Friday, November 7, 2014

Hadean Lands Impressions

Cross-posted from a gaming forum that isn't very big on IF, so apologies if a lot of this is redundant.

4 years ago Andrew Plotkin ran a Kickstarter campaign to create a big, puzzley, text adventure. He released it just a week ago and it's amazing.

Plotkin is one of the grand-masters of IF. Like real auteur level, and the author of some of the best the genre has to offer. This game, Hadean Lands, is perhaps his most intricate.
The set-up is that you're a cadet on His Majesty's Crawler [I]The Unanswerable Retort[/I], an alchemical spaceship. Just [I]what[/I] an alchemical spaceship is unclear at the start of the game, but it's clearly pretty far removed from the metal-corridors and rocket engines space travel usually implies.

Something's happened to the ship, the crews missing and there's large crystalline fractures woven throughout the ship. You've got to figure out what happened and how to fix it. You do this by manipulating alchemy.

As an ensign, you start knowing very little. Basically a few fundamental procedures to make a tarnish removing token. But the game teaches you as you go, constantly giving you new tools and knowledge to perform more advanced rituals. Alchemy is a very complex system, which involves (among other things) where you perform a ritual, the order you do the steps, the items involved, the physical material of the items involved, the spiritual qualities of the items involve, the odor of the items involved, the sounds produced by the items involved, a wide selection of magic words and concepts and so on.

It's pretty heady.

But the game starts with simple, easy to follow recipes. You're not given more than you can handle for the first hour or so, after which the game opens up and you get lots of ingredients and information to play around with. This creates an experience of mastery. You go from knowing very little, to holding in your head a lot, but still feeling in control of it. And through a very considered application of gates, you feel competent in your application of the system. It's very gratifying to successfully complete a formula or create a new item. And after you've become competent with the system you start to riff on it, changing formulas or inventing your own based on your knowledge of how things work.

But that's just the first level of play. In terms of solving the game, it quickly becomes clear that the larger puzzle is figuring out the order of creating items to get the items you need to preform a ritual to open a door, or whatever. Some items are limited in quality and you might need them in more than one ritual. So the metagame (is that the right term?) is about using your knowledge to determine the right order to set up conditions to realize a goal.

Thanks to time-travel shenanigans you can reset the game to it's starting conditions at any time. This puts all the items back in their original locations, re-locks all the doors, etc. The only thing that changes is the knowledge you've acquired (thankfully, the game automatically updates any recipes/rituals/special knowledge/everything you need to know about alchemy in a database that's accessible at any time). This gives you the freedom to experiment and play around in the game world without fear of fucking things up or constantly reloading a save file.

And here's the most amazing thing. After you've performed a ritual once you don't have to go through all the little steps again. It's fun creating an item once, but if you had to type in four or five commands every time you wanted to make a particular key the game would become unbearably tedious. What's more, the game will automate any steps leading up the action you want to take. Say, for example, you had just reset the game, placing yourself in the starting location and all items in theirs. You know for your next goal you need a gold bar which is locked in a chest, with several locked doors between it and you. Moreso, those locked doors are opened by rituals that require items that are behind locked doors of their own. Having to replay the entire game up to this point would be awfully unfun, but, from the very starting position of the game, you could type "get gold bar" and the game would in one step move you about the map, collecting everything you needed to perform the required rituals and open the locked doors in order to fulfill your request. You're just given a list of what you collected and what actions were taken and BAM there you are, gold bar in hand. It's mind-blowing and I can't imagine the code involved. It completely makes the base concept of the game viable, and is a high-point for player-friendliness.

Hadean Lands is light on story and is nearly a pure puzzle experience, but if the idea of Magical Chemistry: The Game sounds appealing I can't recommend it enough.

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