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IFCOMP 2006 - The Elysium Enigma

Game #11: The Elysium Enigma (by Eric Eve)
Played: November 1st-2nd (4 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: TADS 3
Unofficial Score: 9+

     Game’s Blurb:
     It was meant to be a routine visit on behalf of the imperial government, just to remind the settlers that the Empire hadn't forgotten them. But maybe there's more going on on Elysium than your orders bargained for.

     XYZZY Response:
     It’s a thousand years too late for such nonsense.

     I skipped two more games to play The Elysium Enigma next. Admitting it almost feels like confessing that I cheated on a test or something. What I like about a randomized list is that it will usually provide a good pacing between good games and bad ones. Now, with the remaining days ticking away, I’m targeting the games I think I’ll enjoy – the ones that probably have the best chance of ranking highly in the competition. This is based on the author’s prior work, and also the recommendations I’ve already seen about this year’s batch.

     In other words, I’m doing something I’d rather avoid: messing with the natural flow of the competition experience. It also means that some of the games I skip might lack a review from me entirely (at my presently slow place), and this also seems unfair. In a way, I’ve already grouped the remainder of the games into two piles: entries I really want to play before the results are announced, and everything else. This makes me question my own objectivity. Next year, I hope to be in a better position to play and review every game in its random order.

     This is the longest IFComp entry I’ve played so far this year. Game length is very subjective, though – especially in a puzzle-rich setting like this one. It’s interesting that my review just prior to this, for Madam Spider’s Web, gave a brief discussion on how an IFComp entry can be too short.

     I wanted to play without hints. Ultimately, I did use hints (a few times) to finish, because a portion of the more than four hours I spent playing The Elysium Enigma involved feeling stuck. This is why a four-hour game for me could be a two-hour or maybe a six-hour game for somebody else. Some players will undoubtedly miss clues and need a nudge, while others – when everything works out just right – will hit on the solutions more easily. Something I’ve said about past games in past competitions, which is true of The Elysium Enigma, is that it would be better played without the pressure of a looming competition deadline – and without the expectation that it can be completed in roughly two hours.

     As long as I make some progress without staying stuck for too long, this kind of head-scratching what-am-I-missing kind of puzzle-filled game is exactly what I like best. I think EE gets it almost right. I did stumble upon a few spots where I was on the right track, but gave up after a confusing exchange with the game.

     Trying to use the raft is a good example (SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph). I put it in the water, and then tried to go west. The game said I needed something to paddle with. I tried to paddle with the thing that would later prove effective (“paddle with object”). The game asked me what I wanted to paddle with it. I answered “river”. The game said that’s not something I needed to paddle. A bit later, I tried getting into the raft and then going west, and was once again told that I needed something to paddle with. I didn’t try paddling with that object again, because I had already tried it after being told the same thing earlier. I had come to the conclusion that paddling must be automatic (“you need something to paddle with”) if I obtained a suitable paddle and tried to go west. After looking at the walkthrough, seeing that I was right all along, I gave it another go. This time, getting into the boat first and then doing “paddle with object”, it worked. It makes sense why, but because the game originally told me to paddle without also saying “oh, but get into the boat first, dummy”, I was stuck in a darn-it-that-should-have-worked way.

     I could scour my transcripts and dig for a few other quirks to point out, but it’s such a polished and well-written game that this would be like complaining that a leopard’s spots aren’t dark enough. I do think some of the puzzles were a bit too tough for my meager abilities (man, I really thought a “p” mirrored would be a “9” – this is along the same lines as the raft paddle confusion). At least now, I don’t feel like I’m purposely playing as a beta-tester would. The Elysium Enigma, and Madam Spider’s Web before it, are bringing the IFComp magic back for me.

     Although this is heavily a game about puzzles, the story is not to be overlooked. Eric was wise in waiting to discuss his ongoing static fiction (on which EE is based) until the end. This is set in a future already conceived and apparently written about to a large extent, and that’s probably why it feels less “instantly contrived”. I would like to see more IF set in this same future, and I’m even curious now about Eric’s novels.

     My biggest complaint about the story – my only complaint about the story – is that I’m a good deal smarter than Andrew Holt. At least, I’d like to think so. While I was trying my hardest to make him understand what I had figured out hundreds of turns earlier, he was only gradually coming to realize that something wasn’t quite right. I had actually decided that my theory – to which every clue thus far seemed to point – would prove wrong in a surprising twist. I was looking forward to such a twist, thinking “okay, if he pulls this off, purposely letting me believe one thing and then he switches for another, this is definitely a 10”. What I assumed almost from the first hint of it turned out to be the twist, making it seem as if there had been no twist at all.

     Despite this, it’s still a fun ride. The Elysium Enigma is an outstanding, polished, well-written game, and that’s easily a “9” on my scale. I’ve added a “plus” in appreciation for a story that actually lets a naked woman follow me around a forest, although this is unlikely to impress most of the female IFComp judges.

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