Monday, October 9, 2017

Thaumistry: design ruminations

When I mentioned to my friends that I'd finished playing Thaumistry, the first thing they asked was: "Is it old-school?" What a delightfully multivariate question! The answer is "yes and no", of course, but let's not drop it there.
Bob Bates is old-school, because he wrote for Infocom. But he's at the tail-end of Infocom's history: Sherlock and Arthur were two of the final titles in the Infocom canon, as the company tried to push forward into audio and graphics. So in that sense, he's modern. And Bates is better known for his work on the graphical adventures of Legend Entertainment. That was "modern IF" in the 1990s, but it's pretty old-school today, isn't it?
Thaumistry was published with Kickstarter support, and there's not much more modern than a Kickstarter game. Someone will say "how about a game that avoided Kickstarter because that bubble has burst," but let's not be cynical. I like to point out that Hadean Lands got 700 backers and $31000 in 2010, whereas Thaumistry got 1000 backers and $35000 in 2017. That makes the Kickstarter audience for parser IF look awfully stable, doesn't it? But my very rough comparison of the backer lists doesn't convince me that they're the same crowd. The lists overlap some, but they're not primarily the same group.
I don't know what the moral of that is. I backed the Thaumistry KS, in case you're wondering.
What I'll say is that even though Bates is a generation older than me, Thaumistry was constructed within the context of modern IF. I recognized many of the names who tested the game and helped develop the app. I was around when Bates asked coding questions on the intfiction forum. He used TADS 3; he took advantage of a modern parser. The game lays down prose as needed, free of that 1980s sense that every word is a precious commodity. (Or the late-1970s sense that every letter is! Ah, Scott Adams.) It understands that X is short for EXAMINE. It lets you UNDO three whole times in a row.
The game adheres to that principle (more modern than Infocom, but older than Myst!) that the player should not have to worry about getting stuck in a corner and needing to start over. There is one spot where you can die but it's heavily signposted. ("Now might be a good time to save your game," the game says. Even if you don't, UNDO has you covered.) It also supports autosave, which is absolutely necessary for any modern game -- not just IF!
And yet, with all this, Thaumistry feels... old-school. Not the implementation (solid) or the puzzles (reasonable) or the writing (energetic, usually funny). It's about the way the protagonist is presented. Or not presented.
Here's the opening paragraph of the game, after a grim letter from your boss:
You crumple up the letter in your fist. There it is in a nutshell. Your name has "marquee value" and you were once on the cover of Invent magazine, yet you believe you are a failure, and now the IncuLab people obviously agree. You feel like an imposter, alone and isolated, a man without a tribe.
Character sketch, right? EXAMINE ME gives you a similar cast: "...someone full of self-doubt. Bewildered."
But these are just about the only statements you'll ever get about how you feel. The opening scene opens up a world of mystery, magic, and subterranean secret lairs, and you just... observe them. Are you fascinated by magic? Frightened? The game doesn't care. I had to re-read paragraphs to figure out that magic is a secret in this world, something that the protagonist discovers at the same time as you do. You never once react to it.
I don't mean that you're passive. You engage in conversation. You interact:
You hop onto the table and burrow your face into that weird doughnut-shaped opening at the end. The masseur starts you off with a rapid series of painful karate chops to your back. He walks up and down your spine, setting off a string of popping sounds like Chinese firecrackers. Then he starts digging his elbow deep into your muscles until you finally cry "Uncle" and stagger off the table, feeling as if you’ve just been mugged. The masseur beams at you with unconcealed pride.
But outside the turn-by-turn flow of events, you have no opinion about the story. This lack of protagonism goes beyond the ageless/faceless/genderless/etc trope we all remember. I'm talking about the positioning of the protagonist -- how they relate to the world they inhabit. We're used to that orientation. Thaumistry doesn't have it.
The gap feels strange until you remember how the Infocom games were written. Here's your first good view of the alien ship in Starcross (1982):
Time passes as you journey towards your destination.
Filling space before you is an enormous artifact, more than 5 km long and about a kilometer in diameter. Regularly spaced around its waist are bumps and other odd protrusions. You cannot see the aft end but the fore end sports a glass or crystal dome almost 100 meters across.
There is a brief burn as the ship matches course with the artifact. You are hanging in space about half a kilometer away from the waist of the object. The Starcross's engines shut down. The computer speaks: "Program completed. We are being scanned by low level radiation. Awaiting instructions."
And you are... mildly curious? Awe-smitten? Terrified? Again, the game doesn't say. You get the facts, is all.
If it's not too horn-tooty, I'll quote an analogous scene from Hadean Lands (2014):
The canyon zig-zags down to the southwest. To the southeast, it slopes more gradually, opening onto another dusty plain. A twisted metal shape is visible across the plain, but you cannot tell what it is.
You continue down out of the crags. The shape grows as you approach, becoming a twisted metal hill by the time you reach its foot.
Hadean Land, at Wreck
You stand at the foot of a wall of metal. It's not a simple construction; it leans inward here, outward there, tracing an irregular shape that looms over the dusty plain. Perhaps it's broken, for debris is scattered around.
A hexagonal outline on the wall, to the east, might be a door. If so, it is closed.
This text doesn't do a lot of character work, but I tried to convey that the wreck is mysterious. You see it from a point of view. You don't know how to interpret what you see, and therefore you must make hesitant guesses.
To be fair, I don't say that you're curious or terrified or in any other emotional state. But then, this is late in the game and your life has got pretty weird already.
Thaumistry tries to set you up with a character. You begin as that frustrated inventor, and there's a classic end-game choice about what kind of life you want. (Old-school!) But that isn't the game's natural register. In between those bookends, it takes for granted that you're there to solve puzzles.
So the puzzles? Like I said, reasonable. A bit loosely constructed, perhaps. Items, spells, and machines tend to be single-use. Some spells can be applied in a couple of ways, but you rarely have the sense of a dense puzzle world -- a world where anything might be applicable to anything else, with interesting results to explore. That isn't how Thaumistry is built.
Instead, you have a world where any given description might be a clue. Interesting interactions are subtle and rare. You have to keep your eyes peeled for them. It works differently from Hadean Lands or Counterfeit Monkey, but it does work. It's an economy of attention rather than experimentation. When you notice a connection or a relevant attribute, you feel smart! And then you know what to do, because that's the easy part.
The down side is that experimentation is rarely rewarding. Wacky results are usually the hallmark of spell-system IF; but not in this case.
On the other hand, overly ambitious spell mechanics can lead to wacky bugs. Thaumistry tidily avoids that trap; the implementation is solid all the way through. Trust the beta-testers; they did a good job.
There are many NPCs, briefly but distinctively thumbnailed, and you have to interact with them quite a bit. The game does a good job of getting you accustomed to chatting with everyone -- TALK TO and ASK ABOUT, plus a bit of magical memory-probing -- so that the NPCs can carry their share of the plot. When you reach story elements which require talking to people, it flows naturally rather than being a puzzle to get stuck on.
The game has a hint system. It also has a sort of pre-hint system; the RECALL command shows you a list of the puzzles you're currently stuck on, and the locations you might want to return to in order to get unstuck. This is subtle enough not to feel like spoilers, since it (deliberately, I think) blurs the distinction between areas where you've recently made progress and areas where there's progress to be made next. I recommend liberal use of RECALL even if you're the hint-avoidant type. With it, I finished the game in two evenings and with only a couple of uses of the (dynamic, exhaustive) HINT command.
So Thaumistry is a pretty good, medium-sized, parser-based puzzle-centric text adventure. It is not tremendously innovative, except perhaps for the depth of the RECALL goal-tracking system.
...And now I've written a luke-warm review. I feel bad about this! I don't like to write reviews at all. These posts are called "design ruminations" because I like to dig into whichever aspect of the game's design is most interesting. Today, that's the generational change in how the protagonist is presented. But it's hard not to slide into the banal pit-trap of whether the game is good.
Look, it's a good game. If you are interested in modern (ok fine it's modern) high-quality text games, you should play Thaumistry. Play it if you enjoy Bates' writing. Play it if you want to sit down and have some old-fashioned (yes look it's old-fashioned) fun.
If you're interested in more modern high-quality text games -- short ones -- remember that IFComp is off and running. Nearly 80 games this year! I have no idea which are the great ones, but I assure you they're in there.


  1. I have pretty much the same thoughts, experiences, etc so thanks for saying all this. The only thing I'd mention is my surprise that the 'bodger' thing played so little role in the game - the choice at the end and (I think) the broken vending machine?

  2. I enjoyed Thaumistry, also a backer. I didn't really think about how the game makes an effort not to form an opinion or feeling for the protagonist (you!). That's an interesting point, and may be what made it possible for me to dive into the game and feel truly immersed, reminding of the feeling I got with the first text adventures I ever played from Infocom.

  3. I'm about halfway through (based on score) and mildly stuck, but not yet ready to poke the hints. (THINK (or RECALL) I'm not counting as hints.) So I haven't encountered the endgame.

    It's interesting that Brian says that makes him feel truly immersed; to me it puts me at a farther remove; this isn't someone I can identify with because sympathy requires emotional connection. The puzzles are great fun, though; definitely worth the price of admission. (It probably doesn't help that one of the old-school things it's kept around for flavor is a near-complete lack of female characters breaking out of stereotype -- I expect more these days.)

    1. I'd say they're all pretty well sterotypes.

      On the other hand, Sarah is a *sly* knitting old lady, which I thought was a nice touch.

      On the other other hand, Sarah is (I think) the only major character who is female. (I'm not counting the booth inventors; you have basically one brief plot-transaction with each of them.) So that's an unfortunate case of male-by-default.

    2. I actually was thinking about the inventors -- the fact that Pamela and Rani and the museum volunteer (all non-technical) are female, while there's only one female inventor (well, one booth with two women) who are distinctly described as eye candy.

      Also, I was further along than I thought; I solved one puzzle and the rest all fell in line.

  4. A perhaps-interesting tidbit from the Steam forums:

    > I applied for the inforcom trademark, but was blocked by another company. And the Legend name is owned by Atari. So I decided to just put this game out under my own name. --Bob

    The Infocom trademark has bounced around a bit since Activision stopped caring about it. Apparently it's now in limbo.