ANCIENT MYSTERIES OF IF COMP is my attempt, in the run-up to the 2016 IF Competition, to go back over Comp entries which I missed the first time around.
Nolan Bonvouloir’s The Primrose Path was released in the 2006 IF Competition, taking a rather distant second place to Emily Short’s Floatpoint. It was nominated for two XYZZY Awards – Best Game and Best Individual PC. It’s the kind of game which has a pretty decent reputation, but doesn’t show up much on IFDB recommendation lists or in discussion.
It was also an Inform 7 game released the same year that I7 was released as a public beta; for a first-time IF author with “more or less nonexistent” programming experience to pick up the somewhat-immature I7, learn to code in it, and produce a game that placed second in the Comp within five months is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
If I was looking for a good counterpart to The Primrose Path… tonally, I might go with Eurydice. But it’s also firmly a member of the time-travel tangle genre, alongside works like All Things Devours, First Things First, Fifteen Minutes and Meanwhile.
The writing is feels very grounded, with a matter-of-fact tone. This does an excellent job of maintaining a magical-realism feeling; you always feel that Matilda is a real person, rather than a fantasy trope or a player avatar. But this is a game which is impossible to talk about purely as literature, because its plot mechanics attempt some technically ambitious things – “technically” not in the sense that it’s doing anything outlandishly unprecedented, or inherently difficult to code, but in terms of very game-specific elements of craft: the care and management of player comprehension when you can’t entirely control which bits of a very open plot they’ve encountered. I came away with the idea that it doesn’t come up in discussion much because nobody feels confident enough to bring it up.
The Primrose Path is almost an amazing game, and contains multitudes, but it stumbles badly over a big, standard challenge: making sure the player understands what’s going on enough to appreciate it. I think it’s aiming for a Diana Wynne Jones-style sensation of being at the edge of a vast, powerful river of events, only partly grasped. But this is a very delicate balance to maintain, and Primrose Path‘s plot is sufficiently non-linear that it often relies heavily on bad assumptions about what the player already knows. There are strong suggestions that the game contains far more information and possibility than you’ll find by taking the walkthrough – that it wants to be a game you dig deep into to wangle out secrets – but veering away from the walkthrough often seems to put you in impossible situations without making that clear. I recommend the ClubFloyd transcript, although it’s very long and contains a great deal of reloading saves, and thus may be rather confusing in its own right.
The game opens on a dramatic plunge into the action, and we learn things more through allusions than direct information. Even the explanations leave a lot unclarified. As I played, I always had a lot of unanswered questions in mind; initially about the backstory of the characters, but increasingly about how this whole fantastic apparatus works. The characters don’t live in the present, but in an unnamed city which has recently undergone quarantines and highly destructive riots. And all this is potentially strong stuff, as long as the audience begins to feel that they’re getting it as things move along. Personally, I found myself accumulating more confusions more rapidly than I found answers.
Early on, the fantastical stuff is the least mysterious part of the game – we all understand how ‘paintings as magical portals’ ought to work. But the time-stop / time-travel shenanigans turn out to be considerably more important than initially suspected. As you traverse the world, the regular action of the portals and the machinations of plot mess around with your inventory an awful lot, which makes for further disorientation. I’m not sure if this meant to be the kind of game which needs to have its possibilities plotted out on paper, but after two losing playthroughs and one walkthrough-heavy victory it certainly felt that way.
Time-tangle puzzles in IF are typically pretty sparse, tending towards plainer writing, less complex NPCs, not a whole lot of deep backstory. Partly this is to give the author less to worry about – Primrose Path has multiple NPCs who can be encountered in a variety of unusual situations, who act on their own agendas, and who can be talked to about a fairly broad variety of plot elements which might be in a variety of states – but partly it’s so that the player has less to track. The two interact: the difficulty in grasping all of the plot is exacerbated because it’s hard to trust that everything is functioning as it should. Primrose Path‘s past versions have had bugs which, if not breaking the game, definitely make its logic more confusing; if something unexpected happens, it’s often very difficult to be confident that it was meant to.
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about themes. There is a very traditional element that immediately presents itself: locked doors, unlocked with specific keys, colour-coded. It’s entirely conventional for adventure-style games to feature this kind of gating, and for games in general to delimit their worlds in somewhat-arbitrary ways; but because of the highly naturalistic feel of the writing, this cumulatively feels more acutely confining, faintly sinister. The sliding doors to Matilda’s garden are swollen shut. The house faces onto a busy street, and Matilda doesn’t have a driver’s license any more. Matilda is a middle-aged woman, and there’s a distant sense of opportunities quietly closing down.
And then there are all these keys. Keys should open doors. The first painting you enter leads to a highly dramatic landscape, which sets up the expectation that you’re going to be going on a Cook’s Tour fantasy journey; and then, after a period in which you get keys one at a time, you find an entire key-ring, with keys of amber, jade, ruby. Jeweled keys are absolutely fantasy territory. Jeweled keys should open spectacular things. But as it turns out, they just open doors back into different areas of your house. You’re promised Narnia, and instead you get your own bathroom, and a brutal little cycle of inevitability.
At times, this confinement seems arbitrary; when time is stopped, Matilda can’t walk on water, but she can climb into the air on raindrops. (Which is the one unavoidable spoiler I already knew about the game – like, when I saw Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart I thought of the ending as That Primrose Path Thing, despite having never got to it in the game.) More obviously, Matilda is physically and socially frail; she gets pushed around by other characters, and often freezes up in a crisis (except when she doesn’t).
Leo is also confined, although in ways that we only see at a remove. He comes across as depely frustrated, he’s very much a Young Man in Turmoil – and here I start to wonder if the Shakespearean title is more than a useful phrase, if Irene is Gertrude and Leo Hamlet. Which would leave you as mad Ophelia.
Irene’s conversation, I’ve noticed, tends to be the polar opposite of her son’s: whereas Leo is so intensely present that I feel slightly on edge whenever I speak to him, Irene is so vague that you start to wonder whether she’s there at all.
But of course Leo is a prominent absence for most of the game, and the story is delivered with an Irenic vagueness. For all that Leo forms – sort of – a love interest, the game isn’t much of a romance. Partly this is an inversion: we’re used to the figure of the mysterious woman who always barely eludes the hero, but when it’s a man it just feels irritating.
In fact, I kind of got to the point where I felt that this was designed as an accretive, figure-out-how-to-win-by-losing game. There are strong hints of this in at least one losing ending:
By the time my former self comes innocently down the stairs, about to answer her doorbell, I am already deep into the woods. Perhaps without my interference she’ll be able to sort all this out better than I have.
Early on, we get hints of a triangle-of-identities thing:
>ask about me
I don’t talk about you out in the open like that . . . surely you can understand. Irene would think me insane.
But I can’t see you. Do you even have a body? Or were you trying to get me to examine myself?
And then, later on, this becomes suddenly, terrifyingly important and you don’t really understand why. The studied vagueness about certain things escalates into a defence mechanism, with Matilda refusing to follow commands (but also not doing anything independently). There are hints about this, buried fairly deep, but they’re far from conclusive. This is not a game that’s big on answers.
The struggle between Matilda and whoever ‘you’ refers to escalates to being downright uncomfortable at times:
Well, yes, there’s a wooden shelf here, along the far wall, but honestly, I see nothing important on it.
No, really, I don’t see anything I want to take.
Damn it. All right, so the ring is on the shelf. But is it really necessary this really that I cart it about with me? I turned it down years ago; there’s really no need to go into all that again.
That was a rhetorical question.
Taken, damn you.
There’s a suggestion, very deeply buried, that Matilda is schizophrenic; but it seems just as likely that the command-giver is something more fantastical that has just been treated as schizophrenia. The game doesn’t want you to have tidy explanations for characters: Irene is initially characterised as senile, dangerously crazy; at other times she appears dangerously shrewd, at times her vagueness seems calculated, and by the conclusion it’s still not clear whether she was the most sensible one of the trio. (The big threat that motivates her – the danger of encountering yourself through time-travel – might be a paper tiger. It’s never articulated very clearly why it’s so awful.)
So: The Primrose Path is a challenging work, both to play and to nail down. I didn’t come away from it with a sense of narrative satatisfaction, and I don’t know whether I was meant to.