I Played a Stephen King Text Adventure, and it was One Hell of a Book.

Blog Book Review Games Horror

It’s 8:00 am on a beautiful day. I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, when all of a sudden, this kid comes bursting through the front doors screaming about monsters and mist. They say drugs are a real problem with the youths.

But sure enough, the next thing I know, he disappears outside, replaced by a supernatural fog that’s definitely going to ruin my day.

Welcome to The Mist by Angelsoft, an interactive fiction game based on the Stephen King novella long before it was 1) a good movie and 2) a mediocre television show. I first became aware of it when I discovered an empty disc case inside a bargain bin at a sidewalk sale. For fifty cents, I was the brand new owner of not the game, but the package in which it once came (on floppy discs no less). Regardless, the cover was enough for any Stephen King fan to snatch up:

Some quick research filled the gaps in my knowledge: released in 1985, The Mist was published for Macintosh and the Apple II (If that doesn’t tell you anything about how old this game is, then I’m not sure what will). For the first time ever, King fans could interact with his work in an unprecedented way, putting themselves firmly at the center of his madness. Not only is King one of my favorite authors, but The Mist is, in my opinion, easily one of his best stories. So how could I not track this game down and play for myself?

Luckily for me, archive.org had an online emulator, which would allow me to play the game in a web browser, which is exactly how I found myself the evening of November 11th, 2017, sitting in the dark at my house, shopping for groceries…

Apparently, I have no patience for tourism. 

As far as I could tell, I was the same dedicated protagonist from the novella, David Drayton, though it’s not explicitly called out. The grocery store was filled with other characters from King’s story though, such as Ollie Weeks and Irene Reppler, so it was safe to assume the plots of each story were one in the same: avoid the mist, survive humans and monsters alike, find my son Billy. 

Easier said than done.

It didn’t take long for me to learn that this game is absolutely brutal. If you’ve played a lot of text adventures, the learning curve might not be as steep. But as it stood, I hadn’t touched once since my sixth-grade English teacher did a unit on ZORK.

The deaths came quick and very often. 

On my first game, I was killed in one move. On my second and third, I survived less than twenty. To my surprise, or perhaps delight, each death was uniquely different—some monsters were even appearing in different locations than where I previously encountered them. For such a simple interface, I was learning The Mist was fairly complex.

The game quickly set its hooks in me. At work, I’d find my thoughts drifting toward the town of Bridgton, to its doomed citizens, and that eerie mist that was killing me each night. Where was my son, Billy? I wondered. Was he safe? Was he even alive? I started returning to the scene of my deaths, analyzing language, experimenting with new commands, gently tweaking, trying to survive just a little bit longer in the game. Maybe I could try throwing the broom at the spider? (spoiler: spider didn’t give a fu*k). Bit by bit, a larger plot was slowly revealed to me, though the cost was steep. Archive.org hasn’t yet worked out how to save games in a web browser, so every death meant I had to start all over again from the very beginning. That damn grocery line started haunting my dreams.

What really had me coming back for more was the plot. Sure, it was almost identical to the novella. But there was something different about interacting with the world Stephen King created versus passively receiving it. I was experiencing storytelling in a brand new way, and it had me excited. It was like I discovered a good book, but each chapter was padlocked shut, and in order to progress from one to the next, I had to solve an obnoxiously specific riddle.

The architect of this literary nightmare—the man responsible for killing me over one hundred times—is American author Raymond Benson. Benson’s body of work is enormous. It includes theatrical work, musical compositions, non-fiction, and fiction (he’s best known for his James Bond novels). I think he was the perfect man for the job. Sure, The Mist text adventure game has its shortcomings, but I see that as more a byproduct of the medium. Given the circumstances, Benson did an amazing job creating tension, fear, and plot one small paragraph at a time. 

So I played.

And eventually, I did reach the end. It took dozens of hours. More than I care to admit. My fiancé suffered endless rants:

“It has to be a fu*king software bug! That’s the only reason this won’t work!”

At night, our bedroom was lit by the cold glow of my computer screen, my fingers furiously typing commands that I’d come to memorize by heart. It’s 95 moves to reach one of the hardest puzzles in the game, and that’s when you know exactly what you’re doing. From there it took me days to figure out what to do next. That’s because every time I died, I had to type the same 95 commands just so I could start all over again. Troubleshooting had never been so tedious.

But monsters and puzzles aside, the single greatest reason The Mist is so difficult is that its game parser plays fast and loose with syntax. It suffers no colloquialisms. Gameplay is often reduced to something called syntax guessing, which is an actual complication documented by the text adventure community: 

Syntax guessing, also known as guess-the-verbguess-the-noun and the syntax quest, is a problem sometimes encountered in text-based video games, such as interactive fiction games and MUDs. For various reasons – including a limited vocabulary, or a simple VERB-NOUN parser – the command syntax necessary to carry out an action may be obscure, such as with a button where the player must type POKE BUTTON, while PUSH BUTTON does not work (a “guess-the-verb” problem)…[1]Wikipedia

This, in turn, makes puzzles more difficult than necessary. For example, once the shovel was obtained, it wasn’t clear why dig yielded the result: it's too muddy, and it will take all day without a better tool. This led me to believe that the shovel wasn’t the right item to get the job done, and so I spent days scouring the game for that “better tool.”  Turns out, the shovel was exactly what I needed, it’s just that my command was incorrect. I almost threw my computer across the room when dig mud with shovel finally worked. 

To complicate matters, you also have to know what you want to say, not just how to say it. Some situations could only be unlocked by a specific phrase, question, or word, some of which were not necessarily intuitive or clear.  For example, after days of being stuck at the grocery store, unable to go outside because I couldn’t find anything to defend myself, I finally asked a character to "help." At the time I was just screwing around, making a joke for my own self-amusement. But imagine my surprise when his response was “I have a pistol I keep handy. For protection against robbery..."

YOU’RE TELLING ME YOU HAD A GUN THIS WHOLE DAMN TIME?!

This kind of thing was a big frustration with the game. My struggle with syntax guessing was almost like coming across a bad line of dialog from your favorite author. You know they’re capable of so much more, but they must have been having a bad day because that dialog was absolutely shit. 

Needless to say, all these obstacles bordered on too much. More than a couple times, I wanted to give up. I wanted to google the internet for a tutorial, some kind of walkthrough. Relentlessly typing the same words over and over can do that to a man’s spirit. But I never did. I kept at it. I tried everything I could think of. Tweaked my language until something new happened. And every time I solved one puzzle, I knew I was that much closer to a perfect game. Completely unassisted. Solved entirely on my own. And on Saturday, January 13th, 2018, I finally did it. Sitting in bed, my fiancé long since asleep, slightly buzzed from an evening at the bars, I waged war with The Mist’s most difficult monster and won. I was so excited I actually threw my hands in the air. I couldn’t believe it.

I’d beaten the game.

What came next was even less expected. As I sat there in bed, hoping my fiancé might stir so that I could tell her the good news, I began slipping into an ever-so-gentle depression. It really was over. All that struggle had finally come to an end. Secretly, I found myself wishing that it was just the start of a new chapter. This wasn’t how I usually felt after beating a video game. For me, video games are an exhausting experience. While fun, I’m often ready for the game to end long before I reach the final boss fight. What I was feeling in that moment was closer to a book hangover than anything else, which led me to wonder, just how thin is the line that separates something like a text adventure from an actual novel?

Did I just play a game, or had I actually read a book?

Like most things in life, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. The Mist is dependent on narrative and dialog to move the reader forward. The complete lack of visuals reinforces the idea that this experience was sooner a branch from the family tree of literature than it was some distant relative of Mrs. Pac Man. At the same time, the ability to interact with the story, to affect the outcome, isn’t something we can get from a favorite paperback.

So why didn’t this feel like a true video game experience? I had the ability to make landscape-altering decisions. In fact, my fiancé insists I come clean and admit that as soon as I got the gun from Ollie Weeks, General Manager, I shot him dead. In my defense, Ollie refused to give me his truck keys, and I thought the only way of getting them was by force.

But the longer I think about it, the more I realize decisions like this didn’t actually affect the overall plot of the game. It was more like incrementally adjusting water in the shower. It’s still hot, we’re just dictating a fraction more or a fraction less. Whether Ollie was alive or dead, there was still only one path to find my son, Billy, which is the exact way that a true novel unfolds. There’s no way to change the fate of a protagonist.

In the end, this made my experience closer to something like augmented reality for literature. I could superimpose my will on the game, I could even make certain, minor decisions that the game will have to react to. But in the end, I couldn’t change fate. While I could occasionally step off the beaten path, I wasn’t able to stray for too long before the game course corrected, usually in the form of decapitation or disembowelment.

It gives one the sense that you’re not trying to finish a book as much as your trying to beat the story.  

So, despite the literary borders of this augmented reality, I had managed to do just that.  I’d beaten my version of the story, which was an emotional outcome that neither King nor Benson could have planned for. Sure, it’s easy to reflect on The Mist text adventure as just a series of savage deaths—

The Bug jumps onto you and attaches its sucker pad to your body. Its bile begins to dissolve your flesh, and with a wet, slurping swallow, the creature disembowels you.”

“Mrs. Carmody and her followers grab you, and carry you to the front of the store. Despite the protests of the saner people in the market, the fanatical group opens the in-out door and throws you into the parking lot. Before you can run and find shelter, three bird-like creatures swoop down on you. You scream in agony as they peck at you, but death is quick.”

—but in reality, each was more like a chapter than a stopping point. When looking back on the game as a whole, a higher level of story reveals itself.

This was the tale of a man who struggled to be a leader among his peers. After desperately defending reason, he bravely chose to set out on his own, into the mist, despite the odds against him. He battled horrible monsters. Won. He found himself at the very source of the Arrowhead conspiracy, and even though he had every opportunity to save his own life, he kept searching for his son. He risked life and limb, and in the end, triumphed.  

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!

In conclusion, I can’t stress enough how much I recommend playing this text adventure. For those of you interested in giving it a shot, but aren’t willing to spend hours troubleshooting commands, I’ve provided my map. In text adventures, it’s critical to draw your map as you move along, lest you get lost and turned around. I’ve included a key with NPCs (non-player characters), locations, items, and monster encounters. There is a good deal of puzzle spoilers in this, so I would avoid turning to it unless you’re absolutely stuck. Even then, I would caution you from throwing in the towel too quickly. While the game seems impossible at times—even broken—it does, in fact, give you just enough information to unlock its secrets. And trust me, finishing the game without any help will give you a monstrous sense of pride. Enjoy.

Cover Photo Credit The Mist by Daniel Danger

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