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Winter TADS Jam Review: Trenchline, January 7, 2023

A trope in WWII movies/games that always sparks a feeling is, pinned down on the beach, the guy lugging along a bulky radio unit, screaming hopelessly to command, as if somehow there was a reason they put a telephone on Omaha Beach, as if there is anything you can say from the end of the line. The illusion of connection evaporating; you are on your own in metal shrieking.

Trenchline, a WWI/WWII hybrid with names changed to protect the guilty, dwells in the ambiance of this mood, dropping you off right amidst that loneliness: ““Mercenaries make easy money,” your army buddies said. “It’s all scowls and shows of force. It’ll never come to real fighting.” Well, they’re all dead now, and here you are. Stranded deep in a war zone, running from the fascist government, in a country you hadn’t even heard of two months ago.” Alone in a trench, watching “A memory of a forest, slowly being transformed by fascist artillery fire to a barren moonscape”, you scrabble around the rubble to find the pieces to fix the damaged radio to call in artillery support, so you can retreat from the position.

Wandering an emptied setting which is usually hectic with crowds, such as a trench in a war, creates that uncanny ghostliness that fogs over so many IF games, with piecemeal puzzling breaking up the implied reality into a jigsaw puzzle, but Trenchline manages to keep itself grounded through its rigorous focus on a single setpiece puzzle: fixing and working the radio. Salvage some wire, tie it around a tripod, get a signal, search out a page that gives you frequencies and callsigns, figure out how to read it, all these steps keep you hurrying from one task to another as “Your ears are hammered by a sustained rhythm, as if you were inside the drum of an angry god.” The puzzles solidify into the breathless tactility of the trenches, with your link to the outside world as tenuous as those no longer here to work it. Although the puzzles mostly work in this vein, for some reason the tripod seemed to move all around the map once I got it tied to the wire, and having two unrelated wires invited disambiguations that flattened the mood a bit.

Where the game works best is when, operating the radio, you get a chance to play in character. You can’t just start speaking on a military frequency, instead the game insists on protocols: ““>this is u71 over / “This is H43, go ahead U71, over.”” Here you get to meld into the war chatter, navigating a conversation puzzle which, while fairly straightforward to solve, offers many enjoyable deadends. Indeed, if you really get into character, you can elicit some colorful responses: ““H43 this is U71, merc unit devastated by enemy action, request…” / You are interrupted by an infuriatingly bemused voice. “Roger, U71, their attack held the Army’s attention as planned. Now we don’t need to pay the balance! Viva la Revolucion!”” But, if you think like a soldier, call in the artillery support you need, you can feel the machinery of war rumble to your rescue: “““This is U71, enemy artillery fierce, request suppressive fire, over.” / “This is G39, understood, checking fire priorities, break.” The silence is shorter than you would have guessed. “U71 this is G39, priority approved. Triangulating enemy battery location, over.” There is a much longer, pregnant pause on the line before it is finally broken by, “G14 this is G39 shot, over.” / A new voice, labored from exertion blares from the speaker. “This is G14, shot out.” / “Splash, over” / “hooo Splash, out. G39 this is G14, left 300, fire for effect.” / “U71 this is G39, time on target 2 minutes, you got 10 minutes of cover. Good luck U71, out.” / The close air of the bunker becomes charged in the sudden silence from the radio.” Ten minutes? You better start running.

If only to keep pace with Trenchline, which knows what it wants to accomplish and gets there quickly. It doesn’t quite mettle up to a mood as intense as its intent, but nevertheless settles amicably enough in its slyly semiserious style. For what I think is a debut, the author shows a lot of promise and craft, so one can only be thankful for fos1’s efforts to keep TADS vibrant having brought forth fruit like this.

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