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Yellow Dog Running, May 24, 2017
This game was made for a speed-writing contest. It’s rough. It has unimplemented scenery. Its conversation menus are formatted wonkily. In order to advance the story, at certain points you have to “follow tracks,” which initially creates a guess-the-verb problem. Worse than that, there are no “tracks” in the room descriptions. There are footprints, but “footprints” isn’t a synonym for “tracks.”
Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.
I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.
You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.
These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.
Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.
About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.
I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.
Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.