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The Dreamhold

by Andrew Plotkin profile

Fantasy
2004

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Number of Reviews: 17
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Teaching the spirit of experimentation, July 11, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Dreamhold is presented as a game suitable for beginners, complete with a tutorial voice and the choice between a normal mode and an expert mode. And yet Plotkin's aim is not maximal accessibility or minimal resistance on the way to a winning ending. He is not here to hold your hand. If you expect him to, you will be disappointed; as some of the reviewers have been, who complain about the openness of the world and the complexity of some of the machinery one meets.

But Plotkin signals his intentions early on, when the player is brought into a room stuffed with useless objects that one is nevertheless encouraged to examine one by one. This, surely, can be intimidating to the new player. Yes. But it is also something one must absolutely learn to cope with if one is to navigate any of the classic parser games. The same is true about learning to explore large worlds, about making leaps of dreamlike logic, and about thinking through possible interactions with complex machinery. Rather than hold your hand, Plotkin drops you in the thick of things, with one message: trust me. And you can trust him. Everything will make sense; you won't get the game into an unwinnable state; and with some determination, you will probably be able to win.

But Plotkin takes things a step further. He is not only introducing the player to the skills and techniques need to play old-school parser IF, he is also introducing them to a particularly fine example of the aesthetic of those games. The mysterious, abandoned world; the slow accumulation of hints that build up a narrative framework; the spirit of experimentation; and especially the being rewarded for your hard work with strange and unexpected experiences -- it is all there. Introductory games tend to be limited and boring; and in a sense that means that they do not teach the player the right mindset. They teach her to think in limited and boring ways. The Dreamhold teaches players to persevere, to try strange things, to try and step off the seemingly beaten path.

Whether it actually succeeds is less sure. The existence of a simple solution, bypassing large parts of the game, might fool people into thinking the game has less to offer than it has. (It fooled me, but luckily I replayed it using David Welbourn's walkthrough.) Approached with the right mindset, however, it does a great job preparing player for the world of old-school parser IF. Although it might spoil the player in the meantime -- it's kind of hard to go back to Adventure after playing a game as polished as this!