Somewhere, Somewhen

by Jim MacBrayne


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ParserComp 2021: Somewhere, Somewhen, August 2, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

For all the mystery of the terminal, for all the mindboggling puzzling, perhaps Zork can be best captured in a dream: the homebrewer designing dungeons digital, an infinitely malleable systems engagement through which we like archaeologists wander awed at the dizzying gauntlet of implementations lovingly crafted by capable hands day by day, week by week, feature by feature. Architects without bound, homebrewers build and build, until the building itself becomes an act of worship, passionate and moonmad adding wing upon wing, floor upon floor, baroque cornices of night after night of dreaming what ifs, achieving what ifs, and if MacBrayne’s Somewhere, Somewhen seems lost in its own momentum, ornate spires shooting spectacularly out of metal frames, then it is this, not the lamp, nor the magnet to get the iron key, nor the maze, nor the inventory limit,nor the heady interpolation of magic and tech, nor the brazen disregard for continuity of place, that most evokes its Zorkian lineage.

This game, our author assures us, “was written just for fun in QBASIC64” with a parser that, it hastens to add, “is fairly sophisticated”. I agree, it is rather impressive for a homebrew, with some sophisticated possibilities for multitier commands, with only a handful of oddities (you can’t examine an object until you TAKE [IT] FROM [CONTAINER]) to have survived the rigors of implementation. There’s also some really nifty but somewhat extraneous features, like a variety of reassignable function key hotkeys for common commands, which is exactly the sort of rabbit hole that can easily drink hours and hours of a homebrewer’s development time. The game also bends over backwards to ensure the player has a smooth experience, boasting not only a set of in-game hints (both implicit and explicit), but also a complete set of maps and even a walkthrough.

It is perhaps unsurprising that all this homebrewer enthusiasm for systems polish glistens over a game that is frequently jarring and obtuse. Some of this is just the map: we have a central hub that gives way to six scenarios, but they’re not really scenarios, they’re just areas, there’s really not cohesive themes to them. That would be fine, except that traveling between the hub and the scenarios is confusing and tedious: you have to say a spell to unlock one scenario at a time, which then only has one exit, which is hidden in often confusing ways, and you must loop through the one way trajectory in order to traverse from scenario to hub to scenario. If, say, you accidentally enter the wrong scenario, just the headache of trying to find your way out again makes you wonder why moving through the hub needs to be so clunky and difficult! Compounding this frustration is that you do need to frequently travel between scenarios: like many IF games, you’ll build up a list of unsolved puzzles and go spelunking elsewhere to find the items that might solve those puzzles, but there’s also an inventory limit, and there’s many more items than are actually useful, so you’ll constantly be backtracking, which means going down the well, crawling through the hole, saying the right spell, wandering back through a spelunk of rooms, then tying a rope to a hook, climbing back down into the hub… you get the idea. Over the course of the game, you’ll build up a veritable arsenal of leftover items in the hub location, looping endlessly back and forth and back and forth as you try items J, K, and L on puzzle H. Trudging around this game is actively disorienting and disheartening.

Which is a shame, because the puzzles themselves can be rather clever. I particularly like the musical puzzles, which start with a light concept, but then build in complexity to a satisfying climax. For instance, you find a tuning fork set to C, then you find a door labelled C. Get it? Hit the tuning fork, and the door unlocks. Later on, we find a note saying “I NEED FED”, which is actually an instruction for playing a nearby instrument: play an F, then an E, then a D, voila. It’s always gratifying when a game trains us to think in a certain way, and then actually rewards us in multiple situations for thinking that way. Several other puzzles require some enjoyably lateral thinking, as when we’re given the password hint “Male bovine’s visual organ”, which seems like it might have something to do with the witch’s brew of ingredients we’ve been assembling, until you realize the password is just “bullseye”!

It’s good that the game has several charming puzzles, because the puzzling is clearly the intention of the game. There’s not really a plot: out of the blue our nameless adventurer is whisked away from “a deserted country road” to a “hemispherical chamber”. Why? Just to do some puzzling, of course! A voice informs us “we have sought one who could help in our time of need, and you alone have demonstrated the required intelligence and skills”. Finally, my PhD in the humanities is getting the respect it deserves! They want us to return an artifact, but when we find said artifact, an examination garners the response that “There isn’t anything notable about the Ibistick.” So like, don’t think about that, it’s not important, just get to puzzling. There’s also not much of a world to inhabit here: the rooms are a fugue state so mercurial one gets rather mistyeyed in nostalgia for Silent Hill.

Moreover, the prose, while chatty, is usually focused on providing the player with the information useful for the puzzles. This is kind of counterproductive for a game that’s happy to stretch out over a large amount of unnecessary rooms with objects that serve no purpose, it’s not like the game is going for a graphing paper aesthetic, yet nevertheless the game cheerfully motors along, giving us a number of rooms that are described as “spartan” except for the one or two interactable objects. The prose, where descriptive, generally focuses on neatly ordering the gamespace. Sometimes, however, the prose gets perhaps a little too chatty and clatters through redundancies with indefatigable aplomb. We watch a door “undulate and become almost like a fluid”. We find ourselves “at the southern end of a tunnel which therefore passes northwards”. In a rather egregious example, we find ourselves in a Cramped Room: “The light from your lamp demonstrates that this chamber is so cramped that you feel quite claustrophobic. The walls close in on you, and the staircase which is right in front of you, leading the way up, tantalisingly beckons. Beside you there lies a red herring.” Counting the title, that’s five times it tells you the room is small, thrice it nods you up the stairs, and for the coup de grace a literal red herring. What makes this description even sillier is that a different room tells us that “The walls and ceiling seem to cram in on you, and it’s fortunate that you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.” This is either a mistake or some incredibly advanced state-based character arc subtlety!

Despite these stumbles, the prose can prove charming. When we encounter a hovel guarded by a keypad, our protagonist finds it “a little bizarre that high-tech mechanical sophistication such as this has been installed in an attempt to protect such a down-market and tumbledown construction.” I quite like that phrase “down-market and tumbledown construction”! It rolls off the tongue with an aptly tumbling momentum, slyly flashing fangs acerbic. I also liked this little line, which adds an enchanting flourish to the waving of our wand: “As you wave the wand you are almost immediately enveloped in a bright cloud of mauve-coloured mist in which little sparks of fairy dust scintillate and dance all around you.”

The game has a pervasive disjunctive jauntiness that pleases even as it perplexes, refusing to make sense, but never disrupting the whimsy dreamy puzzle befuddles. Somewhere, Somewhen embraces its weirder threads: for instance, the game splatters magic and machinery together with a deliberate delight in how they conflict. One puzzle in particular, where we have to dress as a wizard, fake beard and all, in order to fool CCTV into giving us access to an inner sanctum, is joyfully idiosyncratic, blessing this bizarre line with a middle school theater kid’s ebullient confidence: “Thank you for requesting entry to our inner sanctum. Before being allowed to proceed, your identity as a wizard must now be confirmed. Please look at the camera directly and remain very still as the scanning takes place … The scan has now been completed. Your identity as one of our brethren has now been confirmed.” It’s actually kind of adorable.

That offbeat charm ends up giving the whole experience an exuberance that blunts its rougher edges. Perhaps that’s par for a homebrewer’s passion project! We get plenty of cute details, like ASCII graphics for doors and books, including one sequence where we have a keypad that actually displays the numbers we type into it, as well as many items being ACME devices. It can be easy to get frustrated with Somewhere, Somewhen, but it’s hard not to forgive its wobbly weirdness when it is delivered with such sincerity and with an admirable amount of polish. The joy of the homebrewer who builds and builds is to take the player by the hand, lead them through their project’s winding corridors and lavish follies, lead them right into its heart beating with the devotion and affection that kept them going through months of grind, then turn around, smile, and simply share somewhere, somewhen.

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