Wot I Think: A Golden Wake

There’s something I wish I’d known as I began playing retro point and click adventure A Golden Wake. I wish I’d known that it was, in large parts, a true story. The reason I didn’t know this was because it began with a statement explaining that despite its historical setting, the characters and events were fictional. Here’s wot I think:

It turns out Coral Gables is a real city in Miami, Florida (you may have already known that, especially if you live on that continent), which was really established in the 1920s by a man named George E. Merrick, there really is a Biltmore Hotel, and the city really was affected by the hurricane of 1937. The game’s tale of real estate is based in a genuinely interesting time of boom and bust in American early 20th century history. In what is ultimately a rather bland game, I think I’d have cared a bit more if I’d known.

Not a lot more, I’m sad to say. Your character, one Alfie Banks, is a real estate salesman from New York. Following a rather unrealistic incident at his work, he makes his way south to chase the property boom in the rapidly developing Florida, to pursue his real estate career there. Yes, this really is a real estate salesman sim.

Starting out in Florida 1921, you must begin by proving your worth to the big name in town, one George Merrick. To do this, and this is the beginnings of why the game opens up with its mighty disclaimer, you must bully a man out of his home so Merrick can build on his land, steal plans (that you’re told were already stolen from him) from a rival realtor, and convince a seemingly straight journalist to write puff pieces about him. And you do all this with Alfie’s utterly charmless salesman ways.

Used occasionally, and certainly too occasionally for it to work well, Alfie has powers of persuasion. This allow him to discern the weaknesses and interests of a person, and play his patter accordingly. Except, despite the appearance of a Sherlock Holmes-style intuition, it never really works. The “correct” responses rarely match up in a meaningful way with the information you have, and the system feels far more based in luck than anything else. Never mind that most of the time this isn’t even applied, and the script just does the work for you.

The game continues on in clusters of three fetch-quests, which in some way becomes the focus of Alfie’s near-existential frustration with life. That’s almost an interesting idea, that the central character is demoralised by the mundanity of his existence, using the most mundane of adventure tropes. Except, you know, apart from the bit where you’re using the most mundane of adventure tropes.

However, all the interesting events seem to take place in the fades to black, as the time leaps forward in years. Midway through the game it finally stops being literally only about real estate, and starts to work in a completely hokum tale of the mob (again, you can understand the opening disclaimer, as real places and people are associated with them).

The major issue that Alfie is just a blandly unlikeable person. His charm is fake, but there’s no establishment of his reality. You don’t know him beyond the laminated veneer he presents as he sells. So when he starts to have huge crises with where his life is going, they’re out of nowhere, and completely unconvincing. The decisions he makes, despite any choices you might try to make, are ridiculous. And by the end of the game his wild fluctuations in personality and behaviour become farcical. His entire arc appears to be based in his having incongruous tantrums.

The puzzles aren’t, for the most part. It’s about as simple as point and click gets, with your using the only available inventory item on the only available object to move on in most places. There’s even a hidden object puzzle at one point, which is perhaps not ideally suited to a game hand-drawn in pixels running at 640×400, involuntarily stretched to the full size of your monitor. (Be warned, the usual Alt-Enter to switch to a window doesn’t work here, but instead resets the game to the opening titles!)

The art is nice enough, but never stunning. When opting for Adventure Game Studio in its late 80s form, there needs to be a lot more flourish to make it feel worthwhile. The character portraits are often poor, and the animated characters they represent only occasionally look alike.

The voice acting is lovely, nearly every character well presented. There are a couple of weaker ones, but of the main cast it’s a very strong showing. It is a bit of a shame that the font used for the un-spoken information has only a single pixel difference between ‘o’ and ‘a’, which makes parsing it occasionally annoying. Although it did lead to a favourite moment where I was told,

“In the distance, you can see an old fart. It looks as though it’s been around for centuries.”

There is definitely a lot to be said for using adventure games to explore more mundane events. They don’t all need a murder, or a ghost, or a time travelling robot. But I would argue they do need something more than real estate. There was a large opportunity to really explore the historical significance of the establishment of Coral Gables, the City Beautiful movement it inspired, and the era of prohibition and the Great Depression. But instead these are just background events to tell a remarkably plain story about an unremarkable man.

12 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    What a shame. I had high hopes for this, because it is published by Wadjet Eye Games.

  2. Anthile says:

    That is what I feared. Oh well.

  3. djbriandamage says:

    I disagree with John’s criticism somewhat. I had a really good time with this one.

    I thought there was a good variety of puzzle mechanics which shows all the opportunities a real estate agent has for creativity and problem solving (and justifies the protagonist feeling he’s taken for granted). I feared the puzzles would be one-note-wonders but was very pleasantly surprised by the variety of logic challenges. I even thought the so-called “hidden object game” was not only contextually relevant to the protagonist’s job, but was also one of the most fun and satisfying activities due to your motivation for performing this task.

    I also thought the art was spectacular (and especially the animation) with the exception of maybe a couple of character portraits. Between the settings and the history this game is a real love letter to Florida.

    John does have a point that knowing this game is based on historical events puts the story in context. It’s an embellished story set in actual history. Alfie Banks is a fictional character and newcomer to Coral Gables and I thought his observations were apt, contrasting Florida with his lifelong home of New York City.

    Perhaps the criticism I would give the game is that there’s a lot of plot for a game of this length (maybe 4/5 the length of a Sierra adventure). About 20 years pass and the narrative sometimes jumps ahead in time, skipping to the protagonist’s ultimate reactions to whatever has become routine for him over those years.

    I really do recommend this game, especially for the price. It’s as educational as a Jane Jensen game and as lush in presentation as anything Sierra ever put out.

    Aside, I suspect John hasn’t changed the default settings of either his monitor or video card if the image stretches at fullscreen. 320×200 resolution is 16:10 aspect ratio which should show narrow black bars on either side of a 16:9 monitor. I play tons of old and low-res games and had to double-check my hardware to ensure it’s rendered properly.

  4. Curratum says:

    Plot twist – Grundislav Games is really a girl! Now go rewrite that review.

  5. gbrading says:

    I reviewed this for another site, and I broadly agree with this review. This historical background is fascinating and treated with much reverence, but the actual act of playing the game is dull and uninspired. However, I didn’t dislike Alfie; I found him affable enough, but the decision he makes late in the game seemed to go totally against his personality.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    Shame. I enjoyed the demo, even if the matching-the-homes-to-the-buyers thing was a complete crapshoot.

    I expected that Alfie would have a moral awakening at some point and rail against the shallowness of it all (take everyone down for the big final act, etc.), but it sounds like he stays a dick throughout the whole thing. Hopefully the setting will carry it for me.

  7. hotmaildidntwork says:

    That third picture is in desperate need of a “Staring Eyes” tag.

  8. Juan Carlo says:

    -Unlikable characters
    -Light on plot
    -Period setting
    -Concerns a very particular industry when it was booming

    Sounds awesome, actually. Like, the closest we are going to get to a point and click rendition of “Mad Men.”

  9. Charles de Goal says:

    I actually think being bland is part of the game’s attraction, because it’s about a class of people (ambitious bourgeois WASP) who are fundamentally bland. It would have been disappointing for Alfie to develop a rich, profound, complex personality, it seems.
    I do agree the game is light on gameplay and actual puzzles, but at least it didn’t feel grinding or frustrating like so many adventure games do when they want their puzzles to be challenging.
    I actually find A Golden Wake far more enjoyable than the Journey Down, which IIRC you praised abundantly.