything about it other than your one earlier post, but it certainly sounds like it ought to have some potential. It's at least a lot different from the usual generic fantasy clones and occasional space game.

    One of the issues from your initial play seemed to be the controls. Do you have a joystick or game pad lined up to help with the replay? I've got to admit that while I've been content with gamepads on consoles for decades, I always cringe a little at the thought of configuring one for a game on the PC, but there are definitely some occasions where it's worth it.

    1. Well, nowadays with the cross-platforming of several AAA titles (and many indie ones recently), playing with gamepads on PCs is pretty normal.

      Especially with the Steam controllers available, many games can now be played with a singular control input. I can't imagine playing open-world RPGs while sitting on a small swivel chair for hours instead of chilling in front of the couch with some refreshments on the coffee table.

      Also, the reason why I've sworn off consoles for the last decade. I mean, with the greater power & versatility of PC with Steam Link & Controllers (not to mention all the emulators available for download), the only upside of a console is, what, console-exclusive titles?

      If you look at the number of games available on PC, it literally dwarfs those for the consoles exponentially.

    2. Yeah, action RPGs almost always play better with a joystick. Light-years better, in fact. Does one of us have to send the Addict a Gravis Gamepad with USB adapter?

    3. I bought a controller a few years ago but never got it to work right with DOSBox. I realize I'm setting myself up for another condescending lecture from Harland about a master knowing how to use all his tools or whatnot.

      With my recent move, I have no idea where the controller is, and I'm on the road for the next few weeks anyway. I've been playing the DOS version with the mouse control, which isn't so bad once you get used to it.

    4. You shouldn't need a dedicated controller for PC - any wired Xbox controller works natively, and there's dongles for the wireless ones that you almost certainly have lying around anyway. Saves the hassle of keeping track of something you rarely use, anyway.

      As for getting it to work in DosBox, it should just be as simple as changing NO to YES in the config text file.

    5. I was able to play through the DOS version with a standard keyboard and mouse. Emulator speed control will be key for ensuring battles are reasonable. I think it would be impossible on a laptop with a pointing device, but any sort of controller should be sufficient. I do not have great RPG or arcade skills, so I'm sure it is manageable.

    6. Well, it wasn't that simple last time I tried it. The controller itself came with its own application and I somehow wasn't able to get it working productively with DOSBox. I'll stop by a Staples and pick up another one when I think of it.

    7. Oh, I'm sure there will be great console games that I missed but believe you me that it's not refusal but choice between lesser evils; get a PC or 2 consoles?

      Had I chosen to play Skyrim or Fallout 4 on console, I wouldn't have nudity galore and extra campaigns & content to play on. Also, there are also great PC games that do not exist (or as a very watered-down version) on consoles either.

      For instance, I'd rather cut my balls off with a rusty spoon than to play Ultima 7 on SNES again.

  8. This game would have been much like The Matrix series (except that you're not trapped in a modern world by AI but imprisoned in a low-tech fantasy world by aliens) which is probably why it was so intriguing back then.

    Not many games back then dared to go philosophical like Alternate Reality and Ultima 4, until the 90s with Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate & etc.

    I guess it's like how "Hollowood" is churning out politically-correct superhero movies with PG-ratings to capture larger audience. Take out the brains and just stick in the guns.

    In any case, I wonder if Price can get the MMORPG version up on Kickstarter. It'd definitely get some interest from his die-hard fans and this game is literally made for this.

    1. I think you might be confusing 'politically correct' with 'bland'. Political correctness is just about treating humans like humans. Plenty of edgy, violent, sexy, thought provoking 'politically correct' media out there - and it's not from Hollywood (who are generally not 'pc' at all, Hollywood is all about white male gaze).

    2. But... American Beauty? Fight Club? The Warriors? Pleasantville? Gods And Monsters? I agree that there's plenty of whitewashing in Hollywood but their brand of "political correctness" is more in tune with "we have no experience dealing with this demographic so we're not gonna touch on it at all" than actually caring what others think.

    3. Hollywood is kinda hard to define (it usually doesn't include independent cinema, but what about Miramax post Disney acquisition? what about the Weinstein Company?), but as you say, no matter the definition, you can definitely find exceptions to the culturally myopic standard. I mean, Star Wars Ep VII is unambiguously Hollywood, but does a surprisingly good job of populating its world with the same sort of diversity you'll see among Star Wars fans (isn't that good business sense anyway?) and doesn't present Rey as walking, talking eye candy, but as a fully realised character (ok, that's a stretch, none of the characters are fully realised, but here's hoping we get some more depth next film).

    4. LOL I knew Tristan Gall was SJW! Here we are, talking about computer games, and boom out of nowhere comes political talk. Political correctness is tyrannical because it insists its own views are right (hence CORRECTness) and dissenting views are all wrong. Thus there is no merit in them and they may be freely suppressed.

      When was the last time you stopped yourself from saying something you believed to be true for fear of being punished for saying it? If you live in America, it probably hasn't been long.

      (published anonymously because I don't want to be doxed or swatted)

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. It's amusing to me how almost every person that uses the abbreviation "SJW" seems to not understand anything they're talking about.

      Tristan, "treating humans like humans" is a great way to sum up the aim of political correctness (also known as, "how about we don't use racial slurs?").

    7. Anon #1, I don't know why you'd target Tristan for "political talk" when Kenny was the one that introduce the entirely unnecessary non-sequitur about Hollywood.

      There are plenty of deep, complex games and plenty of deep, complex films and if it sometimes doesn't seem like there are, it's because popular tastes determine which ones make the most money, get the highest ratings, and get talked about.

      I agree 100% with Tristan's points, but even if I didn't, ad hominem attacks are a weak, lazy, and obnoxious way to make an argument.

    8. Well since we're moving in that direction, perhaps we can also agree that calling political correctness simply "Treating humans like humans" and ignoring all the censorship, tone- and thought-policing, and never-ending hunt for microaggressions a *reductio ad absurdum.*

    9. I don't know. Why don't we postpone this discussion until we actually have a thing that we're talking about instead of a hypothetical reaction to an general statement about an example that has nothing to do with the subject of the post?

      I'll accept this debate the next time I post on a game like Rance, but nothing to do with "PC" or "SJW" has anything to do with Alternate Reality: The City. That a complete non-sequitur in a single comment can send people rushing to their own talking points and agendas really drives home how absurd this discussion has become.

    10. I don't think this is the place to embark on Critical Theory 101. If you're interested in the topics you've brought up, you can find plenty of academic level discourse about it that isn't mired in political ideology.

    11. "Political correctness is just about treating humans like humans. "

      lol no, it's just about treating any opinion but extreme leftism as hate speech. See NeoGAF for examples

    12. Well, with an unassailable source like that, who could possibly argue?

    13. Well, it does show something. You can toss off "liberal media" and it's obviously to produce a chuckle, but Kenny says "politically correct hollywood" and a very different reaction occurs. And now that reaction has become the main attraction! I was here to say that I'd tried out the AR revival and found it tedious, punishing and un-fun, but on the way Tristan', "correction"...of Kenny distracted and rankled me.

      This incessant correction is why you're seeing this thread go as it is going. Maybe we can decide to take a breath and not jump up each others' butts about the words we've casually thrown out there.

    14. @Anonymous: I frequently feel nervous about sharing my views, which tend towards the "SJW" (yes, I happily accept that tag) and perhaps politically correct. But I finally gave up and that and now say what I want to say. Sometimes it leads to hate mail.

      I got into a fun debate about abortion with someone on Quora. I said something like, "Not only are fetuses not people, but it's ok to abort defective babies as well." Intentionally being outrageous, and boy did I tick some people off! (Still, really, with over 50,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year, how can someone be both pro-life and pro-gun. Oh well, I own guns, so I'm a hypocrite.)

      I don't know of anyone afraid to make non-PC statements. My non-PC friends are quite tone deaf and quite happy to make statements I find outrageous. :-)

    15. Oh, by "nervous about sharing my views", I mean, "doing so might cost me backers/fans/buyers." Otherwise I have no problem with people disliking me or being angry at me because of what I say/post. That's their problem, not mine. But offending people who have donated money to my projects... well, that is unfortunate and sometimes makes me not want to post anything controversial. I don't want to make anyone feel badly about supporting Hero-U.

    16. By non-PC friends, you mean non player character, right? I try not to get too attached to NPCs, personally.

    17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    18. @Chet - My initial comment was filled with Matrix, superheroes, aliens, guns and freaking Kickstarter.

      And if me drawing parallels between two very similar mediums because they share one very striking flaw as well (Reference 1 - & Reference 2 - is considered "unnecessary", very sorry for that. I thought it's a rather normal human thing to do; as in branching out dialogues.

      Even then, I did not at any point of time wish to go further than to point out something that should be fact-checked. I dunno what I did to rub you the wrong way.

    19. "I don't want to make anyone feel badly about supporting Hero-U."

      Having played all five Quest for Glory games over and over and over I doubt there's anything you can say that would make me feel badly about supporting Hero-U.

    20. I'm sorry, Kenny; I didn't mean to make it sound like I was coming down so hard on you, but any simile that uses the term "politically correct" is bound to provoke a long and contentious chain of comments. I don't necessarily mind when it's based on something I wrote in the posting, but in this thread people are literally arguing about nothing. They're batting about terms like "PC" and "SJW" without an actual example to argue whether those things are actually happening. This kind of thing drives me crazy.

    21. Apology accepted, mate. I don't like to argue about viewpoints either so I didn't participate in their "debate". Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it's a b!tch to change someone's and it hurts when someone tries to change it; like nipples (unnecessary non-sequitur).

  9. Chet, how much interest would you have in playing a remake of AR (either acrin's or another version)?

    Is this an example of something you felt could have worked were the ideas executed better, or is there a fundamental issue with the aim?

    The game reminds me a bit of some MUDs. Real-time exploration of rat and brigand filled cities. It feels to me that a lot of the value of such an idea comes from player-sourced content. Joint ventures such as guilds and neighbourhoods and other player to player interactions.

    1. AR was ahead of its time, but within 10 years or so, most other RPGs had caught up with its ideas. I don't see what value a remake would really have over all the other games on my list.

    2. Sometimes I find in various cultural media the idea of "what might have been" obscures "what has been done". I confess to being a fan of this game from way back, but playing again, in a DOS mode, confirms all that you said. Excellent work as always!

    3. I must admit the vision is really exciting- I personally have no connection to this game, but sometimes it's not about what has or hasn't been done. Look at Pillars of Eternity- obviously it's been done, and if it was just a rehash of Baldur's Gate no one would be interested. But it clearly has a strong storytelling vision behind it, which sucks you in. Maybe it's not so much the promise of the future modules that captured people's imagination, but the promise of an ambitious and visionary storyteller, regardless of game design. Too bad it didn't work out.

  10. I hate seeing games like this - ones that COULD have been something great. Seeing a game with so much potential end up falling short is just... kinda sad. The "Destiny" and "Revelation" expansions especially look like they could've been great. I'm tempted to look up if the creator worked on anything else, because I feel like he could've ended up making a couple of gems somewhere down the line, but chances are he just faded into obscurity.

    Unrelated - you say that charming or tricking a non-evil creature is an evil act. Does this count for killing as well, or is the sweet mercy of death considered less cruel than bamboozling a neutral monster?

    1. I don't think killing neutral creatures is evil as long as you don't initiate the combat. I'm relying on online sources for that, though, since I was never able to personally observe my karma meter.

  11. A disucssion board from 2013 with comments made directly by P.Price:

    1. Wow, that's a great thread, and it's still ongoing -- his last answer was less than a month ago. He mentions his influences (including PLATO), lots of backstory including the origin of the name of City of Xebec's Demise, details on the copy protection used, anecdotes from his military carrier. And it seems he really got screwed over by his publisher.

      I also found a great interview with him in an online book called Halcyon Days:

      Gary Gilbertson, the musician of the game was interviewed as well:

      And I have the say the graphics look great to me for an 8-bit system. It overuses gradients a bit but it gives the game a distinct look. And I certainly did not expect (fairly) smooth movement with texture-mapped walls. That has got to be a first?

    2. I really dropped the ball on not finding that one. It confirms most of the questionable sources I outlined above, and as Peter points out, it shows that Price did have some familiarity with at least one of the PLATO games (my money's on Moria or Avatar). Thanks, Quido.

  12. You can tell this wasn't a great game, the review in Dragon only gave it a 3/5

    1. Ha. I wish I'd found that. That's about a damning rating as you can imagine.

  13. Thanks for mentioning my remake. I think your comments and review were fair and balanced. A lot of people seem to rate the City a lot more highly than the Dungeon, possibly because it was the original or because Philip Price wrote it (he apparently only provided notes and some input to the Dungeon). The PC, Amiga and ST versions aren't as difficult but as there are no 16bit versions of the Dungeon there's still nowhere for your character to go.

    For me though the Dungeon is a much better and complete game and the one I played extensively on my C64 when I was growing up - a clear set of quests and ending, lower difficulty, easily save and revive your characters and a wide variety of unique treasures and special locations to find. Equipment and weapons are much easier to come by and there are sometimes alternatives to fighting in encounters. I'd say it builds on the best features from the City and adds some new ones. I'm doubtful if you'll necessarily like it but hopefully you'll find it a bit more enjoyable.

    I have a C64 version of the Dungeon that has the full game as a single load without any virtual disk swapping if you'd like to try that when the Dungeon comes up for review. There's very little difference between the C64 and Atari versions of the game. Starting stats for Dungeon characters are much higher than starting stats in the City.

  14. I don't know if anyone else has mentioned this, but from a "getting historical RPGs from defunct hardware platforms to run correctly, effortlessly, on modern hardware" perspective (one that troubles Chet on the daily), it's worth noting (it might even be worth signal-boosting by announcing it, so influential are you among CRPG circles!) that as part of the Summer of Code initiative, the SCUMMVM project (traditionally devoted to keeping adventure games playable) is officially courting work increasing their ability to support CRPG engines.

  15. Being an Atari owner in the 1980s was being a second-class citizen. When AR:C came out, there wasn't anything like it on the Atari; we never did get the Wizardry series and we wouldn't get Bard's Tale.

    Even though we did get Ultima I-IV, there wasn't anything like a first person RPG that took advantage of the graphic and sound capabilities of the Atari 8-bit line. Booting up The City for the first time in 1985, well, it was an experience. It's not something that can be appreciated after years of modern games because it was a product of its time, even if it was a bit ahead of it.

    Reading about it now, and what it was doing technology-wise, just makes it more interesting when taken in context of when it was released.

    It may not make it a good game, but it does make it interesting from a historical perspective.

    I would love it if someone would 're-boot' this series using a modern engine, though, with all the planned areas. I always liked the background story, even though it didn't get much mention in the actual game.

    1. "It's not something that can be appreciated after years of modern games because it was a product of its time." Very true--and true of a lot of the games I play. I'm always glad when someone who remembers that original experience is able to post about it. It really helps fill in the gaps that my posts can't cover.

  16. I was looking forward to your review of Alternate Reality when i saw it coming up in the list. This game still holds a special place in my heart, despite all its flaws and frustrations. At the age of 10, i was cutting my teeth on RPGs like Ultima III, Temple of Apshi and Alternate Reality on the Atari 800xl, before Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy heh. While sadly i don't have the box of AR anymore, i still somehow managed to hold onto the manual and the hint book (which talks about the other future planned games). Good review sir!

  17. I think one thing missed in all the reviews of this game was the real anxiety/excitement that one had walking through the streets of the City. If you were lucky enough to develop a character to level 5 or higher, it was a huge risk to walk around without a backup of your character disk. I remember how long it took make backups of the character disk, and that risk was taken a lot. This added to the excitment when encountering a troll, or the horror of encountering a dragon, knowing death would result in the loss of weeks of work to develop that character. There was always a sigh of relief if you could get through a day in the City without getting diseased, poisoned, or killed.

    Now playing the game, a backup takes only a few seconds, so the risk of roaming around is never an issue. That aspect of the game would be hard to recreate from our modern perspective.

    I still hear those tavern song in my head.

    1. That is a really good point. Modern games don't offer the same life-or-death tension, and I could see that bringing a kind of thrill that's hard to recapture with emulators and save states.

  18. Sounds a lot like Shenmue for the Dreamcast- very ambitious, very original, got two installments, and has a huge cult following. I'm sure Mr. Hater of Rhythm Games can tell you more about it.

  19. >You want me to give points for the music, but I don't care about music, and the other sound effects are primitive.

    This seems like an odd comment to me. So is the rating for all games based entirely on sound effects, with no weight given to quality of music? Maybe that should be clarified, if it's the case.

    IMO music can make a huge difference in an RPG's atmosphere -- it's no small part of why Ultima III (C64 version) made such a big impression.

    1. In almost everyone's opinion but mine, music can make a huge difference in a game's atmosphere. However, I don't care how good the music is; I don't like background music. Hence, the "sound" part of graphics, sound, and interface is based purely on non-musical sound.

    2. I might humbly advise changing 'sound' to 'sound effects,' then, for clarity's sake.

      Great blog, incidentally. Been binging on it as I take my own trip down memory lane (just beat Ultima 5, now giving Ultima 6 my first real go).

  20. Good review and I felt that you tried to give it a fair shake. There is appeal in the world exploration that went undermentioned. Trying to find star wizard's guild (okay, pratically impossible),etc.. I agree the game can be boring and tedious but at the same time it was such a different game experience. As you said, there is a genuine feeling of reward and accomplishment if/as you succeed. It's a really flawed but top notch gem. Each character played tells a story. The loot can be game changing (dopamine rush). The time of day affecting foes, the disease system, the potions, the stats, the exploration, the music. It's all so immersive (and crude). All the flawed pieces come together in a brilliantly engaging and immersive way. It absolutely needs a modern remake from a well funded and patient studio who unabashedly agrees with its design and direction. The fact that Datasoft paid him only $15k/yr is very sad! Why didn't Price hire a lawyer to review the contract?!? It's a true classic that I can't think of a modern equivalent. Is there one?

  21. I asked for (and received) this game as a birthday present when I was a kid and it was new for the Apple II. I loved the opening of stepping through the door, and the 3d animation of movement was neat... and that was it. The game was ridiculously hard, inscrutable, goal-less. All the talk about the plans and what would come after - now! - is interesting to hear, but completely irrelevant to the experience of someone who bought this new expecting a self-contained game. It didn't say on the box that another game was coming, or that I should expect this game to not offer something solid or completeable on its own. I don't know whose fault it was that it was published in this manner, but I experienced The City as one of the few true rip-offs of computer software purchasing in the 1980s, and I felt kind of embarrassed I'd asked for it. At least the box is great, which I still have.


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