Archive for May, 2007

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented by a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other han tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

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1. The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.

Myst V: Framerate Woes

Myst V: End of Ages has been sitting on the stack waiting to be played for a few days now while I finished up Rhem. There’s some kind of be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing going on here. In my first post on Rhem, I wondered if it would be better with a 3D graphics engine. Myst V has such an engine, and it’s causing me no end of grief. I just can’t seem to sustain a playable framerate, even when I turn all the graphics settings down to minimum. A session might start at about 20 FPS 1 All framerate figures here were obtained using FRAPS. (not great, but something I can get used to), but it always gradually decays to an inevitable plateau of 6-7 FPS, even if I return to the location where I was getting the 20 FPS initially.

My machine exceeds the game’s minimum requirements in every respect, and the Ubisoft forums show that people with less powerful systems than mine have gotten it to run smoothly without problems. But I’ve gone through the measures prescribed by tech support, and nothing helps. I’m starting to wonder if I turned off some driver setting in order make an older game run and forgot to turn it on again, but I can’t find any trace of such a thing.

Anyway, I’m shelving it for now. Maybe some ideas about how to get it running smoothly will turn up.

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1. All framerate figures here were obtained using FRAPS.

Rhem: The Rest

rhem-notes>My previous Rhem sessions, taken all together, cover a minority of the game. I have just completed the rest in a single marathon session. People who do cryptograms are familiar with the moment when the code “breaks” and suddenly you’re discovering new leads faster than you can follow up on them. Rhem and other nonlinear puzzle-based adventure games have a similar tipping point. Not entirely for the same reason: here, it’s more do do with eliminating clues than finding new ones. But both forms share the property that the more you understand, the easier it is to understand more.

The chief reason for this in adventure games is that the more you see of a game, the better you understand how the author thinks. There are a few basic organizing principles in Rhem that, once grasped, make the whole game easier to think about. One is the overall structure of the map: there’s a large central area, with various drawbridges and rotating platforms and the like to make it difficult to get around, and there are various mostly-self-contained peripheral areas hanging off of it. The fact that the peripheral areas aren’t entirely self-contained, coupled with the lack of an obvious boundary between them and the central area, obscures this structure. But recognizing it is useful, not just for navigation, but because it lets you make certain assumptions — for example, that actions performed in the central area won’t affect things in the periphery. This assumption isn’t always true, but whenever there’s an exception, there’s some kind of clue indicating it.

Another very big part of the author’s style is heavy use of the close-the-door-behind-you puzzle. This is one of the basic puzzles of the Myst-like genre, because it’s one of the few puzzles, other than combination-lock variants, that you can do with a one-click interface and no inventory. 1 Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame. Here’s how it goes: A room is initially reached through a door that can be only opened and closed from the outside (typically because it’s button-operated). The contents of the room directly or indirectly grant access to an alternate route into that room. The trick is that closing the door alters the room in some desirable way — maybe there’s something written on the back of the door, maybe there’s a passageway that’s concealed by the door when it’s open, whatever. So you have to close the door from the outside, which players won’t normally do, and enter through the alternate route. Understand that I mean these words in an abstract and general way: the “room” can be a hallway or even outdoors, as long as access to it is limited, and the the “door” might be a ladder or a drawbridge or something, as long as it has two positions, one passable and one impassible, and no immediately obvious reason to return it to the impassible position. I think every single game in the Myst series uses this puzzle at some point, but Rhem really exploits it for all it’s worth, dressing it up in all kinds of guises and daisy-chaining instances of it in loops where one room’s door is another room’s alternate route. After my first session, I wrote that the game’s layout was hard to grasp, even with a map. By the end, I had pretty much internalized it, due to repeatedly running through that central area in order to get to the other side of closed doors.

In the course of solving this game, in addition to the notations on my map, I covered most of one side of a standard sheet of paper with notes that will be incomprehensible to me in a month or two. Zarf’s review mentions taking six pages of notes, which I suppose shows different habits: his notes may be more verbose, and he probably wrote things down that I didn’t. In cases where I discovered information and already knew where it was to be used, I often just temporarily committed it to memory. Consquently, the bulk of my notes were taken in the beginning, when I didn’t yet understand anything. But also, in many cases I circumvented note-taking by taking screenshots. This isn’t something I often do in adventure games, but Rhem pretty much asked for it: several points showed complicated screenfulls of data that I didn’t yet know how to filter into something simple to copy down. And, being old and written in Macromedia Director, the game switches to the background quickly and without hassle, making it easy to switch to an image viewer whenever I wanted to check on stuff. My map is based around two screenshots of partial maps found in the game, assembled in an image editor and printed out so I could write on it.

Anyway, I have to agree with what pretty much every review of Rhem says: it’s great stuff, if you like this sort of thing. It’s all a big complicated system made of rusty piping and cinderblocks, and the joy of the game is in coming to understand that system.

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1. Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame.

Rhem: Room of Mystery

rhem-photoI seem to have solved Rhem’s second major puzzle, and in so doing gained access to the first hint of what passes for a plot in this game. (By which I mean, an excuse to assign new player objectives: I’ve been offered help escaping Rhem in exchange for finding four parts of a discarded letter.)

More importantly, the same area seems to be the motherlode of cryptic hints. A machine labeled “SIMULATION” displays shapes, which change into other shapes at the press of a button. Another machine with a keypad dispenses sheets of paper with rows of pixellated runes, some labeled with numbers. Even a portrait of two young boys seems like it’s hiding a message, if only I knew how to begin interpreting the colors. Some of this is clearly connected to things I’ve seen before, although the nature of the connection is obscure. It’s all in one small room, not like the large explorable areas outside.

The thing is, I may well be laughing at this a day or two from now, after I discover the real cryptic hint motherlode. Every time I sit down to play this game, I make substantial progress in figuring things out, but still wind up with more mysteries than I started with.

Rhem: Induction

rhem-controlsI think I’ve gotten just up to where I stopped playing Rhem the first time. My last major accomplishment was setting everything up correctly in a control center for a system of pipes, allowing water to flow where I needed it in order to gain passage to the second major section of the game. Getting the right settings involves piecing together information from four other places, information partly in the form of unexplained symbols whose meaning and significance has to be derived from context.

For my money, this kind of inductive reasoning is the essence of the genre (both adventure games in general and Myst clones in particular). And it stands in contrast to the sort of reasoning needed in DROD and other rules-based puzzle games. In those, you pretty much have complete information about how all the elements work. The challenge is to figure out the consequences of what you know. It’s very mathematical. Rhem, on the other hand, is scientific: you start with incomplete information, and have to notice patterns in order to figure out how to complete it. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be reading uncommented source code: all the symbols were presumably meaningful to whoever made them. Heck, it’s not all that different from the ad-hoc notation I’ve been using to take notes while playing the game. There are certain fixtures repeated throughout the map, comprising seven buttons arranged around a screen; press the right buttons in the right order, and you get what I can only assume is a clue for a puzzle I haven’t encountered yet. When I encounter one, I note it on the map with a special glyph, a simplified representation of its shape. I could imagine someone else finding my map and being as puzzled by these symbols as I am by the symbols in the game.

Rhem

rhem-stairsWhen I said yesterday that I wanted something more thinky, what I was planning to do was pick up a copy of Myst V: End of Ages at one of the various retailers I pass on the way home from work. But it turns out that it’s no longer on store shelves (although, for some reason, Uru: The Path of the Shell is.) I have already made other arrangements to acquire it: as a completist, I definitely want to finish the Myst series sometime, even though the series seems to have peaked at Riven. But in the short term, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing: a blatant Myst imitation. Fortunately, I have several.

Rhem is one of the better ones, and in some respects utilizes the form better than any of the actual Myst games. Andrew Plotkin’s review does a good job of explaining this. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have anything significant to add to what he says. I will note, however, that while his review talks at some length about three CDs and overcoming the need to swap disks, the game was later re-released on a single CD, apparently the result of better video compression. This is the edition I’m playing.

My history with Rhem is typical of my experience of graphic adentures. I started it, got a good way into it, got stuck, got distracted, and set it aside to finish later. Well, this is not a game that you can just abandon for a week and remember enough of to keep playing. Some time later, after some system upgrades, I tried to play it again, but hit strange technical problems. The publisher’s tech support was unable to help me, as is usually the case with games more than a year or two old. Whatever the problem was, subsequent upgrades seem to have fixed it. (I love it when that happens.) I have of course forgotten most of the game, but I have a vague recollection of what I did before that makes it a little easier to figure out what to do.

Faded familiarity does not, however, make the map easier to navigate. Talk about twisty passages — Rhem is made largely of catwalks and stairways that cross over and under each other a lot, ruining my sense of where I have and have not been already. The game provides a partial map at one point, and I’m relying on that a lot, when I can figure out where I am on it. Annotating the map with the locations of stairs helps a lot. I may wind up making a simpler map that only notes junctions, once I have a better handle on the layout. As much as the author has tried to ease navigation within the framework of a Macromedia Director adventure game, I really think this aspect of the game might be served better by a full 3D engine, where continuity of motion would make it easier to keep track of which peripheral objects are which. Or maybe not: it would slow down movement, now handled by swift mouse clicks. Besides, it’s not like the author had the time or the budget to develop such a thing. This is another of those indy efforts, sold at first exclusively through the author’s website, and I’m glad that he chose to devote his efforts towards a game rather than a new engine. But the point is, Rhem is conceived as a continuous three-dimensional object, and understanding how that object is put together is crucial to figuring out the game. I made comments to this effect about The Neverhood, but it’s even more true here.

SS2E: Babylon

Levels 6 through 9 of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter are set in ancient Babylon, which is presented as pretty much like Central America with minarets. (Which aren’t historically appropriate, but this really isn’t the kind of game where you complain about that sort of thing.) The gameplay is basically more of the same, including hunting up weapons afresh, as they were all lost at the end of level 5. The sniper rifle becomes available early this time round, and it’s a good thing: there’s one part involving a cluster of buildings in the middle of a vast expanse, and I’ve found that the easiest way to approach it is to go off into that expanse and pick off the monsters from a long, long way away.

I’m most of the way through level 6 right now, but will probably put off playing more until later. I do want to finish the game, but it’s a bad follow-up to DROD. Both games involve repeatedly dying and reverting to your last save, but when you fail in DROD, you rethink your approach, whereas in an action game like Serious Sam, usually all you can do is try the same thing again and hope you can dodge that missile this time. There is a tactical element to Serious Sam, but it’s not all that deep. Just now, I require something more thinky and less shooty.

DROD: Summing Up

drod-secretI have completed DROD: The City Beneath, seen the final revelation at Lowest Point, and learned the secret handshake, and am currently in the process of hunting down the secrets I missed (which is easier after you’ve won, because the game then tells you how many secrets there are on each level). This will probably be my last post dedicated to this game, so let me end in what seems to have become my customary way, by iterating through a list of unrelated points that I didn’t get around to making full posts about.

First, I wasn’t kidding about that secret handshake. When you finish the game, it gives you a little ritual you can use to identify other people who have finished it. This is kind of fun: it gives a sense that I’ve passed an initiation trial and am now a member of an elite brotherhood. The last time I got this feeling from a game was when I finished the special Grandmaster ending to Wizardry IV, and sent off for the special certificate available only to Grandmasters.

Second, I think the demo is misleading. The demo consists of the first few sections of the full game, which has a large amount of introductory material and a proportionately small amount of puzzle-solving. Since there’s no hard division between cutscene and gameplay in this game — there is a division, but it’s rather soft and permeable — this has led some people to think that this is representative of the entire game. Well, there are occasional scripted scenes throughout the game, but the first section of the City is the only area dedicated mostly to wandering around, looking at stuff, and gathering information without solving puzzles.

Third, I know I’ve already devoted a post to the improvements that TCB makes to the DROD user interface, but there are two things I haven’t mentioned that really deserve a nod. One is the “battle key”, which is one of those little things that, once you’ve tried it, you can’t imagine doing without. It’s a key (numpad + by default, although you can reconfigure that) which, when pressed, does the opposite of your previous move. That is, if your last move was to swing left, it swings right; if it was to move north, it moves south. Pressing it repeatedly alternates between two opposites — for example, swinging left, right, left, right, etc. This is exactly the sort of action you need to clear out a large number of roaches that have accumulated while your attention was elsewhere. In previous versions of the engine, you had to twiddle two keys to do this, and it was easy to miss a beat and get killed. It’s a little thing, but good UI design is built out of little things.

My other favorite new feature is the ability to right-click on any tile to identify what’s on it. This is especially useful when hunting for secret rooms. Nearly all secrets are hidden by breakable walls that look almost like the walls around them. While it’s possible to spot these by scrutinizing the graphics, I find I’m often unsure in my assessment. Sometimes it’s easy to just walk over and give the wall a poke to test it, but sometimes the uncertain spot is only reachable by, say, clearing the room of tarstuff in order to make a gate open. It’s good to know in advance if it’ll be worth the effort.

Finally, let me talk about the story a little. Beethro starts the game in search of two things: his nephew Halph, and answers. He finds Halph about halfway through the game, for all the good it does him. Answers are less forthcoming: despite the fact that the Rooted Empire’s explicit goal is knowledge, no one actually knows anything. Knowledge is valued as a treasure to be stored away in the stacks, where it sits and decays unregarded. Citizens are vat-grown for specific jobs, and, with the exception of a few rebellious individuals who help Beethro on his way, show little curiosity about anything beyond the tasks assigned them from higher up — or rather, lower down, as the seat of the Empire is at Lowest Point. Meanwhile, it becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that the entire system of the Empire is insane, not controlled by anything intelligent, held together only by paranoia and a willingness to not question it. As the Journey to Rooted Hold theme song put it, “Outside the walls, there wait our foes… Let each not speak that which he knows”.

In one respect, this makes Beethro’s quest futile: if the Empire is simply irrational, there can be no explanation of why it does what it does. There may be comprehensible motives for individual factions, such as the Archivists (who want complete knowledge) and the Patrons (I have no idea what they’re doing, much less why, but they seem to be opposed to the Archivists). But for the Empire as a whole, there is no reason why. So we’ll have to be satisfied with understanding how. How it all got to be this way. How it was before. The end of the game provides a very big clue (which I won’t spoil, except to note that it reminded me of something in one of the Ultima games), but we’ll have to wait for the next game to get the full story. And that’ll be several years from now. According to the end credits, the authors are going to take a break from DROD and do some other game next.

To look at him, Beethro is a lunk with a sword. But his is a world where battles are puzzles. He’s plain-spoken, even anti-intellectual at times, with no patience for the snobbery of the Empire. But when all is said and done, he’s the only person in the Empire with any inkling of what’s really going on. Which makes him a better seeker of knowledge than any of them.

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