After-Words

by fireisnormal

2021

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Number of Reviews: 4
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Brevity: Wit-soul. Layout: inventive. Experience: absorbing., November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

After-Words is the sort of sharply designed and presented game that takes a while to get used to. It's almost too slick to adjust to at once. I was clueless how to do that first thing, but then, everything clicked. There's a tidy map with lock icons by passages you need to open. There are two buttons on the main page: look and interact. You build an inventory and use it on people or items you find--dry goods stuff, perhaps, but not dry writing. And the writing is largely in two-word phrases. And it all works.

Because the wordlessness is part of the quest: you, the Resolver, need to bring words back to Skycity, where there's plenty of activity but little spoken. What words there are create a vivid world. There are all sorts of flies, as well as other surreal things like gunflowers (they are rusty and need oil to defend the city properly, and once they do, security stops blocking you from going elsewhere) or robogulls or hammerspiders, or glowdoves who give you eggs you need to hatch. This all sounds like it could be a mess I had to use a bit of trial and error, but the cool thing was: there weren't a ton of errors to make! And After-Words tersely lets you know when you can't use something. "USE ELSEWHERE." Though some items, like a hammer, give amusing variants (VIOLENCE UNNECESSARY) or location-based text (I was almost sad to give the prismheart up!)

The map itself is nifty, with arrows protruding from your current location. You can click on them to get around or hover over a location to see its name, though most of the time, the location's icon should remind you what it is. This is a big help once you've explored the whole city and have a lot to remember, and all the locks that indicate a temporarily blocked passage have fallen away. Since there is some fetching to do, I was mildly disappointed I couldn't click on the location and move there, or maybe use arrows to get around and L/I for LOOK and INTERACT, because there were so many other conveniences. But it was pretty slick, all told. And I appreciated the "hint" command at the top that told you where to go next. I used it a few times the first time through, but revisiting it for this review, I remembered bits and pieces of the logic and was able to piece things together. My main problem was forgetting to INTERACT fully after solving a quest or helping someone. They'd often offer you an item, but it wouldn't go right in your inventory.

You don't need many words to figure what to do in the big picture. There are three gates near corners of the city that need Big Items (Moon, Blood and Summer,) and they're in the corner, behind a few locked doors, of course.

The only problem I had was that once After-Words got clicking, it was pretty much over. I was almost sad to see my exploits had cost the city its brief charm! But maybe there'll be a sequel. I think I really appreciated the lack of forced logic or received wisdom in the puzzles, though, because on my second play-through, I only had a vague idea of what was where. This felt about right. I enjoyed winning a trophy at the football stadium, counting fractalseeds to acquire another prize, recharging a judge with the right battery, and helping dancers down from being too happy (the relaxed discoball on doing so made me laugh, too.) It's a good-enough sized game at six-by-six, but not so much that too many possible alternative uses for an item pop up and frustrate you.

An aside about myself: the 2015 game The Problems Compound suffered, according to one tester, from AGI-itis, where you "just take one item and use it on someone else, and so forth." While I'm proud of what I wrote, I was glad to see a different strain of AGI-ish game pop up and be done so effectively. It sort of justifies my decisions to make such a "USE X ON Y" game. But I see the clear and obvious appeal of a game like After-Words. It was the sort of thing I was aiming for, and if you aren't doing anything tricky with the parser, I think it works better in a graphical interface than a textual one.