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The Wizard Sniffer, November 16, 2017
Buster Hudson isn't as popular as he should be. I think that will change after this year. He wrote Oppositely Opal in 2015, about a witch with valley girl mannerisms who finds herself trapped in a cabin with all her spells cursed to work in reverse. He wrote Foo Foo in 2016, about a fairy detective investigating crime in a Chinatown-style slum occupied by anthropomorphic animals trading illegal cheese. Until he released The Wizard Sniffer, his other 2016 game might've been my favorite. That was Her Majesty's Trolley Problem, where you man a harpoon cannon on a royal trolley traveling over a grass sea, transporting a captive skeleton admiral.
But I think Wizard Sniffer has dethroned Trolley Problem.
It's a game where you play a pig in service to a knight and his squire. The knight bought you recently because he thought you were a "wizard sniffer." Now he expects you to sniff out a shapeshifting wizard in a castle and help rescue a princess. Although you can't really locate magical artifacts or people by smelling them, smelling things is pretty much all you can do.
Your snout is like a pointer. You point toward objects, and your companions handle the interaction. Ser Leonhart, the knight, always attacks everything. His squire, Tuck, attempts more sensible actions: turning a doorknob rather than trying to kill it. At first they stick together, but as the game progresses, you can separate them. Many puzzles are constructed around bringing the right person to perform the right task at the right time.
As Hudson has demonstrated before, especially in Oppositely Opal, he knows how to design clever puzzles. Opal's puzzles might still be his best. Since it's a one-room game, the puzzles have a greater unity. Wizard Sniffer sprawls more, with new areas constantly unlocking, new puzzle sequences unlocking in old areas, and various puzzle styles thrown into the mix. Some are fetch quests; some are environmental. My favorite is probably a hide-and-seek game. But the sprawl means it's almost inevitable that players will get lost wandering the map at one point or another, wondering what to do next.
What do players do when they're lost? Turn to the hints. Most games fear this possibility and do everything they can to convince players not to look. Hudson embraces it. Your hint system in Wizard Sniffer is delivered by two fleas behind your ears. When you OINK, they drop clues, with a twist: one is true and one is false.
The hint system therefore becomes its own puzzle. Players don't feel like they had to give up by using it. Instead, they're rewarded with more jokes, more characters, more story.
Once again, Hudson has done this before. Opal had Killjoy the Hint Cat, and Foo Foo had another detective you could consult. But Wizard Sniffer's fleas rise to the next level. Their influence permeates the game, allows it to sprawl as much as it does.
Nowadays, when players will search for walkthroughs after a few minutes, rather than continuing to puzzle over a puzzle, I think it would be wise for more authors to adopt this approach to hints. The fact is they've become a standard part of how players experience games.
Hints aside, puzzles aside, I want to talk about the story. It's a comedy fantasy parser game, and although the interactive fiction world is rife with those, Wizard Sniffer stands above most. Perhaps by standing on their shoulders and wobbling a little. Imagining people in a stack feels appropriate for a slapstick game like this.
It's true that the game is mostly an extended joke. You're a pig scuttling through a shapeshifting wizard's castle, and though you can't locate the wizard with your nose, things have been shapeshifting. One castle resident has accidentally transformed into a clown with squeaky shoes, to give an example. Moreover, the wizard's family is preoccupied with creating puzzles, which provides an in-story excuse to have them everywhere.
So far, so good, but we're in standard territory. What's special about Hudson's games is how he takes these conventional tropes and probes them to find the heart. This isn't just a silly story about transformative magic: it's a story about how identities transform too, and how they sometimes don't, and sometimes should, and sometimes shouldn't.
Every character conforms to a rigid fantasy archetype. Knights are knights. Squires are squires. Princesses marry princes, and princes are happy to have them. Wizards are evil. Monsters are monsters. Except that they aren't, unless they are.
As the story develops and we move deeper into the castle, learn what's actually happening, these identities begin to crack. Squire Tuck isn't more than a squire. He truly is meek and servile. But he also is more, because he's a person. Ser Leonhart, meanwhile, refuses to expand beyond his role. He forcefully constrains himself to an archetype. It stops being a joke when you realize his identity is a prison he's locked himself inside.
Other characters are also locked inside their identities, and not always of their own volition. But there's magic in the air. Gender and social roles dissolve. People learn to accept who they are.
Other reviewers have compared this game to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'd compare it to A Midsummer Night's Dream instead. Although it's absurd, the enchantment is real, not just a parody. Not that it's Shakespeare, mind you. But it's not cynical. It doesn't mock. It wants to uplift the spirit.
I do have a few quibbles. Hudson favors long prose passages to deliver key scenes. Wizard Sniffer occasionally takes these past my limit. I'd prefer more fine-grained interaction. He also makes a few pop culture jokes that didn't land for me. I can't help but think how they'll date the text, make the timeless fantasy less timeless. Finally, there's one sequence where you can drink different magical potions, which is very exciting until you try them and realize their effects aren't as dramatic as you expected.
But these are indeed quibbles. If you like traditional text adventures, you should play The Wizard Sniffer.