Archive for July, 2011

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

So, let’s have some more iOS. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a title that I remember being praised as innovative, early on in the short history of the platform. It’s certainly different in important ways from comparable games on other platforms, in that it’s designed from the ground up for the affordances of a touchscreen. At first thought, it may seem like a touchscreen, barring the multitouch stuff that most apps seem to support (scrunch to resize), just provides a subset of what you get from a mouse — basically, everything but hover effects. But it turns out that even the actions that both sorts of device support are significantly different. The customary way of dragging things in iOS takes a moment to lock in, and is therefore awkward to use in time-sensitive situations like games (as the iOS port of Gemcraft shows). Directional swipes, on the other hand, can be awkward with a mouse, but are one of the most natural actions in the world on a touchscreen. And so Spider uses swipes for one of its most-oft-repeated actions: jumping.

This is more natural than it sounds, because these aren’t Mario-style jumps that just give you a sudden jolt of upward velocity. You’re jumping in an arbitrary direction, and your trajectory usually doesn’t get a chance to arc very much, so it’s intuitive to think of the swipe as defining a line. This is because the player character of this game — actually, before I go into details, that’s another point worth pointing out: that this game has a player character, with an avatar that you move around on the screen, which is something that seems to be less common in touchscreen games than on platforms with keyboards or joysticks. The PC in this game is literally a spider, capable of crawling on walls and ceilings. Since the presentation is 2D and vertically-oriented, this means that you really have only two directions of movement on these surfaces. In a sense, you could consider it a 2D platformer, but it’s also sort of a territory-capture game, like Qix. Your goal isn’t to get from point A to point B, but to eat bugs, and to eat bugs, you have to build webs, ideally making them as big as you can given the constraints of the level geometry and your limited resources.

Webs are the only places where your direction of movement isn’t constrained. The way you build a web is actually pretty similar to the way a real spider builds the basic framework at the beginning of spinning. Before you swipe to jump, you can optionally tap the screen to indicate that you want to make a line of silk between your current location and the point where you land. So, it’s essentially line-drawing. When you make an approximately closed polygon of such lines, it automatically fills in and becomes a web. Consequently, most webs wind up being triangular, because that’s the easiest thing to make in an open space. More sides give you more points. There’s a limit to the length of each line, and a limit to the number of lines you can draw, so it pays to optimize. Eating bugs replenishes your line count, but you need to catch multiple bugs in each web to make a profit on this.

The bugs themselves come in various varieties. The first and most basic types fly in a set route, like a patrolling guard, which makes them easy to catch. Others have more complex behavior. Some try to avoid you, which means you can’t just sit in a web and wait for them; you have to instead approach them from the opposite side and chase them in. Some bugs can’t be caught in a web at all: instead, you have to jump on them.

Maximizing your web area is rewarded not just by making it easier to catch bugs, but also by bonus points at the end of each level. If I cared more about points, I’d be using my leftover lines to try to fill each room before leaving it. This is mimetic behavior: the whole game is set in and around a decrepit old mansion, and filling each room with cobwebs is entirely appropriate.

Speaking of scenery, there are various noninteractive background objects that hint at a story: portraits, letters with legible bits, an occasional abandoned object that’s clearly significant in some unidentifiable way. It’s a bit like some of Edward Gorey’s works in that respect. What it all means may become clearer as I clear more rooms, learning just what the secret of Bryce Manor is. And that’s narratively interesting, because the spider of course has no clue. It’s just in it for the bugs. It’s common in games for the narrative and the gameplay to be orthogonal, but usually there’s at least some notion that discoveries by the player are reflections of discoveries by the player character.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

According to Steam, I have spent 11 hours playing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. In fact, I’ve spent something more like half an hour at it, little enough that I haven’t even made it out of the intro/tutorial level (which is strikingly similar to the tutorial level in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Remember Arkham Asylum? That had a problem with Steam’s timekeeping too. It had a launcher that spawned the game in a separate process and then terminated. Since Steam only counts the time spent in the program it actually launches, its time count was way too low. But at least that didn’t lead to further troubles. PoP:TFS has the opposite problem, which is far worse: for some reason Steam can’t tell when I’ve exited the game, so it keeps on counting me as playing when I’m not. And also, because it thinks I’m still playing, it won’t let me launch any other games, or exit Steam. The only way I’ve found to exit this state is by killing the Steam process via the Windows task manager.

That’s not the only thing about the experience that reminds me of my experiences with Arkham Asylum, for just as AA introduced me to the joys of Games for Windows Live, so too is PoP:TFS my first experience with Ubisoft’s “Uplay” service and their infamous need-a-constant-network-connection-to-play DRM. It’s not clear to me how closely linked these two things are; all I can say is that I encountered them both for the first time together, and so my dissatisfaction spreads to both. The chief effect of Uplay is that I needed to exit the game to change the default resolution (800×600) to something that looks reasonably good, because most of the configuration is outside of the game, in the Uplay launcher app. The chief effect of the DRM is that, once I exited the game, I couldn’t get back in. The game gets stuck at a screen telling me that it’s “attempting to restore the network connection”, which is absurd, because I have a network connection — I can alt-tab out and surf the web, send email, etc. without problems. Goodness knows what the real problem is.

Uplay seems like a very unnecessary thing to me. It’s trying to be like Steam or GfWL, but those services at least have games from more than one publisher, and Uplay doesn’t. Still, when I first launched the game and was told I needed to register for an Uplay account first, I was actually inclined to say “Well, at least it isn’t GfWL”. I mean, when it downloaded a patch for itself, it did it fairly quickly, needed only one iteration, and didn’t ask me to restart the app. This is still worse performance than your typical single-programmer indie work on Steam, mind you, because it’s using Uplay’s built-in patcher, which doesn’t run until you try to launch the game.

But such objections pale in comparison to the DRM, which is a piece of software whose sole purpose is to prevent the game from working. In theory it’s only supposed to prevent it from working for pirates, but apparently someone at Ubisoft decided that keeping the wrong folks out was more important than letting the right folks in. It’s like one of those overzealous IP lawyers who hurt their employers’ business by harassing fan sites and alienating customers. The message it puts on the screen when it refuses to let me play even seems to acknowledge that I’ve successfully run the game before, which you’d think would be a good indication that there’s no good reason to stop me from doing so again.

I suppose I could download a crack. I mean, it’s not like DRM actually works for its intended purpose. But why bother? There are plenty of other games waiting.

Syberia: From Komkolzgrad to Aralbad and Back and On

The remainder of Syberia went rather smoothly, despite a couple more missed hotspots. The final two stops are interlinked in a way that the first two were not, so felt it made sense to take them both in a single sitting.

What happens is, Kate’s quest for Hans is temporarily replaced by a quest for hands. In the abandoned industrial town of Komkolzgrad lives a disfigured creep who, in the tradition of his kind, is obsessed with an opera singer named Helena Romanski. He steals the hands of the automaton driver of Kate’s train, and tells Kate he’ll give them back when she brings him Helena, to perform for him once more, like she did many years ago. This prompts a side-trip to the moribund resort of Aralbad, where she’s living out her twilight years. Since you can’t take the train, you instead go by suspiciously convenient dirigible. The combination of airship and opera put me in mind of Final Fantasy VI. I even briefly entertained the notion that instead of hunting the diva down, I could impersonate her like Celes impersonated Maria, but this story isn’t quite that silly.

The reason that the disfigured creep stole the hands in particular was to use them on an organist automaton of his own creation (after Hans Voralberg’s designs), specifically designed to accompany Helena. When he reneges on his bargain and tries to keep both Helena and the hands forever, Kate has to detach the hands from the organist with a screwdriver. When I reached this point, my reaction was “Why didn’t she do this before?” Kate had both the screwdriver and access to the organist back in her first visit. She could have skipped Aralbad altogether if the game had put a hotspot where there was one now. Thinking about it afterward, I think the intention was that the hands I first saw on the organist were not the stolen ones: they were cruder ones, without the dexterity to properly play an organ or drive a train. But this was not clear to me at the time. As with the mammoth drawing, it would have clarified matters enormously if I were allowed to try and fail: I could have detached the hands and brought them to the train, only to be told that they were the wrong ones.

Oddly enough, the train also goes through Aralbad, and it is on returning there that Kate quite unexpectedly finds Hans, a little old man with an unworldly manner. I didn’t expect to find him before reaching Syberia, but that doesn’t happen until the sequel, and I suppose Sokal wanted to end the first game in some kind of victory, even if the story is left unresolved.

Ah, but whose victory? Well, Kate does achieve her original goals. But Hans accepts the news of his sister’s death and signs away the factory with remarkable equanimity. His man-child incomprehension means the adult world cannot touch him, and that is his triumph. Kate can do nothing in the face of this but defect: throwing her career to the wind, she joins him on the train for further adventures. For my part, I think I’ll take a bit of a break before joining them.

Syberia: Reaching Komkolzgrad

Socialist realismKate proceeds to Russia, where Hans’ miraculous wind-up train winds down again. I call the train “miraculous” because it takes only about a second and a half to wind up, and this apparently stores up enough energy to propel a few dozen tons of steel halfway across Europe. But this is a story told in a world that hasn’t quite grown up yet. Kate, a corporate lawyer pursuing a sale resulting from bankruptcy due to unpaid bills, is the personification of its adult side. Hans Voralberg, a toymaker who’s described as both physically and emotionally stunted, is destined to remain a child forever. And it’s Hans who made the train, so it conforms to childish expectations. It’s only the adult world that knows about limitations like conservation of energy, or financial hardship, or death.

This contrast is really central to the game’s mise en scène, from the opening shot of a wind-up automaton leading a funeral procession. Barrockstadt University is ruled by ridiculous fussy men in gowns and mortarboards, caricatures of the learned out of old storybooks; what little you can glimpse of the town outside the university walls shows it to be a crumbling ruin. Kate’s quest to find Hans can be seen either as her pursuit of renewal, trying to rediscover the childlike vitality she’s missing, or as the inexorable hounding of youth by grim reality, as she seeks to bring him news of his sister’s death and to make him sign away the toy factory to a soulless corporation.

Note the window at the statue's waist. There's a room in there. Kate is currently inside it, operating the controls.At the moment, it’s getting grimmer. The latest stop is at an abandoned mine, which is to say, it’s industrial without the industriousness. Only a few rooms are available from the beginning, giving it a more claustrophobic feel. The previous two chapters had people hanging around just to make it clear that the place really was inhabited, but the only human being I’ve seen in this new place was a glimpse of someone furtively running away, possibly after abducting the train’s automaton driver. When Hans passed through here, a magical boy leaving wonders in his wake, it was ruled by Stalin. Hans left behind a couple of mechanized colossi wielding hammers and sickles.

I haven’t got far in this chapter yet, and seem to be stuck again. More unnoticed hotspots? Probably. I’ll say this for it: Remember how I said that the fanciful machines in this game were essentially just glorified lock-and-key puzzles? That’s not the case any more. There’s at least a little bit of Myst-style reversible environment manipulation going on.

Syberia: What the Telephone Communicates

I don’t know if this is a typical experience, but I’ve had a much better and easier time with the Barrockstadt chapter of Syberia than with Valadilène. I completed the chapter last night, and at no point was I stuck from failing to notice a hotspot. There were moments when I mistakenly thought I must have missed something, and roamed about for a little while scanning the screen with my cursor, but the actual key to getting unstuck was invariably some mental connection I hadn’t made. In other words, I was actually finding solutions by thinking, which I don’t think happened at all in chapter 1.

I’d like to describe one such moment of insight in particular — the one I mentioned having in my last post — because it illustrates how expectations can create mental blocks where they really shouldn’t exist. There’s a device that has a sign attached to it giving a phone number to call in case of emergencies. There’s also a phone attached to the device, but it’s broken. What do you do? What a lot of us would do in real life: pull out your cell phone.

So, why did I have a hard time thinking of this? Mainly because the there are a number of things about the phone that work against thinking of it as a something useful. For starters, there’s the simple fact that it hadn’t been useful before this point. The phone has an interface with a few pre-set numbers in it — Kate’s mom, her boyfriend, her boss — but calling them never seems to produce anything other than an answering machine, so one gives up on trying to use it early in the game. Also, although the phone can only be accessed through the inventory interface, it’s not an inventory item: it has its own button that stands apart from the grid of inventory slots, and pressing that button brings up the phone interface rather than selecting it for use on the environment. So it’s not part of what you look at when you look through your inventory hoping to find something useful. It just fades into the background.

The strange part of that is that the phone also keeps calling attention to itself. Every once in a while, shortly after you’ve accomplished some major goal, Kate’s mom or boyfriend or boss will spontaneously call her up and chatter about their own needs to emphasize their physical and emotional separation form Kate right now. But this actually helps the phone to fade into the background, because it’s such a background event. The calls inform you about Kate’s emotional ground (or at least the first couple of calls do; subsequent calls don’t really add much), but they’re useless to your situation. Their uselessness is part of the point.

Syberia: Entering Barrockstadt

Having reached Syberia‘s second chapter, my chief experience is one of relief: suddenly, I’m not treading the same ground any more. Every room is new. Of course, this only lasts so long, and by now I’m back to hunting for hotspots again. Or perhaps not: just thinking about the game as I write this, I’ve had a flash of insight about how a certain feature might be used. I’ll find out later how that pans out.

Still, I spent most of my last session either exploring new ground or deliberately pursuing known goals. The latter consisted mainly of talking to a series of people: person A tells me to talk to person B, person B tells me to talk to person C, person C sends me back to person B who has different dialogue this time, etc. In short, they gave me the runaround, and most of the time spent on this was in fact spent running around. Is this so very different from walking from one end of the map to another, hunting for hotspots in a self-directed way? I think so, because it at least provides some reason to think that every step you take is taking you towards something. All the backtracking did, however, make me annoyed at all the stairs involved. This is a game where you normally have two gaits: clicking makes you walk, double-clicking makes you run. But stairs have their own special movement animation, which means you can’t run on them.

Barrockstadt is a university town — in fact, it seems to consist entirely of a university and a train station, and the train station is pretty much part of the university facilities, serving as a greenhouse and aviary. For just as Valadilène’s automaton factory filled the place with fanciful contraptions, Barrockstadt University’s famous biology department seems to be an excuse to theme the place around exotic wildlife. There are still touches of clockwork, though. Hans Voralberg, contraption auteur, did pass this way at one point, and gave the town the only sort of gift he could give: an automated eagle, a no-man band. But also, the way the birds move when they’re on the ground seems extremely mechanical to me. As with the automaton-nature of the NPC dialogue, I’m assuming that this isn’t deliberate, that the animators were just trying to imitate the motions of birds, which have a certain amount in common with the motions of robots to begin with, that an accidental lack of fluidity in the motions made them seem a bit more mechanical and that context takes it the rest of the way. But I could be wrong about this. I suppose that by the end I’ll know enough about the game’s intent to see if such suggestions of mechanicality in the organic reinforce it or not.

The most important of the birds in the train station, and the only species I’ve seen identified by name so far, is the Amerzone Cuckoo, a callback to Sokal’s previous game, Amerzone. Just as Syberia conerns a voyage to Siberia, Amerzone was about a journey by river through the jungles of South America. However, in both cases, the title seems to refer to something more specific than its homophone. In particular, the scholars of Barrockstadt dismiss Syberia as a myth, but accept the news that Hans is thought to be in Siberia without batting an eye. I imagine this would be confusing if I didn’t have subtitles on. How the characters are supposed to be telling the difference, I don’t know. Perhaps there’s more of a difference in pronunciation in French. Or maybe it’s just a cartoonist’s typographical joke.

Syberia: Getting Unstuck

I’ve finally made it out of Valadiléne! I really thought I was going to have to use hints, but I found one difficult-to-see hotspot, and then, after exhausting what I could do from that, another. The first hotspot led to an area that belatedly gave me the motivation for certain random actions I had been performing just because I could. The second was the one that let me use that voice cylinder, so I was still looking for that right up to the end.

Syberia uses what used to be called a “smart cursor”, but nowadays generally isn’t called anything because we take it for granted. All it means is that the cursor changes according to what it’s pointing at, like how the pointer changes into a pointing hand when over a hyperlink in your web browser. Syberia‘s default cursor, indicating the action “walk as close as possible to this point”, is a ring, flattened by perspective into an ellipse. I don’t know why this shape was chosen, but most of the other cursor shapes are variations on it. Mostly they add a stem to the lower right of the ring: a simple squared-off stem turns it into a magnifying glass for the “examine” action, characters you can talk to give it a pointed stem that turns it into a speech balloon, and a gap in the ring opposite the stem makes it into a robotic pincer for a generic “use”. The subtlest change is the cursor for “exit to a different room/area/camera angle” action, which puts a glowing halo around the ring. (A halo with a halo?) This is the one variation that doesn’t change the cursor’s shape.

Now, the first hotspot I was missing was a case of two “exit” actions positioned very close to each other. There was a gap between them where the cursor would turn back to its default form, but at typical cursor speeds, this happened very quickly, and, because the cursor didn’t change shape, it was easy to not notice. Exit hotspots tend to be quite a bit larger than the doorway or whatever that they send you through, so it didn’t seem at all strange that one hotspot would extend over the area covered by the two of them. Should I have known that there were two exits from the art? The art is often ambiguous about this; there are a lot of visible openings that you can’t go through, and there are paths that you’re not able to step off of despite the area to the sides being completely open. (Which is yet more evidence that the natural environment for an adventure game is a cave.)

Actually, I don’t know how valid it is to say that I failed to notice that hotspot because it blended in with the other, given that the second hotspot, which took me longer to find, was a “use” in the middle of nothing. It was an undistinguished book in a bookcase that, when clicked, opened a secret compartment. I had swept over that bookcase multiple times over the course of my general hotspot-hunt without noticing it. I suppose my week-and-a-half pause is to blame here: when I came back to an obviously relevant bookcase and couldn’t find anything to click, I assumed that I must have already taken something from it and rendered it inert. (See previous post.) Perhaps I would have spent more time on it if it still had things to click — if, say, every book were clickable, rather than just the one important one. This would run the risk of having the hotspots blend into each other like the exits described previously, but at least it would give the player some reason to believe that the books were interactive.

Syberia: Machines that Die

Another day of little progress. I found one, and only one, previously-unnoticed hotspot. What I wouldn’t give right now for an in-game hotspot-highlighting feature, like the one in Jolly Rover (a game that, ironically, was easy enough to not need it). That one hotspot led into a chain of actions culminating in the acquisition of a “voice cylinder”, but I haven’t seen anything I could use to play it. So the search for hotspots resumes.

The really frustrating part is that I’m running out of things to do. Finding the voice cylinder was actually a bit of a relief in that regard: Aha, a new inventory item that I can try clicking on things! My inventory had actually been empty at that point. Syberia is the style of adventure game where inventory items usually have only one use, and that use absorbs them. Worse, the same applies to a lot of environmental hotspots: once you’ve successfully unlocked a door or wound up an automaton, it goes inert. Contrast this to, say, Myst. Superficially, it seems like the Valadilène section of Syberia should have a certain amount in common with Myst: they’re both about foggy environments dominated by fanciful contraptions. But Myst‘s contraptions were more fully realized as machines: you could fiddle with the controls multiple times, change settings in various ways, flip switches back to their original positions with attendant effects, etc. The puzzles there were all about figuring out how the machine operates so you could operate it correctly. As far as I’ve seen, the apparati in Syberia are mostly facades. They’re AGT-style lock-and-key puzzles that play a movie clip of a machine on successful use.

Syberia: Roaming Valadilène

Now then. Where were we?

Although I’m still in a part of Syberia that I know I’ve played before, I’m not having much luck making progress. I’ve gotten a little beyond my last post, but I’m in that stage of the game where I have no option but to walk the length of the map repeatedly until I find something hitherto missed.

The worst of it is the artificial gating, managed here mainly through literal gates. For example, there’s a churchyard that’s closed up for the duration of a (plot-significant) funeral when you start the game. It opens when you’ve reached a completely unrelated point in the story elsewhere. Knowing that this sort of thing can happen anytime, I don’t dare to limit my wanderings to places where I know I need to go, or to think of any place as useless for now. There’s something to be said for not directing the player, for allowing them to make discoveries through free exploration. But right now, I’m exploring the same couple dozen areas over and over, and it’s growing tiresome.

Trine

Brick walls seem to be a good trick for increasing the sense of detail.The main thing I have to say about Trine is that it’s breathtakingly pretty. It’s a storybook-fantasy world of gnarly trees and crumbly old castles, huge glittering treasure hoards and picturesque waterfalls with rainbows in front of them, all 3D-modeled in exquisite detail and lit with glowy sunbeams. And most of that is irrelevant to gameplay: this is another of those 2D platformers with 3D graphics, so much of what you see is either in front of or behind the plane of action.

The game’s defining gimmick is that you have three characters that you can switch between at will: a thief, a wizard, and a knight, each with different abilities. So it’s a little bit Lost Vikings, but not a lot: only one of the three characters exists in the world at a time, and switching from the thief to the wizard (for example) means just swapping the wizard in at the thief’s position. The base abilities of the three characters (which can be extended somewhat via upgrades): the knight does hand-to-hand combat and has a shield that can ward off some kinds of environmental damage, the thief has a bow and a grapple, and the wizard has telekinesis and can create objects.

I find the most interesting of the three characters to be the wizard, who they could have called the engineer, given the way he interacts with the levels. At first he can only make boxes of varying size, but over the course of the game he learns to make planks, and then, towards the end, a single floating platform. All this is accomplished through a simple drawing interface, like in Crayon Physics, although there are limits to how large a box or how long a plank you can draw. Still, within these constraints, you have considerable latitude to come up with your own solutions to the game’s problems: passing over a spike pit with a plank propped up on a couple of boxes, for example, if you find that swinging over it with the thief’s grapple is too difficult. The game has enough of a physics engine for the levels to have various sorts of see-saws, carousels, and counterweights, and they can usually be made more manageable by a plank wedged in the right place. And yes, sometimes abusing the wizard feels like cheesing out, but sometimes it feels like the ideal approach, something that it would be a shame not to do. I almost said something about “intended solutions” there, but when you come right down to it, the designers of this game designed in multiple approaches. I can’t imagine that they intended us not to take advantage of them.

As to the other characters: The thief is good for getting up to high places quickly by swinging on a rope, and as such shows off the physics a bit more. A deft hand can even put the thief at a point higher than the spot the grapple hits, and this is often necessary to reach caches of the green bottles containing “experience” (a strange notion that the game just takes in stride). But even this is sometimes best accomplished with the wizard’s aid, laying down a plank across a couple of supports for a better landing zone, and this is probably the point at which it feels most like the characters are acting as a team. The knight definitely does the least to pull his weight, especially once you’ve upgraded the thief enough to one-shot most enemies from a distance. I mainly used him as a damage sponge, and he was pretty good at that.

On the whole, it’s a pretty polished piece of work. Of all the games I’ve played during this promotion, this is the one where I’m most tempted to go for 100% completion. I’m pretty close as it is; I just need to hunt down some stray experience bottles. (Gotta drink ’em all!)

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