My last few sticking points in Hadean Lands weren’t about things I hadn’t discovered, but about things I had discovered and then forgotten about. There are enough one-use rituals in the game that it’s easy to assume that you don’t have to think about a thing any more after you’ve found one use for it, and there’s such a sheer quantity of stuff in the game that any such forgetting is a welcome simplification. I think that some of my earlier sticking points may have been blessings in disguise, because being unable to perform a ritual kept me from discarding it as already-used and kept me sensitive to additional uses.
That’s about all I can say about the ending without spoilers. So let’s get on with the spoilers already.
The ending itself is something of a downer, at least if you misread where the story is going as badly as I did. By the end, I had only two listed “doors” left: the fifteen “fractures” that I didn’t expect to actually get past in the game (mainly because the in-game map stopped at them), and the marcher’s main entrance in the portico. The latter was sealed shut, because the entire ship was stuck on a Hadean land — a planet without atmosphere — and opening any exterior door other than the airlock would be disastrous. To my mind, that meant that I had to get the marcher safely home, or at least to some more hospitable planet, before I could open the portico doors. This implied that I would see the marcher successfully reach home during gameplay. Opening those doors would be my ultimate moment of triumph.
I should have known better, considering the author’s track record. Zarf does not write triumphant endings. Zarf writes enigmatic endings. Completing the Great Marriage ritual in the proper location triggers a brief epilogue that puts you back at the moment when all hell broke loose, buried in rubble, and it’s as frenzied and confused as you’d expect an emergency on an alchemical spaceship to be — the text can’t even settle on what tense to use. Your actions are highly constrained, most commands producing just a “There’s no time for that”. You lose all the knowledge you accumulated over the course of the game. It’s not even entirely clear whether you’re controlling the same character as before. And the game leaves things in more or less that state when the story ends, with only some slight reassurance that things are going to be okay and that your actions have made some sort of difference.
It leaves open a lot of questions. What exactly happened to the marcher? Why are all the books in the library blank? Why are there alien glyphs on the walls, why are they so efficacious in dragon rituals, and why, once you can translate them, do they provide such good information about what you should be doing? Where did the new notes that appear after you perform the Great Marriage for the first time come from? There’s much fodder for speculation here, and not much to go on. But there is one thing that seems fairly clear, if you look at all the available information from the perspective of the endgame. And that is the nature of the player character, Ensign Forsyth.
For there’s definitely something peculiar about Forsyth. Examining yourself with the resonant oculus establishes that beyond a doubt — a touch that reminded me of the subtle and optional foreshadowing about the Jester in Zork Zero. But even if you don’t do that, there are hints in the very foundations of the game: the fact that you’re still moving around while everyone else is frozen in time, the way that you easily master rituals that are supposed to be far beyond the abilities of a mere swabbie. I speculated before that the PC is actually a homunculus, on the basis of nothing more than seeing that word scrawled on a clearly important scrap of paper. I changed my mind about that when I found another paper explaining what a homunculus really is: “a seed of animation without volition… It cannot act or move on its own; but in combination with other works, it may become something greater.” The first time you perform the Great Marriage, it creates a homunculus, which appears as a sort of silvery scribble on the walls, following you from room to room until you bring it into contact with one of the ailing dragons, at which point it combines with it and brings it back to its full power.
Now, I mentioned before that fragments of abstract alchemical theory were found near each of the four dragons. These are clearly important, simply because they were hard to reach, but it was hard to see how at the time. To summarize them:
- One talks about the little-understood “transition echo” phenomenon, “traces left behind, howsoever briefly, when any entity enters the Higher Spheres…”
- One speculates that “the soul exists in an as-yet-undetected medium”, and that the the echo phenomenon is “a transitory vibration of this substance”, “[l]acking volition or identity”.
- One alludes to an “investigation of the echo phenomenon” that suggests that “the human soul can be created, destroyed, or duplicated”.
- And finally, one very incomplete fragment mentions a technique “to combine an aitheric vibration — the transitory structure — with a spark of animation” to “create a self-sustaining aitheric form”.
So, combine all that with the homunculus definition, and the game is hinting pretty broadly that it’s possible to use a homunculus to animate the aitheric “echo” of a human, creating a “self-sustaining” soul duplicate that can last beyond the echo’s normal decay. There’s one more piece to the puzzle: a half-remembered ghost story about another marcher, the Cold Crucible, which has been glimpsed “lost and drowned in a Thalassan sea”, which is odd because the Cold Crucible actually made it back to port without mishap. The echo of something that didn’t happen? The relevant thing here is that entire ships can leave echoes. I posit that, up until the ending, the player character is actually a homunculus-animated echo of Forsyth, walking around on an echo of the ship. This explains a great deal! The other crew members are frozen in time because they’re just echoes, and not animated like you. The books are unreadable because the echo isn’t that detailed. The dragons remain repaired across resets for the same reason that you retain knowledge: once repaired, they too are animated by a homunculus. Actually, there seem to be multiple echoes at different points in time, which you move between (lasting beyond the echo’s decay?) whenever you make a permanent change to the repair of the ship — hence the crew members moving from place to place at such junctures, hence the additional notes.
But it doesn’t explain everything. The alien presence is still as mysterious as ever — moreso, even, now that we’re aware of the possibility that their ship is also an echo. Maybe closer scrutiny could suggest what they’re all about, but any theorizing about them seems iffier than what I get from the echo fragments, which just about spell things out if you piece them together. I’m not at all sure that even Zarf knows what the deal is with the alien graffiti. Sometimes mystery is just there for the sake of mystery, rather than for the sake of solving.