Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Lurking Horror

Happy Haloween! One of the ways I've been getting into the Halloween spirit this year is by playing The Lurking Horror, a text adventure game released by Infocom in 1987. Infocom are the same guys that made the Zork series back in the 80s. Some of those guys by the way now write software for missiles. Holy shit! The Lurking Horror takes place at MIT over winter break. The game never explicitly says you're at MIT and instead uses a made up college name but the Infinite Corridor, Great Dome are there and the campus in general is laid like MIT is. Anyways, you're a student who paper gets mysteriously deleted when your file system gets mixed with the alchemy department's file system. The game mixes text adventure with college urban exploration and Lovecraftian horror. For me, the game went three for three.

This review actually starts off about four years ago at UMASS. While waiting to meet a friend at the Du Bois library in the fall of 2011 I was looking up old BBS posts trying to find the best way to get into the steam tunnel system under the college. There were posts from college alumni all over the country talking about the tunnels and how they used to get down into them as well as other secret and spots on campus. Students talked about an underground waterfall and access to the top of the facilities buildings from under the campus. They warned that campus police would come after you if they knew you were down there. Many of the ways at the time of me doing this research were not as accessible as they were in the 80s and 90s. For example, there is an entrance in the basement of the old campus newspaper building near Worcester dining hall. Other students from colleges across the country talked about access to their steam tunnel systems too. In one of the posts a user asked if anyone else had played the Lurking Horror and that it was a lot like the urban exploration everyone in the threads were talking about; the game took you down into the steam tunnels under a college.

Text adventure games have a lot of components that were important to early exploration and offer a level of involvement and interaction that contemporary games do not. Map making and note taking are essential to keep track of what is going on. Even the original Zelda and Metriod on NES required rudimentary cartography and note taking, it really is a lost art in gameplay. Today every game has a map, but having to articulate the space around you in a meaningful way is a challenge in itself. What challenge would a Rubiks Cube offer for example if spacial reasoning was not part of the puzzle? Having to make your own maps is another layer of immersion to the game and it draws you in further to the world you are exploring. Before widespread use of the internet it could take months to get past a certain puzzle; solutions were spread by hint books and word of mouth. The late night silence, and the glow of the monochrome green text on a black screen at night while you try to wrap your head around getting into a new room or finding a new item to advance the story is a rewarding and engaging experience not found in contemporary gaming. If you're interested more in this aspect, the documentary Get Lamp chronicles the history of text adventures and the role they have played, and continue to play, in society.

So when I wasn't trying to get into the steam tunnels at UMASS I stayed up on the nights where I didn't have morning classes in my college apartment eating cold pizza and playing The Lurking Horror in my quiet room at one in the morning. One specific version of the game came with creepy sound effects that played at key points in the game but I could not find it. At the snow covered made up MIT main campus late at night You start off in the computer lab and will have to use your user ID and password to log in. This was the game's form of DRM. The game was packed with "feelies"; extra items included with the game which could help with puzzles, offered immersion, and could provide clues to the game. In this case you find your student ID card and your password scribbled down in your student handbook. Without either of these you're not getting very far in the game.

After your paper gets taken by the computer, a helpful hacker comes over and after trying to recover your paper, recommends seeing if the alchemy department can help you. On my first play through I made it all the way to the alchemy department after solving a puzzle that required getting by a maintenance man. The alchemy professor ended up sacrificing me to a monster in another dimension and that kind of situation pulled me into the game. That puzzle drove me a little nuts for a while too, As soon as you enter his lab he draws you inside of a chalk pentagram on the ground, and once inside you're unable to escape without using a certain item in a certain way. I tried pouring a two liter bottle of Coke that I found on the pentagram in a last ditch effort to escape, buuutt the Coke just boiled away as soon as it got near the chalk. Even though you might get frustrated trying to get past certain parts of them game, it is nice that the developers added a lot of flavor text for all of the things you'd think to do but don't necessarily work out. These situations end up making the most funny and entertaining parts of the game.

For an ending there's no real payoff. Once the monster in the steam tunnel system is destroyed you're given your score and then brought to the same save/load/quit prompt you're given when you die. Besides the sense of accomplishment you get from completing the game, there's no real entertainment, and the flavor text from all the different ways you die end up being more entertaining than the ending of what is supposed to be a horror game. This game isn't a survival horror and you'll rarely fell pursued or chased, though there are times where you will have to act fast. It's an adventure game.

As for the steam tunnels back at UMASS, I never got in. A few months later while waiting for the bus to campus a car pulled up and offered me a ride. It was a woman driving a Subaru and she told me that there was an accident on the road and the the bus probably wouldn't be coming. We started talking and she told me that she was a project manager doing construction on campus. At the time the whole campus was a construction site, and for all I know, probably still is. A little too excitedly, I asked her about the steam tunnel system, and told here about the BBS posts. She seemed confused as to why I would be interested in them, but she told me that they're probably not as scary or interesting as I might think. New lights had been installed so that the tunnels were not as dark. There would be a lot of construction workers down there at all times of day too, so you wouldn't get very far either. She told me the biggest cockroaches she had ever seen were in those tunnels, bigger than the ones she saw back home in Arizona. We both agreed that UMASS has a roach problem, but I do think she was trying to discourage my curiosity, she did admit that there is a waterfall and access to the weird facilities buildings on the east side of campus down in the tunnels.

If you want to try The Lurking Horror and emulators aren't your bag, you can purchase The Lost Treasures of Infocom Collection from the App Store and play the game on your phone as well as other Infocom classics like Zork and ridiculously unforgiving Hitchhiker's Guide.

1 comment:

  1. Howdy! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick
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    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?
    Thanks a ton!