IntroComp 2014: 'Tales of the Scroll Thief' by Daniel M. Stelzer

Deliberately old school, The Scroll Thief incorporates some of the rarer techniques from the old commercial era of IF. Its in-jokes and meta references provide the same self-parody for the current IF community that the original Zork provided for the hacker culture at MIT. Some of the puzzle concepts are quite interesting and creative, but the spare and buggy implementation prevents the puzzles from being explored thoroughly. The game can be interpreted as Infocom fan fiction, and also as a wry but largely unironic homage to traditional text adventures.

The player character is a student wizard from Infocom's comedic fantasy universe found in the Zork and Enchanter games. Set in an academic library, this premise has several meta connotations. First of all, it evokes the collegiate atmosphere where early text adventures evolved. Not only did the original version of Zork come out of MIT, drawing heavily from that campus's culture and traditions, but college has always been a recurrring motif in the IF community. The university campus is one of the most archetypal settings in IF, spanning multiple generations of IF fans who wrote and played IF in their college years. (I write this as a current student, waiting for a class to begin.) By paying homage to the collegiate slice-of-life subgenre from within the Infocom-esqe light-fantasy milieu, The Scroll Thief cements itself in text adventure nostalgia.

The game makes an even more explicit reference to IF history through the primary NPC and through some of the magical mechanics. The situation involving this NPC is wonderfully ironic. While the nondescript adventurer PC from Adventure and Zork may be thought of as a blank cipher for players to insert themselves, the stereotypical IF player is actually nothing like the stereotypical PC. The stereotypical adventurer lacks any trace of common sense, fearlessly venturing into dangerous terrain even though he will die, cluelessly desecrating everything he comes across -- picking up every portable object, breaking things just for the heck of it, attacking or kissing every living creature. Of course, this is due to the player's commands rather than to deliberate characterization by the game. Still, the fact remains that players themselves (at least stereotypically) are more like the quirky wizard portrayed in The Scroll Thief -- arcane nerds who hide behind books and computerized "magic," avoiding any literal, physical dungeon crawling.

The map is small and compact, with a mostly symmetrical layout simple enough to avoid the need for mapping. Unlike in almost any other recent IF, that isn't really something to be taken for granted, given how strongly the game adapts the old school conventions. It is thorough puzzlefest. Early on, it is easy to put the game into an unwinnable state simply by using resources too quickly. It may not be apparent that the game has been made unwinnable, depending on how well the player understands the resource management mechanic.

The end of the IntroComp introduction brings in some plot material as well as somewhat more complicated characterization, indicating that the full game will feature a fairly significant story. Where descriptions are actually implemented, the writing does not seem to be particularly neglected. However, the puzzles and the nostalgia are clearly the main focus of The Scroll Thief. There is some functional imagery in the description, but a few more vivid details would improve the experience significantly.  A few standard "you see nothing special" messages don't necessarily hurt in this genre, but unique descriptions are absent too often. (It would be different if unnecessarily examining objects were disallowed or the standard description were tailored to the game state, but these more new-school techniques would probably be out of place here.) At worst, the lack of unique descriptions clashes and misleads when other narrative chunks actually produce more information about the appearance of important objects.

Exits seem to be completely absent from room descriptions, which could have been a legitimate stylistic decision. However, they're not listed anywhere else in the interpreter window, either. The player has to rely on the "EXITS" command in order to know where to go.

Despite its cruelty, the initial resource management problem might be the best puzzle sequence in the game. (The initial situation probably makes more immediate sense to players of Infocom's Enchanter games, but it seems to be logical at least in retrospect.) Solving this sequence shows off the magic system inherited from Infocom (which I'm more familiar with from Graham Nelson's fan fiction Balances).

Infocom deserves continued recognition for this magic system. It is far more intuitive and better adapted to parser IF than more conventional RPG-like systems that have sometimes appeared in more recent works. It is a great example of a relatively seamless merger between game mechanic and narrative device. The Scroll Thief adapts this magic system holistically; it does not feel imported or extraneous. According to the internal documentation produced by the ABOUT command, at least one customization has been made. This change facilitates the final puzzle sequence in the introduction.

The other puzzles are less well clued and are implemented comparatively poorly. The unclear progression of goals and the weaker implementation are disappointing, because these puzzles are otherwise creative and surprising. Not only are conventional text adventure tropes used in new ways that preserve the nostalgic feel, but the puzzles demonstrate the full range and power of the parser and the simulated world model. Created with Inform 7, the game reaches deeply into the vestigial old-school functionality buried within parser IF development systems like Inform, TADS, and Hugo. By doing so, the game reminds us of how great a range of situations and possibilities the traditional text adventure implementation allows.

In the spirit of the benevolent parody seen in Zork (but a little less subtle), The Scroll Thief celebrates authors of recent IF works who are currently active in the IF community, alongside some of the legendary Implementors of the past. The author refers to himself as the "Implementor." Because of these references and because of its solid implementation of traditional conventions, The Scroll Thief mythologizes the current IF community by perpetuating the legacy of the Golden Age of the text adventure. The result is hardly the easiest IF to experience, but it has a high interest value. I would play the full version if I trusted it enough to meet me halfway with the implementation and to guide me through the serious time commitment.

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