- How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title
As I said above: fantastic title! The descriptive Victorian vibe (“Chapter four; In which poor William loses his Copper Penny to a shaggy Dog”) lured me in right away. Add to that the name “Prince Quisborne” and I was sold.
First I’d like to draw the attention to the heaped spoonful of ease-of-play features and attention to detail in the technical presentation of the game.
-In modern times, one does not come across the VERBOSE and BRIEF options often anymore. In fact, when I play an older game and I see this mentioned in the ABOUT text, it’s always with a feeling of pleasant nostalgia. Prince Quisborne not only re-introduces these options, but goes one further: the first time you enter a room, you get the full description. After that, you get the brief description, to avoid big blocks of already-read text each time you pass through a familiar room. But… Every once in a while the game will print the full description again, as to remind the player to stay in the moment, to not start mechanically running to and fro. On top of this default, the player can still toggle between BRIEF and VERBOSE, or choose to see the complete description with FULL LOOK (FL).
-Likewise, there are a number of options to change the default visual presentation of the text. Some are purely aesthetical, like changing the decorative borders. More practical is the TRADITIONAL setting which works smoother with screen readers.
-A very welcome toggle switch in the game was the option to turn off the list of EXITS in the status bar. I find it distracting and I much prefer to scan the text for pathways and passages myself. Add to that the fact that the game warns the player that the list of exits may not be complete because some paths could be hidden, and I quickly decided to let my own brain do the navigational and trailfinding work.
Of all the bells and whistles, my favourite has to be the hand-drawn MAP. It’s nowhere near detailed enough to guide you through the nooks and crannies of the game, you’ll have to resort to good old pen and paper for that. Instead, it gives a bird’s eye view of the game-world and the surrounding lands, complete with little mountain ranges, rivers and magical forests. The towns and villages have quirky Pratchettian names like Iftspoon, Brokethimble, and Cobblecork, or other such designations reminiscent of an abandoned and forgotten part of the old English countryside. This kind of thing makes my imagination run wild with anticipation.
Of course, all the wax and make-up in the world wouldn’t make up for shoddy implementation, lame writing, or overall crooked game design. So let’s dive into the game proper.
The King is at his wit’s end. His son is nearing adulthood, and as the heir to the throne he’s expected to have at least a modicum of royal and knightly virtues. Or barring that, be able to stand up and wipe his own bum. In short, be a man.
But Prince Quisborne is, in his father’s eyes, a failure on all accounts. Which is why he is entrusted to you, Ser Valkyrian, Knight of the Realm. The King has all but begged you to take his son and make a man out of him.
But first you need to pick up the King’s prize batch of rutabagas and deliver them to the Great Festival…
In the precisely Comp-sized prologue (I finished it with bare minutes to spare), the player gets to know the characters and the setting, and has the chance to strectch those brain-muscles in a few warm-up exercises.
—Puzzlewise, the prologue consists of a puzzle-chain in search of a key. A collection of easy and traditional puzzles which serve to draw the player in and have some fun while getting acquainted with the game.
“Easy and traditional” in no way means boring, though. As I wrote to the author:
Nevermind the dry-goods basic puzzles in the beginning. I like the feeling of coming home in a well-known world with its familiar traditions. It’s a great starting place to then reach out to more dangerous and complicated lands. Starting with the classic puzzles is the adventure game equivalent of LotR beginning in the Shire.
When handled with care, the basic staple of adventure puzzles can still be fun and engaging, especially when there is a small twist or two to them, as is the case in this prologue.
—For this to work, a lot depends on the quality of the implementation. And Prince Quisborne more than delivers. There’s a wide range of synonyms for nouns and verbs, giving the player the opportunity to interact with the story freely and smoothly, without having to stop and rephrase commands on a regular basis. A lot of scenery and backdrop is accounted for in the descriptions, important objects are easily handled, doors and keys and such work without hassle.
Even with careful implementation, there are going to be instances where the player types a command that just isn’t recognised, of course. Whereas many games would respond with a variation on “You can’t do that,” or in the case of older games the player would get an insulting response, here the parser has its own distinctive voice. An unaccounted-for command is met with a polite yet distanced response in the first person plural.
We must apologize for our lack of omniscience, but we are not able to process the verb or verb phrase you’re trying to use.
—Looking back at my own crookedly drawn map, I’m surprised to see so few of the crude rectangles that designate locations. While playing, the game felt so much bigger.
A lot has to do with the fact that the central location of this prologue (we must remember that I’m still only talking about the two-hour prologue here), is cleverly subdivided into a number of rooms and places. The palisaded bailey yard where most of the game takes place could conceivably feel claustrophobic, oppressive. Instead the range of interior locations lends breathing space, and the presence of an elevated motte (a man-made hill to build your tower on) offers a wider view of the surrounding land on the other side of the palisade.
Also, you enter the bailey yard from the main road, as part of your bigger travels from the castle to the Festival grounds. This connects the main location of the game to the bigger outside world. Instead of being dropped in a room full of obstacles, there’s always the sense that you’re passing through here, doing an errand on your way to a greater goal.
—There are a few strong authorial choices in How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title.
It’s primarily an adventure story, interspersed with puzzles. There’s an introductory sequence several pages long, the descriptions are elaborate and detailed, movement between locations gets its own short text…
Prince Quisborne unapologetically shakes off the style of sparsity and restraint so common in text adventures, originally inspired by memory-limit necessity. Instead it revels in the near unlimited space and freedom the modern development system has to offer.
This gives free rein to the narrator of the story, a distinctive voice to guide us on our quest for rutabagas.
—Through this narrative voice, the author writes a loving pastiche of classic pseudo-medieval knightly adventure stories, often tongue-in-cheek, gently prodding fun of the conventions of this honourable literary tradition, evidently aware of the tropes he’s utilising and twisting around.
But hold! While Prince Quisborne may have the appearance of a classic adventure on the surface, there are deeper layers to discover.
At the heart of this work is a more intimate coming-of-age story, that of a sheltered teenage boy coming into his own and realising his personality through the confrontation with the outside world. Even in the short (compared to the full game) prologue I have played, it already became apparent that there was a real evolution of the character of Prince Quisborne.
To make this more apparent, we have to take a closer look at the relations between the characters.
As mentioned above, our dear Prince Feckless from the title is not the player character in this game. The PC, the puppet at the command of the player is instead the knight who has taken the prince under his care. Knight Valkyrian is a lightly characterised personage, not quite the featureless AFGNCAAP of old, but vague enough to be a good fit for the player to inhabit.
Prince Quisborne the Feckless is, however, the true protagonist of the story. It is his tale of growth, his character development that stands at the center of the narrative.
Parser-based interactive fiction is a difficult medium for telling a story of development and personal growth. Even fully rounded, more deeply characterised player characters mostly keep their personalities during the course of the game.
The distinction between Ser Valkyrian as PC on one side and Prince Quisborne as protagonist on the other offers the player some distance to observe the unfolding tale of the main character from the front row, and even influence it, while the author has more liberty from player interference to lead the main character along his own path.
And this is the intimate, emotionally touching core of the story:
Underneath the silly antics and bumbling cluelessness that Prince Quisborne exhibits, there is a lonely sheltered boy. He has grown up in a big castle with no real friends and no chance to experience life. Now, finally, he is given room to spread his wings and… well, maybe not fly, but at least flutter around bumping into trees and getting tangled in vines under his own power.