Francesco Cordella's The Land of the Cyclops
begins with a statement
to the effect that it is an experiment in deriving IF from the situations of
classic literature. As the name might suggest, the game is an IF-ification of
the famous situation in which Odysseus defeats the Cyclops and rescues some of
his men from the cave (but not all, because the Cyclops dashes some of them
against the stones like puppies, and their brains run out).
This is particularly intriguing to me, as IF author and as classicist, and so
I look for two things. Is it a good game? Is it a good retelling of the classic?
The short answer, in both cases, is "not entirely." Game-wise, The Land of
the Cyclops shares some of the flaws that afflicted Graham Nelson's
adaptation of Shakespeare's "Tempest". There are parts of the game in which it
would be quite hard to guess what you ought to do if you weren't already
familiar with the story. The Cyclops, for instance, is himself described in
poetical terms that, as it happens, don't emphasize the most important of his
attributes -- the great single eye that is his monstrosity and his weakness. The
descriptions in the game, in general, is not the kind of language one typically
finds in IF: its diction is more artful, and it is more difficult to extract a
list of items to investigate and manipulate.
I don't think this is an inevitable effect of taking IF from a literary
situation, these two pieces of evidence aside. I think it would have been
possible to clue some of the actions better, in the conventional terms of IF,
simply by changing the descriptions a bit. I also found the choice of
translation odd. The opening of the game credits the translation of Robert
Fagles -- a graceful, lightly versified version with relatively few archaisms,
and the one featured, for instance, in the mythology class I helped teach last
semester. It doesn't seem especially stiff, and flows well; the main complaints
I have heard levelled against it are its occasional lapses into language that is
too informal, and the fact that it sometimes glosses over complexities in
the original text. Nonetheless, if I were selecting a translation for IF (and
did not have time to do my own), I would use Fagles.
But the odd thing is that the text in the game is not the Fagles text:
it's something else, older, more cramped, forced straitly into rhymes. As a
sample, take the beginning of the description of the Cyclops, about which I
complained above: "Cyclops first, a savage kind, nor tamed by manners, nor by
laws confined: untaught to plant, to turn the glebe, and sow, they all their
products to free nature owe..." In fact, as far as I can tell, it is the
translation of Alexander Pope -- a poet for whom I have great respect, but whose
Homer translations are generally not considered to hold to the highest standards
either of accuracy or of readability. Most of us these days do not speak much of
For contrast, here is the Fagles text of the same passage: "...the high and
mighty Cyclops, lawless brutes, who trust so to the everlasting gods they never
plant with their own hands or plow the soil. Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems
with all they need..." It lacks the conscious poise of Pope, but in this context
that would have been a Good Thing. The items without a Pope-generated
description lie at a funny stylistic angle to his diction: they are generally
curt, and some give evidence of having been translated by someone for whom
English was not a native language. Sometimes you find juxtapositions like this:
New driven before him through the arching rock, came tumbling, heaps on
heaps, the unnumber'd flock.
A big rock blocks the entrance of the cave.
I'm not sure where this peculiarity comes from, though I have a suspicion:
sparknotes.com offers a full browsable online text of the Odyssey that includes
these lines, and then it says, "Buy the text!" in a little box with a link-- to
the Barnes and Noble page for the Fagles. I'm guessing that the good people over
there at sparknotes saw no significant distinction between one (archaic, public
domain) translation of the Odyssey and another (recent, copyright, and available
for purchase), and didn't feel overly obliged to credit the first at all. Homer
is Homer, right? This sort of thing is a crime against scholarship. Those who
feel the need for online translations of classical texts would be better off
its translations have also aged their way into public domain, but at least they
are usually properly credited, and accompanied by the original text.
But I digress.
The point is, where the game makes use of (what I believe to be) the Pope
text, it is not offering the player a lot of help, in terms of
reading-for-game-play. We have grown used to the fact that writing IF requires
adherence to certain rules: don't mention objects that aren't present if you can
avoid it, don't talk about things you don't plan to implement, avoid metaphor
and excessively clever phrasing, use simple and accessible vocabulary, make the
arrangements of items in the environment as clear as possible. Poetry-- at least
poetry of the Pope-translating-Homer ilk-- does pretty much the exact opposite.
The non-Pope descriptions are typically curt, and sometimes verge on the
misleading. ">X FIRE", for instance, gets you "Do not play with fire." -- which,
considering that the fire is required for an action, seems to point the player
in the wrong direction entirely.
Likewise, many actions that might seem perfectly reasonable merely get
responses such as "The wise Ulysses would not do that." Well, why the heck not?
If I'm the wise Ulysses, I should either know what's wrong with this scheme, or
I should be allowed to try it. But the answer is merely that the course of the
story demands that the PC not try any other scheme than the one laid down for
him. This sort of response pops up even when you are doing the right things at
the wrong time, which could again give someone the wrong idea entirely.
There are other peculiarities: sometimes it is necessary to wait, and
sometimes to repeat actions, and there is not always enough indication of either
of those things. The pacing hasn't been perfectly worked out. The game fails to
let you know that you're on the right track, or that you have one more thing to
do before the timer runs out and the Cyclops comes back, finds you unprepared,
and smashes your head against a wall. This kind of thing might be refined with
more testing and experimentation, I suspect; it might even be the artifact of
different expectations for Italian IF, which this game originally was before it
was translated into English. On the whole, these bits are mildly frustrating.
So I suspect this would not be terribly playable for someone who hadn't
already heard the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, or who did not have a copy
of the text at his disposal. On the other hand, for someone who has, it isn't
particularly challenging. The solutions to all the puzzles -- distract the
Cyclops, disable him, and escape the cave -- are exactly the solutions in Homer,
step for step. If there's a challenge, the challenge lies in coming up with the
proper phrasing; what one is actually supposed to do is never in doubt because
the passage never deviates from the set text.
Setting aside the game, though, how is it as a literary experience? Well...
it is interesting to find oneself playing IF that is decidedly outside the
bounds of what IF can usually do; it makes a virtue out of the flaw I just
mentioned. Because you know the walkthrough, it's possible to play this
game even though it has this richer, more deliberately literary language than
standard IF. It doesn't go as far in that direction as it might, though: I think
the game would have had more punch if the Cyclops had seemed more proactive, if
it had been possible to engage him in more conversation, if the pacing hadn't
been slightly off-kilter. At that point, it might have been an experience more
like what I think Graham was reaching for with "The Tempest": an interactive
performance, in which the player is offered the opportunity to play a role
with which he is already quite familiar, for the sheer interest value of being a
participant instead of the audience. "The Tempest" itself did not have this
effect for me, because I didn't get past the infamous guess-the-verb bit very
early in the game. The Land of the Cyclops came closer.
What one can gain from this sort of literary experience is another question.
There's a sense in which the Odyssey is especially suited for it: if
you're playing Odysseus, you can play him better if you possess the supernatural
prescience of knowing how the story's supposed to go. After all, the guy is a
brilliant schemer. If you're not a brilliant schemer, at least you can fake up
the appearance of brilliant scheming by having the scheme written down in
advance next to the keyboard. Had the game also captured the emotional content
of this episode -- the nervewracking strain of biding your time while your
companions are slain around you, the grotesque violence, the dark atmosphere of
firelight and blood -- it might have been quite something, even for someone
familiar with what happens. But that would have been another kind of translation
and reinterpretation: not Pope's or Fagles' Homer, but Cordella's Homer.
If you go and look at the website that goes with the game, though, you will
discover that that wasn't what Francesco was aiming for at all.
site explains that it is really an exercise in trying to find puzzles of a
new kind, puzzles that fit the pace and motivation of the narrative. As I said
above, I don't think it entirely succeeds in delineating the puzzles in a way
that would be playable for someone without Odysseus knowledge; on the other
hand, I do think it could have succeeded at that, with judicious nudging
and hinting, and a cleaning up of the descriptions. In that respect, I think it
makes its point without actually quite achieving what it wanted to achieve --
which is a pity, but perhaps Francesco will consider it a moral victory
The end of this article indicates that he expects to go on with an analysis
of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, which I have not read. I will be
curious to see how that comes out, when it appears. This is an interesting road
to explore; while I am not entirely satisfied with the results of the
experiment, I applaud the desire to make puzzles fit better into narratives and
to expand the range of puzzle concepts available. I would also like to add that
I very much appreciate the effort that went into making this available in
English, and that I hope to see more translations of IF, in both directions, in
Finally, I would be guilty of gross neglect if I did not bemoan the
They're the cheeses of the Cyclops, looking very good at sight.
It would be useless.