Shadowgate, Nintendo Adventure Books, and Reading the Game

“The last thing that you remember is standing before the wizard Lakmir as he waved his hands.”

With those fateful words, so begins one of the great classics of interactive literature, the video game Shadowgate. Originally developed by ICOM Simulations for the Apple II, a successful port to the Nintendo Entertainment System made Shadowgate the most popular installment of the MacVenture series, which included such classics as Deja Vu and The Uninvited. The gameplay is fairly straightforward. The player navigates a maze of rooms using point-and-click controls, examining and collecting objects, then using those objects to overcome obstacles and slay a grimoire of frightening creatures. Your mission: out-wit your way to the heart of castle Shadowgate and kill the Warlock Lord before he can summon the dreaded Behemoth and bring darkness to the world. Twenty-five years after its original release, Shadowgate is remembered as a dark, spooky adventure filled with near-impossible puzzles. Gruesome death lurks around every corner.

So what makes Shadowgate special? The answer is tucked into the first sentence of this article. It’s that word “literature.” The pace is dramatically different from other games of the era. There is a great deal of reading, as the player’s actions are narrated in descriptive prose.

The game is closer to an illustrated choose-your-own-adventure novel than The Legend of Zelda, Ultima, or other dungeon crawls of that era. And yet, Shadowgate‘s impact on the industry was widespread, and some elements of the game that it and other MacVenture titles pioneered have found their way into some of the most highly regarded games of all time.

Some of my favorite novels to read when I was growing up were choose-your-own-adventure books. In the original titles, every few pages, the reader would be prompted to make a decision, either on behalf of the protagonist, or on behalf of herself, assuming it was one of the many branching plot novels written in the second-person present tense. Something like this:

If you wish to go into the dark cave, turn to Page 23
If you wish to continue on the path towards the castle, turn to Page 87

Inevitably, one choice would advance the story, and the other would lead to your demise. In the example above, my guess is that continuing towards the castle would result in a freak rockslide pummeling you with giant boulders.

The idea that the reader had some agency over what happened in the story was a genius innovation, but it could get a little redundant after a while. Every few pages, you make a decision. Either you die, or continue. And then it goes like that, die/continue/die/continue until you reached the happy ending. Sometimes the story would continue in both directions for another chapter, but then at the next branch, both options would result in death, no matter what you chose.

Then I discovered these books:

And I was totally blown away. (Ignore the Pringles.) Nintendo Adventure Books. They were brilliant. Not just because they delved into the personalities of everyone’s favorite plumber pair, but because they took the awesome premise of the classic choose-your-own-adventure books and did them one step better. Not only could you navigate the story on a variety of different paths, there were multiple “true endings” as opposed to death endings, which told a complete story with character resolution and the like.

But wait, there’s more. At certain points in the story, Mario and the other characters could collect items which helped them to overcome various obstacles. So you’d see prompts like this:

If Mario has the plunger, turn to Page 23
If Mario does not have the plunger, turn to Page 87

Rather than making a choice at every branch, sometimes your past choices have ramifications for you in the future. And then, as if these books weren’t already awesome enough, at certain branches, there were puzzles, like mazes and word searches, that the reader could solve to get a hint as to which route the player should take. These books were choose-your-own-adventure plus plus plus. It’s incredible that the format has not been used more.

So what does all of this have to do with Shadowgate? Well… SHADOWGATE IS ONE OF THOSE BOOKS! Except, you know, in electronic form. You read the text, look at the pictures, and then make a decision about what to do next, whether to use an item on an object in the room, or to move to the room north, south, or dennis. Of course, when you play Shadowgate, you don’t have to actually hold a gigantic book with all your different options in your hands, so instead of binary choices like in most interactive novels, Shadowgate gives you a ton of options, including Look, Take, Hit, Open on everything you see in the room, and Use on everything you have taken so far in the game. When I would die in one of the choose-your-own-adventure books I read, instead of going back to the beginning like I was prompted, I would flip back to the previous chapter and take the other route, so I could continue on with the story. Backtracking like this is built into Shadowgate. If you die you restart in the room where you died, and you can always return to rooms you have previously explored, and take another path by taking other objects, or going a different route.

Right around now, some of you are starting to say, “So what? First-person puzzle adventures are so much better now! We have full real-time movement, and physics, and tutorials hold our hands through all the puzzles that are just too hard.” But think about all of the classic games that drew inspiration from Shadowgate and its contemporaries. Point-and-click controls have lost some of their popularity in recent years, but think about King’s Quest, and Monkey Island, or any of the other awesome Lucasarts titles. The success of Double Fine’s Kickstarter is a clear indication that players are still hungry for games like these. Then there’s Shadowgate‘s narrator, giving you description that mounts the tension, and then offers sardonic humor when you inevitably get blown through a broken mirror and into the vacuum of space. What later games would borrow this style of the omnipresent narrator? King’s Quest again, plus more recent titles like Portal, Quantum Conundrum, Dear Esther, and Bastion.

Then there’s Shadowgate‘s survival horror aspect. You’re trapped in a dark and deadly castle, hounded by the undead, and have limited ammo (in Shadowgate‘s case, ammo comes in the form of torches; if you run out, you fall and break your neck). That’s right. Without Shadowgate, there would be no Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark, or Silent Hill.

Then there is this game you might have heard of:

If there is a single title that deserves the mantle of Game Changer, it’s Myst. It’s a point-and-click, like Shadowgate. It’s a puzzle game, like Shadowgate. It’s a vast exploration of beautifully rendered environments, like Shadowgate.

Most surprising, and this is a little known fact, Myst was designed as a critical response of Shadowgate. Don’t believe me? In an interview in 1994, the creators of Myst admitted that one of their goals in designing the game was to avoid constant death syndrome, the experience of dying every two seconds in a puzzle adventure game. They felt that the constant deaths take you out of the experience of the game, sort of like when you accidentally drop your book on the floor and lose your place. Although they do not mention Shadowgate by name, it’s quite clear from the hundreds of deaths the player must suffer to reach the end of Shadowgate, it’s exactly the kind of game the Myst guys were talking about.

Shadowgate is a great read. It’s a collage of fantastic and mythical elements, a frightening dungeon crawl, and a game that gave me goosebumps and nightmares as a kid. Point-and-click controls are a little cumbersome on the NES, and as I was playing it again in anticipation of this article, I couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be on the iPad. I wonder… will new game interfaces allow for a resurgence of this lost genre? Only time will tell. But meanwhile…

To read Steele’s epic post on Ducktales, Turn to Page 2
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