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-- Carl Muckenhoupt
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Number of Reviews: 2
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This is a dark epic, a gothic tragedy. The story is unclear. I wish I could report that I had figured out what really happens, but I failed to understand. The protagonist is searching for something that means everything to him. Given the atmosphere of the ancient epic, I would think the object of the Quest must be something of great metaphorical significance. Figuring out the plot is by far the most difficult part of the game. Except for one easy puzzle, the game consists of choosing from conversation menus and advancing through stages by repeating the same action. The parallelism of these stages gives the game a sort of poetic construction that works well with the writing style.
The TADS 2 gamefile is named "darksong.gam"; this caused some confusion for me when I was looking for this game after downloading the SpeedIF zip archive. (I want to note that the conversation system doesn't display correctly in Gargoyle.)
I realized that something like "Darksong" or "The Dark Song" could have made a good enough title for this game. Instead, it is named after a figure that appears more or less as a background object, a character that has no bearing on the plot and no effect on the game simulation. The Yellow Dog could have been omitted with no objective loss. But this game is driven by atmosphere more than anything else, and the mystery conjured by the figure of the Yellow Dog, and the importance that is attributed to it by its place in the title, makes the epic style deeper and more real. Even the setting ultimately doesn't need to be taken all that seriously; the setting is just real enough to preserve the mood. There is some attempt to cast the player character as a real person from a real mythological world, but there is also the anachronism of mentioning a "cigarette." I felt that the ending text was a little weak and anti-climatic, but it may have been more effective for me had I figured out what the story was all about.
As a SpeedIF entry, this game is under-implemented. There would have been a lot of room for more messages to reinforce the tone. Only the actions and objects that are absolutely necessary are implemented. However, the implementation is strong enough for the sparseness of the game world. Although I'm confused about the plot, and I'm not even sure if the game is entirely successful in producing a sense of horror (if that was its goal), the haunting sense of mythic grimness that flows from every delightful phrase is very satisfying. I don't think I've seen any other IF work accomplish so much with so little.
Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.
I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.
You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.
These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.
Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.
About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.
I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.
Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.
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This is version 4 of this page, edited by Sam Kabo Ashwell on 13 October 2014 at 7:52pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item