The Edifice

by Lucian P. Smith

Historical/Science Fiction

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Number of Reviews: 7
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A high-concept game undone by poor execution, April 10, 2021
by Chin Kee Yong (Singapore)

The Edifice is a puzzly, rather sparsely implemented parser game in the tradition of Zork. It's very well-regarded, winning a XYZZY award and appearing on several "best of" lists, but I think it's aged very poorly and it doesn't meet my standards for interactive fiction in 2021.

Let's begin with The Edifice's narrative. Although this game is mainly puzzle-focused, it makes a stab at an ambitious high-concept theme -- a sweeping retelling of the dawn of humanity, the discovery of fire, and so on. Unfortunately, this is handled very superficially and comes off more as set dressing than a real story. There is no overarching conflict, no rising tension, and no resolution. The central plot device of the Edifice hardly even plays a role in the different stages of human evolution; rather, it escorts the player from half-baked vignette to half-baked vignette. And that's a shame, because in creating these grand narrative expectations, The Edifice sets itself up to disappoint when it doesn't follow through.

What about the puzzles, then? The Edifice is centered around three major self-contained puzzles, each one representing a particular period of human history. There are also minor puzzles peppered at the beginning and within individual time periods. I thought that all the puzzles were competently implemented and their solutions made in-world sense, but I found them unfair, unfun, and kind of painful to play through. (I used the walkthrough to complete the game.)

What is a fair puzzle? In my opinion, every puzzle is a sort of contract between the puzzle designer and the puzzle solver. The puzzle solver promises that she will make a good-faith attempt at solving the puzzle, using all means available to her. Meanwhile, the puzzle designer promises that if such a good-faith attempt is made, the puzzle is solvable and the solution is obvious in hindsight. If you can't figure out a puzzle, look at the walkthrough, and think "Oh, of course, I'm an idiot" -- that's a fair puzzle. On the other hand, if the puzzle forces you to guess verbs, or make use of information you couldn't possibly have known, the puzzle is unfair and poorly designed.

The Edifice's puzzles suffer from that boogeyman of 90s parser games: guess-the-verb. All of the puzzles require verbs that are rarely used in parser games, have never previously been hinted at in the text, are only used for a specific puzzle, and never appear again. For example, the very first puzzle requires you to (Spoiler - click to show)HIDE from the Enemies. Other examples of puzzle solutions that require flash-in-the-pan inspiration to solve are (Spoiler - click to show)STRIP to turn branches into kindling, SHARPEN to create the spear, and POINT and DRAW for the language puzzle everyone seems to love so much. The game includes a list of commands, but it's condescending, hidden behind a dismissively written fake help page, and doesn't include any of the verbs I listed above (and also omits some others that are required to complete the game, like DROP and ENTER). So much for "info."

Even when the puzzle solutions don't require guessing verbs, they include leaps of logic that don't follow from any in-game clues. They make sense according to real-world logic, but no one expects a game to perfectly model everything that a person could try in real life; for the player to try an action, some kind of hint has to be placed that the action is actually possible in the game world. To solve the language puzzle, (Spoiler - click to show)we not only have to come up with the idea of DRAWing an image, but the idea that the crushed berries will make suitable ink, the bone will make a suitable writing implement, the bark is suitable for writing on, and the author has taken the time to implement all these things. This insistence on off-the-wall puzzle solutions is exacerbated by confusing room descriptions that don't always make clear the positions of things. (Spoiler - click to show)I didn't realize the protagonist's Hut could be entered, because it didn't appear in the list of exits. I thought the bark was across the river and spent many turns skipping rocks across the water, only to find that the river was an unimportant diversion and I could just have typed TAKE BARK.

Over and over, my playthrough of The Edifice ran into pain points that made me feel as though the author was more interested in creating theoretically elegant puzzles than making sure the game was a positive experience for players. One puzzle is possible to make unwinnable, and the solution is so convoluted that it's likely you'll do this multiple times before reaching the solution; the game does reset the puzzle after a while, but this requires waiting so many turns that you might as well restore a saved game instead. When you do happen on a useful action that can solve a puzzle, it's blocked with an unhelpful message that comes across as a "you can't do this at all" message -- unless you do it at precisely the right time and place that the author wants you to. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)if you aren't holding the Useful Rock, SHARPEN STICK returns "The Stick will not readily hold an edge." An even more egregious example is (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE OFF HEADDRESS, which returns "Headdress represents your authority in the Village. If you took it off, you would be abdicating your position, and the People would elect a new leader. If you want to accomplish anything here, you had best leave it on." This reads as the clearest "You can't do that" message I've ever seen -- and yet it's a required move to solve the horse puzzle. Insane.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on this game: after all, this is a Z-code offering from 1997, when Short and Veeder and Reed and all the other vanguards of the "new school" of IF hadn't yet entered the scene. Perhaps some allowances should be made for the game as a historical artifact of the Before Time. But then again, Graham Nelson wrote The Craft of the Adventure in 1995, with a Bill of Player's Rights that reads much the same as the criticism I'm offering now. And discussions of accessibility, of affordances, of the user experience, have been around as long as the field of design has existed.

In closing: The Edifice is an ambitious but fatally flawed classic parser game. It attempts and soundly fails to convey a high-concept narrative. Its prose is mechanical and derivative without a memorable voice of its own. Its puzzles are so unfair as to be impossible to solve without a guide. Overall I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, except as an example of why so many modern game-players think of "text adventures" as a dead genre.

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A mid-length game with outstanding concept but some difficulty guessing verbs, February 3, 2016

In The Edifice, you parallel the history of humanity by going through important events in the history of mankind (such as discovering weapons).

The game is perhaps best known for its very well-done language puzzle, where you have to communicate with another person to learn their language.

Unfortunately, the solution to this and many other puzzles is obscure. The author assumes that you will use many items in ways that are not normal in interactive fiction, but which make sense in the game world. This seems like a good thing, however, there are a vast number of things that would make sense to do in the real world, and an author can only implement so many of those things.

I played this game on three different occasions over the years; the first time, I got stuck on the first door, go frustrated, and quit. Years later, I tried again, used a walkthrough on the first part, and tried the second part. I loved it, but go stuck, frustrated, and lost interest. Today, I just used a walkthrough through the whole thing. It's a great game, but my experience wasn't as enjoyable as it could be.

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Good, but has more potential to fulfill, June 20, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: lucian p. smith

Play it if: you'd like a collection of realistic puzzles presented in an engaging and quite atmospheric way, because as far as the central premise of the puzzles goes it's a good one.

Don't play it if: you want an overarching story, because this game never really amounts to what you think it will.

Not long ago, I gave five stars to a game which was in most respects average because the outstanding elements more than made up for them. Now I'm giving The Edifice three stars, because while it's in many respects a very well-designed and well-conceived game, it has a rather large deficiency that left me a little disappointed with it.

I like prehistory. I don't think there's enough of it in our storytelling. The last "serious" film to take place before the dawn of writing was 10,000 B.C., for God's sake. But there's a sense of mystery to that era. In many ways, it is a time we will never understand fully, because it is so alien to us: we are left to decipher figurative artifacts like cave paintings and tombs rather than dead languages. And yet it carries objects of profound curiosity - our first experiments with the technologies that made us, fire, language, husbandry. Who developed these things? What inspired them? I always wished the Civilization games would start a little earlier in time, before these concepts entered the psyche of our species - and now we have a game which takes place almost entirely in that black box of history.

The game's most prominent artistic influence should be obvious. The titular Edifice, an enigmatic construct which steers the protagonist's "evolution", draws from the Monolith of Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and of course the first chapter involves tool development under...somewhat similar circumstances to that film's famous opening scene). There's even an underplayed "reincarnation" aspect to the plot which is metaphorically reminiscent of the Star Child.

A more distant possible influence, and one I freely admit is probably just my own imagination, is EVO: The Search for Eden, a Super NES game released for American audiences in 1993. It features a protagonist (initially a fish) who "evolves" through various stages of complexity in a process not unlike reincarnation, passing through eras of geological history and approaching a sort of evolutionary singularity. It also has a driving plot device which remains mysterious in many respects. Players of the game will immediately understand the comparison, though I don't know whether the author has any experience with it. I recommend it, though.

The point is, this game hits a lot of my buttons in terms of genre interest. Smith wisely keeps the "sci-fi" elements of the story low-key; the Edifice is basically a plot device that allows him to string his puzzles together, and unlike the situation with certain games, in this case the puzzles justify it. They've got variety, verisimilitude and a good level of complexity. Individually they've probably been done before (level two comes to mind, obviously(Spoiler - click to show), with The Gostak employing it in a more complete sense a few years later), but they're done well. The worst thing to be said about them is that they're very unlike one another - yes, the game's basic thematic premise is helpful in understanding what it is you're supposed to try and achieve, but in any other sense solving one puzzle won't help you solve another. This is understandable when the puzzles require you to sort of reinvent the wheel (almost literally), but it can be a source of frustration at times.

That's not what I'm talking about with the whole "three stars" thing, though.

I hesitate to criticize a story for feeling like it hasn't sufficiently explored...well, itself - that is, its setting or its main theme - because the scope of a game is the author's business. Asimov's "Reason" might have been worthy of a novel, but it's hardly his fault he decided to publish it as a short story. Nevertheless, The Edifice doesn't feel like it ends; it feels like it stops. This was the same problem I had with Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, which shared the themes of reincarnation and humanity's evolution but failed (in my opinion) to do much of interest with them.

Three levels feels insufficient for a game with this much promise, but it's more than that. It's that the protagonist unthinkingly accepts the circumstances of his or her situation regardless of its surreal nature, which in some cases is an acceptable artistic touch but here feels incomplete - a dangling thread in what could have been a tapestry. Hemingway once said that omission was acceptable as long as you knew what it was you were omitting. The Edifice feels less like a case of deliberate omission and more like a case of Smith simply not knowing how to continue the idea much further. Which is understandable, and I'm not going to criticize the guy for laziness or anything, but it did mean I left The Edifice feeling disappointed.

How would I have addressed this gap? It's admittedly a tough question. If I were to plot out a "full" game, it would involve the protagonist understanding something more of the Edifice itself. (Spoiler - click to show)I'd have probably had him end up building it, I'm a sucker for those sorts of circular narratives. But even giving the protagonist the option to work against the Edifice, or act upon his knowledge of its existence and function in the "real" world, would have been interesting.

But even if I hadn't expanded or added to the settings, I'd have done what 2001: A Space Odyssey did: close the game with a vision of what was to come from our perspective. Not necessarily transforming the protagonist into a space fetus, but something awe-inspiring and transcendental - after all, isn't the Edifice godlike in its powers and implicit motives?

Perhaps 2001 is the key comparison here. As a work of art, 2001 is about the promise of transcendence - in a spiritual as well as technological sense. The Edifice has the technological development down pat, but it can only feebly suggest the spiritual, and so to me it will always feel like it could have amounted to something much greater.

Two thumbs up, May 30, 2013

Short (couple hours), puzzle-based, nice in-game hint system, light on the reading.

Would recommend for someone who wants a puzzle-based game and doesn't need a detailed story behind it.

Good things:
I think the thing people will remember most about this game is the second level. (Spoiler - click to show) Figuring out the language of the stranger ended up feeling really rewarding.
Minimal reading. Story elements are only there in order to justify why you should complete the level. Personally I'm okay with minimal story if I'm just looking for good puzzles and I think the explanations are sufficient to justify the gameplay.
Something I thought was neat: for my first playthrough I failed level 1, and the game showed evidence of that when I completed level 2, even though the two levels were otherwise unrelated.

Bad things:
I did have a slight issue with this hint system. Since it only showed one hint at a time, it didn't matter if you had already done the actions it suggests. You would have to enter the level, do those actions again, and then return to the etchings to see the next step. I ended up repeating the same actions several times because I had thought ahead of the hints. The only time this was really an issue though, was in level 1 where time management is important and you can't afford to be running back and forth to check the etchings.
I suppose some might have issue with the lack of narrative. I don't know that I felt particularly connected to the character or the NPCs. The endings felt quite clinical, where I was sort of expecting it to acknowledge the other characters that I had interacted with. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)when I chose to pick level 2 for my ending, I thought it would acknowledge my family or the stranger I'd befriended. Instead it only talked about my discovery of language. But this game is set up to be an allegory of human evolution so I guess it makes sense that it only chose to acknowledge the ways that you have "progressed" as a human.

Ambivalent things:
Regarding hints, if you're stuck check the etchings within the Edifice again. They will change to give you clues on how to proceed. I didn't learn this right away and ended up pretty stuck before learning about them. On the one hand, this was a clever way to integrate the hints. On the other hand, it felt kind of counter-intuitive to leave the level before completing it so I didn't realize I should be checking them until I consulted the HELP.
And just a warning, I believe it's possible to put it in an unwinnable state. I failed level 1 with my first playthrough and as a result I couldn't figure out how to achieve a complete ending.

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Good concept, mediocre execution, August 23, 2009

The Edifice has you participate/spectate a few events occurring along the timeline of evolution of an anthropoid species (presumably, (Spoiler - click to show)Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, Neanderthal (?), and finally Homo Sapiens). It's an interesting conceit, and one segment has a particularly interesting puzzle in which you piece together a stranger's language... but in practice, it's just a little too clumsily put together, and somehow the emotional connection just never quite clicked for me.

If you want to try it without referring to the walkthrough, be aware that Edifice will expect some rather non-clued and non-standard language (for IF) in places.

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
An awesome time travel game, August 21, 2009

Wonderfully put together, with a feel to it that reminds me of a combination between civilization, the intro of 2001, and an exploration game...this masterful work of IF charts your prehistoric exploration of a large black stone monolith, which leads throughout time and space. To say more would give away the plot, but the game has several endings and is very satisfying.

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful:
The best single puzzle I've played, October 17, 2007

Edifice is a short game that takes the player through the various stages of development of human civilization. The game stands out because it has the best puzzle I've seen in any game so far. The writing is solid but unremarkable, and the other puzzles are good, but the language puzzle is by far the reason to play the game.

In Edifice, the player begins as a caveman, and is faced with a puzzling edifice. The player must teach the caveman to use basic tools, to open a door in the edifice. Inside, there are stairways taking the player up to different levels, each one of which takes him to a new stage of the development of civilization. In each stage, he must advance the state of civilization by solving a certain puzzle that teaches his character how to do something.

The puzzle that makes the game is the language puzzle, in which the player must learn to communicate in the foreign language of an NPC. It is hard to describe, without giving spoilers, why this puzzle is so much fun, but I've found that it's simply the most satisfying puzzle of any game I've played.

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