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Slice of life

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Number of Reviews: 5
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Moody in a good way, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The central business of this evocative Adventuron game is cooking, and appropriately enough, on starting up you’re given a choice of seasonings: the story can be served up pleasant, “emotive” (said emotion being melancholy), or sinister. Of course, sometimes chefs who vary a dish too many different ways find their reach exceeds their grasp, and Snowhaven unfortunately runs into same coding issues that add a sour note to proceedings. But like the old family recipe the protagonist cooks for their visiting sibling – a hearty mushroom stew – its warm, earthy flavor overcomes such minor mistakes.

I haven’t played many Adventuron games, but almost uniformly, I find they set a very strong mood – and that’s the case here, too. The austere, near-ascii graphics are certainly a draw, but the prose isn’t far behind: it’s typically unobtrusive, but every once in while I’d come across a line like the one describing freshly-dug parsnips as “white and wrinkly as a witch’s finger” and smile. The two variations I played – pleasant and emotive – share the same map, plot, and most of their puzzles, as well as a similar wintry, lonely vibe. But they each put their own spin on things through a few well-recast details. Praying at the grave of your grandfather in the pleasant version leads to a wistful reflection on how one generation cares for the next before passing on, for example, whereas in the emotive one the grave is your wife’s, and prayer leads to a moment of sadness and regret.

There’s not so much a plot here as a situation: we’re in a primeval, near-abstract wilderness – a person, their dog, a stream, some books – with Snowhaven suggesting a few reasons why they might be out there and how they might feel about it. Then the business is all about gathering some ingredients so you can welcome a long-unseen relative with a gift of food. The puzzles are similarly low-key, as most of them just involve finding bulbs of garlic or hardy herbs in the places you’d expect them, then chopping and throwing them in the pot.

There are a couple harder puzzles that skew more traditional – guessing a locker code from careful examination of the protagonist’s home, building a snare to catch rabbits. And contrarily, there are also a few places where the game requires the player to be assumptive about what they want to do in a way that doesn’t comport with text-adventure conventions (I’m thinking of the puzzles where you need to find the lost soap, or get bait for the fishing rod – the solutions are completely logical, even obvious once you know the trick (Spoiler - click to show)(FIND SOAP and DIG WORM) but they’re nonetheless tricky since you need to interact with objects that aren’t “really” there). Both these approaches mix things up, but I still preferred the more quotidian tasks that make up the bulk of the game, as they better fit the gentle, lonely mood that’s the major strength.

I have a second expectation I bring to an Adventuron game, which is that I’ll struggle with the parser – I understand action construction isn’t as robust as in TADS or Inform, and it has some distinctive foibles, like the way it sometimes bluffs you about the existence of objects that aren’t actually there. Snowhaven suffers from these issues, but unfortunately adds some significant bugs on top. Some of these are just silly, like being told I couldn’t leave the cabin without the soap in the same response that then told me I’d successfully left the cabin without the soap. But my first emotive playthrough dead-ended when TIE ROPE led to an attempt to tie it to itself, and then the thing simply vanished. And I didn’t win my second time either, since I couldn’t get carrots out of the storage locker – TAKE CARROTS led to “You take a few carrots out of your store of frozen vegetables”, which seemed promising, but after a line break I saw “You can’t do that,” and in fact no carrots were ever taken.

There’s definitely been some care taken with the implementation – there’s a lot of scenery, I only found one typo (“No sooner than you sitting down to rest”), there’s an achievement list, and unnecessary actions like the aforementioned PRAY are rewarded (speaking of rewards, there’s also a potentially-remunerative easter egg that I felt clever for finding). But the coding of the actual game logic doesn’t have the same attention to detail, which is an awful shame. A similar misstep is the requirement of pinging the author to get a password to access the third, “sinister” take on the story – I’m already fairly sure I’d get less enjoyment from a less-gentle version, and it’s probably not wise to add an additional barrier to entry when there are 17 other Comp games waiting to be played.

But in the end I didn’t find these drawbacks all that meaningful. Snowhaven isn’t a game you play to be a completionist, or for bragging rights for working out all the puzzles – it succeeds at creating a place and a mood, with everything you do in that place rather incidental. I’ll look forward to an update or smoother post-Comp release, and maybe one day check out the version where I can be eaten by a bear, but I don’t need anything more from Snowhaven beyond what I’ve already gotten.