Dead Cities

Jon Ingold (2007)

"An impression – city in peril – dead city – equestrian statue – men in closed room – clattering hooves heard outside – marvel disclosed on looking out – doubtful ending."

John Ingold's Dead Cities captures H.P. Lovecraft's obsession with forbidden knowledge, in a game that’s not only well written, but also crafted to draw you in. It's a small, tight design that doesn't take long to finish. With some amount of replayability, you can find a few premature/alternative endings. But the mood the game creates hangs heavy throughout, with settings richly described though not overly Lovecraftian.

You find yourself auditing Arkwright, a dying old man burdened by inheritance tax, searching through his books with an inventory provided by his nephew. The family lost contact since the death of his wife, and they want you to bring back his prize possession, an early edition of Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Throughout the game you can see the author's real love: books. Not only are you searching for rare books like Newton's Principia, but once you settle in for a bit of gameplay, you’ll learn of the Kaman-Than (an ancient text possessing the power to brings cities to life). Deep within its pages you’ll find lines such as:

"...Books too are dead cities, whose creators wrought word-patterns from a living mind that is now timeless and inert. Words are the skeletons of thought, gifted time and existence only by a reader's eye...."

The writing is exceptional, showing real passion.

The game generally did a good job of telling me what I should be trying to do, but the implementation is not always perfect, especially if the player does things in an order different from that which Ingold evidently anticipated. At one point I had figured out what I needed Arkwright to do to advance the plot, and given the required items to Arkwright, but could not get him to take the next logical step because I had not asked him about the correct topic. My frustration was made even worse by the fact that I was by this point in a race against the clock for survival.

An embellishment that might sit well would be an encyclopedia that could expand the Lovecraftian universe -- some sort of dark, cryptic tome that might explain in better detail what is really going on in the game. I know that the game was completed in a short amount of time -- eight weeks is nothing -- and something like this couldn't be included in the first version. But it would be nice in a second version, if it doesn’t seem completely out of place.

One thing I found really interesting is that the story draws you in and away from the main goal with enticing bits of secret lore. This happened twice for me. In fact, I got so caught up in the tales the game has to tell that I missed out on important opportunities. Finishing some of these stories is likely to finish you as well, so beware.

In the end I think there is a definite theme to the game: knowledge comes at a price. And in the world of Lovecraft, that price can be extreme. The more I played Dead Cities, the more I felt it has some strong similarities to Adam Cadre's 9:05. Both try to lead you down the path of ruin. In Dead Cities, your first play-through will likely end with end with your character mad, or worse. Several unsatisfactory endings are in fact possible. As Lovecraftian as this feels, you probably want to walk away with a sense of having won. To do that, you'll have to push on a little more to get to a more positive ending.

I see two clear paths in this game. You can go down the road of forbidden knowledge and discover the ancient writing's of the Kaman-Thah; or, once mastering the game, you can save Arkwright from himself. But, like some of Lovecraft's finest fiction, you cannot have both.