Tales from Castle Balderstone is an Inform game by Ryan Veeder.
This game comprises a series of short stories that are read aloud in Castle Balderstone, the “real” world where the protagonist is located; each story is followed by a conversation between the authors, facilitated by a moderator who, rather like an emcee of an informal production, has heavy character presence. Apart from being intriguing in its own right, this setup has a ton of benefits, many of which are cleverly taken advantage of.
The significance of the post-story conversation reveals itself as soon as the first conversation has a chance to take place. After the author of the first story delves into her inspirations behind writing it, touching on the heavy theme of gender in the process, the first reaction specified is that of the moderator “rubbing his forehead wearily”. In addition to developing the character of the moderator as an overly expressive person, this line also cleverly functions as a self-deprecating joke that pokes fun at the banality of literary analysis (which is, ironically, what I’m doing now). In a similar fashion, after the second story, a character is assigned to the task of being responsible for a tale that is clearly too vague to be meaningful, effectively transforming the risk of making the game appear low-effort for its own sake into an opportunity for character development. The fact that these platforms are seized as soon as the opportunity presents itself speaks to a very high level of experience of the interactive fiction medium, that its every aspect is taken advantage of. This is only confirmed in the first game, Fealglass, in which, upon drowning, the command “x me” responds with “you can’t see any such thing”, a witty employment of a usual response in an unusual way.
Given how many twists and turns the game is packed with, the tightness of the writing comes as no surprise. In Fealglass, through the line “Finally you die”, the author employs a common but effective technique that uses abrupt bluntness to handle sensitive scenes, turning what would have been a cumbersome cliché into a comic relief moment. The description of the Un-god Nesphelet’s cruelty is equally effective: “As he plucks each string, it screams out for release, and in this way a melody of purest pain plays on and on.” Here, the use of the word “plucks”, as opposed to something like “plays”, is powerful because of the plosive quality of the /k/ sound, which literally demonstrates the force with which each string is pulled and released. The word “screams” further narrows the focus on the victims, leaving the player with no doubt at all about who is suffering and thereby forcing him/her to receive the impact of the action in its full carnage. At this point, knee deep in linguistics, I may as well acknowledge a line in the game that seems specifically directed to me: “”Don’t overanalyze it!” someone calls out from the back.” Preach it.
The stories themselves do not disappoint. The creepiest one for me was In Search of Caroline, in which a scheming baby and an unassuming mother swap roles. The premise immediately put me in mind of Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, in which there is also an evil baby who disguises itself as a harmless creature. But while the baby in Bradbury’s rendition is physically limited, and met its downfall in a physical fight with the doctor, the fatal flaw of the baby in this game is its mental incapacity, which made it unable to see through the protagonist’s plans. Still, the game could be similar in its portrayal of mothers who become too enraptured in childcare, so much so that they fail to recognise even immediate threats to their lives. The author, however, claims that the story is merely composed of parts of a dream stitched together and has no underlying significance, which is reasonable.
Regardless, the writing is effective as usual. Minimalist descriptions complemented with the occasional detail provide plenty of opportunities for players to fill in the blanks. The best example of this is the line “Amy looks at the playpen, barely still standing, and imagines a tiny monster shaking its bars and shrieking to be released.” Previously, the playpen was described unremarkably as “splintered”; the appending of this one line that elaborates on a previously mentioned attribute of the playpen radically transforms our understanding of it, directing us to its current state as a product of a haunting flashback and framing it as nothing but.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Mint chocolate chip. Refreshing yet cosy, chock full of surprises that engage your taste buds from beginning to end.