Saturday, October 7, 2017

Domestic Elementalism (review)

"Domestic Elementalism" is a point and click text game by "Emma@fireisnormal". Drawn in by the blurb and cover art, I had peeked at this game the very first day it was launched for the 2017 IF competion. Later I came back to finish it when it appeared near the top of my randomized list.

Review after the break

The player character is a witch specializing in the magic of elementalism: the transmutation of objects from one elemental form to another. The elements are from the classical list: earth, air, water and fire. Transmutation creates objects of a similar type, but often with a strikingly different properties and uses. For example, switching a chisel from the earth element to the the air elemental turns it from an earth shaping tool to a glass shaping tool (a  glass blower's pipe). Initially the player is only powerful enough to transmute between air and earth or fire and water. By mid-game, all types of transmutations are possible.

Your house has been cursed. The oven in the fire room is cold. The fountain in the water room is dry. The player's goal is to set each room right and more broadly to solve the mystery of what went wrong. This is done by solving a series of "object and use" puzzles probably already familiar to experienced IF players. To start the fire, you need a tool to open the oven, and then some fuel, and also a source of heat.

[spoiler appears in the paragraph following this one]
There are only about seven locations modeled in this game, and little more than six items are held in inventory at any time. But with all the possible transmutations, the number of object/element/location combinations multiplies quickly. Some of the puzzles are satisfyingly intuitive, especially early in the game when the options are more constrained. In mid-game I was sometimes using brute force, toggling to every possible combination, usually arriving at a solution that seemed logical enough. But near the end game I found one puzzle that struck me as bafflingly non-intuitive.

[spoiler in this paragraph]
The puzzle I mention requires the player to melt a bar of soap over a fire, to make "shampoo". The shampoo is not itself useful, but might be transmuted into a useful item. Based on my prior personal experience messing around with fire, this is not how you make shampoo. Soap does not melt, or even burn very easily, not even with an open flame. Granted, there is a clue elsewhere in the game that the witch's shampoo is "little more than melted soap". Yet this could easily be understood as meaning "dissolved soap" which is a better way to make shampoo. I looked at the walk through for this solution, and ended up feeling that I wouldn't have solved it on my own.

Also regarding puzzle design, I sometimes wished that there were more than one possible solution to each puzzle. The programming was solid enough to show that the author had anticipated alternate solutions "You can't do that because [explanation]". Why not sometimes allow an alternate solution, or at least provide a better clue for the correct solution?

I finished the game in a little more than an hour, using the walk through only a couple of times. In the end, I felt satisfied with having solved the mystery of the house.

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