IFComp 2007: The Chinese Room

Harry Giles and Joey Jones present an adventure game based on philosophical metaphors. Spoilers follow the break.

The title comes from a thought experiment devised by John Searle in 1980 as an argument against the claims of artificial intelligence researchers. Although the game starts with the player trapped in Searle’s room, it branches out widely as soon as you escape, covering parables from Zeno’s paradoxes to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Some scenes were familiar to me, others were not. For the parts that were not, the “think” command provided background, explaining the origin and significance of each absurdity. You might think this would spoil the jokes, but in fact the punch line is usually the solution, not the premise.

I only completed a fraction of the game during my judging period, but for once, this wasn’t because I got stuck, but because the game provides so much to do. The theme provides a basis for a great variety of scenarios, from logic puzzles to deciding who to rescue from a burning building to facing down an invisible pink unicorn. It’s all a big playground, and I’m enjoying it tremendously. It strikes me that this gleefully eclectic style was part of the appeal of the earliest adventure games, and it’s something that’s largely been lost as the medium has turned towards more serious story-based material.

If there’s one thing wrong with this game, it’s that the simulation isn’t terribly deep. Scenery objects aren’t handled well (there are chairs that we’re told aren’t the sort of thing you can sit on), and the whole thing designed in old-school terms, with exactly one use for each item, even when they seem like they’d have more general applications. At one point I found myself carrying a burden of proof, which I unsuccessfully tried to foist on everyone who seemed to deserve it, which is to say, half the characters in the game. Then there’s the qualiascope — an item that gives you access to other people’s inner sensations. I though for sure that it would at least be of interest to Thomas Nagel, who’s off in a “Chiropteran Psychology Laboratory” trying to figure out what it’s like to be a bat, but no.

There was one bit that, it strikes me, may not have come off as the author intended: the madman from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Talk to him and he goes into his “God is dead” spiel. You’re given multiple opportunities to interrupt with snarky comments (using the game’s menu-based conversation system), any of which immediately ends the encounter. Ultimately, you need to just sit there and listen until he’s done ranting. Now, if you use the command “think about nietzche”, the authors urge you to “go and read some more of this most brilliant of philosophical prose-stylists as soon as possible.” But this encounter seems to portray him as unable to respond to criticism, in contrast to all the other characters, who always reply to your objections with some pat answer (even if it’s an obviously specious one). But then, I suppose “brilliant prose stylist” and “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny” aren’t necessarily contradictory.

I should mention the gender stuff, because it seems like this is one of the few points where the authors might be trying to make a point rather than a joke. The player character’s gender is unspecified (as far as I could tell), but instead of making you sexless, as is customary, the authors make you bisexual. The thing is, they don’t spell it out explicitly; they just make the PC plainly attracted to both a waitress in a cafe and swift Achilles. So there’s some sexual disorientation there, but it’s not a big part of the game, unless there’s a scene I haven’t gotten to yet involving Simone de Beauvoir or something. There is also one bit, and only one as far as I saw, that uses the gender-neutral pronoun “ey”. I’d have been happier with singular “they” — it’s a more established usage, it has the authority of Shakespeare behind it, and only pedants find it objectionable.

But those are quibbles. The Chinese Room is fresh and imaginative, and even educational. As the game says whenever you check your score: Jolly well done.

Rating: 9

I’ve continued to play the game after submitting my rating, and found a couple of serious bugs that would have knocked my score down a notch if I had noticed them sooner. Most notably, there are certain items that are handed to you but which aren’t flagged as portable. This doesn’t prevent you from carrying an item around, but it does prevent you from picking it up. So if you drop it, or automatically stash it in a sack as a result of picking up another item, you’re stuck.

5 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 27 Oct 2007

    It’s certainly the highlight of the comp so far for me. Nonetheless I’m still kinda hoping there’s going to be something as astonishing and unusual as, say, Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Primrose Path on the horizon. The Chinese Room is solid, well-written stuff, but it’s definitely distinctly old-school.

  2. Merk on 11 Nov 2007

    Malkav11, is “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” a real game? Or do you mean “Slouching Towards Bedlam?”

    I also voted this game highly. But, since my review score can be “unofficial” I knocked a couple points off for the later frustrations. I really did like the game, but it has quite a few little (and a couple big) problems.

    Baf, are you sure the “ey” part was intentional? If it is, then I made the wrong assumption. There were several places where the “t” seemed to be missing on “the” and it appeared to me that “th” was missing on “they” by accident — like a bad search-and-replace. If you’re right, then I should probably follow up a comment in my review with edit that it may have been intentional.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 11 Nov 2007

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spivak_pronoun. No, I can’t be sure it isn’t just a typo here, but it’s something I’ve seen before, and seems like the kind of thing that someone who writes a game like this would use.

  4. malkav11 on 13 Nov 2007

    I did mean Slouching Towards Bedlam. I even looked it up to make sure I hadn’t gotten confused in precisely the same way I wound up getting confused when I typed that. Bah.

  5. Joey on 21 Nov 2007

    Harry uses the Spivak pronoun, which may well have slipped in the informative essays which he wrote, though I don’t believe we were deliberately employing it throughout. In the post-comp revision of the game we’ll smooth out and make consistent that sort of thing.

    I was a little sad to see there were so many bugs that didn’t come out in testing, but compared to the amount of bugs that didn’t get in…

Leave a reply