IF Comp 2014: The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer (A.E. Jackson)

SecretVault

The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer is a puzzly Twine dungeon-crawl with fantasy dwarf lore. I played it to an ending, though it was not a very happy ending, and I suspect that qualifies as an early death rather than the intended finish.

As far as I can tell, The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer is a Twine adaptation of an RPG session or module. It’s set in an underground dwarf kingdom, and you can find various supplies — lantern, “iron rations” — as well as hints of the ancient past. It’s the sort of setting where you can expect a lot of oaken and leathern furnishings. In the portion I saw, there are several combination locks required to get from one area to the next. I got only as far as managing to put one combination lock into a wrong configuration and being killed instead of progressing.

Here are the reasons I then stopped playing rather than restarting the game:

Overall polish wasn’t what I would have liked. Unlike many of the other Twine games this comp, this one doesn’t change the default CSS; that’s not an unforgivable sin, but it goes with some other signs of under-polishing, such as its/it’s errors in the text, various typos, and the persistent misspelling of “thief/thieves” as “theif/theives”.

Genre is not really my favorite. This is on me, but it takes a fair amount to get me to consider standard dwarfs-and-elves-style fantasy at this point, and I need some really first-class world-building hooks to get into it. So I admit a certain amount of bias there.

Difficulty suspending disbelief. I know, I know, it’s a genre game. But one of the first things you encounter is mention of a solid quicksilver mining pick. I am assuming that must be Magicke, because mercury does not freeze at temperatures that humans can usually tolerate for long.

Inconsistent level of agency. There were quite a few times when the game text described my character doing things that I did not direct to have happen (some business with an inkwell and a compass, or choosing to light my surroundings with a glowing dagger). At other times, it required very fiddly input. Sometimes it seemed like my character mostly had a mind of their own, and other times they needed everything spelled out. Either one of those by itself can work, but mixing them together without a clear aesthetic purpose tends to confuse and distance me.

But, more critically than any of those, the combination locks themselves:

1. You can get into a state where you’re engaged in trying to solve them and there are no links that mean “back away and come back to this puzzle later.” It was not obvious that I was going to do any more than look at the puzzle machinery when I clicked the link that got me into that situation.

2. I did not see anything in game, either before or after attempting to interact with either of the two locks I got to, that constituted a hint for them.

3. These facts meant that I spent a long while trying random combinations in the first combination lock before getting frustrated and going to the walkthrough. It turned out that the walkthrough contained the sorts of hints that I might have expected to encounter in the game itself, but not the explicit list of winning actions that is what I usually mean by the word “walkthrough”.

This was all frustrating enough that when I went through it all again a second time, and that second combination lock turned out to kill me for no reason that was obvious from either game or walkthrough, I was ready to be done.

It’s possible that all this made for a pretty fun RPG session, but I think it would take a bit more sanding down to make a really working puzzle game. Specifically, it is not clear that the author had in mind a particular model for how the player was supposed to figure out the combinations. Maybe there are in-game clues that I simply failed to discover, but even if there are, the inability to step away from the enter-combination-now portion to look for said clues is still a daunting problem.

This was also reviewed at The Rest of Your Mice.

6 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014: The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer (A.E. Jackson)

  1. Yeah, I had a lot of trouble with this one too. I think we may have died in the same place, even? I was willing to cut it some more slack than you did (I may have eye-rolled at the quicksilver pickaxe, but I’ve seen stupider plot contrivances with less justification), but the typos and general lack of polish eventually turned me away, too. It’s a shame, because I actually liked the old-school gamebook* feel it had. That set itself apart from many other Twine games I’ve played.

    * (i.e., Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, et al.)

    • Yeah, for me one of these things by itself would not have been fatal — I might have powered through the puzzles if I’d been really into the story and setting, or I might have gone on with a dwarf-mines-setting game if the puzzles and typos etc. hadn’t made it a high-friction experience.

    • Definitely needed to be able ‘back away’ from puzzles that you couldn’t solve. Even with the walkthru, I couldn’t get the statues right :(

  2. Am I the only one who found the poem on the desk? It gave the combination for the dowels pretty explicitly, and I think hinted about the inkwell too, although I found that without any trouble. The third line seemed to describe what the statues should be doing, but I couldn’t get a sensible combination to do anything, and the killing combination didn’t match the poem. I didn’t get any farther than that either.

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