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Short Makes Writing a Masterpiece Look Easy, March 24, 2012
Play it if: you loved everything about old-school IF other than its cruel gameplay and frequently illogical puzzles; if you want to see Emily Short's talents for innovative gameplay in a more traditional framework; if you're a sucker for prose that is both elegant and vividly detailed.
Don't play it if: Come on, just play it.
In almost every sense of the term, Savoir-Faire is a masterpiece, and in my opinion the best of Emily Short's longer games.
The chief technical innovation is the magic system, which allows the protagonist to blend the properties of different objects and create interesting cause-and-effect relationships. This system is not merely for show: the puzzling possibilities of this game mechanic are explored very fully - you need to use this skill to acquire items, reach areas, observe rooms, and more. The gameplay never feels repetitive as each puzzle involves a different use of these skills, and this is one of those games where you want to take a week to give yourself time to stew over all the possibilities. Another less visible but no less wonderful detail is the fluid dynamics (allowing you to have containers with different amounts of water, to pour them on the gruond, to have the resulting puddles evaporate gradually).
If this is an impressive achievement - and make no mistake, the Lavori d'Aracne is implemented in all sorts of interesting ways - what makes it even more brilliant is the quality of writing to hold it up. Because links can only be forged between objects that are similar in meaningful ways (form, function, or appearance), it becomes necessary to examine objects closely to look for possible links. Accordingly, the aristocratic mansion setting is brought to life with amazing levels of detail; you can examine details that are minute almost to the point of absurdity, sometimes discovering some lovely anecdotes (the reason for the family's cups and plates all being metal made me laugh out loud).
These aspects by themselves would be enough to make Savoir-Faire a great game. But added to this is a back-story that becomes something of a fore-story - the tale of the protagonist's origins and the possible fate of his family. You get a glimpse into the kind of conflict fans of Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice would love, involving aristocracy, intrigue, and class identity.
If I had to sum up Savoir-Faire in one image, it would have to be a tapestry. The magic system is intricately linked to the puzzles, and the puzzles' raisons d'Ítre are linked to both the magic system and the backstory. The result is that you have a game with a medium-sized setting (a mansion) but which feels incredibly tight. There's an almost effortless sense of completeness at work here.
This is perhaps the game's ultimate triumph, for if there was anything we tended not to associate with old-school IF, it was writing this strong. Games like Zork may have had interesting settings and great humor, but they tended to be much looser, with puzzles rarely subscribing to some overarching puzzle or story. In this sense Savoir-Faire is the culmination of an entire genre of interactive fiction, recreating the wonder of exploring a mysterious setting while tying it into an intricately interwoven plot and puzzle system.
The one real flaw in the game is almost absurdly minor: there doesn't feel like much of an overall difficulty progression (Spoiler - click to show)(for instance, the solution to the rat-hole problem seems almost absurdly simple in comparison to navigating the maze, or helping Marie escape D'Envers) which is probably due to the fact that the puzzles themselves don't really have to be done in a specific order. But in a story which has an abundance of fascinating puzzles to offer already, and which is admittedly emulating the exploratory style of early IF, this isn't really something to raise much complaint about.
In sum, this is a game pretty much everyone should play. Newcomers to IF might find it a bit much to take in when you throw in the Lavori d'Aracne, but somehow I think they'll be fine with it.
A definite masterpiece.