Back when Kickstarter was relatively young, Andrew Plotkin proved that there was some money in interactive fiction by raising more than $30,000 to develop Hadean Lands. The game concerned the crash of a starship driven by alchemy, one in which the player would have to complete various rituals in order to get the ship moving again.
In full disclosure, I backed the game in its crowdfunding stage, and later helped to beta-test it. But I'm not alone in thinking Hadean Lands is one of the most extraordinary pieces of parser IF ever written, both as a technical achievement and as a piece of escalating puzzle design. Indeed, almost the first response when I started this column was a plea that I would cover Hadean Lands as soon as possible.
Hadean Lands took years longer than its initial estimate to finish, and ultimately came out in October of 2014. As of this month, it is available on Steam, in an enhanced version more user-friendly than anything you could previously have gotten on your PC. There is also $35 worth of DLC, in the form of a certificate you can buy to express your commitment never to look at any hints. That's it: just the certificate. You don't get any extra game for that.
If spending $35 makes you play hintless, it might still be worth it. Hadean Lands is all about mastery, about a gradual climb from clueless internship to near-divine power over the forces of the universe. Playing it without hints is challenging, but fair and worthwhile, a fitting expression of your character's lonely ascent. I know whereof I speak: when I played, there was no one to ask.
When you begin, you have access to a single ritual: words to speak, ingredients to use, a special space called a bound where your alchemical power can be contained and expressed. Soon you begin to find more ingredients, more rituals, more words of power. Occasionally you have a chance to experiment with your own variant versions of these rituals.
Often you will need to reset the world to its initial state — not precisely a spoiler, as the first reset happens so early in the game — but when you do so, all used ingredients are restored to their original places, and everything you might have destroyed returns to its pre-destruction status. However, your character remembers everything you've learned.
That "everything" includes the rituals and the words of power you've unearthed. The discovery and reset mechanism means that sometimes, the right solution involves making a huge mess in order to get at a particular piece of information. After reset, the mess will go away, but you'll still know this extra secret.
"Everything" also includes puzzle solutions themselves, and this is where the design genius and technical complexity of Hadean Lands show. Once you've created a particular alchemical product, it becomes part of your character's permanent repertory, and the game offers you a meta-command such as CREATE HEALING POTION in order to re-perform all of the necessary steps. One meta-command might invoke several lesser meta-commands, so that, by the late game, a single move expresses hundreds of smaller actions, all recorded and re-performed automatically just the way the player performed them the first time around. This is not an easy thing to implement, especially given that IF toolsets are not designed to support that kind of interaction scaling. Most IF authors I know look at Plotkin's achievement with horrified respect and absolutely no intention of attempting anything similar themselves.
But this technical virtuosity supports a glorious piece of design. Hadean Lands offers a highly consistent and fair puzzle system in which the basic rules of the universe never change, but where the player has to learn to think at a higher and higher level. At the outset, you're worrying about how to get a single ingredient for a particular ritual. By the endgame, you're thinking about how to chain together all the different rituals you know and how to manage scarce ingredients so that you can accomplish hard tasks before you need to reset.
All of this takes place in a richly simulated world where you can set ingredients on fire; roll out metal into wire; boil liquids away, or melt down props. There are herbs, woods, essential oils. Scent and sound matter. The alchemy of Hadean Lands is complicated and syncretistic, drawing together ideas and symbols from many different cultures, uniting abstract ideas with physical manifestations. There is mathematics and music, and also the elemental alignment of the odor of cinnamon.
Hadean Lands captures something fundamental about what it's like to learn a complex skill. At the beginning, you're following instructions step-by-step without any sense of their logic, and probably having to double check a lot. "Heat egg whites in a bowl over a pot of boiling water until they're hot to the touch? Uh, okay... wait, is that for the cake part or the frosting part, again?" Gradually, you reach a point where you can look at a recipe and think, "Right, so it's an oil-based cake with a Swiss buttercream frosting and lemon curd filling." Later still, you're swapping out the lemon curd for homemade lime curd and improvising some meringue drops for decoration.
At the same time, those low-level tasks and requirements never completely go away. You might get better at understanding how the cake works and faster at executing the tasks, but if you're out of sugar, you're out of sugar. The same applies to ritual requirements in Hadean Lands.
For me, capturing that experience directly is enormously more satisfying than "leveling up" some abstractly defined lock-picking skill by feeding XP into a counter. It's also more satisfying than having a series of unrelated puzzles that barely build on one another. And the fewer hints you use, the more of that growth curve you get to enjoy firsthand. I came away feeling like I'd learned alchemy, if only this universe's operating system supported it.
Related recommendations: Hadean Lands is not the only interactive fiction game to land on Steam in recent months. Simon Christiansen's Patanoir, in which you can interact with objects mentioned in metaphorical language, came to Steam earlier in June. Patanoir has been available in a basic form for some time, but the Steam version includes maps, illustrations, and an upgraded interface that makes the game look like a book with pages. And for those who prefer choice-based interactive fiction, a number of Choice of Games works are available as well. Meanwhile, if you like the sound of a consistent magic system but you want to try something much, much shorter and easier, David Fisher's Suveh Nux is a 2007 parser IF classic that teaches you its magical language.
[Disclosures: As mentioned above, Emily Short backed and helped beta-test Hadean Lands. She has met Andrew Plotkin on a number of occasions. More generally, Emily is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]