Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2

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