[INFORM] The Reliques Of Tolti-Aph

“The Reliques Of Tolti-Aph” by Graham Nelson

The Reliques Of Tolti-Aph is a strange game, particularly considering who wrote it (the famed Graham Nelson, creator of the Inform language) and that it was one of the games meant to herald the forthcoming Inform 7. I remember starting to play it expecting to be blown away by its sheer magnificence, and then, barely two minutes later when I found myself in a generic RPG with randomised combat and two of the most basic functions of IF games bizarrely disabled, I began to wonder just what was going on. Was this some kind of joke game? Had Nelson been ‘hacked’ by Paul Panks? Or, the hardest to believe, did he actually think this kind of thing was what people wanted to play? It even made me think of an hilarious sketch on Alas Smith & Jones from years ago when an ageing and highly respected singer comes out of retirement to make his comeback… and does so with a song that’s so mind-numbingly cheesy and awful that everyone, even former fans of his and people who admire him, have to struggle to contain their dismay over just how bad it is.

The introduction did a good job of making me want to quit the game. It seemed to be slightly mocking the whole RPG genre with references to ‘retiring at level 3’ with ‘most of your experience points intact’ - hardly a positive start. As far as introductions go, this one was bad.

The combat system that is at the heart of the game is pretty cringe worthy. I’m a big fan of RPG on the whole - Baldur’s Game II and Diablo II and Morrowind - but the combat system here is lame. There’s not even a proper combat system as such because all that seems to happen is that someone attacks you and you just bang the RETURN key a few times until the combat is over. Exciting it isn’t. During the first combat in the game, between myself and a harpy, I tried doing things like ATTACK HARPY or KILL HARPY only to be told that I couldn’t because I was already in combat. Ho hum. My opinion of the game, already low, sunk a bit further.

The combat ended, incidentally, with the harpy killing me. As it did the second time I played the game. And the third time. The fourth time, however, I beat the SOB. Not, I should add, through me improving my tactics or anything like that, but purely because of the randomised nature of the combat. I let out a disgruntled “about damn time!” at this stage, progressed a bit further, got into another fight, died… and as UNDO was disabled, and I hadn’t yet reached a part where I could save the game, that was it. I’d have to go through the entire combat with the harpy again if I wanted to see what else the game had to offer. As it happened, I didn’t want to see what else the game had to offer as I was more eager to quit this than any game I’ve played for… oh, a long, long, long time. A quick click on the delete key and The Reliques Of Tolti-Aph was consigned to that special part of my recycle bin that I affectionately call the “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” section.

No doubt it would have kept Ninja and Ninja II company there for the rest of my hard drive’s days, but then Inform 7 emerged in beta, the source code to the game was available, and I decided I’d have a bash at fixing the game’s annoyances and see if there was actually a decent game hidden behind the horror that is a disabled SAVE and UNDO system.

Was there…?

Hmmm… let’s mention something about the game I actually liked. The writing. It was nicely written, well polished and far, far better than anything else in the game. It’s got the kind of wry humour built into it that I’m especially fond of, hinting at someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and knows how to do it best. Unfortunately, the writing is the only thing this game has going for it.

Gameplay wise there are a veritable horde of annoyances. From the plain terrible (like the aforementioned decision to disable SAVE and UNDO) to the mimesis-breaking (combat information and describing items as “The dagger is a weapon with a 1d3 attack”) to the seriously unpopular (mazes). Even when I’d figured out how to enable SAVE and UNDO, I still found it hard to get any kind of enjoyment out of The Reliques Of Tolti-Aph. It’s just not a good game. The combat system bored me before I was at the end of the first combat. I cheated with this game more than I’ve done with any other IF game I’ve ever played (giving myself 14,000 Strength to make me invincible and increasing the dagger to a 10d10 weapon so I could instantly kill just about every enemy I came across with a single blow) and still found myself unable to like it. And when I stumbled across the maze, I just hung my head in despair.

Back to the “What The Hell Were You Thinking?” section of my recycle bin, I’m afraid.

Addendum: in a way, this game, despite its many faults, is a game that everyone should play as it does an excellent job of including just about every unpopular aspect of game design:

  • SAVE is disabled (or at least restricted).
  • UNDO is disabled.
  • It’s got randomised combat.
  • It breaks mimesis to such a degree that even I, who break mimesis regularly in my own games and generally don’t give two hoots about, found it annoying.
  • It’s got a maze.
  • It’s got a wyvern (which is a kind of dragon).

Write a game which includes none of the above and you’re well on your way to a masterpiece.

1 out of 10

Ouch! That was pretty harsh.

Can’t say I disagree, though. Why anyone would bother making an example game out of a randomized-combat RPG, I don’t know. There are plenty of MUDs out there that do it better and let you do it with other people.

And, Dr. Nelson breaks his own rules for game design. Strike two.

Although, I must say, you made it farther than I did. I never killed the harpy.

I only killed the harpy by cheating (i.e. editing the game to make me invincible). It still didn’t make it a better game, though.

I still can’t decide what Graham Nelson was thinking when he brought this game out. Emily Short wrote a couple of fine examples of what Inform 7 is capable of, and then Graham goes and shoots himself in the foot with this one.

I’m guessing the thinking was something along the lines of “lets show off how flexible Inform 7 is by doing something that’d be tricky in other languages” - and as an example of how easy it is to change the rule base to do something out of the ordinary, then yes, it’s a good example.

It’s just such a bad game. And I can’t imagine any other game using the same rule-base would be any more satisfying. But I imagine we’ll get to see at least a couple of examples based on it entered into the competition this year…

I’m thinking along the lines of Balances for Inform 7.

I’ve never heard of “Balances”. Was that some kind of test game for Inform 6?

It was mostly a demonstration game of some of Inform 6’s advanced features, and was tentatively an Enchanter sequel (not having played the original in any depth, I can’t say how closely it followed that game). It had a bunch of blocks you could write stuff on, and a bunch of indistinguishable object handling. It also had an implementation of the Enchanter spellcasting system.

Much like Reliques, it was a “show off the system” example, without being much of a classic story. It was slightly more playable that Reliques though!

Actually, Balances was written well before Inform 6; I have a printout of the I5 source; it may have been earlier.

Graham stated that he did it as an exercise to see how well I7 would handle calculation-intensive works.

It might have been a slightly less unpopular decision if he hadn’t chosen to disable SAVE and UNDO as well. That’s the bit that really confuses me about it. Was it his intention to make the game as irritating as possible?

This would be an interesting one for a future month’s discussion. I haven’t played it yet.

Maybe. Just so long as I don’t have to play it again. :frowning: