Jenni Polodna on Best Puzzles

Jenni Polodna has written one interactive fiction game; it is called Dinner Bell and people seem to like it fine.  You can read her loud opinions about competition games and other things at pissylittlesausages.wordpress.com, if that seems like a good idea for some reason.

She and Ryan Veeder also have a podcast called Clash of the Type-Ins (Ryan’s idea) where they play IF games over Skype with the people who wrote them.  You can find it at rcveeder.net/clash.

The finalists for Best Puzzles were Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Coloratura, and Threediopolis.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)

The basic building block of Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder is the classic treasure hunt, a style of gameplay that is the peanut butter to parser IF’s chocolate, or, alternately, its jelly, depending on what you like with your peanut butter.  There’s something very satisfying about hunting for collectibles, and parser IF’s strength at obscuring and then revealing objects through the words it gives the player to read is best displayed if you have something to find.

If this were just a treasure hunt, though, it probably wouldn’t be up for Best Puzzles and we probably wouldn’t be talking about it right now.  (Well, I wouldn’t.  I’d be at bingo night.  Y’all can do what you want.)

The real innovation in Verdeterre’s puzzles is the addition of rising water, an element that progressively destroys the game’s treasures.  Not only does this limit how many can be collected by the player, it creates meaningful choices, as there are many instances in which spending the turns to pick up one treasure means another will be swallowed by the sea.

Each treasure has a different value, only revealed at the end of the game when Captain Verdeterre sells it (or fails/refuses to sell it, in which case its value is null).  The treasures also vary in the number of turns they take to collect, and the point in the game at which they become uncollectible.  If you are amongst the target audience for this game, it is likely that a single word has already floated to the top of your consciousness:

The pleasures of this sort of optimization puzzle are twofold.  There’s the joy of mathing it all out, of course, if you happen to be the spreadsheet type.  Even someone like me, who is quite a bit more lazy than optimal, can get a cheap thrill from ignoring all the stuff the captain loves too much to sell, abandoning it forever to the ocean floor in favor of more profitable trinkets.  (If there was ever a guy who deserved some petty retribution, and that guy was a rat, he’d be Captain Verdeterre.)

Then there is the exploration required to fill out the cells in our spreadsheet.  The puzzles themselves are pretty straightforward, generally consisting of things being in other things.  Probably the most complicated puzzle involves dashing upstairs to grab a key from the captain’s room, then running back downstairs to unlock a strongbox, open it, and retrieve a fancy bottle of wine from inside of it before it sinks.  This is, I would argue, as it should be; including multi-step, thought-intensive puzzles into the time constraints necessitated by the sinking ship sounds like a frustrating thing to do to your players.

(Another frustrating thing to do to your players is to make acquisition of one of the treasures dependent on a die roll.  Ryan Veeder did this with the Spanish dagger but admitted later on his blog it was a mistake.)

Not everyone will be willing to see this game’s optimization puzzle through to the bitter end, of course, but most of us will at least be compelled to play it through a few times, and enjoy it.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is unique for many reasons, not least of which that it somehow manages to be a parser game in which you never take an object.  Wrap your shiny metal heads around that one, Adventure Roombas!

The game’s PC is also semi-liquid, an ancient multidimensional space ooze (or similar) called the Aqueosity.  Some of the puzzles are designed around your puddinglike physique, requiring you to, say, heat yourself up in a dryer and go flow through some pipes you don’t like, because pipes hate being hot so much that they break.  Or something.

(There is a bunch of machinery in Coloratura that you’re supposed to mess with, but it is described from the viewpoint of an alien consciousness who has no idea what any of it is or does, and generally all you need to figure out is which part of it to break.  As someone who is not a machine person in the same way Vlad Tepes is not a morning person, this suited me perfectly.)

Most notably, the Aqueosity perceives emotions as colors, and has the ability to influence the human crew (there’s a human crew – you played this game, right?  Go play this game!  I’ll wait) with the verb COLOR.  Red makes them scared, yellow makes them curious, indigo makes them trusting, etc.  The whole business reminded me pleasantly of a mood ring and the accompanying sheet of paper that tells you how to interpret its color.  (Before the mood ring, no one had any way to know what emotions they were experiencing.  Life was hard.  Nobody knew that, though, and were on the whole a lot better off than we are today.)

As a third trick, the Aqueosity is capable of possessing certain particularly receptive individuals and controlling their bodies directly, rendering some previously unavailable interactions like OPEN DOOR possible.  By possessing someone, the Aqueosity also gains their knowledge about what rooms and things are called, which is a really nice touch.

(I think this is a nominee for Best Individual Puzzle, it has to be, but I just want to mention that this game contains a puzzle where you combine chunks of frozen meat into an ambulatory consciousness that goes bounding off into the sunshine.  That is the best thing.  Even writing that sentence put me into a green mood of contentment.)

The puzzles present themselves linearly as part of a narrative, manifesting as problems the Aqueosity must solve in order to survive unmolested and make its way back home.  The solutions to these puzzles include physical manipulations with either the Aqueosity or a possessed body, COLORing people, some one-off textually hinted verbs like CONNECT, and working out the controls on a submarine (either this game needs more synonyms for what you do with a switch or I need to figure out how the hell a switch works).

So there’s a lot going on puzzlewise.  A bunch of it is fresh and innovative, which is definitely good, but I found myself at times wishing the game had narrowed its focus.  It’s not always clear which of the tools on your gadget belt will be effective in a given situation – this gets a bit read-the-author’s-mindy at times – and the color system, probably the most exciting of the novel mechanics, seems a bit neglected as a result.

The game is very good at subtly (and not-so-subtly) hinting your next move, which ameliorated the read-the-author’s-mind problem, but made me feel like I had solved very few of its puzzles on my own.  To compound this issue, every new mechanic (COLORing people, POSSESSing them) was presented as though we would naturally realize we could just type the words and do the things, instead of looking for solutions using the set of tools we knew about and were comfortable with.

Many of the time-sensitive puzzles in the later part of the game turned (for me, maybe not you, you’re a bright lad or lass) into an exercise in typing UNDO.  One particularly egregious moment, I think where I quit the first time through, is when we encounter the Captain sending a vomit S.O.S. into the porcelain ocean after being traumatized by our aforementioned meat creature (so good). She is a particularly unhealthy orange, and the game suggests we could help her.

We are a helpful Aqueosity, so we color her violet, and the ungrateful jerk immediately turns on us, heading off to the radio room to do… something we don’t want her to, I guess, because the game says now we need to get there before she does.  Which would be a lot less aggravating if we had any idea where the radio room was.  (Hint:  It’s one of the exits off of the room we are in, and it’s not labeled.)

This is not where I compose a treatise on time-sensitive puzzles, but I do have loud opinions about them.  I feel their function in an adventure game is similar to the function of a boss or miniboss in a combat-oriented game:  at their best, they are a test of the player’s accumulated knowledge and skill, and that is what makes them satisfying to beat.  Having to suddenly acquire map knowledge in the middle of a timed puzzle feels unfair.

Fortunately, we do not have to gain any knowledge during the later timed puzzle where we are controlling a submarine; the body we are possessing knows what all of the switches and levers do, and we only have to guess at which function will be most effective for our purposes.

Overall, though, I found Coloratura’s puzzles fresh and engaging, especially the ones involving my acidic semi-liquid body.  That last part is how I’m going to end every sentence from now on.

Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)

If you got really drunk or something one night and asked me what I like best in a wordplay game, I would probably tell you that I think games like Counterfeit Monkeywhere the environment is more than a shallow backdrop to the puzzles and the wordplay is a means of shaping that environment, are really cool.

You might then assume that I would not enjoy Threediopolis, a game which takes “shallow backdrop” to extremes:  every room is exactly the same, with a randomly assigned piece of worldbuilding/one-liner as its description, none of the game’s few objects are manipulatable in any real way, and solving the puzzles affects nothing in the world except the game’s ending.

If you then stated your assumption out loud, I would respond by leaping up on my bar stool, exclaiming “You are wrong, sir, madam, or gentleperson,” demanding you give me five dollars even though it wasn’t a bet, and going home to contemplate in solemn silence whether I have been deluded all these years about what I like best in a wordplay game.

The environment in Threediopolis might be completely perfunctory, but the heart of the game is its puzzle concept, which is elegant and clever and also satisfying, the way it is satisfying when something could not exist in any other form than its current one.  Basically, it takes the standard set of single-letter navigation abbreviations (NSEWUD), makes them into words for us to guess, and provides crossword-style clues for each one, along with its length.  The clever bit, though, is that the words retain their meaning as walking-around commands, and in addition to the other clues we are given the coordinates where typing them in would land us.

This is great, and very smart, and like any other puzzle made by and for smart people it presents initially as gibberish.  There is a long bit of flavor text at the beginning in which we discover that we have been co-opted into delivery service by a guy named Ed Dunn (everyone in this game has NSEWUD-compliant names, but they speak standard English; it’s weird) and then we are dropped into Threediopolis city sector 444 (which is the center of the city even though the city is a 9×9 grid; it’s weird) with a list of items like:

–near: Latin Mass@435, New&used Clothes@334, Sheep’s milk@435

Which makes absolute sense once you know what you’re looking at, but until then, boy howdy.  Our satisfaction with this kind of puzzle rests on its ability to deliver us to the moment of insight where everything becomes clear without holding our hand so tightly that we don’t give ourselves credit for it.  Threediopolis does this by nudging us towards sector 355, which yields results for DEN, END, and NED – meaning that we have a 50% chance of finding something if we attempt to walk there normally.  Once we find something, the clue for it on our list changes into its solution, and that’s a pretty blatant hint.  Since we’re all only allowed one click moment, it’s hard to say how well this works in general, but personally I was all “Aww yeah, we got the Megatome and we are the smartest.”

Once you’ve figured out how the puzzle works in general, the next step is to figure out each word on your list, using the information provided (clue, length, and location).  I had a lot of fun doing this, but it’s also where the admirable crystalline elegance of the whole thing started to fall apart for me, with the inconsistency of the clues.  For example, the solutions to the three listed above are DEUS, DUDS, and EWES.  There is no internal logic to them, they are simply the sort of thing you might say to someone (like Betty White) if you needed them to guess the word you were thinking of (so you could be Password champions).

This is by no means a dealbreaker, though, and there are multiple locations in the game where you can get hints and various gadgets to help you find things.  Ed Dunn will also offer to re-sort your list from alphabetical sections by length to fully alphabetical, which I found incredibly helpful.

I would heartily recommend this game to anyone who likes wordplay games, except I really hope that if you’re reading this, you’ve already played it, because I kind of just ruined it for you.  Sorry!

I would heartily recommend that you heartily recommend this game to anyone who likes wordplay games and has not yet played it nor had it ruined for them by me upon the reading of this document.

Peace out.

2 thoughts on “Jenni Polodna on Best Puzzles

  1. Andrew Schultz

    Thanks, this was very fun to read, both for Lynnea/Ryan’s and mine! And after a big long think I have no good answer to your concern. I just plain never thought of the clues that way, where the first in alphabetical order give players the wrong impression. I just assumed people would pick off or look for certain (relatively) easy ones once they figured the 355 hint, but there is more than one way to do this.

    I have a feeling there’s a way to clean this up, but I haven’t found it yet. But this feels like a situation where I needed to make previous clues better/less horrible, so I’d like to see if I can make other fixes.

    Reply
    1. Jenni

      That would be cool! Don’t worry about it overmuch, though, it’s not a huge dealbreaker.

      Also, the single word “Spreadsheet” in italics should appear in the Captain Verdeterre review. I will leave it as a fun game to the reader to figure out where.

      Reply

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