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Uniquely invertible puzzle structure, January 19, 2014
If you're a long-time player of IF, you might have skipped this work by Andrew Plotkin, which is typically billed as an "introductory" piece for those new to the genre. If you approach The Dreamhold with this mindset, that's almost certainly how you'll experience it, but that is not all that is offered.
Upon first completing this game many months ago, I found it to be a typical Plotkin work in the sense that it almost flippantly demonstrates the power of top-notch prose and programming to revitalize otherwise stale conventions in the genre, but I didn't see much else to recommend it. The most obvious innovation is the "tutorial voice" (well-covered elsewhere) which earns the work its status as one suitable for novices, but this held little magic to me: first, because I'm not a novice; second, because its success is questionable based on the various online reactions of actual newbies; and third, because this approach has been pushed even further since The Dreamhold was released, rendering it no longer state-of-the-art.
I gave an up-vote to Brian Campbell's IFDB review, decided I had nothing to add, and moved on... until the next day, when, still puzzling over the somewhat cryptic ending and the various loose ends, I started playing again with a walkthrough nearby for reference. Before long, I had experienced many of the hidden nooks of interaction and seen the alternate ending, which was equally cryptic and not particularly more satisfying.
Over the ensuing weeks, however, I slowly came to realize that this alternate ending is not your typical example of branching narrative structure, and that realization is what eventually drove me here to write this.
Most interactive experiences with multiple endings very explicitly present the choices relevant to shaping the outcome as choices; that is they are framed as mutually-exclusive, either-or options that can reasonably be expected to alter the outcome in a significant way. For many games, some or all of these choices are illusory, as multiple branches of interactivity will converge on the same situation again later, but generally at least a few will genuinely change the outcome.
In addition, most games that have multiple "winning" endings are quite careful to remain neutral or ambiguous in the guidance they offer about which branch to take. The signposts are up indicating the forks of the road, but there is no author influence about which direction to take. One reason for this may be that, given the amount of work required to implement the different branches within the game, the creators don't wish to do anything to discourage players from exploring them all in separate playthroughs.
In The Dreamhold, Plotkin does not follow these conventions. Challenging them seems to be one of the key experiments of this work.
With respect to determining which ending the player will see, the important branches in the action are not explicitly framed as choices for the player. Only one branch of action is even implied by the prose, and that path is framed not as one of two binary choices but as the single solution to a particular challenge. These are well-designed puzzles in the sense that they are well-hinted without the solution being immediately obvious, but, for clarity, I will term these the "obvious" paths.
Here is the part that I find fascinating: (Spoiler - click to show)The obvious path (i.e. hinted puzzle solutions) is often dependent on a particular linear mechanic, meaning the solution is driven by moving a world state in a specific direction(Spoiler - click to show). Examples that spring to mind are the puzzle about finding your way in darkness and interacting with the hot springs. In each case, however, there is a corresponding solution using the same linear mechanic, but requiring that the player push the world state in the opposite direction from that needed in the obvious path. I'll call doing so taking a "non-obvious" path.
"Non-obvious" is perhaps not strong enough of a description -- "obscured" might be better. The prose does not hint at this option in any way I detected. The only hint is found in the very nature of the underlying linear mechanic; there is no reason, in the abstract, that the mechanic should not be reversible.
On the somewhat less abstract plane of writing code, the very fact that the author has to program interactions in both directions means that any theoretically invertible game mechanic will normally only have one "interesting" (i.e. story-relevant) direction. Not so in The Dreamhold, where Mr. Plotkin has taken the trouble to create what almost amounts to a secret game accessible only to those who discover the uniquely reversible nature of the puzzle structure.
I want to be clear: I don't think I would have known anything about this "other" side of the game if it weren't for the walkthrough. I feel confident that most of the people who play through this (especially novices!) would not hit on even one of these non-obvious solutions. (Spoiler - click to show)To hit on enough of them to see the pattern, to grasp the... meta-puzzle? meta-mechanic? and work all of the alternate solutions through to the end is asking a lot. In a piece with a significant number of intentional red herrings and dead ends, offering only the slightest and most indirect indications of the existence of the alternate solutions or the fact that associated prizes have any significance (via the mural) can be fairly called unfair. But then again, asking a lot from players is par for the course in much of Mr. Plotkin's work.
So, given the lack of a direct explanation, what's it all about? (Spoiler - click to show)Having mulled over both endings at length, the overarching theme seems to be about the choice of how to use power. The PC has reached the extreme of power within his current plane of existence, and the player's actions drive him towards one of two paths. In the first, via the "obvious" path, the PC continues his attempt to dominate the entire plane. This is perhaps a more dubious endeavor than the PC believes, given that it was an error during a previous attempt that left him in the state in which you find him at the start of the game. In the second, via the "obscured" path, the PC turns that power inward and transcends to a new plane of existence -- beginning anew to start the climb all over again from the bottom. This is the path of legend as laid out in the game world, the path that is perhaps more promising for the PC and more satisfying for the player, since it lacks the malevolent and maniacal overtones of the first path. Of course, the preceding is my own interpretation; your mileage may vary.
As a final note, I think it's worth pointing out that, despite the prose's uncanny ability to make you feel "there" (as Magnus Olsson's review puts it) in terms of the game world, it seems to intentionally avoid trying to do the same thing in terms of the PC's mind. True, the PC quite deliberately begins as a blank slate, but surely some of the previous personality should be emerging as the player progresses through either of the two core collection quests? Given the arguably distasteful nature of the obvious ending, adding an ever-more-megalomaniac tinge to the PC's thoughts would provide some players the motivation to avoid it. This, coupled with a some real hinting at the existence of the second path would elevate the overall narrative structure to a true and conscious choice for the player, which I, personally, would have found tremendously more satisfying. As it is, the effect of hiding the second path so thoroughly is to render it invisible in the course of typical play, leaving the average player with seems like half of the intended experience.
Somehow, I doubt this is unplanned. It seems clear that Mr. Plotkin wants you to work for the extras offered, that this other path (and the resulting opportunity for greater insight into the story) is primarily there for elite players. Whether intended or not, hiding one path results in players being directed towards the other; The Dreamhold does not seem neutral here, even though it can be argued that such neutrality is implicit in a game about unguided exploration of an unknown environment. The counter-argument is that players cannot assume that a work of IF is open-ended -- they are at the mercy of authors to provide nudges about which of the endless possibilities of imagination are realized within the work at hand.
Perhaps Mr. Plotkin thought this all out, and perhaps this is The Dreamhold's central challenge to the player: to make the choice to look for a choice, instead of following the obvious path. If so, the unconventional design is very cleverly and subtly executed, but it's not clear to me why this poker-faced approach is superior to offering additional encouragement (delivered in his deftly minimalist style) to players to discover the alternate path.
In conclusion, this is a game well worth your time, but I do not recommend it for novices. Long-time players who have not yet experienced it should approach The Dreamhold with explicit instructions to dig deep and try to think outside the box of how IF typically works; without such preparation you are likely to miss the aspects of this work that separate it from the pack.