A Tale of Two Text-Adventures

I’ve been skeptical of first-time parser writers entering the Text-Adventure Literacy Jams: sure, they’re in a better position to see the friction points of the medium, but won’t their unfamiliarity with the tools just lead them into the usual beginner mistakes? But after playing both Who Kidnapped Mother Goose? and The Basilisk and the Banana I’m convinced that it is sometimes a good thing.

The Basilisk and the Banana is tightly paced, has only one place where you can solve two puzzles at once, a simple hint mechanism that points the player in the right direction without simply giving the answer away, is thematically consistent, and has entertaining messages that vary but are also nonetheless clear that there’s no hint here. That last is hard to pull off well.

It has all the usual absurdities but your character is supposed to be a child and the game is made partly by an 8-year-old: this is clearly signalled and they make perfect sense in that context. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to magically combine a mediocre sword with a strange tropical fruit to make a legendary sword to defeat a monster?

If you won’t be able to get back to an area, it doesn’t let you leave without getting the items you need. It doesn’t outright tell you what they are, but when you have one or at most a few rooms to explore, saying that you have a feeling there’s something else you need to look at is generally enough.

And there are some really nice touches here. That first moment of openness, where they clearly tell you where to go but you can go in any direction you want? It works so well to let the player choose to not do the thing and then feel like “oh no, I should have gone straight there” even though there’s not really a choice, you’re always going to get struck down by lightning.

And I hate that kind of thing when it’s used in the way that Jon Ingold commonly uses it: we’re going to strongly imply that your choices matter in a particular way, but you can’t affect the outcome you think you’re trying to change. But then we’ll call back later to an effect that you couldn’t possibly have predicted, and hey look, how dare you say your choices don’t matter? But here it leads to that lovely realization at the end that ohh… Zeus, god of thunder, of course that was inevitable.

And the final “boss” fight was delightful. What do you mean, quick think of something? I’m stuck in this one room, I’ve already used all the other items I have, what do I do…? Oh. Ohh.

Who Killed Mother Goose?, on the other hand, feels much more technically sophisticated, but for my taste it also feels like it’s doubling down on all the traditional absurdities that I find annoying, and for my taste it consistently feels like it’s talking down to the player.

It starts off with the “hints” simply giving the answer directly. Which… hey! I asked for a hint, not the answer, don’t be a smug jerk. But then later (by the time I got to the point where I needed a hint) some of them are completely pointless and only tell you the same thing that the game already told you.

So for instance I knocked on the door of Wee Willy Winkie’s house and it says he’s snoring and you’ll have to find something loud to wake him up and I wasn’t sure which places I hadn’t been and the map was just big enough to be annoying (Basilisk does such a great plausible job of locking areas off behind you) so I asked for a hint and got Your knock on door; Must be louder; Try something else, NOT gunpowder which… thanks so much. I already knew that. And now you’ve given away that there’s gunpowder in the game, which I didn’t already know? Cool, way to spoil things.

I do like that the hints are in verse though. And they’re not all that bad: some of them are decent.

And there are a couple significant places where the game actively misleads you. Both NPCs in the bar strongly imply that you’re supposed to come back when the bar actually opens to get ale, and for one of them it seems like a clear reward for solving a puzzle, but actually you just have to steal some. So I wasted a bunch of time trying to figure out what I might do that would trigger the game to advance time so that the pub would be open.

Similarly, the game tells you that an oak tree is a favorite climbing spot for the town’s children but “you’re not sure that it can hold someone of your weight.” and I don’t know about you but that’s not a judgement that I have any trouble making so I just took it at face value. And if anything, it was already clear that the protagonist was prone to exaggerating his skills so if he thinks it might not be safe then I’m going to assume that it’s definitely not safe. But you have to climb the tree and then you randomly find some matches in a bird’s nest, and unlike in Basilisk, here there’s no reason to think that makes any sense. It’s never explained why the matches are magically still good instead of getting damp and useless from being outside. It just feels like a gratuitous “well, we had to hide them somewhere.”

And then the game has all the conventional tedious unlock door / what do you want to unlock the door with? okay, unlock door with key / go west / the door is closed / fine. open door / go west. No, I guess I shouldn’t complain about that: Basilisk did it too. But at least with a two-word parser it’ll use the key automatically.

And there’s a bunch of guess-the-verb/topic and unimplemented nouns and such (what do you mean, “you haven’t heard about any kidnapping? The initial room description literally had you saying that Mother Goose has been kidnapped”):

trying to talk to Polly
“Hello, Jack. Should I put the kettle on?”

“No thanks, Mother Goose has been kidnapped and I have to rescue 
her”, you explain.

“Oh dear. Tell me about it. I may be able to help.”

> talk to polly
“Hello, Jack. What do you want today? Groceries or just a chat?”

> tell polly about mother goose
“Mother Goose is a lovely lady. She lives just across the street
and calls in quite regularly to have a cuppa. Are you sure you
wouldn’t like a cuppa? I can put the kettle on.”

> ask polly about mother goose
“Mother Goose is a lovely lady. She lives just across the street
and calls in quite regularly to have a cuppa. Are you sure you
wouldn’t like a cuppa? I can put the kettle on.”

> tell polly about kidnapping
“I haven’t heard about any kidnapping.” You tell her about Peter
waking you this morning and telling you about Mother Goose being
kidnapped. “Oh, that’s terrible. I bet it was the ogre.”

> x kettle
Sorry, I don’t understand what “kettle” means.

> x cuppa
Sorry, I don’t understand what “cuppa” means.

> ask polly about cuppa
“Sorry Jack, I don’t know anything about that. Are you sure you
wouldn’t like a cuppa?”

> ask polly about tea
“I’ve got lots of toys for boys and girls. Have a look on the
shelves to see if there’s anything that takes your fancy.”

I don’t know. It all just felt unmotivated. I never felt like I had a clear reason for doing anything other than that it’s an adventure game, of course you have to take all the things and solve anything that looks like it might be a puzzle because you know the game will make you solve it eventually. It did eventually come together at the end, but in the moment I consistently felt like “welp. Guess I’ll solve this puzzle because it’s here.”

And partly I didn’t resonate with the subject and theme: what if the characters from Mother Goose rhymes all lived in the same town and grew up to be (mostly) miserable petty adults? Just not my thing.

And to be fair, I think Mother Goose is probably a decent introduction to traditional text adventures. But it’s very very much a case of introducing you to all the aspects of the genre: if you don’t like these things then you probably won’t like other traditional games because a lot of them do that, rather than “hey, what if we made games that didn’t do those things, or found ways to justify them so they didn’t seem so arbitrary?” It’s a kinder, gentler one, but it’s still an entrance exam rather than a welcome mat. Are you the kind of person who’s going to enjoy being in this clubhouse?


Thanks Josh, really appreciate your thoughts. It’s gratifying to find lots of things landed as intended! (This is Darren, I should consolidate handles).