Colours by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous [Comp01]

IFDB page: Colours
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I’m starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger’s Cat, but I’m not sure what to call games like these — perhaps “plotless IF”, since they’re so unconcerned with telling a story.

I don’t think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game’s skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That’s in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:

Clear Room
The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west.

There’s a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn’t even approach. It’s as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There’s another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offers a cohesiveness that’s absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme — in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there’s also a word theme, but that’s subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don’t have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they’re done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson’s terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I’m ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck.

On many counts, Colours doesn’t disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF — I’m relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, “pure puzzle games”… might work.) When it doesn’t, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared.

I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn’t quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven’t yet played the game, here’s my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don’t yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game’s accompanying jpg image.

Then there’s the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough’s approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the “hidden items” problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, “but how am I supposed to do that?” I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough — I didn’t even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I’m beginning to fret about now — but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won’t be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5

Letters From Home by Roger Firth [Comp00]

IFDB page: Letters From Home
Final placement: 12th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

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”.

Rating: 8.2