Wolfbiter reviews Spring Thing 2024 -- Social Democracy (all main festival reviews complete)

Alltarach by Katie Canning and Josef Olsson
Playtime: 1 hour 54 minutes total (1 hour 24 minutes for the first playthrough)

This made me want to talk about:

  • This game pays a lot of attention to the material reality of life in the 6th century Ireland, which I think is a really good thing in a historical piece. I also enjoyed the use of unfamiliar words and the hover-over annotations (very slick).

  • It features some beautiful prose:

Young men like that often house a terrible bitterness. And we write stories about them.

listening to the ceaseless sea, the sound that will background the actions of you both until the day you die

You trundle forward until the rain begins. Taking shelter under a rare fir, you look out and discover that you’re utterly alone. No birdsong suddenly abated by the downpour, no foxes foraging or insects scuttling. It’s a strange freedom, and the fear that comes with it nestles comfortably in the back of your mind. It watches and waits, actualises, sharpens everything.

  • Continuing that thought, this has a lot strengths on the story-side, and will probably be strongly liked by those who find the narrative to be in their style. I think that’s not precisely me, but I enjoyed the shape of the folktale and it definitely did put some images and situations in my mind that I found myself returning to after I was done playing.

  • Part of my issue is that I found it hard to invest in the main character because I didn’t really understand her goals. Starting with the brother–why are we so concerned about him? We both seem to be either old teens or young adults, and our peer Ailbhe seems to go back and forth to the mainland frequently, so why is it such a big deal to the main character if the brother left? (Relatedly, we are told later that the brother is actually very unusual among the fishermen of the island in never going to the mainland to sell fish, which explains why we might be surprised but also seems like the kind of thing that would have come up earlier!). I also felt some of the choices offered (to say what your character thinks about religion, or what they want in the future) didn’t actually change the rest of the game, so they just created a feeling in me that the main character was behaving erratically.

  • There were a few minor issues with state tracking. For example, I didn’t meet he mummer in my first play through but text still referred to him, also in my first playthrough I entered the pub through the backdoor, not by breaking in, but later people in the village were gossiping about how the pub had been broken into.

My fervent wish:
This work has a lot of narrative strengths, it would make a good novella, etc. I wish that it had done more with the game aspects by giving the player more to do. I got the distinct sense pretty early that no matter what I clicked I was going to be delivered to the same climactic confrontation with my brother. Similarly, there’s an inventory system but you don’t really even have to click into it, and I’m not sure it ever mattered what items I took? OK, I did play the drum once but otherwise not much was different when I left the island with nothing.

In essence, a well-written and crafted game providing a vivid take on life in pre-modern Ireland, and with the chance to spend time in unique areas and with a good variety of historically-inspired characters, with less of a focus on “game” elements.