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About the Story
Join esteemed mad scientist Dr Ludwig as he faces the greatest challenge of his nefarious career: making a deal with the Devil and coming out on top.
Research demonology! Read legal documents! Face off against the world's least effective torch and pitchfork-wielding mob! All this and more!
1st Place overall; 1st Place, Miss Congeniality - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
I really enjoyed SV Linwood’s entry in last year’s Comp, A Long Way to the Nearest Star, but dinged it for having a generic title and forgettable blurb. Fortunately, there are no worries on that front this year – I already had a smile on my face when I booted this parser game up, looking forward to the promised mad science, demonological deal-making, and (most exciting of all) legal research. And that smile stayed there for the hour and a half it took me to work through all its puzzles – this is a delight, funny and satisfying in the way of the best comedy puzzlefests.
The setup here is a good one – brainy-yet-hubristic mortal treats with the devil for forbidden knowledge, desperately hoping to keep his soul – and could be played straight for a seasonally-appropriate note of gothic horror. That’s not what we’ve got here, though; Dr Ludwig goes for the laugh every time, and every time nails it – like, it took me five minutes to realize that it wasn’t the case that literally every description in the game started with a sentence with an exclamation point, just most of them. It’s the kind of thing that could wear out its welcome, but the game never comes close to that line, deftly slinging joke after joke. Like, here’s what you get when you examine your trusty mad-scientist’s coat:
"My favorite lab coat! After that accident while experimenting with pocket dimensions, I could carry so much stuff in it. And the bloodstains were very fashionable, too!"
(See, I told you about the exclamation points).
Crucially, the humor is almost all character-driven rather than embracing wackiness for its own sake; between Dr Ludwig’s crazed ambitions, the Devil’s sly insinuations, and the leader of the pitchfork-bearing mob’s punctilious adherence to the legal niceties, everyone’s got a slightly different schtick, and an in-world justification for being funny.
And actually, as with A Long Way to the Nearest Star, character interaction is a highlight. Beyond their comedy potential, the whole cast is winning, making you solicitous of their love lives and unfair work conditions even as you’re digging up their ancestors and plotting to violate all God’s laws. And the process of engaging with them is very smooth: Dr Ludwig is an Inform game, but it uses a TADS-style conversation interface where after greeting a character, you can ask them about a constantly-updating list of topics. This hits a nice sweet spot between the freeform ASK/TELL system and more-prescriptive choice-based menus, and you’re able to ask everyone about a wide variety of subjects. The devil is especially impressive; as the game starts, you’ve just summoned and bound him, meaning you can give him commands via the traditional DEVIL, DO ACTION syntax. I confess that I often struggle with these kinds of puzzles, but here the process was well-cued and impressively well implemented: I tried to catch the game out by attempting DEVIL, ABOUT, but was told “As powerful as the Devil is, even he cannot access meta commands” (I was able to get him to take inventory and maybe learned some stuff I shouldn’t have that way, but I can’t help but think the author left that in on purpose).
In fact implementation is a major strength throughout. I did find a single Inform-standard response that had been left in; everything’s rewritten in Dr Ludwig’s bombastic voice. TOUCH attempts fail, for example, because “I am a man of science! I am above such physical labor as touching things without purpose!” (again, see what I mean about the exclamation points?) And you’d better believe that you can LAUGH or CACKLE whenever you want.
The puzzles are similarly of a high standard. They’re mostly traditional object-manipulation challenges, save for the aforementioned get-the-Devil-to-do-your-bidding bits, but they’re well signposted via a dynamic (and funny) to-do list, and they almost all involve engaging with that entertaining supporting cast. Most of the game is fairly open, too, with multiple puzzles available at any one time, so it’s hard to get too stuck. There are two that gave me some trouble, one that could have used better clueing (Spoiler - click to show)(I hadn’t realized that I’d basically solved the shopkeeper’s puzzle by dropping the flyer, because I didn’t understand that the “someone” she was worried would see her reading it was me), and one that was harder than it should have been due to the single bit of awkward implementation I found (Spoiler - click to show)(you need to examine the unsuccessfully-made monster to find your scalpel, but the game refers to it as a “disappointment”, but it doesn’t accept that – or either BODY or MONSTER – to refer to it, requiring you to guess that it’s implemented as EXPERIMENT).
Those are quite minor complaints, though, and just the sort of thing that would be easy to clean up for a post-Comp release. And even in its current form this is an early highlight of the Comp – if you’re adamantly against comedy parser puzzle games, Dr Ludwig won’t change your mind, I suppose, but just about everyone else will have a great time with this one.
Everything was watertight. Even more so than the Devil’s contract. There were very little mistakes (other than a missing full stop for the appropriate “That was not in my sight!”). Other than that, everything felt perfectly designed and created, and nothing was missing. Puzzles clever, descriptions funny and consistent. If only it were longer!
Song: Certainly My Iron Lung. The former has that gothic ‘creepiness’ that it’s basing everything off, also with the lyrics quite “I’ll show them all!” (read the meaning behind the song to kind of understand). (Definitely a top song & top game.)
If someone asked me which parser games with puzzles would be good for beginners, I would wait until the clock struck midnight, laugh like a mad scientist on the Discord voice call, and point to this game.
Dr. Ludwig's only goal was to create life, but his repeated failures had led him to seek help from the Devil. But as the Grand Grimoire warned, beware of the Devil's contract and look for any loopholes! He's not going to sell his soul right just when he's on the verge of a new scientific discovery -- that would suck.
Much of the comedy plays with the popular imagination of the mad scientist and the 1931 Frankenstein movie. For instance, the Torch and Pitchfork Society tried to make Dr. Ludwig sign a reasonable charter to be a less annoying and more cordial neighbor. But Dr. Ludwig refused, preferring to get excited about picking up shovels ("The shovel was mine! All mine!"). The problems the characters face are also very similar to our own: queer love, lack of free time, and the question of unionization for better working conditions. These playful gestures aren't profound or anything, but they're certainly very funny.
Not only is the humor quite enjoyable, but it also alleviates the usual frustration that comes with parser titles. It follows the wisdom of other beginner-friendly games like *Lost Pig*: instead of punishing you with error messages, it rewards you with some musings of Ludwig. The overall map is also quite small and the hint system is convenient and easy to use.
What makes the game stand out is how the game juggles conversational mechanics with puzzles. Most of the puzzles are classic object-hunting puzzles, but they're gated behind conversation topics. The game is thus able to carefully drip the most relevant information to the player at appropriate moments. I find this approach refreshing since most new players feel overwhelmed by the many moving parts of parser games. Though it sacrifices mechanical depth, later puzzles build on earlier ones and this helps keep the story moving forward.
It's impressive that Dr. Ludwig and the Devil has somehow managed to appeal to both the sensibilities of new and experienced players. Everyone will probably enjoy it because the puzzles, implementation, and writing are consistently high quality. It captures what makes puzzle parser games so much fun in a matter of an hour and a bit more.
I hope this isn't the end of Dr. Ludwig. He's such a compelling character that I would love to see him take on more genre movie cliches. As the youngsters would say, let him cook.
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