An obscure sci-fi adventure game named Ferret was first released in 1982, but development has only just now finished after 40 years. Prior to August of this year (2022) players were unable to actually finish the game.
The next two runners up for longest development time for a game are Duke Nukem Forever, which took 14 years, and Beyond Good and Evil 2 is still in development hell after 15.
Data General was a computer company spun off from Digital Equipment Corporation. They were founded by a group of DEC engineers who were frustrated by DEC management decisions and left to form their own company. Data General’s line of Nova computers became the inspiration for Xerox’s Alto computers, which in turn inspired Apple’s Lisa line.
The company, though U.S. based, had a U.K. division, and it was that division in 1982 that gave birth to the original version of Ferret.
It was written in a scientific and business language called PL/1, which was more or less a blend of COBOL and FORTRAN, using the worst features of each. It was more than adequate for the applications of the time, though, and Ferret demonstrated the flexibility of the language’s matrix management abilities.
Unfortunately, because it was written in PL/1, the game could only be played on the Nova 2 minicomputer, and few people in the world had the necessary access to one. The game was released to the world in 2009 for DOS, using a PL/1 interpreter, runnable under the Windows console.
To ZORK players:
Yet again you have the opportunity to experience sleepless nights spent trying to solve parts of a puzzle, because this game is very much like ZORK (only better). You can ignore the rest of this [information] as the game is based on the ZORK philosophy (there are some exceptions and some extras that you will find as you play the game).
The Game Itself
The game is extremely long, and features 390 verbs, 3449 objects, with 1785 defined rooms (some of which are inaccessible to the player).
You begin the game in a small darkened room, and your first task is to find a way out (it turns out to be a box with a lid).
How to Get Ferret
Here is the original web site where you can download the original Windows release. Remember that your anti-virus will flag this due to its use of what are now considered to be protected areas of the disk from the standpoint of the Windows 11 operating system.
The original installer assumed Windows 95, though, and modern anti-virus software thinks it’s malware, because it tries to install into areas on the disk that are assumed to be secure parts of the operating system today. To that end, interactive fiction historian Jason Dyer of Arizona created a stripped down version of it that you can just extract to a directory and run via the accompanying batch file, which you can download here directly.
The description of the first room gives a clue to your circumstances: “You appear to be lying in an exceedingly small dark room and you feel as if you have been sleeping for ages. You are very drowsy, your body appears to be quite heavy and feels partially numbed. There don’t appear to be any exits from this room”. You have been automatically resuscitated and find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world where your mission is to explore your new environment and try to discover if there are any other survivors.
After downloading those files, you’ll want to run ferret.bat since ferret.exe launches a version that closes the window immediately when you die. In ferret.bat you’ll stay in the parser and be able to begin over by typing “ferret” to relaunch. Remember the “save [filename]” and “restore [filename]” commands are your friends.
If you get stuck, there is a Facebook group for the game called Ferret Users, whose members currently consist of only Jason Dyer, the original developers of the game, and perhaps a couple dozen other fans and other interested parties. Still, they do trade player tips and have discussions on getting through some of the puzzles. This matters because Ferret is one of those old style trial and error adventure games. You’ll know you’ve screwed up because your character dies, so you’ll probably die a lot.
You are about to embark on a journey of a kind that set the mold for decades of computer games to come. Good luck, adventurer!