So What's with Hadean Lands? (And What the Heck is Interactive Fiction?)
Hadean Lands is an Interactive Fiction story that follows a novice space-alchemist (yeah, you heard us) as he tries to unravel what kind of strange destruction befell the ship that he served on. You know, like you do.
So, what is Interactive Fiction even?
Thought you'd never ask! In the broadest sense, the term just refers to any story where the story-teller lets the story-consumer have some control over the outcome of the story (and this broad definition would apply to a variety of media, particularly video games). When you encounter someone using the term "Interactive Fiction" (and particularly the abbreviation "IF"), they are almost always using it to refer specifically to text-based interactive stories told on computers.
It works like this—you buy an IF story or go to a website to start, the IF says on your screen, "You are in a room with a refrigerator and a llama." Then you type in, "open refrigerator" or "pet llama," or whatever, and the IF spits out the next piece of information, based on your input. Usually there is an overall goal, although often you have to figure it out as you go. Perhaps you need to make the llama a sandwich (or make the llama into a sandwich).
People have been making these games* since the 1970s, and the history of IF is fairly interesting. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that they had a central role in the development of our modern concept of the video game, particularly big AAA titles. (If you want to learn more about that history, there's a documentary that can be watched here--it starts at about the minute 7 mark.)
You may be asking yourself, "Self, why are we talking about a 40-year old genre of very niche entertainment in good ol’ 2014? Shouldn’t we be watching a transformer twerk or engaging in some manner of mech-suit shoot-em-up? What makes Hadean Lands interesting are two little things called money and time?"
You see, Hadean Lands is the result of a Kickstarter project, by Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf), a leading IF creator (and one of the folks you can see in that documentary we linked to). Plotkin set out to raise $8,000 to do his new project, but he ended up with almost four times that. (In fact, his final total was the so-leet-it-had-to-have-been-manipulated-at-the-last-minute value of $31,337.) That was unbelievable news to an IF community who had essentially been making these games for free for the last twenty years. It sounds like a dream-come-true success story, but here’s the hitch—that Kickstarter campaign ran four years ago. Four years is a very reasonable development cycle for a graphics-heavy multi-million dollar game, but it’s probably a little leisurely for an amply-funded text game, and it is WAY longer than a number of Plotkins backers thought they were getting into when they hit that pledge button.
So, for nearly half a decade, this game has grown to almost mythical proportions (and not necessarily in a good way). Some folks thought the game was never going to come out, but it did, and honestly, it's pretty darn good. It's big, it's complex, and it's well-implemented for a mobile platform.
But is it fun?
Well, that's where things get a little more nuanced. It's certainly challenging (and not unfairly or arbitrarily so), and in that regard, there are a lot of people who will really enjoy it. However, those people might be few and far between. The reality is, even though IF is kind of a cross between a book and a video game, if you love reading books, you may find the process of getting through IF to be both frustrating and cumbersome. If you love playing video games (and you are used to playing big AAA releases), you will very likely find the process of getting through IF to be cripplingly challenging. It remains a sad truth, that the target audience for IF is mostly just that same group of people who've already been making, sharing, and playing through IF for years.
That said, if you like mental puzzles and exercises, and you can handle (sometimes relentless) challenge without letting it devolve into frustration, you owe it to yourself to at least check out Hadean Lands. The folks that really get IF are pretty rare, but once they find it they seem to have a lifelong passion for it.
So, would you try taking on a challenge like this? (Have you tried the game?) Let us know in the comments below.
*Calling IF digital “games” may not be a perfect term. Like, games, they require the consumer to interact or “play” them, but the point of IF is almost always as much about the story as about the play. It’s honestly part of a larger issue that exists with the term “video games,” where Gone Home, and Titanfall, and The Impossible Game are all being called the same thing, even though they couldn’t be more different in intent or execution.)