Way back in 1996, I entered my own comp game. In his review of it, Andrew Plotkin talked about the fact that my game didn’t give any warning when the PC’s perceptions suddenly shifted. He said, “Maybe the author intended that effect, the world changing without any sensation of change — it’s certainly a disorienting effect when it really happens to you.” This was a very charitable interpretation on Zarf’s part; of course, it wasn’t intentional, but rather one of the many novice mistakes I made in that game and corrected in the later version based on that kind of feedback. Shade, however, does use this effect in a way that I’m quite sure is intentional, and is in fact quite masterful. It’s also rather difficult to discuss without spoilers. Let’s just say that sometimes things change absolutely without warning in this game, in fact more and more often as the game goes on. When it happened to me the first time, I wasn’t sure what to make of it — I thought perhaps it was a bug, or some kind of misguided idea of providing variety. As the game went on, I realized that every detail of it is quite deliberate, and all of it calculated to deliver maximum effect. The effect it had on me was very powerful indeed. Quite simply, it blew me away. Not only that, it’s one of those games that I wanted to restart right after I’d finished, just to try different things. When I did this, even more details came together in my head. Even now, little pieces are snapping together in my mind, and I’m getting flashes of realization about the meanings behind the meanings of so many of the game’s elements. Few parts of the IF experience are as startling or as pleasurable.
Also a pleasure is the unwavering standard of excellence set by the game’s writing and coding, especially the coding. The one-room setting is implemented brilliantly, shaping its descriptions based around what the PC is most likely to perceive first. For example, if you’re standing in the living room, the computer desk and other items on the living room floor are described first, followed by mentions of the kitchen nook and bathroom nook. If, however, you’re standing in the kitchen nook, the game will first mention the stove, fridge, and cupboard, then go on to talk about the desk and such. The mimesis achieved by this effect is remarkable, which makes it even more stunning when that mimesis is carefully, strategically bent, then broken. Even better, this kind of care has gone into pretty much every item in the game. They reveal themselves to you in ways that are not only character-appropriate, but which change to accommodate the PC’s changing situation. Shade is the kind of game that puts a ton of care into its coding, most of which the player will never notice, because the very purpose of that care is to make the experience seamless for the player no matter what order she does things in. I noticed, because I think about those kind of things, and because I played it twice. If you liked Shade the first time, play it again — you may be surprised at how well it wraps itself around your commands.
If you haven’t played it once, then for goodness’ sake stop reading this review and play it now. It’s a short game — in fact, there really is no plot to speak of, nor any puzzles. Actually, now that I think about it, Shade almost fits better into the category of IF Art (as exemplified by the entries in Marnie Parker’s periodic IF Art comps) than the category of IF game. Still, like the best art, it creates an electrifying, unforgettable experience. I have to admit that it’s an experience that shook me a little — Shade has several surprises up its sleeve, not all of them pleasant. But don’t let that dissuade you. Try this piece. I think it’ll knock you out — I know it did me.