Mustard, Music, and Murder

PeterkinCoverChristopher Huang’s Mustard, Music, and Murder is a less intricate construction than his previous, highly randomized detective puzzler An Act of Murder, but it’s likely to appeal to many of the same players.

Mustard is a bite-sized mystery IF set after WWI, where the central challenge is to work out the alibis of various office workers who might have committed a murder.

In the rather artificial mode of traditional logic puzzles, the characters turn out to have interacted in neatly quarter-hour chunks, so you need to interview everyone and then work out the resulting schedule to find out who could possibly have been alone at the right time. But as with An Act of Murder, realism isn’t precisely the point here. Instead, the game feels a bit like an early Lord Peter short, offering fifteen minutes’ worth of deduction in a cozy 1920s setting. The environment is implemented fairly lightly to avoid red herrings, but includes several entertaining surprises.

Mustard, Music, and Murder includes a hint system that will step you through the solution if need be, so there’s no chance of being stuck, but I didn’t need to rely on that too heavily.

Huang is also crowdfunding a novel about Peterkin, the game’s protagonist, and his fondness for this period and genre shine through.

Learning about Multiplayer Puzzle Design from Escape Rooms

I’m standing on a London street across from a scrap metal recycling establishment, in front of a door with no sign except a cryptic symbol. I’ve been told I will only be admitted if I press the buzzer at exactly the right time. A stranger asks me whether I’ve “had experiences like this” before.

I have, unless the stranger means “have you ever ridden the London Overground before this evening,” in which case the answer is no. We are a little outside my comfort zone there. But there are no Tube stops in this part of town.

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Time Run: the Lance of Longinus is a London escape room. There is an hour of gameplay, but if you count in brief and debrief time, it will take a good chunk of two hours to complete. We played with a team of four, which is the recommended number. They will let you play with three or five, but there were several of the puzzles that I think would have been just a bit more tricky to do with three (and fully impossible with two, so that’s fair enough). It was excellent fun; the team came out fairly psyched up and energized, and immediately talking about finding another escape room to do together.

I’d also say that, except for the travel to get to London in the first place, escape rooms turn out to fit my lifestyle surprisingly well: the gameplay itself is self-contained and memorable, it doesn’t take 60 hours to get a full experience, it doesn’t rely on reflexes I don’t have, and I’m less likely to get stuck than when playing a graphical adventure. No prep is required. It’s also a playful social experience with sufficient structure that you don’t need to Do Smalltalk, and enough adrenaline and excitement that you do build a sense of connection with the rest of your group. It doesn’t tend to involve the level of creativeness and emotional risk-taking that you see in storygaming, so it’s suitable to do with people you don’t yet know super-well, and it doesn’t require as much energy.

As with the previous escape game I played, it would be bad form to go into too much detail: a lot of the fun of an experience like this is in the discovery, and I won’t describe the puzzles or much about the format. But to speak very broadly, I felt that the individual puzzles in Longinus were a bit less difficult than in Enter the Oubliette, and the narrative frame less stressful. In Oubliette, you have to ask for hints when you’re ready for them; in Time Run, there’s a constant line open to a hint-giver who will nudge you along if you seem to be missing something, and we spent less time actively stuck. The “run” in Time Run doesn’t refer to any actual physical activity, but the game does keep up a pretty good pace, with new puzzle content reveals happening on a regular basis. Conversely, less of what you see in Time Run is there to help flesh out characters or develop the fiction of the surrounding world. None of this is a criticism of either Oubliette or Time Run — just a difference in flavor.

Perhaps in exchange for their non-central location, Time Run’s organizers have plenty of space at their disposal, and they make good use of it. The game uses some quite large-scale props, and a few puzzles that would be cramped in a smaller setting. The whole space, including the intro and exit rooms, has been imaginatively set-dressed, but in a way that doesn’t overload the team with red herrings. At the end, you get a score card for your team, and it’s printed on thick linen-finish stock with gold stamping. There are no actors in the escape rooms themselves, but there are several at intro and outro, and possibly more staff we didn’t see working levers behind the scenes while we played. The whole experience feels deluxe, which reflects the ticket prices, a few pounds more than average for a game of this type.

Multiple activities in the course of the game were adventure game-style puzzles that I have never seen executed in real life before. I won’t say what my favorite was, but I will say that when our team found it, there was a certain amount of incredulous, appreciative laughter that someone had *actually* built this setup.

I found this fascinating from a game design perspective. Escape rooms generally and Time Run in particular are very much multiplayer puzzle games, and we have so few of those in the IF space that it’s worth digging in for guidance wherever we can find that. Some thoughts, based on the grand total of two escape rooms I’ve done so far:

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Enter the Oubliette Room Escape

oubliette.jpgSunday a group from the London IF Meetup got together to tackle the Enter the Oubliette escape room. This was my first contact with escape rooms, though I’ve heard about a number from friends who’ve either played or worked on creating them. (If you’re in Seattle, here’s Sam Ashwell on the work of Puzzle Break. In London, I’ve also heard good things about Time Run; in fact, here’s a whole blog about escape rooms, biased towards but not exclusively focused on London, with a review that gives Oubliette five stars.)

Enter the Oubliette was put together by project members who have Punchdrunk experience, and indeed a number of things about the props did remind me of Punchdrunk things I’ve seen: the meticulous documents with retro design, paper types, and illustration; the functioning retro technology; the inventive use of sound, film, lighting, and smoke effects as well as space and objects to create a particular experience. The room wasn’t as crammed-full-of-stuff as the setting of a Punchdrunk stage production, but that was a mercy: we already had plenty to search and already had to have some strong hints to guide our attention to some missed items.

With something like this that thrives on novelty and where each person who sees spoilers is a person who can’t realistically be a customer, it seems actively hostile to give too much away. So I want to be extra careful not to do that.

If you’re just looking for advice about whether this is worth doing: we liked it. We had a great time with a mixed group; most of us hadn’t been to any kind of escape room before. We had different degrees of self-confidence about our puzzle solving ability, but we did fine and everyone got to contribute in meaningful ways. And although you might try to place it by saying it’s a bit like a cross between immersive theatre and a graphical adventure game, in practice it is still really, really different from either of those things.

Below are some fairly general comments about how this experience worked as an interactive story experience, which I will still cordon off in case you don’t want to see even those.

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Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer)

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Scroll Thief is a game by Daniel Stelzer, set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, though with significant nods to Colossal Cave as well. It’s a puzzlefest built around the same magical spells that appear in the Enchanter series — gnusto to copy things into your spellbook, frotz to make them glow with magical light, blorb to enclose them safely in a strong box, rezrov to open and untie things — to which Stelzer has added a couple of “metamagic” spells, including the lleps reversal-spell from Balances and another spell that strengthens the effect of a given casting. Stelzer released Act One of the game in IntroComp 2014. (My review at the time.)

Meanwhile, though the spells may be ones we’ve mostly seen before, they’re generally being used on situations that we haven’t. The resulting puzzles do well (or at least, did for me) on the originality and explorability axes. Some take longer than others to work out, and for one or two I needed the hints; on the other hand, others are made easier because they have multiple solutions involving different spell combinations.

To make the exploration more fun, Stelzer provides a number of good easter egg responses for using the spells in unusual places or unexpected ways. There are also a lot of nods to IF community figures and institutions, including what I take to be a reference to ClubFloyd and NightFloyd. In keeping with the Infocom originals, the author has provided invisiclues-style hints which you can highlight to view solutions; these are of course themselves full of misdirections and red herrings.

At the same time, Scroll Thief sets itself apart from its predecessors and inspirations with an expanded role for NPCs, especially the Adventurer from Colossal Cave whom you can summon into your world. Your initial interactions with him are quite manipulative (and you really have no opportunity to make them otherwise), but later in the game it becomes possible to treat him more as an equal, someone you can talk to and do favors for. The bird and the snake from Colossal Cave get cameo appearances, and with judicious use of spells, you can get the bird’s insights into its situation. Then, too, the game’s setting gives more time and attention to the training of novices and the organization of the community of spellcasters, making it less a world of lone heroes and more a world of collaborative effort — a point that becomes particularly clear at the transition to Act II.

The result is less lonely and more focused on interpersonal (or inter-creature) connection than the original games — in a lightweight way reminding me of the transition in Endless, Nameless from a puzzle-oriented model to one where NPC conversation is possible.

The game’s story is not complete in itself. Scroll Thief contains two acts of a longer story, which promises to be a trilogy. The end of Act II introduces a mechanic from Spellbreaker which I would enjoy seeing explored further, so I look forward to the next chapter.

Scroll Thief is certainly possible to play with only moderate knowledge of the source material, but I wouldn’t give it to someone as one of their first encounters with parser IF. Technically, this piece is doing some very challenging things — viewing from one room into another via magical scrying glasses, tying ropes to objects, ordering NPCs around from a distance, and other tasks that justly give parser IF authors pause.

A huge amount of work has gone into making this complicated world model easy for the player to manipulate, and providing hints when some unusual bit of syntax is required. The world model works smoothly most of the time despite the difficulty of what it’s trying to accomplish. But the parsing involved in issuing commands and viewing things from a distance is still sometimes tricky to deal with. When scrying, for instance, LOOK IN SPHERE produces a disambiguation about what you want to look at while LOOK INTO SPHERE actually gives the desired room description of the thing on the other side. In other places, it can be necessary to run through several variant phrasings (ASK ADVENTURER ABOUT HELP vs ASK ADVENTURER FOR HELP, e.g.) in order to land on the one that will work. I ran into a few snags that meant I had to look for hints on puzzles I would otherwise have been able to solve on my own. However, Stelzer is releasing new updates rapidly, so it may be that these issues will be less of a concern in a couple of weeks.

And one more thought on the puzzles, post-spoiler space:

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The Magic Circle (Question)

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If that’s hard to read, here are the first couple of sentences:

The gods of this world don’t know you, boss. But they’re scared of what you might do. They have to treat you like some reptile with a credit card, who can’t stay awake without watching something die…

The Magic Circle is a first-person puzzle game that recently left Early Access for full release on Steam. The premise is that Ish Gilder, a game designer with a massive cult following, has been trying for decades to follow up on his early text adventure success. He’s been promising exotic features for the sequel with Molyneuxian abandon, and he’s held something like five separate crowdfunding campaigns, but the game never quite comes together. In fact, a nearly launch-ready version gets totally scrubbed at one point, a complete space-station setting buried in favor of something more fantasy-oriented.

There’s a whole website dedicated to documenting the sad history of the game development.

(Disclosure: I received a free review key for this game.)

You play as a tester who has gotten access to this desperately broken thing, and you’re trying to get it to function for you. Early on you meet the Old Pro, a self-aware AI of the protagonist who has been waiting all these years for his game to be released so that he can get out into the world. (How exactly he came to be a self-aware AI is not deeply explored and neither are the ethics of releasing him.) You don’t have a sword because Ish has decided late in the process to remove combat, but you do have access to debug tools that allow you to meddle with the flags controlling NPC behavior. When you’ve learned about a skill from one NPC, you can apply it to others.

You thus spend the bulk of the game play time — I’d estimate about four and a half hours for me — exploring both the space and the fantasy areas of the game, which are linked, and solving puzzles in order to get close enough to creatures to yank their skills out of their bodies.

This is an elegantly designed puzzle space: consistent and comprehensible mechanics, lots of fun bits where you can combine different character skills to produce useful or funny or horrifying results, and a non-linear design that lets you tackle problems in the order of your choosing. It is possible to find solutions the devs didn’t specifically anticipate. I did once waste a lot of time trying to solve an enemy, the Securitron, because I hadn’t yet picked up the skills that would have made it easy to kill, but eventually I remembered that I had other options and went off to try something else first. Most of the time I was challenged enough to have to give situations a bit of thought or experimentation, but not all the way to stuck, which is what you want.

Lots of nice work has also gone into making an easily navigable map with clear signs of where you will find new puzzles to solve, so you’re not wandering around this big space desperately looking for doors and triggers.

So that’s fun. And while you’re doing it, you get a bunch of diary-page style storytelling in the form of change log notes and director’s commentary and other scattered text and audio clips, messages from the Old Pro, and the occasional scene of avatars interacting in-world. This is how you learn about Maze, the expert player who has come on to work for Ish as a designer, who loves high-difficulty gameplay and hate hate hates cut scenes; Coda, the long-time fan who has grown up waiting for Ish’s next game; references to Ish’s ex-wife and to other QA testers and designers who came and went over the years. From time to time you hear music, overlaid with instructions from the composer about what it’s supposed to sound like in this context.

Eventually – but let’s have some spoiler space.

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Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

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Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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