the Usher


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joyetheusher.jpgYour entire young life has been building up to this. You were born to it, your maternal line. You, Lalu, are the Usher, charged with guiding the queen's soul to the afterlife, a task of great splendor and nobility.

But that doesn't change how you feel now. All you can think is that you've been raised to die. If only there were some way out...

The Usher is a game of interactive fiction, so in this case the only visual representation you'll find is in your brain. The game uses a text parser for you to input your commands by typing them; "take item", "move north", "inventory", and so forth. The game provides you with a description of your actions and your surroundings, and you'll need to get creative in order to change Lalu's fate. If you find yourself stuck, try typing "hint" without the quotations to get a nudge in the right direction.

Analysis: While the Usher features some of the strongest writing in a competition bursting with great writers, the tone is not quite consistent. The writing would have me really feeling the doomed melancholy of Lalu's inevitable death, and then it would throw me a line about making the passage to the afterlife as "smooth as a laxative". I'd be snickering at a king named Stanley talking about his days in "King Camp", and then the game would hit me with an evocative description of starlight dancing. These frequent sudden swerves in tone and style can hurt immersion. In order for Lalu's danger to feel real, there has to be a sense that it is also serious. It would have been different if it were true gallows humor, which depends on treating serious subjects with irreverence, and thus depends on those subjects being fundamentally serious.

The plot also takes a sudden shift at the very end. In fact, despite the game telling me "You have escaped! Congratulations!", my first reaction was that I had somehow reached a bad end. I immediately pulled out the walkthrough and discovered that the game has only one ending, and that was it. Without spoiling, though the end is an escape, the method by which Lalu escapes seemed unconnected with any of the puzzles the player has to solve. As Lalu, you will work hard to escape only to be rewarded with a deus ex machina. In fact, once you get to that point, it turns out there is nothing you can do to stop the deus ex machina. I restarted, solved all the puzzles again, and instead of doing the action that triggers the end, just typed "z" (wait) several times, and the game forced me to escape.

To some extent it only itches because the writing is excellent. The parser, too, is top-notch, especially considering that this is the first game by both designers. I can think of only one instance where it didn't accept the first verb I tried, and when I rephrased it, it accepted it immediately. The game even accepted several typos I made. The hint system is also well designed, with repeated uses of the hint command gradually revealing more about what to do next, then a warning that the next use of the hint command will be the solution, then the solution. The puzzles are neither brain-meltingly difficult nor insultingly obvious.

Despite some bumpiness, the Usher obviously charmed audiences enough to place 8th in our first ever interactive fiction competition, Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7. IF fans shouldn't miss it.

Play the Usher

15 Comments

i always thought these kind of things were 'text adventures' where is the line between that and 'interactive fiction' drawn, or have the two become interchangable?

Reply

I used to think interactive fiction (IF) was the modern term for text adventure, but I believe people in the IF community will disagree.

While a text adventure need not contain a good story or narrative element, it is my understanding that IF assumes one.

If there is no compelling story that unfolds, then it might be just a text adventure.

Reply
phdavoid June 29, 2010 3:23 PM

The game uses the word 'mix' with regard to one of the ingredients, when in fact it means 'stir'. Mix means to add two ingredients together which is not what it wants you to do.

Reply
phdavoid June 29, 2010 4:06 PM

OK here is what I have done so far

read the two books, picked up note, given note to stanley, asked stanley for the 'heavy key', taken flower, given flower to the animal thing, removed the animal's collar, got the card from the 'slot' in the wall,dropped the stove, mixed up the potion, (I can give the order if people want it), put out the fire with my robe, opened the chest, and got the rope.

and now I am stuck so if anyone has an idea...

Reply
tigrita June 29, 2010 5:24 PM

The ending is... interesting. I'm not sure how I feel about it since it seems to come out of nowhere.

I really like the world the authors have created, though. Both in terms of the visuals and the whole culture they've invented for this race (or... species? I vaguely remember reading that someone had green skin) of people.

@phdavoid: have you tried the hint system within the game itself? I found it really useful.

Reply
linderella June 29, 2010 9:01 PM

What's the order? D:

Reply
linderella June 29, 2010 9:25 PM

nvm... What do I do after I'm on the railing?

Reply

I remember this game while I was trying to judge it. It was okay, but several times I think I had to use the walkthrough because even the hints were confusing to me!

This was one of the games I enjoyed more in the competition though. It did have a rather nice and thought out story--though the ending was rather unexpected, and I, too, thought that something bad had happened.

Oh well. I liked it.

Reply

Thanks so much for the review, joye. Yes, it was our first game, so the critique is very much appreciated. I'm so glad you enjoyed certain aspects of it: the writing and the storyworld? The ending was intentional, and I have a few thoughts about why it ended that way, which you all may or may not want to read:

The ending lends itself to philosophical discussion, depending on your understanding of where we go when we die. Given a few other earlier clues, you're to wonder, as a player, whether or not Lalu did just die. Did Lalu fulfill her role and her mission, that of ushering the queen to the afterlife? Did you or did you not die?

I think it's (kind of) like Faulkner's "Barn Burning," in which we wonder whether or not Sarty's arsonist dad was shot. He probably was, but it's an uncertainty. And then there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," in which the old man was probably an angel--apparent but not certain. I don't know; enough people were unhappy with that ending that it probably didn't work for our game. A failed experiment?

Thanks, everyone, for playing the game. Maybe, with your feedback, in the future we can work out the kinks. :)

Reply
andr01d July 3, 2010 10:07 AM

re: mixing vs stirring

i believe the word is 'swizzle'?

Reply

I died from the fire, how do I put it out?

Reply

Abe, fire hint:

Look at what you're wearing!

Remove your robes to help put out the fire.

Reply

Help!

i've mixed the potion and ripped the lining out of the chest but i don't know what to do next!! the hint function just tells me how to mix the potion :(

Reply

scratch that - worked it out and finished it! The ending was a bit abrupt, i wasn't expecting it at all but i loved it :)

Reply

I'm glad you enjoyed the puzzles and parsing! I'm sorry that the tone didn't work for you. The tone's mood swings are meant to reflect the conflict between Lalu's natural disposition and her situation. Also, our own personalities wouldn't allow constant seriousness without a dollop of silliness.

The Usher would have benefited from additional playtesting, but we ran out of time. We got a late start and had to scale down our original aspirations at the last minute, resulting in a single ending and a more linear game.

The hint system was a user-requested afterthought, but I'm happy you liked it. Thanks for playing!

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