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About the StoryAfter The Event, there are no easy solutions. A silly little speed-IF puzzler. But can you solve it?
Hall of fame:
Nominee, Best Individual Puzzle - 2015 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 7
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However, this is a game that deliberately commits any number of sins against design. A key verb is hidden in the ABOUT text. An action that puts new objects in your inventory doesn't tell you what those objects are, forcing you to type in an extra command and scroll through a long inventory list to see what you've just obtained. Several descriptions are unhelpful. The game has an enormous number of objects in it, most of which appear to be irrelevant, and very few of which give you cues how to use it. A critical action has to be repeated several times before yielding anything. It has at least one thing (Spoiler - click to show)(the tape) which can be interacted with in a way that seems to give you progress... but the interaction is shakily implemented (Spoiler - click to show)you can ATTACH TAPE TO THING but not ATTACH THING TO TAPE, and if there's a way to use it to attach two things together it's not well clued) and doesn't appear to lead to anything significant. And it is full of bugs in the world model--things that can be put in spaces they shouldn't fit in, things that are takeable and shouldn't be, things that mysteriously disappear when you perform an unrelated action (Spoiler - click to show)(when you break or reassemble the stool, anything on/in it gets whisked off-stage with the completed stool or stool base, and can only be retrieved by re-assembling/re-breaking the object).
All, or many, of these effects are deliberate and cued in the game in various ways. But that doesn't make the game any better to play. A game that wastes your time for satirical/parodic reasons by making you examine twenty irrelevant objects is still wasting your time by making you examine twenty irrelevant objects. A game full of deliberate bugs, some of which you must exploit to win the game, is still making it impossible to predict the consequences of your action and forcing you into try-everything-on-everything gameplay; which, given the massive number of things involved, is incredibly tedious.
It's possible to have good game design that simulates bad design. I've played and enjoyed a game (Spoiler - click to show)(9:05) that withholds critical information from the player. I've enjoyed games like Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die and Annoyotron that are shallowly implemented in order to frustrate your expectations deliberately. I've even written a game, "The Coming of the Mirthful Messiahs," that deliberately exploits a bug. But all these games restrict the possibility space enough that it's possible to find out what's being concealed from you, or light upon the solution just by trying a limited number of things, or know that you're progressing (through Annoyotron) even when you're mindlessly repeating actions. Hard Puzzle is more like Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die 2, which includes a lot of systems that are irrelevant to the solution in order to send you down blind paths.
Good game design finds a way to lead the player to be aware of the possibilities of the game, even where those possibilities involve apparent glitches or misdirection. At the very least, it rewards the exploration that the player must do on the way to stumbling across those possibilities. By these criteria, Hard Puzzle is not good game design. It is designed to deliberately waste the player's time.
The idea behind "Hard Puzzle", as far as I can tell, is to generate both horror and puzzle difficulty through an atmosphere of absolute uncertainty. While the actual prose attempts at Horrifying Detail ((Spoiler - click to show)like your skin sloughing off or whatever) struck me as pretty hackneyed, you'd be shocked at how spooky it can be to have no idea how many objects are in the room, for example. The author has deliberately omitted a lot of the helpful or clarifying responses that modern Inform games typically have, and the result is something like having your eyes stricken out. Actions that provoke no response text can dramatically change what objects are available or the structure of the location. Some things are implemented in lazy ways that produce unintuitive behavior, and (maybe?) some things are implemented in a way that's designed to look like a lazy shortcut, but behaves very differently under special circumstances.
This is very spooky. The very obtuseness and inconsistency of the interaction is carefully crafted to create a sense of disorientation and dread, as you're always unsure even what *kind* of thing might happen in response to certain actions. The tone of the worldbuilding confirms that this kind of existential spookiness is the goal (even though I didn't think the worldbuilding itself was very effective at achieving that effect).
This is really interesting, and like a lot of IF experiments one of the principal questions it raises is whether this kind of thing is at all repeatable, or whether it's more of an "only works once" kind of thing (as people say of "Deadline Enchanter", say, or the (Spoiler - click to show)PC-protagonist-parser stuff in "Slouching Towards Bedlam". Certainly, I think that the effectiveness of a disorienting interface at this extreme level of minimalism is kind of a "works once" thing. But I think that, if you telegraphed correctly when it was starting, you could have (say) a spooky funhouse room in a larger game where things obey different metaphysical rules that are only conveyed to you very obtusely, by unreported changes to the world model that you have to discover accidentally or systematically (like through the use of "take all"), building towards a larger sense of horror. I think there are a lot of possibilities for this kind of thing, since there are a lot of bizarre facts about a world or location or power that a parser could strategically fail to remark upon.
One example that comes to mind of this kind of technique being employed effectively on a small scale was the game "Dinner Bell", where (famously?) (Spoiler - click to show)the PC's profound physical mutilation is only mentioned in one error message, that many players probably never see at all. Hard Puzzle is like an entire game that's trying to be scary in that way, and I think it's an interesting and clever experiment. Since I'm not much of a puzzle buff and don't have ERR:NaN hours on my hands, I'll probably never finish it, but I thought it was interesting.
What happened? I'm not that great at manipulating finicky things in parser games, and this game is loaded, loaded, loaded with them. I usually give up on puzzles, and although I talked with other people to make some progress by exchanging hints, I didn't make much progress that way at all. But I never considered stopping. I had to finish. I needed to figure out what the hell was going on, both on a story level and on a meta level.
Hard Puzzle is set in an apocalyptic world where you have been tasked with assembling a stool for "The Family" because they "like the look of it." This stool is intended "for milking." Even though the story is sparse, little details here and there worked their way into my brain like parasites and wouldn't get out. Whereas other puzzle games often lose my interest by requiring too much mechanical tinkering, Hard Puzzle's strangeness wouldn't release me, even while it was clobbering me with more and more mechanical tinkering nightmares.
But what made me truly unable to leave the game alone was that I didn't know on what level I could trust it. Hard Puzzle bills itself as silly speed-IF, but is this true? It has implementation errors, as you would expect in speed-IF, but it acknowledges these errors. And perhaps more than anything, it was written by Ade McT, whose game Map placed second in the IFComp mere days before Hard Puzzle was released onto IFDB.
Normally, not being able to trust a game means not wanting to play it because you think it might be unfair or broken. In this case, not being able to trust it made the experience even more compelling for me.
Now that I have solved Hard Puzzle, I look back at my time playing it these past two days and... feel inclined to say nothing about how right or wrong I was to suspect anything about this game. I think that some people might never solve it. I think that some people might solve it much faster than I did.
There is a famous murder mystery play by Agatha Christie called The Mousetrap that has been running since 1952, and although countless people have now seen the play, its ending is rarely ever discussed in order to preserve the surprise for new audiences. For that same reason, I hope that no walkthrough is ever provided for Hard Puzzle. I hope no solution is ever published. I hope that anyone who solves it will remain silent.
See All 7 Member Reviews
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