Archive for the 'Platformer' Category

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as RPG

If I didn’t already have a notion of what genre Castlevania: Symphony of the Night belongs in, I’d probably invent the category “Platform RPG” for it. It’s simply got more RPG-genre signifiers than any other metroidvania I’ve played. It isn’t just that you earn experience and level up; there are a bunch of games go that far without seeming particularly RPG-like otherwise. (I think of Blood Omen 2 as a good example, although it probably only comes to mind right now because of its long-haired vampire protagonist.) It’s the little influences, like the choice of stats (which use stantard D&D abbreviations like STR and CON), as well as their initial values, which fall squarely into the middle of 3d6 range. And the whole layout of the status and inventory menus is not just RPG-like, it’s distinctly Final Fantasy-like.

The specific powers of the items you can equip include gimmicks of the sort I particularly associate with JRPGs. For example, there’s a suit of armor whose protective power increases with the amount of the castle you’ve explored. Several other items that provide substandard protection make up for it with other powers, such as recovering health, mana, or “hearts” (ammo for special weapons) faster than normal. That sort of thing has been rare so far, though. Most of the weapons, armor, and trinkets you find just increase your Attack and/or Defense ratings to various degrees, and possibly give a stat bonus. Special gimmick items seem like more of a late-game thing, something to give you options beyond maximizing numbers once you feel like you’ve got them maximized enough. (And that’s a phenomenon happening to me already, when I get a new exploration-enabler and go back through earlier sections to reach previously-inaccessible areas: suddenly I find that I’m killing everything in one hit and only taking one point of damage at a time, just like in the intro.)

So I spend enough time contemplating equipment for the game to feel very CRPG-ish, but every once in a while it goes and does something just flat-out old-style coin-op platformer. I thump a crumbly tile of wall with my thumping-stick and out pops a roast turkey: suddenly, I feel like I’m playing Black Tiger. It’s a peculiar mix.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

OK, so Yahtzee was talking about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night recently. And that led to some discussion with fellow gamers, which led to me purchasing a used copy on eBay 1I’m playing the original Playstation version, which I’m playing on my PS2, which is still the most recent console I own. And anyway, it seems like a good synthesis of the last two games I blogged about, Aquaria, a “metroidvania”-style 2D game with an emphasis on exploration, and Amnesia, a horror game set in a spooky castle. The fact that they all end in “-ia” seems to be coincidental, but maybe I should scour the Stack for other such games to see if there’s a pattern.

Not that Casltevania is a horror game exactly — it’s got a vampire antagonist and an over-the-top gothic style, but it’s more fantasy than anything else. In fact, this particular entry in the series has strong FRPG elements, which came as a surprise to me. My prior experience with the Castlevania series is slight, owing to growing up primarily a PC gamer. I recall watching a friend play one of the prior episodes when we were both in college, probably on the SNES, and I’ve played on an NES emulator the first few sections of the original — just enough for the first few segments of Symphony of the Night to be very familiar. Those experiences left me confused about the term “metroidvania”, which didn’t seem to describe the Castlevania I had seen at all. The reason, I now know, is that those weren’t the games that inspired the term. Symphony of the Night was, and that is the main reason I decided to play it.

So, to begin. This is a game where your ability to fight and survive is highly dependent on your equipment, and to emphasize this, it does something I’ve seen a few other games do: it starts you off in an extremely buff state, lets you play through an intro like that, and then takes it all away from you. In fact, it does this twice. The very opening of the game, before it plays the credits, is apparently the ending of the previous game, comprising a few stretches of corridor, a secret passage, and a boss fight against Dracula himself, in which he utters one of the most famous lines of awkward videogame dialogue to ever be loosely adapted from Japanese to English: “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets,” 2Yes, I realize he’s quoting Malraux. It hardly matters. which is right up there with “You spoony bard!” in my book. Throughout this section, the player controls Richter Belmont, vampire hunter and warrior supreme. But Richter goes missing during the opening credits, and for the rest of the game (as far as I’ve seen, anyway), you get a long-haired bishounen who looks like CLAMP drew him. Perhaps the success of this game is what inspired Hideo Kojima to attempt the same thing a few years later in Metal Gear Solid 2?

Well, maybe, maybe not. Regardless, it’s similar enough to make me wonder why the introduction of Raiden provoked so much fan outrage and the introduction of Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son, did not. It probably has something to do with the setting: Metal Gear ‘s military theming is a lot more macho than Castlevania‘s gothic, with its suggestion that immortality and super-powers are associated with aristocracy and poetic souls. But also, Alucard wastes no time in earning his badass cred. Where Raiden is presented at first as a newbie fresh out of the academy (his backstory later turns out to be a lie, but only after you’ve already formed a first impression of him) and spends his first few encounters hiding from guards, Alucard is out there taking out huge monsters with single blows of his terrible swift sword. Which, after a few rooms, is taken away from him, along with the rest of his stuff. But he still keeps his comet-trail of ghostly afterimages!

Anyway, I’m finding this game pretty compelling, and can see why people still like it despite the dated VGA-looking graphics and terrible, terrible dialogue. I’ll probably post again tomorrow.

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1. I’m playing the original Playstation version, which I’m playing on my PS2, which is still the most recent console I own
2. Yes, I realize he’s quoting Malraux. It hardly matters.

Portal 2

It’s been a while since I bought a new A-list title. I tend to wait for the major heavily-advertised games to be remaindered or even bundled when I have any interest in them at all, which is seldom the case these days: recent blockbusters seem to all be military-themed FPSes. When I hear people around the office talking about such things, it leaves me cold. Hearing them tiptoe around spoilers for Portal 2, on the other hand, just piqued my curiosity. For Portal 2 is a rare thing: a major heavily-advertised puzzle game. I don’t think I’ve seen a puzzle game advertised on bus hoardings since the first Professor Layton. And so, after resolutely ignoring the potato-themed ARG, I finally knuckled under and bought the thing last friday, played through the entire single-player story on Saturday, and on Sunday, instead of writing up the experience, got drawn into playing the two-player co-op mode, again completing it in a single marathon session. (So I’m posting this about a week late. Chalk it up to the difficulty of summarizing the total experience of something so recently well-covered elsewhere.)

Before I start talking plot, I have some general non-spoilery observations. Portal 2 is longer than its predecessor, more detailed, and wackier. Portal wasn’t particularly wacky. It had humor, but the humor was dry, and furthermore, superficial — by which I mean, one could imagine making an alternate version of Portal that plays it completely straight without altering the plot or gameplay at all. (Not that I’d recommend doing so. Much of the game’s charm is in its piquant blend of absurdity and living nightmare.) Portal 2, on the other hand, is more of a tall tale. It makes the ridiculous central to the plot, to the point where it starts to seem strange that this is set in the same universe as Half-Life. It puts me in mind of comic-book continuities, how John Constantine shares a world with the likes of Lobo and Ambush Bug. It seems to me that this shift of emphasis is risky. A light dusting of wit can enhance any game, but in scenes where comedy is the main focus, the game is only as good as it is funny. (I’ve cited MDK2 before as an example of how this can go wrong.) Fortunately, Valve got some pretty good voice-acting talent. I don’t know how much of Stephen Merchant’s lines were ad-libbed, but he has a way of making them sound ad-libbed even when they aren’t.

The puzzle content follows a typical pattern for puzzle games, steadily introducing new elements and exploring how they interact with what’s already been seen. (It’s what I think of as the DROD model.) The original Portal kind of did the same thing, introducing turrets and high-energy pellets one by one, and even doling out the portal gun in pieces, but that all seemed much more basic, like they could have introduced everything at once if they wanted to and they were spacing stuff out purely for the sake of spacing it out. The portal gun itself was the only real puzzle-enabling device, and everything else was just an environmental feature that provided material for portal-puzzles. Portal 2 often feels like it’s the other way around: that the portal gun is just a tool for executing gel-puzzles, laser-puzzles, etc. Crucially, some of the new elements are new means of transporting things or altering their trajectories: excursion funnels, light bridges, even repulsion gel at times, which can be both a means of transportation and a thing that needs to be transported. The original Portal had only one novel way to move objects around at a distance, and thus mainly focused on getting the player character around. A lot of the puzzles in Portal 2 involve moving objects around by novel means while you’re stuck standing on a button or something. In the co-op levels, the thing you’re transporting is often the other player, but the same principles apply.

Now to be more specific, and hence more spoilery. The game has three distinct runs of “test chambers”, bracketed and to some extent interrupted by behind-the-scenes stuff. The way that the game begins behind the scenes is a pretty big change from the enigmatic opening of the original. There, getting access to the areas outside the enumerated puzzle-game structure was the big twist, but here, it’s just part of the routine. (It reminds me just a little of Unreal, which is mainly structured around a series of building interiors punctuated by brief forays outdoors to get to the next building.) And once you have a routine, there’s a need to break it up with variety, even if it’s fake variety. Thus, reskinning! The middle run of test chambers is set in a long-forgotten section of Aperture Laboratories, implausibly deep below the surface, where we see what mad science testing environments were like in the 1940s and 1970s. This section is to the labs above what Red Alert is to Command & Conquer, replacing the gleaming engineered-looking Weighted Storage Cubes with simple wooden boxes, the glowing indicators with clack boards, and in general the futuristic high tech with precisely equivalent low — for example, the Aperture Science Unstationary Platform from the original, a levitating device that moved back and forth on some sort of energy beam, is replaced by something like a window-washer’s platform hanging from the ceiling by ropes. The very existence of low-tech equivalents underscores the tremendous wastefulness and impracticality of the whole operation. Company founder Cave Johnson, we learn, was in the habit of insisting on his own way against all sane advice, flew into rages at the least provocation (or sometimes none at all), and had enough power within the company that any half-baked idea he blurted out on a whim would be implemented at enormous expense. Even now that he’s gone, his legacy of preferring the complicated and inefficient remains.

Relics of Aperture’s past, along with recorded messages from Cave at various points in the company’s history, tell the story of its fall. Appropriately, this section of the game is precipitated by a literal fall down a shaft on the player’s part. The upper labs, on the other hand, starts off in a fallen state, decayed and overgrown, and it’s a rise up a different shaft, lined with electrical switches that are turned on by your passage, that triggers GLaDOS’s rise from the dead, followed by the gradual restoration of the facility to pristine condition.

GLaDOS herself is in much better condition than before her death, free from the audio glitches and lacunae found in the first game. Presumably such things were the result of the ethical constraint core that you destroyed at the end of the first game, or rather, of the self-sabotage GLaDOS engaged in to work around it. (Similarly, the dropping of the cake meme can be attributed to the destruction of her cake core.) She comes off as smarter, too, anthropomorphizing plainly inanimate things less 1The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing. and wasting no time on pathetically transparent attempts at deception. I suppose that’s because the time for that is over now that you’re openly enemies, but on a higher level, it’s because the role of humorously incompetent AI has been taken over by Wheatley, your sometime helper before the fall.

Of course, that’s not all Wheatley takes over. Wheatley’s conquest of the Enrichment Center — of Glados’s body, even — is the first moment that a male voice is in control, and things immediately take a turn for the worse — this is the point when both of the game’s strong female characters are literally cast down. For a while, Cave Johnson’s pre-recorded messages take over as antagonist, providing another male voice, but Johnson, as someone confident in his authority, is more of a bad father figure to match GLaDOS’s bad mother, while Wheatley is more like a spoiled kid with too much power. A spoiled pubescent kid, yet: the facility’s systems automatically give him a nagging urge to put humans through test chambers and a jolt of pleasure whenever you solve a puzzle, causing him to moan orgasmically. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this section immediately follows the discovery of tubes that spew viscous fluids, either.) This changes the tone of the exercise somewhat: GLaDOS hated you and wanted to murder you, but Wheatley effectively wants to rape you. The one thing that keeps this from being too horrible is that he’s so bad at it.

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1. The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing.

And Yet It Moves: Ending

And Yet It Moves consists of three chapters, an interactive credits sequence, and a bonus level. The first chapter is set in a cave, the second in a forest, and the third, after starting in the forest, goes all trippy and stops pretending to be representational. The scraps that form the world suddenly take on a brightly-colored pattern like wrapping paper, and the set-pieces become more elaborate and more gameish. None of the game tries to be particularly realistic, but here at the end, the designer seems to feel freer to just do whatever he finds interesting.

Objects grow and shrink, or have textures that move completely independently of their real motion. Some areas rotate continuously on their own — compensating for this with only 90-degree turns is difficult enough that it seems like these bits in particular have to be easier on the Wii. There’s a repeated gimmick of colored platforms that appear and disappear in time with the background music. The background music doesn’t usually have a very strong beat, but for these segments, it changes. I really don’t care for the music in this game — it consists mainly of random Seinfeld-style mouth-pops and samples of someone saying “Doong” — but in the these segments, it becomes more coherent, and thus more tolerable. In fact, it reminds me of the music sections in some of the Rayman games.

And there’s a motif, used once per level towards the end, of doubling the player character. You hit a checkpoint in what looks like a dead end — it should be noted that the checkpoints look like sketch-people similar to the player avatar, who stand still and point in the direction you should go next, like a guide — and suddenly the world changes into an enclosed space with two such guides, one color-inverted, white-on-black instead of black-on-white. Another sketch-person stands there, and you’re in control of both, but they move in opposite directions. The only way to continue is to get them both to their opposite guides at once. It’s reminiscent of Scott Kim’s Double Maze, except taking place in a single space.

At the very end — and into the credits and bonus level — the color drains from the world, leaving it unmarked white, with occasional crumples and creases. It’s sort of a larger-scale version of what happens at the end of every level: your sketch-guy finds a white space with a black silhouette in the shape of himself and fits himself into it, restoring it to its pristine condition. Unusually for a platformer, the game doesn’t even address the question of why the player character wants to do this. You could interpret the whole thing as a metaphor for transcending the world of appearances (the photographs and other markings) and achieving awareness of the world as it is, which in this game means just paper. Except of course that the papery appearance is itself artifice. It’s all just bits. When the image on a “scrap” moves independently of its edges, it makes it clear that these aren’t even digitized versions of things that ever even existed as scraps in the physical world.

And Yet It Moves: Controls and Mistakes

I can’t really back this up, but I get the impression that And Yet It Moves is best-known as a Wiiware title, even though it was released for Mac and PC first. I suppose that’s just the nature of the market right now. Even ignoring the popularity of the Wii, Wiiware is an effective tool for making games visible to people who wouldn’t be exposed to them otherwise. But also, even though I haven’t tried the Wii version, it sounds like a better game. I mentioned that there are rotating-world games that give you continuous rotation, rather than the four-sided stuff I’m seeing here. The Wii version of AYIM has that, with multiple ways of accessing it from the controls. I have to wonder if the puzzle content had to be redesigned at all to accommodate continuous rotation or if it was just left alone, and if the latter, whether it makes alternate approaches possible.

One description I’ve read says that continuous rotation makes things more difficult, but it almost has to be easier to at least do what you intend most of the time. With a keyboard, you have the left hand on WASD and your right hand on the arrow keys, although only three keys of each set are used: A and D to move left and right, W to jump, Left Arrow to rotate the world counterclockwise 90 degrees, Right Arrow to rotate clockwise, and Up Arrow to do a 180-degree flip. The problem with this is that the directions of rotation aren’t very strongly associated with left and right. Half the time, I wind up pressing the wrong thing — which, given that the world takes a little time to rotate, and doesn’t freeze while it’s rotating, can be enough to kill me or otherwise make me start over whatever I was trying to do. (Checkpoints are plentiful, at least.) At first, I tried to remember that the left/right arrow keys indicate the direction the top of the screen moves in, but this is a difficult thing to apply in the heat of action. After a while, I instead tried thinking of it as pressing the key corresponding to the direction that I want to become down — a rule that happily applies to the up arrow as well. I think this is a little easier to apply, but I still wind up making a lot of mistakes.

The times when I’m least likely to make mistakes are the more intense stretches, when I’m rotating the playfield a lot. I don’t even think about it in terms of absolute directions then: I just know that I have to rotate the world opposite to my last rotation, or in the same direction again, and that’s an easy thing to communicate to my fingers. The game seems to be making this kind of quick flurry or rotation more and more necessary as the game goes on, replacing the more conventional platforming, which could have the ironic effect of making things easier for me.

And Yet It Moves

Another update and suddenly And Yet It Moves is working for me. This is a 2D puzzle-platformer that, like, Braid, is based around building puzzles around one unusual ability. In Braid, it was control of time. Here it’s control of gravity — or, equivalently, the ability to rotate the entire world. I’m told that there have been other games since that explore this idea more thoroughly — including things where you can rotate the world freely by any angle, instead of just in 90-degree increments as is the case here. There’s a whole mini-genre, apparently. There are also antecedents, like the Shift series, which lets you simultaneously flip the world upside-down and reverse figure and ground.

The one thing that really distinguishes AYIM from the likes of Shift is that your rotations affect more than just the player avatar. Boulders tumble from their now-horizontal holes, falling water drops do sharp mid-air turns, bats are dislodged form their perches and fly up to the new ceiling. There are bits where the focus is entirely on making some inanimate object fall the right way, although you still have to make sure that the avatar doesn’t fall too far and die in the process. Still, the most-repeated material is all about gravity-control-enhanced navigation: jumping off a cliff and then quickly turning the cliff wall into a floor, for example, or extending the length of your leap by falling part of the way.

I’m a bit disappointed about how little of the levels I can see at once. Surely the re-orienting of the world would be more impressive if I could see the world? But then, there may not be much of a coherent world to see, the levels being patched together out of bits that only make sense locally. Certainly they’ve picked a graphical style that suits such a design. This is a world of collage, made of ragged scraps torn from photographs. The really interesting thing is that the pictures in the scraps sometimes waver relative to their frames, or lag behind their movement a little, suggesting that the scraps are windows, or pieces torn out of windows.

Gish: Bosses and Bossiness

The final boss in Gish is an interesting one. As hinted by a couple of prior boss speeches, it’s another ball of tar, similar to Gish himself. The chief differences: first of all, in a concession to readability, it’s white. I’ve never heard of white tar, but you need to be able to tell it apart from Gish. Secondly, it doesn’t have quite the same capabilities as Gish: it doesn’t seem to be able to jump, or to turn sticky and climb up walls. It does have the ability to turn heavy and ram you, and when thrown into the air, can zero in on you with all its crushing weight. Beating the level requires hurling a block up onto a platform (so you can use it to weigh down a switch that opens a trap door into a lava pit), and aiming it while being battered by a white tarball is the most difficult thing about the fight.

Thirdly, despite my use of the neuter pronoun above, the end boss is female. (Don’t ask me what distinguishes male tar from female tar.) This is a twist on the usual kidnapped-girlfriend plot that I only recall seeing once before, in Earthworm Jim. Usually the person who kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend is an implied romantic rival, regardless of his ostensible motives. Here, the relationship archetype is instead that of jealous psycho ex. Her motivation for the abduction was that she wanted the girlfriend out of the picture, mistakenly believing that she was the only thing standing in the way of destined love. But even then, her pre-fight rant implies that she really understands underneath it all that she was never anything to Gish, and never will be: she hollers “What do you mean, you don’t even remember me?” and similar disappointments when Gish hasn’t actually said anything of the sort.

In fact, Gish never says anything at all. All the bosses in the game begin their bossing with boasting and taunting and bombast, and Gish’s reply is always the same: “…..” And then the clever, agile hero overcomes his overconfident foe by exploiting the environment. (It may take dozens of lives to accomplish this, but we don’t count these failures as part of the actual story of the game, do we?) It’s often the mark of the difference between hero and villain, isn’t it? The villain is ego-driven. The hero just wants to get the job done. Even when the hero is given to wisecracks, like Spider-Man, the villain has to step up his boasting to compensate, or else the hero just comes off as something of a jerk. And it’s particularly appropriate here, in a game based around cartoonish grotesques, with a strange hero with strange abilities , but notably awkward in the things that other platformer characters find easy. If Escape from Butcher Bay was a game written to appeal to the school bully, this is a game written for the school weirdo. Getting your way without the need for verbal sparring is part of the fantasy. (Although Spider-Man has a similar sort of appeal — heck, he even shares Gish’s wall-climbing abilities — and, as noted, engages in verbal sparring all the time. Maybe there’s something wrong with my analysis.)

At any rate, it’s finally off the Stack, where it would have been back in 2009 if it had been working properly. I may come back to look for secrets, I may not. Just having it on my Macbook makes it more likely that I will.

Gish: ANBUKaptain’s Lament

So I was finding world 3 difficult once again, and I started thinking that maybe I’d stand a better chance of getting through it if I played on Easy difficulty. Reluctant to start over and lose my progress, I sought online to see what difference it made. My guess was seven lives instead of five. The truth: infinity lives.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. You still get only five lives per game, after which you can continue, but your score starts back at zero. But that hardly matters to a score-ignorer like myself. The big difference is that when you run out of lives and continue, you continue from the beginning of the level, not the beginning of the world as in Medium difficulty. This makes the number of lives per continue unimportant. Suddenly, legitimate incremental progress is possible! You still have to make it through each level within a single life, but with as many do-overs as you need. Even a player who aims to finish on the highest difficulty setting would find this useful as a practice mode. And as a result, I’m already partway into world 5, which may be the last one. (Steam’s description says something about “34+ story levels”, and there are seven levels per world, so. I suppose the vagueness is justified by the presence of “warp zones” off the main track.)

Now here’s the fun part: This is the page where I learned the above. This person really doesn’t like the game at all, and has fairly detailed complaints, although they mostly come down to the same thing: that the game provides insufficient guidance in the use of its frankly unusual mechanics — or, less charitably, “I didn’t figure stuff out, and I’d rather blame the author than myself”. Either way, there was a communication failure there that I think I’ve mostly avoided.

He’s somewhat coy about exactly what he didn’t figure out, and I don’t really understand why, considering that these are anti-spoilers he’s talking about, information that makes the game worse if you don’t have it, as his own experience shows. I will say what he does not: Gish has the ability to throw small blocks. You do this by getting the block on top of Gish (by turning sticky and rolling over it like a katamari), then, when its weight is deforming you, stop being sticky and tense up to resume your shape. There’s one part in world 4 where you have to get three blocks (out of a larger number available) up onto a ledge that Gish can jump to easily, but not while carrying a block: “carrying” means sticking to it, and turning sticky tends to adhere you to the floor and prevent you from jumping. ANBUKaptain apparently got past this by painstakingly building a staircase out of blocks and then somehow hauling blocks up it without pulling it apart — only to then get killed later in the level and start over again. This is clearly the wrong way to do it, not least because it’s less fun.

So, why did I discover this capability that he did not? I can state right off that I did not discover it because I was looking for it. It’s just the sort of thing that you notice while noodling around — playing with the game, as opposed to just playing it. But my usual approach is quite goal-oriented, and I can easily imagine myself in ANBUKaptain’s shoes. I suspect the real difference is I replayed the first two worlds so may times, partly as a result of putting the game away for months at a time, partly because I was trying to find all the secret areas, partly because of the crashing. When you play through the same stuff over and over again, your brain starts looking for shortcuts, more efficient ways to do stuff. You become less methodical, more willing to take risks. There’s one bit in world 3 involving a series of hanging platforms over a lava pit; the first time I encountered them, I carefully jumped from one to the next, but eventually I discovered that you don’t even need to jump: get a running start, and you can just barrel over the lot, carried over the gaps by your momentum. I’m willing to bet that ANBUKaptain never made that leap. I probably wouldn’t have in other circumstances.

In fact, there’s one bit where I rather think I did miss the point until later. The world 4 boss chases you back and forth in a hallway whose ceiling sports three large stone blocks with crumbly blocks underneath them, supporting them. There was a similar set-up back in world 2, where I had passed it by jumping up, clinging to the crumbly blocks, and breaking them by tensing up and increasing my weight (and then getting out of the way quickly before I was crushed). The world 4 boss level makes this approach impractical: the ceilings are just a little too high to jump to, and the tiles around the crumbly ones are slippery ones, making it impossible to just climb the wall and move horizontally. I had notions of pushing loose blocks underneath so I could jump from a higher vantage, but my adversary kept pushing them away. At some point in this process, though, I discovered that I could demolish the crumbly tiles by throwing the loose blocks at them — difficult to do with any precision while you’re being chased, but easier than the alternative. And I suddenly understood something I hadn’t before: why there was a loose block sitting under those crumbly tiles back in level 2. I was supposed to have used it the same way.

So, the lesson here is to trust Edmund McMillen. If you’re doing something difficult and tedious, there’s probably a better and faster way. If you find a loose block, it has a purpose. And this suddenly makes me rethink another place where I found a seemingly-purposeless block, sitting on a sliding floor piece that I needed to shift but had difficulty getting a purchase on. I had gotten through that through awkward shuffling and stickiness, but now I suspect there’s a more elegant solution involving Newton’s Third Law.

Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.

NyxQuest: Depth

The background art in NyxQuest does a more advanced version of the parallax scrolling that the coin-op games of yore utilized to deliver an impression of depth. Rocks, toppled pillars, and monumental statuary in various states of disrepair dot the dunes behind the action, losing focus with distance — there’s probably a transition point where 3D rendering is replaced with bitmaps, but it’s handled so smoothly that I couldn’t tell you where that point lies. In the haze at the very back of each level lies something distant enough that it doesn’t move at all, and the implication of distance makes it easy to suggest enormous size as well.

Such objects are far enough from the action that they’re clearly just scenery. But towards the end of the game, there are two things that suddenly bring the background to the fore. First, there’s a stealth-oriented level appropriately titled “Fields of Argos”. In the extreme distance is a colossal archway supporting a gong-like circle, which, the player soon learns, bears an eye in its center, as vast as Sauron’s and potentially as destructive. It spends most of its time closed, but periodically a sound plays, warning the player that it’s about to open and you’d better find a pillar to hide behind before it spots you. It’s a bit nervous-making when this happens for the first time, because the game seems to be breaking its own rules, suddenly making the background art, formerly static, suddenly not only active but deadly.

The final two levels have a roiling oversized sun sitting on the horizon, shooting missiles at you — and by “at you”, I mean in the general direction of the camera. By this point, you’re armed with cursor-aimed lightning, and can try to shoot them down before you have to dodge them. It’s a tricky thing, though, because doing so involves paying attention to two things, first-person shooting and third-person platforming, independent and simultaneous, one with each hand. I found that most of the time I couldn’t do both effectively at the same time, and had to stop moving in order to shoot and stop shooting in order to move.

The lightning itself adds a significant sense of depth too, because it’s the only thing that suggests a space in front of the action. Lightning blasts originate at the player. This is the point that most clearly shows the game’s platform of origin. On the Wii, you’d most likely actually be pointing the physical controller at the screen, producing a sense that lightning bolts are shooting out of the controller, through the screen, and into the gameworld (albeit only manifesting as lightning bolts once they’re through the screen). Playing with a mouse, it’s much more indirect and abstract: the actual motions of my hands and mouse represent in-world action without resembling it. I kind of wonder how other people perceive this. When I play games, I don’t normally feel like the gameworld is an extension of my physical space. Being absorbed in a game is, to me, like being absorbed in a book: the real world around me is forgotten, as in a dream. But this is a geekish phenomenon, and geeks are perhaps more comfortable with thinking outside their bodies than most people. The popularity of the Wii (and now the Kinect) among people who aren’t otherwise gamers could have a lot to do with the way it lessens that abstraction, making the player into a physical part of the action.

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