Spring Thing: Bibliophile

Spring Thing reviews continue with Marshal Tenner Winter’s Bibliophile, an Inform game. Spoilers.

One of the original purposes of Spring Thing was as a place for games substantially larger than suitable for the two-hour play time of IF Comp. This is more of a hope than a strict rule, and many games don’t aim at it. Bibliophile definitely fits the bill, though: the walkthrough runs to ten chapters (although some of these are fairly brief).

My previous grumbles about Winter’s work have mostly revolved around the point that he’s very interested in rolling out a fairly long-form plot, often over a big map, and very much in a classic-parser format, Anchorhead-style. These are cool things to want, but combine all those qualities and you have a game that’s going to take a year or three to create, unless you cut a lot of corners. Bibliophile is Winter’s eighth game in three years, and while he’s clearly putting in a great deal of work (there’s an arm-long list of testers) the result is that Bibliophile is stretched rather thin.

The setting is a straightforward example. The author’s clearly wanting to set out a pretty literal rendering of actual locations in Baltimore:

This is the center of the western park of the district, dominated by a wide, shallow, stone fountain. Trees and grass surround the fountain giving a natural feel to this part of the city. You can cross the street to the north or to the south and the park continues east and west. To the east, you can see the Washington Monument in the near distance. Your apartment is to the west.

On the one hand, this text does a good job of signaling what this room is: inerstitial space, defined mostly by connections to other places. Nothing much to see here, move along. But on the other hand, the game contains a lot of such interstitial space, to the point where it seems that a strongly-evoked, literalist setting is a desired effect. And in that case, the interstitial spaces need a bit more vim. I want some sense of why central Baltimore is interesting enough for mapping it out to be important. If we’re going to spend all this time walking around Baltimore, walking around Baltimore should be interesting.

The plot marches along in a decidedly new-school manner: much of the time, you’re told very clearly what your next objective is and where to go for it. This is helpful, and makes the game move along  snappily – but you can’t ever veer very far off these train-tracks. And in the circumstances where you haven’t been told what to do, the interaction isn’t great: there’s a pointless inventory limit (and a holdall, sure, but it’s easy to miss), and a number of points at which the game, having trained you to ignore scenery objects because they’ll be absent or uninteresting, requires you to poke around in the scenery in order to advance.

Bugs: at one point I found myself locked in the bathroom of a colleague’s apartment with an unconscious thug. Hints suggested prying the door open. I dutifully went for the only vaguely-plausible object in my inventory:

> pry door with letter opener
You pry the door open.

> open door
It seems to be locked.

First, a letter-opener is only a plausible item here because prying has become such a stock IF action, worth trying with anything long, rigid and narrow-edged. Prying a locked door open, in the real world, is going to involve a much bigger, sturdier lever than a letter-opener, not to mention a strenous effort and a good amount of damage. But more to the point game-wise, I’m still locked in the toilet. (The actual solution is to beat the door down bare-handed.)

The other thing I notice in MTW’s games is that everybody kind of speaks the same. In his noir-ish detective series, the slangy and sharp-mouthed characters made sense; here, though, you have a similarly slangy and sharp-mouthed exchange between a dealer in rare books and a senior librarian. That’s a professional relationship in a not-particularly-casual field, betweeen people who don’t have clear seniority over one another and who have reasons to maintain respect; unless they’re close friends or in an emotionally charged situation, it feels odd to have them cussing this hard.

Similarly, there’s a scene in which some thugs have invaded an apartment, and the protagonist has to deal with them – which he does in a manly, two-fisted manner, possibly with the aid of a two-by-four. I have known only a handful of rare-book store proprietors, but… well, I would not have feared for my life if one of them came at me with a two-by-four, and I’m not even an entry-level thug. So, okay, we’re Indiana-Jonesing the guy up a bit to make for a more action-y story – but if so, I’d like to see the character developed beyond his basic template earlier on, so that when things get brawly it doesn’t seem quite so jarring. But the action scenes just aren’t that dramatic. Here’s a later example:

Something terrible emerges from the well. It is like a ten foot long fat maggot covered in slimy human faces. Your mind unhinges at the sight. It slithers around as if seeking something.

The horrible beast slithers toward you; its faces hungry and crying out. The horror almost overtakes you, but you snap out of it long enough to evade it.

> cast shrivel on beast
That wouldn’t be an effective target.

The horrible beast slithers toward you; its faces hungry and crying out. The horror almost overtakes you, but you snap out of it long enough to evade it.

> play drum
You beat on the drum and the creature slides back into the well.

> close well
You close the chakota well.

This is way too perfunctory, too stripped-down for a scene that should be charged with tension, desperation and terror. If this is a situation where madness is threatening to overtake the protagonist, these brief, functional descriptions seem out-of-place; it’s as though, having duly passed his SAN check and snapped out of it, the protagonist is having no more trouble with this than with making breakfast.

Madness isn’t a dispensable part of the Lovecraft mythos: it’s right at the heart of everything. The mythos is not a D&D kind of thing, merely a special flavour of big monsters, evil priests and magic, and if it’s turned into that it becomes kinda boring. Lovecraft characters aren’t driven mad by the sight of shoggoths because they’re really big and gross, or because shoggoths shoot magical insanity beams from their arses: they go mad because the sight of the shoggoth represents the total collapse of their basic understanding of the universe. The sight of the shoggoth is the death of religion, the failure of science, the obliteration of humanity’s place in the universe. This tends to strike postmoderns, who routinely believe seven Lovecraft-horrifying things before breakfast without being driven even slightly insane, as rather silly.  But if you’re going to take the nonsense out of Lovecraft, you kind of need to figure out something to replace it with.

“Azathoth is a cosmic horror; a force outside of known physics, Higgins.” Doctor Coffey explains, “It is the embodiment of chaos and destruction and now Dennison has found a way to bring this nightmare to earth; to destroy everything we know and plummet the human race into chaos.”

“Hmm.” you say, not knowing what else to say. As if to double-down on this ignorance, you then say, “Food for thought, huh?”

But I don’t think that this is really a problem specific to that particular subject-matter. Take a look at this:

You hold the drumstick and close your eyes. Soon, you glimpse images of its existence. You sense it was well-used and well-loved by the drummer who owned it. You feel the various
rhythms it helped to produce. It practically thrums in your hand. Then, you sense the most recent event. The student drummer was practicing alone in the auditorium when something grabbed him from behind. There is a flash of sickly green light and then you sense the stick fall to the ground; its partner is still with the student, but where he disappeared to is unknown. It’s like a vanishing act.

The failure here isn’t one of imagination, so much – the author clearly has a strong effect in mind. It’s just not getting conveyed very well through the writing. Some of this is because of superfluous, overprecise verbiage makes the paragraph seem stiff and awkward: some is because it uses run-on sentences and contractions less than is natural. A cursory edit would reduce the word count by about 20% while making it read a lot more naturally:

Holding the drumstick, eyes closed, you soon glimpse images of its existence. It was well-used and loved by its owner; as you feel the rhythms it helped produce, it practically thrums in your hand. And then – the drummer was practicing alone in the auditorium when something grabbed him from behind. There’s a flash of sickly green light, and the stick falls to the ground; its partner is still with the student, somewhere unknown. Like a vanishing act.

But it also fails to get down into telling specifics, the sort of detail that would make this feel like an immediate, real, experienced event rather than a police incident report. (Towards the end, I shifted to the perfect tense, which is less distant and even briefer.) What do the rhythms feel like? What was distinctive about the drummer’s love and use of the drumstick? The main good detail in here is that the green light is sickly – that’s a stock turn of phrase, sure, but it gives us a much more concrete idea of the quality of the light.

Ultimately, here we have a story with a plot sparked by the discovery of a rare manuscript, with a protagonist who’s a dealer in rare books, entitled Bibliophile. This suggests a story that will focus heavily on, y’know, books. But while the protagonist is intended to be a lover of books, the author doesn’t seem to be – or, if he is, isn’t interested in showing us that. The central book of the plot, a rare libretto that encodes Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, is more of a McGuffin than a point of interest in its own right. Other books are, more or less, the equivalent of wallpaper, or training manuals.

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