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City of Secrets

From the Database of Home of the Underdogs

GAME DESIGNER:Emily Short

GAME DEVELOPER:Freeware

GAME PUBLISHER:Freeware

Copyright 2003, Emily Short

City of Secrets is yet another superb release from Emily Short, one of the best IF authors today. As of June 2003, this is easily the most ambitious and polished game from the prolific author, not least because it began as a commissioned work for Secret-Secret, San Francisco’s synth-pop band. When personal issues among band members arose that prevented the game from being released, Emily Short commendably finished the game anyway and released it into the public domain.

The plot casts you as a traveler whose train is making a short, unscheduled, stop in “the City,” a vast fictional city that feels like a European city from the Romantic era. Your one-night transit soon turns into a longer visit, as you explore the City, run across various mysterious characters, and discover a role that the City’s authority wants you to play in local politics.

As one would expect from an Emily Short game, City of Secrets is extremely well-written, with mind-boggling amount of detail. There are over 260,000 lines of text, 50 NPCs, 3,000 lines of dialogue, over 80 locations, and even very nice background graphics that changes as you visit new areas and meet new people. There are so many dynamic (and sometimes random) “sideshow” events that happen every turn that you will feel as if you are exploring a real-life city that is bustling with people and full of history. After you play the game for a while, you will begin to notice that the “event pools” (from which these seemingly random events are drawn) subtly change during the game, depending on where you are in the story, and also depending on your previous actions. Clever programming, to say the least. The result is an imminently atmospheric gameworld that you will never tire of exploring, regardless of whether or not you are “stuck” in the main storyline. There are always new locations to explore, new people to talk to, and new objects to tinker with. You can spend many minutes alone just reading books found inside the game, some of which contain important clues. Before the game is over, you will know the City intimately, from its locations to changes in architecture styles, to writings and artwork from different ages, to minor and major historical figures and popular myths. The scale of City of Secrets is staggering, and Emily Short has pulled it off masterfully.

The richness of detail and ambitious scale may make the game feel difficult and inaccessible to newbies. On the contrary, the game is highly accessible and relatively easy, probably because it was designed primarily for people who have little experience with IF (that is, fans of Secret-Secret the band). I finished it in under 10 hours of playing, and that is mostly because I had so much fun going on a tangent, exploring the intricacies of the City and talking the small talk with its denizens.

Plot development is handled subtly, without intruding on the non-linear feel. For example, the game will say “you are getting tired” after you have explored the City for a while. This is a cue for you to go back to the hotel, where you will witness an event that will advance the plot. Starting out as a simple “stranded in unknown City” fare, the plot of City of Secrets blossoms into a very intriguing drama that, not unlike Adam Cadre’s masterpiece Varicella, features clashes of personalities and philosophies. You are free to choose which side to support, and will see the consequences of those choices.

The game has two difficulty levels: “standard” and “novice,” the latter of which makes the game easier to solve, although I have never tried it. It even adjusts the difficulty level automatically for you after watching you make the first few moves. Most puzzles are easy, requiring only astute observation, thorough conversations with NPCs, and some note-taking to solve. Almost all puzzles have two or more alternate solutions, making the game even more accessible to beginners. All in all, City of Secrets is a superb piece of work that is a must-play for every IF fan, and an ideal start for anyone who is new to the genre. Highly recommended.

Note: I should mention that the game’s pre-release feelies package which is no longer available includes some of the best feelies I have seen since Infocom’s heyday: a velvet bag containing ground liontail, very authentic-looking plain ticket, full-color tourist guide to the city, and many other goodies. The “normal” feelie packet which you can still order for $6 includes all of the paper feelies from the pre-release version, and is well worth that price.



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