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About the Story
You play as King Arthur. This is the real world Britain in the 6th century. You have no crown to wear. You dress like everybody else: you wear a simple woolen homespun tunic, loose pants, and a cape in the rain. Your shoes are basically sandals with a soft leather covering.
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I played version zeta-3 of this story.
This review is a bit odd to write, as I'm approaching it from two points of view. On one side, this game is a definite artistic statement. The author writes in the overview:
"It's not a game. It's not interactive fiction. It's not a puzzle. It's not action-packed. It's not fun. If you're a gamer, you'll hate it and should not play it. It's not interactive fiction. If you like interactive fiction, you probably won't like it. The reason such people should not play Le Morte D'Arthur is that it violates all the norms of these firmly established genres."
And so as someone who does like interactive fiction and puzzles and action, I have to take that into account. It's essentially like a vegan reviewing a steakhouse, and so as someone not from the target audience, I wouldn't take my feedback to indicate necessary changes.
On the other hand, I also have to see how I feel about the game just as a game, as if I had found it out in the wild, even though it's impossible for me to be completely subjective.
In this game, you play as King Arthur. Most fantastic details have been removed; though I haven't seen it or read it, I'm reminded of the showrunners of Game of Thrones who reportedly stated that they tried to strip as many fantasy elements out of the show as possible, as 'We didn't want to just appeal to that type of fan'. Here, too, it seems like the author has strived to appeal to a broad audience. There is no magic, and the traditional systems of chivalry or witchcraft or even tragic noble love are generally missing here. Instead, the focus is on a life of poverty, sickness, animals, and decay after the exit of Rome.
Play is based on little storylets that happen one right after the other, with a few choices per page of text. The game is very large and mostly cyclical, with Arthur dealing with local disputes, having family discussions or issues, spending time with his dog or nature, fighting the Saxons, and discussing with Merlin in turn. Each of these elements progresses as time goes on.
The discussions with Merlin are a focal point for the author, and seem to be the central thread of the game. They are posed as Socratic dialogues, with Merlin asking you questions, generally correcting you for your mistakes.
Now I'll take about my five criteria for rating IF (which as the intro says, this game isn't designed for standard criteria, but I find it useful as a way to organize my thoughts):
The game is polished. While it is still being updated and there are some unfinished artwork, it is a very large game and has few issues for its size, and no bugs that I could see. The ending (Spoiler - click to show)has a surprise use of video, which was well done.
The game is very descriptive. It depicts a squalid and lawless world, with crude but humble people. It paints a picture of decay and loss, loss of culture from Rome and loss of life and land from the Saxons.
There were a lot of features I wasn't sure whether were historical or not, so I looked it up. For instance, battles tend to have very high casualties, so I looked up how common that was at the time. There is a great deal of rape and sexual interactions with young teenage girls in the first half of the game, so I looked up how common that was. There is a casual disregard for life and a system of slavery, so I looked up about that. Sometimes what I found agreed with the game, and sometime not, but there is a lot up in the air.
The text uses few archaisms but throws in some celtic curses. The language is brusque and casual, with references to farts and diarrhea but also tender family language. There were a few incongruities (one noble uses modern slurs to insult another as a (Spoiler - click to show)pu**y fa**ot).
The storylets are disconnected. Choices from one are generally not brought up later on. Instead (behind the scenes) incremental changes to overall stats are made, like Choice of Games. You need not worry if you make the wrong choice about who should lead a clan or who should be put to death, as it doesn't affect anything later down the road. That's only at first, though; the last 25% of the game has many important choices to make.
The interactivity does feel better as you go along. At first I felt like I could pick anything and it really didn't matter, while near the end it did matter more.
I had a very satisfying ending right until the last screen, where I was more or less informed I had been defeated (the code for my ending was (Spoiler - click to show)defeatresolution. I support being able to 'lose' in long games, but I think it can be done in a more satisfying way. In fact, the ending was pretty great; I think one or two lines might make it more satisfying. It's rough after playing a 6 hour game that takes quite a while to replay to hear 'you played wrong as a player' rather than 'your character made wrong choices', which are two different sentiments, and I'm getting more of the first sentiment.
As an accessibility note on the ending, (Spoiler - click to show)I had difficulty hearing the voice as I was in a public space on a quiet computer without headphones. Having a text transcription or subtitles of both sides of the conversation could be useful, even if it only appears after.
I started this game with a bad attitude, and felt justified as the game was often repetitive at the beginning with low stakes in most choices.
But, due to the slow buildup and epic length of the game, I began to know the characters a lot better, from the local doctor/healer to Mordred and others. It made the ending actually quite satisfying emotionally (outside of the very last few lines), and felt like there were real stakes in dealing with betrayals and friendships and loss.
Would I play again?
I might, although it is difficult to say. The game is very long, and the mechanics are more or less intentionally obfuscated. There is no real way to look at options and think, 'What is my strategy here?' Sometimes being bold pays off, sometimes it hurts you. I think that's a great way to introduce real-life ambiguity into a game, which was why I was so surprised to have 'you played right' and 'you played wrong' as endings. With all the micro choices over the course of the game and no indications as to what their effects are, I think there's room for endings that are equally valuable for the player, just varied in the actual results.
Overall, if I had found this game on its own, I would have thought it was a marvelous game. There are parts of it I don't agree with in terms of treatment of women and some language, but I am often an outlier in feelings of that sort and wouldn't base any decisions off of that. Due to that, and to my feelings about the combination of unclear consequences and strongly delineated endings, I'm giving 4 stars out of 5. I think most players who stick it out through the lengthy game will enjoy it, and I would consider it a success and one I can recommend to others in the future as an excellent historical fiction and military story.
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