IFComp 2012: Shuffling Around

Our next game is by one Ned Yompus, but I strongly suspect that this is a pseudonym, for reasons that will shortly become clear. Spoilers follow the break.

This is the second wordplay-based game I’ve played this Comp, but it’s more focused this time: it’s all about anagrams. You have the strange ability to turn objects into their anagrams just by typing their new names — for example, turning an odor into a door, or some smilies into a missile, or words into a sword (which seems like a metaphor for the whole game). Sometimes there’s additional puzzlery in applying the objects thus transformed, but every single puzzle in the game has an anagram factor. So this is a game that just runs with a single idea, but it runs pretty far with it — it’s one of the longest games in the Comp.

Whether or not people like the basic idea here course up to them, but I don’t think there will be much disagreement that the idea is implemented really well, with a host of features and design decisions that support it. There’s a whole intro/tutorial section that guides you towards discovering your powers without explicit instruction. After that, there are three self-contained environments joined by a hub, but you’re only required to finish two of them. Of course, completists like myself will want to to finish all three, but there’s a special feature just for us: the scoring system, which reports the number of transformations you’ve triggered out of the maximum available, on a per-subsection basis, like “You have scored 4 out of 5 points total for the Intro region. You have scored 16 out of 16 points total for the Forest region.” Very nice.

The anagrams are usually pretty well clued within the environment. For example, a statue of a spearman that you find in a kitchen is described as “cheesy”, and examining it yields the claim that “it is not a REAL cheese. Yet.” — all to help you realize that “spearman” is an anagram of “parmesan”. Other times, the main clue is reasoning from necessity: if you find yourself in need of a weapon, you might take a second look at those noughts you’ve been carrying around and finally realize that you can turn them into a shotgun. But even with all this cluing, there were things I couldn’t figure out without additional help. You could take it to the Rearrangement Servant, I suppose, but that would be cheating, and the game provides alternatives, in the form of gadgetry. In the intro area, there’s a choice of two devices that you can scan objects with to see if they’re anagrammable. Both provide readouts of colored lights, one per letter of the source word; one indicates the first and last letters of the target, the other tells you which letters are already in their destination places, as in Mastermind. You can only take one of these with you out of the intro area, but while you’re there, you can switch between them at will. Now, the one that tells you the first and last letters supposedly provides more information, or at least more useful information. And I can believe this: popular wisdom suggests that the first and last letters of a word are the most important ones for comprehension. But I went with the Mastermind option anyway, not because I wanted the game to be harder, but because I found its output easier to comprehend. And I used it quite a lot, even when I didn’t really need to. To me, it didn’t feel like cheating at all. I mean, even with the extra info, I still had to figure out the word myself.

Graham Nelson famously described IF as “a narrative at war with a crossword puzzle”, but there’s something even more crossword-feeling than usual about the way this game makes the player concentrate intensely on figuring out words on the basis of their letters.

The prose is a tour de force of incedental anagrams, even when they’re not puzzle-related. Sentences will use offhand anagram pairs: “This is a saner snare than the centrifuge, but it doesn’t look like you’ll drug a guard or reveal a lever to escape.” Some room names consist of anagram pairs. Your starting inventory consists of a “magenta name tag” and a “dope tan notepad” — anagrams that I didn’t notice on first view, although they should probably be counted as among the early hints to the game’s central mechanic.

I did manage to trigger some serious bugs. One of the subsections has a certain amount of branching, with obstacles that can be overcome more than one way, but it doesn’t adequately prevent you from combining actions from the branches in ways that are blatantly broken, even blocking further progress. Keeping a save at the hub seems like a good idea.

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