The Osborne 1, where I first played Zork and other interactive fiction games. Photo by Bilby, used under Creative Commons License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en
Thank you, Mike Spivey, for writing and sending me a link to A Beauty Cold and Austere (ABCA), a new math-filled, text-based, interactive fiction game. What is text-based interactive fiction, you ask? Or maybe you don’t because you know what it is and are already playing at the link below. In case you don’t know, playing interactive fiction is like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, except with a lot more choices and built in puzzles. The game describes a situation in text, and you type in what you want to do—you can try to do anything you want, though not everything will get you anywhere. Usually these games involve solving puzzles and have fun built in jokes and Easter eggs.
Mike is Professor in and Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at University of Puget Sound. He also maintains a math blog and does other cool stuff, and got into interactive fiction in the 1980s through the games Trinity and Zork (he writes a little about this in a blog post about ABCA). Though it is his first game, ABCA was highly praised at the 2017 annual Interactive Fiction Competition.
Please indulge my nostalgia for a moment: My family got our first computer as a hand me down in maybe 1990. It was an Osborne 1 from the early 1980s, with a tiny screen built in. It came to us with WordStar and two games that I remember extremely well. One was really hard: you steered a plane/rocket through obstacles, and I was not coordinated enough to play. However, I fell in love with Zork, an interactive fiction game created in the late 70s by members of the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group, and in fact one of the first interactive fiction games.
Zork was a perfect combination for me, a kid who loved puzzles and reading. I never got too into graphics-based games (except for a brief love affair with a Gameboy, which I lost and mourned greatly), but I played Zork and similar games quite a bit as a kid. And then I completely forgot about these games for about 20 years. Until earlier this week, when Mike sent me a link to ABCA. As soon as I started typing, it all came back, only with special added fun from combining something I already loved with math.
For those of you who want to quit reading and just play the game now, you can jump right in and play online here (just click the “Play On-line” button near the upper right-hand corner) : http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=y9y7jozi0l76bb82
I have really enjoyed playing ABCA, so I figure many AMS blog readers and their students would too. I asked Mike some questions about developing the game and if he’d be willing to describe it for the blog. Instead of paraphrasing, I’ll just let him tell you about it:
“The game mostly covers undergraduate-level mathematics material, especially mathematics that you would see in the first two years of college. I teach this material regularly, and so I think about it a lot. But there are some mathematical extras thrown in there, plus a decent amount of the history of mathematics.”
“This is the first game I’ve written. I had a couple of my students beta test it for me, which was fun. One of them had played Zork before, and the other had not. I also advertised it to all of my students in the fall semester. Several of them played it, and at least one of them managed to win the game.”
“I had the idea that maybe ABCA could be a way to introduce some mathematical concepts to people who are afraid of math or think mathematics is just symbolic manipulation. So, originally, I thought my audience would be people who aren’t naturally drawn to mathematics but who might be willing to explore it conceptually in a different format. Age-wise, they would be advanced high school students or older.
“What I think happened in the competition, though, is that people didn’t play the game unless they already had some interest in mathematics. So I’ve revised my sense of the ideal audience somewhat: Advanced high school students and older who are interested in exploring mathematical concepts in a different format. But people who already know a lot of mathematics have enjoyed it, too.”
“There’s no symbolic manipulation in ABCA; whenever I could I represented mathematical concepts in concrete form or as a puzzle to be solved. This means that you can explore certain mathematical ideas far beyond your mathematical skill level without having to pick up all the necessary background knowledge. Of course, it also means that you can’t go super-deep with the ideas, but the background knowledge and mathematical language barrier that is such a problem for so many people isn’t there to anywhere near the same degree. Also, if something in the game piques your interest you can always follow up on it.”
“One example (maybe you’ve already found it) is that there’s a puzzle in the game where you have to isolate the primes between 1 and 100 using only five game actions. Of course, we both know that the Sieve of Eratosthenes will be required. But what if you’d never heard of the Sieve? With a little hinting, could you reason your way to the idea behind the Sieve on your own? On two occasions I’ve been able to watch people playing ABCA who have done just that. I also watched someone run into the Casino puzzle in the game and reason her way to something very close to the best strategy for solving the classic probability problem that underlies the puzzle. Even my nine-year-old son, who knows no algebra, was able to solve the balance scales puzzle that’s basically just a manifestation of a system of three equations and three unknowns. Games are great for this sort of thing – give someone a challenge, and they’re motivated to keep thinking about it until they figure it out.”
Mike sent me this game based on a conversation we had several years ago about mathematics and narrative, and how narrative relates to mathematics through motivation, proof, context, and cultural relevance. This game beautifully uses narrative to carry a player through a whole imagined world, revealing concepts and connections through fantasy locations and objects like the “incrementing wand” and a literal square root. I can see my students having a great time with this game. More importantly (as far as I am concerned), I am having a great time with this game. I have been playing ABCA for about an hour and have a current score of 13/100. A struggle with which verb to use stalled me out for a while: I kept telling the game to “shake the wand,” which (spoiler alert) should clearly be “wave the wand.” But a built-in hint kept me moving. This is a well-constructed game with a lot of cool content. Bravo, Mike.
So, enjoy the link, and happy New year, everyone! ‘Tis the season for an Interactive Fiction revival, starting with ABCA.
Also—anyone headed to the Joint Mathematics Meetings this year? I’ll be there, writing for the AMS JMM blog, along with my fabulous co-bloggers Adriana Salerno, Kelsey Houston-Edwards, Karen Saxe and Ben Thompson. As always, there are some great events coming up at JMM, and I’m excited to share the math fun. Say hi if you see me there! Especially if you want to be in the blog, talk about interactive fiction, play non-serious bridge, or share (in person or in the comments) cool events I should know about. Thanks, and see you in San Diego.
 Mike says: “The game should run fine online, but downloading probably produces somewhat faster play. Unfortunately, downloading requires downloading an interpreter as well. I recommend the Gargoyle interpreter for PCs. I don’t use Macs, but I’ve heard Lectrote works well with them.” I just have been playing online, but here are his links to the interpreters: