IFComp 2016: Inside the Facility

Spoilers follow the break.

The goal here is pure exploration. The Facility is a fanciful technology research complex housed in a 10×13 maze of rooms, with color-coded security doors and other adventure-gamey obstacles. The premise here is that you’re trying to reach at least half the rooms to win a bet, but I don’t imagine anyone who keeps playing long enough to reach the minimal win condition will be satisfied with less than the full 130 rooms.

With such a large map, minimalism is the order of the day. Most rooms contain nothing more than a sentence or two of wacky description and maybe an NPC cycling through a few wacky actions for color, busily going about some Laputan task. The effect reminds me a little of paleolithic maze-oriented adventure games like Asylum, but with far less of the map devoted to undistinguished hallway. The real minimalism, though, is in the command set. There’s been some talk online lately about the benefits of deliberately constrained command sets, how they can keep the player focused by clearly communicating what the possible range of action is — much like hypertext-based interfaces do. This game takes command-line minimalism to an extreme: the only recognized in-world actions are movement in the four cardinal directions and waiting.

So, the game is something of a study on that constraint. What puzzles can you make out of just movement and waiting? Quite a lot, it turns out. You can use movement through a series of rooms to encode a combination for a lock. You can put in fixed-destination teleporters that take a turn of waiting to charge up, to make it non-obvious what the shortest path between two points is. You can have a character ask the player to find an item, making the player try to either remember where that item was seen before or figure out where the most likely place to find it would be. You can have the player’s movement in an open area affect someone else’s movements and try to manipulate him. The options shouldn’t really be surprising, because other forms of game, such as puzzle-platformers, have been using similarly constrained inputs for years.

Moreover, a constrained command set doesn’t mean that the listed actions are the only ones that the player character can take. Rather, it means that any other actions have to be automatic. Walk into the Granola Bar Dispensary, for example, and you’ll pick up a granola bar without having to spell out that this is what you want to do. And this is reasonable — thanks to the minimalism of the rooms, picking up a granola bar is the only conceivable reason you’d walk into the Granola Bar Dispensary. I did feel like the these automatic actions sometimes reduced the sense of agency, particularly on one occasion where it automatically solved a puzzle that I hadn’t actually figured out yet. But for the most part, it was just doing things that I intended to do anyway, executing my intentions without even having to be told what they were. If anything, that’s a step up from a sense of agency.

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