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Number of Reviews: 7
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6 people found the following review helpful:
A modern classic, March 25, 2023
The premise for this game is excellent, whether you are religious or not. You are travelling back in time to find out what the mark of Cain was. The game mechanics are also great with many recipe puzzles which reminded me very much of the potion brewing in Gnome Ranger so good stuff! The game has a built-in hint system which answered all my questions. To begin with, I wanted to solve all puzzles by myself but at some point I became impatient because I was very eager to read the ending so I was less patient than usually. So I looked at the hints a few times. However, I never felt the game was unfair though at some point you need to refer to a part of some machinery which was in the protagonist's plain sight but wasn't mentioned unless under very specific circumstances (the spout) so that small bit could be improved.
Pretty good parser with a few strange responses but that happens rarely.
The writing is really good without being too verbose.
I think you can never bring yourself in an unwinnable situation in this game.
Great, satisfying puzzles.
This may become a modern classic. It is a great game.
2 people found the following review helpful:
I wanted to enjoy it more than I did, January 29, 2023
I like a lot of the ideas in this game, and many of the puzzles were solid, but I became totally dependent on the in-game HINTS command, and I felt I had to conclude that a lot of the puzzles weren't fair.
(Spoiler - click to show)A number of the puzzles (including three of the compound spells) require you to LOOK UP X in the book where X is a term you haven't seen mentioned in the game yet. That could be OK if the answers were extremely clearly right in hindsight, but I kept finding that I tried a bunch of reasonable LOOK UP X commands, and then I'd check the hints, and then… womp womp, none of my reasonable guesses worked. Instead I should have looked up Y.
I don't think it makes sense to have "guess the topic" puzzles unless the author provides support for a lot of topics (or, at the very least, a lot of synonyms), and at the minimum help me out with "warmer/colder" hints. Otherwise, after a few failed guesses, I'm forced to assume that there's no puzzle to solve here at all. Good puzzles have to seem inevitable in hindsight, and none of the "make a wild guess about what to look up" puzzles ever did.
In addition, the puzzle in the cavern was… not good. I'd put the obsidian slab in the obsidian block, and didn't realize that I could bring it back out again. But even if I'd brought the slab with me, I put a bone on the altar and it didn't seem to do anything, so I never discovered that the bone would disappear.
6 people found the following review helpful:
Hadean Lands meets Worlds Apart, January 28, 2023
My favorite thing about this game is the genre: Games that take philosophy seriously. Be Not Afraid: While this game does deal with a story from the Bible, it is not a work of religiosity. We are not in Jarod's Journey territory.
In fact, the conceit of the work is pretty much to talk back to the Bible, and say, "Hey, buddy, did it ever occur to you that Cain might have had his reasons?" The work's subtext is precisely this idea that heresy is no sin, so don't hesitate to ask the obvious questions that come to mind when attempting to make sense of canonical tracts. The game's internal reference book (">CONSULT X ABOUT Y"), having been written by a Scholastic, contains marginalia that critiques itself regularly, creating a sort of internally-consistent closure to drive home the point.
Like any good religion, the Abrahamic canon has plenty of worthwhile philosophy (and, unfortunately, plenty that any thinking person in the modern period will reject out of hand), but it also has plenty of parables that are so terse as to raise more questions than they answer. Why, exactly, did Cain murder Abel? Despite the marked incompleteness of this Biblical lesson (as if to suggest that even to ask the question is to partake of the sin), we know seeking to understand motives for horrible crimes to be a valuable pursuit. This, after all, is what happens in a courtroom.
The reason, as the player discovers right away, was that Abel turns out to have been a massive jerk.
Okay, well, maybe the answer isn't always edifying. That doesn't mean we shouldn't ask.
This did sort of leave me saying to myself, "Well, heck, I could've guessed that much." And if that were the whole story, this review would be over by now. But now we have a new question: Why was Abel a jerk to Cain?
The game rewards the diligent player with an answer to this question too. Multiple answers, actually, of two types. One was a typical family dynamics drama, but the other — Ah! This is where it gets interesting. Abel adopts the self-serving and apparently life-long mindset that his lackadaisical character has a higher purpose, that of teaching his older brother a deep lesson.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Unfortunately — I'm interpreting liberally — Cain considers that his hard work, demonstrably harder than that of his brother, of necessity entitles him to just rewards in this life. Abel, however, not accruing the advantages of being first-born, realizes that if Cain's view were true, those advantages would make Cain more likely to have a good life, and Abel less likely. So Abel acts out in order to prove that doing good work does not entitle Cain to have a servile younger brother; rather, by extension, the best reason for doing good work is the satisfaction of a job well-done, while the reward shall come only after death, where we supposedly discover the absolute truth of our choices, since all we can do is our best in life.
This implies that doing the right thing often requires sacrifice, something that the PC understands all too well by the end.
These themes couldn't be more relevant today, where we struggle with entitlement and meritocracy in a vastly unequal society whose playing field, like the field in the story, is anything but level.
Interestingly, this interpretation contradicts the verse in the Targum Jerusalem, which serves as source material for the game, where Abel argues in no uncertain terms that "in goodness was the world created, and in goodness is it conducted. But according to the fruit of good works is it conducted." The game seems to imply that this speech was insincere, which seems like an odd conclusion to draw. In fact, the brothers' positions in the game seem to be close to the opposite of what they are in scripture — but, hey, I'm no Bible scholar.
Of course, understanding that there was a motive in no way excuses the crime. We discover, at the end, whether Cain himself grasps this point.
But philosophy is not the only subject explored in According to Cain. It also explores very effectively some other questions that arise when thinking about the origin of the species, but don't get asked publicly very often. One thing that comes through strongly is that these characters, while they did make mistakes, even grave ones, were doing the best they could under extraordinary conditions.
This is absolutely not merely a religious point. The population explosion is uncomfortable at this end of it, but extrapolating it backward far enough leads to uncomfortable considerations of a different nature, when our species experienced a bottle-neck in numbers. The African Eve studies bear this out. There must have been many sacrifices made for the good of the species. Even without considering modern technology, the existence of other social groupings meant that people generally had somewhere else to go in case of local clashes and other problems. Smaller population implies fewer social resources, no matter how early or late in our timeline. Having so few individuals to rely on must have been a real hardship, and we should be thankful for those hardy forebears who lived and survived over a thousand centuries ago.
To me, the alchemy stuff was cute but not terribly interesting. The puzzle mechanics were derivative of Hadean Lands, and (Spoiler - click to show)it's never explained why the four primary characters should each have a unique characteristic bodily humour not shared with the others. But I think further that my experience of the work of solving the mystery was harmed by the constant hand-holding and coddling in the parser responses and reference entries. I understand the need and the desire to make the game accessible to newbies, but I think it was taken a bit too far. My success would have felt more meaningful if the difficulty in researching alchemical ingredients had been allowed to stand on its own.
It's as if the author felt that I am entitled to see the ending of the game by virtue of having begun it, just as Cain felt entitled. But good interactive fiction, in my view, does not need to assume that I have this right. It does not appear in Graham Nelson's Player Bill of Rights, and with good reason. Whatever else a game is, finishing one can be considered an accomplishment in a way that completing static fiction can't. Exercising the mind is one of the most important things a person can do for his or herself in life, which is why children are encouraged to do it from an early age. Gaming is, in a sense, noble. Performing noble acts involves delayed gratification — a form of sacrifice. For this reason, I felt that this design choice somewhat marred the game's otherwise impressive philosophical self-consistency.
Okay, putting away the soap box.
While the game may not win awards for the best puzzles, it's also true that the puzzles were written to integrate them tightly into the plot in the manner we've come to expect from the best IF. The writing in general is quite good, as would be expected from a published novelist. And, indeed, my next favorite thing about the game, after the philosophical theme, is the atmosphere it creates. The world does feel cataclysmic, as befits the outrage at such a grievous crime when humanity can so ill afford it. But it also feels new and full of possibility. I can only imagine that this balance must have been a challenge to get right. I became so immersed in the world that, during a break in playing, I went to my spice cabinet and opened and smelled each bottle in turn, imagining that I was experiencing each sensation for the first time ever.
The atmosphere is also enhanced by the game's artwork and its appropriately primitivistic and somber background score, which fit well enough that I was surprised to learn that it was not custom-made for the game. It didn't intrude into my concentration, which, for me, says a lot.
Despite the game's general high standards of craft, though, my emotional response to the game was lacking relative to other games that reveal tragic backstory in a similar way, such as Worlds Apart. I'm not sure why that is, other than that the nature of being an investigator doesn't typically involve being moved by the events under investigation. The PC is a pretty hard-nosed, duty-conscious worker, so maybe I felt I didn't have time for hand-wringing. Just get in, find the answers, write the report, and get back.
Or, failing that, just do the best you can.
4 people found the following review helpful:
Alchemical Biblical story, hold the excess moralizing, January 17, 2023
So I was worried AtC would go heavy on the Biblical stuff. Fortunately, there's more alchemy than Bible verse grinding. On the surface, you may be able to guess what happens. Abel feels like that guy back your one high school who'd laugh at other people making mistakes or at people who knew a bit too much, and the teacher never quite caught on. You wondered how he got such good grades, but the teacher liked him! Murder, of course, was out of the question, but given that the fifth commandments is more about "thou shalt not hate" than "thou shalt not kill" (boy, I felt guilty about all those fruit flies and house flies for a good long while!) one can see how a person might sympathize with Cain. Abel is perfectly okay with Cain getting some nice stuff. So perfectly okay, all things considered, that Cain had better not lash out at him back. You could even say Abel was the first troll, as he
seems to make a nice* mix of concern trolling, boredom trolling, etc.
The angle is a bit different–there's a neat fantasy/academic element involved with you being able to go back in the past and scrounge around for Cain and Abel, with an envelope you can open at any time to return. In the past you dabble in a bit of alchemy. You find swatches of substances like sulphur and salt and so forth, and at critical points, you blend them together to gain revelations. There's a good deal of crank science that the author knows is crank science, but it has a neat bit of logic to it. It revolves around there being four people and four ancient Greek humors.
You need to learn what sort of person Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel were, and each time you figure what combination of reagents to use on a special item, you access a new memory. There are sixteen total, which makes for a good deal of symmetry, good to have for such a big work–the memories themselves have mnemonics or feel organized. That extends to the spellcasting you have to do, which contrasted with Adam tried to use magic to find a way back to Eden. You also learn some basic spells, but thankfully it's nothing like, say, memorizing the Ten Commandments and its explanations to the word. (I so hated that in confirmation!)
Two risks with this sort of work are that they may feel too "look, I'm being accurately biblical" or "look at how brilliantly I'm reinterpreting things" and it never really got that way for me. I think using known and anacchronistic pseudoscience worked very well to establish a fantasy feel without going fully silly mode, and I enjoyed how the pacing of revealed memories worked, and I confess I sped things up with the walkthrough to see what happened next. It's almost like the author has done this sort of thing before but in a different medium! Near the end, one of the moments I thought could happen and be very heavy-handed felt appropriate.
AtC ran the risk of being slapdash and smart-alecky all along, in that "THE EVIL GUY WAS THE GOOD GUY ALL ALONG AND VICE VERSA, HAHA" manner, but given the revelations are more gradual and nuanced, there's no chance of it being a hot take. Certainly I wound up thinking about "nice" (well, I couldn't prove they were mean) people from my past I should've been closer with. Nobody got killed, but certainly there was a good deal of maneuvering from people who said "you don't deserve something this nice, but I do, no offense, I'm not looking down on you or anything."
Unlike Sunday school or confirmation lessons, I never felt pressure to remember silly details I didn't think I would use. I was grateful for I would actually want to learn things, to fill in the holes that aren't there, on replay, and I certainly wouldn't feel obliged to memorize things. So AtC brought up an angle beyond "yep, some people who should've been figurative brothers weren't, and whose fault is that?" And it also addressed things I figured I'd better shut up about or get excommunicated ("for the first people ever, wasn't incest necessary? And isn't that a sin?")
TADS entries in IFComp are very rarely middling, and this is probably a function of the Inform community being bigger than the TADS community, and how people may either choose TADS and not get as much support as they would with Inform, or they may look at TADS and Inform and decide TADS has some features Inform doesn't, and they get a lot of help in the forums because people have been waiting for someone to share with. (I just stuck with Inform, and I know I've had "well, it works well enough" moments where someone pointed out, yes, here is one way in which TADS is more robust.) AtC is clearly on the upper end, and for all its being steeped in the past with its plot, it leaves me looking forward too, well, a future where more TADS games are written, and there is a bigger TADS community. There could be so much to gain.
6 people found the following review helpful:
A masterful alchemical mystery, January 6, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I beta tested this game, but did a full replay before writing this review).
This is my last review of the 2022 Comp, so y’all will hopefully forgive me if I indulge in one of my worst habits, which is opening a review with a meandering personal anecdote that’s only tangentially related to the matter at hand (see, now I’ve lampshaded it, it’s fine) – it’s about my favorite band, the Mountain Goats. If you’re not familiar, for purposes of this story the salient facts about them are a) as good as their albums are, the live shows are really where it’s at, and thus there’s a very robust, band-sanctioned bootleg scene, and b) even in 2005 when this story is set they had a deep, deep discography with hundreds of unreleased songs, limited-run EPs, and albums released on cassette-only record labels lost to do the mists of time, such that even a devoted fan like me couldn’t come close to being familiar with all of it.
With that background set, let me take you back seventeen years ago – I was living in New York City, and cursing my luck because the band’s frontman was coming to the city to do a pair of rooftop shows over the Fourth of July weekend, which was the same weekend an old high school friend of mine was getting married in Massachusetts. The wedding was lovely, I have to admit, but part of me was gritting my teeth with fomo the whole time, knowing I was missing what were surely some awesome shows. Fortunately, a kind soul recorded them, and after a few weeks’ waiting, I downloaded the files – and then was beyond startled to see listed fifteenth on the July 2nd setlist a song called Going to Port Washington. Port Washington, you see, is where I grew up, a Long Island town – technically a hamlet – of 15,000 souls, so unexceptional that its Wikipedia page will put you to sleep (the most notable fact is that we were big in sand-mining in the 1870s). The odds that my favorite band would have written a song about my hometown seemed astronomically small – and I came so close to discovering this at a live show I could have attended myself but for that quirk of scheduling.
That brings us, at long last, to According to Cain. This thing is my jam – it’s a smartly-implemented, beautifully written parser game where you use an authentically-researched alchemy system to delve into the psychology behind Cain’s slaying of Abel, with a list of inspirations that had me nodding my head as I went down the list from obvious (of course Name of the Rose is on there, everyone loves Name of the Rose) to the obscure (I’ve not previously met anyone who knows, let alone adores, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the Last Temptation of Christ, but here we are). So what’s the fomo? While I’m glad to have been a tester and help with the game’s development, part of me wishes I could have just discovered the game fresh in the competition, playing it in its fully formed version and free to shout to anyone who’d listen that they have to play this one (I feel it’s gauche to do that for something where you’re listed in the credits!)
With the Comp coming to a close, though, it’s well past time to sing the game’s praises. To start, for all that the premise is a bit brainy and potentially daunting, it does a very good job of easing the player in. The opening narration gives you just enough to understand who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it: you’re an alchemical investigator, sent back in time to investigate the settlement abandoned by the first humans in the wake of Cain’s kinslaying, in order to learn the nature of the mark God put upon Cain as a punishment for his crime. It also gradually introduces the tools you’ll use to unravel the mystery of Cain’s mark. You start with a small collection of alchemical reagents, then acquire a reference book you can use to look up the objects, people, and spells that you’ll encounter in your adventure (complete with chatty, helpful marginalia from your mentor).
The rituals start out simple, and directly clued, before growing in complexity without ever becoming obfuscated or overwhelming. There are two basic kinds of puzzles in the game, beyond simply collecting more ingredients to empower your spells as you go. The most straightforward involve using alchemical formulae to wreak physical changes on your environment. These often require you to be creative about looking up possible approaches in your reference book – you might be confronted with a boulder and start casting about for potential solutions, for example – at which point you’ll learn the required ingredients. Second, the most narratively-important puzzles involve unlocking “revelations” – looking for things or places that bore witness to significant events in Cain’s story, then accessing the memories imprinted upon them by applying an appropriate mix of elements. One of the first formulas you learn will tell you the list of required ingredients, but sometimes these encode riddles – you might be told you need to apply salt, phlegm, and the poison of Abel’s humour, say, meaning that you need to figure out which of the four basic humours most resonates with his personality.
This isn’t just a way of gating progress and making the puzzles more interesting than following a recipe – it winds up tying the magic system to the themes of the story, and requires the player to understand, and engage with, the psychology of the lead players of the drama. In fact, one of the things that’s most successful about According to Cain is that all of its elements are cannily judged to reinforce the story’s themes. The landscape, for example, is geologically active as befits a young earth, roiling and burning and churning just as Cain resents his brother’s insolence. Meanwhile, your character is gently characterized, given a bit of backstory that lightly suggests that you can sympathize with the experience of someone driven out from their home and, justly or unjustly, made a scapegoat.
The writing is another strength, as it’s particularly graceful throughout. It’s not showy – in fact, it’s often downright terse – but it’s evocative, nailing the peculiar dance required of parser-game prose by communicating lovely, lyrical imagery while still being concrete enough to allow the player to understand what they’re seeing and how to use it to solve puzzles. Here’s the description of a crow flying across a river:
"As though demonstrating the ease of fording a river, the crow launches from the far bank, soars over the river in a geometric arc, and lands gracefully a few feet from you."
More darkly, here’s the description of a slaughterhouse:
"The planks are a rich tannin color from the sheer quantity of blood spilled. The coloration spreads up the walls, spattered from countless slaughtered animals. You imagine a grim assortment of iron tools and instruments once filled this place. Mostly, it’s the lingering odor here that strikes you."
We’re not inundated with extraneous details, all of which would need to be implemented as scenery and laboriously examined in turn, but it’s more than enough to get a feeling of the places you’re exploring as you perform your forensic investigations and piece together what really happened (as the description indications, SMELL and LISTEN are implemented where appropriate).
The game’s structure is also well judged. It opens up in layers, with a medium-sized map gradually unlocking as you solve puzzles, with progress corresponding to deeper understanding of the story behind Cain’s growing resentment of Abel. While you’ve always got quite a lot of freedom to explore, the puzzle-solving dependencies mean that you’ll likely encounter the different memories in a sequence that piques your curiosity about what really happened between the brothers, as early fragments of knowledge quickly establish that the conventional tale omits key facts. Indeed, the game’s narrative treats all the characters with some degree of sympathy; while Cain is situated as the most important character, and given some clear reasons for his violent acts, he’s not let completely off the hook, just as the bratty, button-pushing Abel is also allowed a few moments of subjectivity before the end.
Do I have critiques? Well, I can think of one, which involves the aforementioned ending, though it’s fairly minor – let me take this behind spoiler tags: (Spoiler - click to show)you start the game with a magic bracelet that will allow you to return to your home, but it’s quickly lost. Fortunately, there’s a replacement that can be found, which belonged to one of the previous investigators assigned to plumb the mystery of Cain’s mark but who died by misadventure along the way. The game frames the question of whether to take this bracelet as a dilemma – you can return it to the corpse that it can be sent back and presumably receive a proper burial – but the decision feels too easy, especially because the protagonist comes down with a fever partway through the game that’s a death sentence if they’re not able to make it home. This is too bad because the downbeat ending where you learn the secret you’re searching for, but must resign yourself to a lonely death in exchange, seems a better thematic fit for the dour, obsessive mood the game conjures up, but to access this more satisfying resolution the player needs to take actions that are clearly counter to the protagonist’s interests.
Again, that’s not much of a criticism – I thoroughly enjoyed my time with According to Cain, and while I feel like it was designed specifically to appeal to me, I think many other players will be in the same boat. And if I didn’t get to experience the pleasing shock of discovery when stumbling upon this gem amid a sea of 70 other Comp entries, well, I can’t have too many regrets, since after all I did get to play it. Highly recommended (oh, so too is Going to Port Washington, I forgot to say! It would make for an unflattering lead-in anecdote if the song was bad, so luckily that’s not the case).
5 people found the following review helpful:
A biblical tale with a dark retelling, plus alchemical magic, December 8, 2022
I helped beta test this game.
The idea of this game is that you are part of an alchemical society that possesses the ability to travel back in time. It is your job to go to the very beginning and discover the truth about Cain and his Mark.
The alchemical system in this game is rich. It consists of the four humours (blood, phlegm, etc.), their 'poisons' (substances that counteract them), and a host of other substances. It is accompanied by a gargantuan book with many pages, dozens of them. It's too big to just read straight through, so I strongly recommend NOT taking the book as soon as you get it and looking up every topic you see; the game will guide you in using the book later on.
The main gameplay is unlocking memories of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel through alchemical means, gathering more ingredients, and learning the mystery of this early world. Often you will told a formula you need, but for which you lack an ingredient or two and must find them.
There are some tricky puzzles I struggled with as a tester, including mechanical puzzles and flashes of intuition.
The game has a darker tone to it; this is an unhappy and grim retelling of Cain and Abel's already grim story. It doesn't conform to my personal beliefs, but it's clear this is a work of fiction and a well-written one at that.
4 people found the following review helpful:
Brothers Gonna Be Brothers, November 26, 2022
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
1-7 of 7 | Return to game's main page
I was really drawn to the conceit of this thing - a merging of historical murder mystery (the FIRST murder!) and alchemical deduction. All wrapped in a classic parser IF milieu. There were a few minor technical and text glitches 2 hrs in: a firepit is not recognized for some actions, while the stones that compose it are; the memory mechanism which I’ll touch on later sometimes lags the player’s knowledge; word choice is occasionally intrusive like a beam that “dissects” the opening of a well when 'bisect' was right there… there’s moments like that throughout.
Those are so minor though I really only included them to show how even handed I am as a reviewer. I really dug this entry. The setup is economical and efficient. In particular, it felt very modern-video-gamey in that it dealt out key alchemical concepts and equipment slowly and interactively, effectively training the player in their use which is crucial to the gameplay. I mean this as a compliment, it was smoothly and effectively done. Too, the map unfolds rather deliberately. Comfortingly linear at first while you are busy learning alchemy, then opening up as you have more confidence in the world and environs.
The mystery solving is also very satisfying. Mystery games have an uneasy tension to resolve: if the player is insufficiently clever, the mystery could go unsolved and that is the opposite of fun. Conversely, if the clues are presented under bright spotlights the mystery solving is unsatisfying as the player feels no agency in the solution. The alchemy mechanism is kind of brilliant in that it integrates ‘find the ingredients’ classic IF puzzles with ‘if A, then not B, and C lives in a red house’ deduction problems. This very much puts the player in the driver’s seat of crimebusting while nicely avoiding “if only I’d thought to ask the maid about the missing dog collar” endings.
The setting itself is also a treat - fleshing out 4 cipheric biblical figures into more lived-in humans. Their characters are well thought out, extrapolated from the relatively little established about them in a satisfying way (so far). The puzzles have so far been tractable and engaging. In general, great time and energy has gone into rendering nearly the entire world as examinable or look-up-able(?) which really makes the game a complete experience. Even the ‘can’t do that’ text often feels like an extension of the world and not an arbitrary boundary the game has imposed. Notwithstanding my obligatory quibbles above it is a nicely polished experience with narrative heft. Dare I say immersive?
And I haven’t yet mentioned the crucial player aids: there is a MEMORIES command which helpfully lists important steps completed, and others not yet complete. As the game opens up it would be easy to lose track of these. This is a welcome and oft-typed command. There is a RECALL command which replays key scenes should you not immediately memorize them, which you won’t. There is the wonderful implementation of your how-big-is-this-book-exactly? encyclopedia the Pharmakon. A stunning array of entries are available, so far avoiding the ‘book is suspiciously narrow as a resource’ artifact. These three mechanisms are deftly woven into the mystery and gameplay such that they become as second nature as the alchemy itself. A central gameplay function, the alchemy mechanism feels to me like the exact sweet spot of complexity between too-trivial-to-justify-the-typing and unnecessarily-baroque. Collectively, these mechanisms put enough spin on the traditional IF formula that it feels fresh. You’re doing chemistry and solving mystery!
Playtime: 2hrs, incomplete
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? You can't stop me.
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless