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A fun choice-based remake of a 30+ year old parser game, February 13, 2023
You wake up naked in a hotel room and have no memory of who you are.
I should provide some context first.
Lethe is an Ink game based on a 1986 parser game called Amnesia by Thomas M. Disch. I had never heard of it prior to playing Lethe. Perhaps it crossed my vision once or twice while skimming IFDB, but nothing I could remember (that’s absolutely not a joke. I’m just telling you how it is). Lethe has its own page on IFDB. If it were not for its description, or the credits in the game, I would not have made the connection.
I am going to cut this excessively long review into two large sections. The first is my review for Lethe. The second half is about how playing it introduced me to another side of interactive fiction. I’ll stick most of that part under a spoiler tag.
Part I: Game review
Lethe. The game made with Ink. That’s what this review is about. In fact, it is one of the most exciting Ink games I’ve played so far.
Lethe stays true its theme of amnesia. In fact, the title, though different, hints at the subject. It stems from a piece of Greek mythology about a river of the same name that, when drunk, causes forgetfulness. There is also a second clever meaning to the title that is revealed near the end of the game, but that would be a major spoiler. Just know that it’s worth a shot even if you are not a huge fan of the amnesia trope.
GAMEPLAY: As I said, you wake up naked in a hotel room with total amnesia. The game takes place in New York, and you play as a male protagonist. Your only real lead at the moment is to find any clues that will hint at your identity. Slowly this will expand into a broader story.
I feel that your first playthrough is by far the best one because you are just as clueless as the protagonist. Unless you’ve played Amnesia, I suppose. Oh well. Let’s just assume you were like me. Everything intrigues you and oozes potential.
Whose knocking at the door?
What’s in this closet?
Does this window open?
WHO AM I? (And why am I naked?)
Endless questions, but the game merely provides you with a list of things you can do. The player is left to launch themselves into the unknown to find the answers. Through trial and error, you can find the optimal route to move into new areas with more clues.
For me, the main event of your clueless first playthrough is the branching gameplay structure. I always like seeing that in choice-based games. In Lethe, it creates the perception of an expanding world that just grows. First time around, it feels huge. The novelty of it all contributes to the sense of scale as you leave the hotel to explore more locations. It takes the shape of a mystery game.
While Lethe does feel a bit smaller once you’ve played it, there is plenty of incentive for replays. It is a chance to experiment with different paths or switching up the order of tasks. Try making challenges. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) play without ever getting arrested and/or killed.
Lethe is easy to play in sense that you are just clicking through links. But it is also designed well, too. Its strength is its mechanism for failure. Dead is NOT the end. It can if you want it to be, but there is no “messing” up in Lethe. The sequence also happens to be my favorite part. (Spoiler - click to show) You end up in a surreal and somewhat humorous afterlife.
You and a few thousand other naked anxious souls are standing on the bank of a misty black river, being stung by mosquitoes and bitten by large centipedes.
Charon, a character from Greek mythology who ferries deceased souls across rivers in the underworld, swings by to offer you a choice. You can stay in the afterlife or go back in time before your previous decision. Done. That’s it. Right back where you were. Even better, your environment adjusts to keep you from making the same error.
Your hotel room seems subtly different.
This was fantastic. It makes the gameplay more forgiving for when the player makes a mistake. You never need to restart. If anything, it also encourages dumb decisions such as leaving your hotel room naked, “just to see what happens.” Or (Spoiler - click to show) getting married.
STORY: Given what I’ve said, the last thing I want to do is tarnish your first playthrough with spoilers. It is better if you let the story unfold on its own. But if you insist, I will give you a rundown of what’s going on. I would consider these as mild/moderate spoilers since they can be discovered early on, I’d caution you against reading them at all until you play Lethe. (Spoiler - click to show)
Everyone at the hotel calls you John Cameron, but if you get arrested it is revealed that you are Xavier Hollings, a criminal who killed a guard and escaped a Texas prison. You go back to court and lose. Even Denise, your own wife (to which you ask yourself, “I had a wife?”), testifies against you. After you arrive at death row, she comes to visit merely to say how happy she is to be inheriting everything because apparently you are super wealthy. Hm.
As you eat your last meal, you have a moment of insight. Tidbits of info about Denise, prison, some guy named Zane, and a recalled soap product appear in your mind. Just enough to realize that you are innocent. Ultimately, the meaning is lost, and you are executed. Fortunately, this is not the end.
Once more, you are by the infernal river Styx. After a few years, Charon's boat emerges from the mist. He looks disappointed to see you.
Charon has got your back. He won’t think highly of you about it, of course.
What I just told you is only the first layer to the story. No moment in the game beat the suspense and surprise of seeing this reveal for the first time. Woah. That was my reaction. The protagonist clearly has a lot going on. The bits of info from this fiasco only serve to direct the gameplay after (Spoiler - click to show) Charon zaps you back to existence. I’ll stop the spoilers there. I’ve already told you too much.
As for my general thoughts about the story, the narrative itself was not particularly moving. Certainty, creative. It’s just that I was not drawn in by the characters or their motives. The drama was more like watching a film rather than feeling like you are the protagonist of the story.
Also, the ultimate cause of the amnesia was a bit underwhelming. I’m sorry. But at least the sprinkling of clues throughout the gameplay is combined with a dramatic reveal near the end that makes up for the lackluster parts. I cannot express this enough: The witty writing and gameplay implementation is what makes Lethe work. Otherwise, I would not award it five stars.
I think a lot of people can appreciate the writing. A favorite of mine was, “So far you're scoring zero on the Know Thyself Questionnaire.” The (Spoiler - click to show) H&R 207-7655 pay phone reference was especially clever.
CRITIQUES: Lethe is excellent, but it is not flawless, either. I had two cases where the game reached a dead end where no links appeared on the screen. In other playthroughs they were not an issue. I do not know what caused the issues, only that I was experimenting with the gameplay at the time. Your chances of seeing this is low. Be assured, that once you’ve played the game, you can cruise through it quite quickly.
There are also some minor spelling mistakes, including with character names that can be noticeable. The longer changes of dialog occasionally abandon the use of quotation marks. Finally, location descriptions are shown at the top of the screen, whether it is “Hotel Room” or “Oblivion.” However, sometimes they fail to change with new locations.
PART II: Broader context (time to go on a tangent)
(Spoiler - click to show)
You can play Amnesia through a digital archive.
At least that is what it says on IFDB (that’s how unsophisticated I am). But the content written about Amnesia explained that playing it was more than just clunking yourself in front of a computer. The part of my title that says, “30+ year old parser game,” should give you a sense of where I am. As someone who rarely crawls off IFDB, a lot of this is new terrain.
Apparently, when the game was published, playing it required buying a physical copy (which is so alien to me) of the game. From my perspective, it sounds like an artifact. However, reviews expressed a different angle. People have shared fond memories of playing Amnesia. Or at least of trying play it. While I have not, it was cool learning about its origins. Hopefully I’m not awkwardly trampling over everything.
I did attempt another existing remake called Amnesia: Restored after playing Lethe. For the record, I accessed Amnesia: Restored through the entry for Amnesia on IFDB. I used the link to the game’s own website and went to the section called “PLAY GAME.” I have a reason for going on this tangent. Just hear me out.
I don’t want to dismiss the immense collaborative effort- as showcased on its website- that was put into Amnesia: Restored, but the gameplay was a rocky experience for me. It seems the objective was to replicate the parser of Amnesia into the gameplay. If that’s the case, the gameplay Amnesia must have been wild… and frustrating to play. That could also be my inexperience talking.
Thing is, you must know the specific command the game wants at a given moment, almost like I was having a conversation with someone via a script. If you use the right command, great. Otherwise, the game lets you fall on your face without any direction. It was incredibly difficult to know what command or action was required. Play it and see for yourself. (Aside from my whining, I really do think there are parts of the game that are not functioning as intended.)
This is where Lethe comes in. Turns out it can function as a rough “tutorial” (my words) for Amnesia: Restored because Lethe also stays faithful to original writing. Seriously, the choices you make in Lethe can be punched into the parser. Not precise word-by-word, but close enough. Suddenly, everything fell into place. The parser responded smoothly. I was making progress and keeping up with the metaphorical conversation. Even better, it gave me a chance to explore Amnesia: Restored and appreciate what it had to offer. And it offers a lot.
The makeshift Lethe tutorial will end once you leave the hotel because Amnesia: Restored recreates the complex city navigation puzzle in Amnesia while Lethe does not. A few city locations will still apply although Lethe cuts back on nearly all simulated New York content. To be honest, if I did not have Lethe as a reference, I would still be stumbling around in the hotel room. But I managed to get the hang of it enough to brave the city puzzle on my own.
I must hand it to Amnesia: Restored. It goes the extra mile in incorporating built-in guides and visual elements in the game’s interface that were based on original feelies and physical materials. I was really impressed by that. I did not continue playing after I passed out on the street from exhaustion and was carted away (and the save function failed on me), but I can tell you it is worth a look. While I preferred Lethe, I sincerely suggest trying Amnesia: Restored too.
There you have it. The extent of my encounters with Amnesia.
I apologize that this review was so long.
Lethe is faithful to the Amnesia storyline, but its choice-based format still offers a different experience. It eliminates parser related technicalities such as guess-the-verb by replacing everything with links. It bypasses puzzles for (Spoiler - click to show) navigating the city streets and solving riddles at gunpoint.
The trade-off is a simplified version of a vibrant world. It can’t even touch the complexity in Amnesia. But I think it does a decent job in capturing the general concept. I would love to hear second opinions from anyone who has played both.
I completely recommend Lethe as a thrilling Ink game with lots of surprises. Even more so if you are curious about a parser classic (correct?) turned into a choice-based piece of interactive fiction.