/  '            /  '
           /   '|          /   '|
        */----'---------*/    ' |
       '|    '  |      '|    '  |
      ' |   '   |     ' |   '   |
     '  |  '   /*----'--|--'---/*
    '   | '  /  '   '   | '  /  '
   '    |' /   '   '    |' /   '
  '    /*/----'---'----/*/    '
 '   /  '    '   '   /  '    '
'  /   '|   '   '  /   '|   '
*/----'----'----*/    ' |  '
|    '  | '     |    '  | '
|   '   |'      |   '   |'
|  '   /*-------|--'---/*
| '  /          | '  /
|' /            |' /
In 1982 onetime local (to me) David Lo designed "Hall of the Mountain King", a first game whose McGuffinesque goal was to "find the Crystal of Light". (Yawn.) Following up the next year on its success, in a two-month summer frenzy he composed a trilogy for the TRS-801, a suite of three games the first and third of which ("Project Triad" and "Codename Intrepid") have been lost to the vagaries of time and memory. I must assume that they weren't in any significant way ahead of the pack ("Defuse the bomb", "deliver the package" ... the first glimmerings of design clichés plaguing the game industry even to this day) as there is no evidence online of their ever having existed and, more subjectively, because I, the Grand Arbiter of Significance, never heard of them. The second game of the series, uneasily sandwiched in presumed mediocrity, I have heard of - and more to the point have been unable to forget ever since. To illustrate what made (and continues to make) it stand out let us suppose that its prequel and sequel never featured such nonconventional and, at times, post-modern (post-Newtonian certainly!) situations and locations:
    You are falling inwards...
    You are in a set of all sets that's not a member of itself.
    You see around you: Nothing special.
    Exits: east.
One could have suspected on downloading and executing this little text game (or maybe abstract text adventure as described by its author, its 1983 release pre-dating Infocom's '84 coining of the the term interactive fiction... but in time for their '82 neologism Interlogic 8) that it would be nothing special. And it's quite true that like most of its Scott Adams Adventureland generation, it neither tells a terribly engaging story nor contains particularly gripping gameplay, instead settling for an assorted array of logic puzzles the likes of which delight third-year CompSci majors and make the rest of us furrow our brows in consternation. But unlike its contemporaries, it lays its cards on the table and tells it to you plain:
    The scenario for the adventure is meant to be vague.2
    Once the adventure has been completed, the scenario will hopefully become clear.
Somehow this piebald honesty, a refusal to dissemble, ties it all together and permits it to work its whimsical way on you as you wander about changing location by pushing and popping your STACK (Space Time Activated Continuum Key - sez the documents, "You will find this object very useful."), playing an adventure game inside the adventure game, and extruding (actually, to coin a verb, you _y_ them) objects (ordinary and, uh, topologically interesting) into higher dimensions. Like Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It, interacting with this universe - seemingly the apotheosis of the realistic physics engine, "suspension of disbelief" verisimilitude many games aim for3 - would only be hampered by any conventional sense of a story or plot. They do us a favour by keeping it mercifully brief:
You have reached the final part of your mission.  You have gained access
to the complex, and all but the last procedure has been performed.   Now
comes a time of waiting, in which you must search for the hidden 12-word
message that will aid you at the final step.    But what choice will you
make when that time comes?
Although the game can easily be completed in ten minutes, it's no PutPBaD. This game is hard - a meaningless claim as text games tend to be according to tradition, if not by definition. (Perhaps more-useful, then, the claim in the documentation that This adventure is abstract and a bit on the technical side.) But after you've played enough text adventures you begin to be able to anticipate its workings. A KEY? HM GOSH I WONDER HOW I'M GOING TO HAVE TO END UP USING THIS OBJECT? While BtT's atypical environment doesn't, strictly speaking, make the game any harder it certainly removes you from most familiar gaming points of reference, making it come across as more difficult than it actually is (which, given There is no carry limit, there are no death traps, and The map of the adventure can be drawn on a grid - all it takes is a little experimenting to put all the subsets of locations together "logically" is pretty casual by the standards of its contemporary games 8). As with reading Rudy Rucker's White Light (hm, from 3 years earlier. What were they putting in the water then?), the game made me feel at times like perhaps it was made to be played by people smarter than I am. TISH POSH PSHAW HOGWASH. While I frequently would have liked (both with the game and the book) to be able to reach over and consult a concise desktop edition of ariels, that was due to no failing in my intelligence - only in my education. The docs continue, corroborating me with advice that applies to practically any pursuit except sausages: Detailed knowledge of the technical background is not necessary, although it will make the adventure more enjoyable. If you, as did I, find that your education has been insufficiently broad to appreciate how to play this game, the author has been kind enough to include a recommended reading list featuring The VNR Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics, The World of M.C. Escher and even our beloved Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid!

David urges "Please share unmodified copies of this adventure with everyone you meet" and, by gum, noding it here is about as close to that target as I can reasonably shoot. Go on. Try it out. And don't worry about lawyers - according to the author, "This adventure is FreeShareAnythingWare." The game was first released in October of 1988 as a Usenet binary, but put your uudecoder away - this nostalgia thing only goes so far.

    http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/pc/tess.zip should suffice for most of us;
    http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/atari-ST/tess.arc I include for the sake of glorious completistism - as I seriously doubt any of you reading here will be dashing off to run this copy on your Atari ST;
    and http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/solutions/tess.sol is of course the semi-useful walkthrough, for those of us lacking sufficient time or energy to take on the Hofstader.
    Critical Update! http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/tess.z5 is The File for the Rest Of You -- the inimitable Andrew Plotkin has extended the (over 20-year to date!) life of this little game by porting it to machine-independent Z-code so it can live on regardless of whatever platform you might choose to play it on. Athlor has followed up this trick with a port to the Cybiko at http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/cybiko/BTT.zip

      You are beyond the edge of forever.
        (sleeping) Enter command: inventory
          You are carrying: a theorem. an axiom. a postulate. a hypothesis.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine postulate.
          It's a basic fact.
        (sleeping) Enter command: think
          You thought of an idea
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine idea
          The idea is very vague and not fully developed.
        (sleeping) Enter command: develop idea
          The idea developed into a contradiction.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine contra
          It is true and false, but neither is correct, and both are right.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine supposition
          It's an almost proven fact. It is not proven.
        (sleeping) Enter command: Prove supp
        With what? postulate
          Somehow a contradiction keeps coming into the proof.
        (sleeping) Enter command: drop contra
        (sleeping) Enter command: prove supp
        With what? postulate
          The postulate is now a lemma.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine lemma
          It's a rather specialised fact.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine hypothesis
          It's a complicated statement. It is not proven.
        (sleeping) Enter command: prove hypo
        With what? lemma
          The hypothesis is now a theorem.
          Suddenly, a hyper-spatial cliff passes by and the lemma leaps to its demise.
        (sleeping) Enter command: examine theorem

1 Not that I'm really a connoisseur (Madness and the Minotaur aside) of TRS-80 games - 5 years later version 2.0 of the game was ported (from 350 BASIC lines to 2500!) to the MS-DOS and Sun platforms as an exercise in learning C.

2 "Vague is the word for it!" began Virus2Wyrm@aol.com's review in SPAG #6, "At first glance the world is 4 rooms large, but don't worry, soon you'll be popping your stack and collapsing universes, looking for those key words. Also, you'll have a dream, read an IF book (!) and have fun trying to get the improbability."

3 For instance, in The PK Girl - from the 2002 Interactive Fiction competition - you could take the empty ice tray out of the freezer, fill it with water in the sink, put it back in the freezer, go to sleep and in the morning it would be filled with ice cubes. IMPRESSIVELY FUNCTIONAL! Exponentially so when you consider that there is no application for ice cubes in the entire game, and that the code to make it happen would have been wholly unnecessary had the game programmer merely omitted the presence of a tray in the freezer. (Now I'm wondering - if you retrieve the cubes, do they eventually melt? Must investigate...) This degree of consummate simulation certainly makes for a more immersive, engrossing environment - but does busting open that world of potential sidetracking distractions necessarily make for a better gaming experience? (This is not what people conventionally have in mind when they use the phrase "game theory".)

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