The Chinese Room

by Harry Josephine Giles and Joey Jones profile


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Number of Reviews: 5
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
So... many... words..., February 16, 2022

I'm a philosopher by profession, so I really had little choice but to play this. It does mean that I'm one of the few people (according to the game, at least) to know the two meanings of "grue" (I suspect there's a fair bit of overlap in the Venn diagram of those two groups, though, to be honest).

I did enjoy this game. But I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.

The main positive: this game is genuinely funny a lot of the time. There are some marvellous ideas and images in it. I especially laughed at the idea of Thomas Nagel as a mad scientist desperately dissecting bats while muttering "What is it like?!", and the notion of an argument in a museum about Theseus' Ship was excellent too. A lot of the dialogue options are very funny, poking fun at both the philosophical ideas and at the mechanics of the game itself.

Also, the idea of implementing a "think about..." command to deliver more serious information about the philosophical ideas under discussion is a good one. Most of the information here is sound and well presented.

But as it went on, I did find myself focusing more on the negatives, alas:

"Verbose" is something we often find ourselves typing in IF, but you don't really know the meaning of the word until you play this game. There's a *lot* of text. In itself, I don't mind this, if it adds immersion; but in this game it doesn't really, because of the way the writing dwells so much on the artificiality of the scenario. Often crucial details in room descriptions are too easy to overlook among all the words. It made me yearn for the days of Zork, when so much could be conveyed so sparingly.

Relatedly, the game really thinks it's hilarious. Really, really thinks it, and wants to tell you so. As noted above, it sometimes is, and there's a lot of wit to enjoy along the way, but the way the game never loses an opportunity to tell you how clever and knowing it is makes playing it feel a little like watching a marathon showing of every Mel Brooks film ever made, back-to-back. The authors might have heard of the saying "sometimes less is more" but clearly considered it to be another koan designed to defeat logic, and ignored it.

Then there are the puzzles. This is very much a puzzle-based game. Some are difficult, and I had to search out online help for a couple. There are so many puzzles in here that everyone will probably find one or two that will appeal. I thought that (Spoiler - click to show)the experience machine was rather clever. However, this was the only one, really, where the solution to the puzzle did depend, in a way, on thinking through the actual thought experiment it's based on. For the most part, the different thought experiments in the game just provide characters or scenarios where you need to provide an object and be rewarded with another object.

These fetch quests often don't make much sense. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)why does the librarian reward you with a banana? Why does Aristotle reward you with a copy of the works of *Plato*? Why are the prisoners in Plato's cave wearing ear muffs? Why do you get the Ding an Sich from an unnamed Martyr (rather than from Kant, which would make more sense)? and so on.

Moreover, many of the puzzles are rendered harder by the often poorly implemented parser. This is noticeable right from the first puzzle, the Chinese Room itself, where (Spoiler - click to show)"read manual" doesn't do anything useful, but "use manual" does. Similarly, trying to describe what the person in the Chinese Room is supposed to do - e.g. "compare cards to manual" - doesn't work. I found many cases where obvious synonyms aren't implemented: (Spoiler - click to show)"wine” doesn’t work for “bottle” (though “claret” does); “book” doesn’t work for the works of Plato; you can “fix” the lantern but not “mend” it; the prisoners in the cave are “people”, but not “prisoners”; you have to “hang burden on horn” - “put burden on horn” or “hang burden from horn” don’t work; you have to “look through qualiascope at Socrates” – “look at Socrates through qualiascope” doesn’t work; "put veil on guard” works, but “put veil over guard” doesn’t; “enter tower” doesn’t work – you have to “go up”; in the time machine, “dials” is interpreted as referring to its mechanism – you have to type “chrome dials” to interact with the actual dials; in the Turing Test, you can enter “Type 5” but you can’t enter “Type ‘5’”; and so on.

In addition to this, there are a number of oversights in the implementation, and outright bugs (apart from the quite frequent typos): (Spoiler - click to show)you can still talk to the librarian about the lack of Plato’s works in the library, even after giving them a copy; you can still get the librarian to fetch the encyclopaedia even after you’ve acquired it; the laptop appears in the description of Mary’s room even after you’ve taken it; there's a bug in the conversation with the trees, causing an error message to appear after some dialogue lines; the Categorical Imperativator seems to guide you through the maze even if you’re no longer holding it when you enter; it seems to be impossible to take the Categorical Imperativator out of the sack once you’ve put it in; the first key in the tower can be examined, but the others can’t; and so on. Strangely, and frustratingly, I found at one point that a vital object that I had acquired simply disappeared. I don't know whether it vanished from my inventory, or whether I left it lying around somewhere and it was taken, but I had to restart the game.

Some elements aren't really made the most of. (Spoiler - click to show)The idea of the qualiascope is brilliant, but it always gives the same response when pointed at anyone other than the person who is actually a zombie. Wouldn't it have been more fun to have custom responses for each person? I'm also not convinced by it philosophically; since a zombie by definition does everything that a real person does, including act as if they have qualia, it seems to me that the qualiascope should register a false positive when pointed at them. But, conceivably, I'm nitpicking now.

Notably, it is possible to make the game unwinnable. It is also possible to die by making the (unflagged) wrong choice at one point without any warning. But one can always UNDO, although the game oddly doesn't explicitly offer you this choice at these times.

So, more broadly, what do I think of this game as a philosopher? Well, I think the idea of philosophy IF is fruitful. In fact it seems to me that there's a genuinely interesting piece of IF to be written about philosophical thought experiments, particularly ones in ethics. For example, to take the most famous thought experiment of all (which surprisingly does not appear in The Chinese Room), imagine a game where you are forced to choose whether to let the trolley kill five people or divert it to kill one, and the game lets the consequences of this play out and makes you experience them. But this isn't that game. It is, instead, for the most part a tremendously convoluted fetch quest (as it is happy to admit itself). The whole philosophy theme really just provides the scenery for basic fetch quests rather than informing the structure of the puzzles. One can't usually actually try out different answers to the thought experiments. (And on the rare occasions when you can, the wrong answer just leads to instant death.)

I was a little puzzled by some of the material included. I'm not sure that Plato's cave is really a thought experiment (it's an analogy), or the koan about the tree falling in the forest. Thought experiments are meant to be imaginary scenarios with questions about them, such that answering the question tells us something about our intuitions. But still, these are venerable philosophical ideas, so they fit perfectly well into the theme of the game. One can't, though, say the same about the invisible pink unicorn, which looms pretty large in this game. Unlike all the other references, this isn't from academic philosophy, but is a meme used in popular online polemics about religion. So its inclusion feels rather out of place. (The game is careful to stress that Ayn Rand isn't a "proper" philosopher, after all.) Wouldn't it have fitted the theme better to use Russell's teapot, which has a bit more philosophical heritage? Indeed, I'd have liked to see some more balanced treatment of philosophy of religion here (it would have been fun to see Plantinga's Five Minutism dramatised, for example). But I suppose that, being a philosopher of religion myself, I'm bound to think it's always badly handled at the popular level.

The game reminded me a little of All Hope Abandon, which also overlaps with my academic expertise (is there an evil demon constructing IF specifically for me?). All Hope Abandon is a very different kind of game, since although it has jokes too it intersperses them with more serious elements. I preferred that approach; I think The Chinese Room tries too hard to just be funny. The more serious "think about" material does a good job of showing why the stuff being lampooned does matter, but as I've suggested, I can't help feeling that some opportunities have been missed to dramatise some of these philosophical scenarios more fully in a way that might show the player, rather than tell them, what they're really about.

So overall: there is fun to be had here, as long as you don't mind a fairly mechanical set of get-object-give-object puzzles, a sometimes frustrating parser, and an occasionally slightly unpolished feel.

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Joey Jones, March 24, 2022 - Reply
I think I agree with a lot of your criticism about the writing. We wrote the game when were were both students (I turned 19 the year it was released) so I think some of it would probably have a bit different tone or focus if written today.

It's interesting to think what the game might look like that took the problems more seriously rather than as comedic adventure game props.
JonathanCR, April 20, 2022 - Reply
The game's a truly impressive achievement for two undergraduates. Only now do I see that you've made more games since then, so I will certainly be trying them out!
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