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A Solid Four-Star Game, March 20, 2012
Play the game if: you simply want to enjoy a competent and in some places innovative work of interactive fiction without getting bogged down in complex intellectual challenges.
Don't play the game if: you want to be dazzled with narrative brilliance, or if you want more out of IF than good prose and atmosphere.
Shade is a work of interactive fiction that could easily have doubled as a script for The Twilight Zone. In fact, certain very apt comparisons could be made to (Spoiler - click to show)Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", a film adaptation of which was shown on The Twilight Zone.
The bare mechanics of Shade work rather well. In fact, the very question of "difficulty" doesn't even seem to exist in this game. Plotkin's writing is sharp enough that when the rules begin to change, the differences will leap out at you even though they're rather subtle - details such as (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist's vacuum suddenly being full of sand, or the apartment's plant changing species.
The apartment setting is implemented with convenience in mind, the game allowing for multiple locations in a single-room setting without forcing the player to resort to constant commands of "enter" and "exit". My favorite games in IF focus on synchronizing the kind of decision-making underlying in-game actions with the player's own mind. Such games, and in this case Shade, impart a sense of intuitive control and completeness that can help the game transcend itself in the Turing-esque sense that IF has always striven to accomplish.
There is only so much one can discuss in the story itself without referring to heavy spoilers. The fact that there even exist heavy spoilers is in and of itself something of a spoiler, which poses something of a problem. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, the attempt must be made.
An undeniable strength of the story is the atmosphere. The one-room setting achieved the right balance of comprehensibility and potential to explore; the pacing of your introductory searches around the room is good enough to introduce all the important elements at play and keep them in your mind at all times.
Perhaps because I've seen this particular brand of story before, Shade's actual narrative doesn't come across as particularly fresh or new for me. This is likely more a subjective nitpick than an objective criticism, but there you go. What might be called the second act (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the process of turning all of your apartment to sand) was for me a rather laborious process of carrying out the obvious, even though I understood more or less where this story was going to end. Even before getting to this stage I'd more or less guessed the ending - showing that while subtle details will leap out at you, there's an added risk of too much foreshadowing.
The result was that I wasn't as gripped by Shade as I might have been - the two moments of genuine excitement being the realization of what was actually going on (turning out to be something I'd seen before), and the epilogue of sorts, which is written rather well.
Still, this is, if not a great work, at least a very good one; the implementation of the setting, the comfortable command system, and the prose are by themselves enough to make this game worth your time.