Second Wind

by Matthew Warner


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A grown-up but rather punishing post-apocalypse, January 4, 2022
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)

Typically for an Adventuron game, Second Wind makes a great first impression, with an awesome comic-book cover image and slick maps helping immerse you in the postapocalyptic setting. The premise is also refreshingly grown-up and grounded: the main character’s wife has gone into labor, some complications have arisen, and now she needs a c-section or she and the baby will die. Making matters worse, the only doctor around is the main character’s ex-wife, who lives in a neighboring settlement – and between the bad breakup and the trek though the postnuclear wastes, enlisting her aid isn’t going to be easy. I unfortunately left Second Wind less impressed than I was when I began playing it, largely down to some incongruous, mimesis-breaking puzzle design and a punishing time limit that almost requires a restart and retry, but it’s still worth playing through.

I found the story the most engaging part of Second Wind. It doesn’t get drawn too deeply beyond what you see in the blurb, but the simple dialogue and intense dilemma faced by the main character pulled me in. And in a sea of protagonists with no family ties, a divorced main character is a novelty – especially since it positions your character has having been in the wrong, since he cheated on his ex-wife, Wendy, with his current one. This lends the sequences where you’re groveling for Wendy’s help a queasy vulnerability that I haven’t seen in much IF before. The postapocalyptic backdrop works well enough to create stakes, but it’s the domestic drama that really drives the emotional engagement.

The gameplay is where things worked less well for me. Some of the challenges on offer do match the tone, like figuring out how to wrangle transportation for Wendy. But most of the obstacles gating progress feel very gamey. There are several different keycodes you need to find, one of which is drawn from Les Miserables in a way that’s just this side of reasonable, the other – a reference to Tommy Tutone’s 1981 hit “867-5309 (Jenny)” – a completely implausible choice for characters who we’re told were born around 2000. There’s also a word-scramble, and a series of puzzles that require out-of-game googling of some fairly obscure facts in order to figure out a safe combination. And then there’s the trial-and-error maze.

These aren’t awful puzzles in themselves, and I’d have enjoyed coming across them in a puzzlefest, but they felt at odds with the downbeat vibe created by the story and setting. And while none of them are too hard, some take a while to work through, which meant I ran afoul of the game’s strict time limit. A ticking clock definitely makes sense given the premise, but I wished it applied only to longer actions, like travel through the wilderness or building or fixing machinery, or at least was pitched a little more generously, since the time limit disincentivized exploring the world, and made the maze at the end feel like authorial sadism.

The writing is serviceable, with a few evocative notes here and there – we’re told that in the shelter, “filtered air hisses gently from behind recessed lights”, which is a nicely-considered detail. And I didn’t have problems with the parser -- sometimes an Adventuron weak point -- partially because the author does a good job of prompting the right syntax (this is usually done through out-of-world notes, and while I suppose it would have been smoother to integrate them into in-world descriptions, given the time pressure erring on the side of convenience was probably the right choice). I just wish the puzzles had done the same, either by being more organically connected to the plot or just being dialed back.

Highlight: there’s an effective late-game twist that ramps up the tension even further – and actually adds its own further time limit, which now that I think about it could have substituted for the overall one.

Lowlight: that safe puzzle, which had me going to Wikipedia to look up things like (Spoiler - click to show)the Japanese term for an a-bomb survivor. As far as I could tell, there’s no way to access this information in the game – I wasted time looking in the various computer systems to see if there was a library function – and the puzzle isn’t clever enough to justify this crime against mimesis.

How I failed the author: it’s unfair to hold this against the author, but the risk of harm to a pregnant woman and baby – and actually the reality, because they do both die if the time runs out – landed pretty heavily on me give my circumstances, and I kind of resented failure at these silly puzzles leading to such a dire outcome.

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