IF Comp 2018: Birmingham IV

birmingham4This is a port of an I7 game written in 1988, using The Quill, on a BBC Micro. In the intervening thirty years there have been rather a lot of developments in parser IF, in terms of design as much as of technology.

I did not get very far. The protagonist, the ponytailed Phil, has a dream in which he time-travels to a sort of vaguely-Ren Faireish version of his Black Country home, which is now a quiet rural village. There is a Little John quarterstaff-duel-on-a-bridge bit, and a tavern, and a bridge troll, and rather a lot about exotic vegetables and contemporary instruments. I got through the first major puzzle by using the walkthrough, and it was sufficiently obscure that I knew I’d be using the walkthrough for everything thereafter.

Birmingham is a creature of its time. Its opening doesn’t offer any idea of what you’re meant to be doing, or why, or how you should go about it; there is barely any narrative. You don’t really know who the protagonist is. There are obstacles that kill you, and the game is in no hurry to let you past them. There are unlisted exits without which you cannot progress. There are puzzles which assume that either you can read the author’s mind, or that you’re willing to spend long hours making no progress whatsoever as you try everything imaginable. There are NPCs, but no way of talking to them. There is a rather small inventory limit, and inventory objects are strewn about the map without explanation. It is quite easy to irretrievably lose items – in particular, an essential item is found in the opening area, which you can’t return to once you leave. For no very clear reason, the protagonist is referred to as ‘The Phil’. The message ‘Predictably, the Phil’s eyes water’ repeats after you examine anything at all. There are lots of little signs of the game reflecting the author’s in-jokes and particular, odd concerns, without feeling any need to explain them to the audience.

Not feeling any need to explain things, to be honest, is the central characteristic of hobbyist games of this era.

This was an era of painfully bad games, I should stress. By that standard, Birmingham isn’t as bad as I would have expected. The writing it’s a bit stiff, the kind of thing that avoids contractions and uses the word ‘currently’ more than it should, but it’s not utterly wooden; in particular, it develops a more decent and detailed sense of setting than I would have expected given the premise. Unlike a lot of its contemporaries, it doesn’t revel in cruelty to or contempt of the player. The thing’s hobby-horses are pleasant corners of nerdery like botany and folk music. On the other hand, it’s not exactly the state of the art for its day, either; and, given that it’s in the Comp, judging it by the standards of its day isn’t really appropriate.

(Porting it to I7 was a great mercy, though. I had a moment of imagining playing this on an emulator – not an unprecedented situation in the Comp – and got the shudders.)


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