Where We Remain
Where We Remain, the debut offering of Twofold Secret, is a quiet game. It has the allure of that person sitting across the room that you make eye contact with but never speak to, or of the woods that taunted you as a child. It is also an action adventure game of exploration in a randomly generated world. You're a lost youth stranded on a haunted island in the Aegean Sea, searching for your lost love among the ruins of a wasted civilization stalked by mysterious spirits. Twofold Secret borrows the formula from another popular action adventure game and brings back the sense of curiosity and loneliness, and with panache.
[Arrow] keys move you around in all directions, reliable as they have ever been. There are no other controls. The whole game is based on the arrow keys in the same way that drinking water is based simply on swallowing. You find yourself alone on a vast island, messages and flowers are strewn about, caves dot the cliff sides, and unspeakable phantoms stalk the plains, causing the wind to shudder and the earth to tremble. Inside the caves are power-ups (10 in all) and notes left over from a missing lover that you desperately have to find, and let's not forget the shades of the dead who banish you outside when you lack flower petals to ward them off. Eventually you will find your true love, but perhaps not in the way you had imagined.
Analysis: The authors, Chris Klimas and Joel Haddock, have taken the traditional exploration dynamic of the Zelda series and created something the original Legend of Zelda had but its myriad successors lacked: a sense of free exploration fused with solitude. Somehow, most action-adventure games fell to the lure of putting you on rails, and when they did you lost the sense of being alone in a haunted world. Your hands were held between power-ups and boss battles, a simulated adventure rather than an adventure simulator. Now, after years of indie games re-making the platformer genre, we're starting to see exploration games get the same treatment, Where We Remain is a glorious rallying shot.
One thing I really love about this game, moreso than other "artsy" fare that we've seen in the past few years, is that it doesn't try to shove any messages down your throat. It respects your subjectivity enough to let you draw your own conclusions and, more importantly, to let you own the sense of discovery when you tease out each of the secret endings. The freedom in the gameplay reflects this austerity, you get to play and the artistic aspects that the authors so lovingly imbued are there if you want them, there's no forcing of your hand. Fitting that, the game is randomly generated each time you play, so the core task of exploration never gets fully exhausted. The lack of any music makes the sound effects stand out, the building of the changing winds, then the tremors, followed by the "baaaaannn" that alerts you to imminent danger, it follows a primal procession from childhood nightmares where we would turn off the dream-lights in our dream-kitchen and summon the ghosts we feared. The randomization of the island, with its never-ending well of imperfect information, keeps these chases fresh, and there really is something at stake in these encounters: you could lose your entire progress. The lack of music also underscores a sense of apprehension when you aren't under pressure, you're left to wonder at why you're doing these things, like the horse-riding segments of Shadow Of The Colossus but with gameplay. These are just a sample of the subtle details that make this game a holistic whole.
If you find yourself still sitting in the chair you were in before reading this review, congratulations, because I'm still in the same chair after writing it, these chairs are Where We Remain.