Archive for August, 2007

Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld

One of the big buzzwords in the game industry lately is “episodic”. It seems to be an idea born partly from the fact that nearly all gamers, even console gamers, have internet access now, and partly from the success of MMORPGs at getting people to pay monthly fees. Why spend months or even years developing a new engine for an uncertain response, when you can make it easy for people to download new content for the same system? It’s essentially the same logic that drives sequels, although there the concern is more with building a brand than building an engine.

But episodic content doesn’t really require the internet, as New World Computing showed in 2000 when they released the Heroes Chronicles series, four narratively-linked sets of scenarios using the Heroes of Might and Magic 3 turn-based strategy engine, published on CD-ROMs and sold in stores like any other budget title of the time. This was clearly something of an experiment, and apparently not an especially successful one, as they obviously didn’t repeat it.

I personally only heard of the series after all the episodes were remaindered, at which point I picked them all up. I didn’t have Heroes of Might and Magic 3, but the Chronicles discs don’t require it. I may be missing out on some details by not having the manual, but there’s a good tutorial, and the user interface provides loads of help: nearly everything, be it a button in the control panel or a monster on the map, has both a brief description that appears in the game’s status bar when you point the mouse at it, and more detailed information available by right-clicking.

Each episode of the series seems to focus on one of the alignments/teams/whatever in the game. The first episode, Warriors of the Wasteland, tells how the series protagonist, an immortal hero named Tarnum, came to power during his mortal life, and it’s basically the story of Conan the Barbarian: your team is the high-strength/low-magic types (which is a good choice for episode 1, because that’s usually the easiest sort of thing to play), and your chief foes are the evil wizards who have conquered and enslaved your people. The most memorable part of that episode is the part where Tarnum finally reaches his homeland, intending to liberate his folk and raise them into an army to storm the final castle, only to find that they’re not in chains but happily going about their lives as if nothing were wrong. Tarnum immediately decides that anyone who has accepted the wizards’ rule is a traitor, and there follow several “battles” in which you send your assembled monster hordes to slaughter increasing numbers of hapless peasants armed with hoes. It’s one of those narrative-revealed-through-gameplay moments, and it’s in a game where the story was largely just tacked on.

That was clearly the first episode of the series, but since I bought them all at once, It was unclear to me at the time which came next. Mobygames tells me that episode 2 is Conquest of the Underworld, so I’ve started on that. The theme this time is demons. It’s a little bizarre how it works out: you start off with what I can best describe as a Lawful Good settlement, capable of producing knights and whatnot, and the first significant enemy is a rival warlord on Team Evil who’s using minor demons in combat. But once you take over his castle, you can take advantage of the structures there to raise imps and hellhounds of your own. This seems like a major part of how HOMM mechanics work: you use the resources you conquer. But when it’s presented in such a clear good-vs.-evil trappings, it smacks of Nietzche’s warnings about becoming the thing that you fight.

But then, as we know from episode 1, Tarnum is no model citizen to begin with. I’m not yet clear on how he got from where he was at the end of that scenario, Supreme Barbarian Tyrant of the World, to where he is now, undying errand-boy to the gods, but apparently there are going to be some flashbacks. Flashbacks presented in text boxes that spontaneously appear as I hit key points on the map.

1893: Conclusion

My word it’s been a while since my last real post. But never mind: after another of those all-day sessions that seems to always mark the ending of any substantial adventure game, I have completed 1893. I actually reached the endgame before finding all of the diamonds, but delayed completing it until I had them all. When the last of them was safely stored away, I was pleased to see the player character echo my own earlier thoughts:

And yet, the mystery of the elaborate scavenger hunt remains. Why steal precious diamonds only to hide them around the Exposition? Was it just a ruse, designed to keep the detectives busy while the real criminal work could continue without interruption?

Having already seen the final confrontation, I knew the real explanation: the mastermind behind the robbery was completely insane. More specifically, he had peculiar notions about art. As both an artist and the architect of the mystery, including its solution, he’s a pretty good symbol for the Game Designer in his antagonistic aspect, although I can’t say for sure on the basis of the game’s content alone that the author intended this. If he did, I’m not sure what to make of his death.

Come to that, given that this is a mystery, it’s notable that you never get the chance to arrest anyone. There are three confrontations with criminals, but in all cases, if you don’t let them escape, they wind up dead. (In one case the body isn’t found, but I’ll count him as dead-until-sequel.)

At any rate, it’s been a hoot playing in this environment, 19th century civilization in full flower. The glorious spectacle! The sense of pride, of progress, of purpose! The condescending attitude toward non-European races! Seriously, there are exhibits of “Dahomeyans” and “Esquimaux” set up so people can gawk at them like animals in a zoo. Here’s where the research behind the game really helps: if anything seems too outré or outlandish, it’s a safe bet that it was real. The endnotes reveal that even more of the content is based on fact than I expected, although of course some liberties were taken.

Another thing the game does well is encourage routine. There are a few things you want to do every morning: eat breakfast, take a bill of draft to the bank to receive your daily stipend, read the newspaper. There’s also a routine you get into whenever you find a diamond: take it to Mr. Wentworth at the Mining building to see if it’s authentic, then take it back to the Administration building and lock it in the safe. Routines like this in an adventure game can be a good thing. They give a comforting sense of familiarity in a genre that’s mainly based on throwing you into situations where you don’t know what to do, and also provide a framework for variation. When you take that hard-won diamond to Mr. Wentworth and he says it’s a fake, what do you do then? A break from routine is impossible without a routine to break from. I don’t see a lot of modern IF using this technique, but that’s probably because most modern IF consists of short works, and you really need a larger work to take advantage of this effectively.

I was less enamored of the time system. There’s a day/night cycle and a host of scheduled events that occur hourly, daily, or irregularly, all of which is fine, and helps to give a sense of a living world. But there’s also a deadline. The player character has less than a week to solve everything. So I spent much of the game trying to do things as efficiently as possible, and that combines badly with that time cycle. Sometimes the only way to make progress towards a goal was to wait for a daily event, but in the interests of efficiency I’d spend the time working on other puzzles rather than waiting, which meant that I’d be in the peculiar and slightly uncomfortable situation of knowing what I had to do but not doing it.

New server

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1893: Mystery or Treasure Hunt?

I’ve recovered three of the eight stolen diamonds and made significant progress on most of the rest. This was no simple theft: the thieves went to the length of building elaborate mechanical devices into the very architecture of the fairgrounds, a process that must have started when the fair was still in its planning stages, in order to provide hiding places that a sufficiently clever investigator could penetrate. And there’s no doubt at all that they want me to find the gems. Some of those elaborate devices are not hiding places but rather clue dispensers. Then there’s the riddle in verse that they left at the scene of the crime. And one of the thieves even talks to me through one of those new-fangled “telephone” devices on display in the Electricity building, giving measured hints on a daily basis.

All of which leads to one question: Why? Why go to all this trouble to indirectly give back everything they stole? The game has been mostly treasure-hunt so far, and the devices holding the treasures are basically a lot like the things you’d expect in a game about an Egyptian tomb. (Come to think of it, there seems to be one in a replica Egyptian tomb exhibit.) But this is a mystery — it says so on the packaging, plus I’ve found a corpse by now, and felt sundry other background rumblings of a story beyond the battle of wits with Edward Nygma’s grandfather. So what are the thieves trying to accomplish?

As I see it, the only real effect of the crime is the investigation it’s produced. It’s drawn the attention of the player character, one of the foremost detectives of his era. So that means that they either want me to pay attention to something — something that would escape the casual fairgoer, but which I’ll inevitably discover in the course of my investigations — or the whole thing is a distraction — they want my attention on the gems so it won’t be elsewhere. Or maybe it’s all some kind of weird Masonic initiation ritual. Who knows.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Pomo as All Get-Out

An essay on Metal Gear Solid 2 by James Clinton Howell has come to my attention. It’s an interesting read, but if you don’t like reading, here’s an executive summary: Many parts of MGS2 — particular characters, situations, boss battles, and so forth — are close imitations of scenes in MGS1, but altered in ways that subvert them. The hero Snake is wrenched from the player’s control and replaced with a mere Snake wannabe. Scenes from MGS1 that provided a catharsis or a sense of accomplishment are replaced with superficially similar scenes that deny these things, and confrontations that the player anticipates either never occur or are made irrelevant. Even the real climax of the game takes place offscreen while Raiden is left to fill his “role” in what he already knows to be a phony battle. All this is deliberate: the overall theme of the work concerns “the futility of culturally remembered solutions to formally similar problems”, including the player’s memory of MGS1. Not only do Hideo Kojima’s detractors miss this, but most of his defenders do as well when they fail to read the work at anything other than a literal level.

Howell makes a compelling case, and it all makes me think it would have been a good idea to replay MGS1 before starting MGS2. 1 By now, I’ve reinstalled MGS1 and played the opening for comparison’s sake. I’m struck by how the plot hinges on both sides believing that genetics, rather than training, is the key to making a superior soldier — an idea repudiated by the epilogue, in which we learn that the victorious Solid Snake is really the genetically weaker twin. It’s striking because the plot of MGS2 hinges on characters having the opposite idea: that a random nobody can become like Solid Snake by duplicating Solid Snake’s experiences. My memories of the first game are so distant by now that I caught only two clear echoes of scenes in the first game: Raiden’s aquatic approach to the plant at the beginning of his chapter, and the part where he’s captured and interrogated. But even if it were fresh in my mind, I doubt I’d have read the connections the way Howell does. It comes down to how much faith you have in the author. As another essay on the game says: “[T]here’s an all-important question. A negative answer could prove me both wrong and stupid. That question is this: Did Kojima intend to make the game this way?” Howell trusts the author almost completely, and is willing to believe that formal elements of the game are at the service of the author trying to make a point. Me, I’m a little more cynical about how big-budget game development works. If something happens that disrupts the expected experience, I don’t assume that it was done on purpose. If there are formal similarities, I tend to believe it’s because the designers didn’t want to stray too far from what worked last time, just like most videogame sequels. But even worse: my trust in the game was already pretty much gone before I even started playing. Its reputation preceded it. Even as I picked it up, I was waiting for it to fall apart in my hands.

One thing combines with Howell’s essay to restore my faith in the author somewhat: Peter Stillman, the sly reference to Paul Auster’s postmodern-noir New York Trilogy. (Wikipedia claims that there were once plans to include other character names from Auster. Putting highbrow literary allusions in a videogame may seem odd, but in fact it’s just Japanese.) When I first encountered Stillman, I wondered what the deal was, and thought that it might be connected to Auster’s reuse of names for different characters, as well as multiple names for the same character, as part of a general confusion of identity. For example, in the first story of the trilogy, City of Glass, Peter Stillman hires a detective to watch his father, also named Peter Stillman, and whenever the name is mentioned, there’s some ambiguity about which Peter Stillman is meant. Metaphorically, they can be seen as aspects of the same person. When the detective sees Peter Stillman Sr. for the first time, he actually sees two men who could be him and isn’t sure which one to follow — and has an eerie inking that either choice would turn out to be correct. Also, the detective isn’t really a detective, but rather an author of detective fiction brought into the situation by mistake, and the detective he’s mistaken for is named Paul Auster, just like the real author of the work of detective fiction he’s in. And so on. Similarly, when we first see Raiden, he’s addressed as Snake by Solid Snake’s former commanding officer and wearing a face-concealing mask, creating real confusion about who it is you’re controlling. Later, we’re told that the leader of the enemy is Solid Snake, but then find the real Solid Snake, using a pseudonym, fighting against him. But ultimately the game doesn’t do a lot with characters taking each others’ names, even though it does do a lot with characters taking on each others’ roles — a fact that actually enters the plot when the S3 project is explained.

But now, I think the Auster influence has less to do with identity confusion and more to do with the metafictional stuff, the blurring of layers. All three of the stories in the New York Trilogy are, in different ways, about fictional characters becoming aware of the stories they’re in. This is more or less what happens over the course of MGS2. Raiden never acknowledges his literal fictionality, even when Colonel Campbell throws it in his face, but he does know by the end that he’s been playing a scripted role. The player, though, gets a bigger dose of confrontation with fictionality: when the Colonel says to turn off the console, he’s not talking to Raiden, he’s talking to you. The “Fission Mailed” screen isn’t even part of gameworld, but it seems to be created by the virus infecting the Arsenal Gear mainframe all the same. The implication is that the S3 program extends outside the fiction. Raiden isn’t the one being manipulated into following a script: it’s you. If you play the game to completion, you have been successfully controlled — if not by some mysterious AI, then at least by the the author.

Anyway, at this point I’m thinking that MGS2 has one of those stories that’s more enjoyable to think about after the fact than it is to actually experience as a story. City of Glass struck me the same way.

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1. By now, I’ve reinstalled MGS1 and played the opening for comparison’s sake. I’m struck by how the plot hinges on both sides believing that genetics, rather than training, is the key to making a superior soldier — an idea repudiated by the epilogue, in which we learn that the victorious Solid Snake is really the genetically weaker twin. It’s striking because the plot of MGS2 hinges on characters having the opposite idea: that a random nobody can become like Solid Snake by duplicating Solid Snake’s experiences.

1893: The effects of size

In some ways, 1893‘s size works against it. First and most trivially, more text means more opportunity for mistakes, and greater difficulty in proofreading it all. I’ve seen “way” for “weigh”, “oxen” used as singular, one exhibitor who’s described as both male and female — nothing big, but there it is. I don’t think errors of this sort occur more frequently here than in a typical text adventure, but there are more errors simply because there’s more text.

More significantly, the profusion of nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the exhibits means that a lot of them are left unimplemented, and sometimes not even recognized as nouns for input (the difference between “That’s not important” and “I don’t recognize that word” — not that the game often resorts to messages as generic as “That’s not important”). This sort of thing may have been typical in the text adventure’s golden age, but by 2002, when this game was written, the better amateurs were holding their works to higher standards. Even here, there’s an impressive amount of irrelevant detail, but that makes it all the more disappointing in those areas where it’s lacking.

But it’s not all bad: having lots of stuff to play with makes for good gameplay. I’m finding it’s hard to feel like I’m ever stuck, even when I’m out of ideas for how to make progress in finding the diamonds and catching the thieves. Being stuck in an adventure game isn’t so much a matter of not being able to solve puzzles as it is a matter of running out of things to do, and that doesn’t happen quickly in an environment so full of curiosities and distractions. Even when I know where I’m going and what I’m going to do there, on the way I’ll suddenly find myself in the presence the world’s largest cheese, or a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge constructed entirely of soap 1 The game provides photographic evidence of the historical authenticity of both of these examples. , and have to delay my goals while I take a gander. I can’t even think of these things as red herrings, as I would in a smaller game. They’re part of the fabric of the place, and it would feel artificial if they were left out.

I wonder why there aren’t more adventure games set in exhibitions and galleries and museums and the like? It seems like a good fit to the typical adventure experience: wandering around a bunch of tableaux that don’t change until you interact with them, lots of unique objects, frequent use of the “examine” verb, etc. But I can think of only a handful of examples: The Dagger of Amon Ra, Temüjin, Ian Finley’s Exhibition, a couple of other less-familiar titles.

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1. The game provides photographic evidence of the historical authenticity of both of these examples.

1893: A World’s Fair Mystery

Almost a month ago, like everyone who purchased 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery through the Illuminated Lantern website, I got an email from the author, Peter Nepstad, asking me to take a “customer satisfaction survey” to help him decide what to focus on in the forthcoming sequel. And I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t take the survey in good faith: enthusiastic though I was about the game when I ordered it several years ago, I had not even removed it from its shrinkwrap. Why? Basically, War and Peace syndrome. This game has a reputation for being vast and sprawling, so much so that even starting it is a little intimidating. But if Mr. Nepstad wants customer feedback, who am I to deny him?

So, the basics: This is a text adventure (albeit one charmingly illustrated with authentic Victorian photographs), and Nepstad deserves a lot of credit for trying to sell works in a format that was already reputedly dead when the game was released in 2002, let alone today. It concerns the theft of eight diamonds, although the blurbs promise that kidnapping and murder will follow. And it is set in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where America celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage by showing off the achievements of its arts and industry to the whole world. Nearly 200 buildings were built for the fair, and it’s easy to believe that they’re all implemented here.

I’ve played for a few hours now, and made hardly any progress towards finding those diamonds. I have, however, followed a lengthy guided tour around the Court of Honor, listening to the guide heaping grandiloquent praise on the classical architecture and monumental statuary. There’s still a great deal to explore outside of what the tour showed, but I think it was a useful way to get grounded. It’s a little too early to talk with any certainty about how the game works overall, but I’m getting a strong impression that the recreation of the historical setting is the point of the work, and the mystery is just the means by which the author motivates you to explore it. It reminds me a bit of Cameron’s Titanic in that respect, with all that running around through all the major areas of the ship at the end, and in a different way of games such as GTA3 and Myst that create enjoyment by providing a sense of place, by giving the player somplace they can live.