Alternate Reality: The City

Name: Alternate Reality: The City
Genre: Roleplaying
Designer: Phillip Price
Developer: Datasoft
Publisher: Freeware
Copyright: Datasoft
Year: 1991

Rating: 10.0

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Review - Wikipedia

Alternate Reality (AR) is an unfinished computer role-playing game (CRPG) series that has achieved cult status among many fans of CRPGs. It was created by Philip Price, who formed a development company called Paradise Programming. Published by Datasoft AR: The City and AR: The Dungeon were released in 1985 [1]. Price was unable to write the second edition, so The Dungeon was actually written by Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal. Gary Gilbertson created the music for both games.

The basic concept for the game is intriguing: aliens capture the player from Earth, and suddenly the player is in front of a gate with a slot-machine like row of rotating numbers of statistics. Stepping through the gate freezes the numbers and turns the player into a new person, putting them into an "alternate reality", hence the name.

The end of the series was supposed to conclude with the player discovering everyone's true bodies on the ship cocooned and effectively frozen, and that the ship is really a "pleasure world" of some kind for the aliens, leading to the player's ultimate decision of what to do to the ship, to the aliens, or even whether to return to Earth. However, because Datasoft effectively swindled the developers out of their money, the series was never completed.

During the late 90's, Price intended to produce an MMORPG version of the game called Alternate Reality Online or ARO, and teamed with Monolith, but was released from the project and the game was never completed. Monolith went on to create the online Matrix game.

Among other things, AR contained some revolutionary technology and ideas for its time. It worked from a 3D first-person perspective, with a small window taking up about 1/9th of the screen at the center. The player controlled one character who had an absolute minimum of visual representation—the closest to a character image to be found was when one encountered a "doppleganger" monster. The 3D used was not like other contemporary 3D graphics either. Most other 3D first-person games used static graphics to represent the walls, meaning the player could only move one tile at a time. However, in this game the rate of travel depended on the character's speed, and moved incrementally along the tile. Distant walls would slowly come in to focus rather than suddenly appear.

Alternate Reality had a raycasting engine equalling that of Wolfenstein 3D, which came seven years later, but was recognized for popularizing the system! However, the design implemented right-angle movement only, thus hiding the revolutionary technology.

Another upshot of the fact that the graphics were rendered rather than simple images is that while the sun was setting, the entire pallete of colors changed convincingly. Distant waterfalls moved, and the rain was realistically rendered.

The game also featured a novel anti-copying technique. The program disks could be copied though the standard methods and the copy would appear to work. However not long after the player began the game, his character would become weaker and weaker and then die from an apparent disease.

At the top of the screen were character statistics, such as game-world time, Strength, Health, etc. This brings up some of the unique aspects of the game: the character is not omniscient with respect to himself, but has some attributes that stay hidden except in special cases—for example, the player never knew the character's alignment (good/evil/neutral), and poison, drunkenness and disease tricked the perceived stats, or temporarily or permanently changed them! In fact, the player never chose an alignment, but came to learn it through how other characters treated them in the game.

Among these hidden stats were things to keep track of how hungry, tired, thirsty, hot or cold, or encumbered the character was. Fifteen years before The Sims, this game managed the character's well-being by tracking more than just their hit points. In fact, this game shared many game play aspects with The Sims.

The Sims uses several constantly diminishing stats: hunger, happiness, etc. and balances the player's ability to fulfill them with the length of time it takes to accomplish tasks. Alternate Reality, similarly, required the player to balance all of these things. While food and water could be carried, supplies were limited and the player would have to find or purchase new packets. The character could only sleep in an Inn, so if the player was off adventuring and the character started to get hungry and tired, they'd have to return to a safe area before the player could fufill these needs.

Another feature was the non-linear game play, and extremely large game world that could be explored at will, rather than according to how the game expected.

Due to budget constraints, the first game was released, essentially, without a plot. Only in the second installment were any elements of a traditional RPG plot added in, but the player could (and probably did) spend days playing before realizing the importance of any of their actions. This was nearly two decades before Grand Theft Auto 3 would be called revolutionary for offering the same feature.

The bottom of the screen alternated depending on user choice and situation between consumables like food, water, money, and torches, equipment, combat options, spells, and other things. The sides held the compass at left (when the player had one) and directional arrows at right.

The gameplay of both games is reminiscent of other CRPGs but more sophisticated than its peers—while the player wandered around gaining levels and equipment, there were things like a finite number of items in the world, and items stolen could be regained. Near overflows of memory from possessing too many items resulted in an encounter with The Devourer, a fearsome creature that sucked items from the player, and thus removed them from memory. Death was permissable and mostly uncheatable since the game cleverly marked the character as dead as soon as the user started and only let the character to become "alive" once they saved. (It was possible to "revive" a lost character, but it caused a loss in one of the character's stats.)

One final remarkable note about AR is its music. The game designer, as he did with the graphics, managed to trick the Atari into producing more sophisticated sounds than it was designed to do. AR used them to produce an FM orchestra with several tunes, complete with karaoke-type lyrics that the player could sing along to. Audio cues were also used for simple things like indicating a street was crowded, or the sound of the blacksmith's hammer striking a sword.

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