IFComp 2007: Varkana

Next up is an illustrated story set in a different world. Spoilers follow the break.

Varkana is the kind of science-fantasy that’s based heavily on world-building. The author has worked out the fictional city of Arg Varkana’s geography 1mountainous and isolated, customs 2Names with lots of a’s (sometimes double a’s), origami, apprenticeships, community swimming pools., technology 3Mainly pre-industrial, but with flying machines and glow-orbs., myths 4The life-goddess Amortaad has a companion called Senmervae, a lion with wings and horns., diplomatic relations 5There are ambassadors from a more powerful nation visiting, and everyone is trying to curry favor with them., chief exports 6Wine and pistachios., and so forth, and slips bits of this background in at every opportunity. If you’re into that sort of thing, great; if not, this alone might turn you off, although it’s executed reasonably well. The only large infodump I saw was at the very end, when the truth about everything was revealed.

The gameplay is really heavily reliant on conversation with an ask/tell interface. I’d estimate that at least half of the things you have to do to make the plot advance are asking the right character about the right conversation subject. Sometimes the game guides you gently towards the right choices, other times I felt like I was just guessing. In one case, and only one case as far as I could tell, you’re required to ask one character about the same thing multiple times.

The story starts with the arrival of ambassadors from the expanding nation of Ashtarta. One immediately suspects a power play, with the rulers of Ashtarta as the bad guys. So when I found out a little about Ashtarta’s recent history, I became a little uneasy about the author’s sympathies. Arg Varkana, which basically seems like the author’s “I want to live there” fantasy, is ruled by an “Argbaan”, an aristocrat with the title “Lady”. Ashtarta is a democracy. But it was a monarchy not long ago, and there’s a prince who’s still alive. Did this make the democracy evil? Was I expected to help the rightful heir back on the throne or something? I haven’t said a lot about my political convictions on this blog, but if there’s one stance I’m willing to take, it’s against the rule of kings. 7I don’t know how much monarchist sympathy there is here in the United States, but I bet that a poll would find it depressingly prevalent. It’s a very romantic notion, after all, and organizations as powerful as the Disney corporation tell us that crowning the right head makes problems disappear by magic, or at least provides a happy ending. It’s one thing when you’re trying to support a “rightful” king against a usurper — in such situations, even if you’re installing a monarch, you’re also getting rid of one. But I’m not about to overthrow a council elected by popular vote in preference to a dictator with pretensions of divine favor. Or, well, actually I will if it’s necessary to keep the story going, but I won’t feel entirely comfortable about it.

But in fact the plot doesn’t go in that direction. Mainly it concerns an interloper in ambassador’s garb, who’s trying to steal a book that you’ve been assigned to repair. He’s got creepy mind-control powers, but, oddly enough, turns out to not really be a bad guy in the end, even though he does a lot of bad-guy things. There comes a point where he actually assumes control of the player character, and player control shifts to the player character’s best friend. It’s really hard to forgive such an affront. He immediately starts coercing the new PC into helping him, and all throughout that section, I was plotting how I’d cold-cock him the moment I had a chance. Only in the epilogue does he explain what drove him to such measures, and only then if you cooperate with him enough to get the right ending. I think I’d still regard him as a villain if the other endings hadn’t been so unsatisfactory.

I should mention the illustrations. I saw four, and there may have been others I didn’t see. They look painted. They’re decent, and wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a paperback edition of The Varkana Chronicles or whatever.

Rating: 6

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1. mountainous and isolated
2. Names with lots of a’s (sometimes double a’s), origami, apprenticeships, community swimming pools.
3. Mainly pre-industrial, but with flying machines and glow-orbs.
4. The life-goddess Amortaad has a companion called Senmervae, a lion with wings and horns.
5. There are ambassadors from a more powerful nation visiting, and everyone is trying to curry favor with them.
6. Wine and pistachios.
7. I don’t know how much monarchist sympathy there is here in the United States, but I bet that a poll would find it depressingly prevalent. It’s a very romantic notion, after all, and organizations as powerful as the Disney corporation tell us that crowning the right head makes problems disappear by magic, or at least provides a happy ending.

3 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 27 Oct 2007

    It seemed like a fairly strong effort in a lot of ways, but I got stymied after a bit, looked in the walkthrough, saw several pages of ask/tell conversation, and gave up. There are several vastly more player-friendly ways to handle conversation in IF and I really can’t abide going through a whole game of that, especially when the conversational topics aren’t well cued (and they weren’t really, in this case). Though I do make an exception for Galatea, where the entire point is deciding what to talk about and the changes those choices make.

  2. Jason Dyer on 4 Nov 2007

    I don’t recall having to make conversation much at all to win. Most of those “ask” commands in the walkthrough are optional. The walkthrough is just trying to give the most complete playthrough.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 5 Nov 2007

    I didn’t use the walkthrough at all. So I may be overestimating how much talking is really necessary, but if so, it’s not because the walkthrough creates a false impression.

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