Review: A Beauty Cold and Austere

A Beauty Cold and Austere is a very well crafted game, but it did not keep my attention. It started off with a promising premise, but I ran out of steam about midway through the story.

The author’s intent was to present mathematical concepts in a way that the player could directly experience rather than to present them in formal but less accessible language. By encountering examples within an IF simulation, it would make sense that players, even those without a mathematics background, might gain an intuitive sense of some of these concepts.

The author came up with some clever ways of demonstrating these concepts and framing them as IF puzzles, which I recognize is a difficult task. In almost all cases, when I came upon a puzzle scene, I understood which concept was being addressed, but often it wasn’t clear to me how to demonstrate that “I got it” and move on to the next part of the story. I stuck with the game as long as I could because I enjoyed the writing and attentiont to detail, but I just could not maintain forward momentum in terms of game play.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The first puzzle that I came across, for instance, involved combinatorial math. The problem was posed directly by a character, and it was clear that to satisfy the puzzle, I just had to say the answer. Understandably, the author chose not to use that format for every puzzle, as being repeatedly questioned would begin to feel more like a math class than a game after a while. Most of the puzzles deeper into the game involve interactions with objects or using one object on another object rather than just giving a verbal response.

In several situations, I immediately recognized the point the author wanted to get across, for example, when I walked into a scene with a race track, I figured that the puzzle would relate to Zeno’s paradox and probably somehow bring the concept of limits to bear. Despite recognizing that off the bat, I could not figure out how that would translate into game mechanics.

In other instance, I encountered a globe with a small gap towards the base. Since the game is set against a running backdrop of Classical Greece, I knew that I’d be looking for a lever to move it, but knowing that didn’t really help me find the lever.

The puzzles in the game are layered on top of a world model composed of rooms, and in several cases, access to more distant rooms is a reward to solving puzzles. This makes the puzzles interdependent, though. In some cases, you need items from distant rooms, but you may not be aware at the time of encountering a puzzle that a necessary item lies in a remote room that you have not seen yet. Also, because the puzzles are so interdependent, blocking on one puzzle can put the solution to other puzzles out of reach as well.

I gave up after the room with the balances. I understood from the set up that the balances are equivalent to an equals sign and that I was looking at a system of equations in x, y, and z. I was not entirely comfortable assuming that all of the other variously described stones had the same mass, but it seemed like the only way that the puzzle would work. I played with the scales and derived the values for x, y, and z, and put all of the scales into balance. I wasn’t sure this was the endpoint, but again, it seemed a likely goal. I am pretty sure that I got all of the scales balanced, but I don’t think there was any reward for doing so, which confused me. Again, I got the concept, but couldn’t figure out what the game wanted of me.

This might be one of those games where I’m “puzzle blind”. Some might come to this game and breeze through it, but I just could not get on the same wavelength as the author. If I had a couple days to percolate on some of the puzzles, I would probably figure out what I’m overlooking, but at least on today’s playthrough during the two hour time limit for IFcomp, I couldn’t get there. I would also bet that a group playing this game cooperatively would power through these puzzles, so I’ll be watching for this one to come to ClubFloyd.


Story: 7. The framing story is lightweight, but well done, and serves to bring the player almost immediately into a dream world consisting of a series of puzzles. Solving each puzzle increases the player’s preparedness for a math test, which looms the next morning. I wish I had seen the end of the story, because I am curious about how this is paid off.

Voice: 7. There is a consistency to the classical setting and in interaction with the math book.

Play: 4. I was frustrated by coming to puzzles where I understood the concept they were trying to demonstrate, but couldn’t figure out how to satisfy them in game terms. Greater direction for the player would have been appreciated. Along similar lines, some areas of the game cannot be accessed until certain preconditions have been satisfied; often the player is not aware that these barriers exist or how to overcome them.

The game uses Eric Eve’s incremental hint system, but in my case, the hints often fell short of being adequately helpful. For a game with so much puzzle interdependency, I would argue that the final hints should literally hand the player the answer. As an author I know how much it hurts to do that and how much nicer it would be to lead the player towards the answer and let them fill in the blanks on their own, but sometimes a solution that is obvious to the author would never occur to some players. Or, it might occur to some players on some days and not others. Of all the puzzles, it’s hard to anticipate which one might block progress, so I would propose that it’s a worthwhile trade off to risk undermining the challenge of some puzzles to assure that every player can make it past puzzles to see the whole game. I realize that this game comes with a walkthrough, but it is hard to read a walkthrough without plowing through it and spoiling other parts of the game. If the existing in-game hint system could be buffed to provide just a bit more handholding, it would greatly improve the game.

Polish: 10. This is a large work, and the writing is excellent in terms of style and technique. It clearly has been through the ringer in terms of proofreading, although I wonder if testing was as intense for the puzzles and game flow. The mathematical and historical material provided in the textbook was clear and informative.

Technical: 8. The game took advantage of several Inform extensions and I did not spot any programmatic issues. It is worth mentioning that this is one of the increasingly rare games in IFcomp, where the parser is “wide open” — i.e., not a hybrid where certain objects have a small number of clickable options and not a game with a restricted command set. Consequently, the author had to cover all of the stock commands, anticipate any way that players might try to interact with or combine objects, and satisfy the modern player’s expectation of supplying non-default answers for all actions.


Preliminary Score: 7.2

Transcript (the first  of a few attempts): abcaa

3 thoughts on “Review: A Beauty Cold and Austere”

  1. I came to a halt exactly where you did.
    The balancing puzzle is, imho, too much near the beginning of the game. Although it is solid, I had a hard time understanding what result we were after (trying to avoid spoilers: the solution is very mathematical but what the game expects as a solution is rather arbitrary).
    Also, a lot of other puzzles rely really too much on mathematical competence that the in-game system only partially helps get. In the end, you often have to do the calculations yourself– which is perfect for the aim of the game, but can be really frustrating for those that are not that good in the subject.
    So: YMMV. If one is a math addict, this game rates 10/10. If you are after some more traditional puzzles that don’t involve extreme knowledge outside of the game, it’s a 6/10 (because of the extreme polishness if it). It is a game that falls outside of the Comp 2hrs scope, anyway.

  2. I didn’t have too much trouble with the balance puzzle–partly because I put the scales out of balance with basically my first move, and the feedback to that told me that I couldn’t do anything that would leave the scales out of balance, so there had to be one way to do it… and then I was like, well, let’s try the canonical way of expressing a solution. Also examining the pebbles did suggest they were all the same weight (and the different colors were just to let you specify what to take).
    It was an annoyance here that the author didn’t implement the Serial And Fix so you could use a serial comma when you were saying “take three sand pebbles, two brown x blocks, and three yellow y blocks” or whatever.
    Achilles was rough, though. It turns out you can’t help him until you’ve done like two-thirds of the game. There wasn’t that great feedback on when a puzzle was becoming solvable. Especially because the first time through I didn’t get that a new level was going to open up as I solved puzzles.
    I did enjoy this quite a bit though.

  3. Yes, reasoning backwards from how the balance puzzle would have to be designed, the reader has to assume that all pebbles are of the same weight.

    I think people will either fancy this game or not depending on how well they resonate with its distinctive puzzles, and that may even vary for the same person from day to day. I was not at my sharpest when I sat down to this one, so I’d recommend that this game be approached in the morning and with a large mug of coffee.

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