In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.
The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.
The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.
Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.
In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):
Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.
(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)
(This review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony (HC from here on) is the semi-autobiographical parser sequel to 2016's also semi-autobiographical Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by the same authors, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, and which was also introduced via Spring Thing.
I found the first game to be extraordinary. It's a hippiedom-infused, life-living sim seen through the window of manic depression, and transfused with plenty of bike-riding, fictional computer tech, new age alternate realities, loving, drug-taking and blasts of mathematics. In spite of its chaos, it displays an almost perfect marriage of form and function in relation to its subject matter, and is wildly written, and fun as well.
The follow-up, HC, has deep connections to the first, albeit in a fractalised, non-continuous way. Memories and events recur, or are revisited, or are re-analysed, or are fit into a continuing narrative of what has been happening with the authors since the first game. While all of the same subject matter returns in this second episode, the result is superficially less satisfying than the first because this time around, the framework is not conspicuously gamey. The player may still be the PC, now known as Mycroftiv (the narrator Ben from the first game) but they aren't a doer in a game world. They're invited to read what amounts to Mycroftiv's hypercubic journal of their memories and experiences. Each location in the game functions as one of 64 journal entries, and they're divided up in a virtual filing cabinet navigated by a bit-based nav system worthy of an Andrew Schultz game. The player's goal is open-ended: they can read entries as they see fit, and try combining some of the objects they find along the way. Objects like a Boolean Prime Ideal or a Measurable cardinal axiom. Examining these objects gives points, which is a measure of progress, but not a particularly important or logistically useful one in this game.
As I found the first game very moving, I found reading the entries in HC just as moving and stimulating, and somehow enveloping. They deal, through the authors' anecdotes, with family relationships, the nature of friendships, peak experiences via people and nature, and theories of "the mathematics of loving communication". Thus encapsulated, that last one may sound flakey, but the journal entries devoted purely to mathematical theories are not light reading. While two authors of the work are credited, the narrator voice is Ben Kidwell's / BenJen's / Mycroftiv's.
In both games, what I feel as I play them is the accuracy of the reality espoused (or theorised) by their authors, because in its bizarre way, it is perfectly articulated through wonderful writing that is never didactic. The narrator can be frank and proselytic when in their manic phases, but they're also tempered by acknowledgment of their mistakes, by moments of standing outside themselves, and by a lot of extended musing on the nature of empathy. The major declared mistake that forms a cut-off point in their life for the genesis of this game sounds especially disastrous (giving voice to sexual interest in a teenaged ward during a ritual invented during a manic phase) and this declaration is made in the first lines of the game. All the player's reading is declared to be about to happen "backwards in time... before everything shattered." So there is a sad frame placed around the game. However, its core narration is clearly an espousal of optimism. The sum of its multi-dimensional journal of positive memories, breakthroughs, mathematical progresses and wonderful human connections is an Eternal Yes.
Like the first episode, I see HC as demonstrating a perfect melding of form and ideas. The author's favourite idea, articulated in a thousand different ways, is about the interconnectedness of all things. The hypercubic nature of the game's journal connects its 64 locations in a fashion that allows you to get between any of them in fewer moves than it would take on, say, an eight by eight grid. This is a mechanical demonstration of what it may be like to have access to another dimension. In turn, the player's path through these locations may be entirely random (people who don't get binary numbers) or may follow a certain logic (people who know binary and can use the game's binary coordinates to lawnmower the journal). Somewhere on their journey, the player will likely find the journal entry that muses on the nature of free will and randomness:
"... I'd like to propose instead that free will is better understood as what randomness feels like from the inside. The intuitive sense that free will is different from randomness is a dichotomy between the external view of dice rolls as meaningless and arbitrary versus the meaningfulness we feel motivates our own choices. A more careful examination of the definition of 'random' shows that the identification of 'random equals meaningless' is not objective. The real definition of random is simply anything that cannot be externally predicted on the basis of available information..."
For all its wildness, the game has this seer-like, synchronous way about it, and contains journal entries addressing almost any mechanic or idea demonstrated by the performance of the game itself. Some of these entries are indirect, others explicit. One that made me laugh was the authors discussing whether the entries describing mathematics would prove too thick for readers. I'd already found my concentration wavering when trying to follow some of those entries down at my lay level. Another entry stepped out of the game to posit that the player is actually a character in another game played by 17-dimensional chipmunks.
It's with tricks like these that the game seems to be what it proclaims reality is: a demonstration of complete interconnectedness in ways we can't anticipate or understand. That it's also an emotional diary of creative experiences, introspective moments growing out of bike rides, jokes, and mathematical ponderings, demonstrates the authors' great instincts for mapping the personal onto the cosmic and the existential. And that it has no end as such, instead just failing to provide new material at some point – petering out, even – seems to be saying something about the imperfect movement between different episodes in our lives or creative outputs.
I think the game is also superbly written from word to word. The voice is persuasive, lyrical, able to build ideas clearly when necessary, and also able to explode them with illegal syntaxes when necessary. While HC drops its gaminess relative to its predecessor, its lack of a need for world model implementation has allowed the authors to take even more flight with their prose, at greater length and as often as they like.
I find it hard to imagine how HC will fall on players who never tried the first game. It's bound up with that game's contents like the posited hypercube. A cube placed in the first game, and which then expanded simultaneously in all directions, might produce the vertices of the second game as a diffracted take on the old mixed with the new. Given that the parts of the old that reappear are reconstituted in detail, I suspect they might work and stand alone for new players. And if you like HC, you should certainly return to the first game to experience its more purposive take on an earlier stream of the story. Both games come with optional outside-the-game music, and HC's extras folder contains css files with theory and speculation about Enlightenment Escalators and Harmonic Ultrafilters. Together, the two Harmonic pieces comprise one of the most singular visions in IF.
Version five of Necron's Keep is a great advance on the buggy original I tried many years ago. I played this hardcore CRPG to completion over four hours and found it to be very entertaining, in spite of the continued presence of many bugs of inconvenience (mostly involving the automatic inventory management). In a nutshell, Necron's Keep is a challenging, detailed and unforgiving single-character fantasy CRPG. There's no UNDO, and you'll need to keep and label many a save file to make it through. What you get in return is an interesting spellcasting system, transparent die-rolled combat and a satisfying gaming challenge with plenty of danger. The story style is probably most like that of a 1980s Fighting Fantasy gamebook, complete with nasty surprises, while the combat adds some AD&D-like detail.
You wouldn't expect someone called Necron to be a nice guy, but the truth of this game's background story is that you don't know. He's an archmage who went off to live with his people in an enchanted castle and fell out of contact with the world. The king has sent you, a mage, to Necron's place to find out what's going on.
In the fashion of many an old-school (or old-school-styled) RPG, the beginning of this game can be the roughest time. It's when random die rolls and traps can kill you off quickly. Traps and monsters will eat your hp (there are both fixed and random encounters), and the spells you cast to try to protect yourself also cost hp. The multi-page tome you're given to read at the game's start is semi-overwhelming, but it combines lore on how the spell system works with hints that will help you later in the game. You start off with a good number of spells; they show up in your inventory. More spells can be learned from scrolls you find (doing that also costs hp!) and some require material components that you need to find on your journey. This is quite a cool aspect of the game, though it takes a lot of observation to work out which components get eaten by the casting of spells. In bad but amusing news, the game is prepared to incinerate your only held wooden weapon to cast a spell requiring wood if you don't have any other wood in your inventory. You can detect traps, mend broken items, divine the nature of things, cast offensive spells in combat. There's a good range of stuff and a lot of it works on a lot of the game's contents.
The thing that might drive some players spare is the inventory. You've got an unlimited holdall, but only finite hand space. So the game autoswaps items in and out of your holdall as required. This constantly results in situations like you putting away one of two things you need simultaneously when you take the first one out, or accidentally forgetting to get the wood out and burning your weapon as a spell component. This is the main site of bugs in the game that still needs fixing.
The early game is about battling through and finding healing items to sustain you. Once you have the power to create your own healing sphere (this is a cool effect, where you ENTER SPHERE, then sleep or meditate to recover), you enter the midgame, roaming around fighting monsters, collecting xp, healing, learning new spells. The late game could be considered tackling the bigger puzzles and challenges of the keep directly. I was stuck for ages in the midgame because one room exit wasn't mentioned, but I'm not sure if this was semi-intentional – there's a magic item you can acquire that gives you an exit lister, and it was the exit lister that showed me the new way to go.
Once you've worked everything out in Necron's Keep, there's a degree of optimisation in stringing all your knowledge together, and probably revisiting older saves where you were in a better position. I felt really satisfied when I completed it.
This is definitely one for people who like this kind of game, and in spite of its inconveniences, I think it's a good example of the CRPG in parser game form. I wouldn't normally give a game with this many bugs remaining a four, but I can't go below four for a game that kept me this involved.
Like a lot of the most high-faluting mummies, you used to be a pharoah. Now you're a Ka, an ex-mummy spirit about to quest for the afterlife. And as the game's blurb reveals, the first problem you face is that you're inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin... etc.
In spite of Ka being on my To Play list for a long time, I procrastinated because of the impression I'd obtained from reviews that it was a hard-leaning puzzler with an emphasis on machinery puzzles; I don't consider interpreting detailed descriptions of arcane equipment to be one of my strong suits in parser gaming. Ka definitely has a good amount of arcane equipment in it, but it's also considerably more varied, and the way it's mostly delivered as one self-contained room after another reduces stress. The player doesn't have to worry that the thing they might need to make a machine work is elsewhere. I was thoroughly engrossed in it and completed it in eighty minutes, only checking a walkthrough once. It is a little strange, though, that so much is implemented in this game, and yet so much that seems obvious has not been implemented. I suppose this backhandedly amounts to direction on the puzzles (you can't muck around with things that aren't implemented) but it does suppress Ka in the polish stakes.
The ABOUT text mentions the amount of research on Egyptian afterlife rituals that went into Ka. The game has a convincing and exotic (to non-ancient-Egyptian me) aesthetic that's lived-in for its PC. I don't think I'd call its procession of puzzles a narrative-narrative, but it does develop a story, attitude and a history through the PC's narration, including flashbacks to his life as a pharoah. Battling through the puzzles amounts to a microcosm of the struggles of the living during life, and the prose doesn't forget to keep pressing this note. Success in the end does bring a kind of spiritual relief. There is an emphasis on time, memory, circles and loops in both Ka's bejewelled imagery and in the physical constructions of its puzzles.
The game's ultimate puzzle, a riddle, is the only one for which I needed to consult a walkthrough. Once I'd read the answer, I couldn't actually reverse engineer the sense out of it, so I wasn't hurt by my failure to come up with it. Fortunately David Welbourn, via his walkthrough, went the extra step of explaining its meaning to me.
Ka is a dense but not overwhelming puzzle game with a rich Egyptian aesthetic, plenty of exotic mechanical puzzles and a good number of other types of puzzles as well.
Disclaimer: I cameo (name-wise, anyway) in this game as an NPC. This was a prize the author gave me for IFComp reviewing.
Grooverland is a big, modern day fantasy'n'puzzling adventure set in the eponymous theme park. The player is eleven-year-old Lily, and for her family birthday outing she's granted the run of Grooverland for a day, as well as the personal party role of Queen. The park is outwardly wondrous but increasingly sinister as the game progresses, putting the game into what I broadly think of as the Wishbringer tradition, with a touch of Willy Wonka to boot. Indeed, both Grooverland and Wishbringer open with a dragon attack scene, and in both cases the scene quickly turns in an unexpected direction.
Grooverland is named for IF author Chandler Groover, from whose games it's inspired in imagery and themes, though in a more G or PG-rated way than the source. I continue in the embarrassing (but majority) tradition of reviewers of Grooverland who haven't played most of Groover's games. Nevertheless, I recognised more of them than I thought I would during Grooverland. Plus, like the game says, knowledge of them is not essential for play.
The puzzles are excellent, exploiting all of geography, mathematical logic, permutational experimentation, and intuition both fantastic and emotional. They involve such tasks as feeding icky foods to weird animals, charming creatures into service, eating giant cakes and working sideshow magic. Some interlock, some stand alone, some require the player to reach back to prior ideas or knowledge at the appropriate moment – and they're great at building that knowledge in the first place – and they all feed each other's logic.
It's this consistency and cumulative development that makes Grooverland feel so vivid. This is a big game (close to three hours for me, without hints) but arranged so that it never feels overwhelming. I'm not used to puzzling at such length these days, nor with puzzles that are so cleanly and sharply presented in concept and in their elements. I almost felt they might be easier than they seem, but I think it's the access to them that is the site of increased ease, a reflection of contemporary possibilities in IF and the author's abilities.
The prose delivers visual clarity, and is especially good at doling out the game's highly dynamic world in a comprehensible way. While the various wacky NPCs demonstrate clear personalities in prose, I felt the heroine perhaps demonstrated the least, or at least the least specific. The game has an impressive catalogue of anti-stock responses and jokes, but I got the feeling too many of them were from the school of parser humour rather than what Lily might be likely to think. (Though who can prove that she doesn't think like a parser game author? She's certainly likely to become one if she survives the experience of Grooverland.) Lily's family, too, are a bit functional in delivery. That didn't bother me. There's so much puzzling to be getting on with, I was glad to not have to ASK/TELL my family into the ground as well. Amongst them, they have enough strokes to conjure the needed familial emotions.
The prospect of tackling the game's finale was almost too much for me when I reached and apprehended it. However, it turns out not to be some brutally punishing boss fight puzzle, but rather a way to reward the player with access to the powers they've spent the game acquiring.
Grooverland is a great puzzle game that's fun and highly involving, and a fine feat of fantasy imagination as well. It is also technically rounded well beyond what any one player might see, which I consider to be one of the hallmarks of the best IF.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
Pit of the Condemned is a short Evade-The-Wumpus-like game in which you play a convict sentenced to die at the hands of The Beast. The site for your intended death is an abandoned city that's now used only to host deadly spectacles. A bloodthirsty public watches your struggles from innaccessible locations overhead.
Part of the info in the preceding paragraph comes from the game's blurb and isn't present in the game itself, a fact which accurately speaks to the minimalism of the game. The implications of the game's setting or vaguely Hunger Games-sounding society don't really come up during play. It's purely about the mechanic of moving through a large network of empty rooms and searching for a weapon or escape route while the beast chases you.
I won on my first try by setting a trap for the beast in the Royal Palace and then wiggling around a lot until the monster followed me into it. It's probably too easy to avoid the creature in general thanks to the proximity warning messages the game delivers. These are handled well technically, as is the occasional warning generated by line of sight programming.
When the beast isn't close, the game tends to dullness. Almost all locations are empty and there are a lot of them. I was tempted to start mapping, but didn't, and it ultimately proved to be unnecessary. Some obvious commands aren't covered. The very first thing I wanted to do in the game was try to KILL MAGISTRATE, the guy who had sentenced me to death. I expected that the result would be that his sidekick guard would immediately kill me. The game's reaction was to instead print the default Inform anti-violence message, 'Violence isn't the answer to this one.'
Pit of the Condemned is good mechanically, but I found it too unexciting given the premise.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
You are standing in a cave... is a parser-driven adventure of perennial adventuring. Stuck in the title cave with only a random collection of stuff in your pockets, you, the viewpoint adventurer, must unstick yourself and escape. The environment is full of props and clues designed to speak tantalisingly to each other in the language of puzzles via your adventuring brain. The climbable, the ignitable, the combinable; they're all here.
This is plainly not a game for people who dislike puzzles. It's straight-shooting meat and potatoes adventuring, roughly implemented, and with a title that could easily be read as a joke about banality. While cave's first room looks dull and prototypically cavey, things become more involving if you give it a room or two.
The game's tone is encouraging with a dash of wide-eyed. The adventurer seeks answers to age-old questions like, 'How do I defeat this giant venus flytrap?' or 'What really happened when I turned that dial?' The game is excited about the player's progress. Its positive tone acts as a helpful counterweight to the rough typological edges and programming oversights. Probably its weakest areas are in verb coverage and the offering of alternative phrasings for obvious actions, partly mitigated by it also going in for lots of USE phrasings. (e.g. USE A WITH B)
The game's generic USE leanings fit in with another observation I made: That Cave often feels like a graphical point-and-click adventure rendered as prose. I don't mean that in a redundant way, given that point-and-click adventures owe their existence to prose IF. I mean that it takes aesthetics that were added to adventures when they were transitioning into graphical form and brings them back into the all-prose realm. I refer to aesthetics like the extended depictions of transformations that occur in the environment when puzzles are solved. Objects revolve, rise, shine, glimmer or rotate at relative descriptive length. It's visual, and the physical movements are important.
I was able to clear the game without using the walkthrough, though I needed a little human help gleaned from another review. So, although Cave lists no testers and has lots of bugs, you can clear it. I had enough fun doing so.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.
The Paper Bag Princess is a short Z-code adventure in which you play a beautiful royal lass whose beloved is snatched up by a dragon during her wedding, and who then sets out to get him back. When I reviewed the game in my IFComp blog of 2013, I quizzed its design extensively. Very extensively! It turns out that the answer to almost all the numerous questions I rhetorically asked is: "This point is only explained in the book upon which this game is based, or depicted in an illustration in that book." Therefore, the summary of my review is that The Paper Bag Princess is only for people who have read the eponymous book by Robert Munsch. To consider, spoilingly, what the game may be like through the eyes of someone who hasn't read that book (me in 2013, and still me today) you may read on.
Quoth me in 2013:(Spoiler - click to show) I found The Paper Bag Princess to be a curiously toneless game, but it has a few amiable moments. The basic idea is of a mild subversion of the prince-rescues-the-princess story, but this idea is never played up all that much in either the dialogue or in the small inventory of actions the princess will take in the course of the rescue. The role reversal idea could be played for laughs, but isn't, really. The before and after scenes of the wedding lean in the direction of black comedy, what with the contrast between the storybook wedding and the charred field of burning furniture the dragon replaces it with, but I thought the writing didn't sell the contrast strongly enough to deliver an effect.
I didn't really get the choice of puzzles for the game, either. Making a torch is a pretty basic adventure game kind of task. I found it strangely difficult to do in The Paper Bag Princess, in spite of the heroine being conspicuously surrounded by scenery and objects which should have made it easy: smoking ground, burning chair legs, a stick, a vial of oil. All the game wanted was for me to type 'make torch', but the wide range of alternative commands I tried as I attempted to make any of these props interact with one another in a fire-producing way were either not understood, or prompted a "You've got the right idea" message. I think the game should have leapt from giving such a nudge to just saying: "Ok, you do such-and-such and go on to successfully make a torch."
Then there were a couple of quotes from classic adventure games; the PLUGH command and a twisty tree maze to navigate. The walkthrough reads apologetically in the case of the latter, just saying: "the maze is entirely random... sorry!" My question is: Why include these in this game? The Paper Bag Princess doesn't seem to derive any particular meaning from recalling the specifics of old games. It's not a pastiche or in the style of, or saying these were good or bad or anything. These features just appear, unremarked upon in any way, and then it's on to the next puzzle.
The final puzzle of outwitting the dragon at least makes sense on the game's own terms. This ostensibly powerful beast is shown to be easily outwitted, a staple gag of much fantasy and classic storytelling. Doing so involves guessing a couple of topics using one of my least favourite IF mechanics - ask (so-and-so) about (topic). If the classic "guess the verb" problem in IF is about knowing what you want to say to the parser but being unable to say it, I would describe the problem of having to come up with the correct topic to ask a character about as a worse problem in which you potentially don't even know what you want to say in the first place. This is a traditional rant for me which I need to deliver about twice a year and have now delivered here. It's not a problem unique to The Paper Bag Princess.
Mostly I just wanted The Paper Bag Princess to start throwing its eggs into some particular baskets. It could have delivered really strongly on the character of the princess, but she doesn't get to say much and the tone of the prose is too often neutral. The role reversal gag isn't played up. The nature of the tasks the princess performs doesn't say much about either her character or the gameworld. The paper bag she dons is not talked up. I don't get why things like PLUGH and a twisty maze were chosen for inclusion, unless the intent was to quote old games while being subversive about the kinds of things you'd often do in them - but this game isn't very subversive.
This review has probably read heavily for a game this light. It's not that I believe people can or have to be able to explain every choice they make as they create something. But considering the smallness of this game, the author doesn't seem to have made choices that aim it in any particular direction. The result is too flavourless for me, and that's why find myself wondering about all those choices so much.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Mark Marino's entry into IFComp 2012, the one preceding the one in which he entered Mrs Wobbles, was The Living Will, a curious Undum game which I didn't really get. Mrs Wobbles is a far more vivid and transparent affair, a pro-reading, episodic and illustrated adventure tale aimed at younger readers (7-11 it says) and again delivered with Undum. While there is a fair bit to read here, it turns out that this game is also an introductory one, with more episodes potentially to come in future. Folks have entered introductions into IFComp before, and while I don't think there's any rule against doing so (and Wobbles is voluble, not a tiny tease) it's just in its nature that the Wobbles we're being presented with in IFComp has some of the density of a novel without the payoffs of a novel. I also find it hard to gauge how hooky it might be for those future episodes, but I'm not the core audience. Mrs Wobbles feels to me like the opening of an attractive e-novel for tablets. Interactivity is mostly at the level of deciding in which order to read things, and while this area isn't of much personal interest to me, when I consider the overall quality level of the project I think most players will find something to like here. Some may find a lot.
I think the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by Lemony Snicket were probably a big influence on the tone of Wobble's prose, and probably more than an influence on its specific content. The protagonists are fostered siblings, their parents died in a mysterious fire and when the game begins, they're going to live in a weird house with a strange adult. The narrator is a magical talking book which can insert whimsical asides into the prose of a kind we'd be hard pressed to get from child protagonists. Production values are consistently high. The game includes some superb woodcut / etching / lithograph style illustrations. The prose is pretty good at any point and you can have it read out to you from author-made recordings. This also means that the speech feature is platform and software independent, and kid-friendly.
What I'm unsure about is how satisfying the scope of this introduction is. It's an introduction for the characters and the setting of the house, but there's no real story vector in place for either of these elements yet, as good as they are. The brother protagonists have a cute rapport, and the fussy girl they meet later, Mildred, is a good foil for them. The house is full of magical rooms and fantastic machinery which may be of use in the future. I suppose the experience of Wobbles is like being introduced to Hogwarts via an explicit tour but then having the book end suddenly. It may be safer to make a self-contained and expositional starting adventure, but it's probably less interesting than throwing players/readers into a story which sets up some plot hooks and mysteries. In the end, my to-ing and fro-ing about Wobbles comes down to the fact that this is an introduction competing in a venue not particularly suited to introductions.