Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Wizard Sniffer" (review)

"Wizard Sniffer" is a parser game written in Inform by Buster Hudson for the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition. This game was not on my initial "must play" list. The cover art and title didn't seem that interesting..another genre fantasy in a field of entries which already seems overfull with castle and cave adventures. But by mid-competion I'd read enough positive buzz about the "Wizard Sniffer" to suppose it was worth my time. And wow, I'm glad I played.

Most of what you need to know is in the blurb.

You were recently acquired by the brave Ser Leonhart and his squire to sniff out the evil shapeshifting wizard. Unfortunately, you are not a wizard sniffer (if such a thing even exists). As far as you can tell, you are an ordinary pig.
A comedy of errors experienced through a parser with a limited verb set. Also, puzzles.

Ser Leonhart and his squire (and a growing cast of others) follow you around the expansive castle grounds, occasionally dropping in and out of your retinue. Because your own available actions are rather limited (you're a pig) your puzzle solving options depend on who you have with you at a time, or the one item you might carry in your mouth. The hint system is fully integrated into the game. Hints are provided (upon request by oinking) from a pair of fleas who reside in your ear. One flea tells the truth and the other lies, which means that hints are just a nudge in possible new directions, not an overt give away. That said, I found myself using the hints more often than I wanted to and I wish that I had allowed myself just a little bit longer to explore the story on my own.

The humor reminded me a lot of Monty Python, or other British comedy from that era. Madcap social chaos, cross dressing nobles and general buffoonery all come out of that tradition. It's carried off well in the writing. Some moments are laugh aloud funny. But if you play through to the end (which may require a 2-3 hour commitment) there is also a level of coherent story-telling here that was missing from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail". Rather than just a series of unrelated funny puzzles, each scene introduces more clues about the backstory of the castle and its residents. You'll need to understand the backstory (or most of it, at least) in order to solve the final puzzle. Even if you don't solve it on your own and use the hint system during the denouement (as I did) you'll be delighted by the final twist which delivers a different meaning to some of the earlier passages and invites a second reading of the text.

The limited verb system is excused in the text as a consequence of the pig's limited faculties. But sometimes this breaks the immersion. A pig can't eat? In other ways this game is a remarkable technical achievement. There is a unique chain winding puzzle early in the game. The number of NPC cast members is huge. I found no "bugs" in the system. This is a brilliant game, clever comedy, and delightful story-telling.

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