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JtRH: L7:1E

Time for a confession: Although my posts about DROD stalled last year, I didn’t really wait four months after finishing King Dugan’s Dungeon to start playing Journey to Rooted Hold. I started playing it from the beginning back in December, and got all the way to the end of the 7th floor without posting anything here about it. Then I got stuck. And now, having started from the beginning again, I’m stuck in exactly the same place.

“Stuck” isn’t really the right word. I can continue to the 8th floor any time I want. In fact, I have already done so, only to reload back into floor 7. What I’m stuck on is one of those Challenge scrolls. To date, I’ve been meeting every Challenge I find — as I noted before, this is the main part of the remakes that’s new to me, so it seems a shame to skip them. But this one Challenge has been a lot harder for me than any other I’ve seen.

The overall theme of the seventh floor is puzzles involving invisibility potions and/or evil eyes — in particular, it makes puzzles out of the non-obvious fact that being invisible can be a liability, because monsters that can’t see you won’t chase you, and if they’re not chasing you, you can’t manipulate them into going where you want. The Slayer makes one appearance on this floor: after the repeated failure of his usual approach, he’s decided to just wait for you by the exit stairs. The stairs are near the floor’s start, but access to them is limited by an orb at the end of a long, winding hallway. If the Slayer follows you into that hallway, there’s no way to get back out. Thus, you need to be invisible, so he won’t follow you. There is an invisibility potion in the room, but you can only reach it if you enter via an alternate route in the south, which only opens after you conquer all of the other rooms in the level.

Or that was the intent, anyway. Someone figured out how to open the stairs without going through the alternate passage, so now it’s a Challenge. As the challenge scroll notes, you can skip the entire rest of the level this way.

Now, I can see only two possible routes to this goal. One is to kill the Slayer, but I don’t think this is likely. The room lacks features that can be exploited for this, and besides, would they really include both a Challenge for killing the Slayer in any room and another Challenge that requires killing the Slayer in a specific room? The other possibility is to take advantage of the Slayer’s Wisp. The Wisp is the thing that the Slayer uses to find a path to the player. It moves at one square per turn, leaving a trail of swirlies as it goes, and while it’s moving, the Slayer himself doesn’t move at all. So if you could lead the Wisp on a sufficiently long and winding path through the room, it would send the Slayer on a long and winding path while you escape from the long and winding hallway. I’ve managed to get within a hair’s breadth of making this work, but I assume that was the intent behind the room’s design: to make this approach almost but not quite workable.

I feel there must be some trick to making the winding path approach work. Some insight that I’m missing. And that’s largely why I’m still working on the problem. Most of the Challenges are of the form “Forget about the lynchpin, there’s an incredibly fiddly solution that you can do instead.” But this Challenge may well be introducing a lynchpin of its own.

JtRH: 39th Slayer

I’ve mentioned JtRH‘s Slayer before, in my post about The City Beneath‘s Slayer trainees. There, I described Slayers as “kind of like the Terminator: perfect killers, relentless and unstoppable, something to be escaped from rather than defeated”. This time through, bearing that in mind, I’m struck by how different 39th Slayer’s attitude is from your typical dogged pursuer. Usually such adversaries are depicted as grim, dour, and driven by single-minded determination, but 39th Slayer carries a sense of joie de vivre. He just seems to really enjoy his job and approach it with pride and relish and even merriment. Slaying delvers is, we will eventually learn, literally what he was made for, and he takes pleasure in fulfilling his purpose. His voice is deep and echoey, but has a hint of a laugh in it; when he taunts Beethro, it almost seems flirtatious.

But this attitude is based on confidence. When we first meet him, he makes a point of Beethro’s predictability, telling another NPC that you’re going to walk into a trap — which you then do, because it’s the only way forward. He even invites a class of Slayer trainees to observe him slaying you. Your repeated escapes are a clear embarrassment to him, but he tries to maintain a facade of confidence all the same, assuring you that your demise is inevitable, as much to convince himself as you.

Mechanically, his role is to chase you. Rooms that would otherwise be simple are complicated by your need to keep running away from him. Also, it should be understood that, like Halph, he doesn’t appear in most rooms, and that when he does, he usually enters the room after Beethro, the better to chase you. So the typical pattern is: You enter a room, you look at what’s in it, you formulate a plan for killing all the monsters, you step forward to start executing that plan… and then the Slayer comes in, adding that extra complication and forcing you to rethink everything.

Occasionally — occasionally — you can use the Slayer to your advantage. For all that he calls Beethro predictable, he’s the one whose behavior is completely deterministic. Sometimes you can manipulate him into killing monsters for you by getting the monsters between you and him. This is particularly useful when a Challenge constrains your ability to kill stuff yourself.

I said before that the Slayer in JtRH is unkillable until the ending, where it takes a whole roomful of explosives to do him in. This turns out not to be the case — the more dedicated Droddists figured out ways to do it that the designers didn’t intend, kind of like how Ultima players figured out unintended ways to kill Lord British. Killing him doesn’t affect subsequent rooms, mind you, because the authors didn’t plan for it happening at all. In a way, it’s surprising that killing him causes him to die at all. I mean, it’s not like your sword necessarily has to affect monsters; Serpents aren’t affected by your sword. But I guess he’s just inheriting the “die” behavior from the more general monster class, which the programmers didn’t originally see a need to override. In the remake, killing the Slayer prematurely is a Challenge (and thus, on Steam, an Achievement) — the only Challenge that’s not bound to a specific room. And it’s a Challenge that I’ve completed. It turns out that the only thing preventing me from figuring out how to do it was that I thought it was impossible. Once I knew it could be done, I knew to look for ways it could be done.

DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold

Let’s get back to that much-delayed DROD replay, shall we? The second game in the series is Journey to Rooted Hold, and the most immediately striking thing about it in contrast to the first game, apart from the increasing sophistication of the puzzles, is that it has characters, and that the characters are an important part of the game. This is apparent from the very first room, where Halph shows up.

Halph is one of the few major recurring characters in the series. He’s the nephew of Beethro, the player character, and most of the rooms where he shows up use him for his unique puzzle-solving mechanics. Beethro can give Halph a few simple orders: “Follow me”, “Stay here”, and “Open this door” (which Halph does by striking the associated orb, which might be in a place Beethro can’t get to at the moment). It’s pretty similar to the commands you can give to your followers in the Oddworld games, come to think of it, even if the door-opening mechanism was a little different there. But where Oddworld made things complicated for the player by assigning a chord of controller buttons to each utterance, JtRH cleverly manages without introducing any new controls at all. To toggle Halph between follow mode and stay-put mode, you just nudge him by trying to walk into his tile. To tell him to open a door, you try to walk into the door. Trying to walk into stuff is something that was already possible, but didn’t do anything other than waste a turn until Halph showed up.

Even though ordering Halph around can make for pretty good puzzle content, I think I prefer him as a character when he’s not obedient. That’s his main role in the story: running off into other rooms when Beethro tells him not to, petting the roaches when Beethro says to back away, taking that one crucial step onto a force arrow that makes it impossible to get back to Beethro even if he arbitrarily decides to start being obedient again. This makes him a terrific foil. Beethro, as we know from his puzzle solutions, is a planner, and Halph leaves his plans in shambles. Beethro didn’t even want him in the dungeon at all — at the beginning, he instructs him to just wait by the exit — and the main impetus for delving deeper in the beginning is just chasing after Halph to bring him back safely to his parents — something hasn’t yet happened in the games I’ve played. And it isn’t just Beethro’s plans that he lays waste: Halph shatters his preconceptions, too. Monsters don’t attack him, which calls the whole idea of “monsters” into question. Beethro solves complicated monster-slaying puzzles to get from room to room, but sometimes Halph just shows up ahead of him and can’t explain how he got there.

Apart from Halph, all the other characters are citizens of the Rooted Empire. As early as the first floor, you start encountering weird gray-skinned guys with silly voices, who just hang out and watch you solve puzzles and comment on your technique and whether it meets their personal standards. These guys were the equivalent of Challenge Scrolls before there were Challenge Scrolls. There are Challenge Scrolls in the same rooms now, of course, formalizing the whole thing, but the watchers are still there, kind of redundant but preserving a touch of character. On the second floor, you meet the Negotiator, who sits behind a grand desk and tries to persuade you, in a lengthy cutscene-like dialogue, to leave the dungeon voluntarily before the Slayers get involved. This time through, I noticed that the Negotiator basically lays out what we eventually learn to be the main overarching conflict driving events in the DROD setting, but does so in long-winded terms that the first-time player doesn’t yet know enough about the setting to understand.

Floor 3 introduces 39th Slayer, who’s a big enough part of the game to get a separate post of his own.

Thimbleweed Park: Spoilers

It’s been said that murder mysteries are inherently conservative. The murder is a disruption in the status quo, which the detective fixes by finding and punishing the right person, creating justice and restoring the world to its proper order. But there’s a rarely-seen counter-pattern: every once in a while, someone 1usually Alan Moore writes a story that starts as a murder mystery, but grows beyond that. The culprit escapes the possibility of punishment, the breach in the status quo grows beyond repair. Instead of healing, revolution. The story’s end sees a transformation of society.

Thimbleweed Park sort of fits this counter-pattern and sort of doesn’t. The part that it definitely fits is that it grows a larger story out of a murder mystery — and it’s sneaky about it, too, introducing the bigger picture not just through exposition but through game mechanics.

The game starts with a brief prologue in which you play the murder victim during his final moments, then kicks off the main part of the game by giving you control of FBI agents Ray and Reyes (a name pairing that reminds me of Costume Quest‘s Wren and Reynold) as they arrive at the scene to investigate. The prologue segment teases the plot somewhat, but more importantly, it serves to set expectations about how the game works, showing you that you can play characters other than Ray and Reyes, but only temporarily, in self-contained mini-scenarios. And that’s the pattern the game follows for a while. By questioning other characters, you can trigger flashbacks in which you play as Delores Edmond, budding game developer, and as the deliciously surly and unpleasant Ransome the Insult Clown. You even get to play as an earlier murder victim in his final moments — Franklin Edmond, father of Delores.

But then a strange thing happens: When you finally meet Delores and Ransome in person, outside of the flashbacks, they silently become playable again. The next time you open the UI for switching characters, there they are. (The introduction of Franklin’s ghost as a playable character is a bit more conspicuous.) This breaks the implicit promise that this is fundamentally a story about two FBI agents investigating a murder. Delores, Ransome, and Franklin have their own agendas not directly related to the murder, and suddenly you’re pursuing their personal goals in addition to the investigation. This is taken even further when the agents “solve” the murder — scare quotes because the game makes it really obvious that they’ve been manipulated into fingering the wrong man — and leave town, leaving you with just the other characters and their personal agendas. The agents both return before long, because, as has been clear from the beginning, each of them has a personal agenda as well, which they’ve kept secret both from each other and from the player.

So at this point, everyone’s pursuing their own goals, but they’re doing it under the player’s control, which means they can cooperate. Indeed, they have to. You need to use the characters together to solve puzzles. And this is strange, because they do it without any sort of in-world coordination. If Delores needs an object that’s in Ransome’s trailer, which she refuses to enter because it’s gross, the player just directs Ransome to go and fetch it for her, without Delores communicating her need to him. From her perspective, she’s just standing there and a clown randomly walks up to her and hands her the thing she needs. I suppose this is basically how Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle work as well, but it stands out more when the characters aren’t cooperating on a common goal. Ignoring the communication issue, Ransome has no particular reason to help Delores, and it’s really out of character for him. But under the player’s control, he simply does it. And then consider Franklin. When you’re controlling any other character, Franklin is invisible. The other characters aren’t even aware that he exists. They cooperate with him anyway.

But in a weird way, even this strangeness fits, because the town of Thimbleweed Park is a gratuitously strange place. It’s a setting inspired in part by Twin Peaks, as modulated through the style and conventions of a retro adventure game. Technology throughout the town is controlled by large external vacuum tubes. Plumbers dress in pigeon costumes and make cryptic statements about how “the signals are unusually strong tonight”. A clown sits in the decaying remains of an abandoned circus, unable to remove his makeup due to a curse. The mood is as uncanny as it is silly, and that affects how I perceive the fourth-wall-breaking bits, like when characters comment on pixelation or unfinished art. So when the characters act on the commands I give them, and in so doing make the artifice of the adventure game apparent, it doesn’t feel unfitting. In a way, it feels sinister. There’s a mysterious unseen force affecting the minds and behavior of Thimbleweed Park’s citizens — some of the NPCs are aware of it, and wear tinfoil hats to resist the signals, which are unusually strong tonight. Perhaps what they’re really resisting is player control.

And that brings us to the ending, where things really get meta. Ultimately, everyone’s personal agenda leads to them wanting to break into the old pillow factory. (Except for perennial exception Franklin, who can’t leave the areas he’s haunting. The game makes some good puzzles about the player’s tendency to forget about Franklin because he’s not there with the rest of the team.) The pillow factory was the cornerstone of the local economy until it caught fire, triggering the town’s collapse. Now it houses a vast secret underground vacuum-tube-based computer complex, host of the AI that’s been hinted throughout the game to be really behind everything that’s happened, murders and all. Presumably the designers chose pillows to connote sleep and dreaming, because it’s here in the factory that your goal becomes waking up from an illusionary world — the world of the game. Somehow, the factory mainframe is linked to the very hardware that the the developers of Thimbleweed Park are running the game on, and the characters thus learn that they’re fictional, merely things in a game, going through the same actions whenever the game is restarted.

I can’t really explain the logic that leads from this revelation to the decision to crash the system and delete the files, but at least it’s suitably climactic, and it fits the counter-pattern of the murder-mystery-turned-revolution. Each of the playable characters has one final optional puzzle to solve, a way of achieving their goals so they can escape the game before it’s destroyed. But rather than triumphant, the mood here is melancholy. Everyone gets what they want, but as the characters one by one disappear forever from the character-switching UI, I’m aware that I’m effectively killing them. But this is the end, and the world has been exhausted of all other potential.

And then, once you’ve taken the plunge and put this empty world out of its misery, your efforts are rendered futile. After the credits, the screen switches to an imitation of a Commodore 64 booting up, running a file recovery utility, compiling Thimbleweed Park, and running it, producing — what else? — the game’s main menu. Despite heroic efforts, the status quo reasserts itself, depositing everyone back onto the wheel of samsara.

Of course, this C64 isn’t real. It’s as much a part of the game’s fiction as the town of Thimbleweed Park is. And I think it’s worth pointing out that Delores herself develops adventure games on a C64. Delores is a sort of stealth protagonist for the game — the detectives seem like the main characters as long as there’s a murder to investigate, but once it turns out to be all about adventure games, the adventure game developer assumes greater importance. In her flashback, she applies for a job at MmucusFlem Games, an obvious riff on LucasFilm Games. Perhaps the reason for all the Maniac Mansion references in the game is that Delores was a developer on Maniac Mansion, or its equivalent in the Thimbleverse, and drew inspiration from her home town and its weird inhabitants. Moreover, the conceit that the game is running on a fictional development C64 implies a fictional Thimbleweed Park dev team. Perhaps Delores is on that team, or, to be more prosaic, perhaps the Delores we know is an authorial self-insert character for someone on that team. Someone writing a roman a clef about her life, in game form. For example, Delores-the-character was under pressure by her family to take over running the pillow factory, but chose to run off and become a game dev instead, after which Delores-the-developer wrote a story in which the factory itself is the antagonist, clearly a metaphor for her feelings about it. I feel like there’s an entire story about the “real” Delores looming behind Thimbleweed Park, visible only in glimpses.

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1. usually Alan Moore

Thimbleweed Park

I was a Kickstarter backer of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s retro point-and-click adventure Thimbleweed Park, and have my name in the in-game phone books to prove it. As such, I’ve had a copy since its release. I finished it just last night.

I feel like this may be the game that the people disappointed by Broken Age had been expecting. I mean, both games had more or less the same mandate: to revive old-fashioned point-and-click adventure games. But where Broken Age tried to reinvent the genre afresh for today’s world, with a unique style and a sleek modern UI, Thimbleweed goes flat-out for the nostalgia factor. It’s set in 1987 inside and out, storywise and stylistically. The art is pixely and proud of it — character dialogue even explicitly calls attention to it sometimes. The command interface is a throwback to early Lucasfilm games, with the bottom quarter of the screen devoted to a grid of verbs. It even takes the time to throw some barbs at Sierra adventure games, even though it’s been nearly twenty years since Sierra last made an adventure game.

The verb-selection interface, by the way, is almost unnecessary. Right-clicking on an object selects a default verb for that object, and that’s usually all you need. Offhand, I can think of one object in the whole game that can have multiple different verbs usefully applied to it. Verbs like “Push” and “Pull”, “Open” and “Close”, are only narrowly applicable and might as well be merged with “Use”, while “Give” might as well just be the result of applying an inventory item on another character. And yet all these verbs permanently occupy space on the screen. Even though I know from the kickstarter that this isn’t the case, it almost feels like the game content was originally designed for a more modern verbless point-and-click-adventure interface. But I guess that wouldn’t have felt retro enough.

Ron Gilbert has said that the design goal here was to make “the game you think you remember”: not exactly a recreation of the classic Lucasfilm games, but an imitation of what you imagine they were like when you think of them fondly. Thus, we have big chunky pixels, but the color resolution is high, and the game freely breaks the grid when it wants to do a screen-warp effect or scale a character down with distance. The game’s audio meets modern expectations instead of faking period instruments like the Ad Lib sound card or, worse, the PC Internal Speaker.

The strange part is exactly what it’s imitating. Usually, things that look back fondly on the glory days of Lucasfilm Games focus on Secret of Monkey Island. And for good reason! But Thimbleweed Park is more focused on Maniac Mansion. And very blatantly so: all the characters are drawn in a MM-like big-head style, at least three characters from MM are significant NPCs, and the famous library scene, with Chuck the Plant and the out-of-order staircase, is reused here, albeit rendered in more detail. Most of all, though, it uses multiple playable characters in a very MM-like way. Unlike Broken Age or Day of the Tentacle, the playable characters are all in the same environment, and can largely do the same things, apart from a few special talents or limitations. While you’re piloting one around, the others just stand there waiting. This may be why later Lucasfilm adventures avoided putting multiple playable characters in the same place. It’s not very natural for a person to just be on standby like that. It is, however, conspicuously retro, so it fits right in here.

I’ll have more to say about the use of multiple characters in my next post, wherein I’ll talk about the story.

The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human

I feel like the more of these posts I write, the more inclined I am to describe games in terms of other games. But even without that, it would be hard to play The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, a metroidvania set in a system of beautiful undersea caverns, and not think of Aquaria.

Oh, it’s not the same as Aquaria. It’s shorter, it’s more pixelated, and the balance of gameplay is more tilted towards massive boss fights. And, most importantly, it’s far-future sci-fi instead of fantasy. The player character, who you never actually see, returns from a time-dilated space voyage in a sort of space submarine that doubles as a regular submarine, only to find that the human race has died out. This time around, when you find submerged ruins of a lost civilization, the lost civilization is ours. Douglas Adams once had a character come to understand the destruction of the Earth on a gut level by concentrating on just the destruction of McDonald’s. One room in this game has a wee pixelated McDonald’s as part of the background art. It has a similar effect.

It’s a bleak game. There is literally no hope of making things better. It’s far too late to save anyone. So instead you just pursue the implicit goals of the environment, exploring and fighting colossal sea monsters, and while you’re at it, why not torpedo some innocent fish? It’s not like there’s anyone around to care. Even challenging the bosses carries some sense of wantonness, destroying simply because you have nothing else to do. The one vaguely positive prospect is pursuing the mystery of what happened, finding recordings that give you gradual insight into how it all ended.

It all ended mainly because people couldn’t manage to cooperate on anything, even in the face of global catastrophe, instead polarizing into technocrats and eco-terrorists and devoting their efforts to fighting each other. Several of the bosses are relics of this time, monsters either man-made or inadvertently spawned, bearing witness to the sins of those they outlived. When the surviving humans eventually managed to build a vast machine capable of solving all their problems, it looked at the state of the world and decided humanity wasn’t worth saving. You confront this machine at the end, and it’s just as disappointed in you, for the destruction you’ve wreaked to get that far.

But for all its bleakness, it’s a pretty enjoyable game. It’s nice and explorey, and, as I’ve mentioned, has boss fights that truly give a sense of immensity. It strikes me that the underwater environment helps here: it gives the game an excuse to make movement in general slow, and that helps it to seem ponderous.

Hunie Pop

In the waning days of 2016, a mystery emerged: Why did I just spend an entire day playing an anime-styled soft-porn match-3 game?

I guess the “why did I spend all day playing it” part isn’t much of a mystery: match-3 in the context of a larger overgame seems to just send me into a sort of trance. I experienced this with Puzzle Quest as well — although not with Candy Crush, which I think must be because CC is played entirely at the match-3 level.

No, the part that I have difficulty explaining even to myself is my motivation for buying the thing in the first place. It certainly wasn’t to ogle cartoon breasts. I mean, this is the age of the Internet; you don’t need a game for that. True, attaching it to a game could enhance the experience, making the nudie pics into a reward rather than merely an indulgence, but if that were my main concern, I wouldn’t be playing the weirdly censored Steam edition, which adds panties to pictures where they really don’t make sense. Rather, I think I was mainly moved by ludological curiosity. Puzzle Quest had been something of a revelation to me, showing how match-3 and RPG could not only coexist but cohere. What would happen if you tried the same thing with a dating sim in the place of the RPG?

Unfortunately, compelling as it is, I don’t think Hunie Pop lives up to the potential of its basic idea. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering how many closer Puzzle Quest imitators have failed to live up to the potential of theirs, even after Puzzle Quest showed them how to do it. On top of that, the mechanics have some weird implications for how romance works in the gameworld. Let’s go into detail.

The story sets up the player character as a lonely virgin until a “love fairy” named Kyu shows up to help you out by revealing the secrets of match-3 dating, the game’s central activity. In your initial explorations of the unnamed city, you meet eight women, and immediately start dating them all. (After a certain point, Kyu herself decides she wants in on the action and adds herself to your dating pool.) There’s a daily cycle of four time slots — morning, afternoon, evening, and night — and you can go on four dates with four different women every day if you want. No one ever says no to a date unless either you’ve already dated them that day, or they’re hungry, a condition easily cured. Dates are considered successful — meaning that the woman had a good time — if you reach a target score before your “remaining moves” counter runs out. There is no penalty for an unsuccessful date. After four successful dates with a woman, you can take her back to your apartment for sex, which is also a match-3 game. The sex version of match-3 is much simpler than the date version, but adds time pressure via a “pleasure meter” that decays towards zero if you don’t keep making matches.

Now, in real life, dating is a two-person activity. There exists a certain amount of precedent for representing two-person activities in match-3, like how Puzzle Quest uses it to represent combat, but they tend to be competitive and adversarial. Hunie Pop wisely avoids that: a dating game where the target of your efforts actively resists would be troubling, to say the least. But it doesn’t replace the competition with any sort of cooperative or collaborative activity. The player is the only active participant, performing the act of dating to a passive and judgmental audience who contributes nothing but the promise of sexual availability.

And not just passive, but interchangeable. Unless there’s something going on that was too subtle for me to notice, there isn’t any real difference between the women in the match-3 portion. The game attempts to establish some variety by giving them preferences for specific sorts of tiles, but since everyone simply has one tile type that scores more than usual and one type that scores less, it’s a distinction without a distinction. This is the game’s biggest failing as a game, if you ask me. Apart from the pictures, he only thing differentiating one date scenario from another is that the target score increases as you progress in the overall game. And that’s an across-the-board increase, unaffected by who you’re dating, or where, or when, or how much she likes you. Which, strangely, implies that dating is the one skill that becomes more difficult with practice.

That’s just in the match-3, mind. In the overgame, the dating sim around the match-3, the women do show some sign of differing personalities. Mechanically equivalent, sure, and also one-dimensional, capable of being summarized in a single sentence or even in some cases a single word, but at least distinct in ways that the game rewards you for paying attention to. By talking to women outside of dates, you can earn “hunie”, a word that, despite the designers’ intentions, I can’t help but mentally pronounce with a long U. Hunie is basically XP: you spend it on match-3 upgrades. Just talking to a woman at all earns you some hunie, but the big scores are found in the followup questions. Thus, conversation is essentially a guessing-game, and sometimes the women even openly acknowledge the fact, introducing their questions with “Quiz time!” or similar — once again, you perform, they judge. Sometimes you get to choose a question to ask, which the woman will quiz you about in a later conversation: “What’s your birthday?”, say, or “What’s your favorite place to hang out?”, or “What’s your cup size?” (All the women are oddly unfazed by the latter, even if it’s the very first thing you ask them.) Sometimes instead she’ll ask you a question, and these questions — “How close are you with your family?”, “How do you define happiness?”, “Is there anything about your past that you’re too ashamed to tell anyone?” — are a lot meatier than the ones you can ask them, both in terms of what they ask you and what the choice of question says about the asker. But it’s still just a matter of rewarding the one answer that pleases the woman the most, and moreover, it blatantly rewards lying. Some of the questions are asked by two different women who want contradictory answers. Some of them ask about sexual experiences that, at the beginning of the game, your character has not had. Now, you don’t have to lie in these situations. There’s no penalty for getting a question wrong. But the game is certainly encouraging the player here to play the role of a creep who’s willing to say anything to get into a girl’s pants.

Predictably, that’s not the end of the creep factor. At the beginning of the game, to facilitate finding specific women, Kyu gives you what amounts to a tracking device. Then of course there’s the fact that you’re dating nine people at once and, apart from Kyu, none of them know this. The initial introductions establish that some of the women are close friends with each other, and yet apparently they don’t talk about you at all. I’m thinking that this is part of the fantasy. Love is something that makes people anxious, makes them feel like they’re powerless and taking emotional risks. And so this game gives a fantasy of complete power and no consequences. Keeping each relationship separated from all other context is a way of maintaining control, much as abusers control their victims by isolating them.

Some of what I’ve described may be simply endemic to the conventions of the dating sim. As others have pointed out, the premise of the genre is “Any woman can be yours if you say the right words”. But Hunie Pop adds at least one significant element: a pervasive lack of negative consequences. Basically nothing you do in this game can hurt you in any way. There’s just one exception, which I think is worth describing: “broken heart” tiles. There will be a smattering of them in the grid for any date, and matching three of them is not merely bad for the date, but catastrophically bad and difficult to recover from. Managing your broken hearts is the most difficult and therefore the most interesting part of the match-3. There are powers you can use to get rid of the broken hearts, but timing when to use them is a tricky matter: you don’t want to waste them too early, but you also don’t want to put them off too long and wind up making a broken-heart match accidentally through a cascade. Which is really the only way they ever happen, accidental cascades. So in the one place where you can have real negative consequences, it’s not the direct result of a decision you made, but a matter of bad luck and/or poor risk management. Now, when you make matches in a date, the woman often makes approving comments along the lines of “Whoa, cool!”. When you match broken hearts, she’ll say something like “Would you cut that out?” in an exasperated tone, and the natural reaction is “I didn’t mean that to happen! It’s not my fault!”, which seems highly appropriate to the fiction.

The use of alcohol is worth mentioning. Given the fiction, buying drinks for women is almost unavoidable, but to what end? Surprisingly, the game manages to avoid the worst and most obvious choices here. Getting a woman liquored up does not make her easier to date or to get into bed. Instead, it applies a multiplier to any hunie you earn in that encounter. So the behavior the game rewards is: Get a woman as drunk as possible, then have a long conversation with her. (Ideally buying her a lot of food as well so you can talk with her longer.) Her inebriation may not help you now, but it’ll make you a better date in the long run. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I can only see it as a conscious rejection of the creepier alternatives — which suggests that any creepiness I find elsewhere in the game is inadvertent, or at least regarded as genre-normal by the devs.

The Floor is Jelly

OK, this year’s Steam winter sale has been going on for nearly a week, so I think it’s time I posted some words about a few of the games I got for cheap.

The Floor is Jelly is one of those little indie puzzle-platformers with novel mechanics, a genre not invented by Braid but definitely encouraged by it. The novelty is exactly what it sounds like: the floors (and, indeed, all the platform surfaces) wobble and deform as you jump on or into them. Thus, you can make larger jumps by treating the floor like a trampoline. It’s a pretty fun physical system to interact with — it reminds me a bit of Gish, except far easier to deal with, possibly because putting the deformation into the environment instead of the player character makes it more comprehensible, easier to see exactly what’s going on.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take long to become comfortable with moving around in this world, and once you’ve done that, it kind of fades into the background for most of the game. The experience is mostly just that of artistically-stylized platformer, with themed sequences of levels arranged hub-and-spoke, each sequence exploring a new mechanic. For example, one sequence is set around an ocean, with water that bears you upward, effectively inverting gravity whenever you’re under the surface. This at least has some connection to the physics model, in that bypassing underwater obstacles can require jumping high to get enough downward momentum. But then there’s stuff like the sequence about buttons that rotate individual platforms 90 degrees. You can make interesting puzzles out of that, and the designer does. But what does it have to do with the floor being jelly?

Towards the end, though, it manages to forefront the jelly again. It does this by mixing things up. The first variant is the subtlest: a sequence of space-themed levels in lower gravity, introducing the notion that physical constants can change. It’s also in this sequence that the game starts to simulate glitching out, putting deadly pockets of screen garbage in your path. This sets up the final gauntlet, where all pretense of representationalism is dropped, and every few rooms, the world glitches out and changes the parameters of physics. At one point the floors stop bouncing back, so that every jump leaves a permanent dent. At another point, the jiggles start amplifying instead of tapering off, so that you have to keep running to outpace the terrifying instability created by your own passage. Each variation is basically an illustration of how the simulation can go wrong. For the player, they’re exercises in coping with wrong worlds. Until the very last variation, which ties the whole thing up in a satisfying manner by simply giving us a world where the floor isn’t jelly. It’s a return to normality, but moreso: the normality you return to is more normal than where you started.

I feel like I’d like the game better if it were more about the physics experiments and less about standard puzzle-platformer stuff where the floor just happens to be jelly. But I suppose there’s only so much you can do with a severely broken world.

DROD: The Neather

Despite being basically plotless, King Dugan’s Dungeon manages to anticipate the story of the sequels in its last couple of levels. Level 24’s theme is that it’s a city of monsters, or at any rate an imitation of a city with some monsters squatting in it. It’s not the city from The City Beneath, but it’s certainly a city beneath, and may even have been intended by its creator as a substitute for the real thing.

That creator is called the “Neather”. He’s essentially KDD‘s end boss, and another big part of how the game anticipates the story to come. Before the sequels, the Neather was the only human presence in the dungeon besides the player, and the only other being with the ability to trigger the orbs that open and close doors. Throughout level 25, he uses this to manipulate the environment from inaccessible control rooms, cutting off paths you want to take and letting monsters out at inconvenient moments. In other words, he’s a symbol for the game designer. This makes it seem significant that so many of the puzzles here end with the player breaking into his control area, causing him to flee to the next room. The game is basically telling you that when you’re done with everything else, your job is to take the designer’s place — and certainly a great many DROD fans have taken that to heart, producing their own Holds.

I said before that one of DROD‘s strengths is that everything, even an enemy, is potentially useful in the right circumstances. Even the Neather? Yes. There’s one room that can only be passed as a sort of team effort, as both you and the Neather take turns letting each other through a cycle of doors. I mean, it’s still fundamentally antagonistic: there’s a choice of paths within that cycle, and the Neather tries to choose paths that will prevent you from escaping the room along with him. It amounts to a two-player mini-game.

In the end, you have to kill the Neather. The puzzle content forces it, and even at the level of story, it’s arguably a necessary part of killing everything in the dungeon to fulfill Beethro’s contract with King Dugan. And it’s an uncomfortable moment, for several reasons. First, it’s clearly murder. The current version of the game muddies the distinction between murder and monster-slaying a bit by giving some of the goblins lines of dialogue, but generally speaking, you spend this game squishing mindless bugs, not people. Secondly, there’s some implication (in a post-game epilogue, although I think it might have been mentioned in the docs in earlier versions) that the Neather is actually King Dugan’s lost son, who crawled into the dungeon as an infant and was never seen again. So Dugan is unknowingly paying you to kill his own kin. Then there’s the business of Beethro’s nephew Halph, who shows up as an NPC in the sequels. Halph has an affinity for monsters: they don’t attack him, just as they don’t attack the Neather. I haven’t yet seen where they take this in The Second Sky, but there’s a strong implication that Halph is basically becoming a new Neather over the course of the next two games. If, to Beethro, Neathers are monsters, worthy only of slaughter, what does that mean for his own kin? Finally, just in case you’re not already thinking of this killing as a matter worth stopping to think about, the game goes and pops up a confirmation prompt when you try to kill the Neather. It’s not a real choice; you can’t finish the game without killing him. It just gives you pause and maybe makes you stop and look for another way, a way that involves sparing him and bringing him back to the surface with you. In which case you have to give up, tainting your victory with defeat.

DROD: Brains

To be clear, even after King Dugan’s Dungeon establishes the pattern of theme levels, not every level is a theme level. There are still a few variety levels, where each room does something completely different. But on the levels where it goes for a theme, it goes hard. I’ve just been through a very strong example of this: floor 20, where the game introduces Brains.

I’ve mentioned Brains before. Brains don’t attack you directly, but rather, make all the other monsters on the level a little smarter, giving them access to a simple pathing algorithm that tells them how to get aorund obstacles without getting stuck. Intriguingly, it seems like Brains don’t so much tell the monsters what to do as give them a better perspective on the world. Ordinarily, roaches try to get as close to you as possible, roach queens try to get as far away from you as possible, goblins try to avoid your sword and charge you from the back or side, wraithwings try to stay 5 squares away from you until they can mob you in a group. Brains change none of this. They just change how the monsters assess distance. Without a Brain, roach queens tend to get stuck in corners, where there’s only 3 empty adjacent tiles to spawn new roaches in. With a Brain, you can wind up chasing a queen around a loop if you’re not careful. Serpents seem to be a special case, or perhaps just expose a little more of the general case than the other monsters. Ordinarily, a serpent will make a beeline for you if you’re directly in line with its head horizontally or vertically, and otherwise wiggle around according to a set of rules too complicated to describe here. Add a Brain, and the serpent seems to regard you as always directly in line with its head, and will head towards you according to the same distance rules as everything else.

The main effect of Brains is to erase some of your most useful tactics. You can’t just get a pile of roaches stuck behind a wall where you don’t have to worry about them immediately. Everything that’s awake and not completely isolated knows how to find you. Instead, your movements have to be geared towards making sure you don’t have to fend off monsters from multiple directions at once. If you can get them all lined up in front of you in a hallway, it’s really no worse than normal. In fact, the Brain can make things easier at that point, by guiding all the monsters to you so you don’t have to hunt them down.

In fact, there’s one puzzle where this is completely necessary: in one part of the room, there’s a roach in a sort of labyrinth where every passable tile is a trap door. You can’t go into this labyrinth, because the trap doors would collapse behind you and you’d have no way out, and it’s set up to be impossible to lead the roach out by the normal roach movement rules. No, you just have to wait for the Brain in the room to guide it out, which means refraining from killing the Brain. It’s kind of like refraining from killing the tar mother in that room I described in my last post. Come to think of it, we can probably generalize this to a pattern: situational advantages of things normally regarded as enemies or obstacles. There’s a whole floor devoted to using goblins to kill serpents. Even the humble roach can be used as an obstacle to keep wraithwings from fleeing out of sword-range. It strikes me that one of the big strengths of the DROD ruleset is that it’s rich enough to support situations like this. Everything has some potential use.

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