Current playing: Infidel

infidelI’ve tried to play this a couple of times before and never gotten anywhere with it, in at least one case because I didn’t realize I needed the feelies. This time I’ve actually gotten inside the pyramid.

I usually find Infocom a curious mix these days: I loved them at the time but now I have ingrained habits that make me impatient. Infidel doesn’t understand “X” for examine, or accept UNDO at all; needs to be manually set to a fixed-width font because it doesn’t have separate parameters for font types; and features food, thirst, and inventory management to a degree I’ve never liked. (Admittedly, given the setting, I find it more convincing than in many another game that the protagonist really might die from not having water frequently enough. But it still makes for a frustrating experience.) Oh, and did I mention the inadequately-clued sudden deaths? And the object you can ATTACK over and over for many snarky messages, when the solution is to BREAK it?

Still, I have to say that (even though I’m only a little way into it), I really like the hieroglyph puzzles: the player encounters ASCII art messages on the wall, and has in the feelies a glossary of a few of the symbols, but must construct an understanding of the rest from context and comparison.

This is (obviously) a very old technique and yet still sadly uncommon. I very much want to see more of systematic puzzles in IF — ones that rely on some consistent physical or magical principle, or build up some knowledge base, or have a nifty gadget that can be used in a variety of clever ways. There are already some great examples: the magic grammar in Suveh Nux, the orgy of physical destruction/elimination puzzles in Conan Kill Everything and To Hell in a Hamper, the superpowers in Earth and Sky and Heroine’s Mantle, the alliteration puzzles in Ad Verbum, the linguistic recognition puzzles in Letters From Home, the combat puzzles in Gun Mute and its ilk, and the diverse uses of the main device in Adventurer’s Consumer Guide. The learnable spells in Enchanter and its sequels sort of qualify, but only sort of, because most of the spells are so specialized and so few of the spells interact; but Balances offers a satisfying twist on this idea. Sam Kabo Ashwell also has a list of “Distinctive Puzzle Style” games based on similar criteria, though it only partly overlaps with mine.

Yet for every one of these, there are distressingly many games with very ordinary puzzles.

Even some works with very good writing or plot are, on the puzzle side, a tedium of locked doors with keys slightly hidden, computers with passwords written on a nearby scrap of paper, NPCs who want to be bribed with an object conveniently in the next room, and so on. These aren’t as hated as inventory management puzzles, hunger demons, mazes, so they’ve been allowed to live on — and of course there are times in a story when the only reasonable and sensible thing is to have a locked door with a key somewhere nearby. But that doesn’t mean such old standbys feel creative or fun, and sometimes their staleness undermines a work that otherwise has a lot to offer. A systematic approach to puzzles makes a game memorable by giving it a particular feel. It also inspires trust and a sense of agency in the player, because the world works along internally reliable lines.

There are also advantages to this kind of puzzle invention from the author’s perspective.

One is a design advantage. If you can come up with an interesting mechanic for the system, it tends to be tremendously generative of new ideas. Instead of wracking your brain for new ways to pace the story or block parts of the world on a case-by-case basis, you can make a list of kinds of puzzles that fit into your system and then distribute them as appropriate.

Second is the coding advantage. If your idea is systematic enough, you can write one core set of code to implement it and then the individual puzzles are merely configurations of the main logic, rather than unique set-pieces each of which needs a fresh kind of code.

Finally: the thematic advantage. If your puzzles are consistent with one another, there’s more of a chance they’ll also be collectively consistent with the tone and theme of the story. A lot has been made of mimesis and of the need to avoid the unrealistic soup can puzzle. There’s a lot in that complaint, but adherence to physical plausibility is only one consideration, and perhaps not even the most important. It’s equally threatening to the feel of a work to have puzzles that don’t seem to be on the same level as the rest of the story, don’t seem to be about the same things: say, a moving romance where you have to stop to figure out many fiddly steps of baking a lasagna for your date, or game of international intrigue and political manipulation that, before allowing you to confront your adversary, makes you laboriously solve a puzzle of buying your plane ticket to Morocco under an assumed name. Those are events that could happen, are not completely unrealistic within the framework of the story, and (if done well) might even offer satisfying puzzles to solve. But they don’t fit the flavor of that particular narrative; they’re tonally at odds with it, and they positively shout to the player that they’re there because the author couldn’t think of (or didn’t recognize the need of) a different way to pace the story.

A nuance: tonal variation is more acceptable in a long work than in a short one. The lasagna baking puzzle might be an okay comedic vignette in a long story about a growing relationship, but much more disruptive if it’s one of the main interactive components in a short piece.

Having a consistent puzzle style means that no one puzzle is likely to stick out as a sore thumb, and that you can do some focused thinking about how your puzzle style relates to the theme of your story and try to pull them together. For examples of which, see So Far and also Braid.

13 thoughts on “Current playing: Infidel”

  1. I can’t cook worth a damn. So when I was first dating my wife, and she went out of town for a few weeks, I decided to surprise her with a homemade candlelit dinner when she got back. Making it and hoping I didn’t ruin it was INCREDIBLY stressful. (I kind of ruined it, but she married me anyway, so it must have turned out right!)

    So when I saw, “stop to figure out many fiddly steps of baking a lasagna for your date,” I thought, “Ooh, drama!”

    1. Heh! Well, I guess if it were written in such a way that the tension was part of the ongoing story rather than just a fiddly disconnected puzzle, that would work.

  2. No Mac terps that do the abbreviation-changing and have built-in undo like WinFrotz has?

    Or are you just wanting old school flavor?

    1. I seem to recall that Nitfol did some of that, but I don’t know whether it’s been maintained and I haven’t used it in years. Zoom is my preferred terp for just about everything these days except Glulx games with sound, for which I need Spatterlight.

      So I guess it’s more that I haven’t gone to a lot of trouble to try alternate terp options because the irritation of the X problem is not yet great enough to make it worthwhile.

  3. Infidel was literally the first IF I ever played (1999). I had been playing graphical adventures for 5 years and had bought the Infocom Masterpieces package from Activision. I had never heard the term “IF” and did not know that there had ever been any “text adventures” created by anyone other than Infocom. I would classify Infidel as an IF of moderate difficulty. For some inscrutable reason I found it easy. (I also loved the hieroglyphs.) I then assumed all of the games in the set would be fairly easy. The next one I chose was Planetfall, which is in fact far easier than Infidel. However, as a veteran of graphical games, the possibility of red herrings simply never occurred to me. I tore my hair out chasing will o’ the wisps, finally making the truly fatal error of consulting the deliberately misleading Invisiclues. Bad to worse. I did not ever expect to play IF again, but ultimately we kissed and made up. Ah, youth!

  4. On the other hand, if you make a great number of puzzles off one thing, you need to make sure the clues are firmly in place. I can abide looking up one or two poorly clued puzzles, but if an entire system is weak, or I just can’t see what the author is getting at, then it takes much of the fun out.

    One reason the password under the keyboard puzzles remain is probably because they’re pre-clued, just because we all have familiarity with them. Whereas with something like a magical language, or hieroglyphics, the author needs much more care in implementation. The idea of expanding something like Suveh Nux beyond one room boggles the mind.

    1. I’d say part of the fun of magical language et al. puzzles from a designer’s point of view is exactly that you get to set up a little training session in how your system works.

      That said, I never quite came to grips with Large Machine (maybe being dense), and I thought Hell: a Comedy of Errors had some neat systematic elements but didn’t make enough sense. So yeah, there are some possible pitfalls, but I still think systematic puzzle design yields better and more memorable play on average.

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