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Augmented Fourth

by Brian Uri!

Fantasy/Humor
2000

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Number of Reviews: 5
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Marvellously polished but the tuning could be improved, March 7, 2013
The first and only work ever published by author Brian Uri, Augmented Forth is an astounding debut piece. Coded via Inform 6, its half-a-megabyte source code is a testament to levels of dedication and attention to detail that are extremely rare.

I often comment that a game could use more polish -- not here. Augmented Forth may as well be lacquered! Its interaction is extraordinarily smooth and fairly gleams with charm and wit from every angle. I found myself marveling again and again that the author had covered the situation with some special bit of flair, whether it was one of the many small jokes sprinkled throughout or just a simple variation on standard wording to show that you were still "within bounds" of the planned interaction.

I can't stress enough how impressed I am by this aspect of the game, and this alone makes it worth playing to experience. If you've ever tried your hand at writing IF, you know how much work all of these little details add up to, and my hat is off to Mr. Uri here. The only places I found any hiccups in the flow were in cases where there is a vocabulary overlap between objects that causes undesirable disambiguation requests, a notoriously tricky issue to handle using Inform 6's parse_name routine.

However, having spent some time admiring this beautiful instrument, I was a little disappointed with actually playing it. As Emily Short pointed out, there are "irritating patches, mostly related to the design of the puzzles", places where the expected final nudges (or even telling silences in the form of careful omissions) are not forthcoming, even though I had a partial solution.

Thinking about this, I came to believe that, in such instances, the tremendous level of polish actually works against the gameplay. In a typical work of IF, the "shininess" of world interaction is itself a form of hinting: Often, one knows one's on the right track by virtue of the differences from more general default responses. The richly embroidered surface detail of Augmented Forth magnificently camouflages any such hinting, leaving the player sometimes at a loss to differentiate between threads of plot and threads of whimsy.

Most puzzles are relatively straightforward, sometimes of the physics (or silly physics) variety and sometimes along "hey, let's see if this new spell can do that" lines. There were only a few that didn't work for me(Spoiler - click to show):

#1 the fern -- (Spoiler - click to show)The hinting in the description about it is misleading. This isn't one of those "help the plant thrive" puzzles. (Spoiler - click to show)The responses to basic actions are misleading. They give the impression that you shouldn't be dealing with the fern now (but maybe should later) when it definitely is relevant in the immediate context. (Spoiler - click to show)First, you have to understand the basic goal here, which means you should have already visited the other cottage and gotten to understand its inhabitant a bit. (Spoiler - click to show)The framed music gives a strong hint of the goal here. (Spoiler - click to show)If you want these two to fall in love, the first thing you have to do is get them in the same room. (Spoiler - click to show)She's a bit too wrapped up in her book to move, but he is just waiting at her beck and call. (Spoiler - click to show)What will make her call him? (Spoiler - click to show)Well, he's a butler, what do butlers do? (Spoiler - click to show)Yes, they introduce visitors... except here. Yes, they bring food and drinks.... except here. (Spoiler - click to show)Maybe you've noticed he's really tidy? Might he tidy something up for her? (Spoiler - click to show)Now even if you have the right idea, you're up against a guess-the-verb challenge. Try the most basic verbs. (Spoiler - click to show)Not "spill soil" or "knock over pot" or "throw dirt" or "break pot" (another misleading response)... just "push plant" is the magic command. This particular interaction is so antithetical to the rest of the work's tone that I really don't understand how it was left as is during playtesting.

#2 the safe -- (Spoiler - click to show)The basics here are easy enough to understand, you need to get on the platform to access the safe, and additional weight on the platform sets off a trap. (Spoiler - click to show)No problem, there's a spell for that right? (Spoiler - click to show)Only it doesn't work. Even though there's a presumably heavy safe on the platform, and increasing gravity should add quite a bit of weight. (Spoiler - click to show)Put something heavy on the platform instead, like one of the big books lying around. Again, this one just kind of leaves me shaking my head, as it would be trivial to implement the alternate (and, in this game, perhaps more natural) solution.

#3 Moilan -- (Spoiler - click to show)This one can't be solved until you have made some progress gathering music, so stop here unless you've been to all the initially-accessible places. (Spoiler - click to show)He's a gate guard, and you want through the gate, a common type of puzzle. (Spoiler - click to show)So you have to bribe or divert or disable him, of course. (Spoiler - click to show)You should pick up some clues that he has a favorite kind of food from one of many places. (Spoiler - click to show)Where can you find some of that stuff? (Spoiler - click to show)... that he doesn't eat the moment you try to get it? (Spoiler - click to show)No dice on finding any, huh? Maybe you can trick him? (Spoiler - click to show)Anything that looks like fudge around? (Spoiler - click to show)Perhaps something brown with a thick texture? (Spoiler - click to show)Bring him some mud in the cup. (Spoiler - click to show)You might have to make some mud first, using magic. (Spoiler - click to show)It's a bit indirect, but stand in the Center of Volcano and use "Rainy Day" to cause a storm, then gather mud in the quarry ("fill cup with mud"). Here, the design issue is the very weak link between fudge and mud. ANY kind of relevant hint would have worked here, such as an infinite supply of fudge that he never stops eating (to clue you that getting him to ingest something fudge-like might be possible) or changing his food mania to coffee (especially strong black coffee, sometimes referred to as "mud", and which, unlike fudge, is served in a cup).

Also, I encountered only one bug in the game, but it is something of a doozy(Spoiler - click to show): As Levi Boyles mentions in another review here, in Release 2 it is possible to defeat the obstacle of one puzzle (involving learning a difficult piece of music) by removing it from your inventory via a method other than dropping it. In my case, I put it back on the stand and got the same effect -- being able to play the music without learning it.

Inspecting the source code, this appears to be due to the way it is handled programmatically: An array of booleans is used to track whether you can play a particular song, and the relevant boolean is not set to false for all verbs which allow its written form to leave your inventory. Thus this logic thinks you are still holding the sheet music even when you are not.

Since this is only piece that requires any effort to learn (and the puzzle structure prevents you from having both its sheet music and your trumpet at the same time, so it's the only time when the ability to play a non-memorized tune is meaningful), it probably would have been better to just test the world state directly (is the sheet music in inventory when the trumpet is played?) instead of trying to track this state of affairs with the same variables used to track memorization. Oh, well
.

These (subjective) flaws left me with a much lower opinion of Augmented Forth as a game
, but your mileage may vary.

Finally, I want to point some special attention to the handling of time in this game, which I thought was very well done. (Spoiler - click to show)Rather than being dependent on turn count or the default clock, time in Augmented Forth is plot-driven, with completion of certain puzzles advancing you to the next nebulous period of the day (e.g. "early morning", "midmorning"). Each advancement is coupled with a brief cutscene, filling you in on activity elsewhere in the game world in a plot arc with which your actions will intersect during the end game.

I don't know if this is the first work of IF to use this particular combination, but the well-written cutscenes together with the loose timekeeping produce a powerful synergy. With the cutscenes decoupled from turn count, the player is in no danger of being left behind by the outside events' timetable. With the resolution of time being so fuzzy, it doesn't seem as obvious that external events are waiting for your key actions (an illusion that the cutscene writing, with its indefinite pauses between scenes, is careful not to dispel).
The net effect just seems to work for the purpose of telling the story in the IF medium in a way that is subtle, but wonderful.

Other reviewers have commented on the copious spoofy humor, and I agree that it only serves to add flavor for those who get the reference without excluding those who don't. Sometimes, the touch is so light that you might not even realize there was a joke unless you know what it refers to(Spoiler - click to show), such as the casual mention that you're feeling hungry at the start of a game (very topical in a time when the presence of a hunger puzzle was considered exceptionally stale and bitterly despised). Others are so blatant as to be inescapable today(Spoiler - click to show), like the presence of "Mollug" and a very amusingly-described ring.

All in all, this work is significantly above average in quality and sure to be fun to play for most people. Though the few problems I encountered were minor, they seem terribly out of place in a work that gets almost everything right (from an old school perspective). Consistency rates highly in my book, and these missteps knock off enough of a star to bring it just short of 4 star territory.

As a reminder, my ratings are unusually harsh, and 3 stars counts as a very good game. I would eagerly play another piece from Mr. Uri, should he publish one in the future, and old school fans should definitely try this one if they haven't yet.

Comments on this review

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BU, July 15, 2013 - Reply
Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed review. I recently posted a bug-fix update to the game (in the IF Archive) which fixes the Lively Jig issue and adds additional hints for some of the puzzles. I agree with the fix suggestions you provided, but ultimately ended up with a more localized fix -- at this point I've forgotten more Inform 6 than I ever knew!
Andromache, May 17, 2013 - Reply
Interestingly, I found the fern puzzle to b very intuitive. (Spoiler - click to show)If you watch what the widow does when you try to manipulate it, as well as the wording about how she's watching too closely at the moment, you do get the sense that you may be able to succeed if she were distracted.

Found Moilan and the safe trap equally intuitive. The mud is oozing around the trapdoor and just seems like it's begging to be caught in the cup. Coffee as a hint would not have worked for me.
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