Koan by Esa Peuha as Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Koan
Final placement: 35th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

In 1998, there was In The Spotlight, a tiny but enjoyable game whose entire purpose was to embody one clever puzzle. Then, last year, there was Schroedinger’s Cat, a less enjoyable (though competently produced) game whose sole reason for existence was to embody a completely baffling puzzle. Now we have Koan, a fairly irritating and badly programmed game that embodies one more-or-less nonsensical puzzle. Clearly, we’re on a downward slope here.

I don’t have any particular objection to the genre of one-puzzle games; as I said, I liked In The Spotlight well enough. However, when the entire game is a tiny environment based around one puzzle, that puzzle had better be well-implemented. As you might have guessed, this is not the case in Koan. Even setting aside the fact that most of the writing is nothing but placeholders (like the room whose description consists only of “This is the middle location in this game.”), there are several fundamental problems with the puzzle as it is coded. Example: you have to retrieve a clay pot from a high place, and there are several objects in the game that may help you retrieve it without damaging it. However, before I even saw any of those objects, the first thing I did was this:

>x pot
This clay pot has a severe fracture. Other than that, the only
noticable feature is the writing that says, "When intact, this pot
will break the stone slab."

So the pot already has a severe fracture? Kind of takes away my motivation to try not to damage it. There’s nothing around to fix it with, either, which really makes me wonder how I’m supposed to make it intact. This is not the way to do a one-puzzle game. Also: noticeable.

As for the solution, I can’t say it really made much sense to me. From the game’s title, I take it that this puzzle and its answer are supposed to represent some kind of deep spiritual truth. Now granted, I’m not a Buddhist, but I failed to find any meaning in this game beyond “Well, that was surreal.” I dunno, maybe somebody else found it profound. To paraphrase Dennis Miller: of course, that’s just my opinion — I could be unenlightened.

Rating: 3.0

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.