Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom tears down all the standard rules of design in its chosen medium, piles them in a heap, hacks the heap to splinters, burns the splinters to ash, and scatters the ashes on a blood-red sea.
The results are pure awesome.
In form, this is interactive fiction. Over the course of amateur IF development, there's been a movement towards more complete implementation and more literary story-telling: more descriptions of objects, more actions for the player to use on everything and sundry, more plausible settings, more logical solutions to puzzles, greater concern for literary values in story, and so on.
There has also been a compensatory school of authors and players who reject the literary nonsense (deeming it pretentious), and who prefer obvious puzzles and unsubtle implementation as more essentially fun. These are often the same people who dislike the term "interactive fiction" and consider "text adventure" more honest, or at least a better description of what they want to play.
Even by the standards of the latter group, though, ToaSK is decidedly retrograde. It gets rid of most of the standard IF vocabulary in favor of five major verbs chosen for their archaism: REGARD, SEIZE, USE, PARLEY, and ASSAIL. One can also JOURNEY in compass directions, and there are commands like PILLAGE and SHED to speed up the task of picking up and putting down objects. One might USE OIL WITH FENCE, USE COIN WITH MERCHANT, USE HEALING SPELL WITH ELF: USE is all things to all inanimate objects. (And some animate ones, too. USE VIRGIN means exactly what you think it should.) There's usually not too much doubt about whether to PARLEY or ASSAIL, either, since people are usually easily divided into the friendly and the hostile. As for REGARD, sure, you can look at things, but quite a few things have no individual description. Most of your time as a player will be spent traveling, USEing, and ASSAILing, with just the occasional PILLAGE and PARLEY for spice. In terms of interaction, this game is really really focused.
The result is two-fold. To start with, of course, we lose much of the freedom and unpredictability of a parser-based game, which can be either wonderful or annoying depending on your personal preferences and the thoroughness of the implementation. Second, we drastically simplify the puzzles, to the point where they're functionally equivalent to puzzles in point-and-click adventures. USE is like clicking on something; USE WITH is like clicking an inventory item and then clicking on something. It's possible to wander around in confusion because we haven't yet found all the necessary props, but it's relatively hard to get confused about what to do with a critical item. Because the answer, naturally, is always to USE it.
So this isn't about grand story-telling, and it also isn't about complex puzzle solving -- not really. Where does the fun come from?
Well, here we have to back up. Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom is set in the realm of Encounter Critical, a parodic RPG universe that makes a shameless smoothie of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Conan the Barbarian, with a little dash of Tolkien and probably quite a few other references I'm not geek-literate enough to recognize. There are wookies. There are "Klengons". There are demon gods, sea monsters, and magical telepathic witches. Do not look here for consistency or reason. One runs into a couple Frankenstein's-monster sorts of creatures, and I think they stand as an emblem of the whole world: it's a crude patchwork of all the most memorable aspects of a dozen other settings. Encounter Critical predated S. John Ross's experiments with interactive fiction, which may at least answer the question of why someone would write a game that (falsely) purports to be a 1980s commercial work based on a (fake) role-playing game.
So what's fun about ToaSK-- and it is very fun -- is wandering around a setting that makes no sense and rips off lots of stereotypes, while solving largely straightforward puzzles and engaging in frequent semi- random battles with monsters of every kind.
And what makes *that* work is the complete and utter confidence of the writing, the smoothness of the game experience (I encountered no bugs and quite a few clever responses), the vividness of the action sequences, and the more or less ceaseless entertainment that both the player and the author are having at the expense of the protagonist. While you move this witless wonder of a barbarian around the map, occasionally powering up by finding a super new suit of armor or an even more macho sword, you're really also having a conversation with the author. It's a friendly, backstage conversation, probably conducted over some sort of malted beverage, about all the stories that you both enjoyed so much as kids and secretly still do enjoy. And because you and the author get pretty well in tune about what sort of ridiculous genre-tale this is, you're willing to manipulate the protagonist as the story and setting require, sending him into the most foolish dangers and the most obvious traps. The goal, in short, is not to sympathize or identify with the protagonist (as in a great deal of more serious IF) but to make him play out the role assigned for him.
ToaSK is probably not for everyone. The author, when he sent me a copy of the game, also said sheepishly that he was a little worried what I would think of its treatment of women. This is a metal-bikini-and-furs universe, in which women generally wear more oil than clothing. I might have found this annoying if it were taking itself seriously, but since it really, really is not...
It's strange and wonderful. It's also fun, well-polished, and written with considerable skill. If you're an IF aficionado, you'll probably find that it takes you a few turns to get used to the interaction, which is quite unlike even the oldest text adventures. It's entirely its own thing, and that's why it works.
N.B.: Unlike most IF, the full version of this game costs money ($12.95). The download link is to the demo version.Update: It's now free, and the link has been updated to point to the free version.
N.B.: ToaSK was built using the Z-machine, an interactive fiction engine originally created by Infocom. To play the game, you need to install a Z-machine interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Z-machine interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux above--you can probably find them for other devices, too.