Bestiary: a fairy-tale adventure

I wrote the adventure game Bestiary for the Amstrad CPC computer in 1987, and sold it by mail order through advertisement in user magazines. It was well-reviewed in Amstrad Action and Amstrad Computer User (see below), and the Amstrad Action reviewer included it in his list of Top Ten adventure games. 

I have just played a game that is excellent value for money, does not appear to have any bugs in it, is fun to play, has a reasonably logical plot, … and will keep you guessing for hours. The CPC graphics are well up to any other GAC standards and the text is well written. A well produced, novel adventure. Buy it – you will certainly not regret it.

Bill Brock, Amstrad Computer User, July 1987, p 27

Here’s a rather charming home-brewed fantasy, created using GAC [authoring software] and not a little imagination by the author. The text is colourful and the locations picturesque This game has a ring of innocence and originality about it that the Pilg very much enjoyed, and would advise nature-lovers to risk their £2.50 on this rather than on some other more visually attractive offerings I could mention but won’t.

The Pilgrim, Amstrad Action, June 1987, p 80

See interactive storybook version of Bestiary (first half only), using Inklewriter engine.

See web version of Bestiary with classic text interface plus point and click, using Quest engine.

Games design and learning design

Designing a computer game is rather like designing e-learning. In both cases, you are trying to arrange for the user to have certain definite experiences, although they are acting freely (within the constraints of the virtual environment). If you do your job right, the user should have a good time – and feel that they’ve done it all themselves!

An “adventure game” such as Bestiary is a primarily text-based game for a solo player. The computer describes the player’s location (for example, by a stream next to a cottage), the player types in a text command (for example, GO NORTH, GET KEY, UNLOCK DOOR), and the computer describes the result of the player’s command. In this way, the player moves through a simulated world, pursuing quests and overcoming obstacles.

Bestiary has a fairy tale setting, organised around encounters with animals. Each animal represents either a problem or a solution. For example, an owl which you meet will prove helpful when you enter a dark cave. A monkey up a tree will steal a vital object from you, and you have to find a way to get it back. Examine the lion, and you will find it is roaring not from anger but from pain, because it has a thorn in its paw; remove the thorn, and you have a loyal companion who will defend you against attack.

Writing an adventure game such as Bestiary presents two main challenges in design. The first is creating a landscape in which the player can move freely and yet experience a sense of progression. The second is creating problems which are sufficiently easy that the player does not become frustrated, yet sufficiently difficult that the player gets satisfaction from solving them. (These are directly analogous to challenges in the writing of e-learning materials.)

A sense of progression and narrative sequence can be created in two ways. The first is through the organisation of the map: if the player starts in a certain location, there will be some locations which they reach soon and others which they reach later, and you can arrange for there to be “bottlenecks” so that the player must pass through a certain location to advance. The second way of creating narrative sequence is by creating “locked doors”: that is, locations which they player can only enter when they have the proper “key”. For example, in Bestiary the final encounter is with a phoenix, and I wanted to prevent the player from having this encounter until they had done everything else and knew why they should be looking for the phoenix and what they should be asking him. I achieved this by locating the phoenix in the middle of a desert, and making it impossible for the player to reach him without dying of thirst unless they had already acquired a certain object which would provide them with water.

Creating problems which are not too difficult and not too easy is the major challenge of adventure game design.