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Revenge of the License: Stephen King’s The Mist

The Mist Box

“There’s nothing out there. Nothing in the mist.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Then, I guess…the joke would be on me.”
–Brent Norton and David Drayton, ‘The Mist

* * * * *

Adaptations of Stephen King’s stories have a tendency to suck, not to put too fine a point on it. Translating his material from the printed word to any other medium outside of an audio production is a hit-or-miss proposition with most results ending up firmly in the “miss” column. Gluttons for punishment that we are, we want them to work because when they do, there’s no other feeling like that of ‘subtle, creeping menace’ to keep you up all night watching or playing. When they don’t though? You get Stephen King’s The Mist, developed by Angelsoft and published by Mindscape in 1985. Then you probably dialed up your local BBS in search of help, or deluged Scorpia at Computer Gaming World with letters, because like wandering into its namesake, The Mist will leave you feeling confused, annoyed, lost, helpless, stranded, and ultimately screwed with no win conditions in sight.

The Mist is a text adventure game, so screenshots can’t add much to this installment. However Frank Darabont brought a kick-ass version of the novella to the big screen in 2007, and I will fight to the last testicle with anyone who says otherwise. Since pictures of words are the last thing you want to see in the middle of a big block of other words, we’re using stills from the film. You will not see these in the game, no matter how hard you try…unless you use your imagination!

You're powerless to save Norm in this version too.

Norm’s still tentacle bait though. Sorry, Norm!

While it would seem converting a novel into a work of interactive fiction is the most obvious choice in the world, you have to keep a few things in mind. Interactive fiction requires more than just dropping characters and objects familiar to the reader into a plot that follows the original story. Merely retelling the book as a text adventure adds nothing to the experience. If you’ve read the story and already know what’s going on, how to solve all the puzzles, and where not to go, then what’s the point? I commend Angelsoft for their decision to alter the events of the book in their adaptation, because otherwise what would be the point of playing? Infocom did much the same thing when adapting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that turned out to be (mostly) harmless.

"There's something in the mist!"

“There’s something in the mist!”

But diverging from the well-trod path of the original brings with it a host of new issues, some of which wouldn’t be problems if players weren’t likely entering the game’s world with some baggage based on prior interactive fiction experience. As an example, there’s a dumpster outside of the store. Nobody in the novella ever goes rooting around in the trash outside, so it might not occur to a player to check it out. But even someone unfamiliar with the book will run into trouble if they suspect there might be something in there we need to finish the game. This being a text adventure, veterans know you need to look at, inspect, examine, open, and occasionally flat-out break everything not nailed down, because Implementers are sadistic bastards who hide everything good behind seven layers of puzzles. And this stupid dumpster is custom-made to bother the hell out of us. Using the common IF command ‘look dumpster’ acts like we just said ‘look’ without a direct object and describes the room we’re in again. ‘Examine dumpster’ is mildly more helpful, informing us the dumpster is green and battered. We can try to ‘open’ it, but we’ll be told it’s already open. Closing it is no help. So, what do you do with an old, dented green dumpster? Why you ‘examine dumpster carefully‘ of course.

BOO!

BOO!

So, hooray, you figured out the game’s parser likes adverbs (an utter no-no when it comes to IF design for reasons that should be obvious) and now you can see there’s a notebook in the dumpster. Great–let’s read it! Well, trying to ‘read notebook’ results in you being told you don’t have it. So you ‘get notebook’, then go to read it, only to be told that it needs to be opened before you can read it. Seriously?! ‘Open notebook’ followed by ‘read notebook’ offers some clues about what’s up with all these giant versions of ordinary insects, but we’ve had to jump through far too many hoops by this point to even care. Now, you’re not required to solve this “puzzle” to finish the game, it’s just there to provide background and enhance the story. But this is far from the only puzzle like this, and the game insists on its brand of perfectionism in identifying items and picking the correct verb throughout.

This group, led by Mrs. Carmody, starts posing a threat if you don't leave the supermarket in time.

Mrs. Carmody’s group will go all ‘Aztec blood sacrifice’ on you if you dawdle in the market.

Another cardinal sin The Mist commits far too many times is the instant, unforeseeable death. A misstep at the start will kill you on the first move (ProTip: Don’t go north!). The monsters from the mist are nice enough to give you a couple moves to react before they carve you a new rectum, but in a decision that denies logic harder than a drugged-out Vulcan, the game counts improper commands as actual moves. This might be the only adventure game in history which penalizes you for spelling errors.

Arachnophobes, don't look at...awwww, too late.

Arachnophobes,you might want to look away before…awwww, too late.

The final sin this game commits is that of randomization. Inventory management is critical to completing The Mist, and you can only hold four items at one time on your quest to find your son, so the game makes you juggle like that unemployed hipster dude in the local park. But The Mist has no qualms introducing flaming chainsaws into your act without warning. For instance: figure out how to get Ollie’s gun and you’ll wind up with a limited number of bullets. By the time you face an enemy that requires three bullets to kill, you’ll have exactly three bullets left. Whether you score a hit on each shot is randomized. Miss and you better hope you saved your game before you started pulling the trigger, because you’re about to  meet a gruesome demise. I’m not sure what the word is for this situation, but I can guarantee that word is not ‘fun’.

Roughly this gruesome, give or take a decapitation.

Roughly this gruesome, give or take a decapitation.

Stephen King’s The Mist wants very much to be a creepy adventure in the same vein as Infocom’s far-superior The Lurking Horror. And there’s some great description to be found in here: the writing itself is faultless. The problem is all the hoops you have to jump through before you get the paragraph describing what happens next. With a walkthrough and a copy of DOSBox, you can expect some creepy reading which will entertain you for a few hours and offer some expansions (and contradictions) from what happens in the novella. Without a walkthrough though, you can look forward to an exercise in frustration that would give a masochist pause.

Angelsoft ends the adventure in a manner similar to the novella: as you drive away from the mist-enshrouded town of Bridgeport, you whisper two words to your son. One of those words, the game reveals, is ‘hope’. The other word isn’t mentioned. Based solely on intuition, I reckon it should be “Bullshit”.

Gotta say I love the ad though, and we hope you do too:

Stephen King's The Mist

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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