IFReviewed by Paul OBrian
on 2006-07-20 08:49
A favorite trick in Interactive Fiction, especially short works like those that appear in the comp, is to make the PC some kind of unusual or non-human creature. We've seen it with animals, as in Ralph
and A Day For Soft Food
. We've seen it with monsters, as in Strangers In The Night
or Only After Dark
. We've seen it with children, as in The Arrival
and On The Farm
. A Bear's Night Out
did it with a plush toy. In the freaky realms of Rybread
, we've even seen it with things like car dashboards. When the game is written competently and sufficiently debugged, this trick often works remarkably well, even better than its static fiction equivalent might. Why is that? I think it's because IF has an advantage over static fiction in the area of character identification. When you're reading a book, you may read third-, first-, or even second-person accounts of a particular entity's exploits, and with sufficiently effective writing and characterization, you may even identify with that entity quite strongly despite its non-human traits, but no matter what you are still watching that entity from a distance. IF, however, literalizes the process of identification one step further. Not only does the prose put you in someone else's head, you actually have to guide the choices of that someone. I'd submit that when a reader is compelled to guide a character's actions, especially if there are puzzles involved, that reader will try to think
like that character would think. When this happens, the identification process has reached a place where static fiction can rarely take it.
It is exactly this place that The Djinni Chronicles limns with skill and imagination. The game puts the player in charge of a succession of spirits, each of whom has a unique method of interacting with humans and the physical world. These spirits perceive reality quite differently from corporeal beings like ourselves, and the game leaves it to the player to figure out just what those differences are. Luckily, it provides enough clues (and sometimes even outright explanations) that if you're paying attention, you should be able to get the basic gist of how the system of djinni magic works. This system is ingenious in several ways. First, it is quite alien from conventional portraits, which only makes sense, since those portraits have always been from the point of view of the summoner rather than the summoned. Second, despite its unfamiliarity, it makes perfect sense, or at least it did to me, as a plausible explanation for spirit magic. It uses the logic of "undercurrents", in the game's terminology, to explain things like why a djinn's blessing can so often be accompanied by a curse -- humans always ascribe a malevolent motive to such curses, but the game suggests that this may be just because we've never known the djinn's side of the story. Finally, the system works well on a gaming level -- Djinni Chronicles tells an interesting story that fits many folktale motifs, but doesn't forget to be a computer game at the same time.
If it sounds like I was impressed by the game's magic system, that's because I was. To my mind, it did an excellent job of combining story and game into a seamless unit, providing fertile ground for puzzles that always made sense within the context of the story. Best of all, the system really made me feel like I understood what it was like to be a magically summoned spirit, and also why it is so difficult for humans to understand why such spirits so often bring more misery than happiness to their human summoners. The writing helped further this character identification, such as in this passage:
Vault Entry Room
The location of my summoner was a room between the surface of the
world [physically west] and a complex of vaults [physically east].
The room was a trap for physical beings. On one side of the room, a
portcullis barred the way to the outside. To the other were the
vaults for storage. A patterned stone wall blocked their unauthorized
This description does a lovely job of tracing the outlines of a location, because the spirit wouldn't care about the details, while still giving its human reader a fair impression of the location's real purpose. The game also indulges in judicious use of made-up synonyms for familiar concepts, thereby deepening our sense that the djinn population sees what we see, but through very different eyes. I mentioned that the puzzles are integrated well into the story -- they are also pitched at just the right difficulty level, or at least they were for me. I often found I had to think carefully, to think like the djinn I was directing, and that when I did so, I was properly rewarded. This experience added further to my sense of immersion in the PCs, since I never had to break the spell by consulting the walkthrough. The game wasn't perfect -- a few typos lurk here and there, a section of verse has badly broken meter that jars against the elegance of the spirit world, and the routine that causes death when a certain point score drops too low is always one turn behind. Overall though, Djinni Chronicles puts a new spin on a well-loved IF gimmick, and makes it work like a charm.