If you liked Zork you’ll find this game familiar, but it will present many new challenges in a richer game environment.
|Platform(s)||Windows text mode executable|
How It Begins
The description of the first room gives a clue to your circumstances: "You appear to be lying in an exceedingly small dark room and you feel as if you have been sleeping for ages. You are very drowsy, your body appears to be quite heavy and feels partially numbed. There don't appear to be any exits from this room". You have been automatically resuscitated and find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world where your mission is to explore your new environment and try to discover if there are any other survivors.
Following the lead of Adventure and Zork, Ferret is an interactive fiction(IF) computer game. The game was originally written in the early 1980s by a small group from the UK Systems Division of Data General Ltd (manufacturer of mini-computers). Data General produced its own operating system (AOS) hence the game was limited to that hardware and software platform. At the time, and probably still the case, this was the only IF produced in PL/1 under AOS and on Data General computers. After a 20 year hiatus the game has been made available running on the MS-DOS platform.
Based in a post-apocalypse world of the future, Ferret is not limited to the underworld. After the nuclear holocaust the world is a very different place with few inhabitants, yet the player has survived due to being ensconced in a cryogenic unit. The first challenge the player faces is to free himself from his life-support chamber. From the start there are many puzzles to be solved and challenges to overcome.
Zork is widely regarded as a classic in its genre (see Moby Games Review), spawned manifold variations and attracted millions of players (see Infocom Company History). Indeed, such was the popularity of the Zork-style game during this time, Infocom (founded by three of the original Zork programmers) collaborated with Douglas Adams to produce the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Infocom Adventure. Ferret was designed to build on this base and extend the experience by means of a familiar user interface, a real-world context, no specialist knowledge (e.g., mythology), the ability to use command scripts and the capability for future expansion. It achieved most of these aims but was hindered by a small user population (Data General was, at best, a small computer company) and by being developed at the time when the PC revolution was starting with all the associated possibilities of attractive graphics (e.g., Wolfenstein and Doom). Although the new generation of Video Game offered stunning visuals they continued with the old-fashioned notions of collecting treasures, hidden rooms and illogical puzzles. At the time Ferret was a significant entry in the catalogue of interactive fiction but lacked exposure due to its limited platform availability; this has now been addressed by a DOS version which allows many more people to experience a good game for its time.
With Adventure and Zork finished, what was the next challenge? For a small team of Data General Software Engineers the answer was: write your own game. Thus Ferret was born in the early 1980s (the name Ferret is believed to derive from office slang but has an appropriate language definition: ferret v.i. rummage, search, (around, for, about); search out (secrets). In those days there were considerable limitations imposed by the hardware and software platforms available, notably the restriction to 16-bit programming, which severely constrained the initial size of the world in which Ferret is placed. The architecture used for the game had to sit within a small memory space yet provide a decent representation of a world without the use of the commonly-used (at the time) interpreters.
Ferret is written in PL1, a language produced by IBM. It does not use an interpreter like Zork. Using PL1 allows the game to be run as native code under MS-DOS providing for fast response times. PL1 is a very powerful, much underrated, computer language.
A small but determined bunch of players across the world rose to the challenge of the first incarnation of Ferret and made considerable progress through the game. Over time the development team went their own separate ways, with Data General itself being sold to EMC Corporation in the late 1990s. However, with the growing presence of Microsoft Windows and, therefore, MS-DOS it seemed a natural progression to redevelop the game for the PC platform and, indeed, the original architecture restrictions made the game ideal for the PC platform. The game is now available to run under MS-DOS on the Windows platform.
The underlying philosophy of Ferret is that it is a puzzle-solving challenge. Therefore, there aren’t any hidden cheats, no special incantations, no secret codes, no dependence on information not generally available and does not require any knowledge of mythology. The information needed to solve each puzzle is generally available or is present somewhere in the game. This does not mean that the game is easy, it provides a challenge to novice and expert alike. There is even a Hint facility although it doesn’t always give clues.
The architecture of Ferret incorporates phases of rooms (approximately 100 rooms per phase) which means the game can continue to be developed and expanded. The current version (8.10) at time of writing has 8 phases although it is rumoured that there are more in development. A consequence of the 16-bit origins of the game, this facility allows the game to grow and provide more challenges over time.
As a successor to Zork, the bar for the command interpreter (parser) was set quite high. Ferret does a competent job of supporting a reasonably rich vocabulary of commands, from the straightforward "look", to the more complex "fire the laser cannon at the west wall".
One of the real strengths of this game is the ability to build command files. The expected Save games are present but they become much more powerful when added to Command files. These files are simple text files consisting of the commands you would normally type. For example a command file may contain:
- Open Cupboard
- Take Leaflet
- Take Pin
- Take Tin
- Open Tin
- Eat Cake
Ferret can be instructed to read the Command file as if it had been typed, thereby saving tremendous effort in trying different solutions to puzzles.
There are commands for Help and News which introduce some of the features of the game and catalogue the development of some of the more useful instructions. Navigation is provided by straightforward compass-based commands: n, s, e, w, ne, nw, se, sw, up and down. Beyond movement around the game most instructions are fairly intuitive (e.g, "push red button", "open box", etc). Commonly used commands (e.g., "look", "inventory") can be shortened to their first letter. The parser only recognizes the first five characters of each word (probably a result of the original 16-bit design) so don’t read too much into the words it understands (so "table" and "tablet" are the same, but the game will recognize the appropriate object by context). Further guidance, hints and tips can often be found at the Ferret User Group on Facebook.
- Ferret (Current version 10.00 (2022), originally released in 1982 for Data General AOS. Now ported to run as a Windows text mode executable).
- Download - where to obtain a free copy of the Ferret game.
- Data General's former Web site (circa 1996).
- What is PL/I - review of PL/I.
- Ferret - at IFDB
- Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages. An approach to Interactive Fiction MIT Press. 2003. ISBN 978-0-262-13436-1.