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Playable Classics: The Fool’s Errand

by peterb - April 06, 2005


One sunny day, a light-hearted Fool strolled along a hilly path, whistling a merry tune. A long wooden pole was slung over his shoulder and attached to it was a cloth bundle which carried his life’s possessions.

In 1987, Cliff Johnson, puzzle-creator extraordinaire, released The Fool’s Errand for Macintosh in 1987, thus dooming an entire generation of computer game players to at least a few weeks without sleep.

The Fool’s Errand — like all of Johnson’s computer games — is a collection of simple and not so simple puzzles connected by a story. As you solve the puzzles, more of the story opens up to you. Once all the puzzles are solved, you discover that tahere is a much larger puzzle waiting for you, and the clues to solving it are in the story that you’ve been reading.

This isn’t just a game. It’s heroin. And so it is with pleasure that I announce that the first winner of the Playable Classic designation is The Fool’s Errand.

There are three Cliff Johnson games that are worth trying. They have varying levels of challenge and interest. The Fool’s Errand has a gamut of puzzles ranging from trivial to extremely hard, and the final puzzle is great. The story is incoherent and disjointed, but it still somehow feels right. There’s a reason the story is incoherent and disjointed, one that won’t become apparent until the game’s end. And given the metaphorical, archetype-resonating nature of the Tarot, which underlies the game thematically, its somewhat playful and wandering nature fits.

Someday, hundreds of years from now, there will be a sect of monks in orange robes who spend their days performing simple chores, fasting, and meditating for hours upon hours on the deeper layers of meaning in The Fool’s Errand. You’ll understand why when you play.

At the Carnival is, on the whole, a weaker game. The puzzles are easier, the plot nonexistent, and the humor in it is a bit sophomoric (Johnson uses the theme, At the Carnival, as an excuse to vent about his own stint working at various amusement parks. It doesn’t really gel.) One interesting attribute of At the Carnival is that all of the various games are open from the beginning — you can jump around and solve whichever ones interest you.

This puts me in a bit of a bind. This is the sort of setup that I would normally claim to like. I’d write long, snotty articles talking about how stubborn game designers insist on giving us boring, linear gameplay, and why can’t they just let us choose how to manage our own happiness? But the truth is that without the choke points that are present in the other two games, it feels rudderless. The constraints in the other games, where you have to solve some puzzles to proceed, lead to more of a sense of accomplishment. Of course, the flip side of that is that it can be frustrating when you hit a puzzle you just can’t solve. I’m not sure what the correct solution to that problem is, philosophically. Perhaps there is no perfect solution.

3 in Three is the strongest of the games. It has high production values (most of the story is told through semi-animated cut scenes), is well-written, and the puzzles range from low difficulty to fiendish. 3 in Three tells the story of a little numeral 3 that is dislodged from her cozy spreadsheet home due to an errant power surge. The 3 must travel through all levels of the system, fixing problems as she goes.

Everything about 3 in Three is great. If there had been a Windows version, I probably would have declared this to be the Playable Classic, rather than The Fool’s Errand. The end game, in particular, is a logic puzzle in the style of Everett Kaser’s deduction games, and is tons of fun. If your machine can play 3 in Three, I recommend it before the other two, unless you have some sort of creepy psychosexual fascination with the Tarot, in which case Fool’s Errand will give you tinfoil-hat material for years to come.

The Puzzles

There are many different types of puzzles in The Fool’s Errand, and there’s a limit to how deeply I can describe them without spoiling them. But some discussion is possible. The most common type of puzzle — or at least, it feels as if it is — is the simple jigsaw puzzle. These are sometimes made a little tricky by the subtlety of the images overlaid on them, but by and large they are straightforward. After a while, you almost look forward to them as a break from the other, more frustrating puzzles. Similarly, there are word search puzzles, exactly like those from GAMES magazine that you did in the back seat of your parents’ wood-paneled station wagon when you were a kid. Apart from those, most of the puzzles require more thought. There are several mazes with special rules that aren’t obvious until you start trying to solve them. Many of the puzzles are word-based, such as crosswords (usually cryptic). There are several fun cipher texts presented, and a number of what I think of as “machine” puzzles, where you have a bunch of buttons that you can press which cause transformations to occur to some word or picture, and you need to figure out the rules well enough that you can reach a sensible answer. And, of course, there’s Thoth, a fun little two-player card game. Hmmm. I wonder how much work a standalone Thoth program would be.

There are also 2 puzzles in the game that depend on idiosyncracies of the original MacOS’s user interface, subverting the player’s expectations. These were playful and clever in 1988, but now they’re just irritating. You’ll know them when you hit them. If there was any one thing that nearly made me decide this game wasn’t a Playable Classic, this was it. But given that these puzzles only represent perhaps 1.5% of the game, and given that they are actually still solvable today, I decided to view this as a wart rather than a tumor.

The puzzles in 3 in Three are more consistently clever, tending to focus more on English, numerical permutations, and machines. There are fewer pure crosswords and no word searches. If 3 in Three has a vice, it’s that there is basically one puzzle too many of each type (the narrative obliquely recognizes this, too. Upon encountering the Nth “mesh” puzzle, basically a sort of 2 dimensional Rubik’s cube, the 3 points her bitmap straight at the player and says “Ask me if I care.” A risky question, that.) The first time I played 3 in Three, I found the meshes to be practically unsolvable, but when I came back to it after a few years their solution was obvious. Nowadays, it’s the “manipulate the letters on a treadmill” puzzles that cause me angst.

Cliff Johnson himself is in the process of developing a sequel to The Fool’s Errand, entitled The Fool and His Money. Perhaps ignoring the warning of “a fool and his money are soon parted.” I have violated my usual “I don’t pre-order games” policy and pre-ordered this one. There’s just no question in my mind that it will be great. (No pressure, Cliff. No pressure.)

You can download his classic games, free of charge.