Archive for February, 2011

And Yet It Moves: Ending

And Yet It Moves consists of three chapters, an interactive credits sequence, and a bonus level. The first chapter is set in a cave, the second in a forest, and the third, after starting in the forest, goes all trippy and stops pretending to be representational. The scraps that form the world suddenly take on a brightly-colored pattern like wrapping paper, and the set-pieces become more elaborate and more gameish. None of the game tries to be particularly realistic, but here at the end, the designer seems to feel freer to just do whatever he finds interesting.

Objects grow and shrink, or have textures that move completely independently of their real motion. Some areas rotate continuously on their own — compensating for this with only 90-degree turns is difficult enough that it seems like these bits in particular have to be easier on the Wii. There’s a repeated gimmick of colored platforms that appear and disappear in time with the background music. The background music doesn’t usually have a very strong beat, but for these segments, it changes. I really don’t care for the music in this game — it consists mainly of random Seinfeld-style mouth-pops and samples of someone saying “Doong” — but in the these segments, it becomes more coherent, and thus more tolerable. In fact, it reminds me of the music sections in some of the Rayman games.

And there’s a motif, used once per level towards the end, of doubling the player character. You hit a checkpoint in what looks like a dead end — it should be noted that the checkpoints look like sketch-people similar to the player avatar, who stand still and point in the direction you should go next, like a guide — and suddenly the world changes into an enclosed space with two such guides, one color-inverted, white-on-black instead of black-on-white. Another sketch-person stands there, and you’re in control of both, but they move in opposite directions. The only way to continue is to get them both to their opposite guides at once. It’s reminiscent of Scott Kim’s Double Maze, except taking place in a single space.

At the very end — and into the credits and bonus level — the color drains from the world, leaving it unmarked white, with occasional crumples and creases. It’s sort of a larger-scale version of what happens at the end of every level: your sketch-guy finds a white space with a black silhouette in the shape of himself and fits himself into it, restoring it to its pristine condition. Unusually for a platformer, the game doesn’t even address the question of why the player character wants to do this. You could interpret the whole thing as a metaphor for transcending the world of appearances (the photographs and other markings) and achieving awareness of the world as it is, which in this game means just paper. Except of course that the papery appearance is itself artifice. It’s all just bits. When the image on a “scrap” moves independently of its edges, it makes it clear that these aren’t even digitized versions of things that ever even existed as scraps in the physical world.

And Yet It Moves: Controls and Mistakes

I can’t really back this up, but I get the impression that And Yet It Moves is best-known as a Wiiware title, even though it was released for Mac and PC first. I suppose that’s just the nature of the market right now. Even ignoring the popularity of the Wii, Wiiware is an effective tool for making games visible to people who wouldn’t be exposed to them otherwise. But also, even though I haven’t tried the Wii version, it sounds like a better game. I mentioned that there are rotating-world games that give you continuous rotation, rather than the four-sided stuff I’m seeing here. The Wii version of AYIM has that, with multiple ways of accessing it from the controls. I have to wonder if the puzzle content had to be redesigned at all to accommodate continuous rotation or if it was just left alone, and if the latter, whether it makes alternate approaches possible.

One description I’ve read says that continuous rotation makes things more difficult, but it almost has to be easier to at least do what you intend most of the time. With a keyboard, you have the left hand on WASD and your right hand on the arrow keys, although only three keys of each set are used: A and D to move left and right, W to jump, Left Arrow to rotate the world counterclockwise 90 degrees, Right Arrow to rotate clockwise, and Up Arrow to do a 180-degree flip. The problem with this is that the directions of rotation aren’t very strongly associated with left and right. Half the time, I wind up pressing the wrong thing — which, given that the world takes a little time to rotate, and doesn’t freeze while it’s rotating, can be enough to kill me or otherwise make me start over whatever I was trying to do. (Checkpoints are plentiful, at least.) At first, I tried to remember that the left/right arrow keys indicate the direction the top of the screen moves in, but this is a difficult thing to apply in the heat of action. After a while, I instead tried thinking of it as pressing the key corresponding to the direction that I want to become down — a rule that happily applies to the up arrow as well. I think this is a little easier to apply, but I still wind up making a lot of mistakes.

The times when I’m least likely to make mistakes are the more intense stretches, when I’m rotating the playfield a lot. I don’t even think about it in terms of absolute directions then: I just know that I have to rotate the world opposite to my last rotation, or in the same direction again, and that’s an easy thing to communicate to my fingers. The game seems to be making this kind of quick flurry or rotation more and more necessary as the game goes on, replacing the more conventional platforming, which could have the ironic effect of making things easier for me.

And Yet It Moves

Another update and suddenly And Yet It Moves is working for me. This is a 2D puzzle-platformer that, like, Braid, is based around building puzzles around one unusual ability. In Braid, it was control of time. Here it’s control of gravity — or, equivalently, the ability to rotate the entire world. I’m told that there have been other games since that explore this idea more thoroughly — including things where you can rotate the world freely by any angle, instead of just in 90-degree increments as is the case here. There’s a whole mini-genre, apparently. There are also antecedents, like the Shift series, which lets you simultaneously flip the world upside-down and reverse figure and ground.

The one thing that really distinguishes AYIM from the likes of Shift is that your rotations affect more than just the player avatar. Boulders tumble from their now-horizontal holes, falling water drops do sharp mid-air turns, bats are dislodged form their perches and fly up to the new ceiling. There are bits where the focus is entirely on making some inanimate object fall the right way, although you still have to make sure that the avatar doesn’t fall too far and die in the process. Still, the most-repeated material is all about gravity-control-enhanced navigation: jumping off a cliff and then quickly turning the cliff wall into a floor, for example, or extending the length of your leap by falling part of the way.

I’m a bit disappointed about how little of the levels I can see at once. Surely the re-orienting of the world would be more impressive if I could see the world? But then, there may not be much of a coherent world to see, the levels being patched together out of bits that only make sense locally. Certainly they’ve picked a graphical style that suits such a design. This is a world of collage, made of ragged scraps torn from photographs. The really interesting thing is that the pictures in the scraps sometimes waver relative to their frames, or lag behind their movement a little, suggesting that the scraps are windows, or pieces torn out of windows.

Faerie Solitaire: Mimesis

Even if Faerie Solitaire is essentially the same game as Fairway Solitaire, it seems to me that the golf theme is a better fit to the gameplay. Regard each draw from the deck as a stroke: the game is about trying to achieve a goal (clearing the board of cards) in as few strokes as possible. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to think of a lengthy run from a single foundation as meaning that you’ve hit the ball a very long way. The “faerie” theme affords no such easy interpretation. In my mind, I’m comparing it to Puzzle Quest, which is another fantasy-themed game with highly abstract gameplay. But at least PQ took care to establish some clear metaphors for swordplay and spellcasting in the player’s activities, conveying a sense that it was all just a symbolic representation of what was really going on in the gameworld. All games with combat mechanics are abstractions; PQ just abstracted it a little farther than most. In Faerie Solitaire, there’s not even a clear notion of what the card-game might be an abstraction of.

I mean, what is the hero doing in the game? Assuming that the voice who narrates snippets of story in the first person is supposed to be the player character — and there’s not much to suggest this other than convention and expectation — he’s pretty passive. He travels from place to place, directed by various supernatural beings, observes conditions, and gets bits of prophecy thrown at him. Occasionally he lets a fairy out of a cage, but also at one point he’s tricked by a fairly transparent trickster into carrying a magic item that winds up killing a bunch of fairies instead, so at the point I’m at, I can’t really say that he’s had a net positive effect. It’s really surprising how much of a downer the story is. I guess it’s trying to use depictions of fairies being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, and occasionally slaughtered in large quantities as a way to motivate the player to free them, but it doesn’t really counterbalance this with depictions of fairies not being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, or slaughtered. The icon used for the game in the Steam interface shows a very sullen-looking baby-faced fairy, which struck me as an odd choice when I first saw it. Why not use a picture of a smiling, happy, frolicking fairy, which would probably be more appealing to the fairy-loving demographic and drive up sales? The answer: the game contains no such pictures.

The one occasionally mimetic thing about the levels is that the card layouts sometimes reflect the story environment. For example, if you’re walking along the shore, the cards might be arranged in a wavy pattern. But the physical layout is rather arbitrary, especially given the use of ice and thorn cards to rearrange the stacks without affecting the topology.

WoW: Ganked!

So, I’m thinking it’s time to stop for a while again. I’ve hit a natural breakpoint in several respects: the lover’s festival just ended (taking its time-limited content and Achievements with it), and I just hit level 50, and I’ve just completed the lingering quests in a couple of zones I was interested in completing. Zones in this game are like chapters: each tells a story (or a set of connected stories) through its quests, and only touches the stories in the other zones lightly. It’s an interesting way to organize a game. I suppose it’s more or less how most single-player CRPGs work, but the immense size of WoW makes it clear how distinctly the different sections are authored, and the apparent seamlessness of the terrain makes the actual divisions all the more striking. Also, seeing this structure makes clear something I hadn’t really understood before I started to play: the nature of the expansions. Each expansion brings new territories into the game, and consequently new storylines, because story and territory are so tightly coupled.

But also, I’m kind of reaching a dismaying point of the game: the point where other players are killing me. For no reason. Or, well, for “honor points”, I suppose, but if you ask me, there isn’t much honor in how it’s happening. I’m venturing into “contested” zones, because after a while that’s where the quests lead you. Because I’m still mostly questing at well below my level, I tend to feel safe, when all of the sudden some Alliance player just up and attacks me, usually killing me with one shot before I’m even aware of their presence. And suddenly this seems to be happening a lot; I don’t know why it didn’t before. In one case, I was pursuing a special Fishing quest, one of the few quests I’ve seen that touches multiple zones: you have to catch specific fish in four specific locations around the world. So I’m standing there peaceably on the shore with a fishing rod in my hand when all of the sudden BAM. My first urge was to say something like “WHAT THE HELL MAN”, but then I realized that anything I said wouldn’t be understood: the game has Alliance and Horde characters speaking different languages, and anything said by people on the opposite team shows up as gibberish.

By means of this communication barrier, and the fact that players on different sides generally only see each other in contested zones, the game fosters the illusion that the opposite side is composed entirely of irrational jerks who can’t be reasoned with. Which, okay, accurately describes a sizable fraction of the players anyway, as my dungeoneering experiences show. But on the opposite side, that’s all you see. And there’s probably a lesson in that.

I suppose that if I don’t like it, I should go to another server — random PvP in contested zones is only possible on servers that permit it, and servers that don’t permit it are apparently considered “normal” by Blizzard. (Normal servers have special PvP areas, apparently.) I think back to my Everquest days. I didn’t like PvP then either, but I deliberately chose to play on a PvP server, because I didn’t want to think that the only reason people refrained from attacking me was that they couldn’t. And it actually worked out pretty well: even playing as an ogre in human territory, I quickly got a local reputation as the friendly ogre who goes around casting healing spells on people in peril. But that wouldn’t fly in Azeroth. The story of WoW is a story about war, and Blizzard has gone to some lengths to reward people for acting in accordance with that story, and to place obstacles in the way of ignoring or subverting it.

WoW: Staring at UI

When you’re adventuring with a party in WoW, there’s a lot going on at once. Spell-sparks fly around so thick thick and rapid, and the state of the battle changes so swiftly, that it’s basically impossible for a newbie like me to follow the action. Like the robot fights in the Transformers movie, it’s just a big wodge of undifferentiated violence. The tendency of pick-up groups to just keep charging forward without plan or explanation just makes things worse.

So what you do is, you don’t pay attention to the battle. You pay attention to the user interface. In particular, playing the role of Healer, the graphical representation of the world is almost irrelevant: the information that needs your attention is in your teammates’ health bars, and, more significantly, not in the world at all. If you turned off the UI layer, you’d have no idea what to do.

This effect isn’t even exclusive to multi-player play. When you take on a quest that involves singling out particular types of creature, there might be other, similar creatures in the area that don’t count. How do you distinguish a Dying Kodo from a mere Aged Kodo? There are probably differences in the model or texture maps, but the game doesn’t rely on the player noticing anything so subtle. No, the ones that are relevant to the quest have their name floating above them. (Any creature gets its name above it when you target it, but quest goals have their name above them simply because you should target them.) The words are usually easier to spot than the creatures, too.

Or consider the act of gathering herbs. How do you distinguish a pickable herb from random noninteractive foliage? Often the herbs have coloration that makes them stand out, but that’s far from reliable. No, you spot them through the cursor rollover: the action cursor for herb-picking is an icon of a little cluster of flowers. Stop to think about that for a moment. In your view of the gameworld, there is graphical representation of a plant, but in order to understand it, you need to see another graphical representation of a plant, at the UI level.

The point is that you just can’t rely on the 3D world to give you the information you need, so you spend most of your time looking at UI instead. Which is a bit of a shame, because the gameworld is really beautiful.

WoW: Achievements

The Valentine’s Day event in World of Warcraft is almost over for the year. It was originally scheduled to last two weeks, but got extended a couple of days. The time-limited nature of the special holiday content has been my inspiration for playing so much lately — in particular, the Achievements. There’s a whole section of the game’s extensive and multi-tiered Achievements menu for ones associated with special events, and just this one festival has fifteen of them. I’m determined to get as many as I can at the moment, which isn’t all of them — one essentially requires a level 80 character, and a handful of others make you go to places that are only accessible with the expansions. (They just can’t pass up an opportunity to make it clear that basic WoW isn’t the full game, can they?)

Achievements get a bad rap, in my opinion. People object that they’re pointless, things that you’re encouraged to do without any real reward, but if you ask me, that describes most entire games. But assuming that you want to play a game, you probably don’t want to be distracted from it, and Achievements sometimes do just that. I think the problem here is that the Achievement system most familiar to people is that of the Xbox 1The very word “Achievement” is an Xboxism. Games predating Xbox Live that had their own Achievement systems used other terms, such as the “Skill Points” in Ratchet & Clank. , which handles them badly in a number of ways. For one thing, Achievements are a mandatory part of Xbox titles, regardless of whether or not the game is suited to them. Consequently, developers who don’t want Achievements in their games grudgingly jam in rewards for pointless and arbitrary actions at the last minute. Compounding this effect is the Gamerscore, a global sum of things that aren’t really comparable, let alone summable. It all seems like whoever came up with the system had a limited notion of what games could be.

But when a game is amenable to Achievements, they can enhance the player experience by adding another layer of intent. And a CRPG like WoW seems like the perfect place for such a thing. The player’s actions, in most cases, are fairly simple and uniform: you fight, you loot, you move on. The thing that keeps the player’s interest is the multiple things they’re working towards in the process. On the simplest and most direct level, you’re usually trying to physically move to some location, and monsters are getting in your way. The reason you’re trying to move there is to satisfy some quest or other — a goal that puts your immediate actions into a context. On top of that (and orthogonal to it), you’re also trying to level up, and to collect cash for upgrades. You may also be hunting for specific items, ingredients or components that will help you to practice one of your professions. Achievements are just one more optional thing for you to work towards in parallel.

Or rather, not just one more thing. Multiple things. WoW‘s Achievements are broad enough to contain consistent categories, things that you could imagine another game working into its basic mechanics instead of folding into the “miscellaneous” bin of Achievements. For every zone on the map, there’s an “exploration” Achievement for visiting all of its sub-regions, and also an achievement for completing a certain number of quests there. Every dungeon has an achievement for completing it — which provides another constraint for such as me, because dungeons disappear from the Dungeon Finder as you level up, robbing you of opportunities to Achieve. These are things that are rewarded anyway, with experience and treasure and opportunities, but Achievements prod you to do them thoroughly. And how can a completist like myself object to that?

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1. The very word “Achievement” is an Xboxism. Games predating Xbox Live that had their own Achievement systems used other terms, such as the “Skill Points” in Ratchet & Clank.

WoW and Loathing

If there’s one thing that starting to play World of Warcraft has given me so far, it’s a greater appreciation of its influences in other games. In particular, several aspects of Kingdom of Loathing that I had taken to be simply drawn from CRPGs in general turn out to be direct imitations (or satires) of things in WoW. Which is a little strange, because KoL was in fact released first. But both games have changed substantially since launch.

For example, one of the more noticeable additions to KoL from about three years ago was an optional alternate combat interface. Before this, combat was done with a simple HTML menu with a couple of drop-down lists. The new interface used DHTML to present a row of numbered boxes, into which you could drag icons representing skills or combat-usable inventory items, which you could activate by either clicking on them or by hitting the corresponding number key on your keyboard. It also supported multiple banks of such icons, with buttons for paging up and down between banks. In short, it was an awful lot like the WoW action bar, except for the fact that it only applies to combat. In WoW, it’s the main way you perform any action in the game.

One of the more useful icons you can put on the KoL action bar represents the command “repeat last thing” — either repeat the last action when in combat, or, afterward, adventure again in the same location. The icon for this is the number 1 in parentheses — “(1)” — which is sort of a joke on the notation used throughout the game to warn players that an action will cost an adventure. The zones on the maps are all marked with strings like “The Spooky Forest (1)”, but this icon obviously doesn’t know what zone you’re adventuring in, so all it can display is the “(1)”. Anyway, now it seems to me like it’s also poking fun at WoW‘s “!” icon in its action bar, the icon for accessing the quest log. It similarly takes a piece of UI typography and elevates it to the status of symbol.

KoL doesn’t have or need a quest symbol of this sort, because questing of the kind you do in WoW isn’t a very big part of the game. But there’s one thing that’s very much in the same vein: the Bounty Hunter Hunter. The BHH’s job is to find and hire adventurers willing to go after specific monster types for a reward. You can approach him once per day to start hunting something, with the choices available varying from day to day. In other words, it’s what WoW calls a “daily quest”, and like several of the WoW dailies, the reward is a special pseudo-monetary token that can only be spent at the same premises that awards it. But the biggest WoWism here is the way that questing for a particular creature makes it drop a special quest-redemption item that it never drops otherwise. I thought this was very strange when I first encountered it in KoL, but it turns out to be one of the fundamentals of WoW. It should be noted that before 2007, the Bounty Hunter Hunter worked completely differently: he just bought a daily assortment of ordinary monster-leavings for twice the usual price. But this didn’t encourage people to go out and hunt the day’s selected monsters; it just encouraged them to hoard their trash until it the BHH wanted it. So switching to the WoW model here was probably a good idea.

I don’t want to imply that KoL is just a WoW imitation. They’re very different games, and most of KoL‘s mechanics are either original or cribbed from other browser-based games. But they do occupy more or less the same niche in my mind, of a game that’s as much a social experience as a gaming one, and that gives you the feeling that you have to play every day to really keep up.

World of Warcraft is Decadent and Depraved

Oleari joined a guild a little while back, invited by my one known friend on that server, who is one of the guild’s co-founders. (Both guild and friend will remain nameless here.) Guilds in WoW are voluntary associations of players that get certain benefits — a permanent shared chat channel, a shared bank vault, some special mechanics to support raids. As of the Cataclysm expansion, Guilds can also level up, just like player characters, to provide special perks for the members, like experience bonuses or increased speed for your mounts. But the main thing I’m aware of when I play is the chat channel. It’s always there, spewing occasional banter, profanity, and tactics. It’s also pretty much my only contact with the guild; I have yet to do any adventuring with anyone in it. I don’t even often talk on the guild channel, because I don’t really feel like I have a place in the guild’s social dynamics.

But I feel like I have to at least give the guild thing a try for my WoW experience to be complete. It is, after all, one of the things that distinguishes it from the other sorts of games I play, and it seems silly not to take advantage of it. Meet people, without the pressure of actually meeting them! Alas, even that might be too much for a geek like me. People are still people, and anonymous strangers on the internet are moreso.

Just yesterday, I happened to be logged on at the same time as aforementioned friend, and we talked amiably for a bit on the guild channel. After she logged off, someone else addressed me: “Carl, you fuck,” he began. Not quite as amiable, but lacking context, I chose to imagine that he just likes to swear and that it wasn’t personal. He then asked if I wanted to “do” my friend the guildleader. I think I would have been stunned into silence by the impertinence even if I hadn’t been busy fighting off giant spiders at the time. He wasn’t really interested in waiting for my answer, though. He was just warming up to badmouthing her behind her back and accusing her, rather ironically to my mind, of being passive-aggressive.

I don’t know if this guy had some kind of bad history with her or if it was random Internet Misogyny or what. Regardless, I maintained an uncomfortable silence for the rest of the evening, fearing that if I spoke, he’d try to engage me in conversation again. And it was perhaps my silence that allowed me to witness the night’s next uncomfortable moment: two players — I kid you not — using the guild chat to arrange a drug deal.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this. Perhaps I’m just uptight, or “square” as the kids say. But this isn’t the sort of thing I expect to see while I’m playing a computer game. People are supposed to buy and sell drugs at clubs and parties and raves and similar situations that I can avoid. Computer games are a world apart, more apollonian than dionysian, a place for such as me. But not any more, I guess, or at least not exclusively. You don’t get eleven million subscribers without attracting all sorts. And in the context of the guild, I’m even more aware that I’m a guest in someone else’s house. Whether I’ll stay or not, I haven’t decided yet. It is kind of nice to have my horse run 10% faster.

Gish: Bosses and Bossiness

The final boss in Gish is an interesting one. As hinted by a couple of prior boss speeches, it’s another ball of tar, similar to Gish himself. The chief differences: first of all, in a concession to readability, it’s white. I’ve never heard of white tar, but you need to be able to tell it apart from Gish. Secondly, it doesn’t have quite the same capabilities as Gish: it doesn’t seem to be able to jump, or to turn sticky and climb up walls. It does have the ability to turn heavy and ram you, and when thrown into the air, can zero in on you with all its crushing weight. Beating the level requires hurling a block up onto a platform (so you can use it to weigh down a switch that opens a trap door into a lava pit), and aiming it while being battered by a white tarball is the most difficult thing about the fight.

Thirdly, despite my use of the neuter pronoun above, the end boss is female. (Don’t ask me what distinguishes male tar from female tar.) This is a twist on the usual kidnapped-girlfriend plot that I only recall seeing once before, in Earthworm Jim. Usually the person who kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend is an implied romantic rival, regardless of his ostensible motives. Here, the relationship archetype is instead that of jealous psycho ex. Her motivation for the abduction was that she wanted the girlfriend out of the picture, mistakenly believing that she was the only thing standing in the way of destined love. But even then, her pre-fight rant implies that she really understands underneath it all that she was never anything to Gish, and never will be: she hollers “What do you mean, you don’t even remember me?” and similar disappointments when Gish hasn’t actually said anything of the sort.

In fact, Gish never says anything at all. All the bosses in the game begin their bossing with boasting and taunting and bombast, and Gish’s reply is always the same: “…..” And then the clever, agile hero overcomes his overconfident foe by exploiting the environment. (It may take dozens of lives to accomplish this, but we don’t count these failures as part of the actual story of the game, do we?) It’s often the mark of the difference between hero and villain, isn’t it? The villain is ego-driven. The hero just wants to get the job done. Even when the hero is given to wisecracks, like Spider-Man, the villain has to step up his boasting to compensate, or else the hero just comes off as something of a jerk. And it’s particularly appropriate here, in a game based around cartoonish grotesques, with a strange hero with strange abilities , but notably awkward in the things that other platformer characters find easy. If Escape from Butcher Bay was a game written to appeal to the school bully, this is a game written for the school weirdo. Getting your way without the need for verbal sparring is part of the fantasy. (Although Spider-Man has a similar sort of appeal — heck, he even shares Gish’s wall-climbing abilities — and, as noted, engages in verbal sparring all the time. Maybe there’s something wrong with my analysis.)

At any rate, it’s finally off the Stack, where it would have been back in 2009 if it had been working properly. I may come back to look for secrets, I may not. Just having it on my Macbook makes it more likely that I will.

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