Review for A Golden Wake
"Mark my words, Banks. We're on the verge of something great!"
Perhaps it's appropriate that A Golden Wake, the first commercial venture from Francisco 'Grundislav' Gonzalez, is about… well, a commercial venture: specifically, the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Now, if you never even knew Florida had a land boom, you're not alone. We all learned about the First World War and later the Great Depression, but I came to this game knowing little about the decade in between; all that came to mind was jazz and flappers. It's refreshing, then, to be presented with a historically-inspired game that doesn't just tread the same old ground, especially one as well-researched and atmospheric as this. Even if it's perhaps a little too authentic at times, emphasising its period features over the finer details of character development, it's still a fascinating insight into a world that's both charmingly old-fashioned and surprisingly relevant to today's concerns.
You play Alfie Banks, initially a realtor for Morris & Banks in New York – but not for long. As the son of the original Banks, your only remaining power within the company is that you get all the plum assignments. Your coworkers, not too surprisingly, aren't too thrilled about that and concoct a cunning plot to frame you and get you ejected from the company. With your last dime, thrown sarcastically at you on the way out, you buy a newspaper, and… what's this? A land boom in Florida? Can anyone say "fresh start"?
Early on, Alfie embodies the can-do, pioneering spirit of the American Dream. Arriving in Miami with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back, he uses his wits and charm to wangle a job with George Merrick, an up-and-coming property developer with big plans for the future. For a while, life is good: he works his way up in the company, even gets a car to drive around in. But life's never that simple for long, and by the halfway mark it becomes clear why this game is billed as the "story of an innocent man's descent into greed and corruption, and his eventual redemption."
To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns this game has in store, but suffice it to say that life teaches Alfie some tough lessons and knocks that early optimism right out of him; this is no bright and breezy rags-to-riches story. Indeed, for all the early sunshine it can be a surprisingly dark adventure at times, and it's all the better for it.
From the moment the game opens with a deco-inspired reworking of the Wadjet Eye logo to the quit option that asks if it's "Time to Skedaddle Already?", it's clear A Golden Wake takes its period inspiration seriously. For one thing, it makes a big effort to be historically accurate, including notable figures from the era (such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus) together with a fine attempt at period dialogue. The game itself is fiction, but it neatly weaves its events through the real lives of many of its characters, starting in the optimistic days of 1921 and leading all the way through to the beginnings of the Great Depression. At times the dialogue can sound a little comical to modern ears – the closest Alfie comes to swearing is to shout "Horsefeathers!" – and it sometimes feels like it's trying too hard to inject period terms, but the overall effect is charming. Combined with the ragtime soundtrack, it often felt like I'd been dropped into The Sting's real estate-inspired cousin.
As we've come to expect from games produced by Wadjet Eye, this is all backed up by beautiful retro graphics and high-quality sound work. I've been following Grundislav's freeware work since Ben Jordan first set out to track down the Skunk Ape, and he's progressed leaps and bounds as an artist. Even if he can't quite hit the high bar set by titles such as Blackwell Epiphany or Gemini Rue, the pixel art here is very professional-looking and does a fine job of evoking a sun-drenched Miami. Locations range from Spanish and deco-influenced city streets and offices to a wood-panelled gentlemen's club, the Everglades and even a brief visit to Cuba. They brim with life as well, with streets full of hurrying pedestrians, crowds looking to buy, buy, buy!, and even a ballroom full of jitterbugging dancers. I was struck by just how smooth and natural the character animation looks. There are smaller touches, too, like rippling waves and secretaries tapping away at their typewriters. The one thing that’s static is conversations: the characters stay fixed in place and even their portraits are static. In another game this wouldn’t be worth noting, but with so much vibrant life elsewhere, it unfortunately stands out here.
The soundtrack is a nice mix of ragtime and jazz, with a little Latin flavour here and there. Even if the budget couldn’t quite stretch to afford a live band, the score fits the mood perfectly and further enhances the already evocative atmosphere. The voices are provided by many of the usual Wadjet Eye suspects, with predictably great results. One thing that's a little disappointing is that the voice work is strictly for dialogue: hotspot descriptions are given in the third-person only as text boxes. This may well have been a pragmatic decision, but it also makes the game feel like a story being told by a detached narrator and gives Alfie little space for internal monologue: if he wants to tell you how he’s feeling, he has to say it out loud. He certainly can’t give you his opinion of other characters while they’re still in the room. Then again, for the most part he’s far too polite to say anything bad about anybody anyway, as are most of the other characters; the ‘20s was evidently a much more civilised era!
It's only when you move on to the puzzles that things start to look a little less rosy. That's not to say they're in any way bad; considered by themselves, they offer a solid and varied assortment, with a mix of inventory, dialogue, and standalone logic puzzles, and even a couple of action sequences. (Don't worry, though: these need brains rather than quick reflexes.) You'll find yourself matching buyers to their ideal houses, spotting the flaws in a house, and even helping out with a wing-walking act.
The real stars of the show, though, are the dialogue puzzles. These involve trying to convince people who initially disagree with you to come around to your way of thinking by picking just the right approach. You can either take your best guess, or use something called "Seller Intuition" that picks out clues from the person's appearance and deduces their main motivation, Sherlock-style. You can then use that as a hint to guide your choices. Choose carefully, though: you only get one shot at it, and if you choose wrongly you'll have to solve a different puzzle to put yourself back on track.
Given all that, you're probably wondering what the problem is. Seller Intuition in particular is a neat concept, playing nicely with Alfie's background in sales, and there are some other good ideas here too. Well, the first issue is that much of the game is just far too easy, particularly the first half. There are some trickier moments later on, but there are no real head-scratchers here. Secondly, and more problematically, there's a battle going on between the game's desire to tell a serious and emotional story and its aim to please us with traditional adventure game puzzles. It's not so much that the puzzles are contrived (although occasionally they are), but more that it feels like the story periodically pauses while you go away to solve a batch of puzzles.
Here we have the story of a man who, born into a comfortable career in real estate, gets unceremoniously kicked out onto the street and then, having picked himself back up again and made a new life for himself, finds that his new life isn't all he wanted it to be. Winding up on a dark path of material wealth and spiritual angst, he nearly destroys himself before eventually achieving redemption. All of this is set against a background of financial uncertainty, property boom and bust, and organised crime that is as relevant today as it was then. Heavy stuff, and yet in the middle of it all you're running around distracting guards so you can steal one thing to help mend another thing and in return get a guy to help you out, in classic adventuring style.
Now, a tale like this could get stodgy and over-serious without a little humour, and it does have its share of wry asides, not to mention Edward “Doc” Dammers’ fine line in puns: at one point he tells you, “I can’t just pick any old egg. I need a plant!” It’s not overdone, but (combined with the hopeful tone of the first half of the game) it does help to leaven the mix. You can definitely argue that adding puzzles through the story beats is another way to provide balance. Here, though, the two parts are too different to mix well. Grundislav is clearly reaching for some deep themes, and I suspect the game as a whole would make a powerful novel. Considered as the basis for a game, though, it doesn't work quite as well, though not for want of trying.
In a related vein, Alfie sometimes has big decisions to make, but ultimately they're his decisions: you have no choice but to follow along as his thoughts spill out on-screen. Maybe it's just because I'd have made some of those decisions differently, but I really chafed against being forced down the path the game wanted to take me. Looking in from the outside, I had more perspective than Alfie and could see that his choice wasn't going to end well, but was powerless to even try to stop it. This, I think, is one of the big differences between a game and, say, a novel or a film: you feel like it's your story, and you want to make your own choices. As such, a great novel doesn't necessarily translate into a good game, while the feeling of player agency that gives some of the best games their impact just wouldn't be possible in a movie.
There is also an interesting disconnect between the real world and the kind of mindset games ask you to adopt, a fact I hadn't really considered until now. Alfie spends much of the game as a kind of dogsbody, running around and doing errands for people. After a while, all this running around at someone else's beck and call starts to make Alfie feel undervalued and propels him into his most momentous decision. Now, taking a step back and imagining how I would feel if I was in Alfie's position, I might well feel just as fed up as he does. But because it's a game, different rules apply: running strange errands for people is such a core trope in adventures that I didn't even think twice about it until I noticed Alfie getting upset. In much the same way that your character can be well-to-do in every other way and yet have literally no money (so you have to run halfway across town helping people before you can even afford the price of a cup of coffee), it's just one of those things we're used to suspending disbelief about.
Ultimately, A Golden Wake has grand ambitions and mostly succeeds in pulling them off. Dripping with atmosphere, it brings to life an interesting and overlooked chapter in American history that will resonate even today, and manages to look and sound great while doing it. The storytelling and gameplay aspects rub each other the wrong way at times, but the end result is a memorable experience overall. As its 5-6 hours of playtime drew to a close and the epilogue started to play, everything fell into place. The minor annoyances along the way faded from view and as I thought of Alfie I teared up a little.
Maybe that's all you really need to know.