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About the Story
A story of mild and non-debilitating obsession.
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Along with The Baron, this was one of the first parser games I ever played when I discovered interactive fiction back in 2014. At the time, I thought it was great, but on The Baron’s heels it felt less substantial (what wouldn’t) and I gave it four stars. Now a few years have passed. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower remains a touchstone for me. It deserves five.
In many ways, this game helped shape my outlook on the parser medium. It’s not about puzzles. It’s not about “Aha!” moments that come from deducing the right command to type. It’s not about deep simulation or intricate world modeling. Instead, it’s about guiding the player through a sequence of events carefully designed, above all else, to produce a mood.
Your only goal is to ascend a tower with which the player-character is “mildly” obsessed. No real obstacles stand in your way. It’s twilight, and the tower is located on a campus whose population is thinning as night falls. You’re alone to contemplate the scenery.
As a traditional short story, this wouldn’t work. There isn’t much story to tell. As a space to explore, were the game to be stripped to its bare geography, it also wouldn’t offer much. There’s a parking lot, a lawn, some empty halls, etc. These locations aren’t compelling on their own, and as I mentioned, they’re not that deeply implemented. What makes the game is the experience itself that the player has while moving through the environment.
That word, “experience,” is awfully vague, but it’s what matters. A story as the word “story” is normally understood isn’t required, perhaps isn’t even advisable, because the player’s experience is the story.
It’s the writing that does the trick here. Well, it ought to be. This is a text game. When a reader has to interact with text, move through it, move it around, this changes both what text does and what it has to do.
Not just anybody could’ve written a game like this and made it good. It’s good because Ryan Veeder’s got his finger on your pulse as you’re playing. He knows where you’ll try to go, what you’ll try to do, what you’re thinking at each step. He’s attuned to the experience you should be having, which allows him to gently guide you along and drop little surprises at the right moments. Finding a plain old quarter on the ground, for example, which you don’t even need, feels special.
Wrenlaw is another Veeder game with a similar style. I have to admit, I don’t like it as much. It tips more into modern literary melancholy, where you’ve got mundane objects and scenes, and they’re significant because they’re ever-so-slightly sad. But not too sad. Just enough to feel wistful. This sorta thing, to my taste, is like playing with fire for a writer. It’s really hard to nail. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, however, pretty much does nail it. Gothic Tower feels more self-assured, and it’s certainly more slyly constructed. I don't think it's going to budge from my personal parser canon anytime soon.
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower is a strange game. Even though the player character's objective is made incredibly clear - to ascend the tower - the experience of playing it feels almost aimless. In away, Ascent is a distillation of one particular theme that runs through many of Veeder's works: "hidden" or tucked-away content, rooms that are fascinating but fully optional, whole complex subsystems, as complex as the rest of the game put together, that an inattentive player could never know they missed. In fact, The Ascent of the Gothic Tower has so much of this kind of thing that it almost feels like the whole game is optional - a sort of array of strange places and interesting experiences, that don't seem to represent any meaningful journey on the part of the player character; I think this feeling is magnified, not diminished, by the fact the player character is embarking on such a literal and (by authorial fiat) emotionally significant journey.
None of this is to say that The Ascent of the Gothic Tower is not a good time. It certainly is! Veeder's mastery of the craft of interactive fiction is on full display here, with charming and well-implemented subsystems of all sorts, and an occasionally eloquent narrator-PC who has his own sort of off-kilter charm.
Playing The Ascent of the Gothic Tower feels like wandering around in a huge, empty, static palace of stone. You have no reason to be there, and no reason to keep moving forward, other than that it's beautiful, and you want to stay. And the fact that you do want to stay is a testament to Veeder's excellent craftsmanship.
This game is classic Ryan Veeder: smooth implementation and rich settings, a linear story with some tension balanced with down-to-earth humor.
You play as someone who is, in fact, mildly obsessed with climbing to the top of a tower. The tower is described in rich detail.
The game contains a sub-game that is also quite enjoyable, and which uses changes in text over time in a brilliant way.
If you like Ryan Veeder's other games, you'll like this one, and vice versa.
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