IF Comp 2013: Mazredugin (Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk)

Mazredugin is a parser-based fantasy story about a person able to affect their dreams (I think, more or less). Review follows.

You’re a teenager dozing in class and wishing you could control your dreams. Depending on how you answer some initial personality quiz-style questions, you’re given one of several different protagonists to control. Next, an elf named Mazredugin shows up and offers you the opportunity to control things in a dream world. If you agree, you’re removed to a setting where you face various survival challenges such as starting a fire; the exact challenge in question depends on which character you’re playing. Then you hit a point where the walkthrough doesn’t work — or at least, didn’t work for me. So this description is based on a partial experience of the game.

The core concept of having multiple characters presented with different challenges is hugely ambitious. I respect the attempt, but I also didn’t initially realize that my character choices were picking my character rather than just setting some personality traits the way many Choice of Games stories do at the beginning. I also felt that more could have been done with that premise, and that maybe the somewhat unpolished implementation was because the author was stretched by having to write four times as much content for the same length of game.

Mazredugin is indeed beta-tested, but it shares some qualities I usually associate with untested games. I had difficulty with the first, fire-starting puzzle because the descriptions were so vague about what was going on, and because the solution was bizarrely fiddly. The subsequent puzzles, so far as I got, were also tricky not so much because they required big leaps of understanding as because the gameplay wasn’t very polished, and it was hard to figure out what words to use to manipulate the objects in the way they were obviously meant to be manipulated. Once I got to the boat, the walkthrough required me to talk to a character who either wasn’t there, or was meant to be myself, I’m not sure: at any rate, it didn’t succeed and I couldn’t make progress from there.

But mostly I had trouble with the writing. The text frequently feels as though the author himself was not very interested in the things he was describing, and that made it really difficult for me to engage or care enough about what was happening to want to persist past rough spots in the implementation that, in another game, I might have been inclined to forgive.

I’m about to talk about why I felt that way, in some detail and with semi-spoilery examples. I want to preface this by saying that I know some people find this quantity and specificity of critique to be a daunting thing about the IF community; if it’s not what you want, I get that, and feel free to stop here, because the rest of the discussion will be about that. I’m going into this in case more detailed feedback than “this writing felt a bit vague and listless” might be helpful, either to the author himself or to other readers.

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“Some weird elf breaks up your train of thought,” says the narrative, at the critical moment when your adventure takes off. This sentence is a compact sample of what I had trouble with.

“Some” suggests a kind of indifference and non-surprise, as though we see elves all the time, and this is just one of them. There’s also sometimes a shading of contempt or dislike. “Some guy came up to me on the train today” is how you start a story about someone who was jerky to you. But it’s not clear why the protagonist should feel that way about the elf, unless he’s just the kind of person who automatically dislikes people on first meeting them. Indeed a lot of the text is tinged with generic teenaged resentment, without a lot else to flavor it.

Next word: “weird” contributes nothing at all to how we envision this being. Imagine the following items: “a weird table”, “a weird tree”, “a weird orange”. I bet what you’ve imagined is no clearer — is indeed possibly less clear — than if I’d written “a table”, “a tree”, “an orange”. If I say “a table”, you can imagine a table of your own choosing — large or small, wood or metal or plastic, but still a specific table. If I say “a weird table”, I’ve said “no, not the table you’re envisioning — it’s different from that in some striking way — but I’m not going to tell you how.” I’ve disrupted the concreteness of your imaginative process while not substituting any concrete detail of my own.

And “weird” pairs especially badly with “elf”. As elves are fictional beings with a very wide range of traditional representations in literature, they fall way below oranges or tables in how much we can envision without further help. Are we talking Puck? Glorfindel? Will Ferrell? dark elf, blood elf, Tinkerbell, Smurf? “Weird elf” doesn’t disambiguate that. “Weird elf” is only marginally better than “weird sniggleblitz”.

Finally, “breaks up your train of thought” captures internal process with no information at all about the external world. Did the elf appear in a puff of grey smoke? Turn out to have been standing at your elbow all this time, and just now give a small, butler-like cough? Walk into the room from outside, brushing snowflakes from his shoulders?

A sentence later we do get some detail on the elf’s outfit, but the fact that he’s wearing the word “Mazredugin” on his clothes feels like a bit of forced wackiness, and it’s so context-free that it doesn’t help me mentally build the character or his world out at all. If he showed up wearing a stained grey t-shirt reading “Dream Maintenance Union – Local #521”, that would have told me something about him and about the world he is part of, as well as building up my visual image.

I know that this story is meant to be told from the point of view of a disaffected teenager and taking place in a hazy realm of dreams, but those things could still be gotten across in a way that captured some specifics, and with a clearer narrative persona than “guy who somewhat resents everything that happens to him”. Overly vague sentences make the reader work harder to imagine the scene, and to less interesting effect, than sentences where the author has clearly imagined something and then given the key details. I don’t mean that every description needs a paragraph of sensual detail — there’s such a thing as overkill, and if you have too many details, it’s hard for the reader to pick out the ones that matter. But you can get a great deal from a few words, if you select them well. Contrast this fragmentary description of a fountain, from the beginning of another game this competition:

A verdigris rim stained with birdshit, full of brackish, still water.

Or this description of trees, from the beginning of a different game:

All the jackpines’ needles have shaken off months ago from the wind, and the wind is still howling.

In each of these passages I get a picture of something very specific, and I also get a strong sense of how to feel about that thing. There’s still narrative voice in those sentences, too: “verdigris” juxtaposed with “birdshit” suggests a narrator with an advanced vocabulary, but not mannered about bodily functions. “and the wind is still howling” is almost self-consciously lyrical and hints at a speaker who believes his story is part of something epic, significant, sweeping.

Throughout Mazredugin (or rather, throughout the opening scenes I saw in my two partial playthroughs), both concreteness and personality are missing where you would expect to find them. Surprising objects show up without description or context. Events that deserve elaboration are summarized instead, as though the text were just an outline for the real story. For instance:

Clearing
The clearing opens out further to a shore northeast. A cave is northwest. The path back southeast can’t be worthwhile, but there might be water to the southwest.

A tense looking guy with glasses runs in from the northeast. “Hi, I’m Per–” he trips and falls over timber he didn’t notice, staring you down as if it was your fault he tripped.

“Percy Smith.” You introduce yourself, and he explains how he spent the night building a stupid fire. You tell him your story. “Don’t think going back your way will help us off the island.”

Percy is the first person you’ve seen in this land besides yourself: aren’t you going to be more struck by his showing up? But we barely have time to process his presence before he starts a conversation, then trips. The time sequence is condensed too. “[H]e trips and falls over timber he didn’t notice, staring you down as if it was your fault he tripped.” That second portion — “staring you down” — is phrased as though it’s simultaneous with the main action, as though Percy were all at once speaking and tripping and staring in resentment, when those things must have happened in sequence.

Then we tell him our whole story in a single sentence! Of course it would be boring to give the player a straight narrative recap of what he just experienced, but the author wouldn’t have had to do that. This dialogue could be an opportunity to give each character a unique voice, to find out what kind of guy Percy is, to establish the beginnings of a relationship (do these guys like each other, hate each other, envy each other?). This would be a great time to actually get some mileage out of the fact that this story is about four distinctly-characterized teenagers.

And it’s not just the characters that are being treated like tokens in this narrative. The setting suffers, too. There’s a shore, a cave, a bunch of timber, but they’re minimally described, with no attempt to give a unifying sense of place or atmosphere. Further interaction demonstrates:

>nw
It looks like a cave, one you might not want to explore unless you know it’s safe.

>x cave
You can’t see any such thing.

>nw
Nah, the cave seems too risky.

So this was the issue, for me. Not any particular aspect of the implementation — it was sometimes tricky and not as polished as I might have liked, but I could have played past that. And, despite my nitpicking for explanatory purposes, the issue is not any one thing about any one sentence. But from the beginning, the game resists giving me the kinds of details — visual detail, emotional depth, character nuance, atmosphere, world-building — that would have made me invested in the characters and curious to go on with the story.

There are occasional exceptions. My second playthrough featured a good sentence about the unassembled tent pole zig-zagging on the ground. That I could envision. That was something I’d seen before and I believed the author had seen it before too.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Mazredugin (Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk)

  1. Emily, your comments on my games have always been given in the spirit of knowledgeable, constructive criticism, and they have helped me be a better IF author. I love your detailed analysis. Keep it up please.

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