Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer)

scrollthief

Scroll Thief is a game by Daniel Stelzer, set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, though with significant nods to Colossal Cave as well. It’s a puzzlefest built around the same magical spells that appear in the Enchanter series — gnusto to copy things into your spellbook, frotz to make them glow with magical light, blorb to enclose them safely in a strong box, rezrov to open and untie things — to which Stelzer has added a couple of “metamagic” spells, including the lleps reversal-spell from Balances and another spell that strengthens the effect of a given casting. Stelzer released Act One of the game in IntroComp 2014. (My review at the time.)

Meanwhile, though the spells may be ones we’ve mostly seen before, they’re generally being used on situations that we haven’t. The resulting puzzles do well (or at least, did for me) on the originality and explorability axes. Some take longer than others to work out, and for one or two I needed the hints; on the other hand, others are made easier because they have multiple solutions involving different spell combinations.

To make the exploration more fun, Stelzer provides a number of good easter egg responses for using the spells in unusual places or unexpected ways. There are also a lot of nods to IF community figures and institutions, including what I take to be a reference to ClubFloyd and NightFloyd. In keeping with the Infocom originals, the author has provided invisiclues-style hints which you can highlight to view solutions; these are of course themselves full of misdirections and red herrings.

At the same time, Scroll Thief sets itself apart from its predecessors and inspirations with an expanded role for NPCs, especially the Adventurer from Colossal Cave whom you can summon into your world. Your initial interactions with him are quite manipulative (and you really have no opportunity to make them otherwise), but later in the game it becomes possible to treat him more as an equal, someone you can talk to and do favors for. The bird and the snake from Colossal Cave get cameo appearances, and with judicious use of spells, you can get the bird’s insights into its situation. Then, too, the game’s setting gives more time and attention to the training of novices and the organization of the community of spellcasters, making it less a world of lone heroes and more a world of collaborative effort — a point that becomes particularly clear at the transition to Act II.

The result is less lonely and more focused on interpersonal (or inter-creature) connection than the original games — in a lightweight way reminding me of the transition in Endless, Nameless from a puzzle-oriented model to one where NPC conversation is possible.

The game’s story is not complete in itself. Scroll Thief contains two acts of a longer story, which promises to be a trilogy. The end of Act II introduces a mechanic from Spellbreaker which I would enjoy seeing explored further, so I look forward to the next chapter.

Scroll Thief is certainly possible to play with only moderate knowledge of the source material, but I wouldn’t give it to someone as one of their first encounters with parser IF. Technically, this piece is doing some very challenging things — viewing from one room into another via magical scrying glasses, tying ropes to objects, ordering NPCs around from a distance, and other tasks that justly give parser IF authors pause.

A huge amount of work has gone into making this complicated world model easy for the player to manipulate, and providing hints when some unusual bit of syntax is required. The world model works smoothly most of the time despite the difficulty of what it’s trying to accomplish. But the parsing involved in issuing commands and viewing things from a distance is still sometimes tricky to deal with. When scrying, for instance, LOOK IN SPHERE produces a disambiguation about what you want to look at while LOOK INTO SPHERE actually gives the desired room description of the thing on the other side. In other places, it can be necessary to run through several variant phrasings (ASK ADVENTURER ABOUT HELP vs ASK ADVENTURER FOR HELP, e.g.) in order to land on the one that will work. I ran into a few snags that meant I had to look for hints on puzzles I would otherwise have been able to solve on my own. However, Stelzer is releasing new updates rapidly, so it may be that these issues will be less of a concern in a couple of weeks.

And one more thought on the puzzles, post-spoiler space:

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One of the oldest and most tired of adventure game puzzles is the locked-door-with-key-on-other-side puzzle. The canonical solution involves sliding a thin mat under the door, then poking the key from your side so it falls onto the mat, then withdrawing the mat to access the key. I riffed on this in Savoir-Faire, with an alternative, magical solution to the puzzle. In Scroll Thief, the key stuck in the door is enough to make the door immune to REZROV, your magical way of unlocking locked things, and you can waste quite a bit of time trying to figure out what else might work. In the end, there’s a way to simply go around and take the key out of the door by hand from the other side with no shenanigans, undercutting all your expectations. It is, essentially, a joke told not in words or pictures but in design. I love design jokes.

9 thoughts on “Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer)

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    I don’t think the PC is really treating the adventurer as an equal in the second part of the game. It feels that way, yes, but only because you used magic to make them your friend — ultimately you’re still brainwashing them, you’re just being more subtle about it by using vaxum instead of serage. In particular, if you hit them with the reversed version of vaxum after charming them, they go berserk and kill you, and it’s not at all clear whether that’s the reversed spell making them hostile, or the reversed spell is just un-enchanting them and they’re killing you because you keep brainwashing them in different ways. Part of what makes it unnerving to me is that the friendly way the adventurer behaved while enchanted by vaxum made me want to view them as a genuine friend… but then I’d remember that they only view me as a trustworthy friend because I magically brainwashed them. It shows how seductive that sort of power is, because it’s so tempting for the player to just view the vaxum-ed Adventurer as a friend and ignore the uncomfortable fact that they used magic to force the issue.

    (It’d be interesting to have a way to work with the adventurer without brainwashing them, since really, the overall plot-arc has you ordering them to stuff which they’d probably agree to without magical compulsion if you asked — getting the golden box, which they can keep as long as they give you the scrolls inside, and exploring the chasm, which was their goal anyway.)

    • I considered exactly this, actually, but there are two things about the game that made me view it in a more favorable light. I’m not sure they’re definitive, but I found them suggestive.

      1) When I cast VAXUM on the Adventurer, the text describes this as getting rid of the last effects of SERAGE, rather than creating a new effect. This suggested to me that the Adventurer was only hostile because of your past ZIFMIA and SERAGE use, and that once that water is under the bridge, he is naturally inclined to be friendly. Admittedly there is still something iffy about that; being able to obliterate someone’s memory of past things you did to them in order to acquire their future good will is not the same thing as being forgiven, and is fairly creepy. (See also “Once More, With Feeling“.)

      Nonetheless, within the game’s own terms, I think this represents some progress from the kleptomaniac criminal model of PC where the PC does whatever they want, ignoring the consequences for everyone else. Indeed, after I had worked with the Adventurer, I made sure to go put his rope back on the hook so he could get out again safely. (The game didn’t acknowledge this, as far as I could tell.)

      2) VAXUM doesn’t work on the snake unless you’ve cast NITFOL first, in which case the snake looks thoughtful and nods. This suggested to me that VAXUM is less a mind-control spell and more something like offering a treaty, which had to be both comprehended and accepted by the other creature.

      *

      On the other hand — as I mentioned on the intfiction forum though not here — I did feel a little weird about being able to summon the sleeping librarian and then leave her lying around in her nightgown. Even though she’s protected with spells, this feels like such a vulnerable situation that I felt anxious for her and wanted to be able to cover her up and/or send her safely back home (and I gather that the author has tweaked the game to make that possible again).

      • Summoning the librarian is also optional, if you use the alternative solution to the one puzzle she helps you with (Or, I suppose, if you’re cheaty and use the information learned from a past playthrough, though come to think of it I never tested it to see if the game comments on that.) The way the PC treats the adventurer stands out to me a bit more because it’s non-optional if you want to complete the game.

        (Well, you can skip using VAXUM on them through a fairly convoluted series of tricks, but not the SERAGE section.)

      • Hmm, yeah. It’s an interesting point, and maybe I’m reading the story more optimistically/gently than is really justified. I’m not sure. On the face of it, SERAGE does something fairly awful, but on the other hand we’re habituated to commandable NPCs in some game contexts. Being able to ZIFMIA and then VAXUM an Adventurer is straight out of Enchanter, after all. (Though perhaps there also VAXUM is a friendlier/gentler thing to do. There is no SERAGE in Enchanter so far as I know.)

        But I guess the mental process I went through here was “eh, this spell is mean, but I guess we’re just in that kind of world, and I seem to be stealing and vandalizing this place too, so whatever” — dismissing the NPCs as having no interiority to speak of — and then began to walk back from that as we got to see more and more of what they were feeling and thinking.

  2. Thank you again for the detailed review and discussion! It feels weird commenting directly on a review of my own work, so I’ll just drop in to mention one thing: the two bugs mentioned above (with two pairs of similar commands not giving equivalent responses) have both been fixed in today’s build. I’m still searching for a more elegant solution to the LOOK IN one (which right now uses an ugly after reading a command rule), but from the player’s perspective it should work, which is the most important part.

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    • It’s based on the PC’s gender here. When people reported that the pronouns were getting unclear in one scene, I took the easy way out and made the Adventurer always use a different pronoun from the player (“he” if the PC is female, “she” otherwise). Not the best solution, but it also gave me a chance to experiment with some new Inform features.

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