GOGathon: The Devil Checked In Here

Joe and Ivy Davis are a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks. In a bid to get away from it all, Joe’s arranged for them to have a lovely seaside holiday at a quiet coastal town, where the only accommodation on offer is from the Quiet Haven Hotel. Once Joe and Ivy arrive, however, they find that the hotel is a bit of a shambles – and Ivy’s behaving and talking in an incredibly strange manner, alternating between total silence and incoherently talking about things only she can see. To make matters worse, a terrible storm has blown in, so strong heading out into the downpour to seek help isn’t a sensible option.

Joe and Ivy go up to their hotel room and have a tense conversation about their problems, before going to sleep. When they wake up, Ivy’s nowhere to be seen. When he goes down to the hotel restaurant to look for her, thinking she might have gone to breakfast ahead of him, he finds the hotel manager standing in the midst of a bizarre tableau. She informs him that Ivy made the mistake of angering a certain Sophie, another guest in the hotel, but that if he hurries he might be able to persuade Sophie to let Ivy go.

And it’s around then that things go full Eraserhead. (With additional content warnings for issues of murder, mental health, eating disorders, and utter tripped-out mayhem.)

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GOGathon: The Devil Meowed Through Here

Harvester Games is an indie development studio whose efforts are largely driven by the efforts of main game designer, programmer and writer Remigiusz Michalski, who’d cut his teeth producing Downfall – A Horror Adventure Game using the baseline Adventure Game Studio development environment before attempting more ambitious works. The main crop of Harvester so far has been the Devil Came Through Here trilogy – named for a phrase that recurs throughout the series – consisting of The Cat Lady, a spruced-up remake of Downfall with some plot and writing tweaks to make it fit the themes of the overall trilogy better, and the recently-released Lorelai.

Just lately, I finally got around to giving The Cat Lady a proper try, having bought it for cheap in a GOG sale a while back and forgotten it was there. As far as setting the tone for the rest of the trilogy goes, it certainly makes a powerful aesthetic statement: eerie, often-monochrome graphics paired with a soundtrack from Remigiusz’s brother Michal makes sure that what the aesthetic lacks in polish it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

It also really aggressively pushes themes of suicide, nihilism, murder, death, depression, and general misery at you from the beginning. So, you know, content warnings for all of that apply to the rest of the review.

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Fun To Dip Into and Immersive While It Lasts

The Sinking City, developed by Ukrainian outfit Frogwares, casts the player as troubled private eye Charles Reed. After a poorly-remembered encounter with (maybe) Cthulhu during his Naval service in World War I, Reed has had certain abilities which aid him in his investigative work, but also suffers from nightmarish visions which have sapped his sanity – to the point where be spent a chunk of time after the War confined to an asylum.

Now it’s the mid-1930s, and Reed has not only discovered the existence of other people suffering from the same visions as him, but he’s also found a strange link between them – they’ve all gone missing in the general vicinity of Oakmont, a Massachusetts city which has curiously managed to avoid being put on many maps. Oakmont is an insular, xenophobic town where lower is held in the hands of a few great families who conduct themselves as little more than gangsters. It’s also faced various upheavals in recent years. First, there was the influx of refugees from Innsmouth, fleeing the Federal raid on that town; then there was the utter disaster of the Flood, which even years later has left significant areas of the poorer section of the city waterlogged. The richer districts are not immune from the Flood’s effects either, especially when those consequences include roving monsters which seem drawn to sites of atrocity or extreme negative emotion.

Soon after Reed arrives he becomes embroiled in the affair of the Throgmorton expedition – a jaunt to the bottom of the sea near Oakmont which, in its search for the causes of the Flood, has stumbled across something appalling. Is there some connection between the Flood, the expedition’s shocking discoveries, and Reed’s visions? And if there is, is there anything Reed can do to resist this terrible confluence of forces?

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Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King

Among the gaming subgenres which have enjoyed a little renaissance thanks to Kickstarter are CRPGs of a certain vintage. Whilst producing something as lavish as, say, one of the more recent Witcher or Mass Effect games can involve a massive AAA budget and be a decidedly difficult product to handle on a Kickstarter budget, a top-down isometric-style RPG of the sort made popular by the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is a much more modest affair; Shadowrun Returns and its Hong Kong-based sequel are good examples of CRPGs in this style which came about via Kickstarter.

What happens, though, when this sort of game tries to offer more than a mere RPG experience? We’re going to find out with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an attempt to add a kingdom management layer on top of a CRPG foundation.

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GOGathon: Third Time’s the Charm… Or Seven Years’ Bad Luck?

Fans of the Black Mirror series of point-and-click adventures (not to be confused with Charlie Brooker’s “Oh no, technology!“-themed Twilight Zone knockoff) had to settle in for a long wait between the first two episodes of the series; the original The Black Mirror was released by Czech developers Future Games in 2003, but it wouldn’t be until 2009 that German outfit Cranberry Production served up Black Mirror II. Fans did not have long to wait after that for Black Mirror III, however, with the final game in the original trilogy coming out in 2011, also through Cranberry.

The signs that we should expect another sequel were right there: the previous game ended on a bit of a rushed cliffhanger. The action here picks up in the immediate aftermath of that. Darren is the prime suspect in the grim events that concluded the last game, and the police have little patience for his story; however, they don’t quite have the evidence they’d need to bring him to trial. After three weeks cooling his heels in a cell in the local police station, Darren has his bail paid by a mysterious benefactor. He’s warned not to leave the Willow Creek area, and he’s feeling the occult consequences of the end of the previous game; if he’s to rid himself both of his legal troubles and the Gordon curse once and for all, he needs to resume his investigations of the area.

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GOGathon: A Second Reflection

It’s the mid-1990s – 12 years after the nightmarish events surrounding Samuel Gordon’s return to Black Mirror Castle shocked the world. Across the Atlantic, Darren Michaels is spending his break from college visiting his mother, who has recently moved to the sleepy seaside town of Biddeford in Maine. Darren earning a bit of extra money by working in the town’s photography shop, run by the boorish Fuller; in the course of this Darren meets and feels an instant attraction to Angelina, a charming British tourist who seems to reciprocate this attraction.

Before Darren can get time off to get to know Angelina better, however, he has a range of errands to perform – and in the course of this, he becomes aware that there’s a shifty individual apparently stalking Angelina. Or is Darren himself the target of this snooping figure’s attention? Darren’s worries only become more acute when his mother suffers a fall at home which leaves her in a coma… a fall in suspicious enough circumstances to make Darren think she was pushed. Resolving to investigate, Darren uncovers evidence of a wider conspiracy – a conspiracy that’s somehow connected to the English village of Willow Creek, from which his mother’s been receiving mysterious payments.

How was his mother involved in all this? Who in Willow Creek has been paying her? And what does this have to do with Willow Creek’s main claim to fame… the mysterious Black Mirror Castle, and its former resident Samuel Gordon?

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A (Moon)Missed Opportunity

In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.

The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)

Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.

More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.

Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)

This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.

The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)

It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.

There are, of course, exceptions…

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