The Bleeding Edges are a series of articles on games that blur reality and fiction.
Oh it feels like home. So many spin-offs deep it must be getting dizzy, Ahnayro: The Dream World [official site] is a spin-off from The Black Watchmen, itself a spin-off from The Secret World. But, importantly, you need have heard of neither - let alone played them - to fully embrace this research-based puzzle game. (Of course, you should play both games, as they're great, and most especially Watchmen if you're into mystery games.) This early alpha version of Ahnayro takes a slightly different tack, stripping away the fiction of playing an agent in a conspiratorial organisation, and instead presenting far more overt puzzles in a dream-logic world. Within minutes of starting (and I'm not exaggerating how quickly I encountered all this), I was learning about the life of Virginia Woolf, the origins of Great Ormond Street, how to read electronic diagrams, 18th century gardeners and the role of thimbles in Peter Pan.
I'm so delighted that I picked this game to play next after delving back into the wonderful world of The Stone, because in many ways it feels like a spiritual successor, its beguiling simplicity of presentation hiding the potential for hours of time-losing research, rabbit holes leading to rabbit warrens of misdirection and accidentally acquired knowledge, and those glorious moments of connection and realisation. And it layers these abstruse explorations over one another in a very smart structure. It's not quite solid enough yet, but everything's in place for it to become so.
Currently the game offers Table 1, two symbols on a disc that each lead to a set of images of objects or rooms. Each image in turn offers a number of smaller puzzles, seemingly unconnected, but each tangentially relating to a single theme represented by the image. So, for example, the very first broader section shows you a picture of a thimble, then has two puzzles that have you look separately into a particular hospital and a particular river. Once discovered, and the correct answer entered by forming a sigil from two-or-three-letter runes, each correct answer then offers a selection of possibly associated subjects that might connect to the thimble. Pick the correct topic from each, verify, and you move onward. Quickly these become much more complex, a single object having far more connections to correctly align, and multiple objects being part of one larger puzzle.
Those smaller puzzles are largely made up of being shown a collection of images, and perhaps a question, and attempting to find a word that answers it all. This is done by pure research, looking for the connection between say, a red giant and a blue witch, and then trying to associate that to other elements you find. And by this process, you cannot help but learn about topics you'd never have encountered otherwise. And this is where I'm a pig in mud.
The second tier of puzzles are perhaps the game's weaker point. The topics from which you must choose are deeply ambiguous in their connections to the central image, and it's often unclear whether you're finding something the solutions all have in common, or things each uniquely shares with the image, or something else. I solved one of them entirely by mistake, and even with the correct answers had no idea what the relationship was. Seeking help on a forum I was told to think in a more dream-like way, and I think at that point so much subjectivity is creeping in as to trip over the line into silly.
What it's currently very much lacking is some sort of redirection for players going down the wrong path. For instance, an early puzzle has a few pictures of amputees, and the words, "He was the first to coin the medical term." Well, the answer to that is most likely Peter Lowe, since no one can find earlier use of the word to refer to the medical procedure (as opposed to the removal of criminals' hands as punishment) before him in the early 17th century. Except there's no way to create "PETER LOWE" on the sigil, and more importantly, no way to be told you're on the wrong path. (The Stone neatly dealt with this with its "Clever. Too clever" response.)
I'd say, here, it's a poor puzzle, since two of the four images simply show amputees, and do not imply anything further. One image perhaps esoterically suggests something else, and the fourth suggests nothing at all at this point. (To be constructive, I'd include an image like this too.) Edit: You know what - I'm completely wrong here - the image absolutely does cover this, as has been pointed out in the comments, and I'm a giant twit.
I think a few of the puzzles could use refinement. There's a potentially nice puzzle involving finding associations between colours and mythical creatures, but the layout of the images was a touch bewildering (and resorting to help from the forums, I'm not the only one finding it so). These things just need a little bit of work, and they'll be completely splendid.
Betwixt the solving comes a lot of excellent voice work, strange descriptions of dreams, wispy music, all adding to the somnolent tone - the presentation is top notch, a sort of Victorian spirit cabinet of a game.
This is still early. It's hard to know how big it will eventually become, but at the moment there's just a small portion - it’ll offer you a good afternoon (or evening - they really want you to play the game at night, but there’s no sensible reason for this) of sleuthing. But it's still a good idea to get in now, as it means Google is far more likely to offer you interesting clues, rather than direct spoilers. Already search terms are auto-completing in ways only relevant to the game, but not yet returning results that take away the fun. At £4.79 you're getting your money's worth already with the content that's in there, and Table 2 will be added to the game this month. They hint that we should already be brushing up on our history of Vévé symbolism. So, you know, get on that.
Plus, alongside this there's ARG bits and pieces happening, something to do with lucid dreaming, mysterious Tumblr feeds, and a mantra for people to find. I've gotten a fair way into it, but have hit my usual block with these things - a code of some origin to decipher and not the inclination to do so. But that's all there to fill in the gaps, and new puzzles not far away.
It needs some tweaking. And I think it's a bit too light at the moment, the next round of puzzles could do with going a bit deeper. And I would love to see the second tier of puzzles making a lot more sense (one involved meddling with Google Maps to find a pattern, which was splendid, but the others felt far too loose and undirected). But much is already in place to offer a really splendid time, and best of all, the chance to absorb so much new knowledge along the way.
Ahnayro is impossible to remember how to spell, and out now in Early Access on Steam for £4.79.