Yet another entry in the category of “cool idea with lame execution” comp games, The Masque Of The Last Fairies is all the more frustrating for the glimpses of quality visible beneath its very rough exterior. At first, the problems appear to be rather superficial: formatting weirdness, grammar blunders, and such. Now don’t get me wrong — these things matter, a lot. It’s a source of constant puzzlement to me that games get released to the public while they’re still swimming with mechanical errors in their writing. You know, in some kinds of games, English errors wouldn’t matter very much, if at all. If you’re writing a new version of Quake or Space Invaders, who cares if your code comments are littered with its/it’s errors? But these are text adventures. In order for a text adventure to be good, the text has to be good.
To me, this seems blatantly self-evident. Apparently, though, it isn’t, not when I still end up playing games with sentences like this: “A grand staircase leads up although a row of potted shrubs act as a barrier at it’s base.” Quick lesson: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” as in “It’s alive!” “Its” is the possessive form of “it”, as in “a barrier at its base”. Like “his”, “hers”, and “ours”, “its” has no apostrophe, and it never will. If it’s possessive, don’t give it an apostrophe, lest you mangle its meaning. See how easy that is? Similarly, please print a newline before a prompt. Please don’t put more than one blank line between pieces of text unless you’ve got a damn good reason. A mediocre game with correct grammar and correct formatting is still much more immersive than an imaginative, interesting game with really broken grammar and formatting, because every time I have to stop and figure out what a sentence means, or readjust my eyes to figure out what text printed after the prompt because there’s no newline between the previous text and the new text, I get thrown out of the story for a moment. Those moments add up.
Still, if cosmetic problems were the extent of this game’s flaws, I’d probably still be able to have a fairly good time playing it. And indeed, up through the first three acts, this appears to be the case. However, after that I learned that it’s apparently impossible to score all the points, due to the fact that one of the things the hints suggest seems to evoke no response from the game at any point. Moreover, as the game goes on, Masque succumbs to what I’ll call “Harvey Syndrome”, after Elwood P. Dowd’s lapine companion who was inexplicably invisible to the rest of the world. A game suffering from Harvey Syndrome talks about objects which are strangely unavailable for examining, taking, or in fact any kind of interaction at all. I’m not talking about scenery in room descriptions here — I mean major NPCs and objects ostensibly in your inventory. When somebody hands you something, you ought to be able to examine it rather than being told “You can’t see any such thing.” If there’s a character speechifying next to you, you ought to be able to examine that character. In Masque, these people and objects show up in action descriptions but, Harvey-like, are unavailable in any other way.
It’s so sad, too, because there is so much to like in Masque. The plot is composed of a number of intriguing layers — you’re a guest at a masquerade party where you’ve been asked to take on a specific character and participate in the drama that will be part of the evening’s entertainment. However, just as there are community members behind the party masks, there is community turmoil behind the masque itself, and you may find yourself inexorably drawn into that turmoil. The structure and pacing of the game work well, introducing puzzles one at a time (some oriented to the PC’s masque character, some to the PC itself), and ushering in a new “Act” when a puzzle is solved. Moreover, the game makes the ambitious choice to have all the masque action (which is considerable) take place in verse. Some of this verse has grave weaknesses in meter and rhyme, but I still salute the game for setting its sights so high. What Masque ends up showing us, though, is that it doesn’t matter how high you aim — if your basic mechanics fail, you’ll never hit what you’re aiming at.