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About the Story
After The Event, there are no easy solutions. A silly little speed-IF puzzler. But can you solve it?
Nominee, Best Individual Puzzle - 2015 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 7
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Hard Puzzle is a one-room parser-based game by Ade McT, published in 2015. You are a person held in a garage against your will, and you're told that you must assemble a three-legged stool to please your mysterious benefactors, or tormentors, called The Family.
The setting is that of undefined post-apocalyptic sci-fi or horror, with only dramatic proper nouns like The Event hinting at what grave terrors may have occurred in the past. The writing style is terse, which gives the game some sense of mystery - the player doesn't get to learn much about the exact circumstances of the game world, or even what's really at stake with this whole stool assembling operation.
Mystery really is the key thing about Hard Puzzle, and this extends to the gameplay and implementation too. You deal with a lot of different objects during your time in the garage - the stool parts, plus other miscellaneous things you find around the room - and figuring out how to use any of it is, ostensibly, a large part of the gameplay. Many items are discovered by taking apart other items, but the game never explicitly lists what you get when doing this. You have to keep manually checking your inventory, trying to keep a mental track of what is new, what might be useful and how everything connects to everything else. It's all somewhere between engrossing and frustrating.
With the slightly unhelpful and rough implementation, along with certain mechanical quirks that may very well be bugs, the game comes across a bit rough around the edges. Then again, it is said to be a "speed-IF", so maybe this is understandable. Many would even say that the technical shortcomings add to the odd charm of the game.
(Spoiler - click to show)The repetitive nature of trying to assemble the stool eventually makes you question the whole ordeal. You start wondering if, like the intro suggests, there could be a way to escape. As the player is stuck in the minimalistic environment doing the same things over and over again, even the mechanical quirks themselves acquire a significant meaning. For example, I personally started wondering whether the weirdly teleporting assembled stool could be used to leave the room. The way the fourth wall is broken here and there also casts doubt on everything the game claims to be about. Are the apparent implementation flaws a part of the design after all? What parts of Hard Puzzle are red herrings? Is it really a speed-IF? Can you take anything about the game for certain on a meta-level?
(Spoiler - click to show)Hard Puzzle is a trollish meta-game that is veiled in misinformation and deception. It's a puzzle game where the player knows neither the rules or the objective. It's a dysfunctional sandbox with a lot of moving parts that don't connect to each other. It's a contrived enigma. My opinion is that while the meta aspect is clever, it is essentially a game designed to waste the player's time.
As a rule, I'm not that enthusiastic about puzzles, and yet I was drawn into this game and beat my head against it for two entire days. This was more than a hard puzzle for me. This was a mini life experience.
What happened? I'm not that great at manipulating finicky things in parser games, and this game is loaded, loaded, loaded with them. I usually give up on puzzles, and although I talked with other people to make some progress by exchanging hints, I didn't make much progress that way at all. But I never considered stopping. I had to finish. I needed to figure out what the hell was going on, both on a story level and on a meta level.
Hard Puzzle is set in an apocalyptic world where you have been tasked with assembling a stool for "The Family" because they "like the look of it." This stool is intended "for milking." Even though the story is sparse, little details here and there worked their way into my brain like parasites and wouldn't get out. Whereas other puzzle games often lose my interest by requiring too much mechanical tinkering, Hard Puzzle's strangeness wouldn't release me, even while it was clobbering me with more and more mechanical tinkering nightmares.
But what made me truly unable to leave the game alone was that I didn't know on what level I could trust it. Hard Puzzle bills itself as silly speed-IF, but is this true? It has implementation errors, as you would expect in speed-IF, but it acknowledges these errors. And perhaps more than anything, it was written by Ade McT, whose game Map placed second in the IFComp mere days before Hard Puzzle was released onto IFDB.
Normally, not being able to trust a game means not wanting to play it because you think it might be unfair or broken. In this case, not being able to trust it made the experience even more compelling for me.
Now that I have solved Hard Puzzle, I look back at my time playing it these past two days and... feel inclined to say nothing about how right or wrong I was to suspect anything about this game. I think that some people might never solve it. I think that some people might solve it much faster than I did.
There is a famous murder mystery play by Agatha Christie called The Mousetrap that has been running since 1952, and although countless people have now seen the play, its ending is rarely ever discussed in order to preserve the surprise for new audiences. For that same reason, I hope that no walkthrough is ever provided for Hard Puzzle. I hope no solution is ever published. I hope that anyone who solves it will remain silent.
I haven't played enough of this game to give it a star rating, so I won't, but I wanted to use this space to ruminate a little bit on the design idea(s) behind this game -- what the ancients called "IF theory", I believe.
The idea behind "Hard Puzzle", as far as I can tell, is to generate both horror and puzzle difficulty through an atmosphere of absolute uncertainty. While the actual prose attempts at Horrifying Detail ((Spoiler - click to show)like your skin sloughing off or whatever) struck me as pretty hackneyed, you'd be shocked at how spooky it can be to have no idea how many objects are in the room, for example. The author has deliberately omitted a lot of the helpful or clarifying responses that modern Inform games typically have, and the result is something like having your eyes stricken out. Actions that provoke no response text can dramatically change what objects are available or the structure of the location. Some things are implemented in lazy ways that produce unintuitive behavior, and (maybe?) some things are implemented in a way that's designed to look like a lazy shortcut, but behaves very differently under special circumstances.
This is very spooky. The very obtuseness and inconsistency of the interaction is carefully crafted to create a sense of disorientation and dread, as you're always unsure even what *kind* of thing might happen in response to certain actions. The tone of the worldbuilding confirms that this kind of existential spookiness is the goal (even though I didn't think the worldbuilding itself was very effective at achieving that effect).
This is really interesting, and like a lot of IF experiments one of the principal questions it raises is whether this kind of thing is at all repeatable, or whether it's more of an "only works once" kind of thing (as people say of "Deadline Enchanter", say, or the (Spoiler - click to show)PC-protagonist-parser stuff in "Slouching Towards Bedlam". Certainly, I think that the effectiveness of a disorienting interface at this extreme level of minimalism is kind of a "works once" thing. But I think that, if you telegraphed correctly when it was starting, you could have (say) a spooky funhouse room in a larger game where things obey different metaphysical rules that are only conveyed to you very obtusely, by unreported changes to the world model that you have to discover accidentally or systematically (like through the use of "take all"), building towards a larger sense of horror. I think there are a lot of possibilities for this kind of thing, since there are a lot of bizarre facts about a world or location or power that a parser could strategically fail to remark upon.
One example that comes to mind of this kind of technique being employed effectively on a small scale was the game "Dinner Bell", where (famously?) (Spoiler - click to show)the PC's profound physical mutilation is only mentioned in one error message, that many players probably never see at all. Hard Puzzle is like an entire game that's trying to be scary in that way, and I think it's an interesting and clever experiment. Since I'm not much of a puzzle buff and don't have ERR:NaN hours on my hands, I'll probably never finish it, but I thought it was interesting.
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Maintained Hall of Fame / High score list by Denk
Maintained Hall of Fame or high score list is a great idea. Let's list those games where a maintained hall of fame/high score list is maintained, preferably online.
Milking by CMG
After playing Hard Puzzle by Ade McT, which centers around assembling a "milking stool" under rather sinister circumstances, it struck me how odd it can be to feature milking in a game. This poll is for any games that include or...