IF Competition: Magic

Another IF Comp review, following my format for this comp. There is a cut, then any spoiler-free comments I have, and then spoiler space, and then more detailed feedback that assumes the reader has tried the game.

But first, we have some obligatory filler to try to make sure that the RSS summary does not accidentally contain any review. Filler, filler, la la la…

Okay. Here we go.

I found Magic a bit frustrating.

No, not because it wasn’t tested. It lists beta-testers. I didn’t run into much buggy behavior, the writing is up to the task it’s trying to perform, and the plot is surreal but mildly amusing and at least not something we’ve seen a bunch of times before.

What was frustrating this time was the puzzle design. The game gives you some neat things to work with, so it seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun to solve, but then in practice almost every time I found myself having to go to the hints; and when I got there, I found myself thinking: how the hell was I supposed to have come up with that?

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Let’s think about just one sequence:

In the magic shop is a trunk, suspiciously empty. No amount of touching or searching the interior panels is revealing. If I get into the trunk, it’s dark.

In order to solve this problem, I am supposed to realize that I might gain something by being in the trunk with a light source.

To get a light source, I am supposed to get a pack of cards, then set a pet shop on fire, then use the burning rubble to light one card after another (because they burn out quickly) until I can see the inside of the trunk.

To set the pet shop on fire, I need to tighten the hamster wheel, which I do by magically modifying the screw holding the wheel, which I do using a screwdriver beverage and an actual screw; and also by showing the hamster some berries, which I got by transforming myself into a bum and walking into a chapel.

The design of this sequence pretty much guarantees that the player will not figure it out himself. He may by chance stumble on parts of the solution, but that’s all. Why? Well:

— it’s pretty likely that I’ll run into early pieces of this puzzle sequence (like the screwdriver ingredients) before ever discovering what they’re going to be for.

— even when I do, supposedly, encounter my goal, the trunk’s implementation discourages fiddling: for instance, the game text specifically says that the wooden paneling inside isn’t important. If I’m supposed to confirm my idea that I’m working on this trunk as a puzzle, it would be better to have messages suggesting that there might be something there to find but that I’m coming to it from the wrong angle.

— the whole arson-and-playing-card trick is just so out there, so implausible a way of solving the basic problem of needing light, that it’s unlikely anyone will look into the trunk and jump ahead to “Why, of course! I need to set the pet store on fire.”

— the use of the magic spell to transform a screwdriver beverage into an actual screwdriver seems inconsistent with the other ways the magic spell works: the spell suggests that things are turned into one another, or into some mesh of qualities between the two objects, whereas COMPARE SCREW TO SCREWDRIVER does not make the beverage more like a screw, exactly.

— the handling of transformations like turning into a transient has too little feedback: often if I do the comparison the wrong way around (COMPARE TRANSIENT TO ME if it was expecting COMPARE ME TO TRANSIENT), I receive the message that the objects are not alike enough to compare. That turns me off pursuing the correct solution of the puzzle.

So instead of solving the puzzles in the game, the player wanders around doing various things that look like they might be implemented (“Hm, this hamster wheel throws sparks — maybe I should set a fire. No, I have no idea why.”) and turning to the hints when the connections are obscure (“I’m supposed to use the pack of cards? Really?”) and, most of all, failing to make any unprompted use of the nifty spell that made the puzzles look promising in the first place.

One might argue that burning down the pet shop is obviously a good idea anyway, in light of the rabbits in it. To that also I say: well, okay, but you want me to start a fire in the hamster’s cage. It was by no means apparent before I did this that I was going to manage to save the little critter while simultaneously succeeding in driving away the rabbits. That’s the kind of thing the author may know, but the player can’t until after he tries it. Basically, the player can’t think up chains of sensible actions because the relationship between cause and effect is too arbitrary — and that holds for almost all the actions in the entire game. How was I to know that flipping a switch in an unrelated building would help me enter the magic shop because it would produce a rabbit that would dangerously wound me so that I could attract the pity of the magic shop guard?

And don’t even start me on the chain of thinking that would be required to make the player realize that getting a coin to put in the offering plate will produce a priest to lure the ascetic to make Auntie Ock give you the grenade. I mean, what? What? How does this make sense? The priest’s appearance was completely unpredictable as an outcome of that action — and then given that I can’t compare the ascetic to my male self, why is he a better match for Auntie Ock?

It is, as I said, really frustrating. There is the germ of something cool here — a magic concept that hasn’t already been done a million times and that has various fun puzzle potential — but the game design totally fails to bring it out.

8 thoughts on “IF Competition: Magic

  1. I felt the same way about this as you, or, rather, I would have except that I had turned to the hints *long* before I found the trunk…

    It wasn’t even clear to me what the main goal was; I realized that the game wanted me to get the grenade but it wasn’t clear until after I got it what I would need it for (I first attempted to blow up the children’s house, and then the chapel; only then did the final sequence unfold).

    So I turned to the hints almost from the beginning, and I had fun with the game once I gave up on any hope of solving the puzzles on my own. Not great, but amusing in a guilty way.

    And the clear favorite for Worst Pun of the Comp….

  2. Interesting. I also found the game unintuitive, but some of the examples that you mention made perfect sense to me.

    Burning down the pet store was the logical thing to do: The owner of the army surplus store asks you to destroy it. Therefore, setting that fire was a goal in its own light. That same person also gave me a list of locations that could help me out when I was wounded. (Just walk into her shop with an open wound, and she’ll give you advice.) With that information, I knew to go to the magic shop.

    I agree, though, that the sequence of events that you need to go through the start the fire is impossible to figure out. Also, the rules defining whether objects are comparable are inconsistent: Of the 6 comparisons that you need to make throughout the game, I only figured out one on its own (thanks to yet another hint from the surplus store owner, actually), and even in retrospect I don’t understand one of them.

    However, I had fun playing this and found it to be put together better than almost any other Comp game: No typos, descriptions change when appropriate, and almost every noun you encounter will have its own interesting description. The overall structure of the puzzles is impressive, too: Several locations are used multiple times or change in different ways, and the game manages to juggle all these variables in a way that makes sure that different actions become available at the right times. The counter-intuitive puzzles hurt it a lot, of course, but I still plan on giving this game a good rating.

    Nevin

    PS: Now that I’m explaining how some of the solutions were hinted at, I’m starting to wonder if I missed other hints as well. The problem is that the walkthrough just tells how to solve the puzzles without justifying them, so whenever someone turns to it, the solution that they see makes no sense. Perhaps this games should have come with an “extended walkthrough” that leads you to the hints as well as the solutions?

  3. Another thing that annoyed me about this game: It didn’t give you a chance to play around with its core magical mechanic.

    When I got the Meta spell, the first thing I thought of (I assume most people here did, too) was Savior Faire. It’s the same basic idea (a new magic system with, in theory, clear rules that the player can play around with to solve puzzles), and even looks like it has the player looking for the same general things (similarities between objects.)

    But this game doesn’t really seem to follow the rules it described. It doesn’t give the players good indications of which objects are similar, and it doesn’t consistently apply its standard for similarity (I was likewise confused by the fact that similarity seemed to be one-way, as with the transient.)

    All of this might have been more forgivable, though, if the game had just let me play around with Meta a bit more. The first thing I thought when I got the spell was to look around for something to test it on… but depending on how you do things, you might not see it for a while, and when you do it’s not obvious. The game should have at the very least dropped a few obvious things to play around with so you could first, get the sense of how it works, and second, get a sense that it’s really a nifty new magical power you have and not just a tool to solve a few scripted puzzles.

    To work, magic games have to give the player a sense of, well, -magic-. The spells in Enchanter could work on almost everything you encountered in strange ways, so it really felt like the player had a supernatural control over their environment. Granted, perhaps this game actually wanted to avert that (the player’s character is hardly presented as an expert at anything), but the way it’s set up I felt more like I didn’t have any magic at all… I would have preferred a sequence of puzzles that gives the player a chance to learn to use their capabilities.

  4. You’re right, Aquillion. I think that the game only had one serious flaw, but the flaw was in the ability that was supposed to make it unique.

  5. Pingback: IF Competition: General Reflections and Favorites « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

  6. Pingback: IF Competition: General Reflections and Favorites | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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