The Edgelands [official site] is a minimalist miasma, a quirky combination of IF-like faux text parser and graphic adventure, set in a grimly dying world. And while there’s so much good about it, there’s just a bit too much that isn’t. Here’s wot I think:
The Edgelands falls through quite a lot of gaps. It’s presented as a pixel-drawn adventure, is delivered more as a text adventure, but contains the choice of neither. It is, I suppose, closer to a walking simulator with beautiful written descriptions than anything else, set in a grim and grimy gloaming world of bleakly cloaked figures and an all-pervading sense of death. Cheery stuff!
You begin playing an unnamed woman in her bedroom, reading emails and idly surfing the net, before stumbling out to begin an unlikely search for a front door key, impossibly hidden behind two other locks, which require their own hidden keys in a way that suggests she must have had quite the odd night previously. Then your role is to move mostly to the right, encountering strange creatures, gnarled people, and sort of half-puzzles that mostly require choosing the option that isn’t “don’t solve this”
However, where it shines is in the writing. Text appears on screen as you look, talk or use items, with options appearing at the bottom typed out before you with > prompts before them – it’s deliberately evoking interactive fiction parsers, albeit with no option to type anything yourself. The result being something closer to non-interactive fiction I suppose, with very few genuine choices on offer, and those that do exist tend to just give you a different glimpse at the story rather than altering your path. So far as I can tell, at least.
It’s bursting with great lines, really lovely descriptive text that adds a layer on top of the already superbly evocative backdrops. A favourite line appears when looking at a telegraph pole in the woods:
“A telegraph pole is here, tree-like, yet incongruous, the only guest at the party not in fancy dress.”
Interactions with such objects tend to be peculiar, either stepping away or listening to unsettling sounds, stepping away or reading an ominous book, stepping away or breaking the glass with a rock. You’re not going to step away, obviously, so you choose the other thing. For the telegraph pole, it adds, “A loose wire thrashes and hisses in the wind, and a keen electrical thrum eminates from an uncertain source.” You choose from “> Cover your ears” or “> Listen closer”.
All the descriptions are similarly pleasing, suggestive and just purple enough. “A yawning bath tub which has seen better days crouches in the corner on little clawed feet.” “A ganglesome figure stands in the dripping recesses of the cave, all lank limbs and shaggy mane.”
The trouble is, the decisions made in design lead to a sort of least-best of all worlds. It doesn’t have the complexity of either a graphic adventure nor interactive fiction, and fails to exploit the finer features of either. You can’t interact with the world beyond reading about the few interactive objects, and you can’t type into the world to uncover secrets. Instead you walk toward the thing, read the admittedly splendid writing about it, and then do the only possible action. It’s much more about the atmosphere, no question, and it has a superbly barren aesthetic, haunting and discomforting music, and a pace that is further suggestive of a world running out of life.
However, this dreary movement speed works well enough until the game asks you to traipse back and forth across the same location six times in one false errand. And the pace of text appearing when you’re reading it for a second time becomes infuriating – it’s possible to hurry it along by repeatedly stabbing at the space bar, but for some reason this doesn’t work with the dialogue prompts which type up letter by letter in an agonising fashion, impossible to select until the whole thing is there. It’s utterly maddening when you already know what they’re going to be.
There are also some frustrating bugs, text options you can’t click on for no reason, and the game does not let you save meaning it restarts at the beginning of the chapter if you ever crash or quit. It also runs in either a very small window or fullscreen, with no sensible middle option, and in either of those modes will sometimes print the text off the screen.
Which is all a shame, as I’m just so keen on its atmosphere. It’s grisly and cruel in ways that are both obvious and difficult to identify. There’s a bleakness that worms its way through every aspect, insidious and very effective. And then something else will go wrong and it’s so ghastly to start a chapter over because everything is so damned slow. At a certain point, after a certain incredibly tiresome sequence, a game-ending bug meant I’d have to go through the whole thing again, and I realised that as much as I loved the emotions of Edgelands, I wasn’t invested enough in what might happen next to want to persist. Perhaps in a month’s time, with more bugs fixed and just the option to tweak the speed a little faster, this could be well worth a look.