LEVITATE BABY has worked wonders for me in the past.
Just be mindful of the THUD that comes after.
Thanks for the review Mike!
I don’t think I’ve ever adequately thanked you for the reviews you’ve written on at least two of my games in the past. Therefore: Thank you very much belatedly!
But really, this is just an occasion to say something about your reviews in general. Not only are they very well written and fun to read. Your benevolence and dedication have made me look at some games a second time (and then with a different and better view). And for that I am very grateful and look forward to it!
(How you manage to do all this is beyond me anyway…)
The Thick Table Tavern, by manonamora
Rarely have I encountered as felicitous a coincidence between a game’s theme and my ultimate feelings on it as I have with The Thick Table Tavern, a high-production-value fantasy bartending sim. It comes on strong and heady, with a cool spinning logo upon startup and an enticing bear-foam animation behind the main menu, and the complex-seeming but ultimately straightforward bartending interface put me in mind of the sense of mastery that comes once you’re a few drinks in. The welcome I got from the companionable cast of characters, meanwhile, mirrored the warm, friendly flush you feel once you’re proper tipsy.
From there, though, things started to go awry. Bugs led to story events repeating themselves, making me feel like I was blacking out and losing my memory. Bartending started to become tedious, like when you’re drinking because that’s what you do, not because it’s much fun anymore. And ultimately, while I thought I’d saved enough money to realize my dream, somehow I must have pissed it all away without realizing it, ending the night broke and embarrassed.
Let’s circle back to the good stuff, though, because there’s a lot of it. This Twine game is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, with well-chosen colors and icons and an attractive but functional bartending system that makes it easy to pick out the host of alcohols, mixers, and garnishes you’ll use to construct cocktails for the inhabitants of the generic fantasy town you inhabit. Your co-workers are stereotypes – the gruff boss with a not-at-all-hidden heart of gold, the gossipy barmaid, the sensitive artiste of a chef – but they’re appealing stereotypes who are fun to hang out with, and they seem to care about the protagonist with a low-key affection that creates a pleasant, chill-out game vibe (it helps that the author has a good ear for dialogue). In general the prose feels like it’s translated from another language – there are some homophone errors, like “faint” for “feint” – and pretty much every passage could be edited down by 20 or 30 percent, but the writing is enthusiastic without going over the top. Here’s an early description of a hangover, by way of example:
Still, you do not yet despair from your condition. Instead, you rouse yourself into acting on your behalf, even if blinded and quite alone. Waving your free hand around, you hope to find some sort of light switch to flick or some candle to extinguish, as a way to relieve your fragile glossy organs from this hellish torture.
The structure is a plus too. Each day, you come to work, and get ready for the shift to come – cleaning the bar, restocking it, and bantering with your coworkers. Then you need to fill three or four rounds of orders, with a special event of some kind usually coming around each day’s lunch rush. At closing time, you tot up your tips and measure your progress towards the goal you picked at the beginning – earning enough to pay for membership fees at the adventurers’ guild, buy the bar, or purchase a robot bartender (I think? I’m just judging by the dialogue option for that one so it might play out differently). You’ve typically got a few choices in how you interact with your colleagues and deepen your relationships with them – oddly for a bartending sim, the customers are nameless, faceless abstractions outside of the unique events where you’ll meet a fortune teller, or old married couple doing one last trip, or fourth-wall-breaking spirit dispensing endearingly self-deprecating commentary on the author’s shortcomings.
Most of what you do, though, is mix drinks. The barmaid will give you a set of orders, which you work through one by one using the aforementioned graphical interface. Everything has a whimsical fantasy name, but you can always toggle on a recipe card to learn that Wyrm’s Piss is just a fancy name for beer, or that the ingredients for Sailor’s Demise live up to their billing – gin, absinthe, grenadine, and orange juice, ugh, that’s a headache in a glass. There are three difficulty settings, and playing on Normal, it was always clear what I needed to do, modulo having to decode the icons to realize that cherries actually came under the “berries” category (though they’re actually stone fruit) and relying on some out-of-game knowledge to realize that I could get grenadine by clicking the syrup icon. On hard, apparently there are timers, but overall bartending feels like a pacing mechanism to help immerse yourself in your character’s job.
Unfortunately, I do think the pacing is a bit off. The game runs over 14 days, and it took me about 40 minutes to play through the first of them, which included mixing about 16 drinks, which felt like a lot. Subsequent days went quicker as I realized which bits of text were repetitive, and got more used to the interface, but still, I often wound up having to make 15 or 20 drinks to advance through each day, which feels like too much given the essentially repetitive and unchallenging nature of the bartending minigame. Despite this slight grindiness, though, I was enjoying myself as I wrapped up day seven, which involved the bar owner running a special promotion that saw seemingly the whole village come in for a drink (I mixed 31 of them) – especially since at the close of that day I’d managed to accumulate 321 coins, just over the 300 I needed to achieve my goal (I’d run into a strange bug that meant I only earned 3 coins apiece for the first few days, despite the end-of-day-wrapup screens indicating I should have been getting more like 60-70 each night, but fortunately it wound up correcting itself).
Relieved of the burden of focusing on filthy lucre, I was excited to see what the next day’s special event – so imagine my surprise when on the afternoon of day eight, the bar owner decided to run that same promotion, leading to the same ridiculous rush of patrons. And then imagine my frustration when the same thing happened on days 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14. On the plus side, that meant I finished the game with over 1,200 coins burning a hole in my pocket – but returning once more to the negative, perhaps that meant a counter looped over or something, since on day 15 I got a depressing ending indicating that I hadn’t earned enough for my guild dues after all, and would have to try again.
While it’d taken about three hours to get to this point, I could probably finish a replay in much less time, but I think I’ll hold off on that until I get through the rest of the games, when hopefully some additional mid-Comp updates will squash some bugs – as of this writing, there have already been over a dozen so clearly the author’s admirably dedicated to polishing this one up. It well deserves the effort – I’m bummed that bugs cut short my enjoyment this time out, but once it gets a few more renovations, the Thick Table Tavern would be a rewarding place to be a regular.
The Thirty Nine Steps, by Graham Walmsley
Or maybe I should style the title as The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan, by Graham Walmsley? You see, this is a Twine reimagining of the early-Twentieth-Century novel that kicked off the spy thriller genre, albeit with all-new text rather than interpolating the original’s prose. I haven’t read the book, though going in was dimly aware of the plot – a resourceful hero forced to flee an omnipresent conspiracy, sort of a last-century Three Days of the Condor, with the mysterious title referring to some sort of cipher that needed to be unraveled to foil the plot of the baddies – which seemed well-suited to an IF rendering, what with the focus on action and puzzles.
(I also vaguely remember hearing some critiques of the novel as anti-Semitic – there are definitely some wrong ways to depict an international conspiracy – but whatever the faults of the original text, happily there’s nothing like that in the game).
Overall I’d rate this as a successful adaptation. The game has a breathless pace that makes it the interactive equivalent of a page-turner – at every stage, you’re having to live by your wits, eluding your pursuers, trying to make progress on a dead man’s coded notebook, or having to decide whether a seemingly-friendly stranger is a potential ally or a disguised hunter. Throughout, there’s a simple but robust system that sorts most of your choices into clever, bold, or open options – unlike in a ChoiceScript game where these would probably be skills that you would develop through repetitive use, here they’re simply different choices of tactics (in fact sometimes a single decision-point could have multiple clever choices, or none), with the caveat that the best ending is reserved for players who take enough of the trustingly-naïve open choices to maintain their faith in humanity through to the end.
Some of these choices are definitely better than others, mind, and it’s certainly possible to end a chapter with a suboptimal result, or even fail the story entirely. But while there isn’t a save or undo system – they’d probably reduce the tension of the game significantly – in a nice compromise, you can go back and replay each chapter when you hit its conclusion; the few times I tried it, I found it only took a few minutes to retrace my steps and get a more positive outcome.
The game’s prose helps with this overall zippiness. It’s unadorned, but the locution is formal enough to suggest the milieu it’s trying to evoke, and it gets right to the point. Here’s the inciting incident that sets the plot in motion – there’s a lot packed into these two sentences:
The man on the floor was quite dead, a knife through his heart skewering him to the floorboards. He was an upstairs neighbor, a trim man with gimlet eyes, who had looked at me searchingly whenever we passed on the stairs.
I do have a few critiques, mind. One is that while the game generally lets you fail forward, the difficulty of getting an ending where you figure out the plot and foil it completely seems quite high. For instance, several times in your journey, you’ll have a brief respite where you can try to improve your disguise, find some useful items, get some food or sleep, or work on decoding the dead man’s notebook. Obviously, the latter of these is quite important, but as far as I can make out, to suss out the baddies’ plans you need to choose the code-cracking option every single time. Meanwhile, the game flat-out tells you that the final chapter is meant to be played multiple times in order to gather the information needed for a winning run, without a metafictional conceit to justify the need for such outside knowledge.
The second flaw in the story – and given the genre I’m sincerely not sure how heavily to weight this – is that none of it makes the slightest lick of sense. Like, go back to that opening: you wake up with a dead man in your flat, and with all your belongings searched, because the evil conspirators know that the guy they murdered had written down many of their secrets in a notebook. Of course, you find said notebook almost immediately, at which point you have to elude the agents who are keeping your dwelling under observation so they can jump you. This is all well and good in terms of setting up thrilling set pieces, but pause for a moment and it crumples into incoherence. If the bad guys were so worried about this notebook, and so attuned to the risk of the protagonist finding it, shouldn’t they have murdered him in his sleep, rather than obligingly letting him slumber on uninterrupted? Contrarily, if they’d written him off as a threat, why establish such tight surveillance and try to grab him as soon as he leaves his apartment?
The whole game is like this. You hop a train to Scotland, losing yourself in sparsely-populated Highland villages, only to discover that there are conspirators on the train with you or waiting ahead at the station in the smallest of hamlets – if there’s a justification for this other than that they’ve somehow read the script, I didn’t pick it up. Fortunately, coincidences don’t just break for the bad guys: at one point, I was captured but managed to escape the deserted farmhouse where they’d taken me, only to blunder into a river fisherman mid-angling – who immediately recognized me, as he was a high officer in the Foreign Service who already knew I was innocent of the murder the villains had tried to pin on me and cleared my name without the slightest fuss or bother. Meanwhile, the final confrontation with this octopus-like conspiracy, that’s managed to extrude its tentacles across the length and breadth of the British Isles and has dozens of agents everywhere you look, involves facing down two weedy chaps, an elderly gentleman, and their noncombatant maidservant.
I’m not sure whether these are inconsistencies that can be laid at the door of the original, or were introduced in the adaptation. And again, for the thriller genre I’m not sure implausibility is too great of an issue – I seem to recall that the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code involves an albino self-flagellating Opus Dei assassin monk named Silas escaping from a Spanish prison when an earthquake knocks down the walls, which is a sentence I can’t type without sniggering, though joke’s on me since it sold eight gazillion copies. Indeed, I almost got more enjoyment rolling my eyes at the silliness of the plot, and then just rolling with it, than I would have if everything had fit together with a neat and boring logic. The Thirty Nine Steps doesn’t seem to mind whether you’re laughing with it or at it, meanwhile – it’s too busy rushing from one fun, ridiculous stunt to the next.
Brilliant! I’m glad I wasn’t sipping my coffee when I read these.
Haven’t played the game yet, but I’ve simply got to speak up on behalf of the original author, John Buchan.
First of all, there’s nothing truly antisemitic in the book - one character does make an ugly statement, but he is discredited for this (by the other characters), and the author himself (in real life) was strongly anti-Nazi and stood up against the mistreatment of Jews.
In other words, please don’t smear Mr. Buchan - he was a really remarkable gentleman. Heck, he even was the leader of Canada at one point!
Secondly, in the book, the victim starts out alive and on the run. He’s later murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, and only after doing a thorough search does he find the all-important notebook with the encrypted information. In other words, it makes sense why the “bad guys” missed it.
Lastly, once the protagonist high-tails it out of London and into the lovely Scottish countryside (where the author was born and raised), there are some really clever bits on how he escapes his pursuers, including a pretty hilarious part where the bad guys are elitist snobs and thus blind to the realities of the “lower class” orders (the road repair scene).
Also, not to spoil the book for anyone, but the protagonist DOES get captured by the bad guys at one point (so that, at least, mirrors the game play).
Frankly, the daring escapes in the book are fun and exciting (in a kind of MacGyver “regular guy uses his brains to outwit the bad guys” style), but the denouement at the end (which reveals the significance of the 39 Steps and what the conspiracy was all about) is actually kind of weak and anti-climactic.
Hi Mike, thanks so much for this, I’m delighted! It’s the first IF I’ve written, so if you think it’s pacy and the choice system is robust, I’m more than happy.
Your criticisms are totally fair. On difficulty, I’d tried to make it easy to get a good ending, but hard to get a very good ending. I probably misjudged that, in parts, and I could definitely have made some better choices around the pocketbook (you’re right, you need to pick it up in order to figure out the plan).
On “None of it makes sense”, that’s partly the book’s fault and partly mine. The book does exist in a world of improbable coincidences and suspension of disbelief. That said, I truncated the start of the book, which means I’ve lost some of the explanation of why any of this was happening.
I’d probably differ from Sam a little: I do think there’s a fair criticism to be made of the original book in terms of anti-semitism, especially one particular speech that’s uncomfortable to read today. It’s good to hear what Sam says about Buchan himself, though, I didn’t know about that.
Thanks again, I really appreciate you taking the time to play it!
The denouement in the book is so weird, isn’t it? He actually plays bridge with his enemies.
It’s such an odd moment that I kept it in the game, but I can’t work out whether I’m celebrating it or mocking it. I wrote some tension music to underscore it, so, honestly, I’m probably making gentle fun of it.
My first long review
Thank you for trying out TTTT and leaving such a long and detailed review! Thank you as well for the compliment about dialogue, because it is something I really struggle with when I write.
I have found the bug regarding the coins not transferring properly. The fix will be up shortly. Definitely a bug not a feature. It’s also partly why you got stuck in a loop of not getting your coins and got a bad ending (sorry).
Regarding the repeat of the promotion, that should not be happening (also the first time this was raised). No “large” event should repeat itself aside from cleaning your station in the morning/evening and restocking the bar during lunch. I’ll go through my code again and find the issue .
I did build the game by having the bartending mini-game and overall UI ready before the story. So it looks visually more polish than it reads (more show than substance). All the bottles took a while to get ready.
Some shorter answers to your questions/points:
- The Bartending Box 3000 is just a fancy mixing kit (with some ~magic~ infused in the utensils).
- Proofreading is often a hit/miss with me. I try to use multiple proofreading programs to help me out, but I think my French catches up with me and takes over the reins sometimes
- I got a bunch of bug reports during the first morning and fixed it as they came through. The amount of bugs fixed is not that long, I just kept updating the file as soon as I got the report (or broke my code again trying to fix it).
The pacing comment is very fair. This entry was supposed to be muuuch longer and have many more named patrons (some even coming back), which would have probably made the introduction feel less off. But time constrains got the best of me (hence the Fourth-Wall patron appearing). In hindsight, my entry might even have been more suited for a ‘Spring Thing’ type of Comp.
I also tend to write A LOT ( look at this response… ) and put as much as I can (unconsciously) on paper. Writing concisely has always been a struggle (even back at school) and cutting stuff is hard.
Regarding the mixing becoming a bit of a chore, that’s understandable. Because I didn’t have time to essentially add more named NPCs, I chose instead to up the overall number of drinks you serve to the nameless patrons (it’s coded to pick a random one) so the player could still earn enough coins by the end of the game. I think the balancing of tips/serving is still a bit off. I’ll lower it down a tad. And I’ll need to test it again after the Comp (especially after I add more NPCs).
Thank you again for playing the game and taking the time to go through the whole thing before writing your review! Really appreciated.
on to fixing some bugs
That’s tough! Proofreading your own work is hard enough without throwing an extra language into the mix.
The advice I usually see given to people in your situation is to reach out and see if you can get a native English speaker to help proofread. The community here is really friendly and willing to help!
Yep. I proofread an English translation of a Russian game last year, and I’m currently proofreading a Postmortem for a Spanish speaker. I rather like doing it. You can always ask me, @manonamora .
Thank you! I might DM you then
Thanks @Sam_Ursu and @Graham for the discussion of the book of the Thirty Nine Steps – even if there’s room for disagreement on the text, it’s very nice to know that Buchan himself was a stand-up guy. It sounds like the book also has some of the wild, improvisational energy I enjoyed in the game, though I have to say, I took the Clever route into the finale, which involves some fast-talking and high-stakes sneaking around, and sounds like that might have been a better end to the book than the implausible-sounding bridge thing (which I saw mentioned in the hints since I checked them out after winning, though I didn’t play through).
And thanks for your comments, @manonamora!
I am, uh, not one who can really talk on that score either Anyway I’ll add myself to the chorus of folks who’re glad to help with proofing to clean up translated text.
A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood
Stop me oh stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: so you’re playing this game where you’re an interstellar thief pulling a heist to relieve a space-governor of his space-crystals, when you get rumbled by the fuzz, except while that all sounds supremely fun it’s actually just the quickly-dispensed with, non-interactive backstory justifying why you’re forced to make a blind hyperjump and wind up lost in space – until you come across and board a derelict vessel, which holds the promise of rescue if you reactive enough of its broken systems to scavenge for parts, though since the crew’s all dead and the superficially-helpful ship’s AI seems alarmingly erratic it’s clear danger could be lurking where you least – or rather most – expect it…
Zoomed out to this level, ALWNS might as well be called “Space Game” – it wouldn’t be much worse than the actual, horribly-generic, title – because anybody who’s played much IF has probably encountered this scenario dozens of times. There’s a slight variation here because I feel like this type of game is usually parser-based, while this one’s a puzzley Twine game that has the same adventure-game type interface I discussed in my One Way Ticket review (click on highlighted objects in location descriptions to examine them in more detail, open up your inventory if you see an opportunity to use one of the things you’ve collected – 95% of the time the only action verb available is “use”, in fact). But if I were to describe a puzzle at random, or similarly highlight one of the plot beats, you’d probably roll your eyes and say been there, done that.
Given all of this, you’ll forgive me for being surprised that this game is actually great. It’s by no means going to set the world on fire with innovation, but it executes on its premise with well-designed puzzles, a nicely pacey plot that boasts at least one clever twist, and character-focused writing that’s way, way, way above the standard for this sort of thing – plus there’s a fair degree of nonlinearity, bonus objectives, and player agency allowing you to make the story your own, on your way to getting one of five different endings or collecting a half-dozen achievements. Sure, there are a couple of puzzles that could use slightly better signposting – though there is an in-game hint system and a robust walkthrough – and if you’re completionist about running through conversation topics with the AI, the middle part of the game can feel a little quiet. But these are small niggles in an entertaining and dare I say even slightly heart-warming take on a classic premise.
Let’s start with the puzzles and the overall game structure, since while they’re well done and important, they’re not what makes the game sing (spoiler: that’s the AI). As you’d imagine, there’s a MacGuffin or two that you need to recover from the ship in order to get the coordinates you need to make your way back to civilization, but various ID-locked doors, nonfunctional elevators, and areas of hard vacuum need to be surmounted in order to find and retrieve them. For the most part, solving these challenges is satisfying without being too tricky – you’ll fix robots, look up schematics, and gain false credentials. There’s also a pleasing variety of puzzle mechanics, from simple use-x-on-y stuff to figuring out a crew member’s ship ID based on their favorite order in the dining hall, and even, in a memorable set piece, using a chair’s ergonomic features to defend yourself. There are a couple of places where things can get a little clumsy – I was stumped for a while on an early puzzle because instead of being able to directly input the passcode I’d deduced, I had to go back to an earlier clue so the game could acknowledge I’d figured it out, and there’s one (optional) chemical-mixing puzzle that doesn’t clearly signpost why you need a source of antimatter different than an easily-available one you’d already used for a previous puzzle – but these are very much the exception, and if you get stuck, you can take a quick nap in your ship and get a hint while resting.
As for structure, the underlying rhythm of the game involves unlocking a new set of areas, exploring them, and discovering new items or information you can use to solve puzzles that in turn unlock the next set of areas. As you go, you’ll also uncover more about the members of the ship’s crew – they all have their secrets and hidden agendas, of course, that you can plumb by gaining access to their personal datapads and video recordings of their final days, just like in any good System Shock riff. As with the rest of the game, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s effective at sustaining player interest and injecting regular novelty into the proceedings. It’s also one of the things that makes your AI interlocutor, Solis, so compelling – you converse with the computer via terminals located in each room, and as you open up new parts of the ship, you get new dialogue options where you can ask about what you find and the facts you discover.
Solis is the heart of ALWNS, as it turns out, both because the narrative hinges on plumbing the depths of its character as you talk to it about the terrible things it’s seen, and done, in the catastrophe that befell the ship, and because unraveling its motivations form a sort of metapuzzle that undergirds the whole game, with your ending largely determined by how many layers of the onion you’ve pulled back. I realize that laid out like that, it sounds like conversing with Solis is a chilly game of mechanical-cat and organic-mouse – but here’s the thing: Solis is funny. Actually, the whole game is funny – I probably should have mentioned that earlier? Here’s the line telling you that your ship’s gotten lost:
"Your navigator is telling you you’re inside the core of a blue-white supergiant in the Hyades cluster, which you’re pretty sure is not correct.”
But most of the comedy comes from Solis, who’s got a great sense of comic timing for a bunch of superconductors. It initially greets you with a chirpy “it’s nice to meet you too, random organic person!” (which, not going to lie, feels like the subtext of 90% of my in-person interactions these days), and when you try to get it to comment on a boring hallway, it makes up a limerick to entertain you – then comes up with a second, even worse/better one, if you press the point!
It’s not all fun and games, though, and as you make your way through the ship you get the chance to engage in some deeper conversations with Solis, about its function and place in the world – as you quickly learn, the inhibitor programs that typically keep AIs on a short leash have degraded during its long isolation – its feelings about the different members of the now-deceased crew, and its curiosity about the rest of the galaxy. Again, these are exactly the topics you’d expect to come up in a game focusing on an AI as the main secondary character, but the writing here is really strong, fostering an empathetic connection with Solis even as the player knows that it doesn’t seem 100% trustworthy.
ALWNS’s success isn’t purely down to craft, I should say: near the end, there are a couple puzzles that feel fairly novel (I was partial to the janitorbot security code one), and there’s one narrative twist that I didn’t see coming, with the narrative zigging when I thought it was going to zag. I don’t want to spoil that, except to say that it made the ending I was going for even more satisfying than I thought it was going to be. Still, if the other 95% of the game hadn’t been executed at such a high level, these last bits of legerdemain would have felt like lipstick on a pig, rather than the final flourishes drawing attention to how cleverly the magic trick’s been done. Between the generic title, abstract cover art, low-key blurb, and long playing time, I worry that A Long Way to the Nearest Star might not get the attention it deserves, which would be a shame – just about any IF fan would find something to enjoy here.
Lucid, by Caliban’s Revenge
OK, I gotta get this out of the way before starting the review proper: “Caliban’s Revenge” is by far the most metal pseudonym in this year’s, nay, any year’s IF Comp. Whoever you are, O author of mystery – massive, massive kudos.
On to the substance! It’s a funny coincidence that I played Lucid right after A Long Way to the Nearest Star, because I wound up having similar feelings about them, despite them being very different in just about every way (beyond them both being implemented in Twine). Once again, we’ve got a game that presents itself as belong to a hoary genre – here, we’ve got an allegorical, confusing flight across a dark and menacing city, with the protagonist’s outer conflicts obviously mirroring some underexplained internal ~trauma~. Once again, we’ve got a plot that hits familiar beats before a final twist. Once again, there are some fairly straightforward puzzles to solve (albeit they’re much simpler here). And once again, I very much enjoyed the game despite all this, almost purely down to the care taken with the implementation, and the quality of the prose.
Let’s switch up the order and start with the writing this time. Lucid is written in a noirish, blank-verse style that would be very, very easy to mess up and thereby make the proceedings seem ridiculous. It does veer close to that shoal from time to time – there’s an early mention of a puddle reflecting a streetlight “with a chitinous gleam”, which is almost successful – but for the most part it paints the city in compelling, concise imagery. Inevitably, you arrive via a train:
The station is brush-stroke clean, grime describes its edges.
Later you have to climb an interminable number of flights of stairs (it’s 13) in a public housing project:
The seventh flight
Is dark and stifled like
Sleep after middle age,
Never quite enough,
You wheeze on the unseen stairs
Last one – here are moths, found sleeping in a fridge that lights up when you open the door:
False eyes flutter on their
Mascara wing tips,
Orbiting a false moon,
In the midst of a false waking.
It helps that the prose isn’t entirely po-faced – there’s a bit where you can buy a box of cereal that conceals a special prize:
The legend tells of Frosted Flakes.
But the box is heavy.
Heavier than flakes however frosted.
Because the game’s well-written, the author’s able to evoke a number of different moods across a fairly short scenario. There are fewer than half a dozen distinct locations to explore, but while they’re all recognizably of a (gloomy) piece, the recovered-memory horror of the school feels quite distinct from the Lynchian terror attendant on the project-dwelling witch and her twin salamanders.
Lucid isn’t just a mood piece, though – after trapping you in what feels like it’s going to be an endlessly-repeating maze of shadow and fear, it reveals that there might be a way out, if you enact a prescribed set of highly ritualized behaviors in just the right order. I hesitate to describe this as a puzzle, since the steps don’t turn on conventional or even cartoon logic – it’s all free association, and somewhat inconsistent free association since in different circumstances the game takes varying stances towards violence, and towards the darkness/light dichotomy – but the solution’s close to spelled out by a particular character, so it doesn’t wind up presenting much of a challenge.
It does provide a prompt to slow down and engage with the metaphors, though, and appreciate the way the evocative prose resolves the various conflicts the game’s set up. Ultimately I’m not sure Lucid is saying anything especially profound, but it’s expressing a fine sentiment, and what it says it says eloquently. Similarly, I’m not sure I’m taking away any deep insights into mental health, but there are definitely some turns of phrase that are going to stick in my head for a while – not to mention those pale, cruel salamanders…
I’d actually never heard of 39 Steps until a couple of months ago when I heard an interview with his daughter, and then I read the book afterward (easy to find as it’s no longer under copyright).
By all accounts, John Buchan was an old-school British gentleman from the Edwardian era (think Downtown Abbey) who went through the brutal awakening to the modern era (WW1 and then, at the end, WW2) with a lot of grace and dignity. He was also a big promoter of Canadian culture and, especially, Canadian literature.
That’s why I had to step in and say something about his reputation. I should add here that he spent his summers in Scotland with a grandparent in a really remote and wild area, and he truly fell in love with it. The entire middle of the book is his homage to those memories.
Will definitely be playing your game later!
Thankyou for the review! Especially of my pen name, i agree that its awesome.
Your comments were very generous and I’m very glad you appreciated this somewhat gloomy walk through my inner life.
I was reticent to enter this at all because it is so painfully personal and tropey but I hoped the poetics of it would be diverting enough to make it worth while. Normally I prefer my work to be more outward facing.
Id never used Twine or anything like it before so I began this as a self indulgentvexperiment so im especially pleased you found the “puzzle” easy with just help from the interanal guide npc (you ate absoloutely right about the free association involved).
Thanks again, as a noob this kind of interest is super encouraging