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Splish Splash
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Puddles on the Path
By: Anssi Raisanen

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Info at Baf's guide

I have a soft spot for IF that relies on word-play as the basis of its interactions. I've never tried to write one myself, but there is something marvellous about them, because they do what no other genre of adventure game could attempt. There is no graphical equivalent for a puzzle that involves changing the name of a prominent object. The very idea of such a puzzle steps outside the normal boundaries of mimesis that most games attempt to preserve: the player is no longer trying to interact with the world-model, but with the *representation* of the world-model. "Nord and Bert" got the genre started, but there haven't been a very large number of imitators. Baf's Guide lists a grand total of nine games in the "Surreal: Wordplay" category.

The effect of this sort of thing is usually rather surreal, though just how surreal varies from game to game. Roger Firth's "Letters From Home" features objects that change state when they're recognized for what they are. Puzzles in "Leather Goddesses of Phobos," "Large Machine," and, if I'm remembering correctly, "Beat the Devil" involve changing the names of objects in order to change what they are. "End Means Escape" goes a step further and has a scene featuring words as inventory objects that can be picked up, dropped, and shuffled around. Nick Montfort's "Ad Verbum" uses several different kinds of word-play, requiring the player to conform to the parser's stringent input requirements, and raising Guess The Verb to an art form.

"Puddles on the Path" keeps to the less-surreal end of this continuum: according to the game's premise, familiar proverbs are actually spells. Puzzles depend on realizing which proverb/spell is appropriate at the current moment. Speaking a proverb causes it to become true -- more or less -- in ways that are usually self-evident once you recognize the set-up. It's never really explained how these spells came into existence, or why there would be a spell like "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" but not a similar spell applicable to, say, squirrels. But this does not matter.

Word-play games like this generally require intuitive leaps; they're essentially composed almost entirely of riddles. This means that at the best of times they can be brilliantly entertaining -- the right answer pops into your head as if by magic, without trial and error, allowing you to make a wonderful or absurd change to the game world. At the worst, they can stump the player horribly, leaving no clues about how to even get started. (That describes most of my experience with "Nord and Bert," which I wanted to love, but was too clueless to get through without extensive prompting. I did a little better with "Ad Verbum" but still hit some moments of serious stuckness.)

"Puddles" goes out of its way to prevent the latter predicament. To make life easier, the game incorporates a list of standard proverbs that you might want to use, though some of the game's most enjoyable moments consist of recognizing something from a proverb that is not on the list. Even in those places, the game usually prompts you with some kind of helpful clue. This is not meant to be a difficult game.

Aside from the proverb-guessing content, there's not a lot to this piece. The setting is a vanilla fantasy world, with castles, gardens, dungeons, and cave systems, but there is not a lot of backstory, or any attempt to provide an explanation for why things are set up in the peculiar way they are. Descriptions are slight and there are few unnecessary objects. On the other hand, ornate writing and an excess of red-herring items would probably clutter and confuse a game like this. It works better streamlined.

The story is similarly fairly straightforward, even minimal. You happen to be wandering past on your way home for vacation when you spy something that sparks your curiosity. You investigate, you get into trouble, and one thing leads to another. But this is all chiefly to hold together a set of puzzles-for-the-sake-of-puzzles. There are traps without explanation, inexplicable sets of colored objects, and so on. You defeat them for the sake of defeating them. The narrative as narrative isn't that compelling.

The relative story-less-ness and the straightforwardness of the setting reminded me of several games from the dawn of amateur IF: more friendly and less difficult than most of Infocom's offerings, with a simple overarching idea for the puzzle design. "John's Fire Witch" comes to mind. While I wouldn't want all my IF to be like this, it is a welcome member of the genre.

There are a handful of rough spots -- some phrasings (not of proverbs) that weren't immediately obvious to me and could have used more synonyms, a few places where the spelling or word use was a little off -- but not too many. It does seem to be possible to render the game unwinnable, though I am not sure whether or not this was the author's intention. There was one item that I wouldn't have thought to look for without the walkthrough, and one thing that might have been a bug.

On the other hand, it is such a friendly and generally solid piece that I had a hard time holding these minor flaws against it. The narrative voice is cheerful and lightly humorous in ways that put me in mind of Jessica Knoch's "Tookie's Song": it doesn't seem to take itself terribly seriously, it isn't striving for any particularly grand literary effects, it doesn't have Attitude. It just offers the player some good-spirited entertainment for forty-five minutes or so.

The bottom line is that this is a fresh, pleasant, and not overly long game. The puzzles are not too difficult, but gratifying to solve. I doubt that I will long remember the details of the setting, which were nothing startling, but I will recollect the overall experience with fondness.

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