Murder in the Marching Band by Sam Xenubius (1989)

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A look back at high school marching bands (and homegrown text adventures) from the 1980s

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The goal of eXoDOS is to “catalog, obtain, and make playable every game developed for the DOS and PC Booter platform.” The full installation of eXoDOS includes 7,200 games and consumes nearly 600GB of drive space. It contains every game ever released for DOS that you could possibly imagine, and thousands you’ve never heard of.

One you’ve never heard of is Murder in the Marching Band, a text adventure released for MS-DOS in 1989. I discovered the game the same way I suspect most anyone who has ever stumbled across it did, which was by searching for a different, similarly named game and finding this one instead. In an era where people post pictures of their meals online, somehow this game fell through the cracks. It appears on the Interactive Fiction Database (with no information) and GameFAQs (with no FAQ). Every other hit returns long lists of vintage text adventures with this one’s title nestled alphabetically among a sea of other games. A search of the author’s (I presume) alias, Sam Xenubius, returns less than a dozen results, all of which are tied to this game. Every reference to the author or this game contains the same single-line description: “A slightly buggy and extremely silly adventure game.”

eXoDOS leverages the DOSBox emulator to play old games on modern computers, and after a game terminates (normally or otherwise) the emulator gracefully closes the window. After launching Murder in the Marching Band, DOSBox closed after I had made only two moves. A second attempt ended with the same result. Curious as to why the game was crashing, I downloaded another copy of from the internet and launched it manually within DOSBox.

My assumption that the game was closing due to an error was incorrect. Instead, I was being killed in the game and unceremoniously dumped into DOS, at which point eXoDOS assumed we were all done and closed the window. By launching the downloaded copy in a standalone installation of DOSBox, I was able see what was happening and actually play the game.

Murder in the Marching Band begins not with opening credits or even the game’s title, but with a description of your current location instead: the Digby Corners High School auxiliary football field. As the school’s marching band, players will notice near them a sax reed along with multiple NPCs including the Drum Major, Mr. Redchipp, the band itself, and two strangers. Upon further examination, one of the strangers is revealed to be Mary Shanning, the band director of your school’s arch-rivals, Crountain Mest High.

If you examine Mary Shanning directly, the game lets you know “it looks like a plain old garden variety mary.” If you’re able to examine Mr. Redchipp before he wanders off, the player is informed “you’ve been in band for two years now, and ought to know what Redchipp looks like.” Those two responses say an awful lot about the game.

Unraveling the game’s mysteries requires diving into the included README file. Along with some historical technical information documenting the game’s creation and lineage, the README includes information vital to beating, playing, and simply understanding the basics of the game. Two of the document’s four pages explain who the game’s protagonist is (“Samuel Benjamin Rochester Groakfield”), a history of the conflict between the two competing marching bands, and most importantly, the goal of the game: “It is up to you […] to ensure that Mr. Redchipp is spared the horrible fate of treating a 237 member band of hostile teenagers to pizza.”

Every writer knows it is better to show than to tell, and the same rule applies to the authors of text adventures and interactive fiction. All of this backstory could have been provided in the game itself, perhaps in location descriptions or, more compellingly, as NPC dialog. Why explain to us in the README file why these bands dislike one another when the same information could be conveyed through in-game dialog or action?

The technical information included in the README file is, to those who study the history of text adventures, of equal importance. The game was originally written in 1986 in Pascal on a VAX-11/750 at the University of Redlands, California, “where games are strictly forbidden.” That version was ported to Pascal 5.0 to create this DOS-compatible version. The documentation concludes with an open offer to provide the source code to any interested party who sends an email to Sam Xenubius. Unfortunately, no email or web address is included, and every Google result for the author’s name simply returns a link to the game’s documentation. (And now, perhaps, this review.)

The fact that the game’s engine appears to have been written from scratch explains a lot. The parser accepts “GO EAST” and “E”, for example, but not “EAST” by itself. Also, “LOOK EAST” works, but “LOOK E” does not. Many objects mentioned throughout the game lack descriptions. The verbiage used throughout the game is at times awkward; fortunately, the list of recognized (and sometimes awkward) verbs is included within the documentation.

Returning to the game’s opening location, we are informed that obvious exits are east and west; try to walk in either direction and the Drum Major will throw the contents of his pockets at you in rage. The items include a poker chip, a baton, and a whistle. These seem like the types of things a player would need to solve puzzles and/or offer to NPCs, and the obvious move is to pick them up. Collecting the poker chip and baton is no problem; picking up the whistle causes the Drum Major to fatally tackle you. Like every other death experienced in the game, and there are many, there’s no option to UNDO or RESTORE this seemingly harmless action. Instead players will find themselves staring at a DOS prompt, sitting amongst their hard drive’s files and folders.

Murder in the Marching Band includes the ability to SAVE and LOAD games, although as with everything else, the routines seem to be buggy. Attempt to load a saved file that doesn’t exist and the game will abort with a runtime error. Adding a period to the filename (and, one can safely assume, many other non-alphanumeric characters) also crashes the loading and saving routines. Even if you manage to successfully save and later reload a saved game, things seem off. I saved my progress in a room with four visible objects, and reloaded the same game to find only three remained. The item was not in my inventory and not listed in the location description; even more curious was the fact that I was able to still pick the object up (in this case, the poker chip) and add it to my inventory. A few moves later I handed the red chip to Mr. Redchipp (seemed like a logical move). After Redchipp accepted the chip and walked away, I noticed the chip was still in my inventory. Great trick for real life casinos, not so much in text adventures.

And so it goes. Early in the game the player will be required to enter and start a vehicle. After muddling through a traffic stop that exists only because this is a text adventure, the player can continue north until Sam ends up in the lobby of a hotel, still inside his car. At least this time the game prompts you to exit the car before killing you. Failure to stop for the officer will get you killed and dumped directly into DOS. The game will also kill you if you go west after entering your car, attempting to return to the field. Going east reveals a videotape in front of the police station; pick it up and the police will kill you. Players will spend a lot of time in this game being ejected from the game and landing in DOS.

They say everything exists for a reason, if only to stand as a bad example. On a positive spin, I’d say this game, and others like it, exist as a testament to just how hard it was to create a successful text adventure. A+ games required a compelling story with good writing and an interesting setting, running on top of a well-written parser. Issues with any individual component could turn players away from an otherwise potentially winning game. Games deficient in more than piece of the puzzle never stood a chance. It does seem merciful to point out that Murder in the Marching Band does not appear to have been a commercial release, and perhaps shouldn’t be compared to A-list titles as such. On the other hand, it was publicly released and remains publicly available, making comparisons to other games in the genre inevitable.

Murder in the Marching Band was probably a lot of fun to create. I’m sure “Sam Xenubius” and his friends (some of which are listed in the readme) had a fun time exploring this alternate version of their own high school band experience, and had a good laugh at all the in-jokes written into the location descriptions. Unfortunately, anyone unfamiliar with Mr. Xenubius, his inner circle of friends, or Digby Corners High School will have little incentive to struggle through this awkward adventure. The simple act of exploring the town in which you are meant to explore frequently leads to too many instant, immediate, and undeserving deaths.

The included README file contains a final parting gift. “You may not have heard the last of XENUBIS ENTERTAINMENT PROJECTS,” promises the author. Future adventures are teased with promises of advanced features including graphical maps and multi-player capabilities, thanks to a new adventure language (that the author is also developing) called Advent. Sadly, no record of Advent or any additional games from this author seem to exist.