The Land of the Cyclops by Francesco Cordella played by Emily Short

Aggiornato il giorno 11 Maggio 2020

Keeping An Eye Out

Francesco Cordella’s The Land of the Cyclops begins with a statement to the effect that it is an experiment in deriving IF from the situations of classic literature. As the name might suggest, the game is an IF-ification of the famous situation in which Odysseus defeats the Cyclops and rescues some of his men from the cave (but not all, because the Cyclops dashes some of them against the stones like puppies, and their brains run out).

This is particularly intriguing to me, as IF author and as classicist, and so I look for two things. Is it a good game? Is it a good retelling of the classic?

The short answer, in both cases, is “not entirely.” Game-wise, The Land of the Cyclops shares some of the flaws that afflicted Graham Nelson’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Tempest“. There are parts of the game in which it would be quite hard to guess what you ought to do if you weren’t already familiar with the story. The Cyclops, for instance, is himself described in poetical terms that, as it happens, don’t emphasize the most important of his attributes — the great single eye that is his monstrosity and his weakness. The descriptions in the game, in general, is not the kind of language one typically finds in IF: its diction is more artful, and it is more difficult to extract a list of items to investigate and manipulate.

I don’t think this is an inevitable effect of taking IF from a literary situation, these two pieces of evidence aside. I think it would have been possible to clue some of the actions better, in the conventional terms of IF, simply by changing the descriptions a bit. I also found the choice of translation odd. The opening of the game credits the translation of Robert Fagles — a graceful, lightly versified version with relatively few archaisms, and the one featured, for instance, in the mythology class I helped teach last semester. It doesn’t seem especially stiff, and flows well; the main complaints I have heard levelled against it are its occasional lapses into language that is too informal, and the fact that it sometimes glosses over complexities in the original text. Nonetheless, if I were selecting a translation for IF (and did not have time to do my own), I would use Fagles.

But the odd thing is that the text in the game is not the Fagles text: it’s something else, older, more cramped, forced straitly into rhymes. As a sample, take the beginning of the description of the Cyclops, about which I complained above: “Cyclops first, a savage kind, nor tamed by manners, nor by laws confined: untaught to plant, to turn the glebe, and sow, they all their products to free nature owe…” In fact, as far as I can tell, it is the translation of Alexander Pope — a poet for whom I have great respect, but whose Homer translations are generally not considered to hold to the highest standards either of accuracy or of readability. Most of us these days do not speak much of glebes.

For contrast, here is the Fagles text of the same passage: “…the high and mighty Cyclops, lawless brutes, who trust so to the everlasting gods they never plant with their own hands or plow the soil. Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need…” It lacks the conscious poise of Pope, but in this context that would have been a Good Thing. The items without a Pope-generated description lie at a funny stylistic angle to his diction: they are generally curt, and some give evidence of having been translated by someone for whom English was not a native language. Sometimes you find juxtapositions like this:

New driven before him through the arching rock, came tumbling, heaps on heaps, the unnumber’d flock.
A big rock blocks the entrance of the cave.

I’m not sure where this peculiarity comes from, though I have a suspicion: offers a full browsable online text of the Odyssey that includes these lines, and then it says, “Buy the text!” in a little box with a link– to the Barnes and Noble page for the Fagles. I’m guessing that the good people over there at sparknotes saw no significant distinction between one (archaic, public domain) translation of the Odyssey and another (recent, copyright, and available for purchase), and didn’t feel overly obliged to credit the first at all. Homer is Homer, right? This sort of thing is a crime against scholarship. Those who feel the need for online translations of classical texts would be better off consulting; its translations have also aged their way into public domain, but at least they are usually properly credited, and accompanied by the original text.

But I digress.

The point is, where the game makes use of (what I believe to be) the Pope text, it is not offering the player a lot of help, in terms of reading-for-game-play. We have grown used to the fact that writing IF requires adherence to certain rules: don’t mention objects that aren’t present if you can avoid it, don’t talk about things you don’t plan to implement, avoid metaphor and excessively clever phrasing, use simple and accessible vocabulary, make the arrangements of items in the environment as clear as possible. Poetry– at least poetry of the Pope-translating-Homer ilk– does pretty much the exact opposite.

The non-Pope descriptions are typically curt, and sometimes verge on the misleading. “>X FIRE”, for instance, gets you “Do not play with fire.” — which, considering that the fire is required for an action, seems to point the player in the wrong direction entirely.

Likewise, many actions that might seem perfectly reasonable merely get responses such as “The wise Ulysses would not do that.” Well, why the heck not? If I’m the wise Ulysses, I should either know what’s wrong with this scheme, or I should be allowed to try it. But the answer is merely that the course of the story demands that the PC not try any other scheme than the one laid down for him. This sort of response pops up even when you are doing the right things at the wrong time, which could again give someone the wrong idea entirely.

There are other peculiarities: sometimes it is necessary to wait, and sometimes to repeat actions, and there is not always enough indication of either of those things. The pacing hasn’t been perfectly worked out. The game fails to let you know that you’re on the right track, or that you have one more thing to do before the timer runs out and the Cyclops comes back, finds you unprepared, and smashes your head against a wall. This kind of thing might be refined with more testing and experimentation, I suspect; it might even be the artifact of different expectations for Italian IF, which this game originally was before it was translated into English. On the whole, these bits are mildly frustrating.

So I suspect this would not be terribly playable for someone who hadn’t already heard the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, or who did not have a copy of the text at his disposal. On the other hand, for someone who has, it isn’t particularly challenging. The solutions to all the puzzles — distract the Cyclops, disable him, and escape the cave — are exactly the solutions in Homer, step for step. If there’s a challenge, the challenge lies in coming up with the proper phrasing; what one is actually supposed to do is never in doubt because the passage never deviates from the set text.

Setting aside the game, though, how is it as a literary experience? Well… it is interesting to find oneself playing IF that is decidedly outside the bounds of what IF can usually do; it makes a virtue out of the flaw I just mentioned. Because you know the walkthrough, it’s possible to play this game even though it has this richer, more deliberately literary language than standard IF. It doesn’t go as far in that direction as it might, though: I think the game would have had more punch if the Cyclops had seemed more proactive, if it had been possible to engage him in more conversation, if the pacing hadn’t been slightly off-kilter. At that point, it might have been an experience more like what I think Graham was reaching for with “The Tempest“: an interactive performance, in which the player is offered the opportunity to play a role with which he is already quite familiar, for the sheer interest value of being a participant instead of the audience. “The Tempest” itself did not have this effect for me, because I didn’t get past the infamous guess-the-verb bit very early in the game. The Land of the Cyclops came closer.

What one can gain from this sort of literary experience is another question. There’s a sense in which the Odyssey is especially suited for it: if you’re playing Odysseus, you can play him better if you possess the supernatural prescience of knowing how the story’s supposed to go. After all, the guy is a brilliant schemer. If you’re not a brilliant schemer, at least you can fake up the appearance of brilliant scheming by having the scheme written down in advance next to the keyboard. Had the game also captured the emotional content of this episode — the nervewracking strain of biding your time while your companions are slain around you, the grotesque violence, the dark atmosphere of firelight and blood — it might have been quite something, even for someone familiar with what happens. But that would have been another kind of translation and reinterpretation: not Pope’s or Fagles’ Homer, but Cordella’s Homer.

If you go and look at the website that goes with the game, though, you will discover that that wasn’t what Francesco was aiming for at all. His site explains that it is really an exercise in trying to find puzzles of a new kind, puzzles that fit the pace and motivation of the narrative. As I said above, I don’t think it entirely succeeds in delineating the puzzles in a way that would be playable for someone without Odysseus knowledge; on the other hand, I do think it could have succeeded at that, with judicious nudging and hinting, and a cleaning up of the descriptions. In that respect, I think it makes its point without actually quite achieving what it wanted to achieve — which is a pity, but perhaps Francesco will consider it a moral victory nonetheless.

The end of this article indicates that he expects to go on with an analysis of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which I have not read. I will be curious to see how that comes out, when it appears. This is an interesting road to explore; while I am not entirely satisfied with the results of the experiment, I applaud the desire to make puzzles fit better into narratives and to expand the range of puzzle concepts available. I would also like to add that I very much appreciate the effort that went into making this available in English, and that I hope to see more translations of IF, in both directions, in the future.

Finally, I would be guilty of gross neglect if I did not bemoan the following:

>x cheeses
They're the cheeses of the Cyclops, looking very good at sight.
>eat cheeses
It would be useless.

Emily Short