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Mysty, January 17, 2011
Andrew Plotkin's Dreamhold (2004) was apparently written as a tutorial, a game I decided to play using Hunky Punk, an interpreter for z5 files on the Android. As a tutorial particularly at the start of the game I found Dreamhold's constant interruptions annoying, for example, I was told that "u" doesn't typically work, and that to get up from the chair I should type "stand"... So I did was any irritated adventurer would do and typed "get off" instead (which worked). And some of the assertions weren't correct anyway: most people type "up" to go upstairs, do they? Well, I just typed my typically typical input, which is "u".
Personally I find it limited design when "unlock door" doesn't work and you have to "unlock door with copper key". The typical response to this might be "well, Inform only allows blahblah..." but there are ways around this, and it isn't necessary for all games to follow some standard Inform format (Inform does not have any inherent monopoly to Infocom games either). Sometimes the Inform format can be irritating:
(Spoiler - click to show)Place Painting > Not a verb I recognise.
Hang Painting > Which do you mean?
Mountain > What on?
Hook > Success!
Where else would I hang it? Really...?
But this is a criticism of Inform rather than the game.
What I felt when playing this game (at its start & mid-game stages) was like I just had a bunch of arbitrary objects to tick off on a checklist. This gave it more of the feel of a hidden object game in a world of escape-the-rooms (The "there-are-more-items-to-examine-here" segment was particularly repellent). In fact a difficult game makes for a good tutorial, and a good tutorial would give the impression of breadth and depth. Just when getting frustrated, as there seemed to be no puzzles to solve, I plumped for (Spoiler - click to show)"look through telescope". Incidentally LOOK TELESCOPE and USE TELESCOPE don't work - somebody new to the genre might have given up by now. I don't like the tendency of tutorials to warn against using USE (nice tautology), especially in a case where "use (Spoiler - click to show)telescope" just seems the natural verb to apply (or use). What happened next? I am whisked to another world without rhyme or reason. Difficult is not the same as obtuse. By the time the game started to begin, in a sense, I was already fed up with it. This was a shame as parts had a definite Myst-like feel, which obviously is difficult to conjure with text alone. Some details seemed absurd: for example, the window looks onto a waterfall.. Perhaps the text would have keyed you on to this by informing you of the sound of heavy cascading, but it just seemed random for a waterfall to appear behind the window.
A minor irritation was the "Is that the best you can think of?" response, these types of response which insult the player are a bit of an anathema, especially in modern IF. There was the occasional bad response, such as "stand on pedestal" > "The pedestal is too narrow to sit on comfortably." But actually this was atypical: most responses were well-written, and descriptions are evocative. There were some funny responses to JUMP and X STALACTITES which were appreciated. Ultimately though it just seemed somehow plot-less. The description of port-alls at the start might be said to be the driving force of the plot and your investigation of this, but to me this seemed like it should have been a device rather than the story. (Plus the description given was of "drawing" a port-all, not of looking through a telescope. On the plus side the orrery and understanding the mechanics of how rooms appeared intrigued me, and the outside locations were interesting too. I appreciated the feedback of correct exits when you tried a wrong direction, especially in a game with quite a few locations. The game won't have you banging your head against a brick wall like the badly constructed games of yesteryear, but I was curious as to why this game won a 2004 XYZZY award for best puzzles...? So far I had 4 of 7 masks and I hadn't done much. (Also a web-search informed me that the game had an Expert mode but I never received any indication of this whilst playing).
As an experienced adventure game player I can't really comment on how the game plays for a newcomer, but it didn't seem like a good introduction to the genre to me. By the time the game did start to engage with me I'd had to go through a lot of annoyance, but now I did feel like I had a big map and some confusing puzzles to contend with. (Spoiler - click to show) Though I'm not sure they could be called puzzles... I had a pyramid which could hold something, and no real clue as to what it did. I had started a burning fire, but with no knowledge as to what it did. There was a burning hot pool down in the ground, and no idea what I could do with it. A never-ending passage with no clue as to why that was there. At last there was something of a game here.
Andrew writes "I've tried to create a game which rewards many species of adventurer: the inexperienced newcomer, the puzzle-hurdler, the casual tourist, the meticulous explorer, the wild experimenter, the seeker after nuances and implications."
I believe that's true: the well-presented environment lends itself to different exploration styles. The mechanical devices described have a definite precision and accuracy, and there is atmospheric connection between locations (mapping is also essential as key locations could be missed easily). But my personal opinion was that the game just took too long to get to that stage. Although the external locations have a sense of validity, I didn't believe the early ones, and felt I had to go through some unconvincing contrivances and annoyances to get there.