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By Paul Panks (writing as “Dunric” aka “The Master of Spunk”)
Played On: October 13th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: PowerBASIC (Compiled MS-DOS Executable)
Merk’s Score: 3-
Ghost of the Fireflies follows the hilarious (mis)adventures of Raiythius, a hellhound bent on mischief, whose main goal appears to be tormenting the main character (played by you, of course).
Ghost of the Fireflies begins with a hardy chiding. You’re likely to have missed it if, like me, you pressed “enter” after hitting “n” to skip the instructions. The question is followed by a two- or three-second pause, but any keypress after “n” will skip right over it. I saw it the first time because I did read through the instructions. Anyway, if you’re interested in being scolded with the use of words such as “weirdo” and “stupid,” just press “n” to skip the instructions but press no other key until “HELP FOR THE LAZY” appears as the heading.
The instructions seem to spoil what might be a pretty big plot twist, but that was evidently intentional. It goes on to say that multi-phrase commands such as “get lantern and go west” will work (it’s “designed to shut up the naysayers”) even though the aforementioned chiding says it won’t work (because it’s stupid for a player to do that). The game doesn’t appear to support multiple commands on the same line, incidentally.
It saddens me to see Paul Panks again and again invest his effort and creativity in games people just can’t play. Writing text adventures is obviously important to him, yet his insistence on doing it the same way time and again despite well-intentioned advice from numerous sources has grown from stubbornness into... I don’t know... obsession, maybe. What he doesn’t see -- refuses to see, perhaps -- is that he could write these “old school” RPG/Adventures in something more suited to interactive fiction, even if this is the kind of game he wants to write. In Hugo, for instance, he could intentionally re-write the grammar to support only two-word command phrasing (it would be pretty easy) with three-letter abbreviations for verbs and all object nouns. I think this would be silly, but it would allow for the same game without the technical issues that exist as a result of these poorly-coded game/engine hybrids.
For all of Paul’s experience with BASIC, the game’s included source code shows that he’s still doing it pretty much the way we did in the 1980’s, before “sub” and “function” were introduced in more powerful dialects. What Paul does with spaghetti-gosubs and various branching goto’s should be done with well-planned subs and functions. Errors abort the program, instead of being handled with “on error” code. Almost all variable names are two characters long, even though that’s a throwback to earlier BASIC dialects which would only understand the first two letters of a variable name. PowerBASIC supports all of these things. Interactive Fiction has advanced. BASIC has even advanced. Paul Panks hasn’t.
And it’s buggy -- very, very buggy. For a time, I thought it was impossible to load a saved game because as soon as I would answer “y” at the appropriate point, it would display a directory listing of my saved games followed by a fatal error that ends the program. What I realized is that I was pressing “enter” after “y” -- just like I had done when asked about instructions. In BASIC, it’s an “inkey” instead of “input.” The result is that the game thought I intended to load a save with a blank name. Instead of validating this, or even handling it with “on error” code, the game just relies on you to press “y” and then nothing else until the list comes up. Then, you must type just the name of a real, existing save. Stray from that and the game dies.
Skip the next long paragraph to avoid a list of bugs I found just in a partial play-through.
Other bugs are numerous. As announced at the IFComp website, you can’t buy anything at the store because the game never believes you have any money. I corresponded with Dunric and he sent me an update (I intended to use it to see the rest of the game, although I can’t base my score on it), but even that version seems to have some problems in the same area. “Examining” things (among other potentially useful and necessary actions) frequently results in blank responses. You can find a fern shield, but (believe it or don’t) an Ice Dragon is what actually ends up in your inventory (this, I noticed, was fixed by the update). In early battles, if you attempt to use an item (from the battle menu), you’re seemingly stuck. It wants an item number in response, but the list is empty, and there is no “0” or “nevermind” option. I had to just “ctrl+break” then “enter” to force my way out of the game entirely. In dealing with Bruce Lee you can sell things you don’t even have, and unknown nouns usually result in Bruce thinking you’re selling the Ice Dragon. There was a strange quirk where nothing would happen when I tried to listen to the band’s music, but later it worked. Some bad line wrapping in a few places results in words that are split from the end of one display line to the beginning of the next.
Here’s the one that had me throwing my hands up in exasperation:
Paul implemented “X” for “examine” (which is nice, even given the introductory lecture on why it shouldn’t have been necessary). He even added an “alias” command to create shortcuts to two-word actions. The top of the display shows function-key shortcuts to several verbs. A text map is available in-game. The problem is that these are the advanced features Paul has included to prove that he’s growing as an IF author. The game structure itself is still antiquated and obsolete.
The beginning, for instance, is a CYOA-style prologue with a couple of prompts (and not command prompts -- you are expected to type “go west” and it’s not routed through general parsing). That wouldn’t be an issue except that you can’t skip it on later play-throughs, and you can’t load a saved game until you move through it into the game proper.
I really tried to get past these things and put effort into playing a game Paul has put such effort (even if misguided) into writing. It’s just... an exercise in frustration. It’s a shame, because some of what Paul writes hints at brilliance. The rest, sadly, is an incomprehensible mesh of disparate ideas that don’t seem surreal or inviting, just confusing and strange. It ranges from beautiful imagery and well-imagined originality to exhausted elements rehashed from his prior games and toilet humor. The PC is a huge female beetle (spelled “beatle” in the game) accompanied by a comically sadistic hellhound who isn’t quite as funny as Paul thinks he is. This female beetle, it seems, can not only elicit friendly flirting from a concubine bartender, but she can engage in “romantic intercourse” with yet another woman (some opium-smoking guild master). As awkward as much of the story seems, I think it might have made an interesting and surreal adventure if not marred by so darned many technical issues.
The ending is equally strange. I couldn’t get to it the intended way (is the game truly unwinnable?) so I looked in the source code afterwards. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion to a story somebody out there may wish to play, it involves an NPC called Dunric who commits seppuku (a specific suicide of Japanese origin) with a knife. What precedes it is the PC’s apology for the suffering Dunric has endured, and Dunric’s calm answer that “the competition” will never change him. This is surely just a figurative flight of fancy for the author (I sincerely hope that it is), but if there is any correlation between Dunric the NPC and Dunric the author, it’s a chilling way to end a story -- any story.
It would be easy to vote the game a “1”. Most judges will. I think if anything is good about a game, it deserves at least a “2”. I’ve gone up from there, though, based almost entirely on the effort that went into the game, not the result. Plus, there are a few well-written and visceral passages that make it clear Paul had something big in mind for Ghost of the Fireflies. I’ve rated it a “3”, but with a “minus” for being so technically unsound and generally a pain to actually play. I can’t recommend it, and it’s probably going to rank at or near the bottom in the final results.
To wrap up, I would recommend (again) to Paul that he pick up Inform, or TADS, or even Adrift. Please don’t be so adamantly against learning something new and taking on a new challenge. I’d like to think we’ve always been on friendly terms. I’ve offered suggestions, sent information about bugs, written reviews far lengthier and more open-minded than most, not dismissed your games based on by-line alone, avoided (I think) the Panks-bashing that sometimes felt like a daily routine, and even beta-tested one of your games. So, please consider this the friendly, well-intentioned advice it’s meant to be. Just consider it. Your games would benefit by it. I really believe this.