> u display
You tap the little display, and the message changes.
A panel on the top of the box slides open, revealing three buttons: white, gray, and black.
> u white
Click. A small hole opens on the bottom of the box, and a white rope unfurls from it.
Um, did I mention the box was levitating? Sorry, that was a real oversight. It’s levitating about three feet above the floor.
Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box drops the player in a blank room with a box, and invites the player the discover everything they can. The box proceeds in a series of stages that are akin to mini-puzzles. The only commands possible are USE and EXAMINE (U and X for short), resulting in a strikingly minimalist experience rather like the author’s game last year, Excelsior.
It reminds me of two game subgenres I generally enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements from both.
The first is the My Crazy Uncle’s House game, found in such exemplars as Hollywood Hijinx, The Mulldoon Legacy, and Finding Martin. The player tends to be tossed into a strange house full of random gadgets and the enterprise tends to be an excuse for puzzles.
The box felt like it could have easily been a side exhibit in Mulldoon. However, even though all those games have a cursory plot, it still has a plot and player motivation nonetheless. The fact this is just a set piece gives it faint momentum and I had initial trouble working up the energy to play. (Even the title is unclear: is this Crazy Grandma Bethlinda or instead Awesome Grandma Bethlinda Who Spoils Her Grandkids?)
While the interactions between objects in this sort of game can be arbitrary — the only way to find out what a thing does is to click and find out — the visual novelty carries interest even on clicks that make no progress. In GBVB, when nothing happens, it’s just nothing. The substitute would be engaging prose, but here it’s mostly just functional.
Still, I found this game a vast improvement over Excelsior and it held enough charm I wanted to see it to the end.
The charm comes from the fact that the box is not without character; there is a “voice” inside helping you out.
“Sorry. Rotate horse to engage crank.”
> u horse
You try twisting it. It shifts slightly, but refuses to turn.
The message on the display changes. A tray bearing a desk bell extends from the left side of the box.
> x display
“Whoops! Ring this bell to unlock horse.”
By making the puzzle structure essentially have an invisible character, Grandma Bethlinda’s neatly avoids the problem Excelsior had of feeling cold and distant.
Mild spoilers about a puzzle I was stuck on:
There’s a puzzle I’d normally approve of where you indirectly control a little robot figure by manipulating lights; the robot man starts by reading a newspaper and as you dim the lights the little robot goes to bed. Unfortunately the first few moves of the “correct” path give no feedback at all, so I assumed I was doing something wrong. The feedback only occurs after the player is already near to solving the puzzle. It would be helpful if the messages were more continuous so it’d be obvious to players they were on the right track.