One King to Loot Them All, by Onno Brouwer
Once, years ago, I heard the distinction between real-world and video games described thus: real games have rules that discourage certain behaviors, while video games have systems that make specific actions possible at all. That’s not an altogether inaccurate way to define the medium, and it does bring to mind some interesting questions about player agency and whatnot… but as you might expect, it’s a definition that completely fails the moment you remember parser games exist.
Why parser? Why allow the player to type any commands they want, even errors? Wouldn’t it be simpler, easier, and more convenient for everyone if input was limited to only what the player can actually do? The history of these questions is plain to see in the birth and development of the point-and-click adventure genre, and it’s easy to imagine why the developers of these games made the choices they did. Having big, noticeable buttons in the UI that say “LOOK”, “TALK”, etc. is something any game can do, and it immediately solves many of the problems with unconstrained text input — problems that parser developers today still have to contend with.
And yet… there’s something to the parser, isn’t there? To interacting with a text game through the very same medium it’s made of. I wouldn’t know what to call it, but I do know it’s what makes me
look instead of
north instead of
n… and, indeed, this is a strength of the format that One King leverages in expert fashion! Its custom verbs may be, at first glance, mere reskins of Inform’s standard actions, but I still delighted in
looting treasure and
smite-ing my enemies. The aesthetic connotations of these specific words do so much to evoke that sword-and-sorcery vibe that I’d say the game makes a strong case in favor of entirely custom verbsets. (Consolidating
drink, etc. into
loot does that as well, but I digress.)
But still, the hurdles inherent to unconstrained text input remain. I can’t exactly go into a parser game with zero idea of what commands it’ll accept from me, so the Inform defaults are always in the back of my head. My basic expectation that they’ll suffice for a given game might be misplaced, but if that’s the case, how will the game communicate that to me? Most seem to just straight up say “hey, here are the verbs you can use”, either at the start or through a
help command, with One King choosing the latter approach. I guess that’s a perfectly fine way to do it, and it’s undoubtedly the simplest, but… hrrmmm. It irks me a little, right? I can’t help but see it as an awkward, brute-force solution to the issue. Surely there’s a more elegant way to do it…? I can’t think of any, though, and I harbor no illusions someone as inexperienced with IF as me could figure it out.
One King even makes it more difficult for itself by having not just one or two custom verbs, but seven. It makes perfect sense that it does, of course, since it needs to cover every base, but that’s still a few more than what my awful memory is capable of handling. While I did eventually get used to it, I ended up ignoring
treat with (the latter in part for being annoyingly long to type), and also had to ask for
help in the earlygame more often than I would’ve liked. Maybe it’d be possible to list the verbs in the game’s header? I know I complained about the bluntness of
help only a paragraph ago, but the list of exits from the current room was both unobtrusive and extremely handy, so something similar for the actions would be nice.
Well, in the end, I can hardly fault the game for stumbling here; it’s simply the case that these problems are inextricable from the selfsame strengths its interactivity displays. And hey, it’s still an excellent game in every other regard! I don’t even care for sword-and-sorcery fiction, and I had a blast with it. The writing itself, linear structure, and my eventual realization that the custom verbs are the only ones I needed to use — it all comes together to create an experience that never lets up its momentum, remaining engaging throughout its entire runtime.
And speaking of verbs, I’d be loathe to not mention what is easily One King’s greatest success, technically and narratively:
undo. Honestly, I can’t begin to fathom the amount of work that must’ve gone into making it undo multiple actions at once and describe them in reverse as they’re undone. This alone would be enough to make One King a great example of the form — so that it then goes on to reveal, in a stroke of genius, that the
undoing is diegetic truly boggles my mind. If the game has a weakness, it is surely how that moment made me long for an adventure far grander and more epic than it could’ve possibly depicted… but that’s a good problem to have, right? I’d rather have too little of a good thing than too much.
All in all, an impressive debut work. To the author, I say: thank you for the wonderful game! I’ll be looking forward to your future endeavors with anticipation.
Um, no pressure.