My girlfriend and I recently started playing Curses because, well, it sounded really fun and interesting, we love literary references (I’m a sucker for The Waste Land), and we thought it would be cool playing such a seminal work. The problem is…
We suck at puzzles.
We knew it would be incredibly difficult going in, but neither of us realized just how difficult. We simply don’t have the ability to do the kind of lateral thinking leaps in logic that are necessary for this game. How were we supposed to know that we needed to punch the window in Alison’s secret writing room to get out, or drive the grass roller onto the lawn and crush a priceless family heirloom to find a well, or try walking through a tent wall in a dream, or push a random potted plant out of its position to find a secret entranceway, or go back in and force Madame Sosostris to give us another fortune, or talk to the hole instead of the mouse to somehow project our voice farther? All of these sort of have a logic to them after the fact, but only in the loosest most stream of consciousness way, so that they’re kind of like an NP problem: easy to verify once you have the correct solution (it sort of makes sense) but impossible to get to from the other side by forward logic. Especially since a lot of the time the actions required of us might make sense if we were in the Great Underground Empire, but completely break the atmosphere and sense of character of a mannered, respectable aristocratic English family and setting, where smash and grabbing from your own house isn’t exactly a regular activity.
All that said, we very much don’t want to give up. We’re in love with the writing, the atmosphere, the setting — we enjoy exploring this crazy house and learning about the family’s history, and going to all sorts of dreamlike places. So we’re wondering if there’s some trick to being able to think like Graham Nelson, or, if there isn’t, whether it would be worth it (and acceptable) to simply play through the game with a walkthrough open to one side.
I used the walkthrough liberally during Curses. Of course the problem with that is that you can rely on it too much and deprive yourself of the pleasure of solving at least some of the puzzles. If I were going to do it again, I’d start with the walkthrough and try to restrict my use of it to some reasonable amount per hour of play, and see if I did start to think more like Graham Nelson over time and maybe get better. One of the great things about playing IF in the era where walkthroughs weren’t easily available was that you’d have to leave it and think about it, and often the next day you’d have an idea. The flip side of that is that there were games I really enjoyed but abandoned because I was so stuck.
I totally think it’s worth playing with the walkthrough, though!
I’ve played the game 6 or 7 times, and I think I almost managed to beat it without a walkthrough the last time, but I’ve used it heavily all the other times. It’s pretty hard!
Some of the puzzles have multiple solutions, so if something seems really crazy, there might be another way. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed a potted shrub. I usually get to that area using the dumbwaiter. Similarly, there are about 8 or 9 ways to open the pill bottle. And I’m pretty sure the breaking the heirloom is supposed to happen on accident while exploring.
But there’s tons of stuff like that in the game where about 20% of the players might randomly find it and 80% might not. I think it was designed for an era where players would share tips and tricks with each other; so in a way, it’s meant to be played with the help of others, whether with tips or hints or with walkthroughs. So I think you’re doing it the right way!
But if it’s not fun now, it won’t be fun later, and if it is fun now, it will be fun later. The game is pretty consistent in tone and writing.
Of course there’s also an intermediate way which neatly ties into what Brian said:
You could start a Curses Hint Request thread on the forum and play with the help of others who have played the game already, or people who can think up solutions in that moon-logic kind of way when the situation is explained.
Hints and nudges from fellow IF players on the forum can be more satisfying than reading the walkthrough, both for the opportunity to solve a particular puzzle off of a vague nudge to push your mind in the right direction, and for the social interaction (jokes, in-jokes, thoughtful asides, groany puns, personal anecdotes, or even that unrelated story about a whale that crashed through our roof during the snowstorm of '89…)
Or the next three months. Or year. Which was all fine when that’s what life was like at the time, you had no expectation otherwise, and there was no jealous punchfight going on between an unlimited other number of games and activities who’re baying for your imagination time.
I’ll confess I’ve never finished any of the IF ‘classics’ - Jigsaw, Curses, Anchorhead, Christminster, Muldoon Legacy, etc. Granted, I do enjoy playing many parser games, but if I find myself pulling out a walkthrough more times than not to make any game progress, my gut usually tells me to quit and find something more playable. Even a good chunk of the reviews & forum posts, players often state they are very poor at parser games - and that’s within the walls of an experienced community. I can’t image how impossible new IF players would find all of these long games.
So yeah, I wish there was a better hint path between stifling frustration and the direct spoon-feeding of the walkthrough where you have to live in the mind of the author.
It took me years, off and on, to beat Deadline without hints. That was a different time. And I was different, too: I don’t have that kind of patience anymore.
I don’t like the act of looking at one window for something to type, then switching to another window to key in the commands. That’s a lot of friction, all of that looking back and forth. So I personally would say “no” to a walkthrough, unless it were automated or built into the game. Barring that, I want invisiclues-style hints, as unpopular as they seem to be.
But it might be different for you, TC. I’d give it 30 minutes. If it’s fun, keep going. If it isn’t, stop. Do whatever’s fun.
There’s a lot of great stuff in Curses – which I barely remember, since I haven’t replayed it in decades. But you’ll get a lot of that even playing from a walkthrough. It won’t give you a sense of what it was like to solve the game; so much of that is tied up in the struggle. But the language and the whimsical world, yes.
Disclaimer: I have not finished Curses. But I (think I) got pretty close to the end before losing that laptop, and just haven’t had the heart to start again in the intervening years.
It sounds like you are actually solving the puzzles somehow without the walkthrough? Even if the solutions you look back on don’t make much sense to you? Because if so, I felt the same way but it bothered me less. There is certainly a lot of dream logic.
Or do I have that wrong and you’re getting solutions externally already and feeling that you would never have figured them out?
Update! After playing a bit more we realized that the main difficulty with Curses for us wasn’t, strictly speaking, the puzzles themselves, but more the fact that we had no clear idea of what we were supposed to be doing at any given point. After solving every puzzle, we would often find ourselves wandering aimlessly about wondering what we were supposed to (be able to) do next. (Especially since, from earlier experience, we’d realized that if we do some things too early we can softlock ourselves). The lack of understanding of what our next near-term goal should be to start solving puzzles toward, or what we even could/should do at any point, made actually buckling down and doing anything effectively very difficult because we’d either skip over things that we were supposed to be doing that would open up other puzzles, or spin our wheels for hours on puzzles we couldn’t even solve yet (because we hadn’t done the former!).
However we figured out there was a solution for us: just using the plover.net walkthrough’s summary, which lists each of the main steps/story beats/goals (or whatever you want to call them) of the game — and some of the general things we were supposed to do in them — with no explanation of how to actually figure out the puzzles at all so we didn’t feel like we were just copying from a transcript the whole time. This way at least we had one concrete goal to try to achieve at a time, and knew where to go next.
With this new resource in hand and our brains starting to get used to the strange dream logic of Graham Nelson’s blasted creation, we actually started really having a blast and even being able to solve most puzzles on our own!
There was still a hold up where we realized that we’d accidentally soft locked ourselves out of the game about 800 turns ago by asking Aunt Jemima for Merlyn’s hat daisies, to which she gave us plain white dasies, instead of asking her for a yellow daisies, which meant Merlyn’s hat daisies but was something she could actually understand lol. Fortunately though we just restarted the game and play through to where we’d been using the walkthrough and we really feel like we’re all set, and enjoying the game again.