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IFCOMP 2008 - Berrost's Challenge

Game #24: Berrost’s Challenge
Author: Mark Hatfield
Played On: November 5th, 6th and 7th (6 hours)
Platform: TADS 2

F:1 + T:1 + P:2 + S:1 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Just an old-school text adventure with a tip of the cap to Infocom's Enchanter series.

     That spell hasn't been invented yet.

     Berrost’s Challenge is part of a dying breed. There was a time when a game with hunger and sleep daemons, instant death, limited UNDO ability, inventory weight limits, irreversible no-win paths, and tough puzzles would have been the safe choice. Nowadays, though, even the puzzle-fests steer clear of fantasy settings and magic systems. If today’s IF shows a trend, it’s toward storytelling. This tends to sacrifice what were once the traditional aspects of “text adventures” -- namely, everything that makes the game difficult for a player to complete.

     This makes Berrost’s Challenge a shock to the system. This kind of game isn’t dead, but in the context of the annual competition, it seems to be more and more unusual. That’s not to say the IFComp is devoid of puzzle-fests, but much of the time those puzzles aren’t interesting, or they’re completely unsolvable, or the game is so seriously broken that the puzzles simply don’t work. Berrost’s Challenge has problems, yes -- including problems with the very concept of some of its puzzles -- but it comes really close to working just as the author hoped.

     What holds the game back from greatness (as a text adventure, I mean -- its story is just a contrivance for its myriad puzzles) is a lack of polish. The puzzles themselves stay just on the near side of solvable. The game features some of the best clueing I’ve seen. It’s often subtle, sometimes not, but usually just the thing to spin a player’s mind-gears in the direction it takes to think of a likely solution. The game manages to hint at when it’s necessary to look under something, search something, even listen to something -- all non-obvious things to try otherwise -- without clubbing the player with a “do this, you dummy” message. I haven’t felt such satisfaction in solving puzzles since... since I don’t remember. With most games, this requires mind-reading at one extreme, and simply doing what’s fairly obvious at the other.

     It’s that lack of polish, though, that comes close to ruining things. Guess-the-verb is a way of life for the nameless acolyte in Berrost’s Challenge. This held me back more than the puzzles themselves, which had me alternating my mood between “that was really awesome!” and “oh, you jerk, I tried that already!” Could it not be implied that >PUT X IN Y is the player’s attempt to DIP X IN Y? Could “getting” berries not imply that I intend to “pick” them?

     This is a more specific example:

     >enter well
     I don't know how to enter the old well.

     >climb into well
     I don't recognize that sentence.

     If you want to jump in the well just say so.

     >jump in well
     You climb onto the stone wall and jump into the well. I hope you know what you're doing.

     And this:

     >stand on barrel
     I don't know how to stand on the barrel.

     >climb barrel
     I don't know how to climb the barrel.

     >enter barrel
     I don't know how to enter the barrel.

     >get on barrel
     You hastily place your belongings in a pile on the ground then, sloshing water all over the floor, you hoist yourself up and into the barrel.

     And this, which I feel comfortable spoiling since it’s not exactly the solution to any puzzle:

     >put thumb in grease
     You can't dip your thumb into the tin of axle grease.

     >put grease on thumb
     You smear some of the grease on your thumb.

     Most times, these problems weren’t enough to hold me back from success. I see two reasons for that. One, in recognizing the author’s tendency to only implement a limited number of phrasings for an action, I was more likely to keep trying variations to an action that seemed to be obvious or clued, until I had exhausted every realistic phrasing I could think of. Two, there are five different “sets” of puzzles to work on from the start, so being stuck on one means I could go work on another; and in the process of doing that, I often hit on something I hadn’t previously tried for one of the others. Amazingly, this meant I was rarely stuck for long.

     As each scroll is found and its spell learned, this pool of puzzles shrinks. At the same time, though, this provides a potential “cheat” for one of the other puzzles. For instance, if a player beats Silas in thumbwrestling but can’t best him in a real wrestling match (which is required, in order to get the key to a locked chest), then the Scroll of Knock will do the trick (assuming the player already has it). Other scrolls empower the player in other ways. An incentive not to cheat comes in the form of a loss in “wit” (score) points. Using magic -- even once -- means it’s impossible to complete the game with a full 100 points.

     This aspect of the game will probably get mixed results. On the one hand, it’s nice to be given a way to bypass certain problematic puzzles. But on the other, the game’s biggest draw is the puzzles, and the urge to complete them all with full points. It’s easier to cheat by merely looking at the included hints. It’s also a shame that a game about learning and using magic actually precludes the use of it, in the effort to achieve full points. Although I digress, it would have been interesting to see what kinds of puzzles the author might have designed if aiming for the player to actually solve them in strictly magical ways.

     Even though I was rarely stuck for long, I finally reached an end to the good luck in the game’s final puzzle. I say “final,” but all the pieces were in place for me to have solved it much earlier, only I hadn’t figured it out. This one involved the previously mentioned thumbwrestling match. Everything before this, I solved without hints and without magic. This one stuck me partly due to guess-the-verb, and partly due to accidental red herrings. I had convinced myself that I needed to change the tint of something brown so that it was more flesh-colored. To that end, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out a way to grind light-colored things with the golem’s grindstone -- a piece of paper, a clam shell – but to no avail. Only then did I finally check the hints. I felt defeated enough (while kicking myself for misinterpreting the clue) to check the hints one more time on the next part of the puzzle. And then I wanted to kick the author, because I had tried that very thing -- but I had tried to “put” something on the NPC, rather than “throw” it at him.

     If Guess-the-Verb has a partner in crime, its name is Red Herring. Sometimes, the game purposely doesn’t allow an action that is just as reasonable as some other action. The solution to the thumbwrestling match is a great example of this, since it requires extra steps that wouldn’t reasonably be necessary if attempting to do the same thing in the real world. The grindstone poses another problem. It screams “use me to grind something up!” yet as far as I found, such actions are impossible. In fact, most of the game’s puzzles are open enough, and among such a large set of scenery and props, that the author has had to intentionally disallow certain solutions just to keep a high challenge level. Yet he failed to recognize (or had no time to implement) some obvious ways in which these objects might be made to work together.

     And I’d like to think that if I really wanted to kill a bird (sorry, PETA) I could do so with any of the blunt objects lying around (a rock, a board, a scrap of metal -- especially when it flies to a spot where it’s all but trapped already) without having to jump through the unusual hoops required by this particular puzzle.

     The game’s sleep and hunger puzzles are an oddity. A command is provided to turn them off, but I didn’t, since I wanted to experience the game exactly as the author intended. However, they prove pointless. As puzzles, they’re a nightmare until you figure out what to do, and then an annoyance when you have to keep doing them. It amounts to finding a “flooglemid” (which can be found over and over), and then using it at the only place where food and rest costs a single coin. That’s it. I never let things go far enough to find out what happens if you don’t replenish your concentration (which in itself seemed useless, as I wasn’t casting magic). It just seemed unnecessary.

     The inventory limit is less problematic. I found the village square to be an ideal dumping ground for everything, and it wasn’t too big an inconvenience to swap things out as needed. Still, I’m not sure this was really necessary aside from added realism, and it too can be increased by use of the game’s irreversible >curmudgeon command. It appears that a “clamshell” (is this not actually the shell of a small clam?) can hold various things to maybe help a player work around the inventory limit, but this item is hidden (some players won’t even find it), and I never tested out the theory beyond just noticing that large items would fit inside it.

     I pity the player who doesn’t keep multiple, frequent save files in Berrost’s Challenge. It’s possible to put the game into an unwinnable state in a variety of ways, and often so far back that even frequent abuse of the Flashback spell (the game’s score-subtracting >UNDO alternative) is a longshot. For instance, the spice-grinding golem will give up his broom for a few turns. The exact mechanics of this aren’t clear at first, so it’s possible to swipe the broom and head back to town. The moment you return, however, you’re golem-fodder. If there is a way to get back into the spice mill after more than a few turns have passed, I never found it. In theory, a player could spend hundreds of turns outside doing other stuff everywhere else. However, the broom is required (spoiler here) for a puzzle in the mill’s loft, so you’re effectively prevented from completing the game.

     Aside from puzzle-related problems, the game has a few other bugs. When the captain is asleep on his cot, he’s still described as doing stuff as though he’s at the top of the guardtower. This is just one of several actions that are “painted on,” by which I mean the same thing always happens in response to an action, without regard to the current state of the game. The response to “paint me” is the same as the response for any NPC (the same, too, if the NPC is sleeping). Anything put on the ledge assumes the berries. Anything put on your thumb assumes the grease. You can lose your thumb (implemented as a hidden object, apparently) when the game auto-drops all your stuff upon entering (excuse me – “getting into”) the barrel, and you can’t get it back. You can get out of the mine cart while it’s still moving, yet you don’t actually get out. The author misuses “its” and “it’s” in places.

     Why, then, with so many problems, did I enjoy this game so much? It definitely harkens back to the olden days (the 1980’s), where this was the kind of IF I played. Despite the likelihood of many alternate “real life” solutions, the in-game ones are interesting as adventure game puzzles. The thing with the bird (which I mentioned earlier) was actually one of my favorites.

     I expect reactions to be mixed, but generally negative (although I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong). The game is too long for the IFComp, but at least it’s not lacking in ambition (a complaint I’ve had of several prior entries). The puzzles are challenging enough to prove impossible for less experienced players (and, given guess-the-verb issues, even some experienced ones). The story exists just to justify the puzzles. Various other annoyances ensure that many players will lose patience before ever getting into the puzzle-solving flow. I have scored all categories a “1,” except puzzles, which get a “2” (top points). I’ve given the bonus, because it stands out as more fun than some other games that attempt to do the same thing, for a composite score of “7.”

     It needs some polish. If the author invested some time in expanding the command grammar especially, it would be highly recommendable to puzzle game enthusiasts. It’s moderately recommendable now, for players who are willing to suffer through a few implementation problems for the sake of some cleverly conceived text adventuring.

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