IFComp 2010: Under, In Erebus

Brian Rapp’s a repeat participant, author of 2007′s Orevore Courier, among other things. I gave that game a middling rating at the time, but it was definitely interesting as an experiment. Let’s see what his new game is like. Spoilers follow the break.

Now, this is just about my favorite sort of game: the sort where you’re in a strange world and have to figure out the rules by which that world operates. People play IF for different reasons, and get different things out of it, but for me, this is the core of the medium’s appeal. Nick Montfort, as I was recently reminded by the announcement of his new book, has written at some length comparing IF to the literary riddle, a form based on the familiar made strange, and the listener’s attempts to penetrate that strangeness by coming to understand its inner logic. Under, In Erebus is very much a riddle-game in that sense, even though it doesn’t have any riddles in it.

It’s also a word game. The central conceit is a device for creating objects by assembling words out of things whose names sound like letters, like bees and ewes and tea. That’s not all there is to the game — there’s a bunch of relatively-ordinary object-manipulation puzzles involving the things you create this way, some of which involve more riddling out of unfamiliar rules. But the word game is the part that everything else is built around. My progress through the game was structured like this: First, I wandered around observing stuff and noticing patterns, but without making any real progress. This phase lasted an embarrassingly long time — there are ample hints about the importance of letters, but the actual actions you have to perform to take advantage of them have to be guessed. Once I had a grasp of that, it settled into mostly a matter of guessing words. Every once in a while, I’d hit on something useful in the world, at best something that expanded the set of words I could create, either by granting me access to new letters, or, in one case, by extending the length of the words I could make, from three letters to six. Then I hit the point where my word-making potential was maxed out and was left trying to guess what words to make.

And that’s where I still am. I haven’t finished the game yet. Even though you have only seven letters of the alphabet at your disposal (and limited numbers of some of them), the number of possible words is large, and there often isn’t much basis for guessing which ones will be useful. I was able to deduce a few — finding a source of tea and no way to carry it leads pretty naturally to spelling “cup”, for example — but even when things are hinted, they’re sometimes only hinted from things you have to guess. The game gives you guidance about your guesses after the fact, though: each creation that’s crucial to solving the game gives you ten points, while less important creations earn half a point. The thoroughness here is impressive. The only word I’ve tried so far that wasn’t recognized at all was “CPU”, which is outside the realm of the Scrabble-legal. And even the unimportant objects fit in the world well, with appropriate attributes and interactions, probably the result of copious tester feedback. Some creations adorn your person: my character now bears the signs of abuses such as a cut, a clip, and a tic, in addition to stings from all those bees. At one point I tried the word “butt”, wondering how the game would handle the creation of such a thing by itself. It produced a butt in the sense of barrel — which, I discovered, I could fill with tea, increasing the amount I could have on hand at once.

I wanted to have lots of tea on hand because I kept running out. And that brings us to the game’s one serious downside: the need to keep re-fetching items. Using an object in a word essentially teleports it back to the room where you found it. Since the bulk of my session was spent trying words at random, I spent a lot of time re-entering the same sequences of commands over and over. Come to think of it, that would be the case even if the letter-items stayed put: you’d still spend your time entering single words through multi-word commands. IF all too frequently devolves into guessing words, but it’s usually nowhere near as cumbersome as it is here. And in this game, it’s the core mechanic, the thing you spend the bulk of your session doing. On the other hand, I suppose it does help to build up a sense of anticipation.

Two more peculiarities I think are worth commenting on before I move on. First, the exits list. Every time you try to go in a direction you can’t, the game lists the viable exits, mentioning with each direction the name of the location that lies in that direction — but only if you’ve visited it. If you haven’t, it describes it as unexplored. This is a really good idea, and pretty simple to implement, but it’s somewhat wasted on this game, which doesn’t have much of a map-exploration element. It’s an idea I’ll gladly steal if I ever write another work of IF, and I hope others do likewise.

Second, the entire game (or most of it, anyway) takes place in the dark. It’s easy to forget this, because most of the room descriptions don’t mention it. I suppose it’s not complete darkness, because you can still get statements like “The waves reaching this shore seem to diminish towards the west” that it would be hard to notice by sense of sound and touch alone. You can examine stuff, but, when I bother to pay attention, it seems like it avoids describing objects by their color or other visual-only attributes. In particular, somewhat ironically given the content, it’s too dark to read, but sometimes the game seems like it’s trying to make you forget even that much, coming up with gimmicks like an engraved plaque that you can read by touch, but which it doesn’t explicitly mention touching when you examine it.

Rating: 7

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