IF Competition Discussion: A Matter of Importance

“A Matter of Importance” from IF Comp 2007:

“A Matter of Importance” belongs to that classic IF genre, the heist game. In this case, it’s a fairly small heist, since it’s a fairly short game: the player character is a thief on the verge of being expelled from the Thieves’ Guild, who needs to do something impressive in order to retain his professional position. His idea of impressive turns out to be, in fact, surprisingly simple.

A couple of things stand out about this piece. First of all, it makes no attempt at all to hide the fact that it’s a game: descriptions of objects are often explicit about whether the item is going to be a red herring or not; characters comment on whether you’ve used the hint system; the game is larded with footnotes that comment directly on aspects of the game play and/or the inspiration behind various features and events.

Second, and perhaps related to this, the game stomps gleefully on the modern-IF convention that guessing the verb is a bad thing to have to do. Several of the puzzles involve quite odd, unconventional commands; the only way I got through them was by heavy reliance on the hints.

This all may not sound like it works out to a recommendation for the game, but in fact I enjoyed “A Matter of Importance” more than that explanation justifies. The narration is full of personality, and the situations, though often absurd, never teetered so far into the ridiculous as to lose my sympathy for the player character. The way to enjoy this game, I think, is to play with more than the usual willingness to look up hints: if a puzzle looks completely impenetrable, there’s a good chance that it is.

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I strongly suspect, especially given the diction of the game and the references to proof-reading by English-speakers, that this game is a contribution by a non-native speaker of English who is using a pseudonym, rather than a novice author. The writing is actually pretty good, granting a few odd choices of vocabulary and unidiomatic usages; “laddie” seems an excessively dialect way of speaking about a boy, for instance, unless our character is meant to be a kind of caricatured Scot (and there’s nothing else in the game that says he is). Similarly, a female character has a “reticule”: I am not quite sure when this term went out of common usage for a lady’s handbag, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were around 1835, long before the supposed setting of the game.

Another peculiarity is that the game refers to soccer as football, gives monetary denominations in pounds, has a character named Fogby, and otherwise seems to be set in the UK; but at one point the police read the player character his Miranda warning, a legality that exists only in the United States.

But I’m nitpicking. I got almost none of the puzzles on my own — on the contrary, my usual reaction to the hints was “how the heck was I supposed to guess that?” — and yet I enjoyed this one. So it must have been doing something right.

4 thoughts on “IF Competition Discussion: A Matter of Importance

  1. I also enjoyed this one, and even solved a couple of the puzzles. I’m surprised that you didn’t complain more about the crossing the street puzzle, though, which I thought crossed the line from impenetrable to unfair: it suggests that you pretend that the cars aren’t there. So I pretend they’re not there and try to go north. It doesn’t let me, and doesn’t recognize the verb “pretend”, so I figured it was just a city-dweller commenting on the nature of traffic, and I looked for another solution.

    I suppose it’s a minor quibble, but I find that if I’m obliged to go to the hints too soon, I’m too ready to go back to them later for puzzles that I really could solve. (Though I did like the bit with the kid complaining about how it’s easy for me to get by him if I’ve read the hints)

  2. Incidentally, the author emailed me to say that Britain does have an equivalent of the Miranda rights and to argue that they might even use this terminology for them, American TV culture having infiltrated the British experience so much. This seems a little odd to me — I’ve heard of people being read a “caution” in the British system, but never of an English person calling it anything to do with Miranda. However, it was evidently not carelessness as such, so I retract this bit of nitpicking.

  3. Hmm. Unlike other guess-the-verb games of this competition, I thought the verbs here were strongly clued. The description for the traffic pretty much blatantly tells you what to do; you just have to follow the directions. I consider this fair. The first puzzle of the Chinese Room, on the other hand, required a second level jump — here you have this item, what verb would you normally think to use with it? — and the verb is not mentioned explicitly in the text.

    A good analogy might be to cryptic (British) crosswords, where in anagram clues it is generally considered too cruel to not include the actual word being anagrammed in the text (rather than requiring a second step of applying a tricky synonym — although some creators have no limits to their sadism).

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