Graham Nelson once described interactive fiction as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” Letters From Home takes a definite side in this battle by being an interactive narrative where the main goal is to complete a crossword, and whose entire purpose is structured around puzzle-solving, the “crossword” part of the metaphor.
The explicit connection with that metaphor is just one of the many pieces of Nelsoniana scattered throughout the game. From the introductory text, to the Jigsaw (grandfather clock and Titanic mementos) and Curses (sprawling mansion filled with relics of distinguished ancestors) references, to the somber traces of wartime, the whole thing comes across as a loving tribute to Graham. Being a Nelson admirer myself, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the various clever nods to him peppered throughout this game. There’s also a hilarious Zork allusion in a throwaway parser response and even a passing reference to the author’s own Cloak Of Darkness demonstration page for the various IF languages.
The main attraction in Letters, though, is the puzzles. This is one of those games whose plot is thin to nonexistent, and whose mimesis gets shattered (literally) in the course of puzzle-solving. The game isn’t particularly straightforward about announcing what your objective is supposed to be, but it comes clear after a bit. At first, Letters seems to be a standard-issue “collect your inheritance by solving puzzles” game a la Hollywood Hijinx, but the plot and the mimesis both evaporate rather quickly as it becomes clear that the real point of the game is collecting the letters of the alphabet by finding things that represent or resemble them in some way.
For example, you find a cup of tea, and sure enough, it represents the letter T. Once you get the hang of it (hint: leave your sense of realism at the door), most of these puzzles are fun, and a few are quite remarkable. Some, though, are marred by ambiguous writing. For example, one of the necessary objects is described as stuck to a skylight. Perhaps because of architectural styles where I live, I don’t expect that I’ll be able to reach up and touch a skylight — they tend to be placed in high ceilings. Consequently, I thought that the puzzle was to find a way to reach this object — I climbed stuff, searched for a ladder, tried to haul furniture into the room, all to no avail. Finally, I turned to the hints, which just said to… take it. I did, and it worked.
Now, part of the problem here was no doubt my fault: I should have just tried taking the item. However, I’d submit that if you’re writing descriptions (especially terse descriptions like those in this game) where critical puzzle pieces depend on how the player envisions the room, there had better be a lot of clues in place to make sure that you’re communicating clearly. Letters From Home sometimes fails to do this.
I didn’t finish the game in the two-hour judging period — no great surprise since I’m guessing there are twenty-six letter puzzles, some of which require multiple steps. In addition, there’s a time limit, which I blithely exceeded. So I don’t know much about the ending, and probably missed half the puzzles. I doubt the ending has much of a punch — there’s virtually no narrative in this game, and solving the puzzles is its own reward. As for the half I missed, if they’re anything like the half I found, I’ll bet they’re a lot of fun, though occasionally needlessly frustrating.
Letters was coded quite well — I only found one bug, though a rather amusing one. The game’s time limit is 12:00 noon, and it creates atmosphere by having the village chimes toll on the hour. However, once it gets past noon, the chimes toll thirteen times, then fourteen times, and so on. The funny thing is, the game is so unrealistic that at first I didn’t even notice the oddness of the extra chimes. In a world where everything keeps turning into letters of the alphabet, and abstract concepts like letters can be carried around in your inventory, what’s a little extra chiming?
Letters From Home is a fun, lexicographically oriented puzzlefest that needs a bit more work on writing and coding before it can reach the Nelsonian level to which it aspires. This review has been brought to you by the letters “G” and “N”.