IntroComp 2014: 'Tales of the Soul Thief' by David Whyld

Here we have an indistinct shadow of a potentially great adventure game. My personal favorite from a competition full of unusually well conceived entries, Tales of the Soul Thief successfully adapts genre conventions to pull off a sense of authentic fantasy adventure, a sense that seeps through the cracks in the incomplete and vague implementation of the IntroComp version.

Tales of the Soul Thief is a traditional parser text adventure telling a traditional D&D-style fantasy story, but it is still unique. I'm skeptical that typical fantasy maligners will ever accept a story with otherworldy names and a narrative eager to revel in nerdy fictional lore, let alone appreciate the uniqueness of any given traditional fantasy story. It might not be enough to claim that the game makes excellent use of its polytheistic sword-and-sworcery setting, with ideological factions interacting against each other on the messy stage of the evocatively named city of Foreshadowing. But even players who have no patience for alternate worlds may appreciate the strong inner moral conflict evoked by the magic system that serves as the primary mechanic, a dark magic that underwrites the setting thematically.

Take, for example, the predominant fantasy element -- the protagonist's magical ability for which the game is entitled. The ability to steal souls fits well with the darker implications of magic frequently found in modern epic fantasy, such as in Goodkind. Even apart from the modern grimdark trend in fantasy (a style which Tales of the Soul Thief incorporates somewhat), one of the themes that this genre best explores is the terrible price of power. The cliché tropes of epic fantasy -- simplistic use of the monomyth, stereotypical pre-industrial setting, apocalyptic doom  -- provide a backdrop where the corrupting influence of power can be exposed in stark relief regardless of whether the story embraces traditional dualistic good verses evil or the now-common grimdark shades of gray. This is a theme that high fantasy arguably expounds more strongly than any other genre in popular entertainment, and Tales of the Soul Thief proves its adeptness with fantasy tropes by using this theme to unite the nerdy fantasy worldbuilding with plot and character.

And Tales of the Soul Thief proves its mettle as a fantasy game by showcasing this important thematic element as both the core of both the magic system and as the primary mechanic for solving puzzles. At least once, there is more than one possible target of this dark magical ability. In that instance, how the player uses the ability affects the precise sequence of commands and the emotional payoff. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no indication of any direct combat. Nor, for that matter, is there any numerical system associated with magic.
The emotional payoff resulting from using the soul stealing ability mingles the exultation of solving a puzzle with the guilt arising from, in many cases, harming innocent passersby. This effect is weakened by the observation that the way that stealing part of someone's soul harms the victim is unclear, and it seems to be implied that victims might recover eventually.

The protagonist is neither an anti-hero nor the impersonal blank slate of traditional text adventures. A few details are dropped about the player character from time to time – she is female, a relatively young adult; and she was probably taught her powers by her mother. Yet there are no significant infodumps of character information, and we aren’t even shown the protagonists’ dialog when she interrogates the one or two conversational NPCs with the ASK command.

There are more infodumps involving the backstory and worldbuilding than there are involving characterization, but the size and placement of these explanations seems appropriate given the context and the interaction required to trigger them. Backstory goes hand-in-hand with the fantasy genre, and the game would have felt significantly more hollow had it not offered the opportunity to learn about religious factions, countries, and historical figures.

This worldbuilding is generally played straight. Still, a dash of playfulness comes through with the tabletop RPG aesthetic -- especially regarding the colorful Malakar's Museum, a location that exudes traditoinal Zorkian vibes. Utilizing the ranges of tone from both its medium and its fiction genre, Tales of the Soul Thief delivers the "inner consistency of reality" that Tolkien believed to be at the core of the mystique of the traditional fairy tale, a kind of fantastic seriousness that does not preclude playful fun or even genre campiness.

It occurs to me that this review might come across as too celebratory, overlooking the many implementation shortcomings in the IntroComp version. As it is, the version I played feels very much like a crude sketch. There doesn't seem to be any closure to tie up the introduction. I spent a long time mulling over everything in the museum area before deciding that I had probably seen everything implemented -- an assumption I still can't confirm for certain. This may have affected its ultimate performance in the competition, but as a vague sketch I can evaluate it based on the potential that it succeeds in suggesting. As a long time fantasy fan, I see Tales of the Soul Thief as a synthesis of IF's traditional light take on fantasy with an entirely rigorous presentation of fantasy's epic imagery that authentically explores the great themes of fantasy fiction.

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