IFComp 2019: Pirateship

Pirateship is the latest from Robin Johnson, author of Detectiveland, which I wrote about previously, and Draculaland, which I still haven’t played. He’s written a number of other games as well, but I single out those two because they’re in the same distinctive HTML-based old-school-text-adventure engine as Pirateship. One cosmetic yet significant change (which Pirateship apparently shares with Johnson’s Zeppelin Adventure, which I also haven’t played): The story panel and the controls are arranged vertically, not horizontally. This means there’s a lot less room for vertically-arranged lists (which mainly affects the room contents; the inventory is listed horizontally), but it eliminates the peculiar feeling that comes from looking left and right all the time to switch your attention between panels. Looking up and down to switch between prose and controls feels much more natural — it’s essentially what we’re used to from parser-based games that put the command line underneath the output.

As in Detectiveland, the game is one of goofy humor based on slapstick, exaggeration, and commonly-understood media tropes, with an occasional bit of social-historical bite. You’re a low-ranking pirate sent to retrieve treasure from an island containing a British fort, a native village, a shipwrecked castaway, and a colony of mermaids. Mermaids, we learn, vary in their composition; the first one you encounter has the left half of a woman and the right half of a fish. That’s the sort of gag we’re dealing with here.

Of particular note is the treatment of cannibalism. You can’t really do a pirate comedy adventure game without bringing Monkey Island to mind, and one of the repeated elements of the Monkey Island series is a small tribe of vegetarians who identify as cannibals culturally. And even though it’s making fun of traditional depictions of primitive savages, I think it’s a little uncomfortable by today’s sensibilities — even if it’s denying hurtful stereotypes, it is in the process repeating them. Now, Pirateship makes its islanders into basically the only completely sane and reasonable people on the island, and emphasizes the point by shifting the cannibalism onto the castaway, where it more reasonably belongs.

There’s some good sudden-realization puzzles here, and a good redundancy of information — there are at least two ways to learn the location of the treasure. Nonetheless, I managed to get stuck for a while on a critical-path puzzle because I didn’t read a description well enough, and wound up just wandering the island aimlessly, much like Catbeard, the ship’s cat, who spends his time falling asleep in the tropical sun. The island’s interior is somewhat irregularly connected, but can be navigated without making a map all the same.

Overall, it’s pretty charming, and manages to wring some new wrinkles out of one of the oldest adventure game premises there is.

IFComp 2016: Detectiveland

Spoilers follow the break.
Read more »