Friday, September 26, 2008

 

There's a Snake in the Bathtub

Well, it's been two years since I finished There's a Snake in the Bathtub, and as near as I can tell, it hasn't found an audience the way I had hoped it would. Don't get me wrong, I was tickled pink that no less a person than Emily Short would discover it and write a somewhat positive review. Still, I figured I was an exceptionally clever asshole for some of the stuff I did with this game, and my bimonthly Google search has lead me to the conclusion that nobody's going to write the article about how much of a genius I am.

So I guess I'll just have to do it myself.

The game was meant to be experienced without warning or preparation, so if you have any interest in playing it at all, do that first. You can download it here. You'll need an interpreter.

I Secretly Hate Interactive Fiction

Well, I do. It sucks. It just does.

Part of the problem with TaSitB is that I discovered the Inform system and the community dedicated to producing interactive fiction way back when I was in college. And when I did, I noticed that these people were in love with a gentleman named Graham Nelson and his two electronic masterpieces, Curses! and Jigsaw. And maybe they're good games, damned if I'll ever find out because I can't figure out what the fuck I'm supposed to be doing in either one.

I came away from these games with the impression that IF fans are masochistic jackasses, and that if I ever wanted to be worth anything to them, I would have to make a game that was really really difficult.

One game I did like was Kissing the Buddha's Feet, a cute little story where you have to help your college roommate study for an important test by removing the various distractions that were killing his concentration. The solutions struck this beautiful, elegant balance between being especially imaginative and being something you could actually figure out on your own instead of spending five damned hours wondering if there's any point to anything you're doing GOD DAMMIT I HATE CURSES! but anyway the point is it was a really good game.

So one night, after having a particularly rough time at my part-time restaurant job, I decided that the one thing that would make me happy would be to take a long, hot bath. To my dismay, I found that events were conspiring against my plans, but it gave me the idea to make a game where the object was to take a bath. Like Kissing the Buddha's Feet, it would be a game where you would have to seek creative and unlikely solutions to your problems.

Unlike Kissing the Buddha's feet, it would feature aliens and anacondas and dragons and alternate realities.

It took me several years with quite a few aborted attempts to get from a concept to a working game. This was partly because Inform 6 was not a very fun system to program in and partly because I have no business whatsoever trying to write interactive fiction and I know it. But in the end, I had something that I was proud of.

I had an interactive headfuck.

The bathtub.z5 Experience

In a perfect world, people would have discovered There's a Snake in the Bathtub in much the same way that I've found my favorite adventure games of years past, such as The Multi-Dimensional Thief. They would find a file with an odd name -- it's released as "bathtub.z5" -- and decide to try it out.

There's no title screen. The game immediately jumps into a prologue that establishes your character as a fry cook in desperate need of a bath. It gently nudges you home from your job and suggests that you visit the bathroom. And as you open the door, ready for your reward at the end of the day, you discover...

TITLE SCREEN! THERE'S A SNAKE IN THE BATHTUB!

No explanation. This is the sort of experience the player has signed himself on for. And it's only going to get weirder from here.

So the player, encouraged by the objective suggested in the prologue and the title of the game, may decide that his first objective should be to remove the snake from the bathtub. And since the snake can eat the player's character, the snake should probably be subdued in some way afterward.

This is a harrowing task to be sure, but the execution is actually relatively simple. Perhaps a bit too simple. Maybe the player is proud of his achievement and believes he's won because the title villain is dispatched. Or maybe he's worried by the number of items laying around his house that he didn't touch yet and suspects that something is up.

Regardless, he returns to the bathroom for his bath and is told that he'll have to fill the tub first. But if he tries to run the faucet, it comes off in his hand. A different solution is required. This time, it will require thinking outside the box a bit.

Once the tub is finally full, the player discovers that the water is ice cold. The water heater is acting up. So he'll have to find a way to heat the water up. But now the player will have to go to some relatively insane lengths to do it.

But then the water is hot. And it's just a matter of disrobing and stepping into the bathtub. But there's one last problem.

The player's clothes have been fused to his body and cannot be taken off.

It is perhaps the most ridiculous obstacle that's been put in the player's way yet. A bathtub full of anaconda is perhaps improbable, but it doesn't have quite the same feeling of problems arising just because the author is a total prick. And the solution? Equally ridiculous.

Those are the four main obstacles in the game. They can be accomplished in any order, but that is the order that the player will encounter them in if he sets out to play the game as it guides him. If he can overcome all four trials, he will face one final challenge before he can get his bath.

Now, if that was all there was to the game, it'd just be this fairly plain little text game where weird things happen and you're asked to think outside of the box fairly often.

However, there's something demonic hiding in this game. It's so insidious, so twistedly perfect, that I feel kind of bad about actually giving it away. I daresay that the entire game is about giving the player this moment where he realizes what's going on here and just how badly he's been fucked with.

So seriously. Guys. If you want to have this experience, turn back now. Go play the game. Try it for a while. When you've reached a point where you're of the opinion that the game is not just difficult to figure out but cannot be completed, come back. And I'll tell you the big secret.

My Beautiful Headfuck

This is gorgeous. I love the hell out of this. It just works so well for me on so many different levels.

You begin the game in the restaurant. Your job is described for you, and your boss tells you to make an order of fries. And you're given control of your character.

Cooking the fries is not difficult. The entire process is described for you in the first paragraph of the introduction. In fact, the situation is designed so that you can type in the first paragraph of the introduction, verbatim, and succeed at the task. For cooking french fries, you are awarded one point.

The whole thing seems like a tutorial. A warmup for the sorts of interactions that you can expect in the game. You even earn a point for it.

You dig a little deeper into the game. And you find, as Emily Short did, that the game stops after 100 moves. The reason? Well, you have to get up for work the next day. If you don't stop and go to bed, there's no way you'll be able to do it, so the bath must be postponed.

Do you know the answer? Have you figured it out?

There is a lot of psychological pressure put on the player to cook the fries in the beginning of the game. The situation looks like a tutorial, and we've been trained, as players, to follow tutorials. We're rewarded a point for succeeding, and we've been conditioned to think that anything you earn points for in an adventure game is worth doing.

And the scene -- following orders dictated by a boss -- is familiar to most players. We think that, since we are playing the role of this character, that we must perform the task as if we were this character. The fries must be cooked because we are playing a fry cook and that is what is being asked of us. If we don't follow the orders? The boss character starts to grow impatient with the player's character. If something goes wrong -- the fries are burnt, a plate drops and smashes, or the player simply runs out of time -- the boss grows angry and the player's character is fired.

A player who reaches this sad conclusion to the opening scene, whether on accident or by willfully screwing around, is likely to conclude that he has "messed up", that the game has gone wrong somehow, and that he should restart. Even worse, the player may dismiss the prologue as time-wasting fluff and create a save file after the fries have successfully been cooked and always restart from that point to save time.

This is a game about thinking outside of the box. If the player is going to win the game, he has to realize that only one thing is being asked of him: he has to take a bath. One of the obstacles in his path is the time limit that's created by the player character's obligation to his job. The solution?

Lose your job.

Pick up a plate. Drop it on the floor. Watch it smash. Walk out the door. You'll find that the move limit is gone; you can stay up all night trying to get your bath going if you want to.

In order to win the game, the player must do something that seems completely irrational, both to the player and to the player's character. Heck, it's not even obvious that you can lose your job by botching the tutorial unless you have the curiosity to try screwing it up. You have to disregard your normal values and focus on exactly what you're trying to accomplish.

I was hoping that this would be a difficult thing for most people to do. Judging by Emily Short's review, I was right. And I'm damned proud of it. I've made a game where the player must not only think outside of the box with respect to how to accomplish his goals, but he must also think outside of the box with respect to what he actually needs to do.

But it gets better. There's one last layer to this onion, and it's my favorite one of all.

The game can be completed with a perfect score.

Even allowing for the random behavior of the snake and various other details that are different every time you start the game, it is possible to cook the fries at the beginning of the game to earn the first lousy point and then to optimize your behavior in such a way that you complete every other obstacle in the game and end with "TAKE A BATH" as your 100th move.

Once you're intimately familiar with how the game world works, you get one last puzzle to solve for extra credit. The entire game is a giant Rubik's Cube, and if you really want to, you can work out how to untangle it. I leave that as an activity for folks who enjoy working on speedruns and optimized walkthroughs to enjoy. And I wonder if anyone will ever figure out a 99-move solution...

All Well

When it comes right down to it, "There's a Snake in the Bathtub" is probably not the sort of game that I'd really enjoy playing. So it's hard to get too upset about the lack of attention the game has gotten. I've been thinking of rewriting it in Inform 7 as a practice exercise, but when it comes right down to it, I doubt I have anything meaningful to contribute to interactive fiction as an artform.

Still, it would be nice to think that someone out there decided to try this game out on a whim, had the patience to reach the "lightbulb moment", and thought to himself, "Hey! I see what he did there! Huh, neat."

Labels:


Comments:
Your pleasure is self indulgent.
 
Reading this was significantly more fun than playing.
I'm not a big puzzle fan though, so this is to be expected.
Fun idea though.
 
Your pleasure is self indulgent.

I'm sorry. u.u

Reading this was significantly more fun than playing.
I'm not a big puzzle fan though, so this is to be expected.
Fun idea though.


Yeah, fair enough. I'm not sure if I made it clear enough in the journal, but I hate the game too. n.n It was an attempt to suck up to an imaginary person that I only half understood, so it came out kind of crappy.

I can still be proud of my stupid gimmick though. n.n
 
I saw Emily Short's recent link to your post and decided to give the game a try, based on your pre-spoiler comments.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, for what that's worth. I found the snake puzzle to be one of the hardest. The solution involves "put table on X" when I used "put table in X" - that didn't work and it wasn't obvious that I'd nearly solved it, so I explored a lot of other routes until the solution clicked.

There was a similar moment in the lab with "open X", where the disambiguation message prompts you to "open your X" but the correct command is "open my X."

Also, the oven and the fruit bowl vexed me to no end. I figured it would be a simple matter of filling the bowl with water, boiling it in the oven, and dumping it in the tub.

However, the bowl was impossible to fill and the oven didn't appear to heat anything at all. A more detailed implementation of either would probably only encourage dead-end efforts in this vein, so I'm not sure what the fix would be - possibly a hole in the bowl?

I actually loved the choice between freely exploring with no time limit, and keeping the limit in place to try for an optimal solution. (The presentation of this choice isn't especially player-friendly, but the possibility certainly is.)

I took up your challenge and found a 98 move solution. (Though everything "random" went my way: I looked up the correct word on the first try, examined the correct door on the first try, and only took two moves to avoid the snake.)

I'm sorry your first game didn't get the attention you wanted, but if you ever make another one, I expect I'd enjoy playing it.
 
Oh dear, now I feel bad. c.c;

I'm not actually unhappy about the attention the game got. I didn't promote it anywhere, and as puzzle-heavy IF goes, it's pretty plain. My intent was to use as much of the built-in functionality of Inform 6 as I could and extend it as little as possible. The fact that I got a positive review from SPAG in spite of its flaws was fantastic.

This blog, as Anonymous suggested above, is for self-indulgence. Nobody reads it, as far as I can tell, so I dump all of my random ramblings about video games here, where nobody is likely to find them on accident. I just thought that the whole time limit thing was rather clever of me, so I wanted to write about it.

I am indeed sorry about the implementation issues just because that's one of the things I hate so much about IF -- you have a perfectly valid solution in mind, but either the author didn't allow for it or you haven't guessed the correct verb. My only excuse is that I've always operated well outside of the proper IF community, so my pool of test subjects is limited to online friends who can be bothered to play "one of those ZORK games".

As far as writing another game goes, it's not likely. I've sort of come to accept that my brain just isn't wired for IF, as author or player. I love the Inform 7 system, and I think it's a wonderful plaything, but there's really nothing that I want to write.

I'm happy with the mark I've made. I can do something else now.
 
I love the post -- I thought this was a great explanation of the creative hook of a game I've never played. (I'm an off-and-on IF player.) I just wish that I had given the game enough of a chance before deciding to read your spoilery description! I guess, in the end, I'd have to say that that's the reason the game didn't catch on -- the player just isn't motivated enough to stick around long enough to see the clever design.

(That said, I was one of the rare players who was fired from their job, shrugged, and said "Well, that didn't seem to matter much. On with the rest of the game!" So I guess the 100-turn time limit never would have affected me!)
 
New review out.

http://www.ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=c8q1g0ivr5gne0e6
 
Well thank you, Peter Pears, that was a very nice thing to say. :)

Much like the lamp batteries in Adventure (yes, Mr. Griffiths, you weren't all that original after all).

Eh, can't win 'em all. :D
 
I enjoy this game a lot! I was able to take a bath as the 97th move, thanks to my saving capabilities. Once I was familiar with the details that varied with each start of a new game, I just saved in case I thought of another strategy. For example, you can take multiple objects in one move.
I'm not sure what the last puzzle refers to, the one regarding a Rubik's Cube. If the idea is to consider the layout of the house and how you can complete the game in a hundred moves or less, then I must say that I have completed it.
When I first played it, I had no idea as to what I should do. I was also disappointed that there was no walkthrough available whenever I got stuck.
One day, I happened to be experimenting with a few items, and then I looked up a few vocabulary words in a book, got some numbers from another and used them to my advantage. After about a week, I succeeded in beating the game in ttwo hundred moves. The second time I played it, I was down to a hundred twenty-four. And finally, I reduced it down to ninety-seven.
Thanks for making such a splendid game! :-) Maybe I might write a walkthrough for it. :P
 
I enjoy this game a lot! I was able to take a bath as the 97th move, thanks to my saving capabilities. Once I was familiar with the details that varied with each start of a new game, I just saved in case I thought of another strategy. For example, you can take multiple objects in one move.

Yep! Once I had the puzzles in place, I started playing around with little efficiencies and exploits like that to see what kind of diabolical -- but achievable -- time limit I could set. I had a feeling it was possible to win in less that 100, but I stuck with it because it's a nice round number.

I'm not sure what the last puzzle refers to, the one regarding a Rubik's Cube. If the idea is to consider the layout of the house and how you can complete the game in a hundred moves or less, then I must say that I have completed it.

Yep again! When I said that the whole game is a Rubik's Cube, I basically meant that the player could ignore the natural narrative flow of the game and just treat the entire environment and all of its systems as a single large puzzle to solve. When you realize that you don't need to remove the snake or even enter the bathroom before accomplishing some of your other goals, for example, you can shave quite a few turns off your playthrough.

When I first played it, I had no idea as to what I should do. I was also disappointed that there was no walkthrough available whenever I got stuck.
One day, I happened to be experimenting with a few items, and then I looked up a few vocabulary words in a book, got some numbers from another and used them to my advantage. After about a week, I succeeded in beating the game in ttwo hundred moves. The second time I played it, I was down to a hundred twenty-four. And finally, I reduced it down to ninety-seven.


You know, I love to hear that, because that was exactly the sort of experience I wanted to give players. Like, that was the experience that I always had with text adventures back in the day. It's not clear what your goal is or what you should be doing, so you fool around with the environment a bit, and then one day hey, something clicks, and it's like the whole game opens up. But at the same time, I did want to give players enough to go on, so I tried my best to try and nudge the player into the puzzles and provide some clues. I'm glad you found it worthwhile enough to stick through to the end!

Thanks for making such a splendid game! :-) Maybe I might write a walkthrough for it. :P

Thank you for playing it! :) And yeah, write a walkthrough if you like. I'd actually be interested to read it.
 
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