IF Comp 2015: Final Exam (Jack Whitham)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

final_examIf you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Final Exam is a parser puzzle game with a science fiction premise, concerning a future dystopia. I played through to one ending within the two hour period, then spent some time looking for others, but did not find them in the time available to play. If you’ve played and finished this game to multiple endings, I’d be very interested to hear about what you found.

Man, this game. I wasn’t sure what to make of the very opening, but shortly thereafter became really intrigued by it. There’s a gradual revelation of mystery, together with a good mix of comedy and political commentary. The premise is strongly reminiscent of A Mind Forever Voyaging, in that this society uses computer simulations to judge which political processes are going to be best.

More than that, I felt like the author might have some interesting things to say about governance, democracy, and how we talk to one another about those topics. Passages made me think of posts on political tribalism at SlateStarCodex, particularly a section on how (in the world of Final Exam) people have been successfully moved away from strongly held political beliefs once those beliefs began to cause them to be associated with certain out groups. There’s enough ambiguity here — this passage of text is delivered by someone we have every reason not to trust and is in fact semi-buried within the game — that I’m not sure whether I would have ultimately agreed or disagreed with the author’s conclusions. But it seemed like something interesting was going to be said, and I was totally on board to find out what that was.

So I had a great time with that and was really into this game for, I’d say, the first 45 minutes of play and thought the piece might be headed for a spot in my top tier this comp.

It doesn’t really deliver on all that, though — or at least, I wasn’t able to make it do so. After a certain point, the game turns away from being primarily about knowledge and discovery and turns into a detailed simulation puzzle involving connecting rooms to one another with cables. The cables are implemented meticulously and as far as I can tell buglessly, which I can tell you is an achievement: they’re basically a variant on the infamously hard to model ropes. However, manipulating the cables to connect things becomes a maze-level frustration, at least for me. There’s a clever nugget in the center of this puzzle, but there’s also a fair amount of repetition needed to execute a solution once you’ve worked out what it should be. (A problem of extent.)

I had some additional experiences with the endgame and the walkthrough that I will put after the spoiler space.

Before I go there, though: this is a really solidly coded piece of work with an interesting conceit. I enjoyed the beginning. Even though it didn’t ultimately deliver on all of its promises in my playthrough, it remains well within the top half of the comp for me.

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Your boss tells you to plug a regular socket (WS3) into the satellite kit. This is also what the walkthrough tells you to do. Doing this produces an outcome that I would consider a suboptimal ending. Even though the walkthrough goes into no more detail, I felt like I was supposed to discover more, especially since there were a bunch of objects in the game world that were otherwise red herrings. Sadly, running all over the place doing more with the cable puzzle didn’t actually achieve what I expected.

Stuff that I tried that didn’t seem to cause an alternative endgame when I returned to my own body:

— connecting the “unfiltered” network socket (z5) to the satellite uplink
— connecting a virus socket (WS1) to the satellite uplink
— connecting a regular socket (WS3) to the network socket
— connecting what I thought might be an admin-related socket (WS4) to the network socket
— connecting a virus socket (ws1) to the network socket

It’s possible — indeed I think actually probable — that there’s some other outcome I could get if I had more time and could think of additional things to try. But I can’t, and the walkthrough isn’t willing to help me with this.

Or maybe it is not there after all and the only possibility is a sort of failure. I’m really not sure, but if so, the design of the game does a great job of concealing that and misleading the player.

What I am sad about is the fact that there’s so little further development of the story in the latter half of the game, and that the endgame I got didn’t tell me much I hadn’t already discovered.

12 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Final Exam (Jack Whitham)

  1. Hello.
    I played through two endings.
    In the first playthrough I followed the Administrator’s orders.
    In the second the protagonist recovered their identity and did what their wanted to do in the first place.
    Poke one of the numbers which is scratched on the robot body to change perspective.

    • I did manage to reach the perspective of the Security Administrator, which was really interesting (and happened fairly early, for me). But I couldn’t then work out how best to forward his aims rather than those of the boss.

  2. Connect socket Z5 to socket WS3 (you will have to throw the cable through the chasm).
    Then poke the number from the door from the office in the bunker.
    Connect socket Z0 with socket WS1.

    • I didn’t find (yet) any hint about the connections in this alternative scenarios: did you get there by trial and error? I got stuck in the maintenance room when I connected the wrong ports: I could not pass the NE portal anymore.

      • There was a bug in release 5 of the game which caused this. I am very sorry about it. It is fixed in the current version.

    • My interpretation was that both Z5 and WS1 were virus sockets, which is why Z5 to WS3 incapacitates the Central Administrator. There is an interesting (but losing) ending when you unplug that connection after opening the blast door (e.g. if you hadn’t figured out you need two separate cables).

      About the political stance of the game, I felt that it was intentionally ambiguous, sort of a “both sides have a point but neither is really right”. (Which is pretty similar to my take on Brave New World, actually.) I never played AMFV, but did you notice the book written by Perry Simm called “Notopia”? That seemed like a hint that there might be a ‘third way’. (Although I didn’t find an ending where neither Administrator wins.)

      I’m looking forward to the post-mortem for this!

  3. I’m glad I could help.

    There aren’t no hints for the alternative ending.
    I just tried different connections.
    At one point I lost the game by breaking the Administrator’s Mind and locking myself in his room.

  4. That strange moment when you find out that two disparate old friends of yours actually know each other, and you never would have guessed in a million years?

    That’s what happens in my brain when I see SSC cited here. :)

  5. I got frustrated by the maze bit and stopped, though I might or might not go back with the walkthrough at a later date. Something that puzzled me was that the satellite kit had a sort of “yay, now you’re connected and have a signal!”-type message when I… tied the other end of the cable to the float. (This wasn’t actually the success — I checked — but I was confused by that!)

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