The Dreamhold

by Andrew Plotkin profile

Fantasy
2004

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Snippets of a mage's life, October 17, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Fantasy

I played The Dreamhold in tutorial-mode. The tutorial voice was really well done, providing not only a basic introduction to IF but also guidance to certain puzzles and avenues of possibilities deep into the game proper. It never gets too intrusive.

There is an immense castle/dungeon to explore, with quite a complex layout. I like making my own maps, so this was a fun excercise on its own. You start off in a recognizable, habitable few rooms, and the further you venture from that center, the more varied and fantastic the locations get. There are a few vantage points up above. The wide sunlit vistas from these are a nice contrast to the dark feeling in the rest of the castle.

The puzzles in tutorial-mode are well-clued and solvable without hints, provided that you are well and truly engaged in solving this game. Especially near the end it is neccesary to understand what you have learned during your journey, instead of just having gone through the motions.

The sunlit vistas I mentioned are welcome sources of light and space in this game. I would have welcomed just a sprinkling of comic relief or self-deprecating humor from the PC to break the sad-and-gloom atmosphere a bit more. After some time searching the halls and domes the air in the castle starts weighing on the player's mind.

The implementation goes very deep, for scenery-objects as well as for "wrong" commands. Most things the player tries are recognized and their impossibility or impracticality explained, instead of getting a standard sarcastic snarl.

Fun, big, entertaining. Three stars for now, maybe more when I replay in expert-mode.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
You do not find yourself afraid. A review is more than merely interesting., June 24, 2019

With no memory of who you are or what you are doing there, you have found yourself in a bleak stone chamber with only one exit. Clambering out and up a staircase, the breath catches in your throat as you realize where you are - a dreamhold, the private home and study of an immortal wizard. Your only goal would appear to be escape - but why are you drawn to collecting strange masks? Either way, you must explore this place, and all of the magical mystery within.

The Dreamhold was designed as an introductory story to parser IF, and as a result you are guided by the Voice, who uses italicized brackets to give advice, hints, and occasionally self-deprecating commentary:

[Amnesia. Yes, it's a cliché, but it'll do for a tutorial.]

There is an expert mode for those readers that enjoy fiendish puzzles (I'm not quite prepared for that yet!), and I like the idea that once-IF newbies, after playing through it the first time and then many other IF games, tackling that challenge as a final exam of sorts. I did enjoy solving the mystery on normal, and the dreamhold was brilliantly designed and well-crafted.

However, the reason why I've not given it a full score is that I did not quite understand the story or the couple of endings that I managed to find, and perhaps there could have been a clearer backstory or some sort of helpful coda or explainer at the end. Perhaps I was just being particularly obtuse, and perhaps one day I'll amend it if I do complete expert mode and that illuminates things.

Nonetheless this game does exactly what it sets out to do, which is provide a great introduction to parsers. Four multicoloured masks - in any order, I'm not picky (unlike some!).


7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Teaching the spirit of experimentation, July 11, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

The Dreamhold is presented as a game suitable for beginners, complete with a tutorial voice and the choice between a normal mode and an expert mode. And yet Plotkin's aim is not maximal accessibility or minimal resistance on the way to a winning ending. He is not here to hold your hand. If you expect him to, you will be disappointed; as some of the reviewers have been, who complain about the openness of the world and the complexity of some of the machinery one meets.

But Plotkin signals his intentions early on, when the player is brought into a room stuffed with useless objects that one is nevertheless encouraged to examine one by one. This, surely, can be intimidating to the new player. Yes. But it is also something one must absolutely learn to cope with if one is to navigate any of the classic parser games. The same is true about learning to explore large worlds, about making leaps of dreamlike logic, and about thinking through possible interactions with complex machinery. Rather than hold your hand, Plotkin drops you in the thick of things, with one message: trust me. And you can trust him. Everything will make sense; you won't get the game into an unwinnable state; and with some determination, you will probably be able to win.

But Plotkin takes things a step further. He is not only introducing the player to the skills and techniques need to play old-school parser IF, he is also introducing them to a particularly fine example of the aesthetic of those games. The mysterious, abandoned world; the slow accumulation of hints that build up a narrative framework; the spirit of experimentation; and especially the being rewarded for your hard work with strange and unexpected experiences -- it is all there. Introductory games tend to be limited and boring; and in a sense that means that they do not teach the player the right mindset. They teach her to think in limited and boring ways. The Dreamhold teaches players to persevere, to try strange things, to try and step off the seemingly beaten path.

Whether it actually succeeds is less sure. The existence of a simple solution, bypassing large parts of the game, might fool people into thinking the game has less to offer than it has. (It fooled me, but luckily I replayed it using David Welbourn's walkthrough.) Approached with the right mindset, however, it does a great job preparing player for the world of old-school parser IF. Although it might spoil the player in the meantime -- it's kind of hard to go back to Adventure after playing a game as polished as this!


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Good, but maybe too much for new players?, July 1, 2018
by wisprabbit (Sheffield, UK)

I think The Dreamhold was my first IF, maybe three or four years ago. I've dabbled in IF on and off since then, but I've been making a serious attempt recently to get into it, and I thought I'd play this again to see if it still holds up.

The Dreamhold holds up, but it's... weird. It's an introductory game for players completely new to IF, but it's also a sprawling and intimidating puzzler, but it's also a beautiful empty space to explore, but it's also a patchwork biography of the space's owner. The more I think about it, the less I'm sure it all actually works together.

The big problem with the Dreamhold is that the puzzles in some places are, I would argue, far too complex for a first IF. Most of these complex puzzles are optional so that the new player can pick and choose what they do, and that's fair enough, but visualising them (and handling them, if you're not mindful of what actions you can type in a text parser) is pretty challenging. The machine in the Orrery, in particular, is a fine argument for having graphics in your games. There's also a few big red herrings, really interesting objects you can't actually do anything with, which is maybe a mean trick to play on new players.

Most of the puzzles are perfectly fine, though. Many of them are written to encourage experimenting with items and the parser, and I think they do a good job of this. The berries are a fun item to use in particular, flicking them at everything just to see if the game reacts.

I think the real strength of this game is the writing. Andrew Plotkin knows how to write a room description, so that much of the game is beautiful even in text. The story is told in non-chronological scraps and odd objects to find which hint at events far greater than the scope of the game. I enjoyed piecing this backstory together and theorising more than many of the puzzles.

The Dreamhold is still a good game, and a good choice for a first game. Just don't be ashamed to use a walkthrough if you want to poke around the game's backstory and some of its more interesting rooms!


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
May not suit all types of players, June 30, 2018

If you're a fan of puzzle IF, then the other reviews pretty much cover it - you'll probably enjoy this, and don't let anyone (least of all me) tell you otherwise!

But I found I didn't - I'm not a beginner exactly, but I mostly skew towards Story IF. Plotkin's writing is crisp, and some of the scenery is certainly compelling. But I found myself getting bogged down in mapping (all the non-cardinal directions like NW) and the puzzles. There's a hint system, but it rather primly stops before giving an unblocking suggestion too often.

After resorting to a walkthrough about (Spoiler - click to show)the order of masks at the mirror, my reaction was a slightly irritable "Huh? How was I supposed to figure that out?" But that's ok, this just isn't for me.

Clearly lots of people love these puzzles, but if you're not one of them, please don't despair: there are other styles of story to explore.


2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A great intro for a newbie (Me!), October 17, 2017

This is only the second IF game I have ever played, after Lost Pig and the first that really required mapping. I really loved it, the story is slight unless you're really paying attention but the tutorial aspect of it works perfectly. I only used the hints to get one of the masks, and then only because I was getting too hasty, and would have figured it out myself if I would have just been willing to spend more time thinking about it.

All in all, a great fun time to play, it definitely whet my appetite to play more IF games!


4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
An introductory fantasy game with a haunting atmosphere that doesn't quite gel, February 3, 2016

I played Dreamhold years ago, one of the first games I've played, and it's never been quite my favorite. It is intended as being accessible for beginners but still fun for older players. It is a mid-length fantasy game, where you play as a wizard trying to reconstruct his memories in a tower.

The puzzles are of course top-notch, especially with the berries and the stars. However, the plot was never really compelling to me. The protagonist is not an underdog, and everyone likes to root for the under dog.

Actually, I know exactly how to describe this game. This is Citizen Kane for interactive fiction. Reviewing the life of an old, powerful man and seeing how he got there. If you liked Citizen Kane, you will like Dreamhold. If you don't really go for those kinds of characters, you still might like the puzzles quite a bit. For me, it's the kind of game that I love while playing, then forget when I'm done.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Featured on Radio K #5, January 2, 2016
by Adam Cadre (Albany, California)

Melissa Ford and I discuss The Dreamhold at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwnB8DviCDg#t=28m34s


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
On Waking from the Dream, May 8, 2015
by scottmbruner (alameda, california)

I was completely enthralled by the fantastic world and implied history of Dreamhold. Like Spider & Web, the world of Dreamhold grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Plotkin's ability to masterfully craft such intertwined riddles within a believable (and compelling) magical reality is singular.

That being said, I don't know if this is the best way to introduce a new player/interactor/guinea pig into interactive fiction. While none of the puzzles are excruciating, the final puzzle, and many of the alternate endings are going to remain beyond the limits of the introductory player. To my eternal shame, I even got stuck on the final puzzle and had to hit the hint system (and still didn't understand!)

My other minor complaint is that Zarf obviously has created a fascinating world but the narrative clues are so obtuse and difficult that a player expecting for all the pieces to fall together in the end is going to be disappointed. As an introductory IF piece, having the prose be more James Joyce then Stephen King to me is a curious choice. One of the endings was fairly incomprehensible to me.

As a standard IF piece, though (and I do think the puzzles will provide challenge even to the most experienced adventurer), it's one of my favorites. I just wish, at the end, I understood a little more of the world. To Dreamhold's credit, though, it has given me enough reason to go back in again.


15 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
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.



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