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Sand-dancer

by Aaron Reed profile and Alexei Othenin-Girard

Surreal
2010

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Number of Reviews: 6
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
In the gloom of America's deserts, August 31, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
About half-way through playing Sand-dancer (as I was following the rabbit) it occurred to me that this game might well be Aaron Reed's homage to Andrew Plotkin's Shade, centring as it does on a combination of fighting hostile elements and surreal/supernatural occurrences. This idea that was then dramatically vindicated by later events in the story, as one of Shade's central events suddenly turned up in this story as well.

The resemblance is nevertheless relatively superficial: where Plotkin's main interest lies in playing with knowledge and narration, Reed is far more interested in the motivations and choices of characters. In Sand-dancer, the fight for survival quickly turns into a meditation on the protagonist's past and future. Compared to the length of the game, the characterisation is deep, although it must be said that almost all of it is done through non-interactive text dumps. This means that the story is engaging, but perhaps not ideally suited to explore the possibilities of interactive storytelling. There are some choices that have an effect on gameplay, but they lack dramatic import. (Spoiler - click to show)The important choices in the game are, of course, which characteristics you wish to get from the animals. Although it is a need idea that (for instance) a courageous character now dares to do things he would dare before, the actual effects are a little underwhelming. I mean... I'm in danger of dying here, but I am afraid of spiders? I can now smell gasoline? These sequences are fun, but it's hard to take them seriously as important character developments.

The entire work is suffused with elements of U.S. culture, mixing popular entertainment, lower-class life in the nation's more desert-like regions, and native American culture. This makes it somewhat hard for people not from the U.S. to follow what exactly is going on. (It took me very long, for instance, to understand that "the res" referred to an Indian reservation. Which is apparently a place where they have high schools? My ignorance here is enormous, so accept nothing I tell you about the story as true!) Lest this be read as criticism, I actually applaud this move towards more culturally embedded works: it makes the reader learn more, or at least realise his/her own ignorance, and the real world is after all an interesting place.

Finally, a few words about the gameplay. As we can expect, the game is smooth and well-implemented (although attempting to open the rusty tin can with the can opener could have done with a description), we have a helpful in-game hint feature, and the puzzles are always logical. There were, unfortunately, certain points in the game where I had to retry random actions that used to fail, because it was not clear to me where my new-found powers would come in handy. (Spoiler - click to show)That courage would help me with the spiders: yes. That it would help me reach the control room: no. That scent would help me with the control room: no. However, this is a relatively minor quibble, since the game is not large.

Sand-dancer has a good story, an interesting gloomy American atmosphere, and adequate puzzles; it is a recommended read/play for all.

Comments on this review

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Felix Larsson, September 1, 2010 - Reply
Culturally embedded works and culturally specific references are common enough in literature. I perfectly agree there is no need to ban them in IF—with one proviso: they should respect the gist of Article 16 in Graham Nelsonís Bill of Playerís Right and not be essential to solving what puzzles there may be in a game.
Victor Gijsbers, September 1, 2010 - Reply
I'm not even sure about that: everything would be fine as long as I could solve the puzzle with a little bit of Googling and it was clear _what_ I had to Google.

The difference between IF and static literature here is that you can always go on reading a book. Thus:

"The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton."

Maybe you don't know what a mew is, and maybe you don't know where West Brompton is -- but that doesn't stop you from reading the third sentence of Beckett's Murphy. In IF, it might stop you from proceeding. But if I know that it is my ignorance of what a mew is that is keeping me from proceeding, I can look it up.
Felix Larsson, September 1, 2010 - Reply
Right, youíve got a point. As a player one may be (or perhaps even should be) prepared to go through some trouble acquiring the knowledge one needs to solve a puzzle (or simply enjoy the game or the story). This, is trivially so with regard to vocabulary etc. (I had no idea what an ascot was till last year.)

Indeed, I suppose it would be possible to write a good game with off-parser information search as the central ploy. (A bit like you're supposed to take some time off the parser to force the cryptogram in Christminster.)

There are all sorts of issues here. Sometimes you just donít belong to the gameís intended audience—and an author, of course, is free to target any group s/he likes (however specific). And there is, I suspect, a totally blurred line between culturally specific knowledge and knowledge that just isnít universal.

The more I think about it, the more this issue seems to dissolve into considerations about good writing, narration and puzzle design in general.
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