Introcomp 2014: Tales of the Soul Thief

Introcomp is an interactive fiction comptetition run by Jacqueline Lott (to whom, full disclosure, I am married.) Authors produce the first part of a game; players vote for them based on how much they would like to keep playing.

Two errors are so common in Introcomp that they’re worth considering as standard:

The Great Evil is when you use an Introcomp entry as a public alpha; it may not have been tested at all, and the player finds themselves wandering among Under Construction signs. The intro isn’t presented as a cleanly limited preview of what the final, polished play experience will be like, but as the half-built shell of an entire work in progress.

The Little Evil is when your Introcomp entry fails to present a very strong idea about what the heart of the game is going to look like, thus making it difficult for a judge to answer the question ‘how much would I like to continue playing this?’ An Introcomp entry should provide the player with enough content that they feel confident about their answer. Really short intros are often guilty of the Little Evil; so are games where the intro ends on a dramatic change (such as when a mundane protagonist stumbles into a fantasy world) or games with mystery-laden openings.

Preamble done. Let’s move on to the games. First up: Tales of the Soul Thief.

Tales of the Soul Thief, by David Whyld, is set in yer standard-issue swords-and-sorcery city, with wretchedness and villainy on all sides. There are slavers, weary dancing-girls, brutish guards and over-the-top placenames for everything. The city’s ruled by a despotic theocracy that’s hunting the player-character, who is a practitioner of the forbidden art of soul theft.

Souls as a mechanical feature of fantasy worlds are common, and the question of what stealing someone’s soul actually means varies a great deal. In Fallen London, say, they work somewhat like moonshine: there’s a licensed trade and an unlicensed trade, and the smuggling is where the real action is. In Choice of the Deathless they’re more like mortgages, bundled up, rendered impersonal, sliced into little bits and traded as liquid commodities. You might never really notice that your soul’s gone, or it might leave you a hollow, ruined husk. Regardless, their presence is an infallible sign that the fantasy is going to go dark.

Stealing someone’s soul, in this world, means robbing them of their most important skill. This isn’t quite as horrific as the soul-severing in His Dark Materials, say, but it’s still an inherently nasty form of magic, since it relies on routinely dealing serious existential and practical harm to people. (And it’s wasteful, since the stolen ability is lost after a single use.) The game presents it as a sort of grey magic, ‘not evil but touched by it’, but this only really flies if you treat ‘evil’ in the fantasy sense, as a mystical force of the universe rather than an ethical quality. By real-world ethics it’s evil, plain and simple. You can’t really blame the despotic theocracy for hunting these guys down.

The other disquieting thing about this power is that many, perhaps most of the NPCs in the world can’t be victims of soul theft, usually because they possess no useful skills. This is probably just for the sake of sane gameplay – you’d end up with a fat pile of red-herring skills otherwise – but the effect is of dividing humanity into the capable and the useless, which is an unnerving perspective to inhabit.

As a game mechanic, it obviously has interesting potential, but hasn’t been explored all that much yet – at present, equipped souls seem to be one-puzzle items. The fact that souls are equipped, rather than used, suggests that they’re meant to have wider-ranging passive effects: the Scribe soul in particular seems custom-made for this. If so, it’s not yet in evidence.

The writing does the job, but it’s undisciplined, rambly, as though it’s being delivered extempore. Here’s the opening:

You’ve travelled a long way to reach this place. A cursed city, some call it, others a city of the unliving. A city where the Fallen One holds sway and certainly not a place visited lightly by those without great need to come here. But you have a need, and a great one at that. Somewhere in Foreshadowing lives (or, more accurately, hides) a man known as Taktaal, once a torturer from Galamenkaris, City of the Imperium, now a fugitive with a price on his head and the Steel Eyes of the Imperium on his trail. A hunted man.

Just as you, in your own way, are hunted, though for entirely different reasons.

This is going for dramatic effect, but it’s full of things that undermine that effect. That ‘certainly not’. That ‘without great need… but you have a need, and a great one at that.’ The parenthetical ‘or, more accurately’. The closing ‘hunted man’, as though ‘hides’, ‘fugitive’, ‘price on his head’ and ‘on his trail’ hadn’t got that covered. Both ‘lightly’ and ‘without great need.’ This is writing that would have a lot more impact if it didn’t slow itself down so much with redundancy, self-correction and fussy phrasing.

The pace of play is varied – sometimes it’s obvious what needs to be done, and sometimes you get stuck for a little while. There are area-based hints; I only got the final puzzle (getting into the museum) by wandering around the map checking hints until I found an apparently unrelated plot thread that gave me the required item.

I get the impression that the ultimate aim is to have a relatively large map and let the player roam around fiddling with a number of puzzles at once, but from what I can make so far out there isn’t very much you can do outside the linear central plot, other than get killed for ill-advised soul-theft. (There’s a point where you can be given two missions to carry out in the museum, and have to choose which thing to steal: but the game cuts out immediately thereafter, so we’ll have to see whether this develops into significant branching.)

Do I Want To Coninue Playing: No. From what I’ve seen, this is not really for me; it’s looking like a Basic Genre Fantasy with modest elaborations, it’s not trying to do anything very striking with mechanics or character, and the writing is not enjoyable in its own right. For a good number of people, all this may be beside the point.

Great Evil: No testers are listed, and there are a handful of minor implementation oversights. There are some exits which are blocked for the duration of play, which is presumably because they contain content that isn’t done yet, but this doesn’t feel half-assed.

Little Evil: This is really pretty good: we have a firm idea of the tone and setting, know what the central mechanic of the game is, and have used it a few times. This is an intro that actually works as an intro. It’s not really clear what our long-term objective is – why do we need to meet this guy? But the kind of game we’re being promised is very clear.

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