Missed Classic 86: Moonmist (1986) – Introduction

From The Adventure Gamer

Written by Joe Pranevich

As we close on Infocom’s final release of 1986, we turn the page on a new era. As best as I have been able to determine, Moonmist is the final game that was deep under development prior to the purchase by Activision, or at least the last game to not have their fingerprints. Released only a month after Leather Goddesses of Phobos, it took the coveted holiday gift slot which was generally (but not exclusively) the home of the yearly Zork games. 1987 would bring changes, not the least of which will be a rapidly sped-up development process to allow Infocom/Activision to bring eight games to market in twelve months. We’ll take a look in future posts as to how successful those games will be. The industry was changing and Infocom would work hard over the next three years to keep up with it while maintaining their unique games and identity.

Moonmist is also the final game released by the pairing of Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence, and the final game from either of them overall. Galley had been a long-time champion of Interactive Fiction at Infocom, but he was better at refining others’ concepts than launching his own. Ironically, this was also precisely Jim Lawrence’s oeuvre as well. Mr. Lawrence had made his career writing stories based on others’ characters from Hardy Boys to Tom Swift, Nancy Drew to the Bobbsey Twins. He was undoubtedly great at it– the handful of his books that I read prior to playing these games were not bad at all– but they were not his characters. So it is perhaps no surprise that in his first outing he created a clone of Tom Swift and here, in his second one, a clone of Nancy Drew. I do not mean that disparagingly, but I cannot help but to think in retrospect that they were not playing to each others’ strengths.

Mr. Galley produced one of Infocom’s greatest mystery games in The Witness, and this game (despite its “introductory” designation), was written and classified as a sequel to the turn-based mysteries that Infocom pioneered. I have nothing but excitement for a game that swaps the police procedural aspects of the Deadline series and replaces it with a plucky young investigator. I also absolutely love that this is the second game in a row where you can choose your gender; it’s a small thing, but a sign that Infocom was expanding their markets and their minds. Whether because of how great it is or something else, Moonmist was also selected as one of the few games to be updated with graphics and translated to Japanese. That bodes well for this game being a lost classic.

I love a good mystery!

Before we can play the game, we have the usual Infocom “feelies” to go through. While once these had been little more than flavor text, by this point each game seems to rely on extras for copy protection-based puzzles. This game provides us with a set of letters from our friend Tamara, a brochure about Tresyllian Castle, and a book on legendary ghosts of Cornwall. The letters set the scene, introduce the characters, and help to fill out the world. Unfortunately, they are in longhand and are extremely difficult to read. Were people thirty years ago more used to reading cursive? I found a copy that someone typed in online just to spare my eyeballs.

The letters start off innocently enough, if perhaps too conveniently: our friend Tamara (who we know from Kent State) took time off from school to work as a secretary for Lord Jack Tresyllian in Cornwall, England. (Cornwall is the pointy bit at the far west of England that looks like it should be part of Wales, but isn’t.) Her assignment was to catalog the papers and books of Lord Jack’s uncle, the previous Lord Tresyllian, who had recently passed away. Somehow, they fell in love and they are about to be married. Their engagement party is coming up and we are invited! The rest of the letter describes people in Lord Jack’s social circle as well as several recent suspicious deaths. Tamara hints at multiple layers of mystery and intrigue and I take a lot of notes.

The recently deceased:

  • Lord Lionel Tresyllian, an explorer and previous owner of Tresyllian Castle. He died after catching a fatal “jungle disease” on one of his expeditions, but his decline was slow and he spent several months in bed at his castle before passing. His medical bills drove the family to relative poverty and they have been forced to open the castle to tourists to satisfy all of the debts.
  • Deirdre Hallam, Jack’s ex-girlfriend. She drowned in a well in the castle, but her body was never found. Did she commit suicide because Jack dumped her? Was she murdered? Tresyllian Castle had for centuries been the home of a “White Lady” ghost; but recent sightings claim that the ghost now looks just Deidre! That can’t be coincidence.
  • Mr. Poldark, Deirdre’s grandfather. He died of a mysterious disease and sought out a special “doctor” in London that specialized in making drugs extracted from plants. He passed away after the treatment was unsuccessful. By complete coincidence, his doctor (Dr. Wendish) was also Lord Lionel’s best friend.

That’s two people that died of mysterious diseases, both of whom knew the same doctor. Is anyone else betting on poison? Deirdre’s murder seems unconnected to the other two, unless Jack is the link. He may have had motive to kill his uncle, but why Deirdre too?

Did her hair keep growing as a ghost?

Possible suspects:

  • Vivien Pentreath, a local painter and sculptor. Despite being fifty, she remains quite attractive. She was the mistress of Lionel Tresyllian, the previous Lord of the castle and Jack’s uncle.
  • Iris Vane, a debutante who may be pretending to be Tamara’s friend. She is from London and was previously in love with Jack.
  • Ian Fordyce, Jack’s best friend. He’s an officer in the Coldstream Guards and has a way with the ladies. He was in love with Deirdre, and this caused friction with Jack so they broke up. Bros before… er… something, right? The Coldstream Guards appear to be a ceremonial regiment of the British military. 
  • Montague Hyde, an antiques dealer from London. He has been snooping around to buy some of the family’s heirlooms, now that he knows that they need the money.

Tamara’s second letter is a cry for help. Someone is trying to kill her! One night, she woke up and saw the White Lady in her room. A few days later, someone planted a poisonous adder in her desk drawer. She is concerned that Deirdre’s ghost is trying to kill her for being engaged to Jack. She implores us to come to England and solve this mystery before it is too late.

I am looking forward to the hedge maze.

Tamara was kind enough to pack a brochure containing a map of the castle as well as descriptions of rooms open to the public. I have to give the authors credit for how much detail the brochure contains. It discusses local lore, connects the region to King Arthur, and provides hundreds of years of history of the castle itself. It’s nicely done, but I am not sure what (if any) connection that will have to the game itself. Will I be forced to play a round of Castle Trivia at the engagement party?

The final “feelie” is the “Legendary Ghosts of Cornwall”, a book from the “Festeron Library”. I’m annoyed by the misplaced reference to Festeron, but I’m likely the only person in the world that would care about such things. Both Wishbringer and Zork’s revised manuals were from the same library, one of many hints that the adventurer from Wishbringer would grow up to become the Zork adventurer. Dropping that reference in an unrelated and very “real world” game just feels odd and out of place. The book narrates six short ghost stories, all fun but rather grim as ghost stories usually are and bordering on not kid-safe. One woman haunts her rapist, for example. I am guessing that only the “White Lady” story will be pertinent to our game, but the others set the tone well. The “White Lady” is a woman who was forced to marry a much older man, Sir Thomas Tresyllian. Their relationship was cold: he was never home and they never had children. His nephew, Uther Tresyllian, started coming to visit and Sir Thomas became jealous enough that he bricked up his wife in the wall of the castle so that she would die screaming in the dark. Naturally, she would come to haunt him and his descendants.

Since this is a mystery, I want to start with predictions. Let’s see how many of them I get right:

  • Lord Lionel was poisoned, probably by Lord Jack who wanted to secure the estate.
  • Deirdre was nearly killed, but instead she now dresses up as the White Lady for a reason that isn’t clear. Is she attacking Tamara? Or is she trying to save her? (Surely, there are easier ways to warn Tamara that don’t involve dressing up as a ghost.) 
  • Jack’s relationship to Tamara is a sham, but I’m not sure why. Tamara is wise enough to notice that Iris only pretends to be a friend, but it is secretly Jack who is pulling all the strings.
  • Adultery, adultery, and more adultery. I expect that there will not be much diddling in a children’s game, but jealousy will play a major role in the motive for one or more of the criminals. 

Will I be correct with any of these? Let’s find out!

“A mystery story”

The Game

We begin outside Tresyllian Castle gate. Getting in is a tiny puzzle, but it doesn’t take long to find that the gate buzzer is located inside the red eye of a nearby dragon statue. A voice calls out from a hidden speaker asking us our name and title, being sure to use “Sir” or “Ms.” presumably so the game has a shot of determining your gender. I go with “Ms. Jane Doe”. We are then asked for our favorite color. I select “red”, but I should explain what is happening: According to the manual, there are four versions of this story. By selecting a different color (red, blue, green, or yellow) at the beginning of the game, we can take a different variant. I selected red only because it was the first color in the list; I do not know if that will make it the easiest or most difficult, or even if there are any paths that are easier or harder than others.

Tamara greets me as soon as I enter. She– rather pointedly– tells me that all of the people that she talked about in her letter are here for the dinner tonight. She hopes that I read her letter well. She reminds me of her engagement, the White Lady, and that someone is trying to kill her. I tell her that I know all of that and she hugs me before taking me inside to meet her husband-to-be. Lord Tresyllian seems impressed to meet such an… attractive… detective and swoops us up in his arms for a kiss. Tamara is standing right there! I guess he just has a thing for American girls.

Our next stop is the drawing room where Tamara introduces us to Montague Hyde and Vivien Pentheath, two more guests for the dinner. They visibly tense up when Tamara tells them that I am a detective, but they relay when Tamara clarifies that I am freelance rather than police. Vivien points out that she painted the portrait of the White Lady that hangs in this very room! Montague tells me that he is here to catalog the castle’s hidden treasures. We don’t get much small talk before Tamara whisks me to the next room and group of guests.

These are the Coldstream Guards. 

In the “New Great Hall”, Tamara and Jack introduce me to a young couple dancing, Iris Vane and Ian Fordyce. Ian also flirts with me immediately, but he only kisses my hand rather than the rest of me. Moments later, the “distinguished scientist” Dr. Wendish arrives. He knows of my work already, which is flattering, and asks if I am here for a case. When I respond in the affirmative, he gets immediately tight-lipped. Why is everyone so suspicious of authority? Or is it just that I’m a world-renowned college-age woman sleuth that has a penchant for not only unlocking whatever secrets they are trying to keep hidden, but then writing about it afterwards?

The tour over, Tamara leads me upstairs to my room where I can freshen up for dinner. We pass by a portrait gallery for a moment and I manage to notice that one of the portraits has peepholes cut into it. I think those are supposed to be more difficult to find. Bolitho, the butler, meets us in my room. He informs us that dinner will be at 8:00 PM when we hear the gong; it’s now 7:17 so we have a little time. I learn that the dinner tonight is a special request by the late Lord Lionel in his will. Everyone here except Tamara and I were invited as stipulated in that document. Before he leaves, Bolitho asks if I am the “famous American detective” and whether I am here to investigate the White Lady. I say “yes” and he gives me a clue: he saw the ghost just the other night. He had entered the New Great Hall from the west and spotted the ghost bending over on the other side of the room. She seemed to be searching for something in the drawing room carpet. She fled as soon as the butler appeared but he has no idea how she got in or where she went as the front door was locked from the inside. He hands me an aerosol device to use if I am ever threatened by the ghost. He also suggests that I adjust the wall and side mirrors to get a better view of myself.

The castle is open to tourists during the week. That is a nice touch.

There isn’t much time to explore, but at the butler’s suggestion I look at myself in the mirror. The wall mirror doesn’t adjust like he said it would, but I don’t need it to see that I am filthy from my trip. I also remember from Tamara’s letter that these high-brow types won’t talk to you unless you dress properly for dinner, so I poke around. My luggage is on the bed and has clothes for dinner, exercise, and sleeping, plus the tourist brochure. I change into my dinner outfit and double-check the mirror, but I am still dirty. What to do? I head into the attached bathroom and freshen up in there. Finally the mirror says that I look “smashing”, so I am ready to go to dinner!

I pick my way downstairs using the map in the brochure. I discover one annoyance immediately: the phrase, “It looks even lovelier than it sounds in the tourist brochure.” Apparently that is code for “read the manual for this room description”. That sounds like a way to save some room on descriptions, but it also makes the game feel cheap. We have had plenty of games with detailed room descriptions that didn’t need to hide them in the manual.

Arriving in the dining room a minute or two early, I catch Bolitho leaving a note for Lord Jack. I grab it and read it to learn that the servants are all leaving momentarily. They have followed the instructions in Lord Lionel’s will and will leave the guests for the night activities. I also learn that Gladys, the upstairs maid, quit today and left Jack her resignation note on the writing desk in the sitting room. I replace the note where I found it and watch as the guests arrive one-by-one. Exploring the room, I notice a playing card has been stashed under the punchbowl. The game calls it the “first clue” so it must be important. It is a King of Spades, holding a scepter. I do not understand the importance yet, but I am positive it will come in handy later.

Most decks have the king with a sword rather than a scepter. 

When the gong sounds, there are no servants and the food has been laid out along the sideboard. Iris suggests that they all “serve themselves buffet style” which seems to be a funny joke to the bluebloods. I sit down to eat and Jack announces his engagement to Tamara. Not everyone seems happy about it, but they put on brave faces.

Suddenly, the bust of Lord Lionel in the room begins to speak, shocking the party guests. I quickly discover a tape recorder attached to a timer hidden inside the bust, but it continues to speak. It was set to start playing exactly a half hour after the meal began.

Lionel’s voice continues, “You are all here, I trust, to honor the wish expressed in my will — that the seven of you should dine together at Tresyllian Castle on the evening of my birthday. […] As you know, I enjoyed adventuring to remote corners of the world. And doubtless you’ve all heard of the loss of that valuable artifact, which I brought back from one of my expeditions, have you not?”

The guests nod or mumble vaguely. They all glance towards Jack, as if looking for an official response.

Lionel’s voice goes on, “Jack, I am sure, is only too eager for me to shuffle off this mortal coil so he can inherit the family title and estate. Thus he should be particularly interested in what I have to say…” Once again, Lionel’s voice chuckles slyly, then continues. 

“The truth is that the artifact is not lost, but hidden. Although I am not yet ready to reveal what it is, I suggest you look under the punchbowl.”

Aha! I already have the first clue! I try to show it to Jack, but he doesn’t seem that interested at this moment.

“This first clue is merely to sharpen your wits,” Lionel’s voice goes on. “Deirdre, my dear: your one goal in life is to become Jack’s wife, heaven knows why! Not being cupid, there is little I can do to help. Knowing the others, I suspect each one has private reasons for wanting my hidden treasure. So, for your amusement, I have given a second clue to my dear friend, which may start you down the path to finding it.”

With another sardonic chuckle, Lionel’s voice adds, “Perhaps, Vivien, you would care to SHARE your clue with the others — eh, what?”

Obviously Lord Lionel was not expecting Deirdre’s suicide/murder; will that impact the little game that he put together for us? I ask Vivien for the clue and she produces it, a small piece of verse:

Forbidden fruit tempted the very first lass,
‘Twas once in a garden, but now in a glass.

There is no further information after the “eh, what” and I wonder whether Lord Lionel was interrupted when he made the tape. Was there more that he intended to say? The dinner ends and everyone retires to the sitting room. Will it be a mad scramble around the house to discover the treasure? I’m the only person that has seen the first clue, so I should have an advantage. Should I be playing this family scavenger hunt at all when there is a mystery afoot? Who is trying to kill Tamara? Who is the White Lady?

I’m also struck by just how similar to The Colonel’s Bequest (1989) this all is. That game also had a plucky female detective, a haunted mansion, a portrait with a peephole, and a group of people brought together because of a will. Even the dinner scene seems similar! If Lionel is revealed to be alive and hiding in the attic, I’ll only be half-surprised.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I’ll start the scavenger hunt for real.

Time played: 45 min
Inventory: first clue, second clue, dinner outfit (being worn), aerosol device, tweed outfit

[Well, so far you’d met Lord Jack and all the guests, washed up from your trip, worn the proper outfit to dinner… but you haven’t found the missing treasure, nor enough evidence, nor identified the ghost!]

Now it is time to guess the score! Looking at Stu Galley’s scores to date, we have The Witness with 50 points and Seastalker with 35, giving us an average of 43 points. Across all Infocom games, the overall average is 40 points. Will this game rise to those heights? I look forward to finding out.

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 introductory 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 50 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.

Original URL: https://advgamer.blogspot.com/2020/06/missed-classic-86-moonmist-1986.html