In the last decade and a half it’s become infinitely easier to obtain exactly what you’re looking for, by way of a couple of keystrokes. The Internet has made it all too simple to use a computer to change reality. An abundance of information is merely a search engine away, to the point where it’s hard to imagine life as any different.
Yet, a generation ago, when the words ‘streaming’ and ‘torrent’ were meaningless save for conversations about water, people met face-to-face to conduct software swap parties, trading games and applications on Sharpie-labeled five-and-a-quarter inch floppies.
Of course, most of the time the meets were a way for frugal, community-minded individuals to trade popular games like King’s Quest and Maniac Mansion amongst themselves. However, a few early programming talents designed their own computer games to share amongst their circle of acquaintances, who in turn would pass it on, until, if fun and well-designed enough, an independently-developed game had its place in the collection of aficionados across the country. Think of it as the 80’s equivalent of a viral video.
Pale Luna, on the other hand, was never circulated outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. All known copies have been long disposed of, all computers that have ever run the game now detritus buried under layers of filth and polystyrene. This fact is attributed to a number of rather abstruse design choices made by its programmer.
Pale Luna was a text adventure in the vein of Zork and The Lurking Horror, at a time when said genre was swiftly going out of fashion. Upon booting the program, the player was presented with a screen almost completely blank, except for the text:
-You are in a dark room. Moonlight shines through the window.
-There is GOLD in the corner, along with a SHOVEL and a ROPE.
-There is a DOOR to the EAST.
So began the game that one writer for a long-out-of-print fanzine decried as “enigmatic, nonsensical, and completely unplayable”. As the only commands that the game would accept were PICK UP GOLD, PICK UP SHOVEL, PICK UP ROPE, OPEN DOOR, and GO EAST, the player was soon presented with the following:
-Reap your reward.
-PALE LUNA SMILES AT YOU.
-You are in a forest. There are paths to the NORTH, WEST, and EAST.
What quickly infuriated the few who’ve played the game was the confusing and buggy nature of the second screen onward — only one of the directional decisions would be the correct one. For example, on this occasion, a command to go in a direction other than NORTH would lead to the system freezing, requiring the operator to hard reboot the entire computer.
Further, any subsequent screens seemed to merely repeat the above text, with the difference being only the directions available. Worse still, the standard text adventure commands appeared to be useless: The only accepted non-movement-related prompts were USE GOLD, which caused the game to display the message:
USE SHOVEL, which brought up:
And USE ROPE, which prompted the text:
-You’ve already used this.
Most who played the game progressed a couple of screens into it before becoming fed-up by having to constantly reboot and tossing the disk in disgust, writing off the experience as a shoddily programmed farce. However, there is one thing about the world of computers that remains true, no matter the era: some people who use them have way too much time on their hands.
A young man by the name of Michael Nevins decided to see if there was more to Pale Luna than what met the eye. Five hours and thirty-three screens worth of trial-and-error and unplugged computer cords later, he finally managed to make the game display different text. The text in this new area read:
-PALE LUNA SMILES WIDE.
-There are no paths.
-PALE LUNA SMILES WIDE.
-The ground is soft.
-PALE LUNA SMILES WIDE.
It was another hour still before Nevins stumbled upon the proper combination of phrases to make the game progress any further; DIG HOLE, DROP GOLD, then FILL HOLE. This caused the screen to display:
—— 40.24248 ——
—— -121.4434 ——
Upon which the game ceased to accept commands, requiring the user to reboot one last time.
After some deliberation, Nevins came to the conclusion that the numbers referred to lines of latitude and longitude — the coordinates lead to a point in the sprawling forest that dominated the nearby Lassen Volcanic Park. As he possessed much more free time than sense, Nevins vowed to see Pale Luna through to its ending.
The next day, armed with a map, a compass, and a shovel, he navigated the park’s trails, noting with amusement how each turn he made corresponded roughly to those that he took in-game.
Though he initially regretted bringing the cumbersome digging tool on a mere hunch, the path’s similarity all but confirmed his suspicions that the journey would end with him face-to-face with an eccentric’s buried treasure.
Out of breath after a tricky struggle to the coordinates, he was pleasantly surprised by a literal stumble upon a patch of uneven dirt. Shoveling as excitedly as he was, it would be an understatement to say that he was taken aback when his heavy strokes unearthed the badly-decomposing head of a blonde-haired little girl.
Nevins promptly reported the situation to the authorities. The girl was identified as Karen Paulsen, 11, reported as missing to the San Diego Police Department a year and a half prior.
Efforts were made to track down the programmer of Pale Luna, but the nearly-anonymous legal gray area in which the software swapping community operated inescapably led to many dead ends.
Collectors have been known to offer upwards of six figures for an authentic copy of the game.
The rest of Karen’s body was never found.