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Warrior Needs Hint, Badly
Review by: Adam Cadre
Game: The Erudition Chamber
By: Daniel Freas

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The name Chris Crawford tends to elicit derisive laughter in the world of IF. But before he became known as the self-important creator of the underwhelming Erasmatron, Crawford was best known for Balance of Power, a geopolitics simulator in which the USA and USSR sent money and troops to governments and insurgencies throughout the world. The game kept score using "prestige points."

However, in the companion book to Balance of Power, Crawford wrote that "the game did once have a more complex scoring system that included far more than just human rights. There were a number of factors for measuring success, including human rights, war-related deaths, prestige, and total world economic growth. The intent of all these separate scores was to make it possible for players to bring their own values to the game. A liberal could play for a good human-rights score, while a conservative might play for economic growth or prestige. [...] My editor hammered away on this issue, arguing that the game lacked focus and clearly defined goals. I eventually caved in and eliminated all but the single measure of performance: prestige."

I always liked the idea of having a bunch of different scores running simultaneously, so when I heard the premise of The Erudition Chamber by Daniel Freas, I made a mental note to check it out sometime. Recently I finally got around to doing so.

I still think that the idea of a game that is explicitly designed around the idea of creating a sort of personality profile is a strong one. Activision's 1983 game Alter Ego did this as well - it adjusted your stats based on your decisions, so that in the teenage segment, for instance, borrowing your dad's car without permission might win you a courage point and lose you a trustworthiness point, while not doing so would swing things the opposite way. Later, your courage might be tested when you have the opportunity to ask a popular girl to the prom, or your trustworthiness might come into play when your boss sends you to drop off the day's deposits at the bank, and your past decisions shaped the course of action the game would allow you to take.

The Erudition Chamber doesn't really do this, though. It just keeps score. Solve a puzzle by looking under and behind things, and you get a Seer point. Solve it by swinging an axe at the appropriate object, and you get a Warrior point. There are four categories and four points to be had, so it's pretty blunt, and categories are assigned on the basis of single actions like how exactly you open a door or climb a flight of stairs. I'd been imagining something more along the lines of a system that measured to what extent you conversed with other characters, fiddled with gadgets, wasted time, etc... something like Lucasarts's Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, in which the middlegame split into three paths depending on your inclinations: Fists, Wits, and Team. (It will probably come as no surprise that I went with Team.) In retrospect, what I was imagining was probably too ambitious for a comp game; on the other hand, I've seen some pretty ambitious comp games in years past.

Furthermore, the situation in The Erudition Chamber is highly artificial: you're not solving puzzles in the course of having an adventure, or completing a mission, but rather are just stuck in a puzzle box. I was surprised to find that after getting past the first obstacle, I was offered the chance to escape the chamber, and that taking advantage of this opportunity ended the game on a downbeat note - wasn't escaping the chamber my goal? Apparently not. It seems I was supposed to want to continue solving puzzles for the sheer pleasure of solving puzzles. And I guess it's not unreasonable to think that players might do this - why start up a puzzle-box game in the first place if you don't want to solve puzzles? But I wasn't interested in solving puzzles, really; I was interested in seeing what sort of character I would create. I got my answer: I'd create a character who was done in six moves.

This brings us back to an issue I've brought up in the past when reviewing IF - just as a writer of straight prose needs to give the reader a reason to continue turning pages, an IF writer needs to give the player a reason to type something other than "quit." Simply presenting a challenge is insufficient: it's the writer's job to motivate the player to want to take on that challenge. Usually, this means the promise of a reward: the reward of good prose. Funny responses to commands, interesting plot developments, that sort of thing. The Erudition Chamber falls short on these counts. In fact, the game is seriously hobbled by the prose that comprises it. The author repeatedly misuses commas, misspells words, and gets verb forms wrong. (One sentence in the opening of the game reads, "It was awful, luckily no one had been standing in the central hall when it happened but one of the Keep's ferrets was, and the result was not pretty.") Every game has a typo or two, of course, but this goes beyond the occasional glitch. I'd strongly suggest that writers who aren't confident about their mastery of English usage team up with people who are.

Still, The Erudition Chamber is more impressive than the Erasmatron.

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