The Princess of Vestria
In the same way that other games in this comp have started off at a disadvantage due to Not Really Being My Thing, and have to work to overcome that (which many of them have!), The Princess of Vestria is exactly the opposite: the very premise made me grin with delight.
And, happily, I felt it followed through and delivered on it’s promise! Our Hero this time is a plucky princess on a quest to save her brother from an Evil Curse. Along the way, you have many chances to do stuff that generally falls in one of three categories: Discover Backstory, Act In Genre-Appropriate Ways, and Do Something Clever. (These were not the actual stats that were revealed in the post-credits scene that the game tracked, mind you; they’re just generally how I felt about my options.)
The first (‘discover backstory’) is a time-honored IF staple, and the game handled it well. The backstory was interesting, I was involved in its revelation, and the pacing of the reveals was good. Some of the information was gated behind puzzles, particularly in the later parts of the game, so I was well motivated to solve the puzzle to figure out the information. (Also good: It was clear that ‘information’ was the reward for solving those particular puzzles.)
The third (‘do something cleverl’), was another time-honored IF staple: solving puzzles. Here again, the game was quite solid: the puzzles had interesting setups, interesting choices, and satisfying rewards. The only odd quirk of the system for me was the fact that you got ‘lives’ and ‘luck’, which would be spent by (presumably) failing to solve the puzzles. But the game also had a save/load system, so if you failed at something, you could just reload and try again. I used the save/load system several times over the course of the game, and of course, since this is a choice-based game and there’s only so many options you have to click, this meant that I solved all the puzzles. And this was the game’s one failure point, for me: for two big set piece puzzles (following the woman and dealing with the sheriff), there’s nothing in the game that hints (even in retrospect) that one approach will work and another will fail: all options seem at least somewhat plausible; the difference is only that one path leads to success and all the rest to failure. With the save/load system, this works out fine: it’s basically just a maze, and you try different directions until you find the exit. But the life/luck system tells the player that the author expects them to solve everything on their first attempt, and it’s dreadfully unfair to put maze-type choice puzzles where you can’t backtrack in a one-and-done scenario like that. It wasn’t even that the rewards made that much of a difference in the end, it’s that you’re punishing the player by holding back story, which makes them feel (correctly) like they’re missing out. Maybe some players are OK with this? But had the save/load system (or an equivalent like ‘undo’) not existed, I would have felt betrayed by puzzles like this in the game. But! Those puzzles were not super prevalent, and the save/load system did exist, so for me, everything was copacetic.
One note about the final puzzle: the game told me there were three ways to solve it, but I was only able to find two. Maybe the options for the third only appear when you don’t have the extra ‘stuff’ you need for the other two? It was weird. Also, the game lets you click on a ‘walkthrough’ button that in no way gives you an actual walkthrough. Similarly, the ‘walkthrough’ document you could download from the ifcomp website has a solution for a single puzzle in the game, and that’s it. Again, odd. Anyway.
This brings us to the second item on my list: ‘Act In Genre-Appropriate Ways’. This, for me, was by far the most delightful part of the whole game, and ultimately the reason why I loved it to bits. Just about every big scene felt like this to me: I’d see a familiar face at a tavern while in disguise, and think, “Oh! I bet it’ll turn out that…” and then I’d play through acting on that assumption and I was right every time! And every time I would cheer myself for being clever and the game for letting me be clever. And what’s more, all of the scenes, even though they were ‘predictable’ in the sense that I knew generally where they were going, still managed to run with the story in interesting ways or reveal bits of interesting setting details. (The revelation of why the guy wanted nuts was beautiful.) It was sort of like listening to a new song in a genre you love: the conventions of the genre are satisfied, but the particular song always brings its own spin to things.
Maybe I just really want to be a plucky princess when I grow up. There are worse fates.
Did the author have something to say? : I guess the author had a story to tell, in a genre I loved? I feel like the genre kind of constrains the sort of insight any author can bring to the table here (the overall message kind of has to be “go get 'im, girl!”), but the author did have something new to say about the character and motivations of the villain of the piece.
Did I have something to do? : You betcha; I got to be a plucky princess! Oh, and solve puzzles and discover a story; that was cool, too.