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Not Because It Needed Doing, But Because It Did Not, January 6, 2024
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

There is a roadside attraction in Nebraska called Carhenge. You can probably imagine what it is, just from its name. It is a loving, painstaking scale replica of Stonehenge, created from sculptures made of automobile hulks. Objectively, it is a baffling artifact. Yes, Stonehenge is cool and has some cultural cache. But the work required to execute Carhenge was mammoth, relative to the modest means of its creator. It is kind of a funhouse mirror reflection, rendered on a scale that while reduced is STILL humbling to observe. The result is a work that has the general shape of its inspiration but its towering weirdness is all its own. Its impact becomes less about ‘does it look like Stonehenge?’ and more about ‘who would do this and why?’ Even if the result of the effort doesn’t objectively appeal to you, the baffling passion of its creator is magnetic.

'Kay you can probably guess Stonehenge is 80’s RPG text games and Carhenge is Hawkstone.

When you fire up Hawkstone, a file cheekily named Adventure.exe, you get a welcome screen that homages a TRS-80, complete with directory structure and auto-typed (with typo!) start game command. It is a powerful start! It evokes its inspiration and immediately puts the player in place, before a keyboard in 1980, firing up the latest fantasy-inspired text adventure. This one with RPG-like stats and character progression!

It has wry humor to it - killing a worm confers treasures, though using them is mostly not possible. You find weird artifacts throughout the landscape like live fish, specifically branded matches, valuables lying in random places. There are anachronistic jokes - you can find Online Shopping and maybe my favorite Crypt Currency. And you just explore without clear purpose beyond maybe LEVELING UP!!1! The leveling system is pretty arbitrary, comedically so, and I was never sure whether it actually was used in gameplay. I actually really liked the hint system - it cost gold to use, and since you could not be sure if and when you would get more acted as a soft back pressure to consulting it.

Between the quasi-useful items you can collect and barely-motivated obtuse puzzles to solve, it is a decidedly off-kilter vibe, keeping the player off balance and never quite sure what is coming next or even what needed doing. After some initial, fairly straightforward ‘go-find-use’ puzzles it rockets into a ‘read author’s mind’ exercise without warning. My best advice, which the game did give to me but I didn’t understand at the time, is to lean on the >USE and >GO commands when stuck. Doesn’t matter if it seems logical or not, like Frank’s RedHot, put that sh*t on EVERYTHING. At one point you need to (Spoiler - click to show)>GO ORB. That’ll get you maybe 60% of the way there. After that, you’re on your own. Quite literally. The game is no help cluing what weird thing it wants you to do next, what verb you would never think to employ.

I consulted the Walkthrough a lot. Overwhelmingly, when I did my takeaway was ‘Hnh. I, ah… hnh.’ It was like the author was implementing a psychedelic dream logic acid trip that only made sense because they lived it, with no thought or accommodation for those that had not. For me, the unhinged weirdness of it was not leavened with enough humor to be compelling. If it had let me play along with narrative nudging or clues to point me in its non-Euclidian directions maybe I could have embraced it better. Instead, it practically screamed ‘this is for me, not you, player!’ and I became preoccupied with the question ‘who would build this and why?’ Because it is quite an achievement - the Walkthrough is LONG. Eventually, I stopped playing and just skimmed the walkthrough to see what kinds of things needed doing, and realized I never had a chance of getting on this thing’s frequency. It was deeply arbitrary and opaque with almost no in-game cluing of any kind and presumably scratching a singular itch.

As a gameplay experience it was Mechanical and Intrusively opaque. As time went on there was less and less me testing, experimenting and exploring and more ‘sigh, what am I supposed to do next, Walkthrough?’ But I can’t help but marvel at the passion and investment of the author in bringing this ungainly, baffling, towering thing to life.

"We admire these things not because they needed doing..."

Played: 11/8/23
Playtime: 1.5hr, not finished, eventually laid down my cards and pushed away from the table
Artistic/Technical ratings: Mechanical, Intrusive opacity
Would Play After Comp?: No, Experience feels complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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