Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Adventure of the Week: Plundered Hearts (1987)

This week, we tackle one of the lesser-known Infocom text adventures, and one of the few true romances to emerge during the heyday of commercial interactive fiction -- it's Plundered Hearts, a swashbuckling tale of love and violence, designed by Amy Briggs and published in 1987.

Ms. Briggs was an English major with a concentration in British Literature, and her prose has a distinctly classical feel, with smart use of archaic terminology and vocabulary.  The game also has a more "feminine" sensibility than, say, Zork, with a greater emphasis on characters, dialogue and quiet moments.  This is not to say that the game's protagonist is all decorum and no action -- she claims many of the story's key victories herself, while her handsome pirate lover stands by, all chestnut hair, flashing blue eyes and temporarily debilitating injuries.

The game opens with a dynamic, vintage-style prologue:

Lest I give too much away, I shall here caution the reader that to proceed in haste may rob one's personal experience of much of its inherent charm.  I would therefore urge you to experience Plundered Hearts for yourself, enclosing a lock of my hair as a token of my encouragement, and wishing you Godspeed to your journey's conclusion and safe return.

Ack.  Sorry.  Austenitis.

******* SPOILERS AHEAD! *********

The game's prologue carries the player along more or less under its own steam.  There are items to examine and characters to encounter, but it's a set piece with little for the player to do but observe and get oriented to the world of the story.  The real interaction gets underway once we're aboard Jamison's ship, the Falcon.

Navigation on the Falcon is described in nautical terms (fore, port, aft, starboard), but equivalent compass directions are also accepted from the player.

There's so much good writing in this game that if I were to quote all my favorite passages this post would be too long for anyone to read.  But one of my favorite character descriptions early on is terse and evocative: "Davis is ugly with fear."

The quality Infocom parser is helpful at times -- it will accept the old-school LOOK [object] syntax, gently indicating I'll take you to mean LOOK AT the object.  But it too suffers from occasional disagreements between the prose and the vocabulary.  Examining the cupboard in Jamison's quarters reveals that You might be able to squeeze past it.   But an attempt to SQUEEZE PAST CUPBOARD only yields [I don't know the word "past."]  A simple move FORWARD at this point succeeds in doing so.  And the game recognizes DON as a synonym for WEAR, and responds with Doffed when clothing is removed; but DOFF is not itself a recognized verb.

There's a really dramatic section while assaying a rope ladder hanging off the windward side of the ship -- it's not a puzzle, really, but the text is evocative and tense as we repeatedly CLIMB LADDER.

Like the Infocom mysteries, some plot elements keep moving forward even if the player is not present to witness them.  And there are, as always, less-satisfactory options available -- on my first attempt, I kept the ship from crashing into the reefs, but failed to keep it from blowing up.  Still, I escaped to shore myself and proceeded with the story.  Only toward the end of the game did I realize that Jamison's men would not be coming to save us as he was expecting -- because I had allowed every last one of them to die in the explosion.

The character of Cookie, the ship's peg-legged cook, provides comic relief and is well implemented.  He can't hear too well -- he misunderstands our attempts to tell him about the fire -- but he proves a valuable ally later on, wrestling crocodiles and throwing himself in harm's way for our heroes' sake.

There's a banknote included in the game's original packaging -- the image on its front is vital to solving one puzzle, a creative form of copy protection back in the day.

I did resort to the Invisiclues on several occasions.  I needed a hint to go looking for vines in the clearing that could be climbed.  And a hint tipped me off that the butler could be bribed, as I had left the invitation to the Governor's ball aboard ship the first time I played.

It wouldn't be a romance without a dramatic first kiss:

Later, dancing with Jamison in a more public setting permits only small hugs and pecks on the cheek.  Briggs often uses sequences like these to move the story forward -- there isn't a lot for the player to do except listen and observe, but pacing the dialogue out over several moves this way is preferable to tossing up a screen full of non-interactive text, in my opinion.  Another nice touch during this sequence is that Jamison begins to be referenced as Nicholas in the game, as a subtle but significant sign of growing affection on the part of our character.

Most adventure games don't deal with sex in any serious way, or with gender politics -- but while Plundered Hearts is a romantic fantasy, Ms. Briggs doesn't pull her punches in this area.  As a man playing this game as a female character, I felt offended and intimidated by a couple of the men I encountered.  And the threats weren't epic and overblown -- they were intimate and personal, too much so on several occasions.  The primary villain, Jean Lafond, is a real bastard.  Having imprisoned our father, he forces us to dance with him, and demands we visit him in his room, where he attempts to force us to sleep with him.  If he succeeds, it's a game-ending "fate worse than death," in the grand (and discreet) tradition.

I enjoyed the crocodile puzzle because it respects the biology at work -- the vicious reptile is only a danger until we can get it to close its mouth and muzzle it with a garter.  (It can also be drugged, but using the garter is more fun.)

Captain Nicholas Jamison, our dashing pirate lover, isn't quite as successful as he makes himself out to be.  Early in the game, he promises, "I will find and free your father, and then finally wreak my revenge on Lafond."  But we take care of a good deal of that ourselves, as the story progresses, and he'd accomplish none of it without our clever assistance.

The endgame sequence is very intense and tight on timing, and it took me numerous tries to figure out what to do, with the parser interfering to some degree.  After Jamison's men arrive, Cookie asks for our help in locating Jamison.  We know he's in the dungeon, but TELL COOKIE ABOUT DUNGEON doesn't work, nor does COOKIE, FOLLOW ME; we have to answer his initial "Have ye any idea where to look?" question with a simple YES to produce the intended effect.

The battle with Crulley, Lafond's henchman, is a lot of fun; we haven't the experience to handle a rapier, failing repeatedly to stab him -- but we can push him into the trapdoor over the well and close it while he's trying to climb up.

The parser makes up for its earlier sins by helping us free Jamison from his manacles -- we desperately type PICK LOCK, and the game handily completes the thought [with the jewelled brooch] -- greatly appreciated!

Time is really of the essence after we use the smelling salts on Nicholas and he charges back into battle.  There are no moves to waste as we swing on a chandelier rope to interrupt an otherwise fatal duel, allow him to engage Lafond in hand-to-hand combat on the beach, and deal with a persistent pirate henchman one last time.

There are four different endings, depending on the player's final actions.  Given the treatment of women in the society portrayed in the game, even when among gentlemen, I wouldn't blame anyone who prefers to escape in the skiff, take over Jamison's ship, and revel in the "Pirate Queen" ending, leaving Papa and Nicholas to whatever fate befalls them on the shore.  The most satisfactory conclusion to my taste, which the game labels "Happily Ever After," is to shoot Crulley -- everyone dies who deserves to, everyone we care about lives.

Leading to the story's conclusion as a new horizon awaits:


I don't think it's possible to finish the game without scoring all 25 points -- all correspond to key plot points, and even where there are alternative ways to solve a puzzle, the same score is granted for doing so.  Besides, a good adventure game isn't about points -- it's about experiencing the story.

This is one of the good ones -- it's written in the best kind of purple prose, the puzzles are naturalistic, and the game's emphasis on character, scenery and dialogue makes it a memorable experience. A unique adventure, and well worth a playthrough.

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