Review – Deezlebub

Deezlebub is an ambitious parser-based game that was developed in TADS by three people, two writers and one coder. As many IF developers have learned, conversation is hard to implement, so kudos for using conversation rather than object manipulation to drive the plot along. There are a good number of interlocutors and the topics and responses change as the story progresses.

The story uses ask/tell/show, which requires a lot of work in terms of signaling to the player possible topics on conversation, anticipating branches in conversation, keeping track of the state of earlier replies and so on. This worked pretty well for most of the story, but there were places where it fell apart and I had to dive into the hint system, disrupting the flow of the story. Sometimes I felt like, oh, I should have thought of that, but other times I felt like there was no way I would have arrived at a certain topic of conversation.

Conversely, there are a few points at which the topics are hinted too directly, like “Perhaps Dave would be interested in learning more about the sanctuary or Balthazar. Reginald wonders what it’s like to live in Hell. What are the other demons like? Do they all like cookies?” In these cases, I dutifully lawnmowered my way through the topics, but I did not feel much sense of accomplishment. I think had the entire story used suggested topics, this would have not stood out as much. Despite these criticisms, I do appreciate the effort that went into writing all the dialogue and focusing on interpersonal relations rather than finding the brass key to open the heavy wooden door.

The story flows better at the start and gets rougher towards the end. I think this is because the story is essentially linear with steady pacing up to about 90% of the way through the story, followed by a strong upstroke in action towards the end of the story and resolution. In that last ten percent, there are a couple mutally exclusive choices to be made which determines how the story ends.

It is not unusual for the action to take an upswing at the end of a story or novel, and that pressed pace is welcome, but I found this part of the game difficult to play. Maybe I was just not on the same wavelength as the authors, but I found the conversations and required actions to be unintuitive. I have to wonder if the team that developed this story might have spent more time on the earlier parts, but had to rush towards the more complicated final scenes in the game. If so, perhaps there could be a post-comp release that smooths out the last portion.

I would have preferred less linearity in the first portion of the story, but there is a certain efficiency to it: the writers had a lot to say and we get to see it all. The dialog exchanges are not quite text dumps, but they are unusually long for interactive fiction, requiring multiple taps on the enter key to scroll through. I would have recommended chopping it up a bit more and integrating it with action.

Group projects can be tricky, and while I have collaborating on writing IF, it has always been with someone fluent in coding. I have often drafted an ” ideal transcript” to be able to get ideas on paper without worrying about code, but I am at least aware of which bits will require tricky coding, need more options, require variable text, and so on even when I am just typing a draft in a word processor.

My suspicion is that this game started as a similar document, which was faithfully implemented, but that there may have not been enough iteration (or perhaps time for iteration) between subsequent writing and coding sessions to polish the game. It does seem well edited, which is saying something since there is a lot of text, but depth of implementation is light at points, there are a lot of default responses, and sometimes the game does not keep track of previous actions.

These mechanical complaints aside, the game has a generally lighthearted and fun tone and I found the writing entertaining. The overall situation is not all that humorous, though: the protagonist is a brainwashed flunky in a religious cult headed by a charismatic leader who exploits his followers for profit — strains of Jim Jones, the Unification Church, and fundamentalist campuses.

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in the main character being possessed by a demon from the start, taking an active hand in conjuring demons, and then actively covering up as his new found demon friend possess his roommate. I would have thought this would be alarming, particularly for someone so indoctrinated, but the authors’ choice is to play this mostly for comedy and there are, in fact, some consequences at the end of the game.

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