Quo Vadis — A Mystery in 6 Parts (2)
Part 2 — RUN
This is part 2 of a 6 part series about a mystery, a puzzle, a game, and a lost treasure. Previous Posts can be found here: part 1
Video games have changed tremendously over the past 34 years, but many of the features we take for granted in modern games were tricks, user interface improvements, graphical hacks and other bits of cleverness that were all hard-fought achievements considering the limitations of the platforms on which they were developed. Today the video game industry brings in more money than movie studios. The number of gaming consoles out there means that any game can become a cultural touchstone for millions of people. Games have spawned movies, cartoons, sequels and fan fiction that rival any of the creative metaverses in our culture today. But the world of Quo Vadis begins in the very early days of home computer gaming.
In 1984 I was 15 years old. Purple Rain, Owner of a Lonely Heart, Karma Chameleon, The Reflex — this was the soundtrack of my life. The first Macintosh computers had just shown up in the market, and the home computer market was dominated by the Apple II and the Commodore 64, though many other long forgotten machines were out there teaching a generation of nerds how they could change the world. Computer games of the time still included many text-adventures from Infocom, arcade classics like Impossible Mission, Karate Champ, RPG games like Ultima III, and then there were these crazy European games that really stretched the limits of what these machines could do. Games like Elite, a vector-based space adventure, showed that some astonishing scale could be unleashed through a home computer.
Big games needed a way to pause and a way to save your progress. With a floppy disk it could take a while to reload a game, and unlike your modern computers, the idea of having your machine go to sleep and wake up to continue was not even on the drawing boards. Still, the scope of most video games was a few action-packed screens. The 1983 arcade game Jumpman by Randy Glover had seemed epic with its 30 levels of game play.
So when I first loaded Quo Vadis, I was shocked at how difficult the game was. Your avatar appears to be a knight in classic chain-mail and as he proceeds through a vast dungeon he encounters a variety of bats and other nasty critters — which he can only fight by aiming a continuous stream of “missiles” that emit from him in whichever direction you aim. All the while, the music plays over and over — watch for yourself.
(Note, in this video an “infinite energy” cheat is enabled. Those things hitting the character would normally kill it and send one back to the start. Also notice that even with this cheat enabled it takes this player more than half an hour to navigate the more than two miles of tunnels and corridors.)
Lethality is a challenge. When you die in Quo Vadis you just die. You don’t get another life, you don’t get to continue progress — you are dead and get to start all over. In a game like Frogger, where you’re a frog crossing a single screen of obstacles, getting killed is frustrating. Imagine now having to cross 10 screens — but with only one life. Sound challenging? Ok — imagine having to cross over 1000 screens of obstacles. WITH ONE LIFE.
Welcome to Quo Vadis, a game so frustrating that it took the lure of vast real-world treasure to keep people playing.
Of course there’s a type of person who revels in pointless repetition. Consider the weird success of Flappy Bird, the iPhone game that was basically unplayable yet inspired millions to download and hop on the fail-train.
Et tu, Quo Vadis? Yes — pretty much. I just played and played and kept getting betrayed by a variety of flying bastards or jump errors. I love mind-benders, but when they require dexterity to get to the clues I probably should have teamed up with someone to assist. So it was that after finding perhaps two of the clues in the game, I finally relegated myself to the fact that I was not skilled enough at video games to be a serious competitor at this mystery contest.
I gave up.
Except that stuff like this nags me and I just can’t let it go. Intermittently I would think back on this contest and wonder whatever happened to the prize. Who solved the mystery? Was there really a fabulous sceptre? Did anyone manage to finish the game and solve the clues?
In 2012 I almost started looking seriously into researching the history of the game and the contest, but it wasn’t time yet. I don’t know why — I still needed time. Then, in 2014, I decided that enough is enough and it was time to apply my research skills to the mystery of Quo Vadis.
I have been doing research into mysteries for years, but usually these were of a more Fortean, paranormal nature. But this was a pure historical question — and the key parties might still be alive if I could track them down and interview them. For several years, I’d been honing my research skills for my podcast MonsterTalk, a skeptical look at monsters which uses paranormal and cryptid topics as a springboard to talk about science topics. It was time to turn those skills onto something more mundane, yet equally intriguing. What was the truth behind the puzzle contest used to promote Quo Vadis?
So I decided to turn my skills towards finding the people most likely to have the solution to the mystery buried in Quo Vadis, starting with the game developer — Steven Chapman. Only I didn’t know it at the time, he would be a difficult man to find.