For someone who has always loved playing IF, the first few attempts at programming it can be a giddy thrill. The smallest achievements can provide boundless amusement: “Look! I made some rooms that link together in crazy ways!” That’s why many IF authors, especially those who started programming IF during their adolescence (or even before) go through a stage of writing games that do all kinds of really crazy, annoying things. These games are usually brimming with smarmy, smart-assed responses to various fairly ordinary commands, because smart-assed responses are one of the easiest, most fun things for a novice to program. The games often do really annoying things, from a gameplay standpoint, just because those are things their author has just figured out how to do. Mazes are common, as are insta-death puzzles, silly objects/rooms, in-jokes, and self-referential appearances by the author.
Design isn’t a big consideration, and for that matter neither are consistency, logic, realism, or correct grammar and spelling. All these things take a lot of patience, and the fledgling IF author is way too eager to write the next snarky response to bother with them. Of course, many of these early efforts never see the light of day, something for which their authors find themselves very grateful five or ten years down the line. But some find their way out. Some authors even take the trouble of porting their old efforts so that the games can reach new audiences (Andrew Plotkin‘s Inhumane is a case in point). I don’t know whether Thorfinn’s Realm is the product of novice programmers (or a port of such.) It may not really belong to this category of game, but it certainly feels like it does. It’s a game that does many things wrong, and has lots of irritating misfeatures and errors, but is still endearing nonetheless for its abundant energy and enthusiasm.
The plot is a goofy contrivance for a treasure hunt, something about time-traveling back to the 10th century to join a time-travelers club. Of course, the introduction is careful to explain, the club has gone ahead of you to set up a few “surprises”, a rationalization which serves to explain any strange anachronisms you might find, such as oh, say, flashlight batteries lying around. Hung on this framework is a string of lots of the most irritating puzzles/features from the earliest IF games.
There’s a 4 item inventory limit. This limit can be contravened with a rucksack later in the game, but even the rucksack has a limit. There’s a maze, almost at the very beginning of the game. There’s a “replace the light source” puzzle, which basically entails saving and restoring to replay the first 200 moves over and over until you’ve found the aforementioned flashlight batteries. At times I felt like I was having an extended flashback to the early 80s — I’m thankful there was no starvation puzzle or I might have permanently lost my mind.
Along the way there are a host of misspellings, objects missing descriptions, lapses of logic, and lots and lots of smarmy parser rejoinders. Take, for instance, the following:
Captain's log, stardate 950 AD. Some idiot is poking around in a fireplace.
I can almost picture the programmers chortling with glee, savoring the oh-so-clever wordplay and hoping some suckers examine the logs in the fireplace so that they can be the target of that zinger. The player who finds it, on the other hand, grimaces for a moment and then moves on (or at least that’s what I did). Who had more fun in this scenario? Thorfinn’s Realm is full of moments like these, things that are aggravating for the player but which were presumably fun for the authors to create.
Now, let me back off a few steps. First of all, I recognize that I’m setting up a strawman in the above paragraph. It is certainly possible that the scenario I describe above is very far from the truth, and that the authors genuinely thought that the in-jokes, self-references, light source puzzle, etc. etc. would really be fun for the player. Not probable, I admit, but possible. Secondly, I can’t stay mad at Thorfinn’s Realm for long, despite its many flaws. For one thing, in spite of its cracked design and sometimes wobbly English, the game is coded pretty competently. I found very few bugs, aside from the occasional elided description, and lots of verbs and nouns are accounted for in the parser.
But more importantly, there’s just such a verve to the whole thing. It’s a quality much more difficult to put into words than the game’s problems are. Something about the gestalt of the whole package — puzzles, setting, prose, and the rest — conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the medium of interactive fiction. Come to think of it, that’s another quality that Thorfinn’s Realm shares with the earliest IF, but a good quality. Those early games had many characteristics whose passing is unlamented, but they also had the bright-eyed excitement of explorers mapping uncharted territory. In capturing the feel of the early days of IF, Thorfinn’s Realm finds not just its curse, but its blessing as well.