Letters from Home

I actually posted this review to my website a little while ago – and it’s for an older game – so apologies if you’ve already seen it. But I realized I hadn’t really publicized it anywhere, so:

Letters from Home (Roger Firth, 2000): a game I didn’t get very far into during its competition release some years ago. I replayed it this evening. It belongs to a small collection of verbal-puzzle interactive fiction where the words used to describe things are more important than the things themselves, along with Infocom’s “Nord and Bert”, Ad Verbum, Puddles on the Path, and Goose, Egg, Badger.

I have to admire LfH on several technical points. The implementation is sparse and anti-mimetic — the game doesn’t pretend to be anything but a highly artificial puzzle — and there isn’t much scenery, but it is all crisply and consistently implemented. Many of the items in room descriptions can’t be used or manipulated, but the game will at least tell you so, rather than pretending not to see any such thing. There were no bugs that I could find, and few infelicitous interactions.

The structural design of the puzzles is fairly forgiving, in the sense that many puzzles are available simultaneously and few of them are dependent in order on the others. Almost every room of the game is accessible from the outset. But there are one or two exceptions — there are a couple of ways to do things out of order and make the game harder to win, and there is also a time limit on the entire process that feels pretty much unnecessary. Thanks to these restrictions, I had to replay the game almost from scratch once, and redo another portion of it at one point. I almost think a forgiving game with just a few such game-closing opportunities is worse than a game full of them — in the latter case, the player is likely to be cautious and save often, whereas in a gentle game they come as an unpleasant shock. The good news is that it’s quite quick to replay bits of the game once you’ve been through them once, so the results of failing once aren’t too severe.

I also found Letters from Home to be the most difficult of they word-game IF I’ve played: there were numerous puzzle solutions for which I needed prompting. This got less severe as the game went on. To some extent I didn’t realize at first just how laterally one has to think about word meanings, synonyms, associations, and word sounds. All the same, there were several of these puzzles that I doubt I would ever have gotten by myself. Here again, the game is almost but not quite fair: most of the solutions involve word associations of some kind, but there are occasionally and inconsistently places where one can interact directly with a written letter or piece of punctuation.

Fortunately, there is a meticulous hint system that covers every step of game-play, so that the lost player can get some encouragement. The hint system is context-sensitive, and is one of the game’s real strengths.

The final puzzle of the game is a crossword to fill in, which can be played at two difficulty levels, depending on how you feel about cryptic crossword hints. Even in hard mode, this was easier than most cryptic crossword puzzles I’ve tried, though, and I was able to get through it without further advice from the hint system.

Even with the hints, I took longer than the competition’s two hours to complete Letters from Home, and needed to make a map with annotations, which I usually skip doing. (Fortunately, mapping this particular game pays off in a rather charming way.)

In the end, the whole thing felt extremely abstract, with almost no story and a minimal investment in my character. It was fun, but for very different reasons than most of the IF I enjoy, since it wasn’t particularly focused on exploration, conventional problem-solving, or story-telling.