Analysis of Jimmy Maher's "The King of Shreds and Patches"

This analysis was first published in SPAG #56.

I - Introduction

"A wandering monster I —
A king of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And frantic lullaby!

"My catalogue is long,
Through every passion ranging,
And to your humours changing
I tune my maddening song!
I tune my maddening song!"

Thus I imagine the horrid King's entrance aria in the musical version of The King of Shreds and Patches, Jimmy Maher's first interactive fiction. Of course, Shakespeare is older than Gilbert and Sullivan, but because my acquaintance with The Mikado antedates my first reading of Hamlet, it always seems to me as if the melancholy prince is punning on Gilbert. Shakespeare surely would approve, and I think Maher will as well, since his King is a singer to rival the sirens.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I want to start this analysis of Maher's excellent game by placing it within the history of interactive fiction, for I believe it is a near-perfect example of an important design ideal. After that, my two main concerns will be with the piece's horrific content and the Lovecraftian nature of that content in particular; and with Maher's puzzle design. We will continually keep in mind the question whether and how these aspects of The King of Shreds and Patches help it become the type of game I claim it is and wants to be.

II - The second consensus

The King of Shreds and Patches, or King from now on, is a very good example of what I will call "the second ideal". This is exactly the kind of new and confusing terminology that literary critics coin in order to feel important and be cited more often--but which sometimes turns out to have analytic value. So lets indulge me and hope for the best.

With an "ideal", I mean a widely shared idea of what a great piece of interactive fiction is like. In order to be an ideal, many people, both players and authors, must recognise it as a measure of excellence, as something that a good game might want to achieve. Such an ideal need not be exclusive, in the same way that as readers we may have standards for great detective fiction, for great tragic plays, and so on, without believing that one of these standards is the standard against which all fiction must be measured. A successful artistic community will almost always have one or more recognised ideals, plus people experimenting in order to find new ones.

Historically, the first ideal of the interactive fiction community was that of the tough puzzle game. Ideally, a tough puzzle game does have a good story, marvelous writing, integration of puzzles and setting, and so on, but what is most important is that it creates a series of challenges that the player can really sink her teeth in. The puzzles must be solvable by a smart and tenacious player, but only with effort: they must not be easy. They must take time to solve. The player expects to get stuck often, and will be disappointed if she doesn't. If the game is any good, she'll keep on thinking about possible solutions at work or at school, eager to try them out as soon as she gets home. Once found, the solutions must make sense.

This first ideal of interactive fiction is the ideal of the Infocom games, and of much "early modern" interactive fiction, such as Curses and So Far.

The second ideal that has emerged in the interactive fiction community is that of the continually engaging, linear or quasi-linear narrative interspersed with well-integrated puzzles. Most of the virtues of the first ideal are also virtues of the second ideal, but what is of paramount importance is that the story keeps going, that the flow is not interrupted. Playing interactive fiction is like reading a book, and reading a successful work is like reading a page turner.

Thus, the player must never get stuck, at least not for more than a few minutes. Puzzles are still the most important and meaningful manner of interaction with the game, but their aim has become very different from what it was in the first ideal. Puzzles must now present a slight challenge to the player, just enough to give her a sense of accomplishment when she solves them and to make her feel involved in the story, but not enough to stop her steady progress through the story. The puzzles are still essential to the gaming experience--take them out and the sense of interactivity would be greatly diminished and the work would suffer mightily as a result--but the author also has a story to tell that requires fast and steady pacing.

Many games created in the last decade strive for this second ideal, and most that do not have at least taken inspiration from it. Jimmy Maher's King is a near-perfect example. Here we have a true page turner, a well-told horror story of considerable length that we are eager to explore; and we get puzzles thrown in our way that we will always solve within minutes and that create exactly the sense of being involved in the action that they are meant to. King is not supposed to be a tough puzzle game where we stare at the screen for hours as we attempt to get into Joseph's house; indeed, it would be fatal to the tension created by the quickly unfolding narrative if we did.

King is an attempt to conform exactly to the second ideal, and is therefore not an experimental piece. It does not attempt to explore new ways of story-telling, new types of gameplay in interactive fiction, new connections between story and game. It is no Blue Lacuna, to name one recent and impressive example. But as a long and substantial work that attempts to conform to the second ideal, it is still something of a novelty: few if any works combine King's many-hour playing time with the aesthetic of the second ideal. The game is, for instance, much closer to this ideal than its illustrious thematic predecessor Anchorhead, which features puzzles of much greater difficulty and provides far fewer aids to keep the player on track.

We will talk about the puzzles at length in a later section, but let us say something more now about the ways in which King ensures that the story keeps moving. Two major helpful features of the game are, first, the map of London, and, second, the list of goals that pops up in response to the "think" command. The map and the goals work together in perfect unison: the goals tell us where to go and what to do there, while the map tells us how to get there. This means that we always have something to do: we know where the new possibilities for exploration are, and we can easily move to that place. It is the equivalent of the "quest pointer" in many graphical RPGs, and it is perfect for a game that aspires to the second ideal--we may hope that map and list of goals will become standard in future games. (Games that do not aspire to the second ideal may not be able to use such systems. Adventure ought not to have either. Blue Lacuna would greatly benefit from a map, but a list of goals would be simply impossible.)

Another, less successful design choice that keeps King moving and on track is its heavy reliance on topic-based conversation, where the topics are all listed by the "topics" command. This certainly ensures that we get all the information we need, and it does removes a major potential source of stuckness. But it turns conversing into a mechanical task, a mowing of the lawn, and the sheer number of conversation topics make some parts of the game feel as chores. It is a compliment to Maher's writing that most of the conversation is fun, but at some point we really want to tell John Dee to stop talking...

That said, the problem is mostly one of pacing. King's conversation system is compatible with the second ideal, but the scenes should be relatively short and separated by sequences with more player agency--that is, puzzle solving.

We now turn to a discussion of King as Lovecraftian horror.

III - Lovecraftian horror

Lovecraftian horror is a strange genre, because its very premises set the writer up for failure. For what is its essence? Lovecraft took the gothic tale of terror and pushed it towards transcendence--a dark, anti-humanistic transcendence. Perhaps it is said most clearly in the first sentences of his famous The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

One can immediately see why this vision is attractive to the reader and the writer of horror: where the gothic tale was always only an escape from the rationality of our daily lives, never to be taken quite seriously, the Lovecraftian tale presents itself as a full-fledged alternative to rationalism. Yes, your science seems useful... but! You believe you understand the universe... but! With Lovecraft, horror gains a metaphysical import which it had hitherto lacked.

So why do I claim it sets the writer up for failure? Because those things and beings that are so alien that mere knowledge of them makes us insane, cannot be represented, cannot be captured in language--and of course it is precisely the writer's job to put his subject matter in language. At the end of a Lovecraftian tale, when the horror finally appears in person, the writer has only three basic options. First, he can try to describe the monster, as an "awful squid-head with writhing feelers" for instance. Second, he can describe the effect of seeing the monster on human beings: "Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant." Third, he can tell (rather than show) us that the horror transcends human categories: "The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order." Or he can do some combination of the three, as Lovecraft did in The Call of Cthulhu, from which all these citations were taken.

But each of these three possibilities is a failure. If the thing is described, we laugh. Writhing feelers? It's only a giant squid! Are we supposed to believe in the metaphysical import of giant squids, and science's inability to deal with them? If we are told that the people around the horror go mad, we rightly ask why they go mad. What happens to them? What do they see? In what sense is this thing not just a giant squid? If, finally, the writer tells us that the horror cannot be put into words, he merely admits his own failure as a writer. Thus, we have a trilemma from which no escape is possible--and Lovecraft himself is among those who fail to escape, as is shown by passages like this one: "The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled." A mountain stumbled? Did it trip over its own foothills, or what? The image evokes laughter rather than terror.

Being a tale of Lovecraftian horror, King suffers from the problem inherent in the genre. The losing endings where the protagonist goes insane or has his soul ripped out and consumed by an Elder Horror (and there are several of these), fail to convince. They do not fit within the fictional world. That is of course precisely their point, but it is at the same time the reason the point cannot be made. We are not asked to believe in the slow descent into madness of Macbeth, nor in the gradually appearing nihilistic insanity of King Lear, nor even in the charicatural bloody madness of Aaron the Moor, no, we are asked to believe in the instantaneous reduction of reason to gibbering insanity--and we do not and can not believe in it. (And can we believe in it in the presence of Shakespeare? Couldn't one argue that no form of horror is farther from the Bard's consciousness than Lovecraftian horror, since Lovecraft's visions--if they can be called such--entail no less than the dissolution of that consciousness? But such questions cannot be answered here.)

King also features episodes where the King of Shreds and Patches and the even greater demon Hastur (not, I believe, identified by name in the game, but called such in the original scenario) are manifested physically. Here Lovecraft's unfortunate obsession with tentacles is emulated. Emily Short complains that "unspeakable horrors become speakable and in the process turn out more banal than their earlier manifestations".

But this banality is not merely a weakness. King is strongest as a horror game precisely when the physical, rather than the mental or spiritual, survival of the protagonist is at stake. We are tense and worried when we are sitting in a quickly sinking boat, when we are scaling high walls with little equipment and less skill, when a thug is about to shoot us down at point blank range, when a horde of angry cultists appears ready to tear us limb from limb, when a mad composer tries to claw out our eyes, and, yes, when a tentacled being bodily pursues us through the desolate house of one of our enemies. At these moments we are convinced of the danger, and we strive mightily to think of the commands that will deliver us from evil. In this game, the horror is best when physical, is most convincing when we can interact with it and attempt to escape from it as players, and Maher knows it. His puzzles in general, but his timed puzzles in particular, have to do with physical dangers; the most terrifying parts of the tale coinciding with the tensest gameplay. The opportunities to go stark raving mad, on the other hand, are merely there as optional exploration, something we might want to savour as the whim takes us.

A note about the form of the plot. Lovecraftian horror often takes the form of an investigation that only slowly reveals whatever insanity-inducing things are going on. More often than not, this takes the form of the protagonist exploring forbidden texts which reveal the activities of an evil cult bent on summoning a monstrous being. Indeed, this is in a single sentence the plot of King. And it is a kind of plot that can be easily adapted to interactive fiction: exploring unknown surroundings and discovering hidden things has been part of IF since Adventure, and a textual medium is obviously the best medium in which to present written clues.

But even more importantly, Lovecraftian horror lends itself incredibly well to games that aspire to the second ideal. Recall that the second ideal involves a linear or quasi-linear plot, where the player always knows, in broad terms, what she has to do next in order to make the plot advance. As a plot, an investigation with clues is perfect: every clue is an opportunity for the author to tell the player where to go next, even as he advances the storyline. On top of that, Lovecraftian horror is all about the relative ignorance and powerlessness of the protagonist: he is in the dark about what is really happening, and he could not do much about anything even if he knew. The result is that the opportunities for action that suggest themselves to the player are few, which is exactly what you want as author if you wish to present a linear or quasi-linear plot. It is easy to keep the player on the predetermined track when the world does the bidding of vast formless things that shift the scenery to and fro.

Still--might not these same effects be attained in genres of horror that escape the Lovecraftian problem of representing the unrepresentable? Very probably, and I hope that future authors will explore the possibilities.

In the course of this section, we have seen that King takes some of its weaknesses and some of its strengths from the genre to which it belongs; and we also have seen that it is strongest when it steps out of this genre and enters the realm of physical danger. These physical scenes are where most of the action--and I mean action for the player, that is, puzzle solving--takes place. So in order to complete the discussion, we must now talk about the game's puzzle design.

IV - Puzzles

Second-ideal games like King must have puzzles that pose some challenge, but not too much: the player must be able to reliably solve them within minutes. Ten minutes is not a problem, if it happens only once or twice during the course of the game; but if the player gets stuck for half an hour, her experience will suffer from it. Now this may appear to be a very hard design problem, much harder than making the difficult puzzles of the first ideal. In fact, walking the line between the trivial and the difficult is not harder than walking the line between the easy and the impossible. For both types of puzzles the most important thing is to have a good team of beta-testers, and to adjust the difficulty of the puzzles based on their feedback.

So one can rely on beta-testing as a way of ensuring that the puzzles have the right difficulty--but Maher is far shrewder than that. King's puzzle design is actually quite sophisticated, not so much when it comes to the individual puzzles (which range from the very standard to the pleasingly inventive), but when it comes to how all the puzzles in the game hang together. What Maher uses to great effect is repetition: putting the character, and therefore the player, in situations that are like earlier situations and that call for the same solution. Let me illustrate that by describing four scenarios that are instantiated more than once in King.

First scenario: "There must be something interesting here, but it is not readily apparent." Solution: examine everything, and press anything strange-looking, look under things that are askew, and so on.

Second scenario: "I cannot reach X, or I don't have the leverage to open it with my hands." Solution: use your walking stick to reach or push X.

Third scenario: "I need to bodily go to a place I cannot reach." Solution: throw your hook and rope, then climb.

Fourth scenario: "Someone is threatening me." Solution: shoot him with the pistol.

An amazing number of King's puzzles fall within these four scenarios. The effect of this repetition is that although we still perceive the situation as a puzzle, and still need to make the mental leap to the solution, this leap becomes easier to make as the game progresses. Near the end of King, we as puzzle-solving players have become proficient rope-climbers, proficient stick-wielders and proficient pistol-shooters.

And this is the brilliant touch: so has the protagonist. What was once a major exertion has now become routine for him, as we are explicitly told when we use the rope and hook to climb into Barker's house. By this coming together of increasing player skill and character skill, Maher achieves several things at once: he has taught the player to be an efficient puzzle solvers, which makes sure that the story can go on without interruption; he has achieved a greater identification of player and character; and he has implemented something that acts as and gives all the satisfaction of a leveling up mechanism. It it perhaps the strongest design decision in the entire game.

It is true that not every puzzle in King is one of a repeating kind. There are the two machine-puzzles--getting to understand the pistol and the printing press--which reward knowledge and logical thinking, and serve to remind us that we are in Elizabethan England. There is the fascinating sound puzzle, which left me eager for more exploration of the possibilities of sound in interactive fiction. And finally there is the puzzle with the boat, which is perhaps the most frustrating and least appealing in the game, and would have worked far better if a graphical representation of the situation had been available. (And although I am no rowing expert, I wonder about its accuracy. A one-man rowing boat with a rudder? Surely one would normally steer with the oars?) The existence on such non-repeating puzzles is perhaps for the best. The repeating puzzles assure that the smooth story flow is maintained without the player needing to look at the hints too often, while the non-repeating puzzles add variety to what might otherwise run the risk of being too, well, repetitive.

Through the high-level design element of repetition, King's puzzle design furthers the goals of the game author, namely, to achieve smooth story flow and make a game that achieves the second ideal.

V - Conclusion

What, at the end of our discussion, do we still need to say about The King of Shreds and Patches? I have often claimed that what interactive fiction needs most of all are longer games, and King is one of several recent attempts to give us such a longer game. I believe its length pays off. First, King achieves a flow and pacing of the story that shorter works simply do not have the room to accommodate: lots of exposition, several twists and turns, a slow increase of the tension until we arrive at kidnapping and finally the sorcerous show-down. In this respect, King is very satisfying. Second, the repetition of classes of puzzles that makes the game so effective is only possible in a longer game. In a short game, the repetitions would follow so fast upon each other that they would be merely irritating; only a work of King's length can contain several repeating patterns and have room left for the odd non-repeating puzzle here and there.

For these reasons--and although it shares to some extent the weakness of all Lovecraftian horror; and although its pacing is not always perfect, especially where conversations are concerned; and although it takes a very traditional approach to interactive storytelling--, for these reasons The King of Shreds and Patches is an important work. If Maher's game cannot convince someone that the second ideal is worth striving for, she will never be convinced.