Archive for the 'Platformer' Category

NyxQuest: Who is Nyx?

Well, who is she?

The game’s cutscenes presents her as a sort of aerial nymph who lives in the clouds, who lives a lonely existence aside from Icarus’s visits, and who never ventures down to the surface until the start of the game. (And for good reason: her powers of flight are too limited for her to get back home.) And I assumed at first that she was just a character made up for the purposes of the game. Which she is, in this form. But, looking her up, I find that, like God of War‘s Kratos, she shares a name with a pre-existing mythological figure, and no mere cup-bearer or servant. Nyx is night. The essence of darkness. She’s one of the primordial gods, older than the gods of Olympus, older than the Titans, older even than Death. She’s Death’s mother, according to Hesiod. For once, it seems completely appropriate to use the phrase “before the dawn of time”, for what precedes dawn but night?

So far is the mythic Nyx from the angel-winged ingenue in this game that my first impulse is to dismiss it as a simple coincidence of name. There are plenty of people in the Spanish-speaking world named Jesus, but most of them don’t walk on water. But when you think about it, the game’s Nyx is an enemy of the sun. I can easily see her ultimate triumph at game’s end sending Helios away for a while, which is to say, producing nightfall. We’ll see how it goes. Regardless, it’s easy to see the story here, of Nyx’s perilous journey through the sun-scorched lands, as a reversed version of the more typical solar myth, like Ra’s barge passing through the underworld every night so he can be reborn in the east. Which, I suppose, would make it a repeating story, with Icarus falling every day so that Nyx can begin the search for him anew. Poor Icarus.

NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits

The other day, an acquaintance of mine was talking about NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, and I figured, hey, I have that from one of my Steam bundles. I should give that a try. The fact that she had been talking about frustrations with it didn’t register with the part of my brain that forms gaming desires, apparently.

NyxQuest an indie 2D platformer rendered in 3D (a combination that seems to be fashionable right now) with puzzly bits and a Greek mythology theme. It basically has a princess plot, but gender-swapped: you play the part of Nyx, a woman with wings who lives in the sky, looking for Icarus, who flew up to visit her on a regular basis until his famous accident. Clearly they’re playing fast and loose with myth here, but what game doesn’t? Icarus’s fall to earth from flying too close to the heat of the sun is reinterpreted as him becoming the first casualty to the sun itself declaring war on Earth. The whole game seems to take place in ruins in the desert, signs of the wrath of Helios. It’s a little unusual for a 2D platformer to have this kind of consistency of setting, it seems to me. Usually the designers like to swap tilesets every few levels to produce a (somewhat artificial) sense of variety: a forest level and a factory level and so forth. Even though I recognize this kind of variation as shallow, I kind of miss it.

Anyway, the really notable thing here is the platforming mechanics. For starters, there’s the wings. You know how in some platformers you can double-jump? Nyx can quintuple-jump. She can also glide briefly. But the really notable part is the ability to manipulate objects. After a while, you get the ability to grab certain items with the mouse cursor and either pull them along one axis (usually used to slide pillars up and down) or lift them and move them around. They still have a physical presence in the world while you’re moving them, mind you, and sometimes you have to be careful not to conk Nyx with a large stone block. But this also means that you can, for example, lift a block into the air and have Nyx jump and land on it so that she can jump again from higher up.

In-story, this sort of manipulation is supposed to be a sort of telekinetic power granted to Nyx by Zeus, but to me, it feels more like something that the player applies to the gameworld from without, rather like in Samorost. It also feels a little weird because it forces me to use both hands simultaneously and independently, controlling two different things in tandem. This is especially weird-feeling when the two hands cross over. It’s easy to come to associate the left hand with stuff you’re doing on the left side of the screen and the right hand with the right side — much of the game is spent travelling from left to right, which means that the right side is where manipulable objects first come into view. But there are times when you need to move a block to Nyx’s left, and it somehow feels awkward, which is interesting. I’m told that infants, in the course of learning how to use their limbs, don’t even try at first to reach their arms across their bodies, the left arm to the right side or vice versa — that it takes them a while to figure out that this is even possible, and that it’s a bit of a personal breakthrough when they do. This game makes me feel like I’m going through something similar, my first fumbling steps towards basic motor coordination.

Super Meat Boy: Following Trails

I played a little more SMB. I’m still stuck in Hell, but I managed to unlock another character: Ogmo, from the Jumper series. I recall trying one of the Jumper sequels a while back, probably Jumper 3 when it was featured on Play This Thing. It seemed a decent platformer, but I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. But hey, if there’s one thing I can use SMB for, it’s as a framework for recommendations. Seems to me I should at least try out the games that McMillen liked enough to invite to the party.

So, I looked at the unlockable character roster. So far, I’ve got Ogmo, the Headcrab, Commander Video, and Jill. Ogmo I’ve mentioned; I’ve downloaded the original Jumper and played it a bit, but it gets very difficult very quickly. The Headcrab is from Half-Life. Half-Life isn’t a platformer, and the headcrab isn’t its player character, but I suppose someone wanted a Steam-exclusive unlockable, and this is the only thing in Valve’s library that’s known for jumping. At any rate, I’ve played the heck out of Half-Life (although I need to go through Half-Life 2 again at some point, now that they’ve added Achievements). Commander Video is from Bit.Trip Runner, which is a Wii game, not available on any system I own. One of its predecessors, Bit.Trip Beat, is out for PC, but it looks like a fundamentally different game; if further Bit.Trips are ported, I may get them as a package, but for now, I’ll give it a miss.

Looking at unlockable characters I don’t have yet, I noticed one from a game that had garnered praise but which I hadn’t tried: Runman: Race Around the World, which can be described as Sonic the Hedgehog with everything that isn’t directly related to running fast taken out, including death. Downloading that, I see it’s done in a crudely-doodled style. No surprise there — I could tell that much from the screenshots and demo video. But somehow, seeing it in-game made me look at it better, and it looked very familiar — the drawing style reminded me a lot of An Untitled Story, a Metroidvania-style platformer I had played but not finished a few months ago, concerning an egg that falls from a nest and, after fighting a few bosses, hatches into a bird that fights more bosses. It had art that was clearly drawn with magic marker.

Googling, I discover that, indeed, one of the co-authors of Runman is Matt Thorson, author of An Untitled Story. Furthermore, he wrote the Jumper series, as well as a couple of other platformers I know: Give Up Robot and Moneysieze. I had played Moneysieze quite a lot last year, and meant to write it up here, but never got around to it. It struck me as fairly ingenious in its unconventional use of famliar platformer mechanics. For example, the double-jump. In many platformers, you can hit the jump button a second time at the top of your arc to gain additional height. In Moneysieze, you could perform the second jump at any point in your trajectory — which means you can use it to pass under obstacles that extend below your starting point. I thought this was clever, but now I see that the same author had already pulled tricks like this in Jumper. SMB treats the double-jump as Ogmo’s defining trait, and the warp zone where you acquire Ogmo for general use requires executing trick jumps of exactly this sort.

I’m a little shocked to discover how much of Thorson’s work I’ve experienced without being aware of him. I notice now that the Play This Thing writeup of Jumper 3 actually mentions that Thorson is half of the Runman team, but apparently that fact made no impression on me at the time. Well, if part of SMB‘s mission is increased awareness of indie platformers, mission accomplished. I considered myself pretty aware already, but it looks like I wasn’t aware of my lack of awareness. I’ll be watching for Thorson’s name in the future.

Also, for what it’s worth, Runman‘s level-selection screen plays a recording of Helen Humes singing Song of the Wanderer, the same background music as the level-selection screen for Immortal Defense. I suppose there are only so many public-domain jazz recordings out there, and Runman uses many of them, but unless this is a deliberate reference, it’s a strange coincidence. Or maybe there’s just something about that song that suggests “level select screen” to indie developers? I’m definitely going to use it for that purpose if I ever write a game with a level-select screen. It’s too good an in-joke not to share.

Super Meat Boy: Hell

I spent a bit more time on Super Meat Boy last night, beating one more boss (or, well, world-end-level; it was more of a race against time, without any real boss monster to beat) and then going to Hell. “Hell” is that game’s name for its traditional lava-and-fireballs world. I suppose there’s an ice level next? A big part of this game’s schtick is riffing on 2D platformer clichés. The first world is an idyllic forest, just like the first world in every Sonic the Hedgehog game, except there are enormous circular saws mounted all over the place for no apparent practical purpose, and I don’t think Dr. Robotnik ever went as far as to just burn the whole forest down — something played for laughs here. Sonic was marketed as the bad-boy counterpart to Mario, but Meat Boy, with his irrepressable grotesque-cuteness, his glee in the face of repeated gory death, and his utter disregard for censors or parents, has him beat hands-down in the bad-boy department without even making a big deal of it. And Hell is part of this: lots of games have lava worlds, but only a few are so forthright about what we’re all thinking. (Fun fact: the Japanese version of Um Jammer Lammy has Lammy die, go to Hell, and escape. The North American version timidly replaced this whole scenario with a tropical island, robbing Lammy of her heroic journey’s most directly mythic component.)

Fittingly, Hell seems to be the place where the difficulty ratchets up to just beyond my abilities. I may well change my mind about this — a good platformer makes things seem like they’re beyond your abilities but then trains you up to the point where they’re not. I remember Crash Bandicoot as being particularly good about putting collectibles in seemingly-impossible places that I skipped over on the first pass but came back for later with greater confidence. The “Veni Vidi Vici” sequence in VVVVVV looked daunting at first, but yielded to persistent practice. Still, those are both matters of hunting for optional collectibles. Here in SMB it’s the main path through the game, and I’m not even on the last world yet. I’m winding up doing the opposite of what I did in Crash and VVVVVV: going back to find collectibles and bonus areas because it’s the easier alternative.

Well, I knew what I was getting into when I started playing. This game has a reputation for extreme difficulty. I’ve seen this school of game design described as “masocore”, although there are differing definitions of that — the author of Super Jill Off contends that a true masocore game has to subvert genre expectations. I suppose SMB does that to some extent, though. Just the sheer abnormal distance that you can leap is something of a subversion, in that it allows the designers to create levels where the best and safest route through a series of obstacles is to just clear them all in one go.

Super Meat Boy

Maybe my perspective on things is skewed — I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream gaming press, and the blogs I read tend to focus on indie stuff. But then, indie stuff is big enough these days to get official recognition on consoles. Regardless, it really seems to me that this year, the year that gave us the long-awaited Starcraft sequel and the most significant World of Warcraft expansion yet, the title that’s generated biggest buzz has been Super Meat Boy. (Or possibly Minecraft, but that’ll have to wait for another post.) It’s being called the apotheosis of the 2D platformer, the ultimate expression of the form. And it encourages this sort of thinking by being kind of a living summary of what’s been done before, full of references to other games.

The most obvious references are the unlockable characters, mostly from other indie platformers — Braid, VVVVVV, and Mighty Jill Off, to name just a few — most of which I’m familiar with, some of which I’m not. Like the Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts series, it suggests that all these games are part of the same family, a sort of indie platformer club. Also, the characters carry with them an approximation of the mechanics from their source games, which effectively makes them demos for any of the games that you haven’t played. I have to wonder how much SMB has affected sales of these other games, and how much this was a factor in the decision of their creators to allow their inclusion. (It doesn’t have to be a factor at all — game developers are quite capable of making agreements like this just on the basis that they think it would be cool.) But viewed from the other side, it’s effectively making a statement that SMB is a generalization of the platformer, broad enough to include all these other games within it.

Some of the unlockable characters are accessed by collecting bandages (collectibles in hard-to-reach places), others are located in special “warp zones” that make you play through a few levels in the style of their games of origin. There are also “retro” warp zones that use the normal Meat Boy mechanics, but in the graphical style of, say, a NES or a Gameboy (or even a glitched-out version of same) — another kind of reference to things that have come before, this time appealing directly to the nostalgia factor. Note that any reference to a modern platformer can also be an indirect nostalgia appeal, because the nostalgia factor is pretty big in 2D platformers to begin with. The three examples I gave above of games that provide SMB with guest stars are heavily based on specific older games — Braid on Super Mario Brothers, VVVVVV on Jet Set Willy 1Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect, Mighty Jill Off on Mighty Bomb Jack. I didn’t pick those three games with this in mind. It’s just that the 2D platformer genre has become so intra-referential in modern times that it’s hard to avoid. SMB embraces this tendency a little more thoroughly and inclusively than most, to the point that it becomes recursive: its referencing of other games is itself a reference to those games referencing other games.

Then there are subtler shout-outs. I’ve been through one level that’s a blatant imitation of Canabalt, but it’s only blatant if you’re familiar with Canabalt. This makes me wonder what else there is that I’ve been missing. I’ve found an article explaining how all of the world intro cutscenes are all shot-by-shot imitations of intros from various classic games, but it’s the sort of thing where there could easily be references that no one has even noticed yet.

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1. Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect

Puzzle Dimension: Flawless Victory

I are awesome!To my surprise, I managed to clear all of Puzzle Dimension‘s Achievements on finishing the game. You may recall my doubts that I’d reach a total score of 50000 points, as one of the Achievements requires. Going into the final level, I was more than 2000 points short of that, about four times as much as I expect to get in a typical level. But the final level wasn’t typical. It was one of those puzzle-game final levels that recapitulates everything you’ve learned, and that means it was large, and that means it wasn’t hard to get my bonus multiplier up to the maxiumum of 32x just by roaming around before I started trying to solve it.

I have to say, finishing this game produces the sense of epic accomplishment a lot better than anything else I’ve been playing lately. At least it does for me. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a mental phenomenon that I think most hardcore gamers are familiar with: the sense of waking up from a game. (Probably the best descriptions I’ve seen of this are those in the novel The Player of Games by Iain Banks.) After an absorbing multi-hour session, your mind is in an altered state; if you’ve just beat the end boss, that state is probably at its most intense. And that’s exactly the moment when you stop playing, so the contrast, as you stand up and become aware of reality again, is quite noticeable. I feel like I’ve talked about otherworlds in games a lot lately, things that take the place of the spirit world of the shamans. But viewed from outside, games themselves are otherworlds, and single-minded focus on playing is a kind of trance.

Anyway, emerging from the end of Puzzle Dimension produces something of that effect, which is a little strange, considering that I haven’t been playing it in intensive multi-hour sessions. Possibly it’s just the unfamiliarity of the form. I can play a text adventure or FPS and experience it as just another text adventure or FPS. But Puzzle Dimension asks us to flex mental muscles that don’t get a lot of use — specifically, keeping three-dimensional objects straight in your head without a consistent sense of gravity to orient yourself by.

Puzzle Dimension: Nearly There

I’m definitely in the home stretch on Puzzle Dimension. One more session should be enough to cover the remaining three puzzles, if my progress through the rest of the cluster is any indication. It really seems like the puzzles have been getting easier toward the end, but this could be illusion — perhaps I’ve simply cracked this game’s code, learned the right way to think. Or maybe the level designers are just running out of tricks, as happened in The Humans. If so, it’s a good thing it’s ending before it gets too repetitive.

Since I’m paying so much attention to Achievements lately, let’s look look at what I have left here. There are four I’ve yet to get. There’s one for completing the last cluster, and one for solving every puzzle in the game. Obviously I’m going to get both of these together, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone — you can complete the last cluster while there are still puzzles remaining in earlier clusters. There’s one for unpixelating every tile in the game, which I’ll probably also get at the same time, but only because I’ve been diligent: many puzzles don’t require you to go everywhere. None of them make it particularly hard, though; if you can hit all the flowers, you can get within one tile of everything else. You just have to remember to do so. The level-selection UI displays levels you’ve completely unpexelated in a different color, so it was easy to go back and fix things up when I noticed that this achievement existed.

That leaves just one Achievement: the one for getting a total score of 50000. As I write this, I stand at 45912. That’s far enough away that I almost certainly won’t make it within the next three puzzles, but close enough that I could plausibly pull it off by replaying a few of the earlier ones. When you come down to it, all it asks is that you get an average score of 500 per puzzle, and 500 points is usually a reasonable goal, provided you can get your multiplier up to x8. But then, on some levels, particularly the early ones, it’s just plain impossible. I don’t doubt that I could reach 50k with a bit of effort, but why go to that effort? The pleasure of a puzzle game is in solving the puzzles; once I do that, this game is meaningfully exhausted. I suppose it all comes down to how much it pains me for just one checkbox to remain unchecked. I’ll go some distance for true completion, but I have my limits.

Puzzle Dimension: 3D

If there’s one thing Puzzle Dimension really hits home, it’s the dimensionality. This is an experience that’s more fully three-dimensional than most of what we do in real life. I mean, in real life, we’re generally bound to a single surface, with a seemingly consistent normal defining the direction of down. PD lets us explore any surface, regardless of orientation. Let me just share a few illustrative screenshots:

A cloverleaf with flowersThis level is made mostly of two partial shells, made of pathways along a convex surface, joined by some stepping-stones. Because of the way the shell bends, paths that are partially parallel cross and diverge. The implied hull has a definite inside and outside, with flowers on both, so the player has to seek ways to cross between the two — the hook-shape on the right side is a way to transfer from inside to out, by rolling off the end of the hook and dropping to the other side. Dropping from outside to inside is easier, and can be done in multiple places, but the falls necessary are longer, and more dangerous-feeling, because it’s hard to feel completely sure that things are lined up right over a longer distance.

Zero-gravity architectureThere are several levels with this sort of barrel shape. Again, we have a distinct inside and outside (and yes, it is possible to make continuous nonorientable surfaces in this system, although I don’t have a screenshot of one handy), but this time, the design works against maintaining any other sense of orientation: the paths, especially the ones around the curve of the barrel, wind too tightly to easily maintain a sense of absolute direction. Note that the blue tiles are slippery ice; only on the brown tiles can you stop moving. The tentacles here are similar to the hook in the preceding picture, and you can switch from inside to outside by dropping off any of them, but if you’re not careful, you’ll land on an ice tile and go flying off the edge of the structure.

Spike!This level has a shape that I wouldn’t have thought possible given the game’s constraints: using only 45-degree bends, it produces an elongated three-sided spike. It manages this by constructing three planes that are perpendicular to each other, like the sides of a cube, but whose grid lines are diagonal to the cube’s sides. Before seeing this level, I kind of intuitively assumed that the tiles, regardless of orientation, were part of an overall global 3D grid. But of course this is inconsistent with the observed facts: all tiles are clearly square, so anything situated at a 45-degree angle would break the lines of such a grid. Nonetheless, most levels before this one are arranged more or less rectilinearly.

Given the extreme three-dimensionality, it’s especially interesting that the designers decided to make an entire cluster of levels that are flat or mostly flat. I suppose it’s their way of showing that they’re not entirely dependent on disorienting the player, that they can make interesting puzzles even when deprived of their main tool.

Puzzle Dimension: Polish

Well, I’ve just opened up the final cluster. I haven’t delved into it much yet, but the first puzzle in the cluster is significantly easier than the puzzles I had to solve to make it available. In fact, the remaining ones, the ones I haven’t managed to solve yet, are difficult enough that it could take me several days to finish them.

Since we’ve got multiple posts ahead of us, let me take a moment to just talk about how polished it all is. The graphics certainly take advantage of current technology, all bump-mapped and shiny with the appropriate sheen for ceramic tiling or painted wood or whatever is appropriate for your current selected theme. There are four graphical themes, unlocked one by one over the course of play: a yellow-and-brown one with desert-like connotations, a cool whitish one, a wooden one on a green background, and an underwater one. At first I didn’t think much much of them — sure, it’s nice to get some visual variety, but switching themes means I have to get used to how the various tile types look all over again. But then I realized that the background art in the underwater theme — which includes a 3D sea floor, a shimmering surface above, some sea life and rusting barrels and Atlantis pillars — provided cues for remembering my current orientation, in contrast to the more uniform backgrounds in the other themes. It’s hard to say this for sure, but I think this helps even when I’m not consciously paying attention to it.

There isn’t a lot of physics in this game — there’s basically no moving objects other than the ball, and it moves in a simplified, rule-based way, always falling straight down. But there’s one bit of object interaction worth noting: if you brush past a flower — say, because you’re falling through the space it occupies, perpendicular to its orientation — it bends appropriately. It’s a little touch, but a nice one, especially considering that it’s the only sort of interaction that needs such special treatment. What does the game do if the flower is still pixelated? Well, first of all, if you’re close enough to brush by it, you’re close enough to unpixelate it. So it does that, and then the flower bends.

The sounds in the game are mostly arcade-like beeps and boops, but there’s a nice touch in the way the gameplay affects the background music. As in, for example, Peggle, changes in the music reflect your progress. You start off each level with chiptune background music, all square waves and drums made of white noise, and as you unpixelate the level, the music, in effect, unpixelates as well. It’s a subtle effect, because the music remains heavily electronic and synthesized even when it’s unpacked; the thing that really made me start noticing it was the sudden shifts back to NES-quality when you restart a level (something I didn’t do as often in the earlier levels). I suppose it’s an instance of a general theme, that this world, the puzzle dimension, becomes realer as you touch it, more detailed and particular as a result of your experience of it. Even the unlockable themes progress from the abstract to the concrete.

Puzzle Dimension: Scoring

Now, I’ve said that Puzzle Dimension is essentially turn-based. And this is true. But its scoring mechanism is extremely realtime.

I don’t have a good handle on the details of the scoring system — it’s definitely tracked per-puzzle so that you can try to beat your score on any particular puzzle on revisiting it, and it seems like you get points for each flower collected, for finishing the level, for unpixelating tiles (that is, moving onto or near them for the first time), and even, if my observations are correct, for making breakable tiles collapse. But the game doesn’t tell you outright what specific actions are worth, and I haven’t bothered figuring it out. The one thing that I have figured out is the multiplier. It starts at x1, then proceeds to x2, x4, and so on exponentially up to x32 at least (although this can only be reached on some levels). So you can see that getting the multiplier up is crucial to maximizing your score. The way you increase the multiplier is by unpixelating tiles. Behind the score on the screen there is a progress bar showing how close you are to increasing the multiplier. When you move into new territory, it goes up. But over time, it decays. You don’t lose your current multiplier to decay, but you do lose your progress toward the next.

Now, at this point, you might be saying “Why do you care? This is a puzzle game. The goal is to solve the puzzles. If you do that, you’ve won, regardless of the score.” And this is certainly how I usually feel about puzzle games with a scoring element that depends on speed. But, well, this game has Achievements, and some of them are linked to scoring, and that makes me care a little. There’s one Achievement, for getting a total score of over 50000, that I probably won’t get — Steam tells me that it’s the least-achieved Achievement in the game, achieved by only 0.4% of players. But I intend to make an honest try at it.

(Tangentially, I like what they’ve done with the Achievement icons in this game: they’re on backgrounds that are color-coded by type. So all of the “complete all the puzzles in cluster X” Achievements are on blue, all the “get a multiplier of Y” achievements are on green, etc., making it easy to spot trends in a list ordered by other criteria.)

Anyway, playing for points affects how I approach the levels. The first goal in any level is to get the multiplier up quickly by hitting as much of the board as I can without consequences. Once I run out of places I can go without thinking about it, it’s time to put the game into Camera mode, which pauses the game, including the multiplier decay, so I can actually take a look at the whole thing and make plans — plans which may involve more multiplier-grabbing in places that weren’t easily accessible. So the overall pattern becomes one of alternate rushing and contemplation.

Eventually you reach the point where there’s nothing left to grab — either you’ve unpixelated everything (which turns the progress bar green), or the only thing left is on a one-way path to the exit portal. The exit portal isn’t necessarily open at this point. Just because you’ve been at or adjacent to every tile doesn’t mean you’ve figured out how to get to all of the flowers — maybe you’ve only been to the flip-side of some of the flower tiles, maybe there’s ice or sand interfering with your ability to move directly between adjacent stuff. But I’m finding that even when things are in this state, I’m still acting as if I needed to rush everywhere and then pause the game. Habits come quickly in games.

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