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Review by: Sam Kabo Ashwell
Game: Savoir-Faire
By: Emily Short

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Perhaps the hardest trick for any IF author to pull off is melding puzzles into story without doing undue damage to either, while keeping an eye on pacing. Usually authors make a valiant attempt but are forced to err on one side or the other; occasionally a gem crops up. Savoir-Faire is such a gem.

The piece is billed (rather heavily, it must be said, especially on the website) as old-skool, and hey presto, you're ransacking an abandoned mansion for anything of value. The flavour's different from the start, though; since I'm personally more attracted to Rococo-type effects than stuffy Victoriana, the appeal struck me more immediately. (And a good dose of Proust shortly before playing the thing can't have hurt either). As the author points out, there are light source puzzles, coloured-object puzzles, and a lot of the game is spent trying to open doors into new areas. (It does, however, have a nice layout that renders mapmaking more or less redundant). There are about five billion inventory items, all of which fit neatly in one easily-liftable sack. Nonetheless, there's a lot to make it more than this.

It's a fairly large piece, for a start; unusually for Short, it uses a points system, and gives them out sparingly until you hit 125; there are a fairly large number of locations, and it takes a good deal longer to complete than any of her other pieces. I'm always in favour of large and ambitious IF; Short is always ambitious, and it's very good news to see her producing longer work. It largely escapes the usual traps of large pieces: it's consistent, compactly designed, well-written pretty much throughout, and it works first and foremost as a single piece, as opposed to a fractured collection of vaguely related scenes.

Another Dashing Hero! Man, I'm losing count of these -- still, you could probably pick Pierre out from an identity parade. Slightly more ageing than the average, slightly more down-to-earth, and his sense of chivalry needs a little coaxing out before it manifests. And he cares about his stomach a great deal more. There's still more than an inkling of the Princess Bride about it, though (especially in the endgame), though the magic effects are an interesting substitute for armed swashbuckling. Pierre also seems something of a fish out of water; although he does end up performing his more usual role of getting elegant ladies out of (in this case not-so-) elegant fixes, one gets the distinct impression that this kind of predicament, and the way he has to go about solving it, is not really his style. He'd rather be manipulating intrigues somewhere in the corner of Pytho's Mask (an effect underscored by the discomfort caused by lack of food); this rather reflected my own attitude towards puzzle games, where I feel rather insulted that I have to fiddle around with silly little puzzles when I could be doing some good reading.

This is, all in all, very Emily Short: clockwork and magic, affluent Rococo / Enlightenment scenery and pseudo-Continental setting, cheese, acerbic put-downs as parser responses, complex object code and the usual and inimitable tersely elegant turns of phrase. The central contraption in particular felt extremely Metamorphoses-esque; however, Savoir not only outdoes Metamorphoses in terms of scale, but also has a much more widespread and human touch, despite the lack of immediately present NPCs. The motivation changes subtly throughout the piece; initially, it appears to be just an old-skool grab-and-plunder, which then develops a recollection-of-past subtext: so far, so conventional. The nature of these memories adds a definite feeling of guilt to the indiscriminate raiding, though (I looked over my shoulder a couple of times before breaking the seal on the letter), as well as introducing the further motivation of finding out what happened to the house's residents. All this is overlaid by the conventionally old-skool hunger-daemon cliché, but this particular daemon is something of a gourmet: it refuses to eat just any old edibles lying around, instead demanding that they be cooked properly with all the other ingredients first, and punishes you by rhapsodising about elaborately prepared spinach until you feed it. This is indicative of a nice vein of nicely understated satirical humour threading through the piece as general (and very consistent with the French recherché theme): there's something pleasantly ridiculous about an indebted gourmet bewailing his hunger (which he never suffers any real ill effects from) while in possession of some perfectly adequate foodstuffs. Particularly excellent is his refusal to eat cheese until after a main meal; a secondary effect of this is to make the player hop up and down in irritation at the PC. Similarly, the last lousy point.

While there are no NPCs in the strongest sense of the word, in a weaker sense there are a fairly nice backing cast; flashbacks (created by the THINK ABOUT / REMEMBER command that I usually make a point of despising, but here acceptable; I'd have preferred them to be involuntary, but it's a minor point) introduce you to a tersely but nicely described (if verging occasionally toward cliché) set of characters. The protagonist's mother in particular reminded me of some French Revolution-era short story by some author who I can't remember anyway. The benignly patriarchal Count works particularly well; his hand keeps popping out of the past to influence surroundings, rather like the Verlacs in Anchorhead (except that, since he appeared to be quite a likeable character and your PC is indebted to him somewhat, you sort of feel a bit guilty about ransacking his house; this effect becomes even more interesting when you become unsure as to whether you're doing him a favour or an injury by doing so).

When the PC isn't solving life's problems by fiddling with magic, he is mostly lusting after gourmet recipes. This is a game that, on face value at least, is about food. It will not be good for your waistline to play this game; either you'll be continually sneaking off for snacks, or it'll root you to the keyboard until you either starve to death or win. The food makes for an additional hook to the puzzles; everybody's buggered about with keys and string until they're blue in the face, but there are relatively few cooking puzzles. Even though food tends to crop up mainly as ends rather than means, there's something about it whether it's because hunter-gathering is more familiar than burglary for profit, or because few other games use it to such extent, or (most likely) because it fits in perfectly with the story, atmosphere, character and puzzles. It might seem a little ridiculous for a guy whose original aim is to grab anything of value to pay off some debts to start obsessively trying to prepare lentil soup, but this ends up reflecting more on the PC than on any weakness inherent in the game.

Another effect of the food was to make the entire piece feel less sterile and inhuman; even if you've got a backstory and good human motivation throughout a puzzle-like game, you tend to be handling fairly non-aesthetic objects for the majority of puzzles. Both the food and the link ability significantly lessened this, as did the general theme of the setting; the fact that you had to prepare the food and eat it in the right places with the right utensils, as opposed to using it just as a tool to stave off the hunger daemon for a few rounds, not only gave the items as a whole a stronger imaginary effect (that gourmet aesthetic vibe had me visualising every object) but also brings the character nicely into relief. Particularly as the food-producing contraption appears to have played a little too much You Are A Chef!.

I was never hugely fond of big puzzlecentric games, but they had some nice aspects: solving a puzzle is always satisfying, and there's an almost tactile pleasure about having a two-page inventory groaning with Cool Stuff. What's more, the puzzles are generally nicely constructed, not prohibitively complex, and work in reasonable and instinctive ways. The puzzle-solving gimmick- a magic-like power of linking objects- works reasonably instinctively once it's been fiddled about with a bit, and adds a lot to the piece: as a puzzle-solver, it's a lot of fun, and in terms of plot and worldview it works superbly. At times, the puzzles are tricky enough to make you scream, but that's a good part of the fun; in overlarge doses, irritation at puzzles can become a flaw, but if you don't get a certain level of irritation at a puzzle you don't get the same kick upon its completion. Another major flaw with big puzzly games is often that you just plain run out of ideas and inventory; the big inventory, the ability to work on lots of problems at once and the nice handling of puzzles and visualisation of environment makes coming up with new solutions a lot more free-flowing and pleasant.

Perhaps the most objectionable puzzles were those involving the doors in the cellar; thankfully, this sort of puzzle wasn't too prominent. Apart from anything else, they just didn't seem to match the aesthetic; particularly with magenta and cyan, I felt as if I was walking around a printer cartridge sample rather than a French wine cellar. Yes, I know this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek nod to the old school, but without it the game would have stood up both as an old-skool nod and a lot more securely in its own right. Nonetheless, their content as puzzles isn't particularly troublesome; though tricky to work through, there's nothing unfair, misleading or overcomplex about them.

The other thing that puzzles achieve that puzzle-free doesn't is a grip on you. I did virtually nothing but play the game in the one and a half days I took to finish it. A bad or badly placed puzzle will just throw you out of a game; one that's good enough will have you coming back. When I woke up on the second day (having gone to bed at about 4am) the first thing I thought of was potential puzzle solutions. I'm fairly certain I was dreaming about it, too. I haven't done either since Anchorhead. This game does not let you go easily.

Flaws? A few. The endgame is, by its very nature, a little too distant to have the clout it deserves; moreover, once it's reached the very final stages, it becomes one of the most straightforward puzzles in the game. Big climactic puzzles can be overdone (see the ridiculous last puzzle in Heroine), but for dramatic effect the biggest kick should really be just before the game breaks, so that you're still gasping for air when you read the you-win text. I felt that the hardest work was complete around the going-to-sleep point, and after that it was pretty much downhill work, if still tricky. (Maybe this was because I was cooperating heavily by this stage, though, but progress was nonetheless swift). Even so, I realised I was exhausted once I'd finished it. With a little more balance, I'd have been dead. So I can't complain.

Not only this, fact that the simplicity of the final puzzles made them potentially solvable on the first try and in rapid succession could potentially be an advantage; it would be possible to have a frantic, high-speed endgame with three puzzles being solved in rapid succession, with a definite sense of urgency filling in for difficulty and presence; personally, I'd be much in favour of urgency over difficulty, (although by removing presence the game loses its central advantage of immediate tactile effect) but it just happened that on the first play of this I typed Z to see what would happen, and thus shot myself in the foot dramatically speaking; this exposes a frailty of the sequence. Of course, it's easy to play back, but it sort of loses its punch; it seems to have worked in the majority of cases, but it's nonetheless a gamble.

There are plenty of bugs, currently being swept out at incredible rates (in the two-day period it took me to finish, it flew through five release versions) which is only to be expected in a game of this level of size and complexity. Furthermore, making the game unwinnable is relatively easy (and will most likely happen several times in the course of an average playing); irritating, but the price you need to pay for realism... however, neither of these problems are significant enough to majorly detract from the piece. I'm personally quite happy with death-without-warning, though, so don't take my word for it.

And a happy ending. Awww. (Now please kick my ass).

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