IFComp 2015: Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box   8 comments

By Arthur DiBianca. Played on computer with Gargoyle. Finished, using walkthrough twice.


> 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?)

The second genre is what I term the puzzlebox-clicker, with examples like Windosill (shown below) and Samorost.

windosill

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:

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S
P
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L
E
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S
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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.

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Posted October 25, 2015 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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8 responses to “IFComp 2015: Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

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  1. I felt that the mechanical man’s yawning at “gray”, combined with the “An Evening At Home” title, guided me to try seeing what would happen if I went through a full white-gray-black night cycle. The night noises I took to be mice, but I figured they were important in some manner when “waking up” produced a message about the clock; it took me the equivalent of another few cycles to 1) find out it was a burglar, and 2) get the timing right to catch the burglar. So for me, that one was cued okay.

    Of course, that was the second playthrough. The first playthrough I got mildly stuck at the first appearance of the cylinder — didn’t immediately realize you needed to pull the rope after each attempt — and just gave up because there was absolutely nothing that made me want to keep playing. It took other people being like “no, really, it gets more interesting!”

    • The yawn doesn’t occur right after you hit gray, does it? I remember having to hit gray and then waiting.

      The initial bits definitely lack motivation. I probably wouldn’t have persisted if it wasn’t for my trying to judge fairly.

      • Yeah, there was definitely waiting involved, though I can’t remember exactly when. I don’t remember whether I immediately waited (how quasi-oxymoronic!) in order to progress the tableau, or whether I did something else (like try to interact with the window or another part of the box) and saw the message naturally.

        IMO, with 55 entries up for consideration, including “how good is your hook? does the player want to keep playing?” as a judging criterion is, aha, fair game. But then again I have been growing more and more ruthless with my consumption of fiction in all forms lately, so that’s a piece of context!

      • The lack of hook will affect my score (I did mention it in the review, after all.).

      • Gah, I didn’t mean to sound pushy about your personal judging criteria, sorry about that. Intention: “If you hadn’t persisted, I wouldn’t necessarily have considered your review to be unfair because of that.”

      • Sure, that makes sense.

  2. Pingback: IFComp 2015: Final Exam | Renga in Blue

  3. Pingback: IFComp 2015 Summary | Renga in Blue

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