[1/3] Please, Think of the Children: Seastalker

Infocom’s foray into “Junior” interactive fiction would be reconfigured as “Introductory” IF only one year later.

Seastalker (1984)
Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence

Packaging, Extras, and Documentation: Seastalker

Seastalker folio packaging (MoCAGH)
Seastalker grey box packaging (MoCAGH)
Seastalker online Invisiclues (courtesy of Parchment and IDP)
[For best results, open MoCAGH images in new tab]
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Seastalker
Nathan Simpson’s Bug List: Seastalker
My rather miserable transcript, in which I bungle aimlessly in the endgame (Also, I am playing the unreleased R18, in which you cannot set the sonar to automatic).

Specifications

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 30 (110)
Vocabulary: 911 (697)
Takeable Objects: 15 (60)
Size: 117.8KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 16,558 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

Copyright (c) 1984, 1985 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.

Welcome to interactive fiction from Infocom!

In this story, you're the hero or heroine, so we'll use your name!

Please type your first name.
>Drew
Hello Drew! Now type your last name.
>Cook
Is Drew Cook right? >yes
Then let the story begin!























SEASTALKER: DREW COOK AND THE ULTRAMARINE BIOCEPTOR
Infocom interactive fiction - an adventure story
Copyright (c) 1984, 1985 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SEASTALKER is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release number 18 / Serial number 850919

"Drew, snap out of it!" cries Tip Randall, bursting into your laboratory. "The alert signal is on!"
You look up from your plans for the SCIMITAR, a top-secret submarine that's still being tested. It's designed for capturing marine life on the ocean floor. You notice the alarm bell on the videophone ringing. Someone's trying to reach you over the private videophone network of Inventions Unlimited!


Okay, Drew, what do you want to do now?
>

What is a Seastalker?

For the story of Seastalker’s origination, I once again direct you to the Digital Antiquarian for a detailed and interesting account. For my purposes, here, I will say that it is a collaboration between Stu Galley (The Witness) and Jim Lawrence (Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, etc.) to make an interactive fiction game marketed to players age “9 and up.” It is inspired by (a licensing deal fell through due to cost) the Tom Swift series of books. The protagonist (who, as an Infocom first, can be specified as male or female), is a genius inventor and member of a “discovery squad” that has a vaguely militaristic structure. There is a sea monster of some sort on the loose, and it jeopardizes the new Aquadome underwater base. Can the protagonist solve the mystery of the creature and save the day? Such is Seastalker‘s main dramatic question.

It should be noted that Seastalker is particularly hostile to screen readers. The dynamic ASCII sonar maps used to navigate the submarine do not translate. The feelies are also difficult to reconcile for screen reader applications, something that I have been wrestling with for quite a while.

Children’s Interactive Fiction: 1984

There isn’t time, here or now, to give a full account of the fun that my cohort and I had with a 1984 collaboration between a game designer and an author of books for children and young adults. It wasn’t a text-only adventure, nor was it a parser game, but it was what was then called “bookware,” a genre that often intersected with parser gaming. Below the Root was a strange, rich, and highly replayable game that extended the Green Sky fictional world of Zilpha Keatley Snyder. It was, rather unusually (uniquely for the time, perhaps), a canonical follow up to a published trilogy of books.

[You can find the start of Jimmy Maher’s typically insightful take on Spinnaker here, though his focus is the Telarium line of games–Below the Root is from the Wyndham Classics line meant for younger players. “Telarium” is the relevant tag for the series.]

It was a game that held children in high regard. It trusted them to find their way through its text with limited guidance. Its world was massive and potentially overwhelming, and it was navigated like a 2D action platformer: the character could walk left or right, jump, climb, or fall/glide. Instead of parser input, the game offered a set list of verbs that could be accessed at any time. There were multiple playable protagonists, each with specified ages, abilities, and social/racial backgrounds. Prejudice and bigotry are a reality in this world, and players are bound to experience them–especially if they make use of psychic abilities to hear the hidden thoughts of NPC’s.

A screen shot of the title screen for Below the Root. It shows a child smelling a flower between two massive tree trunks. This game released the same year that Seastalker did, 1984.

The different characters, as a consequence of offering different play experiences, also provide a unique way of dealing with game difficulty. Players who dislike action gaming can select characters who excel in problem solving rather than platforming. My friends and I spent more than one Saturday afternoon huddled around a C64 and 1541 drive attached to a small, tube television trying to figure everything out. Talking to animals, figuring out which adults were dishonest. We didn’t just want to win–we had already done that–we wanted to see it all.

I knew of several mid-80s classrooms that had copies of the Wyndham Classics games Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island. Kids were allowed to play them as a reward for good behavior or academic performance. People liked them. Kids convinced their parents to buy the games (sometimes a whole system) because of their relationship to published novels and literacy promotion.

I don’t bring this up because the Wyndham games compare favorably to Seastalker–yes, we are here to discuss Seastalker–in every case and sense (they don’t), but because this is the market that Seastalker entered into in 1984. Below the Root and Swiss Family Robinson released that very same year, and three more games (Treasure Island, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland) would follow in 1985. Seastalker, whatever its flaws, still had Infocom’s parser–only Alice… and Below… used the joystick-compatible interface–and the sun had yet to set on that technology from a market perspective.

Artwork from the first Nancy Drew published in 1930. A woman with auburn hair opens the face of an antique wooden clock. She holds a screwdriver in her hand. Jim Lawrence, who co-wrote Seastalker, wrote many Nancy Drew stories.
>OPEN CLOCK. GET SCREWDRIVER.

More About Seastalker

I have taken a long and roundabout path to saying that Seastalker entered a competitive market, made an initially impressive sales splash, and vanished rather abruptly into the declining back half of Infocom’s decade-long existence as a creative enterprise. I do not like it very much, and that is in one sense a matter of taste. In another, it is a matter of personal values. In no sense do I intend to flog Seastalker for three full weeks and several thousand words. In this series, then, I will keep a close eye on Seastalker’s market context (I’ll post some links to Below the Root materials below). The feelies and documentation provided with Seastalker have some novel features, so they are certainly worth discussing. There is also an odd (in the negative sense that The Witness‘s portrayal of Monica is odd) side story regarding Commander Bly, who is described in fittingly red letters on an Infocard (part of a set of “coded” cards provided with the game’s feelies):

COMMANDER ZOE BLY-This woman’s delicate beauty is hard to resist, but when you start to talk to her, wow-what a tough one she is. For one thing, she’s a champion athlete and a superachiever. For the past three months now, she’s been commander at the Aquadome. She’s an Honor Graduate of the Navy Frogman School and the Galley Institute of Technology. You’ll see soon enough that she doesn’t have much patience with people who don’t meet her standards. And that attitude tends to make some people real mad.

Is this a nine year-old kid talking?

Hello Again, Sailor

Next time, I’ll delve into the folio publication of Seastalker, sharing some photos of my own copy. Until then, I would like to hear from readers about Seastalker, especially if you liked it.

Elsewhere:
Below the Root | The Obscuritory
Below the Root: A story, a computer game and my lifelong obsession (stahlmandesign.com)
Computer Game Museum Display Case – Below the Root (mocagh.org)

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10 thoughts on “[1/3] Please, Think of the Children: Seastalker

  1. I first played Seastalker as a teenager around the time Drew was in college (late 1990’s). Frankly, I found the game boring then and continue to have same perspective in adulthood. Partly, it was the sonar ASCII symbols which my screen reader could not translate. Secondly, it was the game’s superhero expectation. I managed to get to my destination (the dome) with help from a walkthrough. However, I quickly got bored because the adult non-player character(s) expected me to save the day by assuming I knew exactly what to do and how. Seastalker is, like Journey, an Infocom game which I have not yet completed because I became extremely bored mid-game.

  2. Slight word of caution: According to The Infocom Fact Sheet [1] version 18, while it’s the last preserved version, wasn’t an official release. As such, it may contain new exciting bugs. Case in point, unlike the earlier versions the opening crawl doesn’t print the description of the first room.

    I don’t know if it’s much of a problem with this particular game, but once you get to Bureaucracy you definitely want to avoid release 160. It was built more than a year after the official release, and I don’t even know if it’s completable. I know it prints garbage early in the game, though. A preserved C version of ZAP – the Z-Machine Assembler – is dated 1988, so I think this may have been when Infocom migrated their tool chain away from DECSYSTEM-20. Maybe that’s what caused the problems here?

    [1] http://pdd.if-legends.org/infocom/fact-sheet.txt

  3. I just realized that you already wrote that the version you played was unreleased. Oops. The warning for Bureaucracy still stands, though. 🙂

  4. Seastalker is a game that never clicked for me, and I think part of it is that it tried to do too much with too little space to work with. In some (not all) Infocom games the size restrictions may have worked to the game’s advantage, forcing the author to trim unnecessary parts.

    But in Seastalker, I think they trimmed the wrong parts. A lot of effort obviously went into the submarine, and it’s pretty cool… but not *that* cool. I like Infocom feelies, but when it means a lot of the things you see – including the characters you meet – is described with “(You’ll find that information in your SEASTALKER package.)”, or when there are rooms described simply as “From here you can go west or north into the building.” … well, it just takes me right out of the game.

    The frequent references to the Infocards doesn’t help either. Nor the way the game constantly prods you to do the right thing, as if you were the sidekick rather than the protagonist.

    And while it’s going to sound terribly petty, there’s just something about Stu Galley’s games that make them look less polished to me than the average Infocom game. It could simply be the lack of blank lines to break up the paragraphs.

    It’s sad though, because once you get out of Frobton Bay and start your journey towards the Aquadome, I thought there were some genuinely atmospheric descriptions. If the rest of the game had been more like that, I think I would have liked it a lot better.

    1. In the end, too much of it just doesn’t work very well. I do recognize that some of the problems rise out of efforts to solve common interactive fiction problems. For instance, the constant questions at the aquadome are an attempt to dramatize a scene and create some forward movement, but it isn’t a success.

      The Infocards are a pet peeve of mine. I also dislike it when Moonmist keeps referring you back to the letter.

  5. I have nothing to add regarding Seastalker, but am just thrilled to see so many references to the Wyndham Classics Swiss Family Robinson, with which I happily whiled away many (if not most) lunch hours at my elementary school’s C64 lab some six years following its release. Bookware was a doomed boom, but an industry-wide misstep that it’s fun to look back on.

  6. Seastalker is perhaps the only Infocom games which I quit even though I wasn’t stuck.

    There’s only one Infocom game which I won without any hints (Wishbringer).

    For most Infocom games, at some point I got stuck, eventually got a hint or three, and kept going until winning.

    For some, I ended up resorting to walkthroughs because I couldn’t get past the puzzles even with hints and I wanted to see all the text. This included Journey, where I could not figure out the right order of operations for part of it even with the hints.

    For a few, I got stuck and didn’t enjoy the game enough to dig out a walkthrough. This very short list was Cutthroats, Sherlock, and Shogun. I might go through Sherlock and Shogun again if I am in a different mood; for a long time they were hard to play due to poor v6 support in interpreters.

    But Seastalker is unique in that I couldn’t be bothered to keep playing even though I wasn’t stuck and hadn’t tried everything. I think that says something. It was *boring*, the ultimate failure in any game or story. Cutthroats was also unusually boring for me.

    1. In those old, pre-internet days, I would spend long periods of time playing (and not playing) Infocom games. In Deadline’s case, I think I took two years solving the mystery, with a lot of in-between time waiting for inspiration. I would say that I was more patient than clever.

      I think Seastalker is perhaps Infocom’s worst game. Even in the course of writing about it here, I never encountered anyone who would admit to liking it. I never would have finished it if it weren’t for this project. I haven’t played Shogun yet, another game that I have never seen or read anyone praising.

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