Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter, Interactive Fiction Review
I'm not a hardcore IF person, but I have been playing off and on for a long time. My husband and I often play through games together, both old Infocom stuff and newer things, and I look forward to the yearly IF competition. I played Anchorhead before I ever heard of Jack Toresal, and since I'm a huge Lovecraft geek, Gentry pretty much ruined my ability to enjoy other IF for a year by making that game.
I did not go into this expecting another Anchorhead, but I really wanted Textfyre to be offering me something new and different. I was hoping that their business model had some hope of succeeding and bringing more casual players into IF. I know their self proclaimed target market is young adults, but as I enjoy a pretty decent pile of young adult fiction, it didn't seem like too much of a stretch to hope that I might like their games.... Part of me was also saying, "If this is the only way to play another Gentry game, I'll pay $25 for it."
So, I found myself playing Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter this week. I was excited and apprehensive. I was trying to give the engine the benefit of the doubt. I'm a professional programmer and some of the rumors I've heard about the development of the technical parts haven't sounded very flattering.
I ended up really frustrated and conflicted about the game that I found, even though I approached it cautiously. Some things about it are really good, and some things made me want to throw my computer across the room, repeatedly.
The interpreter/engine/application/whatever you want to call it that this game is presented in is very, very new. I would have labeled this as alphaware on the Mac. I played on my MacBook Pro and it was a struggle just to get the thing to let me play at all. There were an insane number of small text related bugs, stuff flowing off of the edge of pages, awkward word wraps, screwed up italics. These didn't even touch the big stuff. The save and load system were almost completely unusable as we neared the end of the game.
There is a fixed amount of save space allowed for all the saves in total. This isn't a problem near the beginning of the game where saves are small, but as you go on the saves get bigger and bigger. At some point you don't have space for more than 4, or 3, or 2, or at the very end 1. If you try to save when there isn't enough space (and it won't tell you how much it needs), it will make a corrupted save file, which takes up all the remaining space, and jam the transcript window open so that you have to restart the application. This was frustrating, but not as frustrating as the load times.
By the 9th chapter it took nearly 5 minutes of the game being completely locked, and I think probably constantly thrashing, for it to load my game. According to my system monitor it got up over 2 gigs of virtual memory and about three quarters of a gig of actual RAM. What the hell was it doing with that much memory, exactly? I think there is something screwy going on during the load of the transcript, but not knowing how they're handling the multilevel undos I couldn't say what. Anyway could they include a load bar of some kind rather than locking the application? Also, maybe look into how background threads work, please?
For all that, I did think that the interface brought some useful things to the table. I wasn't a huge fan of some of the particular art that was provided due to its anatomy issues, but I did think that it added a lot to my visualization of the game. I liked the map screen. It simplified understanding the shape of the world. I have plot related issues with the use of the character dialog system, but the actual system was well implemented and far less frustrating than some of the games of "guess the noun" or "guess the grammatical construct" that I've played in the past.
As much as the persistent transcript seems to have screwed up the save games, I really liked having it there. It was extremely nice to be able to look back and find information instead of having to constantly take external notes that break my immersion in the story. I expect to find it extremely frustrating that I don't have this feature in other games in the future. I could take or leave the multilevel undos. In my mind that's what multiple save games are for.
Note: There is apparently a newer version of the game out now for Macs. I haven't looked at it, so I can't attest to how many of the issues I saw have been fixed.
Puzzles and World
I started out pretty optimistic with the puzzle aspect of this game. You begin in Grubber's Market, a pretty decently sized area with a high level of interconnectivity and an interesting and highly directed and motivated set of puzzles. Once you get out of the market, it's all down hill from there. There are basically two types of "puzzles" after that.
Type one involves following a relatively linear exploration path in an area to find something in the only area you can get to. You have to search sometimes, but it is far from rocket science. If you look at the few things in the room and then randomly mess with things, you're pretty much good. Minimal scenery is usually fine with me, mind you, but "hidden" places or items are almost always things that you've been explicitly told to go find by NPCs, so you'll know you need to look for them and roughly where they are. This plus minimal scenery is pretty dull.
The world is generally very linear, so you have little chance for being clever in how you find things or get to places or even remember where things are. The linearity made some of the houses downright incoherent in their lack of normal rooms. For me these highly railroaded search or "fetch" quests had all the intellectual involvement of chewing bubblegum.
Quest type two involves grinding through NPC dialog. The dialog system doesn't work the way most traditional IF games handle dialog. Instead, when you talk with an NPC you're presented with a set of text choices on the right hand "page" of the interface, where pictures are normally displayed. I mostly liked the system, but I was very frustrated by the fact that the choices I was given were very short and often didn't convey the full extent or tone of what my character was actually going to say. More than once she spouted something that didn't bare any resemblance to what I had in mind for her.
Because the system was all predetermined choices, I also often had choices taken away when I didn't expect them to be, or added when I would not have come to the conclusion my character apparently did. If I had a clever idea for how to deal with a social dilemma, that was too bad, unless it was one of the choices I didn't get to do it. The sum result of this was that to "solve" interaction puzzles I just had to grind through dialog until my character, rather than I, figured out the answer and gave me the right choice to select. This sort of deterministic, grindy puzzle isn't very interesting from where I'm standing.
I was generally frustrated that at a given time in the game I usually had one, and only one, thing to do. Occasionally I had a set of very similar, easy things to do. I generally prefer to have at least some freedom in how I explore and what I chose to work on in the middle of a game. Nothing was hard enough to get stuck on, but I never really felt like I was the one solving anything either. Some of my frustration in this area intersects with my frustration with the plot, which has it's own... special... set of issues.
I really liked the first section of the game in Grubber's Market. That area was colorful and complex. Those puzzles were fun and I knew what my overall goal was in the area and why. Despite the fact that there was a "right" answer, I felt like I could find it on my own. I wanted more of the game to be like that.
This section contains spoilers. If you don't want to read them, the summary is: the plot felt railroaded and managed to make me feel like becoming a nearly stereotypical "angry" feminist at times. I am generally pretty mellow about gender issues, but it hit all the wrong buttons. Despite that, the pure wordsmithery of the writing was good enough that I can't bring myself to completely write the game off. If I hadn't enjoyed reading it, I wouldn't have spent so many words in the rest of this section on trying to express the parts that made me unhappy.
Skip down to the conclusion if you don't want to read the spoilers in the rest of this section.
To start with, the description of this game that's presented on Textfyre's website? Too Damn Clever.
Very, very early on in the game you are going to discover that Jack is in fact not a young orphan boy, as implied by the art on the site and specifically not clarified in the description. Jack is a young orphan girl in disguise. Personally I was thrilled to find this out, as I love games with female main characters, BUT (and I think this is a big but) that is not the game that Textfyre's blurb was selling. "What a clever surprise!" would have been my thought if the game had been free. Instead I thought, how many people are going to pay $25 and then discover that this is not what they expected? How many people are going to pass this by because they would have wanted to play it if they knew Jack's gender?
As I was counseled when writing live action role-playing event descriptions, don't be so damn clever. You are asking people to commit to something. Give them an idea of what they're signing up for.
My second issue (gah, I haven't even reached the actual plot) is with the title. Look, it was exciting and all to put "Toresal" in the title, but Jack didn't know Jack's last name. This telegraphed like 50% of the plot from the first 5 minutes of the game. I would have rather found out when Jack found out... or at least guessed it a little later on in the game. As it was, having all those NPCs know what was going on and having had it shoved in my face it was really annoying to have poor Jack kept in the dark for so long.
So... the actual plot. Things started to go pear shaped for me around the time that I met up with Jack's friend Bobby on the way home. Before that I was capable, smart Jack, who could take care of "him"self. On meeting Bobby it was pretty apparent that I was a teenage girl in love. Ok, I thought, my character is a teenage girl, I should cut her some slack. Just because it's stereotypical doesn't mean actual people aren't silly that way sometimes. So I stumbled through the conversation with him and agreed blindly to meet him for "something" that night.
Returning to the orphanage where Jack nominally lives was kind of surreal. Entering the house I was greeted by an NPC with a stream of abuse, which made it difficult to judge whether they hated me or if I really was an obnoxious brat who did whatever she liked whenever she pleased. I mean I had just had proof that I wandered the city streets stealing fruit for no particularly good reason (I have a home that presumably doesn't starve me...). How was I to know what sort of person Jack really was based on what I was being told?
Sneaking out with Bobby that night started the long parade of "NPC holds my hand" time that lasted through nearly the rest of the game. At any given time I either had an NPC with me (sometimes even actively telling me what to do), had been given very specific instructions about what to do next by an NPC, or both. This was frustrating. I felt kind of like now that I had acknowledged the fact that my character was a girl I was not allowed to be alone or figure anything out for myself. Everyone else wanted to tell me what to do, and I could either do it or not advance in the game. That's a super awesome choice there.
I'm not saying it was all boring. I did break into a house (on Bobby's orders) and lockpick my way out of jail (under the instruction of a burly merchant's son), but by and large, I did not feel very capable of independent action. This got worse when my character finally decided to fully accept her heritage and gender.
After Jack finally discovered that she was the long, dead Duke's bastard daughter (so... telegraphed...), my guardian, Widow Fiona, gave me the key to the Duke's house, telling me that I would find answers there that she didn't have time to tell me. Another friendly NPC, Widow Shannon, came along to help me. It turned out it was necessary to have her with me to be able to get in, but she came without my asking and basically auto-solved a bunch of obstacles without any input from me. So, you made up some puzzles and then you solved them for me... yay? Could I possibly have asked her to help me rather than having her just do them all automatically?
I got into the Duke's long abandoned house and it was mostly empty. I was allowed into like 5 rooms and the connectivity of the area is just bizarre, not like a normal house at all. Eventually I found to a bathroom. This was the tipping point in the game for me. The character was musing about the fact that the Duke had indoor plumbing, which was apparently very new and luxurious in this place/era and I, the player, was curious if it still worked.
I typed in "turn faucet". The character went off on a page long internal monologue about how she deserved to and should have been brought up in luxury (because she's someone's bastard child?) and how she'd been denied her birthright all these years. Even assuming I believed in the divine right, entitlement much? There are obviously many people in her world who suffer because they are of the lower classes. Why should she suddenly deserve riches and they should keep rolling around in the dirt and getting stepped on? I'm sure some of them are also bastard children of nobility and it doesn't do them a lick of good. Argh!
I was getting kind of pissed at Jack at this point. She proceeded to take a bath in "exquisitely hot water" with no further prompting from me. Where the water heated up in a building that had been abandoned for more than 5 years I'll never know. Still without any prompting from me Shannon found me a dress to wear... a dress that had belonged to the Duke's wife. That would be the wife that he cheated on in order to sleep with my mother. The wife who conveniently disappeared, along with my mom sometime or other in the mists of the backstory. I'm sensing a distinct lack of empathy to these women.
I was starting to think this couldn't go much further down hill but I was wrong. I assumed the game wasn't going to let me go anywhere or do anything until I put the dress on, so I did. Then I was treated to a description of the "new Jack". Or, as I was starting to think of it "Look at me! I'm a pretty pretty princess!" Seriously... just argh. I know we have a long tradition of fairy tales of this sort, but I'm 100% sure the game description did not in any way suggest I would be playing a Disney princess.
After all this, Jack and Shannon decided that we were done at the house. So apparently the "answers" that Widow Fiona couldn't tell me amounted to a bath and a dress. I was feeling really cheated here. I wanted something else... I don't know, a diary from his wife saying she knew maybe? Some other insight into the Duke's life and his family that would help me get a sense of purpose perhaps?
Well on the inexorable story went, dragging me to a contact in the nobles' part of town. They would let me in now, since I didn't look like I came out of the sewer, so I guess I solved a problem I didn't know I had with that bath and dress. This is a hallmark of a lame puzzle or a lame plot limiting device; I'm not sure which I think it is in this case.
Then the contact, Dame Sandler, told me I need to go to a ball. I was just about ready to bang my head against a my laptop. A ball? Seriously, a ball? And I apparently need to go get a better pretty princess dress? And pick jewelry? *sigh* At least she also wants me to take a weapon, but gah. I'm apparently so unable to do anything by myself at this point that Dame Sandler sends her shop guard, Pieter, with me to keep me from stubbing my toes on the way there.
The ball wasn't too bad until the end bit. I took the "secret" way in (that Bobby showed me in excruciating detail) and the social puzzles in the ball itself were more conversation grinding, but at least the conversation and characters were interesting and had some interconnection in ways the other conversation puzzles hadn't really. Near the end I, of course, met a mysterious prince who told me: he had been watching me all night, I was special, he could see my fate around me like an aura, I shouldn't bother to try to escape the mercenaries closing in on me because it was much more pleasant to talk to him while they did. Then I looked deep into his brown eyes... and the mercenaries dragged me off. Yea, whatever creepy stalker prince. No glass slipper for you if I get any say in the matter.
The final scene involved a bunch of actions that I'm pretty sure were total forces (hint, just go ahead and write out all the text if I really can't do anything - this goes for the gallows scene as well) and brave men doing all the fighting for me. Then there was a totally inexplicable bit tacked on so that they can lead into the next game in the series. How they worked it in was not really satisfying, since I pretty much felt I had no input on any part of the final scene.
From the last few paragraphs you might get the feeling I'm a little bitter about the gender roles in this game. Yes, that sounds about right. Jack seemed like a smart girl, or at least she had the potential to be, and this sort of bizarre, railroaded wish-fulfillment (for a value of wish I did not have even when I was 16) where she gets no choices and most of her emotions are dictated to me makes it very hard for me to empathize with the character. I wanted Jack to be me. You gave me a female main character, so I tried, I really did. I just couldn't like the role that you picked for her and I don't feel like you let me "play" Jack rather than just "reading about" her.
All my complaints aside, if this game had been a short story, I probably wouldn't be nearly as angry. My expectations and desires in IF are different than my desires in pure writing. The pure writing in Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter was very good. The descriptions were detailed enough without being monolithic and I genuinely enjoyed most of the dialog and the writing in the more active scenes (where control was often taken away from me for two or three pages at a time while all the "important" people - read NPCs - did stuff). The overall plot was interesting. Despite my annoyances, I want to know what happens to Jack and all the other characters that I learned so much about in the story. Had I only "read" the story I would probably have chuckled and rolled my eyes at the "pretty princess" bits, called Jack dumb or silly at times, and enjoy it quite a bit more.
Please stop making all my choices for me. Please stop preaching all my feelings at me. Yes, I get that Jack may be destined to be Queen, but I want to be a strong, clever, and wise Queen, not a pretty pretty princess. If you can give me that much, I'd probably even be ok with being married off at the end of the story, although I still object to stalker boy. I like my princes more wholesome and less nutzo-creepy.
I had fun playing this game and it also drove me up the wall. I wanted it to be so many things that it was not and not be a number of things that it was. I was constantly aggravated by the handholding and the NPCs following me around, but I really liked the writing and wanted to keep reading the story, even when the plot itself made me want to hunt Gentry down and strangle him. I don't know if I can recommend this game to others. I don't even know if this game is a good introduction for people who are not IF fans. It lacks some of the things that I love about IF, but maybe it would be a gentle transition for some audiences.
I can't tell you if this game would be worth $25 for you. I think it was probably worth $25 for me, but I'm also incredibly frustrated. I know that both Textfyre and Gentry can do better and I mean in ways that have nothing to do with more art or a less faulty interface. I will probably buy the next game in the series, but I have a lot of trepidation about it. It will really need to shine if they want me to believe in them wholeheartedly in the future.
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