Arborea by Richard Develyn– parser
I picked this game largely for the gorgeous cover art and the promised ecological theme. Sometimes, folks, a really good piece of art can sway people to your game.
You’re in a simulation of a forest. You’re carrying a gourd. I didn’t find the first puzzle (getting out of the forest) taxing, and oh joy, there were now many areas to wander around in. Each direction takes you to a different place—and perhaps a different time— all based on the type of tree that might be found there. Some of those locations do have heavy ecological themes which can be very horrifying indeed. Others don’t seem to have any ecological themes at all, instead focussing on Buddhism, or on a particularly nasty time in American history, or simply a fun historical era. The writing is very good, immediately setting your mood for each area: horror, mystery, humor, religious experience. This is where Arborea really shines—wandering around the locations and experiencing these mood swings is really quite jarring and effective.
I didn’t finish this in 2 hours, though I probably will go back to it. I say probably because I had some trouble figuring out what there was to do. There are a few signposted puzzles, but not many, and I found myself at the walkthrough pretty quick, just for an idea of what I should be focussing on in all that territory. I ran into trouble with the commands once (I’ll blur this spoiler): I had used the command “up” in the first location, and that worked great to climb a tree. In the other locations, “up” didn’t work for any of the trees, and almost all of the trees could not be climbed, either— in fact CLIMB MANGROVE gives you a reply about the hut. So by the time I got to a very important tree, I had fizzled on trying to climb trees in the locations. I did try UP at the fig tree, too, but there’s another location up from there. So I never would have climbed the fig tree without the walkthrough.
In fact, I used the walkthrough a great deal for the rest of my time with Arborea, because it often wasn’t at all clear who to give things to, or which area to go to use an item-- it felt a bit read-the-author’s-mind-ish. The disjointed feel of the map in this game is both its great strength and its weakness, and I wish my sense of purpose had been clearer. I don’t know if ecological messages would have eventually occurred in every area, but I did find it odd that some locations were so effectively used for a message, while others seemed to have no message at all.
I also may have run into a bug (or maybe I am just really not getting this puzzle): in the realm above the fig tree, dividing the whispered number by a door number works until it doesn’t. I worked on it for quite a while, but kept finding myself with a very low number in an area where there was no exit with a number that could be divided into the whispered number, and I’d have to start over. So either I should have tried way more variations (I did fool with this for quite some time, though) or this is a bug.
So all in all I found Arborea to be a really mixed bag: a big, terrific map; and good writing evoking real sense of place in many different times and places. But when I can’t figure out what to do with all that, I start to lose interest. Possibly the game could benefit from some gating so there’s less space to roam while you figure out what to do, but that would hurt its central asset, which is the thrill of going to all these vastly different places from one hub. I think perhaps a subtle in-game hint system would probably help enormously—perhaps the gourd could somehow be a hint system (it kinda sorta already does that a bit)? If you love hard parser puzzlers, this is the game for you. And it’s definitely worth wandering around in for the writing, even if you do need to keep the walkthrough handy.
Next up: INK by Sangita V Nuli
** Edit: I just had a glass of wine, so I’ll share this with you: if I ever were to write a romance novel, the hero would be named Richard Develyn, or d’Evelyn. I mean, what a cool name. Some of us have names that bring to mind things like: Amanda Walker, county clerk in a mustard-stained uniform. Others get to go through life with names that conjure up different images, like: Richard Develyn, swashbuckling rake in tight pants and a poet’s shirt.
Life is not fair.