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About the Story
Of all the forms of alchemy practised throughout the ages, the best known is the quest to turn base metals into gold. Of course, everyone knows this is impossible. Even so, there's a rumour that an alchemist in the forest has figured out how to do the impossible and has been building up quite a stash of the shiny yellow metal.
6th Place - ParserComp 2022
Winner, Outstanding Retro Game of 2022 - Player's Choice; Winner, Outstanding Inform 6 Game of 2022 - Player’s Choice; Winner, Outstanding Inform 6 Game of 2022 - Author’s Choice; Winner, Outstanding PunyInform Game of 2022 - Player’s Choice - The 2022 IFDB Awards
Number of Reviews: 6
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When Graham Nelson declared that interactive fiction was “a narrative at war with a crossword”, a group of old school enthusiasts scratched their heads and said, “what do you mean a text adventure isn’t a crossword?” Many who had joyfully puzzled out the rich proliferation of text adventures that, emerging from 70s mainframe mindbenders like Acheton and Warp, persisted onto microcomputers through Adventure International, then developed into a diverse set of professional and amateur offerings via DIY systems like The Quill or PAWs, had grown deeply attached to their puzzleboxes, a connected set of (supposedly) logic problems that could be slowly reduced over days, weeks, months, until an elegantly optimal solution cohered, synthesizing every clue into a satisfying series of interlocking gears finally turning in unison. Each playspace, lightly themed for variety, invited exploration, tinkering, considering, teasing you along its mysteries to reveal treasure after treasure, looping you back through to catch those last little points you missed…
Garry Francis has been keeping that spirit alive with an indefatigable stream of puzzlers perfect to enjoy alongside your morning coffee. Today’s theme: “there’s a rumour that an alchemist in the forest has figured out how to do the impossible and has been building up quite a stash of the shiny yellow metal.” Those of you who have just donned your Hadean Lands hats will need to doff them, as Alchemist’s Gold is an easy, straightforward affair that propels you through a tight sequence of problems with solutions zuhanden. Find an axe, cut a tree. Someone will trade you a map for a squirrel, so you get an acorn, give it to a squirrel, catch it, give it to the shepherd. The workmanlike simplicity comes with no nonsense pride that raises its eyebrows at any player whose hands seem suspiciously uncalloused, as when trying to “roll branch” receives a curt admonishment: “I think you wanted to say “roll broken branch over”. Please try again.” Visiting in from the city, are you? Well.
Still, the game runs swiftly enough with a friendly efficiency that, like its bottle of acid, dissolves obstacles to preserve your momentum. A maze, which can often prove a bit of obtuse tedium, is here rendered as an ASCII map that routes you right through it with jaunty tracery. A final puzzle, dodging the alchemist, is easier to overcome than it first appears to be, and is delivered with giggly aplomb: “Well, it could have been worse. He could have turned you into a toad. You try to explain your actions to the alchemist. “Ribbet.”” Every puzzle is pretty selfcontained, with just enough red herrings scattered throughout to prevent the A->B problem mapping from feeling too artificial.
Alchemist’s Gold, like Monday’s crossword, gets you back into the swing of things without breaking too much of a sweat. Still, veteran puzzlers will be tapping their fingers, waiting for Garry’s weekend mindwarper.
In this game you are going to steal gold from an alchemist. This is a fun little game which experienced players can probably beat in less than an hour. It was written with PunyInform so I decided to play it with a C64-emulator (VICE) using the Ozmoo interpreter.
There were responses to most commands and the parser was nudging me in the right direction if I should rephrase a command.
Nice writing (not too brief, not too verbose) and a nice setting gives a fine atmosphere.
Cruelty rating: Tough
The game can become unwinnable it seems but you are more or less told when it happens so you can load an earlier save.
For experienced players this is an easy game. The map you find in the game was quite original, whereas most of the other puzzles were more standard.
A short but entertaining game, though it is quite easy. And everything worked well with the Ozmoo interpreter including the ASCII-map.
There are a lot of different qualities that can mark out a piece of IF as having old-school sensibilities – two-word parsers, Zarfian cruelty, minimalist implementation – but there’s one that’s perhaps the most basic: you’re just out to get some treasure, man. Alchemist’s Gold is about one man’s quest to get an alchemist’s gold, unsurprisingly enough, with no more motivation than the protagonist having heard the rumors that this fellow’s figured out the whole Philospher’s Stone business, and wanting to have the wherewithal to dress like one of the nobility. Jean Valjean we ain’t, but given the style of game here on display, this bourgeois-materialist social climbing is entirely apt.
As to the rest of the aforementioned signifiers, Alchemist’s Gold is fairly easygoing, while still being recognizably a text-adventure-not-IF affair. The implementation is mostly robust, one of the unwinnable situations is clearly signposted, and though the puzzles aren’t brainteasers they’re satisfying to solve (there are also integrated hints, though fair warning that they provide no guidance for the final puzzle, where the wrong move can also lock you out of winning but without the notice you get in the other situation). There’s one technically impressive bit, which is a maze – but the trick is that you can find a map, nicely rendered in ASCII, which makes traversal easy. So it feels like a modern take on an old-school design, which makes for some pleasant adventuring.
I could end things there and I think it’d be an adequate review – the game you’re picturing after reading the above paragraph is pretty much the game Alchemist’s Gold is, a fun way to while away half an hour that isn’t trying to make much of an impression beyond that – but just to pad out the word count, I’ll expand on some of the pieces I glancingly ran through.
On implementation, the game uses the PunyInform library, which from my understanding is a stripped-down version of Inform 6 that helps games run more easily on retro platforms. Despite this, I didn’t run into places where I felt like the parser or implementation were too primitive to be enjoyable – there were definitely times when the parser returned an error rather than automatically figuring out what I wanted to do (like, UNLOCK DOOR giving a “with what?” prompt rather than selecting the only key in my inventory) but this fits the vibe. And while there aren’t a lot of extraneous actions that have much effect, you can still do stuff like try to talk to the animals and otherwise mess around with pieces of the game that have nothing to do with solving the central puzzles. The one annoyance I ran into is that various actions I’m used to not taking any time, including out of world actions like INVENTORY and HELP still use up a turn, which made a time-sensitive situation late in the game more of a pain than it needed to be.
As for puzzle fairness and the possibility of getting into unwinnable states – so midway through the game, you get a single-use item that can get you through any of three locked doors, and if you pick the wrong one, you’ll be stuck. But the game is kind enough to tell you this if you make an incorrect guess, so it’s easily fixed with an UNDO. I kinda question whether this kind of artificiality is any better than just designing the game to avoid these kinds of situations, but I get that this sort of thing is part of the sub-genre’s tropes, and better the awkward warning than nothing. As mentioned, the final puzzle can also be rendered unwinnable – I don’t think this would be a big deal for most players who’ll largely be barreling through the game in one sitting, but I put it aside for a day before wrapping up which meant I’d forgotten an important detail by the time I got to the finale, which made me struggle, and if I’d made my save a single turn later than when I did, I’d have had to replay the whole game over. Again, the issue’s unlikely to come up, and replaying would have been quick, so I think this is all fine.
And just to circle back to the opening – yeah, the protagonist sure seems like a jerk. Besides the whole motiveless malice thing that drives the action, there’s also an early sequence where he befriends a cute woodland creature, then delivers him to a terrible fate (Spoiler - click to show)(though as a vegetarian, I might be oversensitive here – maybe the idea of squirrel stew is meant to be comedic?). There’s a certain unity of character here, reinforcing the idea that this is not someone you should ever ask to housesit, especially if you have valuables or pets, and again, amoral acquisitiveness is a hallmark of the PCs in many early pieces of IF (I’ve enjoyed Drew Cook’s recent exegesis of the colonialist themes in Zork, for example ). But there’s a certain naivety to those chthonic figures that makes things go down easier when they’re revisited – or maybe it’s just that the devilish puzzles and recalcitrant parser provide sufficient distraction from the unattractive selfishness on display? If that’s the case, perhaps reducing the friction from old-school designs, as Alchemist’s Gold successfully manages, has some unanticipated downsides.
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