IFDB page: Elements
Final placement: 26th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition
Elements is another pure puzzle game, and now that I’m recognizing this subgenre of IF (see my review of Colours), I’m starting to come to a stronger understanding of just what that genre requires. For instance, a pure puzzle game must be constructed with only the most minimal attempt at a story, if any at all. Elements certainly fills the bill here, even mocking the idea of narrative by setting up a false one in the introduction, then immediately snatching it away. The pure puzzle game must also key many of its puzzles and landscape ingredients off a particular theme, and Elements fulfills this one as well, making its theme, predictably enough, the elements. Apparently, naming your game after its puzzle theme is another requirement, though perhaps that one’s optional. On these aspects, Elements is strong, but alas, although they are defining aspects of the genre, they aren’t the most important parts of a pure puzzle game.
More important than plotlessness and theme, for example, is solid implementation. In a story-heavy game, a few bugs don’t derail things as long as they don’t impinge on the plot. In a puzzle game, however, the player is relying on the game to provide a fair, unambiguous, and bug-free setup within which to work, and without this, even the best puzzles lose their charm almost immediately. On this count, Elements is laden with problems.
Despite the help text’s exhortation to “examine the scenery”, a great many scenery objects are completely unimplemented in this game, including some that good sense would indicate ought to at least have a description. For instance, there are carvings on the wall in one room — unimplemented. There are holes in the wall of another room — unimplemented. In a pure puzzle game, these things are just distractions.
More serious problems lurk here, too. There’s a room with no description at all. There’s a room whose description is flat-out wrong, gives away the solution to a puzzle, and makes that solution seem impossible, all at once. There are severe guess-the-verb issues in lots of places. Even the pointless inventory limit is one more needless frustration among many. A pure puzzle game with implementation failures like these is like a crossword puzzle whose black squares are misplaced in the grid.
So good implementation is a must, but a pure puzzle game could probably get by with a few minor bugs, so long as they don’t ruin the puzzles the way the bugs in Elements do. I would argue that the most important piece, the one overriding quality that a pure puzzle game must have in order to succeed, is good puzzle design. Sadly, Elements lacks this crucial factor as well. I suppose it’s just barely possible that someone might struggle through this game without recourse to hints, but I doubt such a person exists. They would need to be the sort who retains faith in a game despite very buggy implementation, and whose authorial telepathy is exceedingly strong. And even they certainly wouldn’t solve it in two hours.
I found that when I finally looked at the hints in bewilderment, my reaction was: “How in the hell was I supposed to guess that?” The game routinely demands highly unlikely actions without providing enough cueing towards those actions. For instance, certain objects in the game possess uncanny powers, though only in very specific contexts. No clue is given as to what these contexts are, and the rest of the time the objects are useless, except as treasure. In addition, there are instances where the most obvious solution is not only unimplemented, its lack of availability isn’t even given a perfunctory explanation. In one of the most egregious moments, putting one thing on another is a solution to a problem, despite the fact that the latter object’s default message remains “Putting things on the <object> would achieve nothing.”
Players cry foul at moments like this, and they are right. Oh, did I mention the game’s way too big for the competition? The game’s way too big for the competition. Just one more problem element to be found in Elements.