Of Their Shadows Deep

by Amanda Walker profile

Semi-Autobiographical
2022

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1-5 of 5


3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A touching and descriptive riddle game with beautiful text art, August 28, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This game was entered in the 2022 Parsercomp, and I helped beta test it. It came in second, but only by a fraction of some points, and is an excellent game.

This is a metaphorical story which, as told in the authors notes, is somewhat autobiographical, and touches on dementia. You are exploring some woods and a ravine to try to get firewood for your home while also recovering your mother's lost words. The writing and tone feels a lot like the 1800s gothic novels, like The Mystery of Udolpho.

The lost words take the form of riddle-poems. When solved (and playing in a graphics-compatible mode), they take the form of the solution to the puzzle.

The riddles are less of a purposely-frustrating-and-obfuscated description of something, and more of a description of something using highly figurative language. That doesn't necessarily make it easier, as I struggled with a couple of the notes for a few minutes, but in a good kind of struggle that made the game more engaging.

The writing is descriptive and evocative, similar to this author's other works. The real-life connection shines through, making it clear that the author cares about this subject and about the people in her life.

Overall, a satisfying game and one not to miss.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Elegiac and affecting, August 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 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.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
ParserComp 2022: Of Their Shadows Deep, August 4, 2022
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

So fragile our lives we fear both sides of the phrase: lives, what makes them ours. Inexorably receding from this ineffable vibrancy contingency lilypadding these cascade whorls haunts us with all the beauties we will sink beneath the see, because not only will it all go on without us, but also, sometimes, so do we, must we inevitably, so composed are we of irreplaceable combinations shared mutually across memories, fracturing in silences we cannot resing. Thence the energy quivering the need to maintain our shared particulars, communicative particulates of the streaming coherence, without which echoes bleed to drones: “When did the loss begin? “Iridescent” was the first lost word, but it was so light, so transparent, that its loss went unnoticed. Then “eviscerate” was torn away from her mind, leaving a pinprick hole, yet it happened secretly, quietly. The vast store of words pushed at the ragged edges of the hole and widened it, and the trickle of lost words became a flow: serendipity, ephemeral, labyrinth, tranquility.” Placing your hand into the stream, trying to catch every concept, dam up and derive, hold the lifegiving babbling “always rushing from her eyes, through the woods, spilling into the creek, so much departure.” If you no longer recognize this place we shared, then how should I? Estranger in an estranged land, sifting through the senses for the assemblance.

The impetus to reclaim, reassert shape from the “shards and fragments” animates a prose which helixes concrete denotations into an emotively synesthetic paresthesia radiating occlusions: “Birds call. They flash bright against the naked branches: cardinal screams red; goldfinch blazes sun.” The lushness of the descriptions flicker with their spilling from delimits, a dizzying motion that slips through the lines you have palmed: “A spill of icemelt trickles over the ledge of rock into a small pool which flows into a stream that runs, runs, runs down and away from the gray rock, the velvet moss. This rock wall weeps water all year, a rivulet that never stops talking as it splashes over the moss, the rough stone, always leaving, seeking the creek below.” You cannot hold fast the flux, thence the bittersweet beauty of attachment: the dignity of failing for just long enough to fulfil a life, make it ours. Fear of the “tiered waterfall that sings in its own language” compels the pursuit of names, certainties by which we can construct the conversations that cohere whom we cherish.

So goes our protagonist wrestling with riddles to wreathe them with recognition. From each spilling sense, you can wrest back concrete poetry, the shapes the words signify. Dozens of scraps of paper whose resemblances can reassemble the meaning: “The piece of paper shimmers and swells, its words moving. They rearrange and leap from your hands in a swift, muscular movement, forming a cat. It sits with its back to you, tail flicking.” The world keeps weaving in and out, abstractions which have now the same strength as the tangible, an interplay that is inherently unstable: “You raise the axe, its sharp words gleaming, and smash it into the white door, splintering it. The pieces of the door disintegrate, the words that held it together fading, falling apart, disappearing.”

The desire to loop back together these disparate elements before their too lateness overtakes their valences leads us to collect all our little longings, isolated significations we must recombine to bring heart back to where the home is. By collecting these fragments to reconstruct the necklace which totems our bond, this final puzzle advances a magnitude, requiring us not solely to solve a riddle by shaping the words but also to assemble the words together, guess what now visibly possibility they imply, what connections we can thread through them, those whom we stored in this shape forever, or whatever forever must mean for us: “Your mother, old and gray and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, deep shadows in her eyes. She’s holding a book she can no longer read.” Maybe you can compile all the yesterdays into enough, but it always seems one day away. If we could only hold still the shapes long enough for recognition to spark the embers to warm one more night! “She sees the necklace you wear and her eyes light up, recognizing her lost words. She puts her hand over the heart on your chest and pushes, and you gasp as its edges cut into you, as the heart burns into you. The words are yours because she gave them to you, taught you to love them. You will always carry them in your hopeful, fragile heart; but they are lost to her forever. / You kneel in front of her and put your head in her lap as you used to when you were a child, when the loss was too big to comprehend. / She bends over and strokes your hair and you see a single word, the last of a once-great library, flickering behind her eyes. You hear it fluttering, frightened and alone in the empty rooms, avoiding the blaze consuming the bookshelves. And she lets it go, breathing it out softly against your face where it blows apart and lands like glitter, like snow, like tears against your cheeks: / love.” A word which endures in all of us that you have helped to build.

The delicate melancholy, the clever cohesiveness of every element, the layered conceptual complexity, the munificent playfulness that lightens the austere lodestar to polychromatism, the curlicue vividness of the language, the pitch perfect precision of the ludic elaboration, the exuberant bittersweetness, the gregarious elegance, the baroquely intricate intonation of intent that dapples so much warmth within so much snow, should all come as no surprise in a work signed Amanda Walker, whose palpitationally evocative works have garnered so much praise in so short a time: fourth place in IFComp 2021, second place in Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2022, Best in Show in Spring Thing 2022, and, one has an inkling, perhaps a strong showing in ParserComp 2022. Rarely does the parser feel so fleet that it filigrees invisibly into the poetry, but Of Their Shadows Deep parallels our pursuit, pearling its symbols preciously.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A poetic word game, July 4, 2022
by jkj
Related reviews: parsercomp 2022

# Of Their Shadows Deep: A poetic word game

By Amanda Walker.

> Special thanks to my wonderful testers: Drew Cook, Dark Star, Jade, Zed Lopez, Mathbrush, Eva Radke, Edo Rajh, and Mike Russo. I could never get anything done without their generous help.

(Spoiler - click to show)
Initially i didn't really want to play this game as it is described to be about dementia. Not especially exciting i thought, but thankfully, playing the game, it is not so much directly about dementia but rather inspired by it.

The writing is excellent, vivid and image provoking. The game claims to have "graphics", but rather than illustrations they are, in fact, _pictures_ of words that you need to collect. Quite original.

The game mechanic is almost entirely solving riddles. Either you're good at riddles or you're not. It's like those cryptic crossword puzzles. Some people just good at them and some are terrible. I'm terrible. But thankfully, the riddles here are not super cryptic and are solvable after a little reasonable thought.

The game doesn't exactly have a story per se, but a sequence of riddle puzzles yielding words and objects that allow the player to proceed to the next stage. As such the gameplay is essentially linear.

Nevertheless, the game is quite novel and interesting, where the words and riddles are also presented in a poetic frame as a kind-of reward.

I didn't use the hints or walkthrough, so the difficulty is nicely balanced and enjoyable to play.

Although this game was for "parser comp", like always, it would have helped to have clickable links and word completion for entry in the user interface.

I didn't find any bugs, although i did get some minor oddities.

Examples:

``
>stroke cat
That's not something you want or need to do.

>light candle
This dangerous act would achieve little.

You can see a cat here.
>eat cat
You aren't hungry. Your stomach is knotted with grief.

>look gate
A rusty gate in the barbed wire fence.
>remove it
You aren't wearing the rusty gate.

If you're missing something toward the end, the game gently reminds you, which is neat.

> You have an urge to return to the ravine. You have a nagging feeling there's something there you're missing.

The words you collect, predictably, come together for the end-game puzzle which is also nicely done and presented in an ASCII word picture.


In conclusion, well worth playing for the novel game mechanic and inspired writing, although the puzzle mechanic is essentially all the same, albeit well presented.


2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Simple, elegant, beautiful, and touching, July 3, 2022

This is a simple game, beautifully written, forgiving and elegant in its execution. It is a relatively short but very memorable experience, and definitely recommended.



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