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A mirror darkly, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Fairy tales are tricky things. As creations of folklore, most of them lack definite authors, or definite shapes. The Grimms and Perrault are touch points, of course, and their styles and sensibilities have a significant influence on what we understand a fairy tale to be, but their work was as much curation as literary creation, wrangling a mass of pre-existing stories into some form of shape. That’s perhaps one reason why they’re simultaneously so stable – there’s a version of the Cinderella story that goes back 2,000 years, to Strabo! – and so protean, as the chthonic elements of the tales (love, marriage, death, inheritance, social mobility) are continuously reconfigured to speak to contemporary audiences. So the same story can give rise to the enjoyable pabulum of a Disney movie (themselves already continually sequelized, rebooted, and remade), or the feminist lex talionis of an Angela Carter novella: it’s just a matter of squeezing the kaleidoscope just so…

Perhaps too this is one reason why fairy tales are a fertile source for IF: they’re broadly-accessible stories that provide a nice familiar hook without imposing too much of a fixed structure on how the narrative progresses, allowing for the author, and potentially the player, to decide whether they want the story to lean more towards traditionalism or subversion, without thereby doing too much violence to the premise. There are currently 54 games with the “fairy tale” tag on IFDB, with Fairest riffing most specifically on Emily Short’s games in this area (per the author’s end note, at least) but bringing plenty of its own ideas to this venerable subgenre.

Another reason fairy tales work well for IF is that their protagonists are always haring off on some quest or other, and so it is here, with Prince Conrad – the introduction efficiently conveys the premise, which is that despite being the eldest son you’re generally rather feckless, so you must jump through some hoops to convince your father the king to ignore to importuning of your stepmother and give you the throne rather than to one of your younger stepbrothers. There’s a court magician on hand to give you a magic feather, an impossible-seeming task to retrieve a splendid carpet from somewhere in the poor part of the town… it all scans so neatly that you’d be forgiven for not consciously noticing that the game asked you for your name when you started it, but regardless of what you type Conrad is always called Conrad (and, more importantly, is always a prince).

You will notice, however, that the game greets you with a help screen that, beyond an introduction to IF, also provides all sorts of play supports, from a verbs list that eliminates annoying guesswork to a TASK command to make sure you’re always oriented towards the next goal. I’ve seen folks say they played this as their first parser game, and I think it’s a really outstanding choice, since the author’s gone above and beyond to make it so welcoming.

Implementation is butter-smooth throughout, with simple navigation and talking sufficing to resolve most challenges, and more unique actions sufficiently well-cued that recourse to the VERB command shouldn’t be all that necessary (pains have been taken to make moving in and out of doors painless, for example, which sounds simple but isn’t given that the player could try to enter a house by knocking, opening the door, or trying to go in the relevant direction). It helps that this isn’t a puzzle-focused game, of course – though there is one, and it’s clever – but even still, Fairest is impressively and invitingly realized.

Of course none of that would mean very much unless it was a fun, engaging game. And happily it doesn’t take long to realize that Fairest has a lot to offer to experienced players too. Much of this has to do with its expert foreshadowing – it knows that you know how fairy tales work, so you’ll be squirming in your seat when you read an exchange like this between Conrad and a woman who definitely isn’t the evil stepmother from Snow White, not even a little bit:

She says, “I’d be happy to make you the most majestic carpet ever seen, only I have no thread with which to weave it. If you can find me some suitable thread, made of gold, I’ll make the carpet from it, if you promise me my heart’s desire when you are King.”

“Of course. I promise,” you say lightly.

Any player worth their salt sees that as a shoe waiting to drop, and a signal that we’re not just going to be blindly recreating a series of fairy tales before being ushered off for a happy ending. Then there are the metafictional flourishes that quickly start to seep in too, with the fourth wall breaking under the stress of several important characters, all of them girls or women… There’s a lot that’s set up, many balls thrown in the air, as you run through scenarios based on Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beaty, Little Red Riding Hood, and more, the game gives your plenty of hints of dramatic events to come without tipping its hand too heavily.

Puzzles are also well foreshadowed, too – you encounter many before you can solve them, which helps keep things feeling open and engaging even though the game’s almost always entirely linear. Admittedly, sometimes I felt like the game did veer on playing itself: there’s one puzzle about restoring a statue to life that describes what you need to do fairly directly, then has Conrad do some kibitzing that spells things out even more directly. But again, Hadean Lands this isn’t, and Fairest wants to get you to the ending, or rather endings, where the complex threads the game has been weaving come together.

I won’t say too much about the details here, even in spoiler-text, but as someone who finds endings almost invariably disappointing, I think Fairest’s finale works really, really well, as the interplay between protagonist, player, and parser begins to collapse, fairy-tale tropes aren’t so much subverted as inverted, and some telling points about the commodification of female beauty (hell, girls and women in general) land with a light touch in amongst the popcorn fun of an Avengers-level crossover hitting its climax. For the player, at least, everything ends happily ever after, as they’ll have experienced one of the real highlights of this year’s Spring Thing.