Alone

by Paul Michael Winters profile

Apocalyptic Horror
2020

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A foreboding puzzler, December 5, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

(I beta tested this game)

There are a few games in this year’s Comp that gain resonance from having been written in 2020 – Babyface, for example, where the way COVID limits the main character’s ability to interact with their father is an important part of the overall discombobulation the game is imparting. Alone also falls into this category: despite the fact that it doesn’t specifically mention the current pandemic and draws on common post-apocalyptic and zombie fiction tropes, the game’s aura of isolation and fear of infection would not land with nearly so much impact in a different year. That’s not to say that it’s only because of current events that the game works, to be clear – the prose is admirably sparse and the I found the sequence where you’re at risk from one of the infected fairly tense – but there is a little extra frisson from playing Alone now.

The game itself is relatively straightforward in premise – after running out of gas on a lonely stretch of highway, your post-apocalyptic survivor hikes to an abandoned gas station only to find more than they bargained for. There’s some secret backstory to uncover, but it’s nothing too fancy (though I did find one aspect – (Spoiler - click to show)the rationale behind a collapsing government concealing a secret research facility under a gas station – a bit odd and underexplained). Really the focus here is on puzzle solving, so good thing that they’re solid and fairly well-clued. Most involve using machinery or tools in a reasonable way, with most relatively straightforward though there are a couple that involve some more complex mechanisms ((Spoiler - click to show)the control panel is fun to play around with, though it can also lock you into a sub-optimal ending if you play around too much). There were a few that sparked aha moments for me, which is always satisfying ((Spoiler - click to show)the cinder block puzzle, and figuring out how to use the control panel to get the best ending). The structure is maybe a little more linear than would be ideal – though the map is relatively open, there’s usually only one puzzle you can work on at a time. But since the puzzles are fair and not too challenging, this doesn’t present too much of a problem.

Technically, Alone is well put-together: I didn’t run into guess the verb or disambiguation issues in the release version, and the only typo I noticed this time out was a missing line break that make the paragraph spacing look odd in the dumbwaiter sequence. And it has a deceptive amount of choice built into it as you come close to the end of the game, with several different possible endings. While I found these more compelling as a goad to solve the last puzzles correctly than as alternate narrative resolutions, I think that’s fine – characterization and plot aren’t Alone’s area of focus, and it succeeds admirably in presenting a series of fun puzzles in a foreboding atmosphere.