Interactive Fiction Comp 2015: 'Untold Riches'

A symbol described in the game (illustration not from it)

Untold Riches retells the traditional parser text adventure scenario with enthusiastic homage to the Infocom era. Although games about the legacy of the Infocom era or the larger culture of 1980's computing are far from rare nowadays, the tone of the veneration as well as the specific experiences that are referenced and the ways that nostalgia is evoked can give all these homage pieces individuality. Untold Riches achieves some uniqueness through a twist that radically changes the player's understanding of its nostalgic narrative interludes.

Brief snippets of backstory are frequently inserted into messages produced by taking actions or travelling to new rooms, as well as worked in to object descriptions. These interludes narrate the past antics of one Professor d'Squarius, who never makes a direct appearance as an NPC despite his prominence in the story. From these, the professor is used for comedy as the blustery, lovably incompetent academic who needs to be rescued constantly by his long-suffering "teenage sidekick," the player character. No history of the two characters' partnership is given, and the sidekick has no real characterization or narrative voice apart from going along complacently with the professor's crazy antics, with perhaps some implicit gentle eye rolling. The arrangement is waved away by the narrative without explanation by virtue of the general vagueness of the game's overall tone.

Perhaps the player character's age evokes the experiences of players who might have been teenagers when they were playing text adventures in the 1980s. While science fiction or detective settings might have also been used to exemplify the Golden Age text adventure milieu, Untold Riches is cast in the obvious genre for representing the entire spectrum in broad strokes---the adventure genre. However, all the whip slinging and mummy escaping happens in the backstory interludes, leaving only relics of the genre conventions to populate the descriptions and puzzles.

This vaguely nostalgic tone is supported by the puzzles and gameplay. This is definitely a puzzle game rather than a story game. The actual plot that the player can advance is minimal. However, the puzzles are implemented with relatively verbose responses, integrating with the narrative flashbacks and promoting the aesthetic without overwhelming the player with any significant text dumps.

The puzzles themselves exemplify the height of parser IF design conventions. The game is good at implementing reasonable actions that seasoned text adventure players would try, rewarding even the ones that ultimately advance nothing with meaningful responses. The structure is a good balance of breadth and depth, allowing the player access to two different goals and several puzzles at once while concealing resources needed for one goal behind puzzles pertaining to the other one. Intuitive and highly economical, the map bridges formerly separated locations in response to solving puzzles, offering a tight sense of geometry. Far from the meticulous difficulty of many old school text adventures, the puzzles are solved naturally by the exploration process that most experienced players will automatically undertake. This produces the sense that the puzzles -- like the setting -- are vague silhouettes of the typical experiences from the old adventures.

As an interested millennial who never lived through the Infocom Golden Age, I probably wouldn't be able to determine whether or not the flashbacks allude directly to specific 1980's text adventures or to specific puzzles or sequences in them. However, the general sense of these interludes and of the gameplay as a whole creates an impression of a more vague incorporation of Golden Age aesthetics. This is nostalgia adapted to rose-colored memory and to modern conventions, not retro trivia.

There seems to be a tangible theme about the relationship between the memory and the actual artifact---or between the promises of satisfaction implicitly made by our favorite media and the actual experiences delivered. Explaining the basic treasure hunt premise in the opening text, we are told that the professor had never said what the "amazing treasure" he and the player character are seeking really is. Upon finally uncovering the artifact, the narrative message merely calls it "an object so magnificient it defies description." All other references to this supposedly wonderful artifact are pointedly vague, revealing only that it has some kind of protrusions and leaving the rest to the player's imagination.

As one description of a different object puts it, "The fact that this chest looks exactly like all the others makes you that much more curious about what's inside." Even so, the fact that Untold Riches feels exactly like all the other text adventures makes the player that much more appreciative of the kind of wonder that IF can embody at its best. There is no pretense of delivering an authentically retro experience. The game never pretends to be anything other than the light, conventional, modernized nostalgia piece that it is. It also makes no obvious attempt at critical commentary, but rather points to the intangible ideal behind all the great adventures.

At what point does the intangible ideal of past joys wear out? Certainly there is such a point, and IF fans could discuss whether or not the IF community as a whole has reached this saturation. At some point, new ground has to be broken, no matter how glorious the old thing was. However, the fact that the old experiences were wonderful in a unique way is a truth that transcends the nostalgic framing. By focusing so intensely on the ideal, Untold Riches finds some relevance even for those of us who don't remember the Golden Age.

Additionally, the plot twist at the end contributes a new idea to the well-established genre of nostalgic adventure games about other games. For anyone interested in the lore and traditions of IF, this twist makes Untold Riches a must-play, especially given how extremely playable and accommodating the rest of the game is. Although its goal is modest, Untold Riches succeeds well at being what it is.

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