The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: System's Twilight
By: Andrew Plotkin
Most people know Andrew Plotkin, or Zarf, as he refers to himself, for the text adventures he writes. Not too many know he has released an excellent puzzle story game (or "abstract fairy tale", as Zarf describes it) called System's Twilight.
Part of the reason for this might be that it was only ever released for the Macintosh; another reason for people not playing it might have been that it was distributed as shareware until little more than a year ago.
I first played the shareware version in 1999, finished what was there, then registered to see the rest. And there's a lot of game in there for a small download like this.
System's Twilight is, first and foremost, a puzzle game. But not in the common "Sliding Puzzle - Maze - Towers of Hanoi - repeat" sense; instead, it requires you to plan logically, to think ahead, take notes and retry and retry and retry until you succeed.
"Sadistic Software is devoted to making your head hurt" say the credits, and the game is good at that. While the first puzzles are (relatively) easy, requiring you to find and manipulate words, connect circuit boards, traverse trees and duplicate patterns, they get a lot harder later on. Some are so hard, in fact, that I was wondering how anyone could have solved them without the aid of the excellent Hint Guide.
You will encounter many types of puzzles, and each branch on the map is usually devoted to one or two types. There is everything from pattern matching to Sokoban to puzzles I don't even know a name for.
Some of them require a very good grasp of the English language (for example knowing that "score" / 10 = 2). One of the word puzzles is so fiendish that there is a hint for it in the "about" text and on the web page. "This is the only puzzle in the game that I believe is too hard" writes Zarf. I disagree :-)
But the game is more than a puzzle-fest for the sake of itself. It also has a story.
The game plays in the "System", an abstract computer-like world with data streams, vaults, ruins, workshops and trees of the digital sort. You play "You", the protagonist of the game, who is intent on finding out why the System is falling apart. On the way, you meet many interesting characters and try to uncover their respective agendas. The ultimate goal is to bring stability back to the System.
When you finish each section, you are presented with a tale. All the tales and names in the game tie heavily into voodoo and African folklore. Some of the names are explained when you finish the game; if you want a full list, check out the aforementioned Hint Guide.
Usually, you can't finish an entire section in one go; there is usually a point where you will get stuck and require an item that is to be found in another part of the game. As you slowly unlock more and more of the game, you gain a deeper understanding of what is behind the System's problems and the various schemes and plans of the supporting cast.
The final puzzle is a masterpiece of evil, and has been widely discussed on the Macintosh game newsgroups. It is fiendish and clever in almost the same way as +=3 was. (If you've never heard of it, here's a quick summary: you are inventoryless and a troll requires three items from you to let you pass. There are no apparent things around, and the solution is to take off your clothes and shoes and give those to him. +=3 was a concept game to get players to think out of the box; and this one is too, except that it's clued troughout the game.
Which doesn't mean I have ever seen somebody reach it and not ask for help.
A few niggles: it's not possible to replay a puzzle. "Yes, it should be. No, I'm not touching the code again." is the official reaction, and I say fair enough.
The ending screen, I just noticed, still mentions the registration sheet (which is available from the web page, but no longer necessary) and gives Zarf's old e-mail address, while the "about" text gives the new one.
What irked me was that the registration screen has been replaced with a "register somebody else's software" reminder. Nice intention, but completely out of place and annoying.
System's Twilight is a game in the tradition of Cliff Johnson's The Fool's Errand and 3 in Three. I found it much more forgiving than 3 in Three (which I still haven't solved and probably never will), but harder than The Fool's Errand. If you enjoyed any of those, or if you like hard puzzles, this is a game for you. Conversely, if you enjoyed this game, you will probably like the other two, but most likely not be able to find them anymore. Unless, that is, you look into abandonware sites, which is bad blah blah copyright blah blah who cares blah blah. If you're more of the puzzle-less fraction, steer clear of this game. I played the game again for this review, and even though I was using the Hint Guide constantly to get through quickly, it still took me several hours to get through - first-time players will most likely be stumped for days, if not weeks.
The end of the game promises another game in the same style, to be named Moondials. I don't know if it's part of Murphy's Law that any game announced before it's done will never be released (or very vary late), but I hope Moondials will be an exception.
How about it, Mr. Plotkin?