Introcomp ’16: Spellbound; Some Exceptions for Reasons Unknown

Introcomp, a competition for the opening sections of interactive fiction games, is running through September 10. (Full disclosure: I am married to the comp organiser.) Today: a couple of fantasy parser games.

Spellbound (Adam Perry) is a wordplay parser game, taking roughly the same approach as the wordplay mechanic of Brian Rapp’s 2010 game Under, in Erebus: collect letters from the environment, then assemble them into words which, becoming real, form puzzle solutions.

Erebus, while ultimately a pretty charming game, made some big unforced errors; Spellbound avoids these. You’re immediately and clearly told what the game’s mechanic is, so you can start playing for real very promptly; and using letters doesn’t exhaust them, so you don’t have to waste time on retrieving new copies. Without this friction, Spellbound makes for a straightforward, smooth-playing, low-challenge intro. Like Erebus, your goal is mostly to guess what kind of currently-possible word might solve your present problems: you have a three-letter word frame, and as you accumulate letters you can make more stuff.

A consistent issue with wordplay IF is that it doesn’t generally lend itself well to compelling stories, worlds or characters. Most are surreal, fragmentary pieces with motivation that’s either weak or entirely metafictional; the only solid exception is Counterfeit Monkey. Often when I’m playing wordplay IF, I end up with the feeling that I’m really just playing a word puzzle and the IF-ish part isn’t contributing anything except a nuisance. Spellbound seems as though it might be aiming at a somewhat more cohesive setting than Nord and BertAd Verbum or Andrew Schultz’s work, but thus far it hasn’t been developed into much more than a puzzle backdrop. The protagonist’s motivation is ‘go on a quest to retrieve all the letters’, and they’re otherwise uncharacterised; so the thing’s not very compelling as fiction.

Considered as wordplay puzzles, Spellbound‘s are very simple. They would get somewhat tougher with more letters and a bigger rack, and hence more possibilities to guess at; but not, I suspect, more interesting. So what I’d want to see in the rest of the game would be elaborations on the basic mechanic – variations that go beyond a steady increase in available letters and frame size, words that have persistent effects rather than acting as simple lock-key solutions.

Some Exceptions for Reasons Unknown (Thomas Mack) is a parser game about a fantasy thief who has to deal with a dragon.

Thomas Mack was one of the authors of Speculative Fiction, and there are obvious similarities here: the protagonist is a rogue type, serving a wizard, in a world of corruption, incompetence and other forms of mild nastiness. The following gives a pretty decent idea of the flavour of things:

The tapestries show Blackacre’s founder, depicted as a victorious blond knight in spotless armor, slaying some sort of monstrous serpent. According to town legend, he defeated a monster that had been threatening the area and made it safe again for human habitation; in gratitude, the struggling settlers then declared him their mayor. In reality, Blackacre was founded by a consortium of herring merchants looking for a port closer to their shoals to cut down on transportation costs, and the founding comprised filing a proposal with the deputy undersecretary of the Royal Ministry of Fisheries. The artist chose the story that’s easier to weave into a tapestry.

This recognisably fits into a well-trodden and comfortable subgenre of parser IF, alongside works like Augmented Fourth or Risorgimento Represso: snarky fantasy comedies with caricature characters, formally quite traditional, often with some amount of nastiness but with a tone that’s essentially light comedy.

The exact premise of the story is a little bit fiddly: the protagonist was in the Thieves’ Guild but got forced out after a failed heist; they’re now a wizard’s apprentice, and they’re making an application to lead an expedition to hunt a troublesome dragon; but the wizard will only allow them to do this if they do a bunch of chores first. ‘Do some chores for a wizard’ is very high on the list of IF Objectives That Make Me Instantly Weary, falling somewhere between ‘make yourself some coffee at your office job’ and ‘restore functionality to a deserted spacecraft.’ So there’s pretty strong signalling that this is aiming at being a very traditional text adventure.

So, for instance, there’s a puzzle where you have to steal something from a shop, but the door is guarded by a golem who knows if you’re sneaking things out unpaid-for. This is a really classic species of IF puzzle – the alternate conveyance for an object which can’t be carried through a gateway – and it incorporates a really standard element, an NPC whose actions are predictable and can thus be readily exploited if you figure out how. And this last is how basically all the puzzles work: while they don’t have a particularly systematic mechanic, but they share a common theme of subterfuge and manipulation. This is not a very pleasant way of thinking about people, and it’s justified by the PC being kind of a selfish jerk, which is itself justified by everyone in this world being a selfish jerk. But – and this is what I really mean when I say the tone is light – it’s not really very concerned with what it’s like to inhabit a world where everyone’s viciously selfish. The protagonist is a notch or two up from an AFGNCAAP – they have a history and personal motives, but not a name, a gender, or very much in the way of an internal life.

The writing’s fine, although the comedy relies so consistently on a tone of… comfortable cynicism? that it ends up feeling rather one-note. I’m willing to forgive a very great deal if a comedy piece can get a genuine laugh out of me, and this never quite got there.

So Exceptions appears to be aiming to be the kind of game that I’d score in about a 6 in the IF Comp: capably-made, mildly entertaining, but fundamentally safe, not aiming at anything ambitious or unexpected in prose style, mechanics or subject-matter. I feel a little bad about grumbling about it, because there’s solid craft on display here; it’s also the most substantial of the entries by a considerable margin, and the one which gives me the most confidence that the author has the chops to complete it. I just couldn’t find anything to get very excited about.

Performance note: I got some pretty heavy lag on some commands, especially INVENTORY. This is fairly unusual for a game made in Inform 6, and which isn’t obviously doing anything unusually complex.

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