IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Brendan Desilets on Untold Riches

Cover for Untold RichesThis post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

In this post, Brendan Desilets, a middle school teacher with extensive experience teaching using IF, kindly covers Jason Ermer’s IF Comp game Untold Riches, which was designed for classroom use. (Here’s Brendan’s website on IF in education, which I recommend to anyone with a broader interest in the subject.)

These previous reviews are also part of this project:

Kane County, reviewed by gamebook author S.A.
Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, reviewed by Justin DeVesine

Untold Riches Await(s)!

Kids who are just getting to their teen years make a great audience for interactive fiction. These “middle school students,” as they’re often called in the United States, mostly love to try any new kind of literature and generally have the reading and thinking skills that IF requires. Authors of interactive stories have targeted younger audiences since the 1980’s when Infocom published Wishbringer and Arthur: the Quest for Excalibur. The Firebird and Winter Wonderland delighted kids in the 1990’s, and, in the 2000’s, both of Textfyre’s offerings (Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter and The Shadow in the Cathedral) catered to early adolescents. Shorter works like Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll and Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret by Jim Aikin and Eric Eve are fine choices for middle schoolers, too.

Some middle-school teachers, the risk-takers of their profession, have managed to stretch some adult-targeted IF as special challenges for young readers. Several seemingly improbable choices, such as Photopia and Suspect, have worked well in classrooms full of twelve-year-olds, and there’s even a kid-oriented version of Emily Short’s Bronze, completed with the author’s approval and still as dark as ever in many of its themes.

Jason Ermer’s Untold Riches, a parser-based entry in the 2015 IF Comp, adds to the options for middle-school teachers and students. It’s a humorous, well-crafted treasure hunt, intended for younger readers, in or out of school. It takes no risks, but it doesn’t have to, in order to offer an enjoyable, interactive experience that’s just about difficult enough.

The player/character begins the story stranded on a desert island, with a whistle in hand and a wrecked lifeboat nearby. He or she is “the young assistant to Professor Edsger d’Squarius, adventurer-archaeologist,” whose bumbling misadventures inspire numerous flashbacks throughout the game. Like most puzzle-based IF, Untold Riches offers immediate opportunities for students to practice the important but seldom-studied thinking skills of identifying problems and formulating them in useful ways. Initially, some students may identify the protagonist’s problem as, “How can I get off this island?” Eventually, as the story progresses and the readers realizes that the player/character might be able to attract the attention of a passing ship, the student/readers will probably reformulate the tale’s fundamental problem. At some point, when the player/character gets inside an apparently-usable lighthouse, the readers will surely restate the tale’s overarching problem as something like, “How can I get the lighthouse working?” or “How can I get electrical power to the lighthouse?” Untold Riches helps the readers through these reworkings with an enjoyable series of interlocking, if not terribly original, puzzles.

Untold Riches addresses other thinking skills, too. Like most parser-based puzzle-fests, it challenges students to read closely, a capability that gets special stress in educational standards such as the “Common Core” in the United States. In a story location called the workshop, the reader must notice an unobtrusive reference to “furniture.” To solve an important problem, the interactor must then look more closely at the furniture, revealing a desk with a drawer, which, in turn, contains a pair of gloves that the player/character needs, on order to pick up a crab, which she needs to solve another problem, the feeding of a parrot, who’s guarding an important key. The story requires to reader to manage and use resources, too, including a whistle that the player/character carries at the start of the story. Novice players, of course, will often be unaware of such a resource, since they may not think to take an inventory of their characters’ initial possessions.

Untold Riches does not approach complexity of character development that we find in stories like Matt Wigdahl’s Aotearoa. Still, in Riches, the non-player characters play their brief supporting roles with considerable aplomb. The offstage personage of Professor d’Squarius appears mainly in retrospect, but his bumbling is quite funny and cleverly allusive. It seems that d’Squarius has mishandled visits to the terracotta army of China, the wreck of the Titanic, a cave full of murderous spiders, the tomb of Pharoah Humnatune, the Valley of the Bloodthirsty Spirits, and the depths of the La Brea tar pits. He’s even found a never-described treasure that recalls the “thing your aunt gave that you don’t know what it is” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. D’Squrius also serves as the perfect foil for the player/character, whose patience and competence contrast sharply with the ditziness of the professor. Aziz, d’Squirius’ feisty parrot, is the only on-stage NPC. He has a rather limited repertoire of conversational gambits, but he does comment, usefully, on the key that the professor has given him, and on his own preference in snack foods.

Untold Riches seems likely to promote independent reading of IF by middle-school students by providing rather strong clues, of a sort that would not be needed when a teacher is leading a class of kids. In such a class, of course, the teacher can usually gauge the best moments for offering hints. In Riches, when the player/character tries to open a rusty gate, the story responds, “The hinges of the gate are frozen with rust. You’ll need some kind of oil or grease to loosen them up again.” This unsolicited hint may encourage inexperienced readers to grab the tub of grease when they find it, thus avoiding some frustration. For purposes of whole-class reading, though, a teacher might want to limit the offering of such clues. Perhaps, at some point, the author will offer the source text for Untold Riches, so that motivated teachers can make some adjustments to the hinting. The story, by the way, offers a clear and thorough menu-style help system, too, the sort of system that the player accesses by typing “hint.”

In the end, Untold Riches turns out to be great fun. It’s not so emotionally moving as Wishbringer, it’s not so puzzle-clever as Winter Wonderland, it’s not so creatively moody as The Shadow in the Cathedral, it’s not so funny as Lost Pig, and it’s not so short and sweet as “Snack Time!” But Riches hits the “sweet spot,” in many ways, offering just enough of almost everything in a thoroughly implemented package. It’s more than worth a try for any IF reader, especially for kids and teachers.

Comp Rating: 8

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