Starry Seeksorrow, by Caleb Wilson, is one of the Commended entries from Shufflecomp Disc 2.
The player-character is a doll, animated by magic to protect the child of two wizards – sometimes a Klaus, sometimes a Klara. The action is confined to the magical garden grown outside the family home, which is populated with bizarre (often macabre) plant specimens.
One of these, the seeksorrow, has drugged K into sleep, activating the doll’s magical protection. You explore the garden, determining what is behind the threat; in doing so, you piece together strange botany, fragments of a ghost-haunted magic, and bits of a family past.
There’s a tight, potent economy of words, terse without sacrificing imagery, and doing a really good job of clearly conveying the key information. This is enviable craft. At times, perhaps, it felt a little too obvious which elements were puzzle-pieces – good for playability, but a little jarring when they show up before you really need them. (The ghost’s name, in particular.)
Most of the puzzles involve dealing with the plants, which are rendered with sinister imagination; Wilson has a record of imbuing vegetation with sinister weirdness. Herbology often gets portrayed as a fluffy, kitchen-garden or new-agey kind of field, but when I learned to gather wild foods in southeast Alaska, I developed a sense of its conceptual power. Marsh marigold, which must be boiled in three changes of water before it’s safe to eat; angelica, so easily confused with lethal water-hemlock. Knowledge that might save you from starvation. How to know the good necessarily required knowing the poisonous, and how ‘poisoner’ was sometimes the same word as ‘witch’. Life magic and death magic. Leafing through Seeksorrow‘s herbal, trying to discern the uses of its teeming exotics, touched off a sense of that.
I’ve seen people compare it to Harry Potter, but to me it felt more (and this is a strong compliment) like Diana Wynne Jones. The doll is not a child, exactly, but it views the world from a child’s vantage; and there’s something here of DWJ’s approach to a secret adventure unexpectedly turning out to be a hazy window onto the mysterious world of adults, and that this sometimes reveals highly sympathetic characters to be deeply flawed. The garden, which forms the entire scope of the game, comprises only five locations; but for me it captured a sense of how, as a child, a garden could feel like a vast world of the imagination to be explored.