IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)

Scarlet Sails is a charming Choicescript game by Felicity Banks. I’ll say here that the oversaturation of the pirate tradition always wars with its enduring romance for me–agh, the endless merchandising! But the maps! But the colonialism! But the outfits! But the existence of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels! But the outfits!!! Ahem. What I mean to say here is that had this game included some kind of elaborate textual pirate dress-up feature, I would have been unhelpfully biased. As it is, Scarlet Sails was a good deal of fun.

General: Scarlet Sails is a pretty standard Choice of Games-type experience where you play a young upstart making their way in the perilous, CYOA world of nebulous Caribbean piracy: with tracked stats that go up and down according to choices that affect skill levels, personality, and other attributes, multiple relationships of multiple genders (and possible polyamorous multiplicity, depending on how you play your cards), different possible pirate career achievements, and several colorful ways to die. It more or less follows the typical Choice of Games bildungsroman in structure, with a branch-and-regroup setup that follows the trajectory of a metaplot while permitting the player to make different choices about their career as a pirate along the way depending on the skillset and priorities they choose to focus on. There’s a consistent throughline of story from the beginning to the end.

Story: This is an interesting segment to review for Scarlet Sails. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the game and was fairly engrossed throughout, but on the other, I was handily aware of the seams. What I enjoyed about the story was the rip-roaring sense of adventure it managed to carry throughout: whether or not my life or my crew’s lives were actually in constant danger, I felt like they were, and yet for the most part the experience was a lighthearted one, and that pairing is something I associate with the appeal of the pirate genre. You feel like you might lose at any moment, but you wouldn’t take it personally if you did. There’s something piratical about that. I recognize this is an attribute that might belong better in the Design section, but I think it was a quality of the writing that carried this impression for me–something about the constant flip reminders of your captain’s value for your life or lack thereof, or the odd codes that ruled pirate interchange. Anyway, most of the flavor detail worked well for me–you knew the Titan was coming from the Achievement listing, but it was still pretty cool and paced well for a sense of all-encompassing danger–and I liked the one or two primary characters who were well-developed, though not all were.

What didn’t work as much for me, on the other hand, was the worldbuilding. Emily Short talked more about this, but the magic of the -smiths felt a little tacked on to the rest of the world, both mechanically and genre-wise. I feel like you can either have a world that operates based on gusto and genre convention and improvisation or one with strictly defined magic rules and a civilization affected by these alternate physics, but it’s hard to have both: basically, Scarlet Sails wanted to take place in the culturally accessible dreamland of pirateworld, of uncertain geography and questionable governmental standing and endless treasure on countless isles for all, but introduced some concrete worldbuilding elements that needed more attention and consistency than that. The way people treated feelsmiths and healsmiths wasn’t sensible or practical, and also didn’t seem incorporated into the swashbuckling spirit of the world–I’d have liked to hear some alternate history about legendary and cruel healsmith Edward Teach. This is a long way of saying that I think the magic system was under-implemented.

On a sentence level the writing was fine–that sounds dismissive, but it really was fine, it functioned. It reminded me of a lot of other Choice of Games. I would’ve enjoyed a bit more flair and period pastiche and humor. But it worked.

Design: I’ve almost nothing to say about the pure design of Scarlet Sails because it followed a familiar pattern and that pattern worked. Choicescript games lend themselves to a branch-regroup structure and a coming-of-age stat-tracking with the end result of a story where you accrue wealth, ships, and renown. I hear there was a bug in the early gameplay, but it wasn’t there by the time I got around to it, or I didn’t notice, so it’s of no consequence to my experience. I enjoyed the pacing, for the most part, and the difficulty level didn’t seem off to me–I rather enjoyed losing to the Titan, in fact.

Overall, a fun Choicescript swashbuckler with some unsteady worldbuilding but a good sense of whimsy.

About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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