Spring Thing 2013: A Roiling Original

A Roiling Original is a wordplay game by Andrew Schultz, a sequel to 2012’s Shuffling Around (my review). It uses a similar mechanic of changing one object into another via anagrams, and is an entrant in Spring Thing 2013.

More detailed thoughts after the break. If you’re planning to play and vote on Spring Thing games yourself, you may want to wait before reading this.

Like its predecessor, A Roiling Original is very thin story wrapped around puzzles dictated by the available concepts. The characters and environments are strongly surreal, with elements such as a wall made of paper, or a pit of seeds. Sometimes the descriptions are so odd that it’s very difficult to parse them at all:

> scan reef
The left free reef has Thor, looking for a hug. The right one has a new beet that seems to have been wet recently–it is still dripping.

What does it mean to say that a reef is free? Is it detached from the sea floor and drifting? Is it meaningfully a reef in that case? What does it mean for a reef to “have” a beet? Is there a beet on it? We’re seeing these things at some distance, so can we really see that the beet is dripping?

But this is what I mean: the items here, and their adjectives and behavior, are all the result of puzzle features, not part of a coherent setting concept or story arc. It’s not necessary to envision the reef accurately, because you’re not going to be doing anything with it qua reef. The puzzle idea is that some items need to be converted into others, their names being mutual anagrams. To change an anagrammed item into its corrected form, one only needs to type in the correct name, but sometimes there are a lot of options.

An in-game scanner tool allows the player to analyze things in the game world, turning up a sequence of colors that give clues about how the letters ought to be arranged. Figuring out what the scanner colors mean is itself a bit of a puzzle. Once you’ve scanned something, though, the colors remain at the top of the screen near the status bar, as a kind of helpful guide:

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 5.51.37 PM

This is a UI upgrade on Shuffling Around, which did not, as I recall, have this color readout. It would have been significantly more helpful to me, though, had the status bar also retained the name of the object I’d scanned. As things are, it is presenting semi-permanent status bar information that only makes sense with reference to something named in a specific turn — so even though the information sticks around, its relevance is partially lost.

In some sections, there are thematic connections between the words you’re meant to be creating. This helps a bit, because otherwise the puzzles can be a bit obscure and surprising, with solutions changing the environment more than the player could reasonably anticipate. Even when I’d figured out how to transform an object, it was rare that I could guess what was going to happen if I performed the transformation.

A Roiling Original is pretty tricky in spots. Often the functional names of things — the words you’re supposed to be manipulating via anagram, the phrases that are being scanned by the in-game machines — are not the same as the object names used in room descriptions. Sometimes you’re manipulating the whole name of a thing, sometimes just its adjective or just its noun, sometimes the lettering written on the object. Consequently, there’s a certain amount of guess-the-noun, and I had to resort to the hints frequently.

I would have preferred a somewhat more consistent environment, a gentler learning curve about what letters did, and a bit more transparency about the true names of things.

Ultimately, I ran out of enthusiasm for this game before it was over. Fictionally there wasn’t a great deal to hold me to it. Who was my character? What was at stake? What was going on, fundamentally? It was hard to say, and therefore hard to care very deeply. And I felt that puzzle solutions were too hit-or-miss. Sometimes I was entertainingly challenged, but a lot of the rest of the time I was just blundering around, getting confused, and then going to the hints.

Those who liked the original Shuffling Around more are likely to find this a pleasing continuation of the fun from the first one; possibly even a bit better than the original. For me, the same issues of taste and enjoyment applied to both.

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