Letters from Home Review

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Emily Short

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Apr 22, 2007, 7:42:19 PM4/22/07
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I actually posted this review to my website a little while ago -- and
it's for an older game -- so apologies if you've already seen it. But
I realized I hadn't really publicized it anywhere, so:

======

Letters from Home (Roger Firth, 2000): a game I didn't get very far
into during its competition release some years ago. I replayed it this
evening. It belongs to a small collection of verbal-puzzle interactive
fiction where the words used to describe things are more important
than the things themselves, along with Infocom's "Nord and Bert", Ad
Verbum, Puddles on the Path, and Goose, Egg, Badger.

I have to admire LfH on several technical points. The implementation
is sparse and anti-mimetic - the game doesn't pretend to be anything
but a highly artificial puzzle - and there isn't much scenery, but it
is all crisply and consistently implemented. Many of the items in room
descriptions can't be used or manipulated, but the game will at least
tell you so, rather than pretending not to see any such thing. There
were no bugs that I could find, and few infelicitous interactions.

The structural design of the puzzles is fairly forgiving, in the sense
that many puzzles are available simultaneously and few of them are
dependent in order on the others. Almost every room of the game is
accessible from the outset. But there are one or two exceptions -
there are a couple of ways to do things out of order and make the game
harder to win, and there is also a time limit on the entire process
that feels pretty much unnecessary. Thanks to these restrictions, I
had to replay the game almost from scratch once, and redo another
portion of it at one point. I almost think a forgiving game with just
a few such game-closing opportunities is worse than a game full of
them - in the latter case, the player is likely to be cautious and
save often, whereas in a gentle game they come as an unpleasant shock.
The good news is that it's quite quick to replay bits of the game once
you've been through them once, so the results of failing once aren't
too severe.

I also found Letters from Home to be the most difficult of they word-
game IF I've played: there were numerous puzzle solutions for which I
needed prompting. This got less severe as the game went on. To some
extent I didn't realize at first just how laterally one has to think
about word meanings, synonyms, associations, and word sounds. All the
same, there were several of these puzzles that I doubt I would ever
have gotten by myself. Here again, the game is almost but not quite
fair: most of the solutions involve word associations of some kind,
but there are occasionally and inconsistently places where one can
interact directly with a written letter or piece of punctuation.

Fortunately, there is a meticulous hint system that covers every step
of game-play, so that the lost player can get some encouragement. The
hint system is context-sensitive, and is one of the game's real
strengths.

The final puzzle of the game is a crossword to fill in, which can be
played at two difficulty levels, depending on how you feel about
cryptic crossword hints. Even in hard mode, this was easier than most
cryptic crossword puzzles I've tried, though, and I was able to get
through it without further advice from the hint system.

Even with the hints, I took longer than the competition's two hours to
complete Letters from Home, and needed to make a map with annotations,
which I usually skip doing. (Fortunately, mapping this particular game
pays off in a rather charming way.)

In the end, the whole thing felt extremely abstract, with almost no
story and a minimal investment in my character. It was fun, but for
very different reasons than most of the IF I enjoy, since it wasn't
particularly focused on exploration, conventional problem-solving, or
story-telling.

Cassy Palop

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Apr 25, 2007, 4:25:26 AM4/25/07
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> I replayed it this evening.

Nowadays, there seems to be more and more quality works of IF that
have to be retaken due to lack of time. Personally, it's incredible
how often I am surprised by findings.

> To some
> extent I didn't realize at first just how laterally one has to think
> about word meanings, synonyms, associations, and word sounds.

I have English as a second language (well! I am a first-language
native Catalan/Spanish speaker), so I found the word sound and meaning
aspects of the piece rather challenging. However, making associations
worked for me, and it was a worthwhile experience.

> Fortunately, there is a meticulous hint system that covers every step
> of game-play, so that the lost player can get some encouragement. The
> hint system is context-sensitive, and is one of the game's real
> strengths.

My humble opinion: casual readers really enjoy progressing through a
work of IF; therefore, care of the hint system is a must. It also adds
to the replayability (indeed). [Especially, I am thinking of Andrew
Plotkin's pleasing "Dreamhold"].

> In the end, the whole thing felt extremely abstract, with almost no
> story and a minimal investment in my character. It was fun, but for
> very different reasons than most of the IF I enjoy, since it wasn't
> particularly focused on exploration, conventional problem-solving, or
> story-telling.

Probably because LfH is more a game than a story. So what? ;)

Congratulations on your nice review. :)

Jacek Pudlo

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Apr 25, 2007, 6:55:47 AM4/25/07
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Cassy Palop

> My humble opinion: casual readers really enjoy progressing through a
> work of IF; therefore, care of the hint system is a must. It also adds
> to the replayability (indeed). [Especially, I am thinking of Andrew
> Plotkin's pleasing "Dreamhold"].

Ah, the bland pleasures of bland minds. Let me guess, you absolutely *loved*
_Galatea_?


Cassy Palop

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Apr 25, 2007, 8:24:27 AM4/25/07
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Well! It seems that Google Groups snuffed/killed/left out my previous
answer.

What a pity... I will try to reproduce some excerpts, but my memory...

> I replayed it this
> evening.

A lot of quality works plus my lack of time equals to several pieces
that have to be retaken by me. It's incredible how often I'm surprised
by findings.

> To some
> extent I didn't realize at first just how laterally one has to think
> about word meanings, synonyms, associations, and word sounds.

I have English as a second language (Spanish/Catalan is my first,
native language), and while I found word sound puzzles rather
challenging, the associations puzzles worked great for me. (Some kind
of universal paradigm behind languages?) :)

> Fortunately, there is a meticulous hint system that covers every step
> of game-play, so that the lost player can get some encouragement. The
> hint system is context-sensitive, and is one of the game's real
> strengths.

My humble opinion: nowadays, hint systems are becoming more and more
important in game-oriented IF. Casual players--like me--enjoy
progressing through the game (sometimes hand in hand with the narrator
or the author); therefore care of a hint system is a must, or almost.

Well, it also adds to the replay value (I'm thinking of Andrew
Plotkin's pleasing 'Dreamhold'). Not to mention how different the
first experience is for newcomers. (They totally surrender to the
charm of IF).

Of course: I hate being stuck.

> In the end, the whole thing felt extremely abstract, [...]

Probably because LfH is more a game than a reading. So what? ;)

o--o

Congratulations on your really nice review. :)

Cassy Palop

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Apr 26, 2007, 3:48:53 AM4/26/07
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> Ah, the bland pleasures of bland minds.

I've just learned the word "bland". Let me assimilate it. :)

> Let me guess, you absolutely *loved* _Galatea_?

Did I? Galatea loved me I would say (at least the first time I read
the work). ;)

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