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A knotty conundrum, December 5, 2020
I'm putting the full review here under a spoiler block, but let me just flag two things: 1) this game is fun, and 2) if you're finding it tough going, you might better understand it if you check it out in context on the original IF Comp entries page.
(Spoiler - click to show)So yeah, the three games with similar titles and cover art, and obviously pseudonymous authors, are in fact all the same game. I don’t think the author is trying very hard to hide this, and honestly given how big the field is this year, that’s probably a good decision – lots of people are just going to play the first five or ten games the randomizer hands them, so making these similarities clear, including a note in the blurb that “you may need to seek aid from an unusual place”, and requiring cross-referencing multiple games to solve every puzzle so that it’s impossible to spend more than five or ten minutes on any game before you figure out the trick are all helpful concessions that hopefully mean more people will be able to play this Voltronish game (the ending screen calls it The Knot, so that’s how I’m going to refer to it, rather than trying to juggle the three more unwieldy titles).
This trend of erring on the side of simplicity continues into the puzzles themselves. Once you’ve figured out the trick, they’re extraordinarily straightforward. The first one involves finding the right order to insert colored orbs into a mural depicting a solar system – and there’s a reference item in one of the other games that runs through five planets in order, with relevant colors marked out in highlighted text, and at the end there’s a page headlined “TO SUM UP THIS IMPORTANT CLUE” that spells out the order again and tells you to keep it handy. Most of the puzzles are like this, with clear signposting of the steps needed to solve each of them. This makes juggling the three games a breeze, and it’s fun to jump between browser tabs decoding hieroglyphs and inserting combinations, but since there are only two puzzles per games, it makes the game-y part of the Knot feel rather slight.
The depth really comes in in the writing and story. Each of the three installments operates in a different genre – over-the-top action archeology, over-the-top pulp sci-fi, and over-the-top swords and sorcery. The same set of exotic words and names are used in each (look at the title for a sampling), but remixed and reconfigured – sometimes Chirlu is the name of the rival archaeologist working for the Nazis, sometimes he’s a sympathetic alien doing research on the extradimensional Knot that wends through all three titles. In each, the baddies are always described as fascist, but sometimes that’s the corrupt horde known as the Illfane, and sometimes it’s the monsters attacking the people whose protector is the priestly leader called the Illfane.
In fact, the Knot is surprisingly political – at one point, a set of baddies are said to be trying to “make the galaxy great again”, though in another, a set of characters rebelling against unjust oppression are called “deplorables” – to editorialize for a moment, it’s a sad statement on current events that a game worrying about authoritarianism and fascism scans as topical (as you reach the ending, you encounter a character who’s unlocked the potential within the Knot and lists off the reality-bending now within their power, but who notes “but I can’t do anything about the Nazis”). Beyond these signifiers, the ending also seems to point to a vision of a sort of socialist utopia, as instead of exploiting the Knot as a mystical power source to be hoarded by those wishing power to defeat their enemies, it rather becomes distributed to all, granting a tiny bit of magic and hope to everyone. The Nazis are said not to understand what’s going on as the climax nears, and the ancient tomb they’re pursuing turns out to be made of papier-mâché. This doesn’t come off as leaden political allegory, though – the writing is fleet, and there’s lots of incidental text that’s very fun and funny (my favorite was the series of fairy tales that were all bent in a dystopic-capitalist direction).
All this makes the Knot a fun distraction with a clever gimmick and enough hints of depth to enliven its relatively straightforward puzzles. I was left wanting a little more, though – and actually, wonder whether in fact there are secrets beyond those needed to get to the ending (the introduction to the fairy tales protests perhaps a bit overmuch that they’re not related to the puzzles, and there are intimations that sussing out the identity of the player character in the sci-fi section might be important). Even if this is all that’s on offer, though, it’s still worth a play.