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Language Materialist Games at the Mad Monk’s Tea Party, November 2, 2009
There’s a really original idea behind this puzzle piece: you go around transforming things by taking a letter away from its name or by adding one to it. As soon as its name is changed, the thing itself is transformed accordingly: for (non-spoiler) example, if from the hillside you see the imperial fleet approaching, you can take the ‘l’ from it, and instead you will see the imperial feet approaching; you now have an ‘l’, which you can add to the man eating grue that you’re faced with inside the cave, and all of a sudden it’s a man eating gruel you’re faced with in that cave. The puzzles in the game are all of this kind.
The idea, I think, is really great; regrettably, the game doesn’t quite match it. Not that it lacks ‘good-making characteristics’ even apart from the fresh puzzle mechanics: at the bottom of the screen is a nice running commentary to the events of the game in the form of the PC’s silent thoughts (often funny, sometimes helpfully giving hints); it starts with an excellent interactive in-game training sessions that accustoms the player both to its novel kind of puzzles and to the continuing need to talk to NPC:s (when you’re not transforming things, you’re talking to NPC:s. You should do a lot of talking to most anything and keep talking to it till you don’t get any new answers); also, the author manages to make all of these many and extended (linear) dialogues with NPC:s entertaining. However, I still didn’t find the game as a whole as appealing as many of its details.
Obviously, a game built around this kind of puzzles will only work in a very fantastical setting. The problem is that Earl Grey often passes the border from the fantastical into the arbitrary. And this is true in regard to puzzles as well as storyline.
All too often the solutions to puzzles are arbitrary: there simply exists no reason whatsoever to expect certain transformations to solve the problem at hand. Still you perform those transformations—merely because they are possible but without the slightest clue as to why they should be of any help at all—and POOF! you’re told that the transformed objects work some magic that happens to take care of the PC’s present problems.
The story, too, takes a lot of arbitrary turns and unmotivated twists that, as player, you can’t avoid, try as you might. Indeed, in the linear parts of the game even the PC takes actions that not only appears arbitrary and unmotivated at the time but also seem at odds with what he does, thinks, and feels at other times. (Spoiler - click to show)To begin with you’re very flattered to have been invited to a certain monk’s tea garden party and he gives you your magic powers of transformation in order for you to collect varieties of tea down in the village. Then for no reason at all the PC uses these powers to ruin the monk’s precious garden. The monk gets mad and wreaks havoc upon the poor village, then disappears. Now the PC decides to save the village, but, after quite a halfhearted attempt at that, you set off after the monk instead. Before you catch up with the monk, you happen upon an impoverished prince whom you promise to restore to his throne; and when you do find the monk, all wrongs are forgotten and the two of you are readily reconciled. Now, all you have to do is put the rightful king on his throne, then go save the villagers … perhaps.
To me at least the virtues of the game didn’t quite make up for the lack of direction in the story and the lack of foreseeability in the solution of puzzles.