ParserComp 2022: The Impossible Stairs

At last, the randomizer pulls up the one that I had been particularly looking forward to. For one thing, it’s by Brian “Mathbrush” Rushton, who’s made quite a name for himself in the community over the last several years, and is responsible for the 2020 train heist game that I liked so much. For another, like that game, this is an authorized sequel, and the game it’s a sequel to is The Impossible Bottle.

I’ll say this right off: It is a lesser work than the one it’s based on. It satisfies, but it does not dazzle the way Bottle did. To a large extent, that’s because Bottle‘s spatial weirdness has been replaced with time travel, and that’s much more familiar ground in adventure games. The cleverest time-travel puzzles in this game are echoes of Timequest and other decades-old works.

Nonetheless, it makes good use of the premise, not for its own sake, but to show a portrait of a family and how it changes over the course of decades. The changes are largely negative ones: people age and die or move away, the house itself becomes damaged, and ultimately the place is entirely abandoned as you approach your own end. Your temporal peculiarities let you fix some things, and see change that would normally require multiple lifetimes, which brings a sense of hope to it all, but there’s still a lot that’s beyond your power to affect. You can always revisit the past, though. Nothing is ever truly lost from your perspective. The feel is comforting, cozy, in contrast to Bottle‘s sometimes disturbing bizarreness. The family here may not comprehend what you’re doing, but at least they’re never dehumanized.

A brief mention of supply chain issues reminds me of how Bottle linked everything thematically to COVID lockdowns, and I can kind of see something similar going on here, comment on how the last couple of years have distorted our perspective of time. It’s a bit of a stretch, though.

It uses the same hybrid interface as Bottle, in which hyperlinks just generate text that gets fed into the parser. The problems with such a system are noticeable in one room: the text contains a link on the word “house”, which produces a disambiguation prompt — “Did you want to examine the house or the smashed treehouse?” — even though the link you clicked on isn’t ambiguous at all.

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