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Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty

The new Humble Monthly brings me Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, a remake of 1997’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. I played the PC port of Abe’s Oddysee back in the day, and liked it enough to play the immediate sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, as well as to pick up further Oddworld games in Steam sales and then not play them. I understand the ones I haven’t played mix things up a bit, but the basic idea behind the Abe games is that they’re puzzle/action-platformers in an alien setting of juvenile grotesquery. The whole thing starts in a meat-processing plant, where Mudokons, the player character’s species, have just been downgraded from workers to meat animals, prompting the player to both escape and rescue as many of his kin as possible.

In contrast to D/Generation HD, I have to say that New ‘n’ Tasty largely improves on the original. I guess it’s helped by the way that the original was basically straining against its technology anyhow. Abe’s Oddysee had 2D sprites pre-rendered from 3D models. New ‘n’ Tasty can just put the 3D models directly in the game and render them at a higher resolution than those sprites. The original had occasional FMV transitions between locations, the better to give the illusion that everything was happening in a single cohesive space. NnT can actually move the camera around in that space. This is applied even in ordinary spaces: the original divided the world up into discrete screenfuls that the camera would jump between as you exited one and entered another, but NnT has the camera follow you continuously. This might make the bigger puzzles easier by removing the need to stitch together spaces presented separately in your head.

Rescuing Mudokons involves leading them to locations where you can open a portal. The game supports a simple set of commands for this: “Hello” to get the attention of whoever you’re facing, “Follow me”, “Stop”. In Abe’s Oddysee, you could only address one Mudokon at a time, and as a result sometimes had to go back and forth between where the Mudokons were gathered and where the portal is. Abe’s Exoddus added an “Everybody” command that allowed you to get an entire roomful of Mudokons to follow you at once. NnT retrofits this into the original scenario, and to get more mileage out of it, it increases the number of rescuable Mudokons threefold. There’s something to be said for this: to the extent that looking for Mudokons to rescue is a sort of treasure hunt, finding a whole bunch of them standing together feels more significant than finding one alone, even though there’s no practical difference for the completist player.

Where the original had instant death from every hazard, NnT introduces a health system that lets you take several hits. This is optional; if you play on Hard mode, the old one-hit kills apply. I think the health system probably makes for a better game, but I’ve been playing on Hard mode anyway, out of sheer stubbornness and a sense that if I beat the game this way once, I should be able to do it again. There are a lot of Mudokons hidden away in secret areas with specially-hard challenges, where you have to dodge spinning meat blades with exceedingly exact timing. I fail dozens of times in these areas before succeeding; some of them I’m not entirely convinced are humanly possible to pass except by luck. So health probably helps there.

Not that you’re really expected to complete all the challenge areas on your first pass through the game! You can pass through all the levels and reach an ending without rescuing a single Mudokon, although if I recall correctly, the ending you get that way basically scolds you and says “I guess you aren’t the Chosen One after all”. But there are Mudokons in the first chapter that you can only rescue by means of techniques taught in the later chapters. A more modern game would let you advance farther into the game, learn what you need to learn, then come back to save the Mudokons you left behind — possibly even letting you continue to try for perfection after getting the initial ending, like continuing to hunt for Riddler Trophies in Arkham Asylum after the final boss. But no, in Abe’s Oddysee, once you leave the first chapter, any Mudokons left behind are immediately killed. And New ‘n’ Tasty doesn’t change that.

D/Generation vs D/Generation HD

Still very stuck on the same three puzzles in the third island segment of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, I decided to spend a little time on something different. I remember quite liking the MS-DOS version of D/Generation back in the day, and the recent HD remake was in a bundle, so I gave it a try.

The original D/Generation was something of a surprise for me. The box art made it look like some sort of dreary horror game, and the premise — that you’re tapped in a futuristic office building with a bunch of hostile globular mutations — sounded like a run-of-the-mill shooter. But in fact it’s mainly a game about solving door puzzles by triggering switches remotely by banking bullets off walls. Or at least the better parts of it are like that. Those are the parts I remember.

And, while I’m aware of how memory lies, I have to say that I think the original version was in some ways better. The HD can make it look more realistic, but realism wasn’t what I liked about it — quite the opposite! The original version’s stylized isometric pixel art may have cost it sales in 1991 (and is probably the reason for the misleading cover art), but it fit the game to a T. The environment is quite artificial and blatantly tile-based. The first two enemy types you encounter 1That is, the A/Generation and the B/Generation are spheres and cylinders. This was a game styled around visual clarity, and the remake throws a lot of that away because it’s insufficiently appreciated.

Speaking of visual clarity, I really dislike the change to how walls a displayed. In the original, any wall or door that obstructed your view of a room interior was displayed as a cutaway, just a bar along the floor at approximately 1/4 the height of a full wall. In the remake, all walls are full-height, but turn transparent when you’re near them. The result is that you usually can’t see the full layout of a level when you enter it, and this interferes with my ability to immediately start making a plan of action.

The original had these green floor-mounted rotating turrets, part of the building’s security system that had been somehow turned against the humans. The remake reinterprets them as some sort of mutant worms with toothy mouths, even though they still behave like rotating turrets. In the very first room in the building, the remakers decided to add a gratuitous corpse, even though the mutants absorb their prey. Basically, it seems like they wanted the game to be Isometric System Shock. Whereas I want it to be more like Realtime DROD With a Laser Gun. (It even shares with DROD the mechanic of “special door that opens when there are no more monsters in the room”.) So yeah, I’m a little disappointed with their choices.

There’s one thing, however, that I’m disappointed was left exactly the same: limited lives. As in, if you get killed too much, you either load a save — a manual save, not an autosave — or you start the whole game over from scratch. This is not something I expect from a modern game. The only way to gain more lives is to rescue survivors, which has odd implications when you think about it. So I suppose there’s some motivation to leave lives in just as a way to make players want to rescue survivors. But honestly, you don’t have to bribe me like that. The “Survivors Remaining” count in the UI is enough to make me want to rescue them all.

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1. That is, the A/Generation and the B/Generation

English Country Tune: Puzzle Ruminations

The first of those two puzzles I mentioned in my last post finally yielded to copious use of process of elimination — I didn’t understand what I had to do until I had gone through everything that wouldn’t work. This opened up access to the rest of the game’s puzzles, which I made short work of, leaving only the other of the two, the one with the resonator.

I’ve mentioned the notion of formulating goals. To be clear, your ultimate goals in this game are usually obvious: get the larvae to their incubation chambers, plant all the gardens, free the whales, get your square to its goal spot, and so forth. But then you have obstacles. Let’s say you can’t reach a larva because it’s over on another structure, across a gap you can’t travel. This creates another goal: bridge that gap. For the most part, I felt like the low-level movement needed to accomplish goals in this game was the easy part, and that I only got really stuck when I couldn’t tell what the intermediary sub-goals were. But maybe that’s tautological.

Solving the resonator puzzle took an “Aha!” realization, and even with that, I didn’t fully understand why the solution worked before going over it in my mind in preparation for this blog post. It also requires a certain amount of reverse reasoning. This was possible because the puzzles in ECT are highly parsimonious, avoiding superfluous blocks and red herrings. Everything has a reason to be there, either as part of an obstacle or part of a solution. In most puzzles, if I didn’t see the purpose of a structure, it sufficed to just ignore it until its purpose became apparent, either because it was in my way or because I suddenly had a need of it. But in some cases, such as this one last puzzle, the path to a solution was unclear enough that imagining what a structure could be used for could clarify matters.

Many years ago, I made an attempt at classifying puzzles in games (and adventure games in particular) by the sorts of thought processes necessary for solving them. Such categories are necessarily vague, and many puzzles partake of more than one, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful as descriptions. The main categories I came up with at the time were something like this: First, you’ve got those “Aha!” moments, the epiphanies that transform your understanding of the problem. Classically, riddles fit in this category. Then you’ve got puzzles based on the application of known rules. This is the domain of mazes and jigsaw puzzles. Finally, there’s my favorite group, puzzles where you don’t know the rules at first, and have to figure them out through experimentation. This is a sort of puzzle that’s almost exclusively seen in videogames. I don’t think this old taxonomy had a slot for the kind of backward reasoning I just described, so maybe that should be considered a fourth sort.

ECT runs the entire spectrum. Whenever a new game element is introduced, you have to play with it to figure out how it works. (There are in-game descriptions, but they don’t tell you everything.) Once you know the rules, you apply them. But every once in a while, there’s a puzzle that uses the rules in a way that you haven’t thought of. And that’s where the epiphanies come in. My understanding is that Stephen’s Sausage Roll is similar. I’ll be getting back to that shortly.

English Country Tune: Almost Finished

English Country Tune, as I’ve said, keeps adding new elements. Hole punches that punch holes in your square, together with obstacles that require the right holes in the right orientations. Freeze buttons that turn things you can push into things you can climb. Resonators, which can’t be adequately described in one pithy sentence. The final two worlds take all the elements that have been introduced so far and use them together in various ways.

I’m now up to the final world, where I have two puzzles available to me, but I’ve been stuck on them both for a little while. One involves a Resonator, easily my least favorite of the game’s things, as it introduces a time element into something that’s otherwise been comfortably turn-based. The other is inconvenient to navigate, but is otherwise benign. In both, I’m having difficulty formulating goals. Like, in the second one, I know I have to position a whale in such a way that it helps me push a larva into an incubation chamber that’s waiting for it, just because those are the only two moving objects on the level. But I don’t really see how that could work.

I’m getting kind of impatient to get through these two puzzles and see the rest of the puzzles they’re gating. It’s funny how that works. Am I liking the game? Yes, yes I am. Do I want it to last longer? No, I want to get it over with as quickly as possible. I guess it’s like gulping your food.

English Country Tune: One-Sided

Replaying the beginning of English Country Tune for comparison purposes seems to have turned into playing the whole game. I only got a bit more than halfway through it when I first played it, and, aided by memories, I’ve already gotten well past that point. In the process, I’ve re-encountered one of the most interesting puzzles I’ve ever seen. Let me describe it.

First, understand that the player avatar in this game is a square, which moves about on the surface of an agglomeration of blocks by flipping end over end. There’s a puzzle set where you’re coated with green paint that plants seeds on contact with special “garden” tiles, causing a sort of abstract bush or something to sprout when you leave the tile, rendering that square impassible. Your goal throughout this set is to paint a bush on every garden tile. In other words, it’s a series of puzzles about covering a set of squares without retracing your path, just like the red trap door puzzles in DROD. The three-dimensionality adds an extra twist or two, but nonetheless, I personally have found this sequence to be by far the easiest part of the game. It is, however, followed by a much trickier set, in which your flippy square has green paint on only one side, so that it alternates between consuming tiles and not consuming tiles. Among other things, this means that you have to take advantage of the corners of blocks to switch your parity.

That’s interesting, but the really interesting puzzle is the first one in the one-sided set. Instead of the normal puzzle interface, the game gives you a simple level editor, and challenges you to create a one-sided-paint puzzle out of nothing but blocks with garden tiles on every exposed face, and then solve it. This is actually pretty tricky to do. Most simple shapes cannot be covered completely with an alternating paintbrush. Presumably the author noticed this in the course of developing the puzzles, and realized that the level design problem he was solving was a pretty good puzzle in its own right, worthy of inclusion in the game. I don’t think I’ve seen this sort of level-design puzzle elsewhere, and it’s something I’d be interested in seeing more of.

I’ve gotten far enough into the game to see one more instance of a puzzle that uses the level editor, but it’s not the same: it asks you to create a shape that interacts with the rules in a particular way, but doesn’t ask you to make a solvable puzzle.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll and English Country Tune

I’ve started replaying English Country Tune for comparison purposes. Taken at a highly abstract level, it really is a lot like Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Both are basically games about pushing things to destinations in a tile-based 3D evironment, with identical controls for navigating and rewinding. The biggest difference is that ECT is more thoroughly 3D: you can move on any surface of the agglomeration of blocks you’re clinging to, and the direction of gravity is highly conditional.

Both games consist of groups of puzzles which unlock other groups of puzzles when completed, but ECT handles this fairly abstractly, through what amounts to a menu, even if it is a strangely-presented one. SSR links its puzzle together much more cleverly. The “menu” you use to select puzzles is an island, which you navigate in exactly the same way as you navigate the puzzles. But that’s not all. Each puzzle consists of an isolated patch of ground, in a particular shape, with grills and so forth, in the middle of a large body of water. The island is literally composed of the terrain of all the puzzles, pieced together like a jigsaw.

ECT has a weird and unsettling atmosphere. Despite the name, its music consists largely of ambient organ chords with a lot of tension in them. Everything in the puzzles is sharply geometric, but artificial dust motes drift around, creating a sense of decay. Restarting a puzzle briefly makes a cloud of black pixels swarm around you like flies. Things that look innocently abstract have unsettling names: the first puzzle asks you to move a ball to a goal spot, but it refers to the ball as a “larva” and the goal as an “incubation chamber”. Some later puzzles involve a cube that projects light beams. This is called a “whale”. It’s all very alien.

I’ve noted feeling a sense of menace in SSR, but it’s a great deal more restrained about it, which might make it worse. Sausages are a singularly fraught thing to base a game around, being both phallic symbols and meat products. There are plaques that mention how there used to be a great civilization on the island, and my first thought on learning that was “What happened to them? Were they made into sausages?” But the game has so far refused to address such fancies, staying firmly in a straight-faced realm of childish tinkly music and sloppily pixeled building blocks. “What? It’s just sausages”, it seems to say.

Now, I’m only up to the thirst set of puzzles in SSR. But so far, the puzzles as a whole have had a greater cohesion than ECT. ECT is essentially based around an interface for moving around on the surface of a solid made of cubes, and the various puzzle sets explore different mechanisms for exploiting that: one world for pushing larvae into incubation chambers, one for whales, another for planting seeds on every face of the surface, etc. In short, new sections change the rules. SSR hasn’t had to do that so far. Some of the rules are latent at first — for example, you can’t pierce a sausage with your fork until you you have something to push against. But the actual mechanics don’t seem to change at all. All that changes is what the puzzles make it possible to exploit. The third set of puzzles has a focus on stacking sausages on top of each other, and on walking on top of sausages, which can cause them to roll backwards. This is stuff that was introduced in the second set of puzzles, but not used to anywhere near the same degree. I’ve noticed that under certain unusual circumstances, it’s possible for me to lose my fork. I expect that I’ll eventually hit a set of levels that requires me to do this deliberately.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Easing Up

Day 2 of playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll found me getting through puzzles much more quickly and smoothly than day 1. I definitely think that taking a break and sleeping on it had a positive effect here. Sometimes that’s what it takes for unfamiliar rules to sink in. One of the first things that you have to get used to in this game is that you have to walk backward a lot of the time, because otherwise your fork gets in the way. At this point, I’m doing that as a matter of course. Where I would previously look at a puzzle for the first time with pure bafflement, now I’m capable of at least identifying goals — this sausage has to go there, etc. — due to my better understanding of how sausages behave.

The game seems to be gated by periodic obstacles such that you have to finish all the puzzles in one section before proceeding to the next. The second section introduces the notion of height. In section 1, the only natural obstacles were grills and gaps in the terrain. In section 2, there are walls, which you can push sausages against to impale them on your fork, then pull them off against another wall. This means there’s a whole new mechanism for the puzzles to explore, but for my part, I find its implications fairly intuitive. Where each puzzle in section 1 was a struggle, to be tried and abandoned and revisited, I’ve completed all but two of the puzzles in section 2 on my first attempt.

Essentially, there are two mechanics that needed to be introduced to the player, one that’s hard to grasp and one that’s easy to grasp. But the hard one had to be introduced first, because it’s the basic movement mechanics. I suppose that subsequent sections will add further complications, as is customary in puzzle games. Given what’s happened so far, I have no idea whether they’ll make things easier or harder than what I’ve seen.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll.

OK, yes, I’ve taken the bait. My impression from pre-release screenshots and the like was that Stephen’s Sausage Roll was going to be just another entry in the burgeoning genre of little Puzzlescript-like puzzle games — a genre that the author is no stranger to, as he’s the creator of Puzzlescript. (SSR even uses the same hotkeys!) But the price point seemed awfully high for that. So I asked around, and found out about its testimonials, and now I’ve bought the thing. I suppose you could accuse me of falling prey to the bottled water fallacy, of valuing it more simply because it’s more expensive. But I kind of want there to be more of a market for premium puzzle games, so I’m doing my part to support that.

Also, I did quite like the previous commercial release by the same author, English Country Tune, even if I never completed it. That one got very difficult.

SSR pretty much starts out that way. There are no “beginner” levels that indirectly tutorialize the mechanics; you’re just thrown into the deep end (he says, not yet knowing how deep the real deep end is). There’s a plaque near your initial position that describes the controls, but it seems like something of a joke, because you need to use the controls it describes to reach it. The first few levels are small, but that means they’re cramped, and it’s difficult to make a single move without nudging a sausage into the abyss. Making any progress at all requires multiple non-obvious realizations about how basic movement.

The basic mechanics: Your goal on each level is to cook a group of very large sausages by pushing them onto grills, Sokoban-style. (This is not explained explicitly in the game, but once you see what a grill tile does to a sausage, it’s pretty obvious what you’re meant to do.) Sausages are two tiles in size, and both tiles must be cooked. Furthermore, each sausage-tile must be cooked on both sides: pushing a sausage latitudinally rolls it over. Many block-pushing games make a point of removing blocks that have reached their final destination or otherwise been fully processed. That does not happen here, and cooked sausages can become serious obstacles, because pushing a cooked side onto a grill burns it and loses the level, although just leaving a sausage on a grill does not burn it. You have a fork permanently fixed to your front, which can be useful for poking sausages off grills (which are impassible), but which is always in danger of delivering pushes you don’t want. The way it swings as you turn reminds me a little of DROD, even though it controls completely differently. After cooking all the sausages, you have to return to your starting point. I’ve seen one level so far that makes that the hard part, by making it so that the obvious way to cook the sausages leaves them in positions that you can’t get past without smacking them with your fork and burning them.

And that’s about all I have to say for now, because I haven’t yet gotten far enough in to make grand pronouncements about what it all means. Hopefully I’ll be able to make enough progress to say more in my next post, but the prospect feels daunting and even a little menacing right now.

The Stick of Truth: Finished

Suppose you have two weapons. One hits for 100 points once per turn, the other hits for 20 points five times per turn. They seem equivalent, right? But if you find a socketable weapon upgrade item that makes each hit do 5 more points, weapon B gets more mileage out of it than weapon A does. On the other hand, if you find an upgrade that makes a weapon do one additional hit per turn, weapon A is the clear winner.

Considerations like these occupied a surprisingly large portion of my time playing The Stick of Truth. With factors like elemental damage, damage reduction, status effects, and so forth, the math of combat is elaborate enough that one piece of equipment usually isn’t obviously better than another at a similar level. And the game keeps throwing new equipment at you! A major quest can give you multiple entire outfits to choose from, in addition to all the items you can buy from stores.

And the thing is, by the end, it’s kind of irrelevant. I developed a dominant strategy: at the start of each fight, I’d have the PC and Kyle both use their costliest skills, which do massive damage to all enemies. For most non-boss-fights, that was enough to end matters without even using a weapon at all. But I suspect that pretty much any strategy you choose would work in the end. It’s not a difficult game. In fact, it’s so not-difficult, I managed to basically miss out on an entire major mechanic, because I confused Power Points (used in special abilities) with Mana (used exclusively for farts), and thought for most of the game that I couldn’t afford to use fart attacks in combat. Farts, in addition to providing powerful attacks, have the particular virtue that they interrupt enemies in the act of preparing spells. But it didn’t matter. I survived without being able to do that.

Nonetheless, the game tries to motivate you to collect all the outfits and weapons just by keeping track of them in a “Collectibles” menu, and awarding an Achievement for filling in all the spots in that menu. It does a similar thing with the Chinpokomon figurines scattered around the town, and which don’t seem to have any relevance to the game beyond collection for collection’s sake. Making friends is also treated as a collection game, although this time it’s one that unlocks combat perks.

Now, I realize not everyone feels like this, but I’m into collection for collection’s sake. And this game, like many modern games, is polite enough to let completists like me continue playing after the final boss is defeated and the credits have rolled. But, despite some twinges, I don’t think I’ll take the bait. Collecting all the outfits would require grinding for cash, and that’s something I just don’t feel like doing. The game has been blessedly grind-free otherwise; simply making progress in the story provided me enough XP that combat became too easy to be interesting.

Plus, there’s thousands of other games out there waiting to be played. Let’s try another one.

The Stick of Truth: Horrors

I’m pretty far into The Stick of Truth now. The story is divided into a series of days and nights, with the days spent questing around the town and the nights devoted to self-contained scenarios in more fantastical environments. Day 1 is spent recruiting for the human side, so they can recover the Stick from the elves who stole it. Day 2 starts similarly, but turns into mostly questing on the elves’ side. At the end of day 2, the elves and humans join forces against a new threat, and at the point I’m at in day 3, I’m still trying to recruit more allies in preparation for the presumed final assault. At the same time, there’s a second story going on in parallel, about a government cover-up of a UFO crash and subsequent spillage of alien goo that creates Nazi zombies.

The story been exploring various dimensions of unpleasantness throughout — scat jokes, racism, bullying and other acts of juvenile cruelty, children being exposed to nudity and sexuality in uncomfortable ways (including an extended sequence where the player character watches his parents have sex), anal probing, zombies. But it’s only at this late stage, well into what I believe to be the final chapter, that I finally reach a point that’s nearly overwhelmingly revolting: the abortion clinic scene.

I won’t go into detail. It involves hiding from the Men In Black by pretending to be a doctor, and consequently going through a special QTE sequence. Failure results in cartoon gore 1Not to be confused with cartoon Gore. He appears in the game too, but elsewhere., followed by death and starting the sequence over. I’m not sure why this makes me queasy while the rest of the game leaves me relatively unmoved. Maybe there’s just something special about the combination of botched surgery and genitalia. Maybe it’s the way that the QTE makes you pay attention to what’s going on, instead of just watching for button prompts or abstract sparkles like in the combat system. Maybe it’s the combination. Regardless, I had to shut off the game for a while at this point, and contemplated just abandoning it there.

But I did come back. I have a desire to see this through to the end, and I think this has a lot to do with how compelling the game’s RPG treadmill is. (I may go into that in my next post.) And, thankfully, the next mission breaks the gross-out a bit by sending you off to Canada, which, in South Park continuity, is rendered in an even less realistic style than the USA.

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1. Not to be confused with cartoon Gore. He appears in the game too, but elsewhere.

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