Trackless is a ruminative adventure game set along a strange Zorkian archipelago, one that fuses a winnowed IF text parser with a walking sim. Players set out alongside a gaggle of other ‘seekers’; all hoping to surmount three trials in order to reach The Object, an enigmatic construct of unknown origin. That is your charter, your mandate. Reach The Object, one verb at a time.
Interactions have players sifting through the world as any other adventure game would. Unlike the usual IF syntax grab bag, Trackless’ parser requires the use of single verbs, stratified for points between sufficient and excellent, and they’re only used once. OPEN might suit a door, but ENTER could net a better score. Whatever you choose, that scrubs it from the available lexis. As players continue, they’re forced to consider alternative words for each puzzle.
It’s a refreshing approach, particularly as Trackless isn’t a game that is hugely interested in confounding players. Puzzles are a far cry from cat hair moustaches or castle-dwelling ruminants. Instead, friction is provided by the gentle necessity of logic and observation. If there’s an obstacle, a solution won’t be far away. Often, there are times where two solutions are available, one harder than the other. It’s up to the player to calibrate their own perseverance threshold. You will finish Trackless.
I’m not going to spoil anything here. The game is short, cheap and deeply atmospheric. What I am going to do is make mention of the rich ambience and strangely familiar locations that form the entire tract of Trackless’ gameworld.
Trackless hangs in my headspace because it has a peculiar physicality, however rudimentary the visuals might seem. The handcrafted textures and assets, their marker-thick motif a constant throughout, assume an interactive graphic novel sensibility. Characters are flat, rotating with the player’s position, and often at seemingly higher resolution than their surroundings. It might sound like a higgledy-piggledy mess, but Trackless effects the look with strong, simple art direction.
Wherever this is set, it’s a lonely place. A chain of islands, dotted with a conservative clutch of interesting spaces. Small temples and gardens, a hydroelectric dam, a lift bridge, small alcoves and outcrops, a boathouse and graveyard. Seekers dot these locales, but they remain distant signposts. Your journey through these locales is your own.
Throughout, players can almost always see where they’ve been and the destination ahead. I kept catching myself staring back at Trackless’ quiet city, as if to confirm my meandering progress. Unlike a lot of games, best illustrated in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ – purposefully dysfunctional adjuncts of GAS STATION, SHOP, CHINESE RESTAURANT – positioning of ‘scenes’ has a comfortable flow, one that undulates between confinement and open space with just the right inflection.
The familiarity amid the dislocation is a beguiling mix. Wandering past substations corralled by chain-link fence into Rocaille gardens belonging to a much earlier era. Subterranean baroque meets hydraulic excavator. Hellenic grotto coursed by mobile phone.
I keep thinking about this damn game. While the exposition might be too elusive in places, Trackless’ brevity and curt parser hook keeps it from wearing out its welcome. There’s just enough to tantalise. Artsy minus fartsy, and laced beneath a gorgeous soundtrack by Makeup And Vanity Set, there’s little else quite like Trackless.