Lancelot (Level 9, 1988)

In a recent thread I was recommended Lancelot, one of the last games from Level 9. If you’d also like to give it a go, the Digital Antiquarian article links to a copy of the Amiga port (which works in terps like Gargoyle), while the Internet Archive hosts the MS-DOS port for online play (but no downloads).

As a game from the (twilight of the) commercial heyday of text adventures, and given Level 9’s reputation for squeezing games onto tiny computers (Lancelot was on the 32-bit Amiga and PC, but also the 8-bit BBC Micro), I expected it to be quite rough, but I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot of rooms, but they all have unique descriptions unless they’re deliberately part of a maze, and even some maze rooms have something distinctive (for example, most of the Forest Maze rooms start “Lancelot was in a forest maze…” but one of them starts “Lancelot was in a forest maze in a forest maze…”). Most objects, NPCs and exits are mentioned in the room description, but objects and NPCs are explicitly called out afterward, and exits are too if you type exits on.

At least in the first parts of the game, the puzzles are fairly straight forward. Lancelot is a knight, so attack thing almost always defeats it, and his only element of personality is chivalry, which usually boils down to not kissing anyone who isn’t Gueniver, no matter how nicely they ask or how long they keep you in a dungeon. There are some dead ends, but generally when you get stuck, Merlin magically appears to teleport you back to a safe place so you can resume your game.

Most of the difficulty I had with the game arose from not understanding the abilities of the text parser. Part of the game involves rescuing knights, who then accompany you on your quest, and the game engine lets you give them instructions. That seemed pretty pointless to me (why tell Sir Pedivere to do something when I can do it myself?) until I learned you can stack up instructions to be executed on later turns.

For example, fairly early on Lancelot encounters a wall of briars that magically grows back when cut. If Lancelot attacks it themselves, the Damosel Maledisant (an NPC whose title translates into modern vernacular as “the Sass Queen”, and who follows Lancelot around living up to her reputation) suggests that two people working together might make it through. In order to make that happen, you have to say lamorak, wait, cut briars (or Pedivere, or whoever you have hanging around), and then cut briars so that Lancelot and Lamorak are cutting briars on the same turn. Other puzzles involve telling NPCs to do things Lancelot cannot do, or telling NPCs to do things in one place while Lancelot wanders off to do something somewhere else.

Unfortunately, the game is kind of buggy. For example, while Merlin will generally rescue Lancelot, he doesn’t rescue any of Lancelot’s companions, and there’s at least one puzzle where you have to “spend” one knight to free others, so you can only attempt it as many times as you have companions. At one point, the game was confused enough to print sentences like “From the south, Sir Pedivere enters from the south.”

The thing that finally made me give up was after winning a duel to defend Gueniver’s honour… nothing happened. I didn’t seem to have any remaining quests, nobody was nagging me to do anything in partticular. I checked the original hint guide, which said something like “say goodbye to Gueniver, then defeat the ambushing knights”… but I never got ambushed. So, I stopped playing.

I was recommended Lancelot as a notable example of third-person perspective in IF. I can definitely see why the authors made that decision: Lancelot goes to great lengths to convey the literary flavour of the original Arthurian tales, and third-person perspective past-tense narration definitely adds to that feeling.

Another good reason to go for third-person is that the other options don’t really fit. The traditional second-person presentation presents the world to the player, and lets the player react to it… but the game isn’t about how the player reacts to things, it’s about how Lancelot reacts to them. First-person perspective is a good way to present an opinionated protagonist, since they can describe their own thoughts and reactions alongside the events of the story… but Lancelot is not exactly talkative, and (in the original stories at least) doesn’t have a rich internal life, so there’s not much material to build on.

The only problem with third-person is that it makes it more difficult for the player to identify with Lancelot. In the game, as in the original stories, Lancelot’s character is conveyed by his actions… but the convention of parser IF is that the player controls the protagonist’s actions, so there’s a weird tension. Sometimes when the player tries something, the game effectively says “no, Lancelot wouldn’t do that”, while other times Lancelot does things on his own, like automatically kneeling and praying when he enters the cathedral. These little touches help convey Lancelot’s character, which is useful since so many of the puzzles depend on “what Lancelot would do”, but Lancelot’s archaic and alien moral code sometimes feels like arbitrary and contrarian restrictions.

Overall, I was impressed with Lancelot even though I didn’t finish it. I think it’s a good demonstration of how one can create a rich world without a lot of objects or complex puzzles, and a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of third-person narration in IF.

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From your review, it sounds like this is the first Level 9 KAOS engine game you’ve played. They really are like a genre of their own, and become easier and more enjoyable after you have played a couple of them and learnt their unusual mechanics and how to navigate their quirks. After giving up on Knight Orc and Lancelot, I had a great time with Gnome Ranger and Ingrid’s Back.

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