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Painful to play, April 4, 2021
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.