IFC10 Review: Oxygen

This is a review of a Comp game, and as often happens in reviews of Comp games, I will be Saying Things about this game.

Oxygen, by Ben Sokal,  is a fine game.  It’s a one-room puzzle game with a simple, but strong, story to it.  It’s well designed and put together, with just a few infelicities.  I played a few times.  For reasons I’ll explain, I consider it Important.  Play this game.

It reminded me of Oliver Ullmann’s 09 entry, The Duel That Spanned the Ages.  Both do science fiction well and keep a fast pace.  But Duel was far more ambitious and action-y; this game focuses on one central puzzle.

The game does a lot of things right.  It immediately puts you in a dramatically interesting situation, and then raises the stakes on you a few times.  The effect you have on the narrative convincingly results from the in-simulator actions you take.  The puzzles are logical and fair.  Really, it does everything right.

There are a couple of minor flaws.  If you ask the NPC about his vest before you’ve asked him about himself, you ask him about himself.  You can end up introducing yourself to him more than once.  There were a few spots where the writing wasn’t up to conveying what the author had in mind — the NPC tells you he has two “beautiful, skinny babies.” 

I’ve never seen a skinny baby, but if I did it would be alarming — not beautiful.  There was some bravado between the NPC and the PC that didn’t work.  It was taken from the dialog of cop and cowboy movies; but it didn’t work as bravado and anyway these men are not heros.  One is a miner and the other is an electrician.

But on to more essential matters:

The central puzzle centers on solving a technical problem that will distribute oxygen through the mining station and thereby determine who lives or dies.  There are a range of solutions available to you, and the narrative responds well to different solutions.

Now, I had a few problems playing this game.  The central puzzle is tricky in a couple of dimensions.  It’s mathematically tricky.  The controls are tricky.  Understanding the reporting device is tricky.  And it’s conceptually tricky — nothing in itself, but because often the game gives you very terse information about what’s going on.

–This is all fine.  I was having these problems because I was supposed to:  it’s a hard game to solve optimally (if there is an optimal solution).  But it seemed to me at the time I was playing it that I was being asked to make a moral decision, and implement it through the puzzle.  And I simply did not have sufficient command of the system to control the outcome — not enough to get a solution that was satisfactory to me.

In retrospect, I’m seeing the game differently.  It seems this is one of those games where you’re supposed to use algebra to solve it.  Frankly, I’ve always refused those games, because they are to me what maze-mapping is to a lot of others.

In general, I most enjoy IF that, in its puzzle, requires a great leap of insight or a perspective shift.  Like last year’s Byzantine Perspective, by Lea Albaugh.  Solutions that are based on work?  –eh.

But I might go back and solve this one.  I like the game, and the mathy nature of the puzzle plausibly arises from the situation being described.  Also, there are enough different interesting endings that it’s gotten me interested.  Without all these endings — learn-by-failing-to-find-the-optimum — certainly I wouldn’t consider doing the math.

Meantime, this has all been mechanics, and you’re wondering why I consider it important.

I consider it important because, basically, the author has implemented a Prisoner’s Dilemma.  He gives you a schedule of payoffs, and the unseen NPCs appear to respond rationally.

–In my opinion, this is one of the things we need to start doing in IF.  Humans’ response to story is almost entirely a response to the characters in the story.  We need to make smarter NPCs, and part of that will inevitably be making NPCs that “understand” situations in terms of payoffs, and respond to maximize their payoffs.

(I confess, I’ve been working on setting up a few interaction templates taken from game theory.  The IF author customizes each “move,” in its description and payoff, and the NPCs make appropriate moves.  So I’m delighted to see Ben Sokal doing something similar.)

It was for this reason, beyond the game’s overall good conception and implementation, that I rated the game highly.

Finally — I was surprised by the opening quote from Szasz.  Having played the game a few times — I’m still surprised.  I’m trying to figure out whether the game thematically discusses self-esteem somehow, or otherwise makes something of the quoted metaphor.

ps – Authors:  notice how the ending you get is contingent on two factors:  how you solve the puzzle, and what path you choose to take at the end.  Thus Ben gets high milage out of a simple design.

But also notice the classic dramatic blueprint (a la Freytag / Aristotle) places the critical decision at the climax, halfway through the story, and the critical epiphany just before the end, at the crisis.

In Oxygen, because the main puzzle offers more than one plot-relevant solution, it becomes the mechanism encoding the climax (or ‘turning point’).  The final CYOA-ish decision becomes the mechanism encoding the crisis and (possible) epiphany.

Excellent synthesis of the simulator and narrative.

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Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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