The Libonotus Cup
A Paradox Between Worlds
How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland
Walking Into It
The Golden Heist
You awaken in a forest at night. Your head hurts, your clothes are muddy and torn, and you don’t remember how you got there. There’s a hut nearby, a white building to the west, and a village to the south…
Ghosts Within is a long parser game set in contemporary-ish times written in TADS, which actually feels like two different types of games put together. There’s an item hunt across a large map, and also a village with talkative people and also a tragic past.
The sprawling item hunt makes me think of parser stuff from the mid-90s (Oh, a key, now I can unlock that shed from earlier! Oh, a shovel? I can dig in that patch of dirt outside!).
Then there’s an equally sprawling cast of characters that will happily chat to you (through an ASK/TELL system) about each other about the history of the village, and about the unfortunate death of a local girl some time ago.
That this is all in one game is mighty impressive, especially since this is apparently from a first time author. This is something with a lot of care put into it. The NPCs respond to a decent amount of topics, the setting and characters are well established, and the parser also catches a lot of commands and shortcuts (ASK x about Y works, but just ASK about Y also works!).
There is one thing about putting both those two halves together in the same game. A lot of those mid-90s item hunts tended to take place in: empty caves, forests, abandoned houses or spaceships, etc. Or at least I feel like that was the case. Here, I’m wandering around looking for, say, a light source, or digging tools, and I’m walking right past a bunch of very accommodating, very talky, seemingly very helpful folks, folks who live in houses or work at building full of all matter of tools and appliances. And you can’t just ask! There’s a couple things they’ll help you with, but also some other stuff they won’t. And when I was on my third lap combing through the map looking for a something-or-another, it’s hard not to slightly resent the smiling person RIGHT THERE, willing to talk your ear off about the local lighthouse but unable to lend you a pair of scissors (that’s a fake example).
They’re really happy to tell you a bunch of lore though. Near the beginning I thought the puzzles would get me closer to finding out about the local girl’s death. A murder mystery! Except a lot of the puzzles you encounter early on didn’t really seem to get you any closer to that. They’re about find an item, to find another item, to find another item. So what this feels like is a game that’s more… player-driven, as in, I-the-player am playing this, finding items and solving puzzles, for the sake of wanting to finish the game. The protagonist’s motivation is pretty vague. What I think my character should want to do is: seek medical attention, get some sleep (it’s night time!), find out who they are. None of that is stuff you can talk to anyone about in any detail. Why your character is doing any of this isn’t clear.
But those are relatively small quibbles. I could still buy in. They’re just things I thought about while wandering around the map, which I did a lot, because my biggest issue is that I sometimes found the map hard to navigate. I think the issue could just be more than anything, too many diagonal room exits (NE, NW, SE, SW)? But there were items I missed that were just lying around in plain sight, in rooms I’d overlooked the first few laps around, and it seems like more than one player missed them. There’s a web of interconnected rooms in that area, then another area with a couple diagonal exits that you cross more than once which I think were the two problem areas I had. I’m curious why that first area was confusing to multiple people, because it doesn’t seem too brutal if I’m just mentally picturing it.
Meanwhile, the village’s history is laid out very well. Actually that’s the other motivation for me, which is talking to the people, it’s evident that there’s a deeper web of events, and although the smaller puzzles didn’t contribute much to that, I felt like there was a story there to uncover if I just kept playing. Just talking to people about that stuff is interesting, and there’s a TOPICS command that was extremely useful. I did reach an ending that answered a few questions, but not everything, at 42/50 points.
As far as writing goes, the characters all feel distinctive even if don’t always talk like people. There’s some odd phrasings and word choices here and there but everything is described well, and the only really glaring issue is a misunderstanding of how to punctuate quotes. Other thing I’d like to point out is that this uses a lot of background events (things rustling in the undergrowth, cats running around) as you wander, and those really helped to make the environments feel alive. There were also so many that it signified to me that I should be able ignore interacting with any of them, that I wouldn’t ever have to chase the fox that just ran past me in the forest to get an item.
Oh, conclusion… I enjoyed Ghosts Within! I did put much, much more than 2 hours playing it, after all. Lot of work put into this, and it shows. The map is sometimes confusing, but there’s a deep story here to explore. You might just have to walk around a bunch to find it.