Mingsheng by Deane Saunders [Comp04]

IFDB page: Mingsheng
Final placement: 7th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Less than plot or character, Mingsheng is about a place and a mood. The mood-setting begins before the game even starts, with the inclusion of a nicely-formatted PDF feelie, replete with Chinese characters and martial arts diagrams. This document explains that the game is based on a myth about the origins of Taiji, or as I’ve always known it, T’ai Chi — thus all the Chinese martial arts stuff. I appreciated the care that was put into this accessory, and I also liked the fact that the same information was available in a PDF, as a text file, and within the game. It made me grin when I realized that somebody had trumped me in the “ABOUT text in multiple spots” department.

The Chinese feel continues in the formatting of the game, which includes the option of Unicode Chinese characters as “flavor text”. These characters appear mostly in room titles, and apparently just repeat the room name in Chinese, so if you miss them, all you’re missing is a mood enhancer. And a lucky thing, too, because they require a font that supports Chinese characters. The author suggests a font called Simsun, which I don’t have installed on my PC. I would have appreciated a pointer to where I could download a compatible font; instead, I floundered for a while, combing the unhelpful results of googling on “simsun font” and finally giving up. [Note: After the comp, the author provided a link.] The game gives the option of transliterating the Chinese characters (complete with numerical tone markers), but it’s really not the same.

Past the meta-game stuff, the game sets a lovely tone with its room and object descriptions. Mingsheng calls on some lovely imagery — the tableau of perfectly still lake and crane, the worn-down pagoda, the six-thousand-step staircase carved into mountain rock. A particular favorite of mine is the path flanked by animal statues, statues that are implemented several levels deep. The game did an excellent job of making me feel like I was wandering through an Asian painting, enmeshed within a mythical realm.

As I said, tone is the game’s emphasis, and there’s not much of a story to go along with it. A plot summary would be something like “guy solves a bunch of puzzles and along the way attains enlightenment.” Many of those puzzles are pretty straightforward. That’s not a criticism — I’m a fan of straightforward puzzles. Struggling too long at any particular obstacle would likely break the mood that Mingsheng works so hard to set. There was one puzzle, though, that annoyed me in a way I don’t remember having seen before in IF. Actually, it wasn’t so much the puzzle that bothered me as the implementation of the solution.

The conceit is that the PC must learn something by observation before being allowed to pass a particular barrier. Several puzzles must be solved in order to set up the situation where the PC is able to observe and learn. However, once I’d accomplished this, I figured I’d learned what I needed to know, and headed straight to the barrier, which was only two moves away. However, when I tried to pass it, I couldn’t. I was flummoxed, feeling sure that I’d seen what I needed to see. However, as I wandered around trying to figure out what I’d missed, the game kept popping up messages every turn or two along the lines of “Now that you think of it, you realize X.” After no less than four of these messages, they finally stopped, and when I went back to the barrier, I was able to cross it.

I found this technique irritating. Not only would an “all-at-once” realization be a bit more dramatic, it would also be a major improvement from a gameplay standpoint. I don’t want to have to wait for the PC to catch up with me when I figure something out, and wandering around or typing “Z.Z.Z.Z.” while I’m waiting is mighty dull. Another puzzle quibble: there’s an object that requires “a great deal of force” to be applied to it. The solution to this puzzle is cool, and I liked it very much. However, there’s an alternate solution which the game actually implements, but doesn’t seem to want to count as enough force, when it should be easily the match of the working solution. This alternate path should either be included fully or not at all.

Small criticisms aside, I thought Mingsheng was well worth my time, especially for what time it took — the game is pretty short, and when I finished, I felt like I hadn’t actually done that much. Alongside the brevity, though, there’s something else that made it feel not quite complete. Actually, though I rarely say this, I think this is a game that could be greatly improved with the inclusion of some quality graphics. Certainly some visual depictions of key locations, a la Trading Punches, could have helped deepen the mood and setting even further. However, the place they’d really be useful is when the game gets to describing actual martial arts poses. For instance, after a certain point in the game the PC gains the ability to practice stances (which are named after elements) by typing the name of the stance, like so:

You are not in combat at the moment, but you rehearse the stance anyway.

You quickly get into the earth stance:

You balance your weight evenly upon both legs, both slightly bent to keep your stance grounded. Your right hand is held out in front of you, fingers open, palm facing directly forward. Your left hand is also held palm open, but at your side - facing forwards at a slight downward angle.

Now, I can carefully read through this description, act it out a little bit, and get a pretty clear mental picture, but I have to really stop and work at it. However, if a diagram of the stance had been included, I’d understand it much more quickly, and the flow of the game would continue far more smoothly. This isn’t a complaint, but rather a hopeful suggestion. Even without graphics, Mingsheng draws some lovely pictures.

Rating: 8.3