Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
What our readers think of Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way
Posted by Karlok on Oct 13, 2017
Modern "old-school" text adventure with excellent parser
Thaumistry is a modern “old-school” text adventure. There’s a background story, but the focus is on solving puzzles, casting spells and interacting with NPCs. The puzzles are easy for the most part. I was stuck a few times though, and used the...