In The Baker of Shireton (Hanon Ondricek) you play the eponymous baker in a fantasy MUD or MMORPG. The basic joke is pretty much the same as that of Zork: A Troll’s-Eye View: you’re a bit-part NPC in a world designed around someone else’s adventure, with your range of action unnaturally limited by your role as a game element.
As the baker, you prepare bread, then sell it to various customers in a sort of Diner Dash-lite manner. You earn money by making bread that suits the customers, but you soon realise that there’s little ultimate point to this. Adventurers start to show up, asking you about a very limited range of topics and otherwise ignoring you while they futz around with their own shit and talk to one another. And eventually the game breaks, and you start again – and the game makes bug reports explaining how the earlier game-breaking things have been fixed. In short order you start looking for new ways to break it.
So, back in the day when Dwarf Fortress was the new hotness, Sean Barrett wrote a small game called Elvish Treetop City. (I contributed some of the random text to it.) Here’s how the game goes: you have a bunch of elves, all with silly randomly-generated elf names and professions and stuff. Dutifully following the beginner’s guide, you negotiate an intimidating set of menus to build sleeping platforms up in the tree branches. The elves go off to sleep on the platforms and promptly fall to their deaths, splattering randomly-named body parts about the map. Then bunnies come and eat the body parts. The bunnies gain epic names from doing so.
In Elvish Treetop City there’s no way to stop your elves from dying; that’s sort of the whole joke. And initially I suspected that this was also the case with The Baker of Shireton: that the point was your lonesome death by amusingly-bugged behaviours. I didn’t get to anything that definitively proved otherwise, but by this point I suspect that, rather, the goal is to find a way to escape your pre-programmed limits.
To to a large extent, the problems with The Baker of Shireton are kind of the same issues that cropped up in my own Olivia’s Orphanorium. Its core gameplay is a kind that the parser isn’t ideally suited to handling, involving a lot of repeated tasks that would be more briskly addressed with a drag-and-drop interface. Making bread and selling it to people is, basically, ponderous and boring – there’s a little bit of strategy to it, but it’s not much fun to learn. The game knows this, and compensates by adding a lot of stuff that goes on in the background while you’re working – but that makes your bread-making less efficient.
But at the same time, it’s a game that’s kind of about the parser – about how the capacity to phrase kinda-hidden commands allows exploration in unexpected and surprising ways. This is one of the things which I absolutely love about the parser, and which I make a lot of effort to put in my own games – the actions within the hazy and shifting overlap between reasonable and surprising.
It’s about breaking games, or attempting to break them. There are several outcomes you can get from trying this, in general. It breaks as you guessed, and then you feel clever. Or it doesn’t break, and then you respect the system more than you did before. Or the designer anticipated your shenanigans, and puts in a small, special bit of content in to acknowledge the thing you tried to do. That’s the best one, for me. You’re clever, the designer’s clever, you recognise one anothers’ efforts, you got to explore the bounds of the game but mimesis remains intact.
That last is a difficult thing to base a game’s central arc around, though, because so much of it is about guessing, and guessing stuff that you’re not meant to do is the kind of intuitive-leap thinking that doesn’t produce reliable results. I spent enough time banging and rattling the thing without getting clear-cut results that I got dispirited. I worked out how to die in a fire, and how to break things by removing my apron. I found out – and this is definitely the kind of thing that you’re most likely to try if you’re familiar with badly-designed parser IF – that you can pick up the bugged earlier version of yourself and leave it in places where it interferes with stuff. And then I was kind of stumped.
Another problem: I wasn’t sure whether some things were bugs in the game itself, or fictional bugs intended to signal something. After a while I got to a point where my dough never seemed to rise any more – at what level was that mistake happening? After my second death, some messages seemed to assume I had only died the first way – is that meant to happen? The broken-game premise is a double-edged sword – it means that any hint of real bugs erodes trust in the author at a brutal rate.
So ultimately I found myself in this pretty rough place: unsure how to proceed, suspecting that a lot of repetitive play would be needed for any experiment, not completely trusting the game to be robust enough to support those experiments, unsure whether I’d missed anything significant amongst the bustle of NPCs. And I just wasn’t interested in all of that bustle – the heroes were OK as kinda-funny representations of MMORPG types, but not laugh-out-loud funny. I was amused enough by the Harbormaster’s randomly-generated sailor’s stories, but I’m really easily amused by random-generator humour.
This feels like 6 territory. The concept’s fine, and it’s got some cute elements, but it’s a challenging game to get through and takes too long to get anywhere.