Cragne Manor

Back in June, noted interactive fiction authors Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna sent out a call for contributions. For the 20th anniversary of Michael Gentry’s classic Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror game Anchorhead, they wanted to make a collaborative tribute game, where each participant writes one room. They expected about a dozen people to express interest. Instead, they got more than eighty, including me, but also IF luminaries Emily Short and Andrew Plotkin, Kingdom/West of Loathing authors Zack Johnson and Riff Conner, and even Michael Gentry himself. It’s one of the largest collaborative IF projects ever. Not the very largest, though; apparently there’s a furry porn game that has it beat handily, furry porn inconspicuously leading the way as always. But it had more authors than the annual IF Comp has ever had. The resulting game, Cragne Manor, was released to the public just a few days ago, after a lengthy testing period where the authors shook out the problems created by putting all the pieces together.

Again, each participant was responsible for a single room, although some bent this rule by creating sub-rooms or just plain additional rooms only accessible from their main one. Part of the organizers’ core concept was that they wanted the game to be a mishmash of authorial styles and intentions, like a patchwork quilt. And so they insisted that each author work basically alone, with no knowledge of what other people were writing, apart from how it directly touched their own work, exquisite-corpse-style. The organizers provided the bones of a plot and setting (one Naomi Cragne searching for her lost husband Peter in the fictional town of Backwater, Vermont), and negotiated with each writer how their room fit into the map and the game’s puzzle structure. Some, for example, were told “Your room contains a book which is one of many that needs to be returned to the public library for a puzzle. Here’s the specifics of how to implement a library book for this game.” Some others were told “Your room should have a puzzle that uses an object from another room to obtain an object used in a different other room, and we need to coordinate on what those objects are.”

The result is, as expected, incoherent. It reminds me a little of Deadly Premonition. Near the beginning of Deadly Premonition, before you even get to the town where the murder you’re supposed to be investigating took place, you fight your way through a zombie outbreak. The moment you reach town, the existence of zombies is forgotten about. That’s what Cragne Manor is like. Individual rooms confront you with horrors beyond imagining, scientific marvels, and dire revelations about the Cragne family that are only acknowledged in that room. One author, tasked with making a bridge, decided to make it a rope bridge in a cavern, even though both ends of the bridge are ordinary streets in the town of Backwater. And yet, it’s somehow surprisingly coherent for such an incoherent work. Each room is basically its own independent reality, but they sometimes sync up in fortuitous ways. Multiple rooms contain mirrors that act as portals to the past, something that their authors thought up independently, creating a sense of a general mechanism. The aforementioned bridge room features the colossal skeleton of some extinct monster; shortly after crossing it, you come across a paleontological dig. Seeing the strange bones uncovered there, your mind automatically draws a connection to the ones under the bridge, even though they seemed to be in a completely different game.

Also, a few of the more ambitious writers created things to give a sense of cross-room connection beyond the organizers’ plans. Lucian Smith made a puzzle that follows you around and interacts with those library books I mentioned. Emily Short’s room, otherwise one of the simpler ones, contains a creepy pull-string doll that comments on random objects in your current room by scanning their descriptions for words that she guessed other people would be using. (This is useful in some places for identifying objects you failed to notice.) Nonetheless, most rooms are self-contained or almost self-contained. One of the game’s big challenges is getting used to the degree to which you should ignore stuff from other rooms. One of its big design problems is that several authors decided to make “obtain a cutting implement” puzzles, whose cutting implements can’t be used on each others’ cuttable items.

Mainly, though, the style and mood is wildly variable in a very fun way. Not every contributor was familiar with Anchorhead; not everyone who was familiar with it chose to imitate it. Some rooms are brimming with Lovecraft mythos references (something that Anchorhead itself notably did without, despite clearly bearing Lovecraft’s influence), and one or two even imitate his prose style. Others are ghost stories, or observations of small-town life, or surrealist, or comic, or gross. Adjacent rooms are often jarring juxtapositions. (Chris Jones’ meat packing plant bathroom — just the name of the room is full of promise! — is especially notable for pulling off a number of these weird juxtapositions within itself, as if reflecting the game as a whole.) There are crypts and tentacles and dark rituals and monstrous fungal blooms. And there’s lots and lots of books. Everyone knew that there was a puzzle track involving library books, and many people seemed to take this as permission to throw in journals and histories of their own. It’s been merrily pointed out that Backwater has more libraries than bathrooms.

The game is large. Just having more than eighty rooms makes it a large game in that sense, and some of the rooms are large individually, containing enough prose or puzzle content that they could have been released separately. Hanon Ondricek’s church scene, for example, is essentially a novella, and Andrew Plotkin’s workroom is a miniature Hadean Lands/Myst mashup, teaching the player a remixable system of magic words that can transport you to other worlds. (As with nearly everything in the game, those magic words only work in the room they were designed for.) On playing the full game, it was easy to feel like my own contribution was unusually slight, but I think that’s an illusion created by the fact that the larger rooms dominate the play experience.

Largely as a result of those large rooms, the last few rooms feel anticlimactic, as you use your hard-won inventory to perform a relatively simple ritual and wind up in a relatively simple and utterly disconnected endgame that doesn’t address anything that happened before. This is perhaps inevitable. A work in this genre should end in the protagonist coming to a realization that ties all their bizarre experiences together, and how could you possibly do that exquisite-corpse-style? For my money, the real climax of the game comes slightly before the ending, in a room that directly confronts Naomi with the fractured and mutable nature of her reality and identity, which she’s been oblivious to and which the player has been struggling to ignore through the entire game.

I highly recommend playing the game, although it’s probably best done with a group. Not necessarily as a group play session, but as a bunch of people who are discovering the game independently but in tandem, who can help each other through the more obtuse puzzles (some of which are pretty obtuse), laugh together at the more ridiculous things, congratulate each other on beating the larger rooms.

Kudos to Jenni and Ryan for tackling the unexpectedly mammoth task of integrating everyone’s disparate contributions into something playable. Communication is always the most difficult part of any large project, and actually making it against the rules didn’t help matters. One notable innovation they added is a divination device, discoverable within the first few rooms, in the form of a coffee cup — a subtle Anchorhead reference; some Anchorhead players carried a discarded coffee cup from the first few rooms with them for the entire game for no reason, so this time there’s a reason. Once you learn how to read it, the cup tells you whether you’ve solved all a room’s puzzles or not, and, if not, whether you have everything you need. During testing, I played the game for a while before this device was added, and found that it drastically improved the experience of the game. I wouldn’t necessarily want such a thing in a game produced under a single unified vision, but in Cragne Manor, it was immensely useful in clarifying the ever-shifting authorial intent.

Hadean Lands: Stack Shenanigans

I almost regret taking off the wrapper.I’ve received the last of my Kickstarter rewards for Hadean Lands: a copy of the game on CD-ROM, which Zarf accurately identifies as more a memento than a medium, a token of a game you’ve probably already downloaded and finished by the time the discs were mailed out. Nonetheless, it is a game on a physical medium, and that creates some problems for the Oath.

The Oath in its current form was written on the assumption that if I acquire any games on physical media, it’s because I haven’t played them yet. Taking the terms of the Oath strictly, I now have a CD that I duly played and blogged from start to finish while the Oath was active, but which went directly into the Trophy Case without passing through the Stack. This isn’t how I intended things to work. So I’m going to change the phrasing of the Oath slightly to recognize anomalous cases like this, and claim my self-granted reward for the posts I’ve already written.

There’s one other iffy matter, though. Hadean Lands isn’t actually the only game on the disc. It also contains a folder with 20 other games by Zarf — 19 previously released works plus one incomplete prototype. I played most of them to completion back when they were first released, but do the ones I haven’t completed count as on the Stack now? Even the ones I’ve completed are arguably in the same position as Hadean Lands itself. Ah, but there is in fact precedent for bonus text adventures on this blog. When I played the bonus text adventure included with Icebreaker, I didn’t count it as a separate game on the Stack, even though I did post about it. That very game is on the HL CD as well, and it would be strange to suddenly declare that it counts here but not there. And if it doesn’t, none of them do.

Hadean Lands: Ending and Speculation

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.

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.

Hadean Lands: Learning the Alternatives

Unstuck again and on something of a roll. I seem to be nearing the end: I have the functions of all the dragons restored, and the Doors command lists only three items, one of which I don’t expect to be resolved until the very end.

At this late stage, there’s a strong pattern emerging: I’m being repeatedly required to do things I’ve done before in different ways. It reminds me a bit of what I once called the close-the-door-behind-you puzzle. This is a puzzle found repeatedly in the Myst games. In it, you first gain access to a room through a door that can only be opened and closed from the outside (usually because it’s a button-operated sliding door), but something in that room opens up another passage to it, directly or indirectly. The puzzle, then, is to realize that there’s some advantage to be had from entering the room while the initial door is closed — say, there’s a clue written on the back of the door or something.

The late puzzles in Hadean Lands are kind of like that, except with alchemy instead of doors. You learn a ritual that gives you access to an area that directly or indirectly leads to gaining a different way of producing the same effect without consuming the same ingredients. For example, there are those two Aura Imitation rituals I mentioned before: one uses Elemental Water and one doesn’t. This is a big deal because the main reason you need an Aura Imitation ritual is to access a place where you need to do a ritual that requires Elemental Water, and you won’t be able to do it if you used up your Elemental Water getting there. But that same place contains a paper giving a formula you’ll need in order to get all the ingredients of the version of Aura Imitation that doesn’t use Elemental Water, so you have to go there at least once with the wrong ritual before you can do it with the right one.

Or consider another case: leaving the ship. The first time you do this, you can’t leave through the airlock, because it’s powered by one of the nonfunctional dragons. So you leave through a window, using the Glass Permeability ritual. Outside the ship, you can find some mercury, which is essential for making a dragon fulcrum, which you can use to get the airlock working again. In this case, you’re ultimately not substituting a ritual for an equivalent ritual, you’re producing a way to do without Glass Permeability entirely, freeing up all its ingredients for other uses.

I’m at the point where I’ve been considering making charts of all the rituals that consume ingredients so that I can see exactly what the contingencies are. I understand that the author wrote specialized software tools to verify that the game was completable and that the player couldn’t skip stuff. I haven’t really found it necessary yet, though. I’m still doing most things by indicating my intentions and letting the game take care of the details — just telling it to go through that airlock and watching it automatically brew the potion that lets me survive in vacuum, for example. When it gets stuck because I already used an ingredient in another ritual, that’s when I start looking at alternatives. One thing that’s worth noting here: when the game’s automator has a goal that can be met in multiple ways, it chooses the method most recently used. So once I go through that airlock instead of the window, the game remembers that and does it the same way the next time I tell it to go fetch the mercury. Thus, I can build up a set of correct choices piecemeal.

Hadean Lands: Failed Marriage

A comment on my last post got me unstuck, at least for a little while. The key was performing as much of the Great Marriage as I could, even though I couldn’t complete it. Actually, I had already inadvertently tried this. I often start rituals and only notice halfway through that I’m missing a key formula. But in this specific case, I also failed to notice that I had done the doable part incorrectly. Sometimes it’s easy to skip a step: a recipe will throw in a phrase like “in an orderly environment”, and if you’re not paying adequate attention, you can just pass over it like it’s mere descriptive text rather than a specific instruction to prepare your ritual bound with an object symbolizing order. So I failed to get the effect I should have from the partial ritual, and once I realized I couldn’t complete it, I had little reason to try it again.

Doing it right had a number of strange and mysterious effects, and led immediately to repairing one of the dragons — but only one. I still haven’t managed to make a Dragon Fulcrum, which (if I understand its purpose correctly) would let me shift the repair around from dragon to dragon. I still need to find or make a ritual bound of metallic quicksilver for that. I thought before that it was going to be one of the two bounds marked on the map that I hadn’t visited yet, but I’ve visited them both by now, and no such luck. The repair does, however, persist across resets, which is kind of strange. In the process of poking around at dragons, I discovered that viewing them with a resonant oculus (a device for revealing occult connections, providing essential clues through much of the game) basically tells you what puzzles you’ll solve by repairing them. Surely I had tried this before? Probably, weeks ago, when I had more on my plate and the information was less meaningful, relatively speaking. I didn’t learn much from this — my guesses from my last post about the obstacles removed by Syndesis, Baros, and Pneuma were broadly correct. But I had no idea about the fourth dragon, Aistheta, and now I do.

Of the strange and mysterious effects, one was particularly mysterious to me. The four frozen-in-time NPCs that I had seen earlier were all in new locations, in different poses — I figure I’ve jumped ahead in time relative to them, or possibly backward. (Maybe I didn’t so much repair Baros as go back to before it broke!) In other locations there were “shadows” of the same NPCs, with descriptions like “You see a faint trailing shadow where Captain Hart was standing.” The strange part is that the shadows actually weren’t where I had seen the characters before. Captain Hart, for example, had started off behind a fracture in the corridor by the officers’ quarters, but her shadow was in the Scaphe Arcade. A bug? I doubted it, considering the care taken with the game generally. It turns out that I had simply missed the characters in their intermediary positions. The characters change position when you perform the (partial) Great Marriage, and change position again when you repair a dragon, and the game assumes that the player spends some time wandering around and solving puzzles between those two events. I, on the other hand, took so long to get to that point that I didn’t have much of anything left to do but take my brand new “homunculus” — which, like “dragon”, doesn’t mean what it sounds like — and try it out on a dragon just to see what happens. I wonder how many players have had the same experience?

Hadean Lands: State of the Stuck

If my posts about Hadean Lands make frequent mention of getting stuck, it’s because it’s a very sticky game. In fact, I’ve been stuck in it for more than a week now. One of the most useful techniques I know for getting unstuck in an adventure game is to just review everything: items in your inventory that you haven’t used yet, obstacles you know of, any other rooms or resources that you don’t yet understand the point of. Often there’s something right in front of your face that you just haven’t been thinking about. This sort of review might not help in graphic adventures when your only problem is that you failed to notice a hotspot… but then again, sometimes it does! Sometimes just understanding your situation better helps you to realize where there should be a hotspot.

So, let’s review my situation live on this blog. Taking inventory is a trickier matter here than it would be in a more conventional adventure, and besides, there’s nothing in here like the classical one-to-one mapping between puzzles and tools to solve them. A chip of granite might be required in a ritual that requires granite, but it can also be used in a ritual that just requires stone, or even placed on a ritual bound’s gestalt shelf to establish an Earthy influence. Little is to be learned from most objects. The real inventory here is knowledge, so let’s examine that.

According to the in-game “rituals” command, I know four rituals that I haven’t managed to perform yet, even in variation. First, there’s the Dragon Fulcrum Inscription, which will be important to getting any use out of the marcher’s Dragons, but which can only be performed at a ritual bound of metallic quicksilver. Ritual bounds are the places where you perform most alchemy (except for certain liquid preparations that instead require a retort). There’s a great many of them all over the place, some with particular properties that enable certain rituals or prevent others. I haven’t found one made of metallic quicksilver yet, but I know of two bounds that I haven’t reached yet — bounds are important enough that they’re marked on the in-game map.

Secondly, there’s Riesenzweig’s Inscription, which allows you to imitate another person’s aura, which would let me get through a certain security door. I’m missing several of the ingredients for this, but I actually have another ritual that does exactly the same thing, so I probably won’t need this version until things start getting trickier in the large scale. The main problem is that it involves creating a token and touching it to the person you want to imitate, and all the other people in the ship are behind “fractures” where I can’t reach them.

Third is Electrum Phlogistication, which I’ve mentioned before: it requires more platinum than I have (or, alternately, a way of creating a catalytic environment without platinum), and it would allow me to create a second piece of Elemental Fire. But I don’t have an immediate use for this.

And finally, there’s the Great Marriage. I can almost do this — all I need is to learn a certain formula to invoke. (Recall that formulas are how the game forces you to gain information before acting on it.) It’s vague what it does, though. The game is very specifically vague about it.

In addition, there’s one ritual (and, I’m surprised to learn, only one) that I’ve successfully performed but haven’t gotten any practical use out of: the Glass Permeability Inscription. Basically, this lets you walk through windows. And there are a couple of windows I’d like to walk though. The problem is that they have hard vacuum on the other side. The game kind of teases the player about this, too. First I thought the breath-holding potion would let me out there, but no, apparently holding your breath in a vacuum just makes it worse. Then there was the dressing room by the exoscaphe — surely they keep spacesuits in there! And they do, but the helmets are missing, and besides, the player character isn’t trained in how to use a spacesuit.

In addition to rituals and formulas, the in-game journal automatically records “facts” — things found on papers or remembered from lectures or discovered in the course of your explorations that are useful to solving puzzles. (I probably should have looked here first!) The earliest one that I haven’t found any use for is a note on the Recursive Metaphor Technique: “…the form or structure of a thing may be joined to the spirit or essence… But to apply it recursively, parsing the structure and spirit of the spirit itself, requires the utmost care…” This is curious enough that I think it’s going to be useful, but I don’t yet know how. There’s a ghost story about another marcher, a lecture on how the laws of natural science may vary with “currents of aither flow between certain stars” — this all seems to be hinting at an explanation of the ship’s current condition. A description of how to do emergency repairs to a Dragon using one of those fulcrums I can’t make. And then there are four fragments concerning vibrations and echoes in the medium where the soul resides. These four fragments are sure to be important, because each was found alongside one of the four Dragons. And yet, they’re so abstruse and theoretical! Most of the facts in the journal are things of immediate practical importance: the combination to a safe, a reminder to always use the Hermetic Sealing when using the chymic retort, a list of associations between musical pitches and metals… well, okay, that’s kind of theoretical too, but at least it deals with matter. All this stuff about soul echoes seems like endgame material, which I’m not ready to process yet.

Now, as for obstacles. The “doors” command lists twelve things I haven’t opened yet. Four of them are blocked by fractures, which I suppose means there’s a way to get rid of fractures, a possibility I hadn’t really considered before discovering the “doors” command. It probably involves repairing Syndesis, the Dragon responsible for maintaining the ship’s spatial coherence. Interestingly, two of the doors are ones that I’ve gotten to the other side of by other means. I suppose their presence on the list means I’ll need to open them anyway, probably to conserve the ritual components I’d consume by not opening them — and the only component I can see that’s consumed in this way is a pinecone. So pinecones are important! Finally I’ve learned something.

Of the other “doors”, three involve gravitational anomalies, which falls under the purview of the dragon Baros. Three have vacuum on the other side, which, now that I’m thinking of this all in terms of what Dragons can fix them, I recognize as the responsibility of Pneuma, who lives in a maze. One is the aura-keyed security door that I mentioned before. And the last is the door to the Tertiary Alchemy Lab, which is simply locked. That door is made of pine, so it seems like getting through it must involve the pinecone somehow. There’s an obvious variation on a ritual for this that doesn’t quite make sense and in fact doesn’t work. And, unfortunately, until I can do something about the fractures, I still need to use the pinecone to reach the Tertiary Alchemy Lab door in the first place.

So if I read things correctly, and if I’m not just missing something, I can’t repair Dragons with what I have, and the only door I can open without repairing a Dragon is the aura-locked one. Which means I need to find a way to imitate the aura of someone I can’t touch. Is this what all that soul-echo business was about? I doubt it, but I’m still stumped for other ideas.

Mind you, there are obstacles that aren’t in the “doors” list. Like those permeable windows. There’s also a cave in the cellar, described as “a maze of claustrophobic cracks”, where you can go in any direction but you just wind up where you started. I have a ritual for finding the center of a maze, but it doesn’t work there, because I’m starting at the center. If I could find a way to invert that ritual, maybe I could get somewhere. The room containing Syndesis has a bunch of “patina-dulled” metal pylons. Could I remove the tarnish from them? Maybe, if I could get there without using up the pinecone.

So, there’s my state. I think I know the shape of my stuckage a little better, but I’m still stuck. I guess the next step is to just go back in and go over the environment with a fine-toothed comb and a Resonant Oculus, looking for things I’ve missed or forgotten about.

Hadean Lands: Yang Oil

The breakthrough mentioned in my last post led to a flurry of progress. At this point, I’m stuck again, but I’ve visited all of the Dragons, and have only a few uncompleted rituals left — including one that, as before, has an obvious application if only I can figure out how to alter it. Discovering the final secret of Elemental Fire was of course a major and long-anticipated part of this, opening most of the rituals on my list to completion. The interesting thing about this is that the breakthrough didn’t lead to Elemental Fire directly. Recall that my problem with the elemental fire ritual was in igniting blackwood. Well, the breakthrough I made led to discovering a different ritual, for synthesizing Yang Oil, which had a different but related problem involving burning splints: it required reed pith to be kept burning while you performed other steps. This was difficult because reed pith is so flammable that any attempt at setting it alight tends to just consume it immediately. This is basically just the opposite of the blackwood problem, but I found it much easier to think of the solution when it was approached from this direction, and once I had done that, the earlier problem was basically solved.

The game’s design is open enough that a different mind than mine could have done things in the other order. For a good long time, there was nothing preventing me from making Elemental Fire but my lack of understanding. What’s more, the game all but forces you to discover the Elemental Fire ritual before the Yang Oil ritual: when you gain access to the midgame, the paper teaching the former is sitting around loose while the latter is several difficult puzzles away. I can see two not-really-contradictory ways of interpreting the author’s intent in this. The first is that the author really wants and expects me to have made Elemental Fire before Yang Oil. The second is that the Yang Oil formula is a deliberate assistance in the Elemental Fire formula, a way of giving you a extra hint in the event that you haven’t figured it out yet that late in the game.

Whatever the intent, coupling the solutions for Elemental Fire and Yang Oil in this way is surely deliberate, because they’re closely related in use. I mentioned early on that some rituals consume components, and speculated that the game would use this to force the player to reset the physical state. Well, by the point I’m at, this happens a lot. There are quite a few unique items with multiple consuming applications. Resetting to use them again has simply become normal. I remember trying to avoid resets when I first started the game, so as not to lose my inventory, but now I do it willy-nilly, even when I don’t need to, because it’s usually easier to just reset than to figure out whether you need to or not. In particular, as I said, you need Elemental Fire for several different rituals, and it turns out each one of them uses it up. Yang Oil, now: that’s used in the ritual to phlogisticate Electrum Regium, making it something that can support more Elemental Fire. With that, it would be possible to overcome the limitations of uniqueness for the first time in the game, using Elemental Fire twice without a reset.

The ironic part: Electrum Regium is an alloy, which you have to make yourself, out of platinum and moon metal. The ritual to phlogisticate it can only be performed in a catalytic environment, and the only way I know to prepare a catalytic environment is to slot some plantinum wire into an adjustable ritual bound. I have just enough platinum to to one of these things, not both. So at this point, barring new discoveries, it seems that in order to get two uses out of Elemental Fire in a single reset, I first have to somehow get two uses out of platinum in a single ritual.

Hadean Lands: How Failure Works

I was making no progress on this game all day, and was all set to make a post about being stuck, when I had a sudden breakthrough involving an alteration to a ritual. This was a ritual that clearly needed an alteration — it did the exact opposite of what I needed. But there wasn’t an obvious substitution of ingredient or incantation that would invert it, even after I tried a quite a few possibilities. Ultimately, I realized that a promising substitution could be made at an earlier point in the process, in the ritual that created one of the ingredients for the ritual I wanted to change. This was pretty satisfying, once it was all over. Oh, sure, during the process of futilely trying things out, it seemed like I was desperately grasping at straws. But in the light of eventual success, it seems more like the sort of tinkering and experimentation that’s entirely appropriate for an alchemist.

Seriously, when I think about it, this is a really good choice of role for an adventure game of this type. It makes sense of a lot of the sort of adventure-game activity that that you just have to pretend not to notice in most games. If a detective spends most of his investigation driving back and forth through the same six locations, re-asking people the same trivial questions, and visiting places to just scrutinize the furniture and then leave without having learned anything, it seems wrong. But this kind of repeated failure is part of the alchemist archetype, as is the unshakable faith that there is a solution, if only you can find it.

When you perform a ritual, you can generally tell when it’s going wrong. Each step produces a visible effect. If you’re doing it right, components dissolve, liquids clarify or change color, powders cling to substrates, mysterious inscriptions appear on the surfaces of things. Effects are vivid and definite. Whereas rituals done ineffectively, with the wrong components or with the wrong environmental influences, produce weak effects: the glyphs lack definition, the powders fall off and blow away, the liquids congeal into oily sludge. Even the incantations have alternate descriptions that let you know that they’re not generating the intended influences on the operation. This means there’s a bit of excitement when you do an experimental ritual correctly after repeated failure and see each step along the way happening the way it should.

Anyway, I’m pleased that experimentation of this sort is becoming a large part of the game again. In my first post, I talked about how it tutorializes the possibility of altering recipes, but after you’ve done that in the game’s first puzzle, you can go for a very long time without doing it again. For a while, I was thinking that it was a fluke, never to be repeated, and that, contrary to my initial impression, the rest of the rituals in the game were going to consist of simply following directions, the challenge being made by directions that are unclear or incomplete, requiring you to seek additional information elsewhere. And there’s certainly a great deal of that still going on, and that alone can produce a significant “Aha!” factor, when you realize that the “passive sealing” referenced in one ritual is defined in another, or that you actually do have multiple items capable of exerting a fiery influence. But there’s a whole extra level of “Aha!” when you’re not just performing the rituals handed to you, but proactively thinking of what rituals you need but don’t have. It engages with their content in an entirely different way, turns it from “What does alchemy want from me?” to “What do I want from alchemy?”

Hadean Lands: Dragons

The premise of Hadean Lands, the pretext for its puzzles, is one of adventure games’ oldest, pioneered by the likes of Planetfall. You could call it the Systems Repair story. You find yourself in a spaceship, or a space station, or a remote high-tech laboratory, or a submarine, or some other such enclosed and mechanical environment. The machines that support this artificial environment have gone catastrophically wrong, and for some reason you’re the only one around to repair and reactivate it all. The main thing that separates HL from the bulk of these stories is that it’s more up-front about all the technology being made-up.

It takes a good long time to get to the point of even contemplating repairing stuff in HL, though. I’ve spent most of my time in the game so far just trying to unlock various doors and cabinets, in order to gain access to more stuff to unlock doors and cabinets with. (I recently discovered that the game even has a special command, “doors”, to keep track of the doors and cabinets you haven’t opened yet.) But ultimate goals start asserting themselves once you finally stand in front of one of the ship’s Dragons.

The text of the game makes mention of Dragons in several places before you actually get to see one, letting the player assume that the word is literal, that there are actual scaly beasts harnessed to the ship’s systems. But, as the player character’s inner voice keeps reminding us, this is not a fantasy world, this is a world of Modern Alchemical Science. “Dragon” is just a term of art for a kind of complicated alchemical pattern, like a self-animating mandala. The ship has four of them. I know where they all are, but I’ve seen only one of them. It’s visibly wrong, anemic, virtually inactive. I have no idea how to make it right. So I guess I’ll keep on opening doors and cabinets until I do.

Finding the Dragon threw my plans for something of a loop. Basically all of the the rituals that I know but haven’t yet completed have a single prerequisite in common: Elemental Fire, which can be produced by a simple recipe involving phlogisticated gold, camphrost vapor, and a splint of burning blackwood (a fictional wood that burns at a very high temperature). Camphrost and blackwood are easy to acquire, but it took me a long time to find phlogisticated gold, due to mistakenly thinking that I didn’t have the item required to unlock a cabinet when I actually did. With that in hand, I finally had everything I needed to unlock the rest of the game — or so I thought, until I actually tried lighting the blackwood and discovered it to be stubbornly resistant, even when tossed in a kiln used for melting metals. Well, if it burns very hot, it probably needs a very hot flame to ignite it, right? And I figured that the hottest flames on the ship had to be the fiery breath of the ship’s powerful fire-breathing dragons. Well, no such luck.

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