“We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” – Seneca the Younger, Epistula LXXXIV.
Passion is the rain that has kept this garden flourishing. Interactive fiction could have long since desiccated, forgotten save for a footnote, a subject suitable only for archaeology, and yet we live in the midst of its glistening fruits, a victorious riot of life and color that seems to defy the surrounding desert: whether the Promethean fire of Inform 7, in which this work is written, or the tireless work of volunteers who have kept competitions like ParserComp alive, in which this work was submitted, the story of interactive fiction dramatizes the quest of an ever fluctuating community to preserve from the entropies and centrifugies of a chaotic digital age this delicate and beautiful artform we love.
One of the most human and touching contributions to this quest is Brian Rushton’s ongoing project to meticulously document his devoted and meandering journey through huge swathes of interactive fiction past and present. IFDB currently has nearly 9300 reviews; 2244 of them were written by Rushton. No matter how far afield you wander on IFDB, stumbling upon games by obscurity long since swallowed, you will still see a flicker of life, a fingerprint of a wanderer before you: Rushton’s careful, thoughtful, and gently curious review. Isn’t it poignant for a game released decades ago on a platform no more to an audience no more by an author no more to have its spirit captured in conversations afresh, stirred by the industrious Mathbrush, who, like a guide through a ruin, points out to you each artifact and how it worked, what it meant?
A curious evolution of this pursuit is the way in which Rushton has allowed his love for the medium to guide his own creations into a surprising but satisfying metafictional bent. Whether it is last year’s The Magpie Takes the Train or this game, Grooverland, we find his works increasingly incorporating love for the medium into their own warp and weft (warp especially, in the case of Grooverland). In this melange of Chandler Groover’s vivid fantasias, Rushton places us in a Groover-themed park that grows increasingly sinister as the night deepens. His games have been transformed into amusement rides that terrify and, if necessary, delight. We have an Eat Me cake, a Midnight. Swordfight. laserfight, a Three-Card Trick three-card trick, and, of course, our trusty pal Toby from Toby’s Nose. These attractions invite the player to dwell not just in the particulars of each reference but in the lushly bleakly ludic mood that pervades the entire paresthesia symphony. We’re forced to consider the invisible sinews that tie these games together into a cohesive whole, a play of light and shadow that grows increasingly fraught until we no longer seem to be playing.
The shifting amalgamation of locations and play patterns can loom overwhelming, but Rushton introduces a clarity of purpose in the orderliness and smoothness of the design that makes the dizzying delightful. The map is laid out on a central road, which keeps us oriented through the park and allows us to switch through multiple attractions with ease, as many puzzles require. A plethora of neatly sorted hints keeps us from getting lost (except on the occasion it tells you to get lost). An exhausting amount of polish eases the player through the entire experience and makes exploring and dallying enjoyable. Rushton clearly has spent a lot of time and energy to make this game shimmer.
That sheen proves rather necessary through some steep puzzles. The Midnight Laserfight sequence was deeply confusing, with so much to track, so little of it explained, quite a bit of clutter, and a throughline that would terrify Euclid. While I understood after the fact what I had been doing, I confess I had to cheat a little off Mike Russo’s transcript (you should read his transcripts by the way, he’s got a wonderful dry wit), since the hints here got locked up. Some of the puzzles require you to go through multiple locations to succeed or require you to have sought out and noticed objects you might not have noticed, so the nudging about when to keep trying versus when you need to be doing something else entirely was very much appreciated.
Some of the puzzles were really clever, like when you have to play the creaky house like an instrument, but some of the puzzles did feel a bit perfunctory. I felt the menagerie puzzle, where you just wander around, read signs, then crunch some numbers, to be a little unengaging, especially when you have such theatrical creatures all around you. Like the skull scraper, about whom the menagerie keeper jokes, “He likes to get in your head. Don’t let him.”, is a very evocative element, but you don’t really engage with it, you just look at a sign that plainly informs you what kind of food you should give him. How much more fun this puzzle would have been if these animals were as interactive as the petting zoo animals from across the way!
A lot of the writing can feel equally perfunctory. When we ask Dad about the pipe, we get this sentence: "Sorry, Lily, it’s sad the pipe is clogged and we can’t see the rest of the park.” That’s pretty much equivalent with “I don’t have anything to say about that.” Similarly, when we ask Wade about David, “He just points to David, who’s right in front of you.” While that is nice state tracking, nevertheless it feels like a missed opportunity. Given the nightmare jollies that Groover’s oeuvre oozes, the fact that so many characters seem muted and mechanical creates a disjunction that flattens the experience. I get that the sheer amount of dialogue written into this game makes it impossible for every line to zing, but I think the lack of technicolor pizzazz is the vital element that keeps this game from truly accomplishing its ambiance.
That’s not to say that Rushton doesn’t pepper the game with some great quotes. I particularly enjoyed the silly but sinister response when you ask the jelly man about himself: “Jelly is my name and jelly are my ways.” This quick quip belies so much depth that makes this incidental character rivetingly enigmatic. There’s also a fun subtheme about Lily taking a lot of silly classes: when we try to burn something, “You promised your competitive barbecue coach that you wouldn’t burn things outside of competition.”; when we try to attack a character, “Your karate instructor made you promise to try to find a peaceful solution before attempting violence.”; and, the funniest of the lot, when we try to take something from a character, “You promised your pickpocketing teacher that you would only steal in class, and mom’s present list seems to belong to Mom.” We also get some great descriptive lines, as when we get lost in the corn maze: “You travel for what feels like minutes, but the sun is already setting. Then the moon rises, streaks across the sky, and sets again. The sun comes up again, then down, over and over. But it isn’t the same sun. It has grown fat and swollen, ready to burst. The moon crumbles. The stars fade. You close your eyes and run until you find yourself at the demon again. Such is fate.” There’s something so enchantingly weird and hallucinatory about this paragraph, yet it also manages to come across as exhausted, drained of all color. That’s a difficult combination to achieve, but Rushton does it here masterfully. Finally, there’s this line when we enter the creaky house, which makes great use of surprise italics, then pairs it with a punchy understatement: “You can hear something howling outside. It might be the wind.”
When the game comes together in an otherworldly climax, the intensity of its atmosphere pressurizes with an emotional punch, as Lily must sacrifice the last remaining vestiges of her family in order to try and preserve something, anything, from the imminent collapse into pure paradoxical nonness. One by one, Lily’s sister’s bracelet, her mother’s present list, signs of the love in which she was once immersed, are devoured by the dream, and we instead must confront the violent denouement of our inability to hold on. While I would have appreciated a bit more emotive verve in this last section, Rushton does a good job handling the underlying philosophical stakes, and, while not eliding it entirely, he does evade some of the more boring Manichean tropes the game threatens by adding nuance to the roles of the Mirrored Queen and Scarlet Empress. Moreover, I appreciated that this central conundrum pertains to the rest of the game, that we feel that their battle is actually present in each turn we’ve taken along the way.
If Grooverland is a game that is simultaneously ambitious and perfunctory, then it is in keeping with the conflictions innate to such a work, so animated by the drive of passion as it careens through the frictions of creation. Beneath the writing, the puzzles, the polish, we get a sense of Rushton as both charmingly starryeyed and inordinately weary. Perhaps, in that, he captures here the very dichotomy that underpins so much of interactive fiction’s history: dreams of enchantment underpinned by the exhaustive labor necessary to keep the spirit alive as everything threatens to fracture forever.
For all the mystery of the terminal, for all the mindboggling puzzling, perhaps Zork can be best captured in a dream: the homebrewer designing dungeons digital, an infinitely malleable systems engagement through which we like archaeologists wander awed at the dizzying gauntlet of implementations lovingly crafted by capable hands day by day, week by week, feature by feature. Architects without bound, homebrewers build and build, until the building itself becomes an act of worship, passionate and moonmad adding wing upon wing, floor upon floor, baroque cornices of night after night of dreaming what ifs, achieving what ifs, and if MacBrayne’s Somewhere, Somewhen seems lost in its own momentum, ornate spires shooting spectacularly out of metal frames, then it is this, not the lamp, nor the magnet to get the iron key, nor the maze, nor the inventory limit,nor the heady interpolation of magic and tech, nor the brazen disregard for continuity of place, that most evokes its Zorkian lineage.
This game, our author assures us, “was written just for fun in QBASIC64” with a parser that, it hastens to add, “is fairly sophisticated”. I agree, it is rather impressive for a homebrew, with some sophisticated possibilities for multitier commands, with only a handful of oddities (you can’t examine an object until you TAKE [IT] FROM [CONTAINER]) to have survived the rigors of implementation. There’s also some really nifty but somewhat extraneous features, like a variety of reassignable function key hotkeys for common commands, which is exactly the sort of rabbit hole that can easily drink hours and hours of a homebrewer’s development time. The game also bends over backwards to ensure the player has a smooth experience, boasting not only a set of in-game hints (both implicit and explicit), but also a complete set of maps and even a walkthrough.
It is perhaps unsurprising that all this homebrewer enthusiasm for systems polish glistens over a game that is frequently jarring and obtuse. Some of this is just the map: we have a central hub that gives way to six scenarios, but they’re not really scenarios, they’re just areas, there’s really not cohesive themes to them. That would be fine, except that traveling between the hub and the scenarios is confusing and tedious: you have to say a spell to unlock one scenario at a time, which then only has one exit, which is hidden in often confusing ways, and you must loop through the one way trajectory in order to traverse from scenario to hub to scenario. If, say, you accidentally enter the wrong scenario, just the headache of trying to find your way out again makes you wonder why moving through the hub needs to be so clunky and difficult! Compounding this frustration is that you do need to frequently travel between scenarios: like many IF games, you’ll build up a list of unsolved puzzles and go spelunking elsewhere to find the items that might solve those puzzles, but there’s also an inventory limit, and there’s many more items than are actually useful, so you’ll constantly be backtracking, which means going down the well, crawling through the hole, saying the right spell, wandering back through a spelunk of rooms, then tying a rope to a hook, climbing back down into the hub… you get the idea. Over the course of the game, you’ll build up a veritable arsenal of leftover items in the hub location, looping endlessly back and forth and back and forth as you try items J, K, and L on puzzle H. Trudging around this game is actively disorienting and disheartening.
Which is a shame, because the puzzles themselves can be rather clever. I particularly like the musical puzzles, which start with a light concept, but then build in complexity to a satisfying climax. For instance, you find a tuning fork set to C, then you find a door labelled C. Get it? Hit the tuning fork, and the door unlocks. Later on, we find a note saying “I NEED FED”, which is actually an instruction for playing a nearby instrument: play an F, then an E, then a D, voila. It’s always gratifying when a game trains us to think in a certain way, and then actually rewards us in multiple situations for thinking that way. Several other puzzles require some enjoyably lateral thinking, as when we’re given the password hint “Male bovine’s visual organ”, which seems like it might have something to do with the witch’s brew of ingredients we’ve been assembling, until you realize the password is just “bullseye”!
It’s good that the game has several charming puzzles, because the puzzling is clearly the intention of the game. There’s not really a plot: out of the blue our nameless adventurer is whisked away from “a deserted country road” to a “hemispherical chamber”. Why? Just to do some puzzling, of course! A voice informs us “we have sought one who could help in our time of need, and you alone have demonstrated the required intelligence and skills”. Finally, my PhD in the humanities is getting the respect it deserves! They want us to return an artifact, but when we find said artifact, an examination garners the response that “There isn’t anything notable about the Ibistick.” So like, don’t think about that, it’s not important, just get to puzzling. There’s also not much of a world to inhabit here: the rooms are a fugue state so mercurial one gets rather mistyeyed in nostalgia for Silent Hill.
Moreover, the prose, while chatty, is usually focused on providing the player with the information useful for the puzzles. This is kind of counterproductive for a game that’s happy to stretch out over a large amount of unnecessary rooms with objects that serve no purpose, it’s not like the game is going for a graphing paper aesthetic, yet nevertheless the game cheerfully motors along, giving us a number of rooms that are described as “spartan” except for the one or two interactable objects. The prose, where descriptive, generally focuses on neatly ordering the gamespace. Sometimes, however, the prose gets perhaps a little too chatty and clatters through redundancies with indefatigable aplomb. We watch a door “undulate and become almost like a fluid”. We find ourselves “at the southern end of a tunnel which therefore passes northwards”. In a rather egregious example, we find ourselves in a Cramped Room: “The light from your lamp demonstrates that this chamber is so cramped that you feel quite claustrophobic. The walls close in on you, and the staircase which is right in front of you, leading the way up, tantalisingly beckons. Beside you there lies a red herring.” Counting the title, that’s five times it tells you the room is small, thrice it nods you up the stairs, and for the coup de grace a literal red herring. What makes this description even sillier is that a different room tells us that “The walls and ceiling seem to cram in on you, and it’s fortunate that you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.” This is either a mistake or some incredibly advanced state-based character arc subtlety!
Despite these stumbles, the prose can prove charming. When we encounter a hovel guarded by a keypad, our protagonist finds it “a little bizarre that high-tech mechanical sophistication such as this has been installed in an attempt to protect such a down-market and tumbledown construction.” I quite like that phrase “down-market and tumbledown construction”! It rolls off the tongue with an aptly tumbling momentum, slyly flashing fangs acerbic. I also liked this little line, which adds an enchanting flourish to the waving of our wand: “As you wave the wand you are almost immediately enveloped in a bright cloud of mauve-coloured mist in which little sparks of fairy dust scintillate and dance all around you.”
The game has a pervasive disjunctive jauntiness that pleases even as it perplexes, refusing to make sense, but never disrupting the whimsy dreamy puzzle befuddles. Somewhere, Somewhen embraces its weirder threads: for instance, the game splatters magic and machinery together with a deliberate delight in how they conflict. One puzzle in particular, where we have to dress as a wizard, fake beard and all, in order to fool CCTV into giving us access to an inner sanctum, is joyfully idiosyncratic, blessing this bizarre line with a middle school theater kid’s ebullient confidence: “Thank you for requesting entry to our inner sanctum. Before being allowed to proceed, your identity as a wizard must now be confirmed. Please look at the camera directly and remain very still as the scanning takes place … The scan has now been completed. Your identity as one of our brethren has now been confirmed.” It’s actually kind of adorable.
That offbeat charm ends up giving the whole experience an exuberance that blunts its rougher edges. Perhaps that’s par for a homebrewer’s passion project! We get plenty of cute details, like ASCII graphics for doors and books, including one sequence where we have a keypad that actually displays the numbers we type into it, as well as many items being ACME devices. It can be easy to get frustrated with Somewhere, Somewhen, but it’s hard not to forgive its wobbly weirdness when it is delivered with such sincerity and with an admirable amount of polish. The joy of the homebrewer who builds and builds is to take the player by the hand, lead them through their project’s winding corridors and lavish follies, lead them right into its heart beating with the devotion and affection that kept them going through months of grind, then turn around, smile, and simply share somewhere, somewhen.
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I think one of the reasons people are so nostalgic about 70s/80s text adventures is just how inexplicable they were. Alluring magic of the poorly lit room deep in the recesses of a university far from your hometown, where glowing terminals, buzzing and beeping, linked to impossibly complex networks of wires, built into a Stongehenge metallic, promise the intrepid student a strange array of secrets, some of which you surreptitiously at 1am log in to play, files mysteriously apparating from the nonnet, from who knows where, written by who knows who. As you play the game, you’re forced to surrender your normal common logic, your usual language, instead communicating with a dense and rigorous system of life and death, where success lies tantalizing behind obtuse, opaque inference matrices…
Entrancement of the inexplicable beguiles us through this strange, spartan affair. Based off Marko Kloos’ Frontline military scifi novels, which appear to have a reputation for being light on plot but heavy on events, Return to the Stars offers a no nonsense prison escape “puzzlefest”. I use quotes here, because you’re not solving puzzles per se, rather the game experience mostly comes from trying to figure out what set of commands propels you forward through the rather compact gamespace. It’s exploratory, even sometimes gently so. Like for example here’s a puzzle: you’re in the control room, and you need to find a keycard for later in the game. The main scenery in the room is a control panel: “The walls are plastered with screens showing video feeds from throughout the facility.” That sounds like a wall-mounted display above a panel featuring a few dials, right? Well, it’s not, it’s a desk, and you need to look under it, which rewards you with the keycard. This puzzle asks you to look at your surroundings, and most of the puzzling comes from the fact that it’s described in a way that might prove confusing. Here’s another puzzle: you’re presented with several switches with alien labels. You might think you need to pull them and then explore to see what they do, right? Well actually you just need to go to a storage room, get your armor, then return, because apparently your armor translates the alien language. (How does that work you ask in vain, imagining perhaps a slight buzzing in your sternum as you suddenly just know what gthyunibekzuut means.) If you flip the switches without knowing what they do, you get no result, but as soon as you can read them, now they have an effect. Again, you’re not trying to figure anything out, you’re just exploring a space and seeing how it changes as you acquire more items. These aren’t really puzzles so much as they are progress gates. While in theory such a system could work well for a military thriller, where you’re trying to catapult yourself through a series of rooms at high speed, tension always building, there’s not really any tension here: the prison is mostly abandoned, you’re exploring at your leisure, the only time you encounter the aliens is near the end, where you engage in a brief shootout, then you’re right back into exploration.
That exploration is where most of the puzzly nature of the game comes into play, as the pathways in this game are complex and disorienting, though not necessarily for any hypergeometry alien lore reasons, but simply because of the mercurial construction of the gamespace. You climb into a pair of vents, crawl into an installation room, where you climb a ladder into a control room, but then you go south along a corridor and end up right outside where you started? And if you want to turn back to the control room you just left, rather than going north like you’d expect, you actually have to go west. Then, when you manage to get out of the prison block, you’re in a place where, besides a few buildings, “You are otherwise surrounded by water,” though when you examine the water, “You can’t see any such thing.” So you go down towards the water, where “A small dock extends into the water, away from the rocky shoreline. The shore, populated with buildings, lies a few hundred meters to the north.” But when you examine the shore, “You can’t see any such thing.” Confusing! But perhaps we’re meant to understand that the shoreline is a C shape, and we’re swimming from tip to tip of the C? But then why plunge into the dark alien sea? Like I think I prefer a stroll along the beach to fending off whatever may lurk beneath the surface? But no, you dive into the water, then walk through the darkness north for several turns, then voila, you’re now on a different part of the island. Shall you realize that you forgot the keycard in the prison block and need to return, then you can climb the cliffs to get back to where you started? I suppose that’s what you get when you employ Escher and Moebius Architects to build your prison.
You might think from these points that the game is frustrating or dense, but actually it’s rather laidback and genial. The plot consists mostly of your objective. At the beginning you’re told “it has been three days since your captors last fed you – or given you any attention, really. If you are to leave this planet alive, you better find a way before you starve…” So you get the sense that maybe something has gone wrong, and the base has been rapidly abandoned? That sense builds as you wander around more and more of the area and find no one. But then there are aliens, just like, there, in a room. So you’re not supposed to worry about where the aliens are, don’t even worry where your comrades are, don’t think, soldier, just move. Indeed, a slightly garrulous military mood is perhaps the connective tissue the game presents: our primary flash of character is an offhand comment that “In all your years of military service, you’ve never felt a desire to move up into the officer ranks yourself, even though there were plenty of open spots in the newly-unified military.)” So I suppose our protagonist possesses a master sergeant mentality. But you’re not meant to suppose that, the game mostly shrugs off every question it raises, who’s paying you to think, give me some PT soldier, hup two three four! Again this game stresses a certain tension and forward momentum, there’s even an oxygen limit and a timer which decrease ominously on your status line, even if perhaps you’re not immediately threatened or compelled to make progress.
The gunmetal gray aesthetic extends to the prose, which gives us the thousand yard stare on its finale: after finally commandeering a ship and making your daring prison escape from this alien planet, our master sergeant stays focused: “You push your doubts aside and follow the pointers provided by you armor’s computer system. Half an hour later, you have safely left the atmosphere and have settled into a stable low orbit.” Shortly thereafter, we get our victorious denouement as we at last return to Earth: “Despite the prospect of hours upon hours of debriefings from all levels of command, and probably military intelligence as well, you are glad to be back.” Epictetus would be proud.
I have to admit that, rather than being put off by all this head scratching uncertainty and flatness, I actually found it sort of endearing. That’s especially the case because the game was clearly built with love and care: we get an author’s note describing how they’ve dreamed of making this game for several years. We get some lovely little details, for instance if you destroy the camera in your cell, then when you examine the control panel, your action is remembered: “One feed is missing – presumably yours, considering that you broke the camera in your cell.” Several synonyms and alternate constructions are smoothly implemented, and the parser does point you towards the constructions it wants on several occasions, so I never felt like I struggled with the parser. The hint system is really excellent, with four to eight hints per puzzle all arranged neatly in a menu. Welcker wants us to enjoy our jaunt through this tautly crafted military escapade, and who am I not to oblige? Like the IF aficionado of the 80s, holding a diskette mailed from across the world, seeing text appear on my screen, living suddenly in a computerized world where simple sentences are enough to energize my imagination, I cannot but find myself entranced by the inexplicable…
“They’re a funny lot over in those parts. Superstitious. Someone’s hiding something; don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.” The English countryside, where something always seems to be lurking. Wander far enough afield and you find wicker men burning. The thin facade of modernity breaks down as the first “roundbarrow” emerges from the South Downs mist, the lands become primeval, its inhabitants tied to the earth in mercurial rhythms you have never learned in your airy palaces of dissociative steel. You encounter these worlds as did the first Romans, from whom the outlandish stories of wicker men are derived. You are an outlander; in these people, who were sufficient without your existence, who intend to remain so, you encounter your presence as a stranger thing.
It can be easy, of course, for us to act like the Romans, or those descended from the third Troy, and fear the other, be convinced of their attachment to the past as a malevolence towards the present, as many of these stories do, from The Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz, yet Merriner, with vulpine cunning, twists the story into something more thoughtful, less judgmental. First, Arthur internalizes this disjunction rather than phobically externalize it: we see him entering the village with the sneer of modernity: “He drove through, enjoying the gawping of the villagers (whom he assumed, rather condescendingly, weren’t used to seeing such a fashionable motor vehicle)”, yet over the course of the game his self satisfied bleeding edginess must be worn down, through the encounter with the supernatural inexplicable to his certainties, to realize how much he doesn’t know, how much he needs to learn from the locals. Tellingly, it’s this very point of arrogance, his pride in his car, that receives a due comeuppance: Arthur needs to travel around by bicycle, but it’s slightly busted, so he has to sheepishly ask the groundskeeper to do a trivial repair for him. It becomes rather apparent that Arthur, rather than parading hotshot hauteur to the awe of the locals, is a bit of a bumbler, with his desperate attempt to meld in with the locals in the pub proving sufficiently disastrous to dredge up your own suppressed memories of extreme social maladroitness. If Arthur wants to succeed on his quest, he must first surrender his superiority, seek humbly the wisdoms he has lost. Second, rather than the English officer of the law coming into town to suppress anything that cavorts a bit too Celtic, we get a story of a vicar whose new age appropriations have caused havoc, forcing Arthur to work with a local folk healer to reset the spells of old. This story is a celebration of traditions and cultures in a world beset by the whirlwinds of modernization, and we come to appreciate the elaborate histories which help Haelstowne cohere.
Haelstowne, both Nether and Old, the villages in which the vicarage resides, are patchworks of time, redolent with the scars and marks of eras that have swept through this place in the centuries it has through plague, famine, and war persisted. The vicarage, like the pub, like the church, like every building still mustering the courage to stand, contains the bones of predecessors: “The dining room was a scarred remnant of the oldest vicarage, variously modified, maltreated and improved by succesive [sic] owners over the centuries.” In even the most incidental details, the past suddenly rears up and looms over us, as when we’re told the kitchen table is “a heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak.” The kitchen table is, in its own way, the grave of an old way.
If the small details remind us of the whole they once constituted, then the largest structures find themselves divided, a mosaic of moments of making and breaking. The pub is almost a bulwark against the temporal waves that batter it: “The Myrour, like many a village inn, had dug in its heels and refused to budge when each new century threatened to drag it forward in the name of progress. Consequently, the interior had changed little since the 1600s.” The church retains its pride of lineage though it lies scarred and vulnerable, with high and late medieval woodwork and pews and early modern graves and Puritan effacements and some Victorian shutters and a noticeboard with the stories of a life still ongoing. Even the names, St Wilfrid’s, a saint venerated for converting Sussex to Christianity, at Haelstowne, which derives from Aelfstow, or elf-place, point to histories which still hang over this place, which play out in the present with a vicar embroiled with the Faery Queen.
The 1920s setting gives this temporal tension a heightened relevancy. We’re in a period where people are, after the twentieth century’s first great crisis of transformation, trying to blink their way back into an Edwardian mode that just doesn’t fit anymore. The culture feels like it doesn’t know how to either move forward or backward. Merriner’s writing helps sell this disjunction with evocative dialogue and a careful recognition of the social tensions of the period, especially deft in the deployment of a lively juxtaposition of characters. We see the confliction appear in Edna, our surly housekeeper who seems to resent us more with each day our irruption fails to dissolve, trying to impose herself as a chaperone on our seance with Ottoline, whom we meet as such: “A tall, striking woman with rather sharp features and dark hair wrapped up in a silk turban. She wore pantaloons and a jacket and blouse in a style that Arthur, having little experience of such things, assumed was rather fashionable.” We also get a veterinarian who has both country pragmatism (she’s got a gun cabinet) and modern flair (she rides a motorbike, and indeed her derring-do rather reminds me of George Mallory riding a motorcycle up Snowdonia), with a long history in the region (her ancestors are the Molyneux). This attempt at keeping up foiled by a historical pace that defies keeping up fills this game with nuance that makes its setting feel crucial and considered: a line like “a rather grand shopfront in that distinctively showy turn of the century style that now, three decades later, seemed rather passe” seems especially poignant given the period.
That enchantment with the processes of time creates an interesting parallel with two of the more intriguing puzzles: developing photos and casting a spell. Both puzzles are veritable immersions in the rhythms of the past, forcing us to look around ourselves with new eyes. We find a late Victorian or Edwardian camera, and we find two sets of instructions, and we have to literally follow the book to carefully step by step take a photo, develop it, and print it. This is a game that wants you to wind the camera, to unspool the film, to immerse it in fixer, to wash it, to hang it to dry, to press a negative to print it. Whereas most games might handwave the process of taking a picture, here you are reminded of what taking a picture is like, what it means, how it used to be a complex intention, nearly a mystical ritual intended to capture the sun. Merriner emphasizes the magical undertone of early photography with a catching line: “Nothing was visibly different but the air felt suddenly charged, the shadows cast by the wavering candle flame seemed vividly alive and Arthur had a strong sense of presence. Something caught his eye: a movement, it seemed within the very surface of the film strip itself. Impossible.” A photograph is a tool intended to capture presence, that impossible elusion, and Arthur marvels at the spell he’s cast, one as profound and arcane as capturing gossip in a bottle. If the first chapter forces us to encounter the magic of technology as a physical immersion in the impossible, the last chapter allows us to revel in how that physicality leaves us more grounded and human, with Arthur having to pull together the ingredients and the energies of the world around him to meticulously step by step brew a potion and cast a spell. Thus, the game is bookended with two intricate enmeshments with the natural world, one Victorian, one early modern but rooted in the ancient, both of which require our protagonist to learn from books the secret rites of a magic past.
The game’s obsession with the tactile allows us to viscerally inhabit a space that, with its openworld and somewhat modular design, invites us to slow down, notice the little things, seek out what’s hidden just beneath the surface, if only we will care about it, if only we can see the stories interwoven with the land. I wish the game was a bit more thorough in describing its incidental scenery, since I think that would have played well into its strengths and themes. It seems a little disjointed for a game that wants you to examine the little things, like the ivy or the shrubs, usually responds to examinations of even quite significant scenery details with an “Arthur saw nothing particular noteworthy” message. This makes the experience very gamey, with you not trying to experience the space, but instead merely pixelhunting for items. I was shocked, for instance, when I needed to examine a church which was listed only as a directional heading, whereas in a different game that’s exactly the sort of meandering action I might have done.
A similar issue that prevents the exploration and puzzlesolving from feeling fully grounded is how wobbly the systems are. Often the parser is, where not finicky, persnickety. The game tries to get you to adopt a formalized logic particular to this game, where for instance you might drop an item instead of using it, which is fine enough, except that again it undercuts itself by sometimes forgoing its own logic. One puzzle, which is clever on paper, falters in practice: you need to put a chair under a doorknob to prevent Edna from interrupting your seance, but solving it necessitates the use of precisely the kind of complex command construction (WEDGE CHAIR UNDER DOOR HANDLE) that we’ve been discouraged from using in similar puzzles, like ascending the recess to open the window. Similarly, for the whole game we’ve been instructed to POUR [liquid] INTO [container], yet when you need to empty the witch’s bottle in the sink, you need to EMPTY WITCH’S BOTTLE, which was frustrating. Some other concerns, like custom verbs that could really have used some more synonyms or some more forceful cluing (one tries many constructions before managing to GOUGE PLASTER or PRISE FRAGMENT or STANCH WOUND), contribute to a constant sense of uneasiness, like visiting your aunt who has wrapped her sofa in plastic and who insists on meticulous tea decorum: no matter how lively or lovely the conversation, you’re never allowed to become comfortable and enjoy yourself. I wasn’t surprised when, struggling with the spell, I suddenly realized that instead of trying to stir the brew counterclockwise, I really ought to be stirring the brew widdershins. What a faux pas! Such a mishap falls straight from the pages of Henry James!
Moreover, the game stutters several times with bugs (or at least pseudobugs) that emphasize the wonkiness of the parser. During the development of the photographs, I once got a false positive on hanging the negatives, and so I was confused as to why I had suddenly been gated from progress; many thanks to the patience of Mike Russo, who guided me through several muddles. Some of the bugs are quite silly however, as when I TOOK ALL at the village pub and got Jarbell and Customers. Who says Arthur can’t make friends? Except then I took Jarbell down into the pub cellar, only for him to merrily reset the keg I was holding, which held my completed brew. So I got locked into a state that would have required tedious replaying, and might even prove unwinnable, had I not immediately reloaded a save. So um, that’s the last time I’m putting you in my pocket, Mr Jarbell! Load of good you’ve done me, and after the turn I’ve done you, rescuing Ash!
Despite some annoyances, you’re pulled through the game by the clear and compelling writing, which seems descendant from Charles Williams, with its fanciful thriller thrust modulated by a wry and dry English manner. Faeries of Haelstowne can be quite witty, with evocative characters unflinchingly hitting the right notes, some of which really sing, as in these two exchanges: first, between Ottoline and Arthur: ““Anyway,” she continued, “the fact is, I fell in love.” / Arthur began reflexively to say “I’m sorry” but managed to stop himself by sipping tea.”; second, between Peldash and Ottoline: ““So I … learned the rites both of summoning, and of banishing – for I was not so reckless as to take no precautions at all. Then I went to the wood and performed the ceremony.” / “And then,” said Ottoline, “all hell broke loose?” / “Ahem. Quite.” Peldash looked apologetic.” Merriner has a humor that, while never stepping out uninvited from the evocation of era, nevertheless runs through the game, occasionally with a mischievous panache, as when we examine the shovel: “It knew its place in life and desired to nothing greater.”
While the game lacks Williams’ supernatural flights of intensity, Merriner does supply us with a clarity and efficiency that makes its dramatic setpieces sparkle like clean brook water, as in these two stormy passages which further emphasize the parallel between the photography magic and the spell magic: first, after successfully developing the photos: “Arthur felt a sudden violent change in the atmosphere, like air rushing in to fill a vacuum. Whatever invisible bubble it was that had sealed off The Vicarage from the outside world shattered, the sense of neutrality and calm evaporated, and the air was suddenly prickling and alive with things unseen. Arthur looked at the images on the contact sheet and saw things moving, impossibly but undeniably, beneath the photographic emulsion. He felt the dead hand of terror close around his heart, every hair stood upright and for a few moment [sic] he remained rooted to the spot. And then, thankfully, the fear abated, the charge in the atmosphere faded and the pressure lessened as though an equilibrium had been reached.”; second, after successfully casting the spell in the grove: “Above the roar of the wind, he heard a tumult of voices, high and inhuman, shrieking in fear and rage and growing ever closer as though drawn against their will. From between the trees came faeries, kicking and screaming, clinging on wherever they could to try and resist the invisible force pulling them towards the grove. Arthur cried out in terror as the first of them appeared, hurtling towards him before being sucked into the keg; presently, the grove was filled with hundreds of faeries, rushing onwards to meet the same feet. The wind grew yet stronger, the tortured cries louder as the faeries were drawn back into their own world. Arthur could stand it no longer; he closed his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears, praying that it would stop. And abruptly, it did.” Both scenes employ a strange vacuum effect with clinical precision, with the writerly eye unfolding its theatrics with a studied organization. One would not be surprised to hear that Merriner has had experience as a technical writer, that logicality of progression and smoothness of development reigns the aspect for most of the largely “correct” writing.
That writing carries us along on our deepening mystery into a world replete with mystery and magic, with answers that cohere nicely with the wider contours of the work. I especially enjoyed the climax, where the Faery Queen (about whom Peldash warns me needlessly, having shared with Woolf the self destructive tendency to read it) rides anew into the restored medieval village, time threatening to rip this place asunder forever. The game thrums its engine into final gear for a racing finale, with us desperately dueling the Faery Queen, rescuing ourselves from the fate foretold in the tapestries of transformations into wild beasts (Peldash was briefly turned into a newt, but I am pleased to inform you he got better). We unleash our final foray of ancient magic, and out comes the healer of old, Richard Travais, who undoes the vicar’s meddling and reforces the wards, sealing the faeries afresh. We have learned the ways of the wold, and in so doing, have learned how to stray from the world’s gauntlet savage. In an epilogue, Arthur returns to the town in the 1940s, where the roads, which once “would have resounded with the ring of horses’ hooves, the rumble of carriage wheels and the voices of those travelling on foot” are now pockmarked with pillboxes and hedged with garages, and yet “how little changed this part of the country seemed.” Like with every age to have come and gone before, Haelstowne holds on, secure in its ways, rich with its secrets, ever yet the home of “the immortal Crackers, still perched within his iron cage.”
In its carefulness, patience, and roundedness, Faeries of Haelstowne achieves with dashing faculty a compelling conceit of interactive fiction: that we can, if we can just immerse ourselves in a place, come to understand it, live through it, make sense of the strangeness that surrounds us. A game of ambition written in the nostalgic Adventuron system, Faeries of Haelstowne leans towards the past, teaches us to cherish its hidden enigmas and specificities, yet with a clear eye towards the future, how we might yet innovate new ways of knowing, new gifts to bestow upon the altar of the cathedrals of time.
Daddy’s Birthday is a pleasant and adorable collaboration between a girl and her father, written to celebrate the eponymous Daddy’s Birthday. You can play through the original story as written by Ruth, but it leads to an UNSUCCESSFUL BIRTHDAY, so you’re encouraged to try again and ascertain where exactly you went wrong and how you can help Daddy avoid his tragic fate.
Our author, who quite possibly has a bright future ahead of her in the medical profession, helpfully clarifies the problem with Daddy’s birthday experience: when he falls from the rocking chair, we’re instructed to DIAGNOSE the problem, consider the symptoms (his head hurts), then issue a prescription (he should put some ice on it). Daddy’s also given some keen advice: in the future, try not to rock in your chair, you’re apparently not very good at it.
Another problem that must be overcome is that Daddy doesn’t seem to be the life of the party, as when his daughters surprise him with a birthday celebration, his first instinct is to WAIT and then SIT ON DECKCHAIR. Poor daughters! Perhaps a good present idea for next year is to get Daddy some coffee. (Speaking of the deckchair, we get a slight issue here, in that the walkthrough doesn’t quite line up with the required play pattern: you need to examine the cake first before Mummy brings in the deckchairs for everyone to sit on.) He also forgets to say thank you to his family after they give him his present! Maybe he really has hurt his head!
The one place I really sympathized with our tragic hero is when Daddy attempted, like Orestes fleeing the Furies, to escape the cruelty of his punishment ineluctable, only to be ever tormented by whispery impulses reminding him that “The urge to rock on the deckchair returns…” No matter how far Daddy fled, even unto the precipice of Mummy’s Bedroom, whoops I mean the Big Bedroom, still he yearned for the solace of finality, for he knew no matter how far he roamed his house wild and confused, still “That urge to rock on the deckchair just won’t go away…” At last, broken before the intractable demand, as even his daughters turned against him and suggested “Daddy, why don’t you sit on the deckchair?”, Daddy decided that you just can’t have your cake and eat it too, that with every gift must come a price, that this tie about his neck, much like the albatross of old, hung upon his neck as the symbol of his struggle, thus in despair he attempted to illustrate his conundrum by cutting a slice of the cake and leaving it uneaten as he surrendered to his deckchair doom, a parable by which his family might perhaps learn from his mistakes, but, the moment the cake was sliced, as if by some strange miracle, deus ex machina, everyone gathered around and ate cake and had a SUCCESSFUL BIRTHDAY. So all’s well that end’s well!
As does this game, which glitters with creativity and humor (such as when we find a banner that reads “Happy Birthday Daddy, 21+ today!”), and I’m sure the opportunity for father and daughter to work together and build on each other’s ideas to bring to life such a lovely and thoughtful game is the best birthday present of all.
A commonality between the successes of Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and Minecraft is that many of us, scattered across continents in thronging cities with a throbbing consciousness bleeding anxieties and responsibilities, desperately long for that quiet industriousness of the countryside, its serene solitude, that silent immersion in nature where simply being seems enough, where all our emotions and thoughts meld into a landscape teeming with its own self sufficient rhythms and vibrancies.
Snowhaven’s stripped down monochrome aesthetic produces this precise feeling, offering us several emotions that we can blend into a connection with the earth: joy, sadness, and terror. As the protagonist goes about harvesting ingredients for a stew, he reminisces about his past, his expected guest, and this tiny patch of earth where his memories reside in rivers, in trees, in boats, in graves. This isn’t just a jaunt through the woods to gather some berries, but a tour through your world, its happiness, its heartbreak. Pixelated scenes guide us through our journey as we constantly travel between seven locations, so that by the end even the player starts to recognize each little nook, what’s hidden in it, and what has happened here. Thus, the multiple playthroughs offered by Snowhaven really accentuates its charm, as we get to work on a new recipe much as the protagonist might, whirling through the seven screens about which we know every little thing, pausing only for a memory.
Unfortunately, only the first two playthroughs are available. The third playthrough, the Sinister version, is, rather evocatively, hidden behind a password, as if there is some terrible secret locked deep in the heart of the game. The game suggests that you can email the author for the code, but I don’t know, something about “email me to get into the secret Sinister part of the game” feels a bit intimidating.
This password protection for the third playthrough adds to Snowhaven’s sense of wobbliness. There’s some clunkiness when it comes to preparing ingredients; the list of commands suggests a HINT command, but it produces the result “This game doesn’t use hint.”; the help menu doesn’t list basically any of the necessary verbs besides the very basics, which seemed like the purpose of the menu; occasionally the game would double back on itself strangely, such as “You take a few carrots out of your store of frozen vegetables. You can’t do that.”, or telling me that “You can’t leave the cabin without soap” while moving me out of my cabin; and, speaking of soap, you’re given a brief quest to find some, so I went searching through the map to figure out where I could acquire soap, like maybe I can use the pine wood producing a good smell or get some mint maybe or even get some animal fat or whatever, only to realize I’m supposed to just type “find soap” in the cabin, which seems a bit like typing “solve puzzle.”
Despite these issues, the game has a charm that delicately threads the needle between its muted aesthetic and its emotive core. The writing helps with this, as each memory seems gently remembered, we get a soft black and white photo feeling of these experiences, and yet, just as the game threatens to be a little blurry and saccharine, it goes for the throat:
“You wish you had buried your wife in perfect condition, so you could imagine her eternally resting as the beautiful woman she was. But it took you days to find her body on the river bank. You have so many questions about those days that can never be answered. You can only hope she is resting peacefully.”
Snowhaven thus tries to capture the ambiguity of nature: we get nature as peaceful and beautiful, wandering through the forest with our dog to harvest some mint, but we also get nature as brutal and survivalistic, with you having to distract a bear so that you can hunt some rabbits, decapitate them, skin them, gut them, and cut them up. Likewise, the characters, without ever needing to speak, are filled with stories that seem to overtake them at every turn. The result of this Janusian uncertainty is that Snowhaven alternates between light and shadow like lying beneath a maple tree as the late autumn light dapples through the leaves.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are eaten by a grue, it seems, in the latest work by Robin Johnson, the author of Dectectiveland (2016), and, it should be noted, Hamlet – The Text Adventure (2003). A homebrewer with a ludic retro edge, Johnson gives us Gruesome, a riposte to Zorkian (and Adventurian and Wumpusian) tropes. In Zork, you are a chaotic plunderer with a wit keen enough to manipulate everything around you until you master the dungeon, though in a sense (literally at the end of Zork) replicating the dungeon as master, becoming its very spirit. No wonder so many Zork players set about creating their own copies! Johnson undermines this acquisitive mania for control by showing that our prospective masters-to-be don’t understand the dungeon (our twisty little passages all alike are actually “a network of sensibly designed access tunnels, all easily navigable.”), don’t respect its inhabitants (our concern that we are likely to be eaten by a grue is countered with a message that appears when the player does try to eat an adventurer: “Please do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes about grues.”), and aren’t adapted to its terrain (the power which the grue uses to outflank and outwit the adventurers is that its eyes are adapted to the darkness and theirs are not). Thus, Gruesome invites us to reverse the perspective on Zork entirely, where a grue, rather than an obstacle programmed as an ad hoc retcon for an implementation issue, is actually the being that facilitates the adventurers’ progression and ensures their safety whilst they roam the dungeon they’re seeking to rob and rule.
The gameplay reasserts this opposition by being all about actively protecting the adventurers from themselves and each other. You optimize a path around the maze to ensure that you are always one step ahead of the adventurers as they haphazardly career towards mutual destruction. One is reminded of the soothing effect of conspiracies, which assure us that someone in the shadows is guiding everything, that we’re not all just bumbling aimlessly towards our collective demise. This heroic grue who challenges its representation and who challenges the representations of the adventurers begs the question: can you make a postcolonial Zork? Gruesome feels kind of like Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King’s subversive inversion of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
However, despite the highminded themes, for the most part Gruesome is content to play out its concept in silly and lighthearted referential wink winks. The game is packed with references to both 70s/80s text adventures but also a TAKE ALL of nerdy pop culture from yesteryear. Thus, Gruesome’s tone is only sometimes Zork reinvestigated, with the rest of it being broad strokes silliness regarding received narratives, a la Monty Python’s films. For instance, we’re given an orc “wearing a T-shirt that reads “Green & Nerdy” and playing with miniature figures on a game board”, so we get a Weird Al fan playing Dungeons & Dragons, except of course the fantasy dungeon for the people living in the fantasy dungeon is Bosses & Bureaucrats. This inversion between the fantasy and the mundane operates in so much of Gruesome’s logic, yet often the game adopts an eager to please persona that’s ready to whirlwind you through cleverly reimaginative puzzles, so you’re only occasionally asked to do anything other than be amused at how silly this all is. I do think some of the really flippantly gamey elements undermine what Gruesome creates, as when the orc, after you beat her minigame, simply says “Take anything you want as a token of my gratitude.” Great, well I solved The Puzzle NPC, I’ll be taking all your treasure, thanks so much, ta! Isn’t this just Zork again?
Despite its cheery countenance, Gruesome delights in its dizziness, with gameplay that sometimes feels like herding sheep through Omaha Beach. Because the game is time sensitive and wants you to perform things in a specific pattern, I wish Gruesome had provided a bit more feedback about when you had done something worthwhile, especially signalling when waiting for something is worthwhile so that you don’t feel compelled to run off to do something else while a sword charges. Although technically your score ticks up when you Do Things, it doesn’t draw your attention to each addition, and the score in IF is never a particularly reliable marker of progression. An early example: I found the barbarian in the room with the lamp and gave it to him and was immediately beset with several questions. Was I now in an unwinnable state? Had I solved a puzzle? Was my action a completely arbitrary red herring? Surely there’s a more optimizable pattern to discover than just going to a room and applying the noun to the noun? I know this ambiguity thrills other players, but for me it just produces an anxiety that I’m missing something, especially in a game that advertises itself as both nonlinear and requiring replays (hyperventilating my way through flashbacks of Curses!). One thing that confused me when I looked at the walkthrough was that apparently we’re not intended to engage with the knight in our first encounter, despite the fact that we discover him one room south of the dragon, and his description references him being eaten by a dragon. I thought I was like on the dinging edge of the clockwork encountering him there and was bemused as to how I ought to save him from seemingly imminent demise. I’m not entirely sure when or why or how the adventurers move and die, in part because it appears certain elements are randomized.
That randomization speaks to Gruesome’s prevailing sense of mystery. The dungeon you wander feels so simulated and intricate and interconnected that you’re constantly drawn to the unknown factors, a player is stimulated with a constant sense of more lurking behind every object they find. I don’t know how much is actually implemented, but every base interaction feels like it hides several layers of intricacies beneath it. Sometimes you’re waiting for turns on end as the musicbox cranks around you, wondering, what am I missing, what should I be waiting for, what happens when this all perfectly aligns? This is a complex game with a lot of moving parts and a sense of both anxiety and serendipity: in that way, perhaps, for all its Zorkian and Adventurian and Wumpusian flair, it’s most saliently a scion of The Hobbit. Thus, whichever your old school roots, you’re sure to have a topsy turvy romp through nostalgia in the misty yet strangely sweet Gruesome.