Archive for the 'Puzzle' Category


Antichamber

Antichamber is distilled essence of Portal — by which I mean, it’s got the same underlying components, but with the flavor replaced with a chemical tang. It’s purged of impurities like plot and humor, abandoning any pretense of setting, leaving just a gun for manipulating the environment in novel ways and a labyrinth of stark white corridors, illogically-connected and rendered in a deliberately non-photorealistic style to enhance the sense of unreality. The strongest way it differs from the formula established by Portal (and followed by Qube and Quantum Conundrum) is that it isn’t a linear series of puzzles. It’s a network of them, with obstacles you can’t overcome the first time you encounter them, Metroidvania-style, and enough loops and branches that you can actually get lost.

It only takes a few hours to beat, leaving aside optional collection for completists. It strikes me that there’s a particular design problem to providing a sense of finality in a thoroughly abstract and unexplained environment; Antichamber manages it largely through a longish final animation that communicates “massive forces unleashed”. Browsing forums afterwards for stuff I missed, I came across an interesting question from someone who hadn’t played the game yet: “Is Antichamber scary?”

I’ll say right off that the answer is “No”. But it’s an interesting question because it’s a reasonable one. This is a game whose basic premise is that the world doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. That alone can be very nervous-making. The last game I played along similar lines was The 4th Wall, which I found extremely frightening. Not everyone’s in agreement about that, mind you; comment threads about T4W tend to be split between people completely creeped out by its disorienting alienness and people who it completely left cold. (There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. It might be interesting to compare the gaming habits of the people on either side.) But T4W at least tries to make things feel unsafe, pulls tricks like having things that chase you, punishing you for ever standing still, even while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Antichamber never really punishes you, except with puzzle-solver’s frustration. Even when the floor crumbles and vanishes under you, and you fall down a very deep pit, friendly signage at the bottom reminds you that what you’ve really done is find a hidden passage.

For another thing, the “doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to” aspect doesn’t really last the full length of the game. It really only has so many tricks, and once you’re used to them, well, it’s no longer the case that it doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. There are portals, of course, but we’re definitely used to thinking in terms of those by now. Some portals are obvious and highly visible, but one of the basic ways it disorients you is with inconspicuous one-way portals, or possibly just silent teleport triggers that send you to a place that looks exactly like where you teleported from until you try to go back the way you came in and realize it isn’t there any more. But that’s a trick as old as Wizardry; once you know it’s something that can happen, you just get into the habit of checking your tail once in a while. Then there are innovations in the use of look-triggers: not just where you are, but which direction you’re facing can be important. A more realistic game might use this to control NPC behavior, making enemies dodge when you aim at them and the like, but in the Myst-like solitude of Antichamber, it either controls more of those unnoticeable teleports I just mentioned, or affects the environment in more direct ways. Early on, for example, there’s a door that slams shut whenever you look at it, and which you therefore have to walk through backwards. Then there’s the relatively trivial matter of walls/floors that appear or disappear as you near them. And that’s basically it as far as violations of physical law go. The opening area has some stair-stepped walls that hint at an Escher-like variation in the direction of gravity, but that never happens.

So what does the game spend its time on once you’ve got a handle on its limited repertoire of space-manipulation? Block puzzles, mainly. It’s not quite what it sounds like: the blocks are cubical, maybe fist-sized, and completely immobile, even if suspended in midair, unless affected by your upgradable block-manipulation gun, which, in its simplest form, just lets you pick the blocks up and place them elsewhere. Some doors can only be opened by solving a self-contained block-manipulation puzzle in a panel next to it, which seemed at first like soup-cans design (although I’d hesitate to call anything a soup can in this game; it’s more like the whole complex is one massive soup can), but in at least some cases, the panels are really tutorials in disguise, teaching block-manipulation techniques applicable outside the panels. It reminds me of something pointed out in Portal‘s developer commentary, how they put a checkerboard pattern on the floor wherever the “fling” maneuver was useful, but only up to a certain point in the game, after which you were expected to be able to think of it on your own. I do have a complaint about the block gun, which is that using the more advanced powers — such as sending a group of blocks moving along a vector — requires moving the mouse while holding down the middle button (that is, the scrollwheel), which is especially awkward on my trackball. There’s currently no way to rebind controls in-game, although apparently you can do it by editing .ini files.

So basically this is a confusingly-laid-out 3D puzzle game, mostly about blocks but themed around counterintuitive spatial weirdness. It’s still a pretty good game, with satisfying puzzles based around slowly realizing what your capabilities are, but I feel like the surrealism aspect has been exaggerated, because it’s the most obvious thing about it at first glance.

Zen Puzzle Garden

I’ve knocked off a few more levels of Zen Puzzle Garden. I’m not sticking to the sequence at this point; I’ve visited every level in the game, and I’m skipping around freely, looking for anything that I feel like I have an idea of how to go about solving.

I tend to pay more attention to ones with an unusual or eye-catching layout, of course. Especially since most of the levels pretty much look the same. Like I said before, this is not a game where you can tell the difference between an easy level and a hard one just by looking at it. There are a few levels that are split into multiple disjoint gardens, and there’s a mechanic introduced about halfway through, involving fallen leaves in three colors — the only vivid colors on the playfield — that have to be picked up in a specific order. That’s about it for variety, at least of the sort that you can notice without sitting and thinking about it.

Not a serious attempt at solving this level.Fair or not, the effect is to make it seem like all the puzzles are more or less the same. Or, to put it more positively, like they’re all just instances of one big puzzle. Mathematical analysis really seems like the way to go here. I still haven’t really delved into that, beyond noticing a few patterns, local arrangements of tiles that correspond to solvability or nonsolvability. The most basic such pattern can be seen in the upper right corner of the board in this screenshot (although it’s too faint to be visible in the thumbnail): I’ve raked paths around a stone so that it lies in the inner corner. This makes it unsolvable. Consider the three tiles immediately to the north, northeast and east of the stone. Raking the north tile will necessarily involve going through the northeast tile, which will turn the east tile into a dead end. Likewise, raking the east tile will turn the north tile into a dead end. Either way, you’re stuck.

Chocolate Castle

I hope Prince Pondicherry isn't mad that I fed all his chocolate to animals. At least it won't melt now.I polished off Chocolate Castle last night. It’s definitely the most compelling of the Lexaloffle minigames, as well as the most polished.

Most puzzles in this game have a structure that can be chopped into distinct stages. For example, you might have a rabbit (which eats white chocolate) trapped inside a dark chocolate block, so your first goal is to get all the dark chocolate together so you can clear it, then turn your attention to the white. Towards the end, the sub-goals become subtler, more a matter of getting one particularly awkward block past another in order to free up some space for the manipulations you really want to do. Sometimes the sub-goals were so numerous, and took me so long to execute, that I wished I could save my progress within a level, or even keep multiple such saves in cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach. Ah well, at least the game lets you undo arbitrarily. It even accepts the standard Windows idioms for undo/redo hotkeys, which Zen Puzzle Garden didn’t.

Speaking of cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach, there’s one mechanism that all but guaranteed this sensation: Turkish delight. This is a rare confection, eaten by cats, which then explode, destroying all adjacent walls and chocolate. Where other confections tend to come in large blocks that limit where you can drag them to, Turkish delight is always just one tile in size, and therefore very portable. So, it’s a tool for making a hole anywhere you want — but there’s likely only one spot where it actually does any good, and it’s not necessarily obvious. On one level, I didn’t even use it to blow up a wall. I used to to chop up a snake instead.

Snakes are another game element I haven’t described. They’re essentially a sort of block that’s a sort of rope. You drag them by the head, and the body, which occupies multiple tiles, follows behind in the manner you’d expect of a snake on a grid in a videogame. Sever it, and it turns into two snakes. It’s also capable of eating rabbits, if you drag it through them. I assume it’s capable of eating other animals as well, but I don’t remember any opportunities to confirm this, whereas there’s one level where eating rabbits is hard to avoid. After completing each level, you’re rewarded with confetti and balloons. If any rabbits got eaten, the balloons are black, which feels a bit like the game is scolding you for taking the easy way out.

But snakes and Turkish delight are both rare. Mostly the game just keeps on finding ways to exploit its base rules, right up to the end.

Spacechem

My methylene factory. It's probable more complicated than it needs to be.Spacechem is one of those games that intrigued me from the moment I saw screenshots, because it didn’t much look like any other game. I probably would have bought it eventually out of curiosity even if it hadn’t been bundled. I had some problems at first getting it to behave properly: even after exiting the app, whatever dreadful things it was doing to my video card persisted in some way, making Firefox show up split diagonally into normal and all-black triangles. But the Steam support forum recommended a small modification to the config files, and that seems to have taken care of it. I’ve spent a couple of hours on it by now, long enough to get a good idea of how it plays, although in some ways it feels like I’m still in a tutorial. This is a game that keeps on introducing new complexity for a good long time.

It strikes me as a game designed by and for computer programmers. At its core, it’s about creating processes for assembling molecules, using a sort of 2D programming language with two threads of execution, like a concurrent version of Befunge. You have a grid and two cursors, one red and one blue, that move along looping tracks that you can set up however you please by placing arrows that make them change direction. Each grid cell can contain at most one redirection arrow per track, and also at most one command. These commands are what you use to assemble molecules out of atoms. You have commands to release an atom or molecule to a specified input area, to pick up and drop whatever is in the same spot as the cursor, to deliver completed molecules you’ve dropped in the output areas, and to use the “chemical bonder” tool, which has a fixed location on the grid, to connect or sever atoms sitting on it.

The chemical bonder is of course not how chemical bonds are made in real life, but that’s okay, because you’re not making real molecules. You’re making chemical diagrams, 2D pictures made of letters and lines, with everything sitting in a single plane and joined at right angles. But unlike the pictures in your chemistry textbook, it’s not just a simplifying abstraction: the geometry of these pseudo-molecules is important to gameplay. Each atom takes up one cell of the grid, making you shift and rotate molecules on the bonder. The developers call this “fake chemistry”.

A working chemical process, once you get it going, moves like a robotic assembly line, and can be made to go at various speeds, the lowest speed being mostly useful for debugging. It seems like every puzzle requires you to make 40 of the target molecule. At first it seemed like this was just a way to give you an opportunity to admire your machine in operation, but it’s also a test to see if it can iterate effectively. Your first iteration isn’t necessarily like subsequent ones, due to timing issuea and the possibility of atoms crashing into each other.

Campaign mode is separated into nine chapters, or planets. I’ve completed the first two, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing through the rest, like I do for so many puzzle games. It’s already becoming intimidatingly complex. I suspect that I’m making things more complicated than they need to be, though, due to inexperience with the optimization tricks peculiar to this system.

Lexaloffle Retro Minigames

I’m rather behind on my posting here, which interferes with my playing: I’m sworn to post per day for each game I play, which means that if I play a game and don’t post, I can’t play it again until I’ve posted. Usually this means I just don’t play anything from the Stack until I’ve written something, but something inspired me to play the three Lexaloffle mini-games I acquired from the most recent Humble Bundle in a row, one per day. I haven’t finished any of them, so let this be the introductory post for all three.

Already raked myself into a corner hereThe first one I tried was Zen Puzzle Garden. The goal here is to rake every grid-square of sand in a series of rock gardens, starting each stroke from the edge and using traditional videogame ice level movement mechanics, which is to say, you can’t change direction until you hit an obstacle, such as a rock or a tile you’ve already raked. I’ve completed somewhat over half the puzzles here, but the half I’ve completed is the easy half. It lets you play the puzzles in any order you want, choosing them from a grid between times, but if you play them in order, it takes a good long time to get at all difficult — so long that I began to wonder if there was going to be any real challenge to it at all. It’s certainly not obvious from the rules that there could be. Even in the later stages, I find some levels much easier than the ones around them. I think there may be some sort of parity issue, so that I sometimes luck into making moves with the right parity, but I haven’t analyzed it that deeply yet. If there is, then the levels with movable blocks presumably require you to move them to spots that make the parity come out right.

Jasper's JumpyThe second game I tried, Jasper’s Journey is a platformer about an elf rescuing a cat from a witch by throwing fruit at monsters. Or at least, picking up fruit replenishes your ammo. There’s a lot of collectibles scattered around, both fruit and treasure, the latter being spendable at the inns that appear once in each level. Now, I’ve only gotten three levels in, which is apparently still within the amount covered by the demo, so anything I say about the game’s general character may be dead wrong, but the parts I’ve seen have been made mostly of vast open spaces with lots of branching paths, including non-obvious ones that lead to more treasure and ammo. It reminds me of Sonic the Hedgehog in its expansiveness, but doesn’t emphasize speed or impose time limits. The emphasis is instead on exploration. When I found a passage leading to a large network of underground tunnels in level 2, I felt like I had made a discovery — even though it is in fact an unavoidable part of the main sequence through the level. Each level contains three golden orbs, their purpose unexplained by the in-game instructions. I think they unlock a bonus room between levels if you find them all, but their real purpose, their game-design purpose, is to give exploration a definite goal, and to let you know when you’ve explored enough. If you’ve got all three orbs, there probably isn’t anything left to find.

So, wait. You're feeding dark chocolate to the dog?Finally, there’s Chocolate Castle, which is a series of sliding block puzzles. The basic idea is that the fluffy animals on each level have to completely eat the enormous blocks of confectionery lying around. Each animal only eats blocks that match it in color, and only eats a single contiguous set of blocks before vanishing. In most levels, there’s only one animal of each color, so you have to put all the blocks of that color together before allowing it to feed. But you have to be careful about this, because once you put similarly-colored blocks together, they fuse permanently. This is a pretty rich ruleset, allowing for a great deal of variation in the practical goals. One level might be something like a traditional klotski; another might fill most of the playfield with blocks of just one kind of chocolate, with so little free space that your main challenge is to avoid fusing them prematurely; another might immobilize two pieces of chocolate with walls, and make you figure out how to bridge the gap between them. It makes for a much more appealing game than Zen Puzzle Garden, where the differences between levels are subtle and the goals are always the same.

All three games have a graphical style that reminds me a lot of early VGA games, from back in the days when the graphic artists suddenly had 256 colors instead of 16 and hadn’t figured out yet what to do with them. I don’t mean it’s clumsy or amateurish, exactly, but there’s something about the flatness of the palette. Chocolate Castle definitely makes the best use of it: the smooth sheen just makes the chocolate more delicious-looking.

Blocks That Matter

It seems to me that indie games have reached a sort of turning point of inter-referentiality. In-jokey stuff abounds wherever nerds gather, but with Super Meat Boy, it escaped the confines of TIGSource and entered the marketplace. Blocks That Matter continues this trend: its story is indie-game-themed in the way that other games are fantasy-themed or mystery-themed or whatever. The premise is that its developers, a pair of wisecracking Swedes, have been kidnapped by someone who wants to play their latest game before its release. But they haven’t been working on a game, they’ve been working on a robot — a tiny cubical block-drilling-and-reassembly robot which is now their only hope for rescue.

Blocks that are ScatteredAnd so you puzzle-platform your way to your creators through indestructible tunnels littered with blocks in various materials, receiving instructions and banter by radio every couple of levels. The chief inspirations for this game, according to the developers, are Boulderdash, Minecraft, and Tetris. And while I can see bits of all three — Boulderdash‘s falling rocks, Minecraft‘s dig-and-build mechanic — Tetris is the single most obvious source of inspiration. Your avatar is called “Tetrobot”, and has the ability to mine blocks and then place them elsewhere — but only four at a time, in a tetromino shape. Consequently, not only do you sometimes mine a block only to immediately reconstitute it elsewhere, sometimes you place a block only to immediately re-mine it, because you only needed to place it to fulfill the tetromino requirement. Also, at one point, you get an upgrade that lets you delete blocks in continuous horizontal rows of eight or more, Tetris-style. This and the block-placement limitation are handwaved as consequences of “Pajitnov physics”.

There are several other upgrades to your abilities over the course of the game, but other than the one in the first level that grants you basic drilling ability, they’re mostly kind of disappointing. Like, you get the ability to collect metal blocks, which were previously undrillable, and shortly afterward, undrillable crystal blocks start appearing, which are in turn made drillable by another upgrade. There are several different block materials with different properties — sand blocks that fall when unsupported, flammable wood blocks, ice blocks that slide horizontally when you try to drill them — but most materials only differ cosmetically, at least by the end.

The main thing you get from these upgrades is the ability to go back to previous levels and accomplish the goal you couldn’t always do the first time: getting the Block That Matters. Every level has exactly one, in the form of a locked treasure chest. Carry it to the level’s exit portal, and it unlocks to reveal a block representing a game that the authors like. (Some of them are indie, some not.) This strikes me as a brave thing for the authors to do, because it runs the risk that the player will say “Yeah, Lode Runner! I remember that, it was a great game! … Why am I not playing it instead of this?”

Anyway, I do think it’s ultimately a good thing that the game makes some of the Blocks That Matter inaccessible until after further upgrades, because it gives the game an element of nonlinearity. If it had been possible to collect each on the first pass at a level, I would have done so, and then wouldn’t have anything to go back to when I was stuck.

And yes, I did get stuck sometimes, for a while. There are puzzles here that require special insights into the game mechanics, like how to place blocks in a useful way in a confined space. I think the one point I was stuck on the longest was one with a small pit lined with TNT blocks, which explode a few seconds after you try to drill them. It seemed like an impossible situation: the only way to clear the way was to detonate the blocks, which you could only do by jumping into the pit, from which there was no way to escape the explosion. But in fact there was a way. It just wasn’t the sort of thing you do in most of the rest of the game.

Blocks that LadderThere are actiony bits, where you have to dodge moving elements like slimes or dripping lava, but it’s mostly sedate and self-paced. Even slimes can be destroyed without dodging by dropping sand blocks on them; even lava can be stoppered by putting a stone or metal block right underneath it. Placing a tetromino involves going into a special “edit mode”, in which time is frozen. Sometimes I went into edit mode just to pause the action while I assessed my situation, but even that was usually unnecessary.

There’s a certain amount of busywork involved in just collecting blocks that will be useful elsewhere, and in some levels, where there are multiple stages of puzzle, I found myself repeating the earlier stages a lot because I was making mistakes or getting killed in the later stages. There are a variety of ways a game can avoid this — checkpoints, rewind functions, etc. — but the developers here didn’t implement any such things. I hope they consider adding them if they ever do a sequel. Nonetheless, I call this a pretty good game, well worth the fraction of the bundle money I spent on it, and the few hours it took me to reach the finish and get most of the Blocks That Matter. The few I haven’t got are in the more action-oriented levels, and will probably stay there, curious though I am about what games they reveal.

Intelligent Qube

A colleague of mine has on his desk a book titled 1001 Videogames You Must Play Before You Die. The main purpose of this book seems to be to provoke disagreement. (Why else would it, for example, list Silent Hill but not Silent Hill 2? I think that most fans of the series would agree that if you’re going to play only one of those before you die, it should be the latter.) In the course of flipping through its pages and arguing, someone noticed a listing for Intelligent Qube (aka Kurushi) and recommended it specifically to me. I had never heard of it before, but was intrigued enough to seek out a copy. Apparently, despite a loyal following, IQ didn’t sell well outside Japan. Consequently, it’s now one of those games described as “rare” and “hard to find”, although in the age of eBay all this really means is that used copies sell for more online than you’d expect of a Playstation game from 1997.

IQ is in the “puzzle game” genre, but not in the sense that I was expecting from the way it was described to me: it’s not a “Think!” game, but a “Think fast!” game. In other words, it’s in the broader school of Tetris, down to the inexorable descent of groups of blocks that you have to deal with before they reach the bottom, except that, this being designed for the Playstation, it’s all in 3D and instead of falling downward, the blocks are coming at you.

Also unlike the usual sort of falling-block game, you play it from the inside, kind of like the Royal Puzzle from Zork III: you control a little man who runs around trying not to get steamrolled by the blocks. Getting run over doesn’t end the game, but it does prevent you from taking any more actions until the current wave of blocks has completed its journey, and that’s often enough to make losing inevitable. As such, getting run over always feels like a cheap shot. The movement of the blocks isn’t constant in this game: they take discrete steps, rolling from face to face like in Edge, and they often pause for a little while to give you a chance to do something. But sometimes they don’t pause as long as you think they’re going to. Presumably there are rules governing this, but I have yet to figure them out.

And what does your little man run around doing? Setting traps! Pressing the X button sets a blue marker on the floor tile you’re currently standing on; pressing it again detonates it, destroying any block currently on that spot. This is a big source of confusion during panicked moments: losing track of whether you’ve pressed that button an odd or even number of times. There are three sorts of blocks. First, there are the normal ones that you want to destroy before they reach the end of the track. Then there are “advantage” blocks that leave green marks behind when destroyed, which you can detonate at the press of another button, either immediately or after letting the blocks advance more, destroying any blocks in a 3×3 area. (But not your avatar, fortunately.) Finally, there are the “forbidden” ones, which you aren’t supposed to destroy. The punishment for making mistakes is always the same: the playfield is shortened by one row, making the game harder, and ending the game if you’re standing on the row that got deleted. But you can miss several normal blocks before this happens (there’s a counter on the screen keeping track of how close you are to this penalty), whereas deleting a forbidden block always incurs the penalty immediately. Thus, avoiding deleting forbidden blocks is more urgent than getting all of the normal ones — although if you can do both, clearing a wave perfectly, the reward is that the playfield lengthens by one row, giving you a little extra breathing room. Thus, this is very much a positive-feedback game: the reward for doing well is that it becomes easier to continue doing well, the punishment for doing badly is that it becomes harder. This too is very Tetris-like, but the dynamic is different: where Tetris starts off feeling easy and turns desperate once you’ve crossed a certain threshold, I felt like the tipping point in each level of IQ was the point where I acquired enough skill to stop failing.

As the levels advance and the difficulty increases (mainly by increasing the number of blocks in each wave), the game becomes all about planning out when to use the advantage blocks. You want to use them when they won’t catch any forbidden blocks, and that takes some planning. Just about the worst thing you can do is have two green-marked tiles in inopportune positions relative to each other, because you can’t detonate them individually. I’ve generally tried to avoid this by destroying the advantage blocks one by one, but this means taking more time and letting the blocks get uncomfortably close to the end of the track, and possibly even trapping your little man behind a fence of forbidden blocks. For as the waves grow larger, the game takes on aspects of a maze game, with the forbidden blocks defining where you can go, unless you accept the penalty and blast one.

In short, there is a substantial amount of gameplay here, and I’m more satisfied with the game now than I was when I first realized that there was such a strong time element, although I’m not convinced that the experience is worth what I paid for it. I have by now completed the game by dint of copious use of the continue feature, which starts you over from the start of the current level. This took two sessions, although I probably would have continued playing in my first if I had realized that the game doesn’t save your progress at all. I was fooled by a “save” option in the “options” menu, which I think just saves the high score list. It’s the arcade sensibility, really. The whole thing is meant to be played in a single session, using multiple quarters.

So, why is this a game that You Must Play Before You Die? If I recall correctly, the writeup in that book was mostly impressed with the feel of the thing, that unlike most Tetris-influenced puzzle games, it felt like it “mattered”. And, having played it, I now think this mostly has to do with the music. The game has a stirring, epic soundtrack, like John Williams movie score.

Three Failures

Last night, I was tired, and not in the mood for anything stressful or taxing. Going back to Super Meat Boy, or even to the lesser challenge of Heroes Chronicles, was out of the question. So I turned to my largish sub-stack of things bought in recent Steam sales that I haven’t even tried yet.

The first thing I tried was Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. I suppose it says something about me that a puzzle game — yea, a self-proclaimed ultimate puzzle game — is my idea of something neither stressful nor taxing. But I had every reason to believe that this would be essentially just a gallery of soup cans, where the scope of every puzzle is well-defined and there’s no possibility of negative consequences. After all, that’s what the original Safecracker was. I could be wrong; I realize that it’s not the same game. But I didn’t at first. It was many months after S:TUPA was added to Steam that a discussion in a completely different context (roughly “This is just like that puzzle in Safecracker!” “What? I’ve played Safecracker and I don’t remember any puzzle like this.”) made me aware that it was a sequel. I think understand why the makers decided to obscure this: if it were called Safecracker II, there would be potential customers who would decide not to play it because they hadn’t played the original, or who decided to play the original first and found it so off-putting that they never bought the second. But the title they chose almost kept me from buying it, and I’m their target audience. There must be some better compromise.

At any rate, I couldn’t get S:TUPA going at all on my system. Starting it just locked my machine up with no video output. Possibly it was defaulting to a resolution that my monitor doesn’t support, but even then, you’d think I’d get some background music or something. I have seen this game running on a modern system, though, so it’s probably a solvable problem. But it wasn’t the sort of puzzle I was in the mood for, so I switched games.

Next up, I tried The Ball, a first-person puzzler, which is to say, a game that owes a great deal to Portal, even though the theme here is Aztec ruins (with hints of Ancient Astronaut) rather than sterile white corridors. The main conceit is obstacles that can only be overcome by using a large, unwieldy metal ball, a unique item doesn’t necessarily easily go where it’s needed. Your main control over it is a handheld device that’s something like a ball-specific version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2: you can use it to attract the ball when it’s in range, and also to smack it like a pinball and send it careening forward. Maybe I was doing things suboptimally, but I found that I used the attract mode to move the ball around most of the time, which means that the ball spent a lot of time right in my face, which is always awkward in a first-person game. The designers understand the problem, and compensate for it by making the ball go transparent when it blocks your view significantly, leaving only some bands solid. I felt that even this cluttered the view uncomfortably.

When I started the game, I noticed that Steam listed some “Last played” data, which struck me as strange, because I had never actually played it before. But then I remembered that I had attempted to play it back when I first bought it, only to have it crash immediately. This time, I fared better: it lasted about a half an hour before crashing, long enough for me to get not quite all the way through the first level. Since this level is pretty tutorial-like, I still don’t think I really have a good idea of what the gameplay is like or how hard the puzzles are.

With that, I gave up on puzzle games and tried out Lego Batman, something that had struck me as a good idea back in 1997 when I played Lego Star Wars. After an overlong intro sequence involving some rather forced slapstick — perhaps my tastes have changed in the last four years? — I made Lego Batman run around and hit people for a few minutes, just long enough to decide that this is a game best controlled with a gamepad rather than mouse and keboard. But my system wouldn’t recognize my trusty DualShock + USB Adapter until I rebooted, and after that, it wouldn’t start the game again. It kept throwing up Windows “illegal operation” dialogs.

It’s likely that all these problems, and probably other recent problems as well (like my difficulties with Arthur’s Knights), have a common root in my hardware, probably that the fan on the video card is clogged with dust again or something similarly foolish. But I didn’t feel like doing anything as stressful and taxing as troubleshooting hardware, so I spent the rest of the evening watching a movie instead. At least I can scratch two of the three games off the list of things I’ve purchased but not actually played.

PAX Gamified

It’s been a busy week. And PAX was the start of it. And of all the games available for play or merely on display, there was one that I felt I needed to post about here: this year’s iteration of the PAX XP challenge.

PAX XP was introduced at last year’s PAX Prime as a way to encourage people to participate in every aspect of the convention, rather than just ensconce themselves in one area, as is very easy to do. It accomplishes this through what’s come to be called “gamification” — yes, even gaming conventions are being gamified. I suppose it’s the audience most likely to be receptive to such things. Here’s how it worked last year: Ten people, stationed at specific locations listed on the PAX XP card you got with your program, held special hole-punches, and would punch the appropriate slot on your card either on request or, in some cases, after you performed a simple quest, such as getting up from a beanbag chair or reciting the Konami Code from memory. Once you got all ten holes punched, you could “level up” by turning the card in for a PAX XP keychain fob — a good choice of prize, it seems to me, because it provides an undeniable physical recognition of your accomplishment while at the same time being valueless enough that it doesn’t inspire cheating.

It should be noted that PAX XP wasn’t even the only such activity running at PAX. There was a similar set of simple activities run by a group of indie developers this year as an enticement to visit all their booths. Both this year and last, Magic: the Gathering people had people stationed throughout the grounds running puzzles that got you an invitation to some kind of M:tG event. (Last year, I finished all their puzzles simply because I liked puzzles, but had no interest in the event.) The thing is, these other activities were blatantly geared entirely towards publicizing their particular products. PAX XP 2010 had a little bit of that — one of the hole-punch-carriers was stationed inside a Plants vs Zombies exhibit — but mostly it was about calling your attention to attractions that you had already paid for, and that made it somehow feel more legitimate.

This year’s PAX XP challenge was a bit different from last year’s. 1Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution. Instead of tying up 10 people with hole punches, they posted throughout the grounds 38 laminated sheets of paper bearing QR codes, each decodable to a letter 2Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes. and a clue. (So, already it’s more like a real game.) The letters were to be unscrambled to form a phrase which you could say at the main desk to get this year’s keychain (which is larger and more impressive than last year’s). The clues were mostly things like “Word 2 has one more letter than the final word” and “The letter O appears in four words straight”, but a few of them gave the location of other QR codes. One QR code prominently posted at the entrance yielded “Defeat my puzzle and become the hero of PAX!”, which seemed useless at first, but turned out to be a strong hint about the whole sentence, if you had the necessary cultural references.

Notably, finding all the clues wasn’t necessary. I managed to figure out the sentence from only 24 of the 38 — and this was despite a couple of inaccuracies in the clues. (Two QR codes gave L as their letter, even though one of the clues directly stated that there was only one L in the sentence. One clue incorrectly stated that the letter T only appeared at the beginning of words.)

The really clever thing about using QR codes is that by now most of us automatically filter them out, like banner ads. Consequently, they’re unobtrusive, and easily ignored by people who don’t want to participate in the riddle-hunt. But at the same time, they give the people who are participating a reason to pay attention to QR codes. A few of the commercial exhibits had codes posted that looked like they could be PAX XP clues but turned out to be their company URLs. I’m not sure if my confusion there was deliberate on their part or not; if it was, it didn’t work very well, because I didn’t actually open the URLs after decoding them, but I suppose someone with a different decoder app might have opened them automatically.

I can’t say for sure how popular the whole thing was, but I managed to win an additional “speed demon” award for being one of the first solvers, and that was on the second day of the convention. Also, only once in the entire three days did I see someone else pointing a phone at one of the codes, and he turned out to have no idea what it was about, having not read his program yet. But I suppose that in most cases taking a snapshot of the code is a quick procedure that you wouldn’t notice happening; in this one fellow’s case, it was rendered difficult by glare on the lamination. But hunting for scattered clues is a very adventure-gameish idea, and most gamers aren’t adventure gamers. I suppose there must be enough people participating for the organizers to think it’s worthwhile to keep doing it, at least. It’s not like everyone has to do everything, even if that sentiment goes against the original point of the exercise.

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1. Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution.
2. Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes.

Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time

OK, here’s another one I’m not finishing immediately. I think I probably could beat it in a day — I’m about halfway through by levels — but I just don’t have the patience right now.

Doc Clock is a physics puzzler/platformer. Despite its time-travel theme, it isn’t in any way about time-travel puzzles. The overall goal involves finding the parts of a time machine so you can travel back to before a mistake you make in the very beginning, and it has a Braid-like rewind mechanic, and that’s it. As we observed in Toki Tori, though, a rewind mechanic doesn’t really need to fit in the fiction or theme; it fits comfortably in the realm of save/load and restart level functions. (Although “Toki Tori” is Japanese for “time bird”, so perhaps earlier iterations of the title fit the rewind into the story? The version I played didn’t really have a story, but I understand earlier versions did.)

Instead, the game seems to be mostly about wacky vehicle customization, except for the first couple of levels, which are about planks: using planks to bridge gaps, rotating them to form inclined planes, attaching them together to form larger planks, etc. Vehicle customization is also about attaching grabbable objects together, and is very fiddly. You can attach components to your time-car at any point and at any angle, so getting that spring on just right so that it propels the vehicle onto a platform above you without overshooting can take multiple little adjustments — and each attempt involves a nontrivial recovery time, even with rewinding. The one problem I seem to have the most is stability: a lot of arrangements tend to flip over on their back in adverse conditions, like accelerating. You can fix this by attaching something heavy (like a sofa or a refrigerator) to the bottom of the vehicle, but that approach has problems of its own.

Anyway, I started this game thinking that it would be lynchpin puzzles, things with an “Aha!” factor, but it turns out to be all tinkering and adjustment and falling onto spikes because the irregular block you put over them is a few pixels away from a stable position. So I’ll get back to it some other day, when I’m in the mood for that sort of thing.

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