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