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Classic Oxbridge College adventure, February 6, 2015
In 2015, Christminster is almost 20 years old. It's closer in time to the Infocom classics than to the present and this is getting truer and truer. Trying to compile it from source requires digging out the Inform 5 compiler (which seems to crash with a segmentation fault?). The real question is how has it aged? Is it a timeless classic or a period piece?
I think the evidence is clear that it's at the very least a timeless near-classic. One can recognize a game that plays with Inform's new-for-the-time capabilities in what may now seem a stylized fashion, but which for its time must have been new and fresh. The important point is that the story holds up. The writing is witty, the puzzles are well-structured, and the whole thing fits together.
The most impressive quality for me though is the near-perfect timing and coherence of the whole. This is the definitive Oxbridge College adventure. The College feels right, the buildings look right, the eccentric Dons are right. The setting is some ill-defined post-war period; perhaps the point is it could be any time between say 1945-1954 (post-war, no mention of rationing) and 1972-1988 (women are admitted to mens' Colleges). The very timelessness is critical, and the author uses this, for example in the prologue which mentions strawberries. There are also a Chapel, a punt, a garden.
Particularly effective is the use of time. The game's structure uses the player's achievements to advance the clock. Within the different episodes, there is flexibility, however. The underlying plot is the driven forward by certain actions with irrevocable consequences (it is possible to get stuck in a non-winning situation). The hint system becomes vaguer with time. I certainly peeked at the source code a few times. I had not played the game for a long time and thought I remembered the winning sequences, but I was mistaken (a good thing, I would argue).
Getting all the points is not easy, but the game is fair in the sense of Chekov's Gun. Everything that is of later importance is indicated in some fashion. Possibly not the a reference to the Meldrew family buried in the game, but that is not actually needed. A tribute to Curses and to the origin of Inform.
Finally, while the author explains the origin of Christminster and Biblioll, it is an interesting exercise to see whether the setting is more like Cambridge or Oxford. The use of the word "supervision" suggests Cambridge, as does the river flowing South to North, although there are no historical Cambridge colleges on the west bank of the Cam. And the name Biblioll is of course based on Balliol, while it is older than Cambridge. In the end, it doesn't matter because the disparate elements come together and one is immersed in what feels like a College.
One of my favorite (Christminster spelling) games every. Every student of Inform should play it at least once.