Game: The Count by Scott Adams (1979)
Time needed to play: 45 – 60 minutes (not to completion); Suggested pre-reading activity: 45 minutes
Lesson fit: Links nicely to Halloween-themed lessons or topics of horror/fear.
Game file: If using Windows, try this interpreter with this game file (unzip the game file first). NOTE: This interpreter has a very clean interface, and it can be run from a USB drive. However, it may be prone to crashes and bugs. If having the 3-pane interpreter (with the room description at the top, game output in the middle and player input at the bottom) is not a priority, use Gargoyle (Windows or Mac) with this Z-code game file (be sure to unzip the game file first).
Play online: at http://www.freearcade.com/Zplet.jav/Count.html or http://www.ifiction.org/games/playz.php (this one has a lot more lag than freecade). These browser-based games are only recommended as a last resource, as the SAVE and LOAD GAME commands do not work.
Pre-reading task materials:
The Count Difficult Vocabulary List
Dracula text-reconstruction activity
The Count – Vocabulary and commands
The Count Encrypted Hint-sheet (doesn’t give away unneeded clues)
The Count Non-encrypted Hint-sheet
The Count detailed walkthrough
The Count quick walkthrough
The Count Map (blank)
The Count Map (completed)
The Count Map (completed with solution)
It’s Halloween (or at least it was…)!
After a lengthy summer hiatus (which included a recent complete Breaking Bad viewathon), a new blog post is ready just in time for All Hallow’s Eve. Being one of my favourite days when growing up, I have had the idea of finding a decent IF game to tie-in with the broader work on Halloween that can be done in the classroom for quite some time. While I find most Halloween-based lessons to be rather dull and repetitious (the same old vocabulary items presented over and over), I do enjoy sharing my own experience of Halloween and I think it is important to clarify many of the misconceptions that students might have of the proceedings. Chia Suan Chong lists some interesting dos and donts of festive-themed lessons with a Dogmetic twist here. However, despite her sound advice on not lecturing students, it’s something that I am actually very good at, especially when it comes to the more arcane regions of popular culture – in this case: vampires. I think that discussing the topic of vampires is not a large leap after discussing Halloween in general, and it is a topic that many learners already have some schemata of, given the massive exposure it’s received in the last few years in TV, books and film.
The reason I have chosen The Count for this post is that in addition to fitting in nicely with the time of year (both as a festive-themed lesson and as a first introduction to IF this school year), it is a game that, contrary to most modern IF, can be used with pre-intermediate learners. And the reason it can be used with low-level learners is because it is much more of an example of a text-adventure than of Interactive Fiction (for my personal differentiation of the two, check out this post). Now, while it may be lacking in the ‘narrative’ aspect – one of the more fundamental reasons to use IF in the language classroom, because the textual descriptions are sparse and very non-literary, there is a better chance that these types of games can be used successfully with low-level learners (with the proper pre-clarification of difficult vocabulary and a good dose of while-playing support).
The Count was the fifth game written by Scott Adams under the Adventure International banner, way back in 1979. Scott Adams, the unsung hero of Interactive Fiction, was the first person to bring text-adventures to home computers (in contrast to corporate mainframes) in 1978 with Adventureland – thus becoming the first personal computer game ever marketed and sold. While very basic in most aspects – a simple 2-word parser, simple location descriptions and error messages, instant deaths, sometimes ridiculous object-based puzzles, and even made-up words like “unlight”, the Scott Adams adventures were marvels of computer programming. The games were ported to the myriad computer operating systems that existed in the early 80s and could be played on machines with a mere 5Kb of memory! Because of the need to fit in as much code as possible in the miniscule computer memory of the time, words were only reconised by their first three letters and the textual descriptions used throughout the game are very sparse.
The Count (1979) – the player’s current location, visible exits and visible items are always shown at the top of the screen. A contextual transcript can be created using the $script command.
Notwithstanding, The Count is often considered to be the best of the Scott Adams games (and one of the best text-adventures of the early IF era) and while it is mostly an exercise in discovering objects and finding out where to use them, the game certainly creates a sense of urgency, which makes fo some pretty engaging (and at times very frustrating) play. For a more detailed analysis of The Count, one has to look no further than Jimmy Maher’s amazing Digital Antiquarian blog.
The main goal of The Count is, as a prisoner in Dracula’s castle, to locate where he sleeps and drive a stake through his heart. The goal actually needs to be discovered by the reader – but waking up in a bed with a wooden stake in your inventory and suffering an early death at the hands of a local mob quickly makes this quite clear. What truly makes The Count a unique example amongst the early text-adventures is that finding and killing Dracula is also a race against time. The game takes place over a 3-day cycle, with each move made by the player advancing the setting of the sun and causing her to become more sleepy. After the sun has set, if the player manages to avoid breaking her neck from moving around in the dark without a light, Dracula, in the form of a bat, must still be warded off, lest the player wake up the next morning with 2 bite-marks in their inventory and the crucial wooden stake, necessary to kill Dracula, removed from it. Various puzzles relate to finding a light source, finding a way to stay awake throughout night, and finding a safe place to store the stake until it’s needed. If the player gets bitten on three consecutive nights, she will wake up as a vampire and the game will be over. Additionally, certain things happen at set times such as packages being delivered to the castle by the post man on Day 1 and Day 2, or entrance to certain places being conditioned by the time of day. So, on top of exploring the castle and discovering the solutions to the various individual puzzles, the game adds a meta challenge of the player needing to string together these various solutions while taking into account the day/night cycles, the appearance of needed objects at set times and the possibility of sudden death and situations resulting in an un-winnable state (using the SAVE GAME command is essential to success). Because of the trial and error needed to not only solve the puzzles, but to solve them in a sequence which will permit the player to stay alive, it will be impossible to finish the game in the space of a lesson. However, it still clearly serves as a valid exercise in reading and problem-solving, which may well encourage learners to continue playing the game at home and perhaps even procure further Interactive Fiction.
- Disussion/Mind-Map on ‘vampires’.
Talking about the most common Halloween costumes can lead to making a list of famous monsters on the board, where ‘vampires’ can be singled out. The class should now work together to make a mind map of concepts they know linked to vampires. This is interesting as it shows the impact that Hollywood, and most recently ‘Twilight’, has had on the students’ perceptions of the vampire mythos.
After completing the mind-map and discussing what the student have come up with (not forgetting to mention Dracula and his literary origin), I use this text-reconstruction activity on Dracula to review important vampire-related vocabulary and concepts.
Text-reconstruction tasks are similar to IF in that they require students to engage deeply with a text using both top-down and bottom-up reading strategies. Doing the task will prepare the learners with the vocabulary needed to play The Count as well as giving them some clues towards their objectives. In a text-reconstruction activity learners need to re-write the text by guessing all of its words. Initially, this is pure guess work based on vocabulary related to the topic or key words such as articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. However, after these have been exhausted, true top-down processing of the text needs to be applied. The complete text is:
“One of the most famous characters of horror literature is Count Dracula. Living in an enormous castle in Transylvania, Dracula is a vampire- a mythological undead creature. Vampires need to drink human blood to survive, leaving the charcteristic bite marks on their victim’s necks. Being bitten by a vampire turns their victims into a vampire too! Vampires don’t cast reflections or shadows.They are afraid of sunlight, and so sleep all day in a coffin. At night they often turn into bats and look for victims. A vampire can only be killed with a wooden stake through the heart- but first, the coffin where they rest must be found!”
Before getting down to playing the game, it is first necessary to explain to the students the language the game will understand (and if possible, to show them a few exchanges with the game itself). While I usually recommend printing out a copy of the Beginners Guide to IF and giving one to each student for access during the game, many of the verbs and commands on it were included based on their use in IF games with advanced parsers, and are not understood by the 2-word parser of the Scott Adams games. I would therefore give them this simplified command guide.
After going over the commands understood by the game, it is important to get the learner into the frame of mind needed for problem-solving. Older text-adventures greatly value puzzles and problem-solving over narrative style and content and so the learners need to understand that their main goal is to explore the castle, gather potentially useful objects and find out how and where to use them in order to solve logical puzzles. To help them do this, I ask them questions to get them thinking about how the objects in the vocabulary can be used, such as:
“How many different things can you do with bed sheets?” – hopefully eliciting “tie” or “make a rope”.
“What can you do with a vial?” – “open” and “close” it.
“How do use a dumbwaiter?” – “raise” and “lower” it.
“How can you open a locked door without a key?” – “pick the lock”, etc.
As usual, I recommend pairing the learners up while playing IF. Give the pairs a copy of the blank map. Ask one student in each pair to complete the information on the map as they explore the castle (room descriptions and any important items). This will help them navigate the game-world and make the game-space and objects more memorable – also useful for post-reading tasks.
As The Count is especially focussed on puzzles and there is the added challenge of finding a light-source and a means to stay awake, it is important for the teacher to point the students in the right direction and to give some tips as needed. For example, after the first postal delivery has arrived, you might ask “Has anyone seen anything that can be used to pick a lock?”
Students should be reminded on how to operate the dumbwaiter, using the LOWER, RAISE and GO verbs, as this is a fundamental part of the game.
Most likely, by the end of the lesson the students will not have explored all of the castle and found Dracula’s resting place. However, a few pairs might well have discovered a light-source, a way to stay awake and a safe place to hide the stake.
As a post-reading task, learners can re-tell their adventure from their own perspective and share it with their classmates – by making their own text-reconstruction activity.
For homework, or in a subsequent lesson, get your students to go to this website and write a short summary of their exploration of the castle. Texts can then be swapped and re-constructed by other pairs. As most of the learners will have had a very similar experience, although in different sequences, it will be interesting to see how the texts differ from one another.
The Count is far from being an example of high narrative-quality Interactive Fiction as has been showcased on this blog. Nonetheless, it is especially suited for low-level learners exactly because of its more basic presentation and simple 2-word parser. It is still a fun and engaging game and the subject matter is widely known and of interest (at least to YLs) – and it works a treat as part of a Halloween-themed lesson.