IF Comp 2014: Tea Ceremony (Naomi Hinchen)


Tea Ceremony is a silly, reasonably easy parser-based puzzle game about satisfying the etiquette demands of an alien dignitary. I played the game to completion.

This is not a game that will require a great deal of your time. It’s solidly implemented and bug-free so far as I could tell, and whimsical rather than hilarious.

The alien in question is alien mainly in the sense of speaking in unpronounceable strings of consonants, rather than in the sense of having a radically non-human (or even non-Western) worldview. The game’s AMUSING text indicates that there’s a shout-out to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I did not find that, but the reference gives some sense of the type and level of worldbuilding involved here.

The puzzles themselves mostly consist of simple exploration of a several-room map; object use clued by fairly straightforward in-game hints; and some logical-thinking puzzles that probably will not tax most people for terribly long. This portion of the game included a couple of things that can be mildly annoying to implement, but the author did a very smooth job. At least, I didn’t hit any parsing infelicities or bugs, and given what the puzzles require, it would have been pretty easy to leave some in.

I think that I was expecting something a bit more, from the premise: either more serious exploration of the alien’s otherness (though I suppose given the cover art that wasn’t very likely) or a more complex sequence of zany comedy; or possibly puzzles based around some new mechanic.

In short, there is basically nothing wrong with this game. It is cheerful, amusing, and fair, though it is also not hugely ambitious and may not stick with you long.

I realized after playing that I had had a very specific idea in my head about what this game was going to be, because it seemed so obvious to me what one would do with a premise like that. But as it seems sort of rude to spend half a review writing about the game I thought this might be, was rather than the one it actually is, I will stick that bit after a divider.

This game has also been covered by Caleb Wilson, Sam Kabo Ashwell, and Ata.


Right! From here on, this is no longer a review of Tea Ceremony, but a digression about comedy puzzle design.

Etiquette rules for imaginary cultures are a genius thing. Like magic systems in games, they can have a totally arbitrary set of requirements at the author’s convenience. Also like magic systems, they can involve overlapping rules that productively generate puzzle requirements. Say you have the rule “No head coverings are allowed indoors”, but also “you must wear one purple item in the presence of the Chancellor”, and the only purple thing you have is a hat. Now what? Dye a different piece of clothing purple? Cut up the purple hat and make it into a corsage? Keep exploring in search of a purple cravat? If you code the etiquette rules directly into the game (as opposed to building a check that specifically looks for the player to be wearing a purple cravat), you can pretty easily build multiple-solution puzzles this way.

Or, instead of generating puzzle requirements, the etiquette rules could generate the puzzle mechanic. Perhaps bows, nods, handshakes, whistles, and foot-taps form an intricate contextual language, like the syllables in Suveh Nux. Perhaps communication takes place through subtle clusters of signifiers.

Unlike magic systems in games (at least, any I know of), etiquette systems also rather naturally involve feedback from NPCs, in which they indicate to you whether you’ve gotten it right yet. It’s a good excuse for a highly reactive NPC, one primarily coded in terms of a series of responses to player actions. Reactive NPCs are often less bother to write than proactive NPCs who are trying to perform goal behavior, but they can be just as engaging.

Also unlike many magic systems in games, etiquette systems naturally fold in information about the world and setting being described, implying a lot of information about what this culture cares about.

Finally, etiquette rule systems tend to have lots of arbitrary caveats, exceptions, and addenda, and this makes them suitable for constructing frustration comedy puzzles, in which the player keeps thinking they’ve got it solved, and then one more damn thing goes wrong. The archetypal example here is the Babel Fish puzzle. It’s possible to overdo that and induce an old-fashioned ragequit, but it’s a useful tool in the IF comedy toolbox. (See also the absurdly evil lobster in Gourmet.)

In conclusion, I would like to play more games of fantasy etiquette.

7 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014: Tea Ceremony (Naomi Hinchen)”

  1. It seems to me that the dressing puzzle in that Firefly fan game Pinched is like the frustration comedy you describe, though I think it only has one solution because reasons, and perhaps the rules there are only alien to the PC and not to, well, all the rest of us.

    1. Yeah, that’s fair. IIRC there are a few variant solutions to that puzzle (V oryvrir lbh pna jrne rvgure fbzr gebhfref be gur xvyg ba lbhe yrtf, vs lbh’er jvyyvat gb chg hc jvgu gur zbpxrel), but it’s still fairly constrained.

      Also, meh, remembering that Adam Baldwin exists is not as fun as it used to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: