“Wabewalker” is the title given to the protagonist of Brian Moriarty’s Trinity, published by Infocom in 1986 and the finest work of interactive fiction of its era. Connecting its puzzles to its themes in ways never seen before in an adventure game, it elegaically conveys the weight of history and the horror of the bomb in an artful time-travel-fantasy design. The modern IF community still owes an enormous debt to it.
Wabewalker the 2021 IF Comp entry by Ben Sisk doesn’t have much to do with Trinity. There are a few things you could see as connections: You rewind time and move in cycles, there’s a cloaked figure who might be you, Trinity has a short sequence in Japan and all of Wabewalker is set in Japan. But in practice they are nothing alike. Instead, Wabewalker is a puzzle game focused on a specific mechanic and set in three distinct locations, with heavy stylings of Shingon Buddhism.
That was a fraught decision. Shingon Buddhism is a living religion, albeit esoteric, practiced by real people. I have to say that I am not an expert in Shingon Buddhism, or any form of Buddhism. I have never been a Buddhist. That said, Wabewalker’s use of Buddhism seems, from the small amount of checking I’ve done, to be… careless.
For example, in the game, Avalokiteśvara and Kannon have seperate shrines. But Wikipedia tells me that Avalokiteśvara and Kannon are in fact different regional versions of the same bodhisattva. A list of sutras and mantras is provided in game. These are apparantly all named after real sutras and mantras - but the actual text of these sutras and mantras is replaced with a list of body parts that must be chanted (after being ‘translated’ into words that also don’t seem to mean the things they’re supposed to mean in either Japanese or Sanskrit). And when you think about it that way… think about chanting lists of body parts as a religious practice… it’s kind of ludicrous.
Maybe Sisk is a practicing Buddhist and I’m haranguing him for creatively reinterpreting his own religion. Certainly I can’t be the judge of what is and isn’t respectful to Shingon Buddhists. But. This presentation does not give me confidence.
Let’s move on to the gameplay. We have a custom parser here. As usual, many of the conveniences afforded by standard parser systems are not present (no UNDO, no OOPS, no pronouns). That’s fair enough under the circumstances, and I do get why designing your own system is an appealing challenge. The verb set turns out to be sharply limited, and there are some guess-the-verb problems (e.g. fishing requires a specific phrasing). There are some missing determiners in procedural text, e.g “There is book here”.
That said, this feels polished in other ways. The non-procedural text is clear and unobtrusive, if brief. The implementation of the central mechanic is solid; in fact, I didn’t run into any implementation bugs. I was impressed when I got killed and woke up to see my corpse on TV: a great moment which made it clear this was a more complex and unique game than I’d initially expected.
Speaking of the central mechanic, though… This game takes a different approach from most central-mechanic games, and I think it hurts for it. When you think of a game like this year’s What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed, or Hadean Lands, or the works of Arthur DiBianca, or any number of other games, they tend to introduce a simple mechanic clearly, and then extend it as the game progresses. But Wabewalker is different. It asks the player to intuit the entire mechanic, based on clues presented in game. But after that, the whole game is cracked wide open.
Readers, I did not intuit the mechanic. I got it from the walkthrough. Which I’m a little embarrassed about, as all I had to do was pay a little more attention to the way the lights on the knobs were decreasing. But I turn to help quickly when under a Comp deadline, and it didn’t occur to me that my bodies in the different scenarios might have independent existence, that REWIND might be useful outside the context of returning to a previous scenario. (I didn’t end up making the deadline, by the way.)
But the problem is - this effectively turned the rest of the game into busywork! Most of the rest of the game was going back and forth, back and forth, implementing the paths I knew I needed to follow to get each panel working. Occasionally the results would be interesting, but often it would just be another scroll to add to my notes. I don’t want to act like this was the height of tedium, or anything. (Although the one chant I did manage to get off before the deadline was a truly annoying exercise in data entry, and I can’t imagine the others would have been different.) But it meant the game became a weaker experience for me than games like I listed above. This game is designed around one moment of clarity; others are designed around many, and are better for it.