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Grunk, January 24, 2012
Having seen this game mentioned in Jason Scott's documentary Get Lamp, and as it had been hanging around my hard drive I considered it high time I played it. For some reason I had assumed the protagonist was a pig, so a genuine smile was brought to my face when i tried EXAMINE ME. It made me laugh out loud when I continued with EXAMINE PANTS.. and a genuine lol too, not one of those fake ones you send in chat messages. The overwhelming attention to responses makes it one of the best games I have ever played.
At first I felt possibly the biggest drawback to the game was its title, which somehow undersells it, it could have been called Grunk the Orc, or something of that ilk. However, after receiving a Microsoft Paint drawing my girlfriend had made after playing the game - of the aforementioned pig being chased around the fountain - I felt it necessary to withdraw this criticism! I also didn't like the room titles, which felt like they should be in a 1980s cave crawl game, and a Homer Simpson reference seemed out of context to me personally, but these were extremely minor niggles. What did seem in context though was the reference to looters killing and pillaging, which reminded me of the inanity of certain MUDs. This was the author using content external to the created world, but relevant content. I appreciated how the Grunk described locations by what wasn't there, and the author had obviously done a lot of work, as generic messages were all in the style of the Grunk's way of thinking. (So much so that I was beginning to think in a Grunkian way)
The basic premise of the game is that Grunk somehow has to return a pig to his master, and integral to this is interrogating the gnome with your grunt-like intelligence. Even though I was incredibly impressed with the range of conversation options, I did find the questioning of the gnome a little tedious - especially with the constant suggestions, something which may be inherent to Inform, as I noticed it it other games. Even in games like Monkey Island though, it was always the case of try all the options till you ran out; even so, perhaps it could have been implemented better than ASK ABOUT. There was a nice shortcut to "ASK GNOME ABOUT" anyway, and eventually I found out from the Help menu that there is also a short form TOPIC or T, so I suppose it was my fault for not reading the Help file, but I tend to avoid those like the plague for fear of solutions to puzzles being given away.
I did feel I was being driven to puzzle/story explications that I (and the grunk) might not necessarily have got, which leads me to some of the gnome's definitions. One of the reasons why adventure games have been so popular is that they inspire the mythological. Fabled stories have been passed down over generations, and do have a lot to offer. The explanations of alchemy were not in keeping with this world base, coming from modern misunderstandings of what alchemy is due to the limited notions of science today. So, a gnome having to account for alchemy to an orc seemed completely unnecessary on a variety of levels. Of course the world view of the author (or his character) is up to the author, but here it felt a little strained and not really in keeping with a fantasy setting. Joseph Campbell is a good source for the importance of mythology (he inspired Star Wars for instance) and why we shouldn't underestimate the past. So the downplay of alchemy felt something of a betrayal of the world to me (and not just a spurious one, as alchemy is an integral aspect of mythology). But this is just me waxing lyrical, and it doesn't have much of a bearing on gameplay.
But the scope of questions that could be asked was VERY impressive. In fact, where the conversation became interesting was when I impulsively asked the gnome about the author and got a response, which urged me to try a few more off-kilter questions. (Spoiler - click to show) There were responses to other names off the IF-MUD, OOPS, Harry Potter, Grue, and some others I spotted.The mossfuressence dialogue was a bit over-explanatory, which I think could have been funny with a bit more subtlety. I did think that asking the gnome about "gnomes" was more relevant than asking about "gnome" as I really did want to find out more about this created world, and so thought both should be implemented, even if it were the same message. At times we really got a sense of a mad-scientist personality in this gnome though. Ultimately I thought a lot of the suggested questions were redundant, and rather than having them as options they could have been there in the background to surprise the player if he typed them. There was no need to impress the player with the quantity of responses coded for (via the suggestions), as it seemed evident in the tightness of the game. The possibility of typing in fairly random questions and getting some responses was excellent, and reminded me of the Zenobi games written in the few years at the end of the life cycle of the 8-bit machines. They were witty and entertaining and experimental, just like this adventure (even the help files are amusing).
As far as possible inputs went, I did expect that I might be able to try pole vaulting the stream, so I was a bit disappointed that it seemed I couldn't. I was finding this strangely hard going despite the plethora of seeming clues with only 1 scored out of 7 (also my score went down one point, and I wasn't sure why) but with only a little more effort I had scored 3, and I found it such an incredibly and elegantly made game that I didn't care about my own ineptitude to solve the puzzles.
If I had so many critical niggles, it was only because this game really fascinated me and it seems not far off perfection itself.