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

Heroes by Sean Barrett [Comp01]

IFDB page: Heroes
Final placement: 3rd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The intersection of landscape and character in IF is a highly fertile one, and Heroes reaps a great harvest from it. Now, I should qualify this review with the statement that I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours, and therefore missed what looked to me like it might be an additional payoff in the game’s structure. So in describing what I found in the game, I might not be telling the whole story about what’s there. With that caveat in mind, the game’s gimmick is this: set up a fairly simple landscape and a basic goal, then allow the player a choice of five viewpoint characters, each of which share the landscape and goal.

This structure makes Heroes a sort of five-games-in-one, where each subgame enhances and deepens the others, since one character might have an insight or knowledge about the situation that the others lack. In addition, seeing the game’s location through five pairs of eyes allows juxtapositions that simultaneously intensifies our understanding of the location and the character. For instance, a fairly basic area, as seen through the eyes of an adventurer, a thief, and an enchanter:

Temple Way
The grimy, ramshackle buildings of Oldtown dutifully try to reform
themselves as you progress east down Temple Way, but nothing besides
the temple itself makes any real pretense of belonging anywhere other
than Oldtown. Or rather, nothing besides the temple and Baron
Sedmon's nearby mansion.

Shadowy Road
Sturdy, functional buildings lie in and out of shadow on the road to
the temple square. Simple architecture, devoid of handholds; closely
spaced buildings, devoid of alleyways; uncut walls, devoid of
windows: the builders in this area knew how to encourage amateurs to
go elsewhere.

East-West Road
Randomly arranged paving stones form this street, proceeding east
towards a more attractive arrangement. The darkened buildings lean
sloppily over the edge of the street, reducing the energetic
potential of the strict east-west layout. West the road leads back
into the seething mess that is Oldtown.

I can’t say enough about how much I loved this. Because the characters are each limited to their own viewpoints, but we are able to see them all, the game gives us a far more complete and interesting picture of the area than any single viewpoint could provide. In addition, because we have seen the area through other eyes, we gain insight into the viewpoint character by noticing what that character does and doesn’t observe. Where the adventurer simply notices what ways are open for travel, the enchanter observes how those avenues impinge on a geometrically-oriented magic system; where the enchanter notices only the direction of the walls’ lines, the thief notices the lack of handholds and windows.

Some games have begun to explore this dynamic — Wishbringer and LASH displayed the changes of a landscape and the shifting meanings attendant to that change, while Being Andrew Plotkin gave us a variety of characters whose reactions to a particular area conflicted, to wonderful comic effect. Heroes takes the next step, opening up an endlessly fascinating vista.

Correspondingly, the game’s design also reflects a diversity of viewpoints. Each character has the same goal, but none of them will go about it in quite the same way. The adventurer’s method combines both NPC interaction and object manipulation, first learning what an NPC wants in order to stop being an obstacle, then obtaining that desideratum through various clever mechanical operations and trickery. The difference between this and the enchanter’s method is similar to the difference between the PC of the Zork series and the PC of the Enchanter series — instead of pushing, pulling, turning, and moving things, the mage casts spells that have different, but equally useful, effects. The thief utilizes shadows and rooftops, while the king depends almost completely on NPC interactions such as gossip and courtly intrigue.

It’s just a lovely idea, and for the most part, the game carries it off very well. In addition, several neat choices appear to prevent the game from ever becoming unwinnable, but not by preventing missteps on the part of the player. Instead, as it becomes clear that an action may have closed off the game, Heroes offers the player opportunities to undo the consequences of that action, or to take another shot at the crucial action. After playing so many games in this comp that really do close off without warning, it was a great joy to realize that in this game, I didn’t have to restart after all, especially since restarting would have meant starting each viewpoint story from the beginning.

With all this going for it, Heroes easily would have scored a 10 from me (by which I mean somewhere between 9.5 and 10.0) if not for a few problems. For one, a couple of the puzzles appear to lack sufficient information about their components, making it very tough to guess their solutions. At least one other had a solution that appeared to contradict some of the stated rules of the situation. In addition, there were a number of instances where I felt that the game failed to give me enough feedback about whether I was on the right or wrong track, or where a perfectly valid idea was unimplemented (even if just with a failure message that provided a clear reason for denying the action.)

Finally, and most problematic, one of the sections appeared to be broken in such a way as to allow its main puzzle to be bypassed entirely. Heroes is an ambitious project, and in some ways it’s not surprising that the game should still be pretty rough around the edges. Its problems prevent it from reaching the very top echelon of competition games, but what it does have to offer is dazzling indeed.

Rating: 9.4