Missed Classic: Mystery House - WON! and Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

Cora Bow’s Girl Scout Cookie Log #2: Today, I defeated a murderer and found jewels that will pay for my college education! Also, I killed two people! It’s a bit of a long story...

A clue: the killer knows when to use an apostrophe.

In my last posting, Cora had just started her exploration of the “Mystery House” by identifying a light source that would let us survive and explore in the coming darkness. Candle in hand, exploring the house completely was our next step. Rather than describe each and every room, let me describe briefly what I found:

The Downstairs & Outside

Never has a stick-figure looked so sinister.

  • The lower level of the house consisted of a kitchen, a dining room, and a library.
  • The dining room contained a candle, but nothing else of interest. I am avoiding that room right now because when I enter it I trip over the rug and start a fire.
  • The kitchen contained a butter knife, an empty pitcher, and some matches.
  • The library appears to be useless. There are books and a fireplace, but I could neither take any books nor light the fireplace. I had hoped the fireplace would be climbable (as in Zork 1), but it was not to be.
  • Outside the kitchen is a forest maze, all rooms alike. I have not worked it out yet, but I know I do not have enough items to map it. I also have not found an exit so I have to restore whenever I enter.
  • Outside the house in the other direction is a side and back yard. The backyard has my first dead body: Sam, the mechanic, is dead.
  • Out a gate in the yard is a cemetery where I find my first living person since the start of the adventure: Joe, the gravedigger. He’s busy digging six graves. How ominous! If I fall into one of the graves, he will kill me-- so I would not say that he is a “good” guy, but I am not sure whether he is the murderer. He is carrying a shovel that I suspect that I will want later.

The Upstairs and Attic

Is this a dagger I see before me?

  • The upstairs consists of a T-shaped hallway with several bedrooms, a nursery, a study, a bathroom, and another set of stairs up to the attic.
  • There are more dead bodies up here: in the nursery (Dr. Green) and in the small bedroom (Sally, the seamstress). Searching Sally’s body, I found a blond hair-- a clue to her killer?
  • As I entered the large bedroom, I was nearly killed by a thrown dagger. The attempted killer got away, but at least I got a dagger in the deal!
  • The study was empty, but it had an attached bathroom. There, I found a towel and the remains of Bill the butcher. He was strangled by pantyhose and I am not sure if that is supposed to be a clue as to the murderer’s gender.
  • The attic level consists of a main room and a small storage room.
  • The attic itself contained only a window, described as the only non-boarded window in the house, and a ladder leaning against the wall. You cannot move the ladder or climb it, but I may find a use for it later.
  • The storage room contained a locked chest.

Having explored all of the obvious places, I know that Joe is both alive and homicidal, but is he the killer? The blond hair on Sally’s body suggests otherwise as neither she nor Joe are blond. That may not mean much-- maybe she has a blond cat-- but in a game like this it probably is a big deal. Bill was strangled by pantyhose and if that is supposed to clue me in to the killer’s gender, then it must be Daisy as the only non-dead female blond left. If I find her, I will be certain to ask her. One big open question: is there one murderer or have the guests been offing each other? We know that the treasure can only be collected by one person so everyone-- myself included-- has a motive to reduce the competition. How many murderers are there?

In all this, I also found out that I could jump out the attic window. I survive the attempt with minor injuries but die when the ambulance I am ferried away in is in a car accident. Something tells me that Roberta was getting tired of writing all of the death messages!

But who called the ambulance? And how did the EMT miss the dead body in the yard?

As I explore, I have been drawing a map like this so that I could keep track of who was found where, as well as notes on the clues that I have been finding:

My map of the upstairs.

Now that I have the house explored, I realize that I have a few puzzles left to be worked out: 1) the forest maze; 2) the fire in the dining room; 3) getting the shovel from Joe; and 4) unlocking the chest in the attic. None of those seem particularly relevant to finding a murderer, but presumably one of them will open up other avenues.

I decide to tackle the fire first. I know that I have an “empty pitcher” in my inventory and that sounds like it is dying to be filled. I tried to “get water” when I was at the sink (both in the kitchen and in the bathroom), but that did not work. I head back to the sink and try to “turn faucet”, “turn on”, and many other combinations but none of them are giving me water. Eventually, I reread the manual. One of the example commands for the game is “water on”. Is that even English? Obviously Ken and Roberta knew that this specific combination would be a problem so they stuck it in the manual, but really? Couldn’t they have found a “verb object” command that worked? I suppose not. The good news is that there is now water in the sink and I have a filled pitcher.

I head back to the dining room and, just like before, I trip over the rug. I struggle to find a command to save me, but each time the parser does not understand what I am up to and I die. After a few reloads, I try “pour water” and that does the trick! The fire is out and a hole has been burned in the rug. And what should be under the rug right there? Why, a key of course! I pocket the key and suspect that I have solved two puzzles at once. I head upstairs to the attic and the small key unlocks the chest. Inside is a gun with a single bullet. Why do I suspect that will come in handy?

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

That leaves only two puzzles that I know of: getting the shovel off of Joe and the forest maze. I decide that the gun might be my solution for dealing with the gravedigger and so I go down and shoot him. He dies and I can pick up his shovel. Somehow, that does not feel right so I reload. We’ll see if there is a non-violent solution later, or a better target for a loaded gun. Time to go look at the maze.

Text adventure mazes, starting with the “Maze of Twisty Little Passages All Alike” in “Colossal Cave” work in a similar way. You have some number of identical rooms with nondescript exits. Worse, rooms are not connecting in a sane manner. For example, going west to get to another room almost never means that you can get back to it going east. The solution to this puzzle in “Colossal Cave”, and most adventure games since, is to make the rooms different in some way-- usually by dropping an item. If you have enough items, you can get one in every room and use that to build a map. Unlike the more normal room connections of the adventure, it is often quite difficult to describe these mazes in a program like Visio or Omnigraffle and I use a spreadsheet instead. After dropping all my items and trying every direction, I end up with a map of the maze that looks like this:

This girl scout is also a litter bug.

I discover that there are eight screens to the maze, but I otherwise leave empty-handed. Why would Roberta build a maze with no ending? There must be a point, but one that I have not discovered yet. Unfortunately, I have solved all the puzzles that I laid out for myself. What did I miss?

With no obvious clues, I resolve to explore the house over again. I go through each room, poke and prod at all of the items in each one and try to find something that stands out. One challenge here is that the parser will respond with an error message that you “see nothing special” if you look at an item that is not in the room with you. Therefore, it is easy to use the wrong term for something and think you are using the right one because a similar object is in another room. Very frustrating!

After some searching, I am drawn to a mysterious painting in the study:

This is the response when you “look” at the picture. I have no idea what it's supposed to mean.

I find that the painting is held to the wall using four bolts. Unlike every other immovable object in this game, this is the only one that tells you an excuse beyond it being too heavy. Try as I might, I can not find anything that I can do with the bolts. There is no wrench in the house. And that is where I cheated for the one and only time this playthrough: I got a hint.

My hint was that you have to use the butter knife on the bolts. I am very disappointed by this puzzle. Not only is that something I could have been able to get, but that the confusion is because of the word used. This is not a French import game where I expect badly used terms! In my head, you can take off “screws” with a butter knife, certainly not “bolts”. Bolts need something like a wrench and a butter knife is nothing like a wrench. Still muttering under my breath, I take the painting off the wall and it reveals a button! I press the button, and the wall swings open. What we have here is an old-fashioned secret passage!

The cost to repair water damage can be astronomical.

The wall leads to a crawl space and a stairwell down to the basement. And what do I see when I get there? Another dead body: Tom, the plumber. It seems that I was not the first to find the secret door, though how could he have put the painting back on from the inside? Did he have help? Or is there another entrance?

Tom’s body also has another clue: he is holding a daisy. I know I guessed that it might be Daisy earlier, but I am very annoyed about this clue. If it is right, then it is hitting me over the head with an answer that I was enjoying puzzling through. Worse, it’s a stupid clue. How would Tom know to carry that type of flower and have it in his hand when he was killed? He could not have had that level of foresight. Could the killer hand flowers to his or her victim like a calling card? Ignoring how stupid that is from the killer’s perspective, there have not been flowers with most of the murders. I am left to conclude that this is a clue, but it is stupid. I’m calling it now: Daisy is the killer.

The basement also has a key, which I take, a hole and a doorway. The door leads to a hall and stairs up to a pantry, but there is nothing obvious to do there and I cannot interact with any of the jars. The hole leads into a tight crawl which ends in the forest in front of a giant pine tree which I did not see earlier while exploring. I climb the tree and discover that someone has built a platform and put a telescope up there. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it is a peeping Tom. I look through the telescope and find that it is pointed at the attic (obviously why the windows are not boarded!) and now I see a trapdoor which I missed before!

So how long can a telescope survive in a tree, exposed to the elements?

Once again, I do not understand this plot development. Why was there a hole in the basement leading to the forest? It’s a long tunnel, who built it? The killer? Probably not, it would take days to dig. And why a telescope up in a tree that reveals a trapdoor that you cannot see while standing inches below it? I am losing my suspension of disbelief, which is unfortunate because I am Cora Bow, girl scout on a mission.

I climb down the tree and find myself in the forest maze. Even without all my dropped items, I know that I can just keep going “north” until I find someplace that will allow me to go “up”. With that, I solved the maze and at least now I have a clue what it was there for.

My next stop is the attic and yes, there is now a trapdoor there right above the ladder. I open the trapdoor and am taken to the game’s final confrontation:

It was Daisy! In a bunch of rooms! With a bunch of stuff!

Yes, Daisy was the murderer! Of course, all of the clues are useless in retrospect because when you get to this part of the house you just discover who did it. I’m pretty disappointed on that score. (Up to this point, it could also have been Joe the gravedigger, but the game never puts you in a position where you have to decide between them.)

I waste no time: I ask her if she wants to buy any cookies. She refuses, then I shoot her. A bit anti-climactic, yes, but at least that is done.

There is a note on the ground: “It’s in the basement.” With the killer dealt with, now it’s time to claim my treasure! Never mind that it does not make sense for the killer to leave a note saying where the treasure is hidden. Why wouldn’t the secret die with her?

Since it is in the basement, I am going to bet that I will have to dig for it. I head to the graveyard, stab the gravedigger with the dagger and run off with his shovel. In my defense, he did kill me in a different saved game. I rush back to the basement shovel in hand and start to dig-- which does not work. I try to dig in a thousand different ways, but none of them are understood by the system. Eventually, I notice the algae and start working on that. I stumble on the solution by accident: if you clean off the algae, you find a loose brick. Behind the brick is the jewels!

I head back out to the front door. The key I picked up in the basement earlier opens the lock, so that is done. I head outside and win! I am a “guru wizard”, whatever that means. Since I did not need the shovel, I consider restoring and win again without killing Joe, but I do not bother. Instead, I restore and get the jewels without killing Daisy-- and the game will not end. I had to kill at least one person to win this game. Go morality!

But back to the point: I won!

I am a guru wizard! The next game is “The Wizard and the Princess”. Coincidence?

Session time: 2 hours
Total time: 3 hours

My PISSED Rating:

Puzzles and Solvability - 4

While the game is short, there are a few fun puzzles and the game itself is far more fun than you think it should be. I got stuck once and did die a number of times, but I do not believe there were any long term “dead man walking” situations (but perhaps if you use the gun too early). Consulting a walkthrough after the fact, I see that there are multiple solutions to some of the puzzles (you can use the hammer to knock down a wall at one point, plus multiple items you can use as weapons), and the subplot around getting the shovel is extraneous. I wonder if there is a non-lethal way to get the shovel? That said, I am docking points here for the senselessness of the “bolt” puzzle and the general unsolvability of the murder. The game hands you the solution on a silver platter and that just is not acceptable in a game that bills itself as a murder mystery.

Interface and Inventory - 2

The parser is the game’s biggest weakness, as it has the restrictions of “Colossal Cave” rather than the more dynamic parser that would come with “Zork” the same year. It is made worse by idiotic decisions like having “water on” be the only command (that I could find) to turn on the sink. The inventory items each have their own glyphs, but scale is completely off. The house key, for one, looks like the size of my upper body.

Stairs. If there is one thing consistently drawn well in this game, it’s stairs.

Story and Setting - 3

The story is stand-out here, at least through the first half, and the depiction of the Victorian manor house is fantastic. Bonus here for the realization that the tower where Daisy is hiding out is visible even in the first screen of the game. Even with that win, the characters in this game are not fleshed out at all and even the player character is an empty avatar. No excuse is ever given as to why everyone was in the house at the same time, at all! Near the endgame, the story gets nonsensical as you have to puzzle out why there is a telescope in a tree, how the secret passage was closed behind Tom, and who built a tunnel to the forest and why. May be okay for lighter fare, but when you do a mystery like this one, you expect the mystery to make sense. Fantastic attempt here, but there are some real problems.

Sound and Graphics - 1

The black and white wireframe graphics have a certain charm after a while, but they look amateur compared to where the genre will go even a few months later. I give them credit for doing something that no one had ever done before, but even for 1980 games this was relatively weak.

This woman has a tail? Coming out her front?

Environment and Atmosphere - 4

Wandering through an abandoned house and stumbling over one dead body after another is surprisingly effective in defining a mood for the game. Ken and Roberta did a lot with just a little and it really shows.

Dialog and Acting - 2

Other than the notes that are left on the floor, all of the NPCs are silent. This is a lonely story. The text descriptions of the rooms are deliberately very shallow; Roberta clearly wanted you to be paying attention to the images rather than the text. For that, she is to be commended! But it does not leave much to judge in this category.

The time tunnel!

So (4+2+3+1+4+2)*100/60 is 27. After some deliberation, I will also give “Mystery House” two bonus points (+2) for the “Inventing a New Genre” award. Ken and Roberta were making up the rules as they went along and we all are thankful to them for it. That leaves us with a final score of 29.

It is quite difficult to say whether this “feels” right. “Mystery House” is undoubtedly a game from a different era, yet it measures favorably against more than a few newer games. That seems right: this is a better game than some that we have played, but at the same time the PISSED rating defines games in terms of the characteristics that later games have, so it is unsurprising that this first effort would lack some of those qualities. But ask me whether I’d rather re-play “Mystery House” or “Operation Stealth”-- there’s no contest. This is a far more fun game.

Joe Pranevich blogs about random geekiness at Kniggit.net and about religion at Coat of Many Colors.

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