Okay, so now I’ve had some sleep and got some tea. Which means I can gush more!
Firstly, I’ve wanted to make a Turandot game myself for years! It was one of the first ideas I had after I realized I could write interactive fiction. Then last year Victor Gijsbers revealed in the IFComp author forum that he was working on one too. Well he obviously beat me to the finish line! Now I won’t be able to release one without it looking like I ripped him off! Not that my game has ANY resemblance to this one. (Plus it’s way down my priority list, probably consigned to the dustbin of unfinished projects.)
So yeah, I’ve got a bit of a personal history with Turandot, since I was gonna adapt it. Also I’ve seen the opera. I don’t think it’s necessary AT ALL for players to know the story beforehand to enjoy this game. But I had my own ideas about the plot and characters going into it.
Even if you’re not into opera, tons of people still know “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Here’s a version on Youtube. Maybe the most famous opera song? It’s up there! So powerful! So beautiful! AND FUCKING BLOODTHIRSTY! This is a song being sung by Prince Calaf, who’s overjoyed that an ENTIRE CITY is about to be SLAUGHTERED! 'Cause if the citizens can’t help Turandot discover Calaf’s name by dawn, she’s gonna execute them. But if she doesn’t discover his name, he gets to marry her! So he WANTS the citizens to die, because it means he will win Turandot’s hand. That feeble weak little chorus in the song is the citizens lamenting their fate in the background, which of course the prince then drowns out by BELTING THOSE TUNES! And people listen to this song at the opera and smile and sigh and cry and applaud, and I just wonder what the hell these people are thinking.
But that is the power and horror of this opera. It takes these absolutely monstrous characters, who are playing monstrous games with each other, and makes them BEAUTIFUL.
When I started up this Turandot game, I was prepared to play Calaf as a total asshole, a complete heel, someone so wrapped up in his own lovey-dovey bubble that he’s willing to watch people die if it means he’ll get laid. And the game, indeed, let me play him that way! At the start. But it changes.
It is on rails for the most part, like Nils said. I don’t mind that. You’re going down a gauntlet in a dungeon of death. Of course it’s on rails! If you survive one death-trap, that means you go to the next one, and you’re Turandot’s prisoner. You don’t get to pick where this story is headed. She does.
But there’s a lot of texture in this on-rails gauntlet! Tons of little moment-to-moment choices which, even if they don’t radically alter the plot, definitely shift the tone and pepper in different angles for you to look at the characters. This game is a buffet of ways to use “meaningless choices” to achieve a meaningful impact on the experience!
So like I said, I was playing Calaf as an asshole, and the game was letting me do it. Until his friend dies. That’s when it became apparent to me what this game is really trying to do: it’s not just about the characters in the plot atoning or not atoning for their crimes; it’s about the game atoning for the opera’s “crimes” and trying to find a way to reconcile these characters’ monstrous behavior with the fact that they’re people.
My version of Turandot, I can say, would not have been so sympathetic!
I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t make Calaf brush his friend’s death aside. But I came around. Even if, in the moment of that choice, I felt for the first time that the game was pushing me down a premeditated path, it was ultimately a moment that helped illustrate the game’s purpose. Obviously this is a new interpretation of Turandot: there’s no dungeon or crocodiles in the original; characters like Liù play totally different roles. But THIS is where the game ACTUALLY becomes different. This is why it exists. Not just to retell the story or put it in a new context or look at it from a new perspective, but to re-imagine its core concepts from a more… humanitarian, perhaps, vantage. It doesn’t try to make sense of the horror of the original; it redesigns the original to make the horror make sense on this game’s terms.
Of course it’s not just that ONE moment that does that. Everything in the game does that.
On a more plot-mechanical note, the game also redesigns the opera’s structure to atone for its structural “crimes”! Leading to perhaps the most hilarious moment in the whole thing, when Turandot finally asks her three riddles. This part of the opera, it’s true, has no tension at all! Calaf isn’t gonna die. It’s too early in the story. Of course he gets all the riddles right! Where’s the suspense? So let’s move the riddles to the end, where his death is a more realistic possibility, and let’s allow him to get them wrong! The result? Comedy gold.
Even though the game deals with horrific subject matter, it’s definitely a comedy. That’s another way to atone for the horror. With laughter. It’s also probably easier to parody an opera, than to try to sincerely hit the dramatic highs that opera can achieve. And Turandot is certainly begging to be parodied! I could’ve done without the IF in-jokes (I don’t really connect with humor that involves checking off a box because you get a reference (yes yes andouillettes savoir-faire let’s move on)) but overall this thing is firing on all cylinders in the comedy department.
And Turandot herself! What can I say about Turandot herself? Best Individual NPC at the XYZZY Awards. That’s what I’ll say for now!