Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: The Xylophoniad by Robin Johnson

The Xylophoniad is a joking, mashup take on numerous characters and situations from Greek mythology. You play the part of veteran adventuress Xylophone, and find yourself assigned by a bored king to knock over a few light tasks like ending the Trojan War, rescuing prisoners from Hades and killing the Bicyclops.

I imagined the Bicyclops was going to turn out to have two eyes side-by-side, which would have had the effect of making it look like anyone else, which would in turn have resulted in comedic, illogical screaming from onlookers along the lines of: 'Argh! Two eyes! It's hideous!' – but it turns out that the second eye of a Bicyclops is above the first one. And that is pretty gross.

This entertaining parser adventure does remind of the classic Scott Adams games in some of its nature and puzzles, but rarely in degree. The aesthetic of those 16 kilobyte games was determined by the hard technical limit of the 16 kilobytes. There are no real limits here. There are choices, and any mimicry of older games is carried out to an irreverent extent rather than a slavish one. The Xylophoniad (or THE X as I will now abbreviate it) delivers its humour in some particularly goofy and cartoon-like ways, elicits jokes from cute and simple NPCs who appear as caricatures of their legendary selves – or 'non-canonical versions' as the game likes to say – and keeps the player busy with a large ancient world split into separate regions. The region separation feels like both a staple of gaming in general (like levels, a way to divide up content and aesthetics) and a way to make THE X feel more manageable. Because no matter how cute the game may appear to be at the outset, when a king tells you to perform three impossible-sounding tasks before breakfast (it was the 'end the Trojan war' one that especially raised my anxiety levels) – you're likely to feel at least a tad flustered about the day ahead.

Fortunately, and as I should probably have anticipated, the explicit solutions to the major challenges are pretty wack. Don't dwell on how to end the Trojan War all by yourself (... ARGH!!!). Just get out there and be the best traditionally klepto adventuress you can be, exploring, finding ways to pass recalcitrant portals, solving puzzles that crop up using a mixture of logic and illogic, and helping NPCs with their usually not-too-obscure problems. Achilles is histrionic, the medusa is apologetic, Daedalus is MacGyver and Helen of Troy emits unusual noises.

I don't think much knowledge of Greek mythology is required to deal with THE X's puzzles. In cases where a particular piece of knowledge might help with a particular puzzle, the game either tells you about it explicitly or collapses it into a joke that has the side-effect of indicating how the situation would have been in a canonical version of the story. I found myself at an impasse a few times and got past each one using the typical graduated hint system that comes with the game. If I'd had more time to play, I probably would have continued to experiment with the gameworld and overcome one or two of the impasses on my own.


This game runs in Versificator, the author's own parser engine. It seems to handle pretty well, though this game doesn't distress the actual parser part of it much in terms of the player having to type any complicated commands. I only encountered two things that bothered me, one tiny and specific and one a little more general. The former was that I did try looking UNDER or putting things UNDER other things in the game, and it didn't give sensible responses. The more general thing is that pronouns for people don't update to reflect who's in the room. For instance if you X ACHILLES, 'him' keeps referring to Achilles, even if you leave Achilles well behind and go and see Daedalus, and say TALK TO HIM.

I didn't think much (at all?) about parser pronouns until a few years ago when Emily Boegheim on intfiction.org pointed out she generally played parser games using pronouns all the way. This led to a poll, which led to a surprising result showing maybe half the respondents used pronouns a lot or all the time. I then went and reprogrammed my previous game so pronouns worked really well, and I've done them well ever since. Now I too use them when playing, because gosh darn it they're so convenient, especially when characters have names like 'Sisyphus' which must be typed in full. So my feature suggestion for author Robin Johnson and Versificator is that the engine's pronouns update themselves in smarter fashion.

1 comment:

  1. There was something non-pronoun-related that bothered me about the implementation as well, but to my chagrin, I have already forgotten what it was!

    So instead I will compliment something that I *do* remember, which is the ability to use "in" or compass directions interchangeable where sensible. Similar to the pronouns, it's a sort of QoL thing; if I find myself in front of a grand old manse, then I shouldn't have to check what compass direction it is from me...