Not to let the grue out of the box, but Adventure Quest, a gleefully insane MS-COMEDY parody of Infogrames/Sierra-era video games is a post-modern hit. It's a complex, next-generation action-romance, hiding out in 8-bit form. It could fit on an eight-inch floppy, but the ideas are ten feet tall and firm. Even if you've never played a work of "interactive fiction" before (modern, freeware examples found here), Richard Lovejoy's homage is so endearingly specific and Adam Swiderski's direction is so well .EXEcuted that you won't need a walkthrough to get the most of these performances.
The basic premise of text-based adventure games, and hence of Adventure Quest, is that a hero must navigate a series of logically abstruse tasks, armed with only a maddeningly limited supply of vocabulary words and an even shorter supply of acceptable syntax. The hysterical difference here is that Hero (Kent Meister) is the victim of such rules, not the audience, and so we are free to delight in the schadenfreude of watching Hero try to figure out his purpose in life as he moves from "screen" to "scene."
Complicit in the illusion is the crack technical team from Sneaky Snake Productions: Jamie Melani Marshall provides intentionally crude 2D backdrops, Chris Chappell contributes quality MIDI music, and Marc Borders and Jim Hammer deck the characters in the lively, easily identifiable character costumes of the time. This leaves the ensemble free to bring each scene to life, "animating" the foreground with their meticulously blocked actions, which, as in the games that they so enthusiastically imitate, must be looped.
All this, of course, is just grand homage--a show of technical chops and understanding. What takes Adventure Quest to the next level is how accessibly specific it gets. Because the Hero is self-aware, we're able to laugh along as he meta-games the more ridiculous puzzles, attempting to combine and use parts of his inventory on everything he comes across, often to comic effect. Not only is a "Fishbroomrope" something that you might have actually made in, say, Quest for Glory, but the idea of picking up your own "Crippling Depression" is a nice twist on the way Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had you remove your own "Logic" in order to make "No Tea." These references are specific, but Hero's emotions are broad, which is what keeps everyone laughing. After dying, the computer voice (Alley Scott) dispenses nonsense wisdom (like "That will teach you to walk into a room"), leading our Hero to reboot in a state of panic, frustratedly attempting actions like "Waggle cock at guard," though he knows the computer will only tell him "You can't do that."
The show doesn't just mock the repetitious, counterintuitive gameplay, fun as it is to watch Danny Bowes answer the same question the same way, or to see Timothy McCown Reynold's excellent physical control as he pesters the Hero to "buy a curse of a death." (Even novices probably understand how that ends up.) No, there's a love story here, too: Hero falls for Peasant Girl (Sarah Malinda Engelke), and she's wild about him too--though her character's scripting only allows her to express it in the terms "Thank you for rescuing me" as she continues to sweep the same four places in her home.
Thankfully, once Adventure Quest has well and made its point, it starts to break the rules. ("All the better to make you laugh, my dear!") For a game so grounded on repetition, it constantly surprises the audience with twists and turns, especially as Peasant Girl begins to play her own game. In fairness, the play is so clever that the endgame can't help feeling rushed and exhausted, but at least the cast plays it to the hilt.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009