Pit of the Condemned

by Matthew Holland


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Foreboding, intriguing, well-designed, poorly executed dungeon game, December 3, 2015
by strivenword (Utica, New York)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2015, blog rerun

(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)

At the conceptual level, Pit of the Condemned is a refreshing find. A parser game, it selectively incorporates a variety of tropes from different kinds of old-school adventures, cutting out the irrelevant details from each trope and uniting the gameplay around one strongly implemented mechanic. It clothes the experience with an internal mythology reflected by the setting, allowing it to portray a serious and earnestly sincere fiction side despite being a more mechanically oriented variety of IF. The strength the concept is paired with a well designed map layout, but the novice implementation prevents the game from rising above the level of a generically old school novelty.

The part of the concept that is executed best is the central mechanic of fleeing from a Wumpus-like monster. The resulting dynamic feels somewhat like a board game and also evokes the spatial maneuvering from the original Hunt the Wumpus. Like in the classic, the player must determine the location of the monster from atmospheric messages and use the terrain against it. Unlike in Hunt the Wumpus, this monster stalks the player character through the map, at times following closely behind until shaken off the trail.

Instead of allowing the monster's seeking code to run every single turn, the monster puzzle is based on a unit of "actions." As explained in a brief meta message appearing discreetly when the mechanic becomes relevant, actions are mainly restricted to the travel commands and to waiting. (I suspect game-critical commands such as those for shouting to alert the monster or setting traps are probably also actions.) The monster only moves when the player performs an action, leaving other commands in a timeless limbo. While not advancing the turn counter for looking and examining is precedented, Pit of the Condemned also suspends time for taking objects and using the ASK/TELL conversation system. This causes a huge discontinuity between the player's commands and any sense of coherent reality about the game world. The resulting board-game-like feeling is consistent with the overall focus on the monster chase mechanic as well as with the sparing use of randomly placed elements. Jarringly, a 12-hour clock is printed in the status line, suggesting a closer association with narrative continuity than the rest of the implementation supports.

A vaguely roguelike dynamic appears from the fact that a small number of tools are scattered randomly over the map, alongside one or two keys that might not be randomized. The map contains four or five zones that fulfill many of the stereotypes for adventure game landscapes -- vacant cities, a sewer system, a cavern containing a fairly direct reference to the old school text adventures. Based on the nature of the central puzzle and the old school feel of the zones, I assumed that I would need to create a map. However, the map is small enough and the zones integrated together well enough that I never ended up making a map and still successfully defeated the monster twice. The map feels like a dungeon in the generic sense of the word, as used in game genres ranging from roguelikes to MUDs.

The strategy behind the first actions are dependent on the initial placement of the beast, which is also random. This would not be very significant except for the fact that the player character is accompanied in his or her death-by-monster sentence by an NPC named Iza, (Spoiler - click to show)who has an injured ankle and cannot walk. Most of the time, Iza will die almost immediately, since the monster charges the starting location within a few moves. Often, it seems to be impossible to prevent her death, but occasionally the monster is far enough away that the player can go toward the monster and then go in a different direction in order to lure the monster away from Iza by shouting.

The significance of the fact that the monster is not called a "wumpus" or any other nostalgic reference shouldn't be overlooked. This is the difference between a flimsy hodgepodge of overused material and an insightful application of tried-and-true conventions portraying a creative vision, although badly implemented. A spark of brilliance lies in the way that the game rewards close attention to its world's details, implying a continuity behind the game's components without narrating any explicit backstory. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point, examining a skeleton reveals that the ancient population of the city weren't completely human. Deeper in the dungeon lies a religious building containing a depiction of some sort of deity, and its features mirror those of the skeleton in some ways. (This is not spelled out, but left to the player to infer.) The implications regarding the nature of the beast and of the beings that once inhabited the city are fascinating.

This is done without much of a narrative component. There is a brief scripted exchange at the beginning, where two NPCs -- a magistrate and a guard -- leave the player character and Iza to their fate. Beyond the few shallow interactions with Iza that are implemented, the player's decisions don't feel very plot consequential, at least partly because of the vast mechanical-narrative divide created by the separation of "actions" from other turns. (Spoiler - click to show)The end of the scripted sequence has Iza explain that it may be possible to "find a way out" if only the beast can be killed. However, killing the monster results in the immediate end of the game, presumably as the win condition. No closing text is provided to acknowledge the player character's next hurdle of trying to find a way to get out of the Pit and then to survive as an outlaw. If the player manages to save Iza by luring the monster away from her, that achievement is never acknowledged.

Although following most best practices, the implementation is uneven. Room titles are inconsistently capitalized. Many decent descriptions are provided for nouns mentioned in the room descriptions, but the mechanism for defeating the monster is so simple and so explicit that the gameplay feels insubstantial. The several very good components never come together in a solid execution. Despite all this, Pit of the Condemned is capable of delivering legitimate fun in response to reasonable gameplay. More significantly to me, it shows a rare appreciation for the power of subtle narrative implication. The sum of the whole is not what it could be, but these pieces could be woven masterfully.

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