IFDB page: Temple of the Orc Mage
Final placement: 26th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition
Temple of the Orc Mage does not bring new meaning to the term “dungeon crawl”. It’s a generic, Dungeons & Dragons style quest for a magical gem. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and Temple doesn’t do it exceptionally badly. However, it doesn’t do it exceptionally well, either. The game occupies a sort of limbo between a bland interactive story, with little plot (besides “find the treasure”) and character development, and a bland RPG, with arbitrary magic items and valuables strewn around a dungeon setting so conventional that anyone who’s read a few D&D prefab modules could recite its elements before ever seeing the game (an underground river, a ruined bedchamber, deep pits, tapestries).
This is not to suggest that the game is altogether bad. In fact, it often succeeds at some of the things that an RPG is best at: creating a sense of atmosphere, providing the thrill of vicariously handling fabulous wealth and magic, and giving the feeling that each obstacle overcome simply draws one’s character deeper and deeper into the difficulties. However, there are many important things missing as well, not least of which is any sense of logic to the dungeon and the items found within. For example, how is it that you find fresh meat in a kitchen strewn with cobwebs? How is it that you are the first one to seek after this treasure? Or if you’re not, what happened to everyone else? The game starts with a strong sense of story, and several nice narrative touches, then rapidly devolves into a sort of “just because” logic that poisons any sense that the eponymous Temple is anything more than an arbitrary collection of rooms and magic items. It’s as if the game wants to be a hybrid of IF and RPG, but adopts the least interesting conventions of each category while ignoring the best, making itself a rather dull concoction.
I think that there’s a place for such a hybrid. I’ve always liked Rogue and Rogue-like games, and I think that there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s much easier to find a computer game to provide an immersive RPG experience than it is to find a lot of like-minded peers to provide it. I can envision an IF/RPG game which combines the best elements of IF, including strong story, interesting puzzles, and the feeling of “being there”, with the joys of Rogue — abundant magic and mystery, a strong sense of score, ever-increasing risk and reward, and the feeling that there’s always a possibility of finding some ultra-rare artifact, hidden away in the code for discovery by the lucky and the strong. Recent discussions about RPG-style combat in IF have even tempted me to believe that such a system could exist without being boring or pointless. Now, I admit that I’m much more of an IFer than an RPGer, so there may be such a product out on the market right now which I’m missing simply because I never sought it out. However, one thing is quite clear to me: Temple of the Orc Mage is not it.
Prose: I thought that the prose was actually one of the best features of Temple. More often than not it succeeded in drawing vivid portraits of places and items. The intro is captivating (though it could stand to be broken up a bit), and some of the room descriptions have nice atmospheric touches, bringing in temperature or quality of light to engage the senses. Sometimes the style can become a bit overly utilitarian (listings of exits) or terse (“The ceiling is low and wet. Light filters in from cracks in the wall and ceiling. Water drips slowly from stalactites above. The air is cold.”), but overall I didn’t find it too jarring.
Plot: There was only the most rudimentary of plots: you have decided to brave the scary dungeon to find big money and become a hero! This is a tried-and-true IF convention, so much so that it has become a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches can work to an author’s advantage. Not this time.
Puzzles: Too often, the puzzles were either simple (try all your keys until you find the one that opens the locked chest/door) or required just examining the right object. OK, well, maybe those two are the same thing. Still, I generally felt that the puzzles had no rhyme, reason, or thought behind them. They felt generally tacked-on, and on the few times I got stuck, I discovered that the solution to the puzzle is something I would never have guessed, because there were no hints to suggest it. Example: [SPOILERS AHEAD (highlight to read)] There’s a twenty-foot wide pit blocking your way. The solution? Jump over it, and the game tells you “Propelled by the boots, which you now believe to be magical…”[SPOILERS END]
Technical (writing): There were a number of technical errors in the writing, but many (though not all) of these are attributable to typos rather than actual ignorance.
Technical (coding) I found no serious bugs in the game, but there was a distinct lack of implementation for nouns and synonyms. For example, the game describes water in at least a third of its rooms (in fact, there’s a room called the Dry Room, notable simply for its absence of water), but doesn’t know the word “water.” Also, a number of times in the game “examine” will turn up a hidden artifact while “search” returns “You find nothing of interest.”
OVERALL: A 6.0