Uncle Zebulon's Will

By Magnus Olsson, August 1995 (TADS).
Review: Gareth Rees.

My third favourite of the competition games, after The One that Got Away and A Change in the Weather. I was reminded very strongly of Infocom's game Hollywood Hijinx: there's a mysterious will, a hunt through a deserted house, and plenty of descriptions which are enlivened by references to my childhood memories of the place. I almost expected to find Uncle Zebulon still alive at the end, menaced by my evil cousin Herman. Perhaps the fabled city of 'Cyr-Dhool' which I reach at the end of the game is some kind of reference to Liz Cyr-Jones, co-author of Hollywood Hijinx?

The background to the game suggested a world in which magic takes the place of science and technology. (The genre is known as 'elfpunk' and is exemplified by the novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick.) This was very interesting, although it was perhaps too subtly done, and didn't seem as relevant to the game as it could have been. I wondered if the 'train strikes' mentioned in the opening text (rather than, say, 'magic carpet strikes') were evidence that the background wasn't part of the original design. Certainly the Greek mythology sits rather uneasily with either the elfpunk world in which the game starts or the generic fantasy land in which it ends.

I enjoy games where I have to sift through lots of information to find material that's relevant to the puzzle I'm working on, and Uncle Zebulon's Will was good in this respect: two letters, a torn note, a scroll and a poem on a bronze plate. There was a point where I wondered if I was going to have to replicate Zebulon's alchemy experiments (shades of Christminster here). But it quickly became apparent that most of the information was redundant, and from there on I found it an easy game to finish.

The main impression I had of the game was that it was a very solid piece of work. There were no bugs, all the pieces of the plot fitted together smoothly, the hook at the start was intriguing, and the ending was good, though not as much of a surprise as it should perhaps have been.

There were various aspects that disappointed. Apart from the one-object restriction, which was excellent despite needing a completely gratuitous demon to enforce it, the puzzles seemed a bit pedestrian. There are four objects hidden in obvious places and two puzzles involving collecting a set of related objects. The writing was very flat and lifeless, managing to be lengthy without being either vivid or humourous. Half a dozen descriptions have some variation on 'This room has been ransacked by your greedy relatives'. Magnus Olsson commented in rec.arts.int-fiction:

I tried not to be too literary; the more flowery the prose, the more time one has to spend polishing it.

I'm afraid that it shows; perhaps a bit more floweriness would have helped. And I was hoping for at least some people in the land of Vhyl to welcome me. Perhaps the sequel will reveal where they've all gone.

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Andrew Clover