The Cube in the Cavern - Andrew Schultz

I’ve reviewed Andrew’s game here:

Don’t read the review until you’ve played the game, as it will spoil the puzzles.

  • Jack

Andrew Schultz has entered some IFComps previously, and the games of his that I’m familiar with have been based on wordplay. This time around, however, it’s a rather different fare. The Cube In The Cavern involves spatial thinking in that you’re a scientist exploring a cube that you found in a cavern during your explorations. The introductory text sets the mood and background for the puzzles - the introduction describes how there have been big leaps in science in recent times and how there must be very little left to be explored; but as the text then describes earth, water, fire and air as the basic elements and talks about astrology, a flat earth, etc, we get an idea what kind of universe the game and its puzzles takes place in, even if the protagonist is a double PhD.

The actual gameplay only involves exploring the cube itself (it has a kind of gravity, so that you can walk on all sides of it, even upside down). The implementation of the cube is very clear and well-done, and even if navigating can at times be disorienting, the game is very helpful in that you can go to any part of the cube (all 6 sides have been divided into 9 sections; first I thought it would be some kind of Rubik’s cube puzzle) with a GO TO command, even if you hadn’t visited a particular section yet. There’s also a map, both in-game and as a PDF file, even though I was able to navigate well enough with just the textual descriptions and with the helpful shortcut commands.

There’s a clear logic to the puzzles and when you just go around long enough and experiment with the things you come across, you will be able to make some kind of progress. It even happened that I solved a couple of things by mere chance, not actually understanding what had opened a new passage for me to try. There came, however, a point where I couldn’t figure out any longer what I had to do, and in the end, after resorting to the walkthrough, I don’t think I would have got the puzzle in the end part of the game by myself. Anyway, the final puzzle is not too unfair and with some lateral thinking it could have been possible to solve; there were sufficient hints in-game as to the nature of its solution. But it doesn’t matter that I didn’t quite manage to solve it on my own. This is a polished and well-programmed entry and everything works as it should. I couldn’t find any bugs or typos, and there were many helpful features all through. It was a smooth experience as a whole and I was left in a good mood after playing it. Because it has the highest level of polish among the parser games I’ve played so far in this comp, it deserves a


(edit: score)

I like the way Andrew writes his games. He writes such that you know that he knows that you know you’re playing a game. It’s not really breaking the Fourth Wall, it’s just that there isn’t one. Any of his text could be commenting on the game itself or the player’s experience in addition to just presenting the material. Most authors who do this do so as a deliberate gag, but Andrew’s signature style just employs it with a synergetic nonchalance.

The story here is essentially done in two non-interactive sections that serve as bookends for the starkly mechanical gameplay in the middle, although the middle is peppered with asides that reinforce the theme as well. The player-character is a lauded overachiever in the realm of pseudoscience, from a world in which proper science has yet to take hold anywhere. It’s a shallow and ignorant–yet blissfully so–society. I thought the game might be implying that the society’s leadership is at fault, but that’s not clear. More overtly, it does suggest there is an element of unrest among the people–they’re not sure they have it all correct. Our hero, I think, shares that concern on some deep level and sets off to seek knowledge in a cave that contains an inexplicably hovering cube with its own stand-uppable gravitational pull on all faces. I think the metaphor here is just an opportunity to learn through study and nothing any more specific. What ensues is that the hero encounters numerous opportunities to gain valuable insights but, for one reason or another, nothing ever clicks. Visions of a more enlightened future are misunderstood. Good ideas are sometimes ignored, sometimes considered and rejected, perhaps because they don’t fit the current model. Or maybe because it just seemed like too much trouble to work them out. I’m not sure whether the data brought back will ever help anything, but in the end the hero chooses not to pursue it and instead finds an easier way to profit from the experience.

In 2017, it’s too late for this to be a biting satire of backwards thinking (–right?), but that form is certainly present. I think it was just used as a solid and humorous theme. And I thought it worked beautifully. There’s a good deal more substance here than your typical puzzle-game story wrapper. I can’t decide if it’s the best cheap wrapper I’ve ever seen, or if the game is an actual, legit story with some puzzles. Well, it works both ways.

There are actually only two puzzles, both somewhat involved. Both are accomplished during traversal of the titular Cube. There are, let’s say, enhanced directional capabilities available to the player, but they’re not strictly necessary: the job can be done with N, S, E, W, U, D.

The first puzzle comprises most of the gameplay, and it’s the single most successful puzzle I’ve seen so far in the Comp. Not because it’s especially brilliant, but because it has just the right amount of everything: creative presentation, exploration, intuition, frustration, positive feedback, cleverness, and time required to solve.

The second puzzle is like origami: it ends up pretty, but there’s really no way of knowing you were supposed to make a swan. It just wasn’t intuitive or clued enough. There’s an object involved that projects a rainbow, but if you examine it, it’s not there, nor are any of the colors. And the most intuitive thing to do with the rope (something you’ve been carrying this whole time) provides no feedback.

There are a few other problems with the game. One description contains a strange typo: “into the tunnel in to the tunnel”. (Otherwise the text was really solid.)

Ramping up, there was serious confusion when the game tells you that, from now on, you can change the color of a beacon with the command “C (color)”. What? I didn’t even know the long way of changing the color of a beacon. As it turns out, he meant to say “transponder” instead of “beacon”. Easy fix, though.

And the most severe thing was that, while this game relies heavily on the player understanding how to traverse the Cube, all of the provided things that were supposed to help you may actually be wrong. The way I imagined the cube turned out to be consistent with the game, thankfully. However:

  1. The cover art has the red beacon on the south face when it’s really on the north
  2. If the “upper face” is meant to be the top (as one would hope), then the compass rose has its N-S axis swapped with U-D
  3. The diagram of cube directions has the upper face where the north face should be
  4. The provided pdf map is unreadable, so I had to make my own in a way that I could understand

That’s really bewildering. But fixable. All in all, this was probably my favorite game of Andrew’s.

About point 1, I think the locations of the beacons are randomized. (Which does mean that there’s a potential issue with the art showing them on particular side.)
About points 2 and 3, I think the idea was that in traditional NSEW maps north is at the top, so then the z-axis was actually going into the page? It was a little confusing but I wound up not referring to the map much.

Yeah, I missed that it was randomized. And now I see it’s only the compass diagram on the pdf map that is wrong, otherwise the map seems okay.

Honestly, this looked like a well-done puzzle game I just could not be arsed with. Visualizing cubes is one of my least favorite puzzle types in general; adding traversing one and keeping side colors in mind and such…? Not my personal idea of fun. Which is a shame, because the writing was very fun and it looked really well-implemented with a lot of convenience commands. So from my couple minutes of play, I got the impression that it was quite a good game, just not for me.

I enjoyed this game. The spatial nature was fun and challenging. It helps develop abstract thinking. I hope to use it with stories that I am planning to use in the educational setting.

Well done