Rating: 6/10. Reasonably good.
Designer and writer: Michael Gentry
Game implementer: Graeme Jefferis
Engine programmer: Jesse McGrew
User interface programmer: Thomas Lynge
Artist: Erika Swanson
Eva and I played Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter together. Eva has posted her own review if you are interested in a second opinion. Eva's review addresses in some depth theme problems I only briefly touch on in the interest of avoiding spoilers. (You can skip the spoilers in Eva's review if you want; they are isolated to one marked section.)
I have mentioned spoilers in a few spaces, but I have concealed them like this: This is an example spoiler. Select the text to see the spoiler.
Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter is a complex game to review. There is the core interactive fiction and a custom user interface. The game itself is good, but not exceptional. The custom user interface is a promising start with some unique and compelling touches, some missed opportunities, and some flaws.
Textfyre is building a business selling to the young adult market. The game currently costs $25.
Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter is the story of Jack, an orphan with an unknown past living in a generic fantasy renaissance town. It's probably not a surprise that Jack is destined for more. The story begins with mercenaries searching the market for Jack. Jack must discover why and eventually becomes entangled the town's politics.
The title of the game includes the name “Jack Toresal.” Your character is an orphan of unknown parentage named “Jack.” The game is set in a town named Toresal. The beloved and now deceased Duke was the Duke of Toresal. For a surprise revelation that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the game, it's unfortunate that the title spoils it.
The writing is solid and pleasant to read. It feels like the slight simplification I would expect from a young adult novel, but I'm not well suited to judge. I'll admit that I bought the game because Michael Gentry's name is on the cover. (backup link) While very distinct from Gentry's amazing game Anchorhead, I enjoyed the writing. It managed to balance brevity and color.
Dialog is good as well, although a number of anachronisms are present. They feel intentional, but I found the character who, like, kept inserting, like, like everywhere distracting.
On the whole the story is good, but not noteworthy. While the fantasy renaissance town is a bit generic, it is interesting enough. Jack's story may be cliche, but it kept my attention.
The game has illustrations for various scenes. The art itself is unexceptional, with not-quite-right anatomy and slightly off perspective. Many of the illustrations make use of fine lines that almost disappear on screen, suggesting a lack of familiarity with the specific needs of computer screens. Heavier lines would have been nice. Fortunately, the art does help set the mood and establish a clear image for Jack. The several illustrations of Jack's various outfits really conveys details in a way that text would be hard pressed to match. Unfortunately it's clear that the game intended for much more art than originally shipped. For much of the game you are looking at pictures of Jack just standing there in various appropriate outfits. This was expected, the publisher mentioned (backup link) that they decided to publish without all of the art yet, and that later updates would include more act. For the initial release it's nice, if incomplete, touch. If the later added art is of similar quality, it will be a nice addition.
The game also includes a built in map of the town that nicely balances aesthetics and utility. I was glad it was present. Unfortunately you can't zoom in on parts for more detail, especially in the very dense and confusingly laid out Grubber's Market. Parts of the game lack a corresponding map and have relatively complex interconnectivity, so players will need to map. While I enjoy mapping, I can imagine that this may be a turn off to young adults new to the form.
Interestingly the first chapter of the game has the most complex map in the game. It features lots of diagonal connections in a sort of honeycomb pattern. I've a veteran interactive fiction player and it still took a while to wrap my brain around it. This may have been too clever given a target audience new to the form. Fortunately the rest of the game has more straightforward connections.
While the story opens with Jack overhearing the guards, the game itself starts with a menu of options. A “Instructions for Play” option provides a many, many page introduction to interactive fiction. While an introduction is a good idea given the target young-adult audience, putting it off in a menu as bulk reading seems extremely intimidating. That it has entries like “How the World is Assembled” and “Containment” makes it worse. Ideally the essentials of play would have been integrated into the game itself, much like many mainstream games do.
There are some minor rough edges that could have been polished off. It feels playtested, but not quite playtested enough. The occasional seemingly reasonable commands were rejected. Pronouns for people frequently bind to the wrong person. Some of the text is obviously repeated or built from simple forms. The stallkeepers in Grubber's Market are all identically nervous and irritable about the mercenaries searching the market. The stallkeepers also use identical fill-in-the-blank background actions, varying only what they sell. If you try to talk to more than one, it will quickly become clear that they all say the same things. In several deeper conversations with other characters, you'll need to repeatedly as something to the extent, “Can I ask you a question?” The response is from the other character is always identical. On the whole these are minor rough spots an otherwise solid interaction system. The publisher has been responsive to reports, so it seems likely that later revisions will smooth things out.
The game provides an “exits” command that lists possible exits. While helpful, it was implemented without considering accidental ramifications. A number of exits lead to the same place. A set of stairs to the north might be “north”, “up” and “in” all at once. When you ask for the “exits”, you get all three listed, which looks sloppy. Slightly more seriously, some places that look in the room description like exits aren't, and the “exits” command will reveal them. This doesn't hurt much, but it can be a letdown to see a bunch of interesting places mentions in the room description, but have exits spoil that a bunch are actually impassible. The biggest problem is that in at least one location “exits” will reveal a secret door. None of these ruin the game, but they do show a regrettable lack of polish.
The game is full of other characters Jack can talk to. The conversation system is menu based. You can initiate a conversation with “talk to whoever”, but you usually won't need to; other characters will frequently initiate conversations on their own. The menu contains short quotes that are representative of what Jack will say. Unfortunately sometimes the representative short quotes are a bit ambiguous, leading to the occasional surprise at what Jack actually says, or how he saids it.
The menu based system suffers from a weakness common to the technique: most of the time you can blindly march through the options like you were mowing the lawn.
The story is broken into 11 chapters, each with its own title. This helps give the game feel a bit more like a book, keeps each set of puzzles a bit more distinct, provides some direction, and provides a clear sense of progress.
Early on the game withholds information from the player that Jack already knows. available to Jack. The biggest one, that Jack is a girl, isn't actually that big of a deal. But another situation has one character asking after another. Jack clearly knows both characters. I was given a choice between several options that will likely color how the two characters feel about each other, but I doesn't know anything! I was forced to pick blindly. I don't think the choice mattered in the end, but it was frustrating.
In term of puzzles, the game is an uneven mix of puzzles and puzzle-free sections. Chapter 1 starts with a strong, if simple, puzzle: escape from the mercenaries. You'll need to explore the market and deal with several items and characters to accomplish this. Chapter 2 swings entirely the other way, with only the most trivially solved tasks. A large portion of chapter 2 consists of doing what another character tells you to do! The remainder of the game swings back and forth between light puzzles and sections with negligible interaction. None of the puzzles are as complex or satisfying as those found in chapter 1. Chapter 10 hints at a complex social puzzle with many participants, but it proves to only have a single stumbling block that can be crossed by mowing across the dialog options. Given the target audience of young adults who presumably are new to the form, it is surprising that the hardest part of the game is the first part. As a gamer, I found that for much of the game I felt more like I was passively reading a story than actually participating.
The endgame strongly swings toward the story end, and in a frustrating way. For much of the endgame you are presented with prompts, but no real ability to solve your own problems. Other characters must save you. Being so disempowered is especially frustrating in a game, where reader empowerment is a key differentiator from a novel. It's all the more frustrating because it invalidates a core theme of the game: Jack starts an independent, resourceful young woman, and ends a beautiful princess all dressed up for a ball who requires a boy to rescue her. A role-model for young women, Jack is not. I started strongly identifying with Jack, but between this and Jack acquiring an inexplicable sense of entitlement halfway through the game, I grew away from him.
In a few places the game's internal logic seems inconsistent. A villain has unknowingly had incriminating evidence in his home for years, but Jack finds it in a cursory search. Early in the game being captured by mercenaries is a fatal ending; later in the game being captured by the same mercenaries is mandatory to continue. Also early in the game, a strong emphasis is put on Jack accomplishing a task, finding a disguise, that once accomplished proves to be pointless because the mercenaries see right through it. And naturally the villain does a variety of stupid things, including admitting his crimes to you and imprisoning you instead of killing you. None of these destroy the story, but it can break immersion.
The game ends in a surprise cliff hanger. It's a fine cliffhanger, but in the end Jack hasn't really accomplished anything. All of his important tasks are incomplete or thwarted. The result is that instead of feeling like I read a satisfying first book of a series, I instead read the first half of a book. Providing some sort of clear closure on a plotline or two would have done much to cushion the landing.
Textfyre has developed a new front-end for Glulx. While this renders the game incompatible with most Glulx interpreters, it allowed Textfyre to experiment with a new interface. The new interface is a combination of good ideas, interesting ideas, and problems.
I played on a Macintosh, and unfortunately the initial Macintosh release was so bad as to be almost unplayable. Textfyre has since released a new version that fixes the serious problems.
The interpreter, FyreVM is written in C#, while the front end is a Microsoft Silverlight application. I played on a Macintosh, and unless otherwise noted the comments below apply to the Macintosh version. Experimenting with the Windows version suggests that it is very similar.
Visually, you are presented with a book. You click on the book and it opens. While playing the game, the text scrolls by on the left page, with the right page holds an illustration or, on occasion, dialog choices. The left page is numbered, and clicking on the left and right pages will take you backward and forward the transcript, two pages at a time. If you go past the “current” page, you reach the map. This is an intriguing interface, and does give the sense of a reading a book that you collaborate in writing. However, the metaphor is incompletely implemented. Most notably, the “current” page never changes; text just scrolls off the top like in almost any other interactive fiction interpreter. You will frequently have a partial line of text half-hidden at the top of the page, destroying the illusion of dealing with a printed book. (This probably doesn't occur while paging backward through the transcript.) Having new text flow move a page, then needing to turn the page to see more would have completed the metaphor better. As an added bonus, when you go to a new page because there is “[MORE]” text, you won't have to re-find your place in the text, a problem that plagues most interpreters. Also missing from the metaphor, when chapters transition there isn't a page break and chapter heading. While the current page has a headers for the chapter and current location, previous pages lack similar headers indicating which location and chapter the page is about.
A player can return to the main menu by clicking the “Table of contents” tab at the top left corner. The strange, lonely, translucent tab didn't seem appropriate on the book. A bookmark or ribbon might have fit the metaphor better. Similarly, having the map available from a second labeled bookmark or ribbon might be more discoverable than being forced to go through the main menu, or discovering that the map is always one page ahead of your current place in the game.
Most books use “curved” or “smart” quotes, as do nicer interpreters like Gargoyle and Spatterlight. It was surprising to see all of the polish applied to the look, then be given text with "straight" or "typewriter" quotes.
Modern interpreters tend to let the player select the font family of their choice. Unfortunately Secret Letter doesn't let you. With the updated Macintosh version you get a readable if unmemorable serif font. While I vastly prefer this to the Helvetica of the initial release, it's a shame the choice isn't in my hands. On Windows you get a serif font with interesting character and the room headers are in a very distinct small caps. Unfortunately the serif font is too fine and detailed for on-screen use; the letters run together and strain the eye.
Relatedly, the player cannot select the size of the font, although it scales up as the window is made larger. If you need a larger font than that, you can't get it. If you would prefer a smaller font to see more text at once, you can't do that either.
As you play, the version number is constantly displayed in the lower right corner. It's not clear if it's the version number of the interpreter, the game, the combination, or something else. While having the version number is handy for bug reporting, it's a bit distracting. Only presenting the version number when it was requested would have been nice.
The save system makes an interesting decision. When you save, you are asked for a title and description. When you load, you are given a list of save games with a bold title and the description below. This is a great feature that I hope other interpreters will pick up. It immediately suggested even further improvements. I hope that future interpreters from Textfyre and others will include in the list of saves the date and time of the save, the name of the current room, and the name and number of the current chapter in the list, making it even easier to identify them.
The save system integrates another great idea: your transcript of your play through the game is saved as well. When you load an old save, the transcript to that point is reloaded as well, so that it is as though you had never quit in the first place! This makes it much easier to remember where you were when you saved; you can see recent commands and responses. You can page back through the transcript to review earlier actions. This is a great addition that other interpreters should adopt.
The book metaphor transcript looks sharp, but to check anything further back than one or two pages it's tedious. Fortunately the game provides another transcript interface in which you just get the text in a scrolling window. Unfortunately the other transcript is a bit out of the way and has strange formatting issues. Formatting like bold text is gone. Room titles are merged into the next paragraph of text. Still, it's usable. Unfortunately there is no search functionality, which would be handy for helping remember where you saw someone before.
The book metaphor encourages reading the transcript as straight fiction, and reveals a weakness of reading interactive fiction this way. If you don't read the player input, sometimes important context is missing. If you do read the player input, you end up reading generally well written prose intermingled with gibberish like "x gray." This isn't a new problem, it's just that Secret Letter brings this weakness of interactive fiction into stark relief.
Occasionally when the interpreter takes a while to generate a response, the entire screen is dulled and a busy graphic is shown. This is extremely jarring, as my books don't generally disable themselves. Something more discrete in the text would have been better. Perhaps not giving me a new “>” prompt, instead displaying, “Working...”, only to replace the text with the “>” when the game is ready?
Like most Macintosh programs, Secret Letter has a menu bar at the top of the screen. Unfortunately it is void of any useful functionality. This emphasizes makes the game feel like an uncouth intruder into the Mac world. At the very least “Save” and “Load” would have been nice. (I expect the useless menu bar is an side effect of having used Microsoft's Silverlight to developer the user interface.)
When talking with another character, the illustration on the right page is replaced with a list of conversation choices. This feels strange. The right side goes from being a mostly static image that is output only to being an essential input location. The left side is where I normally provide input. Having the conversation option be on the right feels out of place. Furthermore, you can play the game almost entirely by typing, much like most interactive fiction. But for conversations you must click on options from the list. As best I can tell, there is no interface for selecting conversation options with the keyboard.
I enjoyed Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter, and I plan on purchasing the next game in the series. But it's only a good game, not an exceptional game. The limited freedom and puzzles will likely frustrate many players. The interpreter has some great innovations, but also some weaknesses. If the game were free, I would generally recommend it. Unfortunately at $25, I can only recommend it with significant reservations.