The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton, by Hanon Ondricek
Finally, someone dares to tell the truth about pickles – we need to get this game into the hands of Congress because it’s time for action!
This one’s pretty hard to discuss without blowing a lot of what makes it so charming – Cursèd Pickle is a candy box of surprises, both narrative and mechanical, and I’m wary of stomping all over said charm by discussing anything other than the graphics on the loading screen (it’s a lovely picture, reminded me of Loom!) And I can’t just put the whole thing in spoiler-text, because there are like double-secret spoilers that I want to conceal even if you have dipped in for a bit but haven’t plumbed all the depths. So do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve played the game at least until you understand the title before you read the rest of this.
It occurs to me that you – my beloved (I mean belovèd) as-yet-unspoiled reader – might need some buffer text after the above admonition so you don’t accidentally seccade your eyes over something unsuited for their gaze. Let’s see, I can point out that there’s a location that features a peristyle, which is a sort of obscure column-filled courtyard that I also worked into my game, and showed up in Vain Empires as well. That’s just the sort of vaguely interesting coincidence one likes to bring up when one’s marking time.
All right, so here we are. Cursèd Pickle continues the MMORPG parody of the author’s previous game, the Baker of Shireton, except this time you start out as a player as your game is undergoing a big version upgrade, and the resultant crash bugs and corrupted data eventually shifts you into reinhabiting the said Baker, except this time in a much more manageable choice-based interface as opposed to the parser chaos that overtook me, at least, when I tried to play its prequel.
Cursèd Pickle commits to its conceit, down to the IRQ port options when attempting to configure your nonexistent 3D hardware (before dumping you into the fall-back text mode). And it commits hard: even before you get to the baking bit, there are a good number of fetch quests, dozens of hair and beard options, a raid dungeon and mansion-looting mini-module, four different classes, each with their own combat minigame… there’s even a “legacy” server that presents an interactive vignette from the main game in Inform 7 form! (I couldn’t win this one, as I couldn’t figure out how to get ahead of the server wipe – if anyone’s found a secret here, please drop a line!).
I think like 90% of this is technically optional, but it’s all crafted with incredible care, with tiny jokes and novel features everywhere you look. I’m listing a couple of my favorites here, but they’re pretty major spoilers, so proceed with caution: you can ask the pickle about its plans for world domination, which spits out a list of the fifty-odd zones it’s going to conquer, with four or five laugh-out-loud gags buried among them; and you can turn into a freakish man-bee hybrid by accepting the Hive Queen’s offer at the end of the dungeon, which lets you grow wings and skip what I think is an arduous desert trek that makes up the final section of the game. Though this makes your henchman flip out and book it for home, understandably. And all these systems aren’t there just as a joke-delivery mechanism: the core RPG loop is well fleshed-out, and compelling enough that I spent an hour and a half just doing side-quests and grinding up my character’s stats instead of engaging with the main quest.
Speaking of the jokes, the writing is dead on throughout, sending up MMORPG global chat, fetch-quest tropes, and marketing patter with equal aplomb (OK, I do have one note: some of the pickle jokes over-rely on “briny,” and subbing in “vinegary” in two or three places might be worth considering. This is my only critique of the prose, and it is more than counterbalanced by the use of the accent in “Cursèd”). I heartily approved of the disgusting descriptions of how the filthy townspeople gave vent to their pickle addictions, and approved even more heartily of the harbourmaster’s disapproving opinion of same. And the best joke in the entire game is the song my bard sang at the end – it’s a nice, confident trick to save your strongest material for the very end!
Implementation-wise the player is in very good hands here too. The timing aspects of the combat mechanics were sometimes a little stressful for me to keep up with on a trackpad, but not so much so that I felt the need to use the optional slow-down plugin (if you’re in the market for such a thing, you can find it in the message board linked off the stats page). I noticed a couple of very small implementation issues – amazingly few, considering the “more is more” approach to different subsystems and interfaces: as the baker, at one point I had -1 customers queueing for bread, and dough left in the oven when quitting for the day would still be in the oven, yet unburnt, in the morning, just the same as I’d left it ten hours before.
I’m only about halfway through the Comp list (counting the half-dozen or so games I beta tested and the one I wrote), but it’s hard to imagine there’ll be another game as positively crammed full of delight as Cursèd Pickle. An ill-wisher could cavil at the premise, arguing that for such a Brobdingnagian game, it’s ultimately rather slight in thematic terms – at this late date, does the world really need another MMORPG satire? But after giving it a play, they’d change their tune right quick.
(The tune is the Melody of Malcontent, and while they’re singing it you’ve been sliced to ribbons. Ow!)
(Also I wasn’t joking in my opener, pickles are gross)