IFDB page: The Tempest
Final placement: 25th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition
“Yet look, how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.”
— William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129
The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an “interactive performance” which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character’s lines. In a sense, the player’s commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare’s language in a new and thrilling way.
All this being said, however, The Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the author does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare’s scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. The author wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained — the parser’s responses were beautiful, but didn’t make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game’s puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I’ve seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the author could simply tailor the game’s responses to help the player along — The Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short.
Before I played The Tempest, I was unlucky enough to run across a USENET conversation which suggested that Graham Nelson is the game’s author. I thought this was a spoiler, and I admit that it did set up a bit of preconception for me before I had even seen the first word of the game. Having said that, several things about the game do have a strong air of Nelson about them. The author’s erudition is clear, from the simple choice of subject matter to the deft interweaving of other Shakespearean and Renaissance phrases into the play’s text when necessary (for example, to the command “throw x at character” the game responds “I have no aim, no, no chance of a palpable hit.”, a phrase echoing Hamlet). Such attention to scholarly detail recalls some of the finer moments of Nelson’s epics, especially Jigsaw. Moreover, the game’s help menu (which it calls its frontispiece) contains fascinating blurbs on lost islands and the play’s history, as well as notes on the game, its creation and characteristics. Such additions are strongly reminiscent of the diplomatic briefings in Nelson’s 1996 1st Place game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Finally, the author’s technical skill and innovations with Inform are tremendous, and who better to code so well than the language’s inventor? It may be that Nelson is in fact not the author of the work (in which case the author should take the comparison as a compliment of the highest order), but even if that is so, the talent behind this game is clearly a major one. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, and as such carries a distinct air of finality — I only hope that whoever authored this work will not allow it to be his or her last as well.
Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of The Tempest. It’s my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from The Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, I think it’s safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don’t see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed’s histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author’s additions and Shakespeare’s text — these are the work’s weaker moments. However, in judging The Tempest‘s prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare’s writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium — on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.
Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be The Tempest‘s lack of interactivity. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact — I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem — after all, the piece bills itself as “more a ‘performance’ than a ‘game’,” and as such it’s perfectly appropriate for The Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player’s ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare’s plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I’m satisfied with the trade-off.
Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of The Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play’s first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel’s powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. [SPOILERS END] Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a “read-the-playwright/designer’s-mind” sort of puzzle. It won’t be the last time.
Technical (writing): The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English.
Technical (coding): I found only one bug in The Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot.
OVERALL: A 9.2