Spring Thing 2014: The Bibliophile

Spring Thing continues. Here are some thoughts about Marshal Tenner Winter’s Bibliophile.

Bibliophile is a parser IF game set in a large map over multiple days. A lot of work has plainly gone into it. There are loads of rooms and numerous NPCs, and the piece comes with a rich assortment of maps, walkthrough information, and art.

The plot is Lovecraftian horror stuff: there’s a madman who wants to summon up elder gods, there are ancient manuscripts unexpectedly come to light, there are grotesque creatures too terrible for human minds to fathom. Africa is treated unabashedly as the Dark Continent, source of evil cults and natives with blow-darts. The game has, in other words, some of the same genre ambitions as Anchorhead or The King of Shreds and Patches, but approaches them without a critical eye to the racist aspects of the Lovecraftian universe.

It also lacks the implementation depth that allows the player really to settle in, come to identify strongly with the protagonist, and know the landscape well. Though Bibliophile is set in a large space, the narrator spends many parts of the game explicitly telling the player what to do next. Room descriptions often end with a sentence like “Dr Coffey’s townhouse is to the west” to help you navigate large cityscapes that would otherwise be rather maze-like. At many other times, the game explicitly tells the player whom to visit or what object to look for (and once breaks the fourth wall enough to instruct the player to save the game now).

These sentences are necessary. Bibliophile would be more or less unplayable without them. But for large portions of the game, I felt as though I wasn’t being allowed to slip into my role as player or protagonist enough to see the world from that point of view.

Here is a quote that kind of sums up the experience of this game for me. I’ve just traveled through a large number of uninteractive rooms to find an NPC, an elderly library worker, in his office. I ask him about a MacGuffin that he sent my way, and here’s part of his response:

“Take these keys. They’re for a storage room in the basement of this building. I’m too old to go all down there and rummage. But you’re into that shit, so do me a favor and find a locked briefcase in the auxiliary storage room in the basement. Bring it up here and I’ll explain everything to you.”

It’s a piece of dialogue that more or less overtly says, “hey, you’re the player character, so you’re the one who performs the fetch quests. Go do this one and then we can get on with the next plot token.”

If the direction is too much, the implementation is often too slight. Here’s a bit of room description from the middle of a fight where I kept being punched in the head:

You can see a large thug, an apartment key, a bookstore key, a shoddy cell phone and a flashlight here.

— violating the convention that characters, especially characters in the middle of beating you senseless, deserve their own paragraph. This is a nitpick, but it goes with a lot of other similar issues. Scenery objects are often undescribed, except that occasionally (as I found out only after resorting to the walkthrough) they are not only important but must be individually searched to reveal objects you don’t yet even know you’re going to need. Your character often has a very perfunctory response to all the books, which is a bit odd given the game’s title. In certain areas, there are atmospheric messages that suggest something sinister is about to happen, but these soon begin to cycle and you realize that nothing is going to happen after all. Trying to attack someone with the wrong weapon sometimes gives a misleading message suggesting you’re not supposed to attack them at all.

Along the same lines, during the thug combat sequence, the two thugs didn’t necessarily follow me from one room to another, so the result was a rather strange fight scene in which sometimes we’d be in the same room and come to blows, and then one of us would wander into another room for several turns. This pacing undermined the tension of the scene.

Thanks to the erratic implementation and the sheer number of rooms, I came away with a fairly sketchy sense of the setting, even though the author clearly put a lot of work into building it and was generous enough to include multiple maps. Many of the rooms I really saw only in passing, during an eight-move (or more) sequence of travel to a new location. GO TO LOCATION would have been a welcome option in this case: my protagonist knows where to go, and typically the intermediate spaces are not an important part of the story, so the sections involving long travel are very much “shoe leather” in the terms described here.

For my taste, it would also have been nice to see more sequences in which the player is naturally led to discover a solution through exploration, and fewer which are either overtly directed (go east next!) or underclued to the point that I needed the walkthrough (as with several of the objects that proved to be hidden in unexpected places, sometimes without much indication that I ought to be looking for such a thing).

It bears saying, though, that these aren’t the kinds of problems that you can even have unless you’re attempting something fairly ambitious. The author wants to tell a large story with a lot of events, and is energetic enough to put a lot of effort into that project. He also does include several multiple-use objects and spells that come in handy in multiple points in the game, so that the player has a chance to learn how they work and get used to them. IF can use more ambitiously-scoped stories, and I’m glad to see them being written.

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