IF Comp 2015: The Problems Compound (Andrew Schultz)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Cover art for The Problems Compound

If you’ve been following recent parser IF, the title and author name are probably a strong hint about how you’ll feel about this game. Andrew Schultz has written a whole series of games riffing on different wordplay ideas, set in surreal environments in which object and character interactions don’t always make logical sense as long as they conform to the linguistic game currently at work.

The Problems Compound actually slightly deviates from that expectation — though all the characters and situations are based on one inverted idiom or another, the actual gameplay is a bit more standard parser puzzle stuff involving manipulating objects. But the writing style, setting, sense of humor, and overall difficulty are all about where you might expect based on the author’s past work. The game is fairly sizable, and even though I sometimes resorted to the included walkthrough chart, I eventually ran out of time before finishing. This is also a somewhat unconventional review for me, and more than usually based on running notes rather than a considered retrospective after play. The reasons for that will become clear at the end.

Before I even get into the substance of the game, I want to call out something I liked about the beginning, namely, how considerate it is of the player’s needs:

Screenshot of The Problems Compound with the option to set accessibility modes

Accessibility for the visually impaired used to be one of the typical features of interactive fiction: standardized formats meant that almost anything an author built would work with a screenreader, unless they’d gone out of their way to add ASCII art or graphical elements. As our user interfaces have gotten more ambitious and have started to carry more of the work of telling a story, the accessibility features have often gotten lost. I fear that the IF community as it is now may be much harder to navigate for this group of users than it used to be. Nonetheless, a few authors are putting in the effort to address this: Wade Clarke’s Leadlight Gamma release has an accessibility mode, for instance, and he has written about the technical challenges involved in doing that work. So I was pleased to see that The Problems Compound also does some work to account for this.

(As an aside: I think there’s a tendency to talk about IF tools and games as “more accessible” or “less accessible” on an absolute scale when in fact there are many possible kinds of user need to consider: a work that is more accessible to someone without a lot of money because it’s available for free in a browser might simultaneously be less accessible to someone with visual impairments, or someone who has only sporadic internet access. I know that for an author it can get overwhelming to try to consider all of these different issues simultaneously, but I hope that as a community we don’t forget that fact. One of the ways to make progress is to keep building better tools and standards so that authors don’t have to individually reinvent all the ways to make their games accessible. And on that note, I’ve finally remembered to set alt text for the image in this blog post, and will try to keep remembering to do that in future posts.)

Now, to the game itself: I was slightly disconcerted when I started this because I was really expecting a mechanic similar to Ugly Oafs or some of Schultz’s earlier work, where the challenge is mainly to recognize what is going on with the wordplay. But the inverted idioms of The Problems Compound would be trivially restored to their right order; getting the joke isn’t the puzzle challenge here. I also spent a certain amount of time playing with some objects at the beginning that are essentially red herrings. Eventually I settled into the game’s intended rhythm, but I wound up resorting to the walkthrough.

As in some of Schultz’s previous wordplay games, I sometimes struggled with envisioning the scene he was describing because it is just so weird, or because the first part of a sentence led me to one interpretation that I then immediately had to revise:

Some mush bubbles in front of the arch, conjuring up condescending facial expressions.

“Mush” is a vague descriptor, and I usually think of it as something like baby food, mashed carrots or bananas or something. If there were a large puddle of something soppy on the ground, I’d probably call it something other than mush, by default. But then I also have to revise to imagine that this mush is… boiling? sentiently making bubbles for fun? It has a face, apparently, and it turns out that I can interact with it sort of as though it were an NPC. I mean, in the end I got to the point where I had a picture of this situation and could carry out the tasks I needed to perform in order to make progress in the game, but getting the descriptions to come together into a sense of a coherent world is tricky, because the wordplay often dictates using an unusual phrasing. I almost have to turn off the visual imagination part of my reading mind and rely on other things when I’m playing one of these games.

But if the physical setting is a bit surreal, the social setting is rather more cohesive, and it gives The Problems Compound more of a sense of being about something than some of Schultz’s previous games, which I felt existed primarily for the sake of being entertaining puzzles. (Which is fine! But it’s a different goal from making a social comment.) As the themes of the game became sharper, the surreal elements clicked better for me: I still wasn’t able to visualize very well a lot of the time, but because there was a conceptual framework for them to go into, I felt like I was understanding the story better.

Unfortunately the social world of The Problems Compound is actively hostile to the protagonist. We’re sketched in, not very subtly, as a person with high intelligence and logical thinking but — we’re told over and over by bullying, self-regarding NPCs — no social skills. Moving through the space brings us into contact with a lot of other characters who seem predominantly interested in posing and talking about themselves. When they do offer (after a fashion) to teach you some of these vaunted social skills, they’re not exactly desirable:

–1. Judicious use of “fair enough” to “win” conversations
–2. how to yell at others to stop complaining life’s not fair AND still point how it’s rigged against
–3. Of course, not trying to be too fair. People who overdo things are the worst!
–4. Lots more, but if we wrote everything, you wouldn’t need to show up. Ha ha.

(Cue mental tangent about how I say “fair enough” sometimes. I think I just mean “I hear you and your stance makes sense, so I’m going to stop trying to persuade you of my point.” Maybe it comes off as trying to win a conversation, though? Hm. Okay, going to leave that alone for now and resume the game.)

The midsection of the game, to be clear, has a number of clever and funny bits to it, and I didn’t notice any obvious bugs or errors. I ultimately stopped playing because I’d run out of time and I kept messing up an involved puzzle that the walkthrough chart didn’t explicitly spoil.

But the piece also becomes increasingly obvious about satirizing people who critique art, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to read a lot of it as pertaining to the IF community specifically. The view it takes is scathing: the critics are overt about cultivating their hobbies because they want to make other people feel stupid and themselves feel clever, and there’s a lot of explicit pretentiousness and personality cult; also a bit about a non-interactive box that spits out depressing stories, which I take to be a reference to certain trends in non-parser IF lately. Meanwhile the tiny hut that houses Good Faith is largely unfrequented.

So the point where I get stuck is also, coincidentally, the point at which I realized the game has exited the territory where I can review it without an undesirable level of self-involvement. What I’ve done here is to compose what I had to say based on my notes from earlier in the play session and deliberately not to revise them in the light of later experiences.

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: The Problems Compound (Andrew Schultz)”

  1. To be honest, the very first lines of the game kind of signal that this is the direction where it’s going to go.

    1. Not to this degree, though, I think. And then, Ugly Oafs implies some social friction at the beginning but largely drops that shortly afterward.

  2. But the piece also becomes increasingly obvious about satirizing people who critique art, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to read a lot of it as pertaining to the IF community specifically.

    But The Problems Compound ultimately criticizes pretty much everyone. As someone who claims to value authenticity, I too felt the heaviness and sense of shame inherent in the critical portrayal of Art Fine and other NPCs. If you’ve ever worried that you might really be just another fake hipster, this game will scratch open that insecurity. However, the protagonist himself is not spared from this criticism. His name is “smart alec“, and I think the game is very aware of Alec’s quiet cynicism and judgmental pride. There’s a brilliant red herring puzzle that shows how Alec has the potential to become the Baiter Master.

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