Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way review
Adventure Gamers Awards
Bodge jobs. Those happy accidents where your very clumsiness somehow saves the day, leaving you feeling like you just got away with something. What if they weren't accidents at all, but a secret and very powerful kind of magic? That's the premise of Thaumistry: In Charm's Way, a brand new text adventure from industry legend Bob Bates. The presentation may be as retro as it gets, but this is no mere blast from the past. Instead, it's a postcard from an alternate universe where text adventures never died, but evolved alongside their graphical cousins, like books alongside movies. More of a gentle farce than an action blockbuster, it's nonetheless packed with puzzles, one-liners, and magic aplenty.
Former teen prodigy Eric Knight is in the middle of a slump. Back when he was 13, he won a $100,000 prize for creating Anti-Stain, the ultimate stain remover (which only disintegrates your clothes occasionally, honest). Fast forward a decade, though, and we find him on the verge of despair, about to be thrown out of his lab space because he just can't get his laser nanofabricator to work. Thankfully, just when he's about to give in to self-doubt, someone quite literally crashes into his life to recruit him to the Bodgers.
The Bodgers are an ancient secret society that solve problems with magic, all while making it look like a happy (and usually klutzy) accident. They're the sort of people who manage to create a seven-state blackout by putting a penny in a fusebox, but wind up precipitating a much-needed restructuring of the electrical grid. They call it the art of the bodge, knowing how to give the right nudge in the right place, and they're in dire need of Eric's unique ability to mix brilliant insights with accidentally blowing up or setting fire to everything around him. That's all just an expression of his latent talent for their special kind of Bodgerish magic. What they do is part-invention, part-sorcery, and surprisingly crucial to the future of mankind.
Right now, they have a problem themselves, on account of a little gadget called a thaumeter that can detect magic. Its inventor Henry Glick died recently, and all his most brilliant inventions went on display in the New York Museum of Technology, which just happens to sit right on top of the Bodgers' underground headquarters. If anyone ever turns it on, it's bound to pick up the huge concentration of magical energy nearby and then they'll be outed. As any witch will tell you, the world doesn't tend to be kind to magic users.
Eric's mission, then, is to infiltrate the Tech Expo taking place at the museum today, find the thaumeter, and disable it before anybody's any the wiser. Naturally, that turns out to be just a bit trickier than it sounds: before long, Eric's tangled up with time machines and teleporters, invisible dogs and grumpy alpacas. Before the day's out, he'll have to walk on hot coals, get water from a stone and marshal massed ranks of Greek waiters. Maybe, if he's lucky, he'll even find a moment to finish that nanofabricator.
This is about the point where I'd normally wax rhapsodic about gorgeous graphics, ear-tinglingly delightful music and Oscar-worthy voice acting. But not this time, because Thaumistry has none of those things. What it does have is text. Lots and lots of text. That shouldn't really be much of a surprise, since author Bob Bates cut his teeth writing classic text adventures such as Sherlock! and Arthur for Infocom, before going on to write TIMEQUEST for Legend Entertainment, among others. He's since moved on to more graphical fare, but he's clearly never forgotten his roots.
That said, Thaumistry is is no simple throwback. If you're picturing a game straight out of the 1980s, with limited descriptions, sudden deaths and dead ends, think again. This game plays fair, never lets you get stuck, comes with a tutorial to ease you into the experience, and even autosaves for you. You still need to be comfortable with doing a lot of reading, but it otherwise feels refreshingly modern.
When you start the game, you're greeted by a window with a two-line banner at the top and the main text area underneath. By default, it uses white text against a background in soothing shades of blue, but if that doesn't suit you then the fonts, font sizes and colours can all be adjusted in the settings. There's even a screen reader compatibility mode for the visually impaired. Overall, the presentation is clean and attractive, with nicely-spaced and comfortably-sized text, broken up by occasional items (such as an initial letter from your landlord) being set out in display boxes.
The banner lists your location, possible exits (e.g., north, east, or in) and current score, and includes links to bring up the main menu and a map of the area. The map (which appears in another window) is basic but functional, consisting of linked boxes, one for each location in the current area, in front of a black-and-white photo of New York. Unfortunately, though, it's not interactive (there's isn’t even a "You are here!" pointer), and opening the map pauses the game until you close it again. While it's a worthwhile inclusion, none of the areas are big enough to get seriously lost in, and the lack of interactivity means it might have been better included in the CyberFeelies.
Yes, that's right. Like Infocom games of old, Thaumistry comes with (PDF) feelies. There's Eric's interview in "Invent!" magazine, the "So you're a Bodger?" guide, a copy of the "New Bodge Times" and instructions on how to make your very own tin foil hat. Physical extras enclosed in boxed games were a great way to round out their worlds and add a bit of visual flair, and after giggling my way through these I'd have to say that's still true today of the digital variety.
Thaumistry's prose reads like a second-person short story told in the present tense, describing what's happening and what you can see, all written in a relaxed style and leavened with a fair amount of wry humour. Unlike text adventures of the past, there's no longer any need for descriptions to be terse, but thankfully that doesn't mean wading through any large infodumps either. Instead, you're drip-fed information over several turns or left to discover more by examining your environment. For example, Jack (the human whirlwind who kicks all this off) tags along with you early on and tells you things as you walk, and the environment's wonderfully detailed. Pretty much anything mentioned in the descriptions can be examined, many times over in some cases. If you scrutinise scribbles on a whiteboard or protesters' placards, for example, they’ll keep coming up with new gags. (They're "Occupy Wall Street" protesters, with signs like, "Tonight I'm gonna party like the minimum wage is 19.99," and "I can't afford my own politician, so I made this sign.")
Another nice touch is that all the inventors at the Expo get their own backstories, discovered either through blurbs attached to their inventions, by triggering their memories with a spell, or just speaking to them. One talks about how awe-inspiring she found the Brooklyn Bridge as a child and how it inspired her to become an engineer, while another comes from Oslo and was influenced by the Norse myth of Loki to explore the power of change and transformation. The author clearly has a social conscience, and takes opportunities like these to comment on everything from the abolition of the slave trade to how much money the US wastes by sticking to the metric system. Some of these even come with footnotes, linking you to further reading, but it's all presented with enough of a twinkle in the eye that it avoids coming across as too earnest or preachy.
Where older text adventures were content to repeat static descriptions as you moved from place to place, Thaumistry's world is full of life and energy. People bustle about and inventors hawk their wares as you pass. For instance, at one point you run into an inventor demonstrating the "Lyric Detangler", a machine for correcting misheard song lyrics (clearly a serious and growing problem in the modern world). One moment it's pointing out that “Purple Haze” goes "Pardon me, while I kiss the sky," not "Pardon me, while I kiss this guy," and the next it's noting that it's "moves like Jagger," not "move my jacket." The entire time I spent messing around in that room, I never heard the same line twice.
Everything revolves around the museum, with occasional side trips to locations such as the City Zoo, Penn station and a management seminar. The museum itself is broken up into a variety of themed exhibition halls, branching off an airy rotunda and packed with stalls and inventors. I don't know whether or not it's based on a real New York museum, but it felt very authentic. Cleverly, the story plays out over the course of a day, beginning in the quiet of the early morning before the museum is even open to the public, getting more hectic once the exhibits have been set up, and eventually winding down again in the evening as the place is given over to a private party. As well as providing a convenient way to open up or close off parts of the map as needed, this gives a nice feeling of progression and makes the setting feel just a bit more lived-in.
If you've never played a text adventure before, the need to type in all your commands may initially seem intimidating, but fortunately the game holds your hand in the early stages, adding in little parenthetical remarks and suggestions of what to try. Most commands are fairly simple, such as "read magazine" or "sit on stool", while others are a little more complex, such as "ask Jack about the Bodgers". These more intricate commands are always introduced first, however, and the parser is good at picking up synonyms: "read", "look at", and "examine" all work just fine, for example.
Typing "help" will also bring up a longer explanation of what will and won't be understood, while "hint" takes you to a context-sensitive clue system, with several layers of hints for each problem you're currently facing. These go to great pains to avoid spoilers and give you subtle pointers that build to explicit solutions, though this means they can occasionally be more confusing than helpful. I also appreciated the "recap" command, which gives a brief outline of your current situation and a list of the important open problems, with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. Especially if you're coming back to the game after a while away, this is a great way to remind you what you were up to.
Finally, we need to talk about the magic. As you wander around, things you see, hear or read will cause new spells to appear in your spell book, such as ALCATRAZA (open bars), ALTA (self-levitate) or ARETHA (channel the Queen of Soul). These are, as often as not, the key to solving the puzzles you face, and are also good for a few laughs if you cast them in other places. Here again, the game goes above and beyond, with virtually anything you can think of provoking some kind of response. That said, I was a little sad that this never went beyond an amused comment or brief skit; I'd been hoping to spend some time coming up with alternate solutions, or at least creating a little mayhem!
The actual story is well-written but somewhat slight, more of a skeleton to hang the puzzles on than a grand adventure, but those puzzles are another matter. Thaumistry is not a hugely long game, clocking in at 4-6 hours, but the way it weaves together seemingly disparate and scattered parts into intricate chains to form unexpected solutions can be wonderfully satisfying. I also enjoyed the contrast between playing with the inventions in some cases and throwing magic at the problem in others, which required a nice mix of logical and left-field thinking. Want to find something that can hold water? Well, you'll need to stop by the zoo, grab the right snacks, and brush up on your anagrams, helping out the pizza guy along the way. Obviously.
That said, for all their charm and whimsy, both the spells and inventions can feel a little underused at times. Each only has one or two real applications, meaning that they feel like the puzzle cogs they are, rather than becoming parts of your slowly growing toolkit. If you're going to put magic and teleporters at my disposal, I'd like to get a bit more use out of them! For all the effort that has obviously gone into filling out the world with interesting characters and daft jokes, I just wish it felt more like a toybox than a polished machine. There are also a few niggles, such as occasionally relying on subtle hints in the text (the text adventure equivalent of pixel hunting), and on the player messing around to get something to happen. These are very minor, though, and never really feel unfair.
Not content to merely appeal to nostalgia, Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way manages to stand up well on its own terms as modern day interactive fiction. It may not have flashy graphics or sound, but it does know how to paint a picture with words and keep you smiling as it goes. The tale it tells may not be overly ambitious, but the journey's filled with entertaining teasers and interesting characters, and never misses an opportunity to squeeze in one more joke. If you have a fondness for reading and enjoy old-school challenges and gentle humour, you should definitely think about joining the Bodgers too.
An adventure out of time, Thaumistry‘s a lighthearted text romp that casts its entertaining puzzle magic on the modern era.