Archive for January, 2021

The Longing: The Power of Waiting

I’ve gotten a lot done since my last post, but the main thing is: by means of a long, slow journey through darkness in which the Shade faced his own shadow-self, I managed to get within a few feet of escape, to the original entrance to the caves. I can see green grass on the screen, although the Shade cannot. The way is irrevocably blocked now, probably by people who had the good sense to see that the king underground was bad news, and that if they couldn’t kill him, sealing him in was the best option.

Ah, how my feelings towards the king have changed! To think I actually intended to go through with his orders, considered the “wait for 400 days” part to be the game’s central challenge rather than an imposition, a pointless limitation on the Shade’s personal growth. His reverence for his king and creator now seems to me more like Stockholm syndrome. The king gave him life, but the life he gave him was a miserable one; it has become pleasant for him only through the Shade’s own efforts (or mine), frequently against what he believes to be the king’s wishes. At the very least, this makes the king extraordinarily inconsiderate, treating a conscious being as nothing more than an alarm clock and not taking his personhood into account at all.

That darkness, now. The caves are generally dim, but get some light from the Shade’s huge luminous eyes and the occasional glowing mushroom. But in the long dark passage, the symbolic abyss, these are the only things that are visible at all. It’s not just dark, it’s Dark; not unlit, but un-light. To pass through, you must become darkness yourself — I had heard as much from the face in the stone. And this requires something that I had been strangely reluctant to try, given how well it fits the game’s themes: standing and doing nothing, without moving and without logging off, for about ten minutes. (I remember a similar puzzle in Bob Bates’ Timequest, but that had the alternate solution that you could explicitly type “meditate”.) Even though the face had told me to “delve deep, deep into your own mind in conscious loneliness”, the game had successfully distracted me from the possibility of inaction by giving me so many things to do, and by making it take so long to do them. There’s a lesson in that, I suppose.

I’ve come to regard the 400 day wait as an enemy to be defeated, whether by rebellion or by simply making the time pass faster. But the dark passage tells us that waiting itself is not the enemy. Waiting is power. The question is who wields that power. When you wait for the king to awaken, that’s someone with power over you exercising that power by making you wait. When you deliberately stand and wait for your own purposes, the power is yours.

The Longing: A Little Home Improvement

Although gaining access to the library was something I had been looking forward to, it was also a disappointment — and not the collectible kind. 1Recursively, the fact that it isn’t a collectible disappointment is itself a disappointment. The passage to it is one that I had been waiting on in the hope that it would lead to a second mattock. It did not. And so I resorted to hints. I have another mattock now, and have at last expanded the Shade’s home to include two more floors, a mushroom growing area, a shower, and a lot more wall space for displaying his artwork. This is the “decorate your dollhouse” aspect of the game. I haven’t quite maximized the place’s potential, though, because he still doesn’t have a bed. Until I can find more wood, he’s just going to have to keep on falling asleep huddled on the cold cave floor.

For once, I’m glad I got hints when I did. The second mattock is really the first you have the opportunity to access, but it’s locked behind a puzzle, and that puzzle is in part a UI puzzle: in this game, you generally perform actions by pressing a button in response to a prompt, and it’s easy to get used to the idea that that is the only means you have to make stuff happen, but in this particular case there is no prompt, and you make stuff happen just by standing in the right place for several minutes. It seems clear to me that the idea behind the design was “We’ll give them this puzzle, and if they either don’t solve it or break the mattock, we’ve got a backup mattock that they just have to wait a week for”. But I had gotten the backup mattock first, and then broken it, and didn’t have a “just wait a week” alternative to wait for from that point. It’s easy to imagine what would happen if I didn’t look for hints at this point: I’d eventually get a third mattock when it becomes available in the endgame, and finally get the ability to play the game for real after missing out for the bulk of its running time. And it would make me cross, and I would complain.

Really, this is a game best enjoyed with a modicum of hintage, not a game to be played in complete isolation — which is a little ironic, given its content.

1 Recursively, the fact that it isn’t a collectible disappointment is itself a disappointment.

The Longing: Books

Another day, another week. The pool I mentioned before finally filled up enough to grant me passage to what turned out to be the palace library, something I had been anticipating ever since finding the blocked and impassible front entrance during my initial explorations. It’s mostly ransacked, of course: entire bookshelves have maybe one or two volumes remaining. The contents of the entire place, once the Shade gathers them up, fill up just a couple of shelves of his own personal book hoard back home.

A word about how books work in this game: They’re real works of literature in the public domain. You sit the Shade down in his armchair, and select a book from his collection, and the game displays it a page at a time, with the Shade automatically flipping to the next page every so often. If you like, you can read along with him. I’ve heard of people doing this, treating the game as an excuse to read classic books in simulated companionship, the Shade taking the role of lo-fi-hip-hop-beats girl. But the Shade will also happily plow through the pages without you, even offline. It’s presumably with this in mind that the designers chose to include some very long books — the Iliad is in there, as well as The Count of Monte Cristo, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and Moby Dick.

This last reminded me of one of the first CD-ROMs I bought, back in the 90s. It was a copy of the Simtel archive, a large FTP site full of public-domain MS-DOS applications, but the archive didn’t take up the full disc, so they threw on some selections from the Gutenberg Project as well, including Moby Dick. I remember finding this impressive at the time, that we had a storage medium so capacious that you could just throw a 900-page novel into the space left over.

The books in The Longing are stored as plain text files in the Unity StreamingAssets folder. Because the longer works are split up into multiple volumes, Moby Dick is in fact the largest single file in the library, at 1.21 MB. That’s a significant chunk of the entire collection, which less than nine Moby Dicks in size. The entire game is more than 4000 Moby Dicks, which isn’t even notably large for a game these days.

It’s easy to see some of the chosen works as commenting on the Shade’s situation: things with themes about kings, or darkness, or waiting, or escape. In fact, sometimes the Shade himself comments on this, in little annotations at the ends. After reading to the end of Zarathustra, I see a note from the shade about how it’s inspired him to try to get out of the cave. Was that note there originally? All I can say for sure is that it’s present in the text file in StreamingAssets, but I’m pretty sure that can be written to. At any rate, I guess I know now what ending the game is pushing me towards. And after all I’ve done to make the cave comfortable for him, too.

The Longing: Face

I mentioned in my last post my attempt at breaking into the royal treasury, where you can see vast heaps of gold piled up like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. You might wonder what use I’d have for the gold if I could get it, considering that there’s nothing to buy and no one to buy it from — aside from the sleeping king, the only living soul I’ve encountered in the caves is a spider, which the Shade immediately started calling “friend” because it’s the only available candidate for that position. But the colors available at my drawing table is still missing yellow, and gold seemed like a possible source of that.

Plus, even though there’s no other living creatures, I’ve found a crude face in the rock, just a few crevices roughly in the shape of eyes and a mouth, that accepts payment to answer questions. Mainly the payment takes the form of items easily collected in the caves, such as lumps of coal or clumps of moss or disappointments (a collectable you obtain from dead ends and other empty places), but there’s one question that he wants five gold coins for — a quantity that makes me think I won’t actually be getting into the money bin, but just making a hole big enough to stick my hand through.

The questions that the Shade asks the Face are ones important to his existence, like “What lies beyond this cave?” and “What will happen after the 400 days?” and “Is there a way to manipulate time?”. And the answers are more oracular than practical. I still want to get as many questions answered as I can, simply because they are Game Content. Some of what he says gives me pause, though, and makes me wonder about my goals.

This is a game with multiple endings. Apparently you can escape the caves instead of doing your duty to the king. I wasn’t really planning on doing that, despite my distaste for kings in general — I suppose I don’t really see him as a real king, considering the state of his kingdom. He’s more like an ex-king, and possibly a repentant one? There’s a lot I don’t know about the past, and he’s the only one likely to have answers. Moreover, the Shade seems to genuinely love his king. It’s a love that has a lot to do with his benighted state, sure, just like his “friendship” with the spider. But as things stand, there’s only one thing in the world he desires, and that’s to follow the king’s instructions. And I’m inclined not to interfere with that. (Anything else is fair game, as far as I’m concerned. The king never explicitly told me not to break into the treasury.)

But when you ask the face what happens after the 400 days, it says:

As long as there is time, there will always be longing. And once all longing has ended, the world will no longer need time… and those without longing will no longer need the world.

Now, recall that the king said he would “end all fear and longing” when he wakes up. Does this mean he’s going to end time? Destroy the world? Maybe waking him up isn’t such a good idea after all.

Taking a step back, it’s pretty clearly talking about the end of the game. When the 400 days are over, and the player is done playing, your longing for the ending is over, and the countdown at the top of the screen will end. Your longing for the ending satisfied, you no longer need the world represented in the game.

And anyway, if I’m honest, what ending I ultimately go for is likely to be a matter of what ending promises the most content. I want to wake up the king because I want to see what happens when I do. Maybe there will be something else that I want to see more.

The Longing: Mattock

I’ve gotten the flow of time in the Shade’s living quarters up to a steady five seconds per second. At this rate, even if I do nothing else, I’ll be done in a mere 80 days, like a stay-at-home Phileas Fogg. At this point, I’m pretty sure that improving the decor is helping: the increased flow followed on installing some decorative crystals on the walls, something that became possible when I obtained a mattock.

The importance of finding a mattock is stressed from very early on. Not only is it mentioned in the Shade’s journal, it’s reinforced by the environment: places with crystals to be mined, additional tunnels to be dug, and even the great window separating you from the royal treasury all have a use point labeled with the words “Use Mattock”, even before you can act on it. And, having so impressed the need for a mattock on you, the game then teases you with their unavailability. There are mattocks visible just beyond obstacles that you have to wait on for the first couple of weeks (however long that takes).

The Longing has been compared to Tamagotchi, for its “let’s check in on the little fella and see how he’s doing” gameplay, but it differs from it quite a bit. The Shade doesn’t need to be fed or groomed, doesn’t die from player inattentiveness, and isn’t even really treated as a separate entity from the player. And unlike Tamagotchi, The Longing can be won. Your goal isn’t to keep things going indefinitely, but just to last a specific finite amount of time. (Or, apparently, to escape. There are multiple endings.) But it strikes me that one of the big similarities is the way that the very beginning of the game is a flurry of activity, as you learn the systems and explore the possibilities, followed by settling into a routine for the long haul. Except that the mattock provides something Tamagotchi never had: the promise of a second flurry of activity, as you follow up on all those deferred leads. A slowish flurry of activity, to be sure — everything the Shade does takes time, and digging can be expected to not be the quickest of activities. But a sudden expansion of potential.

Alas, for me, most of that potential is back out of reach. I managed to break the mattock on that treasury window soon after obtaining it, after mining some crystals but without having dug any new tunnels into new territory. The game gives you several confirmation prompts when you attempt this, so to some extent it’s my fault, but it really feels more like the designer’s cruel joke at the hapless Shade’s expense, or, more charitably, an emergent narrative device to make the player feel sorry for him. I’ll just have to wait until another time-lock resolves itself and hope I can get another mattock out of it. The treasury window still bears a visible mark, so I think the player is expected to expend multiple mattocks to break through it — although I won’t be trying again until I’ve dug some tunnels.

The Longing

Apparently people have been finishing The Longing. This came as a surprise to me, because I didn’t think it had been out for long enough: this is famously the game that takes 400 days to play, real time, and it was released last March. So I picked up a copy during the Steam sale, and I’m a bit about a week into it now.

The premise that starts it all: A King Under the Mountain type, an ancient and colossal figure, fused into the rock of his throne, ruling over some long-abandoned ruins in an empty network of caves, creates a Shade, the player character, to do his bidding. His instructions: Don’t leave the caves, and wake me up in 400 days, at which point I will have the strength to “end all fear and longing”. The Shade is left to his own devices for the duration. There’s a room prepared for him, with an armchair, a mostly-empty bookshelf, and a drawing table. He comments on his situation every now and then: conditions in the caves, how lonely he is, wondering what the surface world is like. He has a sort of diary/wishlist accessible from the bookshelf, providing goals: Explore the caves. Find some more books. It would be nice to have a bed. That sort of thing. But the striking thing about these goals, at least on first glance, is that they don’t get you closer to winning. You win by waiting. You pursue other goals for their own sake, for a little variety and to give the wretched little weirdo in your care a slightly better life. Isolated, unable to go out, powerless to change your situation but seeking ways to mitigate it: it’s essentially 2020: The Game.

This isn’t a game to binge. The Shade walks at an excruciatingly slow pace — he has no reason to hurry. Nonetheless, initial explorations don’t take very long, relatively speaking. You’re left waiting on a number of time-locked obstacles: a pool, for example, that you’ll be able to swim across once a slow drip of water fills it up, something the Shade estimates will take a couple of weeks. In this way does the game spread its limited content out over its time. You can save waypoints at places you’ve visited, then tell the Shade to walk to waypoints noninteractively. He’ll even do it while the game isn’t running. As a result, many of my sessions have been very short, consisting of starting the game, observing conditions at the place I sent the Shade to last time, telling him to go somewhere else, and logging off.

It took me a while to grasp the actual gameplay. It started with noticing an anomaly: that the game was reporting more time had passed than I had actually played it for. It turns out that when the Shade is at home, time goes by faster, somewhere between 3 and 4 seconds per second. The 400-day countdown is displayed prominently at the top of the screen all the time, but I hadn’t noticed the speed-up because it updates at a steady rate of once per real second, no matter how many game seconds have passed. And, having noticed this, I’m into a new phase of the game: observing time. I’m pretty sure that it’s sped up as I’ve installed improvements in the home. It definitely goes faster when I’m jamming on the Shade’s musical instrument, a sort of crude clarinet/saxophone thing that sounds like a muted trumpet and can only play four notes, made of pieces found in the caves. It might go faster when I’m reading a book — there are definitely hints in that direction, but if so, it’s a lesser effect than the music — probably because playing music requires active involvement on the player’s part, whereas the Shade can read a book while you’re logged off.

But do I really want to rush things? The King’s words make me a little apprehensive. “Ending all fear and longing” could be a good thing, but also makes me think he intends to die. The way he seemed to create the Shade out of nothing but darkness — is it, in some sense, a part of him? A piece of his soul, perhaps, that he spliced off so it could have some experience of his kingdom before his final rest? We’ll see, and it’ll take substantially less than 400 days to find out.

Particle Fleet: Emergence

Gemcraft wasn’t the only long-running originally-in-Flash series to get an update in 2020: the anticipated fourth entry in the Creeper World series was released, bringing its fight-the-ocean gameplay into full 3D and provoking the same sort of “Oh, so that’s how I was supposed to be picturing it!” reactions as other suddenly-in-3D games like Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time. I haven’t played it yet, but the release did spur me to try out Particle Fleet: Emergence, another similar game by the same devs and set in the same fictional universe. I found it satisfying and reasonably short.

The basic idea behind PF:E is that it’s like Creeper World, except that instead of the enemy being emitters that produce a slowly-spreading viscous substance that tends to pool in low places, the emitters produce particles that drift about the battlefield aimlessly and independently, weakly attracted to your own forces. To fit this, the battlefield is shifted into space — specifically, “Redacted Space”, a no-go zone chock-a-block with asteroids and shattered planets positioned to channel the mindless particulate in tactically interesting ways.

The main way this affects gameplay is a reduction of the scale of things, probably to keep that particulate from diffusing too much. Instead of building a vast army of autocannons to defend your border on multiple fronts, you have a fleet of about a dozen ships max. You can rebuild ships when they get destroyed, but you’re limited in what you can have under your control at a time — in-fiction, this is explained by your galactic empire being essentially corporatist, and your company’s fleet being constrained by license agreements. And yet, despite this, the game managed to get me thinking of the ships as essentially individuals, cooperating as a team rather than as an army. Again, the scale helps with this. But so does the way that most of the ships are unique in some way. Even just their shape can make them meaningfully different from one another: damage isn’t just a matter of lowering a stat displayed in a little bar graph, but physically carves chunks out of the ships where they were hit, block by block, disabling any weapons or engines mounted on the destroyed bits. There’s one ship whose chief virtue is that it has an extra-thick fan-shaped block of hull in front, and I frequently used it to shield the more fragile “Lance” ships as they moved in on an emitter. Afterward, if it survived, it would visibly be severely damaged by the battle, carved into a different shape than when it started. That’s character development.

For all that, it plays a lot like Creeper World! It’s all about advancing bit by bit, establishing a safe perimeter and then making risky sallies beyond it to seize important locations, with a big emphasis on supply lines, both maintaining yours and cutting off the enemy’s. In Creeper World, you were limited by your network of Collectors, which you could build anywhere, as long as you could defend them. Particle Fleet instead puts a fixed number of energy sources on the map, which, once claimed, provide healing and ammo to anything within a certain range. This gives the level designer more control over how you can advance, but the cadence of that advancement still has the same basic feel. It’s hard to capture in words, but I bet any strategy game made by the same people would feel this way.

Clutter VI: Leigh’s Story

I don’t remember where I saw this recommended, but I do remember that it was recommended for its story. It’s the first game in its series to employ a writer who isn’t also the designer and programmer — this is a small indie effort, and that’s part of its charm. And it knows it.

The story element isn’t closely connected to the gameplay, which consists of sundry variations on matching pairs of photographed objects in a randomly jumbled heap: hats, gemstones, sliced oranges, motorcycles, clown dolls, some things I couldn’t even identify, none of them to scale with each other. There are other minigames sprinkled throughout the story, such as unscrambling pictures, but the clutter sequences are where your attention is most of the time. It’s a cousin of the hidden object game, but less amenable to fiction. Indeed, in the story, the clutter part is still a game — one that the protagonist plays and writes a sequel to, that sequel being the game you’re playing.

That protagonist is Leigh Poncelette, a teenage girl from a cursed family — I get the impression that the Poncelette family curse is the basis of the plot of previous games in the series. The details of the curse aren’t elaborated on here; the important part is Leigh’s attempts to escape its effects via radical self-invention — going by a new name, changing her hair and her wardrobe, presenting herself as someone cool and confident — on the theory that the curse won’t be able to find her if she’s someone else. In the process, she winds up finding popularity, for the first time in her life, as a game streamer — playing Clutter, natch. There’s a bit of authorial wish-fulfillment there: this is a game that has literally no community activity recorded on Steam, but in its own fictional world, it has an active and substantial fanbase and well-attended competitive tournaments.

For the most part, this story is delivered a sentence or two at a time after you finish each level, by Leigh, as to a diary: confessing her worries and apprehensions about what she’s attempting, and her fear that people will find out who she really is. But there’s another part that I felt was fairly clever: in addition, each level contains a phrase, which you reveal bit by bit, by finding and clicking on letters mixed in with the clutter. As noted, Leigh is a worrier, and these hidden phrases give you glimpses of what’s lurking in her mind even when your/her attention is on the game.

Beyond that, the main thing that impresses me about this game is how amiable it is. It isn’t just the story elements. Sometimes the between-levels text isn’t part of the story at all, but messages from the developer, thanking you for playing, gushing about the people who worked on the game with him, and, most particularly, talking about design decisions and the theories behind them. When this first happened, I assumed it was just going to be a one-off thing, but no, he keeps on popping up, commenting on the game as it’s going on, like Bennett Foddy. It gives the whole thing an unmistakably personal feel, and makes me realize: This game, and the five games that preceded it, are the work of a man who has found his mission in the world. I wish him well.

The Tale of Ord: Content

(Heavy puzzle spoilers throughout this post. Since The Tale of Ord is out of print, this should only affect you if you already have a copy and haven’t solved it yet.)

The puzzles in Ord are largely about putting together information from multiple sources, drawing connections and correspondences between things presented separately. A simple example: In the first chapter, there’s an envelope containing five thick cards, cut with slots and holes and printed with letters and numbers in various places. A journal mentions how a character had a method of divination using cards, that had won them some small sums in the lottery. A lottery scratch card also included in the package has some diagrams on the back, showing sets of five crisscrossing colored lines. Color words scattered throughout the same journal give you a letter for each color; the letters in question are found on the cards, giving you a correspondence between cards and colors, which lets you use the diagrams to slot the cards together correctly and read some text through those holes in the resulting structure. That’s not getting into what you do with that text once you have it — the interpretive chain can get pretty long, and the failure mode is that you’re stopped dead, with no idea of what to do next, until you notice a similarity somewhere, and try to find meaning in it.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that the story concerns academics. The story’s inciting incident is the disappearance of one Dr. Rose Woning, an archeologist at the Emerens Institute, which specializes in viking history. Her dean, Mikhail Soterman, recruits the player to find her. From there, it escalates into “Mythology is real” territory. The stakes are powers sealed away by Odin himself, put into humanity’s hand’s by Loki. With them, if you choose, you can free humankind from the binds of fate (although the effect is honestly rather subtle). But Mikhail calls this all nonsense, the imaginings of an unwell mind. He’s seeking Rose for her own good. Rose disagrees, and her side becomes more convincing when things start getting eerie.

It’s interesting how this is managed. It’s acceptable for puzzles in this sort of game to be contrived, without logical explanation for their existence within the story. But the first chapter here rejects that, taking care to make all of the messages into things that could have imaginably been planted by Rose to send messages to the player without Mikhail noticing. There’s message hidden in a puzzle in a magazine? One of Rose’s grad students works at the magazine. A secret hidden in Mikhail’s letter to you? Ah, but it’s not a message without the means of interpreting it, which is found in Rose’s journal. But then we get to later chapters, where messages clearly intended specifically for you are found encoded in unearthed viking artifacts. Because the first chapter led us to believe that things in this story have plausible causes, these later developments feel like they must have causes beyond human agency. Messages from the divine. And that gets creepy when we consider the system of correspondences in chapter 3, based around nine dates, nine constellations, the nine worlds in the branches of Yggdrasil… and the nine faculty members of the Emerens Institute. Have their entire lives been manipulated by forces unseen to put them into their positions like so many game pieces? Both Rose and Mikhail turn out to be basically proxies for the gods in their schemes, and why should they be the only ones?

Another notable thing: the puzzle design builds on things from chapter to chapter. There’s a hitherto unknown runic alphabet to decode, which is just a substitution cipher for English, but the glyphs are doled out piecemeal through the chapters, and even in the end, you don’t have the full alphabet. Some puzzles require looking back at objects from previous chapters, getting new information from things that seemed like mere decoration before you knew what to look for. Chapter 4 indulges in this the most, essentially recapitulating the game’s puzzles through callbacks — “Hm, I just folded a paper to reveal some map coordinates… just like in chapter 1! Let’s apply them to the chapter 1 map.” One puzzle in particular in chapter 4 involves disassembling a star chart from chapter 3, flipping over the transparency, and seeing that the constellations now form words. This seems like a particularly risky move to me: what if someone noticed that during chapter 3, and tried to make sense of it without context? But in fact I did not do this, and maybe no one did.

To my mind, there are two major weak points to the puzzles, and they’re both at their worst in chapter 3, where my reluctance to take hints led me to abandon the thing for a matter of months. First, sometimes they don’t lead to solutions as cleanly and unambiguously as they should. A password is given as a set of letters for you to unscramble, but there’s more than one common word made of those letters. A chain of digits produces a phone number, but there’s no way to know which end of the sequence to start at other than by just picking one possibility and calling it, something I’m hesitant to do. (I actually chose the wrong way first, but no one picked up.) In chapter 3, you’re supposed to fit a looping path to a page of runes to find a sequence, but the path doesn’t quite fit its endpoints; there’s more than a centimeter of wiggle room, which is enough to change which runes are on the path and in what order.

The second and more serious weakness is that you can unintentionally break sequence on those those long inferential chains. Chapter 3 has this whole deal about finding the dosages of the three psychiatric medications that Rose was taking. Mikhail’s letter to you in that chapter blatantly hints that the dosages are important (although he doesn’t say why), and that you can find them by using the objects on her keychain. Objects on the keychain encode three URLs, each going to a picture puzzle containing text that pretty clearly hints that the solution to each is linked to a dosage. I solved all three puzzles. I got the dosages. I had no idea what to do with them. That’s because I wasn’t supposed to use the three picture puzzles to find the dosages. I was supposed to find the dosages using different objects on the keychain, then use them to solve the three picture puzzles. I’m still a bit upset about this, especially with how it left me struggling to interpret enigmas whose solution would have just given me information I already had. The big problem is that finding the dosages the intended way involved making a couple of major intuitive leaps, and solving the puzzles without them just required a little tenacity.

It’s likely that solving it with a team would help prevent such missteps. It’s also notable that your best guidance about not just how to solve the puzzles but about what order to solve them in comes from Mikhail, who by that point I was thinking of as the antagonist. It’s a little reminiscent of the Yeesha vs Esher dyanamic, except that Mikhail is less unambiguously evil in the end.

At any rate, after my problems with chapter 3, chapter 4 was much nicer, in part because my stubborn insistence on not using hints had been broken. There were two puzzles there where I did everything right but failed to recognize the solution as a solution and just tried to keep on finding more hidden meaning than there was. But it all ended with a nice “Aha!” moment that I actually got. Overall, I think this is my favorite puzzle-story-package of all those I’ve experienced.

The Tale of Ord: Form

In the waning days of the year 2020, I finally accomplished something I’d been putting off for a couple of years: finishing The Tale of Ord, the blockbuster puzzle-story package from PostCurious, makers of the upcoming Emerald Flame.

This is a genre that has its roots in the venerable Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers and the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective board game, but its current form, based around serialized mailings, was basically pioneered in 2013 by The Mysterious Package Company, which seems to emphasize story over puzzles. And there seems to have been something of a boom in the form lately, probably spurred on by the pandemic-driven closure of the escape rooms at the height of their popularity. I myself am currently subscribed to two such series, Scarlet Envelope and The Curious Correspondence Club, which I may or may not post more about later. Ord was clearly meant to be serial, consisting of four chapters, each in its own 9″x12″ envelope, but I received them all at once in a box.

The most obvious way that Ord distinguishes itself is through its production values. The whole basis of the genre, and the core of its appeal, is that it’s a story told through physical artifacts, an adventure game made entirely of feelies, hiding information through their physical properties: “Aha, this object fits perfectly over that one!” sort of thing. But in most cases, what you get is made of various sorts of paper and cardstock, even when the fiction claims otherwise. For example, both Ord and Curious Correspondence Club feature a puzzle where you’re supposed to lay a series of keys over some text as a grille, and read numbers through the gaps. CCC‘s keys, although described as metal in the chapter’s intro text, are cardboard in the package. You have to pretend to yourself that they’re real keys. Ord gives you actual metal keys, no pretending necessary, making good on the implicit promise. The climax of the fourth and final chapter is an actual wooden puzzlebox — which requires a little pretending, because it’s supposed to be a Viking artifact and it’s clearly made of plywood, but it’s still a working physical machine that makes a very satisfying “ka-click!” when you solve it, letting you know you’re done in a visceral way before you’ve even seen the reward.

The physicality poses a small problem you don’t get from videogames (or not from digitally-distributed games, anyway): What do you do with these objects once you’ve finished the puzzles? I understand there’s actually an aftermarket for Ord in particular, and I should probably look into that. It’s out of print, and the original run was limited to 500 copies, presumably due to the effort and expense involved, so it’s sought after by fans of this sort of thing. (Because of its limited availability, I’m being pretty free with spoilers here.) Sadly, it’s not fully resettable. It’s mostly resettable, but not entirely. A few of the components are meant to be folded, leaving visible creases. There’s a scratch card in chapter 1. Saddest of all, one of the impressive moments in the game, the one that all the reviews comment on, involves objects that change color when exposed to sunlight, and the chemical that does this seems to wear off over time — the red objects still turn very red, but the blue and yellow ones were very faint a few months ago, and basically invisible now.

Also, there’s a significant online component, getting both clues and additional puzzles from several websites, email autoresponders, and even a telephone voice line. This always leaves me apprehensive, because it makes the entire story contingent on something ephemeral, and likely to go away long before the objects, leaving you with a partial mystery, solvable only in pieces. I’m lucky that everything stayed up long enough for me to solve it. But I’ll admit that making the player type a puzzle solution into a password field every now and then does have some benefits for both designer and player, serving as checkpoints to make sure you’re on the right path.

I’ll post again tomorrow with thoughts on the story and puzzles, and how they interrelate.