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About the Story
We were the Algophilists, obdurate in our longueur and waiting for our quietus in the tenebrous of our morbific abode; join us.
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The Algophilists' Penury must take the award as the most arcane and prolix of interactive fictions, and I've played a bit of Gamlet. Jon Stall has a vocabulary almost equal to the greatest of verbose authors (Mary Shelley and her perquisitions and purlieues comes to mind) and he employs it in the most prevaricatory of stories. The protagonist of his tale is a strange collective who are looking back (possibly from beyond the grave) on their time when they were woefully poor and engaged in depravities.
For a game ostensibly about masochism, it does a very job of punishing the player. Foremost, there is the viciously opaque language that forces all but the most erudite of players to struggle to put together meaning. And then what little of the scant gameplay there is pushes the player to fully embrace the role of the algophilists. In the end, they are a collective formed by all those that play the game.
Unfortunately, the game as it is is very short with low implementation. It leans heavily on the novel default past tense first person plural responses offered by Ron Newcomb's custom library messages extension. Also, where it says 'soubriquets' in the text (a just about acceptable variant), the game actually only understands 'sobriquets'. Jon has released the game into the public domain along with its source, so perhaps we'll see some Algophilist remixes in the future.
I don't claim to be an expert on game design. But from what I've gathered, I believe most creators and critics of IF adhere to some version of this principle: that a well-designed game is one that is easily accessible to the player. Such a game may pose challenges, maybe even very difficult ones, through puzzles and the like. But the basic processes of interacting with the game, and getting information about what's going on and what's expected of the player, should be as easy and painless as possible. Thus the player may jump right into solving the fun puzzles while hopefully avoiding any unfun inconveniences.
There are probably many works which violate this principle, to varying degrees, unintentionally. But The Algophilists' Penury is on an entirely different level. This is a case study in what it means to purposefully shatter that principle.
Viewed through the lens of traditional parser game design, this is a very simple piece. It has a very small handful of rooms and objects. The central puzzle is extremely basic and can be completed in a matter of seconds, with little in the way of exploration or problem-solving, if one understands what is going on.
Key phrase: if one understands what is going on. If you've read the blurb ((Spoiler - click to show)"We were the Algophilists, obdurate in our longueur and waiting for our quietus in the tenebrous of our morbific abode; join us."), then you've read what is probably the most straightforward and easy-to-understand writing that Penury has to offer. All but the greatest scholars of obscure English verbiage will be faced with a vicious choice. Either play the game not really comprehending what it says, or play it with frequent recourse to a dictionary.
By the standards of the principle mentioned above, this is very bad. But let us note that Penury does not make its departure from the norms of game design merely for the sake of rocking the boat. It is a game wholly about pain, in which the player character is a masochist. Considering that context, I find some brilliance in how the game presents itself. Not content just to describe the experience of the player character, it seeks to evoke a similar experience in the actual player, too.
When it puts its confoundingly purple prose on display, it is inviting one to punish oneself by continuing to read such inscrutable and, perhaps, infuriating language. I find this a fascinating device, and it gives me much food for thought - calling attention to the idea that, substance aside, the style and composition of prose can serve huge purposes of their own in conveying what a game designer wishes to convey.
Just reading the opening sentence of the teaser made me scramble for a dictionary. Translating it was another surprise. I'd like to see the whole game if just to prove some people need to get out in the sunshine more often. Sadonecroequineflagellation probably doesn't apply here but it sounds like it should.
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This is version 5 of this page, edited by Jon Stall on 26 May 2016 at 12:46pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item