Archive for March, 2011

WoW: Non-Combat XP

Some years back, a gnomish rogue called Noor the Pacifist attracted some attention by attempting to advance as far as possible in World of Warcraft without killing anything — not even indirectly, by joining in a party and sharing experience from kills. This endeavor seems to have been done in the same spirit as conduct challenges in Nethack, only much more visibly. People make attempts at memorable characters all the time, and some become well-known within their communities, but Noor is the only player character who’s ever really stood out for me. The simple act of resistance, of refusing to go where the rules of the game lead, is a lot more striking here than it would be in most games, because the story of WoW is so very much a story of war — moreso even than most combat-based CRPGs, possibly even moreso than some wargames.

But Noor wasn’t the first attempt at pacifism by that player, nor the last. And in fact other people are trying it out now, because, as with many aspects of the game, the changes in Cataclysm have made it easier.

There have always been sources of combat-free XP. You get a certain amount just for exploring regions for the first time. There are various quests that don’t require combat: quests to fetch items, deliver messages, gather herbs, etc. (I suppose you could argue that a pacifist shouldn’t be doing espionage missions that lead directly to battles, but I don’t think this bothers the pacifist players much.) But there’s a finite number of regions to explore and quests to do — especially considering that a pacifist will be simply locked out of large sections of the quest tree.

As of Cataclysm, you can gain XP from ordinary, non-quest-based mining and herb-gathering. This drops with your character level, though, just like fighting monsters or doing quests below your level. But there’s an even bigger gain: the new daily cooking and fishing quests in Orgrimmar. These give a substantial wodge of XP, and, unless my eyes deceive me, it scales with your level. A pacifist couldn’t do both quests every day — at least one of the cooking quests involves killing pigs — but between them, they seem to get you about 10% of the way to the next level.

Of course, you’re going to level slower that way. But are you going to level slower than me? I’ve been taking the scenic route through the game for a while now, pursuing quests for the sake of pursuing quests, even when they yield no XP whatever. A limited-conduct run wouldn’t be significantly slower than this, and would yield a better story and bragging rights afterward. Maybe I should try to figure out some other obscure and difficult limitation. But I get the impression that people have pretty much already rung all the changes on that.

WoW on the Wane?

I’m still in that state where I don’t have time or attention to spare on starting (or even resuming) a major game. But I figured I should put in a little more time on WoW as long as I’m paying for it, and logged in for a couple of quick sessions, doing low-level quests over in the Hinterlands. (I’m very close to getting the Achievement for that region.) But even as I come back to the game, it seems that a lot of people are leaving it. At least, that was the constant refrain on the chat channels.

Partly, it seems, it’s the competition: people torn away by Rift, which has been very specifically advertising itself as a WoW-killer for the last month or two. Partly it’s just that a whole lot of people reopened their accounts just to see the effects of the Cataclysm expansion, and now that they’ve seen it, they’re losing interest again. Or so it’s said. I honestly don’t have any direct evidence that people actually are leaving in droves. If I were to go to Orgrimmar, a place that I think of as the Times Square of Azeroth, and find it deserted, that would be something. But I haven’t been back there yet at all. Like I said, I’ve been in the Hinterlands. Not encountering anyone in the Hinterlands comes as no surprise.

Of course, even if most of the players are suddenly leaving, it doesn’t strongly affect my mostly-solo play experience. It might even be beneficial, by reducing the competition in auctions or something like that. But even so, the idea that the game is on the wane just as I’m getting into it is disheartening, like I’ve cast my lot in with a losing cause. Which is a completely irrational reaction for someone who used to play and enjoy A Tale in the Desert. I’m pretty sure that ATitD‘s user base on its most popular day ever was still multiple orders of magnitude below WoW‘s today. But that means that ATitD has always been the scrappy underdog, while WoW has to play the role of the empire in decline.

And when I say it “has to”, I mean that it’s inevitable. If not today, then someday, and soon enough that most current and former players will live to see it happen. This is the fundamental tragedy of MMOs: that they’re doomed to peter out. A single-player game can end in triumph, but a conventional 1Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here. MMO can only end in lack of interest. Oh, sure, in theory Blizzard could decide to end it while it’s still on top, as various TV shows have managed to do, but while this might be right thing to do artistically, it’s unfeasible financially. They’re not going to kill their cash cow until it stops being milkable.

I spoke before about how WoW‘s popularity is self-supporting. And this isn’t just based on the perception of popularity; actual raw numbers of people give the game certain advantages, regardless of whether people are aware of them or not. But the perception of popularity is undeniably a factor. I mean, heck, my own perception of the game’s popularity, of its ubiquity in game culture, is what convinced me to start playing. So I start to wonder if this advantage might be double-edged. Will a perception of people leaving in droves induce people to actually leave in droves? I don’t know. Very likely not; the old-timers have probably heard it all before.

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1. Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here.

Faerie Solitaire: Final Thoughts

This has been a very busy time for me, as you might have guessed from my lack of posts. It isn’t really the case that I haven’t had time to play games, but I haven’t had time to play games and blog about them. And so I’ve got about a third of the new achievements in Half-Life 2, which I got off the Stack three years ago when it didn’t have achievements yet, and I’ve gotten maybe a quarter of the way into the latest Gemcraft sequel, Gemcraft Labyrinth, which isn’t on the Stack because I haven’t paid for it. Gemcraft Labyrinth is a game you can play it for free on the web, but certain optional features are locked until you pony up some dough, and the UI pointedly reminds you of this every time you begin or end a level, so it’s likely that I’ll break down and pay at some point.

Still, I can’t ignore the Stack completely, can I? And so I spent a little time this weekend polishing off the game I was closest to completing, Faerie Solitaire. There are still two Challenge levels that I’d like to complete at some point, and I’m missing enough of the fairy pets that I doubt I’ll ever bother to catch ’em all. 1Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now. (It’s still not clear to me if the eggs that the pets hatch from are granted at random, or if they’re under specific spots in specific levels. The latter would make hunting the last ones down more appealing.)

I don’t really have a lot to say about the game that I haven’t already said. The final levels didn’t reveal anything new or transform gameplay in any unexpected ways, especially considering that I had already purchased all the power-ups. When you finish the last level, you get to passively listen to the hero describe confronting an evil wizard, and then there’s a sequel hook. Which has got me speculating: what would I put in a sequel if it were up to me?

I’d want to elaborate on the game mechanics, obviously. I felt that the gameplay didn’t even really support a game of this length, so definitely I wouldn’t want to keep things the same in a sequel. Probably I’d try to figure out some way to make the layouts more relevant, less prone to devolving into a bunch of independent columns.

I’d want to do more with the pets. At the very least, I’d give them spot animations to make it seem more like you’re collecting creatures rather than portraits of creatures. Also, they’d be more interesting if your choice of current pet had some kind of effect on the game beyond bringing it closer to its adult form. Certain pets could give you bonus gold, for example, or turn additional cards face-up. Even if it’s undesirable for pets to affect the main game this way, they could at least affect the pet system: pets could make it more likely to find specific resources. There’s all sorts of unused potential here.

Finally, I’d want to give the fairies more of a voice in the story. Now, the story of Faerie Solitaire isn’t the most relevant part of the game. It’s pretty much just tacked on. But it’s tacked on poorly. We have all these fairy pets, we have constructions in Fairyland, we have cards with pictures on them, we have fairies as an ostensible unifying theme. I’d want to see this stuff become relevant in the story. In what we have, the story is instead about a journey to defeat an evil wizard, with fairies as a mere MacGuffin, not as characters. Fairies have the potential to guide the hero or trick him, to set quests, give hints, keep secrets, misunderstand your intentions, cast spells that help or hinder the player. Zanzarah, still the best fairy-themed videogame I’ve played, felt a lot more like a story about fairies, even though it didn’t do much more with them than Faerie Solitaire does — the fairies there are mainly treated as tools, not characters, and never really have agendas of their own. But at least it has wild fairies that attack you spontaneously, which makes them seem self-willed.

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1. Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now.

DHSGiT: Ending

It’s easy to tell when you’ve entered the endgame in Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, because time stops advancing. The last chapter is played in a perpetual midnight, which is plainly symbolic: it’s by far the darkest chapter. Ironic, then, that it’s also the point at which so much comes to light.

For Brigiton is a town with a secret, a guilt shared by the entire adult population. In fact, it has several, and they all come tumbling out one after another towards the end. One fairly big one involving the town’s finances was already revealed in a previous chapter, and in the process explained quite a lot of the townfolks’ seemingly irrational behavior, and their willingness to accept and even defend blatant lies — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to persuade a man of the truth when his salary depends on his not believing it. The girls’ response to this is to deliberately sabotage the town’s economy, by far the most obviously ill-advised plan in a game full of ill-advised plans. But the dirtier secrets are kept for the end, and dirty indeed they are. One in particular stands out as the dirtiest. I’m going to get spoilery here.

There are several points in the game where the topic of the girls’ eventual marriage comes up. (Looking back, I think they might correlate with the points where it’s possible to recruit boyfriends.) I recall some early NPC comments along the lines of “You’ll understand on your wedding night”. It seemed fairly sinister, in context, and became no less so when other grown-ups found it necessary to remind the girls that marriage is an honorable institution and suchlike. I couldn’t help but speculate about the wedding night secret. Some approximation of the Stepford Wives? A cult of some manner, either Satanic or Lovecraftian? The truth turned out to be not nearly so fanciful, but all the more shocking because of it. Brigiton, it turns out, is the one town in America to have imported the ancient (and probably fictitious) custom of the droit de siegnur. When people in Brigiton marry, the mayor has the legal right to have his way with the bride.

Much has been made of the sequence that starts the final chapter, a scenario involving the attempted rape of one of the girls in your gang by one of the anonymous boys (a potential boyfriend from earlier), and his death at the player’s hands. It’s a shock when it happens, even if you’re anticipating it, because the sudden change in mood from unbridled silliness to raw horror and desperation makes it seem out-of-place. But once you have the full context, it isn’t out of place at all. The boy is just emulating his role model, Mayor Stogie, who has basically raped the entire town. (Worse, in a couple of cases it’s my fault: the game contains some opportunities to bring couples together. I had wondered why they were so angry at me afterward.) You can argue that it’s not that cut-and-dried: as one NPC points out, the wedding night law is easily circumvented by just not getting married in Brigiton, and at least some of the people who have gone along with it have done so in exchange for benefits of some kind. So, not so much rape as socially-approved prostitution? But then, that’s not exactly an either/or proposition. In one case, the “benefit” consisted of letting the groom out of prison, with the implied threat that he wasn’t ever getting out any other way, so there’s definitely coercion. The mayor is a master of taking advantage of situations, especially situations where people are desperate. And he’s willing to manufacture the desperation.

For most of the game, the mayor comes off as a mere caricature of an old-fashioned American politician, all bombast and petty corruption, and dimwitted enough for a bunch of high school girls to pose a serious challenge to him. (The scene where you “debate” him via the game’s usual insult minigame makes him seem particularly silly.) Here at the end, he becomes more like a personification of unquestioned privilege. Even when he was in high school himself, we learn, he was a bully, beating people up in the secure knowledge that no one would ever challenge his right to do so. The most distressing part of this kind of injustice is the cooperation of the victims, and that’s continued into his political career. The wedding-night law was adopted as part of a political compromise that also gave the women of Brigiton the vote, years before women’s suffrage was adopted nationwide. The woman who came up with this compromise figured that she had outsmarted the mayor, because the part she wanted would render the part the mayor wanted moot: given the power, the women of the town would replace the mayor with someone who’d repeal the wedding-night law. But no, to her shock, everyone kept on voting for him, proving his more cynical view of humanity correct, that people will rally behind those who mistreat them, will try to compensate for their weakness by taking the side of the (apparently) strong. This is what’s at stake at the end: human nature, whether people possess the will to rise up against the kind of entrenched power that exists only because it’s entrenched. Well, at least the dangerous high school girls do. They remind me a little of Veronica Mars, another fictional high-school girl with a penchant for uncovering secrets and a relentless crusade against privilege.

Having seen the final chapter, I kind of see Big Fish’s point about the sexual content, which isn’t at all limited to what I’ve mentioned above. The game gets raunchier as it goes along — the ending I got involved the mayor receiving implied oral sex from a donkey. There’s nothing explicit, but that’s because it always stops just barely short of saying what it obviously means. A young child playing the game would be severely confused about what’s going on a large portion of the time, and, more importantly, would completely miss the point of the story.

My one biggest dissatisfaction with the game remains the amount of content I missed without intending to. While it’s true that, as I said before, important stuff waits for you, there are a lot of optional sub-quests bound to specific chapters, and it isn’t always obvious which of the goals you’re pursuing in parallel is the one that makes the others go away uncompleted. I’ll try to be more thorough if I play again. And this is a game that more or less demands to be played a second time, if only to see all the hints and foreshadowing in full knowledge of that they mean. Plus, I’m a little curious about what happens if you manage to successfully flirt with the detective in your final encounter with him, and that would require some serious min-maxing.

DHSGiT: Race

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is set in America in the 1920s. This much is clear from the mentions of Prohibition, which becomes a prominent part of the plot at one point. But there are some apparent anachronisms. There’s an occasional bit of music that sounds out-of-place to me, too boogie-woogie for the period. But apparently, even though boogie didn’t hit its peak of popularity until the late 1930s, it existed as a distinct form as early as the 19th century. How likely you’d be to hear it in a well-to-do suburb is another question.

Which brings us to the matter of racial issues. “What racial issues?” you might ask, especially if you’ve played the game. To which I respond: Exactly. The people of Brigiton, blinkered and hypocritical though they are in many respects, are remarkably enlightened when it comes to race. The high school itself is integrated; there are at least two black playable characters, and they’re simply accepted as dangerous high school girls, no different from the rest. One of the teachers is black — a woman, in fact, who teaches science and math. Not only that, she has a romance subplot with a white man, and, while there’s quite a lot of worry and hesitation on both sides there, there’s no suggestion that this would in itself be scandalous.

Of course, this isn’t a realistic game. It’s comically distorted — I’d call it cartoonish, but the style makes it more reminiscent of a slapstick silent film. This game is to the real 1920s as the more usual CRPG setting is to medieval Europe. It takes the setting as a flavor, not as a binding contract.

DHSGiT: School on the Bus

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble turns out to be an excellent game to play on a laptop on the bus — much moreso than the last game I tried playing that way. There’s nothing realtime about it, and nothing requiring precision. The necessary context is minimal, in terms of both gameplay and plot — like in Chrono Trigger, the story all happens in the moment, and builds in unpredictable directions rather than bending toward an inevitable climax. And somehow, the game just makes the bus ride go faster. I settle in to play a few mini games, and all of the sudden I’m home.

It seems like the main complaint about the game in other reviews was that it got monotonous after a while. The mini-games don’t provide a lot of variety — far less than a typical modern combat-based RPG, because those are always full of special-case monsters that require you to vary your tactics (until you become powerful enough to just brute-force your way through them, anyway). This is something that would be good to address in any future game inspired by DHSGiT‘s mechanics. But even here, it’s really only an issue if you’re trying to play it in long sessions, like you would a normal CRPG. My first two sessions, back in January, were like that. Playing on the bus means shorter sessions, and that seems to be the way to play this game for maximal enjoyment — as well as being just plain healthier than obsessive marathon play.

It all makes me think that this game, or some development of it, would be a good match for cell phones. The UI seems pretty touchscreen-friendly already. I wonder if the developers have even considered this possibility? I wouldn’t be surprised if they had already given up on the idea of getting it into the iTunes App Store, considering their experiences with Big Fish, which removed the game from their catalog on the basis of “some strong sexual content towards the end of the game”. I haven’t got that far yet — I still only have access to three of the game’s four gameboards — but fans of the game insist that it’s PG-13 at most. Still, I can imagine Apple looking askance just on the basis of precedent. There’s always Android, but is it a big enough market to justify the effort of porting by itself? I don’t know.

DHSGiT: Time and Opportunity

So, I’m getting back into Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble a little bit. Like most modern CRPGs, it keeps track of your current goals and has a handy recap feature, so it didn’t take long for me to remember where I was in the ongoing story of Brigiton School for Girls and environs. The latest scandal: pogo sticks. The mayor has banned them, but his reasons are specious, and seem to be mainly an excuse to send a gang of toughs around to look for contraband pogo sticks and intimidate people. Meanwhile, the thrill of the illicit has brought pogoing to a clandestine new popularity. Most of the story is at this level of silliness, and this level of lightly-veiled sociopolitical commentary.

In fact, the one thing I dislike about the story the most is the fear of missing bits of it. To some extent, this is inevitable — the game features multiple endings, and I’ve already been through some scenes that can come to multiple conclusions, where failure to meet a particular goal doesn’t impede the plot. But you can also cut yourself off from opportunities — implicitly including opportunities for character advancement through mini-games — by concluding sections of the plot before you intend to. I’ve done a certain amount of backtracking to older saves just to check out what I’ve missed. Arguably this is the wrong way to play the game, and one is better served by playing it through straight multiple times.

The thing that’s really upsetting is when I’m cut out of a plot branch by nothing more than bad timing. This is essentially a turn-based game: time in the gameworld goes in discrete lumps of at least an hour, and sometimes more. The school buildings are only open at certain times of day, as are the buildings in town. There was one sub-plot where I encouraged two shy lovebirds to go to the town library at the same time. Rushing over there afterward to help things along, I was dismayed to discover that I had done this too late in the afternoon, and the library was now closed. This sort of restriction strikes me as a weakness in the game, liable to engender frustration.

On the other hand, the two of them were still in the library when I stopped by the next day. Really important plot events wait for you. But then, isn’t this just another kind of weakness in a timekeeping system?

WoW: Battleground

I’ve just spent some time pursuing exploration and (mostly low-level) quests in the Eastern Kingdoms, where the story is dominated by the undead. I’ve thoroughly conquered the Hillsbrad Foothills, Arathi Highlands, and Western Plaguelands zones — territories I had already explored to various degrees, but now they’re not just explored but exhausted. In the process, I discovered the entrance to the Scholomance, a dungeon I had explored via the Dungeon Finder some time previously. That keeps happening: I do a dungeon, and only some time later do I receive the dungeon’s context. Sometimes there’s even a quest to enter the dungeon and talk to the questgiver immediately inside, who would then give me quests if I hadn’t already done them.

Quests to enter dungeons are of course a way that the game tries to get you to try out all of the game modes. In Arathi Highlands, I encountered another such for the first time: a quest involving a PvP “battleground” zone, where Horde players clash with Alliance players in an attempt to capture strategic points. To do the quest, you have to register for a battle on the Arathi Basin map and “assault” four specific capture points (each of which corresponds to an important building: a stable, farmhouse, etc). What does “assault” mean? Well, each capture point has a flag indicating which side controls it; click an enemy flag and stand still for several seconds — long enough to give any enemies still present a chance to kill you — and you start a one-minute countdown, at the end of which the point becomes yours. The character who performs this action is reported to the world as assaulting the point. However, I only did this once during my time in the Basin, and somehow managed to get quest credit for assaulting all four points, so there’s clearly more to it than that. Perhaps just standing near the flag while someone else assaults it counts. Similarly, the scoreboard at the end of my first battle credited me with a number of “honorable kills” despite not having actually killed anyone.

Battlegrounds, like dungeons, are instanced zones — areas cut off from the rest of the world, existing independently for each set of players using the zone at once. The only way to enter them is by queueing up through an interface similar to the Dungeon Finder. For historical reasons, you can access this interface by talking to an NPC who stands next to the gate that used to lead into a battleground (but which is now impassible), but you can also access it via an icon on the action bar, right next to the Dungeon Finder icon. This strikes me as a very good change: if I understand correctly, it used to be that entering a battleground involved going to a specific location and then waiting there for enough people to queue up to fill an instance. Being able to hop on the queue anywhere means that I can spend that time exploring instead of sitting around bored. It makes me think of the complaints leveled against “virtual world” interfaces like Playstation Home, about how they needlessly impose the limitations and inconveniences of the real world. I suppose it’s a tough call to make in a MMO, where the sense of your avatar’s physical presence in the shared gameworld is a big part of the game’s appeal, but I’m glad that people are figuring out when sticking to the virtual model does and doesn’t enhance the player experience and making adjustments accordingly.

Only five players at a time can enter a dungeon instance. Battlegrounds support — indeed, require — larger teams than that. Consequently, the interface for showing your team is different: denser, more abstract, less intuitive. It’s a grid of green blocks, showing everyone’s health bars. It took me a little while to realize that characters who were in range of my healing spells were displayed in a brighter shade of green; once I noticed this, I was much more effective as a healer. The most satisfying moments were the times I managed to charge in to the rescue, coming into a skirmish in progress and quickly filling up the emptying life bars, then plopping down some totems to give my team an extra edge. I mean, okay, a Restoration shaman isn’t the best team member for a battleground, and I should really learn how to use my second specialization if I decide to pursue this side of the game further. But at least I managed to be useful sometimes.

Battleground mode is definitely the part of the game that plays the most like what you’d expect from WoW‘s basic premise: that it’s Warcraft played from the inside. But it reminds me even more of Team Fortress 2. There’s a similar flow, a similar seesawing of power, of people rushing around from point to point in small groups. Except, of course, that at the lowest level, it’s much more elaborate than TF2. You get the full range of WoW‘s myriad special abilities in play here, and as baroque as TF2 is becoming, WoW has a two-year head start on it. I’m impressed anew with what Blizzard is attempting here. Battleground mode plays so utterly differently from quests or dungeons (where your only opponents are computer-controlled sacrifical lambs, built for beating) that the idea of building such a complex system, and periodically extending it, while keeping it balanced in both of these contexts seems impossibly difficult. And I’m sure that a more experienced player could tell me all about how they failed in the attempt — certainly the general chatter within the game is full of fannish complaints about design decisions. But regardless, I admire the attempt.

WoW: Glyphs

Reopening World of Warcraft after two weeks of inactivity, the first order of the day was to get some glyphs.

Glyphs are a way to enhance your spells and special abilities. There’s a special interface, a tab under the Talents menu, containing three banks of glyph slots, each accepting one prime, one major, and one minor glyph. (This prime/major/minor distinction is apparently a recent alteration to the system.) The interface also has a lengthy scrolling list of all the glyphs available to your character class, with tooltip descriptions of their effects. Each glyph applies to one spell, and the effects are varied. Most glyphs simply increase the effect, range, casting frequency, or duration of their spell. Others are more miscellaneous: the glyph for Healing Wave, for example, causes it to heal the caster for 20% of the amount it heals the target, and the glyph for the Grounding Totem, a summoned object that absorbs one attack spell cast at you, makes it instead reflect the spell back at the caster. There are even vanity glyphs: one minor glyph for the Shaman just alters the appearance of your Ghost Wolf form to look like an arctic wolf.

None of this is available from the beginning. The first bank of glyph slots (and the entire glyph interface) becomes available at level 25, the second bank unlocks at level 50, and the third at level 75. Furthermore, in order to assign a glyph to a slot, you first need to learn the glyph. And this was a sticking point for me, because the game doesn’t explain how you learn them. I’ve spoken in praise of WoW‘s tutorial system before, but the glyph interface is one place where it really let me down. It guides you to the point of looking at the glyphs interface when it initially unlocks, but you can’t do anything with it at that point, because you haven’t learned any glyphs yet, and it doesn’t give you a clear notion of what to do about that. When Oleari turned 25, I just figured that I’d find some glyphs somewhere eventually, and then I forgot about it, until she hit level 50, and the second bank opened, and I realized that I needed to research this a little.

It turns out that glyphs are created by player characters using the Inscription profession. This means that if you and your friends have opted for professions other than Inscription, and you’re not willing to change, the simplest way to obtain glyphs is from an eBay-like in-game auction. Auctions are an area of the game I hadn’t delved into before, figuring I wasn’t advanced enough to take advantage of it. I mean, I’m still finding better equipment on my own on a frequent basis without having to buy it. But I should probably be taking advantage of it more, to sell all my surplus herbs and the like. It’s definitely a big part of the game for the experienced players — possibly the biggest. The auction house in Orgrimmar is always the busiest place there.

And, having participated in some auctions now, I can report profound sticker shock. Trying to pick up glyphs when the interface opened at level 25 would have been pointless, as I would not have been able to afford them. My total wealth right now tends to hover around 100 gold; some of the minor glyphs can’t be had for that much. I have to wonder if the auction prices really reflect the market here, or if most glyphs are going unsold. You’d think that there would be a low demand for glyphs, seeing how each player character can only usefully learn nine of the things, and high supply, as scribes create them for practice. But then, gold isn’t really as valuable for most players as it is for a noob like me. (Strange that I can play for nearly two months and be more than halfway to the level cap and still be a noob, but there it is.)

Chains: The End

Finishing the remainder of the levels in a burst has left my hand worn-out. I suppose this is one of the areas where the touchscreen version is superior. You might think that the laptop trackpad I’ve been using isn’t too far removed from a touchscreen, as far as the hands go, but you use two things at different angles. Also, with a touchscreen, it would be impossible to lose track of where the cursor is, as happened to me occasionally. So I’d suggest playing this on a phone if you have any desire to play it at all. Too bad Steam doesn’t support such devices yet.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this game. It does some good experimentation with types of challenge, but only on some of the levels. Plus, the experimental parts, like any true experiments, fail sometimes. For example, there was one level toward the end (the only no-time-pressure level that posed any real challenge) where you have to balance the bubbles in two pans of a scale — each bubble has a number inscribed on it indicating its weight. Your only way to alter the contents of the pans is of course by deleting chains, and bubbles you delete are replaced with new ones, weighing a different amount, after a substantial delay. Anyway, I never really solved this one: I was just getting the hang of thinking in terms of value differences between chains, when all of the sudden it solved itself. Some random replacement bubbles came in that just happened to match the weight of the other pan. I’d feel cheated, and want to try again and do it right, except for the fact that the puzzle wasn’t all that engaging, and doesn’t really have much of anything to do with the game’s core mechanic.

It's a triskelion! Get in the car!Probably my most positive experience was on the penultimate level, titled “The Mill”. Here, bubbles fall in batches into the buckets of a three-lobed whirligig, which spins slowly to spill what it holds. The goal is to delete 300 without losing 20. Frequently it’s impossible to nab the last crumbs in a batch. This is a time-pressure level, but it strikes me as having just the right degree of pressure: the mill rotates slowly enough that I wasn’t just frantically trying to pick things off as quickly as possible, I was thinking about optimization. Also, my own victory here was particularly dramatic. There came a point when I was very close to making quota, but the unchainable residue in a batch was going to put me over the limit when it fell. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the nearly-emptied buckets after I nearly-emptied them, so I wasn’t sure exactly when in the cycle they dumped their load, relative to when the new batch came. When the new batch did in fact come just in time for me to win before I lost, it felt like the cavalry had arrived in the nick of time.

Levels in this game end with a peculiar lack of fanfare. There’s always an on-screen display of your progress, but it’s small and doesn’t draw attention to itself, and finishing a time-pressure level usually requires enough concentration that I don’t go looking for it. (The Mill is one of the few that permitted that luxury.) So winning doesn’t involve a great sense of anticipation, and can feel abrupt: you’re in the groove, making chains fast enough to keep pace, and then things just stop. A little text message appears in the center informing you that you’ve unlocked the next level, and would you like to go there now? And that’s all the recognition you get of your accomplishment at that moment. Beating the last level at least takes you to the credits screen, which thanks you for playing.

The credits screen is interactive, by the way: the words “THE END”, made of movable letters, are in a bin of bubbles, which you can chain to your heart’s content. There’s no goal here, and anything you delete is replaced from the top, but you can at least do things like undermine the bubbles supporting the letters and make them fall over or out of place.

Overall, this is a very elegant game. I mean this both in the visual sense — it has a clean, simple aesthetic that I find quite attractive — and in the mathematical sense — this is a game that gets a lot of mileage out of very simple rules. I think I liked it more than I disliked it, if only because it did manage to develop its core mechanic in unanticipated directions.

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