Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Escape from Traam (1981)

This week, we're going to attempt to Escape from Traam, as we tackle this third game in the Other Ventures series written by Jyym Pearson and published by Scott Adams' Adventure International as an alternative to the founder's classic series.  Pearson's adventures were a bit different from the norm at the time -- they're more narratively structured, with tighter plotting and more constraints on the action, sacrificing some interactivity for the sake of dramatic set pieces.  The Other Ventures parser is more capable than Adams' early system in some ways, but also rather picky, and we're not often given a list of obvious exits, which makes mapping and survival a trial-and-error affair at times. 

For this post, I started out playing the 1980 TRS-80 version, but ran into a roadblock, an apparent bug that turned out not to be present in the slightly modified 1981 Apple II version, so I'll note the point where that transition occurred.  Here are the starting screens from both versions -- note that, unlike Adams' own portable engine-driven adventures, the OtherVentures were converted specifically for each platform, with some differences between versions as a result.  The TRS-80 edition features a single static graphic that occupies most of the right side of the screen, while the Apple II version toggles between vector-and-fill-and-scribble illustrations and text screens using the ENTER key:

Interested readers are encouraged to Escape from Traam independently before proceeding here -- but do let me suggest that you avoid the 1980 TRS-80 version and seek out the later revisions if at all possible, as in my case the original release proved unfinishable.  I also recommend having a walkthrough handy, as there was one "password" puzzle for which I never did find the legitimate solution!  Beyond this point I will be detailing my experience as fully as I can manage, so be advised that there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin IN THE COCKPIT OF A SMALL SPACE SHIP... FLYING OVER A FOREST -- and we have nothing in inventory, apparently just popping out to Traam for a gallon of milk or something.  We learn shortly that THE SHIP IS LOSING ALTITUDE, and if we LOOK at the control PANEL we learn that an alarm is beeping and a light is blinking.  There doesn't seem to be anything we can do to prevent the ship from losing altitude and crashing, but at least YOU HAVE SURVIVED afterward.

We're in a SMALL FOREST CLEARING now, and the only productive direction to go is south, where we find a SHEER CLIFF.  We can't CLIMB CLIFF -- YOULL [sic - no apostrophes allowed in Pearson's 1980 TRS-80 engine] FALL -- or JUMP -- ITS [see above] TOO DANGEROUS.   But LOOK CLIFF establishes that there's a stout bush growing near the top -- except the parser doesn't seem to recognize the word BUSH.  I had to LOOK SHIP an extra time -- earlier it was noted that there were scraps about, and the ship was upside down -- to discover a nylon rope, and GET ROPE doesn't work but GET NYLON ROPE does.

We can TIE ROPE TO BUSH (TIE ROPE doesn't work, nor does TIE BUSH or LOOK BUSH -- the parser's recognition is very context-sensitive) and then CLIMB ROPE to reach THE CREST OF A SHEER CLIFF.  East of this point is a BRUSH THICKET -- and we see that A LARGE ALIEN WARRIOR IS HERE READING A MAP.  We can CLIMB ROPE back up, but it's probably more interesting to see if this warrior is friendly or not.

The warrior can be observed to have an insectoid head, and the map is written in symbols.  TALK WARRIOR produces, "TFRBY AW HXW YCOV SBV VFCD RH XWFW."  We can't make it out, but he doesn't seem hostile.  Is this another one of those linguistically-improbable alien letter substitution codes? 

Time for some code-cracking guessing based on common letters and short, common words -- if AW were to translate to IN, then we would get the rather impenetrable:

     ____ IN __N ___ ___ ___ __ _N_N
That last word probably won't translate to ANON or ONAN, so let's try something else.  If HXW = THE, then we get this more promising result:

     ____ _E THE ___ ___ ____ _T HE_E
Maybe the last word is HERE -- starting by letting F = R, we can guess in similar fashion that A = M, T = B, R = I, B = N, Y = G, C = O, S = A, V = D, D = P, and maybe O = L to get to this adventurey-sounding command:

This makes sense, and is well within the player's abilities and the game's interface.  What an alien wants with gold, we may never know, but the creature doesn't keep us from traveling south, to a valley where we find a cave entrance to the west and another hill further south.

It is, of course, too dark to see inside the cave, and once we're in it's very difficult (I thought it was impossible at first) to get back out.  So let's CLIMB HILL and see what we can do at THE EDGE OF A STRANGE SILVER STREAM.  The stream is notably EERIE and steams, so it's not surprising we can't SWIM or wade into it; we can travel west to a small wooded hill.  We can't do much here but get a frond if we LOOK TREE.  The frond is a large stiff leaf; can we use it as a makeshift raft?  We can't seem to DROP FROND IN STREAM or RIDE FROND or MAKE RAFT.

Can we do anything in the cave?  We can't FEEL WALL or anything, but if we CLIMB CAVE we find ourselves in A SMALL DESERTED CABINLOOKing around (there's no EXAMINE verb) discovers a large, locked trunk with a keyhole, stashed in a hole in the floor.  The trunk is NOT A VISIBLE ITEM if we try to take it -- Pearson's games tend to use words that the parser doesn't recognize except in very specific usages -- and the only exit, to the north, takes us back to the valley.

So it seems we need a key, at the very least.  How can we cross or float down the stream?  I finally had to consult a walkthrough to learn that, back at our landing crashing site, we can MOVE SHIP to find a hand laser.   Also, that we can navigate around in the cave, in the dark, with LOOK alternating between IT'S TOO DARK, IF YOU COULD SEE ANYTHING I WOULD TELL YOU, and, if we keep going W and LOOKing... finally... at some semi-randomized point... YOU JUST BUMPED AGAINST AN OBJECTFEEL OBJECT suggests that IT FEELS LIKE STEPS, and CLIMB STEPS leads us to an ANCIENT ROOM with inscriptions on the walls and a dirt floor.

Dirt floor, eh?  We can try to DIG here, but the WITH WHAT? prompt leaves us few sensible options -- fortunately, WITH FROND works, and YOU HAVE UNCOVERED AN ANCIENT ALTAR (but are no closer to, and perhaps don't need to worry about, using the frond as a raft.)  The inscriptions on the walls translate as THE AL_HEMI_T, based on our earlier discovery, so assuming that U = C and G = S, we have THE ALCHEMIST at hand, perhaps a good source for gold if we can find some base metal to transmute.  There's a crudely carved stone cup here, also, which we can take with us.

West of the altar we enter an ancient stone hallway, occupying three "rooms" from north to south.  There's a hole in the roof at the north end, and if we CLIMB HOLE we are back at our landing site, though we can't seem to go back the way we came.  Oddly, now if we LOOK SHIP, we find a SILVER KEY that wasn't apparent before.  We can use the key to unlock the chest in the deserted cabin, finding a DICTIONARY.  Trying to read it indicates that we can't, but an ALPHABET CHART falls out.  We don't need it, at this stage -- apparently we were supposed to find this earlier instead of cracking the code ourselves -- but it reveals that it's a simple letter-offset cipher, wrapping around from S => A through N => Z.

So now what?  We can FILL CUP at the strange stream, although if we forget to GET CUP OF LIQUID afterward, as I did, we can find ourselves alone and befuddled at the altar.  Trying to PUT CUP ON ALTAR, YOU STUMBLED AND SPILLED THE LIQUID, and now the altar HAS SILVER STAINS ON IT.  Not what I wanted, nor did I even know silver could leave a stain!  Trying to POUR LIQUID ON ALTAR has the same unwanted effect.  Hmmm.  Trying to take the shortcut out to seek other possibilities, I discovered that the hole at the end of the hallway caves in, presenting a block of lead along with a hole-blocking quantity of rubble.  Ah -- if we POUR CUP here, apparently the cup itself is the Alchemist, and THE LEAD SMOKES AND CHANGES TO GOLD, producing a gold ball.  We have to navigate back out of the dark cave, going E from the steps location so we can CLIMB CAVE back to the cabin.  Whew!

After we DROP BALL at the alien warrior's location, TALK ALIEN (or any other move that consumes a turn) reveals that A LARGE GOLDEN TREE IS HERETALK ALIEN produces "OWSJW AW SOCBW," or "LEAVE ME ALONE," so I guess we're done with that bit of interaction.  We can CLIMB TREE -- an irreversible decision, so I'm glad I saved prior to doing so -- to find ourselves in a cave, where A SMALL MONKEY-LIKE CREATURE IS CHAINED TO A WALL.  We can attempt to UNCHAIN CREATURE, and the cave opens up to the south as A TREE GROWS THRU A HOLE IN THE WALL... no, wait, that's just a detail we only see if we LOOK -- we can't actually unchain the creature, and the path to the south is open already.

Heading south, we find ourselves in A MEADOW OF STRANGE BLUE GRASS near AN ODD LOOKING STATUE.  The statue is of a creature named VRUP BRLCB, or... good grief, DICK NIXON???   Perhaps proper names are not meant to be translated, or he was even trickier than we suspected.  We can MOVE STATUE -- it creaks and is now visibly tilting; PUSH STATUE and it tumbles over.  THERE'S AN INSECT UNDER THERE -- a Watergate-style bug, maybe? -- and closer examination suggests that IT'S A BUG IN THE PROGRAM.  Perchance Mr. Pearson is just having a little fun here.

We can go south to an area behind a row of large trees.  Heading east puts us suddenly IN THE MIDST OF A TRAAM WAR PARTY as THEY ATTACK.  We can try to SHOOT WAR PARTY, but it's the first death scenario we've run into -- THE TRAAMS MURDERED YOU.. AND DEVOURED YOUR CORPSE, as the game resets to the very beginning.

Restoring a recent save, we discover that we can climb one of the trees, a large blue tree that lets us travel east via the branches of an adjacent yellow tree, and CLIMB DOWN to land on the opposite side of the war party.  We can travel south to a LARGE CLEARING IN FRONT OF A TRAAM CITY.  Some TRAAMS ride up, though -- I think this is meant to be on horseback or something, as opposed to an escalator, the first image that came to my mind -- and it's a fatal situation again.  Hmmmm.

Restoring, if we LOOK before entering the clearing, we can see that THE TALL CREATURES RIDE ACROSS THE CLEARING ON STRANGE BEASTS.  We must be near the endgame, as we're dying a lot more frequently.  Trying to TALK TRAAMS is no more productive than shooting them; we can't leave the area after they arrive, either.  So maybe we're missing something we should have done earlier?

We can LISTEN outside the war party's location to hear, "KW OWZH HXW ASRB VCCF IBOCUPWV -- QIGH DIGX HWX DRB" --  translating to "WE LEFT THE MAIN DOOR UNLOCKED -- JUST PUSH THE PIN" -- it's unclear what that means just yet, but it's probably worth noting.  We can't hear anything intelligible from the hillside on the other side, but LOOK reveals a mound we can dig in, where we find the burial site of a Traam along with a pendant COVERED WITH STRANGE DESIGNS.

We can't PUSH PIN or SHOW PENDANT as the Traams ride up, at least not to any beneficial effect.  We can TALK MONKEY in the cave, to learn his name is STAMMD and that he speaks English.  He tells us our ship is in orbit, scanning for us, and that we have lost our memory.  It looks like the version we're playing here is slightly different from the one in the CASA walkthrough I'm referencing -- that document references a BLUE DOOR instead of the MAIN DOOR, and advises us to LOOK BUSH in the clearing.  I don't see any bush here, and LOOK doesn't reveal it -- but aha! LISTEN mentions that THERE'S A TINKLING SOUND FROM BENEATH A LARGE BUSH.  Ahem.  LOOK UNDER BUSH reveals a drainpipe leading into the ground.

We CLIMB DRAINPIPE and we're at the north end of a dark, dirty pipe.  Heading south, A FOUL SMELL REACHES YOU, and next A SMELLY LIQUID COVERS YOUR FEET.  At last, we reach a point where A STRANGE GAS IS SEEPING OUT OF A CRACK; it proves fatal if we hang around too long.  We can try to HOLD BREATH -- no go.  Hmmm...  time to look at the walkthrough again -- it seems I missed digging for a helmet back at the altar... except that doesn't seem to be the case in this version?  It looks like the word HELMET does exist in the dictionary, but after several backtracks and restarts, I still can't seem to DIG it up after uncovering the altar!  And it's clear that we're not going to get any further without it.

So at this point I decided to switch over to the Apple II version, which is a slightly different build with illustrations.  We still have to explicitly GET NYLON ROPE, etc., but gameplay is otherwise very similar -- with the key improvement that in this version, I was able to uncover the strange helmet after digging up the altar.  It's also easier to spot that the bush over the drainpipe exists with the help of the illustration!  And it also seems to match the walkthrough more closely, as we're apparently looking for a blue door now.

Replaying up to this point, we can PUSH PIN to open the blue door, encountering a human slave in a white uniform.  TALKing to him produces panic, he is quite sure that we will be killed by the Traamfla -- but we can travel south, reaching a room where a Traam gives an alert, and trying to KILL TRAAM is unsuccessful, as quite the opposite occurs.  We're better off killing the human slave and stealing his uniform, which FITS NICELY when we WEAR it.  (This is one of those ethically questionable puzzles adventure games are occasionally prone to -- apparently, one human's death is worth less than another's convenience.)

Now we can get into town, although one Traam does ask whose grave we violated to get the pendant, and we get killed if we loiter too long after the question is raised.  Moving hastily to the south, we find ourselves in a darkly painted room where we have AN EERIE SENSATION OF BEING WATCHED.  We next enter a room where a number of Traams lurk -- we SHOW PENDANT and are thrown into a cell.

Did that go right?  I suspect I missed something in town, where a staircase leads up to a brighter area.  Backtracking to an earlier save, I try dropping the pendant to avoid suspicion, and now we can CLIMB STAIRS from that room instead of being shot for illegal pendant possession.  There's A HUGE BLACK MAN IN A SLAVE'S UNIFORM here, which might be politically incorrect if not for the earlier Caucasian slave we met (and killed.)  He challenges us to tell us who he is.  The answer is KASTAMAN, which I wouldn't have known if I hadn't had access to a walkthrough.  Apparently there's some place in the game where we can hear "FIND KASTAMAN..." but I was not able to find the hint itself -- I saw it only in a binary search of the disk image -- and the original manual mentions nothing about it, nor does his reference to "THE THIRD PLANET" seem to suggest anything.

At any rate, Kastaman unlocks the door and lets us into a room where we find a cabinet, also locked.  But we can MOVE CABINET to reveal a door; it's dark inside, but if we LISTEN we can hear water rushing.  Going north, we find ourselves FALLING DOWN A DEEP PIT HEADING TOWARDS AN UNDERGROUND RIVER.  And we're soon dead, landing in a pool of icy water.  Heading west is much more successful, as we enter the library.

We can only interact with one book -- it's locked, but we can just BREAK LOCK to open it.  The book is quite short, and reads, "UNHOOK AUTO PRESSURE, LIFT DECOUPLING RING, AND PUSH THRUST BAR."   We don't even need to translate it, and these instructions sound worth noting for some later puzzle.  We can go east and south to return to Kastaman's area, go back downstairs (E actually), pick up the pendant, dart through the heavily populated area before we get killed, and make our way back to... a prison cell, once again.

Okay, it's time to look at this area more closely.  The cell is completely empty, but nothing has been confiscated from inventory.  We can't learn anything about the bars or the floor; but if we DROP INSECT, it circles the floor and climbs up one of the walls, where it crawls through a crack in the stone and disappears.  LOOK CRACK reveals a loose stone block, and MOVE BLOCK opens up a small passage.

The passage is very tight -- YOU HAVE TO LIE ON YOUR STOMACH -- so we have to CRAWL a few times to emerge into a roomier section where we can stand, at least.  If we try to CLIMB here, we fall and land on a sharp object... but this is not fatal?  LOOK OBJECT reveals that IT'S A SPIKE, DRIVEN INTO THE FLOOR.  A DEEP PIT IS EAST.  Boy, I sure wish I had that rope from the cliff earlier!

Restoring and trying again, I discover that we can UNTIE ROPE after descending the cliff near the crash site, and that TIE ROPE TO SPIKE at this point allows it to dangle down into the deep pit.  CLIMB ROPE takes us down to the bottom, where a hole in the wall beckons.  We can't UNTIE ROPE here, so we'd better hope the hole takes us somewhere interesting...

And it does!  We're now ON A LAUNCH RAMP where we see A SMALL FIGHTER -- though judging from the illustration, it's been built by the Third Graders' School of Spacecraft Design.  There's also a black door to the north, which takes us back to the area where we entered the blue door earlier... and of course, we can't get back to this point after going through it, so that was a bad idea.  Can we restore and just CLIMB COCKPIT?  Yes, and then it seems we must follow the instructions we found earlier -- which we do need, as the individual instruments on the panel can't even be made out when we're sitting in front of them, a they're just a BUNCH OF INSTRUMENTS.  We UNHOOK AUTO PRESSURE, LIFT DECOUPLING RING, and PUSH THRUST BAR... and...  

We're airborne!  And then we're in orbit!  And our mother ship is straight ahead, looking suspiciously like Star Trek's Enterprise.  We can't RADIO SHIP or SIGNAL SHIP, but LOOK INSTRUMENTS  gives us a useful detail -- A BUTTON MARKED "BEACON" IS BLINKING.  We PUSH BUTTON, and a friendly tractor beam pulls us in to safety -- victory is ours!

Jyym Pearson's games were not as broadly influential as those of his publisher and contemporary Scott Adams, but they are challenging and historically interesting, as the "set piece" sequences foreshadow what Telltale Games is now calling "interactive drama," as seen in The Walking Dead.  Pearson continued to create adventures after Adventure International closed its doors, and while I haven't tackled his work in anything like chronological order, I am planning to explore his body of work more thoroughly.

1 comment:

  1. Spoilers:
    You can learn about Kastaman by talking to the monkey-like creature in the cave you wanted to free but couldn't. He also says a lot more before he shuts up -- you stopped talking to him too early. I figured that out without any walkthru.

    The cave at the beginning was what tripped me up and had me wind up looking here among other places. I was too used to other adventures and forgot how differently he did things. In a way it is very advanced, altho it also seems a bit primitive as trying to walk around in the cave would be fatal in most other adventures at the time (or even since) and even doing so for a good number of turns seems to get you nowhere. I thought we could use the laser to get some light in there but you can't.

    Which notes us an irony -- if we try to kill anyone else annoying us, or even trying to kill us, we get the stock response -- "you are too kind". Which doesn't really explain why we merrily shoot the slave without so much as knowing there's no other way forward at the time.

    Because I hadn't figured out the cave and was stuck (you never can cross that stream) I also managed to figure out the very alien language with such unlikely relationship to English with just what the map-reading crab-head said. It took awhile but I didn't know what else to do. I checked here just after that to find out I hadn't bumped around enough in the dark inside the cave.

    It is sort of funny that he tells us the insect is "a bug in the program" but that made me think it wasn't going to be important in the rest of the game...sort of a double red herring.

    It was an interesting second effort, and I am still glad I played it. The TRS-80 and Atari versions are some of the smallest cassette-based adventures in history, and the game isn't too bad considering that. I will likely eventually play most of his other games too.