May 10, 2014

Review: Magician's Nephew by Mister Flibble

The final version of Magician's Nephew by Mister Flibble was released just under a week ago. At the time of writing it has generated surprisingly little activity for such an ambitious, and presumably highly anticipated, game. I'm showing my biases here, but I can't help wondering if the community expended all of its energy on the beta release eleven months ago, with the result that they have little to say now. It probably doesn't help that the author doesn't seem to have much of a taste for self-promotion (a position I can empathise with), as the release of Magician's Nephew was announced only by an automated message that the file had been uploaded (rather than via a regularly updated development blog, for example).

That lack of activity is a shame because in terms of depth of gameplay, Mister Flibble has produced one of the best games to come along in a long time. You’d have to go back to Pervert Action Future to find its equal, and that was the product of a much more experienced author. If you limit the field to first-timers, then it’s probably exceeded only by Camping Trip (I know it wasn’t the first game that GoblinBoy released, but it was the first he started writing). Flexibility is the name of the game here. For example, if you choose to perform with Ilara as your assistant, then scene X happens next. But if you’d picked Jane, you would have gotten scene Y instead. With each game having up to four different performances, that kind of plot branching has a multiplicative effect. It doesn't work completely smoothly, as you might expect of a game from a first-time author, and there are a few points where the game is annoyingly inflexible, most notably the show at the theatre. Despite that, Magician's Nephew is still highly replayable because of the number of different experiences the PC can have.

The PC is question is Peter, a young man who gives up both his career as an accountant and a rather unlikeable fiancĂ©e in order to take up his uncle’s offer of becoming a professional stage magician. It’s an original and memorable plot, although perhaps not a very strong one. What I mean by that is that although it sets up the game, it’s not something that the player has to struggle towards. No matter whether the player antagonises Marko (who apparently organises the performances) or pleases him, Peter will still end the game as a successful Vegas magician. The true nature of the tricks Peter is sent by his uncle is left annoyingly unrevealed as well. There are hints that actual magic is involved, from the damage to Jane’s clothes during her audition to the fact that Peter can perform an Asrah levitation without any of the required equipment, not to mention the effect that his tricks seem to have on his assistants. Despite that, casting the PC in the role of a budding magician does do a good job of setting up the actual story, which is the development of sexual relationships with one or more of his assistants. So from the point of view of an AIF game, it achieves everything that’s required of it.

One result of all this is that actually performing the magic tricks is one of the least difficult part of the game. But while they’re not actually puzzles, I found that the process of interacting with the tricks did an excellent job of getting me immersed in the game world. The real puzzles are not necessarily obvious, and it can sometimes be difficult to know if you’ve succeeded or failed. Typically there is feedback provided, but I often found that it didn’t make sense to me until after I’d realised what the solution was, and sometimes not even then. For example, on my first playthrough I tried to pursue Ilara and seemed to be doing well until I unexpectedly found myself alone in Las Vegas. I initially thought it was due to my decision not to pimp her out, which seemed rather counter-intuitive. Having played the game more, I now suspect it was something I failed to do at the beach.

The NPCs that Peter gets to 'perform' with are closer to general types (the shy girl, the flirt, the bitch) than fully rounded characters. Jane is the only one to get any sort of character arc, which takes her to a predictable but pleasant destination. Marko is kind of set up as the antagonist (he’s disfigured and he has a bigger cock than the PC, definite villain traits), but he never really does anything worse than make threats (which he apparently doesn't follow up on). I suspect that the relatively shallow characterisation is at least partly a result of how the menu-based conversation system is used. Almost all of the options are related to advancing the plot, which spares the player any frustrations in that department. However, it also means that the player sees very little characterisation-focused dialogue that would make any of the NPCs more rounded. In any case, the branching storyline would probably have made it tricky to develop a character consistently. The end result is that Jane and Ilara are perfectly acceptable as characters, but they’re not a stand out feature of the game in the same way that Jenny was for Study Date, for example.

In general the sex scenes feel less interactive that is typical of most AIF. To some extent that's because there are a wide variety of different scenes in the game, which means that none of them are very deep. However, the main culprit is the fact that almost all of the scenes have a finite time limit that's out of the player's control. I don't have any objection to a sex scene having a narrative structure (i.e. a beginning, a middle, and an end), but most of the scenes in Magician's Nephew feel like they end not because they are complete but because the player has used the alotted number of turns. Placing the player under this kind of time pressure reduces their ability to relax and experiment, unless they're willing to make liberal use of undo (which in turn decreases the level of immersion). That's also the only way to find all of the 'named' sex acts (which form part of an achievement-based scoring system), turning it from an enjoyable challenge into more of a chore. The scenes themselves are still enjoyable, but perhaps not as enjoyable as they could have been without those restrictions.

The one exception to all of the above is the massive foursome involving Ilara, Simone and Marko. The scene ends for what feel like logical reasons, either because of how the PC treats Ilara's misgivings about the situation or because it has climaxed, so to speak. Ilara's feelings also have the effect of creating a kind of narrative for the scene. Throughout the game she is portrayed as someone who has no qualms about using sex to get what she wants, from giving the PC a blow job as a quid pro quo for an actual job, to how she voices no complaint when she's forced to sleep with Marko to advance the career of the PC and herself. Here, for the first time, she appears conflicted about how she's being used, and how the PC answers her helps to define both their characters. The result of all this is that it's the best scene in the game, and if I felt more strongly about the characters I'd probably be describing it as one of the best scenes of all time. As it is, it's just very very good.

I’m kind of in two minds about the writing. On the one hand there are sections, particularly the opening, where it seems awkward or repetitive. The latter especially applies to how bodyparts are described, but I think that’s for programmatic reasons. On the other hand, I more than once found myself appreciating a particularly well-turned phrase and the writing gets better as the game goes on. Overall, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, as evidenced by the fact that my biggest complaint is probably that I would have preferred more of it. That said, I do think it could have stood to have been proof-read more thoroughly. While errors weren’t especially common, there is one in the very first sentence, which primed me to notice them.

I'm much more certain about the technical strengths of Magician's Nephew. I've already mentioned how well the plot-branching works (bar a few hiccups), but given my love of player agency I feel like repeating it. The other standout feature is the ten different illusions that the PC can perform (twelve if you count the variations). Not only do they work seamlessly with four different assistants (apart from my earlier gripe about bodypart descriptions) but because of the way that they're written, performing them feels different according to where the PC is and who they've chosen as their assistant. There are a few unsquashed bugs, two of the gamebreaking variety, which is unfortunate but perhaps inevitable for a game of this size and complexity. I also think that the disambiguation could have been stronger (it seems more likely that the player would intend to insert a sword into the cabinet than Ilara's face), but I'm not sure to what extent that is a limitation of Inform.

While I’m nitpicking (like I ever do anything else), the fact that the zipfile contains both interpreter and online versions of the game (thereby doubling its size) is a bit irritating. More problematic is the absence of a readme file, as that deprives the player of important information, such as the author's email address, the beta tester credits, or unusual commands. To be fair, some of that information can be found with 'about', but I’m not sure how many players would think to use that command unprompted.

However, those problems are more than made up for by the level of replayability that Magician’s Nephew provides. I’ve discovered new things nearly every time I’ve played it, and the challenge of finding all the content has kept me coming back. Given that Magician’s Nephew took six years to make, I don’t know if Mister Flibble will have the appetite to make another game, but the quality of Magician’s Nephew means there will definitely be a demand for it.

Download Magician's Nephew from https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/aifarchive/files/Inform%20Games/

AIF Central discussion thread

3 comments:

  1. It's certainly an ambitious game and a very impressive first effort. I highly enjoyed playing it from start to finish.

    With that said, it's not without its issues. I agree that the timed sex scenes were unnecessarily restrictive. I would also say that the tricks can be be a bit weird to figure out. Some commands that I expected to work didn't, while other synonymous actions arrived at through trial-and-error were successful. At times it felt a bit fiddly and cumbersome. Also, being railroaded into the Susan scenario for the game's penultimate scene was kind of disappointing considering the time I had spent cultivating my relationship with Jane.

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    1. "Also, being railroaded into the Susan scenario for the game's penultimate scene was kind of disappointing"

      That's a very good point (so good in fact that I stole it when I rewrote the review). Another niggle is that Jane and Ilara's paths don't intersect at any point. The solution to both would be to allow Jane and Ilara to perform at the theatre, and it's a shame that wasn't done.

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  2. Hi Peter (I'll call you Peter since I don't know your real name). I'm just here to tell you that I love your reviews! I may not comment often, which is why I felt the need to do it now, but that doesn't mean I don't follow the blog closely.

    Best regards!

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