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About the Story"When your brother Malcolm sends you a telegram inviting you to visit him at Biblioll College in the ancient university town of Christminster, you imagine that the mysterious `discovery' he alludes to is nothing more than some esoteric bit of chemistry, and that you'll have a pleasant day out in beautiful surroundings. But when you get to Christminster, nothing is as you expect. Where has Malcolm vanished to? What are the unpleasant Doctor Jarboe and the positively repulsive Professor Bungay up to? And what do long-forgotten alchemical treatises have to do with the modern day?" [--blurb from The Z-Files Catalogue]
-- Carl Muckenhoupt
The college is populated with particularly rich characters who play their parts well through the usual sorts of text-adventure interactions. There are good excuses to interact with them along the way, too, provided by a plot which twists along past different personalities. Rees has said that his puzzles are contrived for the purpose of drawing the interactor through the story and into contact with different characters, and that is evident in Christminster. Areas of the setting are consecutively unlocked for exploration, but the whole college is worked into the story very evenly, throughout the narrative.
-- Nick Montfort
In all, though, the small cracks don't mar the soundness of the game. The overall game design is as tight and sensible as just about anything I've seen. Christminster certainly makes my top five of all time, and stands as a classic. I suspect it will hold up well under the test of time. One hallmark of such games is that they make it hard to release a new game with a similar setting, plot, or milieu because the author has so well nailed it down. That seems to be the case here for college campuses and Christminster.
-- David Samuel Myers
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There's much to like about "Christminster," from the clever puzzles to the highly interactive NPCs. "Christminster" joins the crowded field of IF games with a collegiate setting, but this one comes in at or near the head of the class.
-- Eileen Mullin
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Number of Reviews: 7
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Related reviews: gareth rees
Don't play it if: you want plot-heavy IF that hits the narrative highs of later masterpieces such as Anchorhead.
Christminster to me suffers from the rather thankless role of being a classic game overtaken by its successors. It's a shame because in many ways Christminster is contemporary in its design: lower on cruelty and higher on fairness than most of the Infocom classics. In that respect it's the sort of game that will outlive the Zork series, whose entries will more often than not frustrate the contemporary player in spite of their positive attributes.
I think it comes down to the balance between puzzle-solving and storytelling. For every area in which Christminster presented clean, quality gameplay, there's another area in which it falls just a little bit short in its narrative. Yes, the puzzles have both variety and verisimilitude, depending as much on the manipulation of characters as on that of everyday objects. Yes, they're (mostly) well-clued and engaging enough to keep you playing through to the finish. But then I have to stop and wonder why I'm researching the alchemical history of the university when I should be demanding a police investigation into my brother's disappearance. (Spoiler - click to show)And concocting the Elixir of Life is all very well and good for a puzzle, but what is going through Christabel's mind when she is making it? What is the connection between making the Elixir and saving her brother?(Spoiler - click to show) These sorts of details by no means ruined the game, but they did prevent me from really connecting with Christabel and by extension the actual plot.
The thing is that Christminster feels like a prototypical version of Anchorhead. I know it's not really fair to judge one game by the standards of another, but Anchorhead, which might be considered this game's spiritual successor, really did do it better. The personal stakes are higher, the environment is more atmospheric, the backstory and research more detailed and engaging. Christminster paddles along at a good pace in terms of gameplay, but the plot itself changes very little between the beginning and end; nothing of real emotional significance happens until the ending, and there is little build-up to the climax. It works more as a string of well-connected puzzles than as an actual story, whereas Anchorhead managed to balance both of those elements.
So is it a masterpiece? For its time, yes; and even now it has aged extremely well - the original release was in 1995, but it may as well have been yesterday (barring a couple tell-tale gaps in implementation). So it's still entirely worthwhile as a game, if not as engrossing a story as it could have been.
I think the evidence is clear that it's at the very least a timeless near-classic. One can recognize a game that plays with Inform's new-for-the-time capabilities in what may now seem a stylized fashion, but which for its time must have been new and fresh. The important point is that the story holds up. The writing is witty, the puzzles are well-structured, and the whole thing fits together.
The most impressive quality for me though is the near-perfect timing and coherence of the whole. This is the definitive Oxbridge College adventure. The College feels right, the buildings look right, the eccentric Dons are right. The setting is some ill-defined post-war period; perhaps the point is it could be any time between say 1945-1954 (post-war, no mention of rationing) and 1972-1988 (women are admitted to mens' Colleges). The very timelessness is critical, and the author uses this, for example in the prologue which mentions strawberries. There are also a Chapel, a punt, a garden.
Particularly effective is the use of time. The game's structure uses the player's achievements to advance the clock. Within the different episodes, there is flexibility, however. The underlying plot is the driven forward by certain actions with irrevocable consequences (it is possible to get stuck in a non-winning situation). The hint system becomes vaguer with time. I certainly peeked at the source code a few times. I had not played the game for a long time and thought I remembered the winning sequences, but I was mistaken (a good thing, I would argue).
Getting all the points is not easy, but the game is fair in the sense of Chekov's Gun. Everything that is of later importance is indicated in some fashion. Possibly not the a reference to the Meldrew family buried in the game, but that is not actually needed. A tribute to Curses and to the origin of Inform.
Finally, while the author explains the origin of Christminster and Biblioll, it is an interesting exercise to see whether the setting is more like Cambridge or Oxford. The use of the word "supervision" suggests Cambridge, as does the river flowing South to North, although there are no historical Cambridge colleges on the west bank of the Cam. And the name Biblioll is of course based on Balliol, while it is older than Cambridge. In the end, it doesn't matter because the disparate elements come together and one is immersed in what feels like a College.
One of my favorite (Christminster spelling) games every. Every student of Inform should play it at least once.
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