Roger Firth's IF pages


Letters from Home

Back up

Letters from Home -- my first man-sized chunk of Interactive Fiction -- was an entry for the IF Competition 2000. In what was generally acknowledged to have been a strong year, it came 12th (from a field of 53), with an average score of 6.44 out of 10; I'm comfortable enough with that outcome.

Should you so wish, you can study the full results. From all the published reviews, I've taken the liberty of extracting the specific references to Letters from Home and reproducing them below. I think that they give a pretty fair reflection of the game, and of its appeal (or lack thereof) to the judges as a whole. My sincere thanks to the authors of these pieces.

   CAUTION: mild spoilers below -- don't read on if you intend playing the game   

Chris Angelini

Long introduction, but a well-written one. This doesn't put me off at all. The premise is a bit stock; but that's something for the author to play with later on... and after all, there are only so many plotlines in the world. I like the concept. Word games and clues appeal... and the setting is feeling as though it has plenty of personality to be revealed. Plus, the NPCs are alive enough that it feels this world's in motion and dynamic. The manipulation of words and phrases and language does feel a little odd in this setting... but I think it's easily dealable. The game's too fun to make me worry about every little detail that might break mimesis!

Copyright © 2000 by Chris Angelini

Tony Baechler (6/10)

There were some things very good about it, but others which brought the score down. First, I think this game would be hard for anyone who is not a native speaker of English as it requires a good knowledge of language to solve the puzzles. Even at that, there were quite a few solutions which I really did not understand. I used the walkthrough so I could complete it in time, but there are a very good set of hints. Unless you are very good at these types of puzzles you will probably also need the solution. The writing was very good with no spelling errors that I noticed.

There were two things which brought the game down a lot. One was originality and the other was the somewhat confusing solutions to some puzzles. This game is very much like "Nord And Bert" in the types of language puzzles which made up the game, however the puzzles and concepts themselves were quite different. I was reminded too much of the Infocom original though, so it lost some points. The second thing, as mentioned before, was the complexity of the puzzles. Some of them I had no problem understanding and thought were quite cleve, however I have no idea how or why a lot of them were solved with the actions listed in the walkthrough and hints.

I would like to commend the author here for a very good job of implementing the hint system. I have encountered other games before with context-sensitive hints but I never found them to be very good. Of course part of the reason why they work so well is because there is something in every room to look for, and in most normal games this would not work as well or at all. My suggestion would be to have a little better explanation for some of the puzzles and to better clarify the newspaper. Also, it would have been nice to figure out towards the beginning of the game what I am supposed to do.

Copyright © 2000 by Tony Baechler

Sean Barrett

A game which leave you trapped in a house, wandering around trying to solve puzzles for no good reason. LfH invites comparison to Ad Verbum, but hey, who wants to be obvious with these things?

LfH was a fun bit of wordplay for a while, but the attempts at including other puzzles (e.g. finding the attic key) seemed totally tangential and not up to the same level of quality. And even the main puzzles were a bit too arbitrary in places; e.g. why the G string and not the other three? Then again, some of the difficulty was my own; I should make a big note that says "remember to try pushing objects from place to place" for next comp -- it was something that I forgot with at least one other game as well.

Is it just me, or is hearing only the other half of a phone conversation the PC is participating in a disorienting introduction? I kinda think Ad Verbum was wiser with its decision to just tell you "it's a wacky treasure hunt", compared to LfH trying to wrap it in a serious story even though the game universe was still going to be a wacky treasure hunt with a surrealistic reality (for lack of a better phrase); indeed, the intro story didn't bring much to the table except the chance to work in a nod to Inform's creator, and to establish the entirely unnecessary time constraint for the game. I guess what I'm saying is that the author shouldn't have bothered recruiting for the narrative army -- should've just let the crossword win the war.

Copyright © 2000 by Sean Barrett

Sarah Bergstrom (10/10)

I like puzzlefests, and the only thing I didn't like about Letters was the timer, since it took me forever to finish. But it took forever because I was having fun reading all of the flavor-texts and because I was trying to beta-test (as I mentioned before, a crash lost my comments, and it was too late to try to re-create them).

Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Bergstrom

Richard Bos (4/10)

Nice exercise in coding a crossword; too bad that the rest of the game was somewhat haphazardly executed and just not a consistent pleasure to play. Many of the letters were a bit too hard to guess; I mean, "get Delano" from a photograph in a newspaper? No, sorry. But the crossword was nice.

Copyright © 2000 by Richard Bos

Suzanne Britton (6/10)

"I'm sick of seeing people's houses. Everywhere I look there's people's houses. Why, God, WHY?!"
-- C.E. Forman

This bit of classic CEF sums up my criticism of "Letters From Home", another wordplay game which, unfortunately, failed to satisfy as "Ad Verbum" did. Most of the game is spent exploring a large, rather dull house and gathering objects (actually, gathering letters of the alphabet masquerading as objects -- but "Spellcasting 101" did this sort of thing better, IMHO, with the "kabbul" puzzle). The only thing that kept me going through this was the promise of crosswordy goodness in the game's prologue.

And finally I got there: an elegant little cryptic crossword using each letter of the alphabet once. As mentioned previously, I'm a fan of cryptics, so I liked this part. Then again, I have books filled with them, and there was nothing particularly interesting about the crossword in "Letters" besides its pangrammic quality.

I was nevertheless inclined to give this game a 7, until I reached the end. It wasn't exactly a satisfying ending. Is there a better one? I couldn't find it.

Hmm. I'm sounding more lackluster about "Letters From Home" than I wanted to. It was highly clever (the various easter eggs, the fact that the words in the crossword form a well-known pangram sentence, etc.) and I did enjoy parts of it. I just found the experience dry and unsatisfying in the end.

Copyright © 2000 by Suzanne Britton

Adam Cadre (a low FOUR: "neutral, or mixed feelings")

This appears to be a very well-done game, and I like the idea of collecting letters via their homophones and such and using them to finish a crossword... but still, there's no getting around the fact that this is a scavenger hunt, and I don't really like scavenger hunts much at all. Full points for admiration, but I just couldn't get into it.

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cadre

Lelah Conrad

This was a Zorklike game, more puzzle than story. I think the story side was more potential than actualized -- for example, did the letters from the '40's all run together some way into a coherent message or tale of some sort? I found them so haphazardly that I didn't really take time to record them all and try to read them together, and now I'm wondering whether there was yet another puzzle or at least a full story there. Or were they just sort of interesting scenery?

The game was well-put together and well-written (I had only a couple of very minor buggish moments -- sorry I didn't note down where and how) -- the priory had a nice overall structure, and seemed logical. It was fun to explore -- many items of interest to look at and think about. I enjoyed the men wandering around, and their random comments. I was amused by the comments when I tried to open some of the doors. It was nice to be able to show the clues to the men, and they were very obviously very helpful.

My main criticism is that the game is too hard (I'd class it right in with Plotkin's "cruel"). I don't know what an en-dash is, what an ell of cotton is, what a cathode or an anode are, etc. etc., so I would never have figured out many of the letter items. And trying to get that bee drove me crazy (I was trying to utilize the honey, but never in the right way)! Although I found 6 of the 7 clues after about 3 or so hours of play, and had either figured them out or gotten the answers from the men, I had only a handful of letters, 6 or 8 I think. I knew I was spelling something or other, but I just couldn't figure out what. Finally, after I had seen everything I could find, I looked at the walkthrough, and was amazed to discover how many letters I still needed! (The one place I hadn't gotten to was the cellar, which I actually think was a cool puzzle -- I just didn't figure it out.) Oh, also, the game may be thought too long for the comp. This is the kind of game that would be great for those down moments during the year, when people are just itching to get their hands on some complicated puzzle-piece.

Did the taxi really make any difference? It seemed to me that whether I "won" or "lost", the priory still burned down, and I was still leaving, so that sort of seemed anticlimactic. Could I have prevented the burning of the priory?

Finally, I would have liked to have seen some notes or something at the end -- where did you get the idea, funny things that I may have missed, etc.

Copyright © 2000 by Lelah Conrad

Craxton (8/10)

Someone actually wrote an entire game based around puns. Sheesh. Anyway, this game is a good old Nelsonian treasure-hunt. In this case, a search for the letters of the alphabet in an old priory. Done badly, these games can be abhorrent, fortunately this game is done well. And the hint system is comprehensive. Together this makes an amusing, though somewhat shallow, diversion. You have twenty-six rooms, each hiding a letter. Find them all, then there's a final puzzle, a crossword. You also have to get ahold of the clues to the aforementioned crossword. As I mentioned, puns are the order of the day- a vase of curious flowers, double ewes, a slightly obscure joke about articles, the bow gag (ripped off shamelessly from ZUU (where it was done better)), and so on. In the Nelsonian tradition, there are also some fairly molar-crunching puzzles. The armor puzzle seems unmotivated -- even if you know there's a secret door in the room, how are you to figure out how to open it without the walkthrough? Many puzzles also require outside knowledge -- the tree, the printing press, the lengths of cloth, all rather obscure letters. Good luck with the crossword. And there's a time limit on the game, as well. Good thing the hints cover almost everything.

Letters from Home breaks no new ground for the IF genre, but it is an engaging way to kill a few hours. My only real complaint is that the ending seems rather incongruous.

Copyright © 2000 by Craxton

Gilles Duchesne (9/10)

I didn't finish this one on time. The score is based on what I saw in 2 hours.

Although I was thrilled and impressed with this game at first, my enthusiasm dropped when I got stuck and consulted the hints and walkthrough. First, I didn't realize I could expect to find a letter inalmost every room. Several letters were waaay too hard to find, entering the "guess-the-author's-idea" category. I can only dream of a version 2, in which the less subtle letters would get better and clever puzzles. Oh yeah, and the hints were a bit too blunt. A couple times I figured why a puzzle worked that way by reading the walkthrough, and it should be the other way around. Nevertheless, there was enough good stuff in there to get a 9.

Copyright © 2000 by Gilles Duchesne

Jennifer Earl (7/10)

[These are play-notes rather than formal reviews, but too lively and amusing not to include here.]

okay, find the letters, huh?

is the reference to 'adventurous' supposed to tangentially imply I'm going to grab everything that isn't nailed down?

well, that's probably fair. hrr... there's all this stuff on the desk but I can't interact with any of it. This wouldn't surprise me so much if it weren't clear from the response to SEARCH DESK that there may be something I can do here. Yikes! a stab in the dark bears fruit! On the end of my knife, presumably. Give me an A.

why do the letters disappear on me? Guess the letters themselves aren't that important.

A clue...eeagh! crossword puzzle! (well, actually I like crossword puzzles. But it's still a little startling.)

in the fireplace:
That's definitely the worst idea you've had this morning.
I approve.

I have to get the en-dash... ah, that's no fair, that's punctuation. oh, it was N. oops.

Again, in the nursery, I go to the hints to discover a really unfair puzzle... was I supposed to look these records up?: sorry, that's above and beyond the call of duty.

Despite my annoyance, I'm finding this one fun and engaging. sigh -- only halfway through the alphabet... it is dragging on a little. and it bothers me a little that I didn't even know I was carrying this crossword around.

well, that was all very nice. Strange though.

Decent game. Having trouble giving it an eight though. I'm not sure why... I suppose I wish all this nostalgia talk had paid off...all these letters and I have no idea who wrote them... NPCs who really didn't matter much, unless there were fun hidden things to do.

Enjoyable when I wasn't bored. I'll say 7.
and who were Will and Don?

Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Earl

Steven Howard (6/10)

This is somewhat reminiscent of Graham Nelson's "Curses" as well as Nelson's observation that an IF game is "a narrative at war with a crossword." As in Curses, you wander around an English house, collecting items that turn into other items. However, the objects are transformed not through magic or some physical process, but into letters of the alphabet (based on their names -- so a cup of tea becomes the letter "T"). One puzzle requires you to solve a simple quadratic equation, a couple of others require either a crossword-lover's vocabulary or brute force. Several times, the player must take something that is either intangible or clearly out of reach. In the end, you can use the letters to solve a crossword puzzle and get some sort of reward, I imagine. The game's time limit ran out before I had half the objects I needed and I didn't have time to play it again just to see the ending. The game does let you keep playing after the time limit has passed, which is good, I guess. A couple of things really annoyed me: the game sometimes forces you to put objects down when you leave a room. ("As you exit, you leave the grommet behind.") I'm not sure whether this was intended to let the player know that certain objects were no longer needed, or what, but it bugged me. Especially at one point, when I couldn't leave a room with something I really thought I needed elsewhere. As it turns out I was wrong, but I thought the "you leave it behind" thing was a puzzle. Secondly, there's inconsistency in the coding of "scenery" type objects. Sometimes you get a "that's just scenery" type of message, but other times (the various items mentioned in the description of the clutter on the desk, for example) they're simply not implemented, and you get a "you can't see any such thing" type of message. The game also features a few "inside jokes", including references to "Aunt Jemima" (which just makes Americans think of maple syrup, you know), a vase of "mimesis" flowers and a pair of disembodied voices with familiar names who talk to you about the various items you need to pick up. In a nice gesture of trans-Atlantic friendship, there is a command to switch the crossword clues from the British (or "cryptic") style to the American style.

Copyright © 2000 by Steven Howard

Rob Menke (Technical:9, Puzzles:10, Story:8)

This is a puzzle game, no mistake about it. The goal becomes obvious quickly -- find 26 letters of the alphabet. Some are easy, some are hard. Finding the "P" is easy, but getting it isn't.

I didn't play with this for long; I had a feeling that if I started I'd be playing it for a while. After the first half-hour I had a pretty good idea of the complexity of the game. Rather than resort to the walkthru I rated it and continued on, saving it for a later day...

Copyright © 2000 by Rob Menke

David Samuel Myers

A pretty reasonable wordplay game with nice touches. The map is not overwhelming once you figure out what is going on, and even if you get stuck, you can still have fun in the game the way it has been set up. Unfortunately, due to the plot, there are too many puzzles for the time allotted, predicated by the nature of the English alphabet.

Copyright © 2000 by David Samuel Myers

Paul O'Brian (8.2/10)

Graham Nelson once described interactive fiction as "a narrative at war with a crossword." Letters From Home takes a definite side in this battle by being an interactive narrative where the main goal is to complete a crossword, and whose entire purpose is structured around puzzle-solving, the "crossword" part of the metaphor. The explicit connection with that metaphor is just one of the many pieces of Nelsoniana scattered throughout the game. From the introductory text, to the Jigsaw (grandfather clock and Titanic mementos) and Curses (sprawling mansion filled with relics of distinguished ancestors) references, to the somber traces of wartime, the whole thing comes across as a loving tribute to Graham. Being a Nelson admirer myself, I couldn't help but be impressed by the various clever nods to him peppered throughout this game. There's also a hilarious Zork allusion in a throwaway parser response and even a passing reference to the author's own Cloak Of Darkness demonstration page for the various IF languages.

The main attraction in Letters, though, is the puzzles. This is one of those games whose plot is thin to nonexistent, and whose mimesis gets shattered (literally) in the course of puzzle-solving. The game isn't particularly straightforward about announcing what your objective is supposed to be, but it comes clear after a bit. At first, Letters seems to be a standard-issue "collect your inheritance by solving puzzles" game a la Hollywood Hijinx, but the plot and the mimesis both evaporate rather quickly as it becomes clear that the real point of the game is collecting the letters of the alphabet by finding things that represent or resemble them in some way. For example, you find a cup of tea, and sure enough, it represents the letter T. Once you get the hang of it (hint: leave your sense of realism at the door), most of these puzzles are fun, and a few are quite remarkable. Some, though, are marred by ambiguous writing. For example, one of the necessary objects is described as stuck to a skylight. Perhaps because of architectural styles where I live, I don't expect that I'll be able to reach up and touch a skylight -- they tend to be placed in high ceilings. Consequently, I thought that the puzzle was to find a way to reach this object -- I climbed stuff, searched for a ladder, tried to haul furniture into the room, all to no avail. Finally, I turned to the hints, which just said to... take it. I did, and it worked. Now, part of the problem here was no doubt my fault: I should have just tried taking the item. However, I'd submit that if you're writing descriptions (especially terse descriptions like those in this game) where critical puzzle pieces depend on how the player envisions the room, there had better be a lot of clues in place to make sure that you're communicating clearly. Letters From Home sometimes fails to do this.

I didn't finish the game in the two-hour judging period -- no great surprise since I'm guessing there are twenty-six letter puzzles, some of which require multiple steps. In addition, there's a time limit, which I blithely exceeded. So I don't know much about the ending, and probably missed half the puzzles. I doubt the ending has much of a punch -- there's virtually no narrative in this game, and solving the puzzles is its own reward. As for the half I missed, if they're anything like the half I found, I'll bet they're a lot of fun, though occasionally needlessly frustrating. Letters was coded quite well -- I only found one bug, though a rather amusing one. The game's time limit is 12:00 noon, and it creates atmosphere by having the village chimes toll on the hour. However, once it gets past noon, the chimes toll thirteen times, then fourteen times, and so on. The funny thing is, the game is so unrealistic that at first I didn't even notice the oddness of the extra chimes. In a world where everything keeps turning into letters of the alphabet, and abstract concepts like letters can be carried around in your inventory, what's a little extra chiming? Letters From Home is a fun, lexicographically oriented puzzlefest that needs a bit more work on writing and coding before it can reach the Nelsonian level to which it aspires. This review has been brought to you by the letters "G" and "N".

Copyright © 2000 by Paul O'Brian

Andrew Plotkin (9/10: "Really great")

Thoroughly entertaining letter romp. I doubt anybody solved every puzzle -- a few are obscure, or convoluted, or UK-specific. (It's a "number 2 pencil" over here.) But so what.

The idea of automatically dropping (or vanishing) objects when you're done with them is very good; it prevents what would otherwise be an absurd inventory.

Not to give away anything, but I thought that giant statue was female?

Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Plotkin

Aaron Reed (7/10)

Very clever. A friend of mine has recently got me into crosswords and word games, and "Letters From Home" is essentially an interactive word game. There is an extraordinary amount of detail present -- every object mentioned can be examined, many can be interacted with. And as it turns out, you'll have to do just that to win -- in searching for clues and the necessary letters, you'll discover there are more of these than there are game locations.

The puzzles are extremely difficult, which while keeping the game challenging also hampers it. Any puzzle to which the solution is "take indefinite article" is probably a little harsh. I guess what threw me is that the central idea -- finding all the letters from abstract concepts -- is out of place with the otherwise realistic nature of the game. Nothing in the intro or starting rooms suggested to me I should be thinking along those lines, and so I didn't catch on for quite a while. And even once I knew how it worked, I had trouble finding letters. I started referencing the extensive on-line help system about an hour and 15 minutes in, but even with its help I wasn't able to finish the game in time.

However, it all comes together very well, is consistently paced, and well-implemented. A very nice effort.

Copyright © 2000 by Aaron Reed

Dan Shiovitz ("Highly recommended")

Basically, take Erehwon from last year and s/math/verbal/. This has a bunch of things you'll probably like if you're good at cryptic crosswords. I like them enough to follow along with the walkthrough but not enough to try and solve it; the looks I got in passing suggest that most of the puzzles are probably solvable, but you'll need to hit hints for some.

Copyright © 2000 by Dan Shiovitz

Emily Short

Somewhat late in the day, but still very much appreciated, here's a review blogged by Emily in March 2007.

Copyright © 2007 by Emily Short

Duncan Stevens (at the invaluable Baf's Guide)

Half interactive fiction and half Games Magazine extract, Letters From Home is strewn with challenging wordplay puzzles, among them collecting all the letters of the alphabets (disguised in various forms) and solving cryptic crossword clues. Packed with subtle humor and IF references, so there's fun to be had even if cryptic crosswords aren't your thing. Some of the puzzles are a bit obscure, but on the whole everything works impressively well.

Copyright © 2001 by Duncan Stevens

Kaia Vintr (8/10)

Fun concept, well-written, stupid puzzles, cliche (big English house with old relatives wandering around).

Copyright © 2000 by Kaia Vintr