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A country per move is the Pilgrimage groove., November 18, 2021
(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.