Informatory by William J. Shlaer [Comp98]

IFDB page: Informatory
Final placement: 11th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Every year I’ve been writing reviews for the IF competition, I’ve seen several games which are their authors’ first attempt at learning Inform. These usually aren’t the better games — I find that most of the really good Inform games in the competition are not the first pieces of code ever hacked together by their authors. Informatory, however, gives a twist to this tendency — it is the author’s first attempt to teach Inform. Rather than replicating its author’s apartment or dorm room, Informatory instead replicates a number of familiar scenes and objects from various canonical IF games, and allows its player to peek at their source code in order to give some insight as to how Inform could be used to create them. It does this through a handy device known as the “Codex Helmet” — whenever the player character wears this helmet, source code for all objects becomes visible. Of course, a couple of elementary puzzles must be overcome in order to gain access to this miracle of technology, but hints are provided for those puzzles. Once the Helmet is acquired, Informatory presents a new kind of puzzle: to progress in the game, you must decipher the Inform source code of its objects so that you may use their special properties to your advantage.

For me, this kind of puzzle worked well, because it relied on information I had already acquired through working on my own Inform creations. However, for someone who did not know Inform and wasn’t particularly interested in investing much time to learn it, I think those puzzles would be a major nuisance. In fact, if you’re not interested in learning Inform, my advice would be to give this game a pass. Its interests are much more in helping novices to learn Inform in a fairly fun and ingenious way than to provide a fun gaming experience for everyone. This is a perfectly acceptable goal, but it makes Informatory more educational software than entertainment software. The game invokes the genie from Andrew Plotkin’s Lists and Lists, and the reference is quite apt — that game also didn’t much care about entertaining, instead giving the focus to its own (remarkable) z-machine implementation of Scheme. Informatory didn’t feel quite as oppressive as Lists to me, probably because I’m already familiar with Inform, an advantage I sadly lacked when it came to Scheme. However, the two share a common theme: they are not so much games as teaching tools, and if you’re not interested in learning, the tool isn’t for you.

Having thus limited its audience, Informatory does its task rather well, I think. The author bills it a “not-very-interactive tutorial,” and I think he’s only half-right on both counts. Depending on how you define the term “interactive”, I think Informatory is quite interactive indeed. It’s probably the only game I’ve ever seen that actually assigns outside reading to its players so that they have a better chance at the puzzles. This obviously doesn’t work in the competition context, but someone might find it a little useful when used as a tool in its own right, especially if that person is already in the process of learning Inform. Furthermore, Informatory‘s source-code-oriented puzzles are much more interactive than the typical tutorial style of “announce the concept, show the concept, now you try it.” Now, this is a double-edged sword too: sometimes the lack of guidance can really be rather frustrating. I sometimes found myself wishing for the genie from Lists to keep hanging around, giving me clues when I needed them. Consequently, I didn’t find Informatory to be “not-very-interactive”, but I didn’t really find it to be a “tutorial” either. Instead of teaching Inform piece-by-piece, it assigns reading in the Designer’s Manual, and in fact those assignments are only reachable after solving a number of source code puzzles. Informatory therefore isn’t much of a teacher, but it’s a good quiz for those who are already learning. As a competition game, it’s no great shakes: at its best, it’s about as much fun as taking a really interesting test. However, I can see it becoming one useful tool for people who are beginning to get their feet wet in the sea of Inform.

Rating: 6.8