If Jim MacBrayne’s previous work, Somewhere, Somewhen, was vibrant but inchoate, a messy attic riddled and riddling with draft ideas, then this current title presents a sculpted revision. The central hub leading into puzzle chambers structure is here neatly iterated into a time travel adventure, where you can easily bounce into vignettes of the past, solve some puzzles, then unlock the next link, all the while accumulating enough inventory to open a Costco.
If this sounds like standard text adventure fare, it is, and the game dives into the cliches with gusto: a letter invites you to your eccentric uncle’s house, so “You push the door open and make your way inside. As you do so it alarmingly slams shut behind you with a grim finality, and you seem to hear an ominous and rather sinister chuckle. / You wonder what your next move should be.” Naturally, you set about searching for items, and the game gleefully ricochets from there through a bounceabout solvearound that defies all good plotting, but keeps you guessing at every description, since most of these environments operate according to a Mystian paranoia, where every incidental detail that seems even slightly cryptic is actually a super cryptic hint for a puzzle whose only connection is geographical proximity. In an unfinished version of the Mona Lisa, a parchment says, “Most men remain loyal, / Most lack real morals.” From this clue, you’re meant to intuit that, when presented with three squares in a nearby room, you should press them in a certain order, based upon the cipher where a word starting with M = Middle, R = Right, and L = Left. Similarly, a note you collect says “When confined, tally, and Let Majesty Remain”; when you discover a secret passage engraved with “Let Majesty Remain”, you are meant to tally the numbers in “let”, “majesty”, and “remain” to set dials to 376. Like in Somewhere, Somewhen, an initially lateral solution leads you down a whole corridor of such logic leaps, rewarding you for paying attention to how the game itself pays attention. When you receive a set of numbered rods, you remember a sequence of numbers on a scroll you got earlier, and the whole puzzle happens very naturally, even though from a distance the puzzle seems a little scattered and vague: you’ve learned to recognize this as obvious, which is a great player arc. This arc weaves neatly back into the game’s general preference for overthinking incidental details, as to find the device you just unlocked, you have to go to a place that, when you first visited it at the beginning of the game, seemed strangely empty: “This is Uncle Mortimer’s sitting room where you remember him relaxing after a day’s experimentation in his private room next door, retained for that very purpose. Surprisingly, it appears now quite devoid of any furniture or decoration. The only obvious exit is to the west.” Now, of course, you have discovered enough to reveal what was hidden there all along.
The same care of progression keeps the increasingly gnarled playspace from choking the bloodflow. Rather than pinball you through mutually dependent puzzles, the game has a relatively directed course. In one layered puzzle element, you use an iron key to unlock a drawer that reveals how to get to the Florentine section, in which scenario you need to use a brass key, so you can use a transmuter you found earlier to make the iron key into a brass key. Later, you turn this brass key into a bronze key, then, for the punchline, cycle it back to an iron key. This clever puzzle hierarchy allows items to be multiuse, so that each tool feels alive with continuous possibilities, without the Zarfian cruelty loop of endless reloading, a design which captures a lot of the romantic puzzley elements of old school intricate multitracking, where you have to reimagine possible compounding routes against overlapping use cases, but without invoking the timesucking abyss of exponential misdirections. While it was fun having only one key which is changed to open new locks, it would have been interesting if other items presented similarly dynamic usabilities; unfortunately, the rest of the items are pretty static, either with an eventually clear purpose or as a simple red herring. Nevertheless, Uncle Mortimer’s Secret does a good job of capturing the old school spirit while using the wisdom of the intervening decades to iterate the design towards a healthier playfeel.
Despite the careful handiwork, the game functions pretty mechanically, with the set dressing peeling under even the slightest glance, much less the environmental obsession it invites. The time travel element, far from dazzling the puzzle jamboree into a series of evocative playspaces, is rusted girder drab. Finding Francis Drake on the dramatic eve of an epochal event, he immediately shuffles us off onto an implausibly mundane fetch quest: “Drake replies, “Yes, these ships you see are of the Spanish Armada which is hoping to invade England. Have no fear, however, as they are far too great in size and will be easily outmanoeuvred by our smaller and swifter vessels without doubt. I wish to finish my game of bowls first, but unfortunately appear to have lost my favourite bowl. After that I will be able to defeat the Spanish fleet.” He pauses then says, “Mortimer was a great help to me. I make the request to you to find my bowl in order that I can get on with my game. If you help me I will assist you thereafter.”” Despite tagging together a rich set of historical characters, mostly the game nods you on with a flippancy that tears at the already threadbare immersion: “As you stand surveying your surroundings, a man walks past and you ask him if he can tell you the reason for the crowd’s distress. He’s obviously very upset himself and relies, “Hello, I’m Abraham Zapruder and the president’s just been shot. I was filming the motorcade at the time, and it’s all in my camera. I just hope it will help the people who will investigate this.” So saying, he turns and walks back the way he came.” The attempts to render concrete the abstract puzzling sequences are often just worse than if we remained lost in the drafty halls of IF’s vaguest catchall fantasies.
Still, the game does manage to lavish some liveliness to charm you along. A particularly exuberant passage flirts poetic: “This is the laboratory in which Uncle Mortimer would carry out many of his experiments. You remember watching him as he would pore over his equipment, clouds of steam and multicolored smoke intermittently billowing all around him and at times all but blocking him completely from view, giving him the appearance of a dancing spectre.” While most of the historical figures are pretty bland, you can coax resonant guilt out of Francis Crick: “We both feel a little guilty about Rosalind Franklin. We did use her experimental results in X-ray crystallography on DNA without her actual permission, and it’s possible we will receive a Nobel Prize as a result. It is also possible that she will not.” And, in a surprisingly sweet, human touch, the password to a computer is named after the game you used to play with your uncle in the garden, showing he has cherished those memories mutually.
These vitality sparks within scattershot logic tinkering are indicative of the game’s general unevenness. The initial historic scenario you enter, Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, is more involved than many others, some of which, like Whitechapel and the Hindenburg, are noticeably barren. And while the game does work up some context about your uncle’s time traveling, including an intriguing plot point of his being imprisoned by mysterious entities, it also bumbles over some headscratchers that could use some additional context, like Mortimer's interactions with Oswald and Jack the Ripper. Like I get the sense that, okay, late Victorian Whitechapel probably just popped up when brainstorming interesting historical destinations, but then the destination isn’t really more than sketched in, and the bit of plot that happens there just points elsewhere, so the unsettling whiplash of this segment again emphasizes the echoing huh?
But if you keep in the spirit of the game and shrug all of this aside, it remains a chipper puzzlefest with loads of cute details, like when knocking on a door plays a soundeffect and the “Knock, knock…” ellipse extends to represent your wait for a response. The game expends effort to keep the player experience fluid, for instance by avoiding annoying backtracking through multiple time periods, and the inevitable “return to the present” mezzanine puzzles are usually well signposted, preventing the tedious lawnmowering such segments usually present. Good quality of life features, like a hint system and a large inventory space, maximize momentum.
Gliding along, you can pursue the sparkling intricacies through the game’s glib affability to enjoy away your evenings with a wry sense of predicament inherited from your uncle: “I have been confined in a sort of ethereal prison and my release will be in one thousand years. Alternatively if one of my own kind can solve the mysteries contained in my house, I will be released at once. I entreat you, dear nephew, to make this effort on my behalf as a thousand years is a long time and I have much I wish to do.” Well then, don’t dawdle, your uncle is doing enough of that, get solving!
When Graham Nelson declared that interactive fiction was “a narrative at war with a crossword”, a group of old school enthusiasts scratched their heads and said, “what do you mean a text adventure isn’t a crossword?” Many who had joyfully puzzled out the rich proliferation of text adventures that, emerging from 70s mainframe mindbenders like Acheton and Warp, persisted onto microcomputers through Adventure International, then developed into a diverse set of professional and amateur offerings via DIY systems like The Quill or PAWs, had grown deeply attached to their puzzleboxes, a connected set of (supposedly) logic problems that could be slowly reduced over days, weeks, months, until an elegantly optimal solution cohered, synthesizing every clue into a satisfying series of interlocking gears finally turning in unison. Each playspace, lightly themed for variety, invited exploration, tinkering, considering, teasing you along its mysteries to reveal treasure after treasure, looping you back through to catch those last little points you missed…
Garry Francis has been keeping that spirit alive with an indefatigable stream of puzzlers perfect to enjoy alongside your morning coffee. Today’s theme: “there’s a rumour that an alchemist in the forest has figured out how to do the impossible and has been building up quite a stash of the shiny yellow metal.” Those of you who have just donned your Hadean Lands hats will need to doff them, as Alchemist’s Gold is an easy, straightforward affair that propels you through a tight sequence of problems with solutions zuhanden. Find an axe, cut a tree. Someone will trade you a map for a squirrel, so you get an acorn, give it to a squirrel, catch it, give it to the shepherd. The workmanlike simplicity comes with no nonsense pride that raises its eyebrows at any player whose hands seem suspiciously uncalloused, as when trying to “roll branch” receives a curt admonishment: “I think you wanted to say “roll broken branch over”. Please try again.” Visiting in from the city, are you? Well.
Still, the game runs swiftly enough with a friendly efficiency that, like its bottle of acid, dissolves obstacles to preserve your momentum. A maze, which can often prove a bit of obtuse tedium, is here rendered as an ASCII map that routes you right through it with jaunty tracery. A final puzzle, dodging the alchemist, is easier to overcome than it first appears to be, and is delivered with giggly aplomb: “Well, it could have been worse. He could have turned you into a toad. You try to explain your actions to the alchemist. “Ribbet.”” Every puzzle is pretty selfcontained, with just enough red herrings scattered throughout to prevent the A->B problem mapping from feeling too artificial.
Alchemist’s Gold, like Monday’s crossword, gets you back into the swing of things without breaking too much of a sweat. Still, veteran puzzlers will be tapping their fingers, waiting for Garry’s weekend mindwarper.
So fragile our lives we fear both sides of the phrase: lives, what makes them ours. Inexorably receding from this ineffable vibrancy contingency lilypadding these cascade whorls haunts us with all the beauties we will sink beneath the see, because not only will it all go on without us, but also, sometimes, so do we, must we inevitably, so composed are we of irreplaceable combinations shared mutually across memories, fracturing in silences we cannot resing. Thence the energy quivering the need to maintain our shared particulars, communicative particulates of the streaming coherence, without which echoes bleed to drones: “When did the loss begin? “Iridescent” was the first lost word, but it was so light, so transparent, that its loss went unnoticed. Then “eviscerate” was torn away from her mind, leaving a pinprick hole, yet it happened secretly, quietly. The vast store of words pushed at the ragged edges of the hole and widened it, and the trickle of lost words became a flow: serendipity, ephemeral, labyrinth, tranquility.” Placing your hand into the stream, trying to catch every concept, dam up and derive, hold the lifegiving babbling “always rushing from her eyes, through the woods, spilling into the creek, so much departure.” If you no longer recognize this place we shared, then how should I? Estranger in an estranged land, sifting through the senses for the assemblance.
The impetus to reclaim, reassert shape from the “shards and fragments” animates a prose which helixes concrete denotations into an emotively synesthetic paresthesia radiating occlusions: “Birds call. They flash bright against the naked branches: cardinal screams red; goldfinch blazes sun.” The lushness of the descriptions flicker with their spilling from delimits, a dizzying motion that slips through the lines you have palmed: “A spill of icemelt trickles over the ledge of rock into a small pool which flows into a stream that runs, runs, runs down and away from the gray rock, the velvet moss. This rock wall weeps water all year, a rivulet that never stops talking as it splashes over the moss, the rough stone, always leaving, seeking the creek below.” You cannot hold fast the flux, thence the bittersweet beauty of attachment: the dignity of failing for just long enough to fulfil a life, make it ours. Fear of the “tiered waterfall that sings in its own language” compels the pursuit of names, certainties by which we can construct the conversations that cohere whom we cherish.
So goes our protagonist wrestling with riddles to wreathe them with recognition. From each spilling sense, you can wrest back concrete poetry, the shapes the words signify. Dozens of scraps of paper whose resemblances can reassemble the meaning: “The piece of paper shimmers and swells, its words moving. They rearrange and leap from your hands in a swift, muscular movement, forming a cat. It sits with its back to you, tail flicking.” The world keeps weaving in and out, abstractions which have now the same strength as the tangible, an interplay that is inherently unstable: “You raise the axe, its sharp words gleaming, and smash it into the white door, splintering it. The pieces of the door disintegrate, the words that held it together fading, falling apart, disappearing.”
The desire to loop back together these disparate elements before their too lateness overtakes their valences leads us to collect all our little longings, isolated significations we must recombine to bring heart back to where the home is. By collecting these fragments to reconstruct the necklace which totems our bond, this final puzzle advances a magnitude, requiring us not solely to solve a riddle by shaping the words but also to assemble the words together, guess what now visibly possibility they imply, what connections we can thread through them, those whom we stored in this shape forever, or whatever forever must mean for us: “Your mother, old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, deep shadows in her eyes. She’s holding a book she can no longer read.” Maybe you can compile all the yesterdays into enough, but it always seems one day away. If we could only hold still the shapes long enough for recognition to spark the embers to warm one more night! “She sees the necklace you wear and her eyes light up, recognizing her lost words. She puts her hand over the heart on your chest and pushes, and you gasp as its edges cut into you, as the heart burns into you. The words are yours because she gave them to you, taught you to love them. You will always carry them in your hopeful, fragile heart; but they are lost to her forever. / You kneel in front of her and put your head in her lap as you used to when you were a child, when the loss was too big to comprehend. / She bends over and strokes your hair and you see a single word, the last of a once-great library, flickering behind her eyes. You hear it fluttering, frightened and alone in the empty rooms, avoiding the blaze consuming the bookshelves. And she lets it go, breathing it out softly against your face where it blows apart and lands like glitter, like snow, like tears against your cheeks: / love.” A word which endures in all of us that you have helped to build.
The delicate melancholy, the clever cohesiveness of every element, the layered conceptual complexity, the munificent playfulness that lightens the austere lodestar to polychromatism, the curlicue vividness of the language, the pitch perfect precision of the ludic elaboration, the exuberant bittersweetness, the gregarious elegance, the baroquely intricate intonation of intent that dapples so much warmth within so much snow, should all come as no surprise in a work signed Amanda Walker, whose palpitationally evocative works have garnered so much praise in so short a time: fourth place in IFComp 2021, second place in Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2022, Best in Show in Spring Thing 2022, and, one has an inkling, perhaps a strong showing in ParserComp 2022. Rarely does the parser feel so fleet that it filigrees invisibly into the poetry, but Of Their Shadows Deep parallels our pursuit, pearling its symbols preciously.
There’s an annoying pseudoclever trend in big budget games where, struggling to be both cleverly poignant as an artistic work and unintrusively fun as a consumer product, they attempt to offload the burden of interrogating received play tropes by shunting the agency out to the player, conflating their control with the diegetic control of their character, resulting sometimes in tepid gotchas, a la Far Cry 3, or extraordinary dissonance, a la The Last of Us 2, often both. Like cigarette companies, these games shrug and say, well, if there are problems, you shouldn’t have kept playing. Games which scold you for engaging with the systems their teams meticulously crafted over years of intent.
The Muse presents itself initially as being about a writer struggling to create, where you are “Seated on some hidden foothold in an infinite darkness,” forced to fix your gaze “on the book of eternal pages that you write with the help of your muse, faithful companion in your grief and sorrow.” Attempts to write in your book spools you through scenes that present some initial condition, like a beautiful sunset in an open field, but which quickly resolve and recede: “You lie back and close your eyes, sinking back into the overpowering darkness that envelops you whenever your muse is with you.” Each place vanishes at the touch, returning you to the obscure inner abstraction of the muse’s endless impetus.
It is here that the ominous clouds signal the turbulent malevolence of the muse, unsettlingly illustrated in grainy drawings that demonize through ethereal white pulses which threaten to brighten to scars. The muse keeps forcing you into new manifestations, which become increasingly troubling: you find yourself “on the battlefield, fierce warriors surround you, armed with swords and weapons of death. Before you stands a dying soldier begging to save his miserable life.” The solution to which the muse urges you is to “kill him with his own sword”, despite his dying cries. The bated violence frills out “the logical achievement of your new inspiration”, leaving you once again abandoned “with a new blank page.”
Canny readers may, by this point, clue into the pattern of these vignettes: we are enacting the seven deadly sins. The gotcha appears: by playing the game and advancing through the scenes, we are becoming stuck into the guilt cycle. In the seventh and final sin, envy, we kill a shepherd, which finally unveils the full context: “The voice from heaven shouts: "What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the earth. That is why the earth that has opened its jaws to receive your brother’s blood from your hands curses you. / A black rain of ash and red of blood gushes from the sky, dragging you into the black abyss. You fall and fall for centuries, plunging into absolute darkness… a darkness only bearable by the beautiful smile of your muse, who gathers you in her arms and takes you back to the book, which awaits your writing. / “Everything ends. Everything begins.”” You are Cain, wandering the Earth cursed, and you must break the cycle of sin by praying for forgiveness: “Again the same voice, now, echoes in your head: “Now you have asked for forgiveness, you can rest in peace, after so many years, after so many sins. Your punishment comes to an end, walk free at last, my son.”” As a high concept puzzle, this is mildly clever, but it relies on a tedious gotcha, where, in order to progress, you have to follow the linear path prescribed, only to then recursively instantiate your punishment, leaving you to restart with the last minute twist of recognizing what you should have done all along.
Progression through the game locks you into doing evil acts, which you are then immediately punished for, as actually you should have stopped playing by using the escape command that builds on context you don’t have until the cycle is finished. Where this becomes extremely frustrating is in its fourth vignette, for lust, in which, to progress, you are supposed to, well, you can infer. Look, I’ve read a lot of books where a lot of bad things happen, sometimes in excruciating detail. I have a certain tolerance for engaging artistically with the unwavering horror of humanity’s infinite capacity for atrocity. I don’t believe it is necessarily useful to impose certain parameters of comfort on yadda yadda yadda. But this just feels crude in a way that is not artistically intriguing. Sure, some of this might be that the selfcontainment of traditional fiction allows for one to undergo a lot of intense transgressions within a specified scope, in which you, immersed, witness, but the roiling internality remains its own engine, sufficient and eternal without you. By demanding your input to bend into the agency necessary for movement, the player dynamic renders the action obtuse, stabbing out at you bluntly, hurting you for turning the wheel that makes the machine function. One so inclined could argue that this heightened level of grossness you feel playing this game as opposed to reading a correlate work is a power generated by the innate conditions of games as a medium, where your “agency” becomes entangled to render the underlying import more tangibly powerful. I don’t really agree; I think it rather emphasizes the mechanical clunkiness of the artistic enaction, a certain evasiveness that utilizes entanglement as an ersatz for a more compellingly considered engagement.
Because, rather than make me feel sinfully identified with Cain, the effect was to render more visceral the game’s flaws. Like, this is a game where the “sin” of sloth is falling asleep in a pleasant field! Why does lust have to be acted at so much starker a level? This is a game whose vignettes are designed as quanta capable of evoking the central prescription: you are in a field, there is a sword, you need to use the sword to kill someone; voila, wrath. Okay, yes, I suppose wrath involves violence. We’re on the same page, muse. You could have just said “wrath”, and I would have learned as much as the vignette affords. So the absolute gall of a game at this level of specification that imagines it is somehow accomplishing anything at all by requiring rape to progress. Sure, murder might have bothered you equivalently, sure, if you were clever enough you could have clued into the escape mechanism earlier, sure, it’s technically you entering the commands, there’s so many ways to turn the blame outwards, but is that dispersion sufficiently compelling to recontextualize the blase brutality into some kind of inverse sophistication?
Not only do I not find this blameshifting interesting, but I also don’t think it actually exculpates itself, given that these issues are built deep into the game’s core, as it recycles tedious tropes of externalizing one’s immorality onto a seductive feminine. You see, your sin is actually the control your muse has over you! It is the muse who compels your evil acts, and the goal of the game is to wriggle out of her influence: “Your once heavenly spirit escapes from within the walls of punishment, leaving behind the beautiful and wicked Lilith, your muse, whose tears for your absence splash on your face, as you fade into the ether never to see her again.” The commonplace of beauty and wickedness connected is the projective misogyny whereby the sickly obsession of the male gaze is internalized in a feminine object which retains the evil in itself, as per the game’s epigraph by Roberto Menendez: “Damn you slippery muse, / you give me your caresses and your kiss / and I join the words together like a possessed, / sinking in your quicksand. / You leave, turning me into ash / and I feel a thick ribbon around my neck / that chokes me with longing for your return, / growing this almost sickly obsession.” The muse’s womanness is coextensive with her evil: “As beautiful as it is obscure, she emanates a reddish evil light that envelops your being and your book, impregnating the pages with blood.” The narrator’s sinful cycling is the result of the fact that “you are by her side and you still love her” even though she is “really your jailer”. Original sin, of course, emerging from Eve, the moral throughline can be extrapolated easily. Given the content the game insists on having, this victim-blaming framework threatens a lot of particularly unpleasant themes.
The gotcha at the core of the game is attempting to get a loan from the player so that it can check subject matter that its craftedness can’t cash. I don’t mean to be mean, but this is a game that requires rape to progress. So yeah, I’m going to hold it to an exacting standard, and it doesn’t pass. I just feel gross and unhappy in a way that doesn’t feel interesting.