Puzzle Game Edition
It’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. I don’t know if I’ll end up reviewing many of the games, but I figured if I make a post I’ll probably play more than one.
I’ll try to avoid outright spoilers, but these will be critical reviews. The main point of entering the comp is for critical attention, to get an audience for your work and improve your craft. Well, that’s how I see it. I’ll try and only bring up substantive points (stuff like typos are better sent directly to authors). I don’t like giving a numerical rating, as it’s necessarily reductive, but I’ll do it anyway as I always liked getting one for my own work. The numbers are something like 1-3: bad; 4-6: either fundamentally flawed with promise or well made but under-ambitious; 7-9: good; 10: amazing, possibly ground breaking. I use the ~wiggly line~ if I anticipate shunting a score up or down based on other entries.
I like puzzles, I write puzzle games myself, and so thought I’d start with some of the games that said they had puzzles.
Lazy Wizard’s Guide
Learning spells to solve puzzles and unlock new areas is, as a conceit, as old as interactive fiction itself. It’s as hoary as cave exploration (which this game also manages to check off). Magic is good puzzle-fodder as they allow the player to make extraordinary changes. They give a tool-set which must be learned fresh. There are some standouts of the genre, such as The Wand (2017) and Suveh Nux (2007) and the reason these work so well is that the magic has a sort of logic to it: the player can be exploratory or fill in the gaps.
The magical student learning to pass a test, exploring a mostly empty castle, is a subgenre that has it’s origins back in Enchanter (1983), and has been seen regularly since. Lazy Wizard’s Guide has almost the exact same plot and structure as The Apprentice (1993). A magical school gives an environment which can be easily gated, and can present a natural setting for puzzle set pieces. The player can learn the spells at the same pace as the character: usually cast as a student who is a bad enough student not to know these spells already, but a good enough student to master them when needed.
Unfortunately, Lazy Wizard’s Guide fails at being an exemplar of this genre. The construction of the game is mostly well put together: persistent disambiguation problems aside, it was well implemented and there were several quality of life elements. Some elements of the puzzles were undermotivated, and looking under, behind and searching were all treated differently. But the main problem was that the puzzles themselves (despite the magical trappings) were too pedestrian.
The magic spells themselves were all used to do exactly what they said on the spell description (unlocking, transfiguring cat-to-troll, sending to sleep, entering a painting etc.). There was no creativity required in the application of the spells. Furthermore, the spells were gated by use of components, so the game didn’t even make use of one of the main benefits of a spell-based text adventure: not lugging around a vast inventory. Moreover, the components were mostly obtained through basic non-puzzly routes. The items needed were just hidden about, or worse, were obtained from NPCs who mostly functioned as object delivery systems.
The basic ideas behind the spells were serviceable, but there are ways they could have been made more sparkling: components that required other spells to create, or puzzles that require you to change the conditions under which the spells take place (such as altering or commissioning a painting to get to a new location with the enter-painting spell).
The setting itself was very cardboard cutout wizard school. The plot was just about doing an arbitrary list of tasks. The NPCs were mostly stock stand-ins, complete with pun names. The simple puzzles might have been saved if there was a greater sense of characterisation, a rich sense of place, evocative prose, or a plot. But the PC was just and unknown and unknowable player stand-in, the place was just a by-the-numbers Harry Potter knockoff, and the writing was completely in service to the puzzles.
~6/10 Solid implementation, but unambitious thin fare
Tower of Plagh
Series of wholly arbitrary non-puzzles in a lazily implemented space. I got a few floors down and gave up at the monkey puzzle (which was a pure example of read-the-author’s-mind). I would guess a child made this game. There’s not much to say, other than it’s a comp tradition for there to be a few entries which shouldn’t have been entered.
2/10 Someone’s first test game.
You Feel Like You’ve Read This In A Book
This game starts with a genuine sense of emergency, and gives you a very text-adventurey set of environs (forest, cave, church, pawn shop etc.) to puzzle through. The big idea is that the writing includes a lot of references to other works. For a twine game, the puzzles are serviceable as puzzles (you find a problem and can form a likely plan to solve it). The game is short and you’re likely to die the first time round, so there’s a pretty tight gameplay loop of retrying and trying to find your way to some of the endings. The sandbox + multiple endings works quite well for the length, the twine text-effects are well picked but not excessive and the writing is charming enough.
Still, I’m indifferent to the main conceit of the game. The setting, plot, and characterisation is all explicitly a set of pastiches of ideas drawn from a series of novels. I’ve read many of the novels, but it wasn’t really necessary. The work doesn’t have anything to say about these stories, they’re just the substance from which the pastiche is made. But the substance isn’t substantive enough to serve as an introduction to these works. They’re just references for the sake of referentiality. Because of this artificiality, it undermines the sense of personal horror or emergency of the neurotoxin plot. It’s not often that a work goes out of its way to be explicitly derivative to this extent, and it’s a shame in a way as the writer clearly has the chops to make something original.
Of course, a game that is a loose patchwork with a thin sense of reality can absolutely work. A Beauty Cold and Austere (2017) is one such. The Chinese Room (2007) which I co-authored was a nonsensical patchwork of philosophical thought experiments, but it was educational, funny and at least some of the puzzles were good. So I believe this model of game can work, but ideally it has to say something about the works from which its drawing.
~5/10 Promising structure and imaginative execution, but derivative building blocks
Zero Chance of Recovery
This is a chess puzzle based on a famous end-game scenario. It’s well implemented, with all the quality of life elements you’d expect from a Schultz game. It does exactly what it sets out to do. The narrative framing is very thin, but just enough to clue the required win state. As this is isn’t intended as a full narrative experience or a rich puzzle game, but rather as a single set piece, it’s hard to judge against the other entries. Games can be good at doing what they intend to do, but intend to do much much less than other games.
~5/10 A single chess puzzle: a well-made tiny morsel.