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About the Story
As a grue, it's your duty to keep the underground kingdom safe from vandalism by sorcerers, swordspeople, and other ugly monsters who keep invading the dungeon in hopes of stealing a sackful of your friends' favourite possessions. Invariably they just get lost, and it's your job to find them, then do your best to guide them safely back to the surface. (What else would you do, eat them?) Made for Parsercomp, Gruesome is a revisit to classic dungeon crawl text adventures from a new perspective. How many adventurers can you save?
Nominee, Best Puzzles; Nominee - Skeleton, Best Individual NPC - 2021 XYZZY Awards
2nd place - ParserComp 2021
"Overall, Gruesome hit a sweet spot for me of not-too-hard and not-too-easy puzzles plus a solid dose of nostalgia made fresh by the PC-as-grue inversion and some gentle parodic elements."
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(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)
I copped to my inexperience with Zork in one of my earlier reviews for this Comp, but of course, even though I’ve never played, I know pretty much everything about it. Partially this is from reading things like the Digital Antiquarian’s series on the early days of Infocom, but largely it’s because of parodies. By my count there have been approximately… (checks IFDB) four trillion games riffing on all things Zorkian, with the violent, kleptomanic tendencies of its notional hero coming in for a kicking as early as Enchanter, and the heroic journey of progression inverted and parodied in Janitor and Zero Sum Game. Gruesome cleverly combines and re-inverts these parodic tropes, placing you in the shoes (claws?) of a noble grue trying to help a mob of violent, dull-witted adventurers complete their quests so they’ll leave the poor denizens of the dungeon alone.
This is funny, but it’s still a one-and-a-half joke premise at most, and throwing in a reimplementation of Hunt the Wumpus doesn’t do much to change things up. Yet Gruesome really works, on the back of solid puzzle-design and jokes that do the work to be funny, rather than just gesturing at something that happened in Zork and calling it a day.
Let’s start with the funny business. There’s a broad array of humor on display here, so I have to imagine at least some of the jokes will land for most players. You have your direct Zork jokes, sure – and these are good, from the opening line to “It is bright white. You are likely to be slain by an adventurer” – but also silly puns (“Handel’s Opening Number” is my favorite, because when you look at it, it’s an awful pun, but when you think about it some more, you realize there’s an additional, even worse pun hiding in plain sight!) as well as a whole bunch of physical comedy as the adventurers blunder around in the dark.
And save for the cute-as-a-button Wumpus, the adventurers are really the stars of this particular show. They each skewer a specific heroic archetype, like the mighty-thewed barbarian who “hails from the frozen wastes of the far northlands and, in accordance with Jones’s Law of Sartorial Inversion, dresses in a few leather straps and a tiny loincloth,” and they’re modeled with stunningly realistic AI: just like real adventure-game heroes, the bastards wander around at complete random and get into fights at the drop of a hat. My first time through the game, I was informed that one of the dopes had snuffed it, and I thought it must have been because the dragon had got him, but no, the pugnacious %#@#$ had picked a fight with one of his fellow hotheads and wound up pushing daisies – like a Zork-themed remake of No Exit, the dungeon in Gruesome may have monsters, but hell is other heroes.
Speaking of my first playthrough, it ended with all the adventurers save one dead in a ditch. That’s all right though, not because they deserved it (though they did) but because the game’s a giant optimization puzzle that’s meant to be played more than once. As you do your initial round of exploration, you’ll slowly work out the rules of the game and solve some of the component puzzles. Mostly these involve creating and extinguishing light, as the surface-dwellers unsurprisingly flee the dark and seek out rooms where they can see, which allows you to manipulate their movements. Invariably, solving the individual puzzles – which are a pleasing mix of simple object manipulation, maze traversal, and lateral thinking – will lead to an adventurer going somewhere they oughtn’t, and my initial impression of the game was a bit overwhelming, with chaos breaking out everywhere. But once you get your oar in and start considering how to sequence your actions and fit the pieces together, the meta-puzzle isn’t actually too hard to crack, though it’s very satisfying to come up with the final resolution.
Is there room for improvement in Gruesome? Sure – the climax and denouement aren’t quite as compelling as the main body of the game, for one thing, and there are some puzzles, like the one involving the dwarven foreman, that can feel a little perfunctory. And the lack of grue puns beyond the title is a real missed opportunity – like, your protagonist should feel grueful after allowing one of the adventurers in their charge to perish, or let out a self-congratulatory “gruevy” upon accomplishing a task. Or if you play your cards right in the attic, perhaps you could have finished the game as a bride-gruem. Come on, these were lying right there! (Perhaps the author considered them, but found them egruegiously bad).
Don’t let this significant flaw keep you from enjoying Gruesome, though. It’s a fun, funny farce whose jaundiced view of the typical IF protagonist doesn’t make its parody too acidic (I kind of want the slice-of-life sequel where you just hang out with Jessica the orc and the Wumpus), and it’s got some of the best puzzling of the Comp – plus the implementation seems quite smooth, though of course given I’m not playing with fresh eyes, I’m not best suited to make that judgment. If all Zork parodies hit this level of quality, keep ‘em coming!
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are eaten by a grue, it seems, in the latest work by Robin Johnson, the author of Dectectiveland (2016), and, it should be noted, Hamlet – The Text Adventure (2003). A homebrewer with a ludic retro edge, Johnson gives us Gruesome, a riposte to Zorkian (and Adventurian and Wumpusian) tropes. In Zork, you are a chaotic plunderer with a wit keen enough to manipulate everything around you until you master the dungeon, though in a sense (literally at the end of Zork) replicating the dungeon as master, becoming its very spirit. No wonder so many Zork players set about creating their own copies! Johnson undermines this acquisitive mania for control by showing that our prospective masters-to-be don’t understand the dungeon (our twisty little passages all alike are actually “a network of sensibly designed access tunnels, all easily navigable.”), don’t respect its inhabitants (our concern that we are likely to be eaten by a grue is countered with a message that appears when the player does try to eat an adventurer: “Please do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes about grues.”), and aren’t adapted to its terrain (the power which the grue uses to outflank and outwit the adventurers is that its eyes are adapted to the darkness and theirs are not). Thus, Gruesome invites us to reverse the perspective on Zork entirely, where a grue, rather than an obstacle programmed as an ad hoc retcon for an implementation issue, is actually the being that facilitates the adventurers’ progression and ensures their safety whilst they roam the dungeon they’re seeking to rob and rule.
The gameplay reasserts this opposition by being all about actively protecting the adventurers from themselves and each other. You optimize a path around the maze to ensure that you are always one step ahead of the adventurers as they haphazardly career towards mutual destruction. One is reminded of the soothing effect of conspiracies, which assure us that someone in the shadows is guiding everything, that we’re not all just bumbling aimlessly towards our collective demise. This heroic grue who challenges its representation and who challenges the representations of the adventurers begs the question: can you make a postcolonial Zork? Gruesome feels kind of like Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King’s subversive inversion of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
However, despite the highminded themes, for the most part Gruesome is content to play out its concept in silly and lighthearted referential wink winks. The game is packed with references to both 70s/80s text adventures but also a TAKE ALL of nerdy pop culture from yesteryear. Thus, Gruesome’s tone is only sometimes Zork reinvestigated, with the rest of it being broad strokes silliness regarding received narratives, a la Monty Python’s films. For instance, we’re given an orc “wearing a T-shirt that reads “Green & Nerdy” and playing with miniature figures on a game board”, so we get a Weird Al fan playing Dungeons & Dragons, except of course the fantasy dungeon for the people living in the fantasy dungeon is Bosses & Bureaucrats. This inversion between the fantasy and the mundane operates in so much of Gruesome’s logic, yet often the game adopts an eager to please persona that’s ready to whirlwind you through cleverly reimaginative puzzles, so you’re only occasionally asked to do anything other than be amused at how silly this all is. I do think some of the really flippantly gamey elements undermine what Gruesome creates, as when the orc, after you beat her minigame, simply says “Take anything you want as a token of my gratitude.” Great, well I solved The Puzzle NPC, I’ll be taking all your treasure, thanks so much, ta! Isn’t this just Zork again?
Despite its cheery countenance, Gruesome delights in its dizziness, with gameplay that sometimes feels like herding sheep through Omaha Beach. Because the game is time sensitive and wants you to perform things in a specific pattern, I wish Gruesome had provided a bit more feedback about when you had done something worthwhile, especially signalling when waiting for something is worthwhile so that you don’t feel compelled to run off to do something else while a sword charges. Although technically your score ticks up when you Do Things, it doesn’t draw your attention to each addition, and the score in IF is never a particularly reliable marker of progression. An early example: I found the barbarian in the room with the lamp and gave it to him and was immediately beset with several questions. Was I now in an unwinnable state? Had I solved a puzzle? Was my action a completely arbitrary red herring? Surely there’s a more optimizable pattern to discover than just going to a room and applying the noun to the noun? I know this ambiguity thrills other players, but for me it just produces an anxiety that I’m missing something, especially in a game that advertises itself as both nonlinear and requiring replays (hyperventilating my way through flashbacks of Curses!). One thing that confused me when I looked at the walkthrough was that apparently we’re not intended to engage with the knight in our first encounter, despite the fact that we discover him one room south of the dragon, and his description references him being eaten by a dragon. I thought I was like on the dinging edge of the clockwork encountering him there and was bemused as to how I ought to save him from seemingly imminent demise. I’m not entirely sure when or why or how the adventurers move and die, in part because it appears certain elements are randomized.
That randomization speaks to Gruesome’s prevailing sense of mystery. The dungeon you wander feels so simulated and intricate and interconnected that you’re constantly drawn to the unknown factors, a player is stimulated with a constant sense of more lurking behind every object they find. I don’t know how much is actually implemented, but every base interaction feels like it hides several layers of intricacies beneath it. Sometimes you’re waiting for turns on end as the musicbox cranks around you, wondering, what am I missing, what should I be waiting for, what happens when this all perfectly aligns? This is a complex game with a lot of moving parts and a sense of both anxiety and serendipity: in that way, perhaps, for all its Zorkian and Adventurian and Wumpusian flair, it’s most saliently a scion of The Hobbit. Thus, whichever your old school roots, you’re sure to have a topsy turvy romp through nostalgia in the misty yet strangely sweet Gruesome.
I beta tested this game.
This game is written using the author's own Versificator system, an excellent system built up over many years.
In it, you play as a Grue in a classic adventure. However, you have no interest in murdering adventurers. But you do want to get them out!
The game reverses several parts of classic adventures. Instead of mazes, you move through orderly access tunnels. Instead of finding light sources, you find ways to dim light.
This is a clever reversal and a fun way to play.
The only thing I had trouble with was the overall main mechanic of rescuing adventurers. The puzzle structure is organized in a way where it's hard to know you're making progress until you've figured the whole thing out. But that's mostly a personal reaction and may not apply to others.
I also played this as part of the Seattle IF Meetup and think it's appropriate for group play. We all had a lot of fun!
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