The Wizard Sniffer, one of the longer parser-based games in this year’s competition, strikes a successful balance between silliness and game play. It checks an impressive number of boxes: Comedy, Fantasy Setting, Castle Venue, Medieval Combat, Monsters, Non-human Protagonist, Multiple NPCs, Magic, and I’m probably leaving some out.
I had a good time playing the game, but if I could offer a bit of advice to anyone who hasn’t played it yet: don’t be uptight about using the built-in clue system. It isn’t a crutch so much as an integral part of the game. One of the reasons my game session ran up against the 2-hour limit was my pig-headedness in not making greater use of this part of this game feature.
[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]
Let me back up. From the picture and blurb, most players will approach the game knowing that a pig plays a central role; in fact, the main character is a pig. This has a few immediate implications. For one, it is hard to see over things. Pigs are short. More importantly, though, your actions are very limited. While you have a running inner monologue that reflects an entertaining cynicism and wit, no one will ever know it because you can’t talk. Nor can you really do much more than carry one item around in your mouth and do the other things a pig can do.
This is my way of sidling up yet again to the topic of limited parser games. I would call the limitation in this game “somewhat limited parser”. The limitation is not so draconian as in TAKE or EAT ME. Yes, the verb “SNIFF” is introduced immediately and takes center stage, but pigs are capable of quite a bit beyond sniffing: getting around, taking things, examining things, and so on. Also, while the game reacts to a shorter list of verbs than most, any reductions on that axis are offset by burgeoning of the number of rooms and NPCs.
What sets this game apart from other limited parser games is the nature of the ensemble cast. From a game mechanics point of view, this game treats NPCs like interchangeable tools. The pig’s capabilities are extended as a function of who is with him, and the author has engineered some clever ways for the pig to have access to the right tool for the right job at any given time. Drawing players towards specific goals is a full time job for the pig. Often, when I began to get frustrated about expected solutions not working, I realized that the problem was not the solution I had in mind, but that I had the wrong partner to get a specific task done.
At the start of the story, the pig had recently been acquired by Ser Leonhart and his Squire, Tuck. Ser Leonhart comes from nobility, ignores facts, and is quick to resort to the sword — perhaps he has a future in politics. On the other hand, Tuck is a quintessentially loyal side kick: all the work, none of the glory, much suffering, and unwavering deference towards his hero. In early scenes, their dialogue put me in mind of Batman and Robin (the campy 1960s TV show version, that is), or in a more modern analogy, the Tick and Arthur. I guess the common thread is camp. There’s also a touch of Don Quixote / Sancho Panza as well. Ser Leonhart certainly is quixotic in his belief that a shape-shifting wizard has taken the Royal Princess and that as a knight, it’s his job to free her. His plan to find the wizard is to have his pig sniff him out. That is the justification for sniffing every object the pig comes across. Particularly in the early game, this is played for comedic effect, as Ser Leonhart sets out to slay every inanimate object that the pig sniffs.
Over the course of the game, this reaction becomes less prominent, which is good firstly because it spares every object in the game from being pulverized, but also because the schtick could get old. Rather, sniffing becomes the means for the player to focus NPCs on an object. Need a door open? Sniff it. Button pushed? Sniff it. Sniffing is the new left-mouse-button.
Of all the NPCs, Tuck undergoes the greatest development in the end, which makes sense narratively, since he was set up from the start as a browbeaten lackey, so he had no where to go but up and everyone is rooting for him. Beyond Ser Leonhart and Tuck, there are a host of other NPCs, a couple of whom carry some significant dialogue and contribute to the pay-offs of a successful ending.
The author made some interesting choices about the way text is displayed. I played the game in the Gargoyle, so maybe it would look different on other platforms, but for me, the room name appeared in the status bar and was not displayed in the flow of text, i.e., when a room description is triggered upon entering a room for the first time or explicitly LOOKing. I can see where it might preferable to avoid chunking up the text that way, and going for more of a text feel. One undesirable side effect, though, was that while it got rid of the room title, it did not get rid of the carriage return after it, so there is an extra blank line in these situations but not after other commands.
The author also disabled the ability of the player to set custom room description, e.g., brief, verbose, etc., presumably so that all players would have the same user experience, or perhaps to be sure that important items were not covered up by abbreviating the room descriptions.
In general, the amount of text between player actions was large. I don’t think this reflects poor editing, it’s just the way the author writes, and I enjoyed it. The long descriptions do slow down the game, but probably less so than interactive elements. It has occurred to me that as parser games trend towards fewer commands and more text, they are on a collision (or at least convergent) course with hypertext and choice-based games.
Play: 8. In a few places, solutions that I thought were reasonable did not work. A lot of potential solutions are put out of consideration by either being out of reach for a pig (too high), or beyond a pig’s abilities, but sometimes these explanations did not make sense (pigs can eat, for example). In a few situations, it did not make sense to me that a solution would work with one partner and not another. In general, play was linear: one goal at a time. I’m not sure if that’s a strength or weakness. With a relatively open map, maybe some goals could have been accomplished faster if not in sequence, on the other hand, that level of complexity could make my brain explode.
Polish: 10. Nuff said.
Technical: 8. In addition to the tweaking of the room text display, there was a lot of shuffling of NPCs and conditionally triggered dialogue and events.
Preliminary Score: 9