Summary: Whimsical, rock-solid puzzle game with a stripped-down Enchanter mechanic
It’s become something of an IFComp tradition: the rock-solid puzzlefest by Arthur DiBianca, with a cleverly stripped-down parser and only the barest veneer of a story. Art’s first entry was the unique but tepidly received Excelsior, followed by Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, which earned positive reviews and attracted so much traffic it nearly crashed the IFComp server. Last year’s entry, Inside the Facility, was a novel movement-only game that won the Miss Congeniality award and received two XYZZY nods (Best Puzzles and Best Individual Puzzle).
So what has Arthur DiBianca put forward this year? The Wand, and it’s pretty good. The Wand revisits Excelsior’s seemingly bland milieu - “a wizard sets up puzzles in a tower” - but this time with far better results.
One of Excelsior’s problems was that it wasn’t always clear what the “use” verb would actually do. (“use statue”?) The Wand adopts the Enchanter mechanic, where you progressively learn spells that interact in interesting ways, but strips it down to just the spells with no other verbs except for movement. This creates a very effective experience where it’s always clear what you’re attempting to do, but the consequences of your actions can be unexpected.
Another of Excelsior’s problems was the lack of a story or any real context for the puzzles; I kept wondering “why is this here?”, and the ending felt like a disappointing afterthought. The Wand avoids this by being entirely upfront about its concept. I’m reminded of Emily Short’s “Action and Interaction”:
This idea permeates The Wand, from how the concept is presented to how puzzles are hinted. The game continually and progressively teaches you what to expect, while offering little surprises along the way. (Case in point: the brilliant way the game handles the “use” verb.)
In many ways this is the driving idea of the limited-parser movement, of which DiBianca is a vanguard: people are quite happy to play by the rules of the game you establish, but when there’s a mismatch between their own idea of the rules and the game’s idea of the rules, they can be disappointed. Thus, stripping down the parser and saying upfront “yeah, don’t expect a story” can actually increase immersion. (Indeed, going into the game with no expectation of context or story made those elements pleasantly surprise me where they did appear.)
I must admit I am not a full convert to the minimalist school. The call of the verb is strong. But there is much of value in this way of thinking, and The Wand does it well.
Other strengths: DiBianca’s writing is terse, but whimsical and evocative. (What is a baltavakia, and how do you slice one? I’m still not really sure I know, but the mental images that section conjured were fantastic.) Puzzle design is strong, mostly of the satisfying “oh! now I can do that!” variety. Puzzles are often “themed” and make sense within the context of their environment, which is small enough to keep everything nearby but large enough to offer a few different avenues to explore if you get stuck. Hinting is strong, with a mix of obvious solutions and head-scratchers - although I did have to check the walkthrough to realize I couldjust walk past the dragon. The adorable, adorable dragon.
I do have a few minor critiques, e.g. I’m not sure about the wand mechanic. Spells take two turns to input, and wand settings are hard to remember without writing them down, especially since the color abbreviations can be unexpected. I do wonder if Enchanter-style magic words would work better, but as a mental concept, “one wand and two verbs” has its perks.
IMHO, what would have made this game even better is 1) deeper spell interaction, and 2) deeper worldbuilding. You can levitate rocks; what if you could levitate anything? The wizard has a pet kimpert; why? But I acknowledge that these thoughts are driven more by my personal affinity for games like Counterfeit Monkey than by any practical considerations.
Note: This game has hidden content that is not mentioned in the walkthrough.