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by David Welbourn

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Trouble in Sector 471

by Arthur DiBianca profile


(based on 30 ratings)
7 reviews

About the Story

The power just went out in Sector 471. You had better go take a look.

Game Details


Nominee, Best Puzzles; Nominee (for crystal puzzle), Best Individual Puzzle; Nominee, Best Implementation - 2022 XYZZY Awards

5th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)


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Number of Reviews: 7
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Most Helpful Member Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A nicely-curated collection of limited parser puzzles, January 11, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Arthur DiBianca is surely among the few modern IF authors whose name has become a brand. While his games boast an impressive range of settings, genres, and gameplay styles, there are some distinctive elements that mean he offers something unique: they all have a limited parser, ensuring that guess-the-verb problems are never among the challenges a player faces; they all well-written but tight, setting-first stories; they typically last an hour or so, with a set of optional objectives for players who want to dig deeper; there are well-designed interfaces that cleanly present the information you need; and theyíre all of a consistently high quality (ok, that last one isnít unique to DiBianca, but itís the reason why itís worth commenting on all the others!)

Trouble in Sector 471 fits all of this to a T Ė this time out, you play a plucky little maintenance-bot, out first to restore power to the eponymous sci-fi facility, then zap the infestation of bugs at the root of the problem, and maybe help some of your fellow worker robots along the way. The gameplay twist is that thereís a light patina of metroidvania about proceedings Ė visible first in the slick automap that takes up half the playing window and orients you towards the places youíve yet to explore, and then made more obvious as you collect new functions for your humble mechanoid: at first, youíre capable only of zapping bugs and opening communications with other bots, but reaching new areas and doing favors sees you win some important upgrades, including the ability to pick stuff up and interface with the various bits of machinery you find in the facility.

The open map is mirrored in the open gameplay structure; while there are definitely chokepoints at several parts of the game, youíre not funneled towards a final encounter or anything like that, and it doesnít take long until you can wander over quite a large stretch of real estate, worrying away at half a dozen different puzzles as you track down the bugs and optional objectives. I admit that at around the two-thirds mark, even with all the supports built into the game I started feeling a bit overwhelmed, but found that once I started taking some notes the pieces fell into place quite quickly Ė thereís a lot to keep track of, but when you break down exactly what you can do and what barriers youíre facing, it isnít too hard to run down your limited command-set and come up with some ideas for how to proceed.

This is a sweet spot for puzzle difficulty for me; progress feels nontrivial, but once you bear down it isnít too hard to start feeling clever. There was one place where I needed to look at the hints Ė thereís a multi-step puzzle involving a museum curator-bot that I wasnít quite wrapping my head around Ė and while I got most of the optional challenges, I never came across one, and found one involving unblocking pipes too fiddly to be enjoyable, but overall this is a smartly-designed and satisfying grab bag of puzzles.

Getting into critiques, though, it does feel like a grab bag, rather than the more unified puzzle sets of some of DiBiancaís other games, like the wordplay of Sage Sanctum Scramble or the RPG-aping Black Knife Dungeon. In fact, many of the puzzles feel like the sort of thing you get up to in more traditional works of IF Ė thereís a fair bit of unlocking doors, figuring out combinations, and trading items to NPCs Ė which I think make me chafe against the limited parser more than I usually do. In particular, I missed the ability to examine things; you can get more information about any object youíre carrying, but the set of grabbable items is pretty small, and there were more than a few environmental puzzles, or encounters with other robots, where I would have liked to get a closer look at the situation, either for hints to the puzzles or just to get better grounded in the world. As a result, while the different rooms are well-described and the charming cast of robots largely does a good job communicating their personalities through their one or two lines of dialogue, I engaged with Sector 471 largely as an abstract set of puzzles and systems rather than as a coherent place where a diegetic narrative was occurring.

There are definitely worse problems to have, and honestly most of the way through a very story-heavy Comp I found it kind of nice to immerse myself in something close to a pure puzzler Ė and this is a very well-designed, well-tuned example of the breed. So while Iíd recommend other of the authorís games before this one to someone whoís trying to figure out what this limited-parser thing is all about, itís still a worthy addition to his gameography.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
I, Robot Handyman, December 22, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

With the author's games, you have stuff you know you should expect and a whole bunch you don't, and both are pleasing. You know you're going to have a lot of whimsy, and some puzzles that should be basic but aren't, but they are fair. And you have limited verbs that say, okay, this is the puzzle. You'll have to combine them in some ways, and there aren't many commands, but there are enough that brute force just isn't going to happen. So come use process of elimination and a bit of intuition and solve it.

The subject matter is something else entirely. There will be something new, nothing you have to think too much about. That's saved for the puzzles. Here you're a robot in some high-tech area that's out of power. I assumed it was a spaceship, maybe because of "Sector (HIGH NUMBER,)" but the author noted that nothing made this the case in the text. He is correct.

Your official name is Exter-17, and you'd better do a good job here, or you'll be relegated to the boring stuff. You only have a few commands (COM to communicate and ZAP to zap) to start. The main spaceship doors are all shut, and without power, they're not going up. And all the other robots are out of power, so ZAP it is. This one's hard to bungle, and that's how introductory puzzles should be.

As power comes back on, you gain another abillity/command. You can interact with crystals, which (among other things) open doors. You'll gain a few more commands, so you can even be able to pick up items you find lying around, eventually! This is of course an amusing inversion of how TAKE is one of the first commands a player learns or uses, and TAKE ALL is an accepted early way to get your bearings. I won't spoil the actual command names, because they're nice small amusing surprises, as are the robot name abbreviations of the NPCs. These presented small puzzles to figure out (what do the first three or four letters expand to?) when I got stuck with the main puzzles. This is totally optional, of course, but it helps prevent you from feeling dumb or frustrated.

This all feels very simple, like learning very basic machine language commands (as with many DiBianca games) but there are production effects, as well. The first is what happens with text art that happens with power back on. I won't spoil it, but if you play for five minutes, you can't miss it. You also have an option of which background to choose, so that's very cool. I ran through all the options more than once.

Restoring power is the easy part. Destroying bugs is next, and it's tougher. Well, the first bug is out in the open. Then the next two are in rooms you need to solve relatively trivial puzzles to gain access to. Then, if you try to ZAP a bug, it evades you! There are thirteen total, and while no puzzle is too complex, you have to pay attention to your surroundings, or to rooms that seem like dead ends. Pretty much everything is useful, and you have to figure how.

You can win without exploring all the rooms in S471. This is a DiBianca staple: enough challenges to make you happy you got through it, then a hint you're missing something. In this case, there are a few rooms in the center that are unexplored. It seems two squares are pretty obviously needed to preserve symmetry. You get a small bonus on killing the last bug, and it's up to you how to use it that to poke around even more. Given the square map, you can figure where you need to look. There are also locked doors, or ones that won't stay open. There's even a robot that imitates you around a locked door, so toggling the door is out.

I enjoyed Sector 471 a lot. While I don't like rating it as opposed to other games by the author, I just would like to compare it to books of brain teasers as a kid, mathematical or otherwise. DiBianca's stuff seems to last a bit better. With the books, at first it was fun to say "Hey! I know how to do that!" but they got less fun when I knew all the tricks and realized I was only getting answers from what I already knew. I felt ripped off. I hoped for more out there. And I wanted more than problems. For instance, it's fun to solve "Two mathematicians were talking. One said the product of his kids' ages was 36. Then he told the other mathematician the sum of his kids' ages. It wasn't enough for the other one to decide their ages. Then he mentioned his oldest just had a birthday." It's fun to work through again after you've forgotten it for a while. But it is such a bummer when reading a puzzle book and getting a bunch of these not-new puzzles but you're aware these are rehashes. And I still remember the day I realized logic puzzles didn't have the satisfaction they used to, and I was probably avoiding mistakes more than trying or enjoying anything new. With the author's complete works, I don't feel that way.

S471 definitely has its own personality, and the general brevity works well -- the robot dialogue is odd and whimsical the right way, because robots shouldn't talk much like humans, and you can and should have a good laugh about it. It continues a nice string of works I'd have enjoyed as a kid, ones that would've boosted my confidence when the Zorks, no matter how much I loved them, left me baffled. As much as I enjoyed abstract problems, I wanted more, and I didn't know what. (I preferred this stuff to dirty jokes at 13, which did not make me at all popular.) These tastes feel less weird now I've played many such games and know others like to, too. While I don't need them any more, and the Internet provides other ways to explore my mind, I'm glad there's a repository for neat puzzles consistently blended with a fun story.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Bureaucratic Botworld, December 5, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This is another nifty little puzzle game. You are a 'bot squashing bugs via a series of unlocking-style puzzles. Either explicitly unlocking doors, or unlocking new abilities needed to solve subsequent puzzles. The puzzle design is reasonably pleasant and seems to play pretty fair. It does require some logical leaps or guesses, even trial and error from time to time, but that is far from rare in IF, classic or modern. The text descriptions are succinct with a light, breezy feel that keeps things chugging along and doesnít grate when you re-enter rooms multiple times.

It does a few things really well. For one, I really dug the ascii maps. They were easy to parse, eminently useful, and exuded an old-school vibe that matched the text tone nicely. The game seemed to disconcertingly read my mind at one point. I realized there were a few interesting items littered about behind me, but I really didnít remember where and was not looking forward to exploring to find them again. No sooner did that sour thought form than BAM I unlocked ďITEM modeĒ on the map to helpfully point them out! Had to be a coincidence, right? The alternative is super creepy.

While the game did not really implement deep NPCs (most are one-response once their puzzle-state responses are exhausted), like the room descriptions their dialogue is short and to the point with a splash of personality. Since they are bots anyway, this doesnít really jar - making a strength of its limitations! Same for the limited vocabulary - as a relatively simple bot, there isnít really an expectation of full autonomy and the limited action palette feels pretty natural. Between the marriage of form and function, the enjoyable puzzles, crisp page and map layout and snappy writing there were plenty of Sparks of Joy. There was however also a friction-y design choice and one small but really annoying bug.

Bug first. Itís a parser game, and the web implementation autoscrolled on command entry for a while. Until it didnít anymore - instead, it autoscrolled whey you typed the NEXT command. What this meant was, you would go say W(est). The descriptive text of the new room would appear below the bottom of the screen, and only after you input a character THEN it would scroll up for you to see. This had the effect of needing to type something/anything after your command, then maybe erasing that and putting the real command in. Eventually I figured out I could hit Enter-Backspace to force the scroll but man was it annoying. I donít really have a bead on if it was the authorís bug or maybe the web implementation.

The second was in command choice. This is a parser game, but it implements very few commands. It tells you what they are, thatís fine. Most of the frequently used commands (cardinal direction, look, wait) are implemented as single letters. This has the effect of keeping things light and moving quickly. There are some mode and status commands which are full words, but as they are rarely used thatís not impactful. However, the special powers you accumulate, and use all the time (sometimes in elaborate sequences), are 3 letters. Now, you are instantly thinking less of me because I am going to complain about three letter commands instead of 1. While that is 300% more typing, I accept your scorn. But in a game this light, with a vocabulary this limited, having to repeatedly type the same 3-letter words just starts feeling unnecessary. Especially when all of the ones I unlocked could have started with unique single letters!

The cumulative weight of these frictions led me to a point where after a particularly involved surprise side mission (which I had mistaken for a Ďcoreí mission) I didnít feel compelled to finish the game. So, definite Sparks of Joy, short of Engagement. As I look at the Ďintrusive elementsí above (buggy text scroll, why canít I type less?) while it for sure informed my experience they donít really rate as Ďnotably buggy.í Just a spot where more lubrication could have been applied. Hey-O, thatís what shÖ no. Just donít.

Played: 10/30/22
Playtime: 1.5hr, did not finish
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? doubtful, got the gist

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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The following polls include votes for Trouble in Sector 471:

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This is version 11 of this page, edited by JTN on 5 February 2024 at 1:20am. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item - Delete This Page