Genre: Adventure (Mature)
Release date: August 3, 2016
Shady Brook was first released as a traditional graphic adventure in 2005. It was favorably received by the adventure gaming community and included animation, mechanical puzzles, and voice-overs. In 2016, the game was re-released in a very different format. Before diving into a review of the game itself, it’s important to understand the rationale for this new release.
Since 2008, Christopher Brendel and Elle Smith (the faces behind Unimatrix Productions) have been busy building and marketing the Storycentric Worlds game engine with the intent of “revolutionizing the interactive fiction genre in the modern game industry.” Inspired by adventure games and classic interactive fiction, Christopher describes himself as a “writer at heart” who was drawn to these genres by the opportunity for story-telling. He states that his goal is to “provide players with games that play like adventures but read like novels.” If one views his latest title in this context, he has succeeded.
Built with the Storycentric Worlds engine, the new Shady Brook takes a completely different approach from the original game. The story has been expanded, characters have additional depth, and the presentation has been simplified. The result is a new interface for interactive fiction that addresses prior challenges, and paves the way for the publication of future stories.
At its heart, Shady Brook is a story that is experienced as an interactive adventure. It is infinitely more engaging than pure reading and includes all the elements of a good novel: an interesting plot, characters you can empathize with, and a series of twists and turns that lead to an unexpected ending. Unlike classic text adventures, Shady Brook presents choices as point and click alternatives. Thus, the traditional battle of wits with the parser has been eliminated. Instead of trying to figure out what to type, you click on the appropriate action to take, response to make, or direction to turn. As a result, gameplay is effortless and has a minimal learning curve. You’re free to participate in the story without fighting the interface. It actually plays as if you were reading a good novel with the added benefit that you’re controlling the main character and actively participating in the plot. Add in illustrations, a sound track that changes with the mood of the setting, and ambient sound effects and you have a very immersive experience.
The basic plot line of Shady Brook remains the same as in the original game. You see through the eyes of Jake Torrent – a novelist who has come to a small western town with his blind father. He has relocated in order to take care of his aging parent and to escape the fast pace of urban living. The early part of the story focuses on Jake’s exploration of the town and his introduction to the people and businesses that make up the community. Initially, all seems normal as he interacts with town residents including neighbors, business owners, the sheriff, the mayor, and a priest.
I recall reading that Shady Brook was originally conceived as an idea for a horror film. Thus, the player needs to be prepared for the story to take a dark turn. As Jake learns more about the town’s dynamics, he begins to suspect that all is not as it first appeared. The story grows more sinister and violent as it moves towards a dramatic ending.
Players are advised that the latter part of the Windows version has some of the most sexually explicit text and artwork that I’ve seen in a computer game. I note this because it’s not a game that I would recommend for children or for those who are easily offended. Google Play has given it a “Mature 17+” rating. iTunes does not rate the game, and I believe that the iOS version has had some scenes censored.
What makes Shady Brook unique is the interface. Instead of typing ‘turn left’ or ‘go south’, navigation is performed by clicking on a compass. The scene that appears in each direction is described in text. Available actions are listed as choices which can be selected by clicking to answer the question, "what do you want to do next?" Shady Brook provides a map, an inventory of items collected, a record of important notes/documents, and your current objective. These features are accessed by clicking on icons that appear on the left side of the screen.
Shady Brook includes puzzles that are integral to the story and are real-life activities that make sense. Instead of manipulating objects on the screen, puzzles are solved by selecting from text options. Sounds simple, but you’re still going to need to do some creative thinking. There are a number of conundrums that must be solved which include picking a lock, opening a safe, decoding messages, breaking out of jail, and navigating a maze-like network of underground passages. There are also two fight scenes where you engage in brief bouts of interactive combat, choosing which punch to throw and which direction to lean. The good news is that when you fail at fist fighting, the game allows you to try again.
For the most part, the player is not subjected to endless wandering or repetitive dialog trees in search of the next correct action. When topics are exhausted with a specific character, the game gently reminds you that perhaps there is nothing left to say; or the character becomes unavailable. Likewise, if you’re headed down a circuitous path, the game suggests that perhaps you have too much to do to go traipsing about. Best of all, your current objective is provided to help you stay on track.
Shady Brook has been designed to allow the player to enjoy the story without frustration. Some of the more challenging puzzles have a hint for the lazy adventurer. And for those who lack a sense of direction, areas that require maze-like navigation provide the option to start again at the entry point rather than leaving the player to wander in circles.
Fans of Shady Brook will be pleased to hear that it’s actually part of a larger fictional universe. While the game stands on its own merits, it has ties to a second Storycentric Worlds title, Lifestream. Christopher has indicated that future stories are planned and that players will begin to see crossovers between the games in terms of characters and plot lines. I have Lifestream in my personal game queue and I’m looking forward to discovering the connections between the two titles.
Personally, I’m a big fan of story-driven computer games. I’m also a player who likes to immerse myself in a world that is not stressful and doesn’t require me to be on guard, running for my life and trying to survive. For me, Shady Brook provided a welcome respite from the complexities of the day. It’s a game that screams to be played on a tablet when one is curled on the couch with a blanket and pillow.
+ A simplified interface will appeal to text adventurers who hate typing.
+ Entertaining story that holds one’s interest to the very end.
+ Low price, coupled with tablet availability, makes this worth a try for those who are not gamers at heart.
- Players who prefer to do more and read less are not likely to appreciate this title.
- Still artwork may not appeal to those seeking a more visually immersive experience