IFComp 2020: Amazing Quest

I’ve been making a point of not mentioning authors’ names in my Comp writeups this year, so as to keep my attention on the content of the game under consideration rather than its place within an oeuvre. But I’m going to have to make an exception here. I don’t think this game can be properly understood without that context. Indeed, I don’t fully understand it with that context either.

Nick Montfort is a respected name in the IF community, known for both his use of wordplay in IF and his scholarly analysis of the form. He’s also a poet, a procedural generation enthusiast, and one of the few people still writing programs in Commodore 64 BASIC — often minimalist one-line things that are meant to be appreciated as poems, source code and effect together.

Amazing Quest, then, is at an intersection of these interests. It’s a twelve-line C64 BASIC program, played within a provided emulator, that purports to represent an Odysseus-like hero trying to return home after a great victory. On each turn, it gives you a setup like “You alight on a dry outpost” or “You detect a pious port”, the words clearly fitted together on the fly. You then have one of a handful of possible actions suggested — “Sneak up and raid?-Y/n”, or “Send gifts?”, or “Sacrifice to the gods?”, or a few other possibilities. (Reading the source code afterward made me aware of something I hadn’t noticed while playing: all of the possible actions begin with S.) Possible outcomes include winning loot of various kinds, being attacked and losing a ship, or just witnessing a randomly-selected wonder. After enough iterations of this, you finally get home, and the program exits to the C64 BASIC command line, where you can type LIST and view the source code. It’s too long to fit on the screen all at once in that form, though.

When starting to play this, it’s natural to try to strategize, to look for patterns that will let you know when it’s beneficial to raid and where the gods prefer sacrifices and so forth. But it doesn’t take long to get the impression that it’s just completely random and that it doesn’t matter what you choose. Reading the source code bears this out. The outcome of each turn is simply a die roll, unaffected by either the situation or your choice — your input is simply disregarded, making the designation “interactive fiction” questionable. It’s interactive in the same way that a slot machine is interactive, except that a slot machine has meaningful payoffs, and the outcome of a scenario here is purely cosmetic, and forgotten immediately.

But — and here’s where I start wondering about authorial intent — the entire thing is accompanied by a “strategy guide” giving spurious advice like “As you continue to play and imagine your journey in more and more detail, you will have a better basis for your choices” and “GIFTS will be more welcome in some places. You also need to consider if you’ve suffered recent losses, depleting what you have to offer.” Is it all a troll, a joke at the player’s expense? An experiment to see whether state tracking is really necessary? Either way, it fails somewhat by being too obvious. Or maybe you’re expected to suss it out, and the whole thing is a critique of how games exploit pareidolia. For that matter, it could be read as reflecting its source material: the ancient epics that attribute everything to the will of gods now generally regarded as figments. There’s a bit of tragic sympathy to be found in a player character who never notices the meaninglessness that’s obvious to the player.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, victim of pareidolia around the game if not within it. But I do think that, as a poet, Montfort is capable of creating a piece like this with multiple meanings in mind. If nothing else, it’s a strong contender for the Banana.

No Comments

Leave a reply