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A fresh take on the old-school style, April 21, 2010
Emily Short has pioneered a number of advances in IF, most notably the radically innovative conversation model of Galatea. Galatea was not universally loved; my sense is that many people thought of as too experimental or too "new school" (i.e. all story, no puzzles) to be generally accepted. Not one to turn down the implicit challenge, Emily set to work on Savoir Faire to demonstrate that she really did "know how to do it" in the old school style.
She succeeded dramatically, removing any doubt that she is one of the modern masters of interactive fiction, and joining the pantheon of the New Implementors. Savoir Faire is arguably her most acclaimed work: Too big for submission in the IF Comp, it swept up most major awards in the 2002 XYZZYs and was a finalist for the remainder.
Ms. Short's signature style seems to be daringly huge conception followed by lengthy and intense efforts to bring her new brainchild into being. In this case, the kernel of genius is her conception of the "Lavori d'Aracne", a type of sympathetic magic that allows users to link objects together, entangling them physically and conceptually in interesting ways. Where most authors might go on to write a perfectly delightful game full of special-purpose code to produce the "fun parts", Ms. Short seems to have labored to create an entire simulation system for it -- implementing not just the magic but its very laws.
This has two effects: First, the modeled world seems incredibly rich and deep as a result of your freedom to deploy this new power in just about any way that respects the built-in laws. It is entirely possible to forge links that are useless to the main character, but which nonetheless function in a consistent manner. Second, it sets the bar for coding very high, as the complexity of the game's system soars.
Unfortunately, Savoir Faire seems to have been a bite that was slightly too big to chew from a coding perspective -- though I played version 8, there are still (minor) bugs to be found. These are completely forgivable and do not detract from the entrancingly intricate story, but they did throw some jarring notes into an otherwise grand symphony.
Though this would normally qualify as a five star entry in my book, I'm only giving four stars because of the unfairness of one particular puzzle. Why "unfair"? Because:(Spoiler - click to show)The puzzle with the dancers and the letter was a sharp departure from the consistency of other linking puzzles. You are required to build a link between the two objects, but there is little to indicate that this should be possible according to the laws of linking as I gleaned them in a week of playing the game.
All other links seem to require at least two points of similarity from several categories: form, material composition, color, decoration, or physical relation/relative positions. This is true for both puzzle-related links and general case legal links, but no such correspondence exists for these two items. In my perception, the picture of the dancers would count as decoration on the old letter but must correspond to the physical form of the dancers themselves.
The dancing/encryption idea was very clever but this particular link seems not like the others; I am certain it is enabled by special-purpose code and would not be allowed as a general case. So, even though I knew the letter and dancers were related, even though the picture of one is on the other, so consistent was the negative reinforcement from my many failed experiments in linking that I spent a whole day without it ever occurring to me that a link of these two things might be possible. After all, some puzzle solutions do not directly involve links.
Maybe this incongruence was intentional -- many famous old school puzzles are at least as arbitrary, and there is a mocking undertone running through the game directed at old school fanatics (like me). I suspect this was just an error in continuity, though, and it had a disproportionate impact on my perception of the overall quality of the playing experience.
Then again, maybe I'm just annoyed that I didn't think of the solution on my own, since I was doing so well without hints to that point, and I may have eventually found the right command through brute force (a definite echo of the oldest of old school play). As she mentions in her own hints page, I always had the option of decrypting the letter out-of-game.
These minor flaws aside, there's no question that Savoir Faire is one of the great accomplishments of the new era, and I highly recommend this work to all players. It delivers the best of both the new school (dense story) and old school (great puzzles), and left me with a hunger for more that will no doubt be satisfied by the sequel, Damnatio Memoriae. Allow yourself one hint to avoid getting irritated like I did, and you'll probably end up giving it a five-star rating yourself.
[edit: With the passage of time, my irritation about that one puzzle has faded, and I have come to realize what a tremendous accomplishment this work embodies in its exemplary integration of a simulationist implementation with both the puzzles and the story. As such, I feel compelled to increase my rating to five stars, since it is undoubtedly the pinnacle of that class. Hats off to Ms. Short!]