One of the things I generally look for in games is how well-meshed the gameplay is with the narrative. Inform author Graham Nelson himself wrote about it in his introduction to his essay The Craft of Adventure, where he refers to adventure games as “a crossword at war with a narrative.”
Shifter’s Box – Outside In is about a young woman’s (Sally) almost dizzying search for her way back home, after opening a mysterious box in the park. This leads her to different worlds meeting different characters, all of whom have been affected by users of the box one way or another.
What I particularly like about this game are the puzzles. Don’t get me wrong: I’m just as much of a puzzle wretch as the next guy, but puzzles one after the other are always welcome. Thankfully, the puzzles were not too hard, and it didn’t involve hunting for the correct hotspot. The logic was clearly there, even with the red herrings around.
The game’s graphics were polished and very well-done. Granted, there aren’t a lot of places to go to, and most of the time there are only a few objects to interact with, but still – the effort to draw what’s needed for the story and more is certainly appreciated. The Ebenezer Leary was a nice touch.
The music was fun to listen to. From the intro music down to the end, it was easy on the ears, and for me, it suited the game’s theme perfectly.
I won’t gripe at the game’s length because I felt the number of places the player could visit was enough to run the story on, so to speak. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if the author had added two or three more worlds, but to add more would have been like “Sliders” gone bad all over again.
Heed, on the other hand, takes a more “puzzle-less” approach. Here another young girl plays the story’s protagonist, but unlike Sally, she seeks enlightenment.
The game’s graphics are little more refined here: the edges of the characters as well as the background art are smoother, and the surroundings are a lot brighter except for one part (the cave). The music was also a delight in this game, having been written by the same team who worked on Shifter’s Box, though it sounded odd at times (it sounded like old 50’s recorded twice on a platter and re-mastered yet again).
Since Heed involved less puzzles, there was a lot more interaction with other characters and with the environment as well. One thing I wished for while I was playing this game, though, was for conversation branches to be pruned out automatically once it has been used, but in the end I didn’t really mind it at all.
What both Heed and Shifter’s Box made up for in the overall integration of puzzles with the plot, it lacked in character development. There was barely any story behind both Sally and the nameless protagonist in Heed, which made me identify less with these games’ characters as I would have liked to.
But did I find what I was looking for? Yes, I did. In the end, both games reminded me of what Graham Nelson said in the last chapter of his essay:
An adventure game, curiously, is one of the most satisfying of works to have written: perhaps because one can always polish it a little further, perhaps because it has so many hidden and secret possibilities, perhaps because something is made as well as written.
I can only hope to make games as good as these someday.