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IFCOMP 2006 - Labyrinth

Game #6: Labyrinth (by Sami Preuninger)
Played: October 12th-13th (3 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     Puzzle-heavy game set in an Escherian environment. The zip file contains a hints file in addition to the z8 file and the walkthrough. The hints file provides gentle nudges only, without explicit instructions.

     XYZZY Response:
     Sorry, but that isn't one of the magic words.

     If ever a work of IF needed graphics, this is it.

     They wouldn’t even need to be fancy. Each room in Labyrinth is an unfurnished 30x30-foot cube, with each wall a different color. Archways lead between rooms, but they are sometimes on the floor or ceiling, upside down on the walls, or in other awkward orientations that don’t make sense until the entire room is turned. Perhaps proving that I have poor spatial imagination, I found it difficult to “see” each room. It did get easier later (probably due to familiarity), but it requires re-reading the same room description with subtle differences over and over.

     My first thought was of the movie Cube. The lead-in seemed to suggest it. A stranger in the next room seemed to confirm it. Cube-shaped rooms, colored walls, openings into identical rooms... it all added up. This had me expecting deadly traps and surprises that just never happened. It’s as though the similarities were completely accidental. Was this inspired by Cube at all? By the end, it seems unlikely.

     I have taken a three-day break between playing Labyrinth and writing this review. This is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do (where possible) in my Introduction. I have also tried to reconcile the frustration I felt in playing Labyrinth with my claim that I’m a less harsh reviewer who focuses on what’s good in a game. If anything, I feel as if I’m being too nit-picky, looking for bugs and problems in every entry instead of playing with the wide-eyed (if naïve) excitement of prior years.

     So, before I launch into a lengthy section on bugs and other problems in the game itself, I want to discuss for a moment what’s good in Sami’s entry. First, the maze isn’t as large as I expected. As far as I can tell, there are eight rooms arranged in a 2x2x2 cube. The one recurring puzzle that brings it all together is that you can only exit through archways that are properly positioned on a north, south, east, or west wall. This requires learning magic words that rotate the entire maze, so that what was formerly straight up and out of reach (for instance) is now west and accessible. Even though I struggled to visualize the layout of each room, this alone is a pretty interesting puzzle. Associating a scent with each room – (do the scents have any meaning or symbolism to the PC, or are they arbitrary?) – was better than the alternatives (leaving items behind as markers, or perhaps designations like “room #1” and “room #2”).

     This, however, is where I would have changed things. Instead of eight boring, empty, identical rooms, how about eight frozen scenes from the PC’s life instead? Perhaps an upside-down wedding day, and a childhood memory turned on its side? Not only would it have elevated Labyrinth from being a puzzle game for the puzzles’ sake, but it would have been more interesting to read than the same six-colored empty room over and over. The archways could connect related scenes, so that it becomes a trip through the PC’s more influential memories. A clichéd premise? Maybe. I’d still prefer it. This might have been more difficult to render successfully in text, but I think it’s possible.

     Aside from the straightforward trappings of IF (directional movement, combining two items to make something new, finding a key that unlocks a door), most of the puzzles in Labyrinth are stupefying. They are math and logic brain-teasers, really. If you like logic problems, you may like that Labyrinth is essentially a container for three or four of them. I’m sure I’ve seen “nim” somewhere before, yet I tried for forty-five minutes to solve it on my own. Once I read the answer in the walkthrough, it clicked. I spent that long (or more) on the ten-statement logic puzzle before looking in the walkthrough. I didn’t even try breaking the cipher (coded message), although there was a time when I used to really enjoy them.

     Maybe my frustration comes from learning that I lack the deductive skills and reasoning power to solve those puzzles on my own. I won’t be sad to never see another traditional logic puzzle in a work of IF again, although this could be the perfect warm-up game for those of you with Mensa-quality brains.

     Even admitting to my deductive failings, I find that Labyrinth has a shocking number of implementation problems for what’s essentially a very small game. I would have liked to see single-letter abbreviations for the magic words, since they are used so frequently. The six walls of different colors seem important, yet they are inconsistently implemented. Usually, you “can’t see any such thing” when examining them. One of the walls is important, but the game had conditioned me to believe the walls couldn’t be referenced in any situation. In one specific instance, for one specific verb, it works. Making the amulet could have gone a little smoother (“attach” and “link” from one object to the other might have worked). The old man tells you to ask for a rematch if you want, but “ask man for rematch” assumes that “rematch” is an object that doesn’t exist. I found the interface for the “nim” game a little clunky (why couldn’t “get” have worked, or better yet, just a single number representing how many counters?) and talking to the old man could have been smoother (I wanted to say “yes” or “no” but you have to direct this to the old man). How did I know north from south inside the cube? Why didn’t Melanie have more of a reaction to the strange surroundings? If you try to “get counters” in the second room, you are notified fifty-one times that they seem to belong to the old man.

     Labyrinth fits my definition of a “poor” game (a “4” on my scale), even though I think that’s an unfair label in this case. I found it frustrating, but others may find the puzzles challenging and the room connections easy to visualize.

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