Introcomp 2014: Scroll Thief

Scroll Thief, by Daniel M. Stelzer, is up-front about its goals:

This game is a fan sequel to the Enchanter trilogy, meant to clear up some of the mysteries from Spellbreaker (specifically, the four unknown Cubes of Foundation).

Prejudices on the table: I am not really a fan of Infocom. They’re not what I came up on. The games of theirs that I’ve played, I played after I got properly excited about interactive fiction, and enjoyed (at best) only mildly. So while I can intellectually appreciate their vast historical contributions to the genre, I’m never going to share in fannish enthusiasm. (And the stuff that’s most likely to draw my attention are the ones outside the legacy of Zork, the things like Plundered Hearts and A Mind Forever Voyaging that were interested in expanding the form rather than building in its safely-established spaces, and their aspirations to games as a literary form.)

Fanfic is a thing made for fans by other fans. Reading fanfic from fandoms that you don’t share is… kind of like reading smut written for someone else’s kink. You can circle around it and point out typos and plot holes, but you’re not ever going to really get at the heart of what makes it work or not work for its intended audience. This is not merely a neutral effect: there’s a sense of bathing in someone else’s manky bathwater, the feeling that you’re constantly being offered cues that are meant for someone else. Moreover, I’ve been exposed to a good number of really bad Zork/Enchanter tributes, so – just as when an author is conspicuously setting out to ape Douglas Adams – I tend to anticipate the worst.

So: it is a notable thing that even though my neuroreceptors never imprinted on the particular brand of catnip that this is peddling, I kind of want to play Scroll Thief. There’s a small and precious set of games – Savoir FaireSuveh Nux – which operate on an Enchantery kind of logic, a logically rigorous set of magical powers which interact with the world and one another in fair, clever, unexpected ways. That’s the core experience that Scroll Thief is really going after, and for that I can forgive its attachment to Zorkian tropes. It also keeps the wackiness to a tolerably restrained level; there are rather a lot of extra-diegetic shout-outs, but that’s about the extent of it.

The game hits you almost immediately with a great big pile of Stuff. You can immediately, or very quickly, access a substantial number of rooms, all with Things in them, and you have very little guidance about which of them can be worked on next. You have certain resources that are expendable and limited, and I have a strong sense that spending them unwisely may make things difficult or impossible later on. It’s not going to be the kind of game that you can breeze through; it will require note-taking, and possibly flowcharts.

Do I want to continue playing? Yes, but I’d prefer to hold off on it until a couple of versions after the first complete release. Right now I’m hestitant to commit the energy that it requires, because:

Great Evil: There has already been a very substantial amount of work put into this – as one example, I count thirty-six listed extensions, some by the author, some author-modified versions of existing extensions. There are a lot of conveniences already in place (though it’d be nice if the spells worked as verbs, >X Y as a synonym for >CAST X ON Y.) As often happens when you throw together a huge raft of different code, though, there are weird overlaps and worrying gaps. This is the kind of game that will take longer than the norm to polish up, and it’s not a job I envy.

The HINT command behaves inconsistently; in some areas it takes a pretty long time to execute even on a fairly powerful desktop. There are plot inconsistencies: the opening section claims that you’ve never cast a spell until tonight, but your journal describes casting your first spell. There is craziness related to scope-affecting objects that creates contextually-weird disambiguation questions. Your spell book is named ‘spell book’, but you must refer to it as ‘spellbook’ if there are any other books in range. I had perfectly well-formed commands fail, and then I blinked a couple of times and typed them again and they worked. Exits are rarely mentioned in the room description, but are listed when you fail to go somewhere.

Little Evil: Very little. Not only does the game nail its colours to the mast from the outset, it gives you what feels like a pretty representative sample of normal play. Everyone who plays this should be able to say, without equivocation, whether they want to continue or not.


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5 Responses to Introcomp 2014: Scroll Thief

  1. “There are a lot of conveniences already in place (though it’d be nice if the spells worked as verbs, >X Y as a synonym for >CAST X ON Y.)”
    -That’s strange, they worked as verbs for me.

  2. Hanon Ondricek says:

    There are a lot of conveniences already in place (though it’d be nice if the spells worked as verbs, >X Y as a synonym for >CAST X ON Y.)
    I have beta tested several iterations of Scroll Thief, and, unless something broke in the IntroComp release version, this does in fact work (I.E. “FROTZ BOOK”) as it did in the original games. You have to have a parchment copy of the spell in scope, or have it inscribed in the spell book and memorized.

    I remember this for sure because the author took great pains to make the recursively-difficult to code “GNUSTO GNUSTO” work properly based on my attempts.

    • Alas, GNUSTO GNUSTO was one of the things that specifically didn’t work. (It took me quite a few attempts to find a phrasing that was understood as the thing I was trying to do, which ended up as CAST GREEN ON ILLUMINATED or something of the kind.)

      It’s possible that I unconsciously used this a few times and it did work. But it definitely failed often enough, in apparently-simple situations, that I abandoned hope for it.

    • Emily Short says:

      Maybe the deal was that it only works as a verb when you have it inscribed in the spellbook or something like that?

      I definitely ran into situations where I was trying to cast a spell from (e.g.) a scroll that was on the ground or somewhere else that I thought should be accessible, but I wasn’t permitted until I’d picked up the relevant document.

  3. Daniel M. Stelzer says:

    Now that the comp is over, I can respond to this!

    Thank you, Maga, this is really helpful. “[spell] [object]” not working was definitely a bug; I broke that syntax in certain contexts (including casting from a scroll which is not carried) when I fixed a bug with the palantiri, and my unit tests failed to check those contexts. It’s certainly fixed now. I don’t know which commands worked inconsistently, but if it involved casting spells it was due to the same bug (the first command would set a flag, then fail before it cleared it; the second command would see the flag still set and bypass the broken rule, so it succeeded).

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