I kept expecting a villain to pop up or hints of a conspiracy or some outside force that connected all the various vignettes of the story together. In A Golden Wake, there are a bunch of short term goals, but ultimately this is a character-driven narrative.
A Golden WakePublisher: Wadjet Eye Games
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Grundislav Games
Release Date: 2014-10-09
A Golden Wake does something with the point-and-click adventure game formula that I can say I have never seen before. Games are traditionally goal oriented affairs, and with adventure games, this manifests as a series of short term goals, i.e. puzzles, acting as a series of locks and gates along the complicated path to the ultimate goal of completing the narrative. In The Secret of Monkey Island, that goal was to become a pirate and then to rescue Governor Elaine Marley. In the various King's Quest games, it was to save the kingdom/princess/royal family member. This structure is maintained in more modern adventure games. like Gemini Rue, in which you are charged with solving the mystery of the Baryokudan, or Primordia, in which you need to retrieve your ship's power cell.
A Golden Wake doesn't do that. There's no rule that says an adventure game (or really any game) has to set up an overarching goal right from the start. The fact that A Golden Wake doesn't have one isn't a problem. I only bring it up because my expectations regarding the quest narrative, based on having that more familiar narrative structure drilled into my skull by pretty much every work in the entire medium ever, left me puzzled about what creator Francisco Gonzalez was doing with his game. I kept expecting a villain to pop up or hints of a conspiracy or some outside force that connected all the various vignettes of the story together. A Golden Wake is not that kind of story. There are a bunch of short term goals, but ultimately it's a character-driven narrative.
Alfie Banks is a young real estate salesman, a man with the gift of the gab. A land boom in Florida sees him journey from the cold winters of New York City to ever sunny Coral Gables, The City Beautiful. Stretching over a period beginning in the Roaring Twenties through the middle of Great Depression and post prohibition, the game follows Alfie through his own personal rise and fall. Starting with a short prologue in New York, he moves to Florida and participates in an extended job interview, completing a number of tasks to prove his worth to a real life figure, the real estate mogul George Merrick. The game then skips forward some years, finding Alfie working in a bigger office and setting up a show for prospective clients. After that the game skips forward again, so on and so forth.
While some of the vignettes have connections to others through the inclusion of shared characters and their own little mini-arcs regarding Alfie's ultimate rise and fall in this society, the only through line for all of them is Alfie himself. He starts out full of himself and his talents, yet he is naive. He is the living embodiment of the American Dream in the boom times of the 20s. Coral Gables is the project of his boss George Merrick, a city built on taking advantage of the opportunity to build a city based on aesthetics and on a shared community. Alfie is the instrument of creating that dream. Later on, organized crime makes itself known to this community and moves in on the opportunities that the city offers and the opportunities that prohibition offers. The beautiful aesthetics of Coral Gables are just a facade for a darker underbelly. Prohibition ravages the country from underneath that facade. Alfie himself becomes disillusioned with all the pretty words and promises of this “utopia.” While the real estate game may seem a little dubious at times (and really when do the actions of an adventure game protagonist ever not seem dubious?), it is the mob that puts certain things in perspective. As the depression puts the squeeze on the city and the land bubble pops, as prohibition ends and the alcohol game goes legit, there is still a note of hope -- for Alfie himself and for the city he worked so hard to build. The vignettes paint a picture of a man, not a conflict.
The vignettes also serve as an excellent structure for the item puzzles that the point-and-click genre is known for. As the game is broken up into smaller chunks, these smaller acts cut down on what can lead to an overwhelming inventory or puzzle threads that are stretched too thin. Likewise the progress of time allows the screens that we see over and over to develop in new ways. We get to see the city as it changes from largely empty farmland into a bustling suburb with a cable car system and the Biltmore Hotel, which has its own arc of development. We see it first in blueprints and over time become the gem of the city. The changing vistas create a narrative for the city while keeping things manageable for the player. In addition to no huge build up of inventory items, there is no excess of screens to navigate.
A Golden Wake also mixes things up by offering more than basic item puzzles as the dominant mode of play. Alfie Banks is a man with a golden tongue. At certain points, the game will shift to a first person perspective, and you will have to talk your way through a situation, reading another character's mood and reaction to your pitch. Though don't be too worried if you fail, there's always another solution to the problem just in case. Additionally, there are other types of puzzles peppered throughout the game: a hidden object puzzle here, an action scene in a car or on an airplane there. It keeps the play fresh and the pacing quick and engaging.
On the whole, A Golden Wake is another solid adventure game from publisher Wadjet Eye Games. I realized that the story is a solid tale, once I got into its groove. The setting is wonderful as the game manages to evoke the period. Likewise, the puzzles are all reasonable and even the toughest of them only stumped me for so long. With all of that in its favor, I still can't help but feel that this isn't an experience that is going to stick with me. It's good, but it's no Gemini Rue or Primordia. It feels a little, not unfinished, but missing that je ne sais quoi that would elevate it from good to great.