April in London means rain. It runs in the alleys and soaks the bricks dark as blood. This mouldy, grey April of 1375 is even more dismal than usual. Plague and war have killed your family – and many of the Londoners who used to buy the cloth you weave.
This is how Road to Canterbury, a text adventure, starts. This is how your medieval adventure begins.
In Road to Canterbury, you take on the role of a young pauper who has joined a pilgrimage to Canterbury. You are on a secret mission – the powerful noblewoman Philippa de Roet is also on the pilgrimage and she has the potential to change the course of history. You have to get close to her somehow and persuade her to do what you think is right. That is your overall mission – but of course, this game is inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, so you are on the road with a ragtag bunch of pilgrims who have their own problems, motivations and interests.
Given its inspiration and subject matter, it seems only fitting that The Road to Canterbury should be a story full of stories – there is the story you are writing as you play the game, the backstories of each character, and on top of that, a story competition as the pilgrims tell each other tales to pass the time. Road to Canterbury is a choose-your-own-adventure novel upgraded for the digital age. While there are no graphics or sound effects and a very basic interface, there are a wealth of words, choices stats and plenty of scenes and drama to fuel your imagination. With a whopping 175,000 words, The Road to Canterbury has an impressive amount of length, breadth and depth.
Right from the start, the amount of choice feels almost overwhelming. You can be male, female or non-binary. You can be gay, straight, bi, asexual or aromantic. You can build a backstory for your character and find their motivation for accepting this mission. Even the somewhat basic choices around character creation are deftly woven into the story and the narrative progresses without breaking stride as you build a sense of who your character is. The opening scene takes place in a busy tavern where you have arrived cold, tired, hungry and completely broke – your reaction to this sets you down a path and throws you into the deep end of constructing your own story.
You can be a trickster with a sharp sense of cunning, able to wriggle your way out of any difficult situation. You can be the most pious of pilgrims, walking a humble path and giving thanks to God with every breath. You can be a strong and brave warrior, with impressive combat prowess, able to intimidate people when you need to. It’s really up to you, and that’s the beauty of this game.
Your choices shape the kind of character you are, and open or close paths accordingly. There are stats which are always tracked – your humours, and your traits. Humours are your temperament – many people in medieval Europe believed that the body was ruled by four bodily fluids and an imbalance of these fluids would affect your health and personality. Your traits are your characteristics, strengths and weaknesses – how much generosity you have versus how much avarice, blasphemy versus piety, humility versus pride, and some other traits such as your curiosity, your brawn, your industry and your education.
There are a lot of calculations and stat checks going on under the surface, and I found it fascinating to constantly check the stats screen and see how my relationships and mission had progressed according to my choices. Your humours, traits, and your choices all combine to affect your relationships with the other pilgrims and influence with groups such as merchants or the clergy. While your main goal is to persuade Philippa de Roet to change her politics, to do so, you will have to build your credibility if you want to use certain arguments. No point trying to persuade her to take the higher path if you’re a dirty sinner who blasphemes every second! Or you might be educated or clever enough to impress her with your knowledge and make her believe what you say.
Similarly, as you journey on, you can try and make friends with the other pilgrims, who may look upon you favourably or unfavourably depending on your behaviour. One of the other pilgrims is Philippa’s husband, Geoffrey Chaucer himself. If all goes well, you could gain his trust and hear about a poem that he is working on…
No point trying to persuade philippa to take the higher path if you’re a dirty sinner who blasphemes every second!
A lot of different things can happen on the ancient route from Southwark to Canterbury. In one playthrough, I heroically put out a fire that threatened to consume the tavern that everyone was staying in, sneaked around an abbey to try and get a glimpse of a forbidden relic, accidentally landed myself in a trial by combat and made a desperate rush across the English countryside on my trusty pony to try and prevent a terrible catastrophe.
That wasn’t even the half of it – there were many more dramatic scenarios that were to do with the rest of the pilgrims themselves. Each character in the large cast is well considered, with their own interesting backstories, motivations and behaviours. Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, is a cheeky lady who has a filthy sense of humour and a taste for mischief. Selime is the mysterious solo traveller from afar with secrets hidden behind a quiet smile. Elias and Perkins are knight and squire, with problems that can either be solved or exacerbated depending on which way you are inclined. Unfortunately, you won’t get to have a thorough encounter with everyone – there are simply too many of them and only a limited amount of time as you travel the road.
I completed my first playthrough on my phone, wrapped up in blankets with a mug of hot tea next to me and it was bliss. I spent a couple of hours completely absorbed, and when it was over… Well, any reader will be familiar with that full, happy feeling that comes with experiencing a great story and reading a good book. Even so, I had the feeling that there was much more to see and do. Playing through again a few days later and making very different choices revealed other scenarios that I had completely missed. A third and a fourth playthrough would likely reveal the same.
I will definitely be replaying this game multiple times just to see what other stories are buried within it, and I can’t wait to travel the road to Canterbury again and again to unearth them all.