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About the Story
at last, you now need to get yourself and your fleet back home. Decide as if it all depends on you, trust as if it all depends on the gods, and you will have an amazing quest...
98th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
An examination of the source code, and a bugfix
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Number of Reviews: 13
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Hey, a Nick Montfort game! I loved Ad Verbum! But this is, uh, not that. I saw a couple of forum threads talking about this game before I’d played it, and let my curiosity get the better of me, which I think was to the good in terms of level-setting my expectations, but really did ruin the gag. I think now that the Comp is over, most folks know what's up with this one (and other reviews on this page spell out what's what) so I'm not going to spoiler-block the rest of the review, but fair warning that I discuss exactly how the game's central mechanic works.
So this is a Mad-Libs text generator in a lightly-implied science-fantasy setting. There’s an overwrought introduction and even “strategy guide” that orient you towards the game – more on those later – but the program just spits out a series of yes/no questions prompted by telling you that your fleet has come across an ADJECTIVE NOUN (“hexagonal outpost”, “dim land”, “luminous planet”, etc.) and allowing you to VERB (“seek out help”, “sneak up and raid”, “speak plainly”), or not. You get a result, which could be positive (“you win cattle”) or negative (“a ship lost!”), but this is based entirely on a die roll and the outcomes are completely disconnected from the choices, and even the situations (like, winning cattle seems a logical result of raiding an outpost, but refusing to speak plainly in a tiny capital will likewise sometimes net you a reward of kine). And there’s zero state-tracking.
So the game qua game can’t really hold one’s interest for more than a minute or two, and the prose, as you can tell from the examples above, is likewise workmanlike at best. What there is is the intro and strategy guide. The first lines of the game itself are “The gods grant victory. Now go home!”, but above the game window is the motto “I must decide as if it all depends on me, trust as if it all depends on the gods.” And throughout the page-and-a-half strategy guide, the reader is confronted with a series of questions and statements prompting them to second-guess whether any course of action is better than any other, given that anything could happen and your ideas of what’s safe or unsafe might not be right. There’s also a lot of verbiage about how the player’s “cultural world-view” might structure how they understand what you “might think of as” chance or chaos.
There’s a point being made here, or at least a question being asked, about agency and subjectivity and what if the real game isn’t being played on the screen but in our heads comma man. I’m not saying the point/question is necessarily a bad one to be raising, to be clear! There are different interpretations you can put on what Amazing Quest is offering up, and probably someone more attuned to the aesthetics of the Commodore-64 presentation experiences it differently than I, who never had one, do.
But I don’t think that the way this reasonable question is being raised is very interesting or successful. Execution matters a lot! Like, think about how Rameses, or the unjustifiably-forgotten 19th-place-finisher-in-the-2002-IFComp Constraints, are all about a lack of agency and paralysis, but they give the player a lot to do and are rewarding to engage with. Now compare them to a notional game – let’s call it Bartleby – that presents a situation but responds to literally every player input with “I would prefer not to.” Same point, sure. But while Constraints left me dancing around the room making comparisons to Dubliners – oh yes, I was even more pretentious as a 21-year-old than I am today – I doubt I’d have anything like the same reaction to our imaginary Bartleby, and to my mind Amazing Quest is much closer to that, I’m going to say wrong, side of the spectrum. There’s something here, sure, and if you’re so inclined it can prompt you to think interesting thoughts – but I’m not so inclined so there you are, my thoughts about it are uninteresting.
The game around this game is the game.
The author provides the source code for this game on the game's website, but it's in the form of an image, and the source is minified so as to make it harder to read.
Luckily, Ant Hope did the hard work for you, analyzing the source.
And it turns out, your choices have no effect. (If you played this game like I did, pressing enter for Y on every turn on your first playthrough, you probably guessed as much.)
The instruction manual and strategy guide are deliberately misleading about this, but, in hindsight, their awkward phrasing includes subtle hints that your choices have no consequences. Like this passage from the intro:
If you allow your imagination to help you elaborate each stop on your journey, and if you truly get into the mindset of the returning wanderer, Amazing Quest will offer you rewards as you play it again and again.
So, this game leaves something to be desired. But the meta-game has a puzzle: decode the source code. And now I've spoiled it for you.
But the meta-game also has a toy: play Amazing Quest and use your imagination to tell your own story with it.
If the documentation had been more honest about the game's purpose ("it's a little procgen ditty for the C64; see if you can imagine your own story to go along with it,") I could have given it a better rating.
But instead, I claim that it's a prank, a joke played on the player. I appreciate that the prank is a puzzle with a solution, and that there are even some clues to help you solve the puzzle. But IMO this game, this prank, treats its players disrespectfully.
This game would be 100% better by having players opt-in to the joke, so we're all in on it together. As it stands, you, having read this review, can now enjoy Amazing Quest on its own terms, though you probably can't enjoy the process of decoding the source, not now that I've spoiled it.
"My uncle who lived in New York got me on the Howdy Doody Show when it was at the height of its popularity... and I was in the peanut gallery, and I remember seeing it all and thinking, It's all fake, it's a lie. But I wasn't disillusioned. I thought, This is what I'm gonna do. I wanted to be inside the magic trick."
Most other reviewers consider Amazing Quest to be a prank and have rated it accordingly. I’m not going to say that they’re wrong; I just want to try and explain my experience with the game and what I got out of it.
I played Amazing Quest during IFComp and enjoyed it. I’ll admit that nostalgia does some of the work, including the tiny Commodore 64 emulator screen with its blinking cursor and the pause while the program thinks after hitting return. The sparse descriptions (“luminous outpost,” “tiny stronghold”) suggest a bigger and more complex world with thematic elements of classical epics and science fiction. Overall I found it to be a short, satisfying experience that made me think about my choices in the context of the story.
I found out later that it’s all a trick, of course: the program is just a random text generator which throws away most of the input, tracks nothing, and will eventually end in victory no matter what the player does. I wasn’t upset about being fooled, though. I appreciated how the author was able to create the intended experience with nothing but 12 lines of C64 Basic, procedurally generated ADJECTIVE NOUNS, and a page or two of text outside the game.
Mike Russo makes a good point about the game being played more in your head than on the screen. That’s the magic trick I want to learn.
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