Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter

Posted by David Tanguay.
First posted on 07 October 2009. Last updated on 15 January 2013.
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Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
Being in jail is not Jack's finest moment.
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
Some illustrations are in color, others are in black and white.
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
The game map shows an overhead view of the small town.
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
The dialog system is atypical for a text adventure.
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter
The game is presented as a virtual storybook.

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter is the first title of the Miradania series and the first game released by Textfyre. As the name suggests, Textfyre is hoping to revive a commercial market for text based games. In this game, it is clear that the developer is emphasizing the story element ahead of the game element: Textfyre calls it "interactive fiction", not "text adventure". There is still some game within the story, but the former is definitely in the backseat of the latter.

Miradania is a fictional kingdom in an approximately mediaeval, English like land. Toresal is the town, and the protagonist is an adolescent street urchin named Jack. Jack lives in an orphanage and seems to pass the days causing trouble in the town market. As the story begins, some mercenaries come looking for Jack. Why are they going to such trouble and expense for a nobody like Jack? To find the answer, Jack must learn about the politics of Toresal and Miradania and not get caught (or worse!) during the investigation. The political struggles of the day have a surprising connection to an orphan's dead parents.

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter is very different from the interactive fiction games of old, both in presentation and in content. The game (or story) is presented as a storybook, with a worn leather cover and yellowed pages. The book is shown open, and the text flows up the left page. The right page usually shows an illustration, but in the style of a line drawing rather than a graphical rendering as in some older text adventures. The right page is also used for dialog menus when you are engaging other characters in conversations. When in dialog mode, you can click on the menu, just like you do in many graphic adventures. The very last pages, corresponding to the inside cover of the book, is a map of the city.

The text itself is not the blocky, old style, fixed width font, as used in games of yore, but is a proportional width decorative font. You have the option to change it, but the default is a nice font that fit wells for a children's storybook.

The text itself grows as you play, but you can easily turn back to previous pages to review what has happened. Previously played text is displayed on both left and right pages as you flip backwards. The page metaphor is not perfect, since the text flows upwards so that a given passage that is currently on a particular page will be reflowed to another page as new text is added. This is not a big annoyance, but the constant repositioning makes it a bit harder to orient yourself when reviewing the old text, since you can no longer depend upon the physical location to reference the given passage. Another shortcoming of the page metaphor is that you can only flip through the old text a page at a time, so that going back to very early pages requires a lot of clicking. (You can always jump to the table of contents, and from there to current page, so getting back is quick.) A method to quickly click back many pages at a time is needed. As a cute flourish, turning the pages actually turns the pages, folding them over with bent paper.

The book's table of contents serves as the game menu, where you can load and save games, get help on playing, view hints for the game, and change game settings, amongst other options. Game saves are unlimited in number and can be given both a title and a description (there is a space limit, but you can increase that too). Oddly, the saved games are not presented in any order: they are sorted neither by time, nor game position, nor save name.

An unusual feature is a sort of glossary. Hitting the control key will light up certain words, which you can then click on to get a description or definition. It is a nice touch, catering to a younger audience who may be less experienced with text games. The implementation is a bit inconsistent, though: "cloak" and "merchant" are given definitions, but "teamster" and "pedestrian" are not.

Peccadilloes aside, the interface and presentation serve to dust the cobwebs off of interactive fiction as a gaming medium. By looking like an old storybook, the game looks contemporary. The game's engine requires Microsoft Silverlight (a competitor of Adobe Flash), which must be installed and which surprisingly extracts a significant performance penalty when running on older hardware.

As the presentation is very different from text games of yore, so too is the story and gameplay. The game is far more verbose than the Infocom games of the past. Descriptions are more detailed, dialogs more involved, and narrations more leisurely. The final transcript of the game reads almost like a book. There is also more depth to the game world. You get descriptions for more objects, including people, and there are more topics to discuss in dialogs.

The game seems to be aiming for youths, but it is complex enough for adults. More importantly, it is targeted to text game neophytes. There is little game in this story. There are only a few significant puzzles, none of which are difficult. You can die in this game, but only when the hazard is obvious and expected. As such, you can just save the game before proceeding into a dangerous situation and not have to be paranoid about it. If you are stuck (however unlikely), there is a good, built-in hint system.

Few puzzles does not mean boring. This is a game of exploration and story. Jack and the other characters have an involved history, and there is a complex political situation driving the events of the game. There are many significant characters, and they have well defined personalities. The primary activities in the game are conversing with characters, learning about the current struggle for a vacant throne, exploring the town, and ultimately discovering about Jack's own history.

While the game world is richly fleshed out and the story is highly detailed, the plot is fundamentally clich├ęd: an orphan with an unsuspected, grand lineage, the coming of age as a young teen faces historic events, with a too perfect first love thrown in. It may be a bit groan worthy for jaded elders, but it is also comfortably nonthreatening for impressionable youths. While the plot may have been pedestrian, the story manages to conjure up several scenes of strong emotion, made possible by the richly drawn characters.

Despite the story's lack of surprise, I still found it enjoyable up until the end. The ending, however, was a bit of a disappointment for me, because it was not an end at all. The story just stopped in the middle of the action, a cliffhanger moment, to be continued. I actually did not even notice that I had hit the end, seeing the "Restore, Restore, Quit" prompt and thinking I had come to a bad ending, while failing to pay attention to the line "To be continued" that immediately followed. D'oh!

With a strong story, heavy emphasis on exploration, easy puzzles, and a strong hint system, Textfyre is clearly aiming to lure a new, younger audience into interactive fiction. Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter is a decent example of contemporary adaptation of the genre. The appealing presentation is comfortably familiar: a book is created as you write it, and it is a pretty good book too.

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