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(based on 11 ratings)
About the Story
Graduate. Become lost. Imagine what's possible.
31st Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Not infrequently, Iíll argue in a review that a game seems unfinished. Usually what I mean is that itís buggy, or the prose needs an editing pass, or pieces of characterization donít seem consistent, or puzzles come out of nowhere. The Counsel in the Cave, a character-driven journey into other worlds written in Ink, strikes me as unfinished but in a completely different way: whatís here is high-quality and polished to a high sheen, but the game seems to be missing large chunks of its own story. Some of this seems intentional: there are bottom-lined recaps of the missing action woven into the later scenes, and the ďpage numbersĒ displayed at the bottom of each passage look to jump ahead by a few dozen in between each act. Itís still a storytelling choice I found frustrating, though Ė I loved the gameís grounded beginning and stakes, and really enjoyed the connection and dialogue between the two main characters, but found the compressed runtime stepped on the character arcs, and the abrupt way the narrative leaps into its fantastical elements made them feel somewhat arbitrary.
Let me be clear: Iím not just trying to balance criticism with praise, whatís good here is really, really good. The story opens with two teenagers talking through their feelings about their upcoming graduation from high school in suburban Pennsylvania and potential college plans, each striking slightly different balances between excitement for the future and nostalgia for the past. Iím no Pennsylvania expert, but the local detail strikes me as authentic (wrestling powerhouse Lehigh University gets a namecheck!) deepening the sense of place, and their conversation unfolds in a walk through the hills where the two Ė vacillating May and driven Jason Ė reminisce about their shared childhood. The gameís presented in (screen?)play format, but even in this dialogue-driven presentation the landscape comes through powerfully, albeit with a postmodern sense of unreality:
"The curtain rises on a steep green hill covered in clovers. On stage right, tall trees line the edge of a small wood. Below us on stage left, unkempt vegetation grows more wild.
"Little can be seen through the dense canopy of low tangled trees. Beneath the brush, mosquitoes buzz and hum. Resting on a rocky creek bed written with tree-roots, May spies an old rowboat split by a twisted vine."
For all this well-observed detail, though, these hills are anything but mundane. Strange obelisks float midair, carts roll of their own volition, and dinosaurs skulk in the woods. Itís maybe a bit much to throw in all at once, but the matter-of-fact way the pair accept all this weirdness creates an alien mood that I found made for a compelling juxtaposition with their more relatable late-adolescent concerns. And the magic realism makes for some lovely images. Hereís Jason, talking about the tall power transmission towers whose cut wire-ends float frondlike in the sky:
ĒNow they look like titans. As if at night, they put down their wires. And instead of staying here, wander the earth in search of something greater.ď
I am very much here for all of this, and as the first scene wrapped up, with May, on Jasonís advice, readying herself to find a guidance counselor who seemed connected to powers beyond this reality for counsel about her mixed feelings about leaving town, I was very much on board. So I was very much taken aback when in a single short paragraph, the second sequence opened by saying sheíd looked for the counselor, hadnít found them, but had fallen into a portal into a multiversal realm of refracted, fantastical realities. Still, I found that after this hiccup, the game did regain its footing Ė this scene consists of a dialogue with a denizen of the otherworld that continued to play the gameís themes will adding some new lovely metaphors, even if some of them are a little on the nose. Hereís an exchange between May and ethereal fisherman Moondog, talking about some fairy-type creatures she sees riding on what look like underwater rays:
MAY: How do they steer? I donít see any reigns. [sic]
MOONDOG: Ha! They donít! The riders surrender themselves to the creaturesí wills. That and the winds. See, the manta rays are blindfolded. They operate on instinct alone.
Any relevance to how May is overthinking her future education and life choices is completely coincidental, Iím sure!
Where Counsel in the Cave really started to lose me, though, was the third and final scene. I donít want to fully spoil the story, but thereís an even bigger jump ahead in the narrative, with adventures, revelations, and character development addressed only in brief flashback. Donít get me wrong, sometimes it can work to mention past events only by allusion Ė a little mystery can go a long way, and having to choose which one of three people May met in her journey to tell Jason about means that many players will only see the sentence ďBut there I met the Ticking Timekeeper, with his cart of clocksĒ without ever having it expanded on, which is perfect.
But Mayís moment of catharsis, resolving the conflict inside her, also happens off-screen between the second and third sequence, which I found incredibly unsatisfying Ė thatís not the kind of stuff you can just skip without harming the plausibility of the character arc! Things feel even more abbreviated with Jason, who undergoes a calamitous misfortune and sprouts a hitherto-unmentioned Tragic Backstory. As a result, while I could tell what emotions the finale was working to evoke, it fell far flatter than it should have given the quality of writing on offer.
Itís hard to fully make sense of the authorís intention here Ė from a few post-game notes, it seems as though parts of the game are drawn from dreams, which can certainly lend a disconnected feel, but thereís also an indication that it might be a work-in-progress, and they decided to polish up half of the story and release it into IF Comp as a teaser for what might be an eventually whole piece to come. I hope thatís the case, because I suspect I would enjoy the final version of Counsel in the Cave very, very, much Ė as it is thereís still a lot to like here, but the absence of space to fully establish, then play out and resolve, the charactersí inner conflicts is a real shame.
I was excited to see a magical realist game show up in the Comp as itís something I like but donít see often, especially in video gaming. One of my favorite video games is in fact Kentucky Route Zero (which is also the only magical-realist game I know of, go figure). Itís clearly a favorite of this author as well, since I could clearly see the inspiration here. KRZ and The Counsel in the Cave are both games set in rural areas (at least at first), and are technically choice-based but donít have much in the way of traditional puzzles. Instead, the player is given the option to shape how the story plays out Ė the choice picked is always correct and becomes the new truth of the world, as if itís always been there. The overall framework of the plot stays the same, but no two playthroughs will ever be alike unless you do it on purpose.
Luckily for me, The Counsel in the Cave ends up being a worthy game on its own as well as distinguishing itself well from its progenitor. I donít want to give too much away, but itís very well written and creates a world that is both stylistically and thematically distinct from KRZ and has no trouble standing on its own. It also tells a story that is nicely sized, and will feel familiar to anyone over a certain age - who will you become after high school?
The Counsel in the Cave ends up pulling off a neat trick integrating its gameplay with its story. The central conflict driving the two protagonists forward is the question of what to do after high school, how their choices will shape who they become, and how to deal with the responsibility of it all. At the end of their arcs they both conclude that itís going to be scary, but no matter what theyíll solve the problem by moving forward and seeing where life takes them. The only wrong choice is not to choose and thereby end up stuck.
This is, incidentally, what the player is doing the entire way through The Counsel in the Cave. The only way to get stuck is by indecision alone, and while the player canít be sure of the outcome of any choice they know itíll move their story along. Yes, itís a game and people are expected to click the links, but I really enjoyed this piece of thematic resonance.
What I Liked
For those of you who donít want to read the spoiler (and I encourage you to play the game first before reading my thoughts!) I liked quite a lot of it. The side character Moondog was a standout, though.
What I Didnít
I think a little too much happens offscreen between acts, in particular between 1 and 2. I can tell the author wanted most of the journey to happen off-screen, but that requires walking a tightrope between telling the player too little about what happened (and confusing them) and infodumping. This definitely erred more on the side of confusing, which wasnít a huge problem but it did throw me out of the narrative for a hot second.
When I was going off to college, or even just after college, I wish I'd have felt free enough to write something like this. It hits on themes I wondered about, and it cut through many "wiser" adults' assumptions about college quickly. It might not soar for your average reader. But it was in the right place at the right time for me, and I think it discusses the sort of universal themes we need to read more about. Looking back, I'm shocked I can't remember someone else trying for this in IFComp, at least for the years I reviewed. CIC has the interesting, wild choices of Elvish for Goodbye and the coming-of-age of Doug Egan's Roads Not Taken from a few years ago. And it also parallels, in part, Mike Russo's Sting. This was the life of someone who'd been given a lot of opportunity but still had questions about things. It didn't enforce its criticality on you. And tht worked great for me. In this case, Sting's main character is rather more privileged than CIC's, having gone to a prestigious East Coast private school, then to Cal-Tech, so the author labeled that character as privileged. The characters in CIC are doing well, but not quite so well.
The two main characters, May and Jason, have both graduated high school and are going to college: May to Temple, Jason to Lehigh. They're both from Bucks County, which is north of Philadelphia, where Temple is located, and east of Bethlehem, where Lehigh is located. (You may not recognize Bethlehem, but it's next to Allentown, which was the subject of a Billy Joel song. Both were hit hard in the eighties when the steel industry lost jobs. They've made a comeback, and they seem likely bigger than May and Jason's home town.) So there is a literal fork in the road and going in different directions for them both, and it's one that can't be avoided.
As for myself? Well, I haven't been in college for a while, but I must be close to the target audience, since I am sort of between Sting and CIC. I moved from one relatively acclaimed public school near an acclaimed public university to one near a private one (Purdue, up to middle school, to Northwestern,) but I went to classes with a group who figured Temple and Lehigh were nice and all, but you really should do better. I never really felt comfortable there, and I in fact worried that I wasn't really trying hard or didn't want to learn, or whatever, or if I couldn't succeed here, I certainly couldn't really succeed or thrive in college.
As it was, I went to a university that itself probably look down on Lehigh and Temple, even though the Ivy Leagues look down on it in turn. (Side note: it claimed it was tougher than some Ivies. The perils of comparison, which is the sort of thing people told me I needed to do more of!) However, it did have a good creative writing program, which I discovered a bit too late. I wound up trying to take advantage of it, but also feeling like I was an outsider who never quite fit in. I had my chances, and I had my moments, but somehow, I felt like I was wasting the college experience. I see that now I wasn't, and if I'd started earlier, I've gotten a lot out of it. Perhaps saying that I know I missed something and I want to recover it without going full midlife crisis is useful for me. People said college was about asking questions, and of course ideally, it is about opening up those questions which last a lifetime and are worth asking no matter what your career is, or how big your office is or whatever. And CIC's are.
That's my story. It's not quite May's or Jason's, but theirs would have helped me bring things into some perspective even if CIC quickly laid an egg. But it didn't. They asked questions I'd had before I convinced myself weren't really relevant or suited to my skill set or to all the opportunities high school gave me. They were the sort of person I'd have liked to meet in college, regardless of university entrance exam score. I didn't realize not only did other people share similar than me and they're worth having, but you could do so and still do well in classes or whatever. It just required more effort and sacrifice. To be frank, I am a bit jealous that somebody was able to express these thoughts at an earlier age than I was, but hopefully I have the maturity to be glad if I got something out of it. And I got a lot.
CIC presents itself in three parts: Shiloh Hills, Lost on Layers' Edge, and Counsel in the Cave. You can play through any of the three chapters repeatedly, making the interface very smooth. As May and Jason talk, you're presented with choices of how to take the conversation, from fear to hope, and so forth. And I think this is done well, as you often have a choice between two plausible but different emotions, and in the flashback or fantasy scene, the choices are always exciting. I'd like to compare it to a choice-based game that did much better in IFComp, Creatures Such as We, and it took a while to express why CSaW didn't do much for me. There, you had choices, but it felt like the author was constantly saying "C'mon, one of these is good, right? Right?" or mayve they were giving you a personality survey to "surprise" you at the end with a gift you couldn't decline and had to like. Sometimes I related to none of the four choices given. I don't sense a lot of this sort of people-pleasing in CIC, and it was refreshing, because CIC is wanting to be about more than people-pleasing and yet at the same time, you want to fit in somewhere.There was a certain amount of "I'd like to let my mind wander, and not around you, if you please."
CIC let me push back if I needed, or let me blow off the rare choices I didn't care about, so I quickly stopped caring How Good It was or What Its Place in Posterity Might Be. i enjoyed having to go forward with what I picked but also being able to look at the other choice or choices too after too long. I'm the sort of player who can lapse into "okay, I'll just choose the first choice and see what happens." That didn't happen here.
The first part felt the strongest for me, because it quickly brought up good and bad memories as well as fears or dreams, and it let you decide what to dwell on, both as May and Jason. Moondog, an old fisher you meet in act two, feels a bit too old-and-wise at times, with some mystic advice, but once I accepted this was a bit of a trope, things worked better. The third part includes a lot more surrealism, and the thing about surrealism for me is, I can't judge it unless there are clever jokes. I think at some point I was saturated with my own thoughts and just clicking around a bit to see if anything hit me directly. Overall, though, I got the feeling that May and Jason were both waiting for a sign to move on, and at the end, they sort of got one, but they realized they couldn't and shouldn't expect it in the future.
I suspect with CIC there were chunks where I sat back and just heard what I wanted to hear or read what I wanted to read, but I got a lot from it anyway, and it very much beats the alternative. There are works that hope youdo t that, and there are those that let you, and CIC is in the second, which is preferable. I've played through a few times now, and I feel sure I missed something, and I'm okay with that. It means I'm actually searching and interested and don't want to close the door on those questions. There's a surprising amount of wisdom in there for someone who is as old as the author seems to be from their Twitter bio. And I wish I'd let myself try to write something this good when I was their age, even if it hadn't nearly been as successful. CIC quickly reminded me of some former concerns and put other long-term ones in new perspective. I hope this is higher praise than the adults who told me "Oh, hm, yes, you ask important questions. I asked them too at your age!"
Final meta stuff: the author had two entries in IFComp. The Hidden King's Tomb was the less successful of the two. I imagine writing HKT was itself the sort of experience Jason and May both fear and anticipate. They're worried they won't succeed. They wonder what they're there for. They wonder if things are worth sharing. They're worried they won't hit their potential, or their potential has a ceiling. And HKT missing the mark adds to CIC in a way a more successful entry maybe could not have.
We understand that this person is good, and they've shown it, and they just missed the mark, not due to laziness but becaue they took a chance worth taking. They deserved, and deserve, to show up and say what they had to say, and maybe they didn't use their time the best way. That doesn't matter. They've looked for something beyond what was necessary to get by, and they found something or they said, you know, I didn't get all of that, I would like to do more.
We saw last year how Infinite Adventure cleverly added to BJ Best's comp-winning And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, but that was intentional. HKT feels less intentional and more real for all that. Because it's an old saw to say that you should try new things, because so what if they don't work out? It's hard to express, though, just by writing something that doesn't work out. With the author's two entries, we get to see both, and my general feeling is: the author will get their next Inform game right, if they choose to write one, and they did the right thing sticking their neck out or maybe even taking on too much this time. Next time, it won't be too much. But they may have found bigger and better things to do.
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Outstanding Surreal Game of 2022 - Player's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best surreal game of 2022. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible...
Outstanding Surreal Game of 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best surreal game of 2022. Voting is anonymous and open only to IFDB...