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Replay: ‘Scapeghost’ (1989)


A screenshot of 'Scapeghost' in DOS

AKA Spook
Level 9 · text adventure · text parser · 1989
Platform · Amiga · Amstrad CPC · Atari 8-bit · Atari ST · C64 · DOS · ZX Spectrum
Download · DOS · Spectrum

There is only one reason I would ever deign to tell you about some boring old text adventure, and here it is: Scapeghost is awesome.

For one thing, the game is well-written—we hardly get to applaud computer games for good writing anymore!—and for another, it is authentically creepy.

A lot of the creep factor is indebted to the atmospheric artwork that accompanies each new location’s block of text. (One 1990 review calls the VGA art “photorealistic,” which, no, but all the versions really are very good.) You can’t interact with the pictures—that’s the sort of thing you’d find in Déjà Vu, a super-duper-early Macintosh point-and-click adventure game—but each backdrop goes a long way in establishing the setting’s grim moodiness.

You were Alan Chance. You were a good cop; now you’re a dead cop. You were trying to bust a dirty drug deal and now, in death, everyone assumes the worst about you. You wake up at your own funeral. You can practically taste the mist.

From the get-go, this adventure is slim on real mystery. If you already know to follow the one especially-suspicious dude, he basically confesses to your murder under his breath. God, why do murderers always talk to themselves? I ask you.

So you already know the identity of the two-timing detective who offed you. All that’s left is to vindicate your own death… FROM BEYOND THE GRAAAAAAVE.

In the beginning you can only pick up very small, light objects—a leaf, or maybe a flower petal, say—but if you pick up incrementally heavier little objects, you can eventually carry things like pebbles and scraps of paper. Soon you’ll be flipping switches and toppling fragile objects! You’re like a real ghost now!

There are other ghosts in the cemetery, too, and if you can assess what each ghost needs and somehow fulfill that need, you’ll be able to enlist each ghost’s help one by one. Here’s a hot tip: jot down the names of each ghost, or maybe the useful objects you notice lying around, whatever. That’s right, just scribble a list of words as you play. This is because, rather than telling the software you’d like to go north, east, north, north, you can use shorthand like “GO TO EDNA.” That’s wonderful. In playing text games and MUDs as a kid, I hated drawing those maps. I’m terrible at knowing where I am; once I do draw myself a map, I can’t even read it. I am definitely better at remembering landmarks—you could say I’m “object-oriented” maybe?—and this made navigating the game’s spaces a real treat instead of a chore.

Screenshot: 'Scapeghost' also looks very nice on the Atari ST

The first chapter is drier, but it’s a terrific introduction and tutorial nonetheless. In small space, part one establishes what sort of things you might want to do, how to accomplish those things, and so on. It also establishes rules of the game-world: ghosts gain “permanence” and substance the more they do, but ghosts will be temporarily felled, for instance, by flashes of bright light.

The game is not timed—rather, it is turn-based—but as Alan Chance, you have a limited number of turns before sunrise. If you aren’t able to complete the first “night” in “time,” you can move right along to the next chapter anyway, if you like. That really takes a lot of the frustration out of the game.

In part two, “Haunted House,” things start to get much more interesting. The parser command “CONCENTRATE” (spoiler?) allows the late Detective Inspector to psychically replay the nefarious goings-on that ultimately conspired his death. Timing becomes much more important now; you’ll find yourself using your turns carefully so that you can avoid, say, the headlights of oncoming cars (spoilers).

In the final, most action-packed chapter—appropriately titled “Poltergeist”—you get to terrorize the bad guys and rescue a lady. Good luck!

If you have even an inkling as to how to tackle Scapeghost, the game’s pace moves at a clip. The writing is whip-smart and wry. And a little unexpectedly, the game is funny! Oh, it plays its creepy atmosphere straight, sure, and you generally won’t be chuckling, but sometimes Scapeghost gives in to its own silliness.

As a point-and-click adventure, even modern gamers would poop themselves. As a work of interactive fiction, Scapeghost is phenomenal (although frosh gamers might want to keep a walkthrough handy).

Scapeghost’s contemporary critics often complained about a “lack of creativity.” This is pretty baffling. I kinda want to go What the hell did people play in 1989, then, except that I can already guess: fantasy-adventure, cyberpunk sci-fi, dungeon-crawls. Sighing, I have to acknowledge the wafer-thin plane that divides “tired” and “classic” and call it a draw.

Odds and ends
  • As you can imagine, it is very difficult to not repeatedly call Scapeghost “Spaceghost.” If you see any straggling errors, please let me know.
  • I’m not sure what it’s like to be dead, but I bet it feels a lot like this. Spooky.
  • The text parser does not recognize the word “at”. “To” is fine, apparently, but “at” is too much, too much.
  • Level 9 was known for combining drawn or bitmapped graphics with text. The developers were thisclose to producing an officially-licensed Doctor Who game (source), but the project fell through.
  • Level 9’s first five releases shipped on tapes packaged in ziplock baggies, as was the fashion then.
  • Level 9’s first release, Colossal Adventure, was a reworking of Colossal Cave, or ADVENT, for home computers. (Adventure also inspired Ken and Roberta Williams to form Sierra On-Line.)
  • Scapeghost was Level 9’s final—and reportedly “least successful”—game. It sold 15,000 copies at about twenty bucks a pop. Scapeghost was written by Pete Austin. Level 9 shuttered in June 1991.
  • I filched screenshots from Scan0017 and Myabandonware.

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