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About the Story
You are trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, reincarnating throughout Japan, only to be murdered once again. Most don't remember their past lives, and neither did you, until you catch a glimpse of your dead body on television.
47th place - tie - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Number of Reviews: 3
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This is a long parser game in the form of a Java .jar file (a very recent version of Java is used and older versions are incompatible).
The result is pretty smooth looking and working. The responses come quickly, the save system works well. There's no undo, and death is frequent in this game, so be prepared!
You play as person wearing the clothes of a Japanese Buddhist monk. You travel through various realities, all of which have a recurring menacing figure and panels with different colored bulbs.
I played around for a while before turning to the walkthrough (as I do for most games!). I discovered that the bulk of the game is one big puzzle, with another big puzzle at the end. For puzzle fans, I'd recommend sticking out the first big puzzle. This is the puzzle having to do with (mild spoiler) (Spoiler - click to show)the bulbs and panels.
The atmosphere of this game is great; I loved it. Very nice. The puzzles were, to me, a bit tedious. I went off the walkthrough at one point and had to try to figure out how to go back and complete an earlier part and found it very hard to execute the solution even once I knew what it was.
I had a good time, but I'm not sure I'd play again. This is much better than most windows executable IFComp games I played in past years, probably in the top 2 or 3 of such games, so I'd consider this to be a rousing success for the author.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Itís the puzzles that provide both the peaks and the troughs, but the setting and story are interesting too. Thereís no introductory text laying out the situation, so figuring out whatís happening is the initial challenge and I donít want to say too much to spoil that Ė Iíll just note that I found this pretty effective, even if itís not especially surprising. Bottom-line, you move between three linked dream-like environments: one a sort of museum, another a sort of mansion, a third a mountainous landscape, though there are plenty of incongruous touches to merit the ďsort ofsĒ in this aside, and while nothing is described especially fulsomely, that fits the abstract nature of the game. You have to solve different aspects of single overarching puzzle to unlock different elements youíll need in order to perform the actions required for the endgame. Most of the landscape and dťcor are Japanese, and youíll run across reading material Ė and a few NPCs Ė that explicate some key principles of Buddhist views of the self and identity along the way. Itís all in service of the main revelation that the puzzle-sequence brings you to, which is quite internally-focused Ė there arenít really conventional story beats to be paid off.
OK, so letís get to the puzzles. Again I donít want to spoil things since the game does set up a real aha moment, and once you get to that click, it does shift your understanding of everything else in the game and what youíre meant to be doing Ė which is very in keeping with how Vajrayana sees enlightenment happening, with the sudden impact of a diamond thunderbolt. So far so good, but what you do after that aha moment felt more arbitrary to me, and not linked to the gameís Buddhist themes. To talk about why, Iím finally going to need to get spoilery:
(Spoiler - click to show)The big reveal is that the color-coded combinations you notice on various safes and locked doors are tied to which of your three incarnations are alive at any given moment. Since you can move between the three areas, and reverse each of their deaths, fairly easily, progress becomes a matter of jumping around and getting yourself either killed or resurrected in the specific combinations needed to get through each barrier, at which point youíre rewarded with pieces of the mantras youíll chant at the three shrines located in each area. On top of that, you need to solve some additional puzzles to figure out how the pieces relate Ė which mantra to chant at each shrine, which symbol is associated with which bodhisattva, and which body part is associated with each mantra syllable. Itís a fun enough process to work through, but it feels very much like solving a logic puzzle, which is not the vibe Buddhist revelation -- which emphasizes the inaccessibility of enlightenment to reason -- typically takes! This puzzle sequence could have been about a trio of robots trying to hack a security system, and thereíd be a better fit between form and substance. Worse, the final bit of the puzzle requires you to find the answer to a historical trivia question, which is what unlocks the final sequence Ė a koan this is not!
This didnít ruin my enjoyment of the game, since again, the puzzles are fun to solve. And overall Wabewalker is a satisfying experience, with generally solid implementation and a well-considered minimalist aesthetic. I just canít help wishing it went a little further towards marrying its gameplay and its themes.
Highlight: Without a doubt, itís that aha moment.
Lowlight: this is not a merciful game Ė itís possible to reach a game over by dying, with no advance warning, and in fact I did by typing a single innocuous command. Once you die once, itís not too hard to figure out how to prevent it from happening again, but definitely save often!
How I failed the author: I played this in a bunch of short sessions, but mostly was able to keep up with it Ė where I let the author down is probably being hyper nitpicky in this review. Also Iím fairly tired right now so Iím not sure Iím thinking and writing with the clarity required when talking about an actual religion, especially as a white guy whoís read a lot but doesnít actually practice Buddhism!
It took a while to update Java so that it would run Wabewalker, and it was time well spent. (Note: download Java 17--you may wish to uninstall your curremt Java version first, too.) Itís a game thatís meant to be confusing at first, I think, but that's not just for its own sake, and certainly not due to the custom parser, which I found worked well. Finding a clue what to do (beyond "explore and take stuff") is a great introduction, and itís quite possible youíll solve a puzzle by accident and then realize whatís going on. And that all feels fair.
The oversimplified plot: keep getting killed, sending you to another personís life, until you organize things right. You become three people total, in three different worlds. If youíre not careful, you get killed for good. At one point, I was quite legitimately worried there was an endless loop, and I very much felt the tension when I was trapped between two worlds, unable to open the third, because Iíd forgotten about a door and instead looked for something else that changed game states. That something else was behind the doorĖI hadnít taken careful enough notes. If this sounds vague, I want to keep it that way, to avoid spoilers.
Because this game has ambition. It forces you to say ďHuh?! What?Ē and banks on you being able to sort that out. What are the panels with three lights for? How do they work? How do you change lights? And so forth. Thereís a certain frustration when youíve set more lights than you need to open something, then fewer, and you wonder what the heck you have to do. Because there are only so many possibilities, though there seem to be far more when you start.
After I figured what the puzzles were about, the rest seemed like scratchwork, and, well, it wasnít. There were other moments I hoped I wouldnít be getting killed like before. I thought I calculated it. But I was still scared. Iíd spent all this time scratching out figures to possess three peopleís consciousnesses properly, not really knowing who they were, and it had better pay off!
Other than these three people, though, there arenít many you deal with. Someone invites you in to hypnotize you, for a short segue that lets you see beyond one area where you get killed. This confused me a bit since my host said ďNo, that worked wrong,Ē and I still got a scroll. But given I was a bit careless about the narrative, I found it trippy that somehow A mightíve killed B mightíve killed C mightíve killed A. One of them killed the other, though. Thereís also a phone call over a landline, which I found amusing, because it plays on a few text adventure tropes. It wasnít hilarous, because that didnít fit the gameís tone, but it was a well-paced joke.
So overall, I was pleased. What couldíve been busy work felt like a legitimate adventure. I canít rigorously decide how true to Buddhism it is, but I do like how things workĖthere are so many orders to solve the puzzle in, and you may loop around a while before getting it, and quite possibly itís more rewarding if you loop around more.
As for issues? The end cheesed me off a bit once I knew what to do. All those similar commands to type felt anticlimactic, and between bad memories of Ultima IV shrines (meditating three times in a row, I would go do something trivial and notice my response time had timed outĖplus, these games have two mantras in common) and being unable to use an up-arrow, I was ready to get on with things and not particularly close to inner peace. In short, the ending puzzles were what I feared the beginning would be. In fact, one item really seemed to cue that. I saw and thought ďwelp, I hope theyíre not instructions for later.Ē This all contrasts with how solid the parser is in general and how economical the ďopen the locked doorĒ puzzles are and how they weave together. So be prepared for a grind at the end, but it shouldnít outweigh the rest of the game.
The custom parser overall worked very well, though I wish H (hints) would mention the MEMORY command. The author may have updated it by now--I suspect it is an oversight, since they did the hard work of tracking everything you have learned with MEMORY.