Lucian Smith on Best Individual Puzzle

Hi!  I’m Lucian Smith, and back in the day (that day being a Tuesday in 1997), I wrote a puzzle that ended up winning that year’s XYZZY Award for Best Individual Puzzle: the language puzzle in The Edifice (which also won Best Puzzles and that year’s IF Comp).  Since then, I’ve mostly dabbled or collaborated on the writing games end of things, but I’ve stayed involved in the community mostly through hanging out on ifMUD–my most recent significant contributions are probably hosting the XYZZY award presentations there, and writing the occasional reviews such as this one and the same thing last year.

As before, I’m not going to worry about spoiling the puzzles nominated here, and will be assuming that you’ve played the entirety of all the games, or at least that you’ve played all of the games you want to before reading this review.

All my transcripts of the transcriptable games are available at https://drive.google.com/#folders/0B71r5kLs3FliRkMzVW5JdWtkNTA. As a side note, the lack of transcriptability for the CYOA games continues to be a horrible deficiency in the system, and I’m frankly astonished that any system can have lasted this long without it.

Creating the meat monster in Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

So, Coloratura was a delightful game with a very unique protagonist with unusual abilities, and those unusual abilities were used in a variety of interesting ways to make up the various puzzles of the game.  One can easily see why it was nominated for Best Puzzles, and it follows inevitably that at least one of those puzzles would be nominated for Individual Puzzle.  So the question becomes:  what was it about this puzzle in particular that made it stand out from the rest of the game?

I have to say that playing through with the expectation that there was a ‘creating the meat monster’ puzzle in the game somewhere diminished the effect of solving the puzzle.  Instead of entering the freezer with the goal of ‘maybe there’s something here that can help me get around or disperse the crowd outside’, I instead saw piles of meat and thought, ‘Oh, I bet this is where I create a meat monster.’  I typed ‘enter meat’, which at this point was a fairly standard command to enter, and boom, meat monster created.

My guess is that this puzzle worked for most people on the same principle as a joke works:  the best humor tends to contain a moment that is surprising, but which makes sense in a different context.  Here, too, the response to ‘enter meat’ is surprising, but makes sense, given the context of this unusual protagonist.  It also serves to move the mythology forward, with new insights into how the world works from your shifted perspective.

So it was clearly a good moment, even if (as in my case) the surprise was lessened due to spoilers.  Does it work as a puzzle, per se?  For me, the best puzzles work when you have a clear intent, you try something that you think might work, and eventually get to the point where your intent matches your actions, and the world responds accordingly.  The problem with classifying this moment in the game as ‘a good puzzle’ is that I cannot see how player intent is involved, other than them messing around trying to enter various random things.  Which, again, is a perfectly fine thing to happen and to put into a game.  It’s just not what I would call a ‘puzzle’.

Here’s an analogy:  in DoubleFine’s new game Broken Age, you play through the game as one of two characters, and can switch between them as often as you want.  There’s a moment in the game where the connection between the two worlds is revealed, and like a good joke, it is totally surprising but totally makes sense in a different context.  It’s one of the best moments in the game.  But I would not classify it as the best *puzzle* in the game, because it didn’t involve any player intent and manipulation of the game world.  There was slightly more player intent here, but not a ton—I’m glad the moment was in the game, but am somewhat frustrated by it being nominated by players as the ‘best puzzle’.

To contrast that moment with a different moment in the game that’s more what I would call a ‘puzzle’, at one point you’re privy to an argument, and the Captain says she’s going to radio for help.  Then the game straight-up tells you, “you have to get to the radio before she does.”  So off you go to the radio room, and start messing around with the stuff you find there.  Direct sabotage doesn’t work like it did the last time you had to break something, but as you fiddle with things, you eventually work out that the radio has a tape player in it, and that you can pick up magnetism from a nearby compass.  In a sudden flash of insight, I realized I might be able to take the magnetism from the compass and use it to re-write the tape in the tape player—I tried this, and it worked!  And then, not only did it stop the Captain from radioing for help, but converted one of the crew to my side, advancing the plot and the mythology of the world in one go.  It was a great moment as well as a good puzzle, and I kind of wish the nominations had gone with that one instead.  I suppose it serves me right for never playing anything before the votes are in, though.

Discovering the type of route that works in Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)

I really bounced hard off of this game.  The introduction text immediately told me, “there’s not going to be any pretense of plot here, just some word puzzles,” in a way that managed to make this sound tremendously unappealing to me.  Normaly this would be great, because then I could just quit the game and go on with my life, but in this case I was obligated to write a review, so I pressed on.  My disengagement with the game only increased.  “Man,” I thought, “this is just like that game last year with the word puzzles and anagrams.”  Then I looked up who the author was of that game, and it turned out to be Andrew Schultz, again.  So hey, that explains it!  I was actually a bit less frustrated with the game at that point, since at that point I knew mine was a fairly idiosyncratic response to Andrew’s writing.

However, I never did make any progress at all towards any of the goals of this game, and in fact never even figured out what those goals might be.  None of the instructions and none of the clues in the game made the least amount of sense to me, and I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where to start.  Looking up hints similarly didn’t help, and it wasn’t until I finally read ‘starting at your initial location, spell out words going to the listed locations with directions,’ that I understood what was going on.  Which was too late, because that realization was the whole puzzle.

This was unfortunate, since in the abstract, ‘discovering the type of route that works’ sounds like a pretty good puzzle!  All the pieces were there to make it work; there’s a starting place, an ending place, a limited set of ways to get from one to the other, and the potential for crossword-style clues if you need hints along the way.  If I didn’t personally cringe at the setup here for some reason, I think I could have enjoyed making that leap of intuition to the solution.  Unfortunately, I never even found the starting blocks.

Earning One Million Dollars in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine)

Really, XYZZY nominators?  Really?  There are indeed puzzles in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, but ‘earning one million dollars’ is not actually one of them.  Dollars are the *score* by which your progress is marked in this game.  Saying that earning a million bucks is your favorite puzzle in this game is like claiming that scoring 350 points is your favorite puzzle in Zork.

“Aha,” claims the alert and long-time reader, “in 2011, you wrote favorably of ‘escaping the tower’ in ‘Indigo’, which is the exact same thing!  It’s the final puzzle that’s a stand-in for all the puzzles of the game!”  “Not so,” I reply, “But I’m going to stop using quotation marks for my response.”  You see, Indigo had a single mechanic in it, which you first had to discover and then had to execute:  when you were done executing the mechanic, you had accomplished the final goal (‘escaping the tower’), and were done with the game.  Here, gaining money is not a mechanic, it is a reward.  There’s no one thing that you do throughout the game (other than ‘click links’, I suppose) that could possibly count, for me at least, as anything coherent enough to count as ‘a puzzle’.

I should probably emphasize at this point that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the game itself that warrants the annoyance I’ve expressed so far.  Keeping score by way of money earned is perfectly valid, and thematically appropriate for the game Porpentine was writing here.  I’m just annoyed that anyone would think to nominate a scoring system as a puzzle.

To contrast, then, let’s discuss an actual puzzle from the game:  getting past the bees.  Since this is a story-heavy CYOA, the vast majority of the game consists merely of clicking on things, and enjoying the prose that results.  Getting past the bees, however, requires some actual thinking:  you have to guess that there’s a way to get past the bee gate; you have to read the text of the ‘difficulty levels’ carefully, make the intuitive leap that the two are connected, and then implement your plan.  Sure, it’s still CYOA, but it’s still a satisfying puzzle-solving moment.

Getting out of the lab in Chemistry and Physics (Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine)

There’s not particularly a lot to this puzzle—if you go everywhere and click on everything, you end up with all of three items, two of which are obviously combinable (the alcohol and the explosives), and one of which has an explicit use (the glassware).  This leaves one item whose use is potentially unknown (the explosives), and the only question becomes ‘where do I put this’?  After some experimentation, I worked out where it probably went, and was rewarded by a blank screen—somehow, I ran into a bug.  I asked a friend about it, who then ran into the exact same bug, despite having played and beaten the game before.  Chalk one up to Twine instability, I guess?  I can work out the basics of what happens after that, at least—you somehow get it lit, then break the glass to draw the villain there, skedaddle, and then the explosion takes out the door and the bad guy.  A relatively complex puzzle for a hypertext game, and reasonable for a short game like this.

Maximizing your profit in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)

I must admit that this game was not compelling enough to me personally to actually try to solve it.  I got to the end of the game, couldn’t figure out how to swim, and then promptly gave up.  However, it seemed to me that the nominated puzzle would be a pretty good puzzle.

The basic idea here is that you are on a sinking ship filled with treasure, trying to snag as much of it as you can before it sinks.  As you go, you also have to figure out how to get the materials you need to swim away at the end (or at least, I presume that’s what you have to do.)  So there’s several points to the puzzle:  you have to figure out how many moves it takes to get each treasure, whether those moves can be optimized, whether you can combine moves in getting one treasure with getting a different treasure, and finally whether all that effort is worth it, or if you should instead spend your moves grabbing something else.  Combine this with the sequential nature of the rising water (first it covers the things on the floor, then it covers low things in the room, then it covers everything in the room, then it moves on to the next upper deck), and you have the makings of a quite complicated yet still feasibly-solvable optimization puzzle.  If the game had been more personally compelling, or even if I had been able to figure out how to swim away at the end, I might have been willing to tackle it.  And indeed, I watched a conversation on ifMUD where the participants were collectively and individually solving this puzzle and sharing their progress, and it sounded like they were having fun.

It’s probably worth pointing out that while on the surface, ‘maximizing your score’ and ‘getting a million dollars’ may seem like the same sort of thing (I complained about dollars being your score, after all), but they really are not.  The million dollars was just ‘playing the game’, while ‘maximizing your score’ is indeed a separate puzzle in its own right.

Three-latch door in Faithful Companion (Matt Weiner)

This was a reasonable puzzle, but perhaps slightly unfair.  The basic idea is that a ghost is following you, repeating everything you do two moves after you do it.  There’s a door with three latches on it, each activated and inactivated by pushing on the latch—therefore, every time you open two of the latches, by the time you’re on the third one, the ghost is pushing the first one (as you did two turns ago), locking it again.

I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to work this out within the confines of the above description, thinking that if I pushed one button twice, then moved on to the others, the ghost would then be pushing the latch at just the right time… but no.  The trick turns out to be that you have to lock the ghost out of the room so you can open the door in peace.  I had actually had that idea at one point, but whatever I had tried hadn’t worked, and then I forgot about it, so when I finally asked for a hint, I was all, ‘I thought I tried that!’  Of course, I hadn’t; I had just dismissed the idea too quickly.  Once on the right track, I was still a bit behind, because I apparently had not read the descriptions carefully enough the first time to realize that the ghost had the key to the door, and I assumed that I had simply lost it.  After working out what had happened (and restarting the game, which was short), I was finally able to retrieve the key from the ghost by typing ‘drop key’ when I didn’t actually have the key, which was kind of cool (the ghost dropped it itself, three turns later), and then was able to lock it out and open the door.  In my defense, a ghost being blocked by a door is not something one typically imagines would be true of ghosts, when they have the whole ‘incorporeal’ thing going for them.  But I suppose if you’re substantial enough to pick up a key, you’re substantial enough to get blocked by a door.

Overall, I would rate this puzzle as ‘satisfying’, which for a game of this size is basically perfect.

33 thoughts on “Lucian Smith on Best Individual Puzzle

  1. inurashii

    I don’t understand why someone whose attitude to four out of five of these puzzles can best be described as ‘flippant disinterest’ wrote this review on behalf of the XYZZY awards blog.

    Reply
    1. Lucian

      Well, obviously I didn’t know what the puzzles would be like before being asked to write about them, since I hadn’t played them beforehand. Once I had, I tried to write the reviews as fairly as possible, describing both my own response to them, and how I imagined an ‘ideal player’ might respond. Sorry if it didn’t work for you.

      Reply
      1. inurashii

        Negative reviews are, in and of themselves, fine. I just feel that this is a lousy platform for personal blog-style reviews.

        Reply
    2. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

      Several points.

      1) ‘Liked the finalist’ is not a qualification for a reviewer in this context. The first responsibility of a reviewer, in any context, is to honestly unpack their experience of a game.

      2) Typically, reviewers have not played all the games in a category when they’re signed up to review it. (It’d be nice if that were a qualification; if the community supported ten times its present number of engaged, proven reviewers, maybe it could be.)

      3) The Reviews are not an official anointing of a reviewer’s perspective. That’s part of why I called ‘em Pseudo-Official. The aim is to provide reviewers a platform and a motivation, and to trust them beyond that. My editing process is mostly confined to formatting and factual correction; reviewers are asked to focus on the category and be polite but honest. (From the guidelines: ‘This is not an appropriate venue for mud-slinging or airing of grievances… say what you mean, say it clearly, and be fair.’)

      4) The ideal for the Reviews has always been to get at least two reviewers to cover each category, so that if one reviewer doesn’t personally jive with a game, the other/s can provide an alternate viewpoint. I have never yet been able to make this happen for every category, for which I apologise; I continue trying.

      Individual Puzzle is a particularly thorny category for this, because if you don’t get a puzzle, it’s near-impossible to recover the core experience of getting it. I should have been more cognizant of this and worked harder to get multiple reviewers for this category; I’ll certainly do so next year (the category itself may have been reformed somewhat by then, but the principle will probably still apply.)

      Reply
      1. inurashii

        I can’t get behind the notion that these reviews should be just like any other reviews of the the sort written and linked during IFComp. You can include as many disclaimers as you want about how this is ‘semi-official’ (an ambiguous term at best), but the fact of the matter is that the name of the award is the domain name of this site. Expecting an audience not to associate this blog’s content with the XYZZY ‘official’ position is naive.

        This isn’t a personal review blog. This is xyzzyawards.org. While negative reviews aren’t out of the question, I would expect them to at least be thoughtful analyses rather than clusters of vaguely apathetic personal anecdotes. It is, IMO, particularly bizarre to literally wonder above the cut why a popular game language has “lasted this long” for not having transcripting abilities.

        A review like this being given a platform on a site that is the very first google result for ‘XYZZY awards’ is not a good look for our community. “Here are our nominees, they’re ok I guess except for all the problems.”

        Reply
        1. Lucian

          Well, hmm. Would you say that my reviews this year are substantially different from those last year (http://xyzzyawards.org/?p=96) or the year before that (http://xyzzyawards.org/reviews/reviews2011.html#lpsrace)? If so, what would you say has changed? If not, did you find the previous year’s reviews (those that were negative) inappropriate as well?

          It may simply be that the number of puzzles that grabbed me this year was lower than normal, or that I was in a worse mood when writing them than I realized. And criticizing the ‘lasted this long’ comment is fair; that probably was more of a jab than a critique, and I do apologize.

          Reply
          1. cvaneseltine

            Going back to the first XYZZY semi-official reviews (http://xyzzyawards.org/reviews/reviews2011.html), the very first sentence is:

            “If there’s one thing better than people telling you they like something you did, it’s having them explain why they liked it, in detail.”

            I think that summarizes really well what I’m hoping for. As both a player and an author, I want people who LIKED these games to tell me about them. Maybe that’s not what Sam was searching for – maybe it’s not what’s even advertised. But when I saw the puzzle list come up, it’s what I expected to see.

            You asked: “Would you say that my reviews this year are substantially different from those last year or the year before that? If so, what would you say has changed? If not, did you find the previous year’s reviews (those that were negative) inappropriate as well?”

            Looking at all three years, here’s what I see:

            2011:

            The Race: Liked the game, liked the puzzle
            Indigo: Liked the game, liked the puzzle
            How Suzy Got Her Powers: Neutral on the game, didn’t like the puzzle

            2012:

            A Killer Headache: Neutral on the game, liked the puzzle
            Shuffling Around: Hated the game, never got to the puzzle
            Bigger Than You Think: Liked the game, liked the puzzle

            2014:

            Coloratura: Liked the game, didn’t like the puzzle
            Threediopolis: Hated the game, never got to the puzzle
            ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III: Neutral on the game, hated the puzzle
            Chemistry and Physics: Neutral on the game, neutral on the puzzle
            Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder: Hated the game, never got to the puzzle
            Faithful Companion: Neutral on the game, liked the puzzle

            In prior years, your reviews read like you liked most of the nominations, either for their puzzles or their design. This year, your reviews read like you hated 5/6ths of the XYZZY puzzle nominations, either because you didn’t like the game, or because you didn’t like the puzzle.

            That’s really hard to read. It isn’t what I hoped for.

          2. matt w

            [Disclosure: I'm a nominated author too, and the one whose puzzle got the best review.]

            To tell the truth, I remember feeling a little discontented by your reviews last year, generally on the two-vote threshold and specifically for Shuffling Around — to the extent that, under a misapprehension as to who had written the review, I had prepared a comment about the relative frequency of “Almond” and [that reviewer's name] as last names. Of course it didn’t work with “Smith.”

            But that aside, I think last year, even though you never got to the puzzle, you gave an in-depth analysis of why you didn’t like the game’s puzzle style. (I had a different reaction, but de gustibus ‘n’at.) This year, that didn’t happen quite so much. It might’ve been impossible to write an analysis of the puzzle given the particular way that you had to exhaust the hints to get it, but that’s one relevant difference I see.

            With Ultra Business Tycoon, I actually agreed to some extent that it was out of place in this category; not so much because money is the scoring system (“Getting the last lousy point in Lost Pig” would’ve been a fine Individual Puzzle nominee even though it involves the scoring system), but that I thought it was a collection of separate puzzles rather than one individual puzzle. But still, I think it’s more rewarding to take the nominees on their own terms (as Wade Clarke did with 18 Cadence’s graphical environment); so it would’ve been more ideal to have one paragraph about whether this was a suitable nominee and three about the bee puzzle rather than vice versa.

            One difference between this year and last is that there were twice as many nominees this year, which may have given you less space for analysis and less inclination to keep trying with puzzles you weren’t in sympathy with.

          3. Lucian

            [For some reason, there's no 'reply' link to cvaneseltine's post, so I'm replying to my own post instead...]

            OK, it sounds like the problem is largely that I’m not hitting the right tone, then, because several of your ‘hated’ and ‘loved’ impressions are not at all what I felt about the puzzle or game in question. Which is all on me; I need to be more clear and/or more circumspect, and apparently failed to do that. For what it’s worth, I didn’t hate *any* of the puzzles, though there were several I simply didn’t connect with during my own playthrough.

            And I did feel bad about Verdeterre; I was already struggling with trying to get through all the games and write them all up before the deadline, and Verdeterre suffered the most.

            At any rate, after bringing up the idea with maga, I’m going to have a go at re-writing the reviews with a more careful eye on tone, and try to skew back towards the analysis end of things. That was always my intent, but clearly the actual write-ups failed in that. I’ll still try to convey the same opinions (I still *have* the same opinions, after all), but be more clear about why, and what I can tell you about other perspectives. Wish me luck!

  2. Lynnea Glasser

    I also think it was in incredibly poor taste to go forward with a set of reviews that are — at their most positive — blase indifference. People enjoy and interact with the XYZZY awards because they enjoyed the content enough to vote it for an award, and are looking forward to seeing a review that deconstructs just what was so award-winning about the content. Now there’s not to say that there shouldn’t be room for stuff like, “I really enjoyed this puzzle, but it could have been even better if the author had done ABC,” but it shouldn’t be at the level of a dismissive 1-paragraph, “There’s not really a lot to this puzzle…” I pull out that one sentence, but really all of the sentences were similarly negative. There was no attempting to understand or explain the core mechanics or enjoyment factors of each puzzle. Just meh surface descriptions.

    This review was a disappointment. The editor should have been clearer to the reviewer about the expectations from the beginning. When this negative of review was reviewed by an editor for publication, there should have been some dialogue towards changing the direction or a search for a backup writer. It should have never been published.

    This was not a positive, well-executed move: don’t double down and defend it. Make it right.

    Reply
    1. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

      I am looking at getting pinch-hitter reviewer. (This is, obviously, a process which may take some time.)

      Reply
        1. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

          As a title? No good reason but accident. (Analysis has always been the intent, at least.)

          Clarifying: would you prefer, in future, an approach to writer recruitment and editing that produced fewer total reviews (which would, at least sometimes, mean that some categories went uncovered) but applied more standards to the final product?

          Reply
          1. inurashii

            I would prefer that, yes. To go a step further: I would rather see no reviews at all given this platform than have it given to a single “I liked or did not like this” critique-style review.

            To quote Carolyn below: “Considering the matter, perhaps what I’m looking for in the semi-official XYZZY blog is a discussion or an analysis rather than a review.” I agree.

            Further perspective from @Corvak on my twitter feed: “blogging an event, readers kind of expect a certain level of objective commentary as opposed to critique.”

            Judgment in the XYZZY awards is already meted out by the people voting in it, and a sweeping majority of the games have already been given thoughtful personal critiques. I don’t feel that xyzzyawards.org particularly needs to host more of it.

    2. Lucian

      I did try to be honest, fair, and kind in all of the reviews, but I’m not going to say “I really enjoyed this puzzle but…” if I didn’t really enjoy the puzzle. When I wrote that there wasn’t a lot to that puzzle, it’s because I believed there was, objectively, not a lot to the puzzle. If it seemed like a lot of the puzzles didn’t grab me, it’s because a lot of the puzzles didn’t grab me. And I admitted in several places this was potentially ideosyncratic, and I tried to imagine how another person might respond differently. In each, I attempted (with mixed success) to analyze the underlying mechanisms of the puzzle and why they might be enjoyable. And honestly, if you have other insights into that, I’d love to hear them! If there was more to the the lab (for example) than what I could find (and there clearly is, since I ran into a bug), and anything to the puzzle mechanics more than ‘click everywhere, then find the right room to drop something’, discussing that would be great.

      And I honestly would love to hear an explanation from someone who nominated ‘getting a million dollars’ as the best puzzle. I literally could not imagine any thought process that would lead someone to nominate that activity as ‘best puzzle’. But multiple people did, so there must be *some* connection!

      Reply
      1. A. DeNiro

        I’m not trying to pile on here, but I just wanted to add one thing…I think there’s a legitimate difference between “trying the game and not liking it and writing the review” and “kind of attempting the game, and then writing the review”. I think this is actually most pronounced in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder; it seems really half-hearted not to figure out how to escape the boat and get to the endgame (basically wandering around will let you arrive there). And that it perhaps warrants the generosity of another try?

        More broadly for the future I think it’s less about bad reviews per se (you can learn a lot from a constructive bad review) and more about tone and engagement. But other people’s mileage might vary. (And thanks Sam for organizing these reviews.)

        Reply
      2. Brendan Patrick Hennessy

        I added the million dollars thing to the ifdb For Your Consideration list for this category, so I might be considered something of a patient zero for the nomination. I was specifically thinking about having to check the NFO to get the serial number that gives you access to the last bit of the one million dollars. It’s by no means a difficult or complicated puzzle, but it does require taking an action that you wouldn’t expect to be taking in a twine game, and the experience of solving it lines up nicely with what the out-of-game protagonist is doing.

        I disagree with you calling money the game’s score. I would say money is the game’s object (ostensibly anyway). Unlike a point, it’s not some kind of abstract reward or progress marker that’s layered on top of the game. Money exists as an item within the game world that you get when your character literally finds money. And getting access to the end of the game requires you to find all of it.

        Out of all the puzzles I experienced last year, this was the one I found the most satisfying, well-written, and memorable. All a matter of personal taste of course, but that’s why it got my vote.

        Reply
        1. matt w

          Interesting. I got the NFO puzzle very early; something at the screen I started the game from made me say “I might need to look at that NFO sometime,” and I played with it open in another tab. So for me it wasn’t the last bit. The assault on PorpCorp was what I did last, and I had figured that the nomination mostly pertained to the bees. (Which I would have thought would especially appeal to you!)

          That’s part of the reason I think “getting a million dollars” is more a collection of puzzles than an individual puzzle; it involves a lot of different subtasks many of which can be done independently in various orders, and they contribute to the whole not by providing parts for you to assemble but by adding money to your account.

          Reply
        2. Lucian

          Aha! Yes, that’s critical information. So it’s just a matter of mis-labeling, then–the puzzle you meant to nominate was ‘using the NFO’, but you labeled it as ‘getting a million dollars’, thinking everyone would encounter that puzzle last (I assume). If other people also thought of that nomination as ‘the last puzzle I encountered in the game’ that would explain why it got more votes, because whatever puzzle was the hardest for people would be the last one they solved, and therefore the most satisfying.

          That’s happened before, actually: ‘the maze’ in ‘Hunter, In Darkness’ won Best Individual Puzzle a while back, but there were actually two completely different puzzles and solutions to the maze, depending on what you had done in the game prior to that point. There, it was even less clear that your experience with the game might not have matched someone else’s.

          Reply
  3. matt w

    Hi Lucian! In fact you did manage to make the game unwinnable the first playthrough, through a bug. When you threw the key at the latch, my code for throwing something at something which I guess was meant to cover throwing the key at the ghost who was sitting on the bench moved the key to the holder of the latch, which was the door. So the key was part of the door, or maybe in the door, and you couldn’t get it. This was me trying to get too fancy with the code; if I do another release I’ll just have the key wind up in the location. Sorry you had to deal with that!

    The situation you wound up in the second playthrough is also unusual, if semi-designed; I think the only way to get yourself in a situation where the ghost has the key and won’t spontaneously drop it is to try to unlock the door before uncovering the key (which automatically happens on turn 3). Most of the time, if the ghost has picked up the key without ending the game, it’s because you’ve already dropped it, so the ghost will drop it soon; only an unsuccessful implicit take will leave the key in the ghost’s possession for any length of time. So I’m glad you figured out the solution (when I first thought of this I’d been afraid it might make the game unwinnable until I figured out “Drop key”).

    Reply
    1. matt w

      I wanted to specifically respond to the review of my puzzle, but like the other commenters I found the reviews of the other puzzles generally unsatisfying.

      Reply
    2. Hanon Ondricek

      I’m surprised that this reviewer didn’t perhaps attempt to read walkthroughs. If you don’t have time to finish the game and you are tagged to write a comprehensive review as to why it was nominated for an award, seriously…buy the cliff notes!

      Reply
      1. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

        Which of these games had walkthroughs?

        Verdeterre: no.
        ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III: no, but not relevant.
        Coloratura: yes, but that wouldn’t have helped with the problem in question.
        Chemistry & Physics: no.
        Faithful Companion: no.
        Threediopolis: there’s a hint sheet, which I personally found as confounding as the puzzle itself.

        There are ClubFloyd transcripts for the parser ones. (Floyd cannot run Twine.) That is a resource which we should be sure to remind reviewers about.

        Reply
        1. Hanon Ondricek

          You’re right. I guess I had read enough discussion about some of these games to believe there was a walkthrough. My bad!

          Reply
        2. Andrew Schultz

          It looks like Lucian played version 2, from his transcript. So, then, he’d have had version 2′s hint sheet, which was a substantial upgrade over version 1.

          And while the style of version 1 could’ve used fixing, it did describe what the puzzle was and how to figure the game’s main mechanic. I had some sloppiness there, but I worked to fix it.

          Given this, I don’t think the version 2 hint file, the one Lucian would’ve consulted, is particularly confounding. Particularly not for the category in question: best individual puzzle, and not best puzzles.

          I also agree with Hanon’s comment below that asking the author doesn’t seem out of bounds. It would have helped last year, too, I think. I could, if nothing else, have provided a relevant save state.

          As for the categorical no’s: they shouldn’t be big deals in games that are relatively small, or again, someone could ask the game writers for hints/walkthroughs if needed. It’s the least we could do to encourage more thorough reviews, even if it may be a bad sign an XYZZY reviewer has to ask for them. I would be willing to do my part to assist a reviewer to ensure they were able to look at everything they needed to.

          Reply
          1. Lucian

            I did indeed have the ‘upgraded’ hint sheet, and it did me no good. These things happen. I’ll go into more detail in version 2!

  4. cvaneseltine

    I was also disappointed by this commentary. I do recognize that the author has contributed to the IF community, and I respect that and appreciate that, but I don’t feel that the author’s reviews were appropriate for the semi-official XYZZY reviews.

    I’ve been reading every “semi-official” XYZZY review. What I expect to get out of it is “why was this game nominated?” I expect the author to be excited about these games, and to make me excited as well, because these games ARE – according to the voting public – the best games of 2013 in their categories. Perhaps it’s because every other author has done this so well that I was so disappointed by this one.

    Considering the matter, perhaps what I’m looking for in the semi-official XYZZY blog is a discussion or an analysis rather than a review. But that’s a matter for future discussion, rather than this specific comment.

    The reviews given here didn’t seem evenhanded or fair, and they don’t treat the XYZZY voting audience with respect. They feel more like a critique of the voting public’s tastes, which is particularly misplaced when the author even noted that he had not played any of the games himself prior to the nominations. This really isn’t what was hoping for, and as a member of that XYZZY voting audience, I’m disappointed.

    (I am also a nominated author, which may affect my perspective.)

    Reply
  5. Emily Short

    Re. “The problem with classifying this moment in the game as ‘a good puzzle’ is that I cannot see how player intent is involved, other than them messing around trying to enter various random things.”

    For me, it went something like this: “The PC is unhappy because the meat is unhappy. How do I resolve the PC’s distress about this? Perhaps it would involve making the meat feel better, in the way that the Aqueosity understands that.” In other words, it did involve an intent, and the solution involved stretching myself to think in terms of the Aqueosity’s perceptions and abilities, and taking a leap that turned out to be right. From that perspective, I found it a satisfying puzzle in that it was tightly connected to the narrative, required me to put myself in the protagonist’s mindset more deeply, but was still possible for me to work out based on what I’d already learned about how the Aqueosity worked. Understanding the puzzle also meant understanding the story better, which was a win-win for me. (And then I was rewarded with the meat golem scene.)

    I can see how being set up for this scene as “here is a scene where you need to make a meat creature” basically totally destroys it as a puzzle and even obscures how it might have been interesting, but there’s my take, fwiw.

    Reply
    1. Lucian

      Aha! Yes, I can see that. The combination of the spoiler and the fact that I solved it in a single move totally obscured that for me; thanks.

      Reply
  6. Hanon Ondricek

    Sam – As an idea for next time, might it help the reviewers to maybe converse with the author about their game? I’m not talking necessarily an invasive Skype interview, but perhaps an email exchange or IM session when possible might provide the reviewer some insight for material for the review and the personal contact might eliminate the impulse to be glib.

    Another option – Instead of reviewing each game in each category multiple times, perhaps just doing one “post mortem” interview/article about each nominated game/author (covering multiple noms in one article) might even be more interesting and illuminating than a one-sided review. This means reviewers can get details like “how did this puzzle evolve?” and “what didn’t make the cut?” that readers wouldn’t get in a plain review. This also means you don’t get five or ten people needing to come up with unique and inventive things to say about a sweep game like Coloratura.

    Reply
    1. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

      As an idea for next time, might it help the reviewers to maybe converse with the author about their game?

      As a standard tool in a critic’s bag, sure. But I would never, ever require or even strongly encourage a reviewer to do this. Reviewers should not be beholden to the authors of works they cover. Full stop.

      Another option – Instead of reviewing each game in each category multiple times, perhaps just doing one “post mortem” interview/article about each nominated game/author (covering multiple noms in one article) might even be more interesting and illuminating than a one-sided review.

      That would be a nice thing, but it would be something totally different from the thing which I am actually doing. If someone else wants to organise it, awesome. If they need a venue to do so and would like to do so with the XYZZY imprimatur, cool. Author interviews have been thin on the ground since SPAG slowed down. But it would be an entirely separate project, and one that I’m not taking on.

      Reply

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