Magocracy by A. Joseph Rheaume [Comp04]

IFDB page: Magocracy
Final placement: 18th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I don’t struggle with drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, or any of the other myriad addictions that flesh is heir to, except one: computer games. Specifically, computerized role-playing games, or CRPGs. Other kinds of games, IF included, don’t have this effect on me, but when it comes to CRPGs, something in my brain just craves more, more, more. I have to keep it in check, and when I notice myself playing to the exclusion of anything productive, I have to stop for a while. Even two years after buying the superhero CRPG Freedom Force, the desire to play it still gnaws at me all the time, though of course I’m now playing a heavily modded version, so it hasn’t been the exact same thing over and over again.

In recognition of this addiction, I’ve steered well clear of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. In fact, I’m aware of the existence of an excellent superhero MMORPG (City of Heroes) in the same way that an alcoholic is aware of an open bottle of gin across the room. I’m not alone in my predicament — there’s a good reason why EverQuest was quickly nicknamed EverCrack.

But what is that reason? Why do CRPGs have such a potent effect on me when things like IF, Minesweeper, and arcade games don’t? For me, I think the answer boils down to infinite variety, gradual advancement, and creative outlet. When an IF game is over, it’s over — some games have limited replayability value, but for the most part, the story is the story. CRPGs, on the other hand, introduce a sufficient number of random and strategic elements that even within the broad outlines of a plot, I can have a very different experience each time through the game. That variety encourages repetition, because I never get to feel “finished.”

Secondly, CRPGs allow the PC to grow in power and prestige, with more and more options available as the game goes on, and I think this feature taps into something deep in the wiring of my brain. Maybe it’s just the human drive to accumulate power, or maybe it’s the little charge of victory, similar to what a gambling addict feels after a win. There’s something overwhelmingly seductive about the feeling of progress, especially when that progress is clearly marked with symbols like “level.” The feeling of “leveling up” feeds an ancient part of my nature, which is no doubt why levels are designed into many arcade games.

Finally, unlike many other kinds of games, CRPGs offer a great deal of creative outlet, from the makeup of your character to the way you handle the game world’s obstacles. In a CRPG with a sufficient degree of simulationism, there can be dozens or even hundreds of ways to address any given threat or roadblock, and it’s hard (for me) to be satisfied with trying just one, even after I’m successful. With these three features, CRPGs have sunk their hooks into me quite deeply.

Which brings me, finally, to Magocracy. The readme for this game states upfront that it “is not like most Interactive Fiction games,” and that’s true — it’s really more CRPG than IF, and it deploys some of the aspects of the CRPG pretty effectively. It provides quite a bit of variety, though it’s not quite infinite, and some of the typical CRPG elements are missing. There are no randomly generated monsters, for instance — just predetermined monsters and adversaries who wander randomly around the map and engage the PC in combat. However, even this amount of randomness is sufficient to vary the experience of Magocracy significantly from one session to the next, and the variety works in its favor.

Secondly, though the game doesn’t use traditional levels, it definitely provides powerful markers of advancement. Upon conquering an enemy, the PC usually stands to gain better protection, increased abilities, new attacks, and sometimes even a superpower or two. Every time I upgraded my weapon or learned a new spell, the addict part of my brain was panting, “yeah, yeah.” As for creative outlet, that’s probably where Magocracy is weakest. Many aspects of the experience are predetermined, including the PC’s character and initial abilities, and consequently, the game won’t stand up to all that many replays. However, there is some room for cleverness when it comes to the fighting, particularly once the PC has gained some power.

Perhaps luckily for me, Magocracy also contains some flaws. The worst of these is a design that sometimes drains all the fun out of the game. There are a number of situations that put the PC into an inescapable bind, and most of these aren’t immediately obvious as dead ends. Consequently, I was several times forced to restore back to an earlier point, even after having achieved some key victories. The frustration of these setbacks well outweighs the buzz of gradual advancement, and in fact makes me want to quit playing rather than try to get all my victories back. I would have greatly appreciated a more IF-like way to get out of the traps through nothing but my own cleverness. Instead, I finally had to break out the hints, only to learn that the game had screwed me and I needed to restore. There’s at least one sudden-death ending, too, though this isn’t nearly as bad since I could just UNDO. In fact, the turn-based nature of IF and the availability of UNDO made combat cheats too easy, though after a number of random deaths I felt a lot more justified.

There are also a number of minor bugs and mechanical errors in the game — nothing show-stopping, but always distracting. Along the same lines, Magocracy sometimes fails to properly account for some of the secondary properties of its various items and spells. For instance, at one point I was protected with a shield of light, but when I found myself in a dark place, I still couldn’t see. Last of all, the game doesn’t seem to have a proper ending. After I gained all the points, it printed out some denouement text and THE END, after which it displayed “[TADS-1003: numeric value required]” and went back to the prompt, leaving me to wander around the castle as if I’d just finished Myst. Overall, Magocracy is a pretty fair text CRPG, and I had a good time with it, but I don’t see myself becoming addicted to it anytime soon. Which reminds me, I was going to customize a Freedom Force mission to pit the X-Men against the Brood

Rating: 8.3

The Erudition Chamber by Daniel Freas [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Erudition Chamber
Final placement: 4th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Even though puzzles with multiple solutions tend to get a lot of respect, we still don’t see all that many of them. That’s because creating an interesting puzzle with one solution is hard enough; creating one that can be solved in at least two different ways, each challenging and interesting, is that much more difficult. The task that The Erudition Chamber sets itself is harder still. This game lays out four different puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of four different ways. To add yet another layer of complexity to the picture, each of the four solutions belongs to a particular category of approach. There are the Warrior solutions (brute force), the Artisan solutions (clever jiggery-pokery with mechanisms), the Alchemist solutions (changing the form of the obstacle), and the Seer solutions (finding a way around the problem so as not to have to deal with it at all.)

This sort of thing is tough to do, and for the most part, EC pulls it off. I say “for the most part”, because there are still some flaws. For one thing, some of the puzzles seem designed to lend themselves much more naturally to one approach or the other — a puzzle designed by an Artisan, in the game’s terms, will still require even a Warrior to think a lot like an Artisan in order to solve it. Another imperfection is that sometimes, the categories aren’t really as distinct from one another as they should be, especially between Warriors and Alchemists. After all, breaking something and changing its form aren’t really always all that far apart.

Still, the game succeeds more often than it fails, and in some ways it felt like a fun, interactive “What Sort Of IF Player Are You?” quiz. I ended up 3 parts Artisan, 1 part Warrior, which may be a reflection of having played lots of IF. When I can see that a machine has been implemented, my inclination is to play around with that machine until it does the thing that it’s supposed to do, even if perhaps easier or more obvious solutions are available. I think that inclination may be the result of conditioning inflicted by dozens of Myst clones and their IF cousins. The Erudition Chamber is also reminiscent of Sean Barrett’s game Heroes, from Comp01, though from a significantly different angle. Where Heroes takes the player through the landscape several times in the role of different characters (Adventurer, Thief, Mage, etc.), and only lets us see what the particular character would notice, Erudition Chamber makes all aspects of the landscape available at once, and thus lets the PC create character on its own.

This game’s approach has the advantage of being more open-ended and available to mixed approaches, but the downside is that it is necessarily more bland than if it had been written with a more specific character in mind. In addition, there’s a frame story that doesn’t make a lot of sense and really adds nothing of value to the game. EC would have been better off chucking the whole time-manipulation and alternate history business, and focusing instead on the student as a novice who now must choose a path, or set of paths.

The other problem with the game is its writing, which needs a major round of proofreading. Spelling errors, for instance, are a pet peeve of mine, and games that have such errors in their very first room description (“Chisled stone steps”) annoy me even more. There are quite a few mistakes that could have been found simply by running the game’s text through a spell-checker, and there’s really no reason not to do this. Other problems, such as the numerous comma splices, would have been caught by the careful attention of a proofreader or editor.

Troubled prose like that always weakens a game for me, and it’s a pity, because this game is pretty strong in lots of other areas. I found no bugs, which always pleases me, especially in a comp game. It’s certainly a quantum leap in quality over Freas’ last work (Greyscale), and I feel encouraged that his next game may take the ingenuity shown by Erudition Chamber and combine it with the level of polish needed to make the gameplay experience as enjoyable as it should be.

Rating: 7.9

Metamorphoses by Emily Short [Comp00]

IFDB page: Metamorphoses
Final placement: 2nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I first played Myst, I wasn’t so much impressed by its storyline and puzzles as I was by its images. The gorgeously rendered locations, where each object seems freighted with meaning; the arcane and elegantly wrought machinery with its delicate gears and imposing levers; the transformations that could be brought about when various changes were enacted — I found them all quite arresting. Metamorphoses brought me back to that feeling of pleasure and awe, and it did so without the use of any graphics whatsoever. The game’s prose is crisp and powerful, conveying its Myst-like landscape of glass trees, heavy steel cranks, and shimmering water with clean, charged phrases.

The game never specifies exactly where it is set, except to make clear that its world is separate from the ordinary one, and that the PC has been sent there through the use of some sort of magic. The objects and locations therein are described economically but evocatively, like so:

Tower of Stars
You stand among cogs and gears, many with teeth longer than your
forearm; the outer ring of the floor is wholly occupied with these.

But above is a spangled darkness full of music. The moon turns slowly
overhead, and the constellations wheel round the pole-star; off to
the east is the dimmest hint of warmth, but the sun itself is nowhere
to be seen.

At its best (and it usually is), Metamorphoses delivers the transcendent grandeur of graphical powerhouses like Myst, and tinges it with an emotional weight that only text can achieve.

As to what is actually happening in this breathtaking landscape, well that isn’t so clear, or at least it wasn’t to me. You play some kind of servant, a girl apparently (since you’re wearing a dress.) Your fealty is to a Master who doesn’t appear to treat you well, and it is he who has sent you to this mystical landscape in pursuit of some unspecified magical objects. Even this much is based on some guesses and intuitive leaps — the game makes little effort to provide clear exposition of character and plot, leaving players to fill in many of the voluminous gaps for themselves.

I found the overall effect to be rather emotionally distancing. Perhaps I struggled to connect to the character because the flashbacks and other characterization elements are presented in such an abstract manner, or perhaps it was due to the rather spartan, forbidding images of the landscape itself, some of which contain dark hints of hellish abuse in the PC’s past. Perhaps it was even due to the austerity of the prose itself, whose sharp images and clipped diction were magnificent at conveying vivid scenes, but which stumbled rather more when describing the fuzzier and more complex realm of emotions. No doubt the real cause is some combination of these factors, but whatever the reason, I found that I enjoyed the game more when I set aside its plot and focused my attention on its lovely images and excellent design.

That design is perhaps the best thing about Metamorphoses. There are puzzles, yes, but almost every puzzle seems to have alternate solutions, and even better, these alternate solutions make perfect sense within the game’s magical logic. Moreover, Metamorphoses provides much space for play and experimentation, especially through the use of a couple of devices that can effect startling and fascinating transformations on most of the objects in the game. The potential of these devices is so vast, and their effects implemented so thoroughly, that I could easily have spent the two hour judging period just playing with them and experimenting with the results.

In fact, the game is coded so well that for a moment it gave me a flash of that wonderful sense I used to get when I first started playing interactive fiction, the sense that here is a world where anything can happen, and anything I try can elicit a magical, transformative response. Of course, that feeling breaks down quickly and inevitably when something I attempt isn’t accounted for, but just for that moment of wonder it gave me, I won’t forget Metamorphoses for a very long time.

Rating: 9.3