Fifteen Minutes is a parser-based puzzle game with light narrative elements; while I wouldn’t say it’s super hard, it takes some focus and is not for the puzzlephobic. You’re likely not to win on the first try, though I also wouldn’t quite put it in the replay-to-win category, because once you’ve started making real progress, you probably won’t need to restart again.
I played it all the way through.
The cover art and blurb do a very good job of setting expectations for this game: it’s almost pure puzzle with a little bit of story gloss. The premise is that you are a failing science student who happens to be left alone for fifteen minutes in a room with a time machine. Can you use it to resolve your failing grade without causing any paradoxes or stranding yourself in future time or destroying the universe?
The resulting puzzle is the entirety of the game, and it requires a fair degree of player ingenuity and observation: learning how the machine is controlled; watching what future versions of oneself are doing very carefully so as to be able to reproduce their movements and timings; deducing what must be going on during the portions one can’t view in advance; figuring out where to get objects that your future selves possess but you don’t yourself have yet… it’s convoluted but, at least for me, very satisfying to work out. It’s one of those puzzles with the gratifying property of seeming really very hard at first glance, but then actually proving less difficult once you’ve had a good look at all the evidence available to you and considering the logical constraints that that evidence places on the solution space.
It would still have been impossible without a pen and paper and some time for concentration — this isn’t a game to play in five minutes, or on the bus — but then, the blurb had set me up so that I was expecting that. I solved the majority of it on my own and went to the walkthrough only at the very end, because my two hours were running out and I wanted to see how it ended before scoring. I feel fairly certain that I could have worked out the rest of it given enough time.
There have certainly been other time-travel puzzle games, but I felt that the details of this one, particularly the schedule planning, were distinctive, the overall puzzle design was ingenious and well-structured. I’d now like to talk about the puzzle in some detail, so let’s first have some space for
Not everything about the puzzle design here made me happy. The tasks are split between things that I felt demanded real cleverness and puzzles that turned into busywork. Figuring out that the switches are just for representing the number of minutes in ternary was clever; having to set those switches for every jump was busywork. Having both binary and ternary elements likewise felt like overkill. (Maybe the binary was somehow supposed to be a hint about how the ternary worked? I guess that’s possible. But in practice, playwise, having to set all those switches was an awful lot of proving that I could work out different bases.)
It also would have been nice if the parser understood dipswitch as a synonym for dip-switch (I don’t know how many times I mistyped that one), and if it gave a more explicit clue about what was wrong when the switches number setting didn’t match the minutes dial.
Also, when I went forward into the future I wound up in a game state in which I not only couldn’t UNDO, I couldn’t even RESTORE. Please do NOT take away your player’s basic meta-commands. I had to quit and restart Gargoyle to get my game state back, but that is the kind of situation that will make many a player scream at the screen and then ragequit forever.
Finally, I think there might also have been some sort of bug involving the grey switch, because at one point I tried to set the time to exactly 27 minutes and it didn’t work, even though I’m fairly sure I performed the setting correctly.
Still, there were many many more good moments than bad, and the vast majority of the implementation was solid, which cannot have been an easy trick with such a complex system.
Things I especially enjoyed, puzzlewise: Realizing that the watch times contained vital information. Realizing that the other Yous had not come through in the order implied by their numbering. Working out how far back before the start of the game I needed to go for Fifth You’s watch to be correct when he got out of the compartment. Discovering that my textbook reading had changed the lab equipment into something I could examine and think about.
The scoring system was also helpful: it was thanks to the score that I realized I was on the right track with my early attempts to read the textbook.
I found it particularly satisfying that on pretty much every iteration of myself, there was some additional quirk about the looping that I needed to figure out this time, and that the difficulty was well graded. Early loops were relatively gentle because the description of the Second and Third You’s jumps gave quite a lot of information, but later loops required filling in more blanks and the existence of Eighth you came as a surprise. For the sake of variety, the author had clearly thought about the fact that many of the puzzle elements can effectively work both backwards and forwards: you can make the player figure out how to set a time in ternary, or make him figure out, given ternary information, how much time has just been specified — and using this sort of thinking they worked the changes pretty thoroughly.
So the puzzle as a whole was very coherent and systematic, but also contained enough variation to stay fresh throughout, and also dripped in new things to explore as I went. This is good. Stars, sparkles, confetti be upon the head of the author.
(And — because I think we don’t talk about this enough — one of the reasons I was able to like this, rather than finding it a stressful experience, was that it was so clear in the blurb about what it was going to be, and so I was able to pick a time to play it when I was in a hardcore puzzle-solving frame of mind and had plenty of paper and colored pens handy.)