Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Dante's Inferno (1980)

CASA Solution Archive founder JGunness inquired recently about this game; I hadn't heard of it before, so it presented a fine opportunity to explore some new old territory.  Dante's Inferno is a fairly early microcomputer text adventure, written in BASIC for the TRS-80 Model I and published in the January 1980 (Vol II, No 4) issue of SoftSide Magazine.  It was not part of the magazine's monthly adventure game series; it's credited only to "Adventures In Software" in the code, but the printed magazine article credits the game to Gerard Bernor.  I'm playing using the TRS32 TRS-80 emulator.

Cast as a greedy person who sold our soul to the devil in exchange for wealth, we must now try to escape our fate by entering Hell, finding our contract with Satan, and escaping with it.

This is another interesting case of originality-by-necessity, in the days before adventure game design and programming became more standardized.  There's no verb/noun parser in Dante's Inferno -- instead, single-character commands are used to navigate, and even that's surprising, as the available commands turn out to be Back, Forward, Left, Right, Up and Down.  This is a rare variation on the compass-based standard, although the engine doesn't actually take the player's orientation into account; for practical purposes, B/F/R/L correspond to N/S/E/W, and we're always facing forward for the room descriptions.  There's no list of "obvious exits," though some rooms describe the navigation options, so we have to bang into walls and wander into dead ends a lot to figure out where we can actually go.

As always, interested adventurers are encouraged to travel through Dante's Inferno before reading the rest of this post.  The game is cleanly coded and not difficult, but map-making is an absolute must, as the game's primary challenge is navigational in nature.  I will note that the game's simple interface is case-sensitive, so if your commands are being ignored, try turning Caps Lock on or off.  Feel free to save yourself the old-school headaches if you like, and proceed straight into the...

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

We begin on the banks of the River Styx.  There's quite a bit of descriptive, large-character prose in this game.  The stage is set as we stand before the Gates of Hell, reading the "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" warning invented by Dante and a tradition for centuries since.

I'll opt to be contrary and move Back first, which takes us into Purgatory.  We can't go back any further or in any other directions here, though the game's response to my floundering is amusing: IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE HAVING TROUBLE GOING TO HELL.  Even going Forward doesn't always get us out of Purgatory; we have to keep trying until we eventually make it through to the bank of the River Styx again.

Any movement L or R from this location just takes us back into Purgatory, so our only real option is to head Forward into Hell itself.  Well, Hell's Portal, anyway -- there is a small opening on the left and dim visibility forward and right.

I'll head forward into Satan's Room -- IT'S LUCKY FOR YOU THAT HE'S NOT HERE NOW.  We can travel to the left here, to a tunnel traveling forward/back; going back takes us through a narrow tunnel and back to Hell's Portal.  There's also a dead end off to the left of the tunnel.

Traveling right of Hell's Portal leads to another dead end.  So the only avenue we haven't yet explored is the tunnel to the left of Satan's Room, which leads to the Mud Pit.  To its left is a little grotto where LOST SOULS SHOVEL COAL AND SULFUR INTO STEAMING PITS, making me wish there were postcards for sale.

Traveling further left takes us into another narrow twisting tunnel, and careful exploration discovers a twisting narrow tunnel, a very narrow twisting tunnel, and a pair of Dead Ends, one of which is clearly not really a dead end but still doesn't lead anywhere interesting.

It looks like I've mapped Hell pretty well in the cardinal directions, encountering little opposition and no sign of our contract with the Man Downstairs, so we'll have to look at up and down moves.  We can go D into the bubbling mud pit, with lava audible on the left.  No other directions prove fruitful to explore, so we'll check out the Large Grotto on the left.  THE FLOOR IS COVERED WITH WHAT LOOKS LIKE HUMAN BONES -- I'm not sure what else might look like human bones, but we'll allow the author a little atmospheric vagueness.

Left of the grotto is another twisting tunnel leading to a dead end.  Forward takes us to a room under a heating shaft, with a dim red glow above.  Right of the shaft is the FOURTH LEVEL OF THE DAMMNED [sic], where the tormented souls have BURNING LOADS HUNG FROM THEIR ARMS AND LEGS.

We might be getting closer now -- going forward from this room leads into ANOTHER RECORD KEEPING SECTION, which implies there's an original Record Keeping Section somewhere, though this room is a dead end so it's not nearby.  So we'll go Up the heating shaft to a room at its top.  Forward here takes us into the Cave of Lost Souls -- where, unfortunately, YOU HAVE ALSO LOST YOUR SENSE OF DIRECTION.  So we may be in for a maze or at least some confusion.

Panicking slightly, I wander around this maze too quickly to map effectively, and eventually find a location where we can slide back down, one-way, to the Large Grotto.  Trying to map more carefully on a second try, I find few other options -- Back from the top of the shaft, we HEAR THE GARGOYLES COMING and are forced forward again.

So back into the Cave of Lost Souls we go.  Up from the entry point is Hell's Central Heating System, and to the right we find the Fifth Level of His Satanic Majesty's Domain.  Lucifer's out of the office at the moment, but there's a small opening in the floor here -- it leads all the way back to Hell's Portal and may be a handy escape route.

But we still have to find the contract, so back to mapping we go.  North Forward of Central Heating we discover the Cave of Gargoyles, the Pit of The Mortal Sinners, and a point where the tunnel floor drops away, too wide to jump.  Left of this point is the slide down to the Large Grotto that I stumbled upon earlier.

Left of the Pit of Mortal Sinners is the room of the TWICE DAMMED [sic I presume], from which we can reach the Section of the Cursed, FILLED WITH POISONOUS FUMES.  Traveling to the left of this section warps us back into the Very Narrow Twisting Tunnel near the start, providing another potential escape route, though of course we can't come back that way.  This map is convoluted and confusing!

There's also an Evil Smelling Pit forward of the Section of the Cursed, and if we go D into it we slide down the Sulfur Supply Tube to Hell's Portal.  So there are at least three ways out of here, suggesting we may need to work fast at the end of the game.

I'm not finding much else of interest and I think I've mapped most of the game's world, so there must be some critical locations I haven't found yet.  I try going Up and Down from some dead ends, finding nothing new beyond a few additional dead ends.  But at last I find a Rocky Ledge above the Fourth Level room, and to its right is the Record Keeping Section!  And yes, we've finally found THE HIDING PLACE OF SATAN'S CONTRACTS, and are prompted, WANT TO TAKE IT WITH YOU NOW?  I'll answer Y -- OK, LETS GET OUT OF HERE!  Agreed!

According to my map, the most direct escape route will be to go through the hole in Lucifer's throne room to return to Hell's Portal... but when I get there, I discover that I can't squeeze through it while carrying the box of contracts.  Nor can I get through the narrow, twisting tunnel, for the same reason.  I wish we could just find our own contract and drop the box, but there's apparently no time for that -- we have to take the whole box, freeing who knows how many damned souls along with our own.  I almost feel bad for Satan, but if he's just going to toss all of his business-critical legal documents in a box with no backups, I guess I can't be held responsible.



I get one of those shocks deliverable only by early computer games!  As I move toward another possible exit in the complete silence that has prevailed up to this point, the TRS-80 speaker bursts to life with horrendous, screechy white noise, and I jump out of my seat as FROM THE DARK LEAP THE INCUBI OF MEPHISTOPHELES!  And... and the noise!  This noise, this horrible noise, it never seems to stop!  I would have had to reboot the whole machine back in the day; fortunately, in the emulation age, returning to an earlier save state silences this torture.  The TRS-80 was not really designed for sound, so this was doubly shocking.


Checking the code later, curious about how this was achieved, I discover that this scare may not have been intentional.  It appears to be a tokenization error in the BASIC listing published in SoftSide -- instead of PRINTing some intended text, it CSAVEs!  So, with a virtual speaker hooked up to the virtual line out for general gaming purposes, I was actually just hearing the sound that would have been generated to save the BASIC program to audio cassette tape.  This error means that I never saw the remaining text, and suffered a fate the author likely never intended.

Anyway, back to finding our way to a viable escape route.  I've only got one left to try, and yes, sliding down the sulfur supply tube from the Evil Pit room north of the Cursed room works  We're conveniently dropped off at Hell's Portal and can quickly back out of Hell... to victory!

The game can be finished much more quickly than I did here -- there's no way to die, so aside from some time-saving restores my 334 move "score" includes a lot of exploration and dead-end mapping.  All we really have to do is find the contract and then exit, so with a good map in hand it could probably be finished in around 30 moves.

Dante's Inferno is an interesting early adventure game.  Mr. Bernor's engine is unsophisticated but still provides a lot of exploration, colorful prose and a degree of challenge, without a single traditional adventure game inventory or action puzzle. 

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