Next up in the Comp: The Master of the Land, a choice-based thing by Pseudavid.
This is an intrigue-at-the-fancy-party game, set in a fictional Mediterranean nation early in the C19th. It’s Burburum Day, a kind of Carnival or Saturnalia, a night of reversals and strange portents, of blurring of boundaries. You play Irene, Lady Victor, daughter of an influential and complicated family.
You wander around a small palace and its gardens; each location might have actions available, depending on the time and where you’re at are in various subplots. The presentation of choices suggests the influence of Fallen London, and the setting has a slightly similar sensibility for shadowy strangeness around the edges, but the fantastical is kept rather more distant, and its characters read as solid people rather than half-person, half-archetype.
This is an odd and audacious thing. There is a great deal going on here; it’s a story about the personal and the political, about the failures of liberal politics. I like a lot of the things it’s aiming for, and sometimes it hits them. At the same time, it’s got its share of problems.
The writing’s a mixed bag. Much of the time it’s honestly very good, but it also wobbles quite a lot. There’s a scattering of errors which seem like the result of imperfect English fluency – this for these happens a great deal – and it’s not always easy to distinguish this from questions of word choice. This is a story wherein quite a lot often hangs on a few words – a note of character or intention, whether something comes across as grave or ridiculous, hackneyed or vividly real – and I didn’t always feel confident about those words.
SUNLIGHT FALLS SO FLAT on the waters of the Castain that it bounces. The river bank is blurred by this wet light, the sky by the dry, reddish haze. The sun struggles to clear the air, and fails: all colours bleed into shades of ruby.
I don’t know what that first line means at all. Light bounces all the time, which is how you can see things, and I’m struggling to find a more poetic sense. I don’t know which sense of ‘flat’ is intended here. I don’t get what ‘wet light’ is. From ‘the sky…’ onwards I can parse this visually, but it doesn’t clarify what came before. The overall effect of a passage like this is to make me less certain about the writer’s ability to deploy a word with precision, and that sense of unease, of distrust of the text, affects the rest of the story.
An example: one of the goals Irene is working towards is getting a permit that will allow her to wear trousers; she needs them for the practical botany work she does in the forest. ‘Trousers’ is a funny word. It’s also an objective that, compared to the currents of political instability surrounding her, could easily seem petty and entitled; but it’s genuinely important to her, and it provides a window into the petty corruption and conservatism of how the country’s run. And you’re meant to feel that tension. There are often things where Irene’s character is balanced between kind, dutiful, frivolous, brave, hopeless – and quite delicate writing choices are needed to keep all of these possibilities feeling real and coherent, parts of the same person. Mostly this works but quite often I wasn’t sure of it; the overall impression I got of Irene was of someone flighty, someone who might do a brave and good thing if she happened to be in the right place at the right time and had the spoons for it, but who might also let everyone down horribly to go off and flirt with an artistic boy she just met that evening; someone with social anxiety but a lot of charm; a rich girl who amuses herself with unsuitable friends, and who is by turns sincere and patronising with them. But it was difficult to trust my impressions, a lot of the time, because I couldn’t feel secure about the writing.
So many people, so many things to do at all times. I will miss things.
It’s aiming for a feeling of being overwhelmed by a multitude of social duties, and this works pretty well. Irene is someone with social anxiety in a fraught and highly mannered social environment, and is acutely conscious of how her actions may affect her reputation; indeed, because we’re seeing things through her socially-anxious perspective, it’s not always clear what will actually affect her reputation and what’s just paranoia. (To some extent this distinction isn’t that crucial, because the most immediate effect of perceived reputation hits is having a panic attack and being unable to function for a while.)
The nature of the thing’s design is that lots of different timers and triggers relating to lots of different threads of the plot are running all at once, and sometimes when they overlap this makes for paragraphs that don’t quite follow from one another, or choices that don’t seem to follow naturally from the text above. Sometimes some text will appear that’s clearly framing an action, but that action isn’t available yet, or any more.
For me the sense of anxiety was exacerbated by not intuiting my way around the map very well, or understanding where particular events were meant to be taking place. (The protagonist knows the place intimately). There’s a map included in the game, but you can’t view it while playing, and the layout of the geography seems designed more to replicate the layout of an actual palace than for ease of navigation. If you aren’t in the right place at the right time for a thing you can get shut out – which is fine, it just wasn’t great getting shut out because I’d forgotten where a thing was or how to get there quickly.
Another thing that takes some time to get a handle on is exactly how Canton Duopol’s politics work; there are multiple sources of power, but I spent quite a lot of time being unsure how this worked – there’s a king, but he seems absent, so I suspect that it’s some sort of semi-autonomous state that is a constitutional monarchy on paper but an aristocratic republic in practice, with a titular monarch who’s mostly busy ruling some other kingdom. This is clearly a well-thought-out setting, but I did often get the feeling of having started reading at Book 3 of a series. (Which is potentially a good thing – you want to open your narrative at the point where the action really gets interesting – but it does require getting the reader up to speed). There’s a lot of prominent places where player information doesn’t match PC information – Irene’s first act in the story is to read a letter about Gloria, which is not revealed to the player, and while Gloria was a subject of concern among her family, a source of uncertainty and danger, nobody really specifies why.
The art is not well-suited to the subject-matter, and on the whole I would have preferred it to be abandoned entirely. The illustrations have a Photoshop sponge filter applied – which is a somewhat common approach among indie artists to turn photos into more generic art, and it always looks cheap and tacky. A lot of the action-selection icons have an incongruous feel of stock photos about them: ‘talk to someone’ has a model’s laugh, the ‘run away’ icon is in leggings and trainers. The overall effect is of placeholder art. The only parts which I felt the art really added something were the illustrations of the Burburum – but even there, I was conscious of how visually rich a subject they’d be in the hands of a good illustrator. Aside from the actual art, though, there’s some strong layout and nice font choices.
This is going to be high on my list of Games I’d Like To See Get A Major Post-Comp Update. It’s in 7-8 territory at the moment; I’m inclined to say 8 because it’s trying difficult things.