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Mythology without the Importancy, November 24, 2021
Hercules! raised some warning flags that I'm happy to say were just flags. First, it drew heavily from mythology, not the first IFComp game to do so. Second, it promised yucks, specifically yucks with a main character who's less than cool (eczema, asthma, lack of strength in general, perhaps mild OCD that is used to help Hercules know which task on the list is next.) Third, I was worried it might play a bit too dumb about Hercules or make the twelve tasks trivial. There's also the general possibility it would either force you to know too much mythology, or it would imagine all the wrong thing.
However, overall, knowing a bit of mythology helps the puzzles go down easier. And Hercules may be more brain than brawn, but not in the "look at all the weird stuff you know, you dork you" sort of way. He uses his wit to solve impossible-seeming tasks given to him by his cruel cousin, Eurystheus. Twelve total, just as in the mythology. Yes, the list says ten, but if you remember your mythology, you'll know why this is faithful, and it may even provide a hint. (Spoiler - click to show)Hercules got dinged for enlisting help on two of the original ten. So that was well-played. And while some of the puzzles feel like a stretch, the game's supposed to be the clever side of silly, and overall it works. The payoff in laughs is more than good enough. However, since there are twelve diverse puzzles that really all should work, there's a good chance one could be a stopper. So don't feel guilty consulting a walkthrough to keep the fun going.
Hercules is the sort of game that could fall apart at any time, because it's a farce, and "wait, it got TOO corny" is always a step away. But then I looked back once done and it never did. There's some suspension of disbelief I am a-okay with. Trick guns did not exist B.C., and neither did asthma inhalers. So if you're the sort of person who thinks a clever obvious anachronism invalidates a piece of work, well, you will miss out. Also, I like how Hercules, so bad at physical stuff, bounces from isle to isle. It reminds me of The Adventures of the President of the United States, an IFComp entry from way back when, where you were the President and did very silly things as you traveled to rooms labeled Canada and Mexico and whatever. That game's jokes landed but never quite came together. Hercules does better. The puzzles are a bit deeper, and they were a lot more fun than the times I was assigned mythology for an English class. I felt undedicated because I had trouble moving up from D'Aulaires. I wanted it still to be fun! Well, now I've had some fun mythology. That showed those adults from my distant past whose names I don't even remember!
The first quest with the lion establishes the sorts of jokes you're going to see: your cousin gives you a gun to shoot the lion, but it's a stage prop. You want to cut the lion's fur, but you're allergic. And so on. You enlist the help of your troublemaker nephew Iolaus for another task. Some areas are closed, because you panic if you do tasks out of order, and you don't want to visit certain scary places without a good reason. This is a creative way to help the player not wander too much, and certainly my big-picture fear starting out was "what if I go on completely the wrong tangent when discovering where to go?" While this whole ordering-the-tasks restriction may leave you stuck, overall I think it helps prevent sprawl. Though really, the game's not very big. At twenty room-countries, with at most one thing to do in each, you can cross them off and move on. But if you don't know your ancient Greek geography, it's a bit hard to envision, so I appreciated all the bumpers I could get.
The gags (and in-game hints) all held up well enough to get me through the maze on Crete (of course there's one! Every big text adventure that pokes at conventions needs a maze and a few cool ways to subvert it.) There were a few joke solutions, a few trivial solutions, and a few slightly odd ones, like what to do with a frozen ham. I admit to using the walkthrough a bit, but everything was sensible enough that on playing again in a few weeks to revisit the fun, I was able to logic everything out. The backstory with how Hera hates you is amusing, too. I forgot why this is the case in actual mythology until I googled afterwords, but I like how it's covered here. Hercules genuinely has no clue why Hera hates him or could hate him. He assumes it's because he's just clumsy and such. It reminds me of adults I was probably smarter than, hiding stuff from me as a kid, and not figuring the secrets is less shameful now. Hercules doesn't think of that sort of thing--and, as a side point, I'm glad the game doesn't play the "HA HA HERCULES IS BAD WITH GIRLS" angle, which would've made me cringe.
So Hercules! does a good job of playing slightly dumb without veering off into stupid territory or abusing its protagonist. Its easy targets are about silly laughs, which may seem unambitious, but it just hits so many of them. It reminded me of an Internet study done where people seemed to think mean people knew more. Hercules is definitely not a mean game, whether to its main character or you, the player who may not remember their mythology. It doesn't seem to know much, because it doesn't force anything in your face. There are enough jokes to distract you along the way that you never feel lectured to. Maybe it's the amusing ranks you gain for each quest you solve. Or perhaps it reminds you of your own physical or emotional weaknesses without cutting you down. It had a lot more heart than I thought it would, and the jokes that made me roll my eyes also made me smile.
It also reminds me of the quote from Amadeus where Mozart asks "Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus?" Well, here, we are Hercules, and we'd rather be him than the other mythological characters who sit on thrones or what-have you.
Oh, and on the self-indulgent side, I was thrilled to see someone with a last name of "Weinreb" enter IFComp. I considered Bernie Weinreb as a pen name for Ailihphilia, but I went with N.Y. Llewellyn and, in the second version, Sir Apollo Paris (mythology tie-in, sort of!) I commented on this and wasn't surprised the author himself was aware of, and enjoyed, that sort of speculation.