Monday, June 16, 2014

K is for Kabul Spy

a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

You are standing outside of an airport terminal building. Fields of tall grass surround the airport...

By modern standards, the graphics are terrible - but at the time it was groundbreaking, or at least it seemed so.

Even the premise is so far out of date many modern gamers would have trouble recognising the setting.

It was needlessly convoluted, and clearly written by people who knowledge of how "tradecraft" actually works. [1]

But something about this game calls to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was really the first game I ever had that both wasn't a home computer port of some arcade game and had graphics?  Maybe it was a melding of my enjoyment of Zork [2] with the flash [3] of what I got to see at the console in the corner store?

I don't know what it was, but I deeply regret the my teenage self was the lack of patience that I had for this and for other text adventure games [4]

The effort that went into these games was enormous, and the puzzles and plots built into them were often quite impressive.  But for me - well, for my 12-14 year old self - the sheer frustration of just getting past the first stages and into Afghanistan itself killed my spirit.

This is a shame - I loved some of the other games put out by Sirius Software (Gorgon, Sneakers) and although text adventure games were sort of a new thing for them everything I've read about this game since makes me think it was actually very sophisticated for the time.

To this day, I regret not staying the course and rescuing the professor...

The truth though, is that one of the reasons I regret not having played this and other text adventure games more is that to a large extent they informed my early gaming.  Not directly - as I already mentioned I actually didn't have the patience to play the game very much - but the interesting thing about some of the old text adventure games is that they bore a very close resemblance to choose your own adventure books.  In fact, there were manuals on the shelves of bookstores that explained how you could convert a self-written choose your own adventure book into a text adventure, and a few of them even included some snippets of code (in BASIC!) for you to start with, and gave instructions on how to build databases for managing equipment and other things.

So what has this to do with tabletop RPGs you ask?

Well, the fact of the matter is that with the enthusiasm for both the growing home computer market and the RPG market there was significant crossover - in fact if you look at some of the games first published in the early to mid 1980s, you can see this cross-pollenation.

Several print games have aspects that are clearly connected to computer gaming - some of these games even look unplayable without some kind of computer support, making me wonder if they were initially envisaged as some best-selling computer game that just never got the interest or the funding to get written, but for which the designer had hacked together mechanics and tables and such.

In the same way, some of the computer games of the era were quite consciously trying to shift tabletop gaming into the digital world, where computers could take over all the mechanics and let the players

In that sense, games like Kabul Spy are actually the spiritual ancestors of modern immersive console RPGs.

Or not.

But whatever they were, games like Kabul Spy are what I cut my teeth on, and I wish I'd given them the time they deserved.

1. Caveat: I'm no expert, but even a reading of the James Bond novels would have provided a primer.

2. This game still has staying power, even in this era of CGI!

3. In a relative sense - there were no animations that I recall.

4. Other than Zork II, which I spent hours on.

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