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A constrained burst of playful spontaneity, November 28, 2015
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
Playfulness is one quality of traditional IF that is often difficult to critique or evaluate. Big-headed reviewers often find little use for it, since it is concerned neither with Making a Difference, nor with High Art, nor with abstract Capital Letter Ideals (CLI, because parser). Although many types of digital games create a sense of playfulness, parser IF has probably always had a unique way of providing playful experiences due to its verbal spontaneity combined with unpredictably flexible simulation, mirroring in some ways the structure of spoken riddles.
Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box follows this tradition of playful spontaneity, while deliberately hamstringing some of the parser tropes that are traditionally used to achieve it. This approach could perhaps be interpreted as some kind of wry commentary about IF tropes and tradition, but there is surprisingly little sarcasm in narrative voice. Instead, this subversion of the typical mechanics creates a sense of surprise at the fact that the experience turned out to be approximately what we would have expected. It is a way of cutting back to basics, of getting past players' familiarity in order to show them again what is really fun about parser IF.
Not counting the meta activities of saving, quitting, restoring, and restarting, there are only four commands allowed to interact with the object mentioned in the game's title. (Annoyingly, the meta commands for logging transcripts are also blocked.) Besides the old standby commands for waiting, examining, and looking, players are given only one command that handles any relevant interaction.
Many of the puzzles produced by interacting with various parts of the variety box in this way can generally be solved by mowing through all the possibilities. However, the mechanic of sequential ordering creates real logical challenge in two or three parts of the game, and I had to glance at the walkthrough. However, there is no fear of messing up a vital sequence or otherwise ruining the experience, as the game helpfully explains upfront that the game is "unlosable." This seems like a direct reversal of the traditional perception of puzzle-heavy parser IF games, a perception of being brutally and arbitrarily difficult, especially when possible to put those games into unwinnable situations.
The "unlosable" message encourages players to "try things." The game's achievement is that it provides a large amount of things to try and to discover even with its limited input set. The number of things available to interact with obscures the simplicity of the sequence-based puzzles and also hides them within the framework of discovery. At its strongest points, the game rewards intuitive reasoning when the player correctly chooses the right object to interact with, producing a sense of wonder and achievement. (If the player wants to be a poor sport by rotely going through every possibility, that's the player's business. Trying everything out of curiosity is another matter.)
The game's first explicit joke comes from the fact that this "do everything" command is listed in the help message as "UNDERTAKE TO INTERACT WITH" rather than the obvious choice of a "USE" verb. "USE" is implemented as a synonym as well as "U," but typing out the whole spiel produces a joke that seems to make fun of IF players' demand for extremely brief commands to the point of turning the parser into an obtuse relic of nerdy techno-babble, while simultaneously expecting sweeping intuitive and natural comprehension of their ideas.
It might be legitimate to question whether the parser is the best way to implement the kind of interaction that Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box primarily utilizes, but its aesthetic and appeal are very dependent on its being a parser IF game. The fact that this sense of hidden discovery comes from a stripped down, simplistic parser game renews our appreciation for the basic kind of fun produced by logic puzzles in parser IF.