In one of those odd synchroneities that so often occur around these competitions, this is the second game of Spring Thing 2011 to be a work of fantasy aimed at relatively young children, a demographic IF hasn’t really tended to target all that often in the past. Even more surprisingly, the two games are almost of a piece in my mind, succeeding and failing in quite similar ways.
The Promise cast as you as a ten-year-old living in a tiny fishing village where the environment is harsh and cold but the people are kind and warm. In the first of its three acts, you run about the village performing workaday tasks as requested by the various inhabitants: cutting wood and delivering it to the boatmaker, making a candle for your mother, etc. These tasks are so varied and extensive that you’ll quickly get a pretty good idea what Robbie Robertson must have been feeling when he wrote “The Weight.”
Certainly the village could use some more child-safety laws. Some of these chores are more chilling than the evil marauders who show up later:
You pull the crank. The saw blades go up and down. Cranking and cranking, the saw blades cut into the birch log, over and over until the entire log has a slab cut from it on one side, then you repeat the process until the once round birch log is now an unevenly cut plank, and sawdust and shavings litter the floor.
The plot begins in earnest only with Act 2, when news comes that those marauders are about to attack the village from the sea, just as virtually all of the men are away on a hunt. And so you are pressed into service, given responsibilities which, if out of keeping with anything anyone is ever likely to entrust a real ten-year-old with, are certainly well in keeping with children’s literature of this tradition.
All in all, The Promise is a very competent game, an enjoyable enough way to spend an evening. As with The Lost Islands of Alabaz, however, it fails to become a really compelling experience due not so much to any one or two major failings as a number of low-key niggles and questionable decisions.
For instance, the writing, while grammatical and even polished in its way, doesn’t quite sing like it might. I think I know what atmosphere Mr. Huxter was going for — a stoic Scandinavian beauty, as resplendent as it is desolate — but that doesn’t always come through as well as it might. Sometimes the text seems to be trying too hard, and the reader ends up swimming in a sort of adjective soup. Take the very first sentence of the dream sequence that opens the game: “You are in a wide, seemingly endless flower-filled meadow on a gorgeous summer day.” (When you line up so many adjectives in front of a noun that you have to start inserting commas to separate them, it may be time to have another look at the sentence as a whole — a lesson I too have learned only slowly, painfully, and still incompletely.) At other times — and more problematically — the text becomes little more than lists of compass directions, a problem that is compounded by a somewhat sprawling storyworld with plenty of rooms that only serve as connections.
And there are other design decisions that are perhaps questionable, or simply not quite implemented as well as they might be. In light of that sprawling storyworld, the attractive map that Huxter includes in the game itself is much appreciated — yet his choice to display said map inline with the main text rather than in a separate window is a bit annoying, forcing the player as it does to constantly scroll back to consult it. His choice to suddenly increase the maximum score every time the player seems to be nearing the end of the game, meanwhile, is not so much annoying as just kind of odd.
But these things — all of them, really — are just niggles. My biggest complaint comes with the ending. During the middle part of the game, you make a promise to a certain, let’s just say, “entity” not to visit a certain location in the forest outside of the village ever again, a promise prompted by some errors of judgment your father made with regard to said entity. In the context of this fantasy mileau, that’s all fair enough. At the climax of the game, however, the village finds itself in desperate straits thanks to the marauders who have now landed and started on their work of raping and pillaging. The only possiblilty of hope for you, your mother, and the entire village lies in that place you promised not to visit. Now, given these circumstances I know what I would do: I’d break my promise without a second thought, throw myself at the feet of the entity, explain my desperate situation, and hope for the best. I like to think that most reasonable people would do the same. Yet, incredibly, this game expects you to “keep your promise” even if it means watching the village burn and everyone die. In its last sentence it solemnly informs us that, “Today you have learned the true value of a promise.” That’s just… well, that’s just fucked up. It’s not only jarring, it’s downright disturbing. If I had a child, this is exactly the sort of rigid thinking I’d want to teach him to avoid. It’s thinking just like this that has caused incalculable pain and death and destruction in our world, all in the service of some inflexible code of conduct laid down in a religious text, a solemn oath, or a samurai code. It’s unfortunate that this is the message the game chooses to conclude with, without a hint of irony or equivocation.
Like Alabaz, then, we have here a solid game that has an unfortunate element of (what strikes me as) moral tone-deafness. And also like Alabaz, I’m not entirely sure whether that’s down to genuine differences of belief between me and the author or merely an author who didn’t think through all of the ramifications of his story as well as he might. Which doesn’t erase its genuine strengths or mean you shouldn’t play it, of course. Just be prepared to be left scratching your forehead — or banging it on your desk — at that ending.