A Beauty Cold And Austere - Mike Spivey

I have posted a review and transcript: blog.templaro.com/review-beauty-cold-austere/

  • Jack

After two hours of play, I gave this one a 10. That’s pertinent because I didn’t stop playing at that point. In fact, I went on to complete the game and get all 100 points, in a few more sessions, across three days. Adjusting for my frequent breaks, I’d say the proper enthusiasm could get a player through the whole thing in a solid five or six hours. That length and a few other design elements make this game a less-than-ideal IFComp entry, but I never use that as a judging criterion, lest I make this into some sort of meta-competition.

It was the most fun I’ve had playing an IFComp entry in years, but it’s probably not a coincidence that I’m fascinated with mathematics and comfortable with all of the concepts that this game presents. A Beauty Cold and Austere is a tour of math, math history, and math literature that covers quite a few important concepts without getting into anything downright esoteric, of which math has an infinite supply. I was reminded of a game from 10 years ago, The Chinese Room, that does a similar thing with Philosophy. That game scored very well in the Comp and was probably less accessible to most. So don’t run away yet, math-phobes! Yes, the player is expected to do a few calculations, but there’s a lovely TEXT ADVENTURE going on here, too, that is a good draw in its own right, with enough puzzles available at any time that you should be able to sidestep certain ones long enough to check things out casually. Generally, there’s enough cluing going on that most players should be able to have a good time, and actually learning something to boot is a real possibility.

Aside from the math, this game resonated with me on many levels, from cultural references that made me feel right at home to parser details such as READ being distinct from EXAMINE, as well as the little-used verb GREET. There’s a direct lift from the Zork map that makes good use of one of its central concepts, that of putting collected treasures (math books) in the trophy case (bookshelf), and the overall design is an homage to the open-world, item-collecting games of yore.

Having played through the whole game, let me tell you: this thing is large and impressively robust. It must have been one heck of a project for the author, Mike Spivey, to weave the concepts together into a game. The concepts, while not really original, go fairly deep: the abstraction of the number line itself is presented here, across a few locations, with the more specific concepts of certain numbers manifested on top of that (actually, beneath it). The literature has been extensively researched, which no doubt even a math whiz like Spivey would have to do in order to effectively incorporate it all. The parser is superb. Errors and bugs are hard to find. The writing is good but wisely understated to avoid introducing too many extraneous nouns into an already puzzle- and item-rich environment. The number of items would be a problem if it weren’t for the author’s conscientious inclusion of appropriately thematic devices to help the player manage them: a bag-of-holding-style Empty Set, and an oracle you can ask about whether an item might have any further use.

Moving on to criticisms, it was the game’s nth-degree openness that led to its significant problems. Most of the time I was juggling too many unsolved problems and unused items at once. I found myself frequently checking the Hint menu for the sole purpose of seeing a list of tasks I might try to tackle. It’s fun to look around for something you might be able to do, but too many of the puzzles turned out to be things that couldn’t be solved until much later, which led to an outsized portion of futility of player action. That might be controlled on a design level with some simple rearrangement. The other major frustration was that new areas can open up elsewhere without any alert to the player, and new paths can open up from nothing more than multiple visits to a location. That sort of design acknowledges that the player will be hunting around randomly in desperation, and today we aren’t used to that sort of thing. It’s especially ill-advised in IFComp; however, these very well might be things that are not a huge risk to run into before the two-hour mark!

I might tidy up several puzzles here and there, but one in particular I want to mention is the Balance Puzzle. Since it appears early in the game, other reviews have reached it and invariably mentioned it. The balance/scale is a fine thing to represent equality, and an equation, but the way the whole thing works is confusing and needs to be re-imagined. For one thing, it’s an egregious oversight that the text never mentions whether the scales are balanced. You sort of have to guess that after messing around with them. Examining a balance should explicitly state whether it’s balanced. And putting all three balances in the same location was a mistake that forced the use of colors to distinguish otherwise identical weights across the three. Intuitively, the different colors suggest different weight values when in fact they’re all the same if the same type. At that point it’s too many hoops for the player to jump through mentally, when the task itself is not even clear to begin with.

Evil balances aside, the puzzles stretch from the simple well into the ingenious. The gameplay is terrific, and the scope is breathtaking. But, speaking of breathtaking, where are the fractals?

At the very very absolute end, when you open the Mandelbrot book in sight of the complex plane, no?

matt-- ah, yes. And on the cover. Neither interactive though, which would have been interesting!

I agree with what’s been said here-- great, enormous game, imaginative and well-implemented. The hints system is robust, though sometimes a little more explicitness would have been appreciated. The walkthrough does go into that amount of detail, though, so the exact solutions are available; it’s just whether they should be in the hint menu or not, really. I have some doubts as to how accessible it would really be to anyone without a decent math background, though. I took precalc an alarming number of years ago, and have a decent general math knowledge, and there were many puzzles where I decided “**** thiiiis” and looked it up. Yes, the text about it is available in the game-- if you can read and absorb an entire course’s worth of material in such short order. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s just that to say that the game can be completed without any specialized math knowledge seems a trifle… optimistic. I would also agree that the silent room changes caused more than a few of my frequent visits to the hint screen. It would be nice if there were notifications that something might have changed somewhere. The house in the Greek level was handled decently well-- you could tell that something would change as your knowledge increased if you just bothered to look into it. The central hubs, though? The wall on the mathematician’s study? Not so much. But again, these are minor nitpicks of a very good game.

A very good puzzlefest, yes; but I still prefer The Chinese Room - it had more humor, playing it was more fun. Achilles in The Chinese Room was a joy to interact with; Achilles in A Beauty Cold and Austere is, well, cold and austere.

Short review: xenoglossy.dreamwidth.org/80253.html#cutid7

A Beauty Cold And Austere is a parser game structured around a student frantically cramming for a math test. After consuming some dubious pills from a roommate, the student dreams through the historical development of mathematics from ancient civilizations to the early 20th century, in a type of mathematical Bill and Ted adventure. The gameplay itself is that of a traditional puzzler; different rooms correspond to different time periods/mathematicians/themes and contain a puzzle or two each; solving some puzzles unlocks items that are needed for others. The puzzles are loosely organized around hubs (similar to Andrew Plotkin’s ancient game, whose name I can’t remember at the moment), with the next hub unlocking once a threshold of puzzles has been solved in the previous.

I am not really a professional mathematician, but I am close to one, and I have enough of a mathematics background that I was familiar with almost all of the concepts and characters in the game. And I approached the game with no small amount of trepidation, as I was skeptical that trying to do math in a parser was a doomed idea from the start. Mathematics is already, in its native for, abstract and inaccessible, and the most successful attempts at taming mathematics for lay audiences have involved visualizing mathematics, which is the exact thing that cannot be done (with the exception of ASCII art) in a parser game.

The game needed to do two things in order to be a success, in my estimation:

  1. It needed to convey the beauty, depth, and awe of mathematics to a lay audience;
  2. It needed to be engaging and entertaining as a puzzle game.
    After completing the game (which is on the longer side for the IFcomp, but just about right for a puzzler) I have to say my negative preconceptions were unfounded; the game succeeds, to a large extent, on both counts.

Certainly there were parts of the game that worked better than others. The “number line” area that you start in, and return to at various points in the game, is a good example of where I think the IF medium doesn’t do the topic justice. In a point-and-click adventure, you could see the positive integers extend in the negative direction, see the rationals “filling in” the gaps, see the action of multiplying and taking roots on the complex plane… and of course, see the rationals at the end.

In fact I’m not sure there’s any part of the game that wouldn’t have worked better as point-and-click (setting aside, of course, the significant difference in effort required to author such a game); other areas that would have benefited from visuals include the fan puzzle near the end (it wasn’t obvious to me without looking at the walkthrough that the fan and platform were aligned in a way where it would make sense to try to reshape myself), and the sequence and series machine (wouldn’t it have been cool to be able to see the steps, and especially, the rearrangement?)

But enough about the misses; the game also has some hits. The calculus-on-a-roller-coaster puzzle is excellent, probably the highlight of the game: it’s well-crafted in that it requires several intuitive steps to solve completely, but each step builds naturally on the last, so that the player can work their way towards the full solution without getting stuck or frustrated (the design of this puzzle can be compared to the two puzzles requiring the sandals, where the player’s first attempts will likely fail without them having any idea why or what to do, until much later in this game.) The linear algebra puzzle was also impressive, and surely nontrivial to implement in the Z-machine. It’s too bad the linear transformation machine was only used in two puzzles; it’s a mechanic that I’m sure an entire game could have been built around.

Others have complained about the balance puzzle, but I’ll echo their comments that this puzzle is not sufficiently clued. One of the great strengths of this game is that the player can visit different time periods, reliving the history of mathematics, and interactively learning about how some mathematical ideas evolved and matured (most notably the concepts of the infinitesimal and the infinite). Some puzzles cannot be solved without items located much later in the game, which on the one hand makes historical sense (you need sophisticated machinery from centuries later to solve what seemed like paradoxes in the past) but is poor puzzle design: it was never entirely clear to me which puzzles in each hub I was supposed to be able to solve right away, and which I was supposed to defer until later. I don’t know the best way to fix this shortcoming; maybe some kind of message like, “you feel that perhaps mathematics is not yet ready to tackle this problem” after a certain number of failed attempts by the player? I’m not sure.

One final gripe: why are we publishing games in 2017 with inventory limits? Especially since the limit doesn’t take part in any puzzles, as far as I can tell; it’s just there to annoy the player. Get rid of it.

So in summary, this game attacked a difficult and daring challenge (teach an appreciation of mathematics and its history through the medium of text adventure) and succeeded to a fair extent. The game has a few excellent puzzles (the roller coaster and linear algebra machine), and a few that need reworking and additional polish. I can’t shake the feeling that an opportunity was lost for an even more effective work, had the game incorporated graphics, but even as pure text adventure I consider this game a successful experiment. With a few more iterations of post-competition polish and testing it could become a classic puzzler, that I could see rating an 8; the current version is still one of best entries in the competition.


There is the puzzle of getting the set and realizing you can use it as a holdall. Inventory limits usually bug me but in this case I think the holdall appeared early enough that it was OK… though then again, I think I wound up abandoning something somewhere where I had to look around for it before I got the set.

Matt W has hit on the main reason I put inventory limits in the game: I loved the idea of having the player carry around an originally empty set and use it to put things in. It also gave me the chance to implement some set theory jokes. (Try putting the set in itself or opening or closing it when it does and doesn’t have something in it. Apologies for the high geek factor in the jokes.)

Also, I didn’t realize that inventory limits would produce such negative reactions when I wrote ABCA. Before this year I hadn’t played any IF more modern than some early 90s AGT games. You can probably tell that from how old-school ABCA is. I’m still learning how IF conventions have changed in the past 25 years; there’s another one for my mental file.

I wasn’t aware of The Number Devil until I read The Xenographer’s review. This may’ve been an offhand comment, and if so, it’s an example of how offhand comments can help a review reader find even more.