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Not without its flaws, but quite the romantic charmer all the same, January 30, 2009
It strikes me that Emily Short came to IF implementation by the wrong way round entirely. Infocom began by meticulously implementing static environments, and only gradually began to include dynamic NPCs in their games, albeit never entirely successfully, as the disastor that was their one totally NPC-centric game, Shogun, will demonstrate. Ms. Short, meanwhile, dived in at the deep end with Galatea, and only as her career progressed gradually began to pay as much attention to her environments and her gameplay as she did to her characters.
Pytho's Mask is one of her earlier efforts, and so is very much conversation-focused, often at the expense of its world-model. A few simple puzzles aside, its scenery is obviously not Ms. Short's first priority -- in fact, it's downright underimplemented, something we will never see in one of her recent games. At the same time, though, it outshines most of her early games by having a fairly compelling plot on which to hang all the meticulously implemented conversation. While, say, Galatea or Best of Three can often feel like dialog in search of a narrative -- like amorphous talking heads suspended in a sort of gray soup chattering about nothing that really matters in the end -- Pytho's Mask has a narrative thrust that serves it well, and that makes it perhaps my favorite of her early games.
The game has the flavor of a romantic fantasy of the sort generally targeted toward teenaged girls and sold in the Young Adult area of the bookstore. There are plots and machinations aplenty; the protagonist is a young woman not only capable but also beautiful; and her potential love interests are either charming rogues or emotionally troubled Good Guys who of course also have the looks of a model. There is sexual tension aplenty, but the prospect of actual sex is only hinted at. It's a genre exercise, certainly, but an extremely well done one, filled with Ms. Short's usual gossamer prose and memorable imagery. (And I'm certainly not opposed to genre exercises in IF; it seems to me that given the current limitations of the form a well-done genre exercise is about the most we can reasonably hope for, and striving for more often leads to the worst kinds of tedious pretension. But I digress...)
You, the aforementioned beautiful and capable young woman, are actually a member of a secret order assigned to protect the King from some people who hope to harm him at a special party that takes place just once every hundred years in honor of the arrival of a certain comet in the sky. You will spend the vast majority of your time wandering about the party, observing and conversing with the attendees and trying to sort out who the bad guys are. While things can veer dangerously close to Amorphous Talking Head Territory at times, the plot machinery is generally tight enough and the conversations generally brief enough to make you feel like you are participating in a genuine narrative rather than an experiment in IF conversation systems.
But speaking of conversation systems, Ms. Short has of course tried out many of them over the course of her career. This time out we have a hybrid of an ASK/TELL and a menu-based system. Basically, you the player get to select what topic you would like to discuss. Upon doing so, you are are presented with a menu of from one to four specific phrases to choose from -- or, more disconcertingly, you are sometimes presented with a completely blank menu. But I don't think that's really supposed to happen. It's just one of this one's fair number of notable implementation flaws.
Conversations are quite dynamic, varying with the state of the game and your knowledge of the storyworld -- although things don't always work quite right here either. During my conversations I was greeted with quite a lot of non-sequiters, some jarring and inappropriate shifts in tone and mood, and even the occasional opportunity to speak knowingly about things my character as of yet knew nothing about. And sometimes the whole thing can be downright infuriating. You are instructed at the beginning of the game to seek out the King's physician and speak to him about the King. Typing "TOPIC KING" when conversing with him, however, just leads to a conversation menu that is all about... the Prince! And trying to navigate through the conversation system to explain what needs to be done to avert disastor can be almost as difficult as figuring out what needs to be done in the first place, as your PC stubbornly refuses to say what she urgently needs to say to prevent the King from meeting an unhappy fate indeed. The system is, in short (ha!), a good idea that works pretty well in the abstract, but falls down quite a lot in this particular implementation.
Still, what Ms. Short was attempting to do here is damnably difficult even today, and this game lacked the benefit of many years of experimentation and discussion, having been made just at the time when post-commercial era IF (driven largely by Ms. Short's own interests and experiments) was first beginning to seriously grapple with issues of dynamic NPCs and conversation. For those reasons, and because there is so much here -- the prose and the atmosphere it conveys especially -- that works so well, I'm willing to cut this game quite a lot of slack in this area. You should be prepared for a bit of frustration and an occasional lack of polish that you might find surprising in an Emily Short game if you tackle this one. Still, its strengths far outweigh its faults. I actually prefer this one to some of her more well-known works. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a giddy and innocent teenage romance.
(I re-played this recently using the Z-Code version that was still on my harddrive. If any of my complaints would have been alleviated by playing with the Glulx re-release that I just saw is available, my apologies.)