And Blaming it on You

by Dan H

Dan Reviews Some Classic IF
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IF – otherwise known as “interactive fiction” or simply “text adventures” is something with which I have what is best described as a “love-hate relationship”. Although it might be better described as a “rush of enthusiasm, wall of frustration” relationship.

My response to a work of Interactive Fiction almost always goes something like this: “Wow, check out this compelling interactive scenario with which I have been presented. Oh hang on I’ve got to navigate a large and complex map using only compass directions. Oh shit there’s a locked door. No I don’t have a key. Why am I carrying this potato? Have I missed something? God I hope I haven’t missed something…”

And so on until I give up.

For a bit more context, I’ll add that I spent a large part of last week playing Dragon Age, and getting increasingly frustrated with the whole structure of the game. The dungeon segments felt bland and uninspired, as if the designers’ hearts really weren’t in them. You got the impression that what Bioware really wanted you to be doing was talking to NPCs and making Real Meaningful Choices, and that all of the dungeon craws were only there as a matter of genre convention.

“Gosh,” I found myself thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to play a story-focused game that didn’t feel the need to include elements the writers plainly aren’t interested in. Maybe something small, self-contained, and conveyed entirely through the medium of text.”

So I poked around the interwebs for a bit and found myself copies of Bronze and Vespers.

Bronze

Bronze is one of several fairytale retellings by veteran IF-author Emily Short (others include Glass and Alabaster - see the theme?). You play a girl who has traded her freedom to a cursed Beast who lives (or should that be “dwells”) in an enchanted castle. You have just returned after a seven day visit to your home village to find the beast gone, the castle empty, and spectral guardians haunting many of the rooms.

What follows is an engaging, exploration-and-simple-puzzles-based work of IF with a sparse written style and an extraordinarily helpful hint system.

Bronze avoided pretty much every single problem I have ever had with interactive fiction. Designed to be accessible to new players, it's very good at letting you know what you're supposed to be doing, how you're supposed to be doing it, and giving you a sense of your progress. You start off exploring the castle, looking for the Beast, and the game presents you with a handy count of the number of explored rooms along with a compass rose showing you which way you can go, and whether you've been there before (this is sometimes a problem – I occasionally missed exits because they were shown on the compass rose and not the room description).

I have to confess that in the last few weeks I’ve become something of an Emily Short fanboy. Her writing manages to be both engaging and unpretentious, and she creates a good sense of place with her relatively terse room descriptions.

Perhaps the biggest factor in my appreciation of Bronze however, was the simple fact that I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Hint System. Hint systems in IF are rather like difficulty settings in conventional games. Yes, it’s easy to get all macho and insist that you are a serious player and you will play on hard mode because you are all about the challenge but all that does is waste your time. Again, one of the problems on my last attempt to play Dragon Age was that I found the combat difficult enough that it got in my way, without finding much interest in the tactical challenge (too often in CRPGs the best “strategy” feels like an AI exploit more than anything else: the first big fight in Dragon Age, I beat by kiting an ogre around the room while taking pot-shots at it with my ranged characters – it just didn’t feel heroic) this problem could be solved by putting the difficulty on “easy” but my inner nerd rails against it.

Something about Bronze - perhaps the sparse nature of the descriptions, perhaps the consciously user-friendly design, perhaps the simple fact that the “hint” option was phrased as “think about”, meaning it felt like something I was doing “in character” – like examining an object, or asking a person about it. Either way it made the bits where I would normally get stuck much more bearable, because I never felt too bad about hitting “think about”. It also helped that the hint system was very clear on what problems could be solved using my current resources, and what needed items I hadn’t found yet, or wasn’t going to be solvable until a later stage of the game.

The final thing that really sold me on Bronze was the ending (one which, I confess, I needed a walkthrough to get to, not because the path to it was down was particularly hard to find, but because I tend to play through IF once or twice at most before using walkthroughs to see other endings). This is a spoiler, so if you’re not interested in spoilers then skip down now (seriously, I’ll give you time to do it and I won’t use bold text or anything. Gone? Good) – anyway there is of course an ending in which you manage to save the beast, returning him to his human form, at which point the Beast (who you are most definitely in love with at the start of the game) becomes a very ordinary-looking forty-something man, to whom you are fairly explicitly not attracted. This is just so – well I’m not sure how best to put it, but it just felt refreshingly mature and unromantic.

So yeah, Bronze: the first IF I’ve ever actually played through without giving up in frustration.

Vespers

Vespers is a quite critically acclaimed game which won the IFComp in – I think – 2005 (I am at work with slow internets, I am too lazy to check). It’s set in a … umm … monastery? Friary? Some oldey-timey religious building at any rate. There’s a plague, and it seems that you (the Abbot no less) have shut the doors, leaving the villagers to die outside in pools of their own blood and filth.

Vespers is strong on atmosphere, very strong on atmosphere. It is told over three days, with the monastery becoming slowly creepier and more oppressive as time goes on. Descriptions change in subtle – and not so subtle – ways as the plot progresses (and, I think, in response to player action – if you play as a raving nutbag things get rather more messed up rather more quickly). It successfully evokes a sense of, well, of being isolated in a monastery, cut off by plague, and generally screwed while everything turns to shit around you.

It's rather less strong on interactivity. It isn't linear - far from it, although you're walking around on a smallish map you're given a genuine sense that you can go where you like, examine what you like, and progress the plot at your own pace. Unfortunately, this non-linearity is only possible at all because your actions are – for the most part – largely irrelevant.

Okay, that's a slightly unfair statement. Your actions matter, insofar as they have an effect on the state of your character's soul and thereby decide whether you get the Totally Metal ending, the Nigh-Unachievable Good Ending, or the Sort-of-Middling ending (I got middling and metal on my first two plays through) but there's very little you can do which actually affects the course of events. For example (warning, spoilers for five-year-old text adventure!) at the start of the game you can go up a tower and have a conversation with one of your brothers. You can also push him off the tower, at which point he will die, plunging the monastery into turmoil, backbiting, and recrimination. Of course if you don't push him off the tower, he dies anyway (and you never actually find out who killed him, or if he jumped).

Throughout the game, you uncover a lot of information about what's going on, mostly that everything is royally screwed, that you're one of the most royally screwed people in the whole place, and that everything is very bad. What you can't do is, well, do anything with this information. Brother Matteo is murdered, and the monks blame Brother Lucca, but Lucca is clearly innocent, and you uncover a lot of evidence to support the fact that he's innocent but you can't actually tell anybody about it, and even if you did it doesn't seem to make any difference – despite the fact that you're the Abbot, everybody seems to be making decisions without consulting you. Half your brothers are clearly mad, but you can't get anything done about them because everybody is too busy persecuting clearly-innocent-guy. There's a particularly incongruous scene early on when all the brothers are gathered around Matteo's dead body, with Clearly-Innocent-Monk sobbing and saying “I'm sorry, I'm sorry” over and over again, while Clearly-Insane-Monk goes on like some kind of crazy Cthulhu investigator – insisting that “it is beginning” and “we're in for some fun now” (or words to that effect), and there's nothing you can do to even draw people's attention to him.

I wouldn't object so much to the powerlessness of the player-character if your moral degeneration (or otherwise) was better handled. Emily Short, in her belated-but-not-as-belated-as-mine review of the game (or more precisely in the comments on her review sums up the problems I had with the game's “morality” axis rather neatly:

Vespers does an odd sort of caricature of Christianity and Catholicism in particular, so that while I was playing I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be trying to be following a religious agenda I brought to the game from outside (whether based on my own beliefs or my concept of how Catholic beliefs work) or just taking cues from the game...

In my case, the ending didn’t feel like a very satisfying evaluation of the choices I’d made in the game, because the one really significant piece of judgment open to me — do I take Cecilia at her word or not? — I’d been befuddled out of handling the way I originally wanted to.


The three endings to the game are unlocked according to how much your character has “sinned” over the course of the game. To get the good ending, you have to commit zero sins, and you have to “repent” before choosing the “up” option in the final scene. The problem is that the game is rather unclear and rather inconsistent about what constitutes a “sin” - for example there is an alms box in the entryway to the monastery, and taking the coin counts as a sin, but there are several other parts of the game which require you to take bits of other people's property to solve puzzles (and worse, require you to take bits of other people's property to solve puzzles, when the only alternative is “Pray to Cecilia” - which constitutes a sin). On the whole I felt less like I was making moral decisions, than trying to solve puzzles by whatever methods seemed appropriate. I suppose you could argue that this itself is making some kind of subtle moral point (“But easier, the Dark Side is...”) but if, in order to progress the game, I need to get somebody's keys, and if in order to get those keys my options are “kill him” or “pour wax in his ear” then chances are I'm going to take the “kill him” option, because pouring wax in the ear of a sleeping monk in order to prevent him from waking up is not something I would ever have thought of in a million years.

The game is competently structured, relatively well hinted, and does well at understanding unusual commands (including “masturbate” for those intent on racking up their sin-points quickly), and perhaps I'd have been more blown away by the game if I hadn't gone into it knowing that it was critically acclaimed. As it is I was a little nonplussed.

[Edit: Helpful Editor is Helpful. To play most IF you'll need an interpreter, I recommend Gargoyle, available here. Most major works of IF are also available online in various different forms. You can get a copy of Bronze here and Vespers here.]
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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 14:14 on 2010-10-21
"Rush of enthusiasm then wall of frustration" has been my experience with many IF games, too. Sounds like Bronze does a really good job of addressing those problems; I will have to check it out.
Dan H at 21:05 on 2010-10-21
Bronze is well worth a look, and if you're interested the 2010 IF Comp is on now as well.

What I've generally found with IF is that the big secret is (as I mention above) Stop Worrying And Learn To Love the Hint System. The moment you get stuck with a puzzle, go to the help files, if there aren't any, go find a better game.

For what it's worth the 2010 annual IF competition has just started (well okay, it's nearly over) but some of the entries there are worth a look too.
Louis B at 22:12 on 2010-10-21
Count me in the "Rush of enthusiasm; wall of frustration" camp. My experience with IF is that there are basically two philosophies at work: one that sees IF as more of a game, and one that sees it more as a story. And I never can stomach the game/puzzle obsessed ones for very long.

I'll be sure to check out Bronze. It sounds great!
Dan H at 20:11 on 2010-10-22
Puzzles in IF are really difficult, because on the one hand they're the major stumbling point for pretty much everybody but on the other hand IF with no puzzles at all often feel hollow (gameplay elements do, after all, serve a function and an IF with no gameplay elements is - arguably - not making the best of its interactivity).

For good examples of why Puzzle-free IF doesn't entirely work, try East Grove Hills (a taking-itself-too-seriously teen-angst piece against the backdrop of a school shooting that kills *two hundred* people) which falls down because it might as well not be interactive at all (you can play most of the game just by pressing z to wait) or The Warbler's Nest (a better implemented "dark fairytale" but which contains no "puzzles", but is sometimes so vague about what you need to do to progress that it's even worse).

Basically I like easy, puzzle-light games with good hint systems or *totally unfailable* conversation games, where the idea is to steer the game towards one of several endings.
Arthur B at 12:10 on 2010-10-23
For me I like hint systems which guide you most of the way to the answer but don't actually tell you how to do it precisely. In games where the hint systems end up boiling down to giving you precise instructions for every point in the game I feel like it makes the game hollow somehow, in precisely the same way as puzzleless IF tends to feel hollow.

Part of it is that if I use the hint system heavily I get out of the practice of solving puzzles, or don't get into the mindset the game wants you to get into at all, which means I'm likely to be even more reliant on the hint system, to the point where playing becomes like this:

> hint

This is a hint. Type "hint" again for a stronger hint.

> hint

This is a stronger hint. Type "hint" again for the strongest hint.

> hint

This is the strongest hint. Type "hint" again for the solution.

> hint

This is the solution.

> solution

At which point, I may as well just use a walkthrough and save on typing "hint" all the time. So any IF game with a hint system that doesn't just boil down to hint-hint-hint-solution is a plus for me.
Dan H at 23:30 on 2010-10-25
I'm okay with hint/hint/solution puzzles.

If I can't work something out from the first two hints, then chances are I'm being expected to play an infuriating game of guess-the-verb, or spot-the-object-that-wasn't-in-the-room-description or some other variant of read-the-mind-of-the-author.

I absolutely *do* want the final hint to basically tell me what commands to type, because sometimes, just not knowing what commands to type is the problem.
Arthur B at 23:55 on 2010-10-25
Yeah, normally if I do hint-hint-solution and it turns out I was using the wrong verb it's my cue to swear loudly and stop playing that particular game.

Basically I think IF almost always boils down to second-guessing the author and getting inside their head, so if you're psychologically compatible with the author and can get into their mindset you can blitz through but if not it's going to be a hard slog. I like hint-hint-solution because it gets me to the end of the game, but I don't like it because I end up using it as a crutch to avoid actually getting into a puzzle-solving mindset. And if I'm using it for more than half the puzzles then I just say fuck it and go to a walkthrough.
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