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About the Story
The town of Thornback Hollow is under quarantine. Its people are unable to sleep, tormented by a disease known as the Waking Death, and the infection is spreading. The Crown has commanded you and two other plague doctors to end the plague, even if that means destroying the town.
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Number of Reviews: 2
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This game is pretty much exactly what you would imagine a 400K-word game about being a masked plague doctor would be like.
It's a fairly grim tale. You are a travelling doctor forced by the crown to enter a city in quarantine due to the Waking Death, a plague which makes its bearers sleep-deprived until they die.
You work with two others, a man wearing a boar mask and a woman wearing a fox mask. The town is surrounded by starving soldiers who want to sack it, is run by a despot mayor, and has at least two insurgent groups inside and multiple religious sects.
Although many exciting things happen in this game, the writing is slow-paced and dense. Here is a description of stars, for instance:
"The stonework of the courtyard fountain feels cold and uncomfortable against your back, as you gaze up at the sky. A persistent wind, the same one that caused you to bundle up your robes and seek shelter behind the stone structure, has left cracks in the relentless march of clouds, allowing occasional points of light to blink through. You ignore the creeping ache as the winter night assails your bones, focusing instead on those distant glimmers. Are they miniature suns? The faraway eyes of watching deities? Or simply another act of nature, like the snow, or the rain?"
I enjoy this style of writing. Given the large wordcount of the game and the dense prose, it took me several evenings to finish this game. And it branches quite a bit. My playthrough went against the grain, so to speak, as I supported the despot mayor at every opportunity and sought after (and found, to my detriment) the forbidden knowledge at the heart of the town.
Despite my 'losing' ending, it was written very well, with a lengthy epilogue that made the game very satisfying. It's always a huge bummer to get to the very end of a choicescript game only to have an abrupt 'you lost' ending, so having this 'you lost and here's what happened to the shattered wreck of your mind and body, and all those you loved' is definitely refreshing.
Also, I found it fun to roleplay as SCP-049 in this game.
Comparing this to Heart of the House, another long, slow-burn horror game, I'd say that Mask of the Plague Doctor is more like The Haunting of Hill House or The Turn of the Screw (more philosophical with more implied/ambiguous horror) and that The Heart of the House is more like a Stephen King novel or Dracula (events that are clearly supernatural and terrifying). Fans of both games may also like Blood Money, which has you playing a more cutthroat character.
I received a review copy of this game.
This is a rich, fully-realized work of long-form interactive fiction. In the game, you play as a 'plague doctor,' just arriving at a town stricken by a mysterious illness that keeps those afflicted from ever falling asleep -- slowly and gruesomely dying in a kind of waking nightmare. The world and story have elements of medieval period fiction, fantasy, and horror but it's really something all its own. Along with two other plague doctors, you navigate the sickness along with a web of other social and political issues. The story never strays from the town, Thornback Hollow, but this setting becomes a prism for looking out onto a much larger world.
Even though Parrish had been writing this for a couple years before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, that was of course fully the context in which I was playing this game. It's actually really amazing that this was written before the pandemic for how many resonances I noticed with the Waking Death plague. The doctors confront challenges like clearly communicating medical truth about the plague, even if it conflicts with local customs. (Spoiler - click to show) Toward the end of the game, when the doctors are able to develop and administer a vaccine, the scene of dealing with the townspeople's uncertainty and anxiety with the inoculation mirrors real-world vaccination debates. Among other takeaways, this game provides powerful insights into the effects of a pandemic on the psychic fabric of a community.
There are some really interesting choices driving the forking narratives of the game, largely balancing efforts to combat the plague against other pressing issues like competing religious factions and various sources of political unrest. Another interesting array of choices come from how you decide to approach the plague, ranging from coldly scientific to mystic and magical. This thoroughly developed body of medical theory and knowledge felt distinct and native to the storyworld and not just a rehashing of medieval medicine. I personally embraced the mysticism route and found it really rewarding.
My only critique of the game stems more from personal preference than anything inherently wrong with the game itself. Based on what I had read before starting the game, I was expecting this to be more of a horror story. While there was an eeriness pervading the game and some mildly spooky scenes, the game is not predominantly a horror story. The Waking Death definitely felt like a threat throughout the game, but it never came across to me as unsettling or chilling as it might have in a through and through horror story.
That said, this is a great game offering a substantial and engrossing story.
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