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... the entire universe was nothing more than a rhetorical device..., October 24, 2023
Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist is a short game with an unusually ambitious scope. It is intended as an homage (self-described as "fanfic" in the game's banner) of an RPG system proposed by Jenna Moran (the outdated URL for which is also shown in the game's banner; the Wayback Machine has an archived version).
I had never heard of this RPG, and a cursory review of its rules suggests that it was proposed as a game mostly in jest. Rules are frequently written in a joking manner, such as the following passage: "Don't play WTF when operating heavy machinery. Use caution when playing WTF while tired, drunk, or punchy, as it may increase the chance that the shadow lurking beyond the edge of the world shall immure you all in timeless misery. If you are or think you might be pregnant, talk to your doctor about playing WTF." Even the RPG's acronym (WTF) implies that it is not intended to be taken seriously.
However, the author of the RPG has published other commercial role-playing games, and the part of the WTF rules that are not in jest describes a collaborative story-building RPG system. That system as described appears to be at least 90% satire. I don't have enough experience with this type of game to comment on WTF's playability, but I assume that it is possible with the right set of participants. (A word of warning: The rules' example of play, from which the title of this review was drawn, might give you pause.)
The remaining 10% of the non-jest portion appears to be an outline of the RPG author's philosophy and/or methodology for creating fantasy stories (and/or possibly for living), which is interesting but is not the point of this review. The only part that is relevant is the prescribed gross structure of a game of the RPG, which begins in the the Civilized Lands. (Per the prescribed outline, the story is intended to progress from there to the Savage People and the Fairies, then on to the Ur-Toads -- optionally first attempting to reach the Dragons of the Deeps -- and thence to the Conclusion. Understand that these segments of the journey and their names are in some sense composed of mythic archetypes, and would seem to be highly fluid in their execution. The only requirement is that certain types of narrative challenge are overcome at each step.)
Xavid, the author of the work of interactive fiction which is the point of this review, seems to have been inspired by the RPG's more poetic sections to create a parser game rooted in the RPG ruleset. This is a goal that on the face of it seems manifestly impossible, as the ruleset is unapologetic about its massive ambiguities, and computer programs don't do ambiguity well. As a consequence, many (indeed, most) of the mechanics of the RPG are simply ignored by the IF. Perhaps unexpectedly, what remains seems, in fact, to be a pretty good adaptation of the intended play experience to the parser medium.
The human player takes the role of the player character, who is the Wisher, and indirectly takes the roles of the Theurgist and Fatalist, who are both non-player characters that become obedient to PC commands after minor puzzles are solved. Each of these roles has the ability to influence certain in-game objects by injecting those objects with a quality that is associated with the role. For Wishers, this is "valence," the relevance of that thing to the narrative. For Fatalists, this is truth (as judged within the story world). For Theurgists, this is "mechanical support," ostensibly referring to RPG game mechanics (but rather significantly re-defined in the IF).
Each of these qualities will be discovered in the course of play and can be used by the appropriate character to invest objects with supernatural influence for the purpose of solving the IF's puzzles, all of which offer multiple solutions. In addition, the Wisher and Theurgist characters have a limited ability to use other special influence, by affecting the thoughts of creatures and physical qualities of things respectively. (In the RPG, the Fatalist's special power is the ability to declare what is true about the history of the world. It would be difficult to implement in a meaningful way, so in the IF this character is largely reduced to the source of in-game lore.)
The events of the game cover the characters' travails in the first part (i.e. the Civilized Lands segment) of an RPG game, in which they must obtain the (vampire) queen's blessing to set out on their quest for the Jewel of All Desiring. This portion is very sparsely implemented, largely composed of single-sentence room descriptions and "You can't see any such thing." parser errors. However, mechanically the game performs very well, implementing some relatively tricky things without any noteworthy bugs. The built-in hint system is available if needed, which goes a long way toward keeping player interest from getting derailed by guess-the-verb and/or guess-the-noun frustration. The writing, limited though it is, is well-focused on what is necessary to create a minimum of atmosphere and adequate context for the game's puzzles.
The conclusion of the game is quite unexpected... and very thought-provoking. (Spoiler - click to show)Having reached the object of the quest, the player must wish the world into existence. (Spoiler - click to show)(In accordance with the rules of the RPG, this will be the world that the characters experienced -- yes, it's very meta that way.) The game asks a series of questions about the actions taken by the characters, soliciting your -- as in you, the player's -- input on the matter. Questions are phrased such that they ask whether or not you agree that aspect of the story. At the end of the ten questions, your score is given, and the maximum score accords with answering yes -- answering yes honestly -- to all questions. If the player does not like their score, they are implicitly invited to play again to find other solutions to the puzzles.
This game left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the concept behind it is compelling, and the implementation reflects insightful and inventive design in adapting the more ephemeral aspects of the RPG as written. On the other hand, everything about the game's text and interaction is so bare-bones that on the whole it feels flat and empty -- in stark contrast with the tidbits of evocative and compelling text pulled from the ruleset and delivered via the Fatalist. Ultimately, I decided that this flatness is what would matter most from the perspective of the average player, which is why I've given this work only two stars.
I remind the reader that, in my book, two stars is not a bad rating. I certainly think that this game is worth experiencing and contemplating -- it doesn't take long. Perhaps Xavid will return to this project and expand it to the point where it better fulfills its potential. If not... well, perhaps someone else will come along to take another shot at realizing the vision shimmering in the distance here.