Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ill-logical: TSW and programmer conceit

As I've mentioned before, there are many interesting puzzle-solving missions in TSW, but some of them tend to overshoot their mark right into over-specialized trivia or technical jargon, giving the player little choice but to give up and look up the answer online.
Now admittedly, one man's obscure trivia is another man's daily life. TSW's puzzles are meant to offer a bit of something for everyone. I have a sneaking suspicion that the mission to diagnose four infected patients in a field hospital which seemed such an amusing and clever pastime for me might possibly be a disgusting and confusing mire of bodily reactions to those who are not fans of microbiology or medicine. Conversely, I was promptly put to shame by a music buff when I complained about the obscurity of a reference to an Elizabethan lute-music composer.
However, game designers tend to be programmers. What they do or do not consider relevant common knowledge often shows a bias toward the sort of high-school and college coursework one might have trudged through in acquiring an IT/CompSci degree.

Here's where this post really started. I was running through a mission in which the player is asked to "hack" various computer terminals by answering numeric logic puzzles. You're given a few members of the sequence and asked to give the next. High school flashbacks, anyone? What bothers me is that these are not all readily discernible from the information at hand, at least not within the time-frame one might reasonably expect for completing one step of one mission in one computer game. How can I explain this?

2 3 3 5 10 13 39 43 172 177 - this is a perfectly valid puzzle. It is a sequence building from one member to the next. There is an internal pattern to discern, easily expressed through simple arithmetic inter-relation.

312213 212223 114213 31121314 41122314 31221324 - is also acceptably self-contained, though it admittedly stumped me. The assumption of the proper order of object-subject reference within a logical statement is shaky, though. I doubt it's all that universal across human cultures if language alone is any indication.

42, 66, 70, 78, 102, 105 - this, however, is nothing but a mathematical in-joke. Sphenic numbers, are you shitting me? The various members of the sequence do not relate to each other directly. It is not, in fact, a logical sequence, as presented. There is no pattern to discern between the numbers. They are defined instead by a set of external conditions; they're outputs of another series, the series of combinations of primes, relating to it but not directly to each other. There is no inherent order to those outputs except the general convention of sorting them in ascending order. Do you know how much time I spent trying to divide the numbers by factors which were not necessarily primes? However, if you've gone through more math courses and been forced to memorize such lists, that familiarity is likely to immediately trigger recognition. Freebie.

Equally nonsensical is what's getting to be a recurring theme in TSW, translating something to or from binary. One mission even threw in some ASCII code for good measure, in addition to I-forget-what other programming reference. Should I even have to make the point that though I'm buying a product created by your profession, I need not assume your profession's supremacy or accept the precept that your particular technical knowledge should be universal? What would you say to a musician who expects you recognize his song's rhythm as some in-joke about Gregorian chants?

Some might say this is no different than other TSW missions which require the player to translate between Arabic and Hebrew or identify a famous historical Latin cypher to unravel the cryptic contents of a message or read viking runes off rocks, or my music history and medicine examples above. TSW after all makes a point of not being self-contained, of requiring the player to browse various topics online. The difference is in the delivery. Pulling up the translation page for one of the language puzzles or looking up the symptoms of cholera does not readily give the player the mission solution, but the mathematical or binary or other CompSci exercises are a 'gimmie' for anyone of that background. That sphenic speciousness above was after all snuck into a series of logic puzzles, though it truly only hinges on familiarity with the common concerns of a particular branch of human knowledge - what is it with mathematicians and that unhealthy obsession with primes, by-the-by?
The truly grating assumptions, the spots where TSW overshoots its mark, are the missions which treat some obscure technical skill as universal, such as the Morse code example or the one above. It is one thing to purposely create content which is paced on the assumption that players will have to do a bit of research. It is quite another to present as a self-contained logic puzzle what's really an obscure technical reference and demand that players breeze past it in pursuit of a larger goal. Prime number multiplication series are no more universal a part of human culture than memorizing the viscosity of various types of motor oil or the proper age at which to spay a chinchilla. They are a particular factoid to which one gets exposed if pursuing one branch of our society's accumulation of knowledge.

Do not equate logic with recognition memory.

I continued the mission after writing this. The next 'abstracted logic' task put before me?

"Abstracting new data... Emirps found
13 17 31 37 71 73 79 97 107
Input next logical integer: "

Emirp. Really. Oy vey... unhealthy obsession.

And if the previous mission step was just indicative of a bad tendency, the last step of the mission is just out-and-out programmer masturbation.

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