Christminster, Curses!, Jigsaw and Theatre

A few weeks ago, I received my paperback copy of IF Theory Reader, which I trust will be a delightful read. However, as I’m reluctant to expose myself to spoilers (both for plot and for puzzles), I expect I’ll have to put reading on hold quite a few times during the book to play the games as they get mentioned.

The first article is Crimes Against Mimesis by Roger S. G. Sorolla, and pleasantly here the author starts with a disclaimer listing the games to be spoilered: Christminster, Curses!, Jigsaw and Theatre.

Of these, I had only played Curses! before, and not very far before I got frustratingly and repeatedly stuck. Granted, I’ve played IF for less than a year and Curses! was one of the first games I tried, so I didn’t hold it against it then. Having now subjected myself to Jigsaw as well, I’m even less certain I will be able to enjoy Curses! in a relatively spoiler-free manner.

During the first few worlds of Jigsaw, I actually thought it would be manageable for me to play it through without hints. That thought would, however, very soon would be brutally shattered. Compared to basically any of the roughly 100 games I have played, I found Jigsaw (as Curses!) extremely difficult, much more so than e.g. Anchorhead. By the time I believed I had almost finished the Moon-world, only to realise I’d have to start that world all over again without really knowing what I did wrong, I simply gave up. It wasn’t enjoyable any more.

This leads me to wonder how the first generation of IF players thought and felt when playing (what I have understood to be) the equally (or more so) difficult Infocom games, or for that matter, Curses! and Jigsaw themselves. I do regard myself as a patient person (I even enjoyed Sátántangó), but I do not understand how to cope with (and much less enjoy) the frustration of replaying a game over and over again due to a feeling that I probably did something wrong during the previous 20 hours but am not sure what.

In contrast, I truly loved both Christminster and Theatre. Although Christminster is listed as Nasty on the forgiveness scale, there didn’t seem to be more than a few issues that could make you irrevocably stuck, and the narrative was so good that it for the most part was naturally avoidable. In this sense, it reminded me of Anchorhead, which I still regard as the best piece of IF I have played.

Theatre was admittedly, as described in Crimes Against Mimesis, somewhat suboptimal in its narrative, but in my opinion more than made up for this in its puzzles. The difficulty always felt exactly right. The puzzles were never so easy that I felt hand-held or bored and never so outlandish that I needed to resort to hints.

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Although I come from the “right generation” for them, I didn’t play much IF as a child, and didn’t play any of the “classic titles”. But I played enough to remember the way it worked, I think. It was often a slow process. But these were the days before ordinary people had any access to the internet, so once you had bought a game you were (quite literally) heavily invested. A big part of the pleasure was the slow unpicking of the puzzles: try this, OK try this, OK try this, over many days. The story really was quite secondary: difficult puzzles were at the heart of the game.

(Some) people enjoy difficult puzzles. And one of the things about them is that generally speaking you get better at them as you practise. Look at crosswords: they come in every flavour from simple vocabulary exercises to fiendishly difficult, almost cryptographic, things like “mephisto” crosswords (an English thing, I think). The main payoff is finding the solution. They payoff is all the higher when the solution is harder to find.

For the most part, like you, I don’t really have the patience for the hardest puzzlers. I still have experienced, in simpler games, the sense of achievement, “what a clever person I am to solve this” that comes from gnawing away at a tough puzzle and finally working it out. I’m pretty sure that is the thing this sort of game appealed to, and there is definitely a group of people who find it hugely appealing. You still see something of the spirit when a trick new game (like Counterfeit Monkey or Hadean Lands) gets released and people spend a lot of time talking through how to solve it.

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It’s interesting, disuse most of those came out the same year, before IfComp or the XYZZY awards.

I love Theater as one of my very favorite games, and Curses! as my most favorite. I thought Jigsaw was too hard and never really liked Christminster too much, because I got stuck on that first puzzle for days and days.

I was very interested in your reviews and hope you continue posting good stuff!

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I think you make a good point with the investment, and it probably explains some of the effort people were willing to put into completing a difficult game.

Although I was born too late to experience the age of Infocom, I did start my gaming before the Internet too, especially enjoying the Lucasarts games. I experienced them also as really difficult and would sometimes spend days trying to figure out a single puzzle. However, the Monkey Island games were my first, and they do distinguish themselves from previous games by never putting the player into an unwinnable situation. I would later attempt to play the earlier Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (which is not as polite) and do remember that also there I’d be stuck without any idea whether it was because I hadn’t figured out the puzzle yet or whether I previously did something wrong.

I think I’d like to make a distinction between difficult puzzles and difficult games here. I think I like difficult puzzles. I like thinking about a problem for days on end. But when it doesn’t help no matter how hard I rack my brain because I never know whether it’s even possible to progress further, the game is difficult in a way that I can’t appreciate.

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Yeah, puzzles that are difficult but fair are preferable to ones where the player knows what to do but can’t figure out how to accomplish it in the situation due to poor failure-feedback or inelegant world-state tracking.

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I must admit I haven’t started thinking about IF in such terms just yet, but I do understand what you mean. Am I right to assume that these ideas only started being applied to IF in the wake of the IF renaissance of the 90’s?

I have been reading everything on Planet IF for the last few months and am deeply fascinated by this project by Jason Dyer to play through all the old adventure games. It makes me think there are people out there who do love these crazy difficult games. I’m also learning a bit from that blog about the methodology needed to solve some of the absurdly hard puzzles, though I still can’t imagine how people were able to play through e.g. Jigsaw without hints or a walkthrough.

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I don’t think it’s so much that playability wasn’t thought about back in the day. Infocom certainly had beta testers. Their games were sold in bookstores as full-price AAA titles, and it was never expected that you’d completely buzz through one in an evening - although it was certainly possible to do so with hints which weren’t as easy to obtain. Players expected to discover things and be challenged think about the puzzles over the course of days and weeks. You may have read about some games of that era which were deliberately made obtuse or unfair to extend play-length and perceived value and justify retail price.

But just like any artistic medium, tastes evolve and change. While there are still hard puzzle games that might take a long time and are successful, attention-spans are much shorter these days, especially for a plain-text experience. I will venture that a good percentage of the audience who is interested in IF today tends more toward more mature readers than game-players and hardcore puzzle fans. I know I don’t have the 20+ hours to sink into a CRPG, much less the patience to sit for an 8-hour cinematic game as I did in my younger days.

I think many are more interested in an engaging, continuous experience closer to movie-length than book-length, and their patience for getting stuck full-stop at a puzzle or being left with no idea how to proceed generally is much lower. There are people who will struggle with a game through multiple plays (witness Cragne Manor), but I believe modern expectations warrant a much smoother and player-friendly experience.

@Jenni Polodna is the most responsible for banging her head for weeks making sure Cragne Manor - which was never scoped nor expected to be a fair and simple experience - had concessions to playability (the backpack) and was situationally hinted (the coffee cup) in ways that many modern and classic IF works don’t and aren’t. I sure haven’t finished it - I have never even legitimately reached my own content that I contributed!

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While there are still hard puzzle games that might take a long time and are successful, attention-spans are much shorter these days

More selective about being long, maybe.

People still have the experience of picking up a game, playing it, getting stuck, and saying “I am going to put my time into this one. I am going to spend a lot of time stuck, try a lot of different things that don’t work, slowly develop my understanding of the game, and eventually succeed.”

But it’s not the default attitude towards a game. The game has to earn it, and also appeal to that specific player at that specific moment. Many more players will shrug and decide to put their time elsewhere.

For me, the last example was Baba Is You. (Not IF, although arguably a text adventure!) I finished it (the most complete ending) and only looked at a couple of hints. I didn’t solve every puzzle, but I’m pretty sure I saw every puzzle, which was difficult enough. And that took a lot of time! And a lot of that time was spent fruitlessly trying ideas that failed.

I am now playing Outer Wilds (or was, before NarraScope consumed all my time. I will get back to it this week.) This is not the sort of puzzle game where you get stuck – there’s always plenty more to explore. But you can waste a lot of time exploring in the wrong places. Careful attention to the game will be rewarded with fruitful exploration; but it still requires patience and some repetition. The game had to earn that.

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Oh, that was so brilliant! I really turned a potentially confusing game into a difficult but manageable – and thus truly enjoyable – experience.

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Baba is You is absolutely great and has an immediate get it/don’t get it moment of realization on the first screen. It doesn’t present as a narrative. Readers don’t usually expect to be prevented from turning page unless they solve Towers of Hanoi halfway through a book they are enjoying.

I remember during testing with all the other authors chatting in the Slack. Jenni hinted at something she’d added that “would help” without explaining what. We were like “She added a coffee cup? What the hell is this coffee cup for? More inventory litter-? … ZOMG THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.”

Plus, if you’ve played Anchorhead it’s an homage to that goddamn half cup of stale coffee in the Realty Office that I carried around for days convinced that it would become useful somehow.

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I adore Christminster. It was one of my first IF games when I was just grabbing a few random high rated things off of Baf’s, so nostalgia might be a factor, but the game just hits so many sweet spots for me and really informed my ideas of what a good IF game should be for years to come.

I think it’s reputation as being unfairly difficult may if anything come from the opening and all the steps (some of them making absolutely no sense) to get into the gate. I don’t recall having trouble with any of the other puzzles at nearly that level and to smack face first into it immediately just seemed like questionable design…the weakest part of the entire game imo.

I once got a 14 year old girl to try it once on a whim, and she went on to make a surprising amount of progress on her own. I thought she’d tried it a bit and lost interest, then I found out later she’d gotten another girl in her class to play and they were trading screenshots and sharing progress and brainstorming solutions together…I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the walkthrough…but this definitely remains one of my warmest and fuzziest IF related memories.

e: and I am an idiot who doesn’t read dates on posts…

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Thanks for sharing! I think it’s nice that threads here have a long life :slight_smile:

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I’m not sure that I have anything to add here, as a veteran of the old Infocom games, but I do agree that the game needs to earn your time and perseverance.

As an author, I have a lot of fun writing games and other pieces. But one question I ask myself, as I get more experience writing in Inform7, is ‘Is this puzzle worth writing into the game? Or am I merely trying to harass my players?’ If, when writing, it seems quite tedious to write a particular puzzle, it’s probably going to be equally tedious for the player. One thing about the Infocom games was that the puzzles were logical and actually played a part in the script, towards the ‘big goal’. Of course, they were all z-games and had memory limits to contend with, so no extraneous puzzles, extra objects, big room descriptions (all of which I am guilty of). But I am sure that memory limits helped keep them focused on composing the game logically.

I’d have to say that what earned my perseverance was the quality of the narrative, the conciseness and ‘Is the perceived goal of this game worth my attention?’ (=a good premise), ‘Does it answer a need within me?’. All of which I strive for and hope to one day achieve more fully.

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In the Infocom generation, there was a lot less competing for the player’s attention. Infocom only released a couple new titles a year, there was no internet, and hints were difficult to access. “Zork I” was the first Infocom game I completed. It took me two years. I remember specific breakthroughs; sometimes things I discovered on my own playing day after day. Sometimes discussing with friends. Sometimes overhearing strangers talk about the games. Sometimes stray hints given in a magazine.

The last puzzle I solved involved a sceptre. I had found the sceptre months earlier. But during one playthrough I happened to “wave sceptre” and it gave a unique response. So I proceeded to “wave sceptre” in every bloody room in the entire game until I got the final prize. It felt satisfying to have solved the last puzzle on my own.

Believe me, if I played that game today I would have quit or resorted to the hints much earlier.

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