The Colder Light (online play, IFDB page) is the latest game from Jon Ingold: in this case, a spare, melancholy tale about life on the ice. It also uses an interface evolved from some work by Erik Temple (see for example Erik’s alternate interface to Sand Dancer).
This interface attempts to address some of the community’s long-standing concerns about the parser by presenting affordances explicitly. The player can click on hyperlinked objects in room descriptions and inventory and receive a list of plausible ways to interact with these. The result is a play experience with the noun-and-verb variety of classic parsed IF, a more consistent world model than the average CYOA, and enough diversity to make for genuine puzzles; but without any guess-the-verb issues. It also, I imagine, eased the authoring burden that Jon didn’t have to write the vast range of error messages that typically come with parsed interactive fiction.
There are some other possible novice-friendly features it doesn’t have: HELP only produces credits information, there are no hints to speak of, and mapping is also up to the player. But it’s still pretty accessible and I would be interested to see what new-to-IF players might make of it.
So that’s worth noting, and has already received some discussion. There have been a lot of user interface experiments over the past year and a half or so, but to my mind A Colder Light is one of the most successful in capturing the sense of possibility and setting immediacy that I like from parsed IF, while offering a significantly more accessible experience to the user and avoiding unnecessary screen clutter.
But the work also bears analysis on a couple of other levels.
First of all, it centralizes all its puzzles around a consistent mechanic — achieving this is a bit of an obsession of mine, I admit. To discuss that, I’ll need to be slightly spoilery, though I’ll try to avoid giving away specific puzzles.
The central mechanic in A Colder Light is that the constellations are spiritual entities that can be summoned to help the protagonist, under two conditions: the protagonist must have the correct runes to spell the spirit’s name (each name is a two-rune combination), and the constellation in question must be currently visible.
That means that the player must at various times acquire new runes; think of new ways to combine existing runes (guessing at probable combinations by thinking about the characteristics of the entity being summoned); find new vantage points from which to view the sky in order to see different constellations; and reach new understandings about which entities could possibly offer help.
I like this for several reasons.
The puzzle mechanic is tightly tied to the fiction of the world, so that coming to understand it is part of coming to understand what kind of world this is and what the protagonist is doing in it. The different entities that can be summoned are mysterious and surprising, and the player’s slightly ambiguous relationship to them lies on the border between magic and spirituality. The writing concerning the Lyre, in particular, struck me strongly.
More, the revelation of new runes and new constellations constantly provides the player with new materials to work with; but since (I think) no more than four constellations are visible at any given time, one never reaches the point where there are so many possibilities open that they are simply overwhelming. There is always fresh material to discover, but within a helpfully limited scope.
Finally, I found the story’s ending rather affecting, and this is the point where we cross over into full spoilerage; so stop here if you haven’t played the game and would like to. (Hint: you would like to.)
After a mystical, epic-feeling opening, and a thoroughly alien environment, we find that the thing that has threatened our father is not a bear, or cold, or the intervention of some strange deity/spirit; but that he’s gone to an industrial port and gotten thoroughly drunk. The threat is the threat of contact with a modern culture, and from within the industrial port it is, importantly, not possible to see the stars.
Threatened and fearful for Father, the protagonist does something that feels at once absolutely necessary and cataclysmically awful. It’s not clear how many people we kill — but surely some number of them?
But it does seem like a right and necessary outcome, without being heavily preachy about the unpleasant ways that technically advanced cultures have sometimes damaged more traditional ones. And the status quo it restores is a status of extreme risk and danger out on the ice, where life is always highly unpleasant.
Overall, A Colder Light is a lovely piece of work, and worth playing for many reasons besides the handsome interface and innovations in UI, though that’s the subject I’ve seen most discussed so far.