How does this game even work? an overview
I've been thrilled by how many people seem to be playing The Herbal Spice Problem, but at the same time, most of the comments that I've actually heard back from people have indicated some confusion about how to actually play and win the game. Which, honestly, is pretty reasonable: it's hard to put sufficient documentation within a PICO-8 game. So I figure, I will put it here, instead!
First off, a quick overview of how to play, before I get deep into Spoilers Territory.
The gameplay itself is reasonably simple. You explore the alien planet via standard platformer controls. When you're near a plant, you can choose to test it for poison or to harvest a sample. The plant species are visually identifiable, so once you've tested a species, you don't need to test it again unless you forget.
Once you have collected one or more plants, you can return to your spaceship to attempt brewing a tea out of them (and keep an eye on the countdown bar, because if it runs out, it's Game Over). All of the plants you're carrying are used when brewing a new tea.
There are three possible outcomes to brewing a cup of tea. I'll detail them in the Spoilers Section below, but if you've only seen two, you haven't seen all of them. Two of them result in the game ending, one does not.
SOME SPOILERS BELOW, PROCEED WITH CAUTION
One of the key things about this game that I think is the most widely misunderstood is this: you are expected to die. In that respect, it is somewhat like a puzzle in roguelite clothing. It's still a puzzle game, at its heart, where you win by finding the correct (or, a correct) solution. You get closer to the solution by analysis, trial and error, and gathering information. But gathering that information intentionally has a cost: either using up a plant (which are a limited resource), burning down time on the timer, or the risk of dying. After all, the premise of the game is a survival parody, not a meditative exploration game.
So, yes, you can't win the game in a single try (unless you are the luckiest person on the planet), and that's intentional. This is also why whether or not a plant is poisonous or edible is not randomized: you learn by dying and take that information into the next round with you.
The three possible outcomes of brewing tea are as follows:
- You drink it, but it's poisonous and you die. Game Over.
- You drink it, but it's terrible. It gives you a little extra will to live (the countdown timer) so you can go out and try again.
- You drink it. It's tea! You win! Also game over, but the good kind.
Number 1 is one of the "cost of information" results. You'll die if you drink something made with poisonous plants, of course. But some combinations of plants are also poisonous. Which ones? Well, figuring that out is part of the game. The important take-away here is: the plants you use being edible doesn't guarantee you won't be poisoned.
Number 2 is not technically a guaranteed result, but it's extremely likely to get it - because it is the inevitable result of brewing just one edible plant. Yes, that means if you brew just one plant, you cannot win. You have to try combining them. Which means you have to risk being poisoned. See: cost of information.
That second outcome seems to have been mistaken by a number of people as "success", but it isn't: that's why the game continues and the countdown keeps going. The text isn't just a Hitchhiker's Guide reference, it's also telling you that you did not make tea, and the goal of the game is to make a cup of tea. So if you get this, get out there and gather more information!
Number 3 is what you want to get. There are multiple possible ways to achieve this result: if you're the type of player who likes to find All The Solutions, there are five unique winning combinations, and several more that are modifications on those combinations. (This wasn't an intentional choice, it's just what happened when I basically spitballed the back-end numbers... ahem.)
I don't intend to do any major revisions on this game, or any other changes aside from bug fixes (should any bugs arise), so I hope this guide helps make the intent of the game clearer. Enjoy your tea!
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