In The Spotlight by John Byrd [Comp98]

IFDB page: In The Spotlight
Final placement: 21st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this one certainly didn’t break the two-hour rule. In fact, I finished it in around eight minutes. The game consists of one puzzle, and that’s all. The puzzle is clever, and relatively well-clued, and maybe I just got lucky in figuring it out as quickly as I did. Still, I can’t imagine spending more than a half hour at this game — there just aren’t that many objects, so the number of combinations is similarly small. The author tells us that the puzzle is one he read about in Science magazine in the early 80’s. That makes sense, since the answer relies on some intuitive physics knowledge, and the puzzle is fairly satisfying to solve. I’m not sure if the red herrings were included in the magazine version, but even if they were they didn’t distract me too much from doing the right thing.

In The Spotlight is sort of the opposite of the famous (or infamous) “puzzleless IF” — it’s nothing but a puzzle. “Storyless IF.” Actually, I could see a game like this being pretty entertaining, even educational, if it strung several of these sort of situations together. Gareth Rees’ The Magic Toyshop from the 1995 competition was a bit like this, though it was more oriented towards games than puzzles, and its solutions often involved “thinking outside the box” of the game (also known as cheating in some circles.) What I’m envisioning is somewhat different. I know that there’s a tradition of “thought puzzles” like the one in Spotlight, a tradition that’s been around since before the advent of IF. I remember reading them as a kid, or working through them in various classes as mental exercises. Perhaps IF authors would do well to look to this tradition for innovative puzzles which break the usual “lock-and-key” mold. Of course, a great many of those puzzle situations (including the one in this game) are somewhat contrived, but the same thing could be said about a large percentage of IF puzzles, including many of the best. I think I’d really enjoy a game like that — sort of an interactive version of the “Fun and Games” column in the old print version of Omni magazine (I think that was the column’s name. Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, no doubt.)

In The Spotlight isn’t that game, though. It’s one lone puzzle, and thus a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, the writing and coding are both quite good; I found neither bugs nor English errors anywhere in the game. Then again, this level of excellence was sustained for a remarkably short time. Consequently, I can’t rate the game very highly — there’s just not enough there. (On the plus side, if all the rest of the competition games are this length, I just might finish them all before the deadline!)

Rating: 5.1