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Advancing the Art of the Parser Puzzler, January 7, 2015
ďO son, how many bodies have we to pass through, how many bands of demons, through how many series of repetitions and cycles of the stars, before we hasten to the One alone?Ē Ė Hermes Trismegistus
Hadean Lands is a fantastic game in the parser-based format / puzzlefest genre -- so good, and so groundbreaking in its new technology and affordances, that it's easy to overlook the few flaws it does have.
But let's start with the great, because there's plenty to cover! In Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin does a whole lot of things well and some things surpassingly well. Spare, precise prose makes the granular actions of his alchemy-based magic system pop off the screen. When you attempt a new ritual, components fizz, liquids simmer, substances transmute and transform, and there's a consistent sense of meaningful participation and accomplishment in working through the ritual steps.
Hadean Lands is a strongly puzzle-oriented work, and although most puzzles fall into the "how can I open this / how can I reach this" subgenre, I found them to be appropriately tough, reasonably diverse, and fair; I never needed hints, but I did hang up on a few obstacles for a while and needed to sleep on them to come up with fresh approaches.
There are four real "challenge factors" in this game, roughly corresponding to the player's progression through the game:
1. Learning the ritual magic system and gaining knowledge about the world model. This is done through gathering reagents, performing rituals and ritual variations, and exhaustive exploration including examining everything you can see with the oculus and planetary lens.
2. Standard IF puzzles, mostly consisting of finding appropriate means to access items, open doors, etc. Most of these puzzles involve proper application of a single ritual (possibly selected from among two or three viable possibilities), or directly applying the end product of a previous ritual. (Spoiler - click to show)It is interesting to note that almost all puzzles in Hadean Lands are solved via ritual either directly or indirectly at one remove. The only non-ritual-powered puzzle I can think of was figuring out how to properly light the swamp pith and blackwood.
3. A resource-management metagame where sequences of rituals must be deployed in the proper order and using proper component choices in order to pass multiple challenges and thus unlock access to more of the ship.
4. Attempting to understand what needs to be done to repair the ship once you have sufficient knowledge and power, and then completing the game.
An immediate and surprising conclusion I drew from this analysis is that one could completely remove the detailed ritual magic system and replace it with an Enchanteresque or Reliques of Tolti-Aph-like spells-with-optional-components system and still leave the game with pretty much all the actual puzzles intact, albeit without all the time spent slaving over a glowing ritual bound. You'd remove most of the first challenge category, but not all of it, and you'd significantly compress the flow of the game.
I don't think that would have been a better design, but it would certainly have been possible, and reveals the ritual magic system as a rich and absorbing but ultimately inessential minigame that is mostly present for the great deal of flavor and pacing it provides.
Several reviewers have mentioned the complexity of the interrelated resource-management puzzles in the mid-to-late game. Ironically, I found myself needing more notes in the early- and mid-game than I did toward the end. I found it much easier to keep track of critical (or, more accurately, consumable) reagent dependencies in my head than to remember all the inaccessible locations and containers to which I still needed to return. Once I had wangled access to most areas, I found myself referring to my notes much less often.
One of the best storytelling features in Hadean Lands is the smooth transition from the granular to the general, as the task of laboriously mastering individual rituals to overcome single obstacles gradually gives way to fluent performance of multiple rituals with a single command in the pursuit of much greater goals. This generates a strong, organic sense of qualitatively increasing power and competence that I have not encountered in any other IF title, and in few other games period. This alone would be a tremendous achievement in storytelling, powered by true advancements in IF technology, but there's much more going on here than just that.
The technical virtuosity of the reset mechanic and what I will call the macro replay system are extremely impressive. These systems feel fully integrated and comprehensive, as if they were part of the I7 standard library. Unfortunately, the very few seams visible in the replay system are somewhat obtrusive given its near perfection.
The issues I found related to (Spoiler - click to show)the gold rod in its phlogisticated and unphlogisticated states. For some reason, I could never get the game to automatically use the elemental fire on the gold rod to make the fire-devourer potion, even when I performed it that way manually. There were also roadblocks when trying to fashion the gold amalgam wire, even when all the components were present and accounted for.
Both of these new systems work together to greatly improve the playability of the game, and they do so in two distinct ways -- by lowering the barrier to destructive experimentation, and by minimizing the consequences of recovering from errors.
The alchemical flavor of the ritual magic system dictates that some components be consumed or transform irreversibly. As has been noted in other reviews, the reset system allows you to freely experiment without fear of losing items permanently. A given experiment may result in a viable potion or a pile of fuming gunk (unfortunately, usually a pile of fuming gunk). In both cases, the reset mechanism is valuable. In the event of success, reset enables you to lock in your character's knowledge of how to perform the ritual, while removing the consequences of reagent consumption. Multiple undos would work to reset the reagent state, but the protagonist's knowledge of the new ritual would be lost and the player would be forced to perform the steps manually the next time through. In the case of failure, reset provides a one-command means to reset state rather than bumbling through multiple levels of undo.
The macro replay system is complementary to the reset mechanic. Although the granular mechanics of Plotkin's ritual magic system are fun to play with, once you've performed a ritual there's no challenge and minimal motivation to perform the same multi-turn ritual steps again and again and again. In fact, even random alchemical experimentation palled fairly quickly once it became apparent how sparsely-implemented the ritual state space really was. The cost (many turns of annoying fiddling followed by a similar number of undo operations) seldom outweighed the very low chance of reward.
The macro replay system allows you to enjoy the ritual system while it provides novelty and fresh content, while freeing you from fun-killing drudgery once the scale of the game expands. It also neatly allows the player to squelch the urge to ragequit that the reset system would otherwise cause, by amplifying a half dozen or so post-reset command inputs into the hundreds of in-game actions required to get back to roughly the game state you previously had.
Interestingly, the macro replay system actually impeded my ability to solve certain late-game puzzles, by allowing me to forget some of the requirements to make rituals or inscribed items work properly. Specifically, (Spoiler - click to show)I couldn't get through the window in the alien ship with the glass permeability charm, despite having used it dozens of times previously, because I'd forgotten that it needed to be ringing before touching it to the window. Were the game not performing this for me automatically so often, Iím sure Iíd have found it easier to remember when I had to do it manually.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Hadean Lands has flaws. Itís a great game, but by no means perfect and has some deficiencies in its design, writing and implementation.
After completing the game, I have a love-hate relationship with the ritual magic system. Itís very fun to play with, certainly adds plenty of atmosphere and anchors many accessibility and container puzzles, but it is also a quite sparsely implemented mechanism. If a ritual is not performed precisely to specification it is very likely to result in abject failure.
Certain variations are supported -- others that would seem viable yield nothing but sputtering goo. It became clear early on that rituals that were variable were going to be fairly well cued in their ritual description or with an associated fact, and that if there wasnít some text that clearly indicated that a substitution would logically yield a different effect, it probably wasnít going to work.
In one of Andrew Plotkinís early Kickstarter updates, he talked about this, detailing plans for a lot more dense population of the ritual state space than we received in the final game:
ď...Think back to my HL teaser: the untarnishing ritual starts with ginger oil, but you also have peppermint oil available. Shouldn't that lead into a different ritual? What if you start with ginger but use the binding word instead? These don't go anywhere in the teaser, but they will in the full game.
In essence, the space of ingredients and magic words forms a *map* -- and this abstract map should be explorable and interesting, just like the game's *physical* map. So this is what I've started working on now. Making up a lot of Y and Z items, but arranging them in a satisfying way. (While still obeying the major puzzle ordering constraints, of course.)Ē
He never really delivered on this -- not to any great degree. Exploration of the ritual state space is in the main unproductive as the player never has much theoretical background on how to intelligently explore that space. The base versions of all useful rituals are explicitly laid out for the player. There are some simple, heavily-cued variations that are required, a very few more variations that don't do anything useful, and aside from that there's a barren, Hadean wasteland of failure modes.
The game works with the state space implemented sparsely, but wouldnít it have been great if there were all sorts of other viable rituals -- some useful, some cosmetic, some perhaps actively dangerous -- implemented as per that original plan?
One of the variants that did work(Spoiler - click to show), modification of the glass permeability ritual to make an aluminum permeability inscription, has its own problems. (Spoiler - click to show)The glass ritual uses an F-sharp chime, which is associated with aluminum (as the "obfuscated music" fact states). The ritual using that charm makes glass permeable. Substituting a B chime, which is associated with bronze, makes aluminum permeable. If this makes sense in any way, I canít figure it out. Iím also curious to know how the protagonist could possibly know that the resulting symbol is an aluminum permeability charm given that thereís no aluminum to test it on anywhere in the game.
I felt quite detached and apathetic towards the characters in the game, other than the Sergeant, who was only ever physically seen as a dead hand ďprotruding obscenelyĒ from some wreckage. Direct exposition of snippets of the charactersí mental states and a limited set of facial expressions didnít generate a great deal of sympathy. (Spoiler - click to show)Extracting information from the shadows and frozen characters was an interesting game mechanic, but there just wasnít enough there to make me care about what they were doing or why, particularly as who did what seemed to change as the dragon subsumption chain progressed. I saw their relationships as a generic, mutable tangle of vice -- vaguely interesting in the abstract but lacking specific emotional resonance, particularly as the protagonist seemed pretty uninvested in it.
My biggest problem with Hadean Lands, though, isnít a technical or implementation issue or even a character issue. Itís the obscurity of the worldbuilding and the unsatisfying ending. The game reminded me of the works of Neil Stephenson. He writes great fiction, but tends to cut off right after the climax without any sense of resolution. Andrew Plotkin writes great interactive fiction, but tends to write coy endings that shy away from actual closure.
But the ending wouldnít have bothered me as much if I had a better feel for what was actually going on. Plotkin may have reams of detail on how his alchemical universe works and precisely what the situation on the Retort was, but if so heís the only one truly in the know. There simply isnít enough information in the game to even broadly reconstruct what actually happened to the Retort. Others have praised the writing and worldbuilding as allusive, but in my opinion this goes beyond allusive and settles firmly in the hinterlands of the cryptic.
Players on the forums have extracted almost every word of backstory provided in the game, and there are tons of imaginative theories kicking around as to what the heck is/was/will be going on. Some might be exactly right. But thereís no way to be sure -- thereís clearly not enough data to actually confirm any speculation. (Spoiler - click to show)The nature of the aliens and their technology is left utterly mysterious. Are we fixing their ship along with our own? Consuming it to save our own? Being consumed by them to save their own? All of the above? Is the homunculus part-alien due to the incorporation of the black marks? Weíre obviously not ever meant to know, and hence I find it hard to care to speculate too much as I will almost certainly be wrong.
If I believed Plotkin was working with an authentic, overarching alchemical theme for this work, I would guess it was framed such that the repeated iterations were a recapitulation of the alchemical Great Work, a quest for spiritual perfection through an iterative process of purification, eventually leading to the salvific gnosis that raises the protagonist out of the flawed shadow world into the perfection of the true reality. (Spoiler - click to show)The aliens merge with the humans of the marcher in an analogue of alchemical conjunction (recall where the marks were placed in the Nave), both dying and putrefying together to eventually distill and purify their essences through the repetition of the protagonistís work with the glyphs and dragons before finally coagulating in the ultimate process, producing the pure spirit of resurrection for both.
...All this translated, of course, into whatever modern alchemico-scientific phraseology His Majestyís Navy would have used.
If you squint a bit, this take on the work might look plausible. But I donít really think thatís where Plotkin was going. There are too many situations that don't line up and the emphasis on (Spoiler - click to show)recursive soul-echoes seems to have more in common with quantum mechanics or nested virtual realities than it does with medieval Gnostic spirituality. Although the surface resemblance is there, the spiritual essence of classical alchemy seems absent from the syncretic ritual magic system and the cryptomilitary setting.
It's possible, I suppose, that there are deeper references here that are too subtle or obscure for me, but I just don't see very much to indicate that the traditional narrative of classical alchemy was really a guiding theme for the worldbuilding or gameplay of Hadean Lands. It seems a bit of a shame to me, and certainly a missed opportunity.
A missed opportunity is all it is, though, and Hadean Lands seizes so many other opportunities with both hands that I canít fault it too much for not being something its creator may never have intended. This is an important work, an enjoyable puzzlefest, a technological showpiece, and, most importantly, a great game. Donít miss it.