|Obsessed by adventure, Peter Jackson girds his loinS and boldly goes where few reviewers have gone before - to the shelves of the local bookstore. His mission? To discover what goes to make a prime adventure tutor for the Speccy.|
- Collins Gem English Dictionary.
To start with, here's a small competition for adventure game players: spot the bit of the above definition that rarely crops up in the dungeons. Correct. Part two: spot the bit that has brought us so many books on Spectrum adventures. Correct again.
But the commercial speculation in the adventure book world is more subtle than the usual bandwagon-jumping that's done by authors and publishers, though that is certainly going on (note Melbourne House's tome explaining The Hobbit 'help' messages, for one). No, these books are also an appeal to reader's commercial interests. You won't find this group of Spectrum users rubber-keying its way through multi-K adventure listings in Basic just out of curiosity - or just to play the resulting game when all the answers are in the listings anyway. What these readers want is to learn how to produce adventures that they can sell for vast amounts of money.
Take the final few paragraphs of Keith Campbell's Computer and Video Games Book of Adventure for example. "If you now have a game popular with friends and family, you might consider the possibility of getting it published," says Campbell. And a few lines later: "I ... look forward to playing and possibly reviewing your adventures in the future!" (Campbell, like many other writers in the adventure field, is addicted to exclamation marks. It gives some ersatz excitement to the prose, like this!!!)
At least his book gives some useful advice about the real purpose of writing your own adventures. The others under review are a little more coy, with one of them remarking vaguely that the author is "sometimes tempted to think that the mercenary attitude shines through on occasions!" (note that '!'). Perhaps several months should be spent writing an adventure just to amuse family and friends and to impress them with your programming prowess and resistance to boredom?
It's interesting to note that Campbell
and most of the other authors in this
book batch have had adventures published by some games house or other.
Peter Gerrard, for example, is described in the blurb of his Exploring
Adventures on the Spectrum 48K as the
"author of two top selling adventure
games for the Commodore 64"(?). And
Roy Carnell, author with Tony Bridge
of Spectrum Adventures, has his own
eponymous adventure software house. |
THRILLS FOR SALETo paraphrase Dr Johnson; "Sir, no one but a fool ever wrote an adventure except for money." So - fair enough - I decided to examine the five books from the point of view of making money; to be honest, I'm by no means immune to the temptation of writing a 'top selling adventure' myself.
One thought struck almost immediately - the programming in adventures is not very difficult. Long, certainly; convoluted, yes; but not actually difficult. The main purpose in adventures is to understand the player's typed input and relate this to stored information about objects, locations and problems in the fantasy world created by the programmer. (At least, that's what I think it is. We'll be coming back to what some
of the authors think it is later.) Programming this requires a bit of string slicing,
a lot of checking against arrays, some
setting and testing of flags, and a whole
raft of IF-THEN-GOTOs and ON-
GOTOs. The main problem is continuity, the linking together of locations,
objects and actions, but that's a debugging and play-testing problem rather
than a programming one. |
What stops people writing adventure programs, then, is not so much difficulty as problems of scale. Adventures are so darn big that they can daunt the beginner; warnings in the books about what you can do if you run out of memory are more frightening when you have 48K than when you only have 16K. All the authors have addressed themselves to this confidence problem in various ways - and with varying degrees of success.
THE SHAPE'S THE SAMEDespite differing approaches to the actual programming, all the books seem to follow a set pattern. First there is an explanation of fantasy and role-playing games and that's followed by a description of Dungeons and Dragons with all the obligatory copyright and trademark blurb from TSR. Then comes an outline study of the original mainframe adventure, descriptions of the early micro
versions, and eventually the author gets
into his own programs. |
About the weirdest candidate for this stock structure comes in Spectrum Adventures by Bridge and Carnell. The usual stuff about Crowther and Woods, Scott Adams et al, is just as expected, and there are descriptions and examples of such classic text adventures as Colossal Cave and Level 9's Dungeon Adventure. There's even a separate chapter on The Hobbit. Then the authors start programming and the game they have chosen to illustrate adventures is a pure graphic, 'move about on the screen and belt monsters', arcade-style thing that bears little relation to the heritage they are claiming. It's called Eye of the Star Warrior, and those fearing the mammoth task of typing it all in will be pleased to learn that it's also available on cassette.
Chapter six of Spectrum Adventures offers some self-justification for using a 'graphic adventure' (the phrase is theirs, I'd prefer 'arcade knockabout') to demonstrate adventure programming technique. "In this way we can present the maximum number of techniques", it says. "The second reason is simple - a text adventure, while being a lot of fun to play, is not much of a surprise after being typed in from a listing!", it goes on. Leaving the exclamation mark aside, this seems to me like turning a bug into a feature. The most famous adventure programs ever are all pure text (leaving aside The Hobbit which is a very mediocre adventure indeed without the pictures) and giving the thrill-thirsting public something that isn't really an adventure at all is a bit much.
Pardon my continued ranting, but if this book was meant to describe arcade games it should say so in the title. It will not do for the authors to say, as they do in Chapter six, that "the section on generating the room complex will be just as valid in a text game, as will the movement routines", particularly when the 'complex' consists of a three-level array of identical cubicle rooms differing only in their monstrous graphic contents.
Similar criticisms, only less spiteful, can be made of a book I haven't mentioned before: Andrew Nelson's Creating Adventure Programs on Your Computer. We're not told whether Nelson has his trotters in the published game trough, only that he has spent "the last 18 months devising, programming and playing computer Adventure games". But it seems safe to assume that he's in it for the moolah, just like the rest of us.
Be that as it may, his book is the only one in the stack that doesn't follow the standard pattern. There's no history lesson, but before jumping head first into the programming, Nelson does provide one or two interesting sidelines. First he gives a little non-computer adventure game, reminiscent of
Penguin's Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks in
its programmed learning course layout.
This forms the basis of his first game
listing, Werewolves and Wanderer,
and he also shows a printout of the program actually running - a feature other
authors should copy. |
Nelson gives three games listings, all based on the same techniques and increasing in complexity through the book. Only the first has its programming described in detail, with the code split into short sections and explained. It's left as an exercise to the reader to figure out how these techniques are used in the later games, but there's nothing too difficult. All three have much more in common with the adventure classics than Bridge and Carnell's example.
But that's not to say that Nelson's work is entirely kosher. As the sample runs show, the aims of the games are to explore an environment, pick up treasure and kill monsters. True, the room descriptions will be more familiar to the old-timers, but the player's vocabulary is limited to a set of one-letter commands and the puzzle-solving aspect of adventures is sadly neglected in favour of 'slash and bash'.
All three games were created on the IBM PC, but since they are text-only there are few problems in converting them to run on the Spectrum (or anything else for that matter), and the largest of them only sucks up around 18K.
Nelson's book is published by Interface - which made it quite a surprise to find another Interface book in the stack, and one sporting a similar title: Creating Adventure Programs on the ZX Spectrum. It's writ by our own Peter Shaw along with fellow infant prodigy, James Mortleman.
This is the most lightweight of the quartet, the bulk of the book being taken up with the listings of several simple adventures. But these are what I would call real adventures, with puzzles to solve, equipment to figure out, and other stock situations. At least Shaw and Mortleman have resisted overburdening the pages with explanation of the straightforward programming required; the listings tell the story themselves. And the listings are also short enough to run through without fear.
THE WINNERSAnd finally, we come whizzing back to Keith Campbell and his Computer and Video Games Book of Adventure, and Peter Gerrard's Exploring Adventures on the Spectrum 48K. To my mind, these are easily the two best books in the batch. Both written by published game authors, they are traditional in the type of game they describe and they clearly and succinctly explain each stage in the programming of a traditional adventure.
Both follow stock format, with history
and brief descriptions of published
games at the front, followed by programming details for one game on three
machines (Campbell), or three games
on one machine (Gerrard). |
But Gerrard's book wins it, and not just because he has the advantage of being able to concentrate on the Spectrum alone. Demo or no demo, Campbell's adventure program is trivial, and if you produced a similar game using the techniques given you'd be laughed out of every software house waiting room in the land. Gerrard's, on the other hand, are the real thing. They're of the right commercial scale and - once again - it's no surprise to find the games available on cassette from the book publisher; with changes in locations and objects you could well have a sellable game on your hands. Gerrard also gets high marks for providing a set of scenarios that the reader could use to get a foot in the door of those mirth-ridden software houses.
One final point (and really an admission of prejudice) both Campbell and Gerrard produce 'real' adventures and their books have also proved a few points to my satisfaction. First, lots of the adventure games you come across are nothing of the sort. Second, writing adventure programs is a lot more difficult to start and finish; the actual coding seems a piece of cake. And third, I now know that I could write a wonderful adventure game if I only had the time ... or perhaps a good adventure book?
One last gripe from someone who is within 'the biz'. Any publisher who allows the sort of production cock-ups that have marred all the five books here - typographical errors, mispellings, misregistered printing, misbound and repeated sections of pages, and mis- just- about- everything- else - would not keep my valued custom. And yet all these books cost more than a reasonably good adventure cassette. 'Commercial speculation' is right, and so, nearly, was Dr Johnson.