Color and Number by Steven Kollmansberger [Comp02]

IFDB page: Color and Number
Final placement: 24th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Color And Number belongs to that genre of IF I’ve begun to call “pure puzzle games” — oh sure, it’s got a shred of plot, something about investigating a cult that worships colors or something, but that’s more or less overwith before the first move, and from that point forward, you’re pretty much in a pure puzzle landscape. And yes, those puzzles are keyed to a particular theme — you guessed it: colors and numbers. True to the precedent established in Comp01 games like Elements and Colours, the game even names itself after its puzzle theme.

About twenty minutes into this thing, I knew I didn’t have a prayer of finishing it in two hours, so I played until I hit the time limit and then stopped. Thus, in fairness, I don’t know whether the story makes a strong resurgence towards the end or anything, but even if it does, this game clearly belongs to the puzzles. Those puzzles are of the sort that prompts lots of note-taking, charting the correspondences between the various pieces the game teasingly doles out. I enjoyed several of these brain-twisters — they have a mathematical elegance, and some of the best ones suggest their solutions quite organically, which is a pleasure.

Others, though, are a little more imperfect. One puzzle in particular stumped me even though I had looked at all the hints for it, and I think there are several reasons for this. First, the feedback level was too low. The puzzle involved performing a string of actions, but without close investigation, the environment betrayed no particular indication about which actions were successful or useful. It’s not that this feedback was entirely absent, but it wasn’t prominent enough for me to even notice until long after I had looked at the answers.

Secondly, the sequence has a bug in it. It’s just a TADS error (one which oddly didn’t show up in my game transcripts, so I can’t quote it) — not enough to prevent the solution from working properly, but more than enough to drain my confidence in the puzzle’s correct implementation. Between that and the lack of feedback, it’s pretty clear how I ended up looking at hints, but even after I had seen them all, and ostensibly solved the puzzle, nothing happened.

I found out, through trawling Google for hint requests, that this was because I needed to do some other actions in an entirely unrelated area. This is not good puzzle design — at the very least, solving that portion should have yielded some noticeable change so that I could understand that my attempt had in fact worked, even if it wasn’t producing any useful revelations until its counterpart pieces were in place.

Critics like me talk a lot about how difficult it is to pull off combining an arresting story with interesting puzzles, but what’s becoming clearer is that even when IF eschews story altogether and focuses solely on puzzles, it presents considerable challenges to its creator. Little prose errors and formatting issues aren’t so noticeable in a work like this (unless they severely cloud meaning), but even tiny feedback or implementation errors can be devastating. Because there’s no story to distract us from game bugs, they loom very large indeed, and as soon as one crops up, it drastically affects the dynamic between player and game. Suddenly, a struggling player ceases to believe that he’s stuck because of his own inability to solve the puzzle, and starts to suspect that game defects are making the puzzle unsolvable, because after all, if bugs crop up in one place, they can be elsewhere too.

Infocom and its contemporaries had a big advantage in this area — if you bought a game off the shelf, knowing that the resources of a full-fledged company had been used to quality test it and that it had been reviewed by major publications, you could be relatively confident that whatever bugs still might lurk within it wouldn’t be enough to prevent you from solving its puzzles. No such assurances exist for an amateur, freeware IF comp game, and consequently pure puzzle games must be fanatically assiduous about debugging and testing. That’s not an easy mark to hit.

Rating: 6.7

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.

Elements by John Evans [Comp01]

IFDB page: Elements
Final placement: 26th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Elements is another pure puzzle game, and now that I’m recognizing this subgenre of IF (see my review of Colours), I’m starting to come to a stronger understanding of just what that genre requires. For instance, a pure puzzle game must be constructed with only the most minimal attempt at a story, if any at all. Elements certainly fills the bill here, even mocking the idea of narrative by setting up a false one in the introduction, then immediately snatching it away. The pure puzzle game must also key many of its puzzles and landscape ingredients off a particular theme, and Elements fulfills this one as well, making its theme, predictably enough, the elements. Apparently, naming your game after its puzzle theme is another requirement, though perhaps that one’s optional. On these aspects, Elements is strong, but alas, although they are defining aspects of the genre, they aren’t the most important parts of a pure puzzle game.

More important than plotlessness and theme, for example, is solid implementation. In a story-heavy game, a few bugs don’t derail things as long as they don’t impinge on the plot. In a puzzle game, however, the player is relying on the game to provide a fair, unambiguous, and bug-free setup within which to work, and without this, even the best puzzles lose their charm almost immediately. On this count, Elements is laden with problems.

Despite the help text’s exhortation to “examine the scenery”, a great many scenery objects are completely unimplemented in this game, including some that good sense would indicate ought to at least have a description. For instance, there are carvings on the wall in one room — unimplemented. There are holes in the wall of another room — unimplemented. In a pure puzzle game, these things are just distractions.

More serious problems lurk here, too. There’s a room with no description at all. There’s a room whose description is flat-out wrong, gives away the solution to a puzzle, and makes that solution seem impossible, all at once. There are severe guess-the-verb issues in lots of places. Even the pointless inventory limit is one more needless frustration among many. A pure puzzle game with implementation failures like these is like a crossword puzzle whose black squares are misplaced in the grid.

So good implementation is a must, but a pure puzzle game could probably get by with a few minor bugs, so long as they don’t ruin the puzzles the way the bugs in Elements do. I would argue that the most important piece, the one overriding quality that a pure puzzle game must have in order to succeed, is good puzzle design. Sadly, Elements lacks this crucial factor as well. I suppose it’s just barely possible that someone might struggle through this game without recourse to hints, but I doubt such a person exists. They would need to be the sort who retains faith in a game despite very buggy implementation, and whose authorial telepathy is exceedingly strong. And even they certainly wouldn’t solve it in two hours.

I found that when I finally looked at the hints in bewilderment, my reaction was: “How in the hell was I supposed to guess that?” The game routinely demands highly unlikely actions without providing enough cueing towards those actions. For instance, certain objects in the game possess uncanny powers, though only in very specific contexts. No clue is given as to what these contexts are, and the rest of the time the objects are useless, except as treasure. In addition, there are instances where the most obvious solution is not only unimplemented, its lack of availability isn’t even given a perfunctory explanation. In one of the most egregious moments, putting one thing on another is a solution to a problem, despite the fact that the latter object’s default message remains “Putting things on the <object> would achieve nothing.”

Players cry foul at moments like this, and they are right. Oh, did I mention the game’s way too big for the competition? The game’s way too big for the competition. Just one more problem element to be found in Elements.

Rating: 3.6

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