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IFCOMP 2007 - The Chinese Room

Game #23: The Chinese Room
By Joey Jones and Harry Giles
Played On: November 7th, 8th, 9th (7 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     A comic romp through the surreal world of philosophy thought experiments, vanquishing invisible pink unicorns, roistering with great thinkers, and battling the all-powerful Evil Demon. Suitable for beginners and experienced philosophers alike.

     A hollow voice says, "There are no obligatory Adventure references in this game."
     There is a long pause.
     "Oh, bugger."

     The Chinese Room really broke my stride. It required a couple hours a day over the course of three days to complete, and even that was split into multiple sessions. The authors realize it’s too long for the competition, but they submitted it anyway. I wonder at why it wasn’t saved for the Spring Thing or just released independently, but with long games showing up every year anyway (often from authors who may not even be aware that most players can’t finish in time), it’s nice that Jones and Giles were at least upfront about it in the “essentials” section of the game’s info menu.

     It begins (no surprise) in a “Chinese Room” -- a construct of philosophy in which the question is posed “if you could accurately answer any question in Chinese with Chinese -- not with an understanding of meaning, but strictly based on rules and pattern recognition -- would you still know the Chinese language?” The problem for me was that answering this question seemed to be the focus. I spent half an hour (maybe more) trying to make progress in what seemed to be a one-room game, only to realize eventually that I had gained a means of escaping from the room.

     And then, upon escape, it actually begins. The PC, in this world where philosophical “thought experiments” have come to life, makes his (or her -- I’m not sure it’s ever established, although I did get the impression the PC is male) way through a fantasyland of logic and illogic. Without this clear and intentional design inspiration, the game might seem no different than any other wacky mesh of unlikely and unreal scenarios. But with it, The Chinese Room stands out for its really interesting concept.

     The authors have thrown in more than two-dozen of these “thought experiments” (and other elements of or nods to philosophy in general), ranging in design from window dressing to multi-part puzzles. Many of the biggest names in philosophy are also on hand. Often, these scenarios don’t fit together, except for the purpose of solving one to get some specific item that helps solve another. The game’s geography is just right (about 30 rooms, if I’ve counted correctly). This allows the disparate pieces some breathing room.

     It’s never really necessary to solve the experiments -- just the puzzles they represent. This often involves cheating or creatively redefining the premise in a given situation, or focusing on what key flaw other philosophers have identified in a particular hypothetical situation and then exploiting it.

     My fear was that this would prove insurmountably difficult for me, given my non-existent background in philosophy. Three things keep that from being true. One, many of these situations are pretty familiar. Two, the built-in THINK ABOUT command works a little like a footnote system, in that it expands upon and explains certain concepts without being blatant spoilers. Everything the authors have included that might possibly go unrecognized by or be confusing to players is cleverly explained there. Three, the puzzles are solved in ordinary ways: giving things to people, picking the right conversation topics, figuring out what to use how and where. I never felt that the answers eluded me because of a lack of understanding in terms of philosophical knowledge. The authors have succeeded brilliantly in that goal.

     Still, it’s hard, even though clues work well when they’re seen. The authors have done a good job of making sure that the hints to complete any puzzle are there to be found within the game, but sometimes an obvious answer is forgotten when the clue was seen quite a bit earlier (using the book of Plato is an example, at least in my play-through). It also takes a high level of thoroughness, making this a game that’s likely to require long periods of “being stuck” in search of one particular thing completely overlooked earlier. This can happen several times (and in fact did, as I played). It’s not a bad way to challenge a player, but it’s definitely harder to accept in a game being played against a deadline.

     Not every point of difficulty is due to a lack of observation. In addition to some bugs (including at least one major issue that seems to make the game unwinnable), a few things related to the game’s design can be problematic.

     One is the inventory limit. The PC can hold only three items at one time without a sack, but the sack is easy to miss until later in the game (despite being obtainable at a much earlier point). Another is the lack of clear room exits in some locations (such as northeast from the beach). In another area, a particular NPC needs “something” to change his color, yet the game isn’t clear that it will have to be more than one thing. This NPC takes what’s offered, but he doesn’t yield, raising the suspicion that the thing taken is better retrieved with an UNDO -- especially when in at least one case you can’t obtain other similar items which could in theory also prove useful if you don’t bring the thing back to trade. A maze which doesn’t really seem to be a maze has no obvious exit, but it’s simply a cut-scene when carrying the right item. The problem is that a player could get stuck in there (unless I missed a way out -- Ed: Woops. I did. It’s mentioned on the sign before entering), and without a well-planned prior save be forced to start again. A lack of verbs/commands in a few places (no PAINT for instance, and no LIGHT unless you specify the “with what” part -- more examples are easy to come by) make it a little less smooth than it might otherwise have been.

     At two hours, I hadn’t encountered many bugs (maybe a few minor ones, and some errors in the text), or even most of the issues mentioned above. I was more impressed at that point, and voted two points higher than the score I would eventually decide on for the review (and that’s the greatest disparity between my vote score and my review score yet). As I continued, though, a few things -- bugs of various sizes -- did become more evident.

     Scenery is given a particular response to GET, PULL, PUSH, and MOVE (“Philosophers are not yet supermen.”). That makes sense for houses, large objects, and scenery in general. However, this response is out of place when the thing is small and independent (such as a stack of cards). Near the start, reading the poster again (after learning Chinese) puts an object back in its starting state, even if you have taken it already. If you drop a phial of dye in the barbershop, you aren’t allowed to pick it back up in order to exchange it for another. A “Run-time problem P10” happens with most conversation topics when talking to the tree. The game doesn’t seem to recognize “x keys” even though you can interact with the “bunch of keys” in other ways. In some situations, descriptions are painted on (such as when attempting to talk to Mary after she’s already prone). A few other minor bugs are evident in my transcripts as well.

     The biggest problem involved dropping a particular item. I did this due to the inventory limit (later solved when I obtained the sack), and later, when I realized I would need to return this particular item to exchange for another, I couldn’t find it. Fortunately, one other thing that wasn’t listed in the room after being dropped there could be picked up (and luckily I dropped everything in the same location, so I knew it had to be there), but this one thing kept giving me the “not supermen” response, as if it had been added as scenery. I could look at it, even though it wasn’t listed in the room. But I couldn’t pick it up. This meant I had to reload a prior save (a 38-point save, when I had progressed to 71 points). This was one of my biggest disappointments in the game. I almost didn’t reload, though. This was many hours into it already, and it was entertaining and well written enough otherwise to merit another chance.

     The authors have injected the game with detail, but it still falls to a default message a little too often. It’s a funny twist on the “you don’t see that here” message, but it’s less amusing after the fiftieth time:

     “That's either not here, or carelessly undescribed by the fickle creators of this world.”

     Some odd quirks make it into the writing. They’re like typos in the traditional sense. Letters are sometimes simply missing from the front of words -- like “he” when it should be “the” or “ey” when it should be “they” -- almost like a search-and-replace gone horribly wrong.

     Otherwise, the writing flows well. It’s descriptive, funny, and seems to express a silly philosophical wit. In several games this year, I’ve felt the writing was “fine.” That’s not a criticism; I just didn’t have much to say about it. But The Chinese Room is a pleasure to read. Even when some bits are pretty long (especially some THINK ABOUT text), I nearly never felt the urge to skim or lose focus.

     The authors provided a separate walkthrough available at a URL referenced in the HELP menu, and I found this to be essential to completing the game in its present state. Aside for the bug that forced me to replay a section, the game doesn’t seem broken in any big way. It’s pretty well constructed, but the cumulative effect of many smaller issues and the difficulty level of the game in general had me peeking at these hints in several cases. Although they discourage its use, I’m pleased it was available. With some bug fixes and a little more attention to some minor rough spots, and without the pressure of the IFComp voting deadline, I think the game could prove challenging but solvable without the walkthrough.

     I did make several hours of progress before resorting to the walkthrough. Once I did, though, I found that I had overlooked or forgotten just one key element of several puzzles in a row. It was like a chain reaction, where each thing enabled me to complete the next, and so forth. I completed the middle section thinking it wouldn’t have been so stupefying with just a little more polish.

     A built-in hint system is easy to miss, and I only found it late in the game. It would have been available earlier, but like many of the puzzles, it does require thoroughness to discover. I didn’t use this much, since I was far enough along and already committed to using the walkthrough when stuck. I did notice, however, that the action taken to “request” a hint is possible not just in the location where the hints are supposed to be (it requires interacting with a specific piece of scenery), but elsewhere in the game as well (and seemingly by accident).

     In light of the game as a whole, I have scored it a “7+”. It’s an impressive work that should prove challenging to fans of puzzle-heavy games, although it’s made unintentionally difficult by a variety of smaller bugs and at least one bigger game-killing issue. I had enough fun with it to stay interested and entertained for the more than seven hours it required of me.

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