Hadean Lands: State of the Stuck

If my posts about Hadean Lands make frequent mention of getting stuck, it’s because it’s a very sticky game. In fact, I’ve been stuck in it for more than a week now. One of the most useful techniques I know for getting unstuck in an adventure game is to just review everything: items in your inventory that you haven’t used yet, obstacles you know of, any other rooms or resources that you don’t yet understand the point of. Often there’s something right in front of your face that you just haven’t been thinking about. This sort of review might not help in graphic adventures when your only problem is that you failed to notice a notspot… but then again, sometimes it does! Sometimes just understanding your situation better helps you to realize where there should be a hotspot.

So, let’s review my situation live on this blog. Taking inventory is a trickier matter here than it would be in a more conventional adventure, and besides, there’s nothing in here like the classical one-to-one mapping between puzzles and tools to solve them. A chip of granite might be required in a ritual that requires granite, but it can also be used in a ritual that just requires stone, or even placed on a ritual bound’s gestalt shelf to establish an Earthy influence. Little is to be learned from most objects. The real inventory here is knowledge, so let’s examine that.

According to the in-game “rituals” command, I know four rituals that I haven’t managed to perform yet, even in variation. First, there’s the Dragon Fulcrum Inscription, which will be important to getting any use out of the marcher’s Dragons, but which can only be performed at a ritual bound of metallic quicksilver. Ritual bounds are the places where you perform most alchemy (except for certain liquid preparations that instead require a retort). There’s a great many of them all over the place, some with particular properties that enable certain rituals or prevent others. I haven’t found one made of metallic quicksilver yet, but I know of two bounds that I haven’t reached yet — bounds are important enough that they’re marked on the in-game map.

Secondly, there’s Riesenzweig’s Inscription, which allows you to imitate another person’s aura, which would let me get through a certain security door. I’m missing several of the ingredients for this, but I actually have another ritual that does exactly the same thing, so I probably won’t need this version until things start getting trickier in the large scale. The main problem is that it involves creating a token and touching it to the person you want to imitate, and all the other people in the ship are behind “fractures” where I can’t reach them.

Third is Electrum Phlogistication, which I’ve mentioned before: it requires more platinum than I have (or, alternately, a way of creating a catalytic environment without platinum), and it would allow me to create a second piece of Elemental Fire. But I don’t have an immediate use for this.

And finally, there’s the Great Marriage. I can almost do this — all I need is to learn a certain formula to invoke. (Recall that formulas are how the game forces you to gain information before acting on it.) It’s vague what it does, though. The game is very specifically vague about it.

In addition, there’s one ritual (and, I’m surprised to learn, only one) that I’ve successfully performed but haven’t gotten any practical use out of: the Glass Permeability Inscription. Basically, this lets you walk through windows. And there are a couple of windows I’d like to walk though. The problem is that they have hard vacuum on the other side. The game kind of teases the player about this, too. First I thought the breath-holding potion would let me out there, but no, apparently holding your breath in a vacuum just makes it worse. Then there was the dressing room by the exoscaphe — surely they keep spacesuits in there! And they do, but the helmets are missing, and besides, the player character isn’t trained in how to use a spacesuit.

In addition to rituals and formulas, the in-game journal automatically records “facts” — things found on papers or remembered from lectures or discovered in the course of your explorations that are useful to solving puzzles. (I probably should have looked here first!) The earliest one that I haven’t found any use for is a note on the Recursive Metaphor Technique: “…the form or structure of a thing may be joined to the spirit or essence… But to apply it recursively, parsing the structure and spirit of the spirit itself, requires the utmost care…” This is curious enough that I think it’s going to be useful, but I don’t yet know how. There’s a ghost story about another marcher, a lecture on how the laws of natural science may vary with “currents of aither flow between certain stars” — this all seems to be hinting at an explanation of the ship’s current condition. A description of how to do emergency repairs to a Dragon using one of those fulcrums I can’t make. And then there are four fragments concerning vibrations and echoes in the medium where the soul resides. These four fragments are sure to be important, because each was found alongside one of the four Dragons. And yet, they’re so abstruse and theoretical! Most the facts in the journal are things of immediate practical importance: the combination to a safe, a reminder to always use the Hermetic Sealing when using the chymic retort, a list of associations between musical pitches and metals… well, okay, that’s kind of theoretical too, but at least it deals with matter. All this stuff about soul echoes seems like endgame material, which I’m not ready to process yet.

Now, as for obstacles. The “doors” command lists twelve things I haven’t opened yet. Four of them are blocked by fractures, which I suppose means there’s a way to get rid of fractures, a possibility I hadn’t really considered before discovering the “doors” command. It probably involves repairing Syndesis, the Dragon responsible for maintaining the ship’s spatial coherence. Interestingly, two of the doors are ones that I’ve gotten to the other side of by other means. I suppose their presence on the list means I’ll need to open them anyway, probably to conserve the ritual components I’d consume by not opening them — and the only component I can see that’s consumed in this way is a pinecone. So pinecones are important! Finally I’ve learned something.

Of the other “doors”, three involve gravitational anomalies, which falls under the purview of the dragon Baros. Three have vacuum on the other side, which, now that I’m thinking of this all in terms of what Dragons can fix them, I recognize as the responsibility of Pneuma, who lives in a maze. One is the aura-keyed security door that I mentioned before. And the last is the door to the Tertiary Alchemy Lab, which is simply locked. That door is made of pine, so it seems like getting through it must involve the pinecone somehow. There’s an obvious variation on a ritual for this that doesn’t quite make sense and in fact doesn’t work. And, unfortunately, until I can do something about the fractures, I still need to use the pinecone to reach the Tertiary Alchemy Lab door in the first place.

So if I read things correctly, and if I’m not just missing something, I can’t repair Dragons with what I have, and the only door I can open without repairing a Dragon is the aura-locked one. Which means I need to find a way to imitate the aura of someone I can’t touch. Is this what all that soul-echo business was about? I doubt it, but I’m still stumped for other ideas.

Mind you, there are obstacles that aren’t in the “doors” list. Like those permeable windows. There’s also a cave in the cellar, described as “a maze of claustrophobic cracks”, where you can go in any direction but you just wind up where you started. I have a ritual for finding the center of a maze, but it doesn’t work there, because I’m starting at the center. If I could find a way to invert that ritual, maybe I could get somewhere. The room containing Syndesis has a bunch of “patina-dulled” metal pylons. Could I remove the tarnish from them? Maybe, if I could get there without using up the pinecone.

So, there’s my state. I think I know the shape of my stuckage a little better, but I’m still stuck. I guess the next step is to just go back in and go over the environment with a fine-toothed comb and a Resonant Oculus, looking for things I’ve missed or forgotten about.

Hadean Lands: Yang Oil

The breakthrough mentioned in my last post led to a flurry of progress. At this point, I’m stuck again, but I’ve visited all of the Dragons, and have only a few uncompleted rituals left — including one that, as before, has an obvious application if only I can figure out how to alter it. Discovering the final secret of Elemental Fire was of course a major and long-anticipated part of this, opening most of the rituals on my list to completion. The interesting thing about this is that the breakthrough didn’t lead to Elemental Fire directly. Recall that my problem with the elemental fire ritual was in igniting blackwood. Well, the breakthrough I made led to discovering a different ritual, for synthesizing Yang Oil, which had a different but related problem involving burning splints: it required reed pith to be kept burning while you performed other steps. This was difficult because reed pith is so flammable that any attempt at setting it alight tends to just consume it immediately. This is basically just the opposite of the blackwood problem, but I found it much easier to think of the solution when it was approached from this direction, and once I had done that, the earlier problem was basically solved.

The game’s design is open enough that a different mind than mine could have done things in the other order. For a good long time, there was nothing preventing me from making Elemental Fire but my lack of understanding. What’s more, the game all but forces you to discover the Elemental Fire ritual before the Yang Oil ritual: when you gain access to the midgame, the paper teaching the former is sitting around loose while the latter is several difficult puzzles away. I can see two not-really-contradictory ways of interpreting the author’s intent in this. The first is that the author really wants and expects me to have made Elemental Fire before Yang Oil. The second is that the Yang Oil formula is a deliberate assistance in the Elemental Fire formula, a way of giving you a extra hint in the event that you haven’t figured it out yet that late in the game.

Whatever the intent, coupling the solutions for Elemental Fire and Yang Oil in this way is surely deliberate, because they’re closely related in use. I mentioned early on that some rituals consume components, and speculated that the game would use this to force the player to reset the physical state. Well, by the point I’m at, this happens a lot. There are quite a few unique items with multiple consuming applications. Resetting to use them again has simply become normal. I remember trying to avoid resets when I first started the game, so as not to lose my inventory, but now I do it willy-nilly, even when I don’t need to, because it’s usually easier to just reset than to figure out whether you need to or not. In particular, as I said, you need Elemental Fire for several different rituals, and it turns out each one of them uses it up. Yang Oil, now: that’s used in the ritual to phlogisticate Electrum Regium, making it something that can support more Elemental Fire. With that, it would be possible to overcome the limitations of uniqueness for the first time in the game, using Elemental Fire twice without a reset.

The ironic part: Electrum Regium is an alloy, which you have to make yourself, out of platinum and moon metal. The ritual to phlogisticate it can only be performed in a catalytic environment, and the only way I know to prepare a catalytic environment is to slot some plantinum wire into an adjustable ritual bound. I have just enough platinum to to one of these things, not both. So at this point, barring new discoveries, it seems that in order to get two uses out of Elemental Fire in a single reset, I first have to somehow get two uses out of platinum in a single ritual.

Hadean Lands: How Failure Works

I was making no progress on this game all day, and was all set to make a post about being stuck, when I had a sudden breakthrough involving an alteration to a ritual. This was a ritual that clearly needed an alteration — it did the exact opposite of what I needed. But there wasn’t an obvious substitution of ingredient or incantation that would invert it, even after I tried a quite a few possibilities. Ultimately, I realized that a promising substitution could be made at an earlier point in the process, in the ritual that created once of the ingredients for the ritual I wanted to change. This was pretty satisfying, once it was all over. Oh, sure, during the process of futilely trying things out, it seemed like I was desperately grasping at straws. But in the light of eventual success, it seems more like the sort of tinkering and experimentation that’s entirely appropriate for an alchemist.

Seriously, when I think about it, this is a really good choice of role for an adventure game of this type. It makes sense of a lot of the sort of adventure-game activity that that you just have to pretend not to notice in most games. If a detective spends most of his investigation driving back and forth through the same six locations, re-asking people the same trivial questions, and visiting places to just scrutinize the furniture and then leave without having learned anything, it seems wrong. But this kind of repeated failure is part of the alchemist archetype, as is the unshakable faith that there is a solution, if only you can find it.

When you perform a ritual, you can generally tell when it’s going wrong. Each step produces a visible effect. If you’re doing it right, components dissolve, liquids clarify or change color, powders cling to substrates, mysterious inscriptions appear on the surfaces of things. Effects are vivid and definite. Whereas rituals done ineffectively, with the wrong components or with the wrong environmental influences, produce weak effects: the glyphs lack definition, the powders fall off and blow away, the liquids congeal into oily sludge. Even the incantations have alternate descriptions that let you know that they’re not generating the intended influences on the operation. This means there’s a bit of excitement when you do an experimental ritual correctly after repeated failure and see each step along the way happening the way it should.

Anyway, I’m pleased that experimentation of this sort is becoming a large part of the game again. In my first post, I talked about how it tutorializes the possibility of altering recipes, but after you’ve done that in the game’s first puzzle, you can go for a very long time without doing it again. For a while, I was thinking that it was a fluke, never to be repeated, and that, contrary to my initial impression, the rest of the rituals in the game were going to consist of simply following directions, the challenge being made by directions that are unclear or incomplete, requiring you to seek additional information elsewhere. And there’s certainly a great deal of that still going on, and that alone can produce a significant “Aha!” factor, when you realize that the “passive sealing” referenced in one ritual is defined in another, or that you actually do have multiple items capable of exerting a fiery influence. But there’s a whole extra level of “Aha!” when you’re not just performing the rituals handed to you, but proactively thinking of what rituals you need but don’t have. It engages with their content in an entirely different way, turns it from “What does alchemy want from me?” to “What do I want from alchemy?”

Hadean Lands: Dragons

The premise of Hadean Lands, the pretext for its puzzles, is one of adventure games’ oldest, pioneered by the likes of Planetfall. You could call it the Systems Repair story. You find yourself in a spaceship, or a space station, or a remote high-tech laboratory, or a submarine, or some other such enclosed and mechanical environment. The machines that support this artificial environment have gone catastrophically wrong, and for some reason you’re the only one around to repair and reactivate it all. The main thing that separates HL from the bulk of these stories is that it’s more up-front about all the technology being made-up.

It takes a good long time to get to the point of even contemplating repairing stuff in HL, though. I’ve spent most of my time in the game so far just trying to unlock various doors and cabinets, in order to gain access to more stuff to unlock doors and cabinets with. (I recently discovered that the game even has a special command, “doors”, to keep track of the doors and cabinets you haven’t opened yet.) But ultimate goals start asserting themselves once you finally stand in front of one of the ship’s Dragons.

The text of the game makes mention of Dragons in several places before you actually get to see one, letting the player assume that the word is literal, that there are actual scaly beasts harnessed to the ship’s systems. But, as the player character’s inner voice keeps reminding us, this is not a fantasy world, this is a world of Modern Alchemical Science. “Dragon” is just a term of art for a kind of complicated alchemical pattern, like a self-animating mandala. The ship has four of them. I know where they all are, but I’ve seen only one of them. It’s visibly wrong, anemic, virtually inactive. I have no idea how to make it right. So I guess I’ll keep on opening doors and cabinets until I do.

Finding the Dragon threw my plans for something of a loop. Basically all of the the rituals that I know but haven’t yet completed have a single prerequisite in common: Elemental Fire, which can be produced by a simple recipe involving phlogisticated gold, camphrost vapor, and a splint of burning blackwood (a fictional wood that burns at a very high temperature). Camphrost and blackwood are easy to acquire, but it took me a long time to find phlogisticated gold, due to mistakenly thinking that I didn’t have the item required to unlock a cabinet when I actually did. With that in hand, I finally had everything I needed to unlock the rest of the game — or so I thought, until I actually tried lighting the blackwood and discovered it to be stubbornly resistant, even when tossed in a kiln used for melting metals. Well, if it burns very hot, it probably needs a very hot flame to ignite it, right? And I figured that the hottest flames on the ship had to be the fiery breath of the ship’s powerful fire-breathing dragons. Well, no such luck.

Hadean Lands: Automated Actions

Just a quick post today. I keep on mentioning how Hadean Lands fills in intermediary steps for puzzles you’ve already solved, but I don’t think I’ve communicated just how extensively it does so. So, here’s a rather extreme example. It’s the output generated from the command “go to observatory”, executed immediately after a reset. In the iOS version, this can also be done by simply tapping the observatory on the in-game map. I’m putting it after the fold because it’s full of spoilers. But it’s also full of flavor, so you can use it to get a sense of the game’s sensibilities if you think you’re not going to play it.

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Hadean Lands: Setting and Transformation

If there’s one thing every sufficiently-large puzzle game needs, it’s an excuse. Some reason why walking around and doing stuff requires convoluted shenanigans. You’re sneaking around a high-security facility and would be observed if you took the obvious routes. You’re exploring a ruin, and a lot of the floors and staircases are collapsed and impassible. It’s all a test. There’s wild magic interfering with you. The whole world is stylized enough that you automatically don’t take it seriously.

In Hadean Lands, the primary excuse consists of fractures in time. Something has gone wrong and various bits of the “marcher” (alchemical spaceship) you’re on and various corridors are frozen in time, with barely-visible barriers separating you from your trapped-mid-stride crewmates, or from glimpses of alien planets. Yes, planets, plural. Whatever befell the marcher has twisted space up enough that different fractures show plainly different worlds: a Hadean land here, grey and airless, a Thalassan land there, covered in toxic sea.

But then, there’s some indication that having access to multiple worlds at once is normal. One room has a dome full of windows, each showing a different sky. Apparently the marcher uses this to navigate. And then there’s the peculiar matter of the basement, which leads to a ledge on an underground chasm, which is deep enough that you can’t see the bottom. The chasm has a number of doors leading to parts of the marcher, which makes it seem like a permanent feature of the thing, not a by-product of the time-fracturing accident. And yet, it’s undergrounde Perhaps the marcher isn’t so much a ship as a building that generates portals? But it’s described in nautical terms otherwise.

So basically the setting keeps you a little unbalanced by combining disparate ideas, convincing you it’s one thing and then showing you that it’s another. Even the base concept of “alchemists on a spaceship” works into this. Even the mechanics, as described last post: inventory items that you later realize you don’t need to pick up, a reset button that preserves state. Alchemical transformations symbolized by transformations of understanding, and vice versa. I’ve found a scrap fragment referring to the creation of a homunculus, and I won’t be at all surprised if it turns out that this is what the player character was all along without knowing.

Hadean Lands: Knowledge Mechanics

I had a plan. I was going to do a series of posts about Hadean Lands in lieu of writing about the Comp this year. Hadean Lands seems like a likely Best Puzzles winner at the Xyzzy Awards, and an almost certain finalist, so if I wanted to do writeups of that category again (as I have done for the last two years), it would be good to get my thoughts about it down in advance. Once I had that done, I could move on to blogging other games, ideally before the Steam holiday sale.

The proximate cause of this plan’s failure was an extended crunch at work, but that’s been over for a while now. No, the reason the plan failed is that it was easily derailed. Having started the game, and put it aside, I found it daunting to return to. The amount of stuff you have to know about just seems to keep growing! Scrap paper is particularly deceptive. You’ll have an incomplete description of a useful ritual, and you’ll see a bit of scrap paper in a hard-to-reach place, and you’ll hope that it might contain the secrets you’re seeking, but when you finally solve the puzzle to reach it, it’ll more likely turn out to be instructions for a completely unrelated ritual — one that you don’t have any immediate need for, but which, by its mere presence, you now know that you’ll have to perform at some point. Sure, every ritual you can perform increases your powers, but until you have what you need to perform it, it’s just a looming obligation.

Now, the author knows that he’s built a daunting game. This is largely the point of it: to give the players the experience of mastering a large and complex system. And to that end, the game gives the player quite a lot of help, keeping track of all the formulas and rituals you’ve discovered and letting you repeat them with minimal fuss, not troubling you with intermediary steps that can be taken care of automatically, even automatically unlocking doors that stand in the way of necessary ingredients and the like. Everything has to be done manually once, but no more. And if you accidentally destroy something crucial and get the game into an unwinnable state and haven’t saved in a long time? You still don’t have to repeat anything. At various places on the map there are dark voids, part of a general rupturing of time and space in the vicinity of your alchemical spaceship. Entering one of these voids resets the state of the game to the beginning, except for the player character’s accumulated knowledge, which is the one important thing. With the ability to automatically skip over the details, starting over is no chore.

Indeed, it will probably be essential. I’m still in the early stages, but I think I can see how this is going to go. The goals you’re trying to reach in this game — the rewards for solving puzzles — basically come in two sorts: materials and information, the stuff used in alchemical rituals and the instructions on how to use them. Sometimes a ritual will consume a thing, so it can only be performed once. And what if two rituals both require the same consumable ingredient? Well, if the ultimate reason you’re performing the ritual is to gain access to information, you can just reset afterward and keep the information. It effectively doesn’t cost anything at all.

This may sound like sequence-breaking. After all, if the only thing standing between you and your goals is information, a player who has that information can make the protagonist act on it without learning it, like skipping directly to Atrus in Myst. Well, the author has come up with a clever way around that: Formulas. These are the incantations used in rituals by means of commands like “recite the word of anaphylaxis”, and the point of them, beyond flavor, is that the player character has to actually learn the word of anaphylaxis first. This means that formulas act more like inventory items than information, but, unlike your material inventory, you get to keep them across resets.

Meanwhile, the material inventory becomes more like information. Contrary to ingrained adventure-game habit, picking up every item you find isn’t important, and can even be detrimental if you’re planning on walking through a fire or something. Knowing where you can find a thing is for most purposes as good as having it in your hand; at worst, you can go to its location and pick it up with just two commands, and if it’s part of a ritual you’ve performed once before, you don’t even need that. And when I say “knowing”, I am again talking about player-character knowledge rather than player knowledge. The PC knows where things are even if you forget — and, yes, retains that knowledge across resets.

Hadean Lands

Hadean Lands, a text adventure by renowned IF author Andrew Plotkin, was the first successful Kickstarter project I ever backed. He asked for a mere $8000, and got nearly four times that, which seemed like a lot of money for a Kickstarter back in 2010. And, just as he got four times what he asked, he took four times as long as he expected. The most anticipated text adventure in many years, it shipped just a few days ago, and I finally gave it a serious try this weekend.

Despite a multi-hour session, I feel like I’ve just barely started it. The whole thing is predicated on alchemical rituals that require combinations of ingredients under specific elemental or planetary influences established by symbols and incenses, and sequences of commands like “invoke lesser phlogistical saturation” or “recite the categorical imperative”. In other words, this isn’t your “select a spell from a list” system; magic takes work. Even just following instructions written out for you can require research to find out what those instructions mean. It reminds me a little of spellcasting by typing sequences of text from the manual in King’s Quest 3 and a little of the more involved schools of ritual magic in Ultima VIII (a game that I remember as essentially a series of demos for different magic systems), but with one big difference: it’s systematic. Rituals aren’t just arbitrary sequences of actions, they’re techniques that produce specific effects, and that can be tweaked to produce different effects if you understand the theory behind them. Just getting out of the first room requires making a reasonable substitution in the one recipe available to you at that point, tutorializing this variability.

And it keeps on tutorializing for a good while, introducing new aspects of alchemical practice one by one, mainly by means of blocked doors. Here’s one that’s rusted shut, here’s one that’s rusted even more so that your previous anti-rust ritual doesn’t cut it, one overgrown with mold, one that’s locked and the key tossed in a blazing furnace. I’ve reached the point where things open up a bit, where I have multiple unsolved puzzles in front of me and multiple recipes that I have no immediate use for. It’s still looking like alchemy is always the answer to every puzzle, though.

Fortunately, the game only expects you to perform each ritual once. Repeating a ritual is as simple as typing “make fungicide” or whatever, provided you have access to everything you need. I understand that macro-instructions of this sort become increasingly important as the game goes on. We’ll see how that goes in future posts.

The Ship

Okay, enough dawdling. Time to tackle another game that I bought on CD-ROM a long time ago and which now has Steam trading cards. The Ship, a murder simulator set on a 1920s-plus-anachronisms cruise liner, was one of my last purchases from the bargain bin of a bricks-and-mortar software retailer. I picked it up mainly because the cover blurbs promised something new and different and innovative, and I was already in that state where these attributes were more appealing than “fun” or “well-crafted”. (Blogging may have something to do with this. It’s definitely easier to describe what a game does differently than what it does well. It’s probably more informative to boot.) But then, having bought it, I waited eight years to actually give it a try, ruining the newness. My first impression of the game’s content is that it has stylistic elements of Bioshock (ironic juxtaposition of brutal violence with art-deco opulence and old-timey music recordings) and Team Fortress 2 (the particular style of gangly-limbed caricature used in the character models and their animations), both of which were released a year later.

Although The Ship comes with a short single-player “story mode” campaign, it is essentially a competitive multiplayer FPS along the same lines as its enginemates TF2 and Counterstrike. Its chief difference from them is that it’s designed from the ground up to support gameplay more like live-action Assassin. At any given moment, you have one other player you’re trying to murder. As such, the game goes to some length to make individual characters recognizably distinct in both face and wardrobe, and reserves a biggish portion of the UI for a portrait of your target and a statement of their last known location. Combat usually involves improvised hand-to-hand weapons like golf clubs and frying pans rather than guns, and tends to be quick and deadly, an aggressor suddenly pulling out a weapon and dispatching a target who doesn’t get much chance to fight back, preferably from behind. So it’s a little like if everyone in a TF2 match were playing the Spy. Indeed, there’s a hint of Spy Party in the design. Although you know who you’re hunting, you don’t know who’s hunting you, unless they give themselves away through their behavior — say, by following you around. I can imagine advanced players developing tricks to mask their intentions.

Alas, I will probably never see any advanced players. I was unable to play a genuine multiplayer game, due to the in-game matchmaking no longer working. Apparently there are still servers out there that you can connect to manually, but by the time I learned this, I had played to satiation against bots. And frankly, if the servers take any special effort to find, they’re probably populated entirely by people who have spent the last eight years honing their skills at this particular game. Being the newbie in such an environment does not sound appealing. Oh, I’ll give it another try if someone tells me it’s worth it, but for now, I’ve been through the single-player content and tried all the game modes and consider The Ship to be off the Stack.

There are a couple of other mechanical peculiarities worth noting. First of all, there are places where it’s unsafe to fight. If you draw a weapon in view of a guard or a security camera, or linger too long in a staff-only area, you will be arrested, relieved of your weapons, and temporarily thrown in the ship’s brig — which isn’t just a time-out, it’s a small explorable area where you can still fight other imprisoned players if you can find a shiv. If your target gets arrested, you could conceivably trigger your own arrest deliberately in order to pursue them, although in most situations it would probably be more effective to wait right outside the brig, to ambush them when they’re released and haven’t found a new weapon yet.

Now, this mechanism creates murder-free zones where you can sit safely, and it would be a shame if the players just sat there timidly. So the game has a system to force you out of them: Needs. This works kind of like The Sims. Your character requires periodic sleep, especially if you exert yourself. You need food and drink, which in turn produces a need to go to the bathroom, which increases your need to wash. There are even Needs for social interaction and reading material. All of these Needs slowly fill meters, which are normally hidden from view until they’re at least half full. I’m not entirely sure of the consequences of letting the meters fill up completely. The only meter I ever allowed to fill was Hunger, once, when I was still getting used to the rules. This killed my character. Do all the meters do this? If you don’t read anything, can you literally die of boredom? It would take a while to find out; these meters fill pretty slowly. That’s because keeping your Needs satisfied isn’t really meant as a challenge. It’s just a way to force the players to actually engage in evironmental activities other than stalking their prey, and behave a little more like a passenger on a cruise ship. I can’t say it’s entirely successful at this. There’s a screenshot on the box that shows a character stealthily sneaking up on someone who’s obliviously leaning on a rail and gazing out over the ocean, but that would never happen in practice, because there’s no reason to gaze out over the ocean. You never take leisurely saunters around the promenade deck. You satisfy your needs as efficiently as possible to get back to the business of killing. It’s less like being a passenger on a cruise and more like being a TF2 character who needs to run to the bathroom every few minutes.

The premise of the whole thing, explained in the intro cutscene in story mode, is that a masked sadist known as Mr. X has given out a number of free tickets to the cruise, only to reveal once the ship is underway that he’s diverted it from its scheduled course until the passengers murder each other for his amusement. This at least makes sense of some of the game’s rules: they’re dictated by the whims of a madman. In particular, killing your designated victim gets you a cash reward, and the size of the reward depends on the weapon you used. A keypress brings up a list of the current per-weapon rewards, which changes whenever someone gets a kill, because obviously Mr. X craves variety and doesn’t want to see the same weapon used over and over again — and neither do the players or spectators, of course. This, I felt, induced desired behavior much better than the Needs did.

The peculiar thing about Mr. X is that he’s obviously the villain of the story, but, due to the gameplay model, you never get to confront him, or even act against him in any way. He’s not so much an end boss as a personification of the game itself, and the players are his partners in crime. Even the player characters may have been hoodwinked into the whole situation, but once there, all they can do is cooperate with his insane demands or lose. That’s rather grim, isn’t it? This is a world where evil is all-powerful and untouchable, and everyone else dances to its tune, fighting each other instead of the real enemy.

Ah, but what about the single-player campaign? Unlike the multiplayer modes, it has a plot that moves forward, and can contain changes to the status quo. But if anything, it just turns up the grimness even more. We learn that Mr. X has no intention of letting anyone leave the ship alive, and plans to send a helicopter to drop bombs on it when he’s through with his fun. A friendly bellboy offers to help you escape if you give him a large sum of cash, to be obtained through various missions on the ship, mostly criminal in nature: steal a painting from the captain’s quarters, whack a bunch of thugs who someone’s mad at, move your way up to another mission source who pays more. It reminds me a lot of the missions in GTA3. When you’re done, you just make off in a dinghy while the ship sinks behind you, emphasizing the pointlessness of everything you were asked to do, and also how small your victory was. This is followed by a tacked-on Prisoner-esque coda in which you wake up in the sickbay of another of Mr. X’s ships, presumably because an ending where you actually escape was considered too hopeful. You’ve seen more story than you do in deathmatch mode, but you’re still trapped in a never-ending cycle. I feel like this seals off any possibility of even thwarting Mr. X in a sequel or a fanfic, even in a minor way. Such a thing would be too far from the spirit of the game to believably happen in the same world.

The Recent Unpleasantness

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a blog post about the whole #GamerGate kerfuffle. I haven’t been in a writey mood, but it seems important to get some words down, if only to get them out of my head. But then, every time I write a couple of paragraphs, I find some other article that says what I was trying to say, only better. So let’s start off with something more personal, that other people wouldn’t be able to say. Let me tell you the story of my closest encounter with an internet hate mob.

It wasn’t all that close an encounter, really. I wasn’t involved directly. But my employer was. It happened three years ago, and it started with a dispute over some minor surface damage to a vehicle that had been loaned to the company. I imagine that the company and the vehicle’s owner could have settled things between themselves if they tried, or, if that failed, taken it to small claims court. But the vehicle owner was impatient, and posted his grievances to reddit. In this post, he named the person who had been his initial point of contact at the company. She wasn’t really involved in this dispute, was definitely not responsible for the damage, and in fact had quit her job a few weeks prior to this point. In fact, she was trying to enjoy her first real vacation in a long time when it hit: nonstop angry and incoherent phone calls from strangers who had even less connection to the dispute than she did.

Now, this was a fairly minor hate mob, and blew over relatively quickly, but any amount of personal harassment is too much. The reason I think this episode might be of interest to people not directly involved is what it illustrates about the mob mentality. The chosen victim in this instance was not only innocent of any wrongdoing, she hadn’t even done anything to call attention to herself. She wasn’t a public figure. She didn’t make a blog post that people took exception to. She just got accused by someone else, and a few angry strangers took that as permission to mistreat her. I’ve long felt that the lesson here is that none of us are safe, that you can just arbitrarily become the victim of mob justice no matter what you do. I’ve compared internet mobs to house fires before. If someone is trapped in a burning house, you don’t take the fire’s side, or say “maybe the fire has a point”. Fires don’t have points. They’re just fires. If they burn someone who deserves it, it’s purely a coincidence.

But there’s one more detail that seems relevant now. I haven’t spoken of this on this blog before, because I like to keep it separate from my professional life, but: I am a game developer. I’m a programmer for Telltale Games1, and the vehicle involved in the dispute was a replica Jurassic Park jeep used in the Telltale booth at PAX. The mob had come from reddit’s videogame forums.

Now that that’s said, let me tell you a little about how #GamerGate looks from my vantage point inside the industry. There’s a notion I’ve seen expressed that #GamerGate is essentially about rescuing the games industry from Social Justice Warriors — that we game developers are being bullied into changing our games and compromising our artistic vision to meet the demands of SJWs, and that the only reason we don’t speak out about it is that we’re afraid. Because the SJWs have a stranglehold on the press, and can punish us if we don’t play ball.

Speaking as a game developer, and as someone who talks with other game developers on a daily basis, this whole idea is pure fantasy. Seriously, no one in this industry is chafing at the constraints of the SJW mafia. We have real constraints that do chafe: constraints imposed by publishers and IP license owners, by Sony and Microsoft (both of whom have new consoles out right now, with brand new certification requirements), by the limitations of our target hardware. Take us out for drinks and these are the things we’ll complain about. SJWs do not make the list.

I can’t deny that there are people trying to ruin games, however, because we’ve all experienced the effects. For as long as games have been online and multiplayer, a certain subset of players have dedicated themselves to ruining them for everyone else, whether by killstealing, or attacking their teammates, or just being abusive and annoying on in-game chat until other people quit in exasperation. We call these people “griefers”.

I suggest that online harassment of individuals should be considered a form griefing.

I hope that’s not belittling — clearly it’s worse than ordinary griefing, because it’s in real life, rather than a game you can quit. (And no, quitting your job doesn’t stop the abuse. If anything, it seems to encourage the griefers, who see it as a sign that they’re “winning”.) Mainly, I wish to suggest that griefing and harassment stem from a similar source, and that this is why gaming seems to have a much greater problem with harassment than other fields. You can’t grief people through movies or comic books, but you can in a game. And so gaming is where the griefers make their home.

Now, if you bring up the ongoing griefing campaign in a place more populated than this, you’ll inevitably put people on the defensive. They’ll object to being tarred with the same brush as the griefers, and insist that they’re just trying to have a dialogue about ethics in gaming journalism. To this, all I can say is: I’m just talking about the griefers. If you’re not a griefer, I have no quarrel with you. The only person grouping you with them is yourself, and you really shouldn’t do that, because they’re not actually on your side; griefers are never on anyone’s side, even when they’re on your team. You want a dialogue? The griefers are preventing that, drowning any reasonable disagreement in a flood of bile and vitriol. It’s hard to notice sincere concerns, let alone respond to them, when they’re buried under a thousand insults and death threats.

And there’s the problem with any attempt to use #GamerGate for any purpose other than griefing: it automatically groups you with the griefers. The tag was started to spread one of the sleazy Zoe Quinn hate videos. For a while, if you searched for “GamerGate” on Google, the first hit that purported to explain it from the Gater side was just a list of links to similar videos attacking Quinn and Sarkeesian, rather than anything to do with journalistic ethics. That’s changed: now, judging by Google hits, the primary non-griefing purpose of #GamerGate is defending #GamerGate from accusations that they’re nothing but griefers. This is not productive! I say let the griefers have their tag. They don’t define us as gamers, and we are not their shield.

  1. This is of course why I haven’t posted about any games by Telltale since 2008. When I played Sam & Max, it was research for a job interview. At that interview, I was presented with a copy of CSI: Hard Evidence, on the basis that I’d probably be working on the next CSI game if they hired me, and I should know a little about it first. []

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