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Short and Unpretentious
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Doomed Xycanthus
By: Eric Mayer

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Ordinarily, I can't play Adrift games: I lack easy access to a Windows machine (or at least one on which I can install things at will). The other day, however, I was at Dan Shiovitz's house, and we decided to try Eric Mayer's Doomed Xycanthus. Since this is the first Adrift game I have ever played, so I am not sure how much of my criticism applies to the system as a whole and how much to the game. I tried to be fair and flag items that might be the fault of the system as a whole, but if I miss the boat, apologies in advance.

Eric Mayer's Doomed Xycanthus plays with one of the standard sources of IF atmosphere: a ruined city with a mysterious secret. This is not in itself necessarily a recipe for cliched writing and game-play; as in many other cases, what the author adds to the trope is more important than the repetitive nature of the trope itself. Mayer has dressed up his setting with a number of interesting touches, hinting at a peculiar lost religion and a decadent, wealthy society.

Unfortunately for the player, the world-building is in fact fairly slight and shallow. Some of the problem is simply depth of implementation: there are only a handful of rooms devoted to the ruined city (far fewer than are given to the forest surrounding it); each of these contains only a few objects -- several bits of examinable scenery, and perhaps one item that may be taken. Moreover, the information that you can glean from these items all point to the same basic two or three facts: this was a decadent society with a weird religion. You find more information to reinforce that point, but very little to adumbrate any greater nuance or complexity.

So as a world in which to wander around, this one leaves something to be desired. Of the weird things that one may find, there is often very little underlying logic, little to explain why or how the things got that way. Other than the oft-invoked rule that strange religions always leave behind strange machinery and artifacts, that is.

The game play is also somewhat deficient. One spends the first half of the game wandering around a not-very-interesting forest. There are various scenery objects in the forest, but there's not much there by way of plot. More frustratingly, there is an assortment of random-death rooms. Some of these are more or less signaled in advance, if you happen to have noticed the hints; others are as far as I can tell not signaled at all. It is a truth universally acknowledged that game-ending sudden-death traps, unprovided with warnings in advance, that befall you just because you happen to explore a certain direction, are Bad Game Design. But I find that I resent this all the more in the context of Adrift, where you cannot undo a game-ending move. Instead you're forced to restart and then after the restart restore a save. Arrgh. One of these unfair sudden deaths remarks self-consciously that there was perhaps not enough warning. Well, how cute. I'm sorry; it still doesn't excuse doing that in the first place. So, like, don't.

Puzzles. There are some, and they are rather unintuitive. Or rather: one of them is easy if you've got the right information (but there's nothing obvious to tell you where that information would be if you happen not to have run across it), and one of them was impossible without hints. (Another irritation, possibly the effect of Adrift as well, is that the game chides you for asking for hints in the first place. I suppose this is appropriate to the Old Skool of game design in which the parser is allowed to snark at the player extensively for his lack of playing cleverness, but I find more and more that problems with puzzles are often at least as much the author's fault as they are mine, and consequently the snarky parser just seems to add insult to injury.) Nor do any of the puzzles seem to anticipate reasonable but incorrect attempts to solve them, so that the player can try a number of apparently perfectly intelligent actions with no real feedback about what is going wrong, or where to go from there.

There were some surface flaws as well. Descriptions did not always change after events that should certainly have affected them; a door is described as locked after you have already opened it, for instance. There is a bug that has to do with the map - and again, I'm not sure whether this is Mayer's fault or Adrift's - such that when you click on a certain location the game refuses to take you there or even, apparently, to recognize that location. Everywhere else generates a nifty auto-go command, which is certainly convenient - except when Adrift's shortest-path-finding routine takes you through rooms that you have not yet visited, so you find the prose whipping by without a chance to examine it. This is irritating.

The game could use a careful spell-checking. The tone of the writing is also a bit peculiar: there are bits of humor embedded in the horrific, breaking the mood a bit. In spots the writing is also an odd combination of the excessive and the banal, remarking chattily and casually about eyes that glow red with hatred and creatures that scuttle in the dark. The descriptive passages are sometimes more clever than specific. Mayer hauls out the big-time vocabulary ("lambent light," eg), but the resulting descriptions are often confusing rather than evocative. Several times during the play session I was left blinking at the room description, trying to figure out the geography of the territory, because it seemed not to be what I had assumed from the previous descriptions.

Despite its deficiencies, however, this game is not without its points. It's an unambitious, unpretentious piece that can be enjoyed in a fairly short play session. Some of the backstory is intriguing, though I would have liked to know a bit more about it - here, having the world-building better fleshed out would have been nice. On the whole, I found that I enjoyed it most if I approached it on its own terms, rather than expecting the same sort of experience I expect from a full-length game in one of the major IF languages.

Additional comments by Dan Shiovitz:

I played through this with Emily, so I feel obliged to add a few comments to what she's already said. I agree that the game is in many ways shallow and somewhat roughly-written; it would have benefited both from proof-reading and from adjusting several aspects of the gameplay. On the other hand, having just played through all the games from the '01 IF Competition, it was easy to see this game had a, hmm, fundamental spark of originality that most of those games lacked. This was partly aided by the game's smallness and incomplete development; had it been more fleshed out it may have been that my imagination wouldn't have had as much room to fill in good bits as it did here. But still, there's something fundamentally right about a lost city in the midst of a mysterious forest and this game does that well; there are weird beasts and skeletal toes scattered around outside, and a creepy civilization inside.

The quality of realness is, more or less, that a thing which has it feels as though it exists independently from the game which describes it, as though when you turn off the game, *it keeps going*. Maybe it's just, again, the smallness of Doomed Xycanthus that gives it that quality, and I'm filling in the rest of the world myself. But for me there were enough hints of an extended city and peopled world beyond to make this real. Having just finished playing through the comp games, as I said, I realize again how rare and valuable this quality is. I can't completely recommend Mayer's game, what with the aforementioned problems with game design and writing. But it's worth playing if only to try and see how a small game gets something fundamental right.

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