Friday, October 9, 2015

5 minutes to burn something (review)

"5 minutes to burn something" is parser style interactive fiction written by Alex Butterfield in Z-code for the 2015 interactive fiction competition.  This game appears first in alphabetical order.  Therefore it has been screaming at me to play it every time I log in.  I will remember this when I next enter the competition and title my game "1.1 Aardvark".

Veteran players of IF may remember other games set in someone's low rent crappy apartment.  Veteran players may remember other games where the object was to solve a series of absurdist puzzles in order to escape a small location, even a single room.  For some veteran players, that familiarity may breed contempt.  But I did not wish to prejudge this game just because it falls back on some much-loved cliches.  Jeremy Freese included many of the same features in "Violet" a one room puzzler in a familiar location which went on to win first place.  I thought that maybe "5 minutes to burn" took some of its inspiration from "Violet", but whereas the backstory in "Violet" is about an obsession based on love, the backstory in "5 minutes" is an obsession of hatred.  When choosing which emotions to infuse into your comic one-room puzzler, Love is the better choice.  "Violet" was a better game in many ways.  Which is not to say that "5 minutes" is horrible.  It has some admirable features, which I'll mention after the page break.  But this game is imperfect in some critical ways.

Parser games are hard to program.  Puzzle games even more so, because the author has to anticipate all the possible mistakes a player might make when trying to discover the solution.  To Alex Butterfield's credit, this game works 90% of the time.  I was able to solve most of the puzzles without the hints.  I like that.  But when bugs do pop up, they are laughably glaring.

[start transcript]
>look in cabinetThe medicine cabinet is bare, except for a magnifying glass.  Ash took everything else, even your toothbrush!

>take magnifying glassYou can't see any such thing.

You can type HELP for general advice on playing or HINT for help on the current puzzle.

>take all from cabinetThe medicine cabinet isn't open.

>open cabinetYou open the medicine cabinet, revealing nothing.

>take all from cabinetTaken.
[stop transcript]

Another more serious error occurs in solving one of the key puzzles.  A certain object is required to reach a distant tree branch.  I knew exactly which object I needed to catch the branch, but didn't have any idea how to use it.  And I never would have guessed.  Up to that point in the game I was thoroughly committed to using no hints.  But hints are like potato chips.  Once you get started, it is hard to stop.  Speaking of hints, I thought the adaptive hints system in this game was rather well implemented.  What I did not like was how often the game reminded me they were available, as in the transcript above and below.

You can type HELP for general advice on playing or HINT for help on the current puzzle.

I appreciate the availability of a HELP command, but that message popped up so often, in response to nearly every parser error, that it really broke the immersion for me.

The last thing I want to mention, as a positive, is an effective shift in mood toward the end.  The first half was timed, but the time limit wasn't too taxing.  I felt relaxed.  I restarted a couple of times, and on the third try (with hints on that one puzzle) I had started a fire in three minutes.  That rivals my best times starting real fires when I was a Boy Scout!  But then suddenly a whole new set of puzzles were introduced (much darker in the second half) and I really felt a time pressure.  That's a neat achievement in IF, to change the players pulse rate unexpectedly.  I remember a similar feeling when I first played Andrew Plotkin's very difficult puzzler "A Change in the Weather".  But like "Violet", "Change in the Weather" was a more polished game than this one.

Addendum:  When I played this through a second time, I found even more bugs than I saw the first time.  In several cases I found myself stuck on problems that I had already solved because I had forgotten the precise grammar.  The credits lists only one beta-tester, the author's wife, who is described as a novice player.  I suspect that she turned to the hints much earlier than I did, which may be why the hints section appears to be the most rigorously tested piece of this game.  I suggest that for future releases, the author recruit multiple play-testers including several who are experienced as players and critics.

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