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A Good Wick, January 27, 2017
A Good Wick is essentially an interactive storybook. It’s totally linear, with only one point at which the reader can pick between two choices, each choice leading to a different ending. There’s also a secret third ending, but it doesn’t involve further choices: clicking a hidden link continues the story from where a previous ending had stopped.
Some linear games employ cycling links, variables, passage loops, etc., etc., to make the text active and malleable even when the story is straightforward. These games may have limited narrative outcomes, you may have no choices to make, but you still have to move the text around and slide bits into place to reach the end. Games like this are sometimes referred to as dynamic fiction. Well, A Good Wick doesn’t do any of that either.
Nevertheless, I regard A Good Wick as strong interactive work. It’s only using the most basic hypertext mechanic — the link from one page to the next — but it’s highly attuned to how this influences pacing. It withholds and delivers text as an oral storyteller would to guide the plot’s rhythm. New sections are often preceded by titles such as “A Fact About Daylight” or “A Fact About the Town,” but these things aren’t really sections and those aren’t really titles. They’re more like poetic flourishes. They also guide the story’s rhythm. Chapters in a book influence rhythm too, but you know when they’re coming and they have an organizational purpose. A Good Wick’s section breaks are more like intertitles dramatically introduced during a film.
Many pages are illustrated, and these illustrations are also arranged with a consideration toward pacing. I used the phrase “interactive storybook” before, but “interactive comic” might be more apt. A comic uses the sequencing between panels to deliver meaning. A Good Wick does the same thing, with every new page serving as a panel. Not all the pages are given this treatment, and some illustrations repeat, but it’s a technique that finds good employment at some key moments.
The illustrations themselves are well suited to the story. Atmospheric, dark but warm, earthy and hazy. They’re always situated at the page’s center, and they fade outward into the surrounding black background. They flicker and glow. No, this wouldn’t work nearly as well as a printed storybook. It wouldn’t work at all. The game advises you to play it at fullscreen in a dark room, which I did, and would also recommend.
Certain readers, on the other hand, will find this annoying. At some points, the text fades until your cursor hovers back over it. At other points, the text is too bright to read until it dims beneath your cursor. People who just want plain text won’t enjoy these effects. But the effects complement the story’s themes, and you can’t please everyone.
What about the story, anyway? We’re in fairy tale territory. Outside a village in a sunless land, a sentient lantern has been burning for three years beside the road, keeping watch. Something’s prowling out there in the dark. One day it’s going to try entering the village. We know, from the very beginning, that the village is doomed, and this story is about learning why.
The writing is clean and charming. The plot is well structured. It’s sinister, but not too sinister, but actually quite sinister the more you think about it — like a good fairy tale.
Unfortunately I think it trips over itself with its multiple endings. Of the two standard endings, one is much more fleshed-out than the other. The third, secret ending takes elements from the first ending and adds them to the second, creating an awkward mishmash. This third ending feels like it’s meant to be the “true” ending, but by the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already seen its plot beats beaten into the ground. It over-explains things that were already clear; the over-explanation makes everything feel more like a trope; it rehashes sequences that were better the first time around.
I suppose it’s no surprise that the game would falter in this area. It puts narrative branching far, far into the background for almost the entire story, and that’s when its strengths shine. But then branching takes center stage at the end and doesn’t work as well. It’s clear that the team behind this project is extremely talented. They just haven’t hammered down what makes a branching narrative effective.
When I reach a satisfying ending, I often don’t want to replay a story. Many games encourage the player to explore alternate paths, however, and therefore I find myself replaying to experience the game as intended. That’s what happened here.
In these situations, the player doesn’t choose an ending; the player chooses all endings, and the game becomes a collectathon. The pacing is ruined. Any important decisions you might’ve made in the story are nullified when you just go back and pick every option anyway.
Maybe other readers won’t find A Good Wick’s multiple endings as disappointing, since I’m hard to please when it comes to this mechanic. Even with that criticism, though, I enjoyed the story a lot. It’s labeled as “horror” here on IFDB, which doesn’t seem right, but if you like dark fantasy and fairy tales, and don’t mind linear hypertext, then it’s definitely worth giving a try.