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About the Story
The plot is set in the corporate headquarters of Minimax, a failing electronics company. Your character is a new employee tasked with exploring the workplace, meeting intriguing people, and solving puzzles. It is your responsibility to guide him and make decisions. There are several possible narrative endings. You can win the game if you solve all the puzzles, or you could get fired or even killed.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: January 1, 2023
Current Version: 5
Development System: Inform 7
Forgiveness Rating: Polite
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When I leave feedback in reviews, they are just meant to be a resource for the author(s). Hopefully a helpful one. That said, it’s always cool when someone applies it to their game. When this happens, I leave little "update" notes my review to acknowledge it. Cubes and Ladders is a little different. This is the first time where an author made substantial changes from my feedback that genuinely shift my entire rating.
Everything below the line at the end of this message is of an earlier version of the game where the gameplay had unevenness and small technicalities that made it a four-star experience. I am preserving it as a historical record of sorts because it shows the creative process that goes into game creation, which is one of coolest things about interactive fiction.
Here, the author made a great game, received feedback, and used the feedback to make an excellent game. That is something that deserves recognition, and I hope this is conveyed through this review. Changing a rating is not something I do on impulse or at a whim, but it’s earned its five stars.
In the old version of my review, I listed some weak points that are now resolved. You will not encounter them when you go to play the game. I also mentioned in the beginning that you will either like Cubes and Ladders or dislike it. The changes have made the gameplay more user-friendly. Players can enjoy the surrealness without wrestling with technicalities. Because of this, I feel that it will be more receptive to players and appeal to a wider audience.
Everything else that I discussed (gameplay, story, art, etc.) is the same. I still stand by that. Go read it right now if you want to know more. It is the same high-quality game except that the flaws mentioned in my review are now history.
Please play Cubes and Ladders if you are interested in surreal interactive fiction, a creative take on the office setting trope, or cool artwork.
This is a game that you will either like or you won't. I liked it. Quite a bit, in fact, but I don’t expect the same for everyone.
In Cubes and Ladders, you play as Jordan Michael, a tech support employee. You work at Minimax, a company that used to be a rockstar... in the realm of selling copier machines and other office-based technology. Since then, Minimax has lost steam. To compensate, management switched its specialty to providing financial services. This has proven to be a mediocre band aid.
Now, Minimax has started another round of downsizing. Rumors of layoffs have begun to circulate amongst the few employees the company has left. You are one of them. (Reminder: You have a meeting with your boss at 9 AM.)
I have played a variety of takes on the office game genre, whether they are realistic slice-of-life stories or plotlines where the staff are supernatural creatures. But I cannot recall ever playing a surreal office game. This was not something I considered until I saw Cubes and Ladders.
In some ways, Cubes and Ladders is your typical office game (my boss wants to me to submit a report by noon) but it more ways, it is not. And if you are expecting a surreal trip down the rabbit hole, you will be disappointed. Instead, the game opts for a more subtle approach to the genre. And that’s just one reason I enjoy it.
The start of the game perfectly captures the essence of an office game: your boss is miffed at you, she wants a revised report turned in before noon (which means you have a time limit), there is a clock at the corner of the screen as a reminder, and there are some rumors about the company floating around the office. First time through, I thought this was going to be a game where you complete a series of tasks for your boss and/or upper management to earn their favor. Cubes and Ladders soon departs from that.
Your boss gives you an evaluation sheet explaining why your yearly report is so horrible. Immediately, the anxiety starts crawling in because she wants a revamped report in a few hours. Fortunately, the surreal office setting has some tricks up its sleeve. The answer is as simple as (Spoiler - click to show) making a copy of the report, but Minimax does not build bland office machines. Entering the storage closet opens a realm of worldbuilding as a plaque on the wall explains Minimax’s achievement of the Complexifier.
An old photocopier with a standard paper feeder and exit tray above and a maintenance compartment below.
The machine hums away oblivious to its obsolescence.
The Complexifier is currently switched on.
Apparently, the machine transforms the contents of the report itself, so it is more exciting, more informative, more… you know, content. Your boring report is now a Complex Report.
The report is overflowing with buzzwords, colorful graphs, and projections. It's a voluminous presentation explaining the year-end performance of Minimax Inc. It's substantially thicker than the original.
We now know that the game’s world is not bound by normal physics. Machines can alter the written word itself. It reminds me a little of the machines in Counterfeit Monkey (be sure to play that next) that change the spelling or meaning of your word to create a new product. It was here that I realized that Cubes and Ladders was not your typical “office game.”
I feel compelled to share this: Never have I encountered a cubicle maze that was kind of… nice to explore. In a calming and/or hypnotic way. It has atmosphere, a surreal dreaminess with an undertone of corporate monotony fizzling away in the background. Soon there will be nothing. It’s just you, wandering around a desert of workstations.
You're in a maze of empty cubicles. You could get lost in the sameness. The buzz and flicker of fluorescent lights surround you.
The writing conveys the mind-numbing monotony. But the artwork is what kicks in into a pleasing effect. The space becomes interesting. Combined, these formed a unique cubicle maze that I liked to get lost in.
Wait, there’s a cubicle maze? No, there’s no maze in this game. At first it seems like a vast, sprawling map, but it is considerably smaller after you take a few random laps. Nine locations in the maze, plus two storage closets. I made a map, but only because I felt like doing so. I didn’t need to. A far cry from the cubicle mega-maze in Above and Beyond!
Still, at the end of the day, a cubicle maze is still a cubicle maze.
The sticker features a cartoon lab rat holding the message: "Life is a maze we never escape."
So true. Including in this game.
Gameplay challenges: I came close to giving Cubes and Ladders five stars, but the implementation could use some more refinement.
For example, it does not take long to submit your snazzy new report to your boss, but when you do, she tells you to wait until 12:30 for the executive meeting to be over. This means having a few hours to fill where every turn takes up a minute. There are other tasks you can do until then, but one requires that you have the report, which is being used at the meeting. Therefore, you must wait until the meeting ends to make further progress.
The game does permit the “wait until [time]” function, but it needs to be more obvious that the feature is available. I only learned about it from the walkthrough. Technically, and I hope you only read this after you attempt a playthrough, (Spoiler - click to show) you can complete the entire game without ever giving your new report to your boss. As long as you win before noon.
The other little tidbit that kept bothering me had to do with (SPOILERS) (Spoiler - click to show) finding the research lab. You entice Ray with treats. When you give him the first treat (the melted Oreo), he tells you to keep up the good work and bring him more. It is established that the puzzle is to bring him a satisfactory quantity of snacks for him to help you. But if you give him the donut first, he allows you to access the lab and leaves without requiring another offering. Something about that seemed disjointed to me. It has the feeling of well what’s the point of having the Oreo to begin with? Trivial, but it stood out to me.
Also: The flashlight is trash. It's worse than the Anchorhead flashlight on day three. The laser pointer is far more reliable, although its lifespan too is limited.
The story is partly hinged on the circulating-rumor-in-the office concept, but it goes in unexpected directions. Fact is, Minimax is on the decline. When you hand in your revised report to your boss, (Spoiler - click to show) she gives you a memo that confirms that Minimax is laying off the remaining cubicle workers, including you. Sure, you get a severance package, but is that what you really want?
You can choose to dig deeper. There has been a change in management. Max Prophet Sr. was the founder of Minimax and a master at creating office machine inventions until he died in a work-related accident (it truly was an accident; in case you were thinking otherwise). The business has been handed down to Max Prophet Jr. who does not even pretend to know what he is doing. He fully admits to being unable to match his father’s potential. If only a clever employee would get the ball rolling… Message: you can save Minimax. But you won’t accomplish it by sitting around your cubicle waiting for the workday to end.
I welcomed this opportunity to find more Minimax inventions! I think the winning ending could have been a little more drawn out to see the impact of your discovery, but that’s just wishful thinking. You become innovator of the year with an office, but I wonder how long that will last. All you did was combine preexisting tech to complete a machine. I just hope Jordan Michael has what it takes match the founder’s legacy. What the heck, it’s still a good ending.
There are some alternate, less ideal outcomes to this game. I have a bone to pick with the flexibility of one of them. (Spoiler - click to show) If you fail to turn in the report by noon, you lose your job. If you succeed with that task, you have until 5pm before the workday ends and the game calls it quits. If you fail to save the company before 5PM, this is what happens:
The good news is that you're free to find a better job away from the struggling Minimax Inc. But too bad you didn't get a positive recommendation from your boss.
This ending is called: *** Best of Luck in Your Fast Food Career ***
BUT YOU DID GET A RECOMMENDATION. After handing in your updated yearly report, you are told that you will get a “glowing letter of recommendation.” Plus, that little memo notice you receive says that Minimax will provide you with severance. This ending has no mention of either. I feel like there should be two separate endings. One where you fail on your final day and are sent packing (resulting in the fast-food ending), and one where you get your promised recommendation and crawl off to whatever job that recommendation takes you. Instead, the game crams them into one ending.
We do not know much about Jordan Michael aside from a few fun facts provided when you examine yourself, but that’s okay since the game is directed as you (the player) rather than the protagonist’s identity. I suppose the name could be either male or female, so I’m just going to say that the character is gender neutral.
The NPCs in Cubes and Ladders are like fixtures of Minimax itself, creating a fatigued, fleeting atmosphere that goes well with the story and setting. This bleeds into the gameplay, making character interactions more passive, perhaps even at the expense of puzzles.
For example, there is a guard in the cubicle maze who will prevent you from going south, making it seem like there is something important down there. *Turns out, (Spoiler - click to show) you can access the south location by taking a three-move detour. What do we find? More cubicles. He is not guarding anything at all. The puzzle is not important, only what it says about the character’s relationship with Minimax (although you can make him fall asleep if you want). With Minimax downsizing, there is no need for someone to guard an empty cubicle farm. His job is obsolete. And yet, he’s been an employee for almost two decades. There is a sense of clinging to this identity as long as possible.
*Correction: Following a game update, you (Spoiler - click to show) can no longer bypass the guard. The puzzle is now required!
We see this trend in every character. Ray too has been a long-term programmer and muses about the company’s heyday. He almost regards himself as a cynical relic of the company who, despite his contributions, is not exempt from the possibility of being laid off. Meanwhile, Rich is an experienced employee who is 110% a team player, loyal to Minimax, and proud of it. While he is less likely to be laid off thanks to his position in financial sales, there is still an underlying anxiety about being let go.
I liked this portrayal of the NPCs because it alienates the protagonist (you’ve only been there for a few months, newbie) who is the only one moving around in search of a solution to Minimax’s problems. When face-to-face with an NPC, you never feel like you are being heard, which is partly the point. Every turn count, NPCs will spew work related but meaningless fragments of corporate buzz words, idle workplace chat, and self-absorbed ramblings about reports, profits, and Minimax products.
The tradeoff of having detached NPCs is that interactivity is reduced. I do wish they could respond to more dialog prompts. My favorite leave-me-alone line was, "'Run along, kid. I'm busy losing money here.'"
The writing is good, but not enough to stand on its own as a surreal game. The visuals bridge the gap to make the storytelling excellent. Every location has a visual that appears upon your entrance. A few appear to be heavily filtered photographs, but most are illustrations made with different mediums. My favorite ones were the office building at the start of the game and the drawing for the storage closet.
I loved the art, especially how it portrays the characters. People are silhouettes. You never quite see their faces, and if you do, it is a distorted appearance, often cast in shadows or strange angles. For example, when you first enter your cubicle for the 9AM meeting, you see your boss at your desk.
Your boss is sitting impatiently in your office chair.
The artwork shows her seated and facing away from you. Her outline is an angular haircut paired with a sharp business skirt and top. The shadows make it where you can’t quite tell where the chair and her body begin and ends. It is all melded into one figure. This visual left a strong impression on the character that the sentence could not convey on its own.
The entire time I kept wondering when the ladders would come in because the “cube” part was covered by the cubicles, but the second half of the title must be a symbolic reference to the corporate ladder concept. Makes sense. But yes, Cubes and Ladders was a great experience.
I would recommend this anyone, not because I think that everyone will like it, but because it offers something new for the surreal genre and “office game” concept. Besides, the gameplay is light. I’m not trying to lure you into a puzzle-fest extravaganza. If anything, try it for the visuals. The surreal elements simply pulled me in. Artwork, setting, characters, Minimax gadgets, you name it.
I hope the author continues to produce work like this. It is a great piece of surreal interactive fiction.
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I'm looking for a great surreal game. by Bishopofbasic
It's pretty hot up here in Canada and I was wondering if anyone knew of any great surreal type games. Something I can spend my time in front of the AC or in my office hiding from the world. Thanks you guys.