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Preview: Python's The Ministry Of Silly Games

We don't often cover Facebook games on RPS. I've a feeling that's going to start changing as they become more involved, more inspired, and less like another Farmville clone. And one example of a bit more imagination going into a game is The Ministry Of Silly Games, an official Monty Python-themed project that seems to combine about seven hundred and sixteen genres.

I think it's probably best described as a free-to-play semi-multiplayer RPG minigame collection. It's not that straightforward to explain.

You begin by creating an avatar, from a selection of faces, clothes, etc. A limited one, of course, because that will all be part of the money-generating element. This then goes into the shared areas of the game, where you can chat with other players in the various rooms, who may also be completing the array of quests on offer.

At first you play as a peon, at the bottom of the 30 levels available, charged with helping fix the Engine at the centre of the Ministry Of Silly Games. To do this you need parts, and to get parts you need in-game tokens. To get these, you need to complete quests. And you need the Engine powered so you can play the minigames that gain you the XP to level up to get more parts to power the engine by doing higher level quests. Make sense? No. Good.

Quests that I've seen so far are fairly elementary. There's a lot of collecting things from various areas of the game. And a few that are mini-mini-games within the areas. So, for instance, God might ask you to fetch ten of his portraits from about the place. (According to the Zattikka developers, it was Gilliam himself who demanded God be a character in the game.) Or Mr Creosote may demand that you find enough cakes for him to eat before the tea-lady reaches his chair.

There's three areas in the game at present (which is about to go into closed beta pretty much from today). There's a Medieval bit, which features references to Holy Grail and Life Of Brian (I didn't like to point out that LoB wasn't exactly Medieval). There's the Television Studios which are themed around favourite sketches from the Flying Circus TV series, and there's the Ministerial Distractions, a catch-all for odd bits and pieces from all over.

Get enough of the in-game currency to buy the silly parts needed to get the central Engine running and the arcade machines power up and let you play the minigames. These vary quite considerably as well. There's some extremely simple (and extremely familiar) games in there, beginning with (predictably) a match-3. Except here make a mistake and Mr Gumby smashes bricks into his head.

Mr Creosote reappears here, with a game requiring you to catch food in his mouth, while avoiding wafer-thin mints, lest he vomit all over a member of staff. There's a Camelot-themed game that unashamedly borrows from Angry Birds and Crush The Castle. And a neat looking physics puzzler that requires you to balance objects such that you can get a television aerial into the right place for one of Gilliam's cartoons to watch his shows.

I was also shown an Upper Class Twit Of The Year Russian Roulette game, a very cute looking Space Invaders-alike, with some innovative boss fights (shooting the giant chicken while it's trying to lay an egg), and a Fruit Ninja "tribute", in which you must see the Knights Who Say Ni cleft in twain, while avoiding chopping Holy Hand-grenades.

So yes, it's a bunch of references to Python sketches you used to shout to your friends in pubs before you knew better. Thankfully there's some slightly more obscure references in there too, as well as a fish-slapping minigame that you probably already guessed would be there. For instance, Mr Luxury Yacht makes an appearance (but of course it's pronounced "Throat-wobbler Mangrove". And due to being given the most wonderful collection of high-res assets by Gilliam, the developers are able to include huge amounts of original Python artwork and photographs.

Of the Python team, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam have been involved. But then, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam have been involved! While clearly not exactly developers on the project, they've had more impact than I was expecting. Both have made suggestions for what should be included in the game, consulted with the developers, and indeed were at yesterday's presentation to chat to the press.

The game is clearly aimed at a casual market, the content not exactly vying for the attentions of your hardcore MMO grinder. While this looks like one of the more involved and evolved Facebook games I've seen, it's still very much for the Facebook market. And being free-to-play, there's obviously going to be ways to spend your real-world money. Although it seems pretty generously balanced. Cash, at this point, seems to be focused on aesthetics and short-cuts. So as you level up you'll unlock access to more clothing items, and indeed furniture for your cubical space - an area to which you can invite friends, that expands in size as you level. But such items will require you pay. However, the items required for playing the game will require only in-game currency. In other words, you can progress just fine without paying a penny. Although, if you're lazy, you can buy your way to gaining enough bits and pieces to get the Engine going, and thus level up more quickly.

It's very clear that the team making it are huge fans of Python. And with the access to Gilliam's amazing collection of Python assets they're plundering it all to cram in as much as possible. I'm not sure, at this point, whether the clonish minigames and ultra-simple quests will be enough to grip more serious gamers such that they want to explore it all and get the Python fun. However, in a Facebook market so bereft of depth, this does look like it's trying an awful lot harder than much of its competition.

The closed beta begins now, and if you want to apply you can do so at this link. The full game is due out some time next year.

And soon we'll have my interview with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam themselves.

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