The Fool and His Money -- talking about the game now

Monday, October 29, 2012

Comments: 20   (latest December 9)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, the fool and his money, cliff johnson, word puzzles, metapuzzles

Okay, I did my moral homily, now I'll talk about the game. It occurs to me that some of my readership may not have played The Fool's Errand.

Well... probably most of my readership here has, because my friends include a lot of Mystery Hunt types. Plus people who (like me) were already gamers when TFE came out in (oy) 1987. Plus people who played System's Twilight, my TFE homage from (gah) 1994.

So, for the rest of you! The Fool and his Money is a puzzle collection wrapped in a narrative, with more puzzles hidden in the gooey center.

It's not an adventure game. The early example of TFE played hell with my notion of what an adventure game was, because it had puzzles and text and a story just like Zork, but it... was... something else. Years of research and meditation (--playing more games) clarified the distinction: The Fool games do not present you with an explorable game world. You don't find a puzzle by looking under a rug; you find a puzzle on your screen. This is not a flaw, this is a different outlook.

(Potential sidetrack for student discussion: the narrative in TFE and TFahM is third-person, rather than the traditional second-person text of IF. Does this make a difference to the genre? Why? Contrariwise, they have an explorable interface, within their simple mouse-and-click bounds. Is that like the interface conventions of text or graphical IF?)

The Fool games do have a clear genre analogue -- though I wasn't familiar with it when I played TFE back in college. They're puzzle extravaganzas, like the Mystery Hunt I mentioned earlier. So:
  • a collection of puzzles, presented en masse or in groups;
  • with few or no instructions, so that the solving process involves experimentation;
  • of varying types, often variations on familiar themes but usually with creative twists which must be figured out;
  • in two or more layers, where the puzzle solutions become clues for further "metapuzzles", so that the final challenge can only be attacked when all (or most) of the earlier puzzles are complete.

All clear? So much for the generalizations. What's TFahM like?

The Fool is returning from his earlier Errand, with the fourteen Treasures in his bindlestiff, when wham! Pirates. They even steal his pointy hat. Beyond that, there's something terribly wrong with the kingdom... And then the puzzles begin.

The puzzles include word/letter puzzles and general symbolic/pattern puzzles. (A couple so far with light arithmetic, but no math puzzles per se.) Rather heavier on the word puzzles. These are very broad categories I'm using, of course. On the one hand you wind up putting letters in grid, pulling letters out of grids, anagramming, assembling word fragments into sentences, dividing words into groups... and on the other hand there are jigsaw puzzles, arranging symbols to line up without duplicates, tracing geometric paths, and so on.

These puzzles mostly abjure dexterity and mouse-clicking skill. The very first (jigsaw) puzzle throws in a click-things-fast twist, which really isn't typical of the game as a whole. (I'm not sure why the author thought it was a good idea.) Don't be disheartened; it is possible to avoid that part of the puzzle if you plan carefully. A later puzzle requires some careful clicking with a time constraint, but it's not too bad (though perhaps worse if you're using a trackpad rather than a mouse). I'm halfway through the game so there are probably more like that I haven't seen. It's not a huge thing; just be aware that it's not a pure-brainpower game.

I'd say that the Johnson has greatly improved the way he sequences his puzzles. TFE was a wild grab-bag of puzzle forms. This game still has a variety, but they're more harmonious. Rather than totally off-the-wall gags (everyone remember the Three Ships?), we get variations on the puzzle forms, which increase smoothly in complexity as you progress through the game.

Are these familiar types? That depends on your context. Some of the puzzle forms are imported directly from the original TFE. Others start that way but then, as I said, get changed up and altered. Yet other types are (as far as I can recall) entirely new to Johnson's work.

If you're not familiar with his earlier games, you're going to be in new territory. These are not Zork-style puzzles, nor Myst-style puzzles, nor the types rehashed endlessly in the modern hidden-object genre.

You start with about a dozen puzzles unlocked. Each time you solve one, another one opens up, so you always have a range of stuff to work on. Of course, as you play, the list of open puzzles will accumulate more and more of the ones you're stuck on... that's life, I'm afraid. You're going to have to finish everything eventually, so don't totally neglect the evil ones. Come back to them occasionally and see if you can't make a little bit of progress.

And then you reach the meta stages. I haven't, yet, mostly. I've found a couple of puzzles which are unlocked by earlier puzzles, and one set of challenges hidden in a way which one must experiment to discover.

The primary metapuzzle mechanism is the Moon's Map, which starts out blank, and accumulates pieces as you solve puzzles. Once it's complete -- well, if it works like the Sun's Map in the original TFE, you'll have to unscramble it like a jigsaw, and then solve a new set of revealed puzzles.

The clues will come from everything you've solved thus far. Puzzle answers, letters and symbols that appear on completed puzzle screens, and -- I don't know what else! There are definitely some suspicious phrases in the story text, though. As with any good puzzle extravaganza, the story gives thematic cues and allusive comments that support the developing meta.

A few strategic tips for the newcomer to this field. Not hints -- rather, expectations. I don't want anybody to try this game on a whim and be thrown into a shark pit.
  • This is not a casual puzzle game. This is a brain-burner. I am blasting through it pretty fast, but I have, you know, a flexible schedule. "Halfway through" represents a bunch of my gaming hours since Thursday.
  • Don't be shy about pressing the "Help" button. It doesn't give spoilers or hints. It only tells you the general shape of the puzzle. Yes, it's fun to try to work that out yourself, and you should certainly experiment too. But as soon as you stop making progress, go ahead and read the help text. Probably that's where the solving will start. (It often gives some handy shortcut keystrokes, too.)
  • Expect frustration. I meant it about "not casual"! Even with the puzzle variations, you will come to dread Yet Another Round of those damn whatever-it-is-you-dread.
  • And yet, you will solve them.
  • The twelve tarot cards on the title screen are your save slots. You would have known that if you'd pressed the "Help" button.
  • You will need scrap paper. Or a text file to take notes in. But eventually, probably scrap paper to draw on, too.
  • For hacker-type people: writing a program to solve a puzzle is solving the puzzle. It's totally not cheating at all. I have a directory called "fooltricks" where I am accumulating Python scripts which have helped me solve various puzzles. (I still have the C program I wrote in 1989 to solve the 3x3 letter grids in TFE! I've been saving it in this directory for years.)
  • Using an anagram tool or searchable word list is maybe cheating a little bit. But I do it. It makes many of the puzzles easier, but it doesn't make most of them easy; you still have to think and experiment. (I like the Internet Anagram Servant. If you're on a Mac or Linux, you've got a word list in /usr/share/dict/words.)
  • If you're not an experienced puzzle person, work with someone. (This is a valid tip for all kinds of puzzle and adventure games.)
  • Don't get the idea that every puzzle in TFahM is insanely difficult. Some of them are quite easy! It's just that, you know, you wind up spending all your time on the hard ones.
  • Losing sleep on this game is a very real hazard.
  • I am throwing progress tweets on #foolandhismoney.

I have come to the end of this review, and I realize I have not been jumping up and down yelling "Play this game!" Please understand, I am jumping. You should play this game -- if you like puzzles, if you like challenges, if you like working all-out on crazy-hard puzzles where they barely even tell you the rules. The Fool's Errand was a great game; The Fool and His Money is a better game. So far. I am going to finish it (forwarrrrrrd!) and I do not expect it to disappoint me.

There's a demo, by the way -- in case I haven't convinced you yet. (See "Teaser" on the game site.) It came out a couple of years ago, but it represents the first five puzzles of the game accurately, as best I can recall.

I am told that when you buy the game online, your license key email may take a few hours to show up. Possibly more. Watch spam folders, as usual, etc. Also, er, Cliff Johnson is being walloped by a hurricane this week, which may impact his ability to fulfill orders.

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