Traveller's Log

by Null Sandez

2022

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Beware the snadwick, my son, November 21, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

The ur-philosophy of video games was surely Existentialism. Regardless of whatever thin veneer of plot was spangled across the decals of early arcade cabinets – Space Invaders, Asteroids, what have you – in practice the player found themselves in an endlessly repeating world, set to some cryptic task that would finish only when their patience, or quarters, ran out, the myth of Sisyphus transformed by the alchemy of late capitalism from a punishment to an amusement. True, the ever-increasing score in the top corner provided some indication that progress was possible, but assigning meaning to an arbitrary number surely takes an act of will – and while, as overclocked apes, we’re wired to be susceptible to the draw of competition, even Camus couldn’t have come up with a vision of conflict more absurd than vying over a Pac-Man high score table. And even video games’ nerdier cousins weren’t especially different: the early treasure hunts of Adventure and Zork are just more score chases, albeit with gestures towards genre tropes to provide a bit of texture. The player is nothing but the sum of their choices, starting with the choice to assign a value to success at all.

We’ve gotten better at evading this dynamic over the years – with strategies ranging from leaning into the competition angle, drawing meaning from imagined dominance, to cloaking fundamentally empty, endlessly-abnegating gameplay in ever-more-elaborate narrative disguises, and maybe every once in a while creating something that can stand alongside the best music and novels and films in claiming to get as close as possible to inherent significance as anything can in this fallen world. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, scratch the surface, and we are confronted with absurdity.

To bring this around to the point: one must imagine Sisyphus happy, sure, but after playing fifteen minutes of Traveller’s Log I’m definitely not.

What we’ve got here is an RNG-heavy RPG, implemented in Python, with as far as I can tell no goals, plot, or characterization beyond a randomly-generated backstory that wins points for silliness but has no bearing on the game itself:

You are impulsive, precise and mysterious.
You are a dragon
Your name is Zureom.
You were born and grew up in a fairly rich family in a normal village, and lived happily until you were about 4 years old. But, at that point, your life changed drastically.
You lost your parents when they left after a government takeover and are now alone, miserable and abandoned.
You now have to survive in a rough world, filled with magic and mystery.

Hopefully dragons age in like dog’s years, or Zureom’s enemies could bring their adventures to an untimely end with one call to Child Protective Services.

You’re set loose into one of half a dozen different regions, with the options to “walk” – which basically means trawling for encounters – trade with some invisible, omnipresent merchants, or try your luck in a randomly-picked different region. Random encounters can be with foxes, who just provide a bit of atmosphere, handleless doors that can’t be opened, treasure chests that alternately provide a couple coins or kill you without explanation, inns that don’t do anything, and two different kinds of fights: against bandits, that never give any reward, or against the game’s one monster, a “snadwick”, which I kept misreading as sandwich maybe because I was hungry. Death has little sting, since you instantly respawn, though this sometimes will zero out your accumulated riches – that’s what brought my most successful run to an end, with 49 coins vanishing into the ether because I typed “s;ash” instead of “slash” when I attempted to attack a monster (you need to type full commands, as far as I could tell).

There’s a little more to the game than I’ve outlined – there’s a labyrinth region where you can unlock successively deeper levels, though they all seem to behave exactly the same, and there’s a map that allows you to choose which region to warp to. I also did a little bit of source-diving, and seems like some characters are born with the ability to wield magic (so much for existence preceding essence) which enables them to use spells to open those unopenable doors and occasionally zap baddies. But there’s nothing that changes up the basic mechanical gist of the gameplay – wander around, slash baddies (well, baddy), get a couple coins, repeat and repeat. As a demonstration of Sartre’s conceptualization of anguish, it’s gangbusters – and, to speak seriously for a moment, it’s competently programmed enough that the author does have the spine of what could turn into a solid RPG once more variety, story, and engagement points are added. But as is, it would take more nous than I’ve currently got handy to choose to push this particular boulder up this particular hill any longer.