Lantern, by Sylfir
A couple days ago as of this writing, Sylfir’s games vanished from itch, without so far as I know any explanation. I’ve seen speculation that this was an attempt to withdraw Lantern from ParserComp, which I suppose is plausible though in that case I’m not sure why they got rid of all their other games, as well as their account information, too. Given the game’s current unavailability, and the uncertainty about why that is and whether it will ever be available again, it’s perhaps inappropriate to write anything about it. But as I said in another thread, if we listened to Virgil the Aeneid would have been destroyed in antiquity, and despite Kafka’s posthumous autographopyromanic wishes the consensus is in favor of reading and engaging with his previously-unpublished stuff. Those are maybe too-exalted reference points, but Kafka at least didn’t have much of a predecease reputation; it mostly came later, based on the work. Anyway to square the circle, I resolved the check out the game, but only review it if I had positive things to say.
Given that you’re reading this, of course, it’s clear that I did. Lantern is a bit rough, and I must confess I played it almost entirely with the trackpad rather than using its parser, but it’s creative and has some charm. It’s part of the escape-the-room (well, three rooms) mini-genre, with the uncharacterized player character dropped into locked oubliette without explanation and forced to rely on their wits to solve a series of contrived puzzles and break free. To be clear, I’m not harping on the lack of plot or realism as flaws: they’re part of what I expect from this kind of game, and their presence helps to set player expectations accordingly. What departs from the standards of the genre, though, is that while you start out unable to see anything, that isn’t a barrier that’s quickly vanquished by the titular bringer of light: no, you’ve somehow been deprived of your sight, so you need to navigate your way through these brainteasers with your other senses.
This is a conceit that’s actually ideally suited for IF, I think, since depriving the player of sight in a graphics-based game would be perverse and probably lead to significant interface issues. Here, though, it’s just a matter of changing how the world is described to the player, forcing them to feel around rooms to find out what’s there, listen for movement, and lick and smell to identify objects. The author doesn’t make this too taxing a process – and in fact does a nice job of updating the names of objects as you investigate them with your different senses and figure out what they are – but it’s an effective gimmick that works well with the obsessive investigation escape-the-room games typically require.
While the concept works, there are some foibles in implementation. Most obviously, there are a host of typos littering pretty much every description of a room or object, which is fairly distracting, and there are a couple of bugs (one item’s name appears to incorporate fragments of code, and I was able to simply reach through a locked closet without first finding the key). The interface can also be frustrating if you go into Lantern expecting to type your way through it. The game engine appears to be primarily choice-based, with descriptions highlighting certain clickable keywords and ending with a likewise-clickable inventory list that includes your sense organs (you can click an item once to select it, then click it on another to combine them or use a sense; double-clicking does a closer inspection of the thing). The game allows you to type commands as an alternative to using the links, but this implementation means, however, that if you’re examining an object the keywords for the other objects in a room, or those denoting your inventory and senses, usually aren’t displayed. This means that typing TOUCH TABLE, then TOUCH PAPER might fail, whereas the commands would work fine if you tried them in the opposite order. I can see this being hideously frustrating, but I switched to playing exclusively via clicking very early, and found the interface worked just fine that way.
Clicking also makes it easy to exhaust all the different action combinations, which I had to do a couple of times. There’s at least one puzzle here that defies all logic and I can’t imagine a player solving it except by lawnmowering through the possibilities on offer (using the knife on the scratches reading HELL to change it to HELLO, which summons another character to a different room). But again, I kind of expect that from these kinds of games, and the number of potential actions is sufficiently low that it’s not too onerous to power through.
So we’ve got a puzzle game with a fun gimmick, many rough edges, not much plot to speak of, and an interface that can feel like rubbing your face against a cheese grater if you try to play the game the way its entry in something called ParserComp seems to imply you should. I whiled away a pleasant enough half an hour on it, but I can’t say it moved me or made me laugh or clap with delight at its cleverness. So I suppose by some standard it’s no big deal that it’s not online anymore, and wouldn’t even be a big deal if it vanished completely with nobody ever the wiser. I’m not sure I can muster a rigorous rebuttal against that argument, but it still makes me kind of sad – and if that’s where the standard is set, I think a lot more of us than just Sylfir are in trouble. 98% of pretty much everything pretty much every one of us does is imperfect, compromised, wouldn’t stand up to even the flimsiest scrutiny – and oblivion is the destination it’s all hurtling towards. Call me sentimental, but I’m not inclined to hurry the process along.