Friday, October 25, 2013

[IF Comp 2013] Second thoughts on "Captain Verdeterre's Plunder"

The Interactive Fiction Competition is back! Spoilers behind the break.



My first thoughts about Ryan Veeder's game of nautical plunder are here. There I wrote that
I doubt that anyone has the patience to actually sit down with all the information and work out the optimal solution. There is a puzzle here, but Veeder doesn't do a good job of giving us the motivation to solve it.
But, well, wouldn't you know it? I sat down, collected all the information, and worked out the optimal solution. It takes some time to get a handle on the exact operation of the game rules, and you also need to spend some effort on getting all the necessary information. (On which turn exactly does the hand mirror disappear beneath the waves? Do you need to look in the box before you can take the lump from it?) But once you have all the information, you've got an enjoyable challenge, and getting to the weird victory message is a nice reward.

Then I found out that I hadn't found the optimal solution. At all.

Now, if that had been because of my own stupidity in solving the optimisation puzzle, I wouldn't mind this in the least. If I fail a fair challenge, I'm the one to blame.

But that is not what happened. What happened is that the game turns out to be full of little adventure-type puzzles, where you need to take non-obvious actions to reveal new plunder. You need to shoot the cabinet to reveal some of the most valuable items; you need to read the book to reveal a bracelet; you need to pull the dagger and undo and pull again until it suddenly gives way. And only once you have solved all those adventure-type puzzles can you start solving the optimisation puzzle.

Or, rather, can you start solving the real optimisation puzzle, rather than a fake one created by your own lack of knowledge. But you can never know that you've arrived at the real puzzle. And so you can never know that you have found the solution.

This makes Captain Verdeterre's Plunder an exceedingly problematic game. The second part of the game is the optimisation puzzle, and this where it becomes an interesting challenge. But that optimisation puzzle cannot be reached; or rather, you can never know that you have reached it. This means that the game asks you to solve a complicated puzzle while refusing to tell you the rules. That is not fun. And it is certainly not what I hope for from a puzzle game. It is essential that a puzzle is clear about its rules and clear about when you have solved it; and Captain Verdeterre's Plunder fails at both.

5 comments:

  1. I've felt that way about some games before, so just popped in to say I agree 100%.

    The dagger thing, involving randomization in a game that present itself clearly and unambiguously as an optimisation game, is particularly cruel.

    I'll also add that the game *trains* us not to enter the "adventure-game" frame of mind. I mean, puzzles that are worthy of the name are discouraged. "I don't remember where the key is", and every interaction bringing some variation of "Without the key forget it, and the captain says it's lost", and the water rising... what the heck motivation have I got, as a player, to start looking for a way to open the cabinet? I have no reason to believe it CAN be opened at all.

    Again, 100% behind you.

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  2. My instinct here is that you're trying to hold up Verdeterre to a style of play that it's not really aiming to support. My read of the game, at any rate, was that it was intended as a casual optimisation game: you would play through a few times, try to improve your score, but never get all serious and min-maxing about it.

    But that's not an easy expectation to convey. (Certainly, in Orphanorium I did a number of things meant to signal to the player that this was not meant to be a statty, min-maxing kind of time-management; but mostly the response of players was confusion or annoyance that they weren't given the tools they'd expect from a min-maxing game.) And obviously the game wanted me to invest a little more energy in optimisation than I actually did, since other reviews mention a winning ending that I assumed wasn't there.

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  3. Had a huge response here, lost it stupidly. Basically, I just want to say that:

    "intended as a casual optimisation game: you would play through a few times, try to improve your score, but never get all serious and min-maxing about it"

    "other reviews mention a winning ending that I assumed wasn't there."

    That's pretty much the problem, and a pet peeve of mine. If a game doesn't at least hint that there's more to it (like "Janitor"), why should I go looking? Well, sure, some adventure-ish puzzles are to be expected, but this game actively discourages you from finding them, by the tight limit and the things the captain says. It's like games where you never really know if the plot is moving along in a scripted way and that's the way it HAS to happen, or if you actually have a chance, amidst all the things happening around you, to affect the course of the plot (like "Internal Vigilance". Great game, with a lot going for it, but I was honestly surprised to find that I could actually prevent some things from happening, as I never felt I actually had much agency in those scenes).

    Back to the point, this game certainly works as an optimisation game, and is great at that. But there's more to it, and one might never find that out, and that I heartily dislike.

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  4. " It's like games where you never really know if the plot is moving along in a scripted way and that's the way it HAS to happen, or if you actually have a chance, amidst all the things happening around you, to affect the course of the plot."

    The paradigm for me has to be Centipede.

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    Replies
    1. I have strange memories of that game. Prompted by your comment I checked it out again, and what's more, I checked the solution. It left me pretty much aghast.

      What's more, checking my savegames, I seem to have made it to the actual winning end on my own. Wonder how I did it. I must have had a lot of patience.

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