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The "Jacob's Ladder" of Interactive Fiction, August 4, 2011
There is a reason why, eleven years after its release, people are still playing (and discussing) Shade: It's a benchmark game. Beautiful in its elegance and completely immersive, its seemingly simplistic gameplay belies a sophisticated core.
The player begins in his (or her) apartment, several hours before embarking on a Burning Man-styled trip to the desert. The game starts off walking the player through mundane tasks, which serves two purposes: First, it eases the player into the game's vernacular; second, it puts him on comfortable footing, which is an important detail, as it makes the slow descent into its surreal Hell even more stark by contrast.
Designer/Writer Andrew Plotkin ensured that Shade can be enjoyed by players of all levels. A creatively implemented help system, woven into the story, walks the main character through tasks that need completion without being intrusive. For those who don't need such hand-holding, opting out is as simple a matter as not looking. For all its newbie-friendliness however, Shade features writing that works on several levels; statements that might initially elicit a chuckle become downright sinister as the game progresses.
I hesitate to call Shade a game, because the writing and pacing is so dead on (if you'll pardon the expression); although you will be ahead of things during the game's middle section, it's a necessary evil dictated by the plot, and it's safe to say this will not be the case as you progress toward the finale. Be forewarned however: if surrealism and ambiguity aren't your thing, then you may want to bypass this one. Shade is the Jacob's Ladder of the medium: not very scary while you're experiencing it, but it gets under your skin and stays there long after the word "END" appears on-screen.