Deep beneath the frigid waves, a plucky submariner is in dire straits: “The USS Ibis is currently on a training exercise in the North Atlantic, just off the coast of Alaska. You were doing some routine maintenance at the aft end of the submarine when the sirens sounded. You thought this might have been a training exercise until you noticed a whitish-coloured gas approaching you from the aft bulkhead. Training and instinct took over. You couldn’t get to a gas mask in time, so you dived into the nearby airlock and closed the air-tight hatch behind you.” That’s right, things have gotten really bad: somehow the submarine has wandered off-course and ended up in a completely different ocean! I guess that’s why it’s called a training exercise. Well, you’d always been hoping to do a tour in Hawaii…
Before we can attempt to convince US Pacific Fleet that this submarine has definitely always been here, we first need to deal with the minor nuisance of a saboteur who has poisoned the crew and planted a bomb on the hull. And I do mean a minor issue, as our plucky submariner doesn’t seem particularly concerned: “You know from your basic training that it takes about 4 hours for the sub’s filtration system to clear the air of toxic substances. You’d better settle in for a long wait. Maybe you should have a snooze. / > snooze: There’s nothing else you can do to kill the time, so you settle down to have a snooze. Zzzzz…” Stuck in a metal tube careening towards the ocean floor while poison gas kills everyone onboard, you are reminded that you had to wake up at 4am for maintenance. Why not hit the snooze button a few times? Not like the captain’s still around to chew you out.
So yawning awake, hair a little tousled from four hours cuddled in an airlock, we’re ready for some morning puzzling. We’re immediately given signposts, with a door that won’t budge and a grille covering a service duct, teasing you with forward trajectories that are inhibited by emergent short-term goals that invite you to explore the current playspace. We sift through the remnants of life aboard the submarine, finding bits and bobs, each one an opportunity to brainstorm solutions to your obstacles. To prevent this possibility space from expanding too quickly, the game is always keen to provide some railings, guiding you back to what matters: “This is a highly complex and technical area - way above your pay grade. You think it best to leave everything alone, as you don’t want to cause any damage that will prevent you getting back to the surface.” Alas, I’m not the only one who’s way below pay grade, as we find the corpse of Petty Officer First Class Nelson next to a can of WD-40. It’s a shame, of course, but in these difficult times England expects every man will WD-40.
Protected by such railings, the game bounces you from goal to goal, as most puzzles are meant to be solved upon the encounter. If you do a good enough job searching each room as you go through, then you don’t really need to backtrack, although the railings sometimes dissonate with our need to seek out hidden objects: “The storage lockers only contain clothing and personal items. Your sense of decorum tells you to leave them alone.” Oh thank goodness my sense of decorum, it’s returned, was wondering where it went while I was rifling through corpses to snatch whatever they had.
It’s a well-oiled frustration-to-lightbulb-to-satisfaction pipeline, and the parsing is pretty seamless, if sometimes a little ungainly in its specificities, as when we need to “>unscrew screws with screwdriver.” While there are plenty of red herrings strewn about, we’re kept on target by the affable if utilitarian tone, which straightforwardly highlights what’s important even when it nods at you with a grin: “It’s a magnetic bomb that’s attached to the submarine’s hull by a very strong magnet. There’s no way you can remove it. A red LED is lit. You presume this to mean that the bomb is armed. You can see two wires exposed outside the body of the bomb, one red and one green. Those colours don’t conform to IEEE standards. That sounds like a safety violation!” So long as you pay attention to wherever the spotlight flicks, you’ll solve your way swiftly through a puzzleset that feels satisfactorily packed because of all the red herrings’ implied possibilities without becoming a needle in a haystack headache. Each room is just detailed enough to breathe some life into the playspace, but as soon as you get too curious and wander off the beaten path, a friendly nudge keeps you on your way.
This attention to player experience helps this puzzlefest feel breezy and goodnatured, with enough ahas to brush aside the few uhwhas (really I just, just like take the fuse?). Although the style can be pretty spare, it does make an effort to flick some color onto the canvas, with a tense intro and even a twist ending that’s implied in an earlier section if you pay close enough attention. So maybe there isn’t some complex multistage puzzle about fixing the pump system or a frenetic timed sequence about firing a torpedo, but honestly so much the better: this is a game very keen for you not to miss the point, and the point is that I had fun trying to rub soap on a hinge to see if it would come loose.
Strike Force advertises itself as an homage to the upbeat bravado of 80s US cartoons, in which plucky problempunchers foil the scheme du jour of whichever Noun Man is threatening the world: “Strike hard. Strike fast! STRIKE FORCE! / Strike Force is a multinational team of special mission operatives based in international waters. They serve to protect the world from HAVOC, a relentless force for evil and chaos.”
Despite this cheery ambition, Strike Force is too watchmakery to really live out the promise. Instead, this is a game that contains the sentence: “There are theoretical ice structures that an inducer could coax out of even basic H20.” Rather than MacGyver our way through an endless tide of henchmen, Strike Force is a heist game, where to get the best ending you have to put everything back in order before you leave, so that nobody knows you’ve even broken in. Puzzles consist of intricate interactions with technical systems: “A cable of 13 thick wires each a different color. You've hotwired enough security locks to know the red and black wires will unlock the door, if you reverse their polarity. The green wire needs care; a simple cut should disable the alarm. / The multihued wires in light/dark pairs are trickier. Fathom, Strike Force's deep sea expert, taught you they balance airlock pressure against sea pressure, to allow the door to physically open. Cutting one will apply a pressure differential, as measured by the pressure gauge.” Multiphase manipulations approximate a mechanic’s focus on diagnostics and repair, navigating a set of relations towards a desired outcome. In this puzzle, you need to cut a sequence of wires based on PSI value to equilibrize, cut the alarm wire, solder the security wires into a reverse polarity, before then maintaining fidelity to stealth by resoldering the entire panel back to its place. Not very cartoonish, you’ll agree.
The narration picks up on this tonal difference, incorporating the disjunction with a shrug. Rather than over-the-top-of-the-lungs cartoonish extravagances, the humor thrives on this understated contrast, giving us a cupboard with boxes of rigatoni: “On the backside in bright yellow is a tastefully restrained HAVOC logo.” Perhaps as a metonymy of this overly realistic version of eighties cartoons, after we break into the facility: “In quiet unison you chant, "Strike hard. Strike fast. Strike Force."” We need to cite our catchphrase, of course, but quietly, to preserve opsec. Despite the intro/outro bookends, which lavish confrontational camp on the enterprise, breathlessly fretting over HAVOC holding the Great Pyramids of Giza for ransom, Strike Force is content to leave us alone meddling about a lab station, encountering HAVOC personnel only once in what can perhaps be described as an awkward bathroom escapade. Hardly actionpacked adventuring.
Brushing aside the tonal disparities, Strike Force’s heisty intricacies can still entice the pulse to race while the brain racks. Entering the secret laboratory, we’re given an atmospheric playground to puzzle through: “The steps encircle, and the room is designed around, a proud display of the prize at dead center: an immense glass cylinder that runs floor to ceiling, filled with a dense mass of shimmering blue crystals. They are charged with an internal energy, and give off refracted, alien light that prisms about the room. Combined with the mod stylings of the interior, you can't help but feel transported to an otherworldly discotheque.” After searching around, we finally connive up a tense sequence, complete with a timer nearly ticking to zero, which requires us to be a little creative to speed up the solution, the flash of fleet ingenuity that winks at us with a little trickster pleasure.
To the extent those flashes of pleasure cohere beyond text adventure bric-a-brac, they resolve around a delight in tinkering, playing with finicky nested dependencies that allow you to reverse engineer systems with the same careful attention of a programmer. As an exercise in PunyInform, this game invites us to pay the same attention to qualities and states that it has to. So many items you interact with display that same interest in current values, with a perfect playthrough requiring you to restore every value, rebuilding the puzzle set. If, after rebuilding from the blueprint, it doesn’t all fit together magically, well, neither does anything from IKEA.
Dreams are an activity undertaken when exhaustion overcomes your consciousness, so why shouldn’t we begrudge dreams, forced weary on a warped road of fuzzy touchless wonder? This ceaseless antagonist, stealing from us blessed benevolent oblivion, harrying our retreat from sensory deluge with its tapering ghosts! “As you cautiously look around, your clearest and most pressing sense is that you feel out of breath and exhilarated - and you’re not supposed to feel like that, you’re supposed to be resting, you promised you’d rest - but here you are anyway.” What’s the point of sleep, if it’s so exhausting?
Lucid Night drags us sleep deprived from vaguery to vaguery, wracked upon the loop as “The fog lifts from your mind and you look around the room with new clarity, seeing that the smooth white surfaces are simply… incomplete. You are dreaming: in your lucid world once again. / This isn’t as much of a joyful realisation as it once was. In recent times, you haven’t been able to control the world here like you once did; in many ways, it controls you now.” The ludic vibrancy of dreams’ kaleidoscope has been drained into scratchier, less suggestive forms, a morass of pointlessly shifting details of the dreamspace, undetermined flux that warps shapes suggested by the familiar into juxtapositions seamless in the fuzz: “Perhaps the word ‘door’ isn’t quite right. It’s a large opening in the wall, completely open to the void outside. You haven’t been sucked out or found yourself unable to breathe, but that isn’t surprising, as it’s your lucid world and your psyche doesn’t have much time for inconvenient realism, even if your dreams aren’t as boundless as they once were.” Every object, even so simple as a door, isn’t even able to render that solidity upon inspection; look anywhere too close, out peeks the void. Half remembered items magpied from waking life are littered densely sans rhyme or reason, so close they congeal, waves of sludge that close in around you, spaces so much less boundless than they appear, so much less alive, less troubling, less personal: “You instinctively gasp, but quickly remember that nothing can hurt you here. Unless you want it to.” The 3AM bittersigh of why can’t I have a nightmare, that at least would feel like something.
This brittle certainty of terse mere appearance eschews the more enchanted associations of dreams to emphasize how tiredness, tiredness, tiredness until you’re tired of tiredness. To that end, usually the game remains pretty blithe about the symbolism of dreams, refusing to render any compelling connection between the spaces you sort of inhabit, then dryly noting that refusal with a shrug: “You’re not sure why your psyche thinks you need to replicate the dull experience of a doctor’s waiting room, but there you are.” There you are indeed, the game eying you suspiciously, as if you might start to guess. You’re trying to diagnose too, I take it? Well, there’s no great secret to it; when the game does hazard a guess, its literality drains all the color out of the word guess: “You are in a hollow at the top of a gum tree. Just realising that the tree is a gum tree makes you wish you had a pack of gum, or better yet some actual food, because all of a sudden you are incontrollably, ravenously hungry. It’s probably because you’ve been eating your ‘evening meal’ at about 3pm back in the waking world, because your husband read that insomnia can be caused by having too much food in your system.” There you are, mystery solved.
Our interactions are likewise deflated, each dreamspace falling apart as we attempt to inhabit it, puzzles that drowsily gesture at solutions, a series of commands that languish in their lack of agency and urgency, with each lurch towards progress slamming us against “Your bedroom is plain and stark white, the moonlight streaming through the blinds.” This gives the game a pervasive flippancy, even a grouchiness, that can make you recoil, like if you didn’t want me here why did you invite me over: “You know this dream - you’ve visited it so often.” Yes, and so it seems I am likewise obliged, if you don’t mind. Perhaps aware of all the grays matting indistinguishably, sometimes Lucid Night channels its flippancy into a cartoonish moue: “You start counting sheep. This always takes a long time to work, but sheep number 1,362 manages to drag you back into your non-waking world.”
But if, by the end of it, you feel a little wearied yourself, then the immersion has worked, and the knotty, headachey thinningness of a night tossing and turning and just barely dreaming has taken you with it into a communicative experience that does make “You feel like the real world is becoming more real.” Now how about some coffee?
Florida’s coral reefs are threatened by environmental terrorism, and it’s time for two grizzled Navy SEALs on detachment to the US Coast Guard to stop these pirates! Okay, wow, that was a lot. That sounded scary! Pirates? SEALs? Terrorism? Grizzled??? Gee willikers, this is the Florida Keys, we’re here to relax. How about some delicious key lime pie? Maybe a little mai tai? There we go, now we’re sufficiently chilled out to approach Sea Coral on its own terms.
This laidback investigation adventure isn’t out to get anyone’s pulses racing. Although the prose is quite clipped, it is driven by a genial interest that cheerfully prints out facts, which can sometimes result in a series of tangential hardcuts that depressurize focus: “The Deep Sea Submersible Vehicle (DSRV) supports two researchers. It’s maximum depth capability is well below the tolerance of the divers. The divers depth tolerance can be increased by use of mixed gasses. The exterior is equipped with 360 degree thrusters, full lighting, hand like grasping claws and specimen holding bays. The DSRV can operate at full capacity for more than five hours on a full charge.” What makes this fuzzy factspew enjoyable is that the gameplay is so lowstakes and telegraphed that you don’t need to sift through the spray for any one detail. You simply relax as the game completes its own missions with only light interaction. For your inspection of the damage to the coral reef, you merely board the DRSV, go southwest, and voila, mission complete, time to reboard the DRSV and go northeast, taking only a brief moment to appreciate the natural beauty: “There is an amazing array of sea coral and marine life. / After seeing some strange damage to the environment, you have collected samples of coral, water and sand from the area that looks disturbed. / You can board the DSRV to return to the Pollux.”
Although slightly offkilter, this brisk enthusiasm proves charming, giving the narration the tone of a friendly guide who really hopes you have a nice time, it is so lovely around here: “The lab is meticulously organized. Sandy is an excellent lab tech. You can see the lab station and some specimens that seem to have been analyzed already. Labs are interesting places. You are free to examine [X] everything. But do not touch! It would break the chain of custody rules. / It would be wise to discuss the lab results with the lab tech: [Talk to] Sandy.” The little satisfied sigh of “Labs are interesting places” interrupts the description without adding anything, and yet it feels like such a simple, genuine flush of enthusiasm that you can’t help but nod and agree. Before the train of thought gets lost, however, the game’s immediately back to business, providing helpful tips to glide you through the next scene. This exuberant simplicity sparkles the game with excitement while keeping the player tightly choreographed: “An amazing array of sea coral and marine life. The water is so clear, you can see it from the surface. Just some fins, snorkel and a mask would provide a great experience! By the way, you need to check on that kayaker just to the east.” Wow, corals are so awesome! Oh and by the way, just as an aside, the game needs you to go east.
Your investigation mostly consists of you trawling around the map, talking to every ship or diver you encounter. These dialogues keep up the same rigid amicability: “Hank: Hi captain, I’m Hank. What brings the Coast Guard out this way? / You: We checked your records. You run a clean operation. / Hank: I used to be in corporate relations. It was quite a grind. I spent my life savings buying this boat. We run a tight operation and do everything we can to give our customers a good time, but safety and protecting the environment here are important to us.” This conversation is so stilted that the resulting humor brims it with character, which is pretty par for the course with these matter of fact dialogues, all of which are brief exchanges that repeatedly offer up the same one clue about a renegade tramp steamer in various degrees of detail, although the game does once giddy up a joke to liven the proceeds: “You: I’m here from the government and I’m here to help you. ;) / Joe: Don’t make me laugh…” That sudden emoji is so iconic of the rest of the game that I’m convinced that it is the cherry on top.
Anodyne pleasantries abounding, it’s no surprise the game’s little bubbles of excitement don’t quite gush up into any explosive thriller breathlessness, even though it does gesture at the danger of the high seas: “> x flag: The divers down flag signifies that there is actually divers in the water and nearby vessels should stay clear. It is usually on a float but can also be a pennant or flag on the dive boat. / > take flag: Taken. / > mwahaha: That is not a verb I recognize.” Oh whoops, sorry, wrong quote. I meant these villains: “The pirate has an aggressive posture. / … / It looks like a pirate vessel. You notice a lot of unsecured items in disarray all over the deck.” Our climactic encounter with the dastardly pirates starts off with a crisp admonishment that they haven’t properly secured the equipment on deck. Didn’t they read the manual? And how dare they with this “aggressive posture”? Pirates indeed! Time for the US Coast Guard to put a stop to their environmental terrorism through a dramatic confrontation: “You: Tell me about the unsecured items on your deck. / The pirate: I will do no such thing. You have no authority on my ship. Now leave before there is trouble. / You: Very well. This is not the time, but it is the place. Good day to you. For now… / The pirate: Harr! / With that, you politely end the conversation.” Oh, uh… are we sure this isn’t the Canadian Coast Guard?
Of course, it’s for the best that such a chipper little exercise is content to cruise along in good spirits, even if the subject matter it touches on like environmental pollution or piracy hint at dark clouds on the horizon. Our final confrontation proves as frictionless as the rest of the experience, sustaining the breezy lighthearted atmosphere to the endscreen, leaving you with a smile and a sense of warmth, if not much else. Still, the game is so straightforwardly content, why shouldn’t we just share the vibes and soak up the Florida sunshine?