Friday, October 09, 2009

[IF Competition] Earl Grey

This time, the spoiler space is a riddle.

QUESTION: What is wrong with a game that is called "Earl Grey", that is about a tea party and a monarchy, and that contains phrases like this one: "a riot of color with dozens of varieties you have never seen before."?

ANSWER: It combines the essence of Britain with American spelling!

REMEDY: > cast u into color
Anyway, on to the game. Earl Grey by Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish is a word-play game, like Gleaming the Verb, but of a totally different nature. In Earl Grey, you get to manipuate words by taking away letters or putting other letters in this place. "Knocking" a dame turns it into a dam, while a cane becomes a can. (But my friend Sam stays just the same. Ten bonus points for those who catch the reference.)

This is a delightful idea, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. There are simply too many words in the game that ought to be knockable, but aren't, or that ought to be castable, but aren't. This is entirely typical:

> x girl
Her plight transcends the distance between you.

> knock plight
The runebag remains inert.

I don't see why "her light transcends the distance between you" is any worse than many of the other sentences in the game. You can't knock "town" to "ton", you can't cast an "r' into "moo" to change it into a "moor", and so on.
(Imagine this printed in a seperate window, like the protagonist's thoughts in Earl Grey.) "Countless townspeople lie beneath savaged fragments of beige stonework, and you hear a young girl cry for her lost feather.", the game told me. I formulated a brilliant plan that would have saved all the women... but it did not work.
I can see how this would have been a pain to implement, but really, this game needs to be more open. We have in this magic system the perfect opportunity to reward player creativity and have multiple solutions to all puzzles, but instead, the authors have chosen to make the game very linear indeed. Only the things you must knock or cast or steep can be knocked, casted or steeped. Nothing else works.

The other benefit of more openness would have been lower puzzle difficulty. (After all, if you can solve a puzzle in multiple ways, it generally gets easier.) I had to consult the walkthrough repeatedly during this game, and I gather from other reviews that this was a typical experience.

This is partly due to the fact that puzzles of this type are simply hard if you don't clue them very clearly, but it also partly due to some bad design decision. I will give two examples.

You must turn the wary guardsman into a wry guardsman. This is fine, but unless I missed something, you only get the description "wary guardsman" when you try to knock the guardsman... something that is clearly impossible, and which you therefore would never try. That is simply bad puzzle design.

Another example is the situation where you have to save the sea lions. (Did I already say that "sea ions" is pretty lame?) You must turn the phrase "white luster of shiny rock" into "white cluster of shiny rock", so that the sea lions can get on the rocks. But surely, if I see the white luster of shine rock, there already are rocks? This solution makes no sense.

The game, then, is not open enough, and is too difficult. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself hugely, more so than with any other game in this competition so far. (Okay, I loved solving the card puzzle in The Grand Quest, but that was less because it was a brilliant puzzle than because my linear algebra skills were itching.) The writing was mostly very good. The scenes were evocative, if perhaps a tad too surreal. The implementation was very good as well. The side comments of the main character were a brilliant idea--the piece was much funnier for them, and also made more sense. In fact, most of the jokes actually worked.

But, most importantly, as far as the puzzles were solvable, they were great fun. This is interactive fiction doing one of the things that interactive fiction does best: using language in interesting new ways, doing things with it that could not be done in any other medium.

Of the eight competition games I have played so far, this is the first that might make it onto my list of "must play" games published in 2009. Not because it is perfect; it is not. But because it explores a very interesting puzzle concept in a highly competent and often enjoyable way.

Oh, and Rob and Adam? If you make a post-competition release which responds to more input and allows more solutions of the puzzles, this game might actually rise to the level of "great puzzle game".


  1. unless I missed something, you only get the description "wary guardsman" when you try to knock the guardsman...

    I think you missed something: the room description says "The only way out is to the south, where a wary guardsman stands before the door."

    if I see the white luster of shine rock, there already are rocks?

    The way I understood it, "the steady white luster of shiny rock" refers to the reflection of the moon in the ocean.

    I do agree with your general point however: the game would benefit from multiple solutions and some more clues. It was still great fun though!

  2. Does it combine British with American spelling? The only thing I can see that's British spelling is "Grey," except that's the name of a kind of tea (and of a dude before that), so even Americans spell it that way. (British spelling would mess the game up, as sea lions can't rest on a clustre of rock.)

    Also -- I just checked this -- "wary guardsman" is in the room description. I actually got that one by myself without knocking guardsman.

    All that said I'm much less tolerant of this game than you. (I should really write up and post my own reviews.) To make this a great puzzle game I think the authors would have to keep the mechanism and replace around 90% of the puzzles.

    (I claim my ten bonus points.)