IF Comp 2019: The Four Eccentrics

eccentricsThe Four Eccentrics (Mild Cat Bean, Inform) is a surreal fantasy adventure set in a dream city; things have gone awry and the protagonist has to sort them out.

It’s a pretty large game, and opens on a large map without very much in the way of direction: I would be very surprised if anyone has finished it without the walkthrough in two hours.

Going up the steps, you have to step over a large pile of unopened mail addressed to “The Dream Architect” just inside the doorway. Looking around, you find yourself inside a structure reminding you of both workshop and fortune-teller’s tent.

Though the structural material of the place looked flimsy at a distance, its walls support bookshelves, dark mirrors, detailed reference posters for chiromancers and neuroanatomists, and structural blueprints tacked up on corkboard.

The draped ceiling appears to be decorated with a thorough diagram tracking the planets through the zodiac. A large spiral-woven rug covers the floor beneath an upright drafting table and is partly obscured by a pile of unopened letters.

Opposite the door is a reclining couch, upon which lies an elegant woman.

This is a potentially strong image, but the delivery is way less punchy than it could be. Look at the general-overview line:

Looking around, you find yourself inside a structure reminding you of both workshop and fortune-teller’s tent.

This just front-loads a lot of redundant verbiage before we get to the image. “Looking around, you find yourself” – yeah, this is a room description! We can take that as read. “Inside a structure” – look, we knew it was a structure as you entered it, and the rest of the description makes it redundant. “Reminding you of both”: clunky, and you don’t need to be this specific about visual resemblance: “like” does the job just fine, or “reminscent of”. So by the time we get to the information-carrying part of the sentence I’m already bored. This whole sentence could have been boiled down to ‘Part workshop, part fortune-teller’s tent”. That might be too short: point is, if it’s possible to do this in five words without losing anything, sixteen is probably not ideal.

The game has a wealth of strange, strongly-conceived images; a lot of them are better-delivered than that, but it’s a mixed bag. Like everybody else, I thought the Market Cloak was great – but the amount of attention lavished on ‘the so-called square is in fact a bit off-centre, how crazy is that’ was too much for me. The bowler-hat building was too cute a Magritte reference for my taste. There are lots of environmental elements which are less strikingly original but nonetheless feel strong: the day-and-night change, the tower whose top is its bottom.

Parser is a tricky mode to express dreams in. Parser is good at describing and interacting with spaces that are concrete, regular, and can be steadily worked at in logical ways. Dreams rarely feature much consistent logic of agency or of environment, but they do have lots of momentum: something’s always happening in a dream. Making a parser game feel dreamlike, therefore, is a delicate art of undermining the player’s sense of regularity while still giving them enough to work with. I don’t feel that Eccentrics quite succeeds at either.

The puzzles, when you find them, turn out to be mostly of the medium-size-dry-goods variety. The first puzzle in the walkthrough involves attaching a heavy object to a crane as a counterweight. That’s a puzzle deeply rooted in a sense of a mechanical, graspable, rational world. The game-world uses poetry as currency, which sounds weird, but in fact it’s a matter of collecting poetry books and giving them to people – which is much less weird. So this is not very dreamlike: it’s a little more like a mind level of Psychonauts, a game which had very colourful theming but which transparently worked according to the familiar logic of a platformer.

This is not so transparent. As a conventional parser game, it suffers quite a bit from read-author’s-mind puzzles. The premise has created some difficulties here: the AFGNCAAP-ish protagonist doesn’t have very strong motivations, and the world isn’t in a hurry to provide any, so I generally didn’t have much idea of what I wanted to accomplish other than explore and acquire things, and that makes how a fair bit more difficult. But there are also just some regular old issues of parser implementation and design. A lot of elements involve you ASKING ABOUT the right topic, but most NPCs (and there are a lot of NPCs) aren’t very chatty about other topics, which kind of discouraged me from trying to talk to anyone ever. There are puzzle-elements which aren’t very well-indicated unless you already know what the puzzle is. Also, it’s just a pretty big map with a lot of stuff in it, and quite a few scenery items weren’t implemented – which is a bigger issue in a game that’s very open and relatively undirected.

The game’s blurb describes it as Surrealist rather than merely surreal; but this world feels a good deal too cosy to square with historical Surrealism, a movement which was many things – radical, playful, provocative, horny, psychological, anti-authoritarian, unsettling, allegorical, anguished, political, angry – cosiness not prominent among them. (At a couple of moments the text refers to avant-garde with a tone of slight disapproval – which is kind of the epitome of the bourgeois sensibility that the Surrealists contrasted themselves to.) Four Eccentrics is much closer to an Oz or Narnia story: you encounter a strange but appealing world, work to restore it, and for your efforts are accepted into its elite class as one of them. An ‘eccentric’ is someone who is strange, out-of-tune, outside the mainstream, off-centre; but these Eccentrics are at the heart of their society. (I’m actually not sure which of them are the Four; I counted the Engineer, the Expert, the Lecturer, the Gardener, and the Architect.) This is, at heart, a fantasy of a convivial world that accepts, values and centres weirdness; but it’s a very safe kind of weirdness that is accepted, a weirdness that is quaint and picturesque rather than disturbing. The moments which could have been disturbing – the detachable limbs, the ghoul, the insect in the brain – seem confined to small corners. The Eccentrics are eccentrics in the sense of ‘comfortably tenured professor with some odd habits’, not ‘homeless and mentally ill.’ This is not so much a criticism of the work as it is of how it has self-categorised, I guess.

There are no testers credited anywhere I could see, and I think that this could have benefited a lot from a line edit and several rounds of testing for playability: there’s a great deal of material here which could be shown off to much better effect. Having to play this with the walkthrough definitely hurts it – especially because it’s a very minimal walkthrough that often asks you to do things unprompted, skipping steps which put your actions into better context. I would have very, very much liked to have experienced this world as something that fostered exploration better. As it stands I think it’s a 6; I’d very much like to see more work from this author.

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