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Cute world, finicky parser, December 12, 2020
There’s a cold shiver of fear that runs down my spine whenever I see the words “parser-based” and “Windows executable” in a Comp blurb – the tell-tale sign of the custom parser. I think I formed this prejudice – and prejudice it is – fifteen or so years ago, and it’s even more unfair now, since I think many custom-parser games show up quite solidly these days (I helped beta test Happyland, for example, and it’s got quite the robust parser). Tangled Tales, sadly, undoes some of the progress I’ve been making on getting over my hang-ups, turning what should be an easy-going fairytale romp into a grim twilight struggle against an obtuse parser and a too-large map.
The first impression TT makes is a pretty good one. The engine allows for art, and the opening scene features a pleasant, pastoral view of a green woodland. There are menu-option shortcuts to out-of-world actions, and you get a choice of genders for your protagonist (either Cinderella or Prince Charming, from the blurb, though this wasn’t clear to me from the game itself – at first I wondered whether I was someone from the real world who’d been sucked into the realm of fairy tales). Common abbreviations mostly work, and there are some conveniences like EXITS to show exits, and WHAT IS HERE to show what objects can be interacted with (this is all spelled out in the included manual, which confusingly is tucked in a walkthrough folder in the download). And the setup is effective enough – your head hurts and you’re lost in the forest after overdoing it at a pre-wedding party, and now you and your best buddy Rumpelstiltskin (blessedly, he also answers to “Rumpy”) need to make your way back to the castle in time for the ceremony.
Sadly, the wheels start to come off pretty quickly. Some of this is just the lack of a last editing pass: despite choosing to play as the female main character, people kept calling me “Henri”, and there are a lot of typos and grammar errors. Then there are design issues, like guess-the-verb puzzles that make it hard to make porridge when you’ve got all the needed items and the steps are obvious, or that told me when I tried to dig a hole to plant some beans that “a spade isn’t suitable for digging,” or that completely prevented me from reading a signpost despite this not seeming like it was meant to be a challenge.
But some of the problems appear to be embedded in the parser and engine. I had a perennial issue where some commands simply wouldn’t work the first time I tried them, but would be accepted the second time. For example, the opening screen has a glass container (I guess a bottle) lying in a wheelbarrow. Typing TAKE CONTAINER got me this error: “An empty glass container isn’t here. if[sic] the object is in, under or behind another, you’ll need to be more specific.” After unsuccessfully trying a number of other options, I tried TAKE CONTAINER again and it worked. Ditto for DRINK WATER, and several other attempts to get items out of containers. And many puzzles involve interacting with other characters and getting them to do things, and the syntax here is really painful. Neither TALK TO nor ASK X ABOUT Y nor CHARACTER, ACTION are supported as far as I could tell; instead you need to type variants of SAY TO RUMPY, “UNLOCK CHEST WITH KEY”, which are quite a mouthful. And the game is inconsistent – to get into her tower, you need to type RAPUNZEL “LET DOWN YOUR HAIR”.
The engine also works in pseudo real-time, forcing you to pass a turn if you wait too long to type anything and occasionally having other characters wander in and out in between your actions. There are no timing puzzles so this doesn’t have much impact, but it did add an additional layer of intimidation since I was constantly worrying I was letting the clock run down, or that the movements of the bee and unicorn were important (Spoiler - click to show)(they’re not). Oh, and of course there’s an inventory limit.
Aside from these engine and parser issues, the design isn’t bad, with puzzles that fit the fairytale theme and generally make sense, at least once you internalize that Rumpy is there to help and is much stronger than you are. The fly in the ointment here is that the map is enormous, with four or five completely empty and pointless locations for every one that’s got something interesting to do. This culminates in an old-school maze that doesn’t appear to have an associated puzzle or shortcut, though I have to confess that by this point I was having quick recourse to the walkthrough.
While I can’t personally relate, I know for many folks part of pleasure of creating IF is making a new engine and parser, as much or more so than making the game. So it’s not really helpful as a critic to say “maybe you should have just made this in Inform or TADS?” – but nonetheless that’s what I kept thinking. The features of the engine that makes this one distinct don’t really play much role in the game (outside of the first couple screens and the last few, there’s really not much art), and with a tighter parser and a much-smaller game world, TT could have been a lot of fun, but as it stands I worry it’s too hard a nut to crack to get at the good stuff inside.