Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter

by Mike Gentry and David Cornelson

Episode 1 of The Miradania Series

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Great for newcomers, nothing special for experienced players, July 24, 2009

So here we have Textfyre's first finished product, the first serious attempt at commercial interactive fiction in a long while. The story is of a street urchin who is destined for greater things in life in a generic non-magical medieval world. This is part 1 of 3 and the story ends in a cliffhanger, so expect to pay for the whole trilogy if you want to see a full story.

The custom-made FyreVM interpreter imitates a book spread where the text is on the left page and illustrations on the right page. Mostly the picture page shows just the main character and occasionally locale pictures, and most of them are what look like halfway-done sketches. At the moment the illustrations are not much more than a waste of half the screen. Apparently Textfyre is adding more pictures for the upcoming versions so this is likely to change. The map spread is nice though, it's like a built-in virtual feelie. I was hoping it could be printed out to make it a real physical feelie too.

The puzzles are mostly trivial and the solutions are usually spelled out by the story or accompanying NPCs. The player is left to type commands given more or less explicitly in the previous paragraph. This is arguably more interactive than "press enter to continue" but not much. From this naturally follows that the story is not only so easy that it could even be called puzzleless, but also heavily railroaded. Locations are mostly void of anything else than the one thing you need for the plot to continue and in many places there's nothing else to do than the glaringly obvious action that advances the script.

The main character is suffering slightly from a lack of personality other than the ability to be nervous of everything. The (Spoiler - click to show)cross-dressing aspect has potential to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the narrative never leaves the comforts of reinforcing gender stereotypes (and this game has no "heteronormativity off" command!). This is of course understandable when considered that Textfyre intends to market the game to schools and libraries, but that doesn't make the underlying attitudes any less annoying.

That's a lot of nitpicking for a game that's still far better than the large bulk of amateur work, but if you're aiming high, you'll be judged against higher standards. For a commercial venue there's a surprising amount of rough edges, for example standard "You see nothing special about x" replies to examining many things.

There's a silver lining here: easy puzzles, handholding from start to finish, and flashy interface make this a perfect game to introduce someone to interactive fiction. I would not hesitate to recommend it to someone new to the medium if they are willing to pay for it. The only minus in this plan is that the most freeform non-railroaded gameplay is right at the beginning which might put off some people.

The existing IF community is not the target audience of The Secret Letter and it shows. Last time I wished for a version made for children - now I find myself wishing for a version made for adults. It's hard to predict how Textfyre's potential customers will react to the game. The expectations of a greater audience are often not the same as a niche group's so there's a good chance that it will find fans from outside the current IF community. It'll be interesting to see how the company and its products evolve over time. The next publication is supposed to be more to the tastes of current IF players, so I'm looking forward to that.

Comments on this review

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David Cornelson, March 31, 2015 - Reply
Somehow the part of this review about "cross-dressing" missed my radar. I get that there's certainly an audience and positive aspects of writing stories with that kind of openness, and we absolutely could have done that...but honestly we never really even thought about it. We were just thinking about 12 year old kids and a good story. In hindsight, it would have been extraordinary to write the kind of story Juhana is thinking about and probably ground-breaking.

Even so, I think it's too much to criticize the game for _not_ opening that path. I know there was another review that complained about similar gender stereotype issues. I think it's problematic to expect something to be what it is not.

(Spoiler - click to show)Jack was hiding in plain site with her clothing choices for safety reasons. This was encouraged by the women at the maiden house because young orphan girls can face terrible dangers (something even true today, in the real world). It was not a gender issue in the story and shouldn't have been commented on in any other way. This isn't to suggest girls should be expected to hide their femininity. Circumstances can vary and wisdom should be used at all times. We believe we made Jack very wise (street-smart).
Juhana, March 31, 2015 - Reply
(Spoiler - click to show)I don't have a problem with Jack's portrayal, or her eventually accepting her female identity. It's the scene where she takes a bath and her male identity is washed away with the all the other crap, literally:

"The water is scalding hot and exquisite. You rub the soap into your reddening skin, feeling everything wash clean away. Not just the dirt and the sweat, but everything [..] With all the dirt and grime scrubbed away, you hardly look anything like the urchin you once were. You're not Jack anymore; you are Jacqueline Toresal, daughter of the Duke."

The symbolism of washing away the bad things is so strong that it alone makes it look as if the game wholeheartedly disapproves of the protagonists genderbending ways (even if it's unintended). It would have been fine if she had accepted her gender identity either gradually or during some other scene where the symbolism isn't that strong.
David Cornelson, April 2, 2015 - Reply
(Spoiler - click to show)When Mike wrote that scene, and finding the secret letter and reading it, I had tears. Revelations at that age _are_ big. Thinking you have to hide is a powerful force...and then realizing you don't, for whatever reason, is also powerful. It's clear to me that Secret Letter really was for 8 to 10 year-olds. Not adults. Even 12+ is probably too old given today's huge Teen Drama draw.
Ghalev, July 25, 2009 - Reply
The line "this is part 1 of 3 and the story ends in a cliffhanger" made this review worthwhile for me, since that's a question Textfyre has been refusing to answer with any clarity on Usenet :(
AmberShards, July 25, 2009 - Reply
Looking for a "heteronormality off" command in a game aimed at children, huh? What else needs to be said?
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