Hadean Lands is Andrew Plotkin’s massive parser IF game about an alchemy-driven spaceship. It’s been several years in the making, after a substantial Kickstarter. And it’s now available.
I backed the initial drive, I’ve been following the dev blog since, and I spent probably upwards of 20 hours beta-testing it, becoming (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) the first person to finish the game other than Zarf himself. (Yes, I am bragging. Play it and you’ll see why.)
So I can’t really claim any sort of unbiased reviewer status at this point. Nonetheless, I would like to talk about some things that I thought about the game.
The discussion below will be mildly spoilery for information found in the very beginning of the game and in the ABOUT text. It will reveal no significant puzzle secrets, but if you want to experience the game entirely free of such preconceptions, then don’t read on.
Magnitude. This is the most substantial piece of puzzle IF to be released in some years, both for duration and for difficulty. I filled up the first third of a notebook with notes until I realized that that method of solving was insufficient for my needs and started building dependency graphs on the computer instead. Some of that’s down to the fact that I was testing and didn’t have the helps that will come with the final version of the game, like the big map. But some is just down to the fact that the game is big.
Action scale shift. Several months ago, the IF discussion club had a session on the question of time modeling in parser IF, and one of the big issues under debate was how much it’s possible to model actions at a larger scale than TAKE BOX and OPEN DOOR. Hadean Lands handles this by implementing chunking. Once the player has created a certain object or discovered how to open a certain door, the game stores information about the process by which that was achieved, and should the player need to do that same thing again, she gains access to meta-commands like CREATE HEALING POTION, which then auto-executed the steps — sometimes dozens of steps — required to accomplish that aim.
The effect of this is that the game starts out feeling like it is about interaction at one level and moves (at least partially) to being about a different level. Early on, you’re wandering around worrying about individual ingredients for the alchemical rituals you need to perform. By the late game, you’ve mastered numerous rituals and can perform them automatically, and the challenge shifts to questions like “in which order should I do these things in order to have all the right ingredients?”
This is a kind of shift that some non-IF games have explored before — candybox-likes generally start out at one scale and then move out to be about a different type of management, and a lot of time management games give you a fiddly task that you later get to automate when you level up — but I’ve not seen it in this context before.
Puzzle reuse. You might be asking yourself, hang on, why would I need to make the same things again? And the answer has to do with one of the game’s other significant features: time is fractured, and that means that you have the ability to reset everything to its original position, with the exception that you retain whatever knowledge you’ve gained from your previous activities.
Resetting the universe is useful because there aren’t enough resources aboard ship to accomplish all the different rituals that you need to perform, so instead you’ll need to perform one set of rituals, discover useful information, then reset, then use your new information to do a different set.
If it weren’t for the action-chunking feature, this would make the game maddeningly repetitive to play. With chunking, though, it opens up ranges of puzzle design that parser games have rarely touched. This is a game in which lots of the puzzles have multiple solutions, but it doesn’t make things easier because you will need to use all of those solutions sooner or later, because they require different ingredient sets. You can figure out how to get an object one way and then five hours later need a second way of getting that same thing. Bits of the story that feel like red herrings at one point turn out to be crucial alternates later on.
Mastery. Another result of the reset feature is that you have permission, in a way that you don’t in most games, to really deeply explore the limits of the simulated possibility space. I boiled things away, I burned things up, I melted things, I made ill-advised alloys; none of this prevented me from winning, because I could always return to a point where those objects were fresh and pristine. Realizing that I’d just done something destructive didn’t indicate I should go back to a save file; it meant I could keep going as long as I wanted, and clean up later.
The overall arc, for me, was that I spent the first bit of the game really excited about the possibility space, and then the next several hours feeling like my head was going to explode from the amount of new information being presented, and then the hours after that finding gradually that the information pulled together again as I became master of it. This game ranks off the charts on the ingenuity measure.
Pleasure in systems. Like a lot of Zarf’s work, this isn’t really a game about people. There are no characters that you can interact with meaningfully for the majority of play; instead, there are remnants of a story, bits of clues and memories about what happened aboard the Retort to bring about the current state of affairs.
Nonetheless, also like a lot of Zarf’s work, the game presents a strong sense of the awe and pleasure inherent in exploration and in systems of knowledge. Alchemy, as presented in Hadean Lands, is a syncretistic practice involving elements drawn from multiple traditions — traditional western philosopher’s-stone-style alchemy but also Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese ideas of the elements among others — as well as a sprinkling of ideas from modern mathematics and chemistry. While the resulting metaphysics is unquestionably Other than our own, it feels somehow both familiar and solid. The aesthetic is very much one that takes pleasure in human cultures and systems of knowledge. And this works really well with the puzzle experience.
So. Yeah. Give it a try.
Edited to add: if you are stuck, there is a hint thread for this game.