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About the Story
A solitary scholar, his purpose and presence in the world a mystery even to himself, ventures abroad in a dream state. He finds a land of sunny lanes and dark forests, steeped in the blood of Celt, Saxon, Viking and Norman, where paganism never really went away - the West Midlands.
69th Place - 24th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2018)
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As other reviews have mentioned, Birmingham IV was originally written using the text adventure design system Quill in the late 1980s but then ported to Inform 7 in 2014-16. The current version still retains the feel of a non-Infocom text adventure circa 1989. By way of comparison with some other old-school games in IFComp 2018, Birmingham IV feels more modern than Flowers of Mysteria or Escape from Dinosaur Island but less modern than Bullhockey!.
The setting appears to be the area around Birmingham (England) in the early to mid-1600s: Queen Elizabeth’s face appears on some money you find, and there’s a reference to the Virginia colonies. It’s not clear what the plot is, though. You play as the Phil, a scholar and scientist. Or, as they would say back then, “natural philosopher.” In fact, as you eventually come to realize, “the Phil” is actually a title - “the Philosopher” - not the name of the PC. You can explore your cottage and the surrounding area, and there’s a note from the parson that gives you a couple of long-term goals, but for the most part at the beginning of the game you just wander around solving puzzles. As you keep playing, though, the end-goal eventually becomes clear. Or "end-goals," I should say, since Birmingham IV gives you a choice at the end.
There's also magic in this world. But it's a subtle magic - magic of an old English kind, where elves are tiny and fearful of humans and where ancient skulls and standing stones are infused with power that you can use but never really understand. In terms of how magic is portrayed, there's a pretty clear line running from English folk tales to The Lord of the Rings to early Dungeons & Dragons to the current canonical takes on fantasy races in role-playing games (both computer and paper), as well as many modern works' systematic and almost scientific approach to magic. Even Infocom's Enchanter series takes this systematic approach, and the Harry Potter series does as well. In the latter, magic is something almost mundane: It has been apportioned into school subjects to be learned as a matter of course by children! Birmingham IV, however, is solidly pre-Tolkien: Magic is mysterious, ethereal, and perilous. For me, that was refreshing, and Birmingham IV's consistent take on this constituted much of the game's charm.
Unfortunately, Birmingham IV has some weaknesses, playability-wise, that affected my enjoyment of the game and that will frustrate many modern players. (1) The game does not always tell you which directions you can travel in. It doesn’t take much additional effort on top of drawing a map (if you’re doing that) to figure out which directions are allowed, but it will be a hurdle for modern players. (2) There are a few too many one-way directions near the beginning of the game. (3) You have an inventory limit of five. (4) It is easy to get yourself into an unwinnable state without realizing it. (5) Many of the puzzles are underclued. The puzzles I'm thinking of for which this is the case aren't bad puzzles, but some of their solutions are the kinds of things that you wouldn't come across unless you had the patience to try a bunch of random things that might work. (Fortunately, David Welbourn has published an excellent walkthrough!)
In other words, Birmingham IV is a huge, old-school piece of late 80s IF. If you enjoy that sort of game, then you'll probably enjoy Birmingham IV.
I have just finished struggling with Peter Emery's updated old school puzzlefest Birmingham IV, originally written via the Quill in 1988 and updated for the 2018 competition as a .gblorb file.
If you are a fan of large (109 locations) parser based puzzlefests filled with logic problems and medieval scenery / objects, this game is undoubtedly for you; I am certainly of that ilk. The puzzles are hard but fair, with one or two possible exceptions. (Spoiler - click to show) Using the cat to dispose of characters without getting eaten yourself for instance .
If however, you worship at the Twine altar and dislike inventory limits, exits not fully described, sudden death endings and manifold red herrings you would do well to avoid.
The author's love and deep knowledge of time and place become evident as you uncover much that seems arcane to the modern eye, and more than once I was sent scurrying to Wikipedia to look up the meaning (and hence possible use) of the latest medieval trinket I had unearthed.
You start in modern rainy day Midlands, theses strewn over the floor but quickly slumber into a bucolic medieval setting. Your dingy bedsit has become an austere but spacious cottage reflecting your monastic, didactic choice of life; an existentialist dream maybe.
It is not immediately clear what your mission in life is, and you blunder around a large map collecting objects and meeting mostly antagonistic NPCS; as previously mentioned there is a small inventory limit (a sign of the game's age) which is a pain and means you will have to spend some time hiking backwards and forwards to collect and drop items. This is not helped by the fact that many items are totally useless but you will not become aware of this until the end of the game in most cases.
Mapping is a prerequisite because as mentioned some exits are not described.
Three missives will explain to you your mission and the puzzles generally speaking become harder as the game progresses. A magic system becomes slowly available to you as you explore but be careful where you use it!
One psychaedelic section of the game (you'll know it when you encounter it) is more than vaguely reminiscent of the Phoenix Topologika games, and Jonathan Partington's Acheton game in particular. This section took me ages to hack through but I must say is very cleverly constructed. You'll need your wordsmith's hat on is all I will say.
The game is divided into seven sections and you can only reach the next one after completing the previous one, beware however it is possible to abrogate Graham Nelson's Bill of Rights by making the game unwinnable. An example comes right at the start but should soon become obvious if you've made the wrong choice. Save often.
The writing is on the whole evocative without being unnecessarily prolix, although I did encounter a handful of typos, together with one amusing bug involving (Spoiler - click to show) the cauldron of stew in the Spotted Dog Inn.
And what's this with the watery eyes?
As an adjunct to your moral crusade there are also a number of treasures to collect along the way.
The end game throws up an interesting moral choice between altruism and greed; which road will you take?
All in all a well written puzzlefest for this nostalgic fifty something to enjoy.
It seems an odd thing to say about a computer game, especially one released this year, but Birmingham IV has "period charm". I started playing the game before I knew that it had originally been written in The Quill in 1988, but it immediately reminded me of BBC Micro games of that era.
Birmingham IV shares many tropes with the games of Geoff H. Larsen. It has a rural English setting with standing stones, long barrows and village inns with colourful names. It is peopled with trolls and other folkloric figures.
Unfortunately it also shares many of the faults of games of that period, such as an inventory limit. Room descriptions tend to omit the direction from which the player first approached the location, perhaps assuming that the player had made a map. It is also very easy to make the game unwinnable without realising it.
Nevertheless the Birmingham IV does have charm, and enough that its flaws didn't stop me from wanting to play it. I'm excited that David Welbourn has now produced a walkthrough, and I do hope that there's a post-comp release that's a little less "old school".
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