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Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting; Winner, Best NPCs; Nominee, Best Individual NPC; Nominee, Best Use of Medium - 2003 XYZZY Awards
Possibly Short's most polished work, and that's saying something. In a city based on both high technology and magic, trains and robots and illusions, an innocent traveller gets swept into the center of a clandestine power-struggle which will forever change the city and how it is seen. Excellent world-building, not just in that the environment is highly explorable and implemented in great detail, but in that the city has a distinct foreign-metropolis-through-tourist-eyes flavor, and a history which makes itself known in various and subtle ways. Good sense of choice: although there's basically only one ending, much of what happens along the way is variable. Uses the conversation system from Pytho's Mask: a combination of menus and ask/tell that's sensitive to context and lets you change topics arbitrarily. Even though most characters will respond to a wide variety of topics, it's still easy to run out of things to say. Features a "novice" mode, but the standard mode is recommended for anyone but the absolute newcomer to IF.
-- Carl Muckenhoupt
We’re just a tourist without a clue what’s going on, so large part of the game is just exploration and marvelling at all the wonders around us. [...] Story-wise and by the creation of the setting, it is one of the best IF out there.
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Life In The Big City
I think my favorite thing about City Of Secrets is that it gave me several pieces of writing to treasure, things that I wanted to enshrine and remember. A quote from the denouement now appears in my collection of randomly rotating email signatures. Queen Rine's Meditation Upon Passion now hangs on my office wall. More than any other IF game I can think of, City Of Secrets offered me ideas that feel like they apply directly to my life -- that's the mark not just of a great game, but of a great work of art.
-- Paul O'Brian
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There is an impressive amount of detail in the descriptions with nearly all first level objects implemented and many second and third level as well. Such extras as your complementary personal shampoo from the hotel are fully implemented, which gives the world a solid feeling. The City seems to be an actual place rather than merely the setting for a game. The superb map design also contributes to this feeling. The city is represented as 20 or so rooms, but between the graphical map that you have available and the intuitive layout of the main thoroughfares travel is easy. She has also admirably succeeded in giving the different sectors of the City a unique feel.
-- Cirk Bejnar
Overall it's an excellent game. It's not a puzzle-fest; it's not supposed to be. It's a conversation-fest. You can chat to (and "up" to some extent) a large number of NPCs who are all intelligently programmed. The way that the story unfolds is very well done, with different NPCs (and some books) filling in different parts of the canvas with their own style. To be honest it's not my cup of tea -- I prefer puzzles (like Metamorphoses), but I have no problems recommending this game to anyone.
-- David Jones
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Number of Reviews: 14
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
Emily Short's longest and perhaps most ambitious game, City of Secrets wowed me completely for the first hour or two I spent with it. The plot has you, a rather naive tourist, arriving in a large city for the first time. Your sightseeing there is quickly complicated by a mess of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that you discover. You must sort out what is really going on, figure out who are the real good and bad guys, and finally choose a side to support. While doing all this, you also get the opportunity to explore the City and learn something about its culture and history.
Indeed, it's the City that is the real main character of the game. It's part of a fantasy world of Ms. Short's creation in which magic and high technology co-exist, and are (predictably enough) frequently at odds with one another. The most obviously unique feature of the City is that there is no such thing as night -- it's daylight all the time, apparently due to some sort of human tampering. (This memorable little wrinkle of course has the added benefit for Ms. Short of saving her from having to code a realistic day-night cycle.) Short doesn't just depend on this one gimmick to define her setting, though. Her city and her whole world are worked out in impressive, subtle detail that includes not only the present but the last several thousand years of history as well. It's some of the best, most complete world-building I've ever seen in IF, and the greatest strength by far of the game.
Plot-wise, things start off almost equally strong. The early stages of the game perfectly capture the "stranger in a strange land" feel of a tourist in an unfamiliar city. When inexplicable things start to happen at the margins of your existence, the effect is suitably creepy, and then when you are taken before the head of one of the City's factions and enlisted rather forcefully into his cause, things get downright compelling. The writing is excellent, Ms. Short by this stage of her career having shed the slightly cloying preciousness that dogged her earliest work.
During the middle game, though, the plot machinery begins to break down. There's far too much wandering over a rather expansive map, far too much talking to a huge cast of characters about essentially the same topics again and again, and not really that much to actually DO. In fact, when Ms. Short wrote recently on her blog about the challenges of maintaining dramatic pace in games with lots of conversation, I thought immediately of this game as an example of said challenges. One problem is that the sheer number of NPC's here preclude anyone from really taking center-stage. There are lots of personalities, tons of conversations, but only the most superficial of relationships to be formed. This makes it hard to really care about the plot once the novelty wears off, and eventually even the hugely rich and imaginative scenery and back-story start to become mind-numbing without a compelling foreground story to enjoy there. I found myself on several occasions reduced to wandering around from place to place trying to shake something loose and drive the plot forward -- not exactly a compelling narrative experience.
I get the impression that Ms. Short may have simply bit off more than she could chew with this one. I sense a bit of authorial exhaustion in the latter stages. Regardless, its failures shouldn't detract too much from its strengths -- it's a near masterpiece of world-building. Every IF tourist should spend a bit of time wandering around inside it.
As other reviewers have said, the strength of CoS is the atmosphere of its setting. Though the author may have conceived the City as part of her own fantasy world; for me she manages wonderfully to capture the unmistakeable ambience of a middle-european capital during the later cold-war era. There is a polished, and almost luxurious veneer, but underneath, everything is curiously shabby and archaic. As the title implies, this is a city whose social structures are founded on lies and secrets rather than anything more substantial and enduring. Even the NPC interactions reflect the careful tones and phrasings of people living with the knowledge that everything they do and say may be observed.
The sense of place and time is so good, it seems almost churlish to draw attention to the slight flaws in the plot; a certain stiltedness that grows more marked the further we get into the story. To say that there were points at which I found myself becoming almost bored, gives a slightly inaccurate and rather picky picture. There was never any real danger I would give up, largely because the sheer depth and accuracy of the setting had me well and truly hooked.
Overall CoS was a very good game and a very enjoyable experience. I just couldn't help feeling that it had the potential to be even better.
One of my favorite sub-genres is the accidental spy movie, films like The Man Who Knew Too Little, Gotcha!, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the more recent The Spy Who Dumped Me. To my great delight, Emily Short’s City of Secrets is an accidental spy IF.
While on your way south to attend a friends wedding your train breaks down so the railway puts you up in an elegant hotel. Soon you find yourself possibly poisoned, nearly kidnapped, roped into a scheme to infiltrate a rebel faction for the mayor, and set loose in The City where you can trust everyone.
Initially, this accidental spy scenario is exciting. Your method of discovering information is almost exclusively through speaking to NPCs, with a dialogue system that is deep, wide, smooth, and easy to use. Suggested talking point/questions are available for you to follow or you can always steer the conversation to a topic of your choosing. When first trying to track down leads, I wanted to be coy in my interactions with the locals, slowly pushing the conversations I was having toward the subject my quarry. This approach really made me feel like the spy I was supposed to be. But it did not take long before I realized straight up asking everyone about the person I was looking for was quicker with no noticeable negative consequences for my bluntness.
Once sleuthing took this form City of Secrets no longer felt like an espionage game but instead became a series of invisible dialogue trees that needed to be navigated. At least most of the branches on these trees hint at story and lore in the world of City of Secrets and there is plenty of story and lore to discover. The worldbuilding here is superb.
The most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its name. With Emily Short you often get fun or interesting title; Alabaster for a game about Snow White, Counterfeit Monkey for a game with a letter removing device, and Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny for a game about… who cares, that’s a great title. With City of Secrets we have a game about a city with secrets. It’s just so bland.
The second most disappointing thing about City of Secrets is its end sequence. The entire thing plays out like and interactive cut scene with limited choices, and a rather long cut scene at that. In an attempt at creating a climax that feels cinematic, the game lost what makes Interactive Fiction enjoyable; interaction with meaningful choice.
Still, there are many reasons I will encourage you to play City of Secrets. It is a well implemented, immersive world, its spaces designed to yield nuggets of story to those willing to explore. There is an incredible dialogue system with plenty of NPCs to speak with. And it has a deep lore that is interesting to uncover.
You can find the SPOILER-Y portion of unWinnable State's review of City of Secrets here.
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