The Realm by Michael Sheldon [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Realm
Final placement: 27th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Realm feels like an old-school IF throwback. I mean, for one thing, it’s about a knight on a quest to obtain the head of a dragon. It’s set in the usual faux-medieval milieu — a castle, a king, a tavern, and so forth. There are the typical old-school IF anachronisms, such as a monk who gets a “Habits’R’Us” catalog, and library with a book by Charles Perrault, who lived several centuries after any knights were running around any castles. Then there are the mimesis-breaking in-game instructions, in the form of a pamphlet object that teaches players about the basic commands of IF.

Oh, and let’s not forget the red herrings. The Realm delights in offering tons of puzzling objects and blocked directions that serve no purpose in the game but to send the player spinning off on futile chases. Most of the puzzles consist of giving an NPC something they want, and getting something in return from them, so I suppose a few red herrings are probably necessary to keep player interest alive.

Still, the old school has its charms. Once you stop expecting an interesting story or a logically consistent world, The Realm can be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two. It attends to some implementation details well; animals can be petted and doors can be knocked on, which I greatly appreciate. A couple of the NPCs have some funny shtick, and the ending was fun, if a bit predictable. The red herrings can get a little frustrating — I often found myself thinking of alternate solutions that would work perfectly with the game objects, but that weren’t implemented because those objects were meant only to mislead.

On the other hand, according to the walkthrough, one puzzle has a very entertaining alternate solution that never even occurred to me. The description is never going to win any writing awards, but it’s not overly confusing either. There was one really annoying “guess the noun” puzzle, but the rest were okay, though not terribly inventive. I guess it sounds like I’m damning the game with faint praise, and maybe I am — the sum of my feelings about The Realm are that it was inoffensive and enjoyable enough, which is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Then again, in the IF Comp, “inoffensive and enjoyable enough” can be a very good thing, since plenty of comp games fail to achieve one or both of those marks.

What did bring the game down was the too-frequent clumsiness of its prose. Comma splices seem to be a particular problem, as in the second sentence of the game’s introduction:

Realizing this you become suddenly very alert, rushing on your clothes you spring to your feet.

These two sentences are fused like tragically conjoined twins, so let’s try a little surgery. The first thing that needs to happen is that the comma should be replaced with a period. However, even on their own, each clause would have some problems. The comma after “alert”, whose job we just outsourced, should migrate over to the end of “this”, since “realizing this” and “you suddenly become alert” are two separate pieces of verbal logic.

As for the second clause, “rushing on your clothes” brings to mind running a naked 100-yard dash on a track made of trousers. The problem is the preposition: you may rush into your clothes, but you don’t rush on them. In addition, “rushing” isn’t the most felicitous verb to use there — perhaps “hurrying” instead. That second clause could also take a lesson from what we did to the first, separating the sequential logical pieces with a comma. So, as they come out of anesthesia, here are our newly split twins:

Realizing this, you become suddenly very alert. Hurrying into your clothes, you spring to your feet.

I’m happy to announce that the operation was a success. The patients will live, although it may not be a very normal life — they’re too similar and too close together, leading to a choppy flow. Still, they can’t help it — they are twins, after all. There were a few little problems in the code, too — the occasional hiccuped bit of text and so forth. Ironing out these kinds of problems will help The Realm be the best old-school throwback it can be.

Rating: 6.3