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Journey From An Islet by Mario Bencroft [Comp01]

IFDB page: Journey From An Islet
Final placement: 12th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

First of all, how big a coincidence is it that I’m playing two games in a row penned by New Zealanders? Are we seeing the harbingers of a Kiwi revolution in IF? Well, maybe not. Journey From An Islet isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t give much context for either the PC or the story, and the result feels a bit like walking around in a painting. The beginning of the game deposits you on a mountaintop, with only these words by way of introduction:

You have seen many strange and wonderful places in your travels, but
the world where you have fallen remains quite dark and enigmatic.
What will time bring; how will you continue your journey...?

Fair questions, but I was hoping I could get some others answered, like: “Who is the PC?”; “Why is he/she traveling?”; “How did he/she get to this islet in the first place without a boat or something?” These questions never got answered — not even close, really — and consequently I felt pretty disconnected from the gameworld even as I explored it. Granted, even some of the most revered IF offers empty PCs and no explanations, but those games (like the Zork series) tend to offer an absorbing setting and tons of clever puzzles, which help shift the emphasis away from questions about the story. Journey is pretty sparse in every department, and I found it pretty hard to engage with.

Actually, I should amend my earlier statement. The game isn’t sparse in every department — one thing it provides is a fairly thorough implementation of first-level nouns. Of course, given that most of the game concerns itself with describing a pretty landscape, most of those nouns have to do with the landscape, too. Usually, I find exploration satisfying, and feel pleasantly immersed by deeply-implemented description, but for some reason, this game’s text just left me cold. I think perhaps that vivid, forceful landscape description is a lot harder than it looks. Take, for example, the game’s description of a mountain path overlooking a forest:

Southwestern mountainside
A narrow path twists dangerously around cliffs and chasms as it
passes down the mountainside. Protruding crags cast weird shadows
against the snow. A dark green carpet of dense treetops rolls across
the west, smothering the ground, not penetrated by sunlight.

Compare this with a similar passage from Andrew Plotkin‘s A Change In The Weather:

Rocky Outlook
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches
off to the north and west, a vast expanse of bright meadowland,
patched with dark woods and stitched with streams that glitter in the
sunlight. In the distance, a lake reflects white fire from the
setting sun.

In the first passage, the room name is as one might identify the spot on a map, while in the second, the name reflects the direct experience of the PC. In the latter passage, we get striking, original images — a “tongue” of rock, a lake of white fire — whereas in the former, the images are flatter, more clich├ęd: “weird shadows”, a carpet of treetops. Finally, Plotkin maps inanimate landscape features onto active verbs, further strengthening the imagery by relating the woods to patches, the streams to stitches. The Bencroft passage attempts the same trick by having the treetops “roll across the west”, and indeed that’s a stronger point of that passage, but the sentence ends up tripping over itself by throwing a final descriptive clause that is too distant from its object and unlinked by any connective phrases, making us pause to figure out whether it’s the ground or the treetops that the sunlight isn’t reaching. And once we’ve made that pause, we have to wonder: how is it that we know from way up on the mountain whether or not the sunlight is penetrating the trees beneath?

I don’t intend that breakdown to demonstrate that Journey‘s prose is awful — in fact, it’s quite serviceable throughout. However, while serviceable prose describing a puzzle can be pretty transparent, it is unable to carry landscape descriptions all on its own; these require something stronger. For this reason, I was most engaged with the game when it was describing puzzles, and least so when it was in its more common contemplative, exploratory state. Between the flat writing and the lack of context, I found it difficult to care what was going on in the game — it all seemed a little arbitrary.

The game employed some visual tricks that were helpful. Crayon sketches were scattered judiciously throughout, and unlike Arrival‘s crayon-work, these sketches had the effect of creating a soft, watercolor ambience rather than a childlike one. Also, the game selects the background color based on the time of day, and this too is an effective trick. Still, these techniques weren’t enough, for me, to counterbalance the sluggish prose, and I left the game feeling pretty unmoved. I know from experience that about the only way to become a better writer is to practice, and I look forward to seeing the author’s next game, to see that improvement in action.

Rating: 5.3

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