Archive for November, 2010

Bioshock: Hacking

Hacking is a big enough part of Bioshock that it has an entire suite of genetic modifications dedicated to reducing its difficulty in various ways. You hack safes and combination locks on doors to open them. You hack security apparatus such as cameras and automated gun turrets to make them switch sides, attacking your enemies and leaving you alone. You hack vending machines to lower their prices (no, you can’t get them to just dump their entire inventory for free), or even to make them offer additional items, which doesn’t make a lot of in-world sense, but I’ll accept the benefits anyway. Hacking a health dispenser not only reduces its cost for you to use, it turns it into an anti-health dispenser for enemies, killing them when they attempt to use it, and for this reason alone is well worth doing even if you don’t need the discount. In short, hacking has mostly the same uses as it did in System Shock 2, where the whole idea fit in a lot better. (I mean, even the word “hack” is anachronistic for a game set in 1960.)

Almost thereHacking is done through a special minigame that takes over the screen. It’s basically a variant of Pipe Dream/Pipe Mania. You have a grid of tiles depicting tubing. You have to assemble them so that the fluid will flow from an inlet to an outlet, and you have to do fast enough to keep ahead of the fluid. Fail, and you either take damage or trigger an alarm. The genetic upgrades I mentioned mainly affect the play of the minigame in various ways: slowing the flow, reducing the number of unmovable blocker tiles.

A difficult hackBefore you go into the minigame, there’s a screen that shows you the estimated difficulty of the hack. If it looks too hard, or if you simply don’t like the minigame, you have other options, including backing out, using an automatic hacking tool, or even just bribing the machine. I guess this really is the consequences of Andrew Ryan’s philosophy taken to its extreme: even the security systems are free to take a better offer. Not that I’ve ever taken that option. Hacking tools are generally cheaper.

It’s by far the most involved, and to my mind the most engaging, of the hacking minigames in the Shock games. System Shock 2‘s hacking was basically a matter of clicking on dots in a grid that might or might not turn the right color to give you the three-in-a-row you needed. Your hacking skill affected the probability. System Shock 1 didn’t have as many uses for minigame hackery — mainly you hacked by swimming around in cyberspace — but it did have some control panels for security doors that you needed to rewire through a special rewiring interface, another guessing-game where you just tried permutations until you increased a meter to the right level. Neither of these is the sort of game you’d play by itself. They’re more WarioWare-like, little unit operations whose purpose is to make you briefly pay attention to something other than FPS action.

They did have a couple of things over the Bioshock hacking, though. For one thing, they were more believable in context, as user interfaces to whatever was really going on in the machine. Bioshock‘s pipes are I suppose thematic for a game set underwater, but they make you wonder just how these combination locks are constructed. More importantly, the System Shock 1/2 hacking minigames were integrated into the rest of the game a lot more smoothly. Hacking happened in your HUD. The rest of the world still went on around you. You could suddenly come under attack while hacking, and you’d have to stop hacking to respond. Bioshock’s hacking minigame makes a show of being delicate and time-sensitive, which it is, but only in its own time. You can hack a turret while someone’s shooting at you, and you won’t suffer any damage until you’re done. As one of the very first Zero Punctuation reviews pointed out, you hack ceiling-mounted security cameras that are just out of reach by jumping. You do the entire hack while airborne and don’t fall until you come out of the interface.

And, weird as each of those things is, they’re even weirder in combination. Given that hacking is completely separate from the rest of the world, the designers really could have put in any kind of minigame. They could have done something akin to Exploit. They chose pipes. Not that I’m really complaining. It’s still a pretty enjoyable minigame, and works well with the genetic upgrade system.

Bioshock compared to Batman

So I was playing Bioshock a little more. Probably because I just played Arkham Asylum, it’s striking me afresh just how comic-bookish it is. Specifically, it has the same sort of structure that made me compare Killer 7 to a comic book: it’s organized around a series of vividly eccentric villains.

The basic repeating pattern in most levels of Bioshock is that you’re trying to just move toward your ultimate goal (Andrew Ryan), but something stops you. It can be a deliberate obstruction aimed at you in particular or it can be an accident that forces you to seek an alternate route, but either way, it forces you into a confrontation with the person who lords it over that section of Rapture. You learn about this person from radio broadcasts and/or audio journals you find over the course of the level, and what you learn is that he’s over-the-top insane in a way relating to his profession — so you get a mad surgeon, a mad artist, and so forth. In other words, they’re theme villains, only a funny costume away from a spot in Batman’s rogues gallery. I suppose you could argue that they’re all examinations of where Ryan’s philosphy ultimately leads when put into practice, but only if you’re willing to really push it. I don’t think any philosophy leads inexorably to strapping someone to a piano covered in TNT.

In a strange way, it reminds me of Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic in Watchmen. The point of TotBF was that it was what comic books were like in an alternate universe where superhero comics never took off. Bioshock isn’t even that far separated from superhero comics: when you come down to it, the hero has superhuman powers, by way of plasmids and gene tonics. But it’s far enough away from a conventional superhero story that it feels a little like it could be an adaptation of an artifact from another world.

VVVVVV

The title of the next level is "That's why I have to kill you".And so we’re finally caught up to the present. Terry Cavanaugh’s VVVVVV was released in January of this year, and I immediately knew that it had to be the final game in my chronological run-down. Its Commodore-64-like pixel art and chiptune soundtrack are a good way to come full circle and bring us back to the beginnings of the exercise, and at the same time perfectly representative of modern trends. For this is very much a modern game in its design sensibility. It uses retroisms to set a mood (and arguably uses them better than the genuinely old titles it imitates, which fought against their limitations instead of using them as strengths), but it’s full of practices that only became commonplace long after the Jet Set Willy era: infinite lives, optional collectibles (here wryly identified as “shiny trinkets”), nonlinearity without artificial gating. Relating to that last point, it even features a newish development that isn’t common yet — apparently a couple of other significant titles have experimented with it — but which I suspect will be, at least in indie titles: optional unlocking. Achieving certain things in the game unlocks stuff like special challenge modes or the ability to play different background music in your main base, but you can also just unlock stuff from the main menu. You don’t even need a cheat code; the philosophy is that if you like unlocking stuff through gameplay (which a lot of people clearly do), you can do that, but if you don’t, it’s not going to withhold content from you.

VVVVVV (pronounced “vvvvvv”) is basically a minimalist 2D platformer (although sometimes it takes on the aspect of a puzzle game, in situations where platforming across a room appears impossible and requires some special insight). Regarding the genre, I more or less agree with a recent essay at The Brainy Gamer: “Platformers are our purest gaming expression. Unlike shooters, strategy, or sports games, they draw from no real-life analogue. Their inherent absurdity defines them.” It certainly defines VVVVVV, anyway. The central absurdity: instead of jumping, you turn upside-down and fall upward, then walk around on the ceiling. (You can only invert like this when you’re standing on a surface, so you can’t just fly horizontally by tacking.) This mechanic means your path through the whole game is essentially a series of zig-zags, one of the things that the shape of the title refers to — the other being the rows of deadly spikes all over the place.

This is one of those games that takes one simple novel idea and hammers it into the ground, exploring the gravity-reversal mechanic for all it’s worth. There are sub-sections, series of levels with their own special environmental features, like conveyor belts or wraparound, and those sub-sections explore that mechanic in combination with the gravity-reversal. (The endgame puts all of these elements together for the first time.) As such, it’s something of a game-designer’s game. Like Portal, it demonstrates what the system is capable of and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But that’s ignoring the emotional side, which is considerable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that’s both so cruel and so good-natured at the same time. There’s a lot of mutual goodwill going on. As Captain Viridian, your primary goal is to rescue the crew of your spaceship, who have been stranded in a strange dimension by a teleporter accident, and each crew member expresses both happiness to be rescued and concern for the remaining members. In the very end, they return the favor by rescuing you when all seems hopeless (rather like the ending of Space Channel 5, one of my all-time favorite videogame endings). The characters’ dialogue suggests distinct personalities and relationships, but everyone has a face that reminds me of the “smiling face” in the DOS-era IBM extended character set, and that suggests a childlike simplicity. They can either smile or frown: like Tinkerbell, they have only room for one emotion at a time. At one point, one of the characters cheers up Viridian with a lollipop. It makes it feel like your motivation isn’t so much to save everyone’s lives as to keep them from being sad.

And with these simple souls you explore a world of spikes. Nothing does permanent harm, mind you — death just means immediately reappearing at the last checkpoint. But getting past the spikes can be very difficult, especially towards the end. The game keeps track of how many times you’ve died. By the time I won, I had racked up well over a thousand deaths. And I hadn’t even gone after all of the shiny trinkets. There’s one sequence known as “Veni Vidi Vici” (from the titles of three of its rooms) that’s achieved quite a reputation for its cruelty, making you fall upward through a six-screen twisting spike-lined tunnel, land on a crumbling platform, then fall back downward through the same tunnel — all to reach a shiny trinket that’s separated from your starting place by nothing more than a tiny block that Mario could have got past trivially.

Speaking of Mario, the typical platformer scenario ever since Super Mario Brothers is of course the rescue-the-princess plot, in which you have to defeat an enemy in order to obtain a woman, which is a fairly obvious metaphor for rivalry behavior in courtship. Just by giving you multiple people to rescue (and letting you do it in any order, so no one is the ultimate rescuee), VVVVVV avoids this, and makes Viridian feel more like a nurturing protector than a jealous lover. But there’s one more thing that reinforces this: the lack of rivals. There’s nothing in the gameworld that actually bears you ill-will, nothing for you to defeat and therefore nothing to spoil the complete good-naturedness of the characters. There are monsters of a sort, moving objects that kill you if they touch you, but they’re all very abstract, sometimes literally made of words, and they don’t chase you or anything. They just move in set patterns, another environmental obstacle like the spikes. Even the backstory, discoverable from scattered computer terminals, doesn’t have a bad guy of any kind. It tells of how the space station where much of the game takes place was evacuated after a laboratory accident that rendered Dimension VVVVVV unstable. So basically there’s no enemies, just danger.

Except, of course, that the world itself hates you. I’ve mentioned a few times now that specific rooms have titles, displayed at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes these are just dry descriptions of the room’s shape (“Ascending and Descending”) or alleged purpose (“Atmospheric Filtering Unit”), sometimes they’re commentary from more of a point of view. And when there’s a point of view, sometimes it’s mocking or hostile. For example, there’s one level titled “Plain Sailing from Here On”, immediately followed by a level titled “Ha Ha Ha Not Really”. One of the levels with a teleporter back to your ship is titled “Murdering Twinmaker”, a bit of a shock to see on the verge of a rescue. But it adds to the game’s dual personality, of kind people in a cruel world.

A lot of reviews describe VVVVVV as “Nintendo hard” — a term of fairly recent coinage, it seems to me; I’d be interested in finding out where it originated. But it’s worth noting that Nintendo’s reputation isn’t just for ridiculously difficult games, but for cuddly, child-friendly ones, and they’re the same games. For all that it takes its style cues from a different branch of retro, VVVVVV takes this paradox to a greater extreme.

Arkham Asylum: The Final Riddle

Yesterday’s session, it turns out, had left me just a brawl and a fairly easy boss fight away from defeating the Joker and ending the story of the game. This doesn’t mean I ended the game quickly, though: I first wanted to take the time to try to finish up the Riddler’s challenges, the trophies and patient interview tapes and so forth that I hadn’t found. There’s one sort of riddle I particularly liked, involving question marks that you could only see in Detective mode —

Partner to Inspector Median and Constable MeanIt strikes me that I haven’t even mentioned Detective mode yet. It’s a major part of the game, and sometimes explicitly necessary for following people by tracking fingerprints or chemical traces. At any point other than cutscene and hallucinations, you can switch into it with the press of a button. When you do, the world takes on a bluish tint, with thin white outlines, and significantly interactive objects (like frangible walls and Riddler trophies) highlighted in orange. Furthermore, it’s a kind of X-ray vision: you can see people’s skeletons — there’s a cute gag where you can identify Clayface in his cell due to his lack of a skeleton — and furthermore, you can see them through walls. This makes it very useful in stealth sequences, or indeed any time you want to be able to see if there are enemies around. Since it’s both more informative and cooler-looking than the normal view, you might wonder why you’d ever want to not be in Detective mode. And, well, sometimes there are good reasons, like when you’re not sure if there’s a wall between you and the skeleton standing nearby. But in the hunt for riddle-stuff, I spent more time in Detective mode than out of it. I recently described the “eyeshine” effect in Escape from Butcher Bay as “one of the better nonhuman-vision effects I’ve seen“. It’s got some competition here.

Anyway, the Riddler has painted these question marks in invisible paint, and in pieces, on different surfaces, which line up from the correct vantage point to form the full figure. I feel like they could have done more with this idea, but it’s still pretty satisfying as it stands.

The game is generous with guidance towards finding stuff — it provides a checklist of riddles and collectibles for each area, and one of the items you can find in each area is a map that shows the approximate locations of everything else. So utter completeness is a reasonable and achievable goal, and therefore quite attractive to the likes of me. Just one problem: I was worried that I had locked myself out of it. Poison Ivy’s plants were still blocking a lot of passageways. The Riddler’s maps showed stuff waiting to be collected in places that I knew had become absolutely inaccessible during the lead-up to the confrontation with Ivy, as the game tried to keep me on the rails. I hoped that defeating her would wither the vines, but any withering was dismayingly incomplete. And I couldn’t even clear things out by going back to an earlier save, because the only save mechanism the game has is an autosave that it overwrites pretty frequently.

But then, the game clearly expected the player to revisit places to find collectibles, because, in Metroidvanian tradition, a lot of them are behind obstacles that you don’t have the equipment to get past the first time you pass by. It ultimately turned out that everything is in fact accessible in the calm moment before you plunge into the endgame. And even if, like me, you enter the endgame area without realizing that you can’t get out again, the game politely lets you go back to look for more stuff after the credits. Doing it this way fits into the story better than taking the time to hunt for them during the constant and escalating emergencies that form the plot anyway.

There’s just one more riddle ahead of me, and it’s one that I didn’t even realize was a riddle on my last post (as Merus guessed in the comments). Among the things that Riddler directs you to find are the fragmentary ramblings of “the Spirit of Arkham”, written in circles on altar-like stones. At first, they seem like just a recapitulation of established Batman continuity: Amadeus Arkham, asylum founder, went crazy and started secretly torturing and killing the people entrusted to his care. But the later entries — as with the patient interview tapes, you always find the texts in the same order, regardless of where you pick them up — the later entries make it clear that it’s describing the inmates of present-day Arkham. And the final entry more or less states outright that these records were made by someone alive today — someone either possessed by Arkham’s spirit or, more likely, bonkers — and that I can discover who by comparing the information in this narrative with that in the patient interview tapes. Now, even though I’ve filled in every slot in the Riddler’s checklist, there’s one slot left in the “Spirit of Arkham” profile, which I assume comes from confronting the culprit. Since your only option for talking to peaceful NPCs is “press A to talk”, this could probably be solved by brute force. But where’s the fun in that? I have at least one more game session ahead of me, and unlike the rest of the game, it will involve note-taking. But the game is off the Stack already, so I’ll post no further spoilers here.

The weird thing is that the main menu reports me as only 84% complete. I suppose it’s because I haven’t been chasing Achievements. Well, they can remain unchased.

Arkham Asylum: Bad Guys

For all the stylistic changes that Batman has gone through over the years, one thing has always been constant: the villains are the best part. Let’s take a look at how Batman: Arkham Asylum uses them. It does a surprisingly good job of assigning each of them a distinct role in both the story and the gameplay.

First and foremost is of course the Joker, the prime mover of the entire plot. The game opens with Batman delivering him back to Arkham after one of his many escapes, and although he disappears soon afterward, his presence is felt throughout the rest of the game. Even when he’s not hijacking security monitors to taunt Batman or delivering orders to his goons over the PA system, he’s a constant object of attention, as the goons discuss him or Batman makes discoveries about his plans. He’s the game’s GLaDOS, its Andrew Ryan. As such, I don’t expect a direct confrontation with him until the very end.

Since the Joker is thus consistently absent, Harley Quinn acts as his lieutenant on the scene, making recurring appearances wherever the designers want you to feel like you’re getting close to achieving your goals only to dash hope away. I’ve had an extended confrontation with her that I take to be the Harley Quinn boss fight — I suppose she could show up again later if someone lets her out of the very secure cell Batman locks her in, but if so, it’ll be kind of anticlimactic. The interesting thing is that the confrontation doesn’t involve fighting her directly — it’s more a fight that she directs, acting as what 4th edition D&D calls a “controller”. The writers seem to have a rule against hitting girls.

The first villain you meet who isn’t directly involved in the Joker’s plan is Victor Zsasz. As far as I’m aware, this is his first appearance outside the comics 1[UPDATE 16 January 2011] Shows how little I know! Not only does he make a brief appearance in the movie Batman Begins, he has no fewer than three videogame appearances predating Arkham Asylum. ; I was vaguely aware of his existence, but I’m not sure why. His deal is that he’s a serial killer, but not a flamboyant one like the Joker. He doesn’t even have a costume. He has a gimmick of cutting tally-marks into his skin for each of his victims, but that’s it. I suppose he’s useful to the writers of the comics when Batman is going through one of his periods of fighting normal, realistic crime. His role in the game, though, is to teach the player stealth mechanics. The first time you encounter him, he’s simply escaped from his cell in the chaos, and is holding off the guards by threatening to kill a hostage the moment anyone enters the room — so you have to take him down without being seen. He doesn’t stay down, though; I think the Joker finds him after you leave and releases him again. In the second encounter, he has another hostage, but can’t restrain himself from killing her for very long, so that imposes a time limit that forces you to use different techniques.

Bane is also an educational boss. The Joker’s plot involves turning his henchmen into an army of monsters by means of a newly-developed drug derived from Bane’s strength-enhancing “Venom”. I’ve encountered several of these mesomorphic abominations by now. They’re basically the sort of classic miniboss that charges into walls and becomes temporarily stunned and vulnerable, but with the twist that they only crash into the wall if you disorient them with a batarang to the noggin while they’re charging. Anyway, the fight with Bane is the tutorial for this. I have to feel a little sad for Bane; he’s fallen pretty far. As originally conceived, he’s Batman’s equal: polymath, master tactician, the only person with enough strength of will to use Venom and survive. But outside of the comics, he’s basically just a strongman in a wrestling mask who can be defeated by unplugging a hose. In this game, he at least gets to brag about having defeated Batman once (something the Schumacher and Animated Series versions of the character never managed), but he’s still just the Joker’s patsy.

But the game does give us one monster that Batman just plain can’t beat in a fight, and that’s Killer Croc. You can run away from him, you can temporarily disable him, and ultimately you can lead him into a trap, but going toe-to-toe with him isn’t even an option. If you try, game over. Croc is established as a lurking menace early on, glimpsed through a reinforced door long before the story takes you through his turf. He lives in the sewer under the asylum; the asylum guards throw meat down to him from time to time but otherwise leave him alone and count themselves lucky that they don’t have to get any closer to him. As such, he may not even really understand that anything has changed in the world above.

Similarly, the Scarecrow’s recurring appearances aren’t really boss fights in the conventional sense. They’re bad drug trips, and they’re by far my favorite parts of the game. Each encounter with him culminates a stealth/platforming sequence with a gigantic hallucinated Scarecrow towering over you, searching for you with deadly gaze. But that’s not the good part. Before you get to the platforming, you get a set-piece, a just-barely-interactive sequence comparable to walking through a carnival haunted house, but one that’s personalized to Bruce Wayne, themed around powerlessness and dead parents. These bits start with small but clear cues in the form of unsettling changes to the environment, like a Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequence — in one case, the first hint that I was hallucinating was that the location name of one room in Arkham Mansion had changed from “Library” to “Wayne Manor”. The final encounter simulates a crash and reboot of the console. This is perhaps less effective if you’re playing under Windows (I know what my machine looks like when it wigs out and it doesn’t look like that), but still brings it into that creepy Metal Gear Solid 2 territory where the game escapes from its established boundaries and addresses the player rather than the player character.

Poison Ivy is the big surprise. Not that it’s a surprise she’s in the game — you figure she’s going to show up as soon as you see a building labeled “Botanical Garden” on the map. The surprise is that she’s the dominant force for about half the story. When you first see her, she’s still imprisoned and helpless in an airtight glass case, distraught because she can feel the pain of the genetically-modified plants that are the source of Joker’s monster drug. She persuades Harley Quinn to release her, which is foolish on Harley’s part, because she has it in for the Joker as much as for Batman. Her chief effect in the game is altering the terrain, making huge roots and tendrils block the passageways you’ve come to expect, forcing you to find alternate routes, and generally causing more havoc and destruction than the Joker did when he took over. The Joker redecorated a bit, defacing statues and putting a mural of himself around one of the main doorways (the opening being his mouth), but Ivy is causing earthquakes. When you finally get to face off with her in one of the game’s genuine boss fights, the game once again asserts its no-hitting-girls policy by having her pilot a huge mecha-like flowering plant that you can hit instead.

That leaves the Riddler, who I’ve mentioned before. The Riddler isn’t so much a character in the story as a delivery device for collectibles and other optional challenges; I don’t expect to actually fight him, because eliminating him from the story would break the game mechanics. The game has some light RPG stuff going on, with Batman leveling up and getting new abilities and upgrades with experience (even though you’d think he must be level 20 in everything already). And, although you get experience for winning fights and for advancing the story, the safest way to level up is by solving the Riddler’s puzzles, which mainly means finding his question-mark-shaped trophies, which are scattered in inconvenient spots throughout the whole gameworld. Sometimes they’re in useless fake ducts that don’t go anywhere. Sometimes they’re sealed behind very old brick walls or other places that he couldn’t possibly have had access to. There’s nothing that makes in-world sense about this, but then, Arkham isn’t a sensible place.

That’s all I’ve seen so far, and I think I’m very close to the end of the game now. Certain of the Riddler’s things unlock character bios of major and minor characters from Batman continuity, including several villains I had never heard of, such as Humpty Dumpty and the Ratcatcher. But I doubt I’ll be seeing them.

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1. [UPDATE 16 January 2011] Shows how little I know! Not only does he make a brief appearance in the movie Batman Begins, he has no fewer than three videogame appearances predating Arkham Asylum.

Arkham Asylum: Controls and Feel

I’ve heard the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum described as “solid”. A lot of people seem to have independently hit on this word to describe the feel of the controls, but what does it mean? I think it’s mostly a matter of the feedback: any time you press a button to perform an action, the game plays a satisfying sound cue, and often shifts the camera, the better to show Batman very decisively acting as instructed. Also contributing to the “solid” feel is that your actions pretty much always succeed. When you fail, it’s because you did something foolish, like charge at someone with a gun rather than sneak up on him or take cover and throw batarangs at him. You don’t fail because you attempted the right thing but got the timing slightly wrong and didn’t execute it correctly. After all, you’re Batman. Batman executes everything flawlessly. Even in combat, you don’t throw punches and miss. You press that punch button and someone gets punched. With a bone-jarring thud, and sometimes in slow motion. You can fail in combat, but only by making bad decisions, like trying to do a takedown move on one guy when another guy is preparing to hit you.

I once said that in some console games “the level of detail in the solution… is on a much coarser scale than the level of detail in the presentation“. The feel I’m trying to describe here has a lot to do with that. On the screen, there’s a lot of messy analog stuff going on with physics, but the exact placement of objects in the world seldom matters much. Anything important happens at the story level, the level of deliberate decisions. A lot of what you do is stuff that could be expressed in a text adventure with no loss of detail, like kicking a grating off the wall or using a gadget to make a sentry move away from his post. There may be an infinity of routes you can take from point A to point B, but all that matters is whether you chose one of the routes that has sufficient cover from observation or attack — and that will be a route that a game designer intended. There’s enough simulation that the game doesn’t just come down to CYOA, but the interactions between game elements are all very planned-out in a way that makes me think of the methodologies recommended by Jesse Schell.

Having played the game a bit with both a gamepad and mouse/keyboard control, I find it interesting that the two control schemes are not completely isomorphic. In most games, I’d expect the left mouse button to perform the same function as some particular button on the gamepad, probably the one that performs an attack or whatever the most commonly-executed action is for that game. Here, the left mouse button is indeed the “punch” button, but it’s also the “use gadget” button when you’re in gadget mode. (Being in gadget mode basically means using your analog controls to choose where to aim the gadget.) It makes sense for both of these actions to be on the left mouse button because they’re both your basic “do the thing now” action in their particular contexts. But with an Xbox controller, which doesn’t have a single most privileged button, those two actions are separated: “punch” is the X button, “use gadget” is RT (the right trigger button). It makes sense to put “use gadget” on the right trigger because pressing and holding the left trigger is what puts you into gadget mode in the first place, and the easiest thing to use in combination with a trigger button is the other trigger button. With mouse/keyboard controls, the thing that puts you into gadget mode is holding the right mouse button, which is also the “counterattack/take-down” button if you just click it instead of holding it.

Kind of like playing the videogames in the Strong Bad adventure games.Probably the most problematic adaptation, and the clearest illustration of the fact that the game was designed around a gamepad, is the Cryptographic Sequencer. This is a sort of lockpick for the game’s many electronic locks. You operate it by twiddling a couple of knobs to tune a waveform and holding it for a second in its optimum position when you find it. With a gamepad, you do this with the two analog sticks. A colleague of mine has praised this as being the one thing in the game that makes you feel the most like you’re Batman: he’s on the screen doing exactly the same thing that the player is doing, manipulating a pair of rotary controls with his thumbs, in unison with your own movements. But with keyboard/mouse, you don’t have an analog control under each thumb; only one hand has an analog control. The designers apparently decided that the feel of controlling each knob with one hand was the important part, and made it so that you control the left knob with the keyboard, using the A and D keys to twiddle it clockwise and counterclockwise, and the right knob with the mouse, using the left and right mouse buttons — yes, not even using the mouse as an analog control, presumably for consistency with the other knob. The result is unintuitive and not at all as solid-feeling as using gamepad.

Arkham Asylum: Style and Influences

So. Batman. Few characters have been through so many major stylistic changes without leaving the public eye, from the pulp-inspired revenge fantasy of the 1940s to the childish superheroics of the post-Wertham 1950s, leading up to the deadpan campiness of the Adam West’ TV series, which remained the culturally dominant view of the character until Frank Miller turned the focus to the story’s inherent brutality, Tim Burton to its grotesquery, and the writers for Batman: The Animated Series to its melodrama. B:tAS, with its famous voice acting and German-expressionism-inspired visuals, pretty much replaced Adam West in the public consciousness as the default version, the one that young people think of first when the character is mentioned. And it probably still holds that position, despite the popularity of the Christopher Nolan films.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is something of a mixture of these past portrayals, but it’s mainly in the grotesque mold, taking advantage of the power of modern graphics processors to give everybody highly-detailed wrinkles and warts and scars. The characters are a far cry from the polygonal stylization of the last Batman-themed game I played 1Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations. , but I can’t call them realistic. They have all the unnatural-looking distortion and exaggeration of a cartoon made flesh. And, of course, they have that CGI sheen. But this is one place where the Uncanny Valley effect works with the fiction.

The setting is a mixture of crumbling gothic architecture and high tech, all glowing electronics and gargoyles, that reminds me the most of the Tim Burton films. The character of Batman himself is of course also a mixture of gothic and high-tech, but his style here, and the style of his equipment, reminds me more of the Nolan films: very sleek and professional without being flashy, the one portrayal that makes him seem almost normal (and, consequently, not very interesting as a character). Despite the weirdness of his premise, he exudes a calm authority; the asylum guards let him more or less take charge because he’s the one person who isn’t panicking. He even punches people with great authority (as Joss Whedon once said about David Boreanaz). Mind you, the comparison to the Nolan films is helped along by the similar music, and also by the way Batman can use his cape to glide, even when not supported by a rope — something that was part of the earliest Batman comics, but which had pretty much vanished from the character’s attributes at some point (possibly due to the difficulty of pulling it off convincingly in the live-action TV show).

Most of the main characters have the same voice-actors as in Batman: the Animated Series. Well, they could hardly do without Mark Hamill as the Joker, could they? He’s the definitive Joker voice these days. And even those with new actors seem to be aiming for the B:tAS versions of the characters — the Riddler, for example, is a man characterized by smug derision, someone who seeems like he genuinely doesn’t want his riddles to be solved (because he takes pleasure in the sense of superiority that comes with stumping you), rather than the giggling mania of prior versions, who always seemed to be barely restraining themselves from blurting out the answers. (A good decision, if you ask me; before B:tAS, the Riddler was little more than a poor man’s Joker.)

The thing is, the voices are rather incongruous for the subject matter. This is a very dark game. B:tAS, as children’s programming, wasn’t allowed to have anything too gruesome. It would never have the Riddler making a disturbing joke about mutilating a baby, the way he does in a psychiatric interview tape you can find in the game. And yet, as I just described, it’s clearly the same version of the Riddler character. It feels a bit like discovering a coworker’s unsavory fetishes. Which may be the point. That particular bit reminds me a lot of a similarly horrifying-rather-than-funny joke involving a baby told by the Joker in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s surreal and disturbing 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which shares the current game’s title, setting, and, very loosely, plot. I wouldn’t say the game is based on the graphic novel, but it’s certainly inspired by it, or at least aware of it. The graphic novel questions Batman’s sanity, something that was popular in the 1980s, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen in the post-Nolan version here. Sure, he’ll face his inner demons — a confrontation with the Scarecrow is never complete without some reliving of unpleasant memories — but only as a step towards reaffirming his position. Still… I’ve found a couple of messages from Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder, hinting at revelations similar to those in the graphic novel, that the place is build on cursed ground, that Batman is an unwitting agent of something occult and malign. We’ll see. For now, let’s just chalk it up as another influence.

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1. Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations.

Arkham Asylum

I really should have thought to take a screenshot of the "downloading update" progress bar, because that would have been much more representative of my experience.My story today beings with annoyance. Having downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum from Steam, I found that it wouldn’t let me play (or at least, wouldn’t let me save the game, which is pretty essential in a game like this) until I registered for a Games for Windows Live account — something I’ve managed to avoid doing so far solely through my taste in games. Once I did that, it needed to download a Games for Windows Live update. Installing the update required me to exit the game and restart it, sit through the uninterruptible logo movies (including one for nVidia, even though I have an ATI graphics card installed) and log into Games for Windows Live again (even though I had checked the “log in automatically” checkbox — I’m guessing that the update reset that), at which point I was told that I needed to install another Games for Windows Live update. I had to go through this cycle something like five times before it let me play the game. I almost gave up and hit the support forums, because there was no clear indication that it was actually making any progress. For all I knew, it might have been downloading the same update every time. At least it never went as far as to make good on its warning that it might have to restart the machine.

Since Microsoft has recently been making noises about turning Games for Windows Live into a viable iPhone-like app store that can compete with Steam, it’s worth noting how much worse this experience was than my first Steam experience. Back then, I wanted a particular game, and retail had failed me as a way to obtain it. So, Steam was my rescuer. I downloaded the latest client, and it gave me access to what I desired. Games for Windows Live, on the other hand, I first experienced as an obstacle. The only reason I sat through those updates was that it was holding my game hostage — the game I had already installed, which is not enhanced in any significant way by such a pairing. (It provides leaderboards, which I have no interest in, and achievements, which might as well be completely local for all I care.) I suppose that someone who bought the Orange Box on physical media might have a similar experience with Steam, but even then, my experience with Steam updates is that they’re much more polite than the “You must download this and restart the game now and not ask why” found here, more like “I’ve just finished downloading this. May I have permission to install it? No rush, I can do it later if you prefer. Here’s the changelog, if you want it.” Or consider the business of the “CD key”. The game is set up to require such a key the first time you run it, even though I’m playing without a CD. Steam is kind enough to provide this key, both on request and automatically when you run the game for the first time, in a nice dialog box with a button just for copying it to your clipboard, so you can just paste it in when the game requests it. And this works when the game requests it, but Game for Windows Live redundantly demanded it as well, and required me to enter it into four separate text fields, breaking copy-and-paste. At this point it seems like it’s just being ornery. Steam wants my experience to be a pleasant one; Games for Windows Live wants to throw its weight around.

Now, Arkham Asylum is a port of a console game, and one of the things I’m interested in learning from it is how it managed the translation of the controls to the PC. I’ll go into more detail later, when I’ve seen more of the game’s mechanics and can give a more complete report, but for now, let me just say that, although the game can be played fully with mouse and keyboard, it really wants a gamepad. Fortunately, I have my trusty Dualshock Controller for PS2 and third-party USB adapter! Unfortunately, the game is only willing to recognize an actual Xbox controller. This is not a matter of technical incompatibility: my controller is supported by DirectX and recognized by various other console-to-PC ports. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, it’s exactly equivalent to an Xbox controller in its capabilities, and could probably even masquerade as one with sufficient hackery. I personally don’t need to take things that far, because I have access to an Xbox controller that I can borrow for a while. But it’s still another unnecessary annoyance.

It all really seems to come down to one thing: Microsoft feels like it should have control over my machine. It was their ability to function as part of a system with open standards, an environment in which anyone could create software or even hardware, that initially gave Microsoft their dominant market position, but, having achieved such dominance, they have developed a taste for dominating. The Xbox comes a lot closer to their ideal than the PC does: a locked-down system where every title has to meet stringent certification requirements, many of which have more to do with helping Microsoft push the Xbox brand than with making the game better for the player. They must be really jealous of Apple’s ability to get away with this stuff without losing the goodwill of their customers.

Next post, I’ll talk about the game a little. But I may return to grumbling when SecuROM decides to take its turn at being a dick.

Obulis: Finished

It turns out that Obulis makes it completely clear when it thinks you’ve won, announcing it explicitly in a pop-up and then playing a credits sequence. This is a bit of a relief, because I wasn’t entirely clear on which levels were necessary for winning and which were optional bonus levels.

Just one puzzle left, and it's an UltraThe game is organized into three chapters, each of which contains multiple “paths”, or sequences of themed levels with their own graphical style, background music, and, in some cases, path-specific gameplay elements: Clock Tower levels have steadily-rotating gears that can carry marbles in their teeth, Pond levels are built out of flowering plants that are a little springy and never completely straight, etc. The maps show the individual levels as squares in a sort of board-game layout that visually differentiates between the levels you haven’t reached yet, the levels you’ve completed (which are still available for replay), and, most importantly, the levels you have access to but haven’t completed, which have a jagged nimbus so they really stand out. Paths sometimes branch a little, so that completing one path can open up access to two others. It’s all pretty typical of the superstructure in modern puzzle-games, particularly puzzle games that imagine themselves to be casual. (I personally have doubts whether a puzzle game with designed solutions can ever really fit the “casual” mold, but that takes us to the question of “What is a casual game?”, and that’s not what I want to talk about today.)

And occasionally the paths branch into optional bonus levels. Some of these levels are harder variations on levels in the path proper. These are easily identifiable by name: every level has a name consisting of its path name and a roman numeral, like “Dungeon III” or “Windmill VI”, and the harder variants just append the word “Ultra” to the end of that. Ultra levels have the same architecture as the levels they’re based on, and usually have a similar layout of balls, but are altered enough to require completely different solutions. I kind of assumed that these were optional, because they just seemed like extra content for people who want more challenges. (DROD, to name one precedent, has a few rooms that are harder variations on other rooms, and they’re invariably optional.) Looks kind of outdoorsy for an inner sanctum, if you ask me.But there was another sort that I wasn’t at all sure about: the Inner Sanctum levels. This is a “path” consisting entirely of single levels reachable from other paths. The unique presentation for these levels is inky silhouettes; the gameplay gimmick is that the silhouettes have paths through them that you can’t see, and have to find by experimentation; the background music, rather incongruously, consists of traffic noises. And each Inner Sanctum level you complete gives you a piece of a special artifact for that map. Each artifact, when completed, unlocks some of the Ultra levels — or were the Ultra levels unlocked by collecting the medallions at the end of the normal paths? I’ve forgotten already. This stuff isn’t where your attention falls while playing.

At any rate, because I didn’t look at the manual until after winning the game, I wasn’t sure if the Inner Sanctum levels were optional or not. It turns out that they are. I went back and completed them all after winning anyway, and in the process discovered that the game is rather insistent about playing the credits sequence, which isn’t interruptible, every time you complete a level after winning. Ah well. I probably won’t finish all the Ultras: they tend to be challenges of the “get things to collide in midair in just the right way” sort, rather than the “figure out the clever tick that makes it easy” sort. If I even make the attempt, it’ll be for the Achievements. Every single Ultra level has a Steam achievement associated with it.

Obulis

The tricky one here is that red ball on the left.I don’t seem to have any big-budget titles for 2008. Just as well — I tend to think of the last few years as typified by the triumph of the indie game. Obulis is a 2D physics-puzzler of a general sort that I mostly see for free on Flash games sites. But in fact it was originally designed for mobile devices, and consequently has a simplicity of interaction well-suited for touch-screens. The goal is to get colored marbles into their matching color-coded receptacles. Some of the balls dangle from chains (or, in some cases, rigid rods). You can select chains to cut them, allowing the balls to drop. And that’s all you can do. That’s the sole means of interacting with the game.

In the simplest of the puzzles, you basically just decide on what order to cut the chains in, allowing the balls to come to a full stop before releasing any more. More advanced levels require you to cut chains while the balls are still in motion — for example, there might be a ball that drops onto a flat surface, where it needs a nudge from another ball to start moving, and the only way to apply that nudge in the correct direction is to release it in the interval between another ball rolling up a nearby slope and rolling back down again. The trickiest puzzles, the ones that I find myself having to restart over and over, are the ones that require collisions. One of the repeated patterns is to have a ball suspended by two chains in a V configuration, so that cutting either chain starts it swinging left and right, after which the exact moment that you cut the other chain makes a huge difference to its trajectory. So, it’s not just puzzle-solving in the sense of figuring out a solution, but involves precise timing as well, with small differences having large effects, the multiplier effect of an angle over distance. Solving levels like this involves more fidgeting and adjustment than problem-solving skills. Sometimes winning a level looks miraculous, the bodies in motion moving past or into each other perfectly. But then, the levels are all set up to make the solutions possible. Just knowing this, that everything was placed by the designer for a reason, helps a lot in figuring the puzzles out.

Knowing the physics helps, too. Collisions between balls here are perfectly elastic, like in a Newton’s Cradle: when a moving ball hits an unmoving ball on a horizontal surface, it’ll transfer all of its kinetic energy, coming to a full stop — but in a slightly different place. Slight differences of placement can be important if you’re about to drop another ball on top of that spot.

After less than a day, I find myself more than halfway through the game, and with more than half of its Steam trophies. I suspect that I’ll either finish this game very soon or not at all.

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