Mathematics through Narrative: A Beauty Cold and Austere

Earlier this year I spent some time (well, a lot of time) writing a mathematical computer game.  It’s called A Beauty Cold and Austere (ABCA), and it’s text-based; there are no graphics and no symbolic manipulation (e.g., no solving of an equation by moving symbols around).  Instead, the mathematics in the game is expressed in narrative form.  To explain what I mean by this I’ll give an example, but first a little background.

Games of the genre of ABCA are parser-based interactive fiction (IF), and they have a long history stretching back into the 1970s.  In parsed-based IF, you type commands, and the game interprets them and responds accordingly.  For a time in the 1980s parser-based IF was commercially viable; in fact, some of the most successful computer games of the 1980s were IF games (for example, the Zork series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  However, through a combination of factors (such as increased computing power and improved graphics technology), since about 1990 the genre has not generally been commercially viable.  Instead, it has mostly survived on the efforts of a large number of dedicated and talented amateurs.  (Some of these “amateur” games are, in my opinion, actually better than anything produced during the commercial era.)

The first example of mathematics in this kind of interactive narrative form I ever saw was in 1986, in the game Trinity, by Brian Moriarty.  (Spoiler alert for one of the puzzles in Trinity coming up.)  During the story you find yourself in a magical garden.  There’s a sundial in the middle of the garden that you need to manipulate.  There’s also a gnomon that you can screw into the sundial, but its threads are oriented backwards (clockwise vs. counterclockwise) from the threads on the hole in the sundial.  However, there’s also an enterable Klein bottle sculpture in the garden.  If you go through the Klein bottle sculpture everything outside of you and what you’re carrying will, thanks to the properties of a Klein bottle (which are explained in the game), reverse orientation relative to you.  So, the solution to the puzzle is to go through the sculpture while carrying the gnomon, screw the gnomon into the reverse-oriented sundial, go back through the sculpture to re-orient everything relative to yourself, and continue on your way through the game.

My 13-year-old self had never heard of a Klein bottle or even the branch of mathematics known as topology that Klein bottles are normally associated with.  I was fascinated, and I’ve never forgotten that experience.

Trinity isn’t really about mathematics, though; it’s really a commentary in narrative form about the atomic bomb and atomic warfare.  It just happens to include a Klein bottle puzzle.  This past year, after becoming acquainted with the modern interactive fiction scene, I decided to write a game full of puzzles like that Klein bottle puzzle in Trinity.  The result is A Beauty Cold and Austere.  My hope is that the game will cause people to engage with mathematical concepts in new and different ways.  So ABCA is a game, an interactive story, and an experiment in mathematics education.

As of October 1, and through November 15, 2017, A Beauty Cold and Austere is part of the annual Interactive Fiction Competition and is only available through that site.  (Direct link to an online version of ABCA through the IFComp here.  [Update: Now this link points to ABCA‘s IFDB entry.])  After November 15, when the competition is over, I’ll update this page with a non-IFComp link to ABCA.


UpdateA Beauty Cold and Austere took 7th out of 79 games in IFComp 2017!

(The link takes you to the Interactive Fiction Database, where you may either play ABCA online or download it.  I recommend the download option for faster play, although downloading also requires downloading an interpreter on which to play it.  For PC folks, I suggest Gargoyle, which may be downloaded here.  I don’t use Macs, but I’ve been told Lectrote works well on Macs, and perhaps Gargoyle does as well.)

Another update: A Beauty Cold and Austere was nominated for “Best Puzzles” among interactive fiction games of 2017!  (It lost to The Wand, which is a fantastic IF puzzle game and one you should definitely play if you like IF and puzzles.)

Yet another update: Emily Short’s incredible review of A Beauty Cold and Austere.

Some public praise for the game, mostly during IFComp:

“ABCaA is an incredibly polished game, with complex mechanics that perfectly work and some good writing.” – Marco Innocenti, Interactive Fiction Database

“This is one of the best big games released in recent years.” – Mathbrush, Interactive Fiction Database

This one exceeded my expectations by far…  A Beauty Cold and Austere is a highlight in my book.” – Mr. Creosote, The Good Old Days

“It was the most fun I’ve had playing an IFComp entry in years…  The parser is superb… The gameplay is terrific, and the scope is breathtaking.” – jepflast, intfiction.org

“great, enormous game, imaginative and well-implemented” – perhapsdessert, intfiction.org

“a damn well-constructed piece of edutainment” – The Xenographer

“The game needed to do two things in order to be a success, in my estimation:
1) It needed to convey the beauty, depth, and awe of mathematics to a lay audience;
2) It needed to be engaging and entertaining as a puzzle game.
After completing the game… I have to say my negative preconceptions were unfounded; the game succeeds, to a large extent, on both counts.” – evouga, intfiction.org

“By far my favorite game in the competition” – tmack, intfiction.org


Also, I sent Beth Malmskog a link to the game, and she wrote about it on her AMS blog, PhD + Epsilon.

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4 Responses to Mathematics through Narrative: A Beauty Cold and Austere

  1. Doug Egan says:

    There were so many competition games this year that I didn’t discover ABCA until after the end of the competition. But wow, what an amazing game it is. I’m even more impressed when I realize that you are relatively new to the modern IF scene. I hope you’ll write more.

    I’ve been at it for about six hours, and currently scoring a “B” on my exam. The most memorable puzzles for me (so far) are the matrix puzzle and the roller coaster puzzle. The game has also given me some new insight into the complex number plane. I had always supposed that one could not take the square root of “i”. On seeing, in the game, that this is possible, I pretty quickly solved for myself what root of i would be.

  2. Pingback: A Beauty Cold and Austere – An Exercise for the Reader

  3. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Benoit Mandelbrot | A Narrow Margin

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