Referencing Doctor Who?
Among the dangers of referential humor is the feeling like I’ve heard all this before, or that the joke is in the fact that the reference exists—particularly when using giants like World of Warcraft. For me, The Book of Unwritten Tales often falls into this trap, which is a pity considering its consistently high production values.
Developed by the German developer King Art, The Book of Unwritten Tales is a point-and-click adventure game that tells the story of four adventurers and their quest to stop an unseen evil (we only ever see her tentacles writhing from behind a throne) from amassing the ultimate artifact and presumably taking over the world. Steeped in the fantasy realm of elves, orcs, dwarves and dragons, the game makes no qualms about the fact that it is also relying heavily on cliché.
Which is not to say I found no humor in the game, but that there was a clear distinction between an actual joke or subversion, and simple references that were supposed to read as funny, but often just felt as if the game was winking at me for being part of the cool club who gets that this reference is from Monkey Island, Tolkien or a game by Blizzard.
For instance, you find two characters punching in commands to a machine that is run by a monkey which is allowing them to play an MMRPG as tax accountants, a way to escape the mundanity of their fantasy life. Compare this with a reference to a paladin who throws hammers and is sporting “a dress,” winking at the paladins as constructed by World of Warcraft, with the humor being that he’s feminine and not as masculine as a real warrior would be. The joke goes from reference of what a paladin in WoW is and rolls right into casual misogyny about metrosexuals and the feminine that made me wonder if we are now codifying the poor behavior of WoW players (and “masculine” society in general) as humor.
While a game made up of constant references to clichés eventually becomes tiring, Unwritten Tales is aided by genuinely beautiful art design as well as overflowing with voice acting that helped me actually care for one character, Wilbur Weathervane. There are three other characters you control, one of whom is Creature, seemingly on loan from Sesame Street’s martians. Of the other two, Ivo is the sexy elf woman, complete with bare midriff, and Captain Nate is the sky captain with dubious morals. The only one who really has an arc of any interest is Wilbur, who acts as a gnome with a childlike fascination of the world that’s both charming and makes his path to becoming a mage and world saver a truly delight.
Unfortunately, this highlights the game’s uneven storytelling. The pace feels odd in spots, as some acts rush by while others feel entirely too padded with puzzles. Ivo, the elf woman, seems almost an afterthought, despite the game starting out with her, while Captain Nate’s trajectory to becoming a rogue with a heart of gold seems almost paint-by-numbers, rather than genuinely interesting. This is a game built on point, click, recognize a reference to an RPG or adventure game, and laugh.
The pointing and clicking generally works, though I wish the game had told me that pressing the spacebar would highlight portions of the backdrop with which I could interact (before this, the game was a frustrating pixel-hunt to find that one spot that might have something I could use). Of course, the use of such just highlighted the fact that while the game’s logic never gets too severely distorted in order to make things work, sometimes it does devolve into a game of pick up everything and then figure out what works in which situations. Paired with the fact that sometimes you are required to talk to a character and get the right dialogue before completing a task you know you will be doing, this often just leads to a frustrating hunt for what you’ve missed.
There are a few breaks for more interesting logic puzzles, such as situating the three characters you control so they can help the others progress. Palate cleansing makes sense, breaking up the monotony, but sometimes these breaks were just frustrating (such as a Dance Dance Revolution type mini-game using the arrow keys). As the game is not punitive in any regard, it’s just a block in the path, but these blocks often seem frivolous.
The Book of Unwritten Tales uses the building blocks of an adventure game, but its story relies so heavily on humor that if you don’t get all the references much of it will just seem oddly thrown together fantasy icons. It’s an awkward combination of homage and roast, without ever truly avoiding the traps of being mired in its own references.
Denis Farr is a writer who enjoys flitting about and providing words for those who may desire them. Please feel free to exchange lovely words with him via Twitter.