Review: Ento01 Apr 2015 0
In 2001, Zendo turned science into a boardgame, but wrapped it in a mystical Buddhist theme. Ento, first entry into the iOS space from Omino Games, eschews the competitive element for a pure puzzle, and returns the theme to the more natural fit of science. It takes the form of a rather stilted correspondence between Charles and Alfred. Poor Alfred has to try and deduce whatever rule of taxonomy Charles has in mind by sending him collections of insects and getting back a simple thumbs up or down on whether they follow the rule. Naturally, this requires sending lots of insects, so, basically, it's a postal worker's misery simulator.
Ento eases players into this process gradually, starting off with relatively few insects in a small display and quite simple possible rules. Each cabinet contains five puzzles in displays of escalating size, but the number of types of insects and the complexity of the rules don't increase until you graduate to the next cabinet (incidentally, the resemblance of these cabinets to flat files has rekindled my latent desire to own one as a way of keeping various boardgames set up and/or in progress). One is quickly disabused of the notion that one can succeed quickly enough to get three stars by testing only a single hypothesis with each guess, so the game revolves around dividing the space of possible rules as evenly as possible each time without exceeding the limits of our feeble memories. I blundered often enough at this memory-dependent equitable division that I now have one more reason to hope I never get divorced.
The basic gameplay loop of placing insects on displays and submitting them for judgment is much more forgiving than actually pinning specimens into precise locations--my only objection is that it seems to present less information at a time than it could on easier levels. You really miss an iPad-specific version of the game when you're scrolling through the larger sets of guesses, sorted into those which do and do not follow the rule. Forming hypotheses, too, seems terribly wasteful of space early on, only coming to seem remotely well-designed once you've completely quite a few levels. As you do, the simplistic early hypotheses available are joined by various other possible categories which cross-cut one another. Perhaps the rule is that there must be exactly three orange specimens, or two weevils (while I am contractually obligated to pun on the lesser of these, following cinematic Jack Aubrey, I am mindful of Stephen Maturin's quotation of "He who would pun would pick a pocket!"), or perhaps it has to do with which row they're in. With many options to consider, the use of space in the hypothesis interface becomes far less irritatingly profligate.
The experience of putting together a structured guess in order to test various hypotheses ends up feeling an awful lot like playing Mastermind, or Bagel (from early programming text What to Do After You Hit Return), or Bulls and Cows. I tend to use early guesses to cut out large swaths of possibilities which fall into cognitively similar chunks, because memory is my limiting factor. Happily, what it doesn't feel like is Battleship--you're never just plinking away, hoping to get lucky; every test is progress. That is, until the game reminds you that the hypothesis you've just come up with is already contradicted by something you know. Then you just have to fetch the dunce cap and sit in the corner.
One of the surprises of Ento is that I never really found my way past the fact that it's about bugs. For many logic games, like Honeycomb Hotel, the theme basically disappears from my consciousness after a short while. Ento so carefully renders its insects, and makes their species relevant enough, that there are just a few too many reminders of their nature. My father was a biology teacher and tended to bring his work home with him--I still enjoy telling the story of how we dissected a squirrel on our dining room table--and I found insects fascinating as a child, but even I have a lingering visceral reaction to long legs with sharp angles. It's kind of fun to play with that reaction, sort of like an adult version of peek-a-boo. No, not the kind with a clitoris, just the deliberate consideration of something which makes you uncomfortable. But, for those who get the heebie-jeebies about bugs and hoped that the gameplay of Ento might help them ignore its theme, the best I can say is that I haven't seen it animate the insects and show them scurrying off to hide in the crevices of your phone.
For a game which sells its theme so thoroughly with its visuals, the use of hypothesis testing is badly grafted onto science. What you're trying to discover isn't a regularity in nature; you're just trying to get an idea of what arbitrary rule is in Charles's head. What makes Alfred Wallace's discovery of evolution worth remembering isn't that he divined Charles Darwin's mind, but that they largely independently perceived the same pattern in the world. That's not a deep criticism, of course, and as a logic puzzle Ento is clever enough, but I find myself reflecting back to Zendo with a bit of nostalgia for the forthright inaccuracy of calling the rule the Buddha nature.