Hadean Lands, a text adventure by renowned IF author Andrew Plotkin, was the first successful Kickstarter project I ever backed. He asked for a mere $8000, and got nearly four times that, which seemed like a lot of money for a Kickstarter back in 2010. And, just as he got four times what he asked, he took four times as long as he expected. The most anticipated text adventure in many years, it shipped just a few days ago, and I finally gave it a serious try this weekend.
Despite a multi-hour session, I feel like I’ve just barely started it. The whole thing is predicated on alchemical rituals that require combinations of ingredients under specific elemental or planetary influences established by symbols and incenses, and sequences of commands like “invoke lesser phlogistical saturation” or “recite the categorical imperative”. In other words, this isn’t your “select a spell from a list” system; magic takes work. Even just following instructions written out for you can require research to find out what those instructions mean. It reminds me a little of spellcasting by typing sequences of text from the manual in King’s Quest 3 and a little of the more involved schools of ritual magic in Ultima VIII (a game that I remember as essentially a series of demos for different magic systems), but with one big difference: it’s systematic. Rituals aren’t just arbitrary sequences of actions, they’re techniques that produce specific effects, and that can be tweaked to produce different effects if you understand the theory behind them. Just getting out of the first room requires making a reasonable substitution in the one recipe available to you at that point, tutorializing this variability.
And it keeps on tutorializing for a good while, introducing new aspects of alchemical practice one by one, mainly by means of blocked doors. Here’s one that’s rusted shut, here’s one that’s rusted even more so that your previous anti-rust ritual doesn’t cut it, one overgrown with mold, one that’s locked and the key tossed in a blazing furnace. I’ve reached the point where things open up a bit, where I have multiple unsolved puzzles in front of me and multiple recipes that I have no immediate use for. It’s still looking like alchemy is always the answer to every puzzle, though.
Fortunately, the game only expects you to perform each ritual once. Repeating a ritual is as simple as typing “make fungicide” or whatever, provided you have access to everything you need. I understand that macro-instructions of this sort become increasingly important as the game goes on. We’ll see how that goes in future posts.