Key Features:

  • Developer - Andrew Plotkin
  • Format - iOS
  • Device tested - iPhone 4
  • Price - 69p

It's 13 years since Andrew Plotkin launched Shade and it's still terrifying and weird. A work of interactive fiction in the same vein as MS-DOS text-based adventures, it tells a surreal, second-person tale of you, in your flat, waiting to go on holiday. Except you're not, because you're actually lost in the desert and the whole game is a hallucination brought on by thirst.

Probably. Shade is very broad - it's more concerned with being evocative than it is coherent, so the "answers" remain unclear. Gameplay-wise it's as you'd expect. You type in what it is you want to do and if it's something the game recognises, you do it. "Pick up glass"/"You pick up the glass" - that sort of thing. But as the plot goes on even that becomes progressively more abstract, leading to bewildering, frightening moments where you type "turn on the computer" and Shade responds "the computer turns into sand." Hmmm.

A David Lynch dream sequence of a game, Shade is excellent for two reasons. Firstly, the narrative itself which conjures feverish visions of weird creatures, twisted reflections and, yeah, sand. It's a trippy and delirious story that, suitably, feels like it's been written after several days of sleeplessness and sunstroke. A short tale, depending on how quick you guess what the game wants you do to, Shade is a superb read.

Secondly, though, it's brilliantly told, subverting typical expectations of interactive fiction to mess with player's heads. Where things like MIST and Dungeon have quite rigid solutions to their puzzles, Shade is much more indefinite, with typical player actions having strange, unpredictable results. The aforementioned computer/sand card pull is a strong example, representing how Shade takes genre expectations and jumbles them around. The solid, algorithmic world of standard text-based games is turned into something more wobbly; after enough weirdness it starts to feel like anything could happen in Shade and that drums up the scare factor.

It's not perfect. For all the interesting abstractness the text-based commands can still be infuriatingly inflexible, especially when you're playing on the iPhone, and you have to type repeatedly to put down a glass/pick up a glass, open a cupboard/check inside a cupboard. It's also not superbly written. Plotkin's a competent author and videogame writing ought to be about brevity, but Shade isn't curt in the sense of snappy; the prose is just unfulfilling and bare.

But it's still very good. It's scary and intelligent and, especially now, when the genre is a total relic, refreshing. Shade's out now for 69p on the App Store and well worth indulging in. One tip though: Don't look out the window...

Score: 9/10