[IF Comp 2019] Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

I haven’t played anything by Robin Johnson, I think, but I know his Detectiveland won the competition a few years ago. That’s a pretty high recommendation. Silly pirates is not a theme I’d otherwise be too interested in, but I can have fun with the genre. Indeed, I wasted quite some hours this summer playing through an electronic version of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones. That was dark, and this isn’t going to be dark if the cover and blurb are any indication. Still – I’m up for some good pirate fun.

(As in all my IF Comp reviews, spoilers follow; in this one especially, some puzzle solutions will be given away. If you just want an impression, you can skip to the last paragraph.)

Pirateship is a classic adventure in which you explore a map, collect objects, use those objects to solve puzzles, and finally find a treasure. It doesn’t get much more classic than that, and the puzzles too feel very traditional. Some guy is making breakfast in front of a gate; if you want to pass the gate, you must give him the ingredients he misses. You find a crumpled and seemingly blank treasure map; to read it, you must iron it and dip it in a colouring substance. Most of the puzzles aren’t too hard, though they do require you to grasp that auto-restoring after a near-death is the wrong impulse. (I didn’t get that until I checked the walkthrough.)

The interface of Pirateship is not the classic parser interface, though: rather, parser commands are replaced by a point-and-click system. The upside of this is that there is no guess-the-verb. But I felt that the downsides weighed more strongly. You’ll be doing a lot of navigating around the map, and typing “n.n.n.e.e”+enter is way quicker than walking the same stretch by clicking links. This is especially true because the directions are not always in the same place. Innumerable were the times when I wanted to go east twice in a row, and therefore clicked twice in the same location on the screen, only to find that in this way I had clicked first east and then west, returning to my original position. The interface also introduced a new problem in place of guess the verb: guess the object! I wanted to use the tea to colour the paper, but there was no option to do so when I held the tea. I got stuck on this, when it turns out that all I had to do was hold the paper instead.

The prose was surprisingly sparse. Many locations were quite bare, with nothing to do; descriptions of locations, objects and people were minimalist. While this certainly made it easier to focus on the puzzles, it also meant that the world didn’t really stick with me.

I guess I end up being somewhat lukewarm on this. It’s totally competent, good puzzle design, well-made interface, functional prose. But it didn’t really do anything for me beyond that. I don’t think I connected with whatever it was that made the author enthusiastic about this game. Which might, of course, mean that my review fails to capture Pirateship’s true spirit.

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