The Moonlit Tower by Yoon Ha Lee [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Moonlit Tower
Final placement: 4th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the first several years that I judged the comp games and wrote these reviews, a nifty thing kept happening on my last game — it was always one of the best of the comp. In fact, one year the last game I judged was The Edifice, which went on to win all the marbles. The trend had trailed off over the last couple of years, but I’m very happy to report that it has returned. The Moonlit Tower is a rich and gorgeous piece of work, and a very strong debut from an excellent new author. Easily the most striking thing about this game is its writing, burnished and evocative prose that sets a very elevated tone. Here, just a haphazardly chosen example:

>play ocarina
The ocarina's notes are high and sweet.

In this place, they remind you of that first court dance, when you
and you brother first saw the justiciar, a vision of red and black, a
flash of gold. Someone played an ocarina that time, too. Flutes,
zithers and lutes join in the cheerful clamor of instruments being
tuned, though none of them are to be seen. Some of them play swift
phrases while others sustain long, low tones.

Of course, the risk of elevated writing is that it can easily slide into self-parody; in IF this risk is even sharper, because at least some of the prose must perform fairly mundane interface and state management tasks. The Moonlit Tower occasionally veers close to this territory, especially with its “You can’t go that way” replacement messages, which, while charming at first, can quickly begin to seem overblown. In the end, though, it worked for me, and the words are crafted with enough skill that I never found myself snickering at the tone.

If anything, the game feels almost too rich, like trying to eat an entire cheesecake at one sitting. It belongs to the genre of games whose backstories unfold themselves as you explore their landscape, so to say too much about the plot would be spoilery. Even if I wanted to, though, I would be hard put to explain exactly what this game is about. Part of my problem may be that I’ve only played the game once — I get the distinct impression that this piece was designed to be experienced and re-experienced, with different paths revealing further facets of the character, and the history behind his situation. Lacking the benefit of these further layers, I sometimes found myself just guessing at what was going on, performing actions not because they made perfect sense to me, but because they were implemented and seemed like a good idea at the time.

The highly figurative language, while it continued to draw me in throughout the story, also frequently served to veil some of its more practical levels, prompting me to piece together disparate phrases and concepts in order to maintain my shaky grip on narrative. I’ve criticized other games in this very comp for that kind of behavior, but I found that in The Moonlit Tower, I didn’t feel unsatisfied when I reached the game’s end. Enough information came through, even in my one traversal, that I didn’t feel totally at sea. As a matter of fact, the game strummed a deep emotional chord for me when it drew together two of its metaphorical strands, confirming a guess I had made earlier about how those strands interrelated.

So much for the writing and the story. The coding was fairly impressive, especially for a first-time effort. A number of non-standard verbs were implemented, and the scenario is frequently described to an impressive level of depth. Some rookie mistakes are still evident — GET ALL lists all the objects in every room (there’s a chance this may have been intentional, but if so it was a tactical error, in my opinion), and a stray message still told me I had scored 0 out of 0 after I won the game.

For the most part, though, the programming functions smoothly in sync with the writing to deliver a memorable experience. Exploring the splendid mysteries of The Moonlit Tower was a wonderful way to end my journey through Comp02, and I look forward with considerable anticipation to the author’s future works of IF.

Rating: 9.3

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