Sunday, June 30, 2024

Game 520: Dismal Passages (1992)

There are no passages in this game, dismal or otherwise, except for the opening screens.
Dismal Passages
United States
Independently developed and published as shareware
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 24 June 2024
Date Ended: 25 June 2024
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at time of posting: 199/521 (38%)   
Dismal Passages opens with one of the more gruesome backstories that we've seen in RPG history, all told on screens of red text. You awaken in the middle of the night to find that wraiths have invaded your house and are literally tearing your family apart. Your father, unable to accomplish anything with his shovel, goes first. Then your mother: "Blood spatters up against the sickened walls while your mother is being dissected before your eyes." You try to flee but one of the wraiths emits a miasma that makes you dizzy but "does not shield your vision from a white creature stabbing your sister through the abdomen and ripping her into two separate pieces." You are saved by the unexplained appearance of a wolf, who wounds one of the wraiths before becoming mortally wounded himself. The wraiths flee as the wolf beseeches you to avenge him and your family by killing the head wraith, whose name is apparently Vaargerold.
"Covered in your family's blood, you cower in the corner" appears in the backstories of so few RPGs.
Character creation consists of only a name. You then enter the realm--apparently called Drelg Artarvia, although you don't discover this until the end--standing outside the house of horror. The game uses a side-view interface in which you move right and left across the screen. I thought it might have been inspired by Ali Atabek's Rings of Zilfin (1986), but apparently by the author's own account, he based his early work on Below the Root (1984). [Ed. Mr. Kintz reported to me by email that he had played The Bard's Tale, Ultima, Phantasie, Moebius, Questron, and Gateway to Apshai, but he didn't remember ever playing Zilfin. It was a long shot.] Other than moving, there are only a few commands. E)nter transitions you between outdoor and indoor locations as long as you're standing next to a door. T)alk opens a conversation with any NPC in the area; S)earch will search the piece of furniture that you're adjacent to for objects. Some buildings have internal staircases, which you can C)limb and D)escend. You can check I)nventory or U)se an object at any time.
Walking through a town.
There are some mysteries to the interface. The bottom-central part of the screen would seem to be devoted to a close-up view of the character's immediate surroundings. Except that I don't think that it zooms the graphics at all, so you're left with an "isolated" view of the character's immediate surroundings, the equivalent of looking at an object through a paper tube instead of a proper magnifying lens. There is no place in the game where this interface element is necessary or even helpful. In the lower right, the character's health is given numerically beneath a heart, and his current gold is given numerically beneath a . . . what? The stylized "cg" at the top of the region means "current gold," an abbreviation the game uses elsewhere. But what is the little graphic supposed to be? I have no idea. It doesn't change or anything. [Ed. According to an email from Mr. Kintz, it's supposed to be the symbol that this world uses to represent currency, like a dollar sign or Euro sign. Also, "CG" doesn't stand for "current gold" but rather "crown gelds."]
Reaching the western end of the world.
You move between the game's areas by walking off the screen to the right or left. The game has about 100 such screens, not counting internal ones, with about 80% going east from the character's house and 20% going west. It would have been helpful if they had wrapped, but the western screens end at an ocean and the eastern ones end at a desert that you die in if you try to cross. Most screens just have landscape features, like mountains, trees, and grass, but some have houses, towers, or temples to enter.
Outside a gypsy wagon.
The player's goal is to visit each screen, talk to NPCs, and search for objects, all with the goal of putting together the items needed to enter the NetherRealm and kill the wraith. These clues are not in a linear order, so you have to do a fair amount of backtracking to assemble them all. In between civilized areas, you fight battles with a few types of monsters, collect gold, and use it to buy weapon and armor upgrades. This last bit is probably why MobyGames classifies it as an RPG, but the character never improves, and the overall focus of Dismal Passages is far more adventure-oriented. I finished it because it was short and I thought aspects of it spoke of hidden potential.
An important clue from the "gypsy prophetess."
You get most of the game's clues by talking and most of its objects by searching. Once NPC dialogue is initiated, you can ask (with  numbers) about the NPC, the Wraith, the plague (just hearing about that now!), runes, weapons, objects, and the NetherRealm. The first NPC you're likely to meet is Hornak, your "step-cousin" living next door. I had a chuckle about the unnecessary specificity of that relationship. Anyway, his answers are:
Who are you: I'm your step cousin, Hornak.
Wraith: Do not seek him, he will destroy you.
Plague: It has threatened our land's existence.
Runes: The runes speak of evil, they are dangerous.
Weapons: Get a coat of chained armour, quickly.
Objects: You'll need the Book of Nhurgle to get into the NetherRealm.
NetherRealm: I've heard there are 3 things you need to use to get there.
So, did my aunt or uncle remarry, or did my mother have a step-brother who had children?
Cousin Hornak is one of the more useful NPCs. A lot of them are a waste of time, such as this "false seer":
Who are you: A false seer. [Nice that she's honest.]
Wraith: I see that you will soon be destroyed by him.
Plague: AND you will contract the plague.
Runes: AND the runes will turn against you.
Weapons: AND your weapons will rust and become useless.
Objects: AND your objects will hold unspeakable horrors.
NetherRealm: And you will die in the nether realm by the Spirits of HIM.
Hornak wasn't kidding about getting some chainmail. Surviving the combats is the hardest part of the game, and in a longer game, it would affect the overall difficulty rating. Enemies whack away your hit points shockingly fast, and the only way to recover them is to spend the night in the inn, which is maybe 16 screens to the east of the starting screen. It's the only one. (One of the towns has a brothel, but if you try to use its services, you get knocked unconscious and robbed of all your money.) Staying one night costs 2 gold and restores 2 hit points. Although you start with 100 hit points, you can get up to 130 by staying at the inn. It's worth grinding to get to this point every time you pass through the town, although until you get some armor, it's hard to make any progress. You end up spending everything you earn on healing.
Weapons are sold in a shop near the inn, armor not for many more screens to the east. You can loot a suit of leather from a house, though. Weapons, in order of expense, are a dagger (you find one of these in your own house), a flesh hook, a bow, an axe, a Tkachi Blade, a crossbow, and a blunderbuss. The blunderbuss is far more expensive than the other weapons, but NPCs will tell you that it has a chance of blowing up in your hands, and the Tkachi Blade is in fact the best weapon.
NOTHING is free?! What a deal!
There isn't much to combat. There are four enemy types: something that looks like a bear, something that looks like a monk, something that looks like a bandit, and something that looks like a dinosaur (the hardest). Options are to attack, flee, change weapons, and talk. Flee occasionally works. If you attack, you and the enemy simply trade blows until one of you is dead. If you talk, the monk and bandit will give you a line, but they'll also just keep on attacking.
The game's four foes.
And fighting one of them.
Monsters can give you plague, which depletes your health every step. There's a guy in one of the towns that will cure it, but good luck getting to him in time. Plague is generally a death sentence.

Through a slow but painfully easy process of just talking to everyone about everything and searching every piece of furniture, you piece together the following:
1. To enter the NetherRealm, you need to stand on top of a mountain amid a field of mushrooms, then use, in order, the Box of Mystic Sands, the Book of Nhurgle, and the Staff of Void. The Box of Mystic Sands is found in a house. The Book of Nhurgle is in a madman's attic.
2. The Staff of Void is a composition of the five runes (Winter, 9 Hells, Oblivion, Pain, and the Abyss) and an Astral Compass. The compass is found in an old sailor's house at the western end of the row of screens.

3. The runes are each held by five temples, which dot the landscape in between cities. Each priest asks you a question about the game's lore; you learn the answer from other NPCs.

  • Who leads the damned to light? (LOZOR.)
  • What is the seventh planet from Eltorm? (ELAM DIRGE.)
  • What are the sacred words of Elgram? (YELT BRAM TOBOR.) 
  • Who is the god of the seas? (SALMARIA.)
  • A nonsense string of words. (KLLEYN.)

Getting the final rune.
4. To even get to the top of the mountain, you need to buy a set of climbing gear from a mountaineer west of the starting village.

5. To survive in the NetherRealm, you need to wear a Shroud of the Dead. You can loot one from a mausoleum, but you have to find a special key in a tower first.
This quest is getting kind of gross.
6. Vaargerold can only be killed with a "shaft of light." To get this, you have to use the Orb of Flight in a specific desert screen in which no cacti are visible. You find the Orb of Flight in the house of a merchant-trader.
That's not how it works!
7. After Vaargerold is destroyed, you have to use a gate to return to the real world. This came from a ghost in a ruined town. I nearly missed the clue because I didn't see the ghost standing there.

Once I had all the "ingredients" for the staff, I took them to Mitheral Enchanted Object Shop in the easternmost town and paid quite a bit of money to turn the items into the Staff of Void, though curiously I don't lose the individual items from my inventory.
"Combined with other magical objects" makes this sound like a scam.
I found the mountain surrounded by mushrooms after a few false tries, climbed to the top with the mountain gear, and then went through the Box, Book, Staff ritual.
"Mushrooms" could have been clearer.
A portal brought me to the NetherRealm, which was about a dozen screens of twisted, shadowy trees, stars, and an enormous crescent moon. One of the screens had a tower.
A star shines through what ought to be the solid part of the moon. This must be an Islamic land.
I entered and climbed several flights of stairs. At the top, Vaalgerold (sporting a new spelling of his name) appeared and said:
I have heard [that] you sought me. But I did not deem you bold enough to finish your quest. Since you have come so far, as others have, I will let you make the first move. To attack me with whatever means you have thought would destroy me. Some archaic weapon or outdated potion. Go ahead [and] make your move before I destroy you.
For fun, I tried to just attack him with a regular weapon. He laughed and killed me.
Man, why do you always have to rip bodies into two pieces? Do you not know how weird that is?
Reloading, I tried again with the Shaft of Light. It killed him immediately. 
Family avenged.
A magic gate appeared and the game asked if I wanted to enter. I chose "no" and got a grisly end.
In some ways, I like this better than the real ending.
I reloaded and chose yes and got a quick epilogue:
A new day arrives in Drelg Artarvia. The plague lifts itself from the land. And the world is reborn again. You return a famous adventurer. And a new age begins, an age of hope and prosperity. Thy Adventure has ended.
Maybe as a symbol of the new age, we could rename the land?
Dismal Passages took me about 3 hours, a lot of it spent backtracking across screens. You can't put the emulator in warp mode to speed this up because combats are on a timer. It gets only a 21 on my GIMLET, and I originally was going to offer it as a BRIEF, but something about it pulled me in. I think that x factor is embodied in the 4 that I gave to "game world." Primed by its brutal backstory, the game manages to establish a remarkably bleak atmosphere. The world really feels like it's ending. Houses exist in huddled clusters against seas of lethal wilderness. NPCs all talk as if they've gone mad. Stores hardly have anything in stock. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to get the plague. Most people openly scoff at your quest. The limitations of both game and author work to (unintentionally?) enhance this atmosphere. The black screens convey hopelessness and darkness even when they depict the sun shining. The empty houses feel like places where people have burned their furniture rather than places that the developer didn't have the time or ability to sketch in with greater graphical detail. Even the amateurish monster portraits look amateurish in a freaky way.
The developer in this case is Jeffrey P. Kintz. This was his first game. A few years ago, I played his second: Shape Shifter from the same year. Although I didn't think it was much of an RPG, it does show a growth in programming ability. Shape Shifter had the same side-view approach to individual screens (with the same commands), but it had a top-down world map and more detailed graphics in general. In 1995, Kintz remade Dismal Passages with a Sierra-style point-and-click interface as Dismal Passages: Part I - The Wicked Curse. That might have just been the freeware name. Kintz's usual habit was to publish a "Part 1" of his game as freeware and then send you the whole thing when you paid your shareware fee. In any event, I can't find any evidence of Dismal Passages: Part II.
A screenshot from the remake.

Kintz's brief autobiography (archived in 2001) traces the development of his other games. He made several adventures in the Sierra style, including The Dark Convergence (1993), The Dark Convergence II (1994), and Elkinloor (1995). In Borderworld (1996), he created a text adventure supplemented with photographs and original graphics. He shifts fully into RPG territory with Vor Terra (1996), which has the appearance and simplicity of a hydlike console game.
Kintz appears in the game but doesn't tell you anything useful.
Having played two of his games at this point and watched several others on YouTube, I'd say his primary limitation as a developer is a lack of scope. He published short stories as if they were novels. "Longplays" of his adventure games on YouTube routinely clock in at less than half an hour. He also (again, judging from  YouTube videos) never developed any real facility with sound. Passages is full of beeps and bloops during movement and combat, and I turned it off pretty fast. He definitely improved his graphical abilities, however, and the introductions to his games show his talent as a writer.
We'll see Kintz again for Vor Terra and perhaps for his final game, Lost Infinity (2000), depending on my assessment of its RPG status. I assume more of his games will be covered at The Adventurers Guild, where Morpheus Kitami wrote about Dismal Passages last October. I corresponded briefly with Kintz during the week before this entry was posted, but he hadn't responded to my questions by the time I needed to get this out. If he does, I will update in the comments and then in the entry as appropriate. [Ed. I heard from him the same day this posted. It was my fault: I didn't tell him I was working on a deadline. He reports that he is still working on games, and is now "putting finishing touches" on his first mobile game. He's focusing on adventure games but he has been "working on and off" on an RPG. I hope he notifies us when it's ready.]


  1. "A false seer. [Nice that she's honest.]"
    Is she? This sort of thing makes me suspicious in the "everything that I say is a lie" sort of way.
    On another note, most of the art is as bad as something I'd do, but that boulder is a very nice image for CGA.

  2. Even if you weren't crazy about the game, it seems like you had a great time writing this entry. The captions in particular are probably your funniest ever!

  3. Nurgle is one of the evil gods in Warhammer; I'm surprised the oldest Warhammer CRPG is from 1995. The Nine Hells, however, are from the Forgotten Realms in D&D. If the other names in this game are a reference to anything, I haven't been able to find it.

    1. Nurgle is just a different spelling of Nergal, the 5000 year old babylonian god of disease. Variations have been used in various fantasy works for decades. Same with the Nine Hells. They derive from Dante's Divine Comedy which was written in the 1300s. The idea was used by Ed Greenwood for Forgotten Realms, but also many fantasy properties both before and after.

    2. Nergal reminds me of Nermal, the cute kitten who is Garfield's nemesis. I somewhat doubt that Jim Davis intended that.

    3. Nurgle is a real-life deity? OMG, that's a bit shocking. Also, "Nergal" seems to be similar to DnD's "Nerghul", for that matter. (Does Dagon be based on some real-life deity then? j/k )) )

  4. "[...] to avenge him and your family by killing the wraith, whose name is apparently Vaargerold."

    Wait, weren't there several wraiths which attacked and killed your family? So which one is this, the leader? And the others will die/disappear as well if you kill it? One more mystery, I guess.

    "Your death is quick and painful."

    Sounds like a variation of the tropes of "quick and painless" and "slow and painful".

    1. The opening text only applies the word WRAITH to the lead creature, not the two thin white creatures who are his accomplices. So that's kind of consistent, and I could believe that some of the enemies were more of the thin white creatures... but none of them are "thin white creatures with sharp blade-like claws on their thin arms" and "elongated heads that show almost no features."

      The wolf severely wounds at least one of the accomplices and I guess it's possible that it kills both in the battle, but that also raises the question, is there any explanation of the talking wolf?

    2. Clearly, that was what the sequel would have been about.

    3. I think his accomplices are just mindless minions, such that the character considers his family avenged if he just kills the leader.

      No explanation on the wolf. I asked Kintz by email whether he had a more elaborate backstory in mind that would have used the wolf.

  5. The carried gold image looks like part of a purse or maybe the backpocket of your jeans.

    1. My guess is it depicts a safe.

    2. I thought maybe a billfold, or - maybe a bit too abstractly - a flashing gold ingot.

    3. I thought wallet too, because the word "dad" made me think it was a more contemporary setting (though it turns out "dad" is an old word); but it looks like a medieval-like setting and the introduction calls it an "ancient land." OTOH an ancient land would have had a lot of time to invent wallets.

    4. Okay, this sounds far fetched, but it could be interpreted as an abstraction of the British pound symbol (£) to stand in as their fantasy currency.

      Considering the other answers, I can see it as one half of a buttoned purse.

      Also, the graphics of this game are *dismal*.

    5. I also think it's a wallet. And I think the letters "cg" are weirdly written. Is this the only place where the game skips its regular font?

    6. I suppose it's as good an explanation as any. Yes, I think so, Radiant. That's clearly a graphic rather than a font.

    7. Dad is pretty standard British English too, not merely "olde". Could lend weight to the pound reference (which I also saw). Did the author spend some time growing up there, I wonder

    8. Dad is extremely standard American English too, it's what I call my father and I think is the standard short name for a father (as in dad jokes, dad bod, etc.) So much so that I thought it seemed out of place in a faux-medieval setting, which made me think it was more likely that the graphic was a wallet which would also be out of place. But I looked it up and the word "dad" is older than that shape of wallet.

    9. As per the edit I appended, I heard from Mr. Kintz, and the graphic is just supposed to be the symbol that this world uses for its currency.

      I don't imagine that any game would stand up well to a scrutiny of how it uses medieval or early modern English. The issue always makes me think of this XKCD cartoon:

  6. Feels like a very atmospheric game, at least setting wise. And I love that the copyright mentions brun30, wasn’t that something required by QBasic programs?

  7. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 30, 2024 at 8:58 AM

    The bleak atmosphere conveyed by the game (and by your write-up) brings to mind Peake's Gormenghast series of novels. Those were possibly the bleakest Fantasy books I've ever come across; maybe the bleakest overall, though McCarthy's "The Road" would vie with them.

    1. Of all the books I’ve read cover to cover, Gormenghast was the one I liked least. The Road was pretty good though. The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass was pretty bleak.

  8. I think, there was some influence from the Ravenloft in making of this game.

    1. I found Peake's novels more weird and wonderful than bleak. At least compared to for example The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant or Wilson Tucker's The Long Loud Silence (apparently a 1950s version of The Road (which I have not read yet).

    2. Sorry, was meant as reply to AA.

    3. The whole bleakness of the setting, undead just bursting into homes to murder villagers, magical illness, gypsies. I read a few books and won Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession, and "Ravenloft" just clicked into my mind as I was reading the entry.

      By the way, I also think what the "dinosaur" enemy might be a carrion crawler. Based on the early designs for D&D.

    4. I could see this as being a super-proto Dark Souls as well, with the break atmosphere, world in decay, and the insane npc'd

  9. About the finished versions, I think I mentioned this in my own coverage, but someone got all of Kintz's games straight from the source, so if there ever was a Dismal Passages 2 of either nature, it doesn't exist anymore. Same as that text adventure that's allegedly his first released game. The only sequel he ever made was The Darkest Convergence 2.

  10. The opening text seems like they could be the dismal passages.

    1. That's . . . that's such a good theory I'm changing my opening caption.

    2. Audible laughter was produced

  11. this sounds like a 12 year old DM tying to chock his mates with a gruesome depictions that he could come up with. early grim/dark and I love it.

    1. I was confused what "chock" meant, so I looked it up on Urban Dictionary. I suspect that's not what you mean, but maybe some people play D&D differently than others.

    2. english as third language makes this sort of confusion, sorry about that.

    3. I think he meant "shock", but funnier this way.

    4. it is just misspelled shock...

    5. The podcast 372 Pages We'll Never Get Back once read the infamous bad fantasy fic "The Eye of Argon", and one bit they did involved looking up the various misspelled words on Urban Dictionary. Pretty much all of them had horrifying definitions. Coincidentally, one of them was "chocking"! ("chocking fumes")

    6. No problem, Pie. I didn't mean to make fun of you; I honestly thought maybe it was some young person slang I didn't know about.


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