The Erudition Chamber by Daniel Freas [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Erudition Chamber
Final placement: 4th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Even though puzzles with multiple solutions tend to get a lot of respect, we still don’t see all that many of them. That’s because creating an interesting puzzle with one solution is hard enough; creating one that can be solved in at least two different ways, each challenging and interesting, is that much more difficult. The task that The Erudition Chamber sets itself is harder still. This game lays out four different puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of four different ways. To add yet another layer of complexity to the picture, each of the four solutions belongs to a particular category of approach. There are the Warrior solutions (brute force), the Artisan solutions (clever jiggery-pokery with mechanisms), the Alchemist solutions (changing the form of the obstacle), and the Seer solutions (finding a way around the problem so as not to have to deal with it at all.)

This sort of thing is tough to do, and for the most part, EC pulls it off. I say “for the most part”, because there are still some flaws. For one thing, some of the puzzles seem designed to lend themselves much more naturally to one approach or the other — a puzzle designed by an Artisan, in the game’s terms, will still require even a Warrior to think a lot like an Artisan in order to solve it. Another imperfection is that sometimes, the categories aren’t really as distinct from one another as they should be, especially between Warriors and Alchemists. After all, breaking something and changing its form aren’t really always all that far apart.

Still, the game succeeds more often than it fails, and in some ways it felt like a fun, interactive “What Sort Of IF Player Are You?” quiz. I ended up 3 parts Artisan, 1 part Warrior, which may be a reflection of having played lots of IF. When I can see that a machine has been implemented, my inclination is to play around with that machine until it does the thing that it’s supposed to do, even if perhaps easier or more obvious solutions are available. I think that inclination may be the result of conditioning inflicted by dozens of Myst clones and their IF cousins. The Erudition Chamber is also reminiscent of Sean Barrett’s game Heroes, from Comp01, though from a significantly different angle. Where Heroes takes the player through the landscape several times in the role of different characters (Adventurer, Thief, Mage, etc.), and only lets us see what the particular character would notice, Erudition Chamber makes all aspects of the landscape available at once, and thus lets the PC create character on its own.

This game’s approach has the advantage of being more open-ended and available to mixed approaches, but the downside is that it is necessarily more bland than if it had been written with a more specific character in mind. In addition, there’s a frame story that doesn’t make a lot of sense and really adds nothing of value to the game. EC would have been better off chucking the whole time-manipulation and alternate history business, and focusing instead on the student as a novice who now must choose a path, or set of paths.

The other problem with the game is its writing, which needs a major round of proofreading. Spelling errors, for instance, are a pet peeve of mine, and games that have such errors in their very first room description (“Chisled stone steps”) annoy me even more. There are quite a few mistakes that could have been found simply by running the game’s text through a spell-checker, and there’s really no reason not to do this. Other problems, such as the numerous comma splices, would have been caught by the careful attention of a proofreader or editor.

Troubled prose like that always weakens a game for me, and it’s a pity, because this game is pretty strong in lots of other areas. I found no bugs, which always pleases me, especially in a comp game. It’s certainly a quantum leap in quality over Freas’ last work (Greyscale), and I feel encouraged that his next game may take the ingenuity shown by Erudition Chamber and combine it with the level of polish needed to make the gameplay experience as enjoyable as it should be.

Rating: 7.9

Greyscale by Daniel Freas [Comp01]

IFDB page: Grayscale
Final placement: 13th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are some strange anomalies about Greyscale. Take this, for instance: the game is centrally concerned with words, to the point of scattering literary quotations all around, spending nine locations on a library stocked with classic works, offering generous doses of original poetry (apparently by the author), and throwing in for good measure another room whose puzzle revolves around novel titles. Yet for all this concern with literature, Greyscale is shockingly careless with its own prose.

This is a game profusely littered with grammar errors of every stripe. Run-on sentences are everywhere. In fact, punctuation in general is a serious problem. Compound words lack hyphens. Commas are conspicuously absent, except at the end of independent clauses, where they stand in for periods. We’re even treated to the ever-popular it’s/its error. Given all these major weaknesses in the game’s writing, I struggled to give much credit to its literary pretensions — if you want me to think that you take language seriously, start with your own.

This contradiction isn’t the only one in Greyscale. There are also some instances of what I suppose I’d call “false advertising.” For instance, the game’s credits text claims this:

Finally, throughout the game you will undoubtedly come across various
writings. They have all been attributed to their authors in a fairly
straight-forward manner...

Actually, not so much. There are some textual passages whose authors are clearly marked, but then there are others that are only labeled with “S.C.” or some similar set of initials. If you’re fairly well-read (or bored enough to do a web search) you can probably determine what the initials stand for, but in no way does that make them “fairly straight-forward” attributions. Okay, so that’s a minor quibble. For a more important example of such contradictions, observe this suggestion in the game’s info text:

You may notice that when you start the game you are given no obvious
goal, but as you examine your surroundings and interact with the game
the goals and the story behind the game will become clear.

Once again, not so. I spent a good two hours with this game, and pretty much felt the entire time like there was no particular plot, no real backstory, and that the only goals I could discern were the typical goals of plotless IF: wander around, pick up what’s not nailed down, identify puzzles and try to solve them. There were hints throughout of another narrative layer, and the ending confirms these hints, but that’s a far cry from what I’d call an actual story.

In point of fact, the majority of the game consists of wandering around the author’s fantasy house. How do I know it’s the author’s fantasy house? Simple: he embroidered his name on the handtowels. All throughout the place are rich-dude features like marble, seashell-shaped sinks, mahogany furniture, deep pile carpet, massive gardens, statuary, and so on. The kitchen has a freaking stainless steel floor, for heaven’s sake.

This idea is a few degrees off of the well-known and deeply-dreaded “here’s an implementation of my house” genre, but only a few. There are some puzzles, at least, but they’re not really original enough puzzles to compensate for the poor writing, misleading claims, and the general vacuousness of the setting. It’s not that the game was particularly offensive, but it felt sloppy, empty, and lacking in imagination. What I hope is that this practice run will enable the author’s next game to achieve a level of polished prose and compelling story that this one just didn’t quite reach.

Rating: 4.3