The Lost Islands of Alabaz (PC)

Children’s interactive fiction is not precisely a neglected genre — Adventure was first written for Will Crowther’s children — but most modern IF is by adults, for their peers. There are plenty of games that are suitable for children, but quality games written for them can readily be counted without taking one’s shoes off. There’s been some renewed interest in recent years, as theory focuses more on player-friendly design and the children of first-generation IF players become old enough to be interested; Matt Wigdahl’s dinosaur boys’-adventure Aotearoa won the 2010 IF Competition and a teetering heap of XYZZY Awards. Still, I have a feeling that there’s a gap here; there’s no really substantial piece of children’s or YA fiction that deserves a place on the must-read shelf.

The Lost Islands of Alabaz by Michael Gentry

The Lost Islands of Alabaz, original art by Sam Kabo Ashwell Michael Gentry would seem like a good bet to produce one: as author of the modern classic Anchorhead he has the most impressive record of this years’ Spring Thing entrants, and he’s trod this territory before with Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter. Like most authors of childrens’ IF, he seems to have written The Lost Islands of Alabaz primarily for his own children; to an adult audience it’s likely to be a mixed bag, however, and it has problems that would be frustrating for any age.

The basic premise is that the archipelago kingdom of Alabaz is under a curse, shrouding the ocean in perpetual mist and rendering navigation impossible. Impossible, that is, without the Ten Shinies of Area-Unlocking, which — an innovation scarcely credible, I know — are scattered across the islands themselves. The king of Alabazopolis gives you the first shiny and you sail off into the mists to collect the gems and trigger eucatastrophe. The astute will have noticed that something’s missing from this picture: genre demands that the shinies were scattered by the Evil Guys, who are now trying to collect them before you. Not so; Alabaz has a number of antagonists, but all turn out to be relatively benign. Alabaz hints at threats, but really is a very safe world.

The game comes with a feelie .pdf that goes a long way to help establish setting, and some of the island locations are quite strong: the flooded lighthouse of Lugubria, the junkpile island, the clarinet landslide. And there are a good number of cool set-pieces. But there’s little feeling of overarching unity, which makes your quest — reunifying the islands under the Alabazopolis monarchs — seem a bit questionable. Why do these very different places need to be brought back under the rule of this rather uninspiring king? There’s plenty of evidence of thinning, but most of this is linked to a never-resolved mystery that has only a vague relation to the main plot.

Alabaz is a blend of old structure and new gloss, and presumably the idea is to introduce children to old-school IF by smoothing off all the sharp edges. The worldbuilding is conspicuously Zorkian, with perhaps a touch of Oz and Myst; the puzzle structure, too, is a low-detail, big-map, collect-the-treasures quest. In classic CYOA style, you’re encouraged to think of the PC as literally being yourself. On the other hand, there is a very modern casual-game feel: the tutorial virtually has sparkles coming off it, making progress is generally quite easy, achievements are showered down upon you and every miscommand is painstakingly explained. (I would expect an eight-year-old to grasp IF conventions a great deal faster, with less help, than a novice of thirty; but this is from the perspective of someone who did learn those conventions through atrociously bad 80s IF, which may not represent everyone.)

Much of the tutorial / help sparkles are delivered through a companion NPC:

It’s your best friend, Trig.

Yeah, we mostly hang out at my place because his mother’s kind of scary.

From the very outset, Trig functions as a sort of desktop adventure assistant, offering frequent instructions on the interface and contextual hints. Trig’s intended role is to be your inseparable companion, and there are other moves in the direction of adventure-party; your ship contains a couple more children who are helpful for the occasional puzzle, though they don’t really do enough to develop into major characters. But Trig’s assistant role is sort of misjudged; he overexplains things with a level of cheery precision that would, if delivered by one actual child to another, result in blows. On the other hand (presumably so that you don’t feel that he’s the one actually in charge) he’s a physical coward, generally abandoning you just as things get most perilous. Other than this, you don’t seem to have that much of a relationship with Trig; apart from one puzzle that requires cooperation, there isn’t a sense of doing things together. I managed to tune him out to some extent, but the experience was a lot like being followed around by a tone-deaf know-it-all rather than a sense of having a friend. I’d have parked him permanently on the ship, but that seemed out-of-character; and besides, I did need a hint system some of the time.

I’m not sure if there are uniform rules for how well children’s fiction translates to an adult audience, but one major factor: stories that don’t feel that, because they’re for children, they must therefore be simple. Diana Wynne Jones, quoted in a recent eulogy by Neil Gaiman: “Children are much more careful readers than adults. You don’t have to repeat everything for children. You do with adults, because they aren’t paying full attention.” In terms of complexity, Alabaz is not small: it extends across ten islands, has a midgame involving a lot of back-and-forth, and relies upon traditional adventure-game puzzles. But it is definitely pared-down, focused on the functional elements more than atmosphere, emotional range, or plot. It feels gentle to a fault; there’s a certain amount of melancholia, given that we’re healing an wounded kingdom for an ineffectual Fisher-King type, but it’s quite low-key. There are no glimpses into the alien world of adulthood; adults have the same concerns as children. Tone is huge: a common failing in kid-lit is a sense of forced enthusiasm, often twinned with a clean-cut lack of transgression. Alabaz occasionally feels this way: it labours under a surfeit of exclamation marks. (Trig in particular needs to lay off the sugar.)

The classic children’s-fantasy-adventure arc starts out with the children doing things without adults, or despite them. Hiding in a wardrobe, going down the wrong chimney or through a door that’s not meant to open, sneaking into Retiring Rooms or over garden walls, or just waking up late at night. If children are going to drive the plot, there needs to be a reason why adults aren’t doing so. Adults can be hostile, incompetent, absent, oblivious or constrained; if they’re not, and they cheerfully allow the most important parts of the story to be driven by children, things feel suspicious. (Why aren’t you getting in the transcombobulator, Scientist Uncle? And why does the King send a crew of children on his kingdom-uniting quest?) The PC here never transgresses; rather, your default interaction with an adult involves getting them to do the right thing, usually just by demanding that they do it. As it turns out, the adults of Alabaz are mostly just hopeless and trivial, too focused on their own petty concerns to either assist or obstruct you very effectively. You might read this as some sort of satire — on the deferral of environmental damage or national debt to future generations because this one is too venal and ineffective, perhaps — but mostly it seems to be an accident, an unintened consequence of the story’s construction.

And there just isn’t very much danger. This is nowhere near the Roald Dahl method, where it turns out that there are monsters under the bed and they’re far more horrible than you ever imagined, but can nonetheless be defeated; rather, it turns out that when you get closer the monsters are just normal people who are a little bit misguided and need to be set straight. Whether this is a better thing to to teach children I have no idea, but it certainly doesn’t make for a very satisfying narrative. It becomes hard to take the PC’s heroic-knight role very seriously when the dragons are all paper tigers, or the heroic-explorer trope when navigation is magically guaranteed. Together with the ineffectual adults, this produces some moments that feel quite out-of-place: at one point you have to steal the egg of a fantastic bird, which is a fine old adventurey trope. The problem is that the bird doesn’t come across as a fearsome beast, and the reason you’re getting the egg is to persuade a listless noble to rejoin the kingdom. He doesn’t have much of a reason either to raise baby birds or to resist union; they’re just passing whims. So the episode comes across interfering with a wild animal to gratify an upper-class twit, which is a shame, because mechanically it’s one of the game’s neater puzzles.

It’s not bug-free. From the outset, the journal displayed a goal that I had never encountered (fix the racing gondola). When I actually reached the racing gondola, it turned out that the gondola race displays a few other bits of weird behaviour. For a game this size it’s mostly pretty damn robust, but since it’s pitched at novices the bar is rather higher. The puzzles are all fair, well-clued and straightforward; the main design problem is that they’re heavily designed to require a lot of back-and-forth travel between islands, which is a bit awkward when movement is variously constrained by devices and mazes — often for no good reason except to make you trudge back and forth. At worst, a trip from A’ to B’ involves walking through Island A, boarding your ship, going to the helm, setting a course to Island C, raising the anchor, leaving the ship, going to the furthest point of Island C to flip a switch that reactivates a travel-device on Island B, returning to the ship and the helm, setting a course for Island B, raising the anchor, leaving the ship, using a travel-device, and then walking to B’. This would be less of a problem if you only had to do it once, but Alabaz is the sort of game where you get an idea and toddle off to try it out and then get stuck and poke at every location in sequence. I suspect it would be worse if you weren’t familiar with adventure-game conventions.

The travel system doesn’t make an immense amount of sense as narrative pacing, either; I know that the ship’s really just a big nautical linking-book, but the adventures-at-sea thing is sort of scuppered if the ship functions as an infallible teleportation device. I get the impression that a core design goal was to produce something that wouldn’t be playable in a single session, that you’d come back to on successive evenings and mull over in the meantime; and it certainly has this effect, but this is largely because there’s so much will-sapping travel. Which is odd, because in a lot of respects it’s very stripped-down and efficient: short paragraphs, little in the way of extraneous scenery, tight puzzle focus. Nonetheless, we have here a story that’s basically about a fantastic journey, and the travel is the most tedious part.

That said, my guess is that this would be a pretty good game with which to introduce a child to IF; the puzzles are responsive, . It doesn’t translate too well to adult reading — there’s too much Spielbergian, Saturday-morning innocence and not enough darkness, and the world isn’t quite detailed or expansive enough to produce the cornucopia feeling that makes fantasy tick. It’s not the Great Children’s IF, but this is not exactly a damning indictment; and writing excellent fiction for children is probably trickier than doing so for adults.

One of the things that Alabaz made me realise: in book form, it’s very easy to judge the approximate target age for children’s fiction, but this is mostly a matter of visual cues. The style of cover art, size and style of the typeface, how much illustration there is and so on send quite clear signals. Clearly IF is never going to be all that suitable for children who aren’t ready for books without illustrations, but other than that I had trouble catching cues early on. But the safety of the world, its lack of any serious villains or monstrous monsters, suggests that it’s intended for children who are quite small — possibly too small to read this without adult help. But if they have adult help, why do they need Trig? As neither a parent nor an educator, I’m necessarily making guesses here, but at a minimum I’d expect the gap between being able to read independently and being interested in more emotionally toothy stories is quite a narrow one. I suspect that children’s literature is best written not by a doting parent — someone who primarily wants a safe, clean, improving world for their children — but a crazy uncle.

(Yeah, I know, you can probably reel off a dozen counterexamples. Nonetheless.)


Editors’s note: The Lost Islands of Alabaz can be downloaded, for free, here. It will work for Windows, Linux and the Mac. You’ll need an interpreter, but that link also tells you where to get that.