A Fire Darkly: Chapter 1

by Louis Rakovich

Episode 1 of A Fire Darkly

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A good one of those., January 26, 2017
by Hanon Ondricek (United States)

I was asked by the author to review this game. I'm going to be explicitly critical because I think Rakovich is an excellent writer who could be an extremely promising IF talent with a little more experience regarding how to skilfully exploit the conventions that interactivity has to offer.

AFD:C1 is a "psychological horror" piece in Twine. The game is beautifully formatted and does a very good job of pacing the amount of text between choices. I never got bored waiting to click, and I didn't skim until text started repeating. I played through in maybe twenty minutes, only getting slightly stuck once. This is very obviously a first game, but not the author's first writing. The prose is short and direct, with some nice imagery. It never verges into awkwardness. A lot of people will enjoy reading it.

Where it falters a bit is in the structure. Twine excels at emotional interactivity where words lead to other words and authors can construct a mindscape of hyperlink-synapses that is not dependent on logically physical mapping as a parser game with rooms and objects and inventory usually is. Twine games can be very successful using these conventions, but the author needs to do more work to pull it off. It's a bit disappointing in Twine to read a block of text followed by a list of bare choices "Go North" "Go East" "Go West", especially when the setting is a dreamscape that one might not expect to conform to a map grid, and when Twine makes it an easy matter to make any words in the prose a hyperlink which might give an indication of where the click might lead.

It also does the thing where the map doesn't just require you to go "west", it requires you to go west three or four times to reach a destination with no descriptive reward for doing so except a sentence-fragment description at each click: "a hollow log" "a mossy rock". Luckily this game isn't tremendous, so the extra map isn't egregious. The author does do a good job with hub-structure where the player might focus in on a tree and get a series of choices, then be able to back away from the tree to choose a new direction. There's an inventory (which unfortunately cannot be displayed if we forget what we picked up) and some slight puzzles of the "if you have the thing then a choice to put it in the other thing will appear in the right place" and sometimes there are multiple options offered. I was stuck for maybe four minutes by doing the most obvious thing and then when presented no path forward, doing the other illogical thing the game offered. This isn't a hard puzzler, but there's a lot of wandering around revisiting nodes to see if new options show up. I didn't know I needed a pitcher of water, but I found a stream and a pitcher and...why not. I encountered no real bugs, and puzzle solutions seem logical once you do what's required, but there's not a lot of actual motivation initially to accomplish what author wants except that...it's a puzzle.

So that's the real problem here. There's nothing wrong with a simple game, and there's nothing wrong with simple find-the-key puzzles and dividing a game into chapters, but I really don't feel I accomplished anything when I hit the chapter break. I wasn't horrified—I moved around putting an eyeball here, a jawbone here, tucking in a millipede... It's meant to be a nightmarish foresty-dreamscape where I don't know who I am and in all the wisps of parental recollections and nicely-written imagery there was one sentence that intrigued me: (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist recalls one parent becoming angry that s/he was gifted a book about serial killers by the other parent. I've crossed a river with a Charon-like boatman, so I can only guess I'm journeying to Hell for my sins? I really also liked the image of (Spoiler - click to show)blood pooled in the creases of your palm, and a swarm of fireflies eagerly drinking it up.

I'm interested to see more of this, but I'd wish for a better "hook" in the first chapter that motivates the puzzling and perhaps some solid characterization instead of the worn-out "you have amnesia and your character will be revealed in bits" beginning since I don't have any idea what all this imagery logically connects to.

The end of the game links me to an author website promising chapter two and displaying some nice icons for some of the objects in the game. I know Twine doesn't easily make clear all of the multimedia capabilities it has without a lot of research and tweaking, but I would have loved a sidebar with these icons to remind me what I was carrying as an inventory!