The Lost Spellmaker by Neil James Brown [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Lost Spellmaker
Final placement: 8th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that’s what’s happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged (and I do think that’s a fair characterization) in rgif about “Gay characters in IF.” Some people held that if a piece of IF were to feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended that a character’s sexual orientation can function simply as a vector to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game’s theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The Lost Spellmaker proves Brown’s point quite handily.

The game’s protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain why she lives in the town Sweet Shop. And finally, the fact that Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love-interest subplot with the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the game’s central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters, for which purpose Mattie’s status as a lesbian is no more or less important than, for example, her status as a dwarf.

I don’t know whether Brown wrote this game to prove his point, but it certainly does. It’s also a fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can’t deny that I personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where heterosexuality isn’t the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has more than that to recommend it. It’s a snappy quest in a creatively conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn’t particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some of the game’s lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule, quite well-written, especially the Reverend’s constant malapropisms, which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for the second and third times.

Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter superior, his secretary “Mr. Cashpound”), the plot walks a fine line, and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating fantasy characters to solve puzzles. Nor was it simply espionage, though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two, making for a merry ride.

Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The puzzles weren’t the focus of the story, so they served the basic purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they worked admirably well. There were no particularly witty or clever puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or “guess-the-verb” puzzles either.

Technical (writing): I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast majority of the prose was competently and correctly written.

Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author. Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really nifty z-machine special effect.

OVERALL: A 9.1

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