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About the Story
Unravel the secrets of the third dimension and search for treasure in a wholly bizarre setting ó a crossover between the worlds of Fallen London and Flatland. Keep your wits about you in this sprawling parser-based game, and remember: There's no such thing as down.
11th Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
IF Comp 2020 Review: Flattened London by Carter Gwertzman
A great example of Goldilocks puzzle design, providing just enough challenge to make me feel clever, but not too much to make me feel stupid. I zipped through Flattened London knocking over puzzles like dominoes, quite a design feat considering the non-linear nature of the game.
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So I think this game had a couple things going against it for me. Primarily, I think the game is still very much not polished. Playing through it there were objects that I feel should have been implemented that weren't, as well as a lot of objects with very similar names so I had trouble getting the game to do what I wanted it to do (like reading this piece of paper instead of that one). Even the walkthrough provided with the IFComp 2020 version I think had an error in it: (Spoiler - click to show)You are supposed to attach a sharp rock (flint) to a device you get to turn it into a lighter, but I never found sharp rock and I can't see the walkthrough telling me where it is either. If any other players out there found it or if I missed it in the walkthrough let me know so I can correct this.
Also, and this might be a bigger deal than I realize, while I've played Fallen London a little I never really got into it the way others did, so it is possible parts of this game are lost on me.
I think this game has a lot of potential, having it play out in two dimensions is a neat idea and that could lead to some clever mechanics, and the atmosphere is interesting. It just needs a little more work.
Flattened London, from the cover and title, provides a mashup of Flatland and Fallen London. It's far more the second than the first, going in more for a Zork I-style treasure hunt, replete with treasure chest to dump stuff in, than any sort of mathematical theory or knowledge. I have to admit I was hoping for the first, but I wasn't disappointed with the second. The items you must find are suitably odd and droll and entertaining, and so it kept my interest quite well. You will probably enjoy it if you go in looking for adventure and not abstract enlightenment. That's not to say it's mathematically illiterate--lines like "Eight candles form an image of a cube" work quite will.
It does seem to have everything: a world through a mirror, a river of death where you play chess, and a mystery and near-conspiracy theories about the third dimension, which is still a touchy subject. And it has good laughs, too. But for pure-puzzle enthusiasts, you may want to know that a lot revolves around finding the right books to read and then following or interpreting instructions--even for the chess! Mapping is a moderate challenge, though it's fun to see the full world being built and all the odd locations. In one case, there's a MasterMind style puzzle. It's more about the story than anything else. And it has some mathy puns in that will make you groan happily.
So if you don't want to approach the trickiness of, say, deriving the Quadratic Formula, then FL will probably appeal. You start off as an equilateral triangle (classes aren't played up as strongly in FL,) and you visit Mr. Pages, a bookseller who wants a book. Clearly for collection purposes--or is it? You seem to have to visit some pretty odd places, including some through a mirror which provide you transport to a flipside. I'm not clear on precisely how the mirror works, but you can only enter it in some places, and it's a handy device for getting out of areas with no way back. It feels just a little illicit, especially as you help others use it before you finally have cause to, yourself.
Things get more illicit with a summoning ceremony, too. To get there, you'll need to go through a maze and navigate some seedy polygons with various different sides, even bringing two together for a common purpose. Many descriptions are funny. There's a very bad painting that hides something obvious after a puzzle is already completed, and it's a nice touch. The different endings for the different hats (there's more than one per hat) you choose at the beginning make things click, too--each profession has a different reason why understanding the third dimension would be useful. And the ending command, well, I can't spoil it, and even if you guess it, it's fully appropriate.
Perhaps one problem with FL is that you may be overwhelmed by a huge inventory--part of that is ameliorated by how only certain items fit in the trophy case (it'd be nice to have a scoring mechanism, even just "1 of 13," to give you an idea of progress, as well as some foreshadowing by your trophy case that this isn't just a treasure hunt.) And the game tries to destroy certain items that are no longer useful. But inventory munging does add a degree of discomfort to an otherwise entertaining and robustly whimsical affair.
And it is a lovely combination of nonsense and speculation that could've fallen apart quite easily. While I had trouble remembering certain hows and whys on multiple play-throughs, I did play through it more than once. And if it is more Fallen London than Flatland, and I played it more for the second, the fun is very real and a good Fallen London advertisement, even as fan-art, for noninitiates. It's the sort of imagination that makes me feel at home, and it doesn't try too hard to be odd. If you wonder and hope it is for you, it is. I didn't find my enjoyment ruined by having to go to a walkthrough.
I try not to bang on about my own entry in the Comp in these reviews, but for yíall who havenít played it, itís an Ancient Greek mystery-cult initiation as told by P.G. Wodehouse. I share this because Iím excited that Iím not the only one offering a bizarre British-literature mashup, and in sheer creativity, Iím quite sure ďlate-Victorian geometry satire meets steampunk browser gameĒ beats me hands down.
For all the potential outlandishness of the setup, though, Flattened London goes down easy. Iím only dimly familiar with the inspirations (I read Flatland maybe 20 years ago, and have maybe played two or three hours apiece of Fallen London and Sunless Seas before bouncing off them), but the author doesnít assume too much advance knowledge, providing enough context to make the player feel sure-footed, without overloading things with too much lore or too many exposition dumps. There are certainly lots of things that didnít make a lot of sense to me, but I suspect most of those were places where ambiguity and mystery were intentional, and I generally had a solid enough understanding of how things behaved to be able to move forward.
The structure here is interesting. Thereís a clear main plot Ė the player character (a triangle) is tasked by one of the eldritch overlords of the post-lapsarian city with tracking down a forbidden treatise adverting to the existence of a heretical third-dimension, and once obtained, there are a number of different things you can do to dispose of it. But if you just stick to that, youíd maybe see only a third of the game Ė perhaps I just got lucky with where I chose to start exploring the fairly-large game map, but I resolved the plot and got a perfectly satisfying ending in about 45 minutes.
Below (can we say ďbelowĒ?) this more modern, story-driven structure, though, is a Zork-style treasure hunt. You have a 13-slot trophy case in your apartment, you see, and as you explore the world, poke into ancient mysteries, and solve various side-puzzles, you accumulate various valuables that can be deposited back home. Itís hopefully not a spoiler to share that something fun happens if you find all of them, and I found tracking them down sufficiently engaging that I kept playing until Iíd caught them all (in a bit under two hours, for those who might be intimidated by the ďlonger than two hoursĒ estimate on the blurb).
There are two reasons this way of doing things works well for Flattened London, I think. First, exploration is rewarding in its own right Ė there are lots of places to poke into, secret histories alluded to, endless libraries to get lost in, and even a whole (Spoiler - click to show)parallel dimension to discover. The writing here is never as rich and allusive as what Iíve seen in the Failbetter games, sounding a bit more prosaic than the antediluvian ruins and dimension-hopping monsters on offer might seem to merit Ė and Iím not sure it does as much as it could with the Flatland part of the premise Ė but there are definitely moments that are enticingly weird (Iím thinking especially of the (Spoiler - click to show)bit with the pail), and the clean prose keeps the focus on the puzzles, which are the other reason the structure worked for me: there are a lot of them, but I found all the puzzles pretty easy.
Most involve a pretty direct application of a single inventory item, with generous clueing, and even the slightly more involved ones donít give much trouble (there is a maze, but itís pretty easy to map using the old drop-your-inventory-to-mark-where-youíve-been method, and you donít even need to do that since thereís a clue found elsewhere that enables you to run straight through it). Thereís a game of Mastermind, but I think youíve got infinite time to solve it so thatís no big deal. There was one puzzle that Iím still not quite sure how I solved (Spoiler - click to show)(getting the treasure on the shelf in the elevator shaft Ė after I made it through maze, suddenly this was accessible on the way back, but Iím not sure what Iíd done to open that up. I also might have sort of broken it, though, since Iíd realized that while you canít take the object on the shelf as youíre whizzing by, you can take the shelf itself, which Iím pretty sure isnít intended). But overall the game plays as a romp, as you wander around a large map plowing up treasures and secrets practically every five minutes.
Iím not sure how long Flattened London will stick with me Ė thatís the down side (argh, ďdownĒ, I did it again) of being so easygoing Ė but thereís a lot to be said for just rewarding the player! This is probably some of the purest fun Iíve had so far in the Comp.
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