A consequence of my "whales & ancestors" method of selecting games to cover is that I will sometimes encounter a prolific company with only one whale, and wind up doing a one-off retrospective and stop just when things start to get good. Such is the case with edutainment company Spinnaker Software, whose story becomes interesting in 1984 with the creation of offshoot brands Telarium and Windham Classics; two labels focused on computer adaptations of literature.
Out of them all, there's only one that I'm interested in playing - Below the Root, a proto-Metroidlike platformer. This is the only game of Spinnaker's entire 70+ game lineup that I want to play for its own sake, and though I will do the customary selection of ancestors leading up to it, my retrospective ends with it, and omits arguably more interesting features such as the IF-like collaborations with authors including Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Crichton, nor the acquisition and continued development of the championship-winning chess software Sargon, nor for exploring Spinnaker's connections to the famously weird CD-i Zelda games.
Still, my MO puts me in the position to play and discuss Spinnaker's early educational games, which as far as I know is a unique one in the blogging world.
As with most DDG retrospectives, I have the initial problem of deciding which games to cover. Spinnaker released over a dozen games from 1982 to 1983, and I'm not going to cover every single one of them, but I like to begin with the first, to whatever extent this is knowable. In Spinnaker's case, the initial lineup is mentioned in an issue of Compute; preschool-oriented Face Maker and The Story Machine by DesignWare, and Snooper Troops by Tom Snyder, aimed at the 10+ crowd. All were initially available on Apple II, Atari, and IBM, and I believe Apple II was the original design for all of them.
Face Maker is, frankly, a dumb little e-toy that doesn't lend itself to much critique.
Build a face out of a selection of prefabricated mouths, noses, eyes, ears, and hairstyles. Once you're happy with it, you can animate it using a primitive, Turing-incomplete scripting language, either freestyle, or you can play a Simon-like memory game where you watch the face wink, stick out its tongue, wiggle its ears, etc. and repeat these actions back.
|My Facemaker interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac
DesignWare's other launch product, The Story Machine, is a bit more substantial but ultimately still a dumb little e-toy. You script animated plays with a vocabulary of 44 words (not all of them useful!) and a very limited parser which seems to constantly reject perfectly logical sentences for obscure reasons and offers no way to delete accepted words.
It's the Tom Snyder game that somewhat interests me.
Game 370: Snooper Troops
In the sleepy New England coastal municipality of Granite Point, multiple disturbances have been reported around the old Cable Mansion, thought by some to be haunted by the widow Abigail Cable. Empty from her passing in 1906 until a few weeks ago, the Kim family moved in and got a little more than they bargained for. Lights go on and off throughout the night, loud clanging bells emit from the walls, and on April 6th, oldest daughter Amanda Kim found her bedroom, which had been locked and tidy not ten minutes earlier, ransacked and her prize-winning Siamese cat missing.
Most of the manual is a casebook, with a few pages of facts, background information, and suspects. The mansion was built in the 1780's by shipwright Thomas Cable, whose schooner Lady Liberty, now a town landmark, ferried soldiers during the revolutionary war, and later carried cargo to the West Indies, and escaped slaves to Canada. Jeremiah and Abigail Cable were the last residents of the mansion, though it remained in the family possession until it was sold to the Kims, a family of four from Alaska.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Granite Point's 300th anniversary festival is upcoming, and will feature Lady Liberty as a central exhibit. Several of the suspects, though not all, are connected in some way:
- Angelo Blume, the former groundskeeper. Worked for the Cable family and took care of the mansion for nearly his entire adult life, but was let go by the Kims when they purchased it.
- Essie Cable, the last house owner. Lives with her sisters in a smaller Cable house, and was forced to sell the old mansion as the family estate began to run out of money.
- Alfred Grummbal, the nextdoor neighbor. Hates noise, sued to prevent Granite Point from renting the mansion as a festival exhibit, and is particularly displeased that the mansion is sold. Has a missing wife.
- Harry Gettrich, owner of Granite Point's real estate office. Wishes to buy Cable Mansion for unknown reasons.
- Sammy Mudd, nephew of Alice Kim. Orphaned in 1979, Sammy lives with the Kims, and takes on much responsibility for the family and house when Michael is often away.
- Olivia Ramirez, curator for Granite Point's natural history museum. Talented at acquiring artifacts, but will not name her source, claiming that it must remain a secret if the museum is to continue collecting them.
- Paige Smithson, Granite Point historian. A recluse employed by the state university who lives in an old carriage house near Cable Mansion. Serves as historical expert for the festival committee.
- Captain Cyprus Washburn, retired sea captain. Friends with Alfred Grummbal, and chairman of the festival committee. Personally oversaw repairs to Lady Liberty, and wished to repair Cable Mansion for the festival.
I have to observe a contradiction here. Grummbal's dossier states that he sued to stop the city from renting the mansion, while Washburn's says this was prevented by the Kims' purchase. Continuity error, or a loose thread worth inquiring on? What's the real reason you don't seem to want anyone going into the mansion, Grummbal? Where's your wife?
Beginning the game, I am presented with the Snoopnet Computer for my initial inquiries.
"People facts" gives me access to a menu where I can query each suspect's record, giving me their address, days in which they are typically away, a phone number to reach an informer at, and key words to question them on.
|Cable||8 North St.||Monday||235-4567||time frail building|
|Grummbal||2 Cliff St.||Tuesday||235-6542||children sickness activity|
|Smithson||7 Cross St.||Wednesday||235-7788||lamp authority history|
|Mudd||4 Cliff St.||Thursday||235-4646||pals repair travel|
|Gettrich||3 Pond St.||Friday||235-1111||youngster meals gathering|
|Ramirez||9 Ridge St.||Saturday||235-3131||home hours speech|
|Blume||6 Elm St.||Sunday||235-2468||reward scare deliver|
|Washburn||1 Larch St.||Sunday||235-4515||buddy display night|
Special message yields nothing, and accusations seem premature, but old clue files give me two:
- Mr. X: Essie doesn't want anyone to move into the Cable Mansion.
- Special: Paige tried to rent the Cable Mansion but the sisters only want to sell.
I leave the office and hit the streets.
Going east, I hit Smithson's place on Cross Street.
But all I learn is that he claims to have been at the festival committee, and refuses to answer more questions.
I continue driving around, mapping things out as I go, questioning suspects' alibis as I come across their houses.
- Sammy Mudd went to the harbor after dinner.
- Washburn played chess with Alfred Grummbal.
- Ramirez gave a tour at the museum.
- Cable made cheesecake at home.
On Wednesday, I came across a telephone booth.
I called each contact on the list, but most of them were useless. Only the informer on Cable responded positively to any of the keywords, and only told me that Essie had polio as a child and that one of her legs is weak. Everyone else just grumbled at whatever keywords were given.
On Friday, I came to Grummbal's house.
Seems like either he or Washburn is lying! Or hiding something. I suppose both could be telling the truth if they played chess at Grummbal's house, but if so, why wouldn't he mention that?
This completed my map.
And then I got a pager message.
So I went to the phone, arriving Saturday.
|Sigh. I knew that one already!|
But then I had an idea, one the game had hinted at earlier. I called the contacts again, but this time I used synonyms for the keywords. Kids instead of children, hours instead of time, etc. A few of these were stretches that took me several guesses - the worst was "hospital" instead of "sickness" - but this got me quite a few clues, though many I already knew.
- Essie has worked on a family tree for years.
- Essie had polio as a child so one of her legs is weak.
- Essie keeps house for her 2 working sisters.
- Alfred doesn't like kids very much.
- Alfred cares for his invalid wife at home.
- Alfred and Cyrus have never missed a Thursday night chess game.
- Paige always turns his lights off at exactly 10 pm.
- Paige is an expert on local history.
- Paige has lived in Granite Point all his life.
- Except for Amanda Sammy doesn't have any close friends.
- The Kims depend on Sammy to fix things when Michael is away.
- Sammy hated to move from Alaska but now he loves Granite Point.
- Harry loves to work with children.
- Harry and Olivia often eat together at the Sail and Anchor.
- Harry never misses a festival committee meeting.
- Olivia lives next door to the museum.
- Olivia does not spend time with other museum workers.
- Olivia never seems to talk to Paige in public.
- Angelo won first prize for roses he grew at the Cable place.
- Ever since a mine explosion Angelo has a fear of closed dark places.
- When Angelo fishes he sometimes brings an extra rod for Sammy.
- Cyrus and Alfred have been friends all their lives.
- Last summer Cyrus tried to rent the Cable house as an exhibit.
- Cyrus went straight to Alfred's from the Sail and Anchor on April 6.
A summary so far:
- Angelo Blume is the police's main suspect, who knows the Kims well and has reason to want revenge. I have yet to get his alibi.
- Essie Cable, forced to sell her beloved family home has motive, and her alibi can't be verified, but her bad leg makes her an unlikely suspect.
- Alfred Grummbal is in the clear for his wife (maybe), but it's weird that he said nothing about playing chess with Cyrus.
- Harry Gettrich's motive would be to buy the mansion cheaply, but we don't know why. That he meets with Olivia Ramirez often is interesting.
- Sammy Mudd has no apparent motive, but his alibi is unproven.
- Olivia Ramirez may believe something in the mansion is valuable to the museum, but her alibi seems solid.
- Paige Smithson has no apparent motive. His alibi seems solid.
- Washburn's alibi checks out, but again, why wouldn't Grummbal corroborate it?
The next week rolled around, and it was time to do some snooping, beginning with Grummbal's house, which I reached by Tuesday.
The snooping section is dumb and annoying. Each question mark represents a clue, but the game won't let you just look at them - you must "snoopshot" each with your one-shot camera and leave to develop the film before you find out what they are. Moving around is very slow, you can only take one picture per trip, and sometimes the house layouts are so sprawling that you only have time to get one clue before the resident comes home and kicks you out.
This time I got all three clues:
- Photo of crew on World War II submarine
- Gameboard set up for playing chess
- Receipt for digging equipment
Next, I broke into Smithson's house, but all I could get was a jar of allergy pills before he returned home and shooed me out.
Over the next few days, I broke into more suspects' houses and snooped their belongings while they were out. Most of it was useless, and sometimes the layouts were too sprawling to allow more than one successful break and enter in a day, but on Friday I found baseball tickets dated April 6th in Gettrich's place, which in game logic probably exonerates him - though realistically it does not prove he was there, only that he bought tickets. On Saturday, I found a museum tour flyer in Ramirez' place, confirming her alibi, and later, I called Mr. X to learn that me that a baby's cries had been heard from Washburn's place.
This left the gardener Angelo as the one suspect with a motive and no alibi, so I returned to Snoop HQ, picked the "accuse" option, and made an unpleasant discovery as to what Snooper Troops is all about.
Curses! Curse Snyder, curse Apple, curse this game and crush it with a rock!
You see, each time you get a clue, the screen displays a corresponding clue number. I didn't think I'd be needing these numbers! Turns out, you do, though the manual and game never say so. The ultimate goal of the game is to confirm seven of the eight suspect's alibis with a clue, leaving one by elimination. And the many, many clues which do not confirm an alibi are useless.
I painstakingly re-acquired all of the alibi-confirming clues as I could, this time taking note of their numbers.
The SnoopNet computer is also picky about which clues confirm an alibi. The tip from the informer on Cable that she had polio? This proves nothing. The clue from Grummbal's informer that he and Washburn always play chess on Thursdays clears Grummbal, but not Washburn! An identical clue from Washburn's informer clears him, as the flyer in Ramirez's house clears her, and the baseball tickets in Gettrich's house clears him.
- Angelo Blume, alibi unknown.
Cable, claims to have made cheesecake.
- Sammy Mudd, says he went to the harbor.
- Paige Smithson, says was at the festival committee.
Questioning Blume, he claims to have been fishing. I wait until he leaves the next day to search his place, and I do find fishing rods, but this is not acceptable to SnoopNet. I searched the homes of all four remaining suspects and found nothing of value either - Mudd owned some damp shoes, and Cable had a receipt for membership at the cheesecake guild, but neither was taken as proof.
On Saturday, Mr. X paged me again, and I called the next day.
This was accepted as proof! Two more alibis to confirm. But was this the way it had to be? Waiting for tips from my little nameless bird?
Yes. This is how it must be. I waited another week. Two more calls came in, one useless, one useful.
And, well, I just had to keep waiting for Mr. X to spill a clue to clear Smithson or Mudd. In the interim, multiple messages also came through at Snoop HQ, all of them useless, though some offered some bits of history on the Cable and Washburn families.
|But not this one.|
Eventually - ten weeks later, seven useless Mr. X clues later and at least that many useless "Special Messages", hours of waiting around the phone and station for these anonymous clues to come, Mr. X came through. And I know the game purposefully wasted my time with red herrings, because the clue numbers came in perfectly descending order, decreasing by 7 or 8 each time (i.e. 193, 186, 178) until it reached 133.
Could be worse, I guess. It could have been completely random, giving me a single-digit percentage chance of getting the clue I need with each call.
Returning to the station, I punched in the clue numbers until only Paige Smithson remained as a suspect.
Then, the game threw one last surprise at me.
Well, shoot. I'm not sure. None of the clues I'd seen hinted at much - in his home I'd found allergy pills, history books, and a shockingly high electric bill, and little else really established means.
Thankfully, wrong guesses are not penalized, and eventually found "TUNNEL" to be an accepted answer, though the digging equipment had been found in Grummbal's house, not Smithson's.
Then the game wanted a motive. Considering Ramirez' mysterious treasure supplier, that she never speaks to Grummbal in public, and that I now knew Smithson had been breaking into a generations-empty house for months, I guessed "TREASURE." Correctly.
I looked at the source code afterward to confirm some things I suspected about the way things work. There are exactly seven clues needed to win the game, one for each innocent suspect, and they are always the same clues, found in the same places. In fact, the clue number to clear each innocent suspect is hard-coded, and if you know what they are you could punch them into the computer as soon as the game starts and win right away. All other clues are of no use, which is too bad because some of them are way more interesting than a tip that Essie had tea with Violet or whoever. How does your real estate office in this tiny 80-house community make its money, Gettrich? What's your business meeting with teenage boys at the harbor at night, Blume? Where's your wife, Grummbal?
GAB rating: Bad.
What a disappointment. I wasn't expecting a lot - it's just an obscure kid's game from the early 80's. I kind of expected Clue-level mystery solving, and that's sort of what I got, but the manual, with much more focus on background and characters than on gameplay, hinted at a depth that I just never got.
Then, the core gameplay loop of finding clues mainly by going to certain houses during certain days of the week and tediously going to points of interest, photographing them one at a time, leaving, and coming back for the rest just tested my patience, and the mechanic of punching in clue numbers when the game is hard-coded to only accept one for each suspect really pissed me off.
But what I spent the most time doing, by far, was just waiting around for anonymous clues once I had exhausted the snooping possibilities, which in the end only yielded two important ones. Three of the seven clues you need are given through Mr. X, and there's at least nine useless ones that came first. That was the final nail in the coffin - you cannot offer such shallow gameplay, waste my time with hours of idling, and get away without the B from my GAB. The last bit of mystery solving is probably the cleverest part, but doesn't come close to vindicating the sheer tedium of everything else. The game would have been infinitely better if it just dispensed with
the necessity of "clearing" everyone else first and let you just accuse a suspect when you think you know.