It's been a while, but the author requested that people not spoil things, if they figured out what was going on in TOMBs. I still won't, explicitly, but I'm caught between not writing a review at all and explaining why I liked what was going on. And years later, I sort of forgot, and I sort of remembered. Did I only like TOMBs for the novelty value at the time? Most text-adventure RPGs I'd read were a bit too earnest, which helped it stand out. But when I poked through, I was able to enjoy it again and notice the snarky bits that gave me pleasure.
It's sort of a relief, in IFComp, to have something where you can just kill a bunch of monsters for a bit. Sadly, a lot of these entries have little more to offer. But I knew the author knew what he was doing, so I had a Trizbort map ready to go for a nice big dungeon. I would kill everything. I would go in for level-grinding. I didn't particularly want to empathize with anybody, or anything. I'd get to those entries later. In TOMBS, I would do some hack-and-slashing.
But of course I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any secrets! I got the feeling I would need a few, to beat the big bad beast. Reading the book in the library was the first inkling that there was more to adventure than the usual. I remembered the monsters I'd disposed of. I became curious what the ?'s were for. And I enjoyed having "limerence" as a stat, because it's a great word people don't know too much about. You may, but if you don't, it's the concept of being in love with love instead of, well, with people. And it's not an especially good stat for surviving in an RPG. So it sort of clues us into how things aren't quite right. Here we’re in love with the idea of nobility, etc., or improving ourselves through fights, but if we are just sitting grinding at some game, are we really improving?
So the second time through I managed to do more than just kill everything, and I used the previously ???'ed options. Some irony here: I didn't go face the beast for so long because I figured "that would just kill you, right? I'm not strong enough, and besides, I've been doing nice things, so I don't want my fate." So in a way I was paying for my bloodthirsty mentality even when I intellectually knew what to do.
The game made me feel trapped in level grinding, too, not hopelessly trapped but enough to get me the feeling there should be more. It was small enough, though, I was able to reload and see if there really was something else and say, okay, I’m not doing this. So many games are built to get players to keep playing even when it’s not fun, and ToR turns that notion on its head. We need more of this.
As for the final message? Well, it’s one we’ve heard before, but it's been too mushy or melodramatic other places. And it puts your earlier defeats of the beast, and the text from that, in perspective. Looking back, stuff like the chest guarded by bats also clued me, if I’d been paying attention.
So there are a lot of fun lessons in this game we don't realize are lessons til they’re done. And I think that’s very, very good. It's a case of having a bunch of independent jokes that have a 5-10% chance of working or making the light go off, but because there are twenty of them, it will happen eventually.
ToR is not the first subversion of RPGs, but it's one that doesn't shove the observational humor or retread fourth-wall observations in your face. As you explore, evidence piles up that something's wrong, and you can have a good laugh at what you've missed. You may even miss stuff even knowing it's a subversion, as I did on replay. I suspect many people may have missed this and downgraded ToR as just a collection of jokey shticks and feel superior to it and say, ok, maybe the next game will be a REAL game. But it looks like enough people, indeed, got it.