IF Competition Discussion: Chinese Room

Yet another review of games from the 2007 IF Comp: this one is “The Chinese Room”.

The Chinese Room is a sizable puzzle game taking place in a bizarre realm of philosophical thought experiments. It’s a little like The Phantom Tollbooth, in spots; maybe also like Erehwon, except I didn’t actually play enough of Erehwon to be sure. The puzzles are, for the most part, fair, and the philosophical conundrums are given lively, detailed write-ups; this is one of the few educational works of IF that I’ve found engaging enough for grown-ups and actually fun to play. The geography is extensive, the images vivid, the writing superior.

There are, alas, a few flaws in the implementation but I suspect that most of these can be worked out in post-comp releases. Even with these flaws in place, I strongly recommend this game. For best effect, though, save semi-frequently and expect to spend longer than the competition-allotted two hours on it.

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Most of my gripes about this game have to do with specific kinds of implementation problems that are actually fairly easy to sort out. The very worst of these: I had to replay the game from the start twice, once because I picked up and then dropped the phial of red dye in the barbershop, with the result that the barber would not let me take either that phial or any other; and the second time because I had taken the Utility Calculator and put it into my sack, and wasn’t allowed to extract it from the sack again (I’m guessing it’s implemented as “fixed in place” or something like that). The result was that I couldn’t get the lead cube instead, and had to go through the whole mess again from scratch.

Other irritations: PUT BURDEN OF PROOF ON UNICORN didn’t work, only HANG, which is arguably strongly hinted by the text but should have been accompanied by more synonyms; LIGHT LANTERN doesn’t do anything, but LIGHT LANTERN WITH LIGHTER does; KILL MAN doesn’t work, only KILL MAN WITH AXE; there was no syntax to accommodate my (I thought quite reasonable) attempts to dip, paint, color, or dye the banana with the red, black, or white phials. Trying to interact with the Intuition Pump also works in rooms where it oughtn’t.

I noted a number of typos, which is unfortunate, but there is an enormous amount of text in this game, and I can see the problems with ensuring that it is all proofread properly. (At least in the Mac version of the I7 IDE, it’s possible to run a spell check on the text of a game; possibly the authors were working under Windows and didn’t have this facility available.) Also, I saw “plaintiff” used once where “plaintive” was intended, and a few other things like that which would not have been caught by a spell-checker in any case.

All in all, restarts included, this took me something closer to five hours to play, and towards the end I did (sorry, guys) resort to looking at the walkthrough. (I don’t think I would have worked out the banana on my own; the problem there is that the pump’s hints make the phial sound like a perfectly reasonable alternative, and I hadn’t really noticed the inkwell at all, so was laboring away at completely the wrong thing.)

But, well, with all that griping, I still liked this game very much. I did get through a fair amount of it on my own, though; and felt that it had been a while since I had played a puzzle game of this kind of open, broad design, with plenty to do at every turn. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

Besides, the flaws are generally things that could easily be solved by another post-comp pass of bug-fixing. What will remain afterwards is polished and witty prose, some pretty decent puzzles, and an entertaining introduction to a wide range of philosophical problems.

I’m not sure that I agree with the authors about the correct solutions to some of these, but that’s another problem entirely…

6 thoughts on “IF Competition Discussion: Chinese Room

  1. Pingback: IF Competition Discussion: General Observations & Favorites « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

  2. He did put in a response for using the dye on the banana, so you must have just not hit the right phrasing. (The ammonia in the dye would destroy the banana.)

  3. I also had to replay a big section when I dropped the calculator and couldn’t get it back. A shame. I almost quit when I realized it, but it *was* fun enough for another shot. Not knowing how Inform works, maybe there is some kind of “is pick-upable” property that keeps a thing from being scenery, and since this item is given to the player indirectly (never “picked up” to begin with), they forgot.

    Ordinarily, a player would probably never drop it. But I hadn’t found the sack. And, if you can’t get it back *out* of the sack, it’s a near certainty that players will hit upon that bug if they chance to take the calculator.

    I noticed the thing about dropping die in the barbershop as well, but at least an UNDO or two got me out of that.

    I liked this game. Really liked it. I voted it high (at two hours) and would have scored it the same for my review (instead of two points lower) if only it hadn’t started getting a little frustrating later on.

  4. Not knowing how Inform works, maybe there is some kind of “is pick-upable” property that keeps a thing from being scenery, and since this item is given to the player indirectly (never “picked up” to begin with), they forgot.

    Not quite, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it fixed in place so that the player couldn’t take it before time.

    I find that when I encounter bugs in Inform games in general, and I7 games especially, I get distracted trying to imagine the code that caused the problem, figure out what the solution would be, determine whether there’s something wrong with the manual that might have misled the author…

    But yeah, overall I thought this was great despite a few flaws, and I’m confident that the flaws can be fixed in a re-release, making this a real standout piece — and refreshingly original, too. There isn’t much else like it out there.

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