IF Comp 2011: Cursed

Cursed is an epic fantasy story. It’s substantial, on the longer side of comp games, with several possible paths through the narrative.

The opening of Cursed left me apprehensive on two fronts: first, that this game really wanted to be static fiction, and second, that it was going to be a real chore to follow.

The game opens with a long linear section in which the player can’t really do much except wait, move along a preset path, and examine objects (to no particular effect), while the game supplies backstory snippets and descriptions of other people’s actions. Repeatedly the response to the player’s action is a couple of lines, but is followed by a full page or more describing what else happens during the same turn. Names, motives, and family connections come thick and fast.

Moreover, the text that shows up is, shall we say, highly-strung:

And yet it still feels like such a waste. My closest friend is dead – murdered. I still shudder when I remember finding his lifeless body and trying uselessly to will him back to life. And then, as luck or fate would have it, all fingers of blame pointed at me. I fought hard against the charges but to no avail. The evidence was just too persuasive, the motives too clear, at least to everyone else. It must have been, could only have been, me.

This is technically competent prose without being good narrative craftsmanship. It flows smoothly, it’s comprehensible, it conveys emotions and a situation. But it has the slickness of cliché (“lifeless body”, “finger(s) of blame”, “such a waste”), and it tells rather than showing. As viewpoint writing, it falls down because it feels as though the speaker is simultaneously highly emotional about and distant from the events he’s describing. How does this viewpoint character differ from anyone else who might have had a friend murdered? What makes him unique?

The world-building also struck me as implausible. Here we have a pseudo-medieval court with a king and wizards, but it’s apparently got laws and court procedure, including detailed laws about sentencing precedent of a kind that didn’t show up until the 19th century or later.

As for the characters: we’ve got a bunch of lords who look like they want to take the kingdom apart — one of whom secretly killed the heir to the throne, apparently — but the king responds to a difficult situation with a politically naive outburst that makes him look vulnerable and powerless. Might he have felt those things? Perhaps. But I think he would have found a way to take action without sharing his feelings on the matter with the whole court. I doubt very much that the sort of king who behaves this way would have maintained control over a powerful group of ambitious contenders for very long.

Once we’re out of the prologue, the nature of the game changes substantially. Now it’s a puzzler, but one full of sudden death and tight timing. That kind of design can work, but Cursed makes it hard. Actions such as LOOK and LISTEN, which are absolutely critical for detecting enemies and planning actions, consume a turn; it would be easier to plan and navigate these sequences if they didn’t take any time in this portion of the game. (Whereas they pretty much have to take time during the cut-scene-heavy prologue.)

Then, too, room descriptions run on the long side, making it harder to pick out rapidly which items are likely to be interactive and requiring a lot of investigation. Because some of the intended actions require a number of LOOKs and EXAMINEs to work out, it can require repeated dying thanks to time limits before you’ve figured out the solution to the puzzle, which you then have to execute as efficiently as possible.

So I died, and died, and died again, and finally went to the walkthrough, where I found a sequence of instructions that ran fairly counter to my intuition about what a creature like me could possibly do.

The author clearly put a huge amount of effort into this game, and it’s ambitious: it’s going for diverse puzzle options (it looks like there are three completely different midgames, effectively) combined with a complex plot and a rich backstory. The idea that you can choose senses and skills during the midgame is indeed cool.

To have the full intended impact, though, I think it would need non-trivial revision:

— streamlining the opening so that it uses less text and doesn’t constrain the player for so many turns in a row; tightening the characterizations; and giving the player any agency at all (needn’t be a huge amount, but any would be better than this long linear sequence where nothing you do matters much); then

— revising the body sections to be more fluidly playable, perhaps drawing on examples like Gun Mute, Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies, and conceivably (though it’s commercial) Shadow in the Cathedral for ways to describe and clue action set-pieces so that they move fast and pose some kind of puzzle challenge but remain accessible to the player. (This is actually one of the harder things to do well in IF, in my opinion, but it’s not completely impossible.)

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: Cursed”

  1. Hmm. The bit about the “implausibility” of the world-building has my attention perked and my appetite whetted, because that kind of deliberate social anachronism (assuming it’s deliberate) is what makes fantasy-worldbuilding tick for me.

    But … the sample of prose (and the bits about room descriptions being long) makes me want to run screaming to the hills. Preferably hills where they’re selling a five-hour shot and a cappuccino.

    Hmm :(

    1. Yeeeah, I didn’t get the impression that the author thoughtfully and deliberately blended features of different eras either to produce interesting atmospheric results or because he wanted to speculate about the social results; more that he reached for some default ideas.

      Possible I’m not giving enough credit, of course.

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