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Advent Rising: Action Catalogue

I said that the gameplay in Advent Rising is largely about running around and shooting stuff, and that’s broadly true, but it’s not the only sort of interaction you get. There are driving sequences, of the sort you get in the likes of Halo and Half-Life 2, where you can get out of the vehicle and walk around whenever you want, but you ultimately need it to complete your mission, usually because there’s a gap or barrier you can only get past with a turbo-assisted jump. As is typical for a car in a shooting game, ramming your enemies is a much quicker and more effective way to kill them than shooting at them: some of the enemies even have shields that can stop a barrage of future-machine-gun fire but not a car, which makes me wonder what the car’s got going on that the bullets don’t. Maybe it’s made of the same stuff as all those rotating fans in various games.

There are also bits involving stationary anti-aircraft turrets, which means shooting but not running around. (You can think of the driving sequences as a form of running around without shooting, I suppose. Add in the lengthy inter-chapter cutscenes as neither running around nor shooting and you’ve got a complete set of combinations.) Like the turbo-jeeps, these are things you can mount and dismount at will, and the presence of a turret doesn’t automatically mean that there’s anything worth shooting with it. By now, I’ve even used a turret on an alien vessel. It was remarkably like the ones built by humans, just styled differently. I’m not sure why that bothers me more than the fact that their sidearms work just like ours.

But really, it’s just a specific application of something that’s generally true in this game: that all environments, regardless of what alien species built them, use the same interactive components, such as doors, elevator platforms, and control panels. You have to learn to recognize them, mind you. The friendly aliens (as opposed to the ones you spend your time shooting) seem to have evolved from something aquatic, and have technology based around control of water — the cutscene of docking at their ship shows your shuttle splashing into a pool to dock, which I suppose makes sense as a somewhat literal way to dampen your inertia. The doors on their ship are rippling mirrors that look like they’re made of quicksilver, which you simply step through instead of opening them. But in terms of functionality, they’re exactly like the doors back home. Human doors in this game have a color-coded strip at the top that’s red when a door is locked, cyan when it’s unlocked. The liquid doors have a subtler indicator showing whether they’re permeable at the moment, and it takes a little trial and error to learn to recognize it.

But then, learning is what that section of the game is about, I suppose. Once you’re onboard the ship of the friendly aliens — I can’t even remember whether we’ve been given a species name for them or not — you learn that the reason that the centaur-like unfriendly aliens — called the Seekers — are trying to exterminate the human race is that humans have this incredible unrealized psychic potential, which you then get trained to use in a noninteractive montage. Once you’ve got them, the game’s ambitions are finally clear. It’s not trying to be Star Trek. It’s not trying to be Mass Effect. (It was released a year too early for that anyway.) It’s trying to be Jedi Knight. Seriously, your special powers are the equivalent of Force Push, Force Throw, and Force Jump. Armed with these, you immediately get put into an assault mission on the surface of a Seeker battleship, where you can dispatch enemies by just plucking them up and throwing them off into space.

Not being a Star Wars title probably helps the game here. For one thing, it’s free to develop these powers — their uses, their visuals — any way it wants, rather than being tied to movie canon. Also, I remember playing Jedi Knight and being impatient with the early sections, before you get your Jedi training. I mean, it said “Jedi” right there in the title, but it was holding back on me. It was like buying a game called, say, “Tank Driver”, and then finding out that you spend the first two hours of the game crawling through trenches to reach the base where the tanks are. Sure, Advent Rising had blurbs on the box promising powers, but there was no way of telling how prominent they would be.

It turns out they’re pretty prominent. This game lets you wield two guns at a time, one in each hand, each controlled by one of the gamepad’s trigger buttons. (Yes, I’m playing this with a gamepad now. It’s really designed for it.) Powers work the same way, which is to say, in order to use them, you have to give up one of your gun slots. I’ve pretty much permanently assigned one trigger to Force Push, and I’m contemplating just going full Jedi and not using guns at all. The only thing that makes me hesitate is that the game keeps bringing in new types of gun, some of which are situationally useful.

So, there’s a good variety of action in this game, and a good amount of it, too. And it’s often tough enough to make me die repeatedly (and not always because of camera control issues). I was a little surprised about this, considering how the opening chapter seemed to be going for a more cinematic experience, with lots of cutscenes and lots of walking around just to show off the sets. The one sort of action that’s conspicuously absent is space combat. Space battles are a big part of the story, and on top of that, the player character is supposed to be primarily a pilot. He takes down a Seeker fighter squadron in a cutscene, but the only time I’ve had control of a ship so far is that shuttle in the prologue. Perhaps the script was written before they decided not to include a space combat mechanic.

Advent Rising

Proceeding into the alphabet proper, let’s take a look at Advent Rising, a sci-fi epic from 2005. (I’ll probably be comparing it to Mass Effect when I get around to playing Mass Effect.) This is one of those games that my hardware wasn’t capable of handling at an acceptable framerate when I first tried it, so I set it aside pending further upgrades. Those upgrades have long since happened, and now, so far, it runs perfectly smoothly and looks great. Which is important, because the look of this game is clearly something they put some effort into, and largely the reason I picked it up. It’s very slick and colorful, and possibly anime-influenced (but without the “big eye” thing). The environments I’ve seen so far are visually pleasing, with lots of inconsequential detail, including NPC conversations — co-written by Orson Scott Card, of all people — that you can listen in on for flavor. It’s a shiny future, reminiscent of Star Trek, only a bit sexier and a bit more macho — more Riker-oriented, if you will. The player character’s brother, who seems to be a major character, even has Riker’s beard.

The game opens with protagonist Gideon Wyeth, under the player’s control, flying a shuttlecraft to dock at a station near a vast and mysterious alien vessel, like Clarke’s Rama or the dungeon-substitute from Starcross. Radio chatter fills the time and informs you about the basic situation while you do this, which strikes me as a good technique for infodumping: it keeps it in the background and lessens your impatience with it by keeping you occupied while it goes on. It strikes me as a little similar to what the Half-Life games do in letting you keep piloting Gordon Freeman around while plot-relevant conversations go on around him, but with the addition of a goal. Once you reach the station, the game crashes. I vaguely remember this happening back in the day as well. Fortunately, you can resume the game from the beginning of the next scene with no further ill effects.

After that, the gameplay seems to mostly revolve around running around and shooting at things, from a third-person perspective, using a complicated multi-finger scheme that’s probably more comfortable on a gamepad than on mouse and keyboard. The PC version supports gamepads, but, oddly enough, the button assignments for it seem to be entirely empty by default. I’ll have to look up the control scheme from the Xbox version and try it out. The early content is basically all a big controls tutorial, but with plot worked in. The unarmed combat tutorial, for example, takes the form of a barroom brawl, Gideon and his war-hero brother against some disgruntled soldiers who resent his VIP status.

I haven’t played enough to get far yet, but I know from back in the day that the inciting incident that ends the first act is an alien attack on the station, resulting in fires and debris that bogged the framerate down to unplayability on my old machine. Here’s hoping it’s better now.

Draw Something

Draw Something has been popular enough lately that you probably know someone who plays it. I certainly do. Two of my coworkers have been playing it quite a lot lately, both with each other and with other friends outside the office. As resistant as I normally am to social games, particularly ones that can be played on Facebook, this one looked fun enough to draw me in. I mean, let’s face it: who doesn’t like to draw? It’s a skill that we all have, something every child knows the appeal of, but unless you’re an artist by vocation, you probably don’t do it very often. Draw Something gives you an excuse to exercise your long-neglected drawing urges, and adds just enough constraints to provide cover for your lack of talent.

That said, I’ve already grown tired of it. It’s gotten repetitive, partly due to actual repeated words — the other players in the office complain about this, saying “How hard would it be to hire an intern to vet a few thousand more words?”, but I suspect that there’s a bit of a birthday paradox going on. But even without exact repetition, I’m finding subsequent rounds with the same partners too similar to stay interesting. And without the ties of a social network platform to keep me playing beyond the point of enjoyment, that’s that. It might sustain my interest more if there were some permanent record of the pictures you’ve drawn and seen, so that I could feel like my creative efforts were building something, and so I could show them off to other players after the fact. I suppose I could take screenshots manually, but that would only work if I could consistently remember to do it.

Let me describe the basics of the game before going any farther. Draw Something is a game played asynchronously by two people. First, one of them has to draw a picture from a randomly-chosen word. You get a choice of three words per round, designated “easy”, “medium”, and “hard”, although it’s easy to disagree with the categorization sometimes. Once your picture is complete, you hit a button and it’s sent to the other player, who watches the picture get drawn stroke by stroke, just as you drew it (except sped up a little), and has to guess the word, building it out of a scrabble-hand-like bin of letters, some of which are unneeded. Once they either guess right or give up, they draw a picture for you to guess, and the whole thing iterates indefinitely.

Now, there have been a lot of games very similar to this, both online and off. I remember one web-based variant in particular that had a number of people in a chat room, all watching the drawing as it was taking place and competing to be the first to guess correctly. That seems like the more typical version, but its dynamics are completely different from those of Draw Something. For one thing, it was synchronous. That’s the traditional model for parlor games: a bunch of people sit down together for a game session. Putting such a game on the web just means that the players don’t all have to be in the same room (or even the same continent). Draw Something, by contrast, is designed to be played in spare moments throughout the day. Not only does it not demand simultaneous participation by both players, it actually forbids it. For another thing, Draw Something isn’t competitive — or at least, not within a match. There may be competitiveness among players in different matches to see who can maintain the longest unbroken chain of correct guesses (as the game keeps track of this figure and displays it prominently on the main menu), but within a match, your goal and the other fellow’s are the same. Whenever a picture is guessed correctly, both the drawer and the guesser get the same increase in their streak number, and the same number of “coins”.

Coins. That’s the game’s business model. If you have enough coins, you can use them to buy “bombs”, which have two uses. In the drawing phase, if you don’t like any of the words available to you, you can set off a bomb for a new selection. In the guessing phase, you can set off a bomb to eliminate some of the unused letters. Also — and this verges on parody — you can use coins to buy packages of additional colors to draw with. I don’t know of any other drawing game that treats colors as upgrades, but here, your initial color set is pretty meager, and doesn’t even contain a brown or a green, so there’s a strong motivation to buy at least one more color set. The thing is, every purchase costs hundreds of coins, and you only get at most three coins per round of play. (One for easy, two for medium, three for hard.) It’s all set up to make you impatient with earning coins so that you’ll pay money for them instead.

Now, the one thing I remember the most about that older synchronous drawing game I described above was that there were players who started their turns by ignoring the word and instead drawing things like penises, and presumably giggled at the resulting chat room full of people scrambling to be the first to type “penis”. I haven’t seen this happen in Draw Something, and I assume it’s because the asynchronous play spoils the fun of that sort of trollery. The anonymity also plays a role, of course — most games of Draw Something are between two people who know each other. But not all. When I first started playing, and was eager to draw more things, I started up a number of matches with random strangers while waiting for the people I knew to respond, and I didn’t see a single rude picture. I did, however, see inappropriate pictures of another sort: ones where the person didn’t really draw a picture at all, but simply used the drawing interface to write the word. In fact, it seemed like the majority of random players did this, and I’m not at all sure why. Maybe they were just griefing. Maybe they were doing it to get free coins faster. Maybe they just hold the game in contempt, and don’t consider unenforced rules to be worth following (which raises the question of why they’re playing at all). Maybe they just didn’t understand that what they were doing was objectionable — there didn’t seem to be any explicit rule against it.

When I received a written word instead of a picture, my first reaction was to end the match right there. Unfortunately, in the iOS version, you can only cancel matches from the main menu, and it takes a while to get there. You can’t get out of guessing mode until you either guess correctly or pass, and once you’ve done that, it immediately throws you into choosing a word and drawing it. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be playing any more with that person, I would immediately hit the “done” button without drawing anything in order to get back to the main menu and cancel the match. Which leaves me wondering: were my blank pictures sent? Perhaps the word-writers think I’m the griefer, and are wondering at my motivations for sending them an unguessable picture.

Bugdom

Just like in Curse of the Azure Bonds, the best thing to do with slugs is step aside and let them pass.Bugdom, a 3D save-the-princess piece involving anthropomorphized insects, is a game I associate strongly with computer stores. Apparently it was included with certain models of iMac around the year 2000; as a result, it was frequently what I’d see on those candy-coated monitors in CompUSA as I passed by them on the way to the remaindered PC games. Eventually the game showed up among the remaindered PC games itself, although I don’t remember ever seeing it among the new PC games. Perhaps there was a stigma associated with being initially released on the Mac? Everyone knew that the PC was the computer system for games, after all, and that means that anything originating on a Mac must be, at best, a pseudo-game.

Or perhaps it was just the limited virtues of the game itself. There’s a clumsiness to the animation that reminds me of Rocko’s Quest, particularly when it comes to the protagonist’s attacks, which consist of kicking his stumpy little bug legs to greater than expected effect. I think it’s a better game on the whole than its surface goofiness suggests, but I do remember getting severely stuck about four levels in (out of 10) when I was trying it the first time. We’ll see if I fare any better today.

Aside from its ubiquity on iMacs, the one other major thing of note about it is the mouse controls. As long as you don’t mind never using some of the optional power-ups, you can play this game entirely from the mouse, a factor that probably helped its status as a demo piece: those iMac displays didn’t necessarily risk letting the customers touch a keyboard. But it doesn’t use one mouse button as the go-forward key, like Doom, or map cursor position to speed, like System Shock. Instead, mouse movement maps directly to avatar movement. If you want to use the mouse to move forward in a straight line, you’ll have to keep on picking up the mouse and moving it to the bottom of your mouse pad — or, if you’re using a trackball like me, repeatedly scrunch your fingers back. Now, before you’re too horrified, I should point out that there is a regular go-forward button on the keyboard, and playing the game at any length involves mostly using that. But strangely enough, I sometimes catch myself using just the mouse when I’m distracted. The rhythm of the move-scrunch-move-scrunch fits the relentless oom-pah of the background music on the first two levels, which in turn is suggestive of the busy trundling typical of beetles. Which is about all about the game that suggests insect locomotion, given that most of the bugs here walk on two legs.

Lightfish and Fortix

The history of Qix is peculiar. It’s one of the foundational titles from the early days of the arcade, one of the ones that blazed its own trail. It’s elegant in its simplicity, highly recognizable, and has been ported to a variety of systems, as well as included in general classic-arcade-game collections. But it never inspired much imitation — it didn’t even get an official update/remake around the year 2000, like Frogger and Qbert did.

Perhaps it’s because it was too simple, too difficult to see how to extend its basic rules (surround territory by drawing a line, enemies that touch either you or the line you’re currently drawing will kill you). The only significant extension of that I saw back in the day was in Gals Panic, which, instead of asking the player to capture a certain percentage of the screen, put a silhouette of a shape1 on the screen and specifically asked you to capture that. This didn’t make a very great difference to how the game was played — the varying enemy behavior was more significant — but it did introduce one important concept: varying terrain. One of the problems with Qix from a game-designer’s stand point is that, like most games before Donkey Kong, it didn’t have anything distinguishing one level from the next.

Fast-forward to today. I somehow managed to obtain, though bundles or package deals, not one but two distinct recent Qix-based games, without realizing what they were until I tried them. (Furthermore, I coincidentally tried them both within a span of two days.) There’s one thing that both of these games add to the formula: walls. That is, obstacles that block your passage, but which can’t be used to terminate a line the way that the edge of the uncaptured area can. The best thing to do with a wall is to capture it so it doesn’t present an obstacle any more. They also both add randomly-appearing powerups, and eliminate Qix‘s notion of the “spiral death trap” by allowing the player to retract a line in progress. But other than those commonalities, they take the format in very different directions — more different than I’d have thought it afforded.

Lightfish, themed around glowing outline-drawings of sea life, keeps it all pretty abstract and simple, and makes everything very light and fast-moving: on some levels, bisecting the board within the first fifteen seconds is a reasonable goal. The challenge comes mainly from the multitude of fast-moving enemies. It’s Qix as Robotron, essentially. You can kill enemies by capturing the territory enclosing them, but they respawn after a time, so finishing a level quickly is important.

Fortix, themed around capturing forts in a fantasy kingdom, is slower-paced and more tactical. While there are free-roaming dragons on most levels, the chief enemy is stationary towers that lob cannonballs or other projectiles at you. These can be destroyed by capturing a trigger point for one of the level’s single-use catapults, or, if you think you can risk it, by capturing the tower itself — something most easily done by feinting to make them waste a shot and then making a tight loop around them while they reload. Anything, be it tower or dragon, that you catch in a capture is permanently dead, so unless you’re going for a time bonus, there’s no pressure to be reckless — and, in fact, finishing a level without losing a life is rewarded with a shiny crown on the level select screen (presented as a map of the territories you’re conquering).

Note the catapult trigger points inside the fort. You are not seriously expected to use those.Fortix adopts the Gals Panic approach of making only a portion of the screen important for completing the level — specifically, the enemy forts, which are generally where the towers are located. This means that, unlike in Lightfish and the original Qix, it’s possible to capture 100% of the important part, satisfying your perfectionist urges. Not only that, it introduces even greater terrain variation by means of visible features, such as rivers and cliff faces, that slow you down to various degrees, changing the effective routes. In particular, crossing a fort wall is extremely slow, making it virtually necessary to use the catapults before moving in on the tower — except that you can’t control which tower a catapult targets, so perhaps you want to capture an outlying tower or two first so that the easier-to-reach catapults will take out the more difficult inner towers.

I think the enemies must be heavyfish.Lightfish, meanwhile, although it does have slow-down terrain in the form of ice blocks, introduces it very late in the game, and mostly treats it as a slightly more forgiving form of wall rather than as a strategic choice: given all the enemies zooming about, unaffected by the ice, you want to avoid it as much as possible. In fact, before it brings out the ice, the one other terrain variation it provides is lava squares, which are identical to walls as far as player choice goes. They’re just walls that give you an opportunity to mess up and die, and that’s not interesting. But it does support the idea that this is more of an action game than Fortix. Where Fortix is more about formulating an effective plan of attack, Lightfish is about not messing up.

Lightfish does start becoming more tactical in its later levels, when it starts making walls spiral around in inconvenient ways, but Fortix does a lot more with the concept, including things involving keys that you can capture to open like-colored gates. Between that and the catapults, it has one fundamental concept that Lightfish lacks: that of capturing one point on the map to create effects at a different point. And that seems to be a pretty big deal for creating a satisfying level of depth.


  1. Specifically, the shape of a woman, and even more specifically, of a scantily-clad Japanese woman. Capturing the territory within the silhouette filled in the details of the picture. The version I saw was strictly PG-13, but racier versions were rumored. []

Runespell: Finale

Well, it turns out that I had finished a larger fraction of the game than I had thought. Just a few more hours sufficed to finish it; I probably could have polished it off in a single day if I had devoted the time to it. It turns out that the game does not, in fact, expand on the rules as I described them, and the two layers of the game, the combat-and-spellcasting system and the card game, don’t interact much.

Mind you, they do interact a little more than I thought they did in my last post. In addition to doing damage, the card game feeds your mana, or, as the game calls it, “rage points”. You start with no rage at all, but every time either player strikes a normal blow (that is, every time either side uses a poker hand, as opposed to casting a spell), both sides gain some rage points, the attacker getting significantly more than the defender. This gives you an extra incentive to hold off on using your accumulated attacks until you’re sure that the resulting rage boost won’t give the opponent an advantage.

Going in the other direction, there’s one suite of spells that directly affects how the card game plays: Fate spells give you extra action points, letting you do more card-rearrangement in a turn that you’d normally be able to. This has a significant enough effect that I relied on it heavily in the endgame battles. There’s a gimmick, repeated twice, of bosses with tons of hit points, which can only be brought down to defeatable levels by means of a special spell that costs your maximum rage to cast. The obvious approach there is to just hoard your rage until you have enough, but on the second such boss, I found this inadequate. Spending some rage on a fate spell the moment I had enough turned out to be worth it.

That’s about it as far as gameplay of interest goes. I do think there’s room for a richer game within this ruleset. What if some enemies had spells that could alter the cards, changing their suit or rank? What effect would wild cards have? What if an enemy were immune to damage from hands based on matching ranks (the easiest sort of hand to make), and could only be defeated with straights and flushes? There’s one fight in Runespell: Overture where you’re not allowed to cast spells, but other than that, it doesn’t really explore this stuff. Well, at least it doesn’t try to drag things out. It knows about how long the rules as given can maintain the player’s interest. Also, as you might have guessed from the title, this is supposedly just the first chapter of the story. If further chapters get made, maybe we’ll see more variety.

Runespell: Overture

I suppose that by now the description “like Puzzle Quest, but with X” is an entire genre. Runespell: Overture is like Puzzle Quest, but with a card game based on building poker hands. The basic mechanics are as follows: You and an opponent take turns, performing a default of three actions each turn. Most of these actions will be spent rearranging cards, either stacking face-up cards from your side of the playfield or stealing unstacked ones from your opponent’s side (both gaining them for your own use and preventing the opponent from using them). When any of your stacks contains five cards, you can use it to attack the enemy. Better poker hands do more damage: a pair does 8 hit points, while a five-of-a-kind does 20.

Mind you, the fact that it’s a fantasy-themed game using standard playing cards has me wondering if it reminds me more of Faerie Solitaire than of Puzzle Quest. It all comes down to depth. Puzzle Quest provided the possibility of pursuing various different strategies, and gave us enemies with different attributes that required different approaches. Faerie Solitaire remained pretty much the same throughout.

I haven’t got very far in Runespell yet, but so far, it looks like it’s somewhere between those two cases. As in PQ, there are spells, things that you can spend your actions on that take the tactics of combat outside of the card game, or that enemies can use to gain distinct powers. But in PQ, half the joy of the spells was the interplay between the spells and the match-3 game, each affecting the other in nontrivial ways, and I haven’t seen that in Runespell yet. I’ve seen damage spells and shield spells and spells that prevent the opponent from casting other spells, but nothing that affects the cards directly, or is affected by them. So it could very well be that the underlying card game is always basically the same, something that could be swapped out and replaced with any other hit-point-based combat mechanic that takes place over multiple rounds. But we’ll see.

WoW: Outland Described Further

I’ve done significant amounts of exploration and questing in three Outland zones now — Hellfire Peninsula, Zangarmarsh, and Terokkar Forest — and so I think it’s time to post some more possibly-misguided generalizations about what Outland is like and how it differs from Azeroth.

One way the zones of Outland emphasize that you’re not at home: color. A lot of zones in Azeroth use color themes and ambient light to suggest the quality of the atmosphere, making everything redder where the sun is fierce, or greyer where the ruins are foggy and desolate. Transitioning between zones with extreme color differences, you can actually watch the sky change. But none of the color schemes I’ve seen in Azeroth are as extreme as what I’ve seen in Outland. Zangarmarsh in particular is absurdly blue.

Outland, also known as Draenor, is the home of the Draeni, the first playable race in the game that isn’t either Tolkien-standard or animal-based. (I find them a little reminiscent of Githzerai, but I think that’s mostly because of their role in the story.) Blue of skin and blank of eye, they look a little bit Orcish and a little bit Elvish, but with the less human aspects exaggerated. The beards on the males turn out on closer inspection to be some sort of facial tentacles, and their cloven hooves remind us that they’re ultimately of the same stock as the so-called demons that lead the Burning Crusade.

Speaking of demons, remember how Warlock characters get to summon demons to fight for them? There are various sorts of summonable, including both traditional sorts like imps and succubi and less familiar things like the cloud-like Voidwalker and the weirdly spiky Felguard. In a nice touch, you can see all of these creatures roaming free for the first time in the Hellfire Peninsula. Voidwalkers don’t even seem to be affiliated with the Burning Crusade at all; they just roam the more dimensionally-unstable places going about their own business.

In short, despite being definitely in the fantasy genre, it’s still an alien planet, with alien life forms. The fact that Draeni tend to wear robes and carry swords does not change the fact that they are basically kind of sci-fi. (It’s kind of like the Marvel Comics version of Asgard sometimes.) Some of Azeroth’s monsters are pretty alien too, mind you — there are buglike creatures called Silithid that are pretty plainly modeled after the Zerg from Starcraft. But in Outland, even the plants are a bit otherworldly. The trees of Terokkar are tufted and spiky and twisted, not quite like anything on Earth. The ones in Zangarmarsh are actually enormous mushrooms, with caps large enough to land a flying mount on.

Spider: Secrets and Switches

As you might expect from the subtitle, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is full of secrets. Nearly every level has one: an area that’s only accessible through a gap that looks like a solid object at first glance, or has some other trick to entering it, containing a little more enigmatic art and some extra bugs. (Thus, completists like me can always tell when there’s a secret to be found. If you eat every visible bug and don’t get the “Level cleared” alert, there must be more bugs you don’t see.) In the simplest and earliest cases, all you have to do to find such things is guide your spider on a circuit of the room’s periphery. When you suddenly go through the wall you’re climbing, you’ve found it. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes the secret is on the interior, inside a floating object that you need to jump onto to explore, like a dresser with legs that the spider can crawl under. Such things dissolve to a cutaway view when entered. Also, some secrets have to be opened up first by other actions, such as jumping at a wall switch to press it. There’s one that requires something like five different switches to open.

In fact, switches and other nudgeable objects are a pretty important mechanic, providing your only way to alter the environment in other ways than spinning webs. In some cases they control access to non-secret portions of the level. There’s a repeated gimmick of turning on a light to attract moths, which you’d otherwise have to laboriously hunt down over a larger area. It’s used a lot because pressing a switch is just one of the few reasonably plausible actions a spider could take — despite being not actually plausible at all. Spiders are light. Even a big spider like a tarantula would have difficulty moving your standard wall switch.

I recall thinking similar thoughts about Bad Mojo, a graphic adventure game in which you play a cockroach. That roach was capable of amazing feats of strength for a bug its size. But at least it had an excuse for being as smart enough to solve the game’s puzzles: it was actually a transformed human. The spider in Spider is, as far as I know, just a spider, and wouldn’t realistically recognize a switch as something pressable even if it realistically had the ability to press it. Just as it wouldn’t recognize the portraits and letters and abandoned keys in the secret areas. It’s just another part of the strange disconnection between diegetic player goals and avatar goals in this game.

Speaking of which, I seem to have accomplished the game’s goals for the spider, predating my way through the house and reaching the end credits. So, the game is off the Stack. But at the same time, it’s clear that my time in Bryce Manor is not over, because I have goals that the spider does not. Now that I’m not so occupied with mere game mechanics, I can try to unravel the backstory, and to find the Secret Room mentioned in the achievements list. I think I know basically how it’s found: it involves switches that don’t look like switches in various levels. I’ve spotted some hints on what to look for, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for more.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

So, let’s have some more iOS. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a title that I remember being praised as innovative, early on in the short history of the platform. It’s certainly different in important ways from comparable games on other platforms, in that it’s designed from the ground up for the affordances of a touchscreen. At first thought, it may seem like a touchscreen, barring the multitouch stuff that most apps seem to support (scrunch to resize), just provides a subset of what you get from a mouse — basically, everything but hover effects. But it turns out that even the actions that both sorts of device support are significantly different. The customary way of dragging things in iOS takes a moment to lock in, and is therefore awkward to use in time-sensitive situations like games (as the iOS port of Gemcraft shows). Directional swipes, on the other hand, can be awkward with a mouse, but are one of the most natural actions in the world on a touchscreen. And so Spider uses swipes for one of its most-oft-repeated actions: jumping.

This is more natural than it sounds, because these aren’t Mario-style jumps that just give you a sudden jolt of upward velocity. You’re jumping in an arbitrary direction, and your trajectory usually doesn’t get a chance to arc very much, so it’s intuitive to think of the swipe as defining a line. This is because the player character of this game — actually, before I go into details, that’s another point worth pointing out: that this game has a player character, with an avatar that you move around on the screen, which is something that seems to be less common in touchscreen games than on platforms with keyboards or joysticks. The PC in this game is literally a spider, capable of crawling on walls and ceilings. Since the presentation is 2D and vertically-oriented, this means that you really have only two directions of movement on these surfaces. In a sense, you could consider it a 2D platformer, but it’s also sort of a territory-capture game, like Qix. Your goal isn’t to get from point A to point B, but to eat bugs, and to eat bugs, you have to build webs, ideally making them as big as you can given the constraints of the level geometry and your limited resources.

Webs are the only places where your direction of movement isn’t constrained. The way you build a web is actually pretty similar to the way a real spider builds the basic framework at the beginning of spinning. Before you swipe to jump, you can optionally tap the screen to indicate that you want to make a line of silk between your current location and the point where you land. So, it’s essentially line-drawing. When you make an approximately closed polygon of such lines, it automatically fills in and becomes a web. Consequently, most webs wind up being triangular, because that’s the easiest thing to make in an open space. More sides give you more points. There’s a limit to the length of each line, and a limit to the number of lines you can draw, so it pays to optimize. Eating bugs replenishes your line count, but you need to catch multiple bugs in each web to make a profit on this.

The bugs themselves come in various varieties. The first and most basic types fly in a set route, like a patrolling guard, which makes them easy to catch. Others have more complex behavior. Some try to avoid you, which means you can’t just sit in a web and wait for them; you have to instead approach them from the opposite side and chase them in. Some bugs can’t be caught in a web at all: instead, you have to jump on them.

Maximizing your web area is rewarded not just by making it easier to catch bugs, but also by bonus points at the end of each level. If I cared more about points, I’d be using my leftover lines to try to fill each room before leaving it. This is mimetic behavior: the whole game is set in and around a decrepit old mansion, and filling each room with cobwebs is entirely appropriate.

Speaking of scenery, there are various noninteractive background objects that hint at a story: portraits, letters with legible bits, an occasional abandoned object that’s clearly significant in some unidentifiable way. It’s a bit like some of Edward Gorey’s works in that respect. What it all means may become clearer as I clear more rooms, learning just what the secret of Bryce Manor is. And that’s narratively interesting, because the spider of course has no clue. It’s just in it for the bugs. It’s common in games for the narrative and the gameplay to be orthogonal, but usually there’s at least some notion that discoveries by the player are reflections of discoveries by the player character.

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