IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Scarlet Sails is a ChoiceScript game set in a fantasy pirate universe featuring several styles of magic that can aid you on your quest to become captain and collect treasure. The author also has a game currently in contention for the Windhammer Prize, After the Flag Fell.

Scarlet Sails takes place in a pirate universe where magic is common, mermaids have acid saliva that melts faces, and sea serpents are large enough to look like small islands from a distance. It’s a fairly long story, too, with the option to romance male or female characters (per Choice of Games house standard) and various stats that rise and fall.

As I played, though, my assessment of the game swung back and forth quite a bit. Here’s a nice bit of description; there’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming; over here is a moment when an NPC holds you to a regulation that you yourself agreed to a few turns earlier. The plot moves forward at a brisk pace. And though I gather there was a bug in the first release version, by the time I played that seemed to be gone and it presented a solid experience.

On the other hand, sometimes things didn’t quite work for me. The reasons usually had more to do with the technical aspects of writing than the technical aspects of coding.

One issue is the indecisive way the game handles violence. It assumes that you will be committing some, as a pirate, and it repeatedly puts you into situations in which there’s not really a viable alternative. At the same time, sometimes it guilts you about about this violence and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a point where you have several options for trying to take over a rival ship, one of which would involve murdering the captain (but only the captain), and the others of which seem to be leading towards pitched battles between the whole crews. Obviously offing the captain involves less overall bloodshed, but the narration (and I think probably the stats as well) treat this as by far the more morally distressing course. I suppose in the right circumstances this could be turned into an interesting critique of societally-approved vs. societally-disapproved forms of violence, but the game isn’t really being that sophisticated about it.

Another issue (for me) was that there’s not enough set-up for some of the plot twists. There’s a significant identity reveal partway through the game, and we’re obviously supposed to be really struck by this, but we haven’t spent enough time with the characters in question to really build up the kind of reaction that we’re meant to have.

Finally, I had a hard time sometimes believing in the world as described. If there are a bunch of people running around who can heal with a touch, wouldn’t you definitely make sure to have several of those aboard any sea-going vessel? And wouldn’t that be likely to change people’s attitudes towards fighting, as well? Similarly, if feelsmiths can not only read emotions with a touch but turn a stranger instantly suicidal, wouldn’t society as a whole be really wary of those people? Maybe forcing them to wear gloves all the time or otherwise render themselves “safe”?

I realize that I’ve spent more of this review laying out the things I had issues with than the things I didn’t; but it usually takes longer to unpick a criticism. I did have an overall positive experience with this piece, but I think it could have been stronger if the author had given more attention to the cohesiveness of the world she was building.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: