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Revisiting Deceiving Guidance

April 9, 2015, midnight

Having recently started playing some old ZZT games again, and also having watched Over The Garden Wall, I found myself thinking back with good memories on the early 2001 game Deceiving Guidance.

The game was created by Hercules and Hydra, two of the most respected ZZTers of the time, and the leaders of Interactive Fantasies, the most popular ZZT company* around. (* A group of a dozen or so people who put the company name on their releases and would collaborate with each other)

This isn't so much a Let's Play. I've already played the game to its end last night. I just happened to be taking screenshots intending to post what I found interesting about it on Twitter, but there were far too many screenshots and too much text as well.

Credits for ZZT games are notoriously repetitive.

A brief introduction sets up the setting and characters. You play as Rash'Tan Ythraqi, a wood elf who has always had a fascination with dark elves. You live in the village of Ob'Awscwadi where you study the drow and life is peaceful. The graphics are nice for a ZZT game, but also a bit muddy. Things like the village wall don't really have much contrast against the path and don't really pop out as a wall at first glance.

While eating lunch with a friend at the tavern, another friend named Fhallah barges in sharing the news that he discovered the corpse of a dark elf not too far from the village along with a mysterious amulet. The upside-down exclamation point as a bottle is a very commonly used character for these places.

You take the amulet to study its runes which mention an entrance to the Underdark at a nearby lake and set out to investigate.

On your way to the corpse and then lake you'll get introduced to combat, and this is where the game falls apart. Enemies flicker between two similar characters, one meaning "I'm attacking" and the other being "I'm vulnerable", but you don't know immediately which is which. The enemies move between these two states very rapidly and your only attack is melee ranged so you will take a lot of damage very easily. There are healing potions scattered around but these are few and far between.

The game describes your score as your experience so I thought there may be some levelling mechanic where you'd gain health or something from killing enough enemies, but it's just score. In the woods you're better off just running away from enemies if you can.

The above screenshot is of an abandoned sacrificial altar. Rash explains how his people once used live sacrifices to the gods, but the practice has thankfully been put to an end and the altar has been unused for hundreds of years.

Speaking of healing potions, can you find one here? By this point I had already begun to cheat for health. Combat is just really bad.

I like the detail here with the shadow underneath the bridge.

Eventually you reach the lake, and travel around it searching for the entrance to the Underdark. There's a secret entrance on this board, and if you know the limited visual vocabulary of ZZT you can narrow it down rather quickly. The light gray or dark green tiles in the upper mountainous area must actually be a passage element. Touching the walls around there reveals that there's a hidden cave behind some vines which you can cut away with a sickle acquired earlier.

You are then taken to this puzzle. It's basically a sliding puzzle, but you also need to figure out what the solution is supposed to even be by making sentences out of the tiles.

Like most complex creations in ZZT, it is very fragile and warns you as such to keep a slow pace when solving the puzzle. I already forget the solution.

You enter the Underdark and ZZT helpfully tells you that it is dark. The game itself does so as well, but is a bit more atmospheric about it. After descending some stairs the first file of the game ends and gives you the password to begin file 2.

Most of the game is played in darkness, and for awhile I tried to put up with it. But the combat goes from bad to worse in the caves. Now there's no room to avoid foes, several of the enemies don't even change characters between attacking/vulnerable phases, and you have limited time to even react to enemies as you won't see them until they're almost next to you. You'll want to find your way into this barred room ASAP, there's an elf who tried to escape the dark elves but could not find an exit in the caves and was forced to live in this makeshift room until he perished. He has a scroll of magic bolt which enables you to finally attack enemies from a distance.

The way it works is that you ammo continuously rises and falls from 0-4 and only one bullet may be on screen at a time, this means there's a chance that when you shoot nothing will happen as you'll have no ammo on that particular cycle. It's still such an improvement that you'll always wind up using it.

Of course, if your magic fails, enemies will probably rush in and kill you very quickly.

As you explore the caverns beneath the lake you'll find plenty of decorative objects such as these mysterious bones. The game does a very good job of creating atmosphere, something rarely seen in ZZT games.

Some more examples of this.

This one in particular is a nice touch, as I believe it's the former prison of elf from the top level that escaped his containment.

Here you'll find the first of a few figurines of various dark elven deities.

By this point, the enemies you fight begin to get a bit silly.

Soon after you venture into a sacrificial chamber where you encounter a living dark elf about to sacrifice a human. You defeat him but it's too late for the sacrifice to make it out alive.

Another statue obtained.

M'lady.

Once you have all 3 statues you can place them together in a specific arrangement where you get a hand! I found the location the hand is supposed to be used and figured you were supposed to cut it off the dark elf from earlier. I suppose this is less gruesome.

The notorious feral wolverine of the Underdark.

There are various bloody tubes on this level which are the explained as wolverine transporation.

You eventually make it to the lair of the dark elves and find a journal explaining their plans which refer to your village as a breeding pit.

It's a bit of a shame that these boards are still all dark normally, as they look pretty neat when you can see the whole thing at once.

Eventually you make the connection of just who this mysterious figure is and the pieces morbidly fall into place.

Belael mysteriously disappeared from b'Awscwadi 341 years ago. Nobody knew here he went. The villagers made a statue o honor him and everything seemed to b perfectly normal again.

Then you found out about a mysterious figure in books. You studied Drow history for years and years, and then the day of the dead Drow in the forest came and you ended up in the Underdark, after finding the secret entrance...

Belael Trynii has been depicted down here and is wearing a dark cloak with mystical signs and mosaics. He looks to be one of them...

Why did they make a figurine of him, and a painting and who knows what more? Drow wouldn't do that out of fear or hate, now would they? He must be somebody of importance to them... This is just crazy.

But there's more to this... What about that leader commanding the Drow to make living sacrifices that Rafaelus was talking about before he passed away? And that book which contained pieces of text about Ob'Awscwadi serving as a breeding pit for sacrifices? ...the mere thought of it is horrible, ...gruesome and fear-inducing.

Pieces seem to be falling into their places... But I'm not quite sure yet. My village is doomed, I am in the middle of a dark and cursed place looking for someone that may or might be the founder of my own peaceful village and there's no way this can be undone. I am living a nightmare.

You open your eyes and pinch your skin. Indeed, this is reality...

And then you fight hairy spiders.

And get depressed.

Soon after you find a dark elf chained to the wall.


°±²Û You:
"...*breathe*... I - I live in the village that Belael Trynii founded... It's such a damn long story."

°±²Û Dark Elf:
"Don't tell it now. Belael uses your people for sacrifices, and sometimes they use us for it, too. I'm under the protection of another Drow noble family. I ended up here, got caught by surprise and they brought me here. That was a week ago, I think. When they find no use for their slaves, they just let them rot in here, or sacrifice them alive."

°±²Û You:
"My, my...- by the spirits of the woods, I am stunned... Belael Trynii IS the mysterious one, the one I am looking for... I spent years and years in search of the founder of my own village without knowing it..."

°±²Û Dark Elf:
"Fool! Remember that I am not your friend. Let me give you one advice. Get the hell outta here. They're probably watching us, as we speak, following your every step, your every word, your every move."

°±²Û You:
"Yes, yes... thanks, whatever your name is."

This is completely crazy. Ob'Awscwadi is doomed, and maybe so are you. But you cannot stop now. Your shoulder-deep into it, Rash'Tan. The only way anything can be done is to find Belael Trynii...

Once you have all the knowledge of your village's founder, and what fate is about to befall on the village, one room will trigger the game's finale.


°±²Û Voice:
"Well there, Rash'Tan. So you found it all out, eh?"

°±²Û You:
"...w-who..who is this?"

°±²Û Voice:
"Now don't act like you don't know, Rash'Tan. I know you found out all about it."

°±²Û You:
"...Belael? Belael Trynii, is that you?"

°±²Û Voice:
"If you say so, that must be me. After all, you found out all about it."

°±²Û You:
"O-..okay... I-"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"You spent a part of your life trying to find out who this mysterious person was. You spent years and years looking for the founder of your own puny village. How touching, Rash'Tan."

°±²Û You:
"..and so I did! Why?! Tell me why you had to do this!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"Now don't overreact, my dear Rash'Tan. I've guided you all the way down here. Wouldn't you thank me?"

°±²Û You:
"...whu? Y-you guided me to this dreaded place?!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"You got it, Rash'Tan, you got it right... You know too much, waaay too much. We don't want people like you, brown-nosers."

°±²Û You:
"But how?"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"It doesn't matter, Rash'Tan. Now that you're here, you have left your village behind. Your people (or should I say my people?) are helpless, and above all, clueless. They don't know. And you do know. And that's why you're here."

°±²Û You:
"Nooo! You bastard! Why sacrifice their innocent souls?!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"Easy now, Rash'Tan. Don't get yourself into trouble that you cannot get out of. It's all been set up."

°±²Û You:
"Nooo! ...NOOOOO! You cannot do this, you pig! Just take me, and leave them alone!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"You don't get it, do you? I need their souls to maintain our bonds with the almighty Loth and the other Gods."

°±²Û You:
"But surely there should be souls down here, in the Underdark!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"Oh yes, for sure, Rash'Tan. We do sacrifice traitors, slaves and intruders, but it's not enough for me. The Gods want more, and I have a bloodlust to quench. Sacrificing what was once a place of my own, the place where I grew up, is an eternal pleasure and the Gods will love me because of it."

You totally loose self-control and start looking around quickly, in a violent and aggressive way.

°±²Û You:
"Where are you?! Bastard! I'll get you for this!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"I thought higher of you, Rash'Tan, but obviously even I make mistakes. I am not here. What you see is merely a projection of my shadow. I am untouchable. But seriously, Rash'Tan, why don't you join forces with me and my family?"

°±²Û You:
"No, never! NEVER! I'd rather die here
than be on your side!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"As you wish, Rash'Tan, though I could use somebody with mental powers and intellect, like you. But you have proven yourself to be a fool. And so be it."

°±²Û You:
"What is it that you want from me? If you're going to take me down, do it now. Bring it on!"

°±²Û Belael Trynii:
"Oh, I won't kill you, Rash'Tan. It'd be a shame to see somebody like you pass away down here. I have other business to take care of. I will pay Ob'Awscwadi a visit and I won't be alone. The Hour of Darkness will be soon. And you cannot stop us, Rash'Tan. We will take the souls of your kindred. I bid you a farewell."

°±²Û You:
"...nooo. n-"

You lift an eye-lid... your head feels heavy and dizzy.

What happened? You crawl up and notice you feel weakened. You must have been put to sleep...

You try to focus and get your thoughts straight and clear again. Your torch has extinguished, too. How long have you been sleeping, lying on this cold floor?

The Hour of Darkness... the word booms through brains... Ob'Awscwadi's end is near. Tears run all across your face...

You need to get out of here, some way. Maybe you can still reach your village before the Drow do, although you doubt it. There must be several exits to the upper world, but it may be a wise idea to go all the way upstairs and try to remove the debris that is blocking the exit above.

You get up, and it doesn't go without pain. Your entire body is feeling sore and tired and you totter forward...

You walked and crawled all the way to upper world again, where you found the entrance to be no longer sealed. Maybe the Drow used it to go to the upper world again, too...

You are getting weaker and weaker and all you can do now is crawl, and try to reach Ob'Awscwadi.

While crawling on the road to Ob'Awscwadi in the Zhymae Woods, you see a shadow on the road in front of you... You look up and see a cloaked Wood Elf with a familiar face...

Exhausted, you lift your hand, begging for help from the cloaked Wood Elf...

The Wood Elf stares at you, in a strange way. You now notice he has a sword in his right hand and strange marks on his cloak.

The cloaked one smiles and raises his sword. Immediately, you recognize the face of the Wood Elf... Fhallah...

Fhallah's sword rises higher and higher. Many a thought, and many a memory rush through your head. It must be the night... the Hour of Darkness has arrived...

With your last breath, you cry to the spirits of the woodlands, and you can still see Fhallah thrusting his sword...



(Listen to the music)

So! Deceiving Guidance, does it hold up today? As far as the gameplay goes, no. The combat really brings down everything else. Playing this game legit is an exercise in frustration. There are very few opportunities to refill your health, your magic can fail on you, and the enemies are just a gamble as to whether or not you'll take damage meleeing them. Torches also seem fairly limited and the game is completely unplayable should you run out. Commodore makes these same complaints in a review from 2002, so perhaps it didn't hold up then either. I imagine the key repeat issues of ZZT in Dosbox make things worse today.

However, while the combat is awful, the rest of the game is a great experience. There really is a sense of danger as you go deeper into the caverns. All the little details help give weight to the story that Rash is indeed rash, and dove into something he should've kept away from. The writing fuels your imagination in ways that the graphics will never be able to, and is peppered throughout the game enough that it really does stand out comapred to what I remember of other dungeon crawlers done in ZZT. I think today a game with no combat and just exploring the caverns and uncovering the mysteries is something that would go over a lot better now than it would then. I'd suggest checking it out, but strongly reccommend that you cheat your way through to survive the fights.

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