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Questionably amazing, December 5, 2020
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.