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About the Story
Chirlu the Immortal has menaced the Land of Teresten for too long! Locked inside the sorcerer's atelier, inside the Ilfane, is the source of Chirlu's power: The Knot, where all mana connects. Get ready, young adventurer -- learning the magic to crack the Ilfane won't be easy, but you can't let The Knot fall into the wrong hands!
56th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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This entire review is a giant spoiler, so:
(Spoiler - click to show)This is one third of an interesting trio of ostensibly puzzle-based games. I say “ostensibly” because, once you figure out the central conceit - that “Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane,” “Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!,” and “Terror in the Immortal’s Atelier” are all pieces of one overarching adventure - there really is no puzzle left. By reading each of the games concurrently, they supply cut-and-dry solutions to the other games’ puzzles, and these solutions cannot possibly be missed. They’re marked with huge blinking text! The entirety of the puzzle to be solved, then, consists of this single realization. Everything else is just doing what you’re told. While the intertextuality is a clever idea, for this reason, I didn’t get much out of these games in terms of meaningful interactivity.
The story itself confused me a bit since each of the games includes the same set of names applied to totally different things - is Ilfane, for example, the leader of an ancient nation? A spacefaring species of alt-right aliens? Or just a cabinet? I found myself wondering whether there is a deeper meaning behind how the names are assigned differently between the games. Is it an invitation to consider the importance of context in generating meaning? Maybe a comment on the unreliability of the games’ narrators? Perhaps it is meant to suggest a kind of symbolic connection between the (seemingly totally different) people and objects who get assigned the same name? Or maybe it’s just for shiggles? At this time, I have no answer to these questions, but it’s interesting to think about.
The games are well-polished, with a pleasing color scheme and no bugs that I encountered. My one gripe with the technical side is the inclusion of timed text. Timed text is a finicky thing that’s almost impossible to get right. In this case, I thought it was too slow, and that detracted from the excitement of some otherwise-dramatic sequences… except for a few times when I glanced away for a second and missed a line. Oops.
Where these games shine the most is in the quality of the prose and cleverness of the writing. The included myths and parables, especially, were a pleasure to read. With delightfully unexpected/cynical riffs on established tropes, these pieces of fiction-within-fiction are extremely effective for communicating the disturbing value system of their in-universe authors. The ultimate goal of the games, it seems, is to stake out a certain position in contemporary social/political discourse. But they do it with a certain levity and campiness that makes them feel more like a fun romp, even as they deliver the messages of a gloomy cautionary tale.
Overall, the games bring plenty of cool ideas to the table, and they execute some of them very well.
I'm putting the full review here under a spoiler block, but let me just flag two things: 1) this game is fun, and 2) if you're finding it tough going, you might better understand it if you check it out in context on the original IF Comp entries page.
(Spoiler - click to show)So yeah, the three games with similar titles and cover art, and obviously pseudonymous authors, are in fact all the same game. I don’t think the author is trying very hard to hide this, and honestly given how big the field is this year, that’s probably a good decision – lots of people are just going to play the first five or ten games the randomizer hands them, so making these similarities clear, including a note in the blurb that “you may need to seek aid from an unusual place”, and requiring cross-referencing multiple games to solve every puzzle so that it’s impossible to spend more than five or ten minutes on any game before you figure out the trick are all helpful concessions that hopefully mean more people will be able to play this Voltronish game (the ending screen calls it The Knot, so that’s how I’m going to refer to it, rather than trying to juggle the three more unwieldy titles).
This trend of erring on the side of simplicity continues into the puzzles themselves. Once you’ve figured out the trick, they’re extraordinarily straightforward. The first one involves finding the right order to insert colored orbs into a mural depicting a solar system – and there’s a reference item in one of the other games that runs through five planets in order, with relevant colors marked out in highlighted text, and at the end there’s a page headlined “TO SUM UP THIS IMPORTANT CLUE” that spells out the order again and tells you to keep it handy. Most of the puzzles are like this, with clear signposting of the steps needed to solve each of them. This makes juggling the three games a breeze, and it’s fun to jump between browser tabs decoding hieroglyphs and inserting combinations, but since there are only two puzzles per games, it makes the game-y part of the Knot feel rather slight.
The depth really comes in in the writing and story. Each of the three installments operates in a different genre – over-the-top action archeology, over-the-top pulp sci-fi, and over-the-top swords and sorcery. The same set of exotic words and names are used in each (look at the title for a sampling), but remixed and reconfigured – sometimes Chirlu is the name of the rival archaeologist working for the Nazis, sometimes he’s a sympathetic alien doing research on the extradimensional Knot that wends through all three titles. In each, the baddies are always described as fascist, but sometimes that’s the corrupt horde known as the Illfane, and sometimes it’s the monsters attacking the people whose protector is the priestly leader called the Illfane.
In fact, the Knot is surprisingly political – at one point, a set of baddies are said to be trying to “make the galaxy great again”, though in another, a set of characters rebelling against unjust oppression are called “deplorables” – to editorialize for a moment, it’s a sad statement on current events that a game worrying about authoritarianism and fascism scans as topical (as you reach the ending, you encounter a character who’s unlocked the potential within the Knot and lists off the reality-bending now within their power, but who notes “but I can’t do anything about the Nazis”). Beyond these signifiers, the ending also seems to point to a vision of a sort of socialist utopia, as instead of exploiting the Knot as a mystical power source to be hoarded by those wishing power to defeat their enemies, it rather becomes distributed to all, granting a tiny bit of magic and hope to everyone. The Nazis are said not to understand what’s going on as the climax nears, and the ancient tomb they’re pursuing turns out to be made of papier-mâché. This doesn’t come off as leaden political allegory, though – the writing is fleet, and there’s lots of incidental text that’s very fun and funny (my favorite was the series of fairy tales that were all bent in a dystopic-capitalist direction).
All this makes the Knot a fun distraction with a clever gimmick and enough hints of depth to enliven its relatively straightforward puzzles. I was left wanting a little more, though – and actually, wonder whether in fact there are secrets beyond those needed to get to the ending (the introduction to the fairy tales protests perhaps a bit overmuch that they’re not related to the puzzles, and there are intimations that sussing out the identity of the player character in the sci-fi section might be important). Even if this is all that’s on offer, though, it’s still worth a play.
Terror in the Immortal's Atelier has you fleeing an evil sorceror named Chirlu, Autarch of Telestren, who has stolen the Knot and placed it in the container called the Ilfane, which you have to open. You have 4 books telling you about magical creatures, and a huge table full of reagents you can mix and match in any order.
Below is a spoiler that may help those who didn't see the blurbs and cover art in IFComp 2020:
(Spoiler - click to show)Check out
"Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane" by Willershin Rill
"Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!" by Tarquin Segundo and
and see my review for Adventures for more detail.
+Polish: This game is definitely polished in appearance and effects.
-Descriptivenes: The proper names were a lot to deal with, and I couldn't picture things vividly.
+Interactivity: Great puzzles. Love it. Maybe XYZZY Individual Puzzle nom?
+Emotional impact: The evil version of 'The Giving Tree' was honestly pretty great.
+Would I play again? I'll check it out again in the future.
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