IF Comp 2012: In a Manor of Speaking

In a Manor of Speaking is a fairly brief, surreal parser-based word-puzzler of easy to moderate difficulty. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. The fact that I am reviewing it at all indicates that there are beta-testers.

In a Manor of Speaking is a wordplay game where most of the puzzle solutions turn on thinking of or recognizing common idioms and turns of phrase — a bit reminiscent of Puddles on the Path or certain parts of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It. There’s a sketchy plot tying the elements together, and a few patches of geographical continuity, but mostly the point of the game is to experience a number of groan-worthy (at best) puns.

The implementation here is fairly thin, but it’s consistently and intentionally so, which makes a huge difference. Rooms usually contain only a couple of items; the verbs you’re meant to use on those items are often strongly telegraphed (when they’re not part of a punning puzzle, at which point it gets complicated); and the game does its best to discourage you from engaging in fruitless interactions with things that have no implemented response. There is typically only one puzzle per room and one use per item.

That runs counter to the detail-depth of a lot of recent IF design (Endless, Nameless even has a whole joke section riffing on how recent IF will implement everything down to the tiles on the bathroom floor, and how disorienting that is in comparison with old-school room descriptions). Trends aside, though, I think that design and implementation starkness was the right choice for this game, because it prevents the player from spending too much time fiddling with things that have no relevance: you’re really supposed to be spending most of your time experiencing the punniness of it all, and anything that directs your attention away from that is a distraction.

As to the puzzles themselves, they vary in quality. I was able to get through the whole game reasonably quickly by occasionally resorting to the hints but never to the built-in walkthrough; so that perhaps says something in its favor. But some of those puzzles are more satisfying than others. The fun solutions (for me, anyway) were the ones that rewarded thinking of the relevant pun or phrase and using that as a command; I found it enjoyable and gratifying to realize that there was a common phrase that also happened to be exactly the right thing to type in the present situation. The less-fun ones hinged on having a surreal and implausible interaction with some person or thing that happened to have a punny name incidentally, or else exploited a double meaning that just felt too obvious to have much comedy value. Interactive humor where you can get the player to actually enact the joke always scores way higher than if you just tell her the punchline. (It is correspondingly more difficult, I grant.)

Then, too, cluing varied. There was one occasion where I had thought of exactly the right command but was trying to perform it in the wrong location; the feedback about why it was failing was not that helpful and made me think I must be doing something that wasn’t implemented. Then, too, I wanted more replies to wrong attempts in general. This is not easy. The pun/idiom-exploiting variety of wordplay IF strongly encourages people to type in phrases they would never type into most IF games, and it’s difficult for the author to anticipate and have responses for all the wrong answers people are going to try when a lot of those wrong answers don’t even start with a traditionally IFfy verb. (A few specific examples follow the spoiler space, if you’re curious.)

There was also one case where I realized what the puzzle clue was supposed to be only after I had brute-forced the solution. I’m happy to count that one as my own fault.

So overall, I think that in a couple of places, a stronger puzzle design might have made for a more enjoyable experience. I also suspect some people will find its chirpily cheery prose tone cloying, or will feel that this just isn’t what they want in their IF — and that’s fine. For me, it was an entertaining and good-natured diversion that didn’t outstay its welcome.

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To get into puzzle specifics, I felt that EAT DESSERT and TAKE PICTURE were so obvious as not to be entirely satisfying either as puzzles or as jokes, while HEADBANG and GIVE KANGARUDE A PIECE OF MY MIND worked rather better.

Then there were the things I tried for which I wish there had been better feedback:

KEEP AN EYE ON SIGN (when I’d seen the EX T but not found the eye patch)
EYE SIGN (ditto)
DRAW BRIDGE when standing at the wrong quadrant of the moat (this was the “right answer, wrong location” one)
CROSS CROSSROAD (I dunno, it just felt like it was meant to be interactive more than it was)
EAT WORDS (when I had the wad of words but hadn’t yet interacted with the beggar — there was something in the description about them being a mouthful!)
PUT WORDS IN MOUTH

…which in an ideal universe would have led to the puzzle solution

SPIT THE DOPEST WORDS

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