Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 28 (The Adventure Game)

(33 comments)

I am not entirely convinced that I have, in the course of writing this blog, actually watched anything weirder than The Adventure Game. It is the sort of thing that, as one watches, one has the increasingly clear realization that nobody who has never seen this would ever believe me about what it’s like. The Adventure Game is really the first 1980s example of what we saw back with Children of the Stones - one of those pieces of television that sticks, deeply embedded, in the brain to later come out in a triumphantly cathartic conversation to the effect of “yes, yes, I remember that!”

The easiest way to describe The Adventure Game is that it’s what everybody who foolishly wants the Celestial Toymaker to come back should watch instead. It is, in effect, that story done right and as an ongoing series. In each episode a trio of celebrities from the B-list or below (possibly far below - I’m not actually sure everybody who appears on the show is actually a celebrity) are stuck on a fictitious alien planet and left to escape by playing odd real-life board games and solving puzzles. And, you know. Talking to angry plants that they have to address with the proper terms of respect or risk evaporation. Like you do.

What is most important to The Adventure Game is not its almost completely incoherent worldbuilding but its sense of tone. All of the elements are familiar in the abstract as parts of a Captain Kangaroo-esque children’s television. But instead of being presented straightforwardly as a world that the viewing children are invited to understand The Adventure Game presents its world as a puzzle to be continually figured out.

A prime example is Rongad, a character in the third and fourth series of the show, who speaks backwards. That is, he reverses the letter order of every word he says as well as his sentence structure. In a normal piece of children’s television, this would be presented as, essentially, an in joke for savvy viewers. His appearances would serve to reintroduce the central concept, and the pleasure would be in the ability of the audience to make sense of the apparent randomness.

But The Adventure Game doesn’t give them the chance. Even if you know the trick to Rongad it’s impossible to make sense of what he’s saying simply because auditory parsing of backwards English at conversational speeds is not actually possible. So instead we get a world in which there are rules, but even knowing the rules is not entirely useful. The show is not a comforting piece about learning by repetition but one about playing within a set of rules.

This, of course, corresponds with what the show is actually about. The actual content of the show is based on watching the guest stars try to figure out puzzles and maneuver their way through Arg. So, for instance, in the episode of most interest to Doctor Who fans, the one where Janet Fielding plays, there’s a puzzle based around floating an egg up from the bottom of a glass to acquire a piece of string tied around it, and the fact that the egg will float in salt water. Elsewhere the players are confronted by strange logic games and expected to figure out some account of what’s going on. All of it is structured so that the audience, particularly if they’re familiar with the show, are just ahead of the players, but only just ahead. The show isn’t about watching people try to figure out a set of rules the audience already has down, but about watching them make sense of a not quite scrutible world just slightly slower than the audience is doing it.

But to anyone who’s been reading this blog from the start all of this should be terribly familiar. Using schoolboy science to solve mysteries on an alien planet with defined rules that the audience figures out slightly faster than the characters? That’s no 80s piece of children’s television, that’s the Hartnell era. But there’s a key difference between The Adventure Game and the Hartnell era. In the Hartnell era the whole point was the juxtaposition of the ordinary people (represented by Ian and Barbara) and the bizarre and hard-to-figure out world. But in The Adventure Game the point is the lack of juxtaposition. The Adventure Game hinges on the fact that b-list celebrities can and do habitually drop in on strange alien worlds to engage in some puzzle solving. Put another way, the Hartnell era hinged on the fact that it was unusual that Ian and Barbara were in these situations, whereas The Adventure Game is utterly unconcerned with this question.

I’d engage in a rhetorical flourish here of holding off on explaining why for a few paragraphs, but anyone who has seen even fragments of The Adventure Game would get the answer immediately, so there’s really no point. The entire visual iconography of The Adventure Game is based around computer games. And not just in a vague “cheap 80s computer graphics” way. No, The Adventure Game goes out of its way to invoke specific games, including bits of what are obviously Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Frogger in its credits, among others.

Lest anyone think this is just a show about video games, however, the montage of video game footage is paired, in a beautifully dissonant opening credits sequence, with a lovely bit of chamber music. The result is striking, and communicates the strange tone of the show perfectly. It’s about video games, yes, but it’s not about the culture of video games. Rather, it’s about the intellectual aspects of video games. This phrase sounds a bit odd to 2012 ears, when video games have become mass entertainment, often of the crudest sort, but from the perspective of 1980, when the series debuted, it makes perfect sense. Video games - or, more accurately, computer games - were part of the rapidly emerging technology of the personal computer, which was still technology dominated by the computer nerd. These were the days when hackers really were bright kids in their bedrooms messing around and not parts of Eastern European organized crime rings.

I talked a bit about this back in the Logopolis entry (section 32 if you want to be quick about it), and a bit again back in the Hitchhiker’s Guide entry (it’s worth slipping in a comment that Douglas Adams was invited to write The Adventure Game but declined) but here it becomes necessary to dial it in a bit more. Simply put, the early and mid-80s were the heyday of fascination with logic games, puzzle solving, and, oh yes, let’s not forget, Dungeons and Dragons. Which I mention in part because The Adventure Game was explicitly modeled on Dungeons and Dragons.

To the modern roleplaying ear this may sound ludicrous, but go look at the supplements to some proper, old school Dungeons and Dragons. Tomb of Horrors is always a good choice. Far from being an adventure about killing monsters, the Tomb of Horrors module spends considerable effort telling potential Dungeon Masters that this is not an adventure about killing monsters and suggesting that they’re bad people if their games are mostly about that. From there the module proceeds into what is the most infamously absurd set of roleplaying puzzles ever, including opportunities to die horribly trying to find the entrance to the dungeon. From there you get rooms with levers on the wall that if you set wrong kill you, holes you can climb through that permanently destroy your character, secret doors leading to death traps, and other works of pure sadism. There is even a hallway that walking down changes your gender. If you attempt to walk back up it to undo it, your character is teleported out of the dungeon. Naked. Not that anybody was working through some issues here or anything.

I go into this tangent to communicate something that may not be apparent to people whose knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons comes primarily from more recent gaming, which is that in its original conception Dungeons and Dragons is basically about the repeated and extended torture of its would-be players for sport. But perhaps stranger than this is the fact that people actually thought it was fun. Tomb of Horrors is not some hated adventure widely loathed for its unfairness and lack of entertainment. It’s one of the all-time classic D&D adventures. And this is the thing that people who are not familiar with the roleplaying games of the period don’t quite get - that classic roleplaying games are about solving willfully sadistic logic puzzles - a spirit that The Adventure Game captures perfectly.

Equally important is the connection between this and computer games. The ones shown in The Adventure Game’s credits are not, however, the really relevant ones. No, the relevant ones are things like Zork or Richard Garriott’s Ultima. And the thing that becomes immediately clear if you play one of these games, particularly if you play them with, say, The Space Museum on in the background is that in a very real sense these games are the true and proper heir of Hartnell-era Doctor Who and the old “hard SF” tradition that got displaced by Star Wars.

Indeed, in many ways these games are better at this sort of thing than the media that used to contain them. The influence of Dungeons and Dragons on The Five Doctors is blatant, but the really strange thing is that there’s no particular reason to think it was deliberate - Terrance Dicks is not, exactly, the sort to have a bag of D20s. Rather it’s that the basic dynamic of “and then everyone goes on a quest to the scary tower” has, in 1983, been so subsumed by gaming that everyone goes to Dungeons and Dragons instead of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Without anyone meaning to, The Five Doctors becomes Doctor Who as role-playing campaign. Patrick Troughton even gets to cast magic missile at the darkness. Sorry. “Galactic Glitter.”

So by just doing what he and Doctor Who had been doing for twenty years, Terrance Dicks found himself writing a D&D game with Time Lords. Except this is also where the wheels come off. By any reasonable measure the most cringe-worthy sequence of The Five Doctors is the lethal chessboard that’s as “easy as pi,” an attempt to shoehorn in a good old fashioned maths lesson into the Doctor Who plot. But by 1983 this sort of schoolboy knowhow/technobabble blend just didn’t work anymore. Anyone watching could see immediately that there was no actual relationship between pi and how you crossed the floor. And in 1983, that wasn’t going to cut it. In a culture where sci-fi fans were accustomed not only to problems like this but to actually figuring them out themselves you can’t just hand-wave it. Nor can you explain it terribly well, because lecturing about pi and mapping it to a chessboard somehow makes for terrible television.

Well, usually. Somehow, of course, The Adventure Game manages it. But, of course, its trick is fairly obvious - the people playing The Adventure Game are actually solving the puzzles in real time. They’re not delivering dialogue, but muttering and poking at things trying to figure them out. Indeed, in an interview the producers of The Adventure Game noted that one of the hardest parts of getting the show to work was figuring out how to edit the puzzle-solving into watchable television, since it couldn’t be made to sound like TV dialogue no matter how they cut it.

All of this marks, then, the final and sputtering death of the original conception of what the series was for. The idea of Doctor Who as a show about seeing the Doctor solve puzzles is over now. It hasn’t been the main focus of the series for a while, but now we’re at a point where it really can’t be the focus at all. It’s simply not satisfying to watch someone figure out logic puzzles when you can figure out better ones yourself. I said that The Adventure Game was what The Celestial Toymaker was trying to be, and given that, it’s telling that The Adventure Game has as its marquee logic puzzle a kind of cool and reasonably complex maze-based board game whereas The Celestial Toymaker has the Towers of Hanoi.

I’m rarely one for the argument that video games let you “be” the character in the story and that this is preferable, but when it comes to puzzle solving, it largely is. It is, in fact, more satisfying to solve the logic puzzles in Zork yourself than it is to watch William Hartnell play Towers of Hanoi, or to watch Richard Hurndall make some vague comments about pi before walking across the room the same way he would have for any other explanation. The reason, of course, is sensible - because puzzles were something for self-solving first. The idea of showing other people solving puzzles in books or on television was a temporary invention of the golden age of science fiction. Once computers came along they reverted back to type, becoming what they always were: games.

But because Doctor Who started in that milieu there remain a sizable chunk of people who think that the series is about a practical handyman who solves puzzles. But in practice, that approach to storytelling was a blip in the narrative tradition. And The Adventure Game is a fascinating artifact of the period where that function moved back to media more suited to the task.

Comments

John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

The Adventure Game! Wonderful show! I remember the first time I watched the guests walking to the exit and getting the sequence wrong, and being abruptly shaken when they all suddenly evaporated! I jumped out of my skin! Exclamation marks!

The format was apparently two celebs and a non-celeb, so you're correct.

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David Anderson 5 years, 1 month ago

Many of the celebrities were clear A-listers in the world of under-10 children's daytime television.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Or more specifically, two celebs and an expert... some of whom were more charismatic than the celebrities.

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Dan 5 years, 1 month ago

If they were vapourised they just had to walk home, apparently. What a relief! But it's a hell of a long way...

I think it was largely inspired by Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy too, as well as DG being asked to write it.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Though I watched Doctor Who growing up, it was never a favourite. If pressed, I would probably have said my favourite shows were Sandy Frank's Battle Of The Planets, and The Adventure Game.

The striking thing about watching the show now is both how long - children's TV was rarely above 25 minutes in the 1980s - and often how dull it was. In the Janet Fielding episode (in which, annoyingly, she breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera men laughing at her - damn it, Janet!), they spend most of the episode in one room tethered to the wall.

In fact, The Adventure Game was wholly climax-focused - the puzzles were the (entirely arbitrary) leg-work you had to sit through in order to reach the big pay-off of the vortex round. Though the puzzles were made to seem to matter, in most series they would end up at the last round no matter what, and this is where the life-or-death decider would take place.

For those unfamiliar, the vortex was the final game of the show, in which (in series 2-4) the whole thrust of the programme switched from puzzle-solving to random chance, in a game of blind hop-scotch against an invisible foe. Step on the vortex: get vapourised. It didn't matter how well you solved the puzzles during the body of the show, whether you won or lost - or, ostensibly, survived or died, though in later series the celebrities were seen to have been beamed into outer space, where they were forced to walk home - depending solely on random chance.

(In series one, they were forced to encounter a logic puzzle to enter the game; on the way out, the logic puzzle became 'live'. This was changed, presumably, because if they actually solved the puzzle on the way in, there was no tension as to whether they'd be vapourised on the way out).

Another remarkable thing about the programme is that every series was entirely different. Not just the puzzles, but the whole format, many of the cast, opening titles, even the premise and occasionally the music. It was forever reinventing itself.

Also worth noting: Doctor Who began immediately after the assassination of JFK. The final episode of The Adventure Game coincided with the Challenger shuttle disaster.

Thank you for covering this! :)

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Wait, no, I got it wrong - episode 4 was shifted to the end of the final series due to the Challenger disaster.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Also worth saying that part of its overt nod to Dungeons & Dragons is that all the names on the planet Arg are anagrams or pieces of the word 'dragon'.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

I've seen claims that the vortex game is always beatable if you have a single green cheese roll, but I've not actually checked it.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 1 month ago

Listening just to the tone of the opening narration --
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okRea54TE_w
-- I think the influence from Hitchhiker is quite evident. It sounds like an entry from the Guide.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Any one move is winnable if you have a roll, but I don't think that applies to the whole game. If, for example, you don't trigger the vortex with it, you're none the wiser.

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willbikeforchange 5 years, 1 month ago

Sadism designed to look like fun is the definition of playing the old Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy text game, so it's no surprise they asked Douglas Adams to write. If you've never played it, it's a game where unless you give a dog a cheese sandwich in the first five minutes of the game (where there is absolutely no indicator whatsoever to do so), you can never, ever win the game. Not to mention the room that when you say "look" lies to you about what is in it three times before it finally tells you anything useful.

I'd kind of love to see this television show though. It sounds like the sort of thing I would have died to get on as a kid, up there with Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

As for role-playing games, I just started playing and our GM is definitely of the puzzles are better than monsters type. He hasn't killed us yet, but he was definitely driving us a bit bonkers because we had a lot of difficulty even trying to figure out how to begin.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

I think that just involves not putting down the roll in a way that causes it to bounce off irretrievably. That is, if you find the space to be safe, making sure you also reclaim your roll for later use. In which case, as I understand it, you can effectively put yourself in front of the vortex and advance safely to the end.

I didn't watch enough to see if rolls are reusable. Janet Fielding clearly wastes hers tossing it in a way that it bounces away, but if you're careful with it you can presumably pick it back up, yes?

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William Whyte 5 years, 1 month ago

I was sorry to see that the episode with "Daviod Yip" (sic) is no longer in the BBC archives. That was made in 1980! I thought they'd changed policy by then.

To me, the seminal series will always be series 2 with Lesley Judd as the mole secretly working for the Argonds (shades of Anthony Blunt, but with aspidistras and sticky-backed plastic instead of art). At the start of the series, the second-last game was guessing who the mole was, but Lesley Judd was so bad at pretending not to be a mole that everyone always guessed her, so by the end of the series they had to change it to "Musical Moles", where she basically got to get one of the other contestants vaporized at random.

The wicker look of Arg was very reminiscent of the start of The Ribos Operation. And the whole show was unsure about where it stood, in an endearing way: was it frantic knockabout fun as celebs solve puzzles, or was it a strange kind of Spike Milligan-ish performance art where everyone was the straight man reacting to jokes that could barely be detected? Great days, Gay.

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Alan 5 years, 1 month ago

Speaking of rpgs, do you plan to cover the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game published by FASA in 1985? I don't remember much about the game personally, although I definitely remember playing it. I was surprised just now to find the Wiki page for it and learn that the writers actually retconned Adric's death! Apparently, one of the modules lets your Timelord character travel back and rescue him!

Also, mock the First Doctor's "easy as pie" solution if you want, but to this day, I can recite pi to the eighth decimal place by recalling it in Hurndall's voice.:)

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Search 'The Adventure Game BBC' on YouTube, there are episodes! :)

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm fairly sure that, in fact, people rarely guessed Lesley as being the mole.

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William Whyte 5 years, 1 month ago

My memory is that she got away with it the first couple of times and then got busted pretty consistently after that.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

Looking around at various sources, it seems like Lesley was busted just once out of the first four episodes. The series was only five episodes in length, so not really time to form a pattern. If there was a game of musical moles (which does ring a bell), it can only have come in the fifth and final episode of season 2.

But it does look very much like she was caught out only once of the five episodes in series 2.

(Wikipedia has down three contestants as having been evaporated during the mole round, two of which are stated as being wrongly identified as mole. But I'm fairly certain Graeme Garden was also wrongly outed, due to being just too good at the games. He certainly didn't make it as far as the end game).

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sleepyscholar 5 years, 1 month ago

Writing as the reviewer of the FASA game for White Dwarf (I was sent it because I had a reputation for trashing games, and Games Workshop were irked at losing the license) I was surprised at how good it was, especially given that I later learned the writers had seen very little of the series. Nevertheless, I don't think it merits extensive examination; or at least, it could be examined along with Timelord (in which I have a personal stake) and Adventures in Time and Space, the current game. But really, it's an abstruse area that doesn't enlarge our understanding of the programme much more than Philip's comments here about Dungeons & Dragons.
I say that as someone who is currently writing a paper about RPG fandom to try to correct some of the reception theory bias that fan scholarship suffers from. Too many media scholars treating role-playing as if it is merely the manipulation of pre-existing texts...

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

I am *hugely* into RPGs as the modern bastion of communal storytelling and a jolly good social activity to boot. I've found that having an understanding of various methods of creating satisfying narratives has improved my gaming experience enormously, as well as my viewing and reading. This is why I always sigh when D&D is used as the archetype of what roleplaying is. But if people enjoy it, then more power to their d20s, of course!

I actually playtested the current Who RPG, by the way.

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Matt Sharp 5 years, 1 month ago

'I was sorry to see that the episode with "Daviod Yip" (sic) is no longer in the BBC archives. That was made in 1980! I thought they'd changed policy by then.'

The four missing episodes (and some from BAFTA award winning show Take Hart) were actually junked in 1993...!

The one with Paul Darrow is officially missing too.

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Exploding Eye 5 years, 1 month ago

The Paul Darrow one is officially missing, but there is a pretty decent version of it on YouTube. I think I saw a really ropey copy of the David Yip one on YouTube some time ago too.

I do believe there are a couple of episodes that are properly actually missing, mind you.

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Matt Sharp 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh, I wasted so much time on that HHGTG game, and I never did find out how to impress Marvin's cabin door, or even if I was supposed to impress Marvin's cabin door.

The BBC put the whole game online after Adams died, and I was stunned to find that I could remember exactly what to put where to get the Babble fish out of the Babble Fish Dispenser.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

There was a large junking of children's programs in the 1990s due, essentially, to an unwillingness to provide the funds for converting them to digital formats.

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sleepyscholar 5 years, 1 month ago

You did a good job, then, John. The current Who RPG seemed pretty good to me (though I have had no opportunity to play it, here in Japan).

I understand your annoyance at D&D being used as the archetype of roleplaying (Andrew Rilstone expressed the same frustration in the journal IF in the 90s). I partly share it -- I gave up D&D for mostly homebrew some time around 1980 -- yet my current research has driven home to me that we're too close to our topic. Philip is actually right to identify D&D as the archetype of role-playing, because it is. That we transcend this crude archetype in all sorts of ways is largely irrelevant.

Comparing the three Doctor Who RPGs might be of interest, but I think it would be tricky without being an aficionado. And does the fact that, for example, the FASA game simulates Doctor Who as if it were real while Timelord represents the TV show, really matter very much to anyone other than role-players?

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

An interesting question! It pertains to our enjoyment of other media as well as RPGs. I can imagine the fourth wall as a movable barrier rather than a fixed thing. There's always an acknowledgement that what we're seeing isn't real, but in some entertainments the medium saying "this isn't real, but go with us anyway" is more noticeable in the content than in others. And there are rules for how deconstructed each show/book/whatever can be, so in a way the rule-breaking is contained within the rules too.

For instance, even though the Arg TV presenter can talk directly to the viewer, the contestants aren't supposed to.

I lack Mr. Sandifer's eloquence and can't express what I'm trying to get at here economically without going on a navel journey.

Re your points, Sleepyscholar, I can say that 'annoyance' is too strong a word - if people enjoy it, then good for them! However, I suppose I feel it's a missed opportunity if someone didn't pursue roleplaying as a hobby because they felt that D&D was all there was too it.

And I'm in danger of going off-topic! At least I haven't mentioned Wonderful Christmas Time.

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Jesse Smith 5 years, 1 month ago

I have never seen this, but I guess it was a precursor to Knightmare (which has an even more direct and obvious connection to D&D).

1983 was pretty close to the mass market popularity peak of both D&D and computer puzzle/adventure games, so it does not surprise me that their influence would show in Doctor Who at this time.

On the other hand, it's possible to overstate it. The checkerboard in "The Five Doctors" reminded me more of the red and white linoleum of death from "Death to the Daleks" than anything else.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

Sure, but I wasn't really arguing that the checkerboard was inspired by D&D. As I said, Doctor Who had been doing that sort of thing since the Hartnell era. Both the linoleum (and really Terry Nation's entire fascination with writing dungeon crawls and quests) and the checkerboard are artifacts of that. Indeed, I think back in my Keys of Marinus entry I noted that it was plotted like a video game. As I said, D&D's rise was less a matter of influencing Doctor Who and more a matter of taking an old element of Doctor Who away from it because D&D could do it so much better.

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GarrettCRW 4 years, 9 months ago

With the short-lived toyline and the debut of the cartoon (which was itself the final cog in 1983's rather enormously popular animation debuts-He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Inspector Gadget being the others), I think it's no doubt that 1983 was the zenith of Dungeons & Dragons' mainstream popularity.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

From memory: consulting the Guide on "intelligence" suggests the door will be impressed if you can maintain a logical inconsistency. The way you do this is to convince the NutriMatic to give you tea. When you pick up the tea, the game will tell you "no tea dropped". You then pick up "no tea", and the door will be duly impressed by someone who has tea and no tea simultaenously.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

For what it's worth, by the way, if you don't give the cheese sandwich to the dog at the beginning, you get another chance to do it later.

The illustrated website version is an interesting technical achievement, by the way. The original game had no illustrations, and it's not clear if either the original source or the compiler to build it still exist at all, and in any case, the BBC didn't have them. Instead, they took an open-source interpreter for the compiled game format (Infocom's games were released in a portable binary format, sort of an evolutionary precursor to java), and actually scanned for key phrases in the text output, then used those to control the illustration engine. (So whenever it saw the text "You are standing on the bridge of the Heart of Gold", it would throw up the illustration of the bridge of the Heart of Gold, and so forth.) Really clever hack.

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