"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!Continued on the next page...