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IFCOMP 2008 - The Hall of the Fount of Artois

Game #26: The Hall of the Fount of Artois
Author: Simon Ellis
Played On: November 10th (1 hour 50 minutes)
Platform: Custom (Microsoft Visual C++)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     Game’s Subtitle:
     An interactive distraction.

     Game’s Blurb:
     Pierre Artois, the scion of the Artois, lies spellbound and immobile in a room in his family's home. You have one night in which to break an evil curse and restore the hopes and future of the ancient family!

     Oooooooh. That’s the wheezing, deflating, pitiful groan of somebody who expected more of Artois but instead got a typical homebrew with all the typical problems. It even offers up some atypical ones, such as a “game restore” feature that crashes the game.

     I honestly think I would have made it much further if I had not misinterpreted the description of the upstairs landing. I thought the hall ran west and then curved back to the northeast from there. Instead, west and northeast were two of the directions available from the landing. This meant I never found some important objects needed to get me past the point where I was stuck, which was roughly halfway through the game. I may just have missed that one. I’m positive, though, that “south” wasn’t mentioned as an exit from the corner of the lane beyond the terrace, yet a player must go that way as well.

     Eventually, I restarted and followed the walkthrough exactly. This proved problematic as well, since using the built-in restart (“quit” and then answer “yes” to restart) doesn’t reset the protagonist’s inventory weight. I had to actually close the game and open it again so that I could pick stuff up a short ways into the game.

     The game does a better job of recognizing that a verb is a verb and a noun is an object in the game than many custom-made efforts I’ve seen, but only barely. It still suffers from “you can’t do that” messages that are often too ambiguous. It’s not always clear if the game doesn’t recognize a verb, if it only doesn’t recognize it in that context, or if it doesn’t recognize it because no indirect object was specified (>pick lock is a good example of that). It has no undo, no scrollback buffer (an aspect of the compiler used), an always-terse mode that can’t be switched to verbose (made worse because room inventory is hidden as well), no >x in place of >examine, almost no implemented scenery unless it’s in the list of “green” text following the room description, no “it” or “them” to re-reference the last object, too few verb and noun synonyms, and no transcript feature.

     Items described as “open” cannot be closed. Actions described in the text -- shaking the bell, for instance -- aren’t actually supported. It has some kind of underground cellar maze. Some objects (such as the “torch”) aren’t described well enough to help a player understand why they aren’t working. Any direction but south from the grounds north of the lane gives an “ok” message but nothing else happens. Rooms described as being elegantly furnished have no explicitly mentioned scenery at all, and for all practical purposes are completely empty. Most rooms exist only to house a single object, and some rooms seem to have nothing of importance at all.

     It seems the protagonist has requested that everything and everyone be removed prior to his arrival. Really. No joke. That’s what’s going on, according to the letter in the curse-breaker’s inventory.

     Above all, the player is dumped into the first room of the Artois mansion with absolutely no clue as to what’s happening. That would be forgivable for a few turns if the game at least offered an immediate goal (or if it was assured every player would read the game’s IFComp blurb in advance). Eventually, a player will check his or her inventory and find that letter -- the one that explains the mission (find and “heal” Pierre Artois). This might have worked for me if I had found the room where Pierre was located, but unfortunately it was in that area upstairs that I mistakenly thought didn’t exist. Even knowing the goal and finding a book that explains curse-breaking isn’t quite enough. For that matter, what qualifications does this guy have if he came in without any clue as to how to break the curse he was hired to break?

     The puzzles aren’t presented in a way where the primary goal is in sight, but one thing stands in the way, yet something else stands in the way of that, and so forth. It’s like that, yes, but it’s completely opaque to the player. You can only ever see the puzzles at hand, so a leap of faith is required to assume that this odd, fiddly thing will ultimately lead you in the direction of the next puzzle, and eventually to a cure for Pierre’s cursed state. It’s hard to say how well this would have worked over the course of the game. I wasn’t inclined to play this one beyond its allotted two hours, so when it became clear I wouldn’t get through it in time, I typed commands robotically from the walkthrough without paying much attention to the puzzles that were being breezed through as a result.

     It offers very little in the way of originality, and even seems to scrape the proverbial barrel bottom in later segments for inspiration. For instance, an oddly placed Sphinx impedes progress, and its riddle is the one we’re all painfully familiar with already. Shortly before, a dragon wants gold coins (although I’m not sure why).

     Here’s a tip to future authors. If you give me a sledgehammer, hit and break had darned well better be recognized as verbs, and in more places than just the single room where smashing something is actually allowed.

     What’s more fun than playing this game? Singing “It’s the Hall of the Fount of Artois” to the beat of the Michael Jackson lyric “Mama se, mama sa, mama coo sa.” It’s eerie how well it works, as long as you don’t pronounce “Artois” the French way. What’s more fun than that? Inventing your own ending, where you dig up the bag of gold coins and simply leave the manor as a rich, rich man.

     I scored it a “3” -- one point for the writing (which really isn’t bad), one for the puzzles (which do have their moments), and the “free” point. I gave no points for the implementation or the story. It has nothing to make it recommendable, except perhaps a joke involving the “bladed agricultural implement.” Even that only serves to prove that the author is aware of how rigidly constructed his game is.

     It’s clear that the author simply isn’t familiar enough with interactive fiction. He probably based Artois on his fond memories of it, without realizing the alternatives to home-brewed games. Although this review is more critical and less forgiving than most, I hope it doesn’t discourage the author from giving it another shot. But by all means, check out the far better and more successful games out there today, especially the higher-ranking ones from this competition. You’ll be surprised at just how much you missed when it came to implementing and designing Artois.

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