Review: The Skeleton Key of Ambady

I’m not sure if I’ll have time to review very many games before the ShuffleComp 2015 judging period closes, given how often I typically post reviews here. So I decided that if I were going to review just one game, it would be this one, because it’s my favorite.

If you’ve played very many of the games in this comp, you realize that that’s saying something.

Why do I love this game so much? Because of the story. Because of the characters, and how I feel about them. Because of the number of choices where I care, a lot, about what will happen to the characters as a result of my choice. Because of how the game makes me feel when I play it.

I’m just going to feel free to spoil the entire game now, so if that bothers you, go play it. Or don’t? It’s fine with me if you don’t wanna. I don’t imagine this game is everyone’s cup of tea. Few things are. Oh but also none of this is gonna make any sense if you haven’t played it, because I’m not really going to explain. I’d pretend I’m sorry but I’m not. Go play it or don’t, OK?

OK! Nobody here but us chickens? Good.

The opening is… hmm… not the strongest part? I mean, OK: I see the URL bar, I recognize the domain name, it means something to me. Something good, or so I hope? I’m not going to pretend I’m not biased, here. I am super, super biased. But, like, you set that aside, what’s going on here? We’ve got some first person, some past tense, some black background, and sort of a dour atmosphere — no sense of humor here, right? Ugh, is this gonna be one of those games that takes itself super seriously but is hard to take seriously because it really isn’t all that? What’s this premise? Intriguing, or cliche? What about this writing? It’s pretty good I guess, but it’s not that good, is it? Maybe? I don’t know. This could be trouble!

At this point I haven’t heard the song, ever, never heard of it. Maybe I saw the song title before clicking through to the game. Sometimes song lyrics have spoilers. Usually I like to play the game first, then listen to the song. Whoever suggested that song is (a) a fucking genius and (b) really, really lucky. Because this could have gone way differently, believe you me.

Title screen. Huh, we got some artwork. It’s good! Tell us the story! I like this. Actually, let me see the credits. Music? I don’t hear any music. I skim past that part — I want to know — oho, Kiva Bay. Yes. See? Super biased, I’m telling you. Lots of playtesters, good. Content warnings, good! I feel like a lot of authors shy away from including any because they feel like it, I don’t know, spoils the surprise, or something? Which I guess it could. But check out these content warnings! This is terrific! This is how it should be done. I totally want to play this game now. Plague? Poison? Giant bees?! What’s going to happen? I have no fucking clue what’s going to happen.

OK, tell me the damned story already, Adalai! “By and about,” heh. I assume Adalai Trammels was one of the suggested pseudonyms, and the author decided to use it for the protagonist. Adalai sounds suitably old-fashioned and Biblical, but Adalai Trammels… I don’t know, sounds a bit too much like a joke name maybe? But this isn’t that kind of game, really. Is it?

Turns out it’s not.

What happens if I click “hill”? It’s the first link, after all. Will it describe… no, it wants me to go back up?

See, there’s this thing that happens in parser games where you type GO NORTH and the game doesn’t want you to go north because that would take you off the map, but it just narrated you coming in from the north, so it is forced to admit in the location description that, yes, technically, you could go north, and it can’t act like it doesn’t understand compass directions because it totally wants you to GO SOUTH like, immediately, but so then if you actually try to GO NORTH, it emerges that you (the player character) don’t feel like going north, because then it would be a really short movie, amirite?

Anyway this game does better, because, (a) past tense — this already happened, and that’s now how it happened, bub; (b) first person, game is not presuming to tell me how I feel, game is telling me how Adalai feels, if I feel some other way then that’s just something I’m going to have to live with now isn’t it? And, (c), fucking character development. “What must it be like to stay anywhere? To have a home?” Author was pretty sure we would click here. I mean no biggie if we didn’t, presumably, but, yeah, this justifies having a “you can’t go there” response in a hypertext game where author could even more easily have omitted the link, doesn’t it? I think so.

Okay, let’s keep going. More character development — been here before but what? How’s this going to work? What did it say on the title screen? “Living scion,” huh? Actually that’s a bit of a weird phrase, because a scion is just… like a grandchild is a scion, right? I mean if you were a dead scion, sure, it would make sense to specify that, if only so that Sam Ashwell would know to stop playing, right?

Okay, and now we’re… yes, there are places, in directions… compass directions, no less! Huh, we literally came from the north. It’s almost like this was a parser game in an alternate universe.

What if we go back north? It did not occur to me to try this on previous playthroughs, but I want to try it now… wow: “I needed a moment to myself.” And this “not alone” link… yeah, this is pretty classy, this is some attention to detail right here. Moving on.

Whoa, are there birds singing? They’re just really… quiet. I didn’t realize this was the game, at first; I just assumed there were birds outside or something. I mean I think there probably are. Credits mentioned this, didn’t they? I do prefer subtle to blaring, I have to say.

Let’s talk to the woman in the gingham dress. Yes, okay, this is a pattern that repeats throughout the game, when talking to characters: You get three ways of saying the same thing, at different points on a spectrum ranging from warm to cold. And it doesn’t seem to matter which one you choose! At least, I don’t have the sense that the response I get from the character varies at all. In fact… so there’s a pretty strong hint, later on, that when you’re talking to the mayor dude, what’s his name? Ichabod. Magistrate, not mayor. My apologies. Wow, he looks pretty serious. Anyway, not this scene but later, in the inn, tavern, thing… the Wyvern Feather. “Publick,” really?

Anyway, right: When you’re talking to Ichabod in there, you can ask what the townspeople think of you… er, of Adalai, rather… and the response seems to depend on how you’ve been answering the warm-medium-cold questions. Which is cool, I guess? It kind of feels vestigial, like something that was going to be a bigger part of the game but then atrophied down to this? Or I guess the other possibility is that it’s affecting the ending, in some big or subtle way, and I haven’t noticed because I haven’t… I guess I would need to do several full playthroughs in which I affect a completely different attitude?

I have a hard time doing that, though, with this game, because I… I have opinions on the warm-medium-cold responses! It turns out that I want to answer based on how I’m feeling, not based on trying to, I don’t know, manipulate a system. Which is funny, normally I am totally all about manipulating systems. Presumably that’s all to the good; can’t imagine the author would want me to feel the other way about it. But then it’s like, why bother hooking these responses up to anything? I guess because it feels nice that somebody’s paying attention, that the game at least acknowledges those choices? It does seem a bit strange that the characters I’m interacting with don’t really react to my tone in an obvious way at the time. But the weird instantaneous opinion poll with Ichabod also feels just a little weird. How does he even know? He’s been parked in this noisy room basically the whole time, no? Does he have some magical token around his neck that allows him to psychically… hmm, well, if he does, it must be down under his shirt collar I guess?

I mean I’m not suggesting that the game should, I don’t know, simulate him walking around and gathering a realistically incomplete picture of the townspeoples’ reactions, factoring in all the ways they might withhold information from him as a result of… I mean for all I know that’s exactly what it’s doing. Except I’m certain it’s not. Imagine the wasted effort.

Realism is for chumps, turns out. That kind, anyway. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t contributing towards making me feel something.

So where were we?

Right: We’re in the open middle of the game, where we can wander around and meet the rest of the characters, in whichever order we choose. Let’s get out of this tavern; these sounds are getting to me.

Wait, postal what? Screw the general store, we’re going in there.

Is this really what bees sound like? It sounds like sort of a gentle whooshing noise? Oh wait, there’s a… yeah, and if I crank it up I can sorta tell it’s bees. Is this what giant bees sound like? Yeah, I don’t know, sound effects are hard I guess.

Handsome, huh? Okay… OMG, adorable.

But it’s not like Cerana needs me to look at her photo to see how adorable she is because check out this sequence where she asks us questions. Now that is adorable. Also pretty brilliant. Why don’t more games do this? I think part of the reason is that it’s hard to pull this off in the type of game where the player and the protagonist are meant to be the same person, because then you wind up either putting words in the player’s mouth, which is awkward, or else providing the player with some mechanism to type in words which the game will not be able to understand and have to cover for by having the NPC give noncommittal responses that just totally kill the effect. Also it’s super interesting to be able to listen in on this conversation between Adalai and Cerana, because we have no idea what Adalai is going to say! It’s double character development. Yep, an actual conversation in a video game, imagine that.

To say nothing of Adalai’s questions, and Cerana’s responses. “I’ve built most of what I wish access to.” Cerana is awesome. And Adalai’s reactions to those responses! Regarding the shoulder bee: “I… see.” Classic.

Remember that thing I was fretting about back in the intro, about this maybe being a dour, humorless game? This is soooo not a humorless game. And yet, it totally manages to take itself seriously. Which it kinda needs to, to make this premise work. I mean not the premise per se, but… look: A premise like this, you can either play it straight, or play it for laughs. But if the game goes too broad, it’s harder for the player to take seriously when it comes time to actually, like, care about whatever’s happening. You wind up in situations where you want the characters to do dumb things so you can laugh at their pratfalls. Right? Which is fine, I guess, that can be good too… but I mean look how great this is! Sure, Adalai thinks — we think — that Cerana is a bit weird. And that’s funny! Which is fine! But nobody’s laughing at her. We love her too much for that.

Okay fine maybe it’s just me, maybe you don’t care, WHATEVER, moving on….

Let’s go to the General Store now.

This sequence is so clever! Oh but first can I say that I love that “dry goods” is a link here? Because medium-sized, uh, parser games, inventory puzzles… no? Fine, I’ll be quiet.

This sequence with the honey ice and the back room would totally fit in a parser game, and it would be a super fiddly puzzle, it would be awkward, or else it would take a huge amount of effort to get right… and in fact I don’t doubt that some significant effort went into tuning this here hypertext interaction… but I mean look how effortless this looks. You just interact with the thing, and you’re like, wait a minute… hmm… and you keep digging at it… and there’s this satisfying moment, where you get to feel clever, even if it’s mostly vicarious. Have you noticed how, in parser games… okay, digression time:

My first experience with interactive fiction was Zork I. I was lucky enough to have a PC growing up, and to be in a weird college town with a weird Cub Scout troop led by a weird scoutmaster where we had “computer campouts” in his basement… hmm, that sounds kinda creepy, doesn’t it? Well, it was really great. I can only assume that’s where Zork came from. I mean maybe my dad or somebody actually bought it somehow, I guess that’s not impossible, but I’m guessing it was a pirated floppy disk passed along by somebody in that crowd. It was like the “gold edition” or something, too, meaning that there were in-game hints.

I abused those hints so much.

I think this must have been a formative experience, in a way? Like, I feel like there are people who cut their teeth on Zork or similar games but played through the hard way, probably by necessity? And the thing about these games… I mean, it makes sense… but maybe it doesn’t? Hmm, let me back up….

Have you ever tried to invent a puzzle? The kind that’s supposed to require cleverness in order to solve? Making up questions for an exam or something is similar, actually, but not quite the same thing, since typically there you can just fall back on requiring memorization rather than cleverness, and indeed that’s often kinda what you want, sadly. Anyway the point is that making a puzzle is kinda like trying to knock somebody unconscious by hitting them if you are not a character in a work of fiction: It’s really really easy to go too easy, and it’s really really easy to go too hard, and there is a very fine line between those extremes, and you have to somehow zoom in until that thin thin line looks like a spectrum and then pin the tail somewhere in the vicinity of the happy medium. It’s super hard. I mean there are actually ways — practice helps, having lots of fresh playtesters helps a lot….

Anyway my point was gonna be that writing puzzles that are way too hard is way too easy. And it’s not like Infocom wasn’t aware of this — clearly they were, and there are lots of good puzzles in their games that strike a good balance — but there are also a bunch that are just impossible, basically. Way too hard. Still solvable, of course, because even back then it was possible for large groups of people to compare notes, and while large groups of people aren’t necessarily all that much cleverer than individual people, they are better at trying all possible combinations of things, solving intellectual puzzles by “brute force,” which these types of puzzles will totally succumb to, by their nature, despite being unfairly hard for an isolated individual.

Which I kinda was. Despite the scout troop. I guess we could have compared notes, but I don’t know how many of the others were even into this game, and if so maybe not at the same time, and it’s a big game and we had other things to talk about on the rare occasions when communication was possible and anyway there were hints!

Oh, but, so, the actual reason for this digression: It turns out that playing from hints is surprisingly fun! It works great, actually, especially if you aren’t too shy about abusing them (which I wasn’t), because if something is easy enough to figure it out you can figure it out and if the having-fun meter ever dips too low into annoyance you can just look at a hint and even if it’s an outright spoiler you can still say, oh yeah, that totally makes sense, I would totally have gotten that! Or: no way, come on, that’s ridiculous. And those are different but they’re each kinda strangely satisfying, in their own way. Because tension and then resolution, maybe? Because that shit gets resolved. I’m sure figuring out some ridiculous impossible thing completely unaided is also satisfying, in its own unique way, and maybe it’s even more satisfying overall, per puzzle, but per unit time spent banging your head against a wall trying to figure out this one stupid thing so you can just get on with it already? I am skeptical.

So anyway: Back room! I don’t think it even necessarily comes across as a “puzzle,” because it feels so natural. It’s artfully constructed — look how the game gives you the option of backing out from buying the honey ice, for example. I mean, sure, having limited choices obviously helps a ton when you’re trying to predict what a player’s going to do next. But, notably, it doesn’t feel like “bah, what’s going on here, this sucks, I have no idea what I’m doing, let me just keep blindly doing whatever things it looks like I can do until I eventually happen across the solution by process of elimination,” which is a disease that plagues parser games and hypertext games alike. It just feels like this little mystery, which creates tension, and then there’s this little pacing mechanism, to draw it out a bit, and then it’s resolved, and it feels right, and it’s this satisfying moment. Just without the flailing. I don’t care if you don’t think it’s even a puzzle; this is totally at the top of my list of favorite kinds of puzzles.

(Wow, I can’t believe I wasted so many words talking about this. Maybe I can edit this later? Will there be time, before the judging deadline? What if I wanted to review two games? I’m so sorry, everyone. Or maybe I’m not.)

Let’s talk about Jackson for a bit. We’re clearly not meant to like him, and yet he’s not just a caricature. His honey ice is actually good, for one thing! And he knows it. We kinda don’t want him to be right, even though… but hey, he sure is right. And he’s an asshole about it. It’s pretty great! The job he has for the Key is… I mean it’s sketchy, he clearly knows it, he has some self-awareness, but, you know, he’s thought about it, he feels it’s reasonable… anyway it’s none of our business, he doesn’t have to justify himself to the likes of… but, like, you can see that he totally has a point, you know? I guess his father was also an asshole? Probably? I mean I’m sure there’s some complicated story. It’s almost like there’s a pattern to these things, like these people are, I don’t know, actual human beings or something. It’s pretty good!

In my first playthrough, I was like, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to rob the crypt for this jerk. I mean obviously I’m gonna break into his house first and….

Right. Caleb.

Look at the dialog options you get with Caleb. The second set of options, in particular: “But would that really work? But is that not illegal? But you have nothing to pay me?” Those are such great options! And actually one of them does lead to a slightly different answer — but really it’s the same answer, phrased in a slightly different way. Which is clever, because you only get to ask one question, but the choice doesn’t, like, screw up the story, in the sense of maybe depriving the player of information. I mean you can come back and give Caleb a hard time on the next playthrough and be rewarded by seeing him react…. But yeah, it’s this really nice sense of… it’s so hard to resist getting into the story, when you get to choose between terrific dialog options like that. Even if they don’t “matter.” They do matter.

Here is the thing: Even for the warm-medium-cold options, I don’t think it even occurred to me on my first playthrough that my choice wasn’t affecting the immediate reaction I got. Because the responses are that well-written, and I get the sense that the author has a decent idea of how I’m most likely to react if I’m into the story, which I totally am — I’m never tempted to mash the back button, for example, even though it works just fine.

Where were we? Still in the store. There are some nice touches in here. You can buy another treat, and visit the back room again, and get different responses. There’s no new information — in a way it’d be disappointing if there were, might feel unfair, almost — but it’s… it doesn’t make sense to do these things in puzzle terms, clearly you’ve got what you came for, but it makes sense in story terms, it bolsters the credibility of this assertion that Adalai wants the honey ice, it gets some extra mileage out of that delicious interaction between these two characters. It helps the player become more immersed in the story, more invested in the characters. After the second time it starts repeating, which is fine; everything nominally makes sense, nothing’s too jarring, and yet it’s the standard gentle hint that it’s time to move on.

Let’s visit the outskirts. Ooo look at that, a home caught our eye. Let’s go in there.

Look at this gratuitous option to back away without knocking. This is great stuff! Feel the tension!

So… I have a question about Kosa. What is her deal? I mean I guess we pick up her backstory later, from Ichabod, but, like, this business about everybody being crushed. What exactly does she mean? Is this a reference to the Old God, perhaps? Or just an observation about the nature of the human condition? It’s not clear. It’s unsettling. It’s pretty great, as far as building tension, but how does the….

Holy crap, I missed this the first time. And the second. How did I miss this? I think you have to ask about Ichabod before asking about work?

The content warnings! I should have known. Why else would it warn me about poison? I mean maybe somebody cares about that specifically, but there are so many specific things. It’s a clue.

Oh, yes, we are so doing this.

You know, from the moment I started thinking about writing this review, I knew I wanted to write something about that moment, when you ask Ichabod about Cerena, and he casually says that thing, and I’m like, OMG, where the fuck is the option to try to knock him unconscious? I’m not usually… I don’t get angry, I don’t “believe” in “violence,” but sometimes it just feels like….

But this is going to be so much better than hitting him.

Or is it?

Is this thing with the thing being in the safe that nobody can open, on purpose, going to make sense later? I sure hope so.

I remember from the earlier playthrough how Adalai didn’t want to mess with it. Adalai, of all people! Because consequences. How scary is that?

Yeah, well, fuck the consequences. This is happening. I don’t even care about, like, the completist thing, of unlocking all the endings or whatever. We can maybe do another playthrough after, and it can be identical to this one, and that one will be for completism. And running commentary, and “criticism,” and whatever. This one is for… I just… I need a moment to myself, here.


2 Responses to “Review: The Skeleton Key of Ambady”

  1. inurashii Says:

    dude this is the best review to wake up to ever

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