Archive for November, 2009

Penumbra: End of the Overture

Penumbra: Overture ends inconclusively, which I suppose is its right, as the start of a series. There are certainly loathsome things in the depths — there are a couple of harrowing chase scenes involving gigantic annelids that remind me of D&D‘s Purple Worms — but the one character who talks to you is convinced that there’s something worse beyond the sealed door at the game’s very end.

penumbra-furnaceAbout that one NPC: He calls himself “Red”, and you never meet him directly; the closest you ever get to him is the other side of an unopenable door. He communicates with you by radio (don’t ask me how that works in a mine). He’s been trapped in the mine for a long time, and has gone quite mad, and talks very oddly 1At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!” and is apparently a cannibal as well, if his stilted rantings are to be believed. But he talks as if he expects you to come meet him (despite the obvious danger), and his messages provide you with cryptic guidance through most of the game. And in the end, you kill him. Or he uses you to kill himself — he admits that he really guided you to him for that specific purpose, because the entities that share his head won’t let him do the deed himself. He’s locked himself in an incinerator, along with a key you need to open that final door, the one he desperately wants to remain closed. And it’s a peculiar moment, one of those uncomfortable places where you hesitate to go where the game is leading you. The floor of the room is littered with crude planking crosses — one of the writeups at Gamefaqs sees this as evidence that Red is a vampire, but that interpretation strikes me as bizarre and out-of-place; more likely it’s intended as a somewhat confusing comparison of Christ’s self-sacrifice to Red’s suicide-by-proxy, implicitly casting the player in the role of Judas. There’s definitely a sense of agency about turning the furnace on — you can choose to just poke around avoiding the issue for long as you want, but the consequence of not doing it is that you can’t finish the game and get stuck there forever in the bottom of the mine, just like Red, which presumably means you have a lifetime of eating rats and losing your mind to look forward to. So I make the unpleasant choice.

There’s one more slight detour before you can get through that final game-ending door, and that’s going into Red’s living quarters. You get to see how this unfortunate man lived, and the things he surrounded himself with, and suddenly the dominant emotion isn’t fear but sadness. A letter reveals that he’s been trapped for 30 years, since the age of 14. And that, for me, is the emotional climax of the game. Actually going through the forbidden door and getting jumped in the dark by persons unknown is denouement.

And that’s probably where I’ll leave it for a while. Near the end, I started having those graphics card issues I’ve been having lately. Taking the system apart and blowing the dust out seems like it might have helped me get through the ending, but I want to do a fuller investigation before I start any more graphically-intensive titles.

   [ + ]

1. At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!”

Penumbra: Overture

When I lived within easy walking distance of a good art theatre, I used to go to a lot of movies that I had never heard of. There was something enjoyable about coming into the experience with no expectations beyond the title. It was in something of this spirit that I bought the Penumbra series when Steam put it on sale a few months ago. They were billed as horror adventure games, and seemed to have gotten pretty good reviews, and that’s about all I knew — and, since people who categorize games often have only a vague notion of what the adventure genre is 1For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation. , even that much was uncertain. From the title, I vaguely expected something sci-fi — “penumbra” connotes eclipses to me, which suggests a plot involving orbital mechanics, but I suppose to another person it would connote constitutional law, and that person would be as wrong as me. The setting of the first game is an abandoned mine in the cold wastes of northern Greenland, where the people apparently dug too greedily and too deep, and awoke something ancient and terrible in the darkness, as tends to happen in mines in games. 2I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

It turns out to be a blend of adventure, survival horror, and stealth game, all done from a first-person perspective with the familiar FPS-style control scheme. (It was quite pleasant trying the standard keys and seeing that they all worked. Can I run? Yes! OK, can I crouch? Yes! Oh, man, I can even lean!) Stealth and horror are such a natural fit that it’s surprising that they’re not explicitly blended more often. After all, given the presence of a horrible monster, what’s more natural than hiding from it? One of my big complaints about the Resident Evil style of game is that fighting monsters and winning tends to weaken the sense of fear. And it had something of that effect here, once I realized that the most common monsters can actually be fought. (There are no guns, but a hammer or a pickaxe can be used as a melee weapon.) Still, fighting is extraordinarily risky, due in part to the awkwardness of the weapon-swinging interface, so stealth is your best bet most of the time. Monster dogs of some sort (rabid? demonic? zombie?) prowl the mines; if you crouch in the darkness without moving for a second or so, your view stretches out and turns blue, simultaneously signaling that you’re safe from canine eyes and putting an unnatural cast to the experience. The best part is that hiding makes the player character anxious: if you look directly at a dog, you start to shake and can give away your location. This is a brilliant touch. Scary stuff is often scariest when merely glimpsed, and here the player is given a game-mechanical motivation to choose mere glimpsing.

The monster-avoidance parts have a certain amount of adventure-game-like content, but not more than is typical for a survival horror. It’s in the isolated safe places that the adventure content really comes to the fore and the game turns into a self-contained puzzle scenario. It’s also in these sections that the game seems least like a horror story. It’s all about repairing machinery and improvising explosives and other such hard-headed masculine activities. Much of it is physics-based, too, with things you can stack on top of each other or throw onto ledges or whatever. Inventory items are typically applied in point-and-click fashion, but most items don’t go into your inventory at all, and instead have to be dragged around with the mouse cursor. Sometimes this can be difficult; I’ve had a terrible time trying to turn valve handles this way. Still, I find it satisfying to see adventure content in a full-freedom-of-movement first-person system, a combination that hasn’t been done enough for my liking.

The overall structure so far seems to be a linear sequence of hub areas made of dog-infested corridors, each of which has several adventure-game rooms on its periphery. Backtracking is made impossible by frequent cave-ins. I could make sarcastic comments about that, but I actually think the cave-ins are presented really well. Especially the cloud of dust that they raise. I can practically smell the dust clouds in this game.

   [ + ]

1. For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation.
2. I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

New Failures

Games on Steam that I’ve tried and failed to play in the last 24 hours:

Majesty 2: Sequel to a game that I quite liked. Steam had it on sale for $10, so I picked it up. Before I was done with the tutorial, it triggered the spontaneous-shut-off problem that I first observed in Team Fortress 2. This has happened in a few other graphically-intensive games lately.

Audiosurf: Included in that Steam indie sale pack that I’ve played most of by now. (Mr. Robot was in the same pack.) Launching it with Steam already running brings up a featureless white window that either goes away after a fraction of a second or freezes up and has to be killed through the task manager. Launching it without Steam already running somehow lets it get far enough to put a bunch of text in that window, then crash with the error “Questviewer.exe has encountered an error and must close”.

Gish: Part of the same sale package as Audiosurf, although I already had a registered copy from pre-Steam days. After twice temporarily feezing up with a dusting of random pixels and then coming back with a video driver error saying that the hardware had to be reset, it finally turned off the machine like Majesty 2. This from a 2D game.

I’m really going to have to get a new video card. I’m willing to put it off for a while, though. There are still plenty of games that don’t need it.

Mr. Robot: Finished already

So, I’ve made it to the end of Mr. Robot. Steam reports that I spend 14.6 hours on it — a solid weekend’s worth of obsessive play. It’s a good length for a game.

I have to admit that I lost the thread of the plot at some point. There was some business about humans downloading their minds into robots, destroying the human body and the robot mind in the process. That much I followed. But eventually one of my ghost companions said something about deciding whether or not to destroy the notes from Earth, and I had no idea what that was about. Or, well, some idea: it’s either about the consciousness-downloading process or the fact that the robots were developing sentience, but I didn’t know which. At any rate, the companion in question, a downloaded human, said that she trusted my judgment on the matter, which was a little uncomfortable, because I had already inadvertently betrayed that trust by not paying attention. I seem to be quite prone to forgetting plots when I’m concentrating mainly on gameplay, provided that the plot is separate enough from the gameplay to allow it.

And that’s too bad, because it seems like there’s a certain amount of actual plot branching in this game. (At the very least, there seems to be one bit that can be got past in two different ways, one involving the death of a fellow robot, one not.) Maybe I’ll make an Achievement run at some point and see just how much variability there is.

Mr. Robot

Here’s a hard one to classify: it’s a combination of a 3D platformer, with realtime enemy-dodging and Sokoban-like block-pushing elements, and a combat-based RPG. Platformer-mode and RPG-mode are basically separate, with completely different control systems and graphical styles, and don’t have very great effect on each other except on the level of plot. I suppose that a lot of CRPGs (particularly the old ones) have separate style and mechanics for the overland exploration mode and the dungeons or whatever, but here, Platformer-mode could have been a satisfying game in its own right.

mrrobot-catwalkThe premise is that you’re a general-purpose worker robot on an interstellar colony ship. You can probably guess the initial plot complications: something goes wrong, the colonists aren’t brought out of cryo-sleep, the ship’s main AI seems to have gone mad. (Just in case you might not be expecting this from the start, the authors have named the ship’s AI “HEL 9000”, just one letter off from a 2001 reference. It’s blatant enough to make me wonder if they’re planning on subverting it in a later chapter.) The ship is made of rooms, which are made of tiles, which are viewed from a fixed oblique angle. I almost described it as “isometric perspective”, but inspection of apparent sizes of tiles proves that wrong: it’s just ordinary linear perspective viewed from an unusual vantage point. I suppose it’s easier to do it that way in the age of ubiquitous 3D graphics support. Still, it plays like an isometric platformer, which is to say, it’s sometimes hard to tell where things are spatially, and it takes a while to get used to how the controls work with the diagonal grid lines.

mrrobot-cyberEvery once in a while there’s an obstacle that can’t be jumped over or pushed aside, and instead has to be hacked around. Cyberspace is where the RPG stuff comes in: you hack by defeating various software entities in turn-based combat. Cyberspace combat may seem dauntingly complex at first, with lots of unfamiliar concepts to learn, but only until you notice that it’s really just standard fantasy combat with the words changed: “I.C.E.” is weapons, “programs” are spells, “extreme attacks” are limit breaks, etc. There are some interesting character types, such as the “Comms Mech”, which seems to specialize in manipulating “power” (mana): stealing it from enemies, sharing it with friends.

About those friends: Yes, cyberspace is party-based, even though there’s only one of you in Platformer mode. The rest of your party isn’t physically present: it’s the “ghosts” of robot minds that you’ve stored in your own memory, rescuing them when their physical bodies are destroyed. You know how in some RPGs only the leader of your party is visible on the overland map? I think Mr. Robot is the first game I’ve seen that has a reasonable reason for that.

Anyway, just as there are lots of RPGs with a separate overland mode, there are lots of sci-fi games (including some platformers) that have some kind of hacking mini-game. But here, even though the hacking fills a mini-game’s niche in the platformer, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s too elaborate for that, too large a part of the total game experience, and, perhaps most of all, the persistence of state (experience, equipment, and so forth) between hacking sessions seems very non-mini-game-like. Like the platforming part, it could be a full game in its own right. So do the two aspects of Mr. Robot gain anything from being conjoined like this? Well, at the very least, it provides some variety of action. I’ve already put in a couple of multi-hour sessions today, and I can easily imagine either mode becoming tedious if unrelieved.

Variations

In a recent blog post, Edmund McMillen talks about his confusion-and-insanity-themed puzzle platformer Time Fcuk. It’s an interesting read, but the one bit that stood out for me was the bit about the alt levels. Apparently certain levels had multiple versions, chosen at random:

i came up with the idea late one night where i envisioned people playing the game and then trying to look up hints on how to beat a level only to find no one had played the level they are on, in hopes that they would feel “crazy”. this of course didn’t have the effect i wanted…

And yeah, it certainly didn’t have that effect for me. In order to notice the variations, you’d have to either replay the game from the start and notice that the levels were different, or compare your experience in considerable detail with someone else’s. And the player doesn’t really have much motivation to do either: if you like this sort of game, you’ll probably play right through it to the end, and if you don’t, you’ll probably just quit in the middle and not go back to it. The interesting thing is that, while Time Fcuk didn’t inspire this sort of comparison, another recent game did in a pretty big way: Dungeon, a retro platformer by Cactus and Mr. Podunkian.

Dungeon is described by its creators as an “experiment”, but feels more like a prank, or possibly even a troll. The concept was that the game had a number of deliberate problems, bugs, and other causes for complaint, which caused people to post on its TIGSource message board — but different installations would provoke different problems. The game apparently uses a deterministic combination of factors such as the OS version and the current username to produce a consistent experience for each player, even as the content varies among different players. So, some players experience frequent pauses, others get monsters that move far faster than they should, others find a certain jump early in the game impossible, etc. (When I played it, I was lucky enough to get variant #7, in which the only issue is that the level titles are artsy and pretentious.)

The forum comments on Dungeon start off as confused as you might expect, with comments along the lines of “What are you talking about, that jump is dead easy”, but it didn’t take long for people to figure out what was going on. The first clues started coming in when people found that they could fix their “bugs” by running the game in some Windows compatibility mode or other, which alters the OS version seen by the game app. Speculation that the game “modifies its own difficulty depending on the machine or something” started less than an hour after the game was released; by the end of the day, people were starting to compile lists of the variations.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you want something about your game to be noticed, make it obnoxious.

Textfyre

And so my month-and-a-half of IF blogging draws to a close. There were 11 games listed on the IFWiki front page when I started; a twelfth has been added since then. I’ve only posted about ten of them so far. The remaining two are both works of Textfyre 1Not to be confused with Textfire, a fictional company that was the subject of an April Fool’s Day hoax back in 1998. , a small company that’s trying to make text adventures commercially viable again by catering to a new audience.

There has always been IF marketed for sale by individual creators — Howard Sherman alone would make sure of that, relentless huckster that he is 2This article isn’t really the place to go into detail about Sherman, so I’ll just point you to a blog post by the illustrious Dave Gilbert. — but Textfyre is, to my knowledge, the first serious effort at making a real company that solicits and publishes IF by multiple authors since the brief life of Cascade Mountain Publishing a decade ago. And it can even be called into question whether CMP really counts as a “serious effort”; it apparently started up without much thought about how to gain an audience outside the IF community. I’ll probably go into more detail about CMP in the future, because half of their catalog 3Once and Future, by G. Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson. The other half of the catalog was a remake of Doc Dumont’s Wild PARTI by Mike Berlyn, which I had already played at the time. is still on the Stack. I bring them up mainly to contrast them with Textfyre. Although they only started releasing games this summer, Textfyre has been in the planning stages for years, and has a good notion of its market position. Just look at the website, with its “Parents” and “Teachers” tabs. David Cornelson, the company’s founder, understands that he’s competing with videogames, and that, although text games can be enthralling when you’re actually playing them, they can’t hold a candle to today’s graphics for the kind of obvious appeal that makes people look at an ad and say “I want to play that”. And so he’s marketing the games at one remove, overcoming the handicap by replacing the appeal of “I want to play that” with “I want my kids to play that”. How well it works, only time will tell.

The commercial aspect does have one disadvantage for this blog in particular: by the terms of the Oath, I can’t buy them yet. I haven’t gotten anything off the Stack since September, and Steam weekend sales haven’t stopped during that time, so my game budget is all tapped out right now. But there are demos, which I have now played. There are currently two games on offer — Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter, by David Cornelson and Michael Gentry, and The Shadow in the Cathedral, by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold — each meant as the first episode of a series. These are all known names, with a number of titles under their belts, major and minor; just to name a couple, Gentry wrote Anchorhead, which I was commenting on in passing lately, and Ingold wrote Make It Good.

secretletterThe Secret Letter demo seems satisfactorily solid and lushly detailed, and makes it clear that even in the part that I saw, there are interactions beyond what I tried. In short, it’s the level of professionalism that we demand even of amateur IF these days. Also, it’s very much written to appeal to the target demographic: this is young-adult fantasy to a T, and reminds me a lot of some of Lloyd Alexander’s books, particularly the Westmark trilogy. The setting is a fictional kingdom in something resembling an 18th century. Complications in the royal succession are mentioned enough times to make it clear that it’s going to be a big part of the plot later on, but the player character starts at the bottom of society, as a penniless orphan who spends time filching food from the open-air marketplace and getting into trouble. And is secretly a girl, as we find out towards the end of the opening chapter. By now, you presumably know if this is the sort of story that appeals to you. There are noninteractive text sequences of a length that I think I’d normally consider excessive, but they seem fine here, probably because they keep the story moving, rather than degenerating into infodumps. (The storybook-like interface may even help a little here, changing my expectations of how the text should look.)

The Shadow in the Cathedral is considerably sparer in its prose, preferring to do its world-building through the accumulation of little details mentioned in passing. It’s set in a world that literally worships clockwork and considers it sacred, providing a point of view that seeps all the way down to the player character’s automatic habits and the idioms used to describe the world. This demo seems a lot smaller than the Secret Letter demo, but it has a lot of promise. Specifically, it promises lots of opportunities to interact with elaborate mechanisms, and that’s always fun. It’s also the sort of thing that IF can do really well, much better than it can do interaction with characters. The gameworld is clockwork anyway, so we might as well celebrate it.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words said already about mere demos that you can try for yourself if you want to, so I’ll just conclude by saying that I look forward to playing the full versions of both of these games, once I can afford them.

   [ + ]

1. Not to be confused with Textfire, a fictional company that was the subject of an April Fool’s Day hoax back in 1998.
2. This article isn’t really the place to go into detail about Sherman, so I’ll just point you to a blog post by the illustrious Dave Gilbert.
3. Once and Future, by G. Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson. The other half of the catalog was a remake of Doc Dumont’s Wild PARTI by Mike Berlyn, which I had already played at the time.

TKoSaP: The Thrilling Conclusion

I suppose that human sacrifice is often a metaphor for sexual violation: the thrust of the knife, the preference for virgins, the typical accompaniment by rhythmic chanting that increases in speed and intensity until it reaches an uncontrollable rapturous climax. The King of Shreds and Patches takes the analogy a step or two farther, having the villainous Barker lure Lucy to her doom by pretending to be in love with her. Rather than snatch her from her room by force, he invites her to a secret midnight tryst; when her housemaid learns of this, she begs the PC to intervene, fearing not for Lucy’s life but for her virtue and reputation. And even though the player knows better than that, the whole situation still has a strong whiff of romantic rivalry, with Barker in the role of the jerk who your long-standing crush is inexplicably gaga over, even though he doesn’t really appreciate her as a person and just wants to use her (albeit not, in this case, for carnal pleasure). I suspect that this is something that male and female players will read differently, with the men feeling the pangs of despised love more keenly. But when the PC finds out that the reason Lucy broke up with him months ago is that she was already seeing Barker in secret, well, I think we can all appreciate how nightmarish that situation is, even without the fear of death and summoning mad gods and so forth.

And in the end, when the player stumbles into the cultist frat party, Barker already has her naked and spread-eagled, chained to an altar. But the indignity doesn’t stop there. He hasn’t told her, but he’s planning a threesome. He’s going to share her with his colleague Van Wyck. There are two other sacrifices beforehand, one performed by each man, so you get to observe their technique; Van Wyck seems to savor the moment, while Barker just seems to want to get it over with. But then they raise their knives and prepare to penetrate Lucy together.

There’s only one way to stop them, and that’s with a better phallic symbol. By this point in the story, I had two pistols. And you need two to rescue Lucy, because you have two people to shoot, and these are 17th-century wheellock pistols that take multiple turns to load, 1The game handles this really well. Loading a pistol for the first time is treated as a puzzle: open this cover with a lever, rotate that bit with a spanner, pour the powder in, etc. Once you’ve done it once, you can repeat the actions by simply entering the command “load pistol” — but it still goes through the entire process, or as much of the process as necessary given the pistol’s current state. And in the endgame, where things are happening fast and threats can come at a moment’s notice, “load pistol” simply performs the next step in the process. I don’t know how the development of this game went, but this all seems like the sort of thing that you get in games with really good playtesters. and which have to be laboriously reloaded if the powder gets wet, which it probably is at this juncture. I wrote in my last post that either rescuing Lucy or failing to rescue her could produce a satisfactory conclusion to the story, and in fact the game allows either: any ending where you send the loathsome thing that the cultists have summoned back to whence it came is considered to be a victory worthy of an epilogue. But for a while, I thought that saving Lucy was impossible, so great was my trouble with damp powder.

Speaking of endings, I’ve joked before now that the biggest way in which Lovecraft-based games fail to be faithful to Lovecraft’s writings is that they’re winnable. To really be true to the original stories, the best ending should be the one that you get by quitting immediately. Investigating dark secrets only makes things worse. But then, this game isn’t a direct adaptation of Lovecraft, but an adaptation of a Call of Cthulhu module, and it’s very true to the spirit of that game.

   [ + ]

1. The game handles this really well. Loading a pistol for the first time is treated as a puzzle: open this cover with a lever, rotate that bit with a spanner, pour the powder in, etc. Once you’ve done it once, you can repeat the actions by simply entering the command “load pistol” — but it still goes through the entire process, or as much of the process as necessary given the pistol’s current state. And in the endgame, where things are happening fast and threats can come at a moment’s notice, “load pistol” simply performs the next step in the process. I don’t know how the development of this game went, but this all seems like the sort of thing that you get in games with really good playtesters.

TKoSaP: Variability

(Spoilers ahead.)

The King of Shreds and Patches is pretty good at small-scale variability. There are a number of little choices not just in what order you things happen, but how. For example, at one point I stopped a man from finishing a dread incantation by assaulting him with my bare fists. I later discovered that I could have obtained a wheellock pistol in an area I had already passed through. I’m not sure what the consequences of using that instead would have been. In the story as I’ve seen it, I had to climb up to where the man was with a makeshift grappling hook, and after I interrupted him, he cursed me and ran away. Either of those things could have been changed with a way of killing from a distance. But even if they didn’t, the scene was able to play out to its conclusion with the player either armed or unarmed.

More broadly, much of the game is spent questioning people like a sort of Elizabethan detective, and the number of things you can ask people about grows as you progress. In general, it feels like each person you visit generates one or two new snippets of useful information, but which snippets you learn from whom depends on what order you visit them in. In the story as I experienced it, I got some of my early leads from a patron at a pub frequented by the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe. I eventually visited him again, for no other reason than that I was temporarily stuck, and found that he had information about the whereabouts of one Barker, the man of mystery at the center of events who I hadn’t even heard of on my first visit. I could have easily not noticed this, just as someone who visited the pub later than I did might not have noticed that the same information could be squeezed out of the illustrious John Dee. The game kind of discourages visiting most characters twice; once you’ve questioned someone, they’re left out of the task list produced by the “think” command 1“Think” to produce minor hints or reminders seems to be rapidly becoming standard; several of the games I’ve played this year implement it. Perhaps this is in part because the verb is included in the standard Inform library, although without modification it just produces a snarky reply. , even if they have more information.

But of course any variability is set within a fixed framework. Despite what I said before about the day/night cycle, I now think that the game doesn’t actually let you miss important plot events. One thread of the story concerns a vanished girl named Marijne, whose cousin, the well-to-do Lucy Henry, was once courted by the player character. It’s pretty much a given that Marijne will be dead by the time you find her, just because a horror story needs a corpse or two by the end of the first act to let the audience know it means business. And when Lucy is in danger later on, and I arrive on the scene just a little too late to prevent her abduction, I recognize that this happens to provide motivation in the story’s imminent climax, not because I was too slow. But I don’t know yet what Lucy’s ultimate fate will be. In a conventional game, this would be the setup for rescue-the-princess, and any failure to rescue her would simply be the player’s fault, and a temporary condition at that. But in a Lovecraftian horror, a happy ending might not even be an option.

Oh, I have little doubt that I’ll be allowed to halt the ritual and banish the monster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to save the damsel. The author lets the player know when and where the ritual is to occur, which means that the cultists have to keep Lucy alive until then. This explicitly gives the player character hope, presumably shared by the player, but the same knowledge could easily provoke dread, with the time running out while you struggle to reach the appointed place. Either way it goes, it could fit into the story. Which means that this isn’t necessarily just a matter of success and failure, but may even be another matter of narrative variation. We’ll see how it plays out.

   [ + ]

1. “Think” to produce minor hints or reminders seems to be rapidly becoming standard; several of the games I’ve played this year implement it. Perhaps this is in part because the verb is included in the standard Inform library, although without modification it just produces a snarky reply.

The King of Shreds and Patches: Sound

Let’s talk for a moment about this game’s use of sound. There’s one puzzle in particular where you render a Bedlamite temporarily coherent by unscrambling some dismembered music. It’s not completely essential to have sound — you get some textual feedback, but it’s subtle and requires a lot more trial-and-error if you can’t hear what you’re doing. And for a while, that’s how I tried to solve it. I had the sound turned off. I had forgotten about it. The in-game documentation said that there was occasional sound, and even warned me that there was a sound puzzle, but it also said that I’d know it when I came to it, and, well, I didn’t at first.

I don’t normally turn sound off in games. I generally want the full experience intended by the author. I do find sound in text games a little weird, though. I find that playing IF, like reading a book, essentially puts the mind into a mode disconnected from direct sensory experience — one where you’re seeing through the mind’s eye, and, similarly, hearing through the mind’s ear, filtering out the real world. Illustrations interrupt this mode, but then, so do the command prompts, and you just get used to a certain rhythm of going into and out of reading mode. 1This is why it’s considered a good idea in IF to break up long text-dumps with command prompts, even when the player can’t actually affect anything: it preserves that rhythm. I’m starting to wonder if breaking up the text with illustrations would be just as effective. Sound, on the other hand, plays while you’re reading, and conflicts with the imagined experience.

But that’s not why I had the sound off. I had it off simply because for the last month I’ve been playing IF primarily in public. (I’m spending upwards of two hours a day on a bus these days.) I have headphones I can hook up to my laptop, but digging them out and dealing with the cord (either unwinding it or untangling it, depending on how careful I was about stowing it last time) seldom seems worthwhile, especially for a game that only features occasional sound. And, my personal experiences aside, I think there’s a valid criticism to be made here: if you’re going to use sound in a game, it’s better to make it a constant presence that the player gets used to, not an occasional surprise.

   [ + ]

1. This is why it’s considered a good idea in IF to break up long text-dumps with command prompts, even when the player can’t actually affect anything: it preserves that rhythm. I’m starting to wonder if breaking up the text with illustrations would be just as effective.

Older Posts »