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ParserComp 2021: Gruesome, August 2, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

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.

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