In Varicella, an ingenious piece of alternative history interactive fiction created by Adam Cadre, you have the pleasure of abandoning your usual scruples to play one of the most delightfully nasty antiheroes that I've come across: the eponymous Primo Varicella, Palace Minister at the Palazzo del Piemonte. Oh, from the outside you might not look like much: a moustached, balding, unimposing little man decked out like a dandy in the latest fashion. On the inside, however, you are pure will and ambition, Machiavelli incarnate. Because, you see, you have just been presented with the most tremendous opportunity: King Charles has just suffered an untimely death, leaving the principality in the hands of his 5-year-old son. Obviously, a regent to reign in his stead will be needed for the foreseeable future... and who, the game asks, would be a better candidate than yourself?
You will have to work very quickly, however. At the moment, thanks to a letter from the Queen, you are the sole person to know of the King's death; however, in a matter of hours your more powerful rivals shall be arriving at the Palace and, knowing your ambitions, will surely have you, er, sent on a long and restful "vacation." Luckily, you've gathered extensive information regarding each of your enemies, and using just the right blend of bribery, treachery and force may manage to eliminate them and win the throne.
With Varicella, Cadre has created something really special. It functions very nicely as a puzzle/intellectual challenge; in order to succeed, Varicella must use his resources (bribes, wits, ever-dwindling time) to orchestrate the downfall of his rivals. Time—two hours in game time, to be exact—is the silent but potentially fatal force that lends urgency to the situation, forcing every movement to be carefully considered. The true brilliance, however, of the game lies in its snarky humor (beginning even with the title character's name—"Varicella" is one of the eight herpes viruses and commonly causes chicken pox), fantastic writing and character development. Primo Varicella's particular temperament, his vanity and scheming nature, infuses the game's every word; examining his appearance in the mirror, for example, leads to:
You are the very model of a modern Palace Minister. Moustaches: flawless. Hairline: receding more slowly than last month. You're certain of it.
I love it!
The game does have its flaws. Considering the necessity of conserving time, a built-in map of the castle would have been invaluable; otherwise, it becomes dangerously easy to wander around aimlessly, watching invaluable minutes slip away. Also, at times what needs to be done to successfully complete the game seems frustratingly arbitrary. How would the player know, for example, exactly when to go check Varicella's surveillance equipment in order to gain incriminating information? Unless I'm missing something (which is certainly possible), I don't see any way to figure out this or several other necessary plot points without the help of a walkthrough.
Another important note: Varicella is not for children. While there is no explicit sex and actual violence is not excessive, Varicella has some distinctly adult themes and more than a few disturbing moments. For all its humor, this is a dark, dark game. It is, however, also brilliant and inventive, one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I've had the pleasure of playing.
Seize the day (and the throne):
The links above point to JIG's internally developed Flash-based Z-Machine interpreter (thanks asterick!), with the story files hosted here with permission from the game's author. That means you can now play these games in your browser rather than having to download and run the game in a standalone interpreter.
If you would rather download the game, you may do so at Adam Cadre's website. If you choose to download the game, you will need an interpreter to read the z-file, just like most IF games: try Gargoyle for Windows, or Zoom or Splatterlight for Macintosh and Unix.
If you enjoyed "Varicella," take a look at other Interactive Fiction we have reviewed here at JIG.