City of Secrets: Spoilers

So, let’s talk story. You’ve got this nameless city, ruled with an iron fist by one Thomas Malik, who keeps the city in an illusion of perpetual daylight. To sustain his magics, he secretly abducts travellers and extracts their souls, rendering them insane. He earnestly believes that everything he does is for the best. Opposing him is a Gnostic sect led by one Evaine, who might possibly be heir to the dynasty of Queens who ruled the city long ago, although I never found any definitive confirmation of this, and strongly suspect that there is none to be found. Malik’s enforcers are hunting for Evaine on the grounds that she’s a rebel and a terrorist, but in the end you learn that the two of them have some personal history together, which makes it seem like the whole city is in the grip of some kind of twisted lover’s spat or something. In a way, it reminds me of Aeon Flux.

As with most heavily plot-based adventures, reaching the end is not difficult: if you just keep plowing ahead wherever the plot guides you, important events will keep occurring until you reach the last important event, which is the ending. But it’s striking that you don’t have to do it this way. Usually, “plot-based” means highly linear and skimpy on simulation, both of which stem from an author’s decision to give priority to their one preimagined storyline over player choices, but that is emphatically not the case here. For example, there’s a point in the story when Malik asks for the player’s help in finding Evaine. In my first play-through, I took him up on it. I suspected that Malik was the bad guy by then, but accepting missions is what you do in these games.  The option to refuse a mission is, in nearly all games, a fake choice; if you choose it, the game will either find an excuse to force the issue or just end. Playing from the beginning a second time, I tried putting up a sterner resistance to Malik in order to see what would happen, and was surprised that he let me go. If I didn’t want to help him, I could just walk away and try to cope with the mysteries of the city on my own. It did not break the plot, although the decision would certainly have consequences.

The only part where player agency really goes away is at the very end, which is a little ironic, because the solution to the final puzzle is precisely to assert your agency, to refuse to be railroaded into doing what the game tells you to do.

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