Hadean Lands: Familiarity

In a typical adventure game, the player starts off knowing nothing about the world. As much as early adventure games were about solving puzzles and hunting for treasure, they were also about exploring the unknown. Even the text parser works into this theme by being close to a blank slate, telling the player as little as it can about what the possibilities are, forcing you to experiment. Unfortunately, the conventions that make the form well-suited for this usage become an obstacle when you’re trying to tell a story about things that should be familiar to the player character. Set an adventure game in the protagonist’s apartment, and the player will spend the start of the story experimentally trying out the faucets and peering under furniture as if it were all completely novel. This is part of the reason that amnesia is such a popular cliché in adventure games: it provides a narrative excuse for the player’s experience of the gameworld.

Hadean Lands is almost entirely set in the interior of the spaceship that the player character calls home. It is of course completely unfamiliar to the player. However, the game does some clever things to mitigate the dissonance, starting by messing things up. The PC is familiar with the place, but when you throw in the time/space fractures and the frozen crew, it’s not quite the place the PC is familiar with. Just getting out of the starting room involves going through a crawlway that the PC has never been in before, because the familiar door is unusable. So even though the player and the PC are starting from different points, they’re learning about the situation together.

Things are described in exotic and unfamiliar terms: ritual bound, exoscaphe, sophic lanterns. At the same time, these are interleaved with enough offhand exposition about the craft and crew to convey the fact that the PC is familiar with things even if you’re not. Even the choice of article helps: entering a room and seeing “an exoscaphe” would be a discovery, but “the exoscaphe” is something you expected to be there. A lot of things are mentioned before you see them: “to the west is the ornate door of the Birdhouse”, says one room description, before you have any idea what the Birdhouse really is. My favorite touch is the use of beakers. Whenever you use liquids in a ritual, the text mentions grabbing a beaker from the general clutter surrounding the ritual bound, and disposing of it afterward. The beakers, and the clutter from which they come, are not mentioned in the room description or modeled as separate objects outside of the ritual. I assume this decision was mainly a matter of cutting down on the complexity of the simulation, but what it says to the player is that these are details that the PC’s second-person narrative voice doesn’t bother mentioning, because they’re commonplace enough to be taken for granted. Grabbing a beaker automatically is kind of like the other automatic actions, like performing rituals, except that you don’t have to teach the game how to do it first: it was learned in the PC’s training.

Ultimately, this is a long game, and most of it is spent revisiting the same locations repeatedly, so after a while, the player gets to know the environment pretty well. And as you repair things and open up passageways that should have been passable but weren’t, the ship approaches the state that the PC is familiar with as well. It becomes a place that you live in comfortably. So it comes as quite a shock when you venture outside and find an alien spacecraft.

It’s not just a little bit alien, either. It’s so alien that just being in its interior interferes with your body chemistry. But even without that, it feels like an intrusion from a different genre, less Enchanter and more Starcross, all metal planes and sharp angles and emptiness and incomprehensible technology. Much of what’s going on back home is incomprehensible to the PC, but at least the weird stuff is overlaid on the familiar. Here, for the first time, that’s stripped away, and the PC is just as lost as you are. Making progress here requires repeatedly retreating into the familiar, to make new preparations to deal with what you find.

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