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Gunther Upon Avon
Review by: Gunther Schmidl
Game: Avon
By: Jonathan Partington

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You are standing on a flat plain. From here it seems that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances to the north, south, east and west.

This is the description of the first room of Avon, one of the now (in)famous games published by Topologika Software and originally written by Jonathan Partington. The reviewed release was published in 1989 and contains a hint system and supports the 'examine' verb, unlike earlier games and releases by the same authors (and others of the so-called Phoenix group), a fact that caused much controversy on the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups.

What starts out as a normal trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, world-famous as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, quickly transports you into a world populated with characters, plots and puzzles from The Bard's plays. Partington mentions that it's not necessary to recognize the Shakespearian references in order to play the game, and while this is true, it is my opinion that the game can't be properly enjoyed without at least passing familiarity to (again) at least Shakespeare's more famous plays. Indeed, references abound, from Titus Andronicus to Macbeth via (the, at least to me, completely unknown) Cymbeline.

One interesting feature of Avon is that the adventure takes place on three different dates. January 6th covers, amongst others, events from Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale; March 15 covers, naturally, Julius Caesar and others; and finally, June 24 plays out events from A Midsummer Night's Dream etc.

As is to be expected from a game written in that period, it contains several puzzles that will be seen as unfair by people who have gotten used to "winnable" interactive fiction games. For example, the Three Witches from Macbeth offer the player the choice of one of three objects on each date; only the correct item will get you through that part, and there is no clue whatsoever (as the choice takes place within the first two or three moves) which object to choose (of course, it's easy on the third day). To be fair, you'll find out fairly quickly when you've chosen the wrong object on the first evening, but there's a number of puzzles that can only be solved on one specific date, or need to be solved over the course of several dates, and since the player can't go back, it's Restart Time.

For amusement, I offer this tidbit from the walkthrough written by the author himself:

It is important not to save between getting the word and opening the caskets: we "spoil" saves in order to prevent trial and error solutions!
I haven't tried whether that is the case in the Topologika release, but it does give an insight into the state of mind of adventure authors in the early period (and was, of course, another controversial fact discussed on the IF newsgroups).

Another thing that may now seem strange to players is the handling of containers; there's a basket in the game, and if you open it, the game asks you whether you're holding something that you want to put inside. If you answer yes, you get to type in the name of the object and are asked again. If no, you're asked whether you want to get into the basket before the game resumes normal command entry.

And yes, there's a maze in the game. However, it's very, very, very obviously clued and very short. And there's another one that isn't really a maze at all, either. And there's a third one, which isn't really a maze either, it's just annoying and requires some mapping.

While playing Avon, it's very important to pay attention to what the diverse NPCs have to say. Of course, you can't expect anything near the quality of more recent games -- the NPCs are there as obstacles or puzzle hints. An example of this:

:kiss statue

O! she's warm. If this be magic, let it be an act lawful as eating. You perceive that she stirs. 'Tis the lady Hermione, long supposed dead. She drops a necklace of diamonds at your feet and then she leaves.

(If this were a certain other game, you could of course engage in endless discussions with the statue... but, hey, diamond necklace!)

A nice touch about the game is that it does not take murder lightly -- you have to kill to advance the plot, but it leads to events similar to those in Macbeth, including a puzzle that involves getting that damn spot out (and I very much hope the solution isn't a very bad pun).

Another thing I like in this game is the writing. It's kind of jarring to see typical text adventure messages and commands interspersed with the Shakespearian prose masterfully used by Partington, but it's somehow strangely compelling -- it Works, and that's the important thing.

Of the Topologika games out there, Avon is definitely one of the easier ones. Don't, however, expect an intricate plot or story; Avon is, at its heart, a collection of puzzles written by an University professor for a group of University students and therefore the story is "you're trapped in this strange world; try and escape while enjoying the tons of Shakespeare references" -- but due to its nature it's great fun to play, and the lack of hideously devious puzzles helps, too.

Jonathan Partington is still around; his webpage, at http://www.amsta.leeds.ac.uk/~pmt6jrp/personal/jrp1.html has links to two essays that talk about game puzzle design which are very much worth reading (but contain spoilers for other games by the same author).

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