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About the Story
May the best story win! Enter the medieval world of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," where your journey, and the stories you tell, will change history.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: April 26, 2018
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: ChoiceScript
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Number of Reviews: 3
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I've been waiting for this game for a while. Since the promotional text specifically mentioned the Miller and the Wife of Bath, two of the most larger-than-life Chaucerian characters, I expected The Road to Canterbury to be a light-hearted merry romp through the comical version of Middle Age England - perhaps in the general spirit of Tally Ho and A Midsummer Night's Choice by Kreg Segall (based on Wodehouse and Shakespeare, respectively; Kreg Segall is also one of the beta-testers for The Road to Canterbury).
As it turns out, the game is rather serious, and political, and often reads as an encyclopedia of medieval life and thought. Your character stats, for example, are traditional medieval virtues and the four Hippocratic humors. It isn't particularly light-hearted: some important things are at stake. And while there are some gently amusing moments, the main attraction here are extraordinary many details for those interested in the life and times of Geoffrey Chaucer. Quotes from Virgil, Boethius, etc.; scattered references to the original Canterbury Tales and other Chaucer's works (the Prioress' dog, the name "Blanche", the astrolabe, Saint Christopher's medal, etc.); excursions into the English religious history - and so on.
The story is good and a bit slow-paced, as it fits the source material. The tales pilgrims tell each other are not those from the original book, but condensed versions of other medieval tales (a lay by Marie de France, for instance). Likewise, the characters are new. The Miller, for one, is completely redone and has little in common with Chaucer's Robin; Alyson of Bath, though, is still recognizably Alyson of Bath (and she's romanceable, too!). The most alive of the cast, for me, were two historical figures - Chaucer himself and Philippa.
The Road to Canterbury was nominated for a prestigious award (the Nebulas, I think) in writing, and it deserves it. I felt it was 'okay' at first but as it went on I found the plot, characters and details to be great. It has extensively-researched details on life at the time of Chaucer, making the setting a delight to explore.
This is a good game, so everything else I'm going to talk about is just personal opinion and about my own tastes.
I felt that the choices in the game often sacrificed autonomy for a predetermined path.
That's not to say there aren't a lot of choices. You can bring a squire and knight together or bring them apart. You can seek to learn more about your brother's death, pursue a romance, fight duels, buy a racehorse (which I strongly recommend), etc. And your biggest choice, to encourage war between France and England or not, has many shades of nuance to select from.
But frequently it felt like the game forced my character into specific plot points, not by external circumstances, but by presupposing my character's motivations and desires.
This feels like it makes the overall storyline better (since there are assured plot beats) but it felt weird. For instance, near the beginning, you begin to overhear snatches of an interesting conversation. Without any choice on your part, your character decides to risk discovery by trying to eavesdrop. You get to pick how to do it, but you can't choose not to do it at all, even if it doesn't fit your character to that point.
Many such situations come up where it's just assumed your character will do something pre-determined.
I also had some issues trying to determine whether choices were based on sanguine (vs melancholic) or excess (vs temperance) or piety or generosity (vs avarice). For instance, if if you save money by drinking water instead of ale when a friend wants you to drink with them, is it melancholic (avoiding a large group), temperate (not drinking), piety (since you're only supposed to drink on feast days), or avarice since you aren't spending money? Sometimes it was clear, but sometimes it was confusing.
So for me personally, on my 5 point grading scale, I'd give it:
+Polish: The game is smooth and works great. Editing is perfect.
-Interactivity: Some of the stats didn't work well for me.
+Descriptiveness: Awesome. No wonder it won an award.
+Would I play again? I think I will.
+Emotional impact: The last few chapters were great emotion-wise. Lots of satisfying conclusions (for the specific threads I was chasing).
The Canterbury Tales is one of my all-time favorite works of literature. I adore Chaucer's nuanced and varied sense of humor (from fart jokes to biting social satire) and his inventiveness with language. I was psyched to see a Choice of Games title adapting this classic and I was exceedingly curious to see how Kate Heartfield would leverage a choice-based game mechanic to recast what is a pretty linear story in the original. Well, really, there isn't much of a storyline at all in the original, as the meat of Chaucer's work is in the stories that the pilgrims tell along the way.
What The Road to Canterbury delivers is a richly told story set in Chaucer's universe but representing a pretty significant departure in mood, tone, and content from the original work. There's little in the way of humor (though Harry Bailey does pull off a pretty good fart joke early on), and a lot more in the way of political intrigue and detailed descriptions of medieval life. In the end, it's probably for the better that Heartfield struck out on a different path from Chaucer (few authors are going to win going head-to-head with Geoffrey...), but it wasn't what I was expecting and, ultimately, wasn't something I was terribly into.
That said, this is a solidly crafted work, and someone looking for a choice-based game full of medieval political drama will likely love this. The central mission of the game is to decide whether or not you want to convince an elite member of the court to move toward peace or continued war between France and England. That storyline is especially well developed, and the player can develop a pretty complex moral position toward the ongoing war and the combatants.
One major aspect of the game that I did feel could be objectively improved was the tale telling "mini game" couched in the bigger story. Just like Chaucer's work, the pilgrims spin tales as part of a contest initiated by the host, Harry Bailey. While there's an effort to make both hearing others' tales and telling your own an interactive experience, I felt that this was pretty flat. There are points in listening to others' tales where you can interject and influence the tale, and these decisions just never felt all that meaningful. When you finally tell your own tale, it's kind of nifty to string choices together to craft a story, but this could have been built out even further and made more a central part of the game.
As it is, the tale telling feels like something of an afterthought and the main focus is on what happens on the pilgrimage itself. This, of course, is the mirror opposite of The Canterbury Tales, in which we learn very little about the journey and almost exclusively hear the pilgrim's stories. Again, this fits what Heartfield seems to be out to do with this work -- which is decidedly not to retell Chaucer's original work but rather use this as a jumping off point into Chaucer's world.
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