Failure and Shame Some Thoughts on Rhem 2

Mon Dec 6, 2010

That’s what I am feeling after failing to solve Rhem 2 without consulting the walkthrough. What is Rhem 2 and why should anyone care whether or not I solved it without a walkthrough? Well, Rhem 2 is a self-produced (more or less) puzzle game in the tradition of Myst created by Knut Muller. I first learned of the Rhem games from reading Andrew Plotkin’s review, and I purchased the first Rhem in 2005. I worked through most of the game then, but I got frustrated a bit towards the end and consulted a walkthrough. I felt some shame about this at the time, and it made me vow to solve the sequel without a walkthrough.

I came close, but I couldn’t do it. I had more motivation from the aforementioned Plotkin’s review of the sequel, in which he pointedly notes that he solved it without hints. I had come to know of Mr. Plotkin through his work in interactive fiction, and he seemed as likely a candidate to be able to solve a game like this without hints as is to be found among the ludic tribes. Because—make no mistake—this is a hard game. And not in the twitchy or chancy way. Rhem 2 is hard because it is an elaborate knot with almost no superfluous information and many superficially similar or imbricated patterns of design (of the obstacles; the physical patterns also repeat with modifications or analogy in many different places).

Unlike many games in the genre (I am assuming for the most part, as I actually haven’t played many of them), the Rhem games do not rely overtly on the fantastic or the magical in their environment. In the first game, everything was rusty machinery and reservoirs. These machines were controlled with various sigils which might possibly give the sense of an alien environment, though the more plausible explanation is that low-language puzzles make for easier translation (especially since the majority of the market for this game has to be, I assume, in English.) The second is an elaborate mining operation in a series of caves in which all of the wiring is in need of re-routing. But in both cases, the machines exist for no other reason than the puzzles. It’s easy to forget this as you’re playing, but in retrospect it’s obviously true.

The game player might expect a world of symbol in some genres, but for the puzzles to be instantiated in an environment that great care has been taken to render realistic-looking (and -seeming in function—almost all basic physical and mechanical concepts seem to be sound in the machines that I saw, outside of their utter uselessness as anything other than a puzzle) seems novel to me. There are allegorical precedents, of course, and much closer literary parallels in the adventure genre (which seems like it would be a good idea for a paper in some ways).

Anyway, about the experience of playing and failing to solve the game: I hate not being able to finish a game (of this type) without looking at hints. I consider it a sign of weakness, and I’m usually willing to blame the game rather than myself if I what I was stuck on wasn’t a likely, logical, or pleasing solution. I have thought for some time now that there’s a correlation between literary interpretation and the experience of solving a game (where the hints and walkthroughs reside in this analogy is sometimes with critical or sub-critical literature and sometimes with “interpretive communities” more broadly speaking). To be able to solve a game like Rhem without hints, I imagine (grr) that you would have to have developed a very strong sense for how the designer’s mind works. What the rules of this creation are, and what are and are not permissible variations of them, for example.

My failure of ludic interpretation in Rhem 2 happened at one specific point (and arguably would have at another point later, but I will defer discussion of this for a bit.) At many points throughout the game, you can look down. It is necessary, in fact, to look down at three locations to see something that you’ll need for later. Unless I missed something non-necessary, there is only one point in the game where you are required to look up. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense why you would want to look up in this particular spot after you have accomplished something to change its appearance, but I do not think it would have occurred to me to do so at any point in my lifetime. In fact, unless your perspective was being forced by climbing something vertical, I did not realize that it was possible to look up in the game.

By the point I had reached this impasse, I could infer with some reliability what remained to be done and what the possible nature of the solutions to the remaining problems were. Had I been a bit more persistent with brute force attempts,* I might very well have stumbled onto the solution I describe above without ever having looked up to begin with. All of this was bad enough, believe me, but the thing that really would have killed me, I think, had my eyes not inadvertently seen and committed to memory a diagram that spoiled the next unsolved puzzle, would have been trying to solve it myself.

The problem with this one is that while most of the puzzles in the game were in fact easy to solve once you had the necessary information, finding that information was often very difficult. So this particular puzzle involved activating what I thought were transformers but which turned out in fact to be some type of crystal resonator (perhaps the least plausible of the game’s various devices). To activate these resonators, transformers, or whatever in the hell they are, you were required to associate a symbol and two numbers with each of the three devices. You find, at different locations, a map of all the twelve-segmented circle’s numbers and a map with five symbols on it. Another diagram tells you the location of the various devices and one symbol. What the solution in fact requires is a kind of pattern matching inference with the information you have, but the game has trained you up this point to look behind closed doors (in many different senses) for the complete diagram rather than trying out this pure inferential style. It punishes inference and trial-and-error ruthlessly, in fact. But not with this puzzle, which, once I saw the solution, I couldn’t forget; but when I worked through how it was to be solved, I became angry at the anticipation of how stuck I would have been because of not knowing if I needed to figure it out with the information I had or search endlessly for the missing pieces, which, I would have been perfectly justified to assume had to be out there. (This game has a very large map.)

Here’s an insightful comment** about the first Rhem:

For my money, this kind of inductive reasoning is the essence of the genre (both adventure games in general and Myst clones in particular). And it stands in contrast to the sort of reasoning needed in DROD and other rules-based puzzle games. In those, you pretty much have complete information about how all the elements work. The challenge is to figure out the consequences of what you know. It’s very mathematical. Rhem, on the other hand, is scientific: you start with incomplete information, and have to notice patterns in order to figure out how to complete it. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be reading uncommented source code: all the symbols were presumably meaningful to whoever made them.

I disagree slightly, though, about the game’s puzzle-mechanics. It is largely inductive and inferential in terms of putting the information together, but the individual puzzles almost always required having all of the information that is available in order to be able to solve them. Inference is only helpful there in determining if a sufficient quantity of the existing information is present or not.

Outside of Plotkin’s review, I read around some of the others I could find with some quick googling, and I noticed that at least two of them (perhaps one influenced by the other?) suggested that something quite different was the hardest puzzle in the game. I found this particular area frustrating to navigate, but comparatively simple (the puzzle beyond it, however, was the hardest one in the game that I did manage to solve). I own Rhem 3, and I might give it a shot. I feel like I’ve seen enough of the style that I won’t get fooled again…

*The puzzle I am describing here, somewhat vaguely so as not to completely spoil it for anyone who might want to succeed where I failed, involved orienting a pattern from a simulation to a pattern in a room and then entering a code corresponding to that pattern on a keypad, which would then open a compartment. It’s possible that the missing pattern on the ceiling could have been oriented correctly to the room by a thorough-going experimentalist approach. **The whole blog is worth reading if you’re interested in computer games.