The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: The Dreamhold
By: Andrew Plotkin
The Dreamhold also surprises by being blatantly traditional, at least on the surface. The start of the game is almost as clichéd as it can get: you wake up in a cell with amnesia, and have to explore a wizard's house for clues to regain your memory, to find out who you are, why you are there, and how to get out.
And on one level, that is basically all there is to it: there are no NPCs to interact with, no real plot, but plenty of exploration and backstory which is revealed to the player in flashbacks, triggered by certain objects and locations. After a while, a pattern emerges: there is a set of objects which seem to contain or represent the PC's memories; collecting them becomes the primary goal and leads up to two of the possible endings (more about that later).
Of course, in order to keep the player's interest through an entire game, the author has to deliver. The exploration has to be interesting, the search for memories must not degenerate into just a treasure hunt. And Zarf does deliver: the dreamhold (the game's name for a wizard's high house — or at least that's how it is described as first) is a fascinating place, full of magic and wonders and clever puzzles. Putting together the PC's backstory from the various flashbacks is also a fascinating task of exploration, though an exploration of time and memory rather than of geography.
One advantage of an "old-school" exploration game over a more plot-driven game is that it doesn't so easily become linear; the player is free to explore a different area if she finds herself stumped on a puzzle. The Dreamhold does a good job of this — only towards the end, when I had solved most of the puzzles, did I run into the "I must solve this puzzle now or I have nothing left to do" problem, which is the bane of so many plot-driven games.
There is of course a corresponding disadvantage: the game lacks a strong driving force, except for the player's curiosity. While playing it I felt like I had all the time in the world to explore and figure things out; there was no sense of urgency and little dramatic tension. The lack of NPCs also made the game feel like a rather lonesome affair. No doubt, both of these things are very intentional, but I found it did detract a bit from the experience compared to, say, So Far by the same author.
Before moving on to specifics, I must stress that the setting and basic plot being, if not outright clichés, then at least well-used, does not mean that the game itself is unoriginal — far from it. In fact, despite the familiarity, The Dreamhold feels very fresh and original. It seems that you can always count on Zarf to create something new and original, however old the premise.
As in all of Zarf's games, the writing is outstanding. Poetic, evocative, yet still very economic. Unlike too many other IF authors, he doesn't take the road of purple, exotic verbiage to describe strange scenery or strong emotions; instead, his prose is understated, at times almost terse, using just enough words — but the right ones — to evoke the right emotion. Perhaps the most impressive is his ability to make you feel as if you were actually there: the room descriptions don't just give an accurate sense of a location's geography and what it looks like, but of what it feels like; I can't describe it better than that.
Of course, in order to maintain that feeling, the rooms must feel like they belong together, are part of a larger geography. And despite the fact that the dreamhold, true to the cliché of an old-school wizard's house, juxtaposes wildly different elements — a cozy sitting-room next to a laboratory next to a cave next to a formal garden next to rooms full of weird machinery — it does form a coherent whole. Everything seems to fit into a greater picture somehow, perhaps because of the good writing, perhaps because there really is a hidden greater picture (see below).
The game also has a very strong sense of geography, strengthened by glimpses where you, for example, see a garden through a window and then, some moves later, emerge in the very same garden and see a dome far above you — the same dome whose outside you've been climbing around earlier. The map contains rather a lot of locations for a modern game, yet feels compact, probably because it makes geographic sense; it feels like a map of a real place rather than just a few rings and lines on a piece of paper. I found it helpful to draw a map, because there are many curved passages and some stairways which made it hard to visualize the map in my head; once I had it down on paper, however, I found it quite easy to navigate. True to the old-school tradition, the game really rewards exploration: almost every room contains something interesting.
The game is true to tradition in another way: it is primarily a puzzle game. The puzzles start out quite simple — finding your way around, searching rooms, finding a key — and only gradually get harder. The puzzles are logical (even though the logic at times is dream-logic), well-clued and can be solved by exploration and experimentation.
One of the puzzles — the one involving the cistern — stands out as one of the best "manipulate the machine" puzzles I've seen. Not only is it perfectly logical and self-contained — all the required information can be deduced from actions you perform in the room — but the setting is truly memorable in its simplicity and sheer scale: we don't just have a machine the size of a room; the room is the machine, a simple one, yet exhibiting complex behaviour. The stark simplicity of the room; the visual impact; the combination of familiar physics with weird dream-physics. I'll remember this puzzle for a long time.
The game is presented as suitable for beginners, with a built-in tutorial that doubles as a hint system, but beginners should be aware of one thing: the tutorial doesn't show you everything. It does help you up to the main ending, but after that there are many loose ends and puzzles which you'll have to figure out on your own. The author describes these puzzles as "bonuses" and "things to do after the ending", but I think it might perhaps be more appropriate to describe the game as two games in one: one relatively simple, with a tutorial, and one more advanced part, with its own alternative ending.
The advanced part is more difficult though not extremely so, at least not by Zarfian standards. It requires some thinking outside of the box. In one notable case, what's required is not so much lateral as contrarian thinking, doing just the opposite of what you normally do in adventure games (an action which, if you're playing in tutorial mode, the tutorial actually seems to discourage you from taking). If there's one thing about The Dreamhold that I'd criticize, it's that the "bonus" part of the game is too easy to stumble into for a novice: certain clues are a bit too obvious, perhaps; the beginner will discover these, and without warning find himself in deep water with no help from the tutorial. Hopefully, this can be remedied in version 2 of the game.
Like all of Zarf's games, The Dreamhold is sometimes a bit cryptic. The author often doesn't spell things out explicitly, but just hints at what is going on. For example, the flashbacks that you experience throughout the game hint at the PC's backstory, but you don't get the whole story; there are lots of blanks to fill in. Similarly, there are objects in the game which seem important — why else would the author have given them such detailed descriptions? — but their purpose or significance are never explained.
Fortunately, this lack of explanations doesn't impact gameplay: you are given enough information to solve all the puzzles and are never left wondering how a puzzle really worked or why a certain action was necessary. In other words, reading the author's mind is not a puzzle in this game. The only cause for complaint is that some of the unexplained objects may act as red herrings, distracting the player from the solvable puzzles, but as herrings go they are the benign, and not the malicious kind that look like solutions to puzzles but aren't.
Personally, I quite like this style of storytelling: you don't get all the explanations served on a platter, but are left with some mysteries to figure out for yourself — a kind of meta-puzzle which is not solved while playing the game but afterwards, and where nobody is certain of the solution. Of course, this requires that there really is some deeper significance to the mysteries, something going on beyond what is being said, or at least the audience must be given reason to believe this; the author can't just make up a lot of strange stuff out of thin air. One of Zarf's strengths as an author is that his writing not only conveys a sense of mystery, but that there really is an underlying meaning. This — together with the often difficult puzzles — is the reason why Zarf's games are among the most discussed on the newsgroups; in just two weeks, The Dreamhold generated more discussions on rec.games.int-fiction than most games do in a year.
This is certainly not everybody's cup of tea: many people prefer games where everything is explained at the end. But — and this cannot be stressed enough — you don't have to understand everything to enjoy it. The Dreamhold is not an allegory where you'll miss the point if you don't figure out what everything represents; it's not a code that you have to decipher in order to understand what's going on.
On the contrary, the greatest pleasure I had from this game was just playing it, exploring, solving the puzzles; the rest was just extras.
Whether you prefer puzzle-solving, reading beautiful prose or searching for hidden meanings, I can recommend visiting the dreamhold. Explore the wizard's house, enjoy the scenery, play around with the machinery, marvel at the magic. You'll find it well worth the trip.