Thursday, May 28, 2020

TaskMaker: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Can my reward be a haircut?
United States
Storm Impact (developer); XOR (publisher)
Released 1989 for the Macintosh
Remade and re-released as shareware in 1993
Date Started: 15 May 2020
Date Ended: 25 May 2020
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 45
Ranking at time of posting: 334/379 (88%)
TaskMaker is perhaps the perfect Macintosh game. A challenging game with an easy interface, TaskMaker takes the player on a top-down quest to complete 10 tasks for the titular lord, each one progressively more ominous and evil, until at the end the player has a fateful choice. Gameplay is like a combination of early Ultima and a roguelike, with challenging combats made easier through a vast inventory selection. An unusual set of attributes governs success and gets stronger when exercised. Many of the dungeons have complex puzzles involving teleporters, switches, and hidden doors.
The best metaphor I can find for my TaskMaker experience is that I just had an excellent lunch. It was tasty, filling, and didn't do anything wrong except lack the gravitas of dinner. It won't unseat Ultima on the GIMLET--no game that lasts only two entries is going to do that, any more than a great lunch place is going to show up on a city's "best restaurants" list. But for the meal that it offered, it offered it perfectly. I need a way to distinguish such games beyond the raw quantitative score of the GIMLET. 
I wonder if a truly epic, dinner-worthy RPG has been created for the Mac. It's not like the hardware and software wouldn't support it, and of course it receives ports of such games. But something about the operating system seems to encourage games (or, indeed, perhaps all applications) that are the equivalent of dragging files to the trash can: tidy, cutesy, intuitive, and yet a bit groan-worthy to someone who grew up typing DEL FILE.TXT and still finds it easier to do so. TaskMaker avoids the worst of other Mac games in this regard--its main character is not, for instance, a smiley face--and it admirably backs up almost all mouse commands with keyboard controls, but it still has that sense of being an "app" rather than a program.
Making cute drawings out of the dungeon wall pattern is something that a Mac game would do.
Still, the focus belongs on the positives. The titular TaskMaker had ten tasks for me:
  1. Retrieve a package from Skysail Village.
  2. Retrieve a chessboard from within the castle.
  3. Invade the silver mines, kill the usurpers, and bring back a golden chalice.
  4. Dig in the sands of Porta to find a magic item.
  5. Remove his belongings from the Quagmire Estates.
  6. Steal the coat of arms from the Enitsirhc Family, which "resists [his] reforms."
  7. Slay and bring the head of the leader of a rebel faction in Dripstone.
  8. Raid the crypts at Pentamerous and bring back the body of the previous king.
  9. Bring back the crown of the land from Vidair's Tower.
  10. Murder the prisoner in the TaskMaker's island prison.
The steps needed to accomplish these tasks are designed exactly as they should be in a game of this nature. Too many developers, in such a situation, would mistakenly try to create "symmetry" among the tasks by giving them all a similar structure and length, or even worse make them escalate in complexity. But TaskMaker does it right. Some of the tasks are easy, some are hard. Some are long, some are short. To the extent that any are challenging, the challenge is a bit different for each. The variety keeps things interesting and prevents the player from learning to dread the next task.
Digging holes in the desert was boring but easy.
Even better, while the task order is linear, the game world is not. The player could perform all of the tasks before speaking to the TaskMaker once, then stand in front of him and turn them in all in a row. Nothing is gated. If he knows what he's doing, or just has a bit of daring, he can plunder some of the best equipment early in the game. It would be fun to do a speed run of TaskMaker just to see how quickly you could complete it. 
Mapping out a teleport puzzle in one of the last dungeons.
I particularly love that the author didn't put up artificial barriers to two slightly game-breaking options: The "Teleport" spell, which moves you to a random place in the current map, and various items that let you walk through walls (e.g., Ethereal Potion, Passwall Scroll). Most games would offer these options but keep you from using them when they really counted. Not this one. I got lucky with a "Teleport" spell on Task 9 and bypassed most of what was probably the game's toughest dungeon. That in some ways, it's too bad that you can do this is outweighed by how awesome it is that you can do this.
The easiest tasks were #2--the chessboard was just down the hall, though guarded by some tough early-game foes--and #10. The toughest were the ones that had long, large dungeons: #3, #6, #8, and #9. The game specialized in Dungeon Master-style puzzles like switches, teleporters (visible and invisible), energy barriers, and illusory walls. Vidair's Tower consisted of about 50 small areas interconnected by such devices. They ultimately frustrated me, even though I could have taken the time to map them, and on a different night may have had a great time doing just that. On the particular night I was playing, my impatience led me to try "Teleport" and I was tickled to see it rewarded.
A choice of three staircases and a teleporter. Instead of mapping all these paths, I rolled the dice and got lucky.
The combat difficulty I reported in the first entry got easier as the game progressed and I got better equipment. I still probably over-relied on the "Instant Vacations" that my deaths unintentionally replicated, but those deaths became rarer as the game went on and, in particular, as I learned how to effectively use the spells. This is another area that the game does quite well. There are ten spells given to you at the outset, and all are useful. Even if you don't use "Teleport" to bypass dungeon puzzles, you can use it to get out of combat. Even a melee player should use "Attack" frequently because it applies your physical attack to all adjacent foes. "Haste" lets you escape monsters (as well as fight them more efficiently). Even better, NPCs give you additional spells throughout the game, called by casting the "Invoke" spell and then typing their names. HOME is a particularly useful invocation that warps you out of wherever you are and back at the starting location. As I speculated last time, casting spells is what exercises "Intellect" and "Spirit" (and to some extent, "Health") and causes those maximum bars to increase.
TaskMaker also gives you a lot of inventory resources to take the edge off combats, first in the form of increasingly good stuff to wear and wield, but also in a fun variety of usable items like scrolls, wands, and potions. It is in this area that the game starts to feel a bit like a roguelike, although without the interaction between objects that characterizes that sub-genre. 
It probably doesn't surprise anyone to learn that the TaskMaker is actually evil--he does call himself "The TaskMaker," after all. From the game's earliest moments, his over-reactions if you return to him without completing the task show at least a lack of kingly composure, if not outright malevolence.
Lord British never gave me this kind of quest.
You start to get real confirmation of his villainy during your invasion of the castle of the Royal House of Enitsirhc (the developer must have known someone named "Christine"; there's also a Scroll of Christine in the game). NPCs say things like, "No one must serve the TaskMaker" and "Please help us. Kill the TaskMaker." In Dripstone, you get the sense that the rebels are more like freedom fighters than terrorists. As a reward for Task 8, the TaskMaker says "may this keep you ever faithful" and then gives you "DRUGS!"
The TaskMaker's instructions on the final task are also a bit of a clue.
Unfortunately, you can't do anything about it until the final task. If you try to turn on the TaskMaker and slay him during any of the previous game, he just laughs at you. You don't really get any choice until the final task, when you visit the incarcerated prisoner, apparently another rebel leader. "He wants absolute power of the kingdom," the man says, clearly speaking about the TaskMaker.
If at this point you choose to kill the man, he says "you just killed a good guy" as he dies. From then on, every NPC in every town is hostile to you. When you return to the TaskMaker, he mocks you for following all his orders and then apparently has you killed. The game isn't 100% clear.
Also, he's either undead or really good at illusions.
If instead you leave the prisoner alive, the TaskMaker attacks you upon return, also bringing his guards into combat. I didn't find the battle very hard. I don't think I had to even dip into one of my "Instant Vacations" or healing potions. 
Fighting the TaskMaker in the final battle.
When he dies, you get the message at the top of this entry, but even better, you get a new special menu called "Master," which gives you godlike powers over the game world. You can conjure any object, NPC, or monster; change the tiles to any type of floor, furniture, or wall; and toggle time stop, x-ray vision, and ethereal movement. Among other things, this gives you the ability to fully investigate dungeons you may have only partly mapped. It turns out there was a lot to find in the TaskMaker's very own castle. What a fun reward.
Using my new powers to block my throne room with fire.
In a GIMLET, the game earns:
  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory doesn't break any new ground, and there isn't much lore, but I like the way that your actions have permanent consequences (which you can reset!) and the way that the "Info" command gives you a little history of each new location. I just wish the TaskMaker hadn't been called such in-game and the game had taken his story and yours a little more seriously and thus put a real dagger blade on the twist ending.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The creation process (specifying qualitative attributes) is creative, and I like that your development is based partly on how you act. I like that it's possible to gravitate towards a warrior or mage "build" based on what skills you favor. I do wish that the game offered more options than just warrior or mage, and that it made better use of its own alignment system.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Unfortunately, I think NPCs were a lost opportunity for this game. Instead of using them to introduce game lore, the developer just gave them each one or two lines (depending on whether they have anything different to say after you bribe them). None of them are really necessary, and only a tiny percentage are even helpful.
Even when bribed, the rebel leader tells me nothing I don't already know.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Foes are just names and how hard they hit. There are no special attacks or defenses, and a lot of the time, I didn't even pay attention to the names. The non-combat encounters, in the form of puzzles, were more interesting.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. It seems like you just stand in front of enemies and exchange blows, but as I mentioned, the game's approaches to magic and inventory give you a lot more to do in combat than just keep hitting "fight." I like the magic system with its "extra" spells, many of which I didn't discover.
An NPC gives me a new spell keyword.
  • 7 points for equipment. The game is generous with useful inventory, inventory slots, and backpack space. It lacks the descriptions, crafting, and interactions among items that would be necessary for a higher score.
  • 5 points for economy. It's useful until about halfway through the game, when you amass so much money the store no longer sells anything you need. The ATMs are a fun touch, though one of many things that make it hard to take the world seriously.
  • 4 points for a main quest, in manageable stages, with a couple alternate endings and side-areas.
The "evil end" of the game.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. It gets most for the interface. I found the graphics a bit too detailed for what the resolution was actually able to deliver, and the sound with its recorded voices contributes to that "cutesy" Mac quality I talked about. The first two times I heard "what is it?" when I went to identify something made me chuckle. Then I turned the sound off.
  • 7 points for gameplay. It's as nonlinear as it can be for a game that presents tasks in a fixed order. It lasts a perfect amount of time for its scope and offers a near-perfect challenge. It's also extremely replayable--I know I missed a ton of content in my first pass, and this is just the sort of game that would make speedrunning fun.
That gives us a final score of 45, significantly higher than the highest score I'd previously given to a native Mac RPG (Shadow Keep's 36), high enough to put it in the top 15% of games played so far.
TaskMaker was written by David Cook, whose company, Storm Impact, was based in Illinois. David did most of the coding for the company's games, while Tom Zehner did most of the large-scale illustrations, including the TaskMaker title screen and TaskMaker portrait. Dan Schwimmer and Dave Friedman helped with playtesting and map design. The team had met in high school and college and were in their first years at college when they founded the company. While TaskMaker sold reasonably well, the company's most successful game was MacSki (1990).
For years, the original version of the game was lost, but reader LanHawk wrote directly to David Cook and asked him for it, and David obliged. I later corresponded with David by e-mail. He said that TaskMaker began as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. (This is probably the source of the incorrect statement, found on several web pages, that TaskMaker was originally a board game.) In porting it to the Mac, David says he was influenced by Ultima and The Legend of Zelda. But he intended to create a persistent world in which multiple characters could operate even if they couldn't exactly play together. Future characters would have to contend with the detritus of slain ones. This separation of character state and world state created the unintended item replication bug.
The color in the remake makes it easier to tell what the graphics are supposed to be depicting.
Version 2 of TaskMaker was released in 1993. This is the one that more players are familiar with. Having experienced a couple hours of it, I don't believe it's different enough from version 1 to warrant a new game number and set of entries. The most significant changes that I can see are:
  • It's in full color (but otherwise uses most of the same graphics).
  • It comes with a tutorial to get you used to the conventions.
  • Some keyboard commands have been changed.
  • Some spell names have been changed and the "Teleport" spell is gone.
  • There's no character creation process. Everyone starts with equal values in all attributes.
  • The score only increases; it doesn't decrease over time.
The remake comes with a tutorial with magic mouths. Somehow this makes it feel even more like a Mac game.

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


  1. Findings like these are what makes your blog especially worthwhile Chet. Thank you very much for digging it out!

  2. “That in some ways, it's too bad that you can do this is outweighed by how awesome it is that you can do this.“

    These days I don’t tend to make use of such ‘bank errors in your favour‘. But they’ve definitely given me great joy in the past.

    Random encounters in Fallout 2 are occasionally of the: “You find a group of x attacking a group of y” nature, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted one time when early game I spotted a large combat between equally matched groups of ninja and gangsters. After a bloody melee in which they all died, but for a single gangster on very low health, I finished him off and looted the bodies.

    Did it render the next 20 hours of equipment progression meaningless? Yes.
    Did I cackle maniacally all the same? Yes.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I will always look favourably upon a game in which the NPCs and monsters can and will fight each other without player input. I think it's a lovely little mechanic.

    3. Bonus points if you can directly manipulate enemies into fighting each other. Being able to stand back and watch a fight that I started always fills me with glee.

    4. 100% agree with both these comments.

      Also: Summoning AI-controlled monsters. Especially in original Baldur's Gate, which didn't cap you at 5.

    5. "Being able to stand back and watch a fight that I started always fills me with glee."

      Same here.
      Which is one reason Doom 1 and 2 were so great.

    6. Indeed! I was pleasantly surprised to discover in Final Fantasy XV that those annoying robot guys who drop out of the sky to bother you every five minutes can also drop into a random monster encounter and then the two groups have it out while you sit back and watch.

    7. Yep, Doom 2 level editor was hours of fun for that reason.

    8. @Ian there's nothing like a good old fashioned game of "Let's you and him fight."

    9. I used to push people around in GTA IV until they attacked me, in front of the police so the police would then shoot/arrest them *shuffles feet*

  3. "I need a way to distinguish such games beyond the raw quantitative score of the GIMLET."

    Maybe some more categories like your "must play" list on the sidebar? Hidden gems, games with modest ambitions but executed very well?

    1. He can call it the Lunch List.

    2. I remember King's Bounty was called an "afternoon RPG" for the same reason. Yeah, I think a separate category is called for.

    3. *I* called it an "afternoon RPG," and that has more to do with length than with the quality I was describing here.

  4. "I wonder if a truly epic, dinner-worthy RPG has been created for the Mac" - that would be Cythera. It's also an Ultima clone, but it rather creatively mixes elements from Ultima 7 (isometric view, dialog system), 6 (turn-based combat) and Underworld (skill system). Plus it has fairly original lore and well-written plot.

    1. I'm going to second Cythera. It's easily my favorite RPG on the Macintosh. It uses the Creator's own Delver game engine, which compares favorably to Ultima VI, and I would say the game plays mostly like a clone of that game, but decidedly prettier, with gorgeous animated flora and fauna.

    2. Wasn't there some game based on Homer's Odyssey on Mac? I remember something like that, either on Mac or a very hard to play era of Windows.
      There's also Pathways into Darkness, most of Bungie's Mac-era games were just as good as their opposites on MS platforms.

    3. "...most of Bungie's Mac-era games were just as good as their opposites on MS platforms." Heresy! They were better. Someone should have designed an RPG with the engine they used for Myth: the Fallen Lords and Myth: Soulblighter.

    4. I could be wrong - but I had the impression that early Spiderweb Software games were made for the Mac but also released (soon after) on Windows.

      If so, there's your dinner.

    5. The early Spiderweb games were available for Windows. I played the original Exile this way under 3.1.

    6. @Tristan, technically, Vogel still develops the Mac versions of his games first and then ports to Win. But I'm pretty sure Chet meant Mac-only games, or at least those that didn't have a Win port from the very start.

    7. Certainly they have a bit of a Mac feel to them!

    8. Cythera was cool, though the terrible photoshop-filtered portraits definitely show off its shareware origins. It's also got some pretty bad bugs, if I remember rightly. However, it's also a solid and interesting Ultima-style RPG, and it's worth checking out.

  5. "Making cute drawings out of the dungeon wall pattern is something that a Mac game would do."

    I'd say "remember 'SHELTEM IS MY NAME'?", but the Mac port of M&M1 DID look rather... Mac-y.

    This game looks great. Hopefully the others on Macintosh Garden that I'm going to compile a list of when my computer is repaired will also be hidden gems.

    1. There are plenty of decent games on the Mac. Not great, but decent. And they're all from an easily emulatable era, too! The late 90s and early 00s are going to have a couple of nice ones.

  6. Thanks Chet, glad this one was a positive Mac experience.

    The images of the Taskmaker bugged me with their familiarity until just now. Is anyone else familiar with King Lorac from the Dragonlance books, and can see a resemblance in the artwork?

    1. Yes! You're right, the guy is totally Lorac! The similarity to I-don't-know-who-that-guy-was kept bugging me, too!

    2. Another eerie similarity: the cover art of the (much later) CRPG Menzoberranzan. That cover art is much older, the game just re-uses existing D&D artwork like many licensed D&D games used to.

  7. 45 ties it with Alternate Reality: the Dungeon and Chas Strikes Back as the highest rated non-DOS game.

  8. I am glad to see that you experienced one that was short and sweet and seemed to hit the spot.

  9. Can I confirm - this "David Cook" is definitely a different person to David "Zeb" Cook, designer of early Dungeons & Dragons content and later a developer on Fallout 2, City of Villains and Elder Scrolls Online, yes?

    Or is it the same guy?

    1. I wondered the same thing, but they seem to be different people. David Cook makes no mention of Zeb's extensive rpg credits on his web page, and they look very different.

  10. It's always nice to see when one game sticks to his guns and allows to use powerful spells effects (Teleport, polymorphs, ghost form, etc etc) to actually side-step obstacles instead of arbitrary making them fail when it counts.

    I recently replayed oveguevtug, tbetba nyyvnapr and i was pleasantly surprised when i discovered you can use Detect Object and teleport to bypass most dungeons.

  11. Personally I´d take 15 points off Chet´s score. The monochrome/dull and grainy graphics make this just an awful game. Considering also it´s a weak ultima clone, lose another 5 points. So I feel I´m being generous and saying to give it 25, no more. It looks so aged.

    1. That's harsh. I like those old black and white Mac graphics. They're pretty high resolution for the time and look quite atmospheric. Especially the character portraits remind me of old black and white D&D illustrations, before the books had any color printing on the inside pages.

    2. Considering that the graphics, sound, and interface category only contributes 3 points to the final score, with these points being earned by the interface, it would seem that the Addict agrees graphics and look are not this game's strong points. So taking off 15 (!) points of the end score is neither on the table with a rating system like this, nor is it in any way warranted.

    3. Yeah, I quite like the graphics too, and even if it wasn't mandated by the hardware in this case, black and white is a valid artistic choice. I wish there were more games that made that choice, but I can think of only a handful.

    4. Graphics are fine except for that hideous Escher tiling.

  12. That "Master" menu feature reminds me of the Amiga/Atari/PC rpg-adjacent game Damocles in which you can find the offices of the game's developer and if you sit in the programmer's chair and access his computer, you can start messing around with the game world, including things like changing the colour of the sky and deleting entire planets.

  13. "Making cute drawings out of the dungeon wall pattern is something that a Mac game would do."

    Actually, I think that's more of a tip of the hat to Legend of Zelda (which he noted as an influence) - all of the dungeon maps there are set up as little drawings -

  14. "Can my reward be a haircut?"

    Between this and your objection to the Avatar, I think we can definitively state that you have Long Hair Envy.

  15. nice entry!
    i'm looking forward to Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis
    which is also very mac-y, but i rather enjoyed... anybody have else have fond memories of that one?

  16. Have you ever considered playing Qbasic rpg games?

  17. What were the technical differences/constraints back in the mid/late 80s that the Mac had such nice graphics but games were in B&W?

    Was this to work on the original Mac 128k that had a B&W display but a higher definition than either CGA or EGA on the PC?

    1. Original Mac resolution was 512x384. That's quite a bit higher than the 320x200 resolution used in most DOS games even in the VGA era. And as it's true monochrome, each scanline only needs 64 bytes, and a whole page fits in 24KB.

      Thing is, EGA was capable of 640x350 in monochrome. And VGA was capable of 640x480 in 16 colors. I believe DOS was more than capable of crisp Mac-like graphics, which one could appreciate better on a monitor larger than the Mac's 9-inch viewport. Developers / consumers just overwhelmingly preferred color. SVGA's 640x480 256-color mode needed 300KB which was out of the question for most consumers around this time.

      SimCity is one of the few DOS games with decent high res monochrome support, showing what might have been.

    2. Thank you, that was quite clear and indeed those Sim City screenshots are a gem!

    3. Speaking of Sim City/Maxis, I think I could remember Sim Earth lets you choose different colour/resolution modes on the startup

  18. What a cool game. I love reading about games like this that have slipped through the cracks--at least, for some of us.

    TaskMaker seems very self-contained and tightly designed. I suppose its small scale lends itself to such meticulous care, but all the same the level of craftsmanship is admirable.

  19. I remember in the remake 2 cheeses:
    - You could not die. Losing HP boosted your stats. So I would let my character walk in an electric field for hoursto start wth a booosted character.
    - I would not use the ethereal potion so that I could use it in the Taskmaker castle and get the boomerang from the treasure room, which was a very nice ranged weapon.

    But I could never get past the 3rd task for some reason. Either because shareware, or I was too young and played badly.

    Still, a very good memory :)

  20. "If you try to turn on the TaskMaker and slay him during any of the previous game, he just laughs at you. You don't really get any choice until the final task"

    Several games have been doing this.

    The problem that I have with it is that one has to commit a number of questionable or illegal activities to solve the game. If one's seriously into roleplaying, these would still be crimes that had to be taken to court afterwards (e.g., in the outro-sequence).

    The only way to "win" against the TaskMaster is to not play the game at all.

    1. For instance, there's a famous adventure game where your NPC ally is, very obviously from the first meeting, an evil vampire. But your character cannot call her out on that until much, much later in the game, after you've aided her with several tasks that imperil the world. Whoops... V'z gnyxvat nobhg gur sbhegu dhrfg sbe tybel tnzr.

  21. I'm happy to see such a positive review of TaskMaker.

    I found it on an old MacAddict CD years ago. Wanted to register and get the full version. Didn't realize StormImpact had gone out of business by the time I begged mom to send the money order.

    Many years later I found registration codes online. You have no idea how happy I was to finally get to Silver Creek.

    There is a playthrough online by Alex Diener, but he missed quite a few things. I would love to record my own playthrough and maybe even a historical video.

    I'd also love to see you cover the sequel, The Tomb of the TaskMaker.

    I'm also surprised you managed to find an older version of the game. I'd love to see that version too, as I can spot quite a few differences and would love to know more about how it evolved.

  22. Speaking of speed runs, I can beat the color version in 33 minutes. Love this game.


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