Missed Classic 77: The Institute (1981) – Introduction

From The Adventure Gamer

by Will Moczarski

The Institute is the first game in my Med Systems marathon that I will actually replay as I’ve played (and solved) it before. It has been decades, however, and my memories of the game are pretty unreliable. Also, I only know the later port for the Commodore 64 which features nice graphics – I have never played the original TRS-80 version. What I remember most distinctly about this game is that it feels like a compilation because you have to solve puzzles in four or five different dreams in order to bring the background story to a close (i.e., escape from a mental health facility). I also remember that I really liked this game, maybe I even finished it two or three times just for the sake of it.

Because The Institute used to be very renowned, much has been written about it. I will thus unusually start with an introduction of contemporary and retrospective quotes as a framework to set the stage for this unusual game.

Introduction: Press Review

The Institute was apparently such a long-standing mainstay of Med Systems Software that they – after having changed their company name to Screenplay in 1983 – released some new ports for the two-year old game in 1983, boasting completely new graphics but otherwise promoting the same game. This was not uncommon in the 1980s as you can see in Joe Pranevich’s posts about Infocom’s company history; the Zork trilogy, for example, stuck around for even longer – one could even argue that the Infocom games even have the distinction to be the only classic text adventures to make the transition to the touchscreen age (as reflected by the iOS compilation The Lost Treasures of Infocom).

The renewed ports of The Institute were reviewed and advertised in some of the contemporary magazines, such as Softalk vol. 4 no. 10, an issue that was published in June 1984: “The Institute, by veteran writer Jyym Pearson, is a psychological drama with clues to help you escape from dangerous situations. Available from Screenplay […], the adventure game puts the player in a prehistoric jungle or aboard the doomed Titanic. Dreams provide clues on how to escape. $29.95.” Young and wild Jyym Pearson had already turned into a “veteran writer” four years after starting his career. The 1980s were a dangerous time! By the way, $29.95 in 1984 dollars roughly equals $73.95 in 2019 dollars – for a repackaged 1981 game!

The website Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe which has been dedicated to interactive fiction games since 1996 also has a lot to say about The Institute. Namely, they regard Jyym Pearson as “probably the most recognized adventure game author to come out of Adventure International”, second only to Scott Adams, of course. The Institute was “Pearson’s first game released outside of Adventure International, though it uses the Other-Ventures game file format and interpreter. Jyym was still writing games for AI at the time, and after, so I’m going to speculate that AI directed him to MedSys[tems] / Screenplay whenever his work ventured into the territory of questionable taste.” This may well be possible considering the topics of his later work (notably Lucifer’s Realm), however, I tend to disagree as all of Jyym’s post-OtherVentures work appears to have been published by Med Systems – he probably just changed horses there, although the chronology of Saigon: The Final Days is far from clear. It’s definitely a 1981 game but may have remained unreleased well into 1983. The plot summary in Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe is short and concise: “The plot of [The] Institute casts you as a mental patient who escapes his cell, raids the medicine stores, and takes drug-induced trips to various remote locales.”

Taking a look at the game’s own 1981 manual, there are two descriptions – one inside and one on the back. The first one goes like this: “The Institute is an extremely complex adventure. The scenario of the same is a psychological nightmare. Trapped in a mysterious ‘Institute’, you know that you are not mad, and yet many of your fellow inmates are. The Freudian solution to your entrapment becomes a series of vivid dreams, induced by a strange powder. Each of the dreams takes place in a different location, making the adventure actually five adventures in one. Each location contains objects and information that you must use in other places in order to escape. You may actually have to let yourself be killed in order to escape one dream and proceed to another.” The “five adventures in one” phrase was heavily used for the marketing of the game. It’s not completely untrue, either, and makes the game feel strangely modern when held against more recent IF efforts. The other description is more of an ad blurb: “Med Systems Software is proud to present The Institute, a rousing adventure game by Jyym Pearson. You begin in an institution populated by a dwarf, counselor, guards, and other inmates. You can enter whole sentences as well as one and two word commands, as you strive to retain your sanity. You must escape, but the key to escape is not in the building itself. Your dreams, brought on by a mysterious powder, hold the key to escape, as well as four whole worlds of bizarre characters and locations. It’s like playing five adventures in one!” The parser is, of course, not nearly as potent as would be suggested here. It’s interesting that the first description already refers to the “Freudian solution”, leaving the player with a means of interpretation for the (potentially?) confusing game.

There is also one review by Mark E. Denne for the September 1982 issue of 80 Microcomputing Magazine which is rather interesting. I’ve abridged some sections of it but I feel that it’s too valuable to exclude here. It’s also a very good summary of Jyym Pearson’s specific adventure game style: “The Institute is a very unique entry into the game market from the company that brought us 3-D adventures. It is not 3-D nor does it have any similarity with Asylum, Labyrinth or Deathmaze. Graphics are used in the game only for decoration or to signify dramatic changes in the plot. However, it’s one of the finest adventure games I’ve ever played. […] The game features a hybrid screen, a cross between the now famous split-screen and a new concept. At the top are visible items, if any, a description of the room or its contents is next. Your input is entered at the next level followed by an area which displays the result of ‘talks,’ ‘listens’ or special happenings. This last area is where the most important information is shown. ‘Talk’ and ‘listen’ are commands that most adventures do not use; in this adventure they are probably the most important. That’s right, you talk to characters (dwarves, counselors, midgets) and they talk back. If you don’t keep your ears open, you’ll never get anywhere. […] There are many exits that are not indicated in any manner at all. These are found by trying all directions from each room. Nobody said this game was easy. The input routine is very critical, descriptions must match exactly or no action occurs. For example, ‘get bottle’ may not pick up the red bottle. However ‘get red bottle’ works fine. […] The game has five different levels. The first one is your starting point at The Institute. By use of a strange powder you physically enter your dreams to complete your escape. Dreams include a giant forest on another planet, a voyage on the Titanic, an ancient temple, and a prehistoric forest. It’s much like five adventures in one. Sometimes you must be killed to wake up or pass into the next dream. Also, if you’re killed you keep whatever inventory you had and you start over— nice feature!”

It’s interesting that even the reviewer mentions the “five games in one” tagline. Another short ad from the same issue stresses that feature as well: “Five games in one! You begin in an institution, and must successfully negotiate not just the Institute itself, but tour other dream adventures as well. Objects in each dream help solve problems in the next. Concentrate, or you may never escape the nightmare of the Institute!”

It’s likely that all of this was meant to make what’s essentially an experimental adventure game more comprehensible, even to experienced players. All of these descriptions sound like their authors were convinced that this was something special, something new and unique – but still they were afraid that players might not get that.

Finally, “Mill Burray”, the blogger responsible for I Play All The Games gave The Institute a 8 out of 10 in his 2016 review. “Written by Jyym Pearson in 1981, this text adventure is so close to being a masterpiece, it’s not even funny”, he writes, and that “the game is very dark and the dialogue is poetic and sinister and obviously geared towards a mature audience. The puzzles are obscure and sometimes cryptic, but it works in the whole dream/hallucination context. It’s truly unique.” The final verdict is no less euphoric: “In its best moments, this is the greatest game for the TRS-80 and in its weakest moments, it’s still better than any Scott Adams game.”

One more remark before we jump straight into the game: all of the reviews as well as the credit of the TRS-80 version attribute The Institute to Jyym Pearson, and Jyym Pearson only. However, the 1983 ports tell a different story: the Apple ][ version was “written and produced by Jyym and Robyn Pearson”, programmed (I guess: ported) by Norm Sailer, and illustrated by Rick Incrocci. The same set of credits can be found in the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64 versions. Either Jyym “forgot” to credit his wife for helping write the TRS-80 version, or there’s some other story behind it we might never be able to uncover anymore. As the game is apparently, potentially a joint effort, I will attribute it to the Pearsons from this point on.

But now enough with the fluff. Let’s see how The Institute plays from a 2019 perspective, shall we?

First hour of gameplay: The drugs do work, and I know I’ll see your face again.

Before I jump into the next Pearson game I make a list of actions I need to try out on every screen in order to thoroughly explore the gameworld:

  • I’ll look, listen and smell in each room several times.
  • I’ll look at, listen to and smell each object mentioned in the room description.
  • I’ll talk to every NPC repeatedly and several times.
  • In the dark I’ll feel for objects.
  • I’ll try every exit including N,S,E,W but also OPEN and CLIMB.
  • I’ll look UNDER items, too.
  • I’ve made a list of unusual verbs they’re usually fond of – like unfasten, lift or chop.
  • When I feel like I’m stuck I’ll wait around in each room for a minimum of five turns.

I expect this to be particularly necessary for The Institute as I remember it to be a rather complex game. The dreams are discrete structures, and although you can carry items from one dream to another there are some items you will need on your person all the time and the game still has the usual six-item inventory limit. For today’s post I will be exploring in detail the first dream which is by far the largest. Before even thinking of dreaming, however, you start your journey inside the titular institute.

A beginner is me.

I begin the game in a stark, white room with a hospital bed. My most thorough examination comes up with nothing but as I try to look under the bed, the game comes back with a suspicious “not now.” This is just like in Asylum! I wonder if that’s a coincidence or if Jyym Pearson actually played (and liked) that game and if that may be the real reason behind the change of publishers? After a few turns of looking, listening and smelling, a “disfigured dwarf” enters and delivers sort of an opening monologue when I talk to him: “Welcome to the institute, John! May you see more mercy than has been shown me. They will tell you that you are insane, but you are not. You may suffer tortures but don’t give up. Escape!” Then he leaves. And I have a hunch but it’s probably from a previous playthrough: what if I looked under the bed again? Success! The dwarf apparently dropped an old and dirty coffee cup which I can pick up.

I proceed to explore the long hall which is made up of three rooms. To the north there’s a mirror, and looking at it feels like another William Denman moment, since Jyym Pearson never resorted to this kind of humour at the expense of the player before: “Boy, are you ugly!”, the game exclaims. Trying all sorts of things with the mirror results in nothing before I try to break it. It may be bad luck but at least I now have a jagged mirror in my inventory. If the slots keep filling up at this rate, I’ll hit the inventory limit in no time!

Breaking the mirror did not reveal a new exit, so I continue south and explore the other parts of the hall. To the east there is a closed door leading to a dispensary with white shelves. Looking at the shelves repeatedly first reveals a red bottle and next a scalpel. I pocket both and find that the bottle contains magic powder. There is a label on it saying “Eat me”, so I assume this is what will eventually take me to wonderland. When I attempt to eat the powder right away, however, a guard kills me (!) for stealing. That’s abrupt! Luckily the game is just as lenient as its predecessors and I start over at the beginning with my inventory intact. Or is it? The red bottle is gone but the guard did not take offense at my stealing the scalpel. I’ll probably need to find some other place to eat the powder in secrecy. When I explore the dispensary some more I stumble over the solution right away. Going south makes me enter a small, dark closet which seems like the perfect place to develop a little drug habit. I attempt to steal the red bottle, enter the closet and eat the powder but see that I can’t because the powder sticks in my throat and I cough it up before it goes down. Better go ask Alice for some liquid then.

I find out that I can drop the red bottle inside the closet instead of carrying it around with me which would only result in me getting killed by a guard once more. With no more leads to explore and my list of actions exhausted I proceed to walk to the southernmost part of the hall. I find a door to the south but check the other exits first. To the west, there is a large ward room full of patients. This is where I find two potentially necessary messages. Firstly, looking at the room reveals a sign that reads “peace = death”. Not quite Orwellian but still interesting. I take a note and listen to the patients who “wander about moaning and crying.” This prompts the game to single out a voice crying “Shafla is the word.” Hmm, Shafla. Might be a magic word for all I know. Better take another note, then.

The final room lies south of the hall and consists of a small green office. There is an evil looking man sitting at a desk and a locked door to the south. When I try to interact with either of the objects, I am sprayed with mace and thrown out immediately. My only option is to talk to the man which reveals him to be my counselor. The conversation is rather one-sided: “Hello John, I’m your counselor. How are you dealing with your insanity?” The only answer that makes sense is “fine” to which he replies “Good, someday you may leave here.” He then prattles on: “Society must be protected from you, John, and you must be protected from yourself.” Then he decides that our conversation is over and I get thrown out again. I attempt to lead the conversation a number of different ways but it always ends with the same result. If I try to insult the counselor, the parser doesn’t understand me – if I try to kill him, I get thrown out regardless. Having exhausted all of my other options I stay in each room for some turns before coming to the conclusion that the solution must lie within the small green office. This is correct, and “attack counselor” finally works. I am locked up in a softly padded cell but the disfigured inmate who came to visit me in my room suggested that would probably be a good thing.

Looking at the cell reveals nothing special but when I listen, I can hear water dripping from the ceiling. If I drop the coffee cup the game tells me that water drips slowly into the cup. This is just what I need for my first drug trip, I assume! After a few turns I am released from lockup. I haven’t finished my investigation properly and missed my chance to pick up the coffee cup. Hence I return to the small green office straight away and attack my counselor yet again. Am I not somehow proving him right by doing this? In terms of role-playing, it surely is a strange situation.

I am glad I didn’t pick up the coffee cup earlier because only now it’s described as a “cup of water”. I investigate the cell some more and, possibly due to an earlier memory, also try to cut the padding with my scalpel, and fortunately so, as there happens to be a long rope behind it, and you never know what ropes will be good for in an adventure game!

But for now it’s back to the closet – I eagerly eat my powder and this time the screen is wiped and I pass into my first dream. I am now in a lovely, green forest full of huge willow trees. As my examination comes up with nothing interesting, I continue east where I find myself in a small, peaceful meadow. What a lovely dream! There is a sheer cliff to the south and wait, I had this kind of puzzle before. The solution is a little bit different than in Escape from Traam, though, because I can’t find anything to tie the rope to but rather have to “throw rope” – for the same result: the rope catches (where, I don’t know) and I am now able to scale the cliff.

On the narrow cliff I find a telescope. I can’t pick it up and looking through it reveals that it’s blurry. I try to clean it but that doesn’t work. Maybe it’s a question of focus? I try to come up with a verb to describe what I want to do but simply typing “focus telescope” helps me out here. That’s quite an unusual verb for a text adventure but nothing too bad. I add it to my list of “Pearson verbs” regardless, to help me with my next game. The next “puzzle” is essentially the same as discovering the diamond in Earthquake San Francisco 1906. I need to look at each newly discovered object – first planet Earth, then its continents, then a metropolis, a tall building, a billboard and, finally, some numbers are on it. They read “5 6 6 2 1” and I write them down right away.

Looking at the forest I can see a huge statue to the southwest but as I can only move to the south or the west (and can’t do either from this room) there is no way for me to reach it (yet). With nothing left to do, I check out the other locations again and remain in the meadow for a few turns in case I miss some event before I return to the starting location in order to do the same there. Just one look reveals that there’s a corpse now, however. It turns out to be my father! This got Freudian pretty quickly! Also, when I listen again there is a “mumbling noise” coming from a tree. I talk to the tree (my mental health deteriorated rather quickly, I’m afraid! Am I sure I don’t belong in the institute after all?) and a willow responds, moaning “Where are you from?” That’s a good question. Do I know anything about John’s background yet? I first assume that the metropolis I was able to see through the telescope might have a name, or that it may be recognizable somehow if I managed to turn it. Or is the answer simply “Earth”? I try that, and also “planet Earth”, but the parser doesn’t understand me which is never a good sign. So I fiddle with the telescope some more but that won’t help me either. I talk to the willow one more time and notice that the title of the game is positioned very close to the question onscreen. Hmm, could it be that easy? It’s worth a try! “The Institute”, I say, and with a crack the willow opens and exposes some stairs leading downward. As there seems to be nothing else to do, I move on.

I find myself in a circular clearing in front of a large oak door. Quite strangely, I’m not alone: the counselor is here, and he holds a gun to his head. Better than mine, I think, and proceed to talk to him. He simply taunts me and decides to be unhelpful: “Face it, John – this dream won’t help you escape. The key to your insanity is your father.” My father, the corpse? Should I have searched him some more? He then changes his tune a bit: “I’ll do anything, John. I’m here to help!” But then it’s back to the same old song: “Society must be protected from you, John, and you must be protected from yourself.” Then the conversation loops. Since violence helped me before with the counselor, I try to shoot the gun. It’s actually the solution, and the counselor disappears in a flash. This is my dream, you better deal with it! With nothing more to explore, I open the door and find myself in another serene location: a beautiful valley with a tiny stream. The huge statue is now to the south but I still can’t interact with it. I proceed to investigate the tiny stream but nothing I do (even tasting) reveals anything helpful. I decide to jump right in and drink from the stream. To my surprise, my skin turns blue. If I drink some more, my skin turns red, and after that the pattern seemingly repeats. I don’t know what this may be good for but I make a mental note for later.

To the south there is a forest, and now I am immediately north of the large statue. The game helpfully informs me that “the iron base of the statue stands 30 feet tall.” However, the statue itself is “bronze, and very tall.” Looking at the forest reveals a tube of glue which I pick up. There are two exits, one to the west and one to the east. Going west lets me investigate the statue some more. I find that it has my father’s face which is peculiar – I still get the feeling that the counselor has been right about me all along. Maybe I’m in for a twist ending! Also, I discover a huge door in the base but there appears to be no keyhole. My first thought is that this may require a magic word, like “open, sesame.” Did I learn any magic words? Yes, I did! Saying “Shafla” makes a keyhole appear but sadly I don’t have any keys yet. I’ll postpone this for now.

It’s not easy being green

On the other side of the statue there’s a rocky ravine. A tiny midget in a diving suit (what is it with this game and insults aimed at little people?) is here. He resembles Harry Truman. Oh well, I already discovered a statue of Dick Nixon on the alien planet Traam, this won’t shock me. When I try talking to the midget, the solution to this puzzle becomes a lot clearer: “What does death mean?”, he shouts, “answer right and I’ll fight!” Err..fight? Do I want to fight? Do you mean it? Or do you just say it for the sake of the rhyme? Let’s find out! As I’ve already learned, death equals peace, so that is obviously the correct answer. It also prompts the midget to punch and kick my legs while screaming. Hm, can I return the favour? Punching doesn’t work but kicking does: The midget sails over a tree and I can proceed.

I emerge on a grassy knoll, and this time it’s a recycled setting from Saigon: The Final Days: A log bridges a stream. This time it’s a different puzzle, though, and if I try to climb the log I find that my shoes slip on it. I investigate the environment first and then decide to go with the most obvious solution. Unfortunately, “put glue on shoes” does not work, and I wrestle with the parser for a bit before I remember that Pearson games often require the whole description. “Put tube of glue” prompts the parser to ask “on what?”, and if I answer “on shoes”, it seals the deal. I can now climb the log and cross over to the north side of the stream. Naturally, I also drink from this stream but the game simply tells me that I drink too much – another bit of Denman influence?

I am really thankful for my thoroughness here because I definitely would have overlooked the next part. From this side of the stream it’s possible to discover that there’s a hole in the log. Because I can’t find any way to interact with said hole, I try to enter it before I remember that Pearson’s synonym for “enter” is always “climb”. “Climb hole” works and I find myself inside an old hollow log. There’s a shovel and a bronze key there, and I know just what the latter might be for.

First I check out the other exits. At the side of a large log wall which is just north of the stream I encounter a huge green man. He tells me to “leave here or die, stranger”. I can’t attack him or kill him, and he won’t say anything else. But I immediately think back of that strange stream that turned my skin blue and red when I drank from it.

I decide to backtrack to the stream. First I think I need to mix the water from the stream with something else but then I discover that it requires only persistence to solve this one. Drinking from the stream six or seven times in a row makes your skin turn green at some point. After that, the same game begins again – you turn blue, then red, then…wait a minute! My skin is glowing? I don’t know what this means and I’ve just discovered this because I wanted to see what happens when I keep drinking after turning green. When I saw that the pattern repeated, I wanted to get back to green. But glowing? Huh.

I go back to the huge green man to see what he thinks of my new look but I fear and suspect that he won’t let me pass because I’m no longer green. Or am I? I’m honestly not sure. As I talk to him he’s much friendlier now: “Welcome, go on in”, says he. I can open the crude door and find myself in the center of a small village, surrounded by green skinned natives. Looking at them reveals an umbrella which one of them just dropped. To the east, there is a large grass hut. Inside there’s a huge fat man sitting on a throne made of skulls. Great, more body shaming! The man is rather friendly although he can see that I’m an outsider. He even knows my name! “Hello John, welcome to my village, my name is Rudy Bega”, he begins. Does anybody know who he’s supposed to be? I know Lou Bega, sure, and wish I didn’t, but who’s Rudy Bega? He adds some more detail: “I’m from Chicago but the labor unions drove me out back in 1937.” After that he sneezes violently and it blows me out of the hut. Another bit that feels like William Denman’s humour to me – isn’t that pretty close to farting across pits in the continuum games?

I find another hut to the north, this one described as a small grass shack. In order to enter it, I need to cut some bamboo strips but that’s not a problem for my scalpel. Inside I find out what my glowing body is for: It reveals an Acme tool box! Would I have been unable to see it without lucking out? I start from the beginning once more (later) to try it out: yes, the shack is too dark to see anything if I don’t drink from the stream eleven times instead of seven times or something like that. Would I ever have come up with that? I’m not even sure how I solved this puzzle way back when. I must have been just as lucky!

The box is locked and I don’t have the right key. Thus I continue to a smooth stone wall where I discover a glowing face. It turns out to be “the oracle” and demands that I show it “beauty equal to [its own] and [it] will reveal [its] power.” This one is easy as well. I just show it the mirror and it is so enthralled with itself that the surrounding wall cracks. When I climb the crack, I drift out of the first dream and find myself back in the closet. Stay tuned to see what the other three dreams look like in my next post – and don’t forget to guess the score for this one!

Wake up, little Nemo!

Session time: 1.5 hrs
Total time: 1.5 hrs

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points
: There’s a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it’s an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won’t be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 CAPs in return. It’s also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.

Med Systems Marathon Overview:

(a) 1980 Summary
(b) Reality Ends (1980)
(c) Rat’s Revenge / Deathmaze 5000 (1980)
(d) Labyrinth (1980)
(e) Asylum (1981)
(f) Microworld (1981)

Jyym & Robyn Pearson Mini-Marathon Overview:
(a) Curse of Crowley Manor (1981)
(b) Escape from Traam (1981)
(c) Earthquake – San Francisco (1981)

Original URL: https://advgamer.blogspot.com/2019/11/missed-classic-77-institute-1981.html