Electron Dance
12Jun/10Off

The Devourer

(Thanks to Veret whose post on the torture of limited inventory space spurred me on to write this.)

In 1987, Datasoft released Alternate Reality: The Dungeon for the 8-bit Atari computer.

It stretched across 5 floppy disk sides and you'd need to swap disks often unless you were as rich as Michael Milken and could buy more than one disk drive. Changed area? Disk please. Entered building? Disk please. Encountered a monster? Disk please. Dead? Disk please. Not even death was an escape.

But we loved it. We loved its 3D texture-mapped environment, even though none of us knew the term at the time. We loved its ticklish tendrils of narrative, taking it beyond the simplistic hack-and-slash of something like the Apshai series, the prevalent RPG model of the time (although the enormous and genre-breaking Ultima IV had also done a lot to revolutionise RPGs in 1985). We loved its musical ditties, something for everyone. We loved... its objects.

It was acceptable in the 80s to code RPG objects in a crude fashion; behind the scenes, objects all looked pretty much the same to the computer with just a handful of numbers to differentiate between them. Your broad sword, great sword, long sword, double-handed sword, wood-axe, dwarven axe - I don't mean to burst your bubble but the computer saw each one as a couple of numbers and little else.

Now The Dungeon held so many different types of objects that they even accrued fragments of code. So that inventory you're humping about? It's code you've got stuffed in your breeches. And it was in this way The Dungeon blessed its players with an object rich world of spell cards, scrolls, enchanted evil swords, potions, apples that increased your max HP, alcohol and even a cloak of levitation.

Once you had got beefed up with XP in your veins instead of blood, it was like you'd genetically grown matching shopping carts out of your buttocks that you could fill with STUFF. But objects in The Dungeon were chunky little bastards, chowing down on your memory like silicon-hungry termites on heat. In fact, you could carry way more than the computer's memory could manage.

Dan Pinal and Ken Jordan, the developers, came up with a solution: they unleashed a monster called the Devourer whenever the inventory memory was getting low. The Devourer would turn up without warning, suck up a few items (although game critical items would turn up again) and dish out serious damage in the process.

They didn't stop there, of course. They turned the Devourer into an in-game legend, and essentially a puzzle for the players to solve. Every player would reach the point where they would be waylaid by Devourer after Devourer - and it was down to the player to work out why. Of course, being no internet in those days, some may never have worked it out.

So the Devourer was a solution to a programming problem. But is it just that?

The Devourer is attracted to objects. It needs them. It can't stop consuming them. But this is precisely what RPGs are all about: hoarding and collecting, just in case something comes in handy. That rat corpse. That broken sword. That rough stone. I must have all the shiny trinkets, precioussss...

So during your next RPG engagement, spare a thought for the Devourer. Because the Devourer is who you are, a materialist infection in a virtual world.

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  1. Beautiful. I have to say that’s a pretty ingenious solution for the time, but if anybody tried it today they’d be lynched.

    Actually, the whole mysterious all-consuming and unkillable monster haunting your steps reminds me a lot of the abominable snowman in SkiFree. Is this archetype indicative of something in everyone’s psyche? And does the fact that we don’t see it anymore indicate a shift in collective consciousness? That’s probably more Laura’s area than my own, so I’ll be quiet now.

  2. Yes it’s one of those thinking-outside-the-box kind of ideas, but it certainly wouldn’t fly as a concept these days.

    Careful – if you say Laura’s name three times, you’ll summon her. Or that could be Candyman, I forget.


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