IFDB page: Erehwon
Final placement: 11th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition
Erehwon reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit I saw years ago. I don’t remember the details very well, and no doubt somebody will step in to correct me, but the basic premise was something along the lines of a group of people who wrote a numbered joke catalog, and when they’d get together for their annual convention, they’d just sit around and say things to each other like “Hey, number 534!” and then roar with laughter. Wandering through Erehwon, I felt like an outsider at that convention. There were plenty of inside jokes, some of which seemed to be oriented towards residents of the U.K., though of course, I couldn’t tell. Even the walkthrough would occasionally say things like “If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.” OK, whatever. But it wasn’t even so much the inside jokes that made me feel like an alien visitor as much as it was the heavy emphasis on mathematics and geometry. For me, a game that says “the dual of a Platonic solid!” means about as much as a game that says “Hey, number 534!”
Erehwon seems to make a basic assumption that the player will find things like dodecahedrons and Hamiltonian circuits interesting, and that assumption led me to suspect strongly that I’m not part of the target audience for this game. Am I confessing to some sort of failure to reach the proper heights of geekdom here? (And I mean “geek” in the positive sense, let me hasten to add.) I know a lot of IF devotees approach it from the Computer Science side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, non-Euclidean geometry. I’m not one of them. I come more from the Lit. side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, feminist theory and postmodernism. There is an appearance by Stanley Fish, the namesake of a prominent literary critic and advocate of a theory of reading which fits in particularly well with IF, but the game never gave much indication that it recognized the allegiance. Or if it did, it sailed over my head along with many of the other references. For these reasons, Erehwon underwhelmed me, not primarily through any specific fault of its own, I think, but just because we’re not a particularly good match.
However, I do have some complaints that stem specifically from my viewpoint as an IF player. Heading the list of these is a huge maze. Again, I recognize that this is probably my own prejudice, but I just don’t like mazes. I don’t care how mathematically cool they are — I still don’t like them. Now, in fairness, I must point out that the game does provide for a couple of solutions which obviate the need to map the maze. However, as a player I had no way of knowing that without reference to the walkthrough, and therefore ended up spending much of my first hour of Erehwon gritting my teeth and trying to map this giant maze. You might contend that I should have understood that mazes without alternate solutions are simply unacceptable in modern IF and looked harder for the alternate solution, taking it on faith that one existed. Maybe so, but I find that I can take very little on faith in comp games — after all, I would think that proper spelling and grammar would be de rigeur as well, but plenty of games lack those basic ingredients (not that Erehwon was one of them.)
Besides, the path to those solutions is blocked by the other problem puzzle in the game, a puzzle which echoes one that appears in Trinity, but enlarges it for no clear reason. The main problem with this puzzle is that it violates one of the basic tenets outlined in Graham Nelson‘s classic Player’s Bill of Rights: not to have to do boring things for the sake of it. Indeed, a winning session will involve several trips through this puzzle, each of which entails ten moves at the very least, and it’s not at all clear that the size of the puzzle adds anything positive to the game. Aggravating the situation, the puzzle also has a rather arbitrary solution, at least so far as I could tell, and following any other track will get you hopelessly lost, making the whole thing into the basic equivalent of yet another maze.
It’s clear that there is a crystalline and beautiful mathematical philosophy behind each of these puzzles, but for me as a player, the translation of those philosophies into interactive fiction was awkward and unsuccessful, an ambitious washout. Much the same could be said for an alternate mode of navigation with which the game experiments. I tried it for a bit, and indeed was forced to use it at a couple of points in order to solve puzzles (puzzles that seemed arbitrarily constructed to require the alternate navigation method), but avoided it much of the rest of the time. I did appreciate the irony, though: in most games, the objection to the compass rose approach to navigation is that you don’t have a compass. In Erehwon you actually do have a compass, but are nonetheless forced to abandon compass-rose navigation at several points. I thought that was pretty funny. Indeed, there are lots of funny moments in Erehwon, one of its main strengths being its humor. Most of the inside jokes were past me, but there were quite a few funny moments that required no special knowledge to enjoy. For instance, this exchange with the parser:
On both sides of the so-called boulevard (more of a dirt track) is an
Did I say ferret? I meant forest. It's stoatally impenetrable.
As I laughed, I was reminded of some of the funnier moments in Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the parser momentarily rears up to take on a personality, using its trusted status as the reliable narrator to pull the rug out from under us and make us laugh at the same time. Those of you who’ve played Hitchhiker’s will know what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t: Hey, number 534!