IF Comp 2013: 'The Wizard's Apprentice' by Alex Freeman

I reviewed the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I completed within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Unlike the other Comp games that I've reviewed, this one is not playable in web browsers.  To play it, download the file 'apprent.gam' (link is to IF Archive competition listing) and use the official interpreter software (Windows), QTads (Linux, Mac, Windows), or Gargoyle (Linux, Mac, Windows).

A plainly-presented text adventure that feels old without evoking much of a retro feel, The Wizard's Apprentice is straightforward and mediocre.  Still, the game holds some interest due to its attempted characterization of a conventional text adventure scenario.  The game attempts to use the stereotypical text adventure conventions in a patronized, cute way.  Although that attempt fails, the failure is itself somewhat interesting.

The game is implemented in the older version of TADS, and its design and world model would probably have been very out-of-the-box for an early 2000's-era parser game.

Neither the conventional parser style nor the empty aesthetic is what prevents The Wizard's Apprentice from being more than mediocre.  I think the barren and slightly outdated presentation could have been made to work for the game if the content had not largely been a misfire.

The story is of a young mage trying to prove himself to his veteran wizard tutor.  The game begins in a dungeon cell, an old trope that feels refreshing in the context of the story and in light of the fact that the trope is probably far less common now than it once was.

The plot and the setting are both spare and hardly developed, but the bane of the story is the characterization.  The player character is portrayed decently well, but the portrayals of the two NPCs fail to adhere to the roles the story needs those characters to fill for plot purposes.  There is uninspired and too-easily-resolved plot twist at the end, and the involvement of one of the NPCs in that twist was not adequately depicted.

The wost portrayal is that of Gwydion, the wizard master.  Implemented with atmospheric response messages and a seemingly empty ASK/TELL conversation model, the character is evidently supposed to be portrayed as an eccentric, oblivious old man.  However, the narrative accidentally gives the impression that Gwydion is a creepy child abuser.  The story wants to be cute and lovable, and I sense that the simplicity of the design could work to amplify the cuteness factor.  However, the cuteness factor leaves a bad impression, because the player character's situation really wouldn't be very cute in real life.

There is little to be said on the game's mechanics, because it adopts the standard parser and exhibits the standard strengths and weaknesses of its parser.  There is at least one instance where the player might know what to do but might not be able to find the right command phrasing, the "guess the verb" problem.  Another case of "guess the verb" might be less problematic, because it somewhat turns the necessity of guessing the verb into a feature by accepting a previously unknown command at a critical moment of tension.

There is some attempt to reference the old-school text adventure tradition.  The most successful of these carries the baggage of Gwydion's failed characterization because it comes from an always-displayed line of his dialog:
"...This is a rod I found in some colossal cave complex I found underneath a grate.  I never did figure out how to get that last lousy point."
Interpreting Gwydion as a stand-in for the traditional adventurer helps to explain some of his accidental creepiness.  Gwydion's insensitivity of people's feelings perhaps reflects the stereotype adventurer's amoral kleptomania and trespassing.  Perhaps the naming of the gamefile as "apprent.gam" is meant to evoke the naming conventions of some of the ports of adventure as "advent".  This is a nice nod, but the analogy is not carried throughout all of the game's design, and it also does not take away the feeling of creepiness.

The writing is lackluster also.  Occasional stilted phrases or sentences -- such as, "Going west shall lead you to the kitchen while going north shall lead you to the study" -- call unneeded attention to the prose's lack of polish.  There are some grammatical errors.  Thankfully, most of the descriptions are not particularly long.  Aside from the prose, the descriptions actually do characterize the NPCs and the environment decently well.

Like most everything else about The Wizard's Apprentice, the quality of the implementation is not particularly good, but it also failed to annoy me.  Still, I found something slightly charming about the humble simplicity of the design and implementation.  The Wizard's Apprentice is a quintessential community-produced parser IF game.

And... that's all the Comp I have time for.  The judging period ends in less than two hours, and I already submitted by final ratings through the voting page before posting this review.  Next year, then!

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