[5 September 2012]
The thing about satire is that it is incredibly easy to do poorly. Schlock like the Scary Movie franchise has to be somewhat over the top, but then also knowledgeable enough to know when to reel it back in. A satire must be a strong story unto itself, while still being able to poke fun at the tropes of a genre or medium. Never before have I seen such a strong example of satire in a game as I have with The Book of Unwritten Tales. King ART Games have truly created something special with The Book of Unwritten Tales in the tradition of point-and-click adventure games by giving us a tale that is both delightfully over-the-top and poignant while also being slightly cringe inducing and at times slightly offensive. So, basically, it is really a caricature of video gaming and gamers as a whole… but sometimes in looking at the game I wonder where satire ends and truth begins..
There are few instances in which a plot can be charmingly obvious. Even those two words together seem to be at loggerheads, but I would say that this is the case with The Book of Unwritten Tales. Yes the plot is rather run-of-the-mill fantasy, and, yes, the plot lines come together a bit too conveniently, but it sets itself up so well for this sort of thing that throughout you are laughing right along saying, “Of course, it’s that easy; of course the MacGuffin should literally fall out of the sky in front of a gnome dying to go on an adventure.” It is a game that is eminently cocksure of itself in its frequent poking fun at point-and-click adventure games, MMOs, fantasy tropes, and gamer culture in general.
The wrinkley Yoda-esque gremlin Mortimer MacGuffin has stumbled across the knowledge of an artifact of inexplicable power with which a person can change the very fate of the world. It is because of his knowledge that the nefarious Shadow Army captures him. When the forest green homunculus falls from the sky in front of a gnome and immediately hands him a ring of untold power, the stage is set for something stereotypically familiar, yet awesome.
The Book of Unwritten Tales tells the story of Wilbur Weathervane—a gnome in possession of a lot bravery and a bit of an inferiority complex. Along the way, the narrative reels in two other main characters, a mystical wood elf in hot pants, Ivo, and a jocular womanizing pirate named Nate and his pink Mr. It called Critter. The characters all hit the well trodden story beats common to fantasy role playing games. Wilbur deals with the traditional Bilbo Baggins-inspired conceits: diminutive, unlikely hero, thrown into a quest via convenient MacGuffin. Ivo is, of course, an acrobatic elven princess with the ability to converse with wildlife (or at the very least her colorful bird-of-paradise familiar, Tchieep-tchieep) and, of course, possesses magnificent breasts. Nate is generally unbearable, being the sort of willfully ignorant white dude, who after you tell him that his latest zinger was pretty sexist and terrible would shrug and say, “Settle down, it’s just a joke.”
I will make a quick note on Nate, whom I cannot decide if the developers intentionally made into the sort of unbearable guy who populates message boards, dropping inane comments that have the whiff of homophobia or sexism wafting from them, but that doesn’t seem terribly important. If there was one element of the game that made me want to stop playing, it was any time Nate interacted with the gay character or with Ivo. Flippant douchebaggery is a character trait, but we have enough of it in real life that we shouldn’t have to deal with it in a lovingly crafted narrative like this as well.
But enough of this one troubling aspect. Let’s talk meat and potatoes here. The actual point-and-click elements in the game are all up to snuff with nothing too extraordinary to go into detail about. Included is one feature that should be included in more point-and-click games: if you push the space bar, you can see everything that can be interacted with in a given area. This is very useful and does help combat a lot of the more dreary pixel hunting exercises in torture that the genre seems destined to constantly produce.
There is one instance in particular that should be brought up and that is that right clicking on an object makes the character “examine” a given object. This is never explictly stated, but there is one instance in the game when you are asked to examine an object, and unless you know to right click on it, you will simply sit there trying to figure out what to do. For that reason, keep in mind that right click. It is useful in chapter four.
The second act of the game is full of instances when you must control two or three characters, each with different abilities, in order to complete various tasks. This ends up being at times interesting but at other times terribly frustrating, doubling or even tripling the options presented to the player. Agitating, sure, but also contributing to a unique team environment. The game definitely seeks to meld that interplay between characters, building up its own “fellowship of the ring” in the process.
There also exists several fun one-and-done minigames that are all implemented surprisingly well for how quickly they’re tossed away. Brew a potion to complete your mage training, spot a small island on a map that holds a hidden temple, and anger gods with a truly awful dance. These tiny breaks from the constant grind of adventure gaming are useful to keep the experience varied while still being able to advance the story. Honestly, a few more sections like these throughout the game would be a welcome addition.
Like all adventure games, it is a slow experience, fraught with all manner of trial-and-error and head-scratching moments in which you’re sure that you have tried everything possible. Unlike other games, this one does not have any sort of tip mechanic, which would be helpful in some instances.
The Book of Unwritten Tales is a game that walks along well trod paths of genre conventions, thumbing its nose at them while also celebrating those same things. It is a wry love letter to World of Warcraft, to Tolkien, to Monkey Island, and to all of us nerds who love those things. The reason this game works is not because of those factors but because the story works well enough on its own through its strong dialogue, voice acting, and artistic style. Make no mistake, though, this game is not simply a rant presented within the form of a game. It is a well-executed point-and-click game first, and a satire second. It is for that reason that The Book of Unwritten Tales succeeds.