Tuuli (Daurmith, Ruber Eaglenest) is an Inform game about a Finnish girl who has to take over the role of a dead witch to protect her village from Vikings. I am super into this premise and had high expectations.
It’s brief and economical, and this allows it to focus on a very sharp, simple character arc while maintaining a sense of urgency and significance. You can imagine it as the climactic sequence of a substantially longer work – but cutting things down to the final act makes a lot of sense. You’re given just enough time to get an appreciation of the situation and the stakes as the crisis builds.
The old witch is dead, raiders are coming, your people need but do not wholly trust you. This is a culture that doesn’t generally listen to women, and a witch occupies a socially uncomfortable position as a woman who wields power and who must be listened to. The heroine, Lenne, is thirteen; she does not feel at all ready for this, and the game’s pacing is crucial to this sense of being thrown unprepared into a desperate situation.
The delivery has a definite quality of a not-completely-fluent second language. Sometimes it’s a little off, sometimes it’s just incorrect:
Panu and Mikko are with you in the cliff. You watch as they bring Mákke’s body up with ropes. Panu, the youngest, climbs down to the albatrosses’ nests to secure her. Mikko, the eldest, pulls and pulls until your teacher comes back to you. She’s cold and cramped, stiff as a tree, and the melting snow drips from her eyes like tears.
“Would you have us take her to her bed, Lenne?,” Mikko asks. You’re about to say yes, but then you shake your head.
“Place her on the witch stone and leave me alone with her.”
So, for instance, you’d never say ‘in the cliff’ unless the cliff had a cave in it; English is just horrible about prepositions of place and proximity.
A lot of the overly-formal diction makes sense given that this is a story of weighty matters and mythic overtones; sometimes it feels slightly too much, but at other times it completely nails it:
“You must give me back that wineskin, Panu,” you say, firmly. Because your eyes are open at last and you know what you must do and how to do it, as if Mákke herself is whispering to you with her dead lips. “You must give it to me because from it I shall pull the storm and the squall, the gale and the tempest, life and death themselves. In my hands that wineskin will hold Ukko’s breath and Akka’s strength.”
“But it is only a wineskin, Lenne…”
 “You will do as I say.”
Again, the game can maintain this level of significance-laden intensity because it’s short and focused; this would get too much if the game had been twice as long. We do not get to see who Lenne is when she’s not steeling herself to deal with exceptional things; it’s a portrait of an act of will, not a person or a place.
Lots of things are quietly pretty good about this game: the setting descriptions aren’t incredible, but taken together they effectively give a strong sense of atmosphere and of a solid, physical, real place. We don’t get a lot about any of the NPCs, but they come across as actual people. The text doesn’t dwell overlong on inventory items or pieces of scenery, but what we do get adds texture to the world.
Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about Viking Age Finland, and turns out there’s a reason for that: nobody else really does either. So I found myself coming up with a lot of questions that I couldn’t readily figure out answers for – aren’t runes a Norse thing? well, yes, and there don’t seem to be any inscriptions in Finnic regions from this period, but Finnish borrowed the Norse word for ‘rune’ at probably a pretty early date so there’s a good chance they at least had the general concept, and maybe ‘rune’ here is being used to mean any kind of symbolic iconography? I had a lot of inconclusive rabbit-holes like this while playing the game, which is kind of a good time in itself.
There’s an issue at the worst possible place. There’s a ritual to perform, it builds towards a highly charged critical moment, OK, and then, at the peak of the action – it stalls out because the game wants you to do one particular, specifically-phrased thing, using a more specific verb than is reasonable. This didn’t ruin the game for me or anything, but it’s a flaw at a pretty critical juncture of the game.
Here my storygame instincts kick in and say, look, the dramatic point of a ritual isn’t that you figure out the One Correct Thing, it’s that you do something appropriately climactic. (I’m assuming here that we don’t have records of the specific elements of Viking Age Finnic-pagan wind rituals, and that the authors thus have some leeway to make things up.) Leap from the cliff. Eat the rune. Cut the living rock. Sing the lightning. Marry the thunder. Do anything, just make it badass. The point of the story isn’t about the specific magical significance of that particular ritual act. The point of the story is that Lenne isn’t ready and has to wing it; that works best if the player can wing it too. Parser’s a really good interface for this sense of winging it, of scrabbling around for a solution, of not having a nice safe list of options to select from; but it also needs to avoid undermining the narrative pace.
The epilogue is really effective; you walk among the washed-up wreckage and name the dead men, say who they were (and with particular attention to how they treated women). It’s a sequence that caps off a lot of what’s come before, confirming why and how the witch is seen by the village.
I feel like this is an 8.