Enigma (IFComp 2014)

(I should say first that I thought this was going to be an English translation of the well-known Italian inform game “Enigma”. I was rather disappointed that it wasn’t, but then I started playing it and I got hooked!)

(Also: heavy spoilers. Be warned)

For some reason I managed to, until this very moment, mistake Simon Deimel (author of this game) and Simon Christiansen, author of Death Off the Cuff. I think I can be excused for that - both games rely heavily on unconventional IF interactions, mostly dealing with abstract topics; most games in IF deal with the material world to such a heavy degree that occasionally some game makers want to go against the current and make a game that deals almost exclusively with the abstract. The “lock and key” puzzle is replaced by you having to understand, in your mind, what the door is, and what the key is, and when you do it becomes obvious how to proceed, because you built up the knowledge.

This is not to be confused with the accretive gameplay of Varicella, or even Rematch; rather, like the French game “Escape Room”, you spend the whole game managing memories and thoughts rather than actual objects. Nothing in the physical world will change, except for your perception of it, and eventually you’ll arrive at the solution that, in the specific case of “Escape Room”, you could just type as the very first move and you’ll win the game.

Verbosity aside, I find this amazingly cool. It’s one of those ways in which IF remains fresh.

“Enigma” also plays with a funny convention of IF, that no time passes until a command is entered, that the universe is turn-based, and takes it to an extreme: the whole game is set in an instant, a moment, where the shock-addled brain of the protagonist is confused to the point of amnesia (at first you’ll think this game is like Memento, then realise it isn’t) and the task of the player is to piece together what happened in order to, in the end, understand what happened and make a decision. It’s a time-frozen world, and the game even has a nice little pseudo-explanation for it if you can find it.

It’s not exactly as pure as “Escape Room” because the world around you is revealed during your discoveries. Objects start being… well, not visible, exactly, but identifiable, and starting points for gathering more knowledge, which will result in more actual material things being available to you. There is a sort of physical construction, that you build as you gain knowledge.

This is reminiscent, of course, of many games that trigger a “flag” when you learn something new, so that some interactions that were previously useless are now fruitful. It’s an old trick, and one that is usually used to good effect. In games like Enigma, it’s what the whole game is about, so the whole concept is expanded upon; instead of a single “flag” as you learn something new that allows you to proceed in the physical world, it’s a whole construct of “flags” as you wade through the text (in a good way), clutching at various memories, following various leads, some of which dead ends; progress is tracked by the knowledge that the player has, which in this nifty mechanic mirrors the knowledge the PC has.

Yeah, I know, “moving away from the material and going into the abstract” gameplay isn’t all that new - conversation games like Galatea, Best out of Three, Death off the Cuff, Alabaster and others are in the same ballpark - but it’s always exciting, it always feels fresh. Mostly because it’s hardly ever done twice the same way, whereas the conventional IF game tends to feel like more of the same (I say that with love).

I should wrap this up, I think. Hmmm. Ah yes, I knew there was something less positive I had to say.

The problem about this is that, like Galatea, you tend to get stuck in a maze of nouns - gameplay consists of “thinking about” nouns as they appear in the text, and eventually you’ll want to revisit old thoughts and memories as you gain new knowledge. But it’s not entirely clear which you’ll want to revisit. I got severely stuck by virtue of my eyes always (I mean always!) skimming over a vital noun and not registering it. Then I got stuck again because I thought I’d explored everything and didn’t know what ELSE I could do…

(tangent: this is true for every IF game. If you feel like you’ve explored everything and done everything and completed every puzzle you could (and know there are many still to solve), and then have a small breakthrough and solve a puzzle and are presented with a new room with another puzzle, and nothing that helps you solve a previous puzzle - you’re screwed. At least, I am. In my head, the rest of the game world has been fully explored and given up for dead. If the means to solve this new puzzle is not at my immediate disposal, it’s presumably behind another puzzle yet unsolved; but how am I going to solve that puzzle now? I didn’t get the solution then when I was fresh on it and trying every conceivable angle; what hope have I of getting it now that I’m sick and tired of it and have moved on only to find I DID have to solve it after all?)

…and it turns out I had to revisit some old nouns. But which ones? It’s like being told, at the end of a tiring maze, “Go back; you’re not carrying the small pin that was dropped in a corner of one of those rooms. You have to search them all over again”.

This only happened at the end, and to be fair the game did try to clue in as much as possible. Maybe I was just tired.

In conclusion (whew!), I really enjoyed this one. The story is underwhelming, the presentation is fresh and interesting, and the implementation is rock solid (try xyzzy!). The concept is well thought out and rigidly adhered to. This was an author with a vision, however experimental, who set out to discover something else that IF can do.

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It’s very interesting to see other reviews of Enigma. I seem to be the only reviewer who enjoyed it.