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Elegiac and affecting, August 8, 2022
I beta tested this game. My game Sting is also listed in the author’s note as one of its inspirations, a paragraph ahead of such lesser influences as Sylvia Plath. I can assure you that I’m no way biased by this, because Jesus, I can’t go five minutes without being compared to Sylvia Plath. Like, if you asked me, “Mike, would describe Sylvia Plath’s writing as lambent, incisive, and alive to the contradictory power and vulnerability that have been freighted into the concept of the feminine,” I would of course say yes; and if you asked me, “Mike, would you describe your own writing as lambent, incisive, and alive to the contradictory power and vulnerability that have been freighted into the concept of the feminine,” I mean, I wouldn’t want to negate your interpretation, so I’d have to say yes to that too. Plus we both have a love-hate relationship with Ted Hughes, we’re basically the same person.
More seriously, the reason I usually say my responses to games I’ve beta tested aren’t reviews is less because of a fear of being biased – I generally have no problem giving polite but direct feedback even to my nearest and dearest when I think it’s justified, which as my wife will attest is a delightful character trait – and more because I don’t trust my own experience of game. Usually I’ll have tested a beta version just a few weeks before the final version is released, and it’s really hard to revisit the game and put aside the impression I had of it when it was in a less-refined form and my brain was in testing mode, which can vary quite a lot from how I’d normally approach a game.
Here, though, I think I last looked at the game in February, which is long enough that I feel like I was coming to it fresh when I just replayed it. So I’m confident in my judgment: this is a really good game, a compact jewel of a thing that only really does one thing, but that one thing is so complex, and so well-realized, that it feels quite big indeed.
On the most mundane level, this is true because the author’s implemented a bevy of helpful features that make this feel like a proper game, not simply an amateur affair. There’s very helpful help text, a small number of evocative line-drawn images, an ASCII map, hints for the puzzles – well, riddles – on offer, and a good amount of quite complex “concrete poetry”, where words take on the shape of what they describe, which must have taken an ungodly amount of work to get right (plus there’s a screen-reader mode to make this all accessible to those with visual impairments). It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as trifles, but it makes an impression, communicating that this is something the author cares about and is trying very hard to create inviting on-ramps to all sorts of players, and engage as many of their faculties as possible.
That’s just the mortar holding the thing together, though. To stick with the architectural metaphor, there’s also the façade. Prose in parser-based games is so often workmanlike, pressed into service of many masters at once; I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who can achieve real literary effect under these constraints without landing the player in a hopeless muddle. Well, add Amanda Walker to that list – all the writing here is just lovely, but the landscape and wildlife descriptions are especial highlights. One early excerpt will stand in for many:
Shadows dapple and darken. A rabbit darts across the steps in front of you, its white tail bobbing briefly, and then it is gone into the undergrowth… Birds call. They flash bright against the naked branches: cardinal screams red; goldfinch blazes sun.
Still, the façade is just the façade, and we’ve yet to talk of the bricks. What ultimately makes Of Their Shadows Deep so affecting is what it’s about: aphasia, the loss of language as words are stripped from a once-vital mind. There’s a layer of fictionalization here, via the magic realism of the puzzles, but even without the author’s note at the end stating the real-world background, it feels very obvious that this is an autobiographical work. Nothing in this dilemma feels abstract; there’s real emotional weight behind everything the protagonist does, from their game-opening flight from an unbearable situation to the final return and catharsis.
Impressively, this isn’t just a frame around standard meat-and-potatoes gameplay. While you do solve such typical IF puzzles as lighting a dark area and chopping through a foredoomed door, all this is accomplished primarily through words – not in the degenerate way all IF is words, of course, but by solving riddles. Half a dozen times, you’ll be confronted with an obstacle, only to find a sheet of paper with a bit of poetry that poses a riddle. Answer it correctly, and you’ll be gifted with an instantiation of the thing you’ve guessed, allowing you to progress.
It’s easy to overlook how smart this is, because of course riddles are a traditional part of the IF repertoire, but here the point isn’t to tease the player’s brain – in fact the game’s riddles are all fairly simple, which is good because every single riddle is too easy or too hard, or both – it’s to play the theme. The primarily gameplay consists of receiving intimations and cues pointing to an object, then, once you’ve successfully carried out the act of naming, gaining mastery over the thing. There’s an elemental, Adamic resonance to this that implicitly communicates its own negation: what happens when you can’t summon the name? Does that mean losing the thing itself? Of Their Shadows Deep has an answer to that, in a lovely final puzzle that wasn’t there when I did my testing, and which ends the game in an unexpected moment of grace.
If the reader will forgive my wrapping up this review by once again talking about myself – and spoiling Sting while I’m at it – I found this last note quite moving. I don’t have the same experience Amanda writes about, of having a loved one’s mind eroded away bit by bit, but I did lose my twin sister to cancer two years ago, at the untimely age of 39 (Sting is a response to this, and the way it retroactively reconfigured pretty much every memory I have). Everyone always says people fighting through cancer are brave – and they’re right – but even by that standard, Liz was a tough, ornery patient, refusing pain meds until literally the last week of her life. By that point they needed to give her very strong stuff, and over the course of the days she spent more and more time sleeping, or staring off in a daze, her use of language mostly fled as her mind and tongue went slack.
The last night but one, before I headed to bed, I hugged her and told her that I loved her, and that I’d be the one sitting up with her tomorrow night (we were taking turns to make sure someone was there, just in case… nobody completed the thought). I’d done this before, and she mostly wasn’t able to respond – but this time, with difficulty, she got her arms around me too, and was able to grunt something incomprehensible, then did so again, just about the only sounds she’d made that day.
I’m aware that sounds like a horrible story when I tell it, but maybe if you’ve ever been in similar circumstances, you’ll believe me when I tell you those few seconds were the happiest I’d felt in months. Moments like that can’t change what’s going on, but in those situations, when you’ve lost so much but there’s somehow so much more still to be lost, they’re all that’s left – and that can be enough. I can’t being to imagine how to render that in prose in any real way, though – all I’ve done here is kind of describe and gesture at the experience – but I think Of Their Shadows Deep captures something of that intuition, which on top of everything else it does, is a hell of a crowning achievement.