A Golden Wake
While considerably lighter in tone, the point and click adventure game A Golden Wake by Grundislav Games shares many similarities to James Ellroy’s acclaimed novel, L.A. Confidential. Both stories revolve around intoxicating business opportunities that lure victims to sun soaked lands with the promise of fortune. But A Golden Wake owes just as much to The Great Gatsby as it does to Confidential. This is a game and a story about opportunity, ambition, and the dangers that lie behind each. The novelty of the game’s setting and premise entertained me from the beginning to the end of the adventure. While playing I got the impression that no one but a small, passionate team would make this kind of game in this day and age: A point and click adventure inspired by real events and featuring characters inspired by real people. Grundislav Games has managed to find an almost forgotten piece of American history and has made a fun adventure game set in that time and place.
You play as Alfred “Alfie” Banks, a hotshot real estate agent in 1920’s New York City. When shady circumstances get him fired from the company his late father founded he heads south to Florida to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning land boom. He’ll restore his family name, and he’ll get rich while doing it. Once in the Sunshine State, Alfie immediately starts climbing the precarious ladder of success. Throughout the course of the story Alfie will have to contend with organized crime, stubborn landowners, and the long arm of the law, among many other things. The bulk of the game’s action is classic point and click: gathering and combining objects to solve puzzles, interrogating, threatening, and cajoling other characters, and participating in the occasional ‘action’ sequence. A Golden Wake is at its best when the story keeps a brisk pace. At these moments, the puzzles contextually make sense and the player feels as though they’re participating in a forgotten 20th century novel. Alfie meets a cavalcade of amusing and interesting characters and sometimes impacts their lives in less than desirable ways. He’s a genuinely interesting lead who feels closer to a real person than a shining bastion of good or a mustache-twirling villain. In fact, the story is full of people who don’t fit easily into ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ boxes. Though a relatively short game, the story feels epic in scope because it takes place over a decade and the audience witnesses significant changes in characters and the places they inhabit.
The game occasionally feels clumsy, mostly when it tries to pull off an ‘action’ sequence. While adding variety to the game play is appreciated, these moments feel frustrating overall. In particular, one sequence that has Alfie driving a car to get a woman aboard a plane for a highflying stunt caused many a headache. At other points, Alfie uses a power dubbed “Salesman Intuition” that supposedly helps you see into people’s personalities. These moments, when the player is tasked with convincing characters to do one thing or another, feel almost uniformly scatter-shot. Trying to match what to say with what a person’s personality type is sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. It makes the player feel helpless against the narrative of the game. Then, of course, there is the grand problem that all adventure gamers face: the obtuse puzzle. For the most part, A Golden Wake avoids these kinds of traps – where puzzles in the game have a logic to their solutions that apparently only made sense to the game designers. Everyone once and a while, though, you’ll find yourself scratching your head at how anyone was supposed to figure out a few of these puzzles.
The look and feel of the game is a series of peaks and valleys. The graphics clearly take a queue from retro titles, such as Leisure Suit Larry, Kings Quest, and Monkey Island. This pixilated look has a charm to it and there are moments of beauty to be had from the game’s visuals, but the visual style often inhibits the player from getting lost in the world of the game. Some players will look at screen shots of this game and perceive the style to look too ‘cheap’. But there is a great variety in the settings: Alfie visits the snowy streets of New York City, the Everglades, glamorous hotels, and Miami, among other locations I won’t spoil here. Most impressive are the dialog and voice acting. Each character feels sharply defined and appropriate to their situation and the dialog beautifully sets the tone for the time period. Alfie’s kind-of catchphrase “Horse feathers!” made me laugh more than once. The music of the game recalls Gershwin, again helping to set the tone for this 1920’s tale of seedy characters and fortunes won and lost in a heartbeat.
While the occasional misstep keeps this from being a great game, and the price of $15 is a bit much for the experience, A Golden Wake succeeds at telling a memorable and entertaining story that gives you something to think about. If it’s been a while since you’ve dipped your toes into the point and click genre, this might be a good re-introduction for you.