On <em>Savoir-Faire</em>

On Savoir-Faire

2008-03-04

Emily Short explains that one of the goals of Savoir-Faire is to teach the player to become a magician. This pedagogical orientation means that - in contrast to interactive fictions that allow only a severely limited range of player input - Short’s game rewards undirected play because the player is not only solving puzzles, but also learning.

Savoir-Faire is an interactive fiction, set in an alternate France of the mid-1780s, about a nobleman who runs into debt. When he returns to his estate for help, he finds that his family is missing; he is forced to rely on the Lavori d’Aracne, a system of magic use, to solve his financial problems and discover what has gone wrong.

The game was designed to make the player competent in the role of Pierre, and especially to familiarize him with the system of magic. I had in mind the model of a calculus or classical mechanics text, the kind that introduces a few basic principles - seemingly so straightforward and innocuous - and then through a series of rigorous exercises, forces the student to demonstrate to herself the many, diverse, and occasionally mind-bending ways these principles play out in the real world.

The prologue introduces the basic element of in-game magic, a linking skill that allows one object in the game world to control another. Unlocking a box, for instance, would have the effect of unlocking a door to which the box is linked. Breaking an object will shatter its partner object. The player’s first challenge is to link a pair of locked doors to something that he can open, forcing the doors to fly open as well. Until he has demonstrated this understanding of the way linking works, he is confined to the kitchen and garden, where he will find items his character remembers from past magical experiments. The descriptions of these are, in essence, worked sample problems demonstrating the fundamental functions of linking - and also retellings of the player character’s personal history.

Example 1

>x snuffbox

A little pastel-colored metal box in which you keep your supply of snuff.

Something about the snuffbox tickles your recollection.

>remember snuffbox

“Don’t play magic pranks on the guests,” said the Count, confiscating the little box you had been using to control the Marquis’ snuffbox (so it would refuse to open when he tried the little one-handed flick he was so fond of, and then pop open of its own when he set it down … ).

“Why NOT?” you demanded, twisting under the painful grip he had on your shoulder. “You don’t mind if I play with the servants.”

“First,” said the Count, clearing the links from the box with a brush of his fingers, “I hope you do not play anything malicious on the servants; it is only all right as long as it is games and they do not mind.” He set the box down. “And second, the Marquis is nobility.”

“I do not understand.”

The Count sighed. “I thought you might not. Pierre, you are an - unusual case, being exempt from this rule, but you know that for the most part, only the nobility are able to perform the lavori d’Aracne; and of them, only the most noble families, who have access to the Honors of the Court. To play magic tricks on the Marquis, therefore, is to remind him that his lineage is not as good as ours. He will be insulted and grow angry, and I cannot afford to allow that to happen.”

###

When the player gets past the locked doors, he learns about a variation on linking that blends the properties of two objects, usually with protective effects. A fragile item reverse-linked to a solid one will not break, even if it is mistreated; a book reverse-linked to another book will produce a blended text, neither entirely one nor the other. These two kinds of linking are the basis of nearly all the challenges in the game.

Example 2

>examine bauble

A delicate ornament made of glass, containing inside it a little sun and star that whirl infinitely in the hollow space. It was a plaything of Marie’s, which (due to careful reverse linking to a perfectly round rock) she could hurl at walls and never break, drop down staircases and find intact at the bottom. But it is very doubtful that the link has lasted out the years.

>examine onion

The pale yellow skin is still tight and glossy.

>link onion to bauble

Bending your will, you form the link between the single yellow onion and the celestial bauble.

>throw bauble at wall

(the wall)

The celestial bauble arcs through the air, strikes the wall, smashes dramatically, and spills the tiny silver star and the tiny golden sun.

The onion does not fare well; it splits down the middle and then falls apart in pieces, as though chopped by a skillful invisible chef. When all is done, the chopped pieces lie in their own discarded skin.

###

The more difficult puzzles of the midgame require lateral thinking about what linking can do: deciding which items can be linked, modifying objects to make them linkable, reactivating old links, and applying these rules to unusual objects. The challenges are roughly progressive, so that the player constructs a simple light source before gaining access to more complicated lighting puzzles. In many cases there are several routes to a given end, and I did my best to support all of the plausible options, since the world model can only be learned if it is relatively consistent.

Example 3

>i

You are carrying:

four books:
The Lavori d’Aracne
Guide to Assorted Wines
Clock Repair
On Vegetable Dyes

>read lavori

On the subject of mirrors: Unusual and costly mirrors of special power exist which enhance the workings of the lavori d’Aracne; they may be recognized by their failure to reflect in the ordinary way. Some make it easier to form a link through the mirror than through open air, allowing the magician to reverse-link items that are otherwise too dissimilar to use. Likewise, such a mirror …

But then, unfortunately, it breaks off, the page apparently having been chewed out and carried away by something or other.

>read clock repair

A detailed discourse on how to take care of and repair an assortment of common and mechanical clocks. It begins with comprehensible matters, such as pulling up the weights to begin the operation of the pendulum when the clock has stopped, and other bits of routine maintenance; it finishes with diagrams of a clock’s inner workings that are almost embarrassingly intimate and far too complex for you to follow.

>reverse link lavori to repair

Bending your will and all your attention, you manage to make a reverse-link between The Lavori d’Aracne and Clock Repair, feeling their properties begin to merge together.

>read repair

The book now turns out to be all about how to construct different types of time-keeping device and false clock using nothing more than household objects and the power of the Lavori. How often this is likely to come in handy is open to doubt, though you pause momentarily to be intrigued by the diagram of a cork that sinks or floats depending on the state of its linkage.

###

Some of the effects of the Lavori are more obvious than others, and the player may not be able to guess what will happen if he links two mirrors together, or machines, or cups of water. So Savoir-Faire is not only textbook but also laboratory. A substantial portion of the code exists only to reward undirected play, and to give appropriate responses - character-appropriate responses, when possible - for all sorts of actions unrelated to specific puzzles. Because the wetness or dryness of objects is sometimes important, everything in the game responds to being wet: writing runs and becomes illegible, clothes go sodden, dirt turns to mud. Partly this is a stratagem to alleviate the boredom of a difficult puzzle game: inevitably there will be times when the player gets stuck, can make no direct progress, and begins, instead, to tinker with the environment. It is good if that tinkering is fun; better still if, subtly, it offers new perspective on the problem holding him up.

By the conclusion, the player has become a fairly good magician in his own right, and is fully able to act the role of Pierre. The endgame presents a simple but timed crisis, with no more opportunity for exploration and no tolerance for mistakes - but thanks to the lessons he has already had, the player is ready to save the day with the confidence and panache appropriate to his character.

Reference

Short, Emily (2002-2004). Savoir-Faire.