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Books, glorious books!, July 17, 2012
Dead Cities hails from the Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 and uses the following jotting of Lovecraft's as its inspiration:
"An impression - city in peril - dead city - equestrian statue - men in closed room - clattering of hooves heard from outside - marvel disclosed on looking out - doubtful ending."
While I've yet to play through all of the project games as I write this, I'm guessing that this one is the most technically ambitious of the bunch. It presents attractively in a multi-pane window which divides up the main text, an inventory list, a hint panel and black-and-white pencil sketches of many of its situations and objects. Suggested commands from the hint panel can also be clicked to enter them into the main window. Unfortunately, these flourishes are not trouble-free. I ran into a fair few bugs while playing, several of them related to the display, some of them serious (no save possible because it was not possible to restore) and was rarely able to determine exactly where the fault lay. I will discuss these issues at the end of the review.
Dead Cities is a Lovecraft pastiche long on conversation, domesticity and quality prose. Lovecraft was good at fetisihising all kinds of things by dwelling upon them at what I like to think he would describe as preternatural length, and Jon Ingold achieves something similar here with the rare books which appear in this game. The player is a solicitor charged by Carter Arkwright with obtaining the signature of Carter's dying uncle. Carter seeks to avoid inheritance tax bankruptcy by acquiring his uncle's valuable books before his death, books which range from rare Isaac Newtons to Necronomicon-like volumes.
It is necessary in the first place to attend to social niceties in this game. You'll tie up your horse, make small talk with the maid and humour an old man. I would say that these things seem to flow easily here, when they often don't in IF, except that with my general dislike of the tell/ask system of IF conversation which Dead Cities uses, the truth is that I was unable to cleave myself away from the hint panel, which perfectly yes'd and no'd and asked and told my way all through the introductory section of the game – and then quite far into the game's core conversation with old man Arkwright. The hint panel feature strikes me as an excellent way to show people how to play IF, and would probably have worked very well for random folks looking at this game in the context of an exhibition. For regular IFfers, it may be a bit too much of an easy temptation, but personally I never say no to an opportunity to skip asking and telling.
The conversation scene with Arkwright has that black humour about it of someone trying to extricate valuable information (or just valuables) from an old person who is dying and knows it. Of course in this game you can say that it was all just business because you're playing a hired solicitor, but there is some scope in your yes-ing and no-ing to treat the old man well or poorly, or somewhere inbetween, which is interesting.
To speak of later more hair-raising shenanigans would be to spoil this not particularly long game. There is a lot of room in it to try little variations in your interactions with the game's few NPCs, but there are perhaps only a handful of opportunities to change a bigger picture. I found a couple of endings hard to read in that they made me wonder if I'd missed chunks of the game, as if I could have achieved something more drastic. But there's no walkthrough and no hints for the later part of Dead Cities, so I decided to be content with what I'd done. The general high quality of the prose and overall flow of events were the real attractions for me.
Concerning technical troubles, I can say that I was unable to successfully restore a saved game of Dead Cities in the current versions of Mac interpreters Gargoyle and Zoom – doing so produced a Glulx error. The game's hint panel spiralled out of control on me more than once, cycling madly through the hints, and in Zoom I found it was sometimes necessary to resize the game window mid-session to prevent the interpreter from pausing after every line of text. Dialogue and hints snuck into the inventory window occasionally, too. I believe this game was put together in two months for the Commonplace project, so it's already punching above its time-weight in overall quality, but it looks like it could have benefited from more testing, and it's probably become a victim of some degree of inconsistency in delivery of the relatively nascent Glulx format, or tweaks to that format over time.