I’ve been an IF Comp judge for a long time now, and the autumn events of my last ten years are all tied up with comp games. I’m pretty much always playing an IF game on Halloween — I particularly remember the supremely un-spooky Mystery Manor. Similarly, I have a strong memory of playing and reviewing Castle Amnos on Election Day 2000. Now it’s November 4th, 2004, two days after an election whose results disappointed me very much, and the game that marks the occasion is Square Circle.
It’s fitting, really, because the game’s theme feels both political and timely. The PC awakens in a cell, his memory wiped clean (yes, it’s YAPCWA, Yet Another PC With Amnesia), imprisoned for no reason that he can remember. Further exploration reveals that in the PC’s world, criminal justice has adopted a Kafkaesque tone: criminals are defined as those people being punished for a crime, and therefore if you are in jail, you are by definition a criminal. With my government using a holding pen on foreign soil to detain alleged “enemy combatants” who have been charged with no crime and who have no access to due process, and with the authority behind this plan having been swept back into office by the popular will, the game feels eerily relevant.
The difference, of course, is that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t win their release with puzzle solutions, no matter how clever. Then again, the game’s “justice” system is meant to be based on pure rationalism (though of course it’s a through-the-looking-glass kind of rationalism), and nobody ever accused George Bush of being overly beholden to rationality. In any case, Square Circle ties its themes together quite neatly, with the emphasis on rationalism gone horribly awry reflected both in the PC’s imprisonment and in the paradoxical geometry puzzle that holds the key to his escape.
The game’s design is similarly good overall. The geometry theme carries over into the design of rooms and objects, with squares and circles repeating all over the place, not to mention cubes and spheres. The rhythmic echoing of these shapes helped me begin to wrap my mind around the game’s titular problem, and while I stumbled into the beginning of my solution by dumb luck, I was thrilled to figure the rest of it out by myself. I was even more surprised to discover that I hadn’t solved the game’s central puzzle, but in fact opened up a much larger vista of puzzle and story. Many of those puzzles had multiple solutions available, all of which made at least some sense. Options like that always make a game more fun.
The plot unfolded satisfyingly, teasingly doling out hints about the PC’s identity. By now, the amnesiac PC is a hoary cliche, but Square Circle felt a bit fresher than the average YAPCWA game by virtue of a couple of little plot twists. Unfortunately, one weaker puzzle undermined the game’s totalitarian feel by enlisting the elements as co-conspirators against the PC. It’s one thing when other people create a maddening environment for a character, but unless those people have a weather-control device, bringing something like the wind into the equation is a dirty trick.
The other serious issue with the game’s design has to do with one of its dead ends. I quite liked the way that Square Circle allows you to do utterly dumb things, and the consequence is generally instant death. However, there’s one path that puts you into an unwinnable situation which does not announce itself as unwinnable in any way, and in fact teasingly offers a repetition of the solvable opening scenario. I wasted precious time flailing around here before turning to the hints and finding that I needed to restart. I don’t care for this sort of design — if you’re going to end my game, just end it.
Speaking of that hint system, it was generally quite well-done. The hints were menu-based and Invisiclues-style, with enough contextual awareness to only offer hints on the problems currently facing the PC. I certainly leaned on the hints quite a bit, and found them quite adept at providing just enough nudge. Unfortunately, I did run into a problem at the very end of my game session, where I was faced with a roadblock and the game failed to offer me any hints about it. A couple of other glitches afflicted the game, too, including some typos, and a bit of freaky parsing:
>draw square around circle
What do you want to draw that on?
What do you want to note?
What just happened? I still don’t know. On the other hand, the game pulls off some amazing parsing tricks when it gives the PC a marking pen and some paper. In his attempt to create a square circle (as demanded by the entity holding him prisoner), the PC can draw a square, and a circle. Even better than that, he can draw whatever he likes. For instance, the game responds to DRAW CARTOON with “You draw a cartoon on the note,” and from that point forward, CARTOON becomes a synonym for NOTE. I thought that this was really an amazingly cool bit of parser trickery.
Lots of other little conveniences were on hand as well, though I suspect many of the ones that reach for player-friendliness are already built into TADS 3. I particularly liked X WALLS, which provided an actual description for each wall of a room, creating a wonderfully complete feeling for the game’s world. In fact, some of the game’s description levels go intoxicatingly deep:
The guardian is a lithe, athletic-looking man in his mid-thirties,
with short fair hair and a hard, unsympathetic face. He’s dressed in
a pale grey uniform [...]
It’s a drab, though reasonably smart, uniform consisting of pale grey
trousers and a tunic of the same colour. The tunic has a pair of
breast pockets, with a badge above the left one.
The badge bears the inscription NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PUNISHMENT SERVICE
and depicts a set of prison gates and a sword.
The highly stylized sword is depicted hilt up and to the left, with
its blade interlacing the prison gates.
Wow. I mean, wow. I just adore that kind of thing. I also love when that kind of largesse is applied to a game’s overall design, providing a nice long playing experience… except when the game gets entered in the comp. Square Circle suffers from being oversized for a comp game — not heinously so, but I think I was only about 75% through when the two-hour bell rang. So that’ll hurt its rating with me. Otherwise, though it’s a little unpolished in places, this game offers an intriguing scenario and some enjoyable puzzles, and I recommend it, especially if it sees a revised post-comp edition.