A Pretentious Review of Quern: Undying Thoughts

I don’t normally write reviews on this site, but I recently played Quern: Undying Thoughts and I had some thoughts of my own. I wasn’t even aware of this game until I got it in a Steam recommendation and it seems to have flown under the radar. That’s too bad because it’s a really good game. Having said that, I’m going to dedicate this entire post to nitpicking. Naturally, I will be spoiling this game in its entirety. I will do my best to not reveal puzzle solutions, but everything else is fair game. And because Quern is heavily inspired by the Myst series I will be using those games as comparisons in a few places, so I’ll be spoiling the stories for those, too. If you haven’t played Quern, I recommend you go buy it and play it now. If you haven’t played Myst and don’t want the ending spoiled, you had 26 years to catch that train.

Alright, that’s enough of a warning. Whatever spoilers you see from this point are on you.

In Which I Spoil The Whole Story

Quern is hardly the only game in which the story’s payoff falls flat. But it’s such a nice, clean example that I hope by writing about it we might see how any story can be improved by examining how we present choices to a player. I don’t think this game is well-known enough for me to assume you are all familiar with the story. So here I go, spoiling the whole thing:

The game takes place in a universe where multiple worlds are connected in the “worldchain.” People can use mysterious ancient gates to travel between worlds. It’s not like Stargate, where the portals take them to faraway reaches of the same space; rather, they would be transported to entirely new dimensions. There’s no way to and from a particular world except via an ancient gate. And the game only concerns itself with, and takes place on, one such world.

Long ago, a race of people called the Dulmarians had a legend about this world they called Gwan Quer’nelok. It was rumored to contain secrets of great power and wisdom. Inside it, time does not flow normally: people do not age, nothing dies naturally, and you can spend billions of years there without one second passing elsewhere. When an unknown world-ending catastrophe called “The Shadows” threaten the Dulmarians, they send three of their own - “The Seekers” - to search for Gwan’Quernelok as a last-ditch effort to save their people. Upon their return from eons spent in this magical realm, the Seekers are so unbelievably powerful they destroy The Shadows in seconds. Because they are so powerful, the Dulmarians now worship them as gods and begin destroying themselves in civil war. One of the Seekers, the shaman named Gamana, returns once more to Gwan Quer’nelok to seek an answer to this new problem. She transcends her physical form and realizes that the powers here are too much for any man and the world should be closed off to all visitors.

All of that last paragraph, by the way, is not revealed in the slightest until about 90% of the way through the game.

Some time later, another person finds Gwan Quer’nelok. This man is professor William Maythorn, and he is on a mission to find this legendary land of the Dulmarians and catalog it, I guess. He renames the main island Quern. At first he is skeptical of the claims of magic, but soon after his arrival he cannot deny that Quern contains unusual properties. Maythorn remains on the island for centuries, mastering all the physical sciences unencumbered by age, the need for nutrition, or other people getting in the way. His new power goes to his head and he decides Quern should be revealed to the world, that they may share in its power. Messing with the worldchain in such a way is beyond his ordinary mental abilities, so he invents a machine which will do the calculations for him. This machine will take centuries and Maythorn has grown tired of his isolation. So, he leaves via a makeshift one-way gate, but not before outfitting the island with a series of traps, so that the next person on the island must pick up the pieces and complete Maythorn’s machine before being allowed to leave.

Maythorn’s backstory is revealed gradually through letters he left behind for whoever is unfortunate enough to stumble upon Quern.

Enter you, the player, who is unfortunate enough to stumble upon Quern. Maythorn’s obstacle course set for you is so meticulously crafted that you have no choice but to solve his puzzles his way, in his order, using items he left for you, and learning the secrets of Quern when he wants you to. But there’s a wrinkle in his plan: Gamana, who is still on the island. In fact, she was there with Maythorn and tried - unsuccessfully - to stop him. Now she warns you not to complete the professor’s work, as Quern is too dangerous for the universe to know about.

The final choice of the game amounts to you deciding who to trust. Maythorn has prepared a machine which will accept a crystal. If you put in the green crystal as he instructs, the ancient gate will be repaired and Quern opened to the universe. However, if you do as Gamana asks and put in a red crystal instead, it will destroy Maythorn’s device and put Quern forever out of reach. It is this choice which sinks the narrative of the game.

Problem One: The Choice Is Too Easy

If you were offered the choice of “receive 5 dollars” or “get smashed in the eye with the sharp end of a ball-peen hammer,” which would you choose? Technically, I’ve offered you a choice. But one of the options is so completely superior that who in their right mind would go for the hammer, except to say “I wonder what would happen if…”? Quern’s choice feels like that. Who, upon first playing this game, seriously chose to trust Maythorn in the end, except as a way of saying “I wonder what the bad ending looks like?”

For a real good dilemma, let’s look at the game Quern was so inspired by. In Myst, you are presented fairly early with two books, each with a person trapped inside. In the red book you have Sirrus, a haughty, highbrow sort of individual, and in the blue book you find Achenar, who seems unhinged and wrathful. These two are brothers, and each of them tells you about how Myst and its connected ages used to be inhabited, but that his brother went mad with power and killed everyone. They each plead with you to believe him and disbelieve his brother, and that you must release him from his prison.

There are several things that work in Myst’s favor here:

(1) This choice is presented early enough to make you, the player, ponder it for the entirety of the game. Yes, you receive more and more information the further you go, but from the outset you have enough information to know that you have been faced with a choice. Even before all the facts are in, that choice is before your mind.

(2) There is no reason to suspect there is any way out of this choice. Most people know by now there is a twist, but until that point the average player is working with incomplete information. This means that additional information can actually have an impact on how you make your choice.

(3) The choice has no easy solution. Both Sirrus and Achenar are horrible people. It’s the perfect murder mystery! Either of them could have done it, but you’re led to believe only one of them did. In any random group of players, you’d likely find them split about even as to which brother to believe.

All of this put together makes for a wonderful psychological effect. There is a choice that must be made and there are no good options. It’s very likely you, the new player, will start gravitating toward one brother apprehensively, and then start trying to justify that belief. Sirrus is a cad, you might say, but that doesn’t mean he’s a murderer. Or if you prefer Achenar, you could write him off as so insane that he can’t possibly put together a serious genocide. But either way, you certainly don’t tell yourself “Well, what does the game want me to decide?”

As soon as you reframe your choices as your means to manipulate the pieces in the game, you’re not really making your choices. You’re just trying to get the good ending, or get that one achievement. The brilliance of Myst is that, until the big plot twist, you are making the choice you would have made if you had in real life been transported to that island. But who, in playing Quern, seriously thought it was a good idea to trust Maythorn? The wrong choice was telegraphed very obviously as wrong from the opening minutes.

In his first letter, Maythorn outright tells you that it’s his doing you are trapped in his little game. An antagonist needs not be evil - just an obstacle to your success. Since he’s the reason you can’t go home, he is your obstacle, which immediately pits you against him in your mind. But that’s not all! Maythorn also tells you that you are in Quern for a special purpose of his. That sounds sinister. Finally, he tells you that you have no power and no reason to resist him. Can’t wait to meet that guy. Seems nice.

There’s an especially neat touch in an early letter in which Maythorn renames the island - “by right of the explorer” - from the cumbersome Gwan Quer’nelok to Quern. This isn’t just to make the game more easily pronounceable. It mirrors real-life events in which more powerful civilizations colonized other ones, claimed already inhabited land, and out of ignorance or bigotry or both renamed its citizens to strip away their culture. This exact thing happened in America as whites took children of natives and schooled them in Western traditions and gave them Western names. When I read Maythorn’s letter, I immediately equated him with that genocide. How could I ever look at him as the good guy? Well, either Maythorn has to get better or Gamana has to be even worse.

As you progress through the game, Maythorn does not get better. In fact, he gets even meaner and more obsessed with himself. Before you meet Gamana, he tells you of quote-unquote “her.” But since you should already be suspicious of Maythorn, and Maythorn hates “her,” it doesn’t take a genius to guess that not only will “her” show up later but “her” will actually be the good guy. And when “her” finally appears, that’s exactly what “her” is.

From the get go Gamana is presented as totally pure and correct. Unlike Maythorn, nothing she says is a direct threat to you, nothing she says implies she doesn’t care for other civilizations, and she never says anything that can be proven incorrect in the slightest. Additionally, she accompanies you on your adventure and takes you off the beaten path, whereas Maythorn is only present in his letters and some audiologs, and he forces you to do only what he has demanded.

So when you’re finally presented with the choice - green crystal or red - there can’t possibly be anyone out there who honestly trusted their egomaniac captor Maythorn over the sensible and enlightened Gamana.

Problem Deux: Nothing Matters

Once you make your decision, only three things happen. First, Gamana speaks with you, either to scold or thank you. Second, you hear Maythorn’s final audiolog (even if you betray him it plays, though it cuts in and out and the island seems to be crumbling around you). Finally, you enter the portal, and the credits roll. All three of these things are cosmetic and have no real weight.

I get that part of the game’s design is that we never see another human - saves a lot on the animation budget, too! So I’m totally cool with never seeing the physical Maythorn. But couldn’t there have been a way for him to know we screwed up his plans? Couldn’t there have been a way for the player to know he knows? It’s really not enough to know the bad guy lost - I want the bad guy to know he lost and I want that realization to haunt him. There is not even a guarantee that Maythorn is on the other side of the portal, or that it hasn’t been so many years that he’s dead. He may have died believing himself a victor. That’s hardly a satisfying end.

Not only do you not really feel like the bad guy lost, but you don’t get to feel like you won. Gamana’s little speech of congratulations feels like the “THANK YOU” text in old arcade games. Congratulations, hero! You are a very special player! You’re not invested enough in her to feel satisfaction at having helped her. If your first playthrough of the game is fifteen hours, say, then you learned about Gamana’s backstory in hour thirteen. There’s just not enough time to care.

You can’t even care about the world of Quern itself. I think it was something of a mistake to end the game trapped underground. The last quarter of the game is spent with no more vision of the surface. This isn’t to say you should have returned for more puzzles. I prefer the idea of returning to the surface at the very end of the game, right before leaving Quern forever. It’s that last look over the shoulder before getting on the boats to the Grey Havens which makes Middle Earth mean anything. In Myst, you get to fully explore the island after saving Atrus, and you can inspect for yourself the smoldering remains of the red and blue books. In Riven - which I maintain is one of the greatest games ever made - you get to watch the world crumble around you before you are physically flung into the star fissure. The point is these things had impact. You got to see the results of your actions. Aside from a bit of rumbling from the ceiling, what difference did you make to Quern?

Problem C: Vague Spiritual Nonsense

Writing stories involving characters who are superpowered or enlightened in any way presents a special difficulty, and Quern falls into a trap that many other stories do: namely, that what is presented as the ultimate transcendent form is less than human, not more. Throughout the game, Gamana seems unable to make any real, tangible effect on your progress. She was helpless to stop Maythorn, and she’s helpless to stop you, should you decide to ignore her instructions. Yet she’s supposed to be a nearly all-powerful being who destroyed The Shadows in seconds. What happened?

The issue here goes beyond storytelling and gets into our human understanding of transcendence or spiritual life. We don’t know what such a life would look like. We understand that someone who has moved beyond the need for a physical body would not inhabit a physical form. In our minds, we don’t imagine something that has greater capabilities, but something with less, something that is a formless abstraction, a shadow. In this game Gamana is merely a puff of shapeless light. Though she can talk to you, light a few torches, and allow for one instance of magical levitation, she is unable to do anything else. She cannot open any doors or press any buttons. Rather than transcending the physical, she seems to have traded one plane of existence for another, and in doing so, lost the ability to make meaningful changes.

Let me give you an example to see what I mean. Suppose I live in a two-dimensional world, a flatland. Then suppose I transcend this world and become a three-dimensional being. I now live in a much larger space, so to speak, and am no longer recognizable or comprehensible to the other 2D creatures. But I never lose my ability to understand them or interact with them. In fact, I should have even greater understanding and interactivity. I can see their whole universe at once from my 3D perspective. Should I decide to “enter” the 2D space, I wouldn’t have any recognizable form simply because my form could not be rendered in two dimensions - not because I don’t have a form at all! Transcendence means I’ve gained something, that extra dimension, not that I have lost it.

Gamana seems to have lost her control over the physical universe. Not only can Gamana not open locked doors for you, she doesn’t even seem to know how to solve any of Maythorn’s puzzles. Surely a creature of her ability could find the solutions and report them to you. The only explanation is that she is a sub-physical creature, that she holds no physical power and she possesses no special mental faculties beyond ordinary people. This is the uber-powerful shaman we are supposed to believe destroyed The Shadows in seconds.

Now if we want to “fix” Gamana to make her truly transcendent, we’d run into a different issue. Namely, she would spoil the whole game. The instant you arrive on Quern, she’d tell you all the answers. Or better yet, she’d take you directly to the final room to put the red crystal in the cart. Or she’d do it herself, centuries before you arrive. Or she wouldn’t even let Maythorn get that far. So from a story perspective, we can’t have Gamana actually be a transcendent and powerful being. We need one of two things to fix the story.

One possibility is that Gamana is so all-wise and powerful that she has a higher purpose for misdirecting you. It’s the “God works in mysterious ways” argument. Now that argument works for God because, well, God isn’t depending on people like Gamana is. The second, and better, possibility, is to change Gamana from something transcendent to a mere ghost. Perhaps she remained in Quern so long that she lost herself; perhaps Quern’s great trap is that people become so self-absorbed they no longer become selves, remaining apparitions of what once were humans. Her worry is not that people find Quern and become gods, but that those who find the island will be doomed to her fate of wandering Quern as sub-human forever.

Who knows. I’m just throwing that out there. The point is, writing spirits is hard, and plot holes are likely to appear. Quern is certainly not the only piece of art with this problem. This should serve as a warning to writers who want to involve transcendent creatures, to really think about what that means.

Problem Three: The Professor Is Not That Smart

I will allow for the possibility that this final problem was done on purpose. I don’t think this happened but if the devs are reading this for some reason they can let me know.

Ordinarily, it’s not a bad plot element that a plan doesn’t go as planned. It’s not a plot hole when a character forgets about something or makes some other obvious mistake. However, it’s generally considered good storytelling to only use a massive coincidence to get someone into trouble, rather than to get them out of it. And in Quern, Maythorn makes a coincidental error that allows for you to win the game.

The professor’s plan requires that you have no options. Though he insists in his first letter he has no intention of harming you and clearly wants you to understand his point of view, he also wisely realizes that an ordinary person would have no reason to assist him. Therefore he’s set up the island so that you must follow his path and solve his puzzles, and you have no freedom at all. Maythorn’s plan is to force you to put the green crystal in the cart. You are not allowed to leave Quern until that is done. Yet, you have a red crystal which will bring the whole plan to ruins.

We could say that Maythorn just overlooked that. After all, there were so many convoluted puzzles he surely could not have foreseen every single possibility. But this requires him to overlook not only your inventory, but your motivation. A man doesn’t remove all options but one from you unless he is sure that you would have chosen wrong otherwise. If Maythorn had no concern of you sabotaging him, he would have had no reason to force your hand over and over throughout the game. This suggests to me Maythorn knew that, at every point in the game, it was possible for you to want to resist him. (When he was designing the cart he seemed to know that - you cannot leave the room you are in until you deposit a crystal. For instance, if you had, say, broken the cart with your bare hands, you would have sabotaged his plan, but then you would have been trapped in one room of Quern for eternity (because you cannot die). He reasoned no one would be willing to do that.) So why, then, would he allow for you to leave the final room for any reason unless his plan had gone through?

Okay, maybe he didn’t know the red crystal would break the machine. It means he didn’t test it properly, and I can believe he overlooked that one thing. But not only did he overlook that fact, but he overlooked the fact you had that item in the first place. All through the endgame, as you solve puzzles, your inventory depletes. All the other crystals get used for one final puzzle and you can’t get them back. It seems Maythorn set up the endgame to force you to get rid of all items except the ones he wanted you to have, so that when you got to the final room, you could only do as he asked because you had no alternatives. Yet, here you are, in the final room, with a red crystal that you have used maybe three times. I’d believe that he forgot about that crystal… except that there is one puzzle in his underground chambers which requires it. Not only did he remember about the red crystal, but he forced you to bring it along. Maythorn brought about his own defeat. Had he created a puzzle which forced you to abandon your red crystal, as he did with the other ones, then not even Gamana could have stopped him.

There is only one other previous element of the story to imply that Maythorn’s plans weren’t as well laid out as he imagined. Late in the game, there is a bridge you must cross, but the bridge has collapsed. This is an event that Maythorn would never have seen coming in a universe where things don’t decay (as Gamana points out). But this is hardly enough to convince me that Maythorn’s plan was weak enough to forget about the red crystal entirely. It’s not enough to say that his plans could have been thwarted by what no one in their right mind would predict. I want to see foreshadowing that Maythorn himself has made mental errors. Perhaps if there were multiple puzzles that could be circumvented with easier solutions. Or, if some of his letters contained factually incorrect information. This would tell you that Maythorn is not as brilliant as he thinks and so an oversight like your ability to carry the red crystal is properly set up. As it stands, Maythorn makes no real errors in judgment except for this coincidental failure to prevent you from screwing up one, and only one, command, and screw it up in such a way as to completely circumvent his whole plan.

A thought occurs to me that perhaps we are to believe that Maythorn overlooked all this because of his huge ego. He was so convinced of his righteousness he could never imagine you would side with Gamana. You would be so awed of his glorious quest you would do anything to help. But I don’t think it’s a good character choice to make a bad guy too dumb to comprehend that he has enemies, and I don’t think that’s what the devs of Quern have done. Despite the problems I’ve mentioned, they are problems in execution and not in character design. I just don’t buy this explanation. As I mentioned before, the fact that Maythorn constantly tells you what to believe and forces you to solve puzzles his way suggests that he has taken into consideration the possibility that someone would need to be converted to his views - meaning that he foresaw resistance and tried to stamp it out by removing the option altogether. Ego is certainly his flaw, but it is not his downfall.

You Should Still Buy This Game

That’s all I wanted to complain about. I need to now reiterate that I really, really loved this game and the nitpicks I pointed out don’t change that. But I did find those minor flaws to be universal, appearing in plenty of other games, books, movies, and so on. I’d like to close this whatever-it-is with some of the things I really loved about this game, in no particular order:

I expect indie titles to be short, especially when they are high quality like this. But just when I thought I had reached the final area, there was another two and a half hours to go. I probably put 10 hours into my first playthrough. Even better - at no point did I feel like the puzzles had been duplicated or placed to pad out game time.

I appreciated that your inventory was limited to a somewhat small pool of items you used multiple times. Too many adventure games force you to try every possible combination of dozens of items to see what gets a reaction, but Quern’s items each had particular uses which were obvious and consistent.

Sure, there were a couple of frustrating puzzles. But what made them frustrating was that, even after knowing the solutions, inputting them was very tedious, mistakes were easy to make, and mistakes forced you to start over. That said, I never once wandered around not knowing what I was supposed to do. With each puzzle, the goal was clear, as well as the method used to reach that goal.

Quern is extremely clever about bringing back earlier puzzles to later moments. I want to be careful here so as not to spoil any solutions. But one of the earliest puzzles in the game involves an item you never pick up, but you manipulate. This item is used to open a door. At the very end of the game, you find this exact item somewhere you would never expect and you get to use it again to progress.

Bonus points to the Mechanics Room - this room is visible from the start of the game but you can’t get in until about halfway. Maythorn even tells you your goal is to get in there. Finally, once you get in and solve the first puzzles, the room sort of “disappears” and becomes a new one. Two puzzles in one. Then, at the end of the game, in the underground section, you find the Mechanics Room again and realize there’s more in there you never noticed the first time around.

The bridge puzzle in the mines might have been my favorite “aha” moment. Once I had beaten the game and starting reading about it, I learned the developers actually included a second way to solve the bridge puzzle. I never knew about the second way. I was glad to see a puzzle with multiple solutions and kind of wish they had figured out other puzzles that could have undergone the same treatment.

So yes, the game is definitely worth the $25 buy. Don’t get it on sale unless you really can’t afford the full price tag because the devs deserve every penny. And if they found a way to make a sequel, I think I could scrape up the cash to buy that, too.