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About the Story
Middle ages left their footprints on the history of humankind: rich and poor, steel and wood, pest and wild celebrations mixed together in a one wild sauce. Technology was far from our days, but a true power existed: power, that can heal the weak and poison the strong...Witchcraft.
However, since magic was primarily perceived as bad, witches were hunted for many-many years...
Acknowledgements for testing go to: Saranya Balasubramanian, Victor Casañas
46th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
There’s recently been an IntFic thread about whether or not novice authors should be warned off the default Twine style – I think mostly the Sugarcube format? – for fear of turning off potential players. There was a substantial bit of back and forth without firm conclusions being reached, but I have to say, Witchfinder’s inelegant first impression makes me pine for the old comfortable white-black-and-blue. Per another review, there’s a font mixup that means that in my web browser at least, the letters come out looking chunky and, where bolded and highlighted to indicate a link, they’re smooshed into each other in a way that impacts legibility.
Meanwhile, I’m a sucker for historical fiction but the content of the intro doesn’t reassure either:
"Age of Enlightment gave a way to Romanticism, leaving behind medieval brutality and aspiring beauty of Reneissance.
"Scotland regained their territories and started its way into the Industrial Revolution.
The typos are unfortunate, and the breezy nods towards alternate history beyond the witchcraft identified in the blurb (like, did the Act of Union get reversed? Which territories are we talking about exactly?) didn’t fill me with confidence. Luckily, the game does bounce back from this unpromising opening, turning into a reasonably entertaining, albeit low-key, experience helping your neighbors through the power of hedge magic, but I do wish a little more care had been taken to polish things up so it could put its best foot forward.
But for the supernatural elements – and honestly, even with them – Witchfinders would be best characterized as a slice of life game. Pace the blurb’s suggestion that the protagonist will be dodging witch-hunters in a high stakes game of cat and mouse, most of what you wind up doing is running errands to heal a friend’s sick son or keep the local cattle from losing weight. You do have a “witch score” that ticks up if you arouse too much suspicion, triggering a game over when you reach four points, but while there are a couple places where the score can go up despite your best efforts, for the most part it’s easy to keep a low profile unless you’re bent on drawing attention to yourself (like, when buying a potentially-suspicious item, you can either offer an innocuous excuse, or react with hostile defensiveness. Guess which one increases the score!)
Solving these quotidian problems does require a bit of work, and indeed, it’s possible to fail at least one of them. These aren’t puzzles, exactly, since you’re typically either straightforwardly completing a task (e.g., upon being told you need willow bark, you go to the one willow tree in the area), or on the flip side, inadvertently locking yourself out of full victory (e.g. by exhausting all your options in the Esplanade before making a purchase in Lawnmarket, with no indication of why you’d need to do the one before the other). Still, the game lets you eke out a marginal victory even if you make a mistake, and replaying goes very quickly, so it’s hard to hold this against it.
For the most part the prose isn’t trying to be especially authentic, sticking to a direct, slightly anachronistic YA-ish style, but there are a couple nice touches. First, whenever you pass through the hub area, you can read a randomly-generated broadsheet which is drawn from real examples of the form, and second, there’s a butcher who speaks in – well, the author describes it as a Scottish accent, but I think towards the end this is getting into straight-up Scots:
"Aye, amurnay sure whit’s th’ issue thare, bit th’ animals we git lest time keek a bawherr puggelt.”
I was following up until the point where he started talking about a cake decorated with a naked Puggle.
Ultimately I found Witchfinders a lightweight bit of fun, and coming up on halfway through the Comp, that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at – not everything needs to swing for the fences, after all. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but there are worse things to be, and I have to say the bug that meant I scored 110 points out of a possible 100 brought a smile to my face – albeit wonkiness towards the end is always more forgivable than issues at the beginning, and not all players will be willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt after a shaky opening. Authors, make sure those first five minutes are airtight!
Witchfinders is a short twine game that is, as you may have guessed, about people who find witches. The twist is, you’re not a witchfinder – you’re a witch, and the absolute last thing you want to do is get caught. The game focuses on one day in your life, where you try to use your supernatural powers for good while avoiding the watchful eye of the Inquisition.
What I Liked
First of all, this game has great cover art (which is why I’m playing it so early)! The author is also credited with drawing the cover, so hats off to them for that – they’re clearly very talented in multiple areas.
Moving on to the game, I was impressed at the amount of puzzles and pizazz Witchfinders packs into its short runtime. The puzzles are all of the get-x-ingredient-to-solve-y-problem variety, but they each have a unique and engaging framework around them that keeps them fresh. There’s even a few tasks you can do seemingly just for the hell of it (why yes, I do like raspberry tea!) I felt the world of Witchfinders was well fleshed out, and nicely balanced hope and kindness against the inherent darkness of the premise.
What I Didn’t
Balancing difficulty in social puzzles is a tricky thing, and unfortunately the puzzles in this game fall on the side of “too easy”. In each case there’s obviously-right and obviously-wrong ways to tackle each problem, so you have to go out of your way to be obvious if you want to lose. I would have liked to see some more shades of grey in the puzzle design, with third options that would attract attention at the cost of doing good.
The game uses random descriptions well to keep things fresh. I liked checking the poster and reading the spellbook each run-through to see what ridiculousness would show up next.
This game has a brief intro about the history of Witches in Scotland, and then lets you wander around several areas with an inventory of items, taking on different quests and trying to help people while avoiding suspicion of being a witch.
This sounds like a great setup, but all of its a bit thin. Inventory doesn't really get used much, maybe once or twice. I looked around a bunch but only found one of the quests that I could finish. (I looked at the code and see I should be able to finish the other, and other reviews seem to have managed it!) There are some spelling problems (the author says it's not their native language, which is very understandable). After a while, my game just ended the day; I think it might be on a timer? And it assigned me some points.
So, overall, some good ideas, but it felt like it could be more fleshed out, I think. It had a lot of clever concepts that just didn't feel like they got fully used, to me.
In Witchfinders, you learn what it means to be an empathetic witch at the wrong place at the wrong time in history. Or any type of witch. The game takes place during a slightly altered Middle Ages, one of the more gnarlier segments of human history where, to use an understatement, being a witch was often frowned upon. Even looking like a witch or acting accordingly to social stereotypes about what it means to be a witch could be enough to set people off. Things would only go from bad to worse.
The game lets you wander around town with a handful of stores, streets, and scenery. The goal is to provide services to help people. Witch protagonists often conjure up ideas of blatantly wielding magic, but this is not a game where you cast spells. Nor is it a fantasy game. The only fragment of magic is (Spoiler - click to show) when you flee on your broomstick if you are driven out of the village, and even then, it is barely implied. The game seems to go for a more realistic approach when portraying a witch inspired from and actual point in history.
There is a creative score system that ties in nicely with the game’s theme. It is called your Witch Score and indicates the villagers’ suspicion towards you. This is a game where it is extremely bad to have a high score unless you want to satisfy your morbid curiosity and see what happens when you overshoot people’s tolerance. This was clever since you can observe how suspicion sparks and grows based on different choices.
Some of the gameplay objectives are rather murky. The main goal is to heal the boy in the house, but there is another quest where you help investigate a mystery behind ailing cattle. You (Spoiler - click to show) first talk to Alexina in the candle store to begin this quest and then find out more information by talking to the butcher. It is frustrating how you cannot talk to Alexina more than once to have a recap on the cattle issue or to share findings. The only other interaction is (Spoiler - click to show) when you give her the bone powder.
I also do not understand why sometimes the game ends once you heal the boy without being allowed to pursue other objectives. I am not sure why. Another thing that stood out was how your notes are hardly updated. Tasks that you already completed are still listed there. It would be nice if the notes could be more reliable as guide to point the player in the right direction.
Throughout the game the protagonist is often regarded with some suspicion, but it is not the same "Burn the witch! After her!" narrative that is often portrayed in this subject. Even when you (Spoiler - click to show) max out your Witch Score and anger the villagers, the game keeps things from going explicit. The protagonist merely makes a quick exit and leaves the village. If you are worried about playing a game that draws from the rather grim subject of witches being slaughtered for witchcraft you should know that this is not a graphic game. There are some implications here and there of witches being taken or killed, but the author knows how to tone things down without sacrificing the solemn quality of the story.
I like how the author strived to consult historical information when designing this game. You can learn more about this in the author's notes in the game. In these notes they make it clear that the dates have been changed since the Middle Ages occurred quite a while before the 1800s. Bits of worldbuilding are also incorporated to build the story. I thought the bulletin board added atmosphere and context on the time period’s language and societal norms. Even if the goal was not to recreate a pristine replica of the Middle Ages, it seems like the author has done their homework.
When I first played this game, it had the most horrible font choice. The words were difficult to read because the letters were in bold and squashed together with a narrow font. Plus, it hurt my eyes. I know whining about font may sound like a small detail, but illegibility can make or break a game. So, I stopped playing. Later I came back to it and thankfully saw that everything had been changed to a crystal-clear font. It really did make a difference.
Everything now is neatly designed. Black background, white text, and colour coded links. There are lines at the top and bottom of the page that also organize the layout. Together, they create a polished look.
This is a clever game to offers some engaging ideas. It did not knock my socks off, but I did enjoy it. The game has a close eye for detail and yet it was difficult to feel a deep connection with the story and characters. I certainly recommend this game because it is well done, but you may not feel inspired to replay it.