My name is Henry and I am adding this here, though I know many people will not believe the story that I am about to tell. I am a gamer of the old school. When I say old school I mean gaming from the late 1970's and early 1980's.
Before I go on I have to explain a little about the difference between gaming now, and gaming then. Gaming then was a completely different animal, consoles were extremely simple, graphics, when they existed at all, were little more than dashes, squares, and straight lines. There were no "Game Stores" around, games were purchased from small shops that sold hardware, or occassionally in super markets or, very rarely, toy stores.
There was no internet back then, not one that was publicly available. It was hard to find information on games and such was usually only done via ads within magazines or by word of mouth. One of the few ways to find new games were by visiting "game swaps" which were small gatherings of gamers who would trade games with each other, sometimes people would copy them as well, though games were done on 5.25 inch floppy disks, 3.5 inch floppies came later, and often times this wouldn't work properly, remember this was over thirty years ago.
There were lots of games back then, most were very simple clones of titles like space invaders and such, but this was also the era of the text-based adventure game. Text-adventure games were my poison of choice, and I sought out any new ones that I could find whenever I could. This was difficult however, as this was also the era of the garage game.
What is a garage game? Well a garage game is a game that someone made, at home, usually in their garage. They were sold at super markets in simple zip lock bags and were massively popular when traded at game swap events. They were like their own underground culture. At the time there was one name that became an urban myth, M. Stack, or Martin Stack.
Martin Stack was a garage game maker that everyone knew about but nobody had ever actually seen a game from. It was said that people who played M. Stack games had bad things happen to them. These "bad things" varied wildly, some claimed that people went insane, others said they vanished, others claimed that government agents would show up at their homes and take them away, all kinds of things.
Now, I have to say, these were underground counter-culture hackers. The people back then tended to be overly theatric and indeed more than a little paranoid. The fact that nobody knew anyone who had played one of these games first hand, it was always, "My cousin knew a guy who..." or "I had this friend once who said his brother..." it was the nerd equivalent of a campfire ghost story, I am positive nobody actually believed it.
Anyway, I had decided, after hearing about these mysterious text games, to do whatever I could to track one down if only so I could prove the legends wrong. I spent weeks trying to locate one, asking at game swaps, stores, I even sent out a few letters to swappers in neighboring towns. Nothing, nothing at all, nobody had one and nobody actually knew anyone who had one.
I forgot about it and went on with my life.
A few months later, however, I was at a swap in Irvine CA. I had a reputation, I was very generous with what I brought, and I was pretty good when it came to swapping quality as opposed to swapping out bad titles which more than a few people did. In this case I went to one of my usual swappers and he had a huge grin on his face, "I got something for you." He said as he brought out a simple bubble wrap-filled envelope. Inside were three sets of cassette tapes and three 5.25 inch floppies that contained three games, each was labled in black sharpe:
The tapes were labled: Tower I, Tower II, Tower III, Forest I, Forest II, and Maze I, Maze II, and Maze III.
The disks were labled: Tower Loader, Forest Loader, Maze Loader
Written beneath the names was the name: M. Stack
With the game was also a letter, hand written, with instructions:
Formatted for Commodore 64
Games are meant to be played in order, Forest, Maze, then Tower.
To play these games you must have Commodore 1541 floppy drive and Commodore 1530 Datasette.
To play these games first insert and run the appropriate loader disk in the drive, then when instructed place the appropriate datasette into the datasette drive. You will be required to change datasette tapes at several points during the game.
Now, I think I should explain a little about what these items were. 5.25 inch floppy disks were the common medium of the time. They are flat, thin, and hold (by today's standards) a very small amount of data. A Datasette was a cassette tape that a computer, with the right equipment, could be used to store or load data from. Datasettes were inferior to disks in almost every way including speed and storage space, so I could not understand why the programmer would use both simultaneously, but I assumed that he had some reason for it.
So, shocked and surprised that someone had found an M. Stack game I took the package, finished my trading, and eventually went home for the evening. The swap was on Friday and I had the weekend off so when I woke up on Saturday I set to installing my new game to finally see if these games were anywhere near as bad as people clamed.
Now another thing I should mention is that Hard Drives weren't really a "thing" at the time. Games and programs were often loaded from and saved to a disk. This was another thing that made these games so odd to me. I had never heard of a "loader disk" before, for example, and I was wondering at the time exactly what this Stack guy was doing exactly.
So I popped the disk labled Forst Loader in and booted it up. The fast loader on the disk was fairly good and fortunately I was running a 1541-II disk drive so I didn't have to worry about an overheating issue. The game had a loading screen, which was a technique that, at the time, was just gaining popularity. In the normal (for the Commodore) light blue and dark blue display a simple picture of a row of trees with the words, "The Forest" across them appeared. In the middle of the row of trees were two trees that were bent and seemed to form an arch, the arch was dark and clearly showed some kind of path into the forest.
The screen changed to a simple text display at that point which had a command cursor. The text read, "Thank you for playing the first in a series of horror adventure games by M. Stack. Please type "New" to begin a new game or "Continue" to continue a previous game."
I typed out the word "New" and pressed the return key.
"Thank you new player." The game displayed to me. "In order to begin a new adventure please insert Datacette - Forest I - into your tape drive."
Doing as I was instructed I placed the tape in the drive and closed the tape door. The drive spun up and I could hear it whirring softly.
"Thank you." The game displayed on the screen. "While the game loads please answer the following questions."
I initially thought to question such a thing but then I remembered that many designers were now placing mini-games that were displayed while the game loaded. I assume that Stack had found a way to use this to his advantage in a new and unique way. I was greatly intrigued.
Suddenly the words: "What is your name?" appeared on my monitor.
That in itself did not surprise me, what startled me however was a man's voice emanated from my speakers stating the question as well in a deep baratone.
As I looked dumbstruck at the screen my cursor blinked as if waiting for a reply.
I was shocked and thrown off, but not before my logical mind caught up with me. Datacettes had fast loader programs on them, like NovaLoad, and they could often play music while data was loaded. Thus the tape had to have these on it in place of music, it was brilliant, and simple. I was impressed and it explained the mystery of why the game used both 5.25's and tapes.
My hands moved over the keyboard as I typed my name in, "Henry."
The text disappeared after I pressed return. A few seconds passed before a new string of text, and a new question asked by the man's voice, "Are you afraid?"
This brought a smile to my face however, and only because of what was on the screen. The text on the display actually said, "Are you afraid Henry?" This confirmed my suspicions. The voice was just pre-recorded sound on the Datacette after all. I laughed at myself for having gotten startled, for a horror game this was off to a promising start.
I typed back, "No."
The game screen once again went blank and after a few minutes of only the whirring of the drive the game start screen from before reappeared. Then vanished only to be replaced with text:
"The villagers chose you, among many, to be the chosen one this year. It is your duty to travel through the dark forest, make your way through the menacing maze, and ascend the devil's tower to ring the bell at the top and complete the ancient pact. If you fail your sanity is forfeit. You accept this fate when you take your first step into this forest.
A path leads north and east.
What do you wish to do?"
There was no sound to accompany this, and I was now in familiar territory. This was pretty standard adventure game stuff. I typed out, "Look north."
The game responded by displaying:
"You look to the north and see that the path leads deeper into the woods. It is very dark."
I frowned, after such an impressive start I expected more than this.
The game replied:
"You see a path leading to a trader's camp."
Well that solved that question for me as I made my decision and typed, "Move east."
The scene was laid out for me:
"The trader's camp is ravaged. You can see the bodies of the traders who had left your village earlier this evening. They are torn and bleeding, bite marks and claw marks cover their bodies. The trading carts are overturned and their contents are spilled out across the grass. The only thing of value that appears undamaged is a lantern. The only path leads back the way you came."
I rolled my eyes and sighed, for all of the hype I was hoping for something more unique than this. I took the lantern and made my way back to the previous area.
The rest of the day played pretty much as you would expect so I will spare you the exacting detailes. Nothing unusual happened until I quit playing for the evening. I had gotten as lost as possible in the winding twists and turns of the Dark Forest and knew that I would have to use graph paper or something to map it out if I wanted to find my way through. The game seemed to be less about facing evils and dying, and more about finding a path, it was interesting but nothing that I hadn't seen many times before. I saved my game onto the Load Disk and went to bed.
That night I had the strangest dream. I was playing the game, but not like I had in real life, in the dream I was actually in the game. I could see the trees. I could smell the rotting flesh from the dead traders. Just like in real life I got lost in the woods. I felt like I was wandering for hours and had made no progress. When I woke up I had felt like I had gotten almost no sleep. I remember stumbling into my bathroom and nearly falling asleep as I showered.
I had to run a few errands but felt exhausted. I remember picking up a graph paper pad and grabbing something to eat but by the time I made it home I only wanted to take a nap. That sleep went much the same but I felt a bit better as I woke up and I made my way to my computer to continue my trek through the forest.
It was a monumental task, the forest was huge, it seemed to stretch on forever. I couldn't manage to get a complete map. I did, however, manage to get enough that I found my way to a new area. I remember what the game displayed when I finally made it there.
"You have found the first marker. This is one of the first steps the chosen must find if they are to complete their quest. The marker stone is large and carved into it is the story of the chosen one and their pilgrimage. Paths lead to the north, south, east, and west from here. A rancid smell comes from the east."
I knew that the rancid smell was indeed a lure, either a tool to draw me into a trap, or it is a way to show me what direction I should go next. I, however, was concerned with the marker. I wanted more information about this pilgrimage. I typed out the words, "Look Marker."
The whirring from the tape drive sped up as text began to appear on my screen, but was accompanied by the man's voice from earlier with its booming baratone, "Three hundred years ago the crops around the village began to fail. The village was isolated, and alone, and without the crops the people knew that they would die. So it was that the elder of the village sought out a nearby witch and learned of a being known as Tolas in hopes that he could save the failing crops and his people."
"The witch explained that a sacrifice was needed, and told the elder how to make it, in order to speak with Tolas. The two spoke, and a deal was struck. Each year their would be a new sacrifice, and in exchange the village would always prosper. In that first year Tolas, a creature from beyond the mists, requested the sacrifice be the daughter of the elder, but thereafter it would be whoever was chosen by the village. The elder agreed."
"The sacrifice, however, did not mean the loss of life. The cost was still great. The daughter, a young girl of only fifteen seasons, was lulled into a deep slumber from the fumes cast off by special burning herbs. She was laid back on a table and her body and head were held down. The elder took a long and thin stilletto blade and placed it as Tolas instructed, above the eye, against the lid. The elder then took a hammer and struck the end of the blade's pommel and drove the blade deep into the skull of his daughter."
From the speakers, the moment the last word was said, a young woman's ear splitting scream erupted. It was so loud and unexpected I nearly fell out of my chair. I remember that I could feel as though my heart were leaping out of my chest. That genuinely frightened me, and I had, until then, never been scared by a computer game before.
I must say, by the time I recovered, I was intrigued. Sound like that had never existed in games before, and it was simply phenominal.
I read the text one more time after I recovered and made sure to take notes. For those of you not used to old gaming, we often had to take notes. It was often a hidden clue or something that would be needed later, for example, a puzzle might ask "What is the name of the creature from beyond the mists?"
Having gotten everything I think I was going to get from that location I added it to my map and typed, "save." That way my progress was stored in case going west toward the rancid smell was a trap. Then I typed, "move east."
The text on the screen read as follows:
"You make your way toward the horrible smell and come to a horrible facsimile of a village. It is a cruel joke, the buildings were burned and corpses are piled up. Written in blood on the walls are scrawling statements like, "My mind is gone." As well as questions like, "Why did Tolas take it?" The stench you smelled is obviously coming from the corpses which are in a gruesom state of decay. The only path from here is back the way you came."
I can't tell you why, maybe I simply couldn't resist taking a peek, I typed in, "Look corpse."
The text displayed on my screen the following:
"The bodies are piled high and are rotted. Bits of flesh hang off of exposed bones and maggots crawl along the surface of the skin. You notice a peculiar mark on all of the bodies, each of them has a scar above their left eye as if they had something pierce their face."
That didn't get to me, after all, it was just words on a screen in a horror game. No, what bothered me was the tape drive. As the words appeared on my screen it spun up, but instead of the normal voice I heard a horrible sound that I can't accurately describe. It was distorted, slowed down, echoing... It sounded like laughter.
I recalled feeling the hair on my arms stand up and I felt a chill go down my spine. This game was actually scaring me. On one hand, that is what it was supposed to do, on the other hand I had never felt this feeling before in my life, not from a video game. I had the unnerving feeling that something was watching me.
Once more I typed in, "Save."
This time however I decided to turn the game off and try to get some sleep. After all I had to work the next day.
Once again my sleep was restless. I had nightmares through the night. I keep seeing the forest, the merchent camp, and the strange village. Throughout the nightmares I was constantly awoken, seemingly every few minutes, by the woman's scream from the game. Each time I seemed to sleep for only a few minutes, only to wake up, roll over, and try again.
The next morning I made my way to work, but my head was fuzzy from the lack of sleep. I worked in computer sales, usually dealing with companies wanting to purchase computers to help with their work. Usually I was pretty good at it, I was attentive, I could usually zero in exactly what a client needed and press my sales point from there.
Not that day though, all I wanted to do was go home. At noon I asked to leave, citing that I wasn't feeling good. I made my way home and tried, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep. The dreams came again, though I felt a little better for the attempt.
The next day I went back to work, trying my best not to think about the nightmares, or that accursed game. I felt that I shouldn't have been that bothered by it. It was a game, just a cassette tape and some text on a screen, it shouldn't have this kind of effect on me. So I pushed through the rest of the second work day.
Wednesday couldn't have come sooner for me. I only worked four days a week at the store, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. My hours were seven to six with an hour for lunch, it was a pretty good job. That Wednesday, after three nights of unfit sleep, I felt a little better and decided that, if the game was scaring me, my best option was to simply face it and be done with it.
I booted up the Commodore and loaded things up, typed "Continue" and chose to press on.
The next few parts of the game were tame. Standard adventure stuff, and I began to feel silly that this had bothered me the way that it had. The puzzle of the Forest, while at first daunting, wasn't unbeatable by any stretch and after wandering around for a bit I figured it out. The Forest was basically a large inward spiral. I figured that out as I explored. That, at the time, made sense, as the Maze and the Tower were supposedly at the center of the Forest. So I noted the pattern from the start area to the first checkpoint and noticed on my graph paper that I could chart the spiral out. So that is exactly what I did, and though it took me a while as I contended with the usual death traps and and item use puzzles I eventually made it to the second Marker Stone.
When I reached the second Marker Stone's area the text stated:
"You have reached the Second Marker, your journey through the Forest is nearly complete. The woods here appear almost peaceful and tranquil. The Marker stone has words and images etched into it. Paths lead north, south, east, and west from here."
I looked up at the clock and realized it was nearly 2am. It had taken all day for me to reach this point. I was exhausted and decided that I needed sleep. If the game was going to scare me the way it had before if I looked on the Marker Stone then I was going to wait for the weekend. I typed "Save" and went to bed.
That night I had similar luck as the other days with sleep. Every fifteen to twenty minutes I seemed to wake up. Thankfully the nightmares had subsided, my dreams, what few I had, were calm and somewhat soothing. Though again, I would awake, constantly through the night. By the time morning came my eyes were bloodshot and I had passed beyond the point of being tired.
Work droned on, and I found myself making silly mistakes. Eventually, however, the day came to a close. I remember my boss, Emily, asked me if I was feeling alright and I told her that I was having problems sleeping. She was concerned and told me to take a sick day on Friday, and I remember thanking her. The drive home was a blur and I only remember passing out face-first onto my pillow.
True sleep eluded me once again. There were no dreams this time, but yet again I found myself waking every few minutes. I did get some sleep, but not much, and before I knew it sunlight was streaming in through my bedroom window.
After waking, I decided to put off showering and instead took a box of Captain Crunch, a bowl, and a gallon of milk with me as I made my way to my garage. I had the day off, and the entire weekend, I was determined to make it through the Forest.
I booted up the Commodore and started the game. After the loading was complete I typed, "Continue."
I typed, "Look." In order to refresh the text for the area and remind myself of where I was. It was then I remembered the second Marker. Without hesitating, though I wish I had, I typed, "Look Marker."
The tape drive began the customary soft whine and I awaited text to appear. Instead of what I expected however the voice on the tape said the following, which accompanied the text:
"Congratulations, you have completed this leg of your journey. Please change to the next datasette."
The screen displayed the same as the spoken text, but with the addition of one line:
"Please place the datasette marked, "Forest II" Henry, into your tape drive and press the return key."
I opened the original envelope and I pulled out the Forest II cassette. Quickly I swapped Forest I for Forest II and tapped the Return key. After a few minutes of loading new text appeared on the screen and new words came from the speakers.
"The victims of Tolas were never killed, not physically anyway. They instead became lifeless husks. Sometimes babbling gibberish, sometimes becoming feral like animals, but many times, like with the Elder's daughter they simply became listless. Alive but with no life.
Once the blade was removed she never spoke. Her eyes would move, but remained unfocused. She never moved on her own. She would simply lay, like a living corpse, urinating and deficating on herself. She did not react to anything anyone did, she was alive and yet dead.
The Elder was beside himself. Though true to his word, the crop flourished. Though his once vibrant daughter now required others to do for her, the village was saved.
The Elder sought a way to restore his daughter, and once more consulted the witch. She explained that the daughter's soul was the property of Tolas, and that there was nothing that could be done to return her to life. Though the Elder could, she surmised, seek the mercy of Tolas.
It was thus that the Elder chose to once more seek out the council of he who walked beyond the Mists."
I apologize for my... Absence from posting. Due to recent... Incidents... I was unable to use a computer for a time... When you see the rest of my story then you'll understand.