All Things Devours by Toby Ord as “half sick of shadows” [Comp04]

IFDB page: All Things Devours
Final placement: 3rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I must admit, I got a little nervous when I saw this game’s title, which appears at first blush to be grammatically incorrect. As it turns out, the title isn’t in error — it’s excerpted from one of the riddle-poems in The Hobbit, the one that begins “This thing all things devours.” I still think that it’s a weak title — the entire line would be much better — but I was relieved to know I was in the hands of a competent writer. In fact, my fears about the entire game were groundless; it’s very good. It has a plot, but by the author’s own admission, ATD is much more game than story, an intricate puzzle-box, with a couple of puzzles I found very satisfying indeed.

The setup is complex, requiring the same sort of lateral thinking as that featured in Sorcerer‘s famous time-travel puzzle. Due to its convoluted nature, the game had to be quite a chore to implement, and while its coding isn’t perfect, I was impressed with how thoroughly and skillfully it covered a very wide range of permutations. Moreover, ATD does a wonderful job of automating mundane actions, the very thing I was moaning about in my review of The Great Xavio. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see something like this:

(first opening the door to the Deutsch lab)
(first unlocking the door to the Deutsch lab)

The Deutsch Laboratory

Every first-level object interaction I tried was handled gracefully, and the automation even did one or two cool tricks to keep track of player knowledge. Anyway, I’m about to raise a couple of points criticizing ATD, so I want to make it clear that I really did like the game. I liked it a lot.

That being said, there are a couple of flaws I’d like to discuss. The first is that I don’t think this game plays fair with the concept of the accretive PC. If you don’t recognize the term, that’s because I recently made it up, while reviewing Adam Cadre’s Lock & Key for IF-Review. In that review, I made the case that games like Lock & Key and Varicella have a unique sort of PC, one whose knowledge and/or cunning must by acquired by the player herself in order to successfully complete the game. Primo Varicella, for instance, has a devious plan to take over the regency. At the beginning of any session with Varicella, the PC knows what this plan is, but the player may or may not. It’s only through experiencing multiple iterations of the game, and thereby learning all the things that Primo already knows, that the player can hope to embody Primo successfully enough to win the game.

I call this sort of PC “accretive” because the player’s accreting knowledge allows the PC to become more and more himself on each playthrough, and once the player’s ingenuity matches that of the PC, she can successfully complete a game. When that happens, it’s as if the real story is finally revealed, and all those other failed attempts exist only in shadowy parallel universes. In my opinion, this sort of game is a brilliant refutation of the idea that IF games should be winnable without experience of “past lives.” After all, if the PC’s knowledge must match the player’s at the outset of the game, the PC must know very little, which is why we see so many amnesiac PCs in IF. An accretive PC allows the player to catch up with the PC through the device of past lives, and as long as the PC is established as already having all the knowledge that the player is able to gain, it all works swimmingly.

At first, ATD appears to be exactly this sort of game. It certainly requires quite a few iterations to win (or even to understand, really), and the PC is shown to have much more specific knowledge of the surrounding area and of her specific task than a player will on the first time through. However, partway through, something happens that the game clearly specifies as a surprise to the PC, something not included in her original plan. Consequently, she has to think on her feet in order to recover and still succeed at her goal. The only problem is, she can’t reasonably do that without knowledge of past lives.

A successful traversal of ATD requires not only knowledge of the circumstances and the setting, but advance knowledge of something that the game itself definitively states that the PC does not know in advance. Here, I cry foul. I’m not complaining that the game is unfair — it does an admirable job of warning players upfront that it’s going to be unfair, and I’m fine with that. However, it’s constructed in such a way that its story cannot make sense. The puzzles still work, but the unbelievability of the PC’s actions causes the story essentially to self-destruct.

There’s another problem too, one that causes the logic of the central puzzle to fall apart. Unfortunately, it’s terribly difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. About the best I can muster at the moment is that if I follow the solution as laid out in the walkthrough, it seems to me that one of the central problems presented by the game remains unsolved, though the game does not acknowledge that this is the case. Because I was crafting my puzzle solutions to avoid this unsolved state (and having a hell of a time solving the puzzle as a result), I was rather flummoxed when I finally broke down and looked at the walkthrough. It was unsatisfying to end the game feeling as if it hadn’t played by its own rules.

Now, as I said initially, the environment in this game is really quite complex, and it’s possible (likely, even) that my objections stem from a careless or incomplete understanding of how the game is actually working. If that’s the case, I look forward to withdrawing my complaints once somebody explains how I’m being dense. Even if not, the game is eminently worth playing just for its clever premise and a couple of excellent puzzles. It may play a bit fast and loose with its concept, and its ending may be a bit anticlimactic, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

Rating: 9.0