Arborea

by richard develyn

2022

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- Jaded Pangolin, January 12, 2023

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An elusive tree-focused puzzlefest, December 21, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. Also, I beta tested this game and haven’t done a full reply, so caveat lector)

The second of the big parser puzzlefests in this year’s Comp, Arborea is a decidedly queer duck. It satisfies the expectations of its genre by providing a host of clever condundrums, but the plot it presents is enigmatic and oddly elusive – instead, it relies on a strong sense of theme to unify its disparate parts. Despite its old-school vibe, I can’t say I’ve played anything else quite like it, and while not every swing it takes connects, there’s more than enough creativity here to make Arborea worth a visit.

There’s very little setup provided before you’re thrust into the game – you’re told that you’re in a simulation and that you’ve got to retrieve a “kernel” (yes, of course it’s a pun), and then you’re left to your own devices in the middle of a sea of trees. This isn’t a maze, though; it’s a clever puzzle that requires you to identify a few different kinds of trees to unlock passages to eight different areas, each with a distinct theme built around said tree. A pine tree points the way to a Norse encampment holding a wake for a dead thane; a bodhi tree to helps you navigate to a mountainous region populated by monks and demons; an oak tree leads you to Renaissance England. There are people to meet and puzzles to solve in each area, though typically you don’t have a clear goal other than to go everywhere and surmount clear barriers when they present themselves – it’s about exploring and experiencing each area, rather than advancing any particular agenda.

The primary motivator, then, is the puzzles, and they’re a curious lot. Some are quite traditional item-swappers, but you’ll also help a monkey find a friend, clean a pirate ship with a slightly kinky crew, and solve a math puzzle in the mountains. Then there are those that are deeply nonstandard and rely on typing commands of the sort parser players have been trained to expect not to work – telling the game why or how you’re doing something, rather than just what you’re doing. These are interesting puzzles and I can see how from a certain point of view they’re fair, but since I think in most cases the player will have figured out the solution but not the exact command the game will accept, they wind up being frustrating; best to have recourse to the walkthrough in these situations.

Regardless of these rough patches, this is a solid, enjoyable set of puzzles, with enough interconnections between the different sub-areas that I liked the chance to wander around unlocking new paths and seeing how an object found in one could be used in another. And while at first the mishmash of settings and tasks struck me as too much of a grab-bag, as I settled into the game’s groove I realized that each place I was visiting had a different story to tell about humanity’s relationship with trees. Admittedly, sometimes these were a little thin – the pine forests felt mostly incidental to the Viking bit – or felt too dark for what’s generally a lighthearted game (I’m thinking of one section in particular that deals with American slavery; the player gets to take some satisfying action here, but it represents a tonal swerve I’m not sure Arborea fully pulls off). But there were several areas, largely those dealing with our economic exploitation of trees, where I felt the theme land quite powerfully.

To sum up – well, this is a hard game to sum up. It’s a big one, made up of many pieces, and the endgame sequence, which is quite distinct from the main body of the action, doesn’t provide any unifying answers. But for all that many of its scenes and set-pieces are stuck in my memory even now, several months after having tested it – if it’s kind of patchy, and more about the journey than the destination, well, I suppose that’s appropriate for a wander through a forest.


- E.K., December 7, 2022

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Tale of Two Tree-Types, November 25, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Mostly polished parser adventure, squarely in my wheelhouse. There is some opening business about a holodeck type setting, but it feels like a bare bones justification to allow you a walking tour of 8 wildly different arboreal climates. That’s a great design choice, actually. It hand waves at the background and quickly ushers you to the main exploring event.

I really liked the ambition of it. 8 different ecosystems, 8 different sets of locations and puzzles, many of which interact with some of the other 7. There is some classic puzzle gameplay in evidence, as well as some nicely novel ones. It's probably not a spoiler to say you bounce back and forth between them to resolve many puzzles. The puzzle text was mostly descriptive. NPCs are minimally rendered which on the one hand feels shallow, but on the other does nicely skirt the “ok this NPC is slowly transforming into a parrot” problem. I liked the “on the right track” hint messages. Still not sure where I land on the parenthetical “you still have the X” messages. Points for clarity, but jarring compared to surrounding text. I was either 1/5 or 1/8 complete at the 2 hr mark depending on how you score it. Right at the 2hr mark, there was what I’m going to call a bug in deceptive text. (Spoiler - click to show)It involves an object landing at your feet at a joust, but the nouns in the text prompt are unrecognized by the game, and per walkthrough the noun you need to use was never mentioned.

Other than that glitch, the puzzles seem capably rendered and satisfying. It feels like the variety and choices of settings are the true showpiece here though. The narration is well up to the challenge of immersively depicting very different ecosystems and geographies. Initial entry also provides a header quote of scientific or cultural interest, in a way that effectively conveys global scope. The variety of settings chosen plays deftly into that as well, creating a really epic feel.

If I scratch a little closer at it though, I’m not sure the 8 chosen settings click together smoothly. Half the settings use the unique trees/ecosystems as background for light puzzle play. The trees themselves little more than scenic/puzzle elements. Hoo boy the other half though. Fully half of them engage deeply dire ecological and/or sociological issues. On first impression I kind of dug it. Since I encountered a few lighter settings first (just by random chance), the heavier settings came as a gut punch. “Look at all the pretty trees… holy crap WHAT!!!” I do wonder how someone who chose differently would react - experiencing a dramatic REDUCTION in stakes. In any case two hours in, the contrast is dramatically jarring in a narratively intriguing way that totally sucked me in.

But but but. I am now petrified. I am petrified that the 4 different very fraught issues are not well served by the puzzle solving mechanic so far on display. That they could be reduced to background setting like the other 4, and effectively trivialized in a way that could be glib and offensive. So far the text has nimbly avoided this to its credit. It has given me no reason to fear I am in incapable hands. But the risk is so large I can’t help but feel trepidation. In particular, confidently invoking (Spoiler - click to show)‘strange fruit’ (google if you need to) feels like stomping your foot on thin ice and boldly declaring “I got this.”

I am Engaged, and also extremely nervous about what lies ahead. Bad time for 2hr timer to expire!


Played: 10/12/22
Playtime: 2hrs, did not finish, 21/100 score with one walkthrough lookup
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaged/Notable Bug
Would Play Again? Almost certainly, as I chew fingernails to nubs

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


- Jade68, November 22, 2022

- Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.), November 20, 2022

- OverThinking, November 16, 2022

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Starting Program Arborea..., October 25, 2022

This game is not a mere skip through the forest, I can tell you that.

The subject of Arborea is hard to summarize in a sentence. I have never played a game quite like it. It has the slight sci-fi angle of being in a computer simulation that adds a unique flair without coming off as a sci-fi game. It has a strong history-based component and yet I would hesitate to write it off as a historical game. There are even a feel mythic and spiritual elements thrown in. And then there is the overarching question of what is Program Arborea? But first things first.

Arborea seems to be a rift off the word “arboreal” which refers to the overall nature of trees. The definition, “pertaining to trees” also surfaced when I looked up the word. Both descriptions are spot on because Arborea is all about trees and human’s relationship with them, whether it may be for exploitation of resources, cultural traditions, or everything in between.

Gameplay
The game begins right after you step into a simulation room where a smooth computerized voice informs you that Program Arborea is about to begin. The next thing you know, you are in a vast forest with no exits and nothing but a gourd in your possession. On the gourd are markings that represent trees from different parts of the world. By identifying the trees, you can travel to eight world regions at different point of human history depicted in this game. It is not a time travel game. The player is not going back in time. Instead, they are simply in a simulation that brings the time periods to them.

Direction > Tree > Destination
North > Pine > The Pine Forests of Scandinavia
East > Palm > The Palm Tree Plantations of Indonesia

You are presented with the simple sounding but vague goal of finding a kernel. The game essentially cuts you loose to figure it out on your own. But it also seems like the more you try to make progress on your own, the more guidance you find in the setting and characters. It can be intimidating at first. You learn that you must “solve” each location, but this is not done independently where you solve one before moving on to the next. Instead, everything crisscrosses. Items from one location can be used in another. The puzzles are not always intuitive and given the size of the game it easy to lose track of your progress.

Once you (Spoiler - click to show) complete the content in each area, its corresponding icon on the gourd will crack (such as the frog for the Amazon). Turns out the kernel is inside the gourd. I spent all this time looking around for it, only to realize that I technically had it the entire time. The catch is that it is only retrievable once every icon is cracked. And that is not even the end of the game. Surprise! There is an endgame as well. Even though it took a while, completing the game felt satisfying.

Puzzles
The gameplay (and corresponding walkthrough) is long, and I figured that would never replay it after I was done. Turns out this was a game where I found myself eerily capable of remembering the exact solutions. Many puzzles seemed rather simple in retrospect, although (Spoiler - click to show) I still have lingering surprise over having to haul around a severed head for a chunk of the gameplay (it is less gory than it sounds). I have played games where the puzzles are cryptic and I need the walkthrough, and even after I complete the puzzle step-by-step, I still find myself unable to explain what I just did. Many of the puzzles in Arborea can be done in different order. I kept thinking to myself, "you know...I wonder what would happen if I did this first instead.” I returned to the game and played around with the order in which you can complete things.

There are a few guess the verb puzzles that will probably leave players flipping through the walkthrough. A big roadblock for me was (Spoiler - click to show) crossing the Savannah to get to the carcass. If you try to go south, the PC understandably chickens out. I was not sure what syntax to use. In the walkthrough, there is a subtle clue on what word to use, which assumes that the player is familiar with Star Trek. I am, but even that did not help me make the connection. It is not a standard verb, either. Another guess the verb issue was with (Spoiler - click to show) banishing the demon in the Himalayas. Even though it had a few more small clues, I still needed the walkthrough.

Oddly enough, the some of the most challenging puzzles for me were (Spoiler - click to show) not from the main gameplay, but the endgame. For example, I did not put together the solution of dragging the cross while wearing the white robe and crown to scare off the man in the Scandinavian simulation room. Regardless, I thought that the endgame was a clever way of tying everything together (and the game keeps you guessing about whether the endgame is part of the simulation).

Story
Arborea does make some commentary about real-world issues. The locations for Serengeti, Indonesia, and the Amazon all have subtle mention of current environmental concerns. The time period for these areas is set in more modern times. We see deforestation, poaching, and the production of palm oil for consumer goods (Spoiler - click to show) such as beauty products. Obviously, these issues are far more complex in real life, but the game focuses on identifying key ideas to convey a general message of how we use trees and the ecosystems connected to them.

My ongoing question about this game has to do with “Program Arborea.” I borrowed the title of my review from the first line in the game where the computerized voice activates the simulation. The sci-fi aspect of the game stood out to me since the gameplay is essentially an advanced VR adventure. At the end of the game (Spoiler - click to show) when the Program finally ends, and a door opens so the protagonist can leave, while the voice in the background says, “Please take time to re-orient yourself and observe all normal safety precautions when exiting the building.” A museum. A museum on natural history. That is my guess.

But maybe you are not meant to look too closely.

Characters
The characters are engaging and interesting (even likable for some) but also highly generalized to match their setting. I think it steers clears of stereotyping, although that is a fine, fine line to walk. That said, it is quite possible that I either overlooked or were not aware of certain important/contextual details. I would love for players to share their take on it. Character interactions do not have much depth since each character generally has their “scene” in a puzzle, but there are meaningful moments.

Actually, this (Spoiler - click to show) can be a bit awkward when you meet these characters again in the endgame where you discover that they were merely actors participating in the simulation. Unexpected but creative approach to character design.

Final thoughts
Arborea is a long but thoughtfully constructive game. Reading this review may give the impression that the game is all about climbing trees and analyzing environmental issues, but that is not entirely accurate. Yes, those things are certainly included (especially the tree part), but the gameplay also has a broader scope in content that may appeal to you more than you would think. It is a long game, I know, but give it a shot and then decide. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

(Arborea strongly reminds me of The Symbolic Engine. It is a one-room game entered in an IF Art Show and involves messing around with a machine that looks at the history of humans and their relationship with the planet. It also casts an eye on what that history could be in the future. The machine uses different voices and icons to tell the story. The gameplay experience is considerably different, but the themes are spot on. Like Arborea, it has a mix of sci-fi and historical elements. Unlike Arborea, it will only take up a sliver of your time.)


- jaclynhyde, October 18, 2022

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A very large puzzler parser game themed around trees, October 15, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This is a very large IFComp parser game where you in a sort of simulation trying to find a 'kernel' of some sorts.

The main area is a giant tree, from which you can eventually find 8 sub-areas. Each sub-area is a simulation of a different part of the world, including the Amazon rainforest, Missouri, Elizabethean England, etc.

Gameplay consists of finding objects in one world and generally using them in another. It can be fun to try and think where one can be used.

Content-wise, everyone has things they like and don't like; while I enjoyed the mini worlds idea quite a bit and some of the sections like the Viking ones, I felt uncomfortable with some of the others. There's some sexual wish-fulfillment in play (like a dominatrix pirate and a harem of succubi), though nothing explicit seems to occur, and there are some cultural moments where I thought it wasn't an entirely respectful depiction or relied on surface-level depictions. At times I feel it reaches too hard (at one point, an extreme not repeated, it even says "they wander off[...]together to figure out what to do with the rest of the wreckage of their miserable lives (this is called "pathos", by the way)."

Overall, the level of polish is high; there were a few sticky situations (like how (Spoiler - click to show)ENTER BAOBAB works but (Spoiler - click to show)ENTER CRACK doesn't in the first room of the Savannah).

I messed around for about an hour on my own, accruing 11 points, then followed the walkthrough. Some of the later puzzles seem to require a great deal of mind-reading, but I suppose there may be more in-game hints if I had reached those points naturally.

Overall, it has a lot of satisfying parser elements. While the tone and characters didn't always reach me emotionally, there is a lot of craftmanship evident. I don't plan on revisiting it, but it is polished, descriptive, and has much good interactivity.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Puzzle Tree, October 7, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Puzzler

The aptly named Arborea starts off as you enter a simulation of a Vast Forest. Setting a game in a simulation is a great IF trick that immediately circumvents certain common hurdles in text adventures.
It easily explains away the immediate proximity of the fjords to the desert and other geographical oddities for one.
Placing the protagonist in an obstacle-filled simulated world unknown to them mirrors the player's motivation in solving the problems in an oldschoolish puzzle romp such as this game. Just tackling the puzzles you encounter because they're there gets an extra layer of explanation (or a slightly more believable handwave) as "This is what the simulation throws at you. Now deal with it."
And of course, a sim offers a great opportunity for a short but nice (Spoiler - click to show)XYZZY joke.

The simulated geography is convenient for the in-game traversal of the terrain as well as for the player's out-of-game map making.
It's a compass-based hub-and-spokes design, where the spokes are subdivided in a limited number of locations (usually no more than three or four).
The different areas are not self-contained. Puzzles in one area often need wisdom and objects obtained in another. This necessitates several traversals of the map. At least one exploratory round to find and research all available obstacles, pick up anything that is not nailed down, and take notes about how to approach the different puzzles and in what order. A lot of associations and ideas for a strategy will pop up in the players head during this stage.
Solving the game will require a few more rounds of going back and forth as new locations open up. I never felt completely lost, as repeated exploration gave me new ideas, and there were always a few spokes I could try these ideas in.
Although many of the puzzles are tightly interconnected, the game is not completely linear. Several of the spokes contain loose objects, with nothing restricting the player from taking them. These can all serve as that first loose thread to start pulling and get the ball rolling.

The puzzles themselves are varied. Some use of machinery, some manipulation of NPCs, plenty of variations on the classic lock-and-key theme.
The difficulty will probably depend a lot on how the player's brain is wired and their experience with oldschool games. The hardness of the problems mostly relates to the level of associative thinking is needed to intuit the solution. Many times straightforward application of real world knowledge will prove successful, other times the player might let their mind drift and use a certain kind of "moon logic" to make the necessary leap of imagination.
I found that there were plenty of clues available in the text. However, recognizing them does need the player to tune in to the game's style. As the pointers appear in the natural flow of the descriptions, the evocative writing can sometimes obscure a clue hidden in the middle of a descriptive paragraph.

The descriptions produced some very vivid images of the surroundings. I was impressed with how well each spoke's central theme (Serengeti Plains, Caribbean Island,...) was brought to life in just a few locations, implying a much broader world than was accessible to the protagonist. Very strong writing in this regard.
Arborea's writing is less successful in maintaining a consistent atmosphere. There are several voices present in the game's text, and the discrepancy between their respective tones felt somewhat jarring at times.
There is the simulation speaking. It welcomes you as you enter the sim and consequently introduces each new area as you discover it. I imagined this as a pleasing, soft-spoken and caring voice, even poetic.
There is the somewhat more distanced game narration, which provides the colourful, evocative and immersive descriptions of the landscape.
And there is the fourth-wall-breaking voice of the author. Sometimes this is a justified interruption to clarify game mechanics, but often it jumps in unannounced (in the same font as the narration) with a "funny" aside to the player (or is it to the PC?). This broke the atmosphere of the game on several occasions for me. Perhaps a nod to the snarky comments to the player in old Infocom games, but not so well placed here.

Overall, Arborea carries a gentle ecological message about the beauty of nature. In particular, it tells of the wonder of trees, and of mankind's varied attitudes towards them in different time periods and different cultures. There are depictions of careful, even reverent co-existence with trees, practical use of them for our daily commodities and also the destructive use of them in a mass-production way of life.
This loving attitude toward trees is frequently at odds with the oldschool adventurer's amorality toward the NPCs. It's impossible to solve Arborea without behaving questionably toward the other people you meet. Sometimes in a mostly innocent and funny trickster manner, other times actively misleading them and abusing their trust, or even drugging them to get what you want. I couldn't bring myself to comfortably reconcile this behaviour with a peaceful problemsolving exploration.
All I could do was think: "Hey, it's a simulation." And this got me questioning what this simulation was actually for. Is it a educational program about our planet's history? Or just a game people in the future play for their amusement?

The game characters are basically beautifully painted cardboard cutouts. They're great to meet in their intended role, but once you start interacting with them, there is not much substance to them. I would have liked for them to bit more talkative or even gossipy. It would make them feel like more rounded characters in their own right, and it would be an opportunity to add to the sometimes hard-to-pick-up clues in the text.

The endgame feels like the game does one last loving nod back to its precursors. It's essentially a condensed old school puzzle romp; an almost carnivalesque obstacle course with all kinds of puzzles strung together in the final straight line to the exit. A great way to bring such a broad and sprawling game to a close.

I spent about six hours in Arborea, and I loved the ride.



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