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A rich, varied, and open-ended choice-based game, February 18, 2019
The Master of the Land is a long, choice-based game set in a small, imaginary European country on the Mediterranean Coast in 1834. You play as Lady Irene, the daughter of a prominent nobleman and politician, although your penchant for spending time in forests studying plants is considered decidedly unladylike for this time and place. The events of the game unfold over the course of several hours at a party and festival at the Palace.
The presentation is top-notch, with attractive images accompanying the text for most choices, as well as a sidebar containing a list of the rooms you can access from the one you're currently in. There's also a map of the palace where the game takes place, as well as a link to "reminders" for what your goals are so far and information you've uncovered.
Gameplay entails selecting from a list of options in the room you're in or moving to an adjacent room. Each selection gives you (usually) a few paragraphs of text. There are lots of scheduled events at the party; you can choose to attend some, all, or none of those. You can pursue another goal related to your botanical interests. Alternatively, there are several additional storylines that you can uncover by being in the right place and the right time and making the right choices. And many events are on timers: For example, dinner is at ten, and if you're not in the dining room on time, the doors close, and you have to find some other way to spend the next half-hour or so.
All of this means that there is a lot going on. If you're a completist (and I have some of those tendencies), you should be warned that there is no way you can do everything in this game in one (or probably even a few) playthroughs. There are just too many intertwined events on timers. In fact, if you pause for just one enticing choice in a room as you're trying to get to another room for a particular event or catch up with a certain person you may miss that event or person entirely. This happened in both of my playthroughs, in fact.
(Spoiler - click to show)On the first one, the young poet Octavio told me to listen for the crying man in the dining room. I paused for just one moment on my way to the dining room to ask the servants about the whereabouts of some other men I was trying to find, and I reached the outside of the dining room just as the doors were being closed!
On the second playthrough, I was trying to identify the woman in the mask with all the keys. I finally figured out who she was, and I saw her entering a certain room. I paused for just one choice to pursue another goal (I forget which one), and when I followed the woman into the room, she was gone! I never did find her again.
It all combines to create a rich, varied experience.
A lot of times when I play choice-based games it's clear the author has designed the game to anticipate every possible set of choices I could make and has written text to account for that. Or, at most, the author tracks a few stats to affect gameplay. But, for the most part, playing a choice-based game has me feeling like my choices are still within a small set of outcomes the author has already planned out for the game. You just don't get the feeling of sheer open-endedness in terms of the events of the story that a good parser game can give. This is not to say that parser games aren't constrained in their own ways, or that choice-based games can't achieve other important artistic goals besides providing an open-ended experience. But The Master of the Land, with its location-based events, time-based events, and various goals to pursue, feels more open-ended than any choice-based game I can remember playing right now. And, since it's a choice-based game, it doesn't suffer from the problems open-ended parser-based games usually have: guess-the-verb issues, many of your actions resulting in default or error messages, or wandering around all over the map with nothing interesting happening.
It must have been an incredible undertaking to code this game and get all the potential plot events coordinated.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Master of the Land.