IFComp 2008: Magic

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

Magic is the work of Geoff Fortytwo. I’d assumed this was a pseudonym but it appears to be his actual legally-approved name. Spoilers past the link.

Like Lair of the Cybercow, Magic is a surreal humor game. Lair has a snail-eating Cybercow living in a well. Why? Hell, I don’t know. Magic backs up its random components with a spine of comprehensible plot and a consistently cynical worldview. In the interrogation room of what seems to be the local police station you find a mime. He’s been tortured to death. Why? Because he wouldn’t talk. That’s actually funny, mostly because the game lets players find the punch line for themselves.

Magic’s central gimmick is—big surprise—its magic system. Magic belongs to the same subgenre as Enchanter and Savoir-Faire: the PC knows spells that work like new verbs. Magic has one spell, with interesting possibilities for an IF game: the player “compares” one object to another, metaphorically similar object, and can thereafter transform the first object into the second, and back again. Incidentally, the most dreary thing about Magic is the example from the in-game instructions: “P\*r\*s H\*lt\*n” and “trash.” Like all good-hearted people, I can’t stand P\*r\*s H\*lt\*n… but, man, that joke’s just too easy. And it dates the game badly—in a few years Magic will look like a 1990s game with a Kato Kaelin reference. Remember Kato Kaelin? Excuse the asterisks, by the way; if I actually spell out P\*r\*s H\*lt\*n this review will get Googled by creeps looking for P\*r\*s H\*lt\*n/Kato Kaelin fan fiction. I’m trying to keep my server logs clean.

Anyway: the magic system. It doesn’t work. Outside a few specific puzzles necessary to get through the plot, you can’t do anything with it. Half the fun of this kind of game is in using your spells on every little thing and seeing what happens. In Magic, the answer is invariably “nothing.” Beyond the “fun” question there are underlying game-mechanic problems. Trying out a spell is how players learn to use their new tool. The game-world’s response shows them how the spell works and encourages them to think in terms of using it to solve puzzles. In an unresponsive game players won’t think of the spell even when it would be useful.

Worse, Magic’s spell is inconsistent and unpredictable. Sometimes it works by similarity: a bolt becomes a screw when compared to another, smaller screw. Sometimes it works through a pun: when compared to the same screw, a screwdriver (the drink) becomes a screwdriver (the tool). Sometimes there’s a metaphorical connection, but to a related object: a drainpipe compared to a bean becomes a beanstalk. And sometimes the comparisons don’t make any sense at all: why can the army surplus store owner become a monk? Not just because they’re both people—many other person-to-person transformations don’t work. And, confusingly, none of these comparisons work two ways—try to turn the monk into an army surplus store owner, and you just fail.

The puzzles are as baffling as the spell system. Take the light source puzzle. To get a light source, the PC has to burn down a pet store, light a playing card, and walk across town, lighting a new card every four or five turns as the old ones burn out. This is incredibly tedious—at a certain point I just wanted to type PUNCH GAME IN FACE—and completely unmotivated. Why does this guy do any of this? I mean, it would make some kind of thematic/comedic sense if he were more of an Inspector Clouseau type, leaving a trail of destruction wherever he went… but, really, doesn’t the army surplus store sell flashlights?

Magic’s inconstant magic and opaque puzzles are the flip side of its strength as a piece of writing. Geoff Fortytwo has a surreal imagination, and he knows how to use it… but he hasn’t given players enough entry points into his imagination. They don’t think like he does. They’re not sure how he thinks. There just aren’t enough clues.