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About the StoryThe letter you received from Arkwright's nephew Carter was clear enough: when the old man dies the inheritance tax will be too great. It's certain ruin, much like the estate itself. To raise some capital the nephew has set up buyers for Arkwright's extensive collection of rare and old books: the British Museum, the libraries at Cambridge and Oxford and the Université de Paris. You have the inventory: of course, you still need his signature.
The horse comes to a stop outside the front door of the weary mansion. The rain is getting worse.
Nominee, Best Story - 2007 XYZZY Awards
John Ingold's Dead Cities captures H.P. Lovecraft's obsession with forbidden knowledge, in a game that’s not only well written, but also crafted to draw you in. It's a small, tight design that doesn't take long to finish. With some amount of replayability, you can find a few premature/alternative endings. But the mood the game creates hangs heavy throughout, with settings richly described though not overly Lovecraftian.
-- Dark Star
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Dead Cities is an interesting bit of IF that runs on a Glulx interpreter - it comes with some black and white drawings by Lucy Gatfield and a separate window for your inventory - kind of an "IF plus" setup. It was written by Jon Ingold (of Mulldoon fame) for a contest about H.P. Lovecraft, each entry being based on a snippet from the horror author's Commonplace Book (a sort of writer's diary).
Dead Cities is an exercise in mood, and it pulls off a creepy feeling straightaway that it manages to sustain, for a while anyhow. You play as a solicitor who has arrived at an old man's house to audit his collection of rare and spooky books, a setup that should have Lovecraft fans rubbing their hands together in anticipation. Things happen fast, and during the first section of the tale you are mostly reacting to the events going on around you. After a few major developments there's a lull where you can exlpore for a bit, although there's not much to see.
This game really has to be enjoyed as a story, and not as a traditional IF. For one thing there are no compass directions (which was kind of refreshing), only places you can enter and exit. For another, the game world is small and not really interested in indulging you as you try out different things. The parser here is rudimentary compared to Ingold's other creations, and doesn't anticipate you unless it's over-anticipating: Early in the game, the old man asked me to fetch a book from an upper shelf. I was seated in a chair so I typed STAND, which sent me rushing out of the room and into the hall against the old man's protests. There are a number of important details (like how the bookshelves are supposed to be refered to) that will only become clear if moves are made in just the right order. I found this out after getting stuck and playing through a second time. If something is happening, it's best to let it happen and try to anticipate what the author expects you to do each move.
The interface, which might be designed to draw in players less familiar with IF conventions, has some good and bad points. Being able to always see your inventory is quite appealing, and its a tactic that more games should use. However it's a bit buggy. On more than one occasion, NPC dialog appeared in my inventory rather than the main window where it should have been. The hint system is also questionable. It consists of a blue bar at the bottom of the screen that suggests possible next moves. This seems like a perfect tool for brand new players, but I wasn't helped by being told I should "look around" or go through various nearby doors, or even (while outside) "pull coat tighter". Add to this the lack of any solutions or walkthroughs, and you quickly see that you're pretty much on your own.
Again, these quirks which might wreck a more traditionally styled IF can be looked past here as you concentrate on the story, which is nicely poetic and eerie. However it is either very short, or I missed something important, because after the game does its thing and puts the reins back in the player's hands, there doesn't appear to be more to do. I managed to get the game to end, but there was no indication as to whether this ending was successful, or whether there were better ones to be had.
All in all, Dead Cities is puzzling in a lot of ways, and even experienced players will be in for a few stumbles, but it's worth a playthrough for eldritch horror fans.
"An impression - city in peril - dead city - equestrian statue - men in closed room - clattering of hooves heard from outside - marvel disclosed on looking out - doubtful ending."
While I've yet to play through all of the project games as I write this, I'm guessing that this one is the most technically ambitious of the bunch. It presents attractively in a multi-pane window which divides up the main text, an inventory list, a hint panel and black-and-white pencil sketches of many of its situations and objects. Suggested commands from the hint panel can also be clicked to enter them into the main window. Unfortunately, these flourishes are not trouble-free. I ran into a fair few bugs while playing, several of them related to the display, some of them serious (no save possible because it was not possible to restore) and was rarely able to determine exactly where the fault lay. I will discuss these issues at the end of the review.
Dead Cities is a Lovecraft pastiche long on conversation, domesticity and quality prose. Lovecraft was good at fetisihising all kinds of things by dwelling upon them at what I like to think he would describe as preternatural length, and Jon Ingold achieves something similar here with the rare books which appear in this game. The player is a solicitor charged by Carter Arkwright with obtaining the signature of Carter's dying uncle. Carter seeks to avoid inheritance tax bankruptcy by acquiring his uncle's valuable books before his death, books which range from rare Isaac Newtons to Necronomicon-like volumes.
It is necessary in the first place to attend to social niceties in this game. You'll tie up your horse, make small talk with the maid and humour an old man. I would say that these things seem to flow easily here, when they often don't in IF, except that with my general dislike of the tell/ask system of IF conversation which Dead Cities uses, the truth is that I was unable to cleave myself away from the hint panel, which perfectly yes'd and no'd and asked and told my way all through the introductory section of the game – and then quite far into the game's core conversation with old man Arkwright. The hint panel feature strikes me as an excellent way to show people how to play IF, and would probably have worked very well for random folks looking at this game in the context of an exhibition. For regular IFfers, it may be a bit too much of an easy temptation, but personally I never say no to an opportunity to skip asking and telling.
The conversation scene with Arkwright has that black humour about it of someone trying to extricate valuable information (or just valuables) from an old person who is dying and knows it. Of course in this game you can say that it was all just business because you're playing a hired solicitor, but there is some scope in your yes-ing and no-ing to treat the old man well or poorly, or somewhere inbetween, which is interesting.
To speak of later more hair-raising shenanigans would be to spoil this not particularly long game. There is a lot of room in it to try little variations in your interactions with the game's few NPCs, but there are perhaps only a handful of opportunities to change a bigger picture. I found a couple of endings hard to read in that they made me wonder if I'd missed chunks of the game, as if I could have achieved something more drastic. But there's no walkthrough and no hints for the later part of Dead Cities, so I decided to be content with what I'd done. The general high quality of the prose and overall flow of events were the real attractions for me.
Concerning technical troubles, I can say that I was unable to successfully restore a saved game of Dead Cities in the current versions of Mac interpreters Gargoyle and Zoom – doing so produced a Glulx error. The game's hint panel spiralled out of control on me more than once, cycling madly through the hints, and in Zoom I found it was sometimes necessary to resize the game window mid-session to prevent the interpreter from pausing after every line of text. Dialogue and hints snuck into the inventory window occasionally, too. I believe this game was put together in two months for the Commonplace project, so it's already punching above its time-weight in overall quality, but it looks like it could have benefited from more testing, and it's probably become a victim of some degree of inconsistency in delivery of the relatively nascent Glulx format, or tweaks to that format over time.
First of all, the game tells you what you should type each turn. This was off-putting at first, but gave me a bit of a start when it stopped right when I would actually need it. Also, on replays, there are very significant areas of the game that you can't access if you follow the cues.
Next, there are odd pencil sketches that appear in every room.
Third, your inventory always shows up. I liked this.
Noone seems to know if they got the right ending or not, because the game is somewhat anticlimactic. However, reading the author's notes, you see that one of the requirements of the game was that it has a 'dubious ending' (or 'doubtful ending' or something like that).
The game is about an old man with a precious book collection. There are no tentacles, no cult, no fog, no slime or sacrifices in this game. It does manage to be fairly creepy, however.
It is short. I recommend it to everyone just to try it out, as it is fairly unusual and not at all like The Lurking Horror/Anchorhead and their imitators.
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"A homage to Infocom's Enchanter Trilogy, at the same time showing some of the things that Inform is capable of doing." [--blurb from The Z-Files Catalogue]
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