Victor's Variomatic #1: "Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish ..."

Here’s something I’d like to try: announce that I’m going to play and comment on a specific IF game, and invite all of you to join in. Not Club Floyd style, by playing it live together, but just each of us playing the game when it’s convenient for us, knowing that other people are doing so as well and we’ll be able to talk about it and exchange hints if it turns out to be difficult. It should be fun. It should lead to some good topics here. And it should be a good way of getting ourselves to play more IF! (I don’t know about you, but often I find myself choosing the path of least resistance and playing some less demanding but also less fulfilling type of game.)

I’m planning to choose all kinds of games: recent and old, puzzlefests and puzzleless, hard and easy, well-known and obscure, commercial and free, parser-based and link-based, games I’ve never played and games I want to revisit. Of course, I’m only going to choose games that for one reason or another I think will be worth playing; also, only games that you can easily obtain.

Let’s see whether this works! For this first instalment, I invite all of you to play Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold from 2002. It’s a TADS 2 game, and since it was entered in the IF Comp, it should be pretty short. (I’ll probably choose a bigger game for instalment #2.)

The game placed second in the IF Comp 2002 and was nominated for four XYZZY awards, so it should be well worth playing. Also, the title makes one curious.

I haven’t played it yet, will do so within the next few days. If you play it earlier, please post whatever you wish! Review, analysis, question, hint request… as far as I’m concerned, anything goes. (If we ever come around to a big puzzlefest, we’ll probably want a separate hint thread, but I’m not expecting that to be necessary here.)

A tiny hint related to a topic posted here recently:

There is at least one situation where “search” has to be used and “examine” does not suffice.

I’m in. Played long ago; I remember enjoying it, and I remember a few details, but I would be up for replaying.

Also, searches for “book club” in rgif will yield similar discussion-starting efforts from the distant past, though I don’t think this particular game was ever covered. Just FYI.

OK! I know that there was a very short-lived “Game of the Month” feature on this forum way, way back. (Though probably not as far back as the rgif book club.)

Over the years, I’ve really gotten used to consulting hints quite early. But in Victor’s Variomatic I’m determined not to do so if I can help it. That means that I’m currently stuck – description below – but I’ll try to persevere. And actually, it’s kind of fun. I’m reading some articles on non-reductive physicalism, and suddenly new things to try in the game pop into my head unbidden.

I got all the way to the computer. I currently have a, shall we say, “black oblong” and a button on my hand. Not sure how I can make the computer’s main use useful to me, though, or how to get through the airlock.

Past that! Very nice change of pace after that, I’m enjoying this game.

All right. I finished it, well worth a play. I’ll wait a few days before I do a write-up, to give other people the chance to play and perhaps chime in first.

If you need a hint, let me know. (Though the game has a built-in hint system.)

Thanks for organizing this Victor. It’ll help a newbie like me get into some more obscure titles, and nice to have discussion around the title while playing it. I’ll play Monkfish over the next couple days (after I put Varicella to bed.)

You’re a brave soul.

I mean that in that I haven’t really played IF since the 80’s until the last couple of months. But I have played through something like 35 titles in the short time I’ve been playing; enough to have some familiarity with some conventions and strategies of the genre.

Lol. Varicella’s not as difficult as its reputation suggests, but it did put me in the interesting position of greatly enjoying the playstyle and setting, but strongly disliking some of the depictions. It’s a complicated title. I posted my thoughts in a review on IFDB.

On to the Monk-fish!

(Sorry for thread-jacking, Victor.)

Hi. I hope it’s okay for a lurker to pitch in here. I’ve been observing the IF scene for years, on and off, but I seem to have spent more time reading about IF than actually playing or creating it. That’s why your Variomatic idea, Victor, immediately appealed: it was the motivation I needed to actually start playing again. Thank you.

So, Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me: I thought it was brilliant but confusing.

The puzzles are ingenious, especially the one set in Yrautrom, near the beginning. The plot is clever and well constructed, and the text is well written and atmospheric, minor typos aside. And the implementation is solid, providing appropriate responses to almost any command I thought of.

But there are problems. [spoiler]I felt that the metal-detector wasn’t clued well enough. The player is initially tricked into thinking it’s a cleaning tool because it’s called a Cosmetic (which turns out to be a sort of abbreviation), and you find it next to a floor-waxing machine. But what’s even more misleading is that you can be carrying it around and type CLEAN FLOOR, and you’re told that “The floor looks cleaner now” (or something similar). So I thought it was indeed the Cosmetic that had cleaned the floor. It was a while before I realised what it actually was and that I had to PUT ROD ON OBJECT.

Also, I got horribly stuck on the translation puzzle, largely because I had wrongly concluded that the tap (faucet) on the sink couldn’t be turned on because I had only tried TURN TAP, which doesn’t work in the game. I was supposed to have tried TURN TAP ON. But I didn’t, so I spent ages trying to derive the grammar of the foreign language on the notepad by comparing it with the drug-induced English translation.[/spoiler]

By this time I’d lost all confidence in my ability to play the game, so I started consulting a NightFloyd transcript frequently, especially after the computer revealed that Kurner had screwed up his attempted sabotage by failing to take the fourth dimension into account, a remark that baffled me. [EDIT: I misremembered. The fourth dimension was alluded to only near the very end of the game.] I think I eventually gave up trying to play the game at all, and just read the transcript to see how it ended. On balance, I’m glad I did because I think the whole fish thing would have confused the hell out of me.

Jon Ingold remarks in a game-design email, which you get to see if you type NOTES – but only if you type it twice! (why?!) – that the explanation of what’s going on in the story, especially of the Consciousness Projection device, needs to be “tight”. I don’t think it was quite tight enough, for me at least. On the other hand, looking over this write-up, it occurs to me that I probably should have had a bit more patience with the game and stepped back occasionally to re-think my strategy, as I did play most of the game in one sitting, and that too in a state of mounting confusion.

However, despite my difficulties, many of them perhaps self-created, I did enjoy the experience of playing TDMAMOOM, and I thank you again, Victor, for starting the Variomatic, and creating a way back into IF for all-too-easily-distracted prodigals like me.

Interesting. I really need to try that game again. Perhaps in a future episode of Variomatic.

By the way, anyone should feel free to suggest games for the Variomatic and/or talk about ways in which it could be made more appealing. Unlike Varicella, I don’t have a fully worked out master plan.

No problem!

ahope1, thanks for posting that! It’s great if people who already play a lot of IF join the Variomatic, but it is even better if it inspires people who play little or no IF to jump in and participate.

I like what you’ve written about the game and agree with much of it. I’ll post something myself and reply in more detail later today.

I’m stuck at the same point, but I’ll keep plugging away at it. The game is not what I expected, but I’m liking it.

If you keep plugging away, you’ll be certain to get unstuck. :slight_smile:

Here are my thoughts – behind a spoiler tag, of course.

[spoiler]Did I like the game? Yes. I was especially impressed by the way the authors integrate slow and careful exploration with some quick action-oriented sequences. The opening of the game is great. You know that things will go wrong, and it is immediately clear that you are supposed to enjoy that. That really generates the right player expectations. I also loved the sequences where the squid enters the building and you are swept away by a flood. The weird stuff where you are suddenly a shoal of fish is also the kind of thing I like. (It’s not a hard sequence, by the way – you just go towards the only feature that gets described.)

Some of the puzzle design is smart in terms of foreshadowing. You know that you’ll have to blow up the squid, and are waiting for the moment to do it. Once you have turned on the hop tap, you know that you’ll have to write on the mirror, and you’re just waiting for something to accomplish by that. I like this kind of design, because it makes the player feel smart without increasing the probability that she’ll get stuck.

I’m not sure I’m as hot about the story. So we have a rival who is trying to kill us by tampering with our machine. However, things don’t happen as he expects, because – it turns out – he himself has died, and we are transferred to his own body. In his body, we then actually create the conditions that make his plan work. Uh, what? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. The unexplained death of the antagonist is a major plot weakness, as is the existence of a rather huge mortuary in this small underwater base.

Actually, I’m not even sure I understand what the antagonist’s plan was, even after playing the game and reading the design notes. (You don’t have to type “notes” twice; it just takes one extra turn to activate.) Can anyone explain to me what Kurner’s plan was?

The puzzle are a mixed bunch. I enjoyed the language puzzle a lot, but that was presumably in part because I had already found out that I could write on the mirror before I opened the drawer. The metal detector was not well-implemented. I didn’t understand how to use it, even though I immediately understood what the object was. Here it seems that the authors fell in love with their own joke about misleading acronyms, to the detriment of the player. I also wonder whether anyone figured out which corpse to call through the computer; I just tried a bunch, and then the wooden leg turned out to have an effect. I didn’t see that coming. But at least this puzzle solves itself with a little perseverance.

My final point of criticism would be the humour of the game. I felt that the authors – Jon Ingold, I guess, since he did the writing – didn’t quite manage to catch the right tone. Most of the explicit jokes were a bit too “laboured”; instead of making me laugh, they made me think, “wait, this is a joke.” That’s hard to explain, but I suppose the Cosmetic is an obvious case. It’s not very funny as satire, but it is pushed into the forefront so much that you are forced to acknowledge it.

So, hm. Some nice action sequences. A couple of puzzles that I enjoyed. A story that is quite confusing and doesn’t, I suspect, make much sense. Attempts at humour that frequently fall flat. I don’t think Till Death Makes a Monk-fish Out of Me is a classic; it has too many weaknesses for that. But it is certainly enjoyable and well worth a play.[/spoiler]

OK, I finished as well.

[spoiler]I’m trying to piece together the chronology, and I’m not quite sure how it works. Let me see if I can piece it together:

  • Kurner breaks into your lab by hot-wiring the panel, blowing a fuse in the process.
  • Kurner sabotages your machine by making it target dead people.
  • Then he dies (of a heart attack?) and is transported to the morgue.
  • Your consciousness enters Kurner’s body - escape and squid attack ensues
  • You (in Kurner) stumble to the lab just as Zak is repairing the door panel
  • You (in Kurner) are in the chamber when the machine is operated, throws your Kurner-consciousness to the fish and your you-consciousness to Kurner’s dead body
  • You re-enter your body and detonate the squid bomb on Kurner’s palm, which
  • Kills the fish, allowing you to re-enter your body.

At least I think that’s how it goes. The whole thing rests on 1) the facility being utterly deserted (except for the janitor) while you stumble around as dead-Kurner. 2) You being restricted by the parser from exploring everything but a small subset of the facility (where there are no people.)


  • How/why Kurner died
  • Why Taylor(?) was hacking the robots
  • What caused the damage to the robot facility/morgue area
  • How no one noticed the squid attack before running the experiment

I did successfully choose the correct body using the arm, but I could not figure out the function of the metal detector at all; had to look at the Club Floyd transcript for that one. (I still don’t get the cosmetic thing.) I kind of feel like the mirror is a red herring because you can write on the porthole as well. In fact, you just have to type ‘write dog’ while in Kurner’s office (and high on drugs) to solve that puzzle. (While I was trying to solve the cosmetic puzzle, I went around breathing on every possible surface in the facility. Interesting mechanic.)

I did like the game, particularly the first section. I felt like the setting could have been better developed, and that there were some unexplored possibilities for humor – a dead Kurner confronting colleagues who knew of his demise, for instance.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]Do you think it was Kurner’s consciousness that got thrown into the fish? Wasn’t he already dead? Maybe it goes like this:

Your consciousness is projected – the nearest available body is the dead Kurner in the past. (Why not one of the dead bodies in the present? I’m not sure.) You-in-Kurner then die again – this is the second time Kurner’s body dies – and get projected into the fish because your own body is not available at that time, sicne you’re still in it. Then the fish die and you get projected back into yourself, at which point you perform the action that kills the fish.

Still not sure it makes sense. What certainly doesn’t make sense is that Kurner died, was discovered and transported to the morgue … and you don’t know anything about it. We’re talking about a tiny research facility where this would have been the news of the year!

I have a new theory about how Kurner died: he was electrocuted by the wiring inside your office door when he tried to enter. (Perhaps he realised that his circuit wouldn’t work?) Remember the lab coat with the smudge marks? That might have been his.[/spoiler]

Ah yes, the scorched lab coat. It must have been when he tried to put everything back after completing his sabotage and exiting the lab though: one of the wires had been put back, and he must have touched the hanging one with the screwdriver (also melted) by accident.

Yes, of course. He subtly unscrewed the door – maybe in the middle of the night – but got himself killed when trying to cover his traces. That makes sense!