Archive for April, 2009

World of Goo: Conclusion

After you reach the ending of World of Goo, there are two avenues for pursuing perfection. First, each level has an “OCD” 1“Obsessive completion distinction, according to the game. challenge associated with it — usually of the form “rescue N goo balls”, but sometimes it’s “finish in N moves” or some other variant. I managed to pass a few of the easier such challenges in the smaller levels without meaning to, but I don’t intend to make a serious effort at it. It reeks of frustration.

The other optional challenge is one I’ve mentioned before: freeform goo-tower building at the remains of the World of Goo Corporation campus. This, I spent a considerable amount of time at, both after finishing the game and during the process, mainly while progress was slow. There are in-game suggestions that there’s something to see if you build high enough, but the end cutscene seems to suggest otherwise, that no matter how high you build, you’ll still be striving at the end. At any rate, I found this challenge fairly compelling, and spent a lot of time on it when I finished the game proper.

The next day, while at work, I noticed a unexpected variant on a familiar mental phenomenon. It’s not unusual for the quick but intensive training provided by a game to cause people to see patterns from the game in real life, especially if the patterns are strong, simple patterns that one has never had a reason to notice before. Many people have reported this happening to them with Tetris, and I’ve spoken before about experiencing it with Puzzle Quest. But this was a little freakier: I started seeing the slow wobble of a large goo structure in the unmoving windows on my desktop. (Source code looked particularly unstable, because of the slanting indentations.) I don’t recall experiencing anything quite like this with any other game. Seeing patterns where they actually exist is one thing, but this was seeing illusory motion just because my mind is primed to see it, like a long, slow afterimage.

At any rate, it’s a pretty neat game. Although many of the puzzles are basically variations on building a bridge or tower, it does a good job of always approaching it in a new way. Sometimes it’s the terrain that makes it different, sometimes it’s the available goo types. New goos with different properties keep on getting introduced until very near the close of the game. There’s inflatable balloon goo that can be attached to your structure to help it resist gravity, water-droplet goo that only attaches to one vertex and hangs down (potentially forming long descending chains, if that’s what you need), highly flammable matchstick-goo — come to think of it, all it needs is an earth goo to complete the elemental tetrad. I suppose that niche is taken by the stone blocks in world 4.

The stone blocks are not goo, in that they don’t move of their own accord and you can’t attach them to a goo structure, but they have two attributes found almost exclusively in goo otherwise: you can pick them up with your mouse and reposition them, and they have eyes. Little cartoony ones. Eyes of this sort are the lazy approach to anthropomophizing: I’ve seen them applied to things as unlikely as Tetris blocks and Pong paddles, game elements that really don’t need to be anthropomorphized. And it always seems to be accompanied by incoherent chirps and squeals from the creatures made anthropomorphic. So, yeah, I’m far from a fan of this aesthetic. But then, I look at this game and I ask myself what it would be like without the eyes and the squeals, and I have to admit it would be pretty dry — it would be a lot like Bridge Builder, in fact. Perhaps 2D Boy has actually figured out how to do this style right. It remains to be seen if the secret can be articulated clearly enough to recapture it in another work.

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1. “Obsessive completion distinction, according to the game.

World of Goo: Product Z

Almost done: I’ve been through all the levels except the epilogue. The epilogue apparently has only three levels, but from what I’ve seen, they’re doozies. (The word “doozy” isn’t one I normally use, but World of Goo inspires that sort of vocabulary.)

There’s a running plot thread, communicated mainly through clickable signposts throughout the levels, about the World of Goo Corporation’s mysterious “Product Z”, which is supposed to change the world forever. It turns out to be (SPOILERS!) the Z axis: “World of Goo is now 3D!” This seemed like a really bold move: could the game really make the jump from a 2D interface to a 3D one three-quarters of the way through? It was at this point that I realized how strong my faith in the author was. I trusted this “2D Boy” (ha ha) to pull of the transition well. However, the whole thing immediately turned out to be a lie. There is no 3D, in or out of gameplay. There’s a shift to an “information superhighway” theme, with the World of Goo Corporation Headquarters (where you build your tower) temporarily turning into “My Virtual World of Goo Corporation” until you finish world 4, but unless computers are just supposed to connote 3D somehow, I don’t see why it was even mentioned. I’ll note that the next level is actually set on the ruins of a disused information superhighway, so apparently a lot of time passes between worlds 3 and 4. Maybe the entire 3D era came and went between levels — a commentary on the fate of big-studio games?

Also, the whole computer-themed world passes by without making any puns on “GUI”. I can’t decide if this is a wasted opportunity or a sign of an admirable sense of restraint. Thinking about the other jokes the signposts crack, though, I don’t think I can really believe the latter.

World of Goo vs. Braid

Over at rockpapershotgun.com, there’s a spirited dicussion of the recent PC release of Braid which turned in parts into an argument about whether or not it’s a better game then World of Goo. There is of course no real reason why a player has to pick one over the other — you can play both, for goodness sakes! — but they both occupy the “indie puzzle game” niche and were released in the same year, which means that they were up for the same awards. The Rock, Paper, Shotgun staff itself has been been a hotbed of pro-goo sentiment since before its release, periodically bringing it up in reviews of other games in an offhand “why can’t they all be this good” way.

My own feeling is that Braid is more compelling. I mean that in a simple and objectively-measurable way: Braid inspired me to keep playing until I was finished, while my WoG sessions have been relatively short. Whether that makes it a better game is a matter of opinion. It may just mean it’s an overall shorter game, and the prospect of imminent completion is enough to keep me going. (Compare my recent lack of progress on the other two games I’m in the middle of: both are JRPGs, the canonical weeks-of-padding genre.)

Beyond that, it should be noted that the two games are trying to produce different experiences. Braid aims to be thoughtful and sad, with touches of the uncanny. “Here’s a piece of your childhood”, it says to the player, “only now it’s grown up and disillusioned.” WoG‘s ambitions are in a wackier direction, with over-the-top dark humor: its message to the player is more like “Oh no! The cute little goo balls are being SOLD AS FOOD!” Braid‘s art is impressionist-influenced watercolors; WoG‘s is cartoony ink sketches with a sort of Tim Burton/Dr. Seuss look. Braid‘s music is heavily cello-oriented (even some of the bits that don’t sound like cello are cello); WoG kicks off with a polka. So to some extent, it’s a matter of taste here, of which of these two styles you prefer.

There’s one really major difference in the philosophy of the gameplay design: Braid‘s puzzles have more definite solutions than those in WoG. That is, Braid‘s puzzle-solving primarily involves leaps of intuition — what the DROD community calls “lynchpins” — whereas the WoG puzzles are more about execution: most of the time, you know what you have to do, you just have to create a structure capable of doing it. Any such structure will do, as long as it works. By contrast, alternate solutions in Braid tend to be just slight variations based on the same insight. Again, some like the one, some like the other. I’ve waxed rhapsodic before about the “moment of realization”, and how it’s one of my main sources of enjoyment in games. But puzzles based on that sensation are ones where the player gets stuck, with no idea how to proceed, until they have the crucial insight. And some people really don’t like that.

World of Goo

And while we’re on well-regarded indie puzzle games, I might as well pull this one out. 2D Boy’s World of Goo has gotten enough good press that I didn’t hesitate to purchase it off Steam a few weeks ago when it was on sale, but didn’t have the time to start it. That’s happening a lot lately. Every weekend, Steam puts a large and temporary discount on one or more games, and it’s going to be the ruin of my attempts to reduce the Stack.

My first impression of the game is that it’s Bridge Builder crossed with Gish. Which is unfortunate, because those are both obscure enough titles that I’m going to have to explain them now. Bridge Builder (and its sequel Pontifex) is exactly what it sounds like: a heavily physics-based game in which you have to design river-spanning bridges that don’t collapse under their own weight under various physical and budgetary constraints. Gish, which is on the Stack still, is a gothy 2D platformer about a sentient blob of tar. Coincidentally (and somewhat oddly), these two games were made by the same team. Or perhaps it’s not coincidence: I’ve detected what may be shout-outs to Bridge Builder in WoG‘s first world, suggesting that 2D Boy is a fan of theirs, or at least aware of them.

But to this a third influence must be added: Lemmings, with its chirruping doomed wee creatures that need your help to escape. The goal in each level of WoG is to help the roaming goo balls to reach an outflow pipe, usually by building a bridge to it out of their living bodies, which are most easily connected in triangular grids. Some species of goo can be detached and reused, others are effectively killed the moment you join them to your expanding structure. All survivors are sent to a special area with a competitive metagoal: build as tall a tower as you can, while clouds representing the tower-heights of other players on the net loom tauntingly overhead.

Even though I’m still in the lower ranks hieght-wise, I’m finding it gratifying to look at the details on those clouds and snicker at how much less efficient they are than mine — “He has twice as many pieces as me, and he’s only just a little way above me!” I only wish I could see their structures, rather than just their stats, because I’m curious about how other people are building their structures. (I suppose I should try Google. People must be posting screenshots.) My own best efforts are Eiffel-Tower-like: I start by making as large and as regular a triangle as I can, then when it’s thick enough, I start mining out the middle bits that aren’t needed for support any more, and put them up top. The broadness of the base, even when it’s reduced to a pair of legs, tends to minimize the structure’s wobble.

And yet it still wobbles. Wobbling is pretty much the point of goo; the whole game is built around what’s been called “jell-o physics”. For this reason, screenshots really don’t communicate the gameplay very well. You can look a picture of a nice slim tower and not realize that it’s swaying back and forth with an arc larger than the screen.

Braid

In a some ways, Braid is 2008’s Portal. Like Portal, it’s a puzzle-platformer that’s a critical hit despite being completable in a matter of a few hours (and despite being a puzzle game, for that matter), but in both cases, this is because there’s so little repetition and filler. Also like Portal, it’s a game based around grasping the unintuitive consequences of one simple idea. In Braid, that idea is control of time.

In other words, it’s the same underlying concept as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But PoP:TSoT was an action game, and thus had a reason to limit the use of time-control capabilities, lest it make the action too easy. Braid is a puzzle game, and lets you rewind as much as you want. Ironically, this means that Braid can contain action sequences far more intense than any you find in PoP. There are bits toward the end where I was constantly doing fractional-second rewinds in order to get things just right. It’s crazy how fast you get used to that. But when you think about it, playing a conventional action game also involves frequent irregularities in the flow of game-time, in the form of quickloads and reversions to save points, and the player usually isn’t bothered by this. The difference here is just a matter of degree.

Mind you, PoP‘s rewind system wasn’t very well-suited for puzzles: it let you go back in time and change stuff, but only in the simplest and most consequence-free way. To make puzzles, you need variations on the theme. The first and simplest variation in Braid is that some objects aren’t affected by your rewinding, and keep on moving forward. The freakiest variation — and my favorite — is the series of levels where the flow of time for everything other than the player character is a function of your position: move rightward and time advances, move leftward and it rewinds. Notably, this really throws a monkey wrench into the ingrained habits of 2D platforming. You can’t just stand there and wait for things to get into the right position for you, and in particular, if something is in your way, you can’t wait for it to move. It won’t move until you do.

If you take away the temporal weirdification, it’s a 2D platformer with mechanics that greatly resemble Super Mario Brothers, and the game runs with that, giving us monsters blatantly modeled on goombas and piranha plants, a princess who’s eternally “in another castle”, and so forth. SMB references seem to have become to indie games what Winsor McCay references are to indie cartoons: a way for the artist to establish cred by showing an appreciation for the true classics of the medium or whatever. Braid plays around with the princess premise in its between-levels text, first making it mundane, portraying (the player character) Tim’s pursuit of the Princess as occurring in the aftermath of a failed relationship with her, but then after a while turning it into something more abstract. The Princess is the eternal and non-specific object-of-pursuit, the thing which will make everything better once you find it, and which you therefore take terrible risks to discover, despite the uncertainty of your success. (In the epilogue, this is linked to science, and the development of the atom bomb, leading some to conclude that Tim is a nuclear physicist and the whole game is his guilt trip about his work on the Manhattan project. But I think that’s an over-literal reading of one example, among many presented, of where the generalized pursuit of Princesses leads.) The strangest part is that there’s a point where the stories of the mundane and eternal princesses overlap, where Tim leaves his significant other because he feels driven to go and find the Princess. Some have interpreted this as simply indicating that the woman he leaves here isn’t the one referred to earlier as the Princess, but I think the idea that he leaves her in order to find her fits well with the time wackiness. Sometimes Tim does things backwards.

And besides, the whole thing is driven by dream logic. The text is very clear that Tim is confused and his memories are blurred (as you might expect from someone who keeps changing his own past). The backgrounds are blurry in an impressionistic way (which makes the parallax scrolling look really nice for some reason). The level-selection areas are clouds, for crying out loud. Apparently there’s been something of a backlash against the pretentiousness and vagueness of the story, but I think that’s taking it all too literally. Some people seem to resent what they see as the author forcing the audience to make up the story when that’s clearly the author’s job. But I don’t feel like I’m being forced to do any such thing, because this is not a story-driven game. The story fragments are there as a frame, and do a nice job of providing things for the gameplay elements to be metaphors for, but it’s clear that the game came first and the metaphors were chosen to fit it. The big exception is the final level, where the gameplay comes to comment on the story quite directly, turning the rescue its head. Well, we’re told in the very beginning that the Princess’ captivity is Tim’s fault, the result of a mistake that he spends the entire game trying to go back and correct.

Chrono Trigger: Time Travel

Even before you even begin playing, it’s clear that Chrono Trigger‘s chief distinguishing attribute is time travel. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even the hero is named Crono. But as distinguishing attributes go, it’s not really very distinguishing. Time travel has been present to varying degrees in CRPGs basically since their inception. The ending of Ultima 1 sends the player back in time to kill the immortal villain Mondain before he became immortal, and possibly even before he became a villain. Final Fantasy 1 did something similar, sending the heroes back in time at the end to prevent the events of the game, leaving them in an explicitly paradoxical situation in the end, the only people in the world with any memory of what happened. (The Ultima games, despite having more continuity than Final Fantasy, never address the matter of why everyone seems to remember Mondain’s reign even after you wipe it from history.)

And that’s just the start of it. Time travel is a real cliché in games, and more often than not serves as nothing more than window dressing, an excuse to put the player through diverse environments with varying levels of technology. (Consider Time Commando. Heck, consider Time Pilot.) But some games — adventures in particular — use it as a basis for puzzles. I’ve gone into some detail about this before. There are two basic variants: games where you have to clean up paradoxes by removing modifications to the past, and games where you have to deliberately introduce modifications in order to make a better future.

It strikes me that Chrono Trigger is a little unusual for adopting all of these approaches at once. When you think about it, the games that are greatly concerned with the effects of modifying the past, pro or con, seldom take much advantage of exploring the eons. Instead, you get things like Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where you can only shuttle back and forth between two time periods that are both within the protagonist’s natural lifespan, or Infocom’s Sorcerer, where the memorable paradox-avoidance puzzle involves traveling back in time a matter of only minutes. But Chrono Trigger has the time-travel-as-window-dressing aspect, with scenes ranging from cavemen-and-dinosaurs-coexisting prehistory to the post-apocalyptic future, and it also has player actions in journeys to the past affecting the future. Moreover, it has both paradox-avoidance — one of the companions accidentally puts an ancestor of hers in danger and starts to fade away like Marty McFly — and deliberate alterations — such as the attempt to prevent the summoning of Lavos, or an apparently optional trick I’ve found to turn a money-grubbing mayor, hated by even his own children, into a warm-hearted philanthropist by intervening in his family history.

The only other time-travel games I can think of offhand with this kind of range are heavy-duty historical works, like Timequest and to some extent Jigsaw. But Chrono Trigger couldn’t be farther from such things in tone. It’s a cartoon of a game, a fantasy of a cartoon. It laughs at historical accuracy.

Chrono Trigger: Communication

My last session, which mainly focussed on obtaining and repairing the broken Masamune sword, ran into two opposite extremes of iffy game design. First, the highly linear intro section came to an end, leaving me with more or less complete freedom to explore and little guidance about what to do next. I don’t mean that there was no guidance whatsoever, but you had to actively seek it out by talking to NPCs, unlike the earlier sections. I talked to enough random NPCs to form an idea of where I was supposed to be doing, but some of the Vintage Game Club participants had more trouble. Some veered off course entirely, wandering into eras other than the one that advances the plot at that point. (I myself paid a premature visit to 65000000 BC, but that was out of curiosity, not confusion.) Others skipped ahead in the story, going to newly-available spots on the map just because they were newly available, not knowing why they were supposed to go there.

Such are the perils of allowing the player freedom when you don’t really want them to have it. Perhaps this is why it was immediately followed by the opposite approach: extreme gating. “Gating” refers to the techniques game designers use to keep the plot in order: preventing the player from leaving an area until they’ve made a particular discovery, for example, or leaving out dialog options for an NPC until it’s time for the events they trigger. In its most benign forms, you don’t even notice it happening. In the worst case, the player attempts something that isn’t supposed to happen yet and is frustrated in the attempt without knowing why. This happened when I brought the broken Masamune blade to the game’s master weaponsmith, only to find a note indicating that he was out of town, and also when I visited the sometime-PC known as Frog in his froggy den, hoping to get him back into the party, and his only response was to bemoan his unworthiness in painfully bad pseudo-archaic dialect (“Thee hath returned?”).

These problems are symptoms of opposing design philosophies, one favoring player freedom over narrative, the other favoring narrative over player freedom. So it’s a little strange to see them together in the same chapter. If a game is going to have one of these problems, I think I prefer it to have the too-much-freedom one — but then, I would, since I didn’t have serious problems with it this time round. In general, though, it’s probably a bad idea to regard it as a choice between the two. The real underlying problem in both cases is communication — that the author’s intentions are unclear to the player. It’s possible to overcommunicate, to make the player feel like you’re treating them like an idiot by assuming they can’t figure anything out. But in general, that’s a less deadly problem than undercommunication.

Chrono Trigger: Mass Destruction

Having now been through scenarios past and future, I reach what seems to be a sort of time-travel hub. Described as “the end of time”, it’s your basic stone platform in an inky void, with a mysterious elderly guardian-of-the-balance type on hand to explain things. There are a few permanent time portals there, including one back to the present. (That is, the time period in which the game starts. To some of the player characters, it’s the past or the future.) But it doesn’t go to the same geographical location that you started in. It goes to Monstertown.

That’s not its real name. It’s just a more descriptive name than the real one, which I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, it’s the place where an evil wizard tried to take over the world 400 years ago, and it’s still inhabited by the descendants of his minions, who still bear a grudge against all humans for defeating him. Not an attack-on-sight sort of grudge like most monsters, just a seething prejudice and an active project to eventually summon a Godzilla-like lava monster to lay waste to all human civilization. And when I say “Godzilla-like”, I mean it’s an obvious metaphor for nuclear weapons. The future you visit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with starving survivors huddling in shelters and mutants in the ruins outside, and it was Lavos who made it that way. The present seems to be in a state of cold war.

It seems to me that East and West have different trends when it comes to post-apocalyptic scenarios. Japan is the only nation on Earth to be the target of a nuclear attack, and understandably has never forgotten it. America is the only nation to have launched a nuclear attack, and has done its level best to forget. Thus, in American games with post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Wasteland and the Fallout series, the details and origins of the conflict tend to be either lost to history or just not particularly relevant to the story — the world has moved on and developed new bad guys from the chaos following the war, and thus has more important things to worry about than who nuked who. Japanese games, on the other hand, are generally very clear that whoever activated the doomsday device is the story’s villain. We see this most clearly in the Final Fantasy games, where, as I’ve noted before, the world tends to get destroyed at the end of the first half. In FF5 and FF6, even after the world is shattered, the villains continue to target individual cities for destruction with city-destroying weapons.