A Review of Dual Transform

Sat Feb 27, 2010

All of us in the RG (this is what our return address stamp says) household have been unwell this week. I initially blamed food poisoning but am now leaning toward some malevolent virus. For some reason, it hit the parents far harder than the toddler, though he has had it longer.

In any case, I haven’t been able to concentrate on much sustained reading. It’s probably easier to read with a headache than with terrible stomach distress, though the involuntary caffeine withdrawal I went through earlier this week left me with what are undeniably the worst headaches in memory. (I think it also—the caffeine withdrawal—affected my judgment; I decided a few days ago that the only thing I could stomach was pho, which I then proceeded to order with tripe and immediately douse with as much spice as I could reach, only to wash it all down with a particularly acidic Vietnamese lemonade. I leave the outcome to your imagination.)

So, a day or so ago, I decided to try out some of the entries from a recent competition put on by an outfit named Jay Is Games. The premise is escape games. I have been an IF enthusiast for almost twenty-five years now, and I still get a great deal of satisfaction from solving the puzzly kind, though I’m starting to wonder if I’m as good as it now as I was then. The first entry that drew my attention, after reading a little about them was Andrew Plotkin’s (Nigel Smith’s) Dual Transform. I have been a particular fan of Plotkin’s work since re-discovering the genre sometime in the early aughts, and it turned out that this game had something in common with another thing I had been thinking about: the role of Godel, Escher, Bach in the Bruce Ivins investigation.

Before I got sick I read that entire report and paid particular care to the discussion of Hofstadter’s book in it. I’m not sure that the agent understood either the book or why Ivins would have been interested in it, for one thing, nor do I think that the explanation of the code allegedly used makes much sense. (“FNY” ? Really?) I mean, someone working with genetics is, in all likelihood, going to take a bit more away from it than that, and I would suspect, if Ivins was as paranoid as he seems to have been, that his reason for getting rid of the book had a more private cause.

Plotkin’s game involves, as I mentioned, some thoughts about self-reference and representation. Metafictional references occur frequently in the medium, with Implementor jokes being common in several of the Infocom games, for example, and they (metafictional references) form a key part of an early revival game called Perdition’s Flames, which I wrote about a while ago.

The game presents you with an environment and teaches you how to manipulate it. This process is cleanly handled and intuitive, and, while I did get stuck for a bit when I thought I might have made an irrevocable decision (increasingly rare in modern IF design), some continued experiment quickly revealed a solution. The representations of the various forces and what those forces are supposed to constitute exactly didn’t work as well for me, and I kept picturing the workspace itself as a gelatinous cube, which, while certainly a private quirk, was mildly distracting. The ending, while consistent enough with what came before, would have worked better as type of strange leap out of this frame of reference altogether. For me, at least.

I know that’s vague beyond almost all recognition, but there’s a convention not to give away the details of these games which I tend not to recognize, so I’m trying it out for once. I will now probably return to puzzling over Empson’s responses to Laura (Riding) Jackson when she accused him of not crediting her properly in 7 Types.