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The Dreamhold

by Andrew Plotkin profile


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Number of Reviews: 19
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Uniquely invertible puzzle structure, January 19, 2014
If you're a long-time player of IF, you might have skipped this work by Andrew Plotkin, which is typically billed as an "introductory" piece for those new to the genre. If you approach The Dreamhold with this mindset, that's almost certainly how you'll experience it, but that is not all that is offered.

Upon first completing this game many months ago, I found it to be a typical Plotkin work in the sense that it almost flippantly demonstrates the power of top-notch prose and programming to revitalize otherwise stale conventions in the genre, but I didn't see much else to recommend it. The most obvious innovation is the "tutorial voice" (well-covered elsewhere) which earns the work its status as one suitable for novices, but this held little magic to me: first, because I'm not a novice; second, because its success is questionable based on the various online reactions of actual newbies; and third, because this approach has been pushed even further since The Dreamhold was released, rendering it no longer state-of-the-art.

I gave an up-vote to Brian Campbell's IFDB review, decided I had nothing to add, and moved on... until the next day, when, still puzzling over the somewhat cryptic ending and the various loose ends, I started playing again with a walkthrough nearby for reference. Before long, I had experienced many of the hidden nooks of interaction and seen the alternate ending, which was equally cryptic and not particularly more satisfying.

Over the ensuing weeks, however, I slowly came to realize that this alternate ending is not your typical example of branching narrative structure, and that realization is what eventually drove me here to write this.

Most interactive experiences with multiple endings very explicitly present the choices relevant to shaping the outcome as choices; that is they are framed as mutually-exclusive, either-or options that can reasonably be expected to alter the outcome in a significant way. For many games, some or all of these choices are illusory, as multiple branches of interactivity will converge on the same situation again later, but generally at least a few will genuinely change the outcome.

In addition, most games that have multiple "winning" endings are quite careful to remain neutral or ambiguous in the guidance they offer about which branch to take. The signposts are up indicating the forks of the road, but there is no author influence about which direction to take. One reason for this may be that, given the amount of work required to implement the different branches within the game, the creators don't wish to do anything to discourage players from exploring them all in separate playthroughs.

In The Dreamhold, Plotkin does not follow these conventions. Challenging them seems to be one of the key experiments of this work.

With respect to determining which ending the player will see, the important branches in the action are not explicitly framed as choices for the player. Only one branch of action is even implied by the prose, and that path is framed not as one of two binary choices but as the single solution to a particular challenge. These are well-designed puzzles in the sense that they are well-hinted without the solution being immediately obvious, but, for clarity, I will term these the "obvious" paths.

Here is the part that I find fascinating: (Spoiler - click to show)The obvious path (i.e. hinted puzzle solutions) is often dependent on a particular linear mechanic, meaning the solution is driven by moving a world state in a specific direction(Spoiler - click to show). Examples that spring to mind are the puzzle about finding your way in darkness and interacting with the hot springs. In each case, however, there is a corresponding solution using the same linear mechanic, but requiring that the player push the world state in the opposite direction from that needed in the obvious path. I'll call doing so taking a "non-obvious" path.

"Non-obvious" is perhaps not strong enough of a description -- "obscured" might be better. The prose does not hint at this option in any way I detected. The only hint is found in the very nature of the underlying linear mechanic; there is no reason, in the abstract, that the mechanic should not be reversible.

On the somewhat less abstract plane of writing code, the very fact that the author has to program interactions in both directions means that any theoretically invertible game mechanic will normally only have one "interesting" (i.e. story-relevant) direction. Not so in The Dreamhold, where Mr. Plotkin has taken the trouble to create what almost amounts to a secret game accessible only to those who discover the uniquely reversible nature of the puzzle structure.

I want to be clear: I don't think I would have known anything about this "other" side of the game if it weren't for the walkthrough. I feel confident that most of the people who play through this (especially novices!) would not hit on even one of these non-obvious solutions. (Spoiler - click to show)To hit on enough of them to see the pattern, to grasp the... meta-puzzle? meta-mechanic? and work all of the alternate solutions through to the end is asking a lot. In a piece with a significant number of intentional red herrings and dead ends, offering only the slightest and most indirect indications of the existence of the alternate solutions or the fact that associated prizes have any significance (via the mural) can be fairly called unfair. But then again, asking a lot from players is par for the course in much of Mr. Plotkin's work.

So, given the lack of a direct explanation, what's it all about? (Spoiler - click to show)Having mulled over both endings at length, the overarching theme seems to be about the choice of how to use power. The PC has reached the extreme of power within his current plane of existence, and the player's actions drive him towards one of two paths. In the first, via the "obvious" path, the PC continues his attempt to dominate the entire plane. This is perhaps a more dubious endeavor than the PC believes, given that it was an error during a previous attempt that left him in the state in which you find him at the start of the game. In the second, via the "obscured" path, the PC turns that power inward and transcends to a new plane of existence -- beginning anew to start the climb all over again from the bottom. This is the path of legend as laid out in the game world, the path that is perhaps more promising for the PC and more satisfying for the player, since it lacks the malevolent and maniacal overtones of the first path. Of course, the preceding is my own interpretation; your mileage may vary.

As a final note, I think it's worth pointing out that, despite the prose's uncanny ability to make you feel "there" (as Magnus Olsson's review puts it) in terms of the game world, it seems to intentionally avoid trying to do the same thing in terms of the PC's mind. True, the PC quite deliberately begins as a blank slate, but surely some of the previous personality should be emerging as the player progresses through either of the two core collection quests? Given the arguably distasteful nature of the obvious ending, adding an ever-more-megalomaniac tinge to the PC's thoughts would provide some players the motivation to avoid it. This, coupled with a some real hinting at the existence of the second path would elevate the overall narrative structure to a true and conscious choice for the player, which I, personally, would have found tremendously more satisfying. As it is, the effect of hiding the second path so thoroughly is to render it invisible in the course of typical play, leaving the average player with seems like half of the intended experience.

Somehow, I doubt this is unplanned. It seems clear that Mr. Plotkin wants you to work for the extras offered, that this other path (and the resulting opportunity for greater insight into the story) is primarily there for elite players. Whether intended or not, hiding one path results in players being directed towards the other; The Dreamhold does not seem neutral here, even though it can be argued that such neutrality is implicit in a game about unguided exploration of an unknown environment. The counter-argument is that players cannot assume that a work of IF is open-ended -- they are at the mercy of authors to provide nudges about which of the endless possibilities of imagination are realized within the work at hand.

Perhaps Mr. Plotkin thought this all out, and perhaps this is The Dreamhold's central challenge to the player: to make the choice to look for a choice, instead of following the obvious path. If so, the unconventional design is very cleverly and subtly executed, but it's not clear to me why this poker-faced approach is superior to offering additional encouragement (delivered in his deftly minimalist style) to players to discover the alternate path.

In conclusion, this is a game well worth your time, but I do not recommend it for novices. Long-time players who have not yet experienced it should approach The Dreamhold with explicit instructions to dig deep and try to think outside the box of how IF typically works; without such preparation you are likely to miss the aspects of this work that separate it from the pack.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An excellent introduction to IF, if you enjoyed Myst, July 31, 2013
I strongly enjoyed this an would heartily recommend it to someone interested in exploring IF, but perhaps only if that person had enjoyed Myst or its sequels. The required puzzles in this game weren't too difficult for me, but some of them do seem to require the 'adventurer's mindset' that you might have developed in other genres. I'm quite sure, however, I failed to solve some optional puzzles that I stumbled upon. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though: it offers a tantalizing glimpse of more on offer, and it may mean that non-newbies can enjoy their time here.

More importantly, though, the writing in The Dreamhold has a similar flavor to that in Myst. You're told almost nothing off the bat and have to learn about this world you're in as you explore by putting together little snippets of knowledge from here and there.

If that sort of writing appeals to you, then this is an excellent introductory adventure. If it doesn't, however, it's not unlikely you'll give up under assault from both a tricky new game form and a story that demands you tease it out of snippets.

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Amazing for first time IF players and (I think) experts, February 16, 2013
This game is supposed to be a good ibtroduction to IF, and it just is. It was the first game I completed, and Andrew Plotkin has obviously worked hard to make it easy, and have hints that don't give away too much.

Apart from being good for beginners, Dreamhold is generally a good game. I got the sense of mystery towards the end that I thik the author intended, and then that purposefulness after discovering who the player really is and what he has to do.

And the game isn't filled with clichés other than amnesia (which is vital for the plot).

My only poblem with The Dreamhold is that after finishing it, there were a few bits that I couldn't fit in to the story. But overall, it's an excellent game that you have to play.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Imaginative Setting but Unsatisfying, December 23, 2012
by Andromache (Hawaii)
I'm a bit conflicted on this game. I loved the exploration but am frustrated by a couple puzzles I never found the solutions to. The writing was too vague to get more than fleeting impressions, and even though I did complete the game, I'm still not sure if my impressions are correct. If they are, I have to say I don't like the player character much, which probably influences my feeling of dissatisfaction. On top of that, I'm left with questions concerning the character's backstory that don't have answers that I've found in-game. (Spoiler - click to show)I realize the character doesn't remember specifics, and using masks as devices for recall was a neat idea. But by the end of the game, the character should be able to fill in gaps, and I don't see that happening. Also, the issue with his child's deformed foot and the crutch, which figures prominently but not sure what happened to the child. Was he killed in combat? Was he killed by the player character?

Due to the sketchiness and ambiguous writing, puzzles don't feel precisely natural. Ostensibly, the character knows what everything is and how to use them, and the puzzles feel like they are just put there for something to do. (Spoiler - click to show)No real reason why the masks would be scattered around the property, or that there'd only be one glove in the shed.

Mechanically, I thought the game played well. Writing was good also. But ultimately, my frustration with the extra puzzles and unclear storytelling leave an unfavorable impression.

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Great Introduction to IF, even beyond the initial 'ending', April 5, 2012
by octofuzz (Trondheim, Norway)
Related reviews: Beginners
The only reason I have given this game a '4' is because it is the first IF I have completed so I am not really qualified as of yet to be a critic!

Great tutorial adventure that paints a wonderful image in your head that you can almost touch.

Puzzles are not too tricky and if you are a newbie you should not feel too guilty typing in 'help hint' if you get too stuck.

With several endings and options to explore beyond the initial conclusion you can happily burn away a couple of days playing this.

Highly recommended.

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Good intro to IF mechanics, vague story, March 7, 2011
by spinnerin (Portland, OR)
I decided to play this because it was rated newbie-friendly, and I’d agree with that assessment. The hint system was very helpful, especially when the descriptions of things and the PC's flashbacks were confusing. I didn’t find the story very engaging, but the gameplay was fine, and after getting through a couple of puzzles I was interested enough to finish.

4 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Mysty, January 17, 2011
by smartgenes (Newcastle, UK)
Andrew Plotkin's Dreamhold (2004) was apparently written as a tutorial, a game I decided to play using Hunky Punk, an interpreter for z5 files on the Android. As a tutorial particularly at the start of the game I found Dreamhold's constant interruptions annoying, for example, I was told that "u" doesn't typically work, and that to get up from the chair I should type "stand"... So I did was any irritated adventurer would do and typed "get off" instead (which worked). And some of the assertions weren't correct anyway: most people type "up" to go upstairs, do they? Well, I just typed my typically typical input, which is "u".

Personally I find it limited design when "unlock door" doesn't work and you have to "unlock door with copper key". The typical response to this might be "well, Inform only allows blahblah..." but there are ways around this, and it isn't necessary for all games to follow some standard Inform format (Inform does not have any inherent monopoly to Infocom games either). Sometimes the Inform format can be irritating:
(Spoiler - click to show)Place Painting > Not a verb I recognise.
Hang Painting > Which do you mean?
Mountain > What on?
Hook > Success!
Where else would I hang it? Really...?
But this is a criticism of Inform rather than the game.

What I felt when playing this game (at its start & mid-game stages) was like I just had a bunch of arbitrary objects to tick off on a checklist. This gave it more of the feel of a hidden object game in a world of escape-the-rooms (The "there-are-more-items-to-examine-here" segment was particularly repellent). In fact a difficult game makes for a good tutorial, and a good tutorial would give the impression of breadth and depth. Just when getting frustrated, as there seemed to be no puzzles to solve, I plumped for (Spoiler - click to show)"look through telescope". Incidentally LOOK TELESCOPE and USE TELESCOPE don't work - somebody new to the genre might have given up by now. I don't like the tendency of tutorials to warn against using USE (nice tautology), especially in a case where "use (Spoiler - click to show)telescope" just seems the natural verb to apply (or use). What happened next? I am whisked to another world without rhyme or reason. Difficult is not the same as obtuse. By the time the game started to begin, in a sense, I was already fed up with it. This was a shame as parts had a definite Myst-like feel, which obviously is difficult to conjure with text alone. Some details seemed absurd: for example, the window looks onto a waterfall.. Perhaps the text would have keyed you on to this by informing you of the sound of heavy cascading, but it just seemed random for a waterfall to appear behind the window.

A minor irritation was the "Is that the best you can think of?" response, these types of response which insult the player are a bit of an anathema, especially in modern IF. There was the occasional bad response, such as "stand on pedestal" > "The pedestal is too narrow to sit on comfortably." But actually this was atypical: most responses were well-written, and descriptions are evocative. There were some funny responses to JUMP and X STALACTITES which were appreciated. Ultimately though it just seemed somehow plot-less. The description of port-alls at the start might be said to be the driving force of the plot and your investigation of this, but to me this seemed like it should have been a device rather than the story. (Plus the description given was of "drawing" a port-all, not of looking through a telescope. On the plus side the orrery and understanding the mechanics of how rooms appeared intrigued me, and the outside locations were interesting too. I appreciated the feedback of correct exits when you tried a wrong direction, especially in a game with quite a few locations. The game won't have you banging your head against a brick wall like the badly constructed games of yesteryear, but I was curious as to why this game won a 2004 XYZZY award for best puzzles...? So far I had 4 of 7 masks and I hadn't done much. (Also a web-search informed me that the game had an Expert mode but I never received any indication of this whilst playing).

As an experienced adventure game player I can't really comment on how the game plays for a newcomer, but it didn't seem like a good introduction to the genre to me. By the time the game did start to engage with me I'd had to go through a lot of annoyance, but now I did feel like I had a big map and some confusing puzzles to contend with. (Spoiler - click to show) Though I'm not sure they could be called puzzles... I had a pyramid which could hold something, and no real clue as to what it did. I had started a burning fire, but with no knowledge as to what it did. There was a burning hot pool down in the ground, and no idea what I could do with it. A never-ending passage with no clue as to why that was there. At last there was something of a game here.

Andrew writes "I've tried to create a game which rewards many species of adventurer: the inexperienced newcomer, the puzzle-hurdler, the casual tourist, the meticulous explorer, the wild experimenter, the seeker after nuances and implications."

I believe that's true: the well-presented environment lends itself to different exploration styles. The mechanical devices described have a definite precision and accuracy, and there is atmospheric connection between locations (mapping is also essential as key locations could be missed easily). But my personal opinion was that the game just took too long to get to that stage. Although the external locations have a sense of validity, I didn't believe the early ones, and felt I had to go through some unconvincing contrivances and annoyances to get there.

11 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
too hard for your first game. , October 27, 2010
by samuraipoet (Fayetteville Arkansas)
For an IF specifically designed for first-time players, the world was surprisingly large, and un-necessarily complex. There were more than a handful of puzzles and rooms that didn't have a thing to do with the main quest, and some of them were just plain dead-ends that didn't lead anywhere, and were never explained.

As for the difficulty, an IF veteran would probably be able to get through this piece without using the built-in hint system, but for an absolute beginner, the hints are the only thing that keeps the puzzles from becoming all but impossible toward the end.

Here's the thing about the writing - it's good, but really confusing. Plotkin obviously knows his way around the english language. There's some significant talent here, but ultimately, the little snippets of narrative that you're constantly uncovering don't join up to make any kind of coherent big-picture. it's really hard to resist the urge to give up trying to make sense of the story alltogether.

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
A nice introductory game, October 16, 2007
This game was, as it was designed to be, my introduction to interactive fiction. I've come from a background of having played graphical adventures in the past, and not been doing much gaming recently, and Dreamhold gave me a nice introduction to interactive fiction.

The game began with a very nice introduction to the basic commands in IF that everyone is expected to know. The hint system is very nicely integrated, being unobtrusive but quite helpful when I needed it. The game began with a standard hook, amnesia, to motivate the player to simply explore. The setting is your typical eclectic magical setting with a steampunk sort of aesthetic, which reminded me of Myst.

The puzzles in the game were all of a reasonable difficulty, though I think I needed the hints on one or two. There were some side puzzles that I never did figure out, which baffled me but were not necessary for completing the game. The writing included snippets of memories from the player character's past, most of which were fairly obtuse and didn't really shed much light on what was going on. By the time I completed the game, I still didn't really know what was going on; the writing evoked a mysterious mood very well, but didn't really have much of a plot.

In all, I think this is a great introduction to IF, but I would prefer if there were a stronger plot and the writing were a bit less obscure.

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