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A Beauty Cold and Austereby Mike Spivey profile2017 Inform 7

(based on 59 ratings)
10 reviews — 69 members have played this game. It's on 99 wishlists.
That survey course in conceptual mathematics seemed like a good idea at the start of the term  no graded homework, no midterm exams  just an oral final at the end.
But now that final is tomorrow morning. After months of procrastination you've got one night left to learn enough to pass the course.
You might even be desperate enough to try one of your roommate's sketchy memory pills.
Nominee, Best Puzzles  2017 XYZZY Awards
7th Place  23rd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2017)
36th Place  Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time (2019 edition)
 Average Rating: based on 59 ratings Number of Reviews Written by IFDB Members: 10 Write a review 
"A Beauty Cold and Austere" takes its player though a tour of freshmanlevel mathematics, from the basics of combinatorics to touch the beginnings of cardinal numbers. If unfamiliar with the relevant concepts, this game might take a while to complete, but if you know the math then you shouldn't have much difficulty. The puzzles were tasteful and welldesigned, though I had a little difficulty determining which puzzles had already been solved and which had not. I have one complaint about some of the puzzles, such as the Hotel puzzle, which used character knowledge instead of player knowledge. This felt jarring  like I had been robbed of some agency  since I knew the answer but I had to find a way to force the playercharacter to figure out the answer for himself.
As for the main point of this review: I think this game falls short of its eponymous cold beauty. All of the math is at the highschool or freshman level. This isn't the problem  it's a positive, since it makes the game accessible. The issue is that it emphasizes the same ugly parts of math that are taught in these classes: matrix algebra, trigonometry, calculus. At one point the player is even asked something along the lines of "What's the third important topic in calculus after the limit and the integral?" But the limit, integral, and (Spoiler  click to show)derivative are hardly conceptually interesting together. The only relation between them is that a calculus class would allocate each of 3 sections to them.
These aren't the beautiful parts of mathematics. They are the ugly results of condensing math into something useful which can be applied to introductory physics. I felt like I had entered a world not of mathematics but of math class.
I want to qualify these feelings because they're a bit too harsh. I really did like the game despite its shortcomings, and I think it's worth playing and thinking about. This game sets high expectations from the very start, and though I think it fails to reach them, it remains an enjoyable and provoking experience.
This is a traditionalstyle text adventure set in a sort of mathematical wonderland, populated by mathematician NPCs and puzzles based on physical manifestations of mathematical concepts. You can tell it comes from a place of deep love of the subject.
I was a decent math student. I made my way up through calculus, and was able to memorize and apply formulas, but I can't say that I truly understood the concepts underlying all of them. And that was 25 years ago. So this game was not exactly in my wheelhouse. I managed to solve some of the puzzles on my own, but there were more than a couple where I stood no chance without the walkthrough.
That's OK. A Beauty Cold and Austere is wellwritten, polished, and witty, with modern amenities and forgiving gameplay, even if the puzzles can be trying for math mortals. My favorite amenity is the ghost who can tell you if an object you're carrying is still useful. I would pay cash money to port this ghost over to a game like The Mulldoon Legacy.
My main complaints:
1) It takes too long to acquire the carryall. There's no reason to delay that, I don't think.
2) The game is several times the size of a normal comp game. Math majors might be able to finish it in four or five hours, but I doubt anyone could complete it in two. Near the end, it's possible to tap out early with what seems to be a successful ending, but it takes quite a while to get there. I would have liked a structure a bit more like Shuffling Around's, where you can get a successful ending within two hours, and then return after the judging period to explore the rest. Do enough to get a C, in other words, and come back later for extra credit.
ABCaA is an incredibly polished game, with complex mechanics that perfectly work and some good writing. Its major "flaw" is that it requires too much knowledge from outside of the game. The 4 stars are an average between these two contexts: 1) you are not into mathematics and want a game whose puzzles can be solved "from the inside": 3/5 because the game is very, very strong in many aspects but you shall eventually never finish it; 2) you like maths and are good at them: 5/5, because the game is a romp which is frankly perfect.
Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling
A Beauty Cold and Austere is a parserdriven text adventure about the aweinspiring loveliness of mathematics. Its setpiece puzzles range from basics of arithmetic and geometry, through combinatorics and probability, up to linear algebra, calculus, and a wonderful interactive toy that explores the concept of divergent vs convergent series. Along the way, you encounter a number of historical mathematicians, mathrelated poetry excerpts, and mathematicallyrelevant settings (Trinity College Cambridge puts in an appearance, as does the Library of Alexandria). There are also obligatory Zork and Adventure references.
Puzzledriven exploration of a surreal, conceptual space is less common in IF than it was circa twenty years ago, and indeed this game feels like it would have been a smash hit in the IF community of the mid90s. The implementation is meticulous, the puzzles ingenious and pleasingly crafted, the state space free of unwinnable situations, the hints neatly coordinated with your progress, and the sense of humor pretty much exactly on point for the rec.arts.intfiction days. Though there are lots of NPCs, all of them are there for puzzlerelated purposes, and none of them really disrupt the player’s sense of splendid solitude. The author credits Curses! with acquainting him with the genre, and that makes plenty of sense: ABCA has fairer puzzles and less cruelty than Curses!, but it shares in that game’s gleeful juxtaposition of modern, historical, fictional and surreal locations. I liked A Beauty Cold and Austere immensely: I still have a great fondness for that type of game, and this is a superb example. I am glad the IF world still produces this kind of game, and also glad it no longer produces only this type of game.
I don’t want to suggest that ABCA’s appeal is exclusively nostalgic. There are parser puzzle games written these days that exist mostly as a nod to bygone tropes, but A Beauty Cold and Austere has something of its own to say. Compared with the 2017 average, the game may be light on story and characters, but it’s strongly and elegantly themed. This is a game about intellectual awe, about the attraction of abstract and intangible subject matter, about human response to morethanhuman truth. The final imagery is moving, sublime, and all the more meaningful because it feels earned, both by the protagonist and by human intellectual progress overall.
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