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City of Secrets

by Emily Short profile

Espionage/Fantasy
2003

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Number of Reviews: 13
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Large, engrossing,... and somewhat lacking., December 6, 2019
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Emily Short is one of my favourite IF-writers, and when I found this big story-game with her name under the title, I pounced on it!

And it is good. Apart from being an immersive adventure and a detailed exploration of a fine city, deeper themes also shine through.

Truth above obscurity, even if truth also means complete transparency?

Creativity above strict order, even if creativity also means chaos?

The writing is top-notch, the NPC interactions feel real, the city and it's history hold the interest, but in the end, the game misses something.

Is it because the game is so good that I raised the bar impossibly high?

Finding an outdoor café where there were no interactive NPCs and where nothing story-moving happened disappointed me.
Finding out that a little nook in the gameworld, about which I dreamed up many possibilities, didn't play a role in the story didn't feel like a red herring, it felt like a let-down.
Finding out that certain information I found about my character didn't matter to the game was a pity.

But those are nitpicks, and very personal nitpicks at that.

This game is very very good. Just not as amazing as I really really wanted it to be. And that's on me.

So play it.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Good game, November 23, 2019
by Denk
Related reviews: inform
This game is kind of a spy thriller set in a city where magic and technology exist side by side. You, an innocent tourist, is aboard a train when the train suddenly breaks down. You will thus have to stay for a while in this city you never intended to visit. Quickly you will get involved in a plot.

The game starts of very well with some events happening, which makes the story progress smoothly. After this, you get to explore the city, have lots of conversations and you get to solve some puzzles along the way. More events will occur later after you have played for awhile, progressing the story further, even if you haven't solved that many puzzles.

It turns out that you do not need to solve all puzzles to complete the game. At one point I got stuck, so I searched the internet for a walkthrough. Apparently no one has made one, so when I finally managed to complete the game, I decided to write a walkthrough. Some events occur simply after a number of turns after something has happened. As a consequence, following the walkthrough you will at some point have to wait 90(!) turns as you wait for something to happen. However, the first time you play the game you will be using even more turns exploring the city and so it will feel natural that something suddenly happens. Only if you replay the game and you are trying to figure out how to trigger a certain event, you will realize that it will occur simply after many turns have passed.

It is my impression that this game cannot be made unwinnable, though I am not completely sure. It may also have more than one winning ending(?), though I only managed to find one. So, unless you are looking for alternative endings, you shouldn't need to restart the game. Should you die, you can always undo.

To complete this game you do not need to solve a lot of puzzles. However, there will be lots of conversations. The conversation system takes a little getting used to, but then it is quite convenient.

To sum up, this is a very well written story-driven game with a few puzzles and lots of conversation, which I can certainly recommend.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A big fantasy city with many npcs, and epic storyline. Mid-to-long game, February 3, 2016
I only recently played this game, and it quickly became my favorite Emily Short game. I have seen in her notes that she often works ideas that she has into games as a proof of concept; for instance, Metamorphoses and Galatea were both intended as trial-of-concepts for ideas for a massive game that never took off.

I wonder if this game was a proof-of-concept for the city and npcs in Counterfeit Monkey. The idea of a sidebar, a map, numerous npcs with complicated conversation systems, and a large city seem very familiar between the two games.

This game is about a balance between two forces, but it is difficult to categorize the two. This is more of a story game than a puzzle game. There are some puzzles that are oddly difficult to solve, so I occasionally resorted to Victor Gisjber's hints. However, the game has many ways of hinting things to you if you look for them.

Like Counterfeit Monkey, this was a laggy game. Gargoyle had trouble with both of them, as have every other system I have used. I believe the refreshing graphics causes it.

Wonderful storyline and worldbuilding. Loved the final sequences, especially.

Featured on Radio K #3, September 5, 2015
by Adam Cadre (Albany, California)
Alex Hoffer and I discuss City of Secrets at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eqj-Uby4jeY#t=23m18s

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Strong on conversation, atmosphere, plot, and world-building, October 16, 2013
by streever (America)
I really enjoyed City of Secrets, my first Emily Short game, and spent several hours on it over a two week period.

It is very easy-going in the puzzles: this is more a game of conversation and exploration.

The world-building is impressive. I never felt like I was reading a wall of text, but I understand the world I was in and was not confused. The world she created here is rich and deep, and at times, written with sparse, minimalist prose. I mean to say that Short doesn't waste our time with over-wrought descriptions and backstory. Important information is communicated simply but eloquently.

I enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone who is new to IF. You won't die at random, and it seems nearly impossible to get stuck. The writing and pacing are a treat.

I had some "guess the verb/guess the action moments" at the very end, but it wasn't hard to figure out what I was supposed to do--re-reading the text and thinking carefully, I saw that the appropriate verbs were at least hinted at. I wouldn't ascribe any of my late game confusion to the author or the piece.

If you are seeking something fiendishly difficult, I'd recommend moving on, but keep this in your queue: when you need a break from mind-benders, you can enjoy the writing and atmosphere of this game.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Tricks and Truth, May 26, 2013
by Andromache (Hawaii)
I started this game some years ago but never finished it. I must have gotten stuck early on. But I remembered the mystery of what I did see of the story and decided I wanted to finish it and see the whole thing. Honestly, I'm a bit confused about the meaning - what was real and what illusion.

The city was well-realized and I especially liked how descriptions change as the character becomes familiar with the place and the novelty of grandeur wears off.

Some of the sarcastic conversation options had me laughing with joy. Very witty. It's even possible to lie, and I had the character do both a time or three.

Then, later in the game, you really feel like a tourist yourself when you see all the mistakes you made. (Spoiler - click to show)The sign in the dorm. I'll probably have to replay and try different options with the benefit of hindsight one day.

Figuring out who was good and bad was interesting as well. One is led to think one thing and then in the course of talking to characters, you start seeing factions, those who are trying not to get in trouble with either side, and by the end, perspective changes again. (Spoiler - click to show)By the end, I absolutely hated Malik and wanted to kill him. Is there a way to save Simon?

There are shades of Lord of the Rings in the story, where one is forever changed by contact with a specific item and the resulting trauma.

(Spoiler - click to show)My favorite NPC was the tech guy. He didn't look like much, but very sharp. Managed to feel amiable even as he was performing minor surgery.

There were some things I didn't like.

The text-only option does not have a built-in help system.

I got stuck mid-game trying to figure out how to move the story along. (Spoiler - click to show)The Gnostic Temple puzzle. The solution turned out to be something I should have known but for some reason I hadn't tried. The clue was given only once, and if you missed it, too bad. No way to get it back short of restoring a game, if you were lucky to have one before that point. There may be a "transcript" option for this game but I'm not sure. I never use that feature. Managed to find the solution online and had no more problems, though I wish I hadn't had to resort to that.

There are some odd wrinkles in the conversations and items. (Spoiler - click to show)Specificly, housekeeping versus sweet-making robots, verbene alcohol or the plant, and an allusion to food making you ill even if you didn't actually eat it. I think that ruins the flow of the narrative and spoils the experience of the game a little.

The ending is kind of confusing. I'm still trying to piece together what happened. And I don't feel altogether comfortable with things I'm forced to do. Though I'm happy I was able to restore order.

I'm not really a fan of conversation-based games because I tend to feel like I'm not doing anything productive. For me, conversations are fun to read but not so nice to play. Harder to synthesize information gleaned from talking to people. Unfortunately, there was too much of it here. Too much repetition.

Yet, for all this negativity and frustration, the game was written so well; the world was fascinating; and the initial discovery of the city and change in the protagonist by the end made for a memorable, thought-provoking experience. And if literature doesn't make one think and feel deeply, what was the point?

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Truly amazing game, August 20, 2011
by David Whyld (Derbyshire, United Kingdom)
(Warning: This review might contain spoilers. Click to show the full review.)City Of Secrets starts quite ordinarily: you're on a train on your way to a wedding. The train runs breaks down and is forced to stop in the city of the title (which never seems to be referred to as anything other than ‘the City’) and the train company, nice people that they are, put you up in a nearby hotel until the train is fixed. You're not especially happy about this but as you’ve no choice you go along with it.

Most games that start without giving me any real idea of what I'm supposed to be doing don’t generally go down very well with me but City Of Secrets gets away with it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it looks like a really professional work. The left side of the interface is given over to a panel which displays a few custom images and, below that, a handy little compass system showing which directions you can go (no need to wade through a lengthy location description just to know where the exits are!) The right hand side is the main area of the text and the panel across the bottom contains either plain text compass directions or, if you're in the middle of a conversation, dialogue options. This made such a nice change to the other interactive fiction games I play these days – lines of text scrolling up the screen without a smidgeon of decoration to spice things up – that I found myself having nostalgic feelings for the games I used to play as a kid. The professional interface impressed me so much that I suspect I might have enjoyed playing City Of Secrets even if the rest of the game had been bad. But it wasn’t. It was good. Very good.

I'm not sure if the interface is the same for every version of the game. One review I read commented on the fact that the left hand pane showed a description of how the player was feeling at the time which I certainly never saw.

It’s an easy game to make progress with at first and I probably spent a good hour just wandering around playing the part of the tourist and familiarising myself with the way everything worked before I got down to the task of actually doing anything. My pleasant little stroll around the city ended when I was mugged and after that bout of unpleasantness, the game seemed to start properly as I found myself in the middle of a power struggle for control of the city.

City Of Secrets is a vast game. The city itself is a large, sprawling metropolis (although, saying that, the number of locations it contains, while large, is only a fraction of what I'm sure would exist in a city of these proportions) and there are few, if any, wasted locations. Each seems to have something in them to either use or simply examine, although not all of them are apparent at first. There's a tremendous sense of depth in the locations as well; often it seems like the city is a real place and it’s easy to forget you're wandering through a fictional place and not something that really exists somewhere in the world.

The idea behind the game is a power struggle within the city by Thomas Malik (the current ruler) and a mysterious woman called Evaine (who might well be the city’s true ruler). I was quite minded to throw my lot in with Malik when I first met him, despite the fact that there seemed something very suspicious about him, as this was following an encounter with a ruffian who it appeared Evaine had set on me. He beat me unconscious and stole my money. Strange behaviour indeed for the agent of someone who I believed actually wanted my help!

My first wander around the city impressed me greatly. The effort expended on making the locations seem alive – complete with NPCs who flittered about to give the impression you weren’t alone in the city (as happens so often in games set within cities) – is evident, although I’d hate to see how much hard work it was. On the down side, the NPCs who populate the place and make it come to life could have been handled quite a bit better. I tried speaking to them or examining them and found I wasn’t able to as there don’t seem to have any responses coded for them. In short, they're just pieces of scenery which move about to make you think there's more going on in the game than there is. To a degree it works well, but it would have been nice to talk to a few of the NPCs.

Then again, there are a considerable amount of NPCs you can talk to and the range of conversation options is quite staggering. None of them are what I’d call classic NPCs (i.e. they're not particularly memorable) but they serve their purpose adequately enough. A handy feature of the game that impressed me no end is the “think about [name]” command which lists all the bits of information you’ve managed to discover about certain people from speaking to other people about them. Quite ingenious (even if most of the stuff it remembers isn't especially helpful or even useful). There's no score as such but “summary” provides a list of things you’ve done during the game. Some of these are a little on the pointless side (is there any reason to tell the player he’s been wandering around tired?) but, again, it’s a nice feature.

It’s not a game without problems, though. The conversation system in particular seems especially buggy. Quite a few times I was partway through a conversation and suddenly an option would come up which seemed to have no real relation to what had been discussed before. More annoyingly, a conversation would end (the conversation options section would be blank) and yet when I tried to restart the conversation I’d be told the conversation was still progressing so I couldn’t say anything else! This happened in almost every conversation at some point and quickly became tiresome. I wasn’t sure afterwards if this meant the conversation options had been exhausted and there was no reason to keep speaking to the NPC in question, or whether it was just a failing on the part of either the writer or the system.

There were also problems with the city itself. I wasn’t able to examine a temple despite the fact that I was standing right outside it at the time. (Funnily enough, when I was standing one location west of the temple I was able to examine it perfectly.) Nor was the river examinable. I also couldn’t figure out to get through the green door into Malik’s office. I unlocked and opened it – minus any kind of key – but then was still unable to enter as there was “nothing beyond the green door”. Trying to ‘go door’ hit me with:

[** Programming error: East Alley (object number 1600537) has no property <number 0> to read **]
The alley runs east-west.

which I'm guessing must be some kind of system message in Inform for when you try something the writer hasn’t thought to cover. In a game where so much time and effort seems to have gone into it, the bugs with the green door were jarring to say the least. But then I guess no one’s perfect…

Inevitably, as always seems to happen when I'm playing a game (particularly a big and ambitious one like this), I got stuck. I had spoken to everyone in the city I could find to speak to, uncovered numerous items (very few of which I seemed to be able to find a use for) but then seemed to hit a brick wall in that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. For a while I just wandered around and hoped something would happen. A couple of times I returned to the hotel and tried to sleep as previously this had moved the game on and opened up other events, but this time I was just informed that I was awake and would be staying that way.

There was a hints system, and a lengthy and very detailed one it was too, but unfortunately it wasn’t so much a hints system (despite being accessed by typing “hint” or “help”) as a guide to playing the game. While this was all well and good, it wasn’t a whole lot of help to someone who had reached as far in the game as he was able to get and didn’t know what he was supposed to do next to progress the game any further. Admittedly part of that problem with progressing any further might have been my own fault – turning down Malik’s offer to work for him probably didn’t help and nor did refusing to help the urchin who approached me – but in the end I seemed to be wandering around the city without a clue as to what I was supposed to do next. Perseverance managed to get me to see Evaine but after that I really came undone. I was sent out to get myself arrested in order to bring me closer to Malik. How was I supposed to do this? Beats me. I attempted to kill every NPC in the city, smash things up, even threw items at the bots repairing the roof of one of the buildings – nothing.

But while it has its fair share of problems, City Of Secrets is a pretty amazing game all things considered. It’s huge in scope and the writing is excellent throughout. The back story is an interesting one and could probably form the basis of an entire novel in itself. And the city impressed with no end with its sheer depth of character.

Definitely recommended.


1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Amazing, August 20, 2011
The atmospheric detail was amazing. I did not find the town too large and never had to draw a map to manage the different locations. Emily does a fabulous job of giving each sector of the city a unique feel, which helps the player to mentally manage the different locations and directions. It was highly immersive and enjoyable. I did get stuck a couple times, but a quick tour back through the different locations and manipulation of a couple different objects at two different locations succeeded in moving the game forward. I thought I knew what the ending was going to be, but having played it twice, I was surprised and caught off guard by one of the possible endings. The amusing feature after finishing the game is fun, and I had a hard time focusing on the housework I was trying to accomplish in between bouts of playing this game. It is truly that immersive!!

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Engaging and well-written, March 11, 2011
by spinnerin (Portland, OR)
This is a great example of IF that really focuses on the fiction--worldbuilding, characters, story--within the interactive setting. Well worth the hours I spent playing and exploring it.

My only regrets are minor quibbles: I liked the dialogue system, and the tools to help the player poke around different topics and dig for information, but it felt awkward that there was no way to say goodbye or thank you within such an otherwise polished system. That left me feeling like the PC was being a jerk more often than might have been intended.

The other one is that the endgame seemed rushed, but this is a problem for many of my favorite stories. Just remember to save when it seems like you're getting to the end: there's more than one outcome possible, and it could be frustrating to have to replay a large section of the game.

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
a sense of place and time, May 19, 2010
As other reviewers have said, the strength of CoS is the atmosphere of its setting. Though the author may have conceived the City as part of her own fantasy world; for me she manages wonderfully to capture the unmistakeable ambience of a middle-european capital during the later cold-war era. There is a polished, and almost luxurious veneer, but underneath, everything is curiously shabby and archaic. As the title implies, this is a city whose social structures are founded on lies and secrets rather than anything more substantial and enduring. Even the NPC interactions reflect the careful tones and phrasings of people living with the knowledge that everything they do and say may be observed.

The sense of place and time is so good, it seems almost churlish to draw attention to the slight flaws in the plot; a certain stiltedness that grows more marked the further we get into the story. To say that there were points at which I found myself becoming almost bored, gives a slightly inaccurate and rather picky picture. There was never any real danger I would give up, largely because the sheer depth and accuracy of the setting had me well and truly hooked.

Overall CoS was a very good game and a very enjoyable experience. I just couldn't help feeling that it had the potential to be even better.


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