A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey)


A Beauty Cold and Austere is a parser-driven text adventure about the awe-inspiring loveliness of mathematics. Its set-piece puzzles range from basics of arithmetic and geometry, through combinatorics and probability, up to linear algebra, calculus, and a wonderful interactive toy that explores the concept of divergent vs convergent series. Along the way, you encounter a number of historical mathematicians, math-related poetry excerpts, and mathematically-relevant settings (Trinity College Cambridge puts in an appearance, as does the Library of Alexandria). There are also obligatory Zork and Adventure references.

Puzzle-driven exploration of a surreal, conceptual space is less common in IF than it was circa twenty years ago, and indeed this game feels like it would have been a smash hit in the IF community of the mid-90s. The implementation is meticulous, the puzzles ingenious and pleasingly crafted, the state space free of unwinnable situations, the hints neatly coordinated with your progress, and the sense of humor pretty much exactly on point for the rec.arts.int-fiction days. Though there are lots of NPCs, all of them are there for puzzle-related purposes, and none of them really disrupt the player’s sense of splendid solitude. The author credits Curses! with acquainting him with the genre, and that makes plenty of sense: ABCA has fairer puzzles and less cruelty than Curses!, but it shares in that game’s gleeful juxtaposition of modern, historical, fictional and surreal locations. I liked A Beauty Cold and Austere immensely: I still have a great fondness for that type of game, and this is a superb example. I am glad the IF world still produces this kind of game, and also glad it no longer produces only this type of game.

I don’t want to suggest that ABCA‘s appeal is exclusively nostalgic. There are parser puzzle games written these days that exist mostly as a nod to bygone tropes, but A Beauty Cold and Austere has something of its own to say. Compared with the 2017 average, the game may be light on story and characters, but it’s strongly and elegantly themed. This is a game about intellectual awe, about the attraction of abstract and intangible subject matter, about human response to more-than-human truth. The final imagery is moving, sublime, and all the more meaningful because it feels earned, both by the protagonist and by human intellectual progress overall.

The game takes a deeply classical approach to the world, one that would fit right in with the measured architecture and aristocratic bearing (not to mention stupefying wealth) of Trinity College. ABCA‘s occasional moments of social commentary or satire are light and brief: Hypatia complains of a decrease in civility in modern political discourse, for instance, but in the manner of someone not very much threatened by current political events. There is a very minor implicit riff about the unfairness of professor/grad student hierarchies. But that’s about as far as the game goes in addressing the material and social circumstances in which mathematics can be studied, or in interrogating the received history of mathematical progress that it presents here. There is one quote by which to remember the late Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakahni — something of a special case, because her contributions are more advanced than anything the game attempts to teach — but I was glad of the mention, alongside a few other examples, as a reminder that not all great mathematicians are western European or male.

A Beauty Cold and Austere came in seventh in the 2017 IF Comp, and I suspect it would have placed higher if it had been shorter. I very much doubt anyone finished it in the two hours allotted for comp game judging, even with the hints. (I think it took me upwards of six hours to play, in the end, though that was spread over several sessions.) Personally, I’m glad it is the size it is — it deserves this expansive scope, the progressive build of mathematical concepts is a big piece of its appeal, and I never found myself bored or seriously stuck — but IF Comp is just a difficult context in which to place a really sizable game, especially when (as last year) there are 80ish other contenders.

ABCA may also have daunted a few people with its subject matter. If you’ve studied math to an advanced high school or early college level, you’ll likely find a lot of this to be review — indeed, I suspect that as I took a fair number of math classes in college but haven’t revisited that material very heavily since, I’m about the ideal audience for this. The conceptual groundwork was all there, but long enough ago that I had to reason through a few things afresh.

I’m not sure what someone would make of the calculus problems (say) if they’ve never taken any calculus before — the game does include some explanation of the core concepts, but I doubt it would be enough to get someone to an understanding ex nihilo; and it helped a lot to be able to imagine the graphs myself. Still, the game does do an amazing job of providing physical metaphors or other ways of envisioning a lot of its main ideas. (I include the main calculus puzzle here — I just suspect a total beginner would need more help to get the idea of derivatives down.)

This game adroitly handles a number of puzzle design choices. The puzzle structure is broad rather than linear, in old-school IF parlance, meaning that usually more than one puzzle is available to the player at a time except at the very beginning and end of the game. ABCA bottlenecks less than even most broad puzzle games, because new areas of the game open gradually (in a cunning application of changing light levels) as the player’s score goes up — meaning that you might uncover a new area by, say, solving any two of four easier puzzles.

Within each conceptual area, the game usually offers two or three linked puzzles, one simple and the others more difficult — so we have a couple of different linear algebra puzzles to make sure we really understand how a matrix works, for instance. There were a handful of points where I felt the puzzle solutions could have been more tightly correlated with really grasping the math — the handling of logarithms, for instance, felt a bit more perfunctory than most. But mostly this is a great strength of the game, and I especially appreciated how the game works its way up from the concept of the positive integers to larger and larger number sets, tying each advance to related historical discoveries.

Then there’s the elegant way the game draws attention toward related concepts in math that might not seem connected to the naive viewer. Pascal’s Triangle, for instance, gives sequences that solve several apparently unrelated mathematical problems; by giving the player cause to apply those sequences several times, the game shows off the connection without needing to be heavy-handed about it.

I came away wishing I had time to brush up on more of my math — which is probably the ultimate compliment for a game on this subject.

All in all, a very strong entry in a classic style.


If you’ve already played and liked this game, I’d also recommend

  • The Chinese Room (Harry Giles and Joey Jones), a puzzle game with similar set-pieces about standard philosophical conundrums, listed as one of ABCA‘s inspirations
  • Jigsaw (Graham Nelson), covering a sequence of key historical events of the 20th century (this is significantly harder than ABCA)
  • Augmented Fourth (Brian Uri!), a game themed around concepts from music
  • Lists and Lists (Andrew Plotkin) is a Scheme tutorial, which arguably only dimly belongs in the game category at all

And if you played this and now feel you want a chaotic and unapologetically filthy counterpoint to the classical IF world view, may I recommend

6 thoughts on “A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey)”

  1. Puzzle-driven exploration of a surreal, conceptual space is less common in IF than it was circa twenty years ago

    When I read that phrase I was magically transported back to the positively primeval specimen “Beyond the Tesseract”, which I will carry around with me in a small compartment of my brain until I shuffle off this mortal coil.

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