After an early access release gave us just a few puzzles from the first two of four “tables”, a full version of Alice & Smith’s Ahnayro: The Dream World is now out, and I really rather like it. Which isn’t going to stop me from complaining about it too.
It’s a funny thing. The earlier version of the game offered a superb collection of research-based puzzles set in a smaller part of the wider Black Watchmen universe, only spoiled by its rather silly ambiguity in reaching some solutions. A desire to seek a dreamlike logic in the player resulted in a reality of on occasion having to stumble and guess at what unnatural link the developers had made. So it’s most peculiar that the largest issue with this final version is that it’s too often ridiculously straightforward.
Ahnayro (a name utterly impossible to remember how to spell, which possibly isn’t the number one technique for getting people to remember to purchase your game) is ostensibly about the tale of a patient at the Oak Valley Sleep Center - a fictional sleep clinic that uses techniques that blur the line between science and parapsychology. Gaining access to Tumblr entries she’s written by solving puzzles, we’re able to learn more about her condition, the attempts at lucid dreaming-based treatment she’s experiencing, and explore the bizarre subjects that occupy her sleeping moments.
These dreams are represented by collections of images, snippets of text, and recordings of the patient’s recollecting moments from the nightmares - with each of these collections we’re asked to delve into web-based research to find solutions to inferred questions, then ultimately find connections between topics associated with these solutions. And in doing so, you disappear down rabbit holes into exploring topics about which you likely previously knew little or nothing.
And herein lies the joy. As I mentioned in my previous coverage, this is deeply reminiscent of The Stone (which remarkably the developers tell me they’d not heard of before I mentioned it to them), leading to much pleasure as I delve into research, learning all manner of bits and bobs about the real world, and applying them to a fictional one.
The biggest problem, oddly, is for a significant chunk (about a third) it's not smart enough. These puzzles encourage research, but then use images that are far more meaningful than their intended nudge. In one particular puzzle a picture of a coin proves to be a rare Upper Canadian one penny from 1854. I looked into its creation, and in turn the creation of Upper Canada, and while I don’t regret learning about either for a moment, it’s with enormous disappointment that I realised from this image I was supposed to extract the information, “penny”. Huh.
In the same puzzle there’s a very strange picture of a man propped upright in a coffin, leaning on a table, with a small group of people in the background to the left. I eventually found the source of this picture - the dead body is one Donald Beamish, a Dumfriesian from 1672 who gained fame after he proved to be impossible to bury. According to the legend, as he died he warned his wife that if he were not buried within three hours of dying, it would be impossible to do so. But as much as they rushed they didn’t manage to take his coffin from the house within the time, and when the pallbearers tried to lift him they found it impossible. The strongest people from the town came to help, but could not move him either. Eventually they pulled a wall of the house down and tied a team of oxen to the coffin, but the harness broke and the coffin remained. Eventually they decided the only thing they could do was burn down the building, but when the flames and smoke cleared away, amongst the rubble stood the coffin and table unharmed. So, as a last resort mud and rocks were piled up over the remains of the house, and to this day there stands a hill in Dumfries that contains the immoveable body of Donald Beamish. A lovely and daft story. Except the picture was there to represent “coffin”.
This is egregiously silly. I love that I’ve learned the story - I hope you do too! - but unfortunately it’s wildly unhelpful when trying to match clues together to solve an opaque mystery. Just use a picture of an anonymous coffin, for goodness sakes. Why something so specific if it has precisely nothing to do with the puzzle? Hell, write a better puzzle that does involve Donald Beamish!
That reaches a peak at the next level up, finding the association between all the grouped answers. I spent hours. I mean hours, searching for something that connected all these various aspects of mid-19th century New Orleans, trying to find something that they all had in common, some particular person or place that linked them in a special way. I found many contenders, none of which could be spelt from the collection of letter runes by which answers are entered. After so long, and then the intervention of someone on a Disqus chat via a forum, I realised that the answer was so astonishingly easy, so completely without the complexity that has previously defined the Alice & Smith games, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to try it. I’m not going to spoil it, so instead here’s a made up equivalent: If I asked you what especially linked images that proved to contain a top hat, a bowler hat, and a Hardee hat, you might delve off into their history, when they were first created, special times they’d been worn, perhaps someone who was famous for wearing all three... So hours later when you found out the answer was “hat”, you’d be pretty annoyed. I was pretty annoyed.
That was a lot of complaining for a long time, and it’s all valid. But then for a lot of the time, it's my fault. That's not the only puzzle for which I resorted to the forums, but on the other occasion I realised I was just being a great big wally. And in the process of being so, I accidentally learned a ridiculous amount about many fascinating subjects. Two thirds of this is top-notch, spiralling off into thematic topics that pull in information from all sides and angles, always treading the line between science and pseudo-science, skepticism and the paranormal, and perhaps most importantly, requiring more than simply Wikipedia.
It takes this further by swirling it into its own fiction, the game's own faked websites littering the net, helping that all-important blurring of the boundaries between your world and its. Solved puzzles allow access to new documents, give clues for passwords for locked off sections of medical websites, and best of all, mini puzzles to flesh things out further, all confined to a two-sided tarot-like card. (This comes to a head with a completely bonkers section requiring you to solve five of a bundle of such puzzles, with each started puzzle on a countdown timer that expires unless you manage to complete five at once.)
Ahnayro is a deliberate attempt to make the Black Watchman universe a little more accessible, requiring less juggling of multiple real-world documents and research, and stripping away any necessity to get involved in the muddle of accompanying ARGs (although there is one). It's standalone, and while it's set in the same fictional world and so contains shared elements, you don't need to know they are such to progress. It's a smaller, much more personal tale, that once completed ties up that little story, while leaving the broader narrative wide open for its continuation.
How successful it is at feeling accessible I'm not sure. It's esoteric, opaque, and very weird. I can't help but feel that the only real hope of a broader appeal to a new audience would be for something like this to be on mobile rather than PC. It feels very arcane, and while that's exactly what I wanted, it does feel at odds with the relative simplicity of some of its solutions. I think it finds itself stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground, where it offers a snack for the ARGers and research-puzzle lovers, while not really seeming likely to welcome in the inquisitive hoards. I hope to be wrong there, but the extraordinary paucity of forum activity (not helped by an atrocious lack of sub-threads for specific puzzles) would certainly suggest otherwise. Still, I've had a mostly splendid (and occasionally aggravating) time with it, and for its minimal price really strongly recommend you give it a look.
Ahnayro is out now on Steam for £7/$10/€10.