Letters From Home by Roger Firth [Comp00]

IFDB page: Letters From Home
Final placement: 12th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Graham Nelson once described interactive fiction as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” Letters From Home takes a definite side in this battle by being an interactive narrative where the main goal is to complete a crossword, and whose entire purpose is structured around puzzle-solving, the “crossword” part of the metaphor.

The explicit connection with that metaphor is just one of the many pieces of Nelsoniana scattered throughout the game. From the introductory text, to the Jigsaw (grandfather clock and Titanic mementos) and Curses (sprawling mansion filled with relics of distinguished ancestors) references, to the somber traces of wartime, the whole thing comes across as a loving tribute to Graham. Being a Nelson admirer myself, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the various clever nods to him peppered throughout this game. There’s also a hilarious Zork allusion in a throwaway parser response and even a passing reference to the author’s own Cloak Of Darkness demonstration page for the various IF languages.

The main attraction in Letters, though, is the puzzles. This is one of those games whose plot is thin to nonexistent, and whose mimesis gets shattered (literally) in the course of puzzle-solving. The game isn’t particularly straightforward about announcing what your objective is supposed to be, but it comes clear after a bit. At first, Letters seems to be a standard-issue “collect your inheritance by solving puzzles” game a la Hollywood Hijinx, but the plot and the mimesis both evaporate rather quickly as it becomes clear that the real point of the game is collecting the letters of the alphabet by finding things that represent or resemble them in some way.

For example, you find a cup of tea, and sure enough, it represents the letter T. Once you get the hang of it (hint: leave your sense of realism at the door), most of these puzzles are fun, and a few are quite remarkable. Some, though, are marred by ambiguous writing. For example, one of the necessary objects is described as stuck to a skylight. Perhaps because of architectural styles where I live, I don’t expect that I’ll be able to reach up and touch a skylight — they tend to be placed in high ceilings. Consequently, I thought that the puzzle was to find a way to reach this object — I climbed stuff, searched for a ladder, tried to haul furniture into the room, all to no avail. Finally, I turned to the hints, which just said to… take it. I did, and it worked.

Now, part of the problem here was no doubt my fault: I should have just tried taking the item. However, I’d submit that if you’re writing descriptions (especially terse descriptions like those in this game) where critical puzzle pieces depend on how the player envisions the room, there had better be a lot of clues in place to make sure that you’re communicating clearly. Letters From Home sometimes fails to do this.

I didn’t finish the game in the two-hour judging period — no great surprise since I’m guessing there are twenty-six letter puzzles, some of which require multiple steps. In addition, there’s a time limit, which I blithely exceeded. So I don’t know much about the ending, and probably missed half the puzzles. I doubt the ending has much of a punch — there’s virtually no narrative in this game, and solving the puzzles is its own reward. As for the half I missed, if they’re anything like the half I found, I’ll bet they’re a lot of fun, though occasionally needlessly frustrating.

Letters was coded quite well — I only found one bug, though a rather amusing one. The game’s time limit is 12:00 noon, and it creates atmosphere by having the village chimes toll on the hour. However, once it gets past noon, the chimes toll thirteen times, then fourteen times, and so on. The funny thing is, the game is so unrealistic that at first I didn’t even notice the oddness of the extra chimes. In a world where everything keeps turning into letters of the alphabet, and abstract concepts like letters can be carried around in your inventory, what’s a little extra chiming?

Letters From Home is a fun, lexicographically oriented puzzlefest that needs a bit more work on writing and coding before it can reach the Nelsonian level to which it aspires. This review has been brought to you by the letters “G” and “N”.

Rating: 8.2

Ad Verbum by Nick Montfort [Comp00]

IFDB page: Ad Verbum
Final placement: 4th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head Or Tail Of It doesn’t tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game’s greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you.

Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don’t know a lot of cliches, or if you don’t enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn’t the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it’s not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game — it’s nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there’s a room where every single word starts with “S”. I’m not kidding — every single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s the room description:

Sloppy Salon
Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I’ve seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can’t believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter “E”, one for “N”, one for “W”, and another for “S”. Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words — the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game.

Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing — I shudder to think what this game’s code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game’s rules, but which the game didn’t recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I’ll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn’t try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles.

The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn’t prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can’t say I blame it — frankly, I’m astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks — but that didn’t make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6

[Postscript from 2020: Ad Verbum won the XYZZY Award for Best Puzzles, in a ceremony held on ifMUD. In accepting the award, Montfort gave the most astounding acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I reproduce it here in full, from its archive on Montfort’s site:

Ahem, awesome! Author accepts an appealing award affably.

As author’s actions affirm, alphabetical arrangements always amused author. Assembling assorted arbitrary ASCII, ad absurdo, as adventure and acquisition, appeared attractive.

And accordingly, author attacked adventure, abandoning ars amatoria, abandoning athletic activity, appearing agonizingly antisocial. After arduous attempts and assays, author actualized adventure.

Accolade and adventurer appreciation authentically affects author.

Acknowledgement appears appropriate: author appreciates all assistance and aid, awfully. An acolyte (“alone,” as acolyte’s appellation asserts) accoutered abundant authentication aid, assuredly above average.

Author asserts again: acclaim’s absolutely appreciated. Adieu!]