Two cultures of interactive fiction

One of the questions in a recent href="">survey
on asked if we preferred “story” or “puzzle”
interactive fiction. Though it’s not as much of a binary choice as the wording
implied, there are two extremes of a continuum, and many people have a
preference towards one end or the other.

I’m not a very big IF player, but I did get into the competition in 2004, when
I played and voted on every z-code game and many of the others. My favourite
games were Blue Chairs and
Gamlet. Both had great writing, lots to do, and,
when they tried to do puzzles (Blue Chairs’s midsection, the second half of
Gamlet) lost it completely, requiring judicious use of the walkthrough to be
able to continue the story.

I completely bypassed the puzzle-based scifi game, All Things Devours, the
first time around: I’d found it an unappealing combination of boring, hard,
and confusing (I died repeatedly, without ever having understood what it was I
was meant to do). It turns out ATD placed 3rd, just after Blue Chairs, and
after reading some rave reviews of it, I decided to give it another shot. That
time I managed to get into the lab (previously I’d missed the buttons that
opened it) and managed to blow myself up once or twice before getting bored.

Now the premise of the game sounds interesting: you have to travel back in
time, but while you’re there, you can’t meet your future self or Bad Things
will happen. My problem was that I couldn’t even work out how to use the time

Just recently, interest in IF briefly sparked again, I decide to give ATD another go.
I’m momentarily put off by the fact that setting the “timer” doesn’t mean the
one on the time travel device, but the one on the bomb I’m carrying. Oops.
So I have to set the panel? But what to? I try random numbers between 1 and
500 and end up dying. So I resort to a walkthrough. It’s a number of seconds
(why the game can’t tell me this, given that the PC I’m controlling invented
it, I don’t know). I calculate the right number of seconds, press the button,
and vow to actually pay attention to the time reported in the status bar. Then
I start wandering around and, yes, the game is actually very clever (as I’ve
heard, but not experienced first hand up until now), you die if you see your
future self, or if that self discovers part of her world universe in an
inconsistent state. My resolve to stick at this with a map and a list of times
and object locations vanishes after dying twice.

I’m not trying to criticize ATD by the way: people whose opinions I trust have
said great things about it, and I have tried really hard (well, fairly hard,
but a number of times at least) to get it. It’s just much further inclined to
the puzzle end of things than I’m comfortable with, hey ho. If you’ve not
played ATD, then go and play it now, you might well love it (but play Blue
Chairs too!)

Oddly, I love Spider and Web, and that has some really difficult puzzles too.
Now some of them I got by myself: getting in and out of the scanweb, and
that puzzle. But others (the clattering lockpick) completely baffled
me. I don’t get the world model well enough to know when my actions will do
the right thing, especially when they’re about timing (which is an odd
thing to do without detailed visual/sensory stimulation to work with). But, in the main, though I don’t really get on with puzzles, you’re given
a gentle training in the use of the gadgets. And I loved how the game
deflates your progressive attempts to do things like learning how to shut down
the scanweb to sneak across the gun. So having to resort to a walkthrough to
work out the frustrating “boring” puzzles is actually worthwhile: because it gives
you a payoff including more clever and fun puzzles, the NPC interaction,
and the aha moments of the unreliable narration. OK, so the endgame doesn’t
work for me: yes, it’s nice to see what use the PC actually made of various
gadgets and hiding places, but now you’re working without the training wheels
of the interrogator to tell you what you “actually” did. (I’m torn between
wishing on the one hand that the dash through the facility was more “on rails”;
and on the other that I’d taken a deep breath, mapped it, and realised that the
basic principle was “look at all the places that have been signalled in
unreliable narrations” and solved the puzzle/story myself).

But no matter, the first half of Spider and Web has set things up, it’s
earnt the right to have a cruel and boring timed puzzle. I’m not sure
it quite deserves the final lab puzzle though, oh well…

The r.a.i-f thread I linked above has some more discussion about the dichotomy/continuum
of puzzle/story IF.
If you haven’t already read/played modern IF, then it’s worth looking at a number
of different styles before making an opinion on this varied form!
(And if you play IF, where do you fall in the continuum?)