Introcomp 2014 – The Cuckold’s Egg

The Cuckold’s Egg (Veronica Devon, I7) is  my favourite game of Introcomp thus far, despite the not-really-a-pun title.

It starts rather slowly, in part because it’s a contemplative piece set in a backstory-heavy fantasy world. It’s setting itself up as Le Guin-esque social-history fantasy, I think; I’m also reminded a little of Yoon Ha Lee’s work, and a tiny bit of The Glass Bead Game.

The writing is articulate, but suffers a great deal from dryness. Often it hits on a good image, phrase or concept, then sucks the life out of it with the delivery.

You have seen nothing but the valley these past two days, as you made your way up the path along the cliffside. It is still somehow awe-inspiring.

The original crater is still visible, generations later, the tidal wave of mountain still hovering to one side as if it has yet to fall.

As you approached the last leg of your journey, you recalled Kuyar’s now-forbidden history of the end times, where he described the earth as “rift, riven, and torn in twain.” You once thought it mere imagery. You know better now.

The devastation left in the wake of the War can be seen everywhere, but you cannot remember travelling such a desolate and empty place. For no matter how the locals have tried to reclaim the valley, their scattered farms as evidence, the lands below Diahl remain a graveyard of gods.

There’s good material in here: the image of the mountain as a tidal wave, the closing ‘graveyard of gods’. But there’s an awful lot of scurf, cruft and sprue, which ends up taking the drama out of it. It feels as though there’s a lot of thought going into the content of the writing, but the style needs to be honed down to something sharper if that content is going to be properly delivered.

This early vista aside, room descriptions generally err on the side of functionality: given that the viewpoint is that of a foreigner in an unfamiliar town, the following feels rather barren.

Town Center
This has the feel of a market square, though either the season or the day is wrong as there is not a stall to be seen. The town extends in all directions – narrow streets run further up the mountain to the north, along its slopes to the east and west, and back towards the valley to the south. You know that the way to the elder’s home is generally north of here.

The town’s Hall of Records lies on square’s northeast corner.

When I’m in a completely new town I’m soaking in the flavour of the place, watching for little details. I want to get the aesthetics of the place, some idea of the physical expressions of culture. That explorer’s instinct is a core motivator for a great deal of fantasy – fantasy as tourism, if you like. That’s not the interest here, so much. OK, fine, what is this thing really interested in?

The protagonist is an agent of the Apostasy, a bureaucracy that seems to have risen as an imperial power in the aftermath of a series of anti-religious wars; religion is strictly suppressed, and you’re in town to investigate what may be a cult-related murder. The protagonist has been through …a bad breakup, probably? There’s a sense of monastic austerity about the Apostasy in general and the protagonist in particular.

> look up apostasy in book
Entire volumes could be filled on the subject of the Apostasy – its histories, its roots, its purposes. You know the party line of
history well enough: of the rising of the meek to their inheritance, the joining of the forgotten and the downtrodden to lay low the mighty. You also know the reality behind the slogans: the uncertainties, the internecine conflicts, the inevitable fragmentation and factionalization. And you have learned of the necessities the Apostasy serves: what they defend against and what they preserve.

Your own experiences with the Apostasy and the empire it has formed have ranged from the seeming hostile (your initial removal from what you thought was your community) to the benign (the strictures and supports that defined your daily life) to the outright positive (the friendships you have made and the life you have found within the Brotherhood).

This is comprehensive at the expense of being interesting. That last paragraph… oy. That’s virtually ‘here is my life-story as a bullet-pointed list.’ I hesitate to apply Show Don’t Tell as a universal principle, but it could really stand to be employed here. Or, perhaps, Don’t Tell Me That N, Tell Me About N. There’s too much of vaguely stipulating the categories of knowledge and too little of saying what they contain. I have the sense that the protagonist is meant to be something of a cold fish, but still: don’t tell me that internecine conflicts exist, tell me about one.

The intro concludes on an inner-landscape section. Those are cool, and I’d like to see more of them – particularly when juxtaposed against a more concrete world – but this one is, again, rather austere and shuttered.

I’m talking about two related problems here, I think; one of prose, and one of focus. The motivating interest, the things that the piece really cares about, are things that are evidently going to take some time to unravel: the protagonist’s failed relationship, the murder, the Apostasy. That’s a sound approach: with a substantial backstory, it’s wise to avoid a great big infodump. But this means that while you’re pacing out the delivery of that backstory, you need to provide something more immediate for your audience to chew on. If you don’t, the main experience early on will be a sense of prevarication.

A couple of examples: both Anchorhead and Floatpoint are games with substantial backstory and good reasons not to dump it all in your lap at once. Both of them rely on the more immediate interest of setting to sustain the player’s interest in the meantime: the creepy atmospherics of the town of Anchorhead, the alien grandeur of Aleheart. This isn’t a total disconnected duality or anything: their setting elements aren’t information-free sideshows. And setting doesn’t have to be the thing doing this job (though it’s perhaps the most straightforward). But it’s important to have an answer for the question ‘what’s cool about playing this game now?’, and this is obviously more important in an intro.

(It’s not even that the setting doesn’t have a concept – it’s that we’ve got an austere, grim character on an austere, grim task in an austere, grim world.)

Do I want to continue playing? Yes. I am into the style of sf/f that it’s going for, there are a number of plot threads being spooled out that have the potential to tangle in interesting ways, and the writing shows promise of strength. I want to know more about this story. There are substantial things that could do with improvement, but I feel fairly confident that the author’s capable of them.

Great Evil: Minor. Although I couldn’t find any testers listed, the game shows evidence of being made with diligence and care.

Little Evil: Moderate. We don’t know very much about the world and the mystery to be solved yet, but the general themes are established, and it seems pretty sure that the world, the village, and the protagonist’s past will be unfolded in the course of unraveling the mysterious death. Still, the game feels as though it’s holding back, relying on mystery a shade too much and content a shade too little.

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