As anyone who’s played a modern video game can attest, better graphics don’t necessarily make for a better game. What happens when you remove the graphics entirely? Word Games is Playboy.com’s column on text adventures both classic and contemporary.
The Yawhg, created by Damian Sommer and illustrator Emily Carroll, is a deceptive game. Its colorful art and comforting music, composed by Ryan Roth, might lead you to believe it’s a swashbuckling fantasy adventure where the forces of good prevail over the tyranny of evil with the greatest of ease.
Um. It’s not. It’s actually a very depressing (but also enthralling) mostly-word-based adventure game. The Yawhg can be played with one person or four and it’s largely a textual game that’s accompanied by beautiful artwork. If you’re playing by yourself, you can choose to play several characters that align with various archetypes (mage, thief, etc) or you can just choose to play with one. Either way, you have a week (each day serving as a turn) until the Yawhg, a mysterious and dangerous creature, arrives to wreak havoc on the kingdom you inhabit.
What do you do in that time? Tend the bar? Chill out in a garden? Ward off spirits? Kiss a frog? The Yawhg is a game about the mundane, but it just so happens to be the mundane of a fantasy world. Every action you take either increases or decreases your stats, affecting your ability as a fighter or leader, while also pushing time forward. Once the Yawhg finally arrives and brings destruction crashing down on your world, the choices you, or you and your friends, made during the game affect both your characters’ lives and the fate of the land.
The writing is sparse, sometimes exclamatory and straightforward (“You spend the week outsmarting and beating up criminals”) and other times a tad poetic (“…and the world was a howling fury/ Chaos. Screaming./ The sound of all we knew being pulled in half”). It doesn’t necessarily rank with the best writing in text adventures (Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) but it effectively balances humor and sorrow in a way that most games don’t come close to matching. The game’s sometimes sparse text also allow players to fill in the gaps, while the drawings accompanying every event spur the imagination.
What’s truly fascinating to me about The Yawhg is its unique multiplayer component and how it manages to pack so much emotion and tension into a game that, in all likelihood, will take you less than 15 minutes to complete. I’ve played it at least 50 times since its release back in 2012, mixing and matching my characters and the choices they make to see what becomes of them, like my hooded rogue who failed to inspire the people in the aftermath of the Yawhg’s attack and was, some years later, stabbed to death and died alone; or my woodsman, who led the rebuilding effort after the disaster and then lived out his days peacefully. The number of endings you can get is pretty impressive not just because there are a lot of them but because they’re also quite good, especially the ones that lean toward failure or a pyrrhic victory. There’s a somberness to every decision you, as the player, make because you know the ending is coming. It’s there, closing the distance rapidly, but your character isn’t aware. Every action you take has a weight to it, another heavy step on a ladder leading toward an ending you’ve made for yourself.
With some buddies along for the ride, the game changes in a noticeable way. It becomes a game where you work with one another to try and save the town—or not! Maybe you align yourself against the others, deliberately sabotaging your character to bring down the rebuilding efforts at the end of the game. Of course, you all could just roleplay yourselves, really, as characters living on the edge of the apocalypse with not a clue about what’s approaching, getting drunk at taverns or trying to impress crushes.
My only disappointment with the game is that there’s no mobile version (yet) because it’s the sort of game I want to carry to gatherings and parties, something to play for 15 minutes with gamers and non-gamers alike. The Yawhg is a beautiful, haunting adventure that combines the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons with the apocalyptic anxieties of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s one of the few games that I can say is wholly unique: there’s nothing else quite like it and it’s worth a go for that alone.
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