by Ben Sisk


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Buddhist adventuring that somewhat betrays its themes, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(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)

Wabewalker is a first for me Ė itís an abstract allegory where the puzzles you run around solving unlock progress towards inner spiritual growth, which isnít too novel, but the framework here is an explicitly Buddhist one (that itís a .jar file for which I needed to install Javascript might also be a new one, though a less interesting one). I donít know that much about Shingon Buddhism, which is the particular set of beliefs that underlie the game, but am aware itís a form of Vajrayana Ė the tantric version whose most prominent exemplar is Tibetan Buddhism. One of the distinctive things about Vajrayana is the use of powerful symbols to structure meditative introspection of consciousness, which means it should be perfectly suited for the use itís put to here: like, the religion explicitly deploys allegories in exactly the way the game is striving to. Itís a neat match of form to subject matter, and definitely creates some high points Ė but at the same time, there are places where there isnít much of a connection between the stuff of the game and the themes it's evoking.

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!

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