IF Comp 2017: Day of the Djinn

dayofdjinnDay of the Djinn (paperyowl) is a Twine fantasy story.

Its setting looks, at a first pass, much like the modern world, but it contains a substantial number of magical elements. Some of these are ordinary everyday things, and it’s not always clear how uncanny a thing should seem to the protagonist. There’s a certain Diana Wynne Jones-ishness about this, a sense that a bunch of stuff is going on just off-screen which will affect you but that you’re never going to entirely know about. There are big chunks of worldbuilding, but they feel fragmentary; I picked up a lot of Weird Features of the world, but they didn’t give me a cohesive picture. A lot of the time when I complain about boring writing, it’s because of a lack of attention to detail, and that’s absolutely not the case here; there’s a lot of attention to odd little details. But they felt kind of scattershot; many of them felt like little stand-alone ideas, rather than things which informed the world as a whole.

In many ways, it’s operating from a very conventional adventure-game playbook. There’s a room-based map, inventory, a lighting puzzle, a fetch-quest for a gate-keeper, a sequence that looks like a maze, books which contain puzzle clues. As a sequence of pure puzzle design, it’s doing pretty well, but it doesn’t sit well with motivation, either of the player or the protagonist. It’s quite easy to solve most of the puzzles before you have a particular reason to do so; there’s a map of spice mines in the forest but I had no real grasp of why it was a good idea to go and find them, other than it being an adventure-game clue. So some of the protagonist’s actions feel unmoored.

Part of this is that protagonist is not characterised strongly; we get the impression that they’re mild-mannered and have always lived in the shadow of their more assertive and dynamic sister, but otherwise the game avoids defining them too closely. In particular, their viewpoint isn’t written with a whole lot of emotional inflection; everything’s muted, painted in mid-tones, and it doesn’t feel like the kind of understatement that suggests at hidden depths. This is a problem, because the material it’s working with ought to feel a whole lot punchier than this. Your sister, who seems to be the most important person in your life, has put a curse on you which will kill you before the day is out. You have to enter a dark forest to try and undo the curse, and one of the ways to get out of it involves sacrificing your sister in your place. This ought to be high-intensity stuff.

This could have been rendered with the matter-of-fact brutality of a fairy story, but it’s not that, either; the narrative voice is wryly detached, almost anhedonic. And I don’t think this was the intention at all: the early game mentions fear and rage, but that’s not really reflected in the voice. There’s a lot of vagueness about why your sister did this; there are flashbacks to your earlier relationship, but nothing that’d suggest murderous intent. Everybody you meet is helpful and laid-back; things feel, well, too gentle for a story about kinslayers.

It’s relatively short, and – at least on my playthrough – it feels oddly-paced. The section before you make it into the woods feels like an introduction, but in fact it makes up the majority of the game, with the conclusion feeling abrupt. The blurb claims that there are seven endings, but both of my complete playthroughs ended up at the same one, so perhaps I just got one of the less-satisfying ones.

(I ran into error messages when talking to the deer guy, and shortly thereafter was taken to a page (about not entering the forest with a knife) that didn’t have any links that continued the story; because the game auto-manages your inventory and doesn’t let you arbitrarily drop things, I ran into this issue twice because I wasn’t paying attention to it.)

I think this is a 4. Some respectable elements in here, but as a complete design it’s kinda haphazard.

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