Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Adventure of the Week: The Dark Crystal (1982)

I met the gentleman behind Muppet website ToughPigs.com last weekend at International Toy Fair, and was reminded of an adventure I've always meant to play -- The Dark Crystal, published by Sierra On-Line in 1982 as the sixth and final entry in its Hi-Res Adventure series of illustrated text adventures.  Based on the Jim Henson movie, with visual design work by Brian Froud and a cast of sophisticated puppets, Roberta Williams' game was one of Sierra's larger adventures, occupying two double-sided floppy disks.  I remember reading magazine articles about it back when the movie was released, and it's been on my to-play list for decades now.  It's also something of a bridge to the King's Quest series that followed, presented in third-person perspective with our hero, Jen the Gelfling, seen onscreen, unlike the first-person perspective of the earlier Sierra adventures.  I'm playing the Apple II edition here, using the AppleWin emulator; The Dark Crystal was also released for the Atari 400/800 computers.

In license-based games, especially those based on an existing novel or movie, the plot is often constrained to conform to the existing narrative, and The Dark Crystal runs into some issues in that area.  The circa-1980 Sierra game engine was also showing its age by 1982 -- the vector-and-fill illustrations don't capture the characters or world of the film with much fidelity, and dropped objects are often drawn in strange places.  There are no indications of which directions we can move in, so we have to just try things to see how the navigation works, and I was surprised to find out that only INV works to take inventory, I and TAKE INVENTORY do not.

As always, interested adventurers are encouraged to heal The Dark Crystal firsthand before reading my playthrough notes below -- though I will note that the game is not meant to be difficult, but I had to reference a walkthrough several times to get myself unstuck.  If you've seen the film, you know the story already, but as far as the gameplay goes, be warned that there are certain to be...

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

As the adventure begins, we see our character, Jen, onscreen, and are informed that JEN IS IN A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN VALLEY.  This is the Valley of the Stones, according to the Gelfling Mystics, and we can't tale any action before one approaches to tell Jen that he has been sent for by the dying Ursu, "WISEST OF OUR RACE."
We're urged to go quickly, but since we don't really know which way to go I'll take time to explore a little.  To the east is a rocky mountainside, where we can get LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS but safely return the way we came.  North of the starting point, we tumble into a forested wilderness area from which we can't return; we find a sling in the woods to the northeast.

As I pick up the sling, JEN SHUDDERS, and HE SENSES THAT HE IS TOO LATE, AND URSU HAS DIED.  Whoops!  Well, I'll continue exploring here before I restart, if only for the sake of mapping.  Continuing north, I encounter the dreaded disk-change boundary of the pre-hard drive days, moving on to disk 2, side "A" thanks to the game's simple but copious illustrations.

We are now in the Village of the Pod People -- but not that kind, these are GENTLE PEASANTS WHOSE LIVES ARE DEVOTED MAINLY TO FOOD, LAUGHTER AND SONG (proto-Fraggles, perhaps.)  There's a one-location silent forest to the east, and to the west is another forest, where a creature hides behind a rock; LOOK CREATURE suggests that it APPEARS TO BE VERY, VERY HUNGRY.

This creature does not attack or interfere with Jen's movement northward, where we find another wooded area with a great river visible to the east.  We can head west along what seems to be the northern edge of the map, through an arid scrub area and a desert bordered by a chasm TOO WIDE FOR A GELFLING TO JUMP ACROSS.  (The map layout here presages some of Sierra's King's Quest games, with north-south bands of similar terrain laid out in a rectangular grid.)

In this area, west of the Pod People village, Jen finds the Hill of the Landstriders; TWO LONG-LEGGED BEASTS ARE GRAZING HERE.  If we try to RIDE LANDSTRIDER, however, they won't let him approach.

I head back south (across the disk change boundary) to explore the forest near the mountainside some more.  There's a pond with frog-like creatures, and a dead-end area with deafening wild noises (I try to COVER EARS but JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO COVER, though the illustration clearly shows him doing so.)  Returning to the pond, I try to TALK CREATURE, but THIS IS "THE DARK CRYSTAL"... NOT "DR. DOOLITTLE."

We also find the ruins of a Gelfling village, with two flat stones positioned in front of a large wall.  We can't CLIMB WALL, but if we GO ROCKS, the wall rumbles and some hieroglyphics emerge.  The pictured items include a two-pronged flute, a crystal shard, a female gelfling, and a castle, as well as a drawing of a triangle inscribed in a circle.  A clue about our destiny, methinks!

The river near the twisted trees is flowing too swiftly to enter.  I continue mapping, and in the area where I found the sling earlier, Jen sees a crystal bat hovering overhead, with an eye made from artificial crystal; I try to GET BAT but it flits out of reach before disappearing.  Near the pond, Jen encounters a Garthim, ONE OF THE MENACING, BEETLE_LIKE WARRIORS WHO SERVE THE SKEKSIS.  It attacks Jen, taking him prisoner, and the world of the Gelflings -- and the game -- is lost!

Starting over, it makes sense to try to track down Ursu's whereabouts before we go off exploring.  I head west and north through the valley of stones, discovering a shadowy path, but I tumble down the mountainside again, so I'm back to mapping for a bit.  Confirming that there's not (at present at least) a way back to the Valley of the Stones once we've crossed this border, I have to restart again.  (Reboot, actually -- I try to QUIT, but, to his credit, JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO QUIT.)

This time, I attempt to FOLLOW MYSTIC after his visit, but all the parser can do is ask WHICH WAY DID HE GO? in return.  A cave to the west winds north into a candle-lit cavern, where Ursu lies dying.  (The peculiar amnesia adventure game characters always suffer concerning the world they inhabit really feels out of place here, as Jen really should have known how to get here instead of letting me drag him all over the woods!)

There's a bowl of liquid on the floor, but if we try to GET LIQUID, IT WOULD BE SACRILEGE FOR JEN TO TAKE THAT WHICH BELONGS HERELOOK LIQUID reveals the image of a crystal shard, probably that Dark Crystal all the cool kids are talking about.  TALK URSU yields a full screen and a half of text -- unusual for a Sierra Hi-Res adventure -- detailing the end-of-the-world scenario we experienced earlier.  The time of the Last Conjunction of the Three Suns is at hand, and the Skeksis have control of a great Crystal that is missing a shard; restoring the shard will restore the Crystal's integrity and the future of the Gelflings.  Jen has been chosen to heal the crystal by replacing the shard at the next great Conjunction, and we are advised to seek out Aughra, KEEPER OF SECRETS AND WATCHER OF THE HEAVENS.  Ursu also leaves us with this riddle: "WHAT DO THE SUN BROTHERS QUARREL ABOUT?"  We must present the answer to Aughra, Ursu tells us, before he dies and his body vanishes from the sleepframe (because this is an alien fantasy world, where most words mean the same thing as in English except for stuff like, you know, beds.)

So now we have an official quest.  I don't see any interesting paths in the mountains, so we'll tumble down the hill again and see what we can accomplish in the forest.  I pick up the sling again, and try experimentally to SHOOT BAT -- it's not around, but maybe I need to take out its eye to prevent the Garthim soldiers from harassing Jen.

So it's time to wander around and see if we can solve any puzzles.  I TALK PEOPLE in the Pod village, and learn that they have a nearly unpronounceable name used amongst themselves, translating to "MASTER GARDENERS WHO LIVE IN BULGING PLANTS."  We can't GO HOUSE, as Jen has not been invited to visit anyone.  I can't JUMP LANDSTRIDER at their grazing grounds.  What else might we try?  While I am wandering, the bat shows up, and I realize I can't just SHOOT BAT as I thought; the Garthim warrior does indeed show up shortly, though I manage to run away before it grabs Jen.

Exploring some more, I learn that Jen can CLIMB TREE in the silent forest; he sees nothing special there before clambering back down, but we should try to do the same elsewhere.  I find nothing new in the process, however; I try to GIVE SLING to the creature hiding behind the rock, but JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO GIVE.  I guess our heroes aren't always nice people.  CLIMB ROCK produces the same non-result as climbing the trees, so that response may be generic.

And where could Aughra be?  I seem to have mapped everything out.  I try to GET LIZARD in the brushland, to feed the hungry rock creature, but they are too fast.  I try to GET ROCK to collect ammunition for the sling, but there aren't any handy.  I think I may have to restart and look around in the mountains, but I pass the brook while considering my options.  LOOK BROOK reveals some pebbles, and GET PEBBLES allows us to take several along.  I also discover that the intended syntax is SHOOT PEBBLE -- AT WHAT? -- AT [object], though we can't shoot the rock creature or the lizards in the brushland so I'll have to wait for the bat to arrive again.

I try to SMELL SCENT in the area with an enticing scent of undefined origin, but the parser doesn't understand, and I try to LISTEN BROOK just in case its babbling has meaning.  Surprisingly, it says, "E-E-EN, N-N-NEN" -- with a stutter, so maybe it just wants us to go E, N, N, E, N?  Ahhh!  As we go east, a new path has been revealed out of the forest!  We can only go E-E-E-N-N, reaching an impassable swampland.  We can see the other side of the swamp far to the north, but IT WOULD BE SUICIDAL FOR JEN TO ATTEMPT A CROSSING.

Hmmmmm.  We can try to shoot AT CREATURES near the pond, but the frog-like creatures are only startled by Jen's missed sling shots.  I try to GET PAD, but THE WATER LILIES HAVE VERY THICK STEMSCUT PAD is recognized, but we have nothing to cut with.  Maybe a sharp rock?

Restoring an earlier save, I notice that there's some EXTREMELY SHARP SHALE east of the Valley of Stones, and Jen can GET SHALE, allowing him to CUT PAD.  I try to DROP PAD and GO PAD in the swamp, to no avail, and it doesn't serve as a raft in the river either.  Drat!

I finally resort to a walkthrough to learn that we must USE PAD -- in the swamp -- to reach the northern side.  I run into another crystal bat, but my attempt AT BAT isn't quick enough, and the bat flies away, so we'll probably have to flee a Garthim beetle in a few turns.

Jen can trudge north into murky, slimy swampland, and east, where he becomes trapped by vines.  I try to CUT VINE with the shale, but JEN CAN SEVER NO VINE BEFORE ITS TIME.  Har har -- 80s joke!  I try to SWING and WRIGGLE, with no success, but then a friend arrives to help -- it's a single eyeball, held up by a withered hand, and if we've seen the movie we know this is Aughra.  She wants to know the answer to the riddle Ursu posed earlier.  Uh-oh.  What do the Sun Brothers argue about?

I try BEDTIME and LUNCH, and TIME, thinking that three suns are likely to cause disagreement about these things, but the parser will have none of it. I try MOON -- hilariously, JEN CAN'T.  THE VINES ARE BINDING HIM TOO TIGHTLY.  But MOON seems to be a recognized word, at least, and I suspect it's not meant to be used as a verb.  MOON AUGHRA?  No.  MOON SETMOON DAUGHTERS proves to be the successful answer; I'm not sure if I was supposed to find a clue to the answer earlier or not, but the riddle makes sense on its face.

Aughra now releases Jen from the vines.  JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO THANK -- what an ungrateful waste of foam rubber! -- but Aughra takes him to her observatory anyway.  She says, "WHAT YOU WANT?"; CRYSTAL isn't recognized, but SHARD is.  She puts four shards on the table -- blue, green, violet, and orange, and once we choose one, we can't change our minds!  This seems like a fine time to save the game.

I'll chance the violet crystal being the right one -- it seems to most closely match the darkness I would expect to see.  Exiting the observatory, Jen encounters a horde of Garthim, attacking the observatory!!!  I try to run N back inside, but that doesn't work -- Jen is trapped and the game is over.  For some reason, we can GO WINDOW -- ah, I see, we never actually got outside -- and Jen escapes, though Aughra is captured and the observatory burned.  Definitely a little darker than Mr. Henson's Muppet films!

We can only travel south from the eerie bog where Jen has landed, which brings us back to the murky swampland west of the vine trap.  Heading west from this point, Jen becomes mired in a deep bog, sinking into the muck, as another Gelfling watches without apparent concern (thanks to the limitations of 8-bit graphics, which aren't helped by the implacable Gelfling puppet faces.)  We can cry for HELP, and he is rescued by Kira -- the indistinct blob of 8-bit graphics near her feet proves to be her fuzzy pet Fizzgig.  Apparently Jen and Kira have both been led to believe they are the only living Gelflings, so this is probably quite a shock for both of them.

Jen and Kira now stand at the edge of a river, with a giant beetle shell available.  We can't GET SHELL, or ROLL SHELL, but we can MOVE SHELL -- or try to, the parser suggests that we need Kira's help.  ASK KIRA reveals that the Gelflings can communicate telephatically by "Dreamfasting," but does nothing to move the shell.  TURN SHELL works better than MOVE, for some reason, and we find a small pouch underneath it. 

The pouch is full of -- ahem -- smoke seeds.  But there's no time to find out if the light weed is less addictive than the dark crystal.  We need to GO SHELL and float downstream, returning to the Pod Village.

We learn that Kira has been living here since early childhood -- odd that none of the locals thought to tell her about Jen's earlier visit, given the rarity of Gelflings, but they were perhaps too busy singing, eating, and smoking -- and another crystal bat shows up, once again flying away before Jen can actually shoot a pebble at it, and we have to flee some Garthim again.  The Garthim are strong but slow-witted, and I'm beginning to think that we can't actually do anything about their attacks -- they never seem to pursue Jen, and they're always gone if we return to the area.

With Kira along, the rock creature changes -- the rock now displays a spiral pattern, though we still can't seem to do much here.  I try to JUMP LANDSTRIDERS again, with no luck, and have to reference the walkthrough again to learn that I should be trying to JUMP ON instead.  Jen, Kira and Fizzgig hop aboard, and aboard these long-legged creatures we are able to jump the wide chasm to the west!

Riding further west through the parching desert, we eventually see THE TURRETS OF A DECAYED CASTLE to the south.  Heading in that direction, we are attacked by Garthim and thrown from our landstriders as the big beetles attack them and kill one of them.  I try to CLIMB down into the chasm, but we are captured and taken to the crystal chamber, and evil triumphs!

Well, dang.  Can we JUMP into the chasm and see what happens?  Yes -- and we're now on disk 2, side B.  And... wait, what?  Kira has wings???  Good for her, but Jen is still a-plummeting.  His call for HELP is not answered, but he can GET KIRA to cling to her skirts and glide down with her.

Now we're at the bottom of a ravine, where an evil face is carved into the rock.  Its teeth form a gate barring access to a closed door, and above it is the circle/triangle symbol we saw earlier.  I try to DIG, and discover that Jen can in fact do so with the shale, suggesting I may have missed something earlier in our travels as we find nothing here.

I'm stuck again, and learn from external sources that we can SEND FIZZGIG behind the bars.  This command asks where Jen wants to send him, and THROUGH BARS sends him through the gate.  He comes bounding back shortly with a key in his mouth that we couldn't see back there earlier.  How convenient!  We can now UNLOCK GATE, and when we OPEN GATE the door behind it also opens.

We can now GO GATE to enter a foul-smelling sewer, with tunnels to the east, west and south, and a door with an image of a serpent chasing its tail.  We can OPEN DOOR to leave the sewers, but this just takes us back outside into the ravine.  The sewer appears to be a maze, but it's geographically consistent with no weird loops or one-way passages, and the game's use of shorter descriptions after the first visit makes it easy to tell if we've been to a specific location before.  Again, each of these sewer areas has a unique illustration, accounting for the amount of disk swapping required.

The most interesting location is off to the west, where we hear strange sounds coming from the south.  Heading that way, we run into trouble as the skeezy Skeksis Chamberlain kidnaps Kira and Fizzgig, setting of a boulder trap as he exits and trapping Jen in the passage.

We can only go south now, where we enter a room full of sleeping Garthim who immediately wake up and advance on Jen.  I try to run to the south, but am captured; retrying, I DUCK but Jen doesn't know how to do that either.  On the next try, I more generally RUN instead, which works better as the Garthim claws smash a big hole in the wall while trying to connect with our hero.

GO HOLE doesn't get us out of danger completely, though, as Jen finds himself perched on a precarious ledge above a lake of fire, with no girlfriend wings to help this time.  But we can see the Dark Crystal itself floating up above!  CLIMB SHAFT actually works, to my surprise, and we find Aughra tied up in the Chamber of Life.  We can RESCUE AUGHRA, and if we TALK AUGHRA she urges us to hurry and find our friend, as the Great Conjunction is imminent.  She isn't kidding - I head east into a hallway and pause to take INVentory, and before I can even do that I am caught by a band of Skeksis coming from the north, so the game once again ends unhappily.

On the next go, I head east, south, and east from the Chamber of Life and am once again caught.  East, South, West proves more helpful, as the Skeksis (is the plural Skekses?) head to the east at the southern end of the hall, leaving Jen undetected in a closet.

Now we can freely travel north, to visit the Throne Room, where we can GET SCEPTER and SIT THRONE to allow Jen a brief daydream that he is Emperor of the Skeksis.  But there's no time for that -- we'll head east now, to the rotting floor of a deserted tower.  We can't seem to do anything here, so we'll go back to the southern end of the hall.

The Skeksis are gathered in the room where we got caught earlier, but they haven't noticed Jen yet, and a curtain runs along the wall, covering it.  We can GO CURTAIN to eavesdrop, learning about a secret panel in the tower before Jen slips out, still unnoticed by the arguing bird creatures.

FIND PANEL doesn't work -- JEN WILL HAVE TO DO THAT HIMSELF.  But FEEL WALL succeeds -- a small panel is discovered, with a small latch.  OPEN LATCH doesn't work -- it's too small for even Jen's fingers to work.  Hmmmm.  I try to USE SCEPTER, with no luck, but LOOK SCEPTER reveals that it has a small hook, and USE HOOK is much more effective.

Jen can now access the bottom of a narrow stairway to the east, and we can go Up to the top, where we hear strange noises from the east.  This leads us to the Crystal Chamber, where the Skeksis are gathered, prepared to recharge their powers and continue their reign as the Great Conjunction occurs with the Crystal still darkened.  Jen is on the balcony above the crystal.

We can now GO CRYSTAL, leaping onto it from our balcony perch.  Unfortunately, Jen drops the crystal shard in the process, and it lands on the brink of the shaft below the Crystal, near Kira and Fizzgig.  The planet's three suns are touching, visible through an open ceiling portal, so the moment is at hand.  Kira grabs the shard and is preparing to throw it to Jen, when the Skeksis Ritual-Master threatens her with a drawn dagger.

We are given the option of saving Kira -- and I'll save the game here so I can see what happens if we try later on -- but I think we need to fix the crystal first.  Answering NO to the question allows Jen to regain the shard, and now we can FIX CRYSTAL -- and... oh no!  I chose wrong at Aughra's observatory, and the violet shard does not fit!  OVERCOME WITH DISPAIR [sic], JEN SLIPS OFF THE CRYSTAL and is captured.  Yet another unhappy ending.

Okay -- it's walkthrough time again, as I don't want to trudge all the way here again with a 25% chance -- well, 33% now -- of ultimate success.  How was I supposed to know which shard to take?  It turns out that I was supposed to DIG near Ursu's cavern way back at the beginning, then PLAY FLUTE to discover the true shard, as seen in the movie.  (I kind of assumed Jen always had his flute with him, but I guess that's not the case here, so he has to go find somebody else's germ-ridden flute buried in the dirt.)  So it's back to square one, almost, but it shouldn't take too long to retrace our steps once we're better prepared.

I find the flute by digging on the shadowy path, and use it at Aughra's.  PLAY FLUTE yields the game's one and only sound effect, as two notes play and the blue shard glows and resonates.  The rest of the game is very linear, almost identical to my earlier attempt, though I do learn that my wanderings around the stone face gate were important -- Fizzgig comes back empty mouthed where we land, we have to travel west before he can find the key (it's hard to tell, because the locations appear identical.)  I am shortly back at the climax.

I might as well see what happens if opt to save Kira instead of fixing the crystal -- and of course, Jen just gets captured after he jumps down to protect her.  If we make the "difficult" choice and FIX CRYSTAL instead, the crystal is restored as the blue shard is inserted, the Garthim warriors are destroyed, the castle walls are restored to crystalline purity, the reign of the Skeksis ends, and... we discover that Kira has been stabbed and is dying.  We can KISS KIRA, however, to magically rekindle her life!  Jen and Kira are all set to save the Gelfling species, we surmise, if they can somehow conquer a critical lack of genetic diversity and the fact that, according to the parser, JEN DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO F... um, anyway, HARMONY, AFTER A THOUSAND YEARS OF DARKNESS, HAS BEEN RESTORED and victory is ours!

The Dark Crystal is an old-fashioned design with its share of dead ends, and the story has the usual difficulties with adapted material -- if we've seen the film, we know some things we perhaps should not, and if we haven't, we have to guess mightily to come up with some key actions in the game.  We're given a lot more freedom in the early, exploratory stages of the adventure than we are toward the plot-heavy end, which makes the climax rather less exciting than it ought to be, as the player can really only take one series of correct actions to reach a successful conclusion.  The game was reportedly put together in a little more than a month, which may account for some of its limitations.  But I'm glad I finally got around to playing it, and I still have a couple of Sierra's Hi-Res Adventures to tackle so maybe I'll make those a priority this year.

1 comment:

  1. While it's fresh in your head, this might be an interesting opportunity to try out Sierra's "Gelfling Adventure", a simplified, choice-based game made using the same assets -- legendarily, their final hi-rez adventure before King's Quest changed their course forever. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bv_x5oC8kUw , and I believe for a time at least it had been re-implemented at http://www.darkcrystal.com/play/