Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Problems Compound (a review)

"The Problems Compound" is a parser-style interactive fiction written by Andrew Schultz for the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition.

The "credits" in this game lists as one inspiration "In a Manor of Speaking" (Hulk Handsome, 2012 IF comp 10th place).  That game, in turn, has been compared with "Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It" (Jeff O'Neill, 1987). "The Problems Compound" also makes reference to a classic children's book "The Phantom Tollbooth" (Norton Juster, 1961).

What all of these games (and book) have in common is a passion for word-play...puns, homonyms, spoonerisms and figures of speech.  The principle mechanism in "The Problems Compound" is compound word reversal.  You'll meet lots of strange people in this strange world with names like "Uncle Dutch", "Turk Young" and "Buddy Best". (Now reread the title "Compound Problems").  The game shoehorns in a lot of different types of puzzles in a way that made me think of the 1999 competition winner "The Winter Wonderland" (Laura Knauth).

More after the spoiler break.

"Problems Compound" is fairly solidly coded.  The puzzles aren't exactly "easy", and some were so absurdist that they didn't entirely make sense even once they were solved. In one map region, the player has to collect a set of four "boo ticketys", which are issued by the Stool Toad for various "infractions." I found all four. But for the life of me, I would not have been able to predict in advance which actions would precipitate citations. Fortunately most of the puzzles are well clued or else they can be solved by just stumbling around doing what IF players normally do (talking to characters, exploring new locations, picking things up.)

The writing in "Problems Compound" is oddly stylized.  This affected writing is likely a consequence of several factors.  To some degree, the author is channeling the voice of his cited influences (The Phantom Tollbooth, In a Manor of Speaking).  To some degree, this stylization is the outcome of trying to maximize puzzle content and creative word use at the expense of story-telling coherency or narrative structure. That's a different set of goals the author has set than we see in most contemporary interactive fiction.

I played for about an hour and a half, but did not finish this game.  I got stuck behind a logic puzzle that I'm sure I could have solved eventually, but it would have taken more than the remaining half hour of judging time.

1 comment:


    I beta-tested this game and haven't played the release version yet, but in the version I played if you talk to the Stool Toad long enough he tells you the sort of thing you're not allowed to do: "Littering. Pretending you didn't make any mistakes when you did. Acting up in the bar. Minor in possession."

    ...hmmm, looking at my transcript this clued two of the ticketies. One of the other two were not clued by this, but came from normal stumbling around (giving people suitable things). Don't know if there are multiple ways to get it

    Also, I didn't finish the game in the testing period, but as far as I could tell you didn't actually need to solve the logic puzzle--it unlocks a hint machine. It's a great puzzle but definitely chews up a lot of time... I think I started it just before bedtime and wound up staying up late.