I recently completed a survey of Interactive Fiction, where I tried to play all of the major games of the amateur era. It was enjoyable, and I discovered some wonderful games. After completing it, I decided to go back and play some old favorites, to see if they still held up. Curses! had always been my favorite game, so I booted up. I quickly found myself engrossed by the quotes, the narrative, the puzzles, and the overall structure. I realized that, more than any other interactive fiction game available, Curses! is my favorite.
I decided to write this essay to explore what precisely about Curses! makes it so enjoyable to me personally, and to quite a few others as well. I do so by highlighting 4 design decisions that Graham Nelson made. All of this is my personal opinion, especially my interpretation of the story line. This obviously contains strong spoilers for Curses!, but shouldn’t really have spoilers for other games.
Coherence of narrative
In my opinion, the most effective games are those that tell a single story over and over again, using a variety of methods. For example, the various colored stories in Photopia are allegories for the same thing; Howling Dogs is the same story in different settings; and the different branches and endings of Galatea contribute to a unified picture of the main character. Many otherwise well-made games can be quickly forgotten if they try to do too much at once (like tacking on an environmentalist message to an otherwise unrelated story, or combining goofy space humor with grim and bloody horror). I found Graham Nelson’s own game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet to be much less effective because it didn’t settle down on the story it wanted to tell.
Curses! tells the same story from beginning to end, a story about alienation and a desire to prove yourself. In many ways, it’s an allegorical rite of passage, similar to the ancient mystery plays. It’s message is communicated by endless variations on the same themes.
Unlike most adventure games, the setting of Curses! is packed full of people, but you aren’t really part of them. You begin the game in a house full of your big, bustling family and your first goal is to keep away from them. You have basically cut yourself off from the living, and the living are not happy with you; the druids plot to kill you, the Gods try to zap you, Sosostris despises you, and your fortune is the Drowned man, the Fool, and Death. Wherever you go, everyone ignores you, looks down at you, or attacks you. Your only friends are those who have also cut themselves off, like the crusty Jemima, the incorrigible Austin, or the self-sacrificing Andromeda.
Not only are you yourself cut off, but your family is one great big failure. The house is full of incomplete tasks and odd jumbles of stuff, and the information you have about your family shows that they always fail at the critical moment. You are proud of your family, but embarrassed at the same time. “Just another Meldrew” seems to be how you feel about yourself.
As the game progresses, there is very strong imagery related to death and rebirth. You narrowly escape death on numerous occasions (such as jumping from the mast of the ship). You disarm a bomb, you are poisoned but take the antidote. This is all fairly normal in adventure games, but it get’s stronger. You sleep in a tomb for centuries, unseen by others. You have to put the rods into a coffin and out again to release their power. You have to anoint yourself, bury yourself, and rise as an immaterial being to progress. In one of the most powerful allegorical moments, you must reconstruct a mechanical knight with no heart, no hand, and no head, bring it to life and teach it to love; like the player, they must be reborn from their impotent, heartless state into a full being.
This death and rebirth are the key to true power. The rods gain power after their rebirth; you gain respect from Sosostris; you can defeat the Kraken by death and rebirth; and after constructing the allegorical knight, you gain access to true power in the form of a high rod, where you yourself select between Love, Life, and Death. In the end, hidden in an underground cave, you discover your true purpose (essentially the divine self of the mystery plays), and redeem not only yourself but all of your family by completing your ancient task. Your ultimate reward is to rejoin your family as a whole, complete person.
None of this is forced on you in the game. The storyline is slowly spooled out through surrounding actions and thoughts. The game rarely tells you how you should feel. Instead, feelings are reinforced by endless repetition of the same theme, and this is the first effective design decision of Curses!.
(One weakness people have noted is the demon in the basement; for many people it seemed out of place. The same is true of the angel in the clouds. I wonder if this was intentional, as they are both hint systems, and as such do not really belong in the game either.)
** Puzzle design**
Curses! is notoriously hard to complete, if nothing else due to its length. But there are several elements of its puzzle design that I think are especially effective.
Nelson has avoided one problem that other big puzzle games have, which is managing inventory taken from all over the world. Muldoon Legacy and Finding Martin both have numerous puzzles where you combine completely unrelated objects from far across the world, and this is essentially unfair.
The vast majority of puzzles in Curses! fall into two categories: puzzles unified by location, and puzzles unified by theme. These help cut down on the work generated by sorting through your inventory.
As an example of puzzles unified by location, consider the garden and surrounding areas. The garden roller literally cannot be removed from the area, making it clear where it must be used. The rod obtained in the maze is used in the garden. The weedkiller is used in the maze. The ball on the mosaic is used nearby.
As examples of puzzles unified by theme, the rods themselves are identified by a common shape. The pollen-filled branch tells you that ‘you don’t get the bird’ when you shake it, and you later use it in a room with a bird. The golden scepter is used in an ancient tomb, and the nuts are used to distract a squirrel. There’s none of the type of puzzles where the shaft of a spade is used to knock a marble into a mousehole.
The puzzles that don’t fall into these categories generally have multiple solutions. There are 7 ways of opening the medicine bottle. The main puzzle of the midgame (how to return from the various worlds) has a variety of solutions of increasing efficacy: using the poetry book (a one-time solution), lagach (a partial solution), and finally the rod of returning.
Some weaknesses in this area are the occasional guess-the-verb puzzles, including two about speech (commanding the mouse and lagaching), and the important puzzle about learning to use the rods (HIT GROUND WITH ROD, HIT ROD, etc. don’t work; only STRIKE ROD works, which is an odd construction).
Classifying puzzles into themes and allowing multiple logical solutions is the second effective design decision of Curses!.
** Information storage **
This is a smaller part of the game, but an important one. Like most plot-heavy games, Curses! has several info dump mechanisms. Babel has its memories, Theatre has its diary pages, and Worlds Apart has big cut scenes and actual, readable books. Christminster has its library.
Many of these suffer from one of two opposite problems: either everything is forced on you at once (like the book in Worlds Apart), or information is only available after extreme searching and can easily be missed (as in Christminster).
Curses! avoids this neatly by having three books (the history, the diary, and the dictionary) where you are very clearly told what can be looked up. Thus, every time you find a name, you can look it up in the history. Every time you hear a year, you can look it up in the diary. And every mythological name can be found in the dictionary.
This lets you reliably discover information at your own pace, which is the third effective design decision of Curses!.
Pacing and difficulty
The last decision has already been hinted at, but its the excellent use of pacing. The game opens with short paragraph or two that immediately sets the scene, gives you a goal, and encourages you to explore.
The initial area is small, allowing you to explore, and exploration gives you several natural mini goals. As you walk north, you disturb a key that falls down a floor. You find a map, but it’s in a jar whose lid you can’t grip. You find a cot that invites you to sleep, you find a pipe that needs tightening. All of this suggest things for you to do.
The game was intentionally designed so that players stuck on a puzzle can always be working on something else. The author has stated that this is why he added so many things to find in the attic; three secret doors, three portals to other worlds, a passage behind a fireplace, a skylight, a darkened area that you are nervous to enter.
He also deliberately removed a large chunk of the game because testers thought it was too much. Many epic-writers like to stuff a game full of as many puzzles as they can. It’s wise to consider player exhaustion when doing this.
Many of the slowest parts of the game are ‘spiced up’ by an appropriate quote or a joke. The quotes are carefully selected and contribute strongly to the overall feel of the game. Some of the jokes are pretty lame (“It’s a wrench, but you take it”, “Let’s call a spade a spade”), but they break up the monotony of the least interesting areas.
Finally, information is given as a reward, instead of having the author gleefully dump it on the player. This is something Midnight. SwordFight., Babel and Spy Intrigue did well, too; the backstory as reward encourages player exploration and is more effective than a purely point-based reward system. However, the player must know that information can be obtained and must not be starved for it; the second Unnkulia game, from before Curses!, literally does not tell you what you are trying to do in the game until the very last move.
Controlling the pace of the game through variations in difficulty and information rewards is the final effective design decision of Curses!
Curses! is not the perfect game. Its conversation system is minimal, there are some lingering guess-the-verb issues, and it is difficult to finish it without a walkthrough. But its clever design choices make it an enduring work, and I still regard it as my favorite game of all time.