Miscellaneous reviews

For those (like me) who feel like reviewing something, but doubt they will write enough to be worth their own thread…

Arthur DiBianca

Summary: Masterful technical craftsmanship in service of an expansive but plotless old-school puzzlefest that won’t suit everyone.

This is one of those rare pieces that knows exactly what it’s doing, and does it extremely well. Whether that thing is worth doing is another question.

DiBianca is clearly a talented programmer with an eye for detail and a specific vision for how Excelsior should feel. The game embraces the classic Inform/Z-code aesthetic, but tightens up its look and behavior in numerous subtle ways. From the moment the game loads, everything is “just so”: the statusbar, the banner, the parser. A few moves in, the game announces its Zarfian cruelty rating, indicating familiarity with IF conventions.

The biggest change is the parser, which has been pared down to just moving, examining, and a generic “use” command. This has its drawbacks: I often ended up typing commands like “use statue” without knowing exactly what I was telling the parser to do. (Take the statue? Climb the statue? Swear at the statue in Dwarvish?) It does simplify gameplay, however, and the implementation is extremely clean, although there are a lot of problems with unimplemented scenery objects.

The game itself is classic explore-the-big-abandoned-fantasy-tower-and-solve-puzzles fare. This is an old-school puzzle game through and through - there’s even a maze (with a special trick, of course). As the “use” verb suggests, many puzzles are of the find-x-use-x variety, but with enough clever twists to keep things interesting. The result is vaguely reminiscent of Scott Adams, if Scott Adams games were wordier and less likely to kill you for touching a doorknob or something.

Less interesting is the environment. The geography is expansive and creative but minimally-described, and there is no real narrative direction beyond “GO DO STUFF NOW.” Excelsior shares some genre similarities with The Dreamhold and other fantasy-exploration pieces; but in Dreamhold, all the fantastic environments are tied together by a sense of age and meaning. Here, the fantastic environments just exist, because fantasy. (“Here’s a pedestal with an orb on it. Do something with it.”)

This is not necessarily a problem; not all IF needs a rich, layered narrative. But most IF is improved by it. At any rate, DiBianca clearly knows what he’s doing, and I look forward to seeing where he takes his technical talents in the future.

Recommended for: Fans of old-school puzzlers, or anyone interested in the technicalities of unusual parsers.
Not recommended for: Those with more literary tastes.

What would make it great: Fully describing scenery objects. More detailed description beyond just “The box is closed” and the like. Introducing some sense of narrative, history, or logical world-building. (This doesn’t necessarily require a detailed backstory - hinting at the bigger picture is sometimes more effective than explicitly describing it.) Reducing the amount of walking you have to do to get between different parts of a puzzle.

Were you able to get past

the guarded room

in Excelsior? I have not been able to, and the walkthrough doesn’t give me any idea how to; it just seems as though you walk into the room and the puzzle solves itself. There’s one action taken before that might be relevant

pulling the lever

but I think I did that? It’s a shame, I was enjoying this in its way, but I have a terror of walkthroughs that don’t work unless you type them in just so.

Yes, butI’m not sure if the lever is relevant; I did that before first entering the room, so I don’t know if it affected anything. In my case, I just had to get in and USE the coin before the alarm started going off. This puzzle isn’t hinted very well.

Thanks! It looks as though

the other key is that, if you set off the alarm, you have to go back and use the lever to turn it off again. This may even be hinted by the position of the lever (perhaps it goes back up when you set off the alarm?), but there’s an extra non-hint there since the position of the lever isn’t in the room description even when the panel is open.

There may be something to the exploring the systems to find out what’s going on here, but the ratio of “number of commands you have to type” to “attempts at solutions you get to try out” here is very high, especially because you can’t dot commands together. When you have to cross back and forth across a lot of rooms a lot

especially when you have to cross a maze, though this maze was completely fair

it’s really nice to be able to type “n.e.s.w.w.d.n.n.n.w” (not a real example).

Ooh, this is something I forgot to mention. (Edited.)

Excelsior runs into a number of the problems Emily Short discusses in her article on broad geographies. One of her more recent articles talks about how

…which applies here. You have to do a lot of walking back and forth to solve some of the puzzles, which bogs everything down.

On the other hand, some sections are quite well laid out. The part with therotating roomsin particular has a nice sequence of progressive discovery, tinkering, and application, although it’s still very spread-out and not always clearly connected (it sometimes feels like “now for this puzzle, go all the way back and get that fire axe from the kitchen…”).

IMHO the game would be a better with fewer rooms and more description. This kind of geography has a sweet spot between “too big to navigate” and “too small to explore”, and another sweet spot between “too verbose to be efficient” and “too terse to be interesting.” I think the current version of Excelsior falls a bit too far in the “big” and “terse” directions, respectively.

Say, what’s going on with

the room with the horizontal and vertical bars?

There’s something in the walkthrough that makes me fear it’s a big red herring (of which there are plenty);

[spoiler]this sequence of commands:

seems like something that can only happen in the pump room. But where is there a hint that there is a lever in the pump room? If there is one, how do you make it appear?

…wait the lever appears once you redirect the water flow but you have to x machine again to discover it? So those other rooms are in fact a giant red herring, designed to make you count turns while you walk up and down the tower? [emote]:evil:[/emote][/spoiler]

I think I said it before, but that is the least helpful kind of walkthrough.

ETA: Well, from the ending

there are optional puzzles, and I suppose the rooms with the squares are one. But that lever on the machine is e-vil, especially when combined with the uncommunicative walkthrough.

Good idea, prevtenet. I figured I’d stow away on this thread as well, whenever I get a chance to look at some of the awesome games people have been making.

Fifteen Minutes by Ade McT

I like the small-scale premise (you have one room and fifteen minutes to stop getting kicked out of college) paired with the large-scale concept (and you need to use time travel to do it). The writing was simple, but engaging, and had a nice sense of humour to it. The main puzzle was intriguing, and had that sense of being straight-forward, yet mind-blowingly complex all at once.

I didn’t want to ruin anything, so I’ve put a bit of (hopefully) constructive feedback on the puzzles themselves in spoiler tags:

[spoiler]I liked the time-travel concept, and the hint that I would end up playing as all of these versions I saw arriving in the classroom; seeing things such as one of the 'you’s passing an item to another ‘you’ gave you a good idea of items you may need to pick up later on, or pass to other ‘yous’.

As much as I enjoyed racking my brain trying to find a solution to this game, I struggled to see the logic behind the puzzles. It seemed to me that I would have to use the machine at a specific time, with a specific value for the red, black, green, silver switches, the array and the minute dial; based on the number of ‘yous’ that appeared, I would need to do this at least seven times. There didn’t really seem to be any clues beyond this, which left me a little lost. The times on each 'you’s watch would presumably have shown the time which passed from first using the machine, to being wherever they were before ending up with the first ‘you’, I could see what settings certain ‘yous’ used to travel away, and that seemed to be all the information I could find in the game. I was generally unclear as to whether I merely should use trial-and-error, if there was enough information available to me to deduce the answer, or whether I was expected to have a more detailed physics/mathematics understanding outside of what the game provided to appreciate it.

When I looked at the walkthrough to try and get an idea of what was going on, it didn’t help. I followed the ‘first you’ section to the letter, and still ended up with paradox paralysis. I’m not discounting the fact I could have messed it up, but I thought I should mention it in case the walkthrough itself should be checked, or if something else was going on.

If I did mess it up somehow, I’d suggest that the game could perhaps be a little more generous; as it stands there appears to be no room for even the slightest deviation, which turns the game less into solving a puzzle, and more into trying to recreate the exact steps the maker decided upon. As a counter-example, I think the order in which you specify the various inputs for the switches, etc. might have made a difference to whether you succeed or are snuffed out by a time paradox, but as there were instructions with a checklist showing a specific order, this is fine in my book. Where there are no clues, it can be a bit frustrating.

I wonder if having a hint system might be of some help - every time you end up in paradox paralysis, perhaps providing a clue as to one factor which caused it in that playthrough would encourage players a little more? e.g The professor could mention it in his final speech before the game ends. It doesn’t make things too easy, but it gives a player an area to focus on, and would steer them closer to the correct path the more they played the game.

I add the proviso that the only reason I’ve now found time to look at these games is because I’m home sick, so I’m aware I’m not firing on all cylinders [emote]:)[/emote].[/spoiler]

Another thing I really liked (and I’m not the most experienced IF player, so this may well be the norm nowadays) was that some of the responses hinted at the correct verbs to use to initiate a response. For example, when I put ‘read the instructions’, I got a message suggesting I may need to consult the instructions for further details; that spared a lot of guesswork just trying to get the game to do what I wanted.

Overall, I found this an interesting concept, and one I do doggedly want to figure out the solution to!

Yes, I found that the walkthrough for Fifteen Minutes was off by one minute for the first jump. I didn’t finish the game, but I played it long enough to get through the first few jumps, with some extensive help from the various available documentation. It is possible to deduce everything you need from the information given, although the machine itself is very opaque as far as what the various controls do.

That’s worrying. I checked and double checked the walkthrough. The only thing I can think of is that maybe you were playing an old version, but using the latest version of the walkthru. Or vice versa. The minor bug fix I did half way through the comp changed the timings slightly, but I definitely updated the walkthru.

I will check again. Thanks for the heads up.

Ade McT

edit: Just checked - walkthrough seems to work fine. Apologies if there have been issues.