Quicksand: Diary of a RISC OS game

While tidying up some old files I discovered the following text, which I had written in late 2007. It’s some notes I wrote up about how Quicksand (a text adventure game for RISC OS) came about, and a broad outline of how it was written. I think I was intending to finish it and publish it on the main Soft Rock Software website – and since the reason I more recently decided to set up WordPress was for that kind of thing it seems sensible to publish it here, albeit a couple of years later.

Earlier this year I booked a stand at the 2007 Wakefield Show in the hope that I would have the new version of WebChange developed far enough that I’d have something meaningful to demonstrate, even though it wouldn’t yet be good enough to actually sell.

However, I’ve developed this theory that whenever I state in public that I’m going to have time to do this, or work on that, my (non RISC OS) workload increases and prevents me doing what I said I’d do. It therefore came as little surprise to me that when a list of confirmed Wakefield exhibitors was published, which obviously included Soft Rock Software, the result was a sudden increase in my workload. (This is something worth keeping in mind if I’m ever short of money, of course – although that workload doesn’t always include paid work!)

I consequently decided that there wasn’t going to be enough time to do what I’d wanted or hoped on WebChange before the show without rushing, and rushing would lead to messy code, which I didn’t want. So the question became one of what I could do instead in the amount of time available.

The answer, I decided, was to write a simple adventure game using the software I’d written for this purpose many years before – Trellis. Ironically, I wrote that software so that I could more easily write adventure games, but in the end the only games I’ve ever written with Trellis were the demonstration games supplied with it (and, strictly speaking, they were simply ports to the Trellis system of two adventure games I’d written already!)I drew up a rudimentary free form map – with lots of gaps to fill, but it was a start – which largely consisted of a forest in a small valley, surrounded by cliffs on three sides and a river to the North. I decided that at the start of the game the player would find himself washed up on the riverside about half way along, next to a stream.

However, my mind was a complete blank when it came to a plot. What was the background? Why was the player there? What did he have to do? So I asked for ideas on The Icon Bar forums and one of the suggestions I had in reply was from Phil Mellor, who suggested I should base it on the TV series Life on Mars, but have the player wake up to find himself in a 1970s text adventure instead of as a 1970s cop.

For those unfamiliar with the show, the idea is that a present day police officer is hit by a car, and when he wakes up, he finds himself in the 1970s. He isn’t sure how it happened – whether he’s in a coma and dreaming, whether he’s just gone mad, or whether he’s really travelled back in time – but he soon has to face the prospect of living out a life in the 1970s while trying to find a way to return to his own time(or make himself wake up!) The show’s title is from a David Bowie song released in 1973, the specific year in which the first season of the TV show takes place.

I’d thoroughly enjoyed the TV series, so I thought this was a great idea, and shortly afterwards I discovered that there was a song called Quicksand on the same album as Life on Mars (Hunky Dory) – and I thought Quicksand was therefore an ideal title for an adventure game loosely based on the show. (In fact, that’s very loosely – the only thing they really have in common is that the main character wakes up in the 1970s. Other than that, they are completely different!)

With that sorted and the application name !Quicksand registered, I soon had a plot written and a loose chain of puzzles to solve, a list of objects the player would need, and the map finished. I then set about finding suitable photographs for use in the game and discovered I didn’t have nearly enough pictures of woodland/forest paths, and there were other locations for which I’d have to take new pictures.

So, in early May, I spent a long weekend wandering around The Forest of Dean taking lots and lots of pictures with the game in mind, though there would still be a small number of gaps which I’d have to fill in later. In the meantime, I decided to find something else to use as a temporary image for those locations. That something else was BBC Testcard ‘F’ –  Life on Mars frequently used one based on this, which made it appropriate – though its copyright status meant I couldn’t release the game using it. I was therefore resigned to the fact that I’d not be able to release the game to coincide with the Wakefield Show, only demonstrate it and say it was coming soon.

With barely two weeks left until the show, I set about the script – the main core of the game, a program written in a BASIC-like language which is ‘interpreted’ by Trellis – and during this process I came to realise there were some terrible bugs in Trellis, as well as some terrible programming examples! None of these affected the demonstration games, which is why I’d never found them before, but they needed to be fixed for Quicksand. (It looks like there are many more in Trellis, too, but they’ll have to remain for the time being!)

By now, I think I had actually spent a lot longer working on the game than I’d intended, and had actually put some ‘paid’ work to one side, but a large part of the reason for that was that I was really enjoying the process of writing another adventure game – my first in many years! It was proving to be an excellent diversion.

The final touches were added to the version I’d be demonstrating the very day I intended to set off for Wakefield, and amongst other things it could now be played to completion. With the map in front of me, and knowing what all the clues meant, I could play it from start to end in a matter of minutes – my guess is that a seasoned fan of interactive fiction could probably complete it in an hour or so, two at most, which is the sort of level I was aiming for.

At the show, the game seemed to be well received – and I received many suggestions for improvements. Unfortunately, though, I’ve barely had the time to even breathe in the game’s direction since then. The most I’ve been able to do is source some more pictures, including another visit to The Forest of Dean to take another shot of the same location from the other side of a lake (which is actually the opening location from the other side of a river in the game) as well as an early morning stroll around Blaise Castle for others. I believe I now have all those I need so that the temporary (test card) image can be removed. Some minor changes also need to be made to the game’s data files (to adapt some aspects of the games to the pictures I was able to take).

It’s now a few months since the show, and since I haven’t been able to devote any real time to it other than add those pictures and make those changes to suit them,I’ve decided to release it this coming weekend more or less as it is (because I can always upload an updated version if and when I’m able to work on it).  So by the time you read this you should be able to pop along to the Soft Rock Software website and download a brand new adventure game for RISC OS computers, completely free of charge. I hope you enjoy it – and that I can find the time to write another (and another…)

Since then, I’ve had a small number of problems in the game reported to me, which I’ve fixed and the version on the site is the updated version. I have two more adventure games in the pipeline – a longer term project, and a direct sequel to Quicksand. This sequel, to be called It’s No Game (which has the same naming logic as Quicksand – but for Ashes to Ashes instead of Life on Mars) features a bigger map which itself encompasses the Quicksand map, and many puzzles and ideas have been noted down. The main hold up now is while I keep my eyes peeled for a suitable location/photograph to use for a location in the early stage of the game. As far as WebChange is concerned, the new version (now called WebChange Pro) appeared in beta form the following year for existing users – the website hasn’t been updated because it’s still not a full release; development work continues to be slow due to other commitments.

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