IFComp 2020: The Impossible Bottle

A six-year-old girl helps her father with little chores around the house: cleaning up her toys, setting the table, that sort of thing. A dollhouse in her room bears a suspicious resemblance to the house itself, so you test it and confirm: the dollhouse is the house, or at least four rooms in it, and changing the contents of those rooms affects the house around you.

It’s a clever basis for a whimsical puzzleworld. I was particularly taken by the way that rooms are identified by their contents: any room you put a bed into becomes a bedroom, for example. (If you remove all the identifying furniture from a room, it’s simply named by the color of the walls.) But you get more than just the ability to hot-swap stuff from room to room: it also lets you scale objects up and down by putting them in the dollhouse and then going to the corresponding room, or vice versa. Scaled objects often turn into new types of object — for example, a handkerchief put into the dollhouse becomes a tablecloth in the room outside. Toys turn into real things, or real things into toys, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

And that applies to the members of your family. You can remove the dolls representing your mom and dad from the dollhouse and make the persons vanish from the world, which is a little disquieting — presumably the player character is a doll as well, an idea supported by the fact that she can’t remove her hair ribbon, as if it’s molded into her head, but the room containing the dollhouse isn’t accessible from the dollhouse exterior, so you can’t remove yourself and hold your own doll in your hand while being held in the hand of your giant self. You can, however — and this is a fairly major puzzle spoiler, but it’s one of my favorite moments in the game, so I have to describe it here — escape the house through its “fourth wall”, corresponding to the dollhouse’s open face, and explore the larger version of the house in which your house exists as a dollhouse. This exit isn’t mentioned in the room descriptions. You have to infer that it’s a possibility and try it out.

In fact, trying things out just for the sake of seeing what happens is crucial to the work. My biggest complaint is that this combines badly with another element: the Goals list. It’s way too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the goals, letting them be your driving motivation, looking specifically for ways to overcome the obvious obstacles to those goals and not finding them because they’re locked behind non-goal-oriented exploration and experimentation.

The grownups in the story are remarkably oblivious to the Twilight-Zone-like bizarreness of the situation, straining to perceive everything you do to the house as normal, getting very confused when they can’t. The ending, without saying it outright, ties it all into the state of our lives in under quarantine: a house without an exterior, self-contained and self-containing, with people trying very hard to live normal lives.

The UI is worth noting: the game appears to be written in Inform, but it’s designed to be playable entirely with a mouse by means of hyperlinks that produce command lines. The command prompt always contains objectless actions, like movement and taking inventory, as hyperlinks. Clicking on objects in the output text produces a noun-only action, which defaults to examining the object, and adds to the command prompt some links for appropriate actions on that object. What about actions that take two objects, like “put blanket on bed”? It’s kind of clever: You produce the action “put blanket on”, which provokes a disambiguation prompt; clicking on the bed then produces the noun-only command “bed” like normal, but due to context, it’s interpreted as a completion of the command. Usually in hybrid interfaces of this sort, I find myself using one mode or the other exclusively after a little while, but this time, I switched back and forth quite a bit. Typing into the command line is still more convenient for referencing objects that currently mentioned onscreen, and necessary for trying out actions that aren’t provided as links. I assume such actions are never actually necessary to complete the game, but I don’t really know how you’d get through the fourth wall that way.

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