Monday, 3 September 2012

Wounded by Fear, Injured in Doubt

I knew of Proteus by the time the second issue came out, and upon catching sight of a copy, I bought it. That's pretty much the story of how I got every issue bar the first. There was a newsagent's on my route to school, and another practically across the road from the school grounds, so I generally got the issues that came out during term time from one of them. I have vague memories of reading part of issue 2 in the vicinity of the Physics lab, which would suggest that that's what happened with this one.

My first attempt at The Mines of Malagus was an unremarkable failure. There are effectively three zones within the eponymous mines, and passage between zones is only possible in one direction because of booby traps, one-way doors and the like. Movement within a zone is largely unrestricted, but once you cross the dividing line, there's no turning back. For no very good reason, section 1 provides routes into all three zones, and I picked the wrong one, which meant I merely got to confront one or two monsters and possibly face a riddle before reaching the exit.

Recently I rediscovered part of a past attempt at mapping the adventure: fragmentary representations of bits of the second zone, with erasure smudges, letters that I presume refer to areas marked on another sheet of paper, and a whole section redrawn because I'd underestimated distances and couldn't get the tunnels to line up. On the same page is a more accurate representation of the Maze of Zagor from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, unlabelled, but clearly recognisable as a result of my having mapped the wretched place so often.

Anyway, in this adventure (penned by David Brunskill under the anagrammatical pseudonym 'Viki Llundsbrand'), I play Mr. Generic Itinerant Adventurer. Possibly the same character as in The Tower of Terror after having run out of Potions, as I claim to know something of magic, but have only my sword to rely upon at the start. Then again, I could be someone else entirely, who looks like this:
Dexterity: 13
Strength: 23
Courage: 8
Oddly, I seem to have been travelling through uninhabited wilderness for the past twenty days, yet still managed to find somewhere to pay for a roof over my head every night until my money ran out.

At last I find a village, and my 'Will quest for food' sign gets me directed to the home of the Wizard Nytrak, who gives me a history lesson. This place used to be ruled by a Grand Wizard who protected its people from the hostile Dagraigs. It's not clear when he died: it is stated that he ruled 'a thousand years ago', but there is evidence that his death was a lot more recent than that. The headstone of his grave should have maintained the protection, but it was stolen by 'headless creatures' that wanted to take it to Malagus (seemingly a person, not a place, but that's never made entirely clear). It got broken during a squabble, and since then half a dozen expeditions from the village, and an unspecified number of quests by Dagraigs, have failed to recover the pieces. The thing is, it needs to be fully reconstructed before being brought out of the Mines, or the fragments that have been recovered just teleport straight back to where they were found. If someone can return it to the village, happy fun times will ensue. If it gets to Malagus, doom and disaster are assured.

Nytrak teaches me two one-shot spells, one to envelop an enemy in darkness, the other to heal me, and gives me some food, a rope for use against the Crocotta, and a lantern. As equipped as I'm going to get, I set off for the Mines, and Nytrak presumably gets on with arrangements for his own reburial (seriously - one of the first things he says is that soon he'll be returning to 'what you call burial').

The mines aren't particularly mine-like. I could accept the stalactites on their own, and just conclude that the miners made use of natural caverns to get into the rock face. But when the tunnel comes to a dead end with levers set into the walls to open concealed doors, I don't really get the impression that this is a place where labourers toiled to dig out useful or valuable minerals.

I pull one of the levers, head down the passage revealed, and encounter a couple of Nasnas. Weird folkloric creatures, half-man, half-nothing. Each has just one arm, one leg (bet they hate the Hokey-Cokey), one of everything an able-bodied human has two of. Don't ask about body parts that occur singly. I'm sure all sorts of interesting things could be done with such strange beings, but these are, alas, just a monster to fight like any other. They soon die, and I continue to a junction.

After a little meandering I reach a door with a handle. I shan't go through it just yet, but it helps me remember which way I should go from here. Before long I follow a growling noise to the chamber of the Crocotta. This is a fearsome brute that has adventurers like me for breakfast, but it's not morning and I have that rope, so I immobilise the beast and take a Stone of Power from its collar, which conveniently labels the otherwise unremarkable studs it bears.

Despite the name, the Crocotta looks nothing like this.

Some more meandering brings me to a tunnel so narrow that I can only get into it by crawling (so isn't that low rather than narrow?). Further in it gets higher and wider (both, then), and ends in a door which has a parchment nailed to it. The parchment warns that only a Stone of Power will be of use here, so I take the one I acquired earlier, and it only goes and blows the ****** door off. The room beyond contains one of the pieces of the headstone, which is heavy enough that carrying it costs me a little Strength. Subdued hurrah for a vaguely realistic approach to encumbrance.

The text then tells me that I head back to the door with the handle (though it is theoretically possible to have got this far without ever having passed that door), and I pull the handle. This causes the door to slide open, and I step into a passage that changes direction a couple of times before ending at a wooden door. I'm about to charge that door when something smashes through it from the other side, and I find myself in battle with a not-particularly-fearsome Kife. This section implies that the Kife's knife is part of him, like Captain Hook's hook, but the illustration and the following section (both in game terms and literally - the fight is in section 109, and the aftermath is 110) suggest otherwise. He wears a Brooch of Silver (not that you'd know it from looking at the picture), which I grab before continuing on my way.

At the next junction, the part of my brain that retains gamebook section numbers (instead of trivia like phone numbers, friends' names, appointments and deadlines) waves a warning flag, so I avoid the adventure's principal Arbitrary Instant Death (being caught in a rope trap and lowered into a vat of boiling water - as was a common cause of death for miners for several hundred nevers) and proceed to a locked iron door with a casket close by. I risk opening the casket, which presents me with a choice of keys and a puzzle to identify the correct one. Not a difficult puzzle.

Beyond the door is a passage leading to a stone bridge. As I start to cross, I am confronted by a Brimgeth, a mighty(ish) warrior, and one of the few types of foe to appear in more than one Proteus adventure. He only manages to wound me a few times, but with weaker rolls during character generation I might well have struggled to get past him.

Just past the bridge I notice a tripwire, and step over it. That's a between-zone border: try heading back this way, and I'll be less observant and get a poisoned dart in the neck. As an added disincentive to sticking around, noises from behind me suggest that the Brimgeth might not be staying dead for very long. Incidentally, it was authorial confusion over the meaning of the word 'rejuvenation' here, combined with a repetition of the error in a later issue, that led me to the realisation that Llundsbrand was Brunskill.

This zone is pretty labyrinthine, with the added complication that there's more than one section for each junction, to cover approaching from different directions, so section number recognition is less helpful here than in most gamebook mazes. I have a rough idea of the correct route here, and I may refer to that incomplete map when I get to the really tricky bit, but this is where I'm most unsure of the path.

Look, it's still better than the map in The Forest of Doom, okay?

At the fourth junction I reach, the air in the side passage tastes bad. That's actually a good sign, for me, though I shan't be heading that way, as I made the mistake of doing the first time I got to this section. If I'm right, I should change direction at the next junction, and then keep heading that way until I see the zone border (but don't cross it yet).

Yep, got that right. It occurs to me that curiosity is partly a bad thing in this adventure. The door handle I mentioned earlier, and the door with many keyholes here, are just the sort of thing your average gamebook player will want to check out, but doing so commits you to moving beyond the door, quite possibly sooner than is advisable. I hurry past.

The text compels me to ignore the next turning I see, but that's fine by me, as I know that one of the wrong ways from section 1 uses that passage to connect to the central complex. At the next junction where I have a choice, I'm not sure which way to go, but take an educated guess. Yes! I've just discovered the deadliest opponent in all the Mines. Which has its drawbacks (the word 'deadliest' is something of a giveaway, really), but does mean I'm still on track.

So, here I am, face-to-something with the Hogrob (it may not have a face). Composed of shadows, yet possessed of razor-sharp talons, gleaming yellow eyes and a shrieking voice. Hostile, and immortal. That last detail's the tricky one. Good thing Nytrak taught me some magic. With the help of the darkness spell, I am able to evade the Hogrob, though I do get a nasty gash in the arm on the way past.

Some distance beyond the Hogrob is the second piece of the headstone, which also costs Strength to carry. Up ahead is an arch which bears the inscription 'Labyrinth of the Lost', but going back the way I came would get me gutted (or worse) by the Hogrob, so I enter the Labyrinth.

Before long I find a room containing three chests and another simple logic puzzle. Solving it gives me access to the Secret of Samson, an incantation that will endow me with the strength of 'an army of men'. No disclaimer warning that it may not work if combined with a haircut, but then, dungeon-based barbers seem to be that bit too implausible even for gamebooks. While the room only has one exit, the text still bothers to specify that I leave by the door through which I came, as if worried that I might think I dug a hole, turned intangible, or teleported.

After that I get slightly lost, and lose some Strength clambering through a partially collapsed section of the mine. Still, I do manage to get back on track before too long, and reach an archway which reads, 'Farewell, Stranger'. I've got everything I need from in here, so through the exit I go. It leads me into another area where there's been a collapse, and the very atmosphere is oppressive. I'm able to get through the debris, but a little further on, a brand new cave-in begins. The Secret I so recently learned enables me to hold the walls up until things stabilise (in an interesting inversion of the Biblical Samson's final action) and I am able to continue on my way.

The next junction I reach is somewhere I've been before (though that's not immediately obvious because surviving the collapse is the only way of getting here from that specific direction, so it's not the same section as when I last came this way). It is, consequently, quite easy for me to get back to that door I made a point of not investigating earlier. As I take a proper look, a goblinoid creature emerges from a hole in the wall and doesn't attack me. He's the keeper of the keys, and explains the puzzle which will enable me to unlock the door. There's no 'if you cannot work it out, or get it wrong' option, so anyone whose mathematical skills aren't up to calculating (L-K)/2 will have to either give up without getting a decent 'you die' ending or cheat by checking every section until they find the right one. But even when I was 27 years younger than I am now, I had no problem figuring it out.

After going through the door, I soon encounter a woman named Liamorra, who attacks me. After two rounds, in which we each score one blow, she gets to the 'ask questions later' stage, and checks to see if I'm one of the hated Dagraigs. I explain my quest, and she reveals that she's on exactly the same mission. D'oh!

She then asks how I've fared. This is arguably the cleverest bit of the whole adventure - it certainly baffled a number of Proteus readers for a long while. The thing is, she has the third and final piece of the headstone, but she won't divulge that fact to losers who have less than two of the other bits. And as the vast majority of players first encounter her in the course of an unsuccessful attempt at the adventure, many wind up getting the impression that meeting her is just a minor inconvenience, assume that the third headstone piece is in some other part of the Mines, and wind up repeatedly getting themselves killed searching obscure and hazardous false trails.

With the whole headstone in our possession, we start looking for a way out. Instead, we find a ravening Spitsnipe. As when she encountered me, Liamorra leaps straight into the fray, the narrowness of the tunnel preventing me from offering any meaningful support. She grievously wounds the Spitsnipe before getting smashed to the ground, and I have little trouble finishing off the weakened beast. It's too late to save Liamorra, though, so I bury her (for sanity's sake, I'm assuming I build a cairn from convenient stones) and carry on in search of an exit.

Soon I reach a door with two levers set into it, and writing above each lever. A plaque above the door warns that, 'All that is written above the levers is false.' Technically, that's a paradox, because the plaque itself must be above the levers since the levers are in the door and the plaque's above the door, which means that if the plaque is telling the truth, then what it says must be false. But if I conclude that the plaque is not supposed to be self-referential, it's easy enough to deduce which lever to pull, and pulling that one does cause the door to open.

Beyond, I see daylight, and stop to put together the three-piece marble jigsaw I'm carrying. The cracks in the stone heal, and my journey back to Nytrak's is uneventful. I am rewarded with a hundred gold pieces (which seems rather less impressive when I remember that the landlord at the start of the adventure estimated my sword to be worth fifty). Still, I'm not in it for the money.

I may have played this one that bit too often. One of the enjoyable aspects of replaying gamebooks for this blog is being pleasantly surprised by good bits I'd forgotten, never previously noticed, or failed to appreciate on earlier attempts. I'm just that bit too familiar with the best parts of The Mines of Malagus, so there was no joy of (re)discovery here. Not that it was ever going to rank among the all-time gamebook greats (it's not even in my top 5 Proteus adventures), but it's a decent enough adventure, without any horrible faults, and that alone is enough to rank it above a significant number of gamebooks, so I'm a little saddened to find myself slightly disappointed at this victory.

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