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About the Story
Leave Rome in the dead of night. Pursue an hermetic quest throughout Medieval Europe. Find arcane knowledge or utter despair. Blessings of Babylon.
43rd Place - 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2015)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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You are on a pilgrimage. Where to? It is uncertain.
I had mixed feelings about this game. On a micro scale, there is enough to make it infuriating, things which shouldn’t be there. On a macro scale, though, Pilgrimage is about the search for home and making things right again.
What I liked about this game was that the scale of travel in this game suggests sea voyages every time you go in a compass direction, painting the game’s geography in broad sweeps instead of tiny intricate detail. This was fitting, as the PC travels across the world, so giving a general, though evocative, impression of different countries worked better than focusing on tiny details.
Pilgrimage is structured in small scenes, typically set in a particular country. By solving a puzzle or doing the ‘right’ action, you get to the next scene, and so on and so forth. The challenge, then, is figuring out what the action is; this was not always intuitive.
When travelling, the people you meet for such a short time sometimes seem themselves to be temporary while you are the only permanent thing you know; so it is with Pilgrimage. The NPCs in this game are little more than tools to solve a puzzle- was this a good thing or bad thing? I’m not sure. (Spoiler - click to show)This got mighty weird with the gallant knight, though - he's clearly besotted with you, and for you he's just an automated sword? In the context of a prolonged pilgrimage, it made sense that the PC never formed any long-term relations with anyone.
In the end, I relied on the walkthrough to bring me through the game, and I have to say that not worrying about getting lost or putting the game in an unwinnable state let me focus more on the writing - location descriptions is definitely one of the author’s strengths.
There were small niggles which would have infuriated me if I had not had the walkthrough: it has several implementation slips characteristic to parser IF. There is some confusion between definite and indefinite nouns when taking inventory and when you manipulate objects (Spoiler - click to show)(“In boat is sailor.”), which made the prose read weirdly. The synonyms the game accepted (for objects) could be more extensive. Messages when I take objects are triggered whenever I take it again (Spoiler - click to show)(such as the longsword, instead of only when I take it the first time - which produces quite amusing messages without context. For a normal release, this would not have left a good impression. As an IFComp entry, even less so - but Pilgrimage is redeemed by its broad arc and quite lovely writing.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
Pilgrimage is an atypically macro-scaled parser adventure which impressed me with one brief-prose-vivid, new and geographically far-flung location after another. It's also a game whose finishability, as in the player's ability to complete it without being severely gated by a walkthrough, I'd rate as close to nil. Even with the walkthrough, I wasn't able to clear the game. Pilgrimage does list several testers, so I'm going to assume I ran into a circumstantial bug rather than that the game is literally unfinishable.
Pilgrimage's PC is a Roman woman (ancient Rome) of significant alchemical learning who leaves her hometown seeking further knowledge of an existential entity known as The Great Work. She's like Carmen Sandiego in that each move she makes in one of the traditional IF compass directions tends to take her to an entirely different country. I've hardly played any parser games that place a series of huge environments (cities, countries, et al.) in a series of discrete locations like this one does, so whether by not knowing conventions or ignoring them, Pilgrimage sports a novel style.
Some kinds of historical realism or likeliness are important to Pilgrimage and some aren't. I don't think learned Roman woman really set out on globetrotting missions like this one. How many of them got to be this learned in the first place? It was when the heroine met a dragon early in the piece that I clocked I was going to be encountering both fantastic and ahistorical elements in the gameworld.
The Great Work, about which the heroine wants to know, is a 'real' figurative thing (I had to look it up) but the 'De secretus resilio', the cypher she carries at the beginning of the game, is not. So the whole adventure is a kind of 'What If?' with infrequent intrusions of complete fantasy. It enforces the idea of a pilgrimage by having you continue to move towards your goal, or goals, without turning back. Early on, the puzzles are gated in such a fashion that they tend to be self-contained within locations. This means the player doesn't have to worry about missing things or having to backtrack.
Most parser games involve browsing locations on a small scale and revisiting them. Pilgrimage is far more episodic, but whenever it departs from this linear itinerary it becomes very difficult as a result. It also invokes a large range of methods for interacting with the environment and other characters without teaching the player whether any of them are particularly good, or which ones might be of use more than once. As such, in its later stages it too frequently becomes impossible to guess what you're expected to do next. You mightn't be able to fiddle around; you'll just have no clue at all.
I had especial ire for a section in which I was expected to TELL SULTAN ABOUT (name of a city previously visited in the game) at a moment I felt I could have tried to tell the Sultan about anything from my whole game-life experience. Admittedly, Pilgrimage shields the player from this kind of thing most of the rest of the time by having all the characters speak different languages so that they don't even have a shot at understanding each other.
To say that the heroine has a wide range of adventures would be an understatement. Her character seems unclear and merely pragmatic at the journey's beginning, a typical situation at the head of an IF parser game, but she is quickly revealed to be capricious and somewhat ruthless, especially when weary of her pilgrimage. (Spoiler - click to show)She manipulates the knight into service, sacrifices him, threatens the alchemist, burns down a church, steals from the church, et al.
The overarching joke of the game for me is that it presents the pilgrimage as being a relatively noble undertaking when it begins, but it pans out badly enough for the heroine that she devolves into a tired, angry, cursing character who detests all the exotic foreign lands she has traversed and just wants to go home.
I got a lived aesthetic meaning out of this game that I really liked, and a sense of briefly touching the weird little customs and behaviours of a wide range of characters; the plague doctor, the superstitious natives, the wary caravanmaster, the macho knights. And a sense of doing so across different lands. But admittedly, since I couldn't complete the game, I'm missing whatever the end might have given.
Pilgrimage is a deeply symbolic game. The author has based the game around several symbolic progressions, including a progression of colors, the stages of grief, and more.
It is set in a pastiche of the medieval world, and it includes almost the entire world. Typing E will not take you one room east, it sets you off on a journey of months or years, to Russia or China.
You travel around trying to gain alchemical knowledge, and acheive a kind of transcendence. You seem to worship a dark Babylonian God, because Blessings of Babylon of disputable benefit are given to several people.
The IFComp release was a bit buggy, but I hope the author will do a postcomp release fixing the bugs discovered in the comp. This would result in a great game that people could discuss for a long time to come.
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