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Lydia's Heart by Jim Aikin, May 3, 2017
A bit like the Cryptic Crossword Puzzle compilers who create the puzzles in the heavier journals here in the UK, I tend to have my favourite IF authors, the ones who are on my wavelength and the ones who seem to see the world from the same side of the looking glass as myself. Birds of a feather and all that. For instance, I have always found Andy Phillips's games easier than a lot of other people seem to, whereas Andrew Plotkin's masterpieces have always left me struggling for air and inspiration, my persecution complex making me feel like he was having yet another Roman Holiday at my expense whenever I tried another work from his oeuvre.
Having played (and in the second instance completed) two of Jim Aikin's earlier games, the sprawling and atmospheric old style puzzlefest Not Just An Ordinary Ballerina and the medium sized but more comical A Flustered Duck I approached Lydia's Heart with some idea of how his puzzles are created and solved (very intricate, get 'a' so that 'b' can unlock 'c' thus releasing 'd' who gives you 'e' by way of thanks and with which you can bribe 'f'.... but also with the realisation that his mind, like Plotkin's, is hard wired differently to mine.
It quickly became evident upon starting Lydia's Heart that here is Aikin the storyteller, making a marked sea change towards what is often considered better (i.e. more narrative driven) IF and no longer an ocean away from the direction that my mind tends to be sailing.
You could argue that there is a certain despairing similarity between the cold, bleak and sinister Shopping Mall in Ballerina and the cloyingly decayed rural hovel of Heart, but whereas the former is little more than a finite (albeit very large) games board upon which Aikin can plant his clever snares and traps, the latter appears (in the First and Third Acts at least) as a place in which a story can unfold and therefore seems bigger despite occupying far fewer locations; as if the young female protagonist would fall off the end of the world should she try to leave Eternal Springs, doomed like Eustacia Vye attempting to leave Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's The Return Of The Native.
The NPC's in this game (of which there are quite a few) are not as static as is often the case, and the more you communicate with them the more you become aware of something very sinister deep in the heart of old Dixie. Slowly Hardy or Tennessee Williams becomes Lovecraft. Of the characters, my favourite (and I suspect Aikins's too) is the talentless wannabee Nashville warbler Honey, who gets all the best lines: "Honestly, I think I’d forget my boobs if they weren’t a hundred percent real." “My career?” Honey arches her back so her breasts stick out. “I’ve just released my very first CD. Maybe I mentioned that." Morally ambiguous characters are also rarae aves in IF, so David is also an interesting addition. Torn between selling his soul to regain his health and his innate revulsion of what he must do to achieve it, he is uniquely vulnerable within the framework of the story.
Not everyone is againt you as you will slowly realise, and although the game is not studded with sudden death endings at this point you must still be careful what you are carrying when entering into colloquy with anyone, as one unconcealed item can be your downfall. Fortunately you will certainly stumble across the almost ubiquitous, bottomless carrying device early on which for some reason no-one ever questions you about. On the whole the inventory system works quite well with only occasional annoyances.
There are still a number of difficult but fair puzzles to solve in this part of the game, but they fit in so well with the narrative that they don't feel like a contrived caravanserai of brain teasers in a puzzle book as in some of Aikin's previously cited work. They are there to lubricate the plot, not as stand alone set pieces of logic.
Then suddenly, should you progress far enough through the narrative you are plunged into the Second Act if you will, a world of mazes, statues, scorpions and locked cabinets that feels much more like old style Aikin again. This section contains a few stern posers, and one particular leap of intuition which I wouldn't think many people would make (Spoiler - click to show)One of the red jewels on the pedestals is actually Lydia's heart and you need to have the locket open, worn and point at it with the monkey beside you to get it and I was reduced on a couple of occasions to checking out the extremely well constructed Hints section. You can only reveal answers to problems in parts of the game you have encountered, much more satisfying than a mere walkthrough.
The denouement of the game seems to me to have been a bit more hastily written. For the first time a few minor bugs appear(Spoiler - click to show)you find the pouch of leaves in the hole every time you search it as if it were the first time, and when you are in the power boat or the rowboat it tells you that they are too far away to be searched.
The limits of credibility are occasionally stretched to snapping point as well during the end game; those chasing you at one point would have to be thicker than several hundred short planks not to follow your trail successfully(Spoiler - click to show)through the trapdoor in Cabin four to the cellar.There is also an object you will need right at the very end of the game which, if you manage to find it or even realise that you needed it, must make you more of a deity capable of Dei Ex Machina gestures than the one contained in the game.
The ending came as a bit of a disappointment as it would have been nice to see the bad guys get their come uppance, but I left the game feeling much more like I'd interacted with something linear than completed another of those "Crossword Puzzles" and that can only be a more rewarding thing.
The parser and the writing are as accomplished as we have come to expect from Mr. Aikin.
In summary, and despite the few caveats mentioned, a splendid addition to the IF canon and one guaranteed to keep you you engrossed for hours. Four stars.