Here’s the last of my three orphaned Xyzzymposium articles, about the nominees for Best Individual NPC in 2017. This time, it’s The Wizard Sniffer.
As ever, this post is full of spoilers!
SQUIRE TUCK: THE WIZARD SNIFFER, BY BUSTER HUDSON
Although it placed first in the 2017 IFComp, I only played The Wizard Sniffer for the first time for this Xyzzymposium. As I was getting into it, I found myself thinking about its whole cast of characters. Here is Elaine, a self-declared “evil puzzlemaster” constantly disappointed by heroes circumventing her brainteasers; Tristain, her grandson who would rather be a drag queen than a villain; and an “unnameable horror” called Petunia. And the character that is nominated for, and wins, the XYZZY Individual NPC award, is: Squire Tuck – one of those likeable-but-plain underdog characters that are quite often the hero of parser-based interactive fiction. Sidekick to the meat-headed Ser Leonhart, it seems clear that Squire Tuck will be the one to actually save the day, win the heart of the princess etc. etc.
Well, I thought, sometimes you don’t need a complex or striking character. You just need one that people will like.
And I was wrong.
Squire Tuck’s characterisation is subtle, certainly, but also nuanced and surprisingly deep. And the fact that I didn’t realise this at first is entirely in keeping with the game’s focus on identity – especially those identities that others try to impose upon us.
We’re introduced to Squire Tuck almost right away, although fittingly he turns up after losing the limelight of the first two paragraphs to Ser Leonhart:
Ser Leonhart, the bravest knight in all the land, points his sword at the fortress before him. Lightning strikes in the distance, illuminating the battlements below impatient clouds. A light rain begins to fall.
“Behold, the Impenetrable Keep,” he says. “At long last, I shall slay the evil shapeshifting wizard, rescue the princess and return peace to our fair kingdom.”
The young Squire Tuck clambers up the last stretch of steep mountain path. “Golly… milord,” he says, struggling to catch his breath. “Must we go in there?”
This characterisation of Tuck, as Ser Leonhart’s faithful but rather wimpy sidekick is kept up through perhaps the first half of the game. “Tuck practices appearing inconsequential,” we are told at one point, “and as it turns out, he is a natural.”
Tuck is of the “follow you around reacting to your actions” mould of NPC – one of several in this game, including Ser Leonhart and the aforementioned Petunia. The “you” in this case is The Wizard Sniffer of the title: a pig that Ser Leonhart has been conned into believing will be able to detect evil wizards, even when they have shapeshifted into another form. It becomes apparent early on (without being spelled out) that this pig is in fact the princess that Leonhart and Tuck are trying to rescue – and she is actually a satisfyingly well-developed character herself.
The princess has already managed to escape, you see, defeating Elaine’s complex puzzles before the game has even started, then running into some trouble that resulted in almost every denizen of the wizard’s castle being shapeshifted into some other form, including herself.
Now that she’s a pig, the princess can only move around, pick items up in her mouth, sniff things, and oink. This is a nice setup for an approachable parser game where we explore the castle and sniff things to attract the attention of whatever NPCs are following us. Those NPCs then react to the items as their character dictates. For example, Ser Leonhart, having purchased this pig as a “wizard sniffer” generally reacts to the princess sniffing something by attacking it for being the evil wizard in disguise. Once things are properly underway, both Tuck and Ser Leonhart subtly shift, without perhaps wanting to admit it, into realising that this pig is pointing them in the right direction in more ways than just leading them towards the wizard. Tuck, in particular, reacts to the pig sniffing something by examining it or trying to use it in some way. For example, while Ser Leonhart is threatened by a raging fire:
You sniff the fountain and then the pail. It takes a moment for the idea to settle in.
“Oh, water!” Tuck exclaims. He scoops up the water, filling the pail to the top.
Meanwhile, even quite late in the game, Ser Leonhart often still sees the pig as simply what he paid for:
You sniff the vending machine, and Ser Leonhart levels his sword at it.
“So, evil wizard, you have taken the form of this contraption to try and confuse me.”
Tuck’s kind treatment of the player character makes him likeable, and his reactions to the limited set of actions afforded to the porcine PC are thoroughly implemented and often entertaining.
Our first hints of there being something more to this character come in the form of a few surprising comments regarding heroics and adventuring:
“Milord, if I may ask, have you always wanted to be a hero?”
The knight blinks in confusion. “Of course! Why would I not?”
But Tuck offers no reply.
Typically with this kind of character, their arc ends with them becoming the hero they always wanted to be. They find the confidence to believe in themselves, or realise that they can use brains where they lack brawn, or even just convince the people around them to take them seriously.
But when Tuck does get the opportunity to be more heroic, he doesn’t even try to seize it. The castle goblins mistake him for one of their number who’s been shapeshifted into human form and Tuck decides to just go along with their instructions:
“I will never make a good hero. Not even a passable hero. I will stir as asked and allow Ser Leonhart to save the day,” says Tuck reassuringly to himself. “Yes, that is for the best.”
Tuck takes to being a goblin as he seems to have taken to being a squire: doing as he’s told and keeping his head down. Part of this seems to be rock bottom self-esteem, but part also seems to be that Tuck just doesn’t want to be a hero.
We only start to see some dynamism from Tuck when he first meets Tristain – who has disguised himself as the princess (the princess that is actually the wizard sniffing pig – I hope you’re still following) so that Ser Leonhart and Tuck will rescue him from his unhappy home.
The moment Tristain sees Tuck, he forgets his disguise. His voice drops an octave. “Hi,” he says.
Tuck is equally transfixed. “Hi, uh, miss,” he says.
There’s clearly some kind of spark between these two characters, but their outer identities get in the way. Take this fine mix up, after Tristain implies that Tuck should find a wife:
[Tristain] leans into Tuck, who abruptly jumps to his feet and stumbles backwards.
“Er, thank you very much, Your Highness, but, uh, I have no interest in finding a wife. Wait - I did not mean that you could not - I mean, I’m sure that wives are wonderful, but not for me.” He takes a deep breath to calm his nerves. “My apologies, Your Highness. Ser Leonhart warned me not to reveal this to anyone, as not wanting a wife is an offence to the common good. I hope to have not offended you.”
The Wizard Sniffer’s final act kicks off when Tristain, distraught at finding out that his father intended to marry him off to the princess purely for money, finally reveals his identity to Ser Leonhart and Tuck.
Ser Leonhart reacts about as you’d expect, waving his sword around and making accusations. At this point, seeing his new friend threatened – someone who seems interested in him for who he really is – Tuck finally locates his spine, blocking Ser Leonhart’s blade and speaking up in Tristain’s defence.
“Yes, he spoke falsehoods, but should we open our ears and listen, we may find reason in them. We must not pass judgement so quickly,” Tuck pleads.
There are probably a few different ways you could interpret this, but I can definitely see what reason Tuck - until now so crushed by the social constructs of manliness and heroism - might see in the words of someone who has unapologetically discarded traditional masculinity.
Ser Leonhart, unfortunately, is unconvinced.
Ser Leonhart shakes his head to throw the obtrusive thoughts away. “Your words are a gentle breeze, unable to bring down the sturdy stone wall of tradition. It is with a heavy heart that I release you from my service and brand you a traitor to the crown. Prepare yourself!”
Ultimately, with a little help from a certain pig, Tuck and Tristain team up to overcome Ser Leonhart, and:
Tristain immediately throws his arms around Tuck and plants a kiss on his lips, but when Tuck pulls away, the young lord covers his face with his hands in shame. “My apologies! I… I misread the situation. I only hoped to show you gratitude for saving my life, and you had said earlier that – oh, never mind. I truly am sorry.”
Tuck shakes his head to put the other at ease. “Please, fret not over this,” he says, then he lowers his voice. “Sometimes I worry Cupido sings not for me. But…” He gathers his courage, the courage of a different sort than when facing an enemy on a battlefield. He holds out his hand. “Let us first be friends, if you would have me.”
This last little bit solidifies our three heroes – Tuck, Tristain and the princess pig – as the three people who refuse to impose identities on others. Tristain sure hoped Tuck was into him in that way, but maybe it’s not the case. It doesn’t upset him though – Tuck is who he is, and Tristain knows better than anyone not to try and change that.
This revelation also probably involves some players in the game’s theme – when I first read that Tuck didn’t want a wife, I certainly took that as an indication that he was gay, but I don’t get to impose on Tuck’s identity any more than anyone else does. (The author wrote Tuck as asexual.)
For the conclusion of the story, Squire Tuck does not rescue the princess (she rescues herself), he does not win the princess’ heart (although he wins someone else’s) and he does not save the day (as the story closes, Ser Leonhart is still battling the evil villain). All of my expectations about Tuck and where his character would go have been thwarted – which is not just an enjoyable surprise, but also in keeping with the core theme of the entire experience.
Like Anja in Known Unknowns and the narrator in Eat Me, Tuck demonstrates an author with enough confidence in their chosen form of interactivity – and their ability to implement it effectively – that they are able to use it as a vehicle to convey a three dimensional character with a strong voice. This double-barrelled blast of programming and writing creates memorable, vibrant characters, who feel alive while still conveying themes, plot and all that good stuff. Tuck is a worthy winner, among a very worthy stable of nominees.