Perdition's Flames

Wed Oct 28, 2009

Since my last few posts have been about interactive fiction, an enthusiasm I tend to revive around the time of the annual competition, I will write a few words about Mike Roberts’s Perdition’s Flames (1993). I had students in an introduction to literature class at Georgia Tech write a brief IF interpretation of some the things we had been reading in class, and I suppose what I had in mind as the ideal result would have been something with the same sense of humor and technical facility seen in Roberts’s Return to Ditch Day, though I did realize at the time that it was an unrealistic expectation. It was the engineering background combined with a certain wry humor that really appealed to me about that game, and you see these qualities, in a somewhat embryonic form, in Perdition’s Flames.

The premise of the game is that you are a recent arrival in Hell and have to figure out what seems to be a way to get to Heaven. It quickly becomes clear, however, that your presence there is not punitive. The afterlife is a large and random bureaucracy, and you are presented with the typical series of interlocking obstacles. I pride myself, wholly without warrant, on being able to solve puzzly games of this type without resorting to hints, and I made substantial progress in this one before turning to the walkthrough. (What eluded me turned out to be what I might blame on a failure of the parser, which is not as generous in its understanding of things as most contemporary efforts. While in a container, the command “search ” did not produce the same result as “search ,” which might not seem that objectionable but for the fact that the object in the container was at the time the only thing, absent myself in said container. I understand that this type of parsing issue tends to put most non-initiates completely off the playing of these game.)

The plot resolves itself into joining a club of like-minded folks, and the game also suggests that a character you encounter has created the very world that you inhabit. None of this is treated with anything other than light satire, of course, a type of humor less stark than that found in the similar Douglas Adams’s effort Bureaucracy.

At one point you’re required to solve a deduction exercise similar to those found on the former logic section of the GRE (and which I remember learning how to solve as part of my academically gifted class. Why exactly these type of logic puzzles are thought to have any cognitive benefit or psychometric validity remains one of the more puzzling questions of the 20th C.) If you can’t get the puzzle on your own, or lack the patience to set up the grid, you’re also given two multiple choice geometry questions. The mimetic break of these being part of a DMV test in hell wasn’t quite working for me, but it does give you some flavor of the arbitrariness inherent in the puzzles q.v. the brutally hard but more internally consistent puzzles in Curses!, released around the same time.)

I’m currently finishing up Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City about which I hope to have more to say, along with some words on C. S. Lewis’s Silent Planet books, one of which I’m currently teaching.