Review by Bloomer
Reviewed: 03/02/03 | Updated: 07/26/10
Rows of words - on the screen - ooh, what they do to me!
"EAMON is a computerized version of what are called 'Fantasy Role-Playing Games.' When you enter the universe of one of these games, you are no longer John (or Jane) Smith, mild-mannered computer hobbyist. Instead, you become a character in a land of adventure, doing almost anything you want to."
- from The Eamon Manual
These introductory remarks are quaint to read today in a world where RPGs are a taken-for-granted computer gaming force, but back when these words were written (1980), computer RPGs barely existed. They were new and they were being invented.
Eamon was an all-text roleplaying adventure game system created for the Apple II by Donald Brown, and distributed in the public domain. From its humble beginnings on one floppy disk containing a very simple adventure called 'Beginner's Cave' and a fairly basic combat-heavy game engine, Eamon grew over more than a decade into a minor cult phenomenon with almost 250 different adventures available for it, whilst the main program was developed through seven versions to become an admirably elegant and accessible means of driving any kind of adventure that Eamon players/ authors could come up with.
Eamon was eventually ported to other computing venues, sometimes in original or enhanced form (MS-DOS), sometimes in part form or with modifications sufficiently extensive to warrant calling it something else (Atari and Commodore 64 respectively), and its ultimate legacy was to re-emerge somewhat in the form of an online multiplayer gaming experience in the internet age: the MUD, or Multi User Dimension.
Perhaps the most important element of Eamon's appeal was that it allowed you to save and develop your character(s) from one adventure to the next, no matter how vastly different in subject matter all those adventures might be. From dungeons to starships, from an historical simulation to someone's in-joke recreation of their school as a battlefield, Eamon was nothing if not a diverse ongoing experience. This lended it a glimmer of the same desirable open-endedness which Dungeons and Dragons (D+D) players always knew was what made their game experience something of a higher order. While you face discrete goals in passing, your character in Eamon is ultimately yours to do with as you see fit, a projection of your imagination.
You can play straight for gold and glory, trying to master the game's various skills, spells and weapons, trying to survive all that's thrown at you and grow... or you can simply try to cause as much havoc in each adventure as possible, slaying friends, abusing magic, looking for shortcuts and generating your own entertainment as you see fit. You can invest in your character emotionally or just play for laughs. It was easy to make characters for both purposes, or just use one character for both purposes.
Having created a brand new tri-stat Eamon character (Hardiness, Agility, Charisma) in the Main Hall and taken him/her for an initial spin through the minor rigors of Beginner's Cave - killing some rats, a hermit, a pirate and maybe even a gorilla to improve your weapon skills, and nabbing some riches en route - you were then ready to go adventuring in a wider world of your choosing. At this point in regular D+D, you'd have to go and buy another adventure module from the game shop or write your own in order to keep playing, and such was the case with Eamon. You could swap adventure disks with Eamon-going friends, mail-order them from public domain distributors, or make the Eamon universe larger by creating your own adventure with the Dungeon Designer Diskette.
Core gameplay in Eamon worked along standard text adventure lines. Descriptions of your present location, which were as atmospherically rich or grammatically poor as the author's skills allowed, would roll onscreen as you moved around. At the prompt you could enter verb-noun commands to interact with the environment and the creatures and objects in it:
NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST
The achievement of Eamon's combat system (as rough as it was in the game's first incarnation) was that it mathematically endeavoured to deal with any eventuality based on the player's actions, and gave a rough simulation of independent thought. Monsters displayed different personalities. They could be brave, cowardly, friendly, uncertain or downright hostile. Uncertain monsters might be more likely to help you if your charisma score was high, turn on you if it was low, or just ignore you if it was average. In this way, the same adventure could prove to be a different experience for differently built and played characters. Friends would follow you around and fight with you, and the nastiest enemies would pursue you if you fled. There was no officially programmed 'party' mechanism, and your friends could and did turn on you if you abused them.
In the later versions of the game, standard behaviour was programmed to be even more sophisticated. Friends would accept a healing potion, take a swig and hand it back. If disarmed they'd scrabble after their own lost weapons and sometimes even deprive foes of theirs. These were simple enough touches but they created a charming illusion of camaraderie. My favourite Eamons were always the ones which, over time, gave you dozens of companions and worked to create the illusion (both through balancing of behind-the-scenes stats and through artful text description) that these were all individuals who were helping you in their own way by choice. Striking the first blow in a mass melee was always a rush, as friends and foes would then 'open fire', turning the screen into a scroll of flashing combat messages visually punctuated by all the best flourishes ascii could offer. This great mass of violent action was somehow excitingly beyond your control. All the other creatures in the gameworld would pick their own targets using the rudimentary Eamon AI.
Eamon was made to be an eminently hackable game, and in this way it could be as grueling or as easy as you wanted it to be, within reason. Dead characters were easily restored with a little elbow grease, and there were numerous cheats available to supercharge your weapons, stats and abilities if you felt that was what you wanted. This was a good thing, because if I had to make one generalisation about the experience of playing Eamon, it would be that 'you get killed a whole lot'. With the main programs written in Applesoft Basic and structured to be as open as possible, there were hundreds of elements players could toy with if they knew how. Numerous incarnations of the Main Hall program (Eamon's guild/ keep/ inn/ homebase locale) appeared over time, embracing all manner of fun diversions, including casinos, exotic weapon shops, training centres, banks, and interesting figures you could visit, such as the witch. My personal favourite perk was the fountain found in the graphics version of the main hall program, which had a fifty percent chance of increasing the damage dice on your wielded weapon every time you tossed some money into it.
While adventures following the standard data structure could be built in the Dungeon Designer by novices with no programming experience at all, the real joy of Eamon-making was coding in your own flourishes specific to your adventure. Each Eamon shipped with its own version of the main program as modified (or not) by the author. These flourishes might consist of an entirely new spell system (the standard four - BLAST, HEAL, SPEED and POWER - became a bit of a joke), improved AI for your companions, speech, puzzles, interactive environmental features, or anything else you felt was necessary for your story. The main program engine carried all the grunt work while you as a designer could jump straight into etching in the details.
One of my favourite Eamons was Rhadshur Warrior (adventure number #132) which sent you on a spy-like mission into an atmospheric world whose mythology combined science fiction settings and martial arts. It was crawling with striking opponents (with massive agility scores - you had to train your agility way up before trying this one), and was one of the relatively small number of Eamons to employ the diagonals of the compass in its mapping and movement. A droid companion, known as a Seeker, accompanied you on the mission, and could be programmed to scan for secret doors and rooms, and to heal you a limited number of times.
An adventure like Dungeon of Doom (#117) showed that you could also eke great results out of the standard Eamon facilities. There were a few non game-altering flourishes present, like a graphic title screen and sound effects, but essentially this was a straightforward loot-and-kill dungeoncrawl through a mappable labyrinth, driven by the basic engine and made exciting by good design and judicious use of monsters.
In the way of more eccentric Eamons, Peg's Place (#139) was a satiric take on an infants school and its staff, in which standard combat was programmed out and replaced with the ability to SCOLD and LECTURE. Verbal jousting sapped the opponent's ego until death by embarrassment eventually occurred. The Body Revisited (#185) was the Fantastic Voyage of Eamon, sending you into a painstakingly researched recreation of the internals of the human body, with more than 190 deeply boring rooms to explore and monotonous hordes of cancer and blood cells as monsters.
I never actually played The Beermeister's Brewery (#142) but I wish I had, based both on the game's introductory spiel -
"You are about to face your most trying task. You must go rescue your friend Damian who has wandered into the Beermeister's Brewery while he was intoxicated. You will undertake many tasks, but this is probably the most difficult. Good luck to you."
- and on Pat Hurst's review of the adventure for the Eamon Adventurers Guild (EAG):
"It has poorly written descriptions, massive spelling and grammar errors, an obnoxious keypress beep, and is vulgar and makes light of drinking problems. For these reasons, Pat Hurst hated it and wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
While 'cute' was definitely a major school of Eamon adventure design, so was 'vicious and entirely unreasonable'. This seemed especially true of some earlier adventures. They tended to be sparser in description (as this was obviously an art which was collaboratively developed over time), meaner in hazard, and far more arbitrarily punitive in attitude. I've noted that the first instinct of any creative figure suddenly placed in a god-like position is to test the limits of his/her world, which in short means blowing up the scenery and anyone and everything foolish enough to blunder into it.
"You dumb, stupid jerk! You just fell down the
s--t hole! The walls are smooth, the sewage
deep, and you drown! You jerk! You're dead!"
This was one of the less forgiving moments from Temple of Ngurct (#23). More than a decade passed between me reading about this particular adventure in Creative Computing magazine as a kid, and finding and playing it as an adult. Said Robert Plamondon of the adventure he'd co-written with his brother,
"This is a very sophisticated adventure, if I do say so myself."
Maybe it was. It was hard to judge it objectively by the time I'd lived through the nineteen-nineties, drowned in sewage and then been called a dumb, stupid jerk.
Sewers cropped up as the setting for more than one Eamon. Excitingly-titled adventures such as Sewers of Chicago (#60) and The Eamon Sewer System (#181) offered players the chance to slip their brains into neutral and splatter wimpy rats, perhaps as an antidote to the nervous tension brought on by surviving the four-disk extravaganza of life and death that was Elemental Apocalypse (#149). This breadth of style and subject matter across adventures was also a great part of the charm of the Eamon universe. Sometimes you'd find yourself on a stupendous quest to save the world, and at other times your only goal was more akin to surviving a stroll down the village street whilst being molested by small animals. And you wanted both of these experiences. You wanted to adventure in both Shopping Mall (#88) and in The Superfortress of Lin Wang (#89)!
As could be expected, another major branch of Eamon adventures consisted of recreations, both reverent and humourous, of episodes from players' favourite novels, films and TV shows. The irony is that (for me anyway) these were often the less enjoyable Eamon adventures to play, because the more reverent the authors were to the source material, the more of the standard freedoms they might deliberately axe from the main Eamon engine in order to force the player to follow a set story and sequence of events.
A highly dispiriting example of this was to be found in the Lord of the Rings-inspired adventure Assault on Dolni Keep (#124), to which the EAG had awarded a massive 9.3 out of 10 possible points in their review. This was in fact the highest score I ever saw assigned in their catalogue and it was the reason that Assault was amongst the first batch of Eamon modules I mail-ordered.
Assault turned out to be a straitjacketing experience for me, no matter how much I was impressed with its excellent programming. If you strayed from the mission, you were killed by stoney-browed elves, and the rest of the time seemed to be spent figuring out ways to prevent regenerating groups of literally hundreds of orcs from arriving onscreen. It's nice to be able to pluck a keystone from a bridge to make it collapse before an angry horde that wants to murder you, but nicer still to not feel that the game's offering you a stab at doing things the regular way even though it knows full well that they cannot be done the regular way.
Still, I should be thankful that Assault featured combat at all. The similarly high-scoring but infinitely more aggravating Walled City of Darkness (#150) (inspired at least a bit by the novels of Roger Zelazny) was more like an Infocom adventure unnecessarily delivered as an Eamon. The experience started off with some evil laughing force (I could never forget that obnoxious opening of 'Oho! Ohohoho!..') dangling your adventurer upside down so that all his/her possessions were removed from play, and then you were placed in a boring action-free city and expected to solve puzzles with nearly all standard programming removed. Ironically this adventure was written by Tom Zuchowski, who programmed all of the wonderful features into version 7 of Eamon in the first place!
The kinds of Eamons I most admired and enjoyed (and so tried to create) were the ones that did not excise too much of the standard programming as a means to insure greater difficulty - such as the ability to cast HEAL in a fantasy setting - but either added new features, commands and spells, or created difficulty in other ways; by well-handled puzzles, the use of time limits (The Black Death (#20) put a time limit on your whole life by giving you the plague and expecting you to find a cure for yourself), or making you rely more on good management of your companions for survival. I liked the idea that an Eamon might vary in the difficulty of its combat, dependent on the strength of the player's character (which, as previously discussed, was in many ways a matter of player choice), but could still find sly ways to produce gaming stress for a character or player of any nature.
I may knock Dolni Keep, but I stole its comments engine and smart companions idea to make the good guys say helpful things to the player at relevant points in my adventure Dawn Of The Warlock. I wrote The Prism Of Shadows with a friend, and it's most consistent schtick was the addition of gore. We tried to wring as much blood and as many cheap laughs out of each ludicrous corpse description as we could.
As an overall experience, Eamon was most strongly defined by its unevenness and its seductive longevity. With amateurs of all skill levels reflexively creating its universe, the quality of adventures varied dramatically. But so did the style and subject matter, so that if one Eamon didn't do it for you, there was always another that might, or you could create your own. And plenty of the poor Eamons were enjoyable in their own laughable way.
Your character could live on to perform deeds both great and stupid, and be tweaked, played and developed by yourself for whatever purpose suited your fancy. There wasn't really any other ongoing open-ended RPG experience like this available for home computers in the 1980s, and certainly none that lived on through its decade of birth in a state of constant programming and imaginative development, and as the subject of constant widespread player interest. Eamon proliferated by being accessibly programmed, providing every player with the tools to further develop the game, and by existing in the public domain, making distribution about as easy as was possible in pre-global internet days. The Eamon Adventurers Guild provided a centralising influence for the whole thing, offering technical help, reviews, discussion, and assigning those all-important adventure numbers.
I came to Eamon late in its heyday, and while I miss that sense of it being a contemporary phenomenon, all of the Eamon adventures and materials are preserved and downloadable online at the Eamon Adventurers Guild.
-- Eamon -- 9/10 --
Product Release: Eamon (US, 12/31/80)
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