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Bugdom: Into the Dark

Those fireflies, by the way, are annoying. They pick you up and carry you to an earlier point so you have to regain ground.Well, I’ve given a good solid explore to Bugdom‘s level 8 (out of 10), a place of rocky crags and steep defiles and occasional acid pools. I anticipated my latest session also being my last, seeing how I often give an extra push towards completion when I get close enough to smell it, but level 8 defeated this aim, mainly by being so darned large. Size is kind of important to the way this game produces difficulty: by putting more stuff between you and your goals. Not necessarily harder stuff, just more of it. If you mess up and let yourself get hit by one spear-wielding ant in ten, then a hundred ants will hit you ten times, which is probably enough to kill you. It should be understood that, although most enemies are killable, you receive no benefit for killing them other than not having to deal with them any more. Killing doesn’t even score you points. So the game as a whole is tilted somewhat towards running away from things, but all the moreso on this level, where it would take so long to make a significant dent in the forces arrayed against you.

I suppose it’s all another nudge to use the curl-up-and-zoom feature, whether to zoom past enemies or to bowl into them for quick damage. Kicking enemies to death just takes too long to be practical when the enemies are clustered together in large groups. Understand that your basic spear-carrier ant has to be kicked three times before it stays down, that it’s temporarily invulnerable while it recovers from each kick, so even killing an isolated foe takes a while. In addition, the kick animation rather awkwardly locks you in place for the second or so it takes to run fully, leaving you vulnerable to any other attackers in the vicinity. It’s all part of what gives the game the sense of clumsiness I noted in my first post.

The other notable thing about level 8 is that it takes place at night. I don’t think this actually has any effect on visibility — the clipping plane is pretty close to the camera throughout the game — but it seems like you can’t see as much because the distances are greater. I mean, on the smaller levels, you can often see all the way to the far wall of whatever area you’re in, making the exact range of visibility irrelevant. As such, you can actually typically see farther in the darkness of level 8. So the darkness is mostly stylistic. As is often the case in videogames, the first level is sunny and green, and the environments get darker and more threatening as you enter the den of evil at the end.

Plus, darkness shows off the fire better. This level introduces fire-breathing enemies (they’re fire ants, get it?), and you can often see them as spots of glow on the horizon before you can make out the and behind it. Especially if you’re subject to the glitch I’ve been experiencing here. On my machine, fire can be seen through otherwise-opaque walls, which can be quite disorienting. I assume that the Mac version didn’t have this problem, but honestly I have no idea.

Bugdom: Roll-up

Amazingly enough, I managed to get through level 4 unscathed. Level 5 turns out to be the game’s first boss fight, an aerial battle on the back of a firework-spitting dragonfly in a large and very open space. The boss in this case is a beehive — stationary, large, and without defenses of its own, but with a substantial health bar, and while you’re whittling it down, you’re attacked by bees. Still, not very difficult.

Level 6 takes place inside the hive, which is much larger than it looked from the outside. It’s the first enclosed space I’ve seen in the game. Not that it makes a lot of difference — the ceiling is high enough to not interfere with jumping, which is fortunate, because you jump a lot here. In addition to the environmental hazards — unswimmable pools of honey, crossed by chains of moving or sinking platforms — there are three distinct varieties off bee patrolling the place. There are biting grubs, which can only be kicked from close enough to be dangerous, but which can be squashed by jumping on them. There are big beefy soldier-types that turn around and shoot their stingers at you like cannons and then expire, but this provides enough of a warning that it’s generally easy to jump out of the way at the right moment. And there are the flying ones, just like the ones back in level 5.

And those flying ones are a problem. You don’t have a dragonfly to shoot them down with any more. They fly too high to be kicked; I don’t think it’s possible to kick them even when they dive at you. They’re difficult to run away from, too. I’ve only managed to get through this level with unacceptable loss of life, and it’s mainly due to this one type of creature.

Level 7 is another boss fight, but a fairly inscrutable one. As far as I could tell at first, I was incapable of hurting the boss bee, but it was equally incapable (or uninterested) in hurting me. It just made numerous mounds of honey on the floor of the arena, which didn’t seem to have any effect or use. By now, I’ve gone online to find out what the secret is, and I guess it’s the same secret as for defeating the fliers in the hive. You have to take advantage of one of Rollie’s basic abilities that I haven’t been using much: the ability to curl up into a ball and rocket about like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Now, it isn’t the case that I’ve never used this skill. I used it a bit back in the land of giant feet, the better to dart from one safe point to another. But it’s not something I do regularly, and there are three reasons for that. First, your ability to stay rolled is limited. There’s an energy meter for it, and that makes me want to hoard it. Second, it’s awkward to execute if you’re playing from mouse and keyboard. Bugdom puts movement on the arrow keys, far away from all the other controls, apparently in the expectation that you’ll either use two hands on the keyboard or do all your movement from the mouse. But, educated by other games, I find it much easier to move around with one hand on the mouse and one on arrow keys, which means that any action that can’t be performed easily from this position requires a moment of calm in which to reposition my hand. Thirdly, it’s dangerous. If you’re rolling at great speed, it’s all to easy to go barreling into enemies or hazards. (And if you’re not, there’s not much point to wasting your limited stay-rolled energy.)

But even as I say all this, I recognize that, by not taking advantage of this ability more, I’m probably missing the point of the game. You’re supposed to spend your time zooming around like a golf ball. That’s the fun part. It’s just not what makes for steady progress. And it’s a bit of poor design that these two things conflict as much as they do.

Bugdom: Personal Standards

My last brief session brought me through to the second segment of level 4, a largish open area where you learn to ride dragonflies, and into the third segment, where you use your new-gained skills in a sort of entomological version of the Death Star trench run. (Unlike Luke, you can dismount at any time, but the territory is dangerous enough to make this a bad idea.) If I can get through this, I’ll be into terra incognita.

Actually, I have a feeling that I managed to reach level 5 at least once back in the old days, but didn’t save my progress, because I was unsatisfied with my completion of level 4. Which leads to the question: just how perfectionist do I want to be here?

Every level has scattered collectibles. First, there are the captive ladybugs, trapped in cages made of spiderweb. The only benefit for rescuing them is bonus points at the end of the level, and I’m basically ignoring that, but nonetheless, my feeling is that leaving a ladybug unrescued is unacceptable. Not just for plot reasons, either: each ladybug represents a highly-visible optional challenge. Leaving some of them alone means failing to experience some of the game content. Furthermore, when the game counts up bonus points, it makes it very clear just how many ladybugs you left behind, so there’s a scold factor as well.

The other collectibles are all contained in abundant and identical nutshells, which you have to kick open to find out what’s inside them. Sometimes it’ll be a health item or power-up or extra life, sometimes it’ll be an enemy that attacks you if you don’t move quickly (which is particularly annoying if you’re facing forward at the time, because the avatar blocks your view of what’s happening), but usually it’s a clover, which is simply more points. Now, there are three colors of clover: green, blue, and gold. There are exactly four blue clovers on every level. There are exactly four gold clovers in the entire game. Completing these collections seems like a goal worth pursuing. But green clovers are just filler. Their number varies from level to level, and you’re not given any information about how many you missed, so clearly the game designers don’t want me worrying about it.

Lives, now. This is arguably a game that doesn’t really benefit from limiting the number of times you can die, but it does it anyway. The game lets you save your progress permanently only between levels, so whenever you save, you’re effectively declaring that you think you can pass the next level with as many lives as you have at that moment. You can have only up to three lives in reserve, so picking up more than that is a waste. Furthermore, I’d say that entering a level with the full amount is also a waste, because the levels seem to generally let you pick one up close to the beginning. Also, if you’re nearing the end of a level with full lives, and suddenly get killed by something you weren’t expecting, the absolute perfectionist would have no choice but to start the entire level over. And levels are long enough that I don’t want to have to do that. But I do want to enter each level no more than one life down, if I can.

I may well lower my standards as I get further into the game, but right now, this is what I’m shooting for. And honestly, it doesn’t seem so far like it adds much to the difficulty of the game. I want to kick most of the nuts anyway, in the hope of finding an extra life once in a while.

Back to Bugdom

Picking up Bugdom from where I left off, I’ve managed to breeze through level 3 and make a little headway into level 4. It won’t be long before I catch up to my initial sally from before this blog.

Where level 2 was basically similar to level 1, just longer and more difficult, subsequent levels start introducing new stuff. Level 3 is water-themed, built around a pond festooned with lily pads. There was a certain amount of swimming in level 2, but but on level 3 there are enemies that can swim faster than you. I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be. They’re brown and long-legged — possibly semi-transformed tadpoles? At any rate, they effectively turn the water into a no-go zone, or at least a get-out-quick zone when you inevitably miss a jump or two. Traversing the water over longer distances requires the assistance of what I assume to be a water strider dressed as what I assume to be a cab driver. A grotesque worth of the Joker, anyway, and difficult to control. He moves forward at speed for as long as you sit on his back, while you steer with the mouse. But the steering is ridiculously sensitive, so you mostly spin in place for a while, then go in a straight line until you hit a wall, then spin in place there.

As I remember it, level 4 has a similar vehicle section, only airborne. That’s the part that caused me enough difficulty to give it up last time. I haven’t quite gotten there yet this time around, because I’m still working on navigating the extreme hazards on the way: paths trodden by enormous bare human feet, on trousered legs stretching out of sight into the sky, each capable of halfway killing you at the slightest touch (yes, even if it doesn’t step on you, even if you stumble into a foot that’s already on the ground). The presentation, and especially the soaring music, gives this an epic feel, relative to the hazards you’ve faced so far. This is the land of the titans. The feet move around in regular patterns, just like the other invincible hazards like the slugs in the first two levels, but it’s even more imperative to watch them in advance and know where they’re going to be and when, because once you’re close enough to be stepped on, you’re too close to see and react to the foot descending from the sky at your position. And watching them closely enough to predict their movements reveals a peculiar thing: the feet are not paired. They’re just individual feet, moving in cyclical patterns independent of any other feet. What’s even weirder is that you don’t notice this at first. The first time you see a foot, it gives the impression that the other foot is just offscreen. But there is no other foot.

Advent Rising: Ending

In some ways, Advent Rising is a better Jedi Knight than the Jedi Knight games. It has a lot to do with not having any obligation to stick to an established fictional milieu, in either detail or in philosophy. For example, in a Star Wars game, using Force powers for direct attack is the province of the Dark Side. Advent Rising doesn’t care about that: Gideon is the good guy purely on the basis that he’s trying to save the human race from destruction at the hands of cruel and merciless alien invaders, and if he chooses to kill his enemies with energy blasts from his hands rather than energy blasts from zap guns, no one is going to take him to task for it. And without the need for a distinct class of white magic, the designers are free to weaponize the utility spells. The jumping power, at higher levels, includes the option to produce a powerful shockwave on landing. The level design keeps on including stretches set on cliffs or bridges or inside tall buildings with large plate glass windows just to give you the opportunity to hurl enemies to their doom with your telekinesis.

But there’s enough Star Wars in the mix to keep reminding me of it. There’s one boss fight on a rooftop against a singularly unpleasant-looking alien, a sort of skeletal she-demon with a metal plate where you’d think her eyes should be, who attacks with both a zap gun and lightning-fast alien kung fu (including moves that can’t be performed without a tail). Despite the difference in appearance, it doesn’t take long to realize that she’s basically Boba Fett. You can’t just knock her off the roof because she has a jetpack. If you manage to land a hit on her, she jumps off the roof of her own accord, only to rise up a moment later in a small spacecraft and attempt to blast you with its cannons. When you finally drive her away, she even comments that she wanted to take you alive, as if some unknown Jabba-analog wants you frozen in carbonite on his wall.

The real reason she wanted Gideon alive didn’t occur to me until well after completing the game. I suppose I should have noticed what was going on sooner, because most of the clues were there in front of me. I’m going to describe the ending, and that will require describing the beginning, because the ending pays off a mystery established in the opening cutscene and then forgotten by the player. Basically, the opening cutscene shows a brief and wordless confrontation between some serious-looking floating bald-headed guys in long, flowing garments in some sort of weird and indeterminate glowy orange place. There is no obvious connection between this scene and the following scene of Gideon’s shuttle arriving at the space station, or indeed with most of the game that follows.

Now, the ending. Like Prince of Persia (2008) would later do, Advent Rising takes the tricky approach of putting the real ending after the closing credits. But where PoP was subtle about it, letting the player not just figure out what to do next but figure out that there was anything to do (the main hint being that the game was still letting you walk around), Advent Rising just throws you into a sudden and unexpected additional boss fight. It starts with what seems like just a bonus cinematic and sequel hook: a cutscene of the good guys finally arriving at the Galactic Senate to testify against the Seekers, who apparently have been doing their genocide and planet-busting in secret while presenting a benevolent face to galactic society at large. (This is the one Star Wars riff that seemed most drawn from the prequel trilogy.) The presentation of a living human causes a stir, but Gideon’s thunder is quickly stolen by the arrival of a “real” human — which is to say, one of the bald-headed guys from the opening, floating and radiant and looking far more worthy of being worshiped as a god by aliens than Gideon is. This new arrival calls Gideon’s people subhuman savages who tried to usurp their betters, and explains that, while it’s true that the Seekers made war on these mere primates, it’s entirely alright because it was done on the real humans’ behalf.

And for a moment, I had the thought: what if he’s right? What if this creature is what all the legends about humans had in mind all along? Just because the translator devices render the aliens’ word for their legendary space gods as “human” doesn’t mean that humans really are their legendary space gods. (It’s made explicit that the translators are programmed by feeding them a large quantity of language data. False assumptions could contaminate such a process.)

The one thing that didn’t quite make sense to me was that Gideon recognized the floating bald-headed person. When it arrives, Gideon says “Ethan?”, and when he defeats it, he says “You may have my brother’s face, but you’re not him”, both comments referring to his brother who got left behind on the space station when it was destroyed in the first chapter. (Well, actually, that doesn’t necessarily happen: you have the option of saving Ethan at the cost of losing Olivia, Gideon’s fiancee. Apparently if you do this Gideon recognizes the interloper as Olivia instead.) This reaction seemed strange to me, because I, the player, didn’t recognize the floating guy at all. At the time, I thought there might be some kind of illusion or mind-control mojo going on, making Gideon see a resemblance that wasn’t there — which would be a strange separation of player knowledge from avatar knowledge for so late in the game1 — but now I think we’re just running into the limitations of the character models. The hair is the only thing making them recognizable, so when you take that away, you need to identify them in dialogue.

Anyway, when I think about it, I never saw Ethan die. He was last seen on a space station overrun by Seekers, who were occasionally grabbing people and scanning their brains. It’s obvious that they were looking for people with psychic potential, but now I understand why: to capture and control them, and turn them into weapons. There was an exchange when fish-alien Yoda2 first explains the powers to Gideon: Gideon says “So it’s a weapon”, and the response is a hesitant “…Interesting that you would draw than conclusion.” At the time, I interpreted this as “Humans are so innately violent that they see nothing but weapon potential in their magical gifts. Perhaps we were wrong to approach them”, but now I think it means he knew a little more than he was letting on about what the Seekers were doing with their abductees.

Ethan/Olivia is one of those puzzle-bosses that’s vulnerable to only one approach, or, more specifically, to only one of your powers. You get new powers at a rate of one per chapter for most of the game, and some of them have alt-fire modes, but even so, you have less than a dozen things to try here. And yet, I had to hit up a walkthrough to win. The reason is that one of the powers is misleadingly close to effective. The baddie’s chief weapon is a ball of darkness that homes in on you and passes through obstacles. It takes away most of your health with a single hit, but he takes several seconds to gather the darkness together — long enough to prepare for it. Now, one of Gideon’s powers is a sort of brief disco-ball of force that reflects projectiles. Perhaps I could use it to reflect the ball back at its thrower? Not quite: it does reflect, but it veers off in a curved path. But I found that if I stood quite close to Ethan, that curved path would orbit me a few times. If I jumped up at just the right moment, perhaps I could get that orbit to hit Ethan? I spent a long time trying to get this to work, but it simply doesn’t. Yes, you do have to swat the ball back at the boss a few times in a sort of deadly Jedi tennis, but there’s a much simpler way to do it.

This was a little disappointing, considering how most of the game allows for multiple viable approaches. Some of the early levels even let you pass by enemies without engaging them. It’s not quite stealth sections, but more just that they’re too busy fighting the people who are actually shooting at them to pay much attention to anyone who isn’t. This of course ends once they know you’re the Kwisatz Haderach, but that’s also when you start getting the choice of whether to shoot dudes or just throw them out windows.

Anyway, it’s a fairly satisfying game, even if the controls are over-complicated and the story leaves a lot unresolved. Apparently it was intended as the first part of a trilogy, but the sales figures put the kibosh on that. The art remains vibrant and compellingly composed throughout, and although the plot is cliché in outline, having a real writer on board seems to have helped a lot. In particular, although the game starts off with a race of good aliens and a race of bad aliens, it manages to give you just enough of the politics backgrounding the conflict to complicate matters. The Seekers aren’t all Seekers, and the few fish-guys who help you are rightly regarded as dangerous by many (most?) of their own people, who prefer the status quo, in which they’re not involved in a galactic war that’s arguably none of their business. I suppose that’s where it really parts ways with Star Wars, which never gave the impression that anyone other than outright villains actually thought that the Empire was a good thing.


  1. Usually when there’s a large gulf between what the player knows and what the player character knows, it’s at its greatest at the game’s beginning. The characters know things about their present and past situation that the player will later learn from cutscenes, and the player tends to have some advance story knowledge, if only from the title and genre. Over the course of play, the player and avatar both converge towards complete knowledge of the story. It would be interesting to see a game that goes the other way. []
  2. He’s actually a bit of a subversion of Yoda, in that he’s considerably less powerful than Gideon after just a little training. []

Advent Rising: Laying it On Thick

The plot of Advent Rising falls pretty firmly into the category of Wish Fulfillment Fantasies for Boys. That’s a pretty big category, which includes a large portion of all videogame releases — probably a majority of the AAA titles. But Advent Rising seems like an especially egregious example. This is a game that’s so concerned with showing the player character as the most special person in the world, it double-layers it.

First of all, when you make first contact with aliens in the first chapter, you find out that the entire human race is the most special and miraculous species in the galaxy. Humans are spoken of in legends of old, and thought by many to be entirely mythical. Others have devoted their lives to seeking us out. When they find us, they either kowtow and address us as “Exalted ones” or exterminate us, smashing the very planets we inhabit to pieces. But either way, it’s all about us.

Then, on top of of that, Gideon, the player character, is of course the most specialest human. You are of course the very best at magic alien Jedi powers, but even before you get them, you’re already special. You’re a VIP, part of the First Contact delegation (if only the pilot). You’re the first human to receive a universal translator implant, and after a certain point in the story, you’re the sole surviving human with one — and thus the only person who can understand aliens. I mentioned a scene where you get into a fistfight with resentful space marines, jealous of you but of course ultimately not as good at you at fighting, which is supposed to be their specialty. There’s another scene shortly afterward where one of them actually gets so fed up with how much better you are than him that he tries to murder you — possibly as foreshadowing of the invasion to come, as the Seekers seem to have similar motivations. You can either kill him in self-defense or subdue him non-lethally without much consequence either way, because you’re just that much more important than him. Come to think of it, this must be part of Orson Scott Card’s contribution to the story. It’s a lot like the weird social dynamic in Ender’s Game, but with less justification.

All this makes it just wish-fulfillment fantasy. The part that makes it specifically wish-fulfillment fantasy for boys is the wardrobe. Starfleet miniskirts are standard issue for female supernumeraries, while the two human female characters who have names — both of them young and hot, one of them Gideon’s fiancee — sport midriff-baring short tops whenever they’re not in spacesuits. The manual has a picture of the two of them together, and I actually laughed when I saw it.

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.

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