In autumn 2006, JB announced the pre-release of Ekphrasis on Rakonto Interaktiva. I’m not sure whether the game is still a pre-release, but judging from the French games feature on IF-Wiki, I think not. On the (notorously overenthusiastic) Rakonto Interaktiva group, Ekphrasis was received favourably. It was recommended that players who speak French give it a try, and even the translation into English was proposed.

So I gave it a try. I’m writing this review in English, so what are my credentials as a speaker and reader of French? Well, I’ve learned French in school for six lears, but that was quite some time ago, and my French has fallen into disuse since then. I claim to understand French reasonably when I read it. I’m definitely not a good speaker or writer of French, and I’ve problems to listen to French conversation. Still, I think I should be able to play a French text adventure. Something I like about text adventures is that the text is always revealed in small, easily digestible chunks. And when I am in France, I usually can’t resist buying a bande dessinée or two which I can understand except the wordplay: The text bubbles are short, and words I don’t know are usually made clear from the context. In any case, I’ve got a concise French-German dictionary sitting on the desk next to the monitor. (But it took me a while to find out that “Je suis Guiliana” in the opening section was a form of “suivre”, not “être”. Never mind.)

[By the way, this review has very minor spoliers. I’d say it’s safe, though, to read on even if you haven’t played the game yet. But you’ve been warned.]

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Ekphrasis is a Glulx game that makes extensive use of graphics and sound. Many texts are not printed into a text window, but rendered as an image. In the first scene, where the protagonist has to authenticate a Renaissance painting, the game relies on the visual comparison of two images. So this is a game where the graphics are not just decoration: Ekphrasis is not playable in a text-only interpreter.

Consequently, there is no text-only version of Ekphrasis. The full download is 60-odd megabytes.

The graphics are pretty and plentiful; every location in the game is illustrated. The graphics are photographs of real locations which are displayed in the left half of the interpreter window. A layer technique shows items and persons in the foreground when they are examined or spoken to. This produces a nice effect, but a drawback of the used method is that images are always placed on top of existing ones, which may result in an ugly stack of incongruently sized persons and objects, sometimes with different perspectives and lighting. (You can always use “look” to refresh the picture, though.)

I’ve already mentioned that the game relies on graphics. Long passages of text are often displayed as images. This allows to use a pretty, anti-aliased true-type font and lavish layout, but has the major disadvantage that the text cannot be re-read in the interpreter’s scrollback window. I think it would be a good idea to print the text first, then clear the window and display the image. The printed text would not be seen (I think), but still be available in the scrollback.

(By the way, the very first screen is a graphical title screen. That’s fine, but if I start Ekphrasis in a text-only interpreter like the console Glulxe under Linux, I can’t see anything, just a blank screen. I have to hit space twice before I get to the opening scene – and then I’ve missed the introductory text which is presented as the second image after the title. This is quite unhappy, because in a text-only interpreter the game looks broken. Please check whether the terp is able or configured to display graphics and issue a warning if it isn’t.)

So, the graphics are stunning. Did I like the game? Frankly, I did not, I’m afraid. The story is decent, although not quite my cup of tea. The protagonist is fleshed out, and so are his quibbles with his colleague Professor Brock. The writing made me laugh occasionally, especially when Prof. Fontenelle, the protagonist and first-person narrator, is in his more sarcastic moods. What made me not like the game, then?

First, the texts are way too long. There’s little interaction, interspersed with reams of text. Take the opening scene, for example: I meet my sidekick Giuliana in front of the Vatican Museum. I speak to her, and a long conversation ensues. Thirty paragraphs are spilled out onto the screen before I get the opportunity to enter the next command. And after virtually every paragraph, I have to press the space bar. I hate that. I reckon some authors think that this makes the reading more exciting, but not so; it just makes the reading more annoying.

In an ideal world (as I see it, at least), a text adventure works like this: I type some text, the game responds. The response should be short and easily digestible. A few longer sections are in order, but by no means should I have to read thirty paragraphs. And I only want to hit the space bar between two commands if the [more] prompt appears or in very rare occasions. (Such as the player passing from one world to another in So Far, for example. Even there, a separative ornament like three centered asterisks or something similar might have worked. Besides, if the [more] prompt shows up, especially in modern interpreters with large text windows, that’s a clear sign that the text ist too long.)

What’s more, not only is the story thrown at me, during these non-interactive scenes I pass rooms of which I only see the backdrop pictures. That might be a good opportunity to show more of the copious image material, but it leaves me with a sense that I’m only being led through a museum.

The implementation is sparse, too. That might not be surprising, given that Ekphrasis is such a huge game, but it looks as if in every scene, the player just looks for the button to press (i.e., the command to type) in order to elicit the next ream of text, to rush the story further along.

And the implementation is unbalanced. Gilbert travels from the Vatican Museum in Rome to Florence, and from there to the Sorbonne without having to deal with transport, but in the Sorbonne, he has to open his office door explicitly. He is carrying his office key from the beginning, but the game replies “There is a closed door in your way”, as if finding the key were a puzzle.

Then there are the long conversations where everything Gilbert does is scripted, and on the other hand there are timed, move-by-move sequences. It is in these scenes which seem so much more like an adventure game that the non-interactive nature of the overall gameplay is obvious.

For example [minor spoiler], the task the player has to do in the garden labyrinth is to figure the entry code to the house and the atelier. That’s all. What (the second sidekick) Galina and Gilbert find in the atelier and what they deduce from it is not worked out by the player but revealed in a textdump upon merely entering the atelier.

The travels are not started by any directional command, but by certain key actions. For example, in the scene at the beginning where Gilbert has to find out whether the Calomnie d’Appelle is forged or not [minor spoiler follows], he travels to Florence after finding an address. Finding the address triggers the change of scene, not a command like “leave” or “s”. (If the player types a “go” command in the opening scene in the Vatican, the response is “I think it’s too early to go back to Paris”, hinting at the global layout of the map.)

The story may be good, but I’ve never really gotten into it. But that’s probably my fault, since I only skimmed the long paragraphs. I found it too tedious to read these long texts in French. And, of course, to hit the space bar so often.

I have not finished playing yet. I’m maybe halfway through, at the beginning of the section that plays in Warsaw, and I don’t think that I won’t play Ekphrasis any further. I can’t muster enough interest to keep playing, not even by following the included walkthrough. I’ve played through long, long paragraphs of conversations I didn’t bother to understand, I’ve been in the dreamworld of the Island of the Dead, where I met the Renaissance artists and I’ve explored a hedge maze in Montenegro, accompanied by a rather talkative girl. I’m afraid I’ve lost track of what’s going on.

So my main complaints about Ekphrasis is that there is too much text and that there is not enough interactivity. While the writing is abundant, it is not always very clear, leaving me stuck for what to do.

In the authentication scene, for example, I was stuck for what to do after I found out something about the painting. Examining the painting futher yielded the same description as before, stating that there was something strange about the painting, although I had already found what was wrong.

In addition to the regular text, there are daemons that print out atmospherical messages. These appear too often and I found them distracting rather than atmosperical, especially where more daemons run at the same time, for example in the library. These messages appear even after some meta commands, notably “help”, or after something important has happened. In that case, they are out of place. It’s awkward to see Giuliana exited because she and Gilbert have found out something crucial, and then have her yawn in the next paragraph because of the message daemon.

The overlaying technique for the object graphics is misleading sometimes. For example, the protagonist carries a mobile phone. If he dials a number not known to the game, a standard “wrong number” response is given:

> composer 112
Après quelques sonneries, une voix décroche et répond en italien. Dommage que je sois occupé à d’autres affaires – et que je n’ai aucune idée amusante pour un canular.

A voice answers in Italian, but Gilbert Fontenelle has his mind on other things and cannot think of anything witty to say, I’m told. I assume that he apologises and hangs up, although that is never explicitly stated, but the silhouette of a man speaking into a phone is still visible, and the player is left wondering whether he is still on the line or not. (As it turns out, he’s not.)

The author claims that Ekphrasis has been beta-tested thoroughly, but there are still many flaws and even the occasional programming error. I can only guess that the beta testers either only followed the walkthrough or did not have much experience with interactive fiction. (Then again, I know it is hard to find good beta testers who really try to test the implementation beyond just checking for orthogpahical errors.)

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To sum up: I found Ekphrasis hard to follow. It is very broad plot-wise but the interactivity is quite sparse. When the player spends time interacting, it is on small-scale puzzles that don’t advance the plot. The plot is left to the long cutscenes.

The graphics are beautiful, and, judging from the background information that the author provided on IF-Wiki, the story has been researched very thoroughly. A lot of emphasis of the game has gone into these two aspects, whereas the real game, the part that is closest to the player, has been neglected. The effect is similar to what Dan Shiovitz observes:

Failures of interaction occur when the player tries to manipulate the pieces of the game in a way the author did not anticipate, or when the player isn’t sure where to go or what to do next. These kinds of failures tend to lead to frustration; a game can be obviously made of high-quality components, but if the interaction with the game is bad, the quality of the parts just makes playing all the more maddening.

— Dan Shiovitz, How to write a Great Game

If Ekphrasis were a pure text game, I’d still say it’s worth downloading and giving it a look, maybe it’s just my poor grasp of French that put me off. (Although I cannot imagine that I’d enjoy such a static-looking game with such wordy prose in German or English.) It’s a 60-megabytes download, so I can only give this advice to players with a good Internet connection. The packaging – the screenshots and the background – is intriguing, but the game proper does not live up to my expectations.


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