Cold Iron: my (very short) IF entry in the Comp

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Comments: 1   (latest 9 hours later)

Tagged: metapuzzle, zarf, ifcomp, cold iron, interactive fiction, if

IFComp is over, and it turns out I entered this year! Cold Iron placed fifteenth of 38 entries. It's a tiny little game -- so if you're hungry for Zarf IF, you can either be disappointed that it's so small or happy that it only took a few days of my time to write. But I think it's pretty good, and reviewers seem happy with the quality of work (if not the quantity).

But there's more to the story than that. I collaborated with three other Boston IF authors to create a secret, cross-game bonus puzzle.

The idea was originally suggested by Kevin Jackson-Mead at a PR-IF meetup. He thought it would be cool if several of us entered IFComp with games that shared a metapuzzle. We talked over ideas, and then I wrote a small puzzle structure and passed it around. I set it up to fit into four games. Doug Orleans and Mike Hilborn volunteered to handle the other two parts, and we charged off on our quest.

The plan -- I'm not going to give away specifics here -- was for each game to stand on its own, in its own style. But certain elements would be repeated throughout the four games. By applying ideas from one game into another, you could uncover secret extra information, and that would eventually lead to a hidden ending. We would all enter using pseudonyms (so that nobody would be surprised by four PR-IF entries); the only initial clue into the metapuzzle would be the common elements.

As it turns out, several players noticed the common elements between some of the games. (A few even caught the entire list.) However, nobody took the extra step to say "Hey, these games must actually be related, and there must be some way for me to apply that fact."

We waited until the Comp was over, hoping that somebody had figured it out and was hoarding the secret until the end of judging! Sadly, no. On the night of the 18th, Doug posted a message indicating that there was a connection between the games, and more to be solved. That was all it took; a group on IFMud (notably Carl Muckenhoupt and Michael Martin) worked out the rest within hours.

Could we have tuned the clues better, so that players caught on without a nudge? No doubt. It's very hard to judge this stuff in advance. In retrospect, we made the same mistake as the infamous PAX USB puzzler. We puzzle-people like to think we are hyper-observant machines, attuned to every scrap of a clue in our environments... but in fact we're slaves to expectation just like everybody else. Nobody sees what they're not looking for.

It didn't help that this year's Comp was full of coincidental game similarities. At least two games were notably similar to one of our four games, in one way or another. So many of the people who might have cottoned on were looking at the wrong set of games. (When we finally posted the nudge, we were careful to make clear exactly which pseudonyms were involved -- and how many.)

If you want to try to solve the metapuzzle -- and incidentally play my new IF game, as well as three other worthy entries -- look at:

If you want to read the online discussion in which the metapuzzle was attacked and solved, I've posted a transcript of that.

Looking at these four games, I am struck by how different our approaches were. I was trying to write the smallest Zarf-style game I possibly could -- this was, after all, coming together right as I was finishing up Secret Hideout and Meanwhile. Doug wanted a project to learn Inform 7 with. Kevin wanted to wrap a story around some formal puzzles (rather like his Comp entry of 2009). And Mike, well, Mike blasted out of the gate with a full-size story idea. (I assumed, at first, that he had been planning Doctor M for months. No, he started at the same time as the rest of us. He just wrote a heck of a lot more game in that time.)

I'm not sure what else to say about the project, except that I'm pretty happy with the way it came out. I don't know if anybody will try an IF metapuzzle again; if nothing else, we've alerted everybody to the possibility.

Oh, yes: "Lyman Clive Charles" is a portmanteau of L. (Lyman) Frank Baum, C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, and Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson).

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