Archive for November, 2011

Orcs Must Die

The first round of holiday sales is underway, leaving me scrambling to finish up some games to make room on the Stack for new stuff. Orcs Must Die is in fact among my new acquisitions, but looked like it would probably be quick to finish, due to its structural resemblance to Plants vs Zombies: not only is it essentially a tower defense game, it pulls the same trick of introducing one new game element per level, which means the game ends once it’s reached maximal complexity. And indeed, in a single day of obsessive play, I’m managed to complete every level but the last. So expect a second and final post tomorrow.

I say it’s essentially a tower defense, but it’s really a hybrid of tower defense and shooter. The whole idea is that in each level you’re trying to prevent hordes of orcs and related monsters (kobolds as swarmers, ogres as bosses) from reaching a dimensional rift, which is in the middle of a fortress presumably built around it for the specific purpose of keeping the orcs away. This is a fully 3D structure, and you have an avatar inside it. You can place various sorts of traps on the walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as summon “guardians” who fight with sword or bow, but you can also fight the orcs directly, with a repeating crossbow, bladestaff, and various spells that you acquire over the course of the game. And in fact you pretty much have to do both, picking off orcs manually when they survive the traps. Starting at level 11, you can buy enhancements of various sorts from “weavers”, but you have to choose between “steel weavers”, who enhance your traps and guardians (for example, making the traps reset faster or giving the archers flaming arrows), or “elemental weavers”, who enhance your personal combat abilities (increasing your health, making spells do more damage). I personally want to play this more as a tower defense game than as a shooter, so I’ve pretty much always taken the steel weaver — at least, until the knowledge weavers became available at level 19, with their tempting treats like making the rift itself produce lightning bolts, or occasionally reanimating dead orcs to fight on your side.

But even treating the game as a tower defense, it’s a peculiar tower defense, due to the fact that you’re seeing the whole thing from inside. (Shades of Intelligent Qube!) The game helps minimize this limitation by granting you a great deal of mobility: your traps don’t affect you at all, you can jump off balconies and over any barricades you’ve placed, and there are often teleport gates joining distant parts of the stronghold. (It took me a while to realize that the orcs couldn’t go through the gates. I wasted some cash in the early levels barricading them.) But it offsets this by making you vulnerable. There are types of occasional enemy that ignore the rift, choosing instead to attack you and any guardians you’ve summoned — and for that reason alone, it’s important to have a few guardians around as distractions. For that matter, ordinary orcs will sometimes decide to chase you if you’re close enough, which means that by your presence you can distract them from the rift.

In short, for all its focus on a single sort of dungeon encounter, this is a pretty rich game. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the UI design. Placing objects in three dimensions is a nontrivial task, and there’s basically no explanation, documentation, or tutorial here, other than a few on-screen prompts, such as “Press R to rotate”. And yet it all just works. You choose a trap to place in the same way as you choose a weapon, and you also aim it like a weapon at the surfaces that can support it. When you’re aiming at a valid spot, the trap appears as a transparent model, with, if relevant, another transparency indicating its area of effect, so you know if that arrow trap reaches all the way across the hallway or not. Outside of trap placement, there are a number of little touches like the targeting reticule for the crossbow that widens if you fire rapidly, clearly indicating without words that your aim is becoming less accurate. Perhaps this is stuff that you need to already be familiar with games to understand, but it works for me.

Voxatron Alpha

Block that attack!So, here I’ve been giving so much play to the Lexaloffle mini-games that were included as a bonus with the latest Humble bundle (or “debut”) that I haven’t got around to playing the one game that it was supposedly about. Just as well: for all that the bonus items are described as “mini”, the Voxatron alpha is a much shorter experience. It’s essentially a Robotron-like shooter in 3D, with jumping added. But it’s the sort of Robotron-like shooter with awkward controls that link movement direction to firing direction more than I’d like. That is, you can move in a different direction than you’re shooting, but you have to be facing a direction to start shooting that way, and that gets in the way of the classic circle-and-shoot-inward approach. Well, it’s still an alpha, I suppose. One can hope that it changes.

Which brings us to the weird fact that the alpha of this game was included — indeed, was the focus of — a Humble Bundle that people were expected to pay money for. I guess that’s the Minecraft influence. After all, it’s hard to imagine this game existing without Minecraft paving the way. Its chief appeal is in the aesthetic of blocky voxels. Even the text at the top of the screen showing your score and current weapon and so forth is made of voxels. It has an effect reminiscent of claymation, due to both the deliberate crudity and the way that the voxel grid quantizes movement. It’s strange how voxel tech seems to have passed directly from futuristic to retro without passing through the present.

But I suppose that’s only true of consipcuous voxels. Inconspicuous voxels are out there, in games with destructible environments. So too is it here: the environment is fully destructible. Every shot that doesn’t hit a monster is liable to knock a chunk out of a wall or something. There’s one boss that fires a sort of sweeping laser beam (which looks extremely strange made of solid blocks) that can only be effectively avoided by hiding behind cover, but it also eats away at your cover. Some of the monsters can even be tricked into smashing things that you want smashed, such as a pillar with goodies on top. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing in the final version, although I’m not really sure what more can be done.

Jasper’s Journeys: A couple of things

I’m up to the middle of level 10 out of what turns out to be 15. I had thought for a while that there were only 10 levels, because I was having trouble finding any definite information online, and the closest thing I had seen to a walkthrough was some hints that only went up to level 9. But 15 is the truth, according to the game’s official website. Feeling like I was close to the end motivated me to keep going; suddenly finding out that I’m farther than I thought motivates me to play something else for a little while.

It’s actually a bit of a relief to be able to devote multiple posts to a game right after the IF Comp, where I felt like I had to summarize everything interesting about each game in a single post. So let me just note a couple more points of interest about Jasper’s Journeys. Like the music. It’s very synthetic sounding, in a faux-Soundblaster way, but the interesting thing is in how sparingly it’s used. This actually seems to be a constant throughout the Lexaloffle games: there’s no music most of the time. So when it does come up, you know something special is happening. The opening menu has a sort of wonder-and-mystery theme behind it, which is sometimes triggered in the game when you venture into a hidden passage. Some particular types of monsters have their own leitmotifs. For example, wizards, which are the first abnormally-difficult enemy you encounter, taking four hits to kill and throwing magic missiles that home in on you, have an echoey wizard tune — at least, until you reach the point where wizards no longer seem special, at which point the leitmotif is dropped.

Another, unrelated point of interest: missile trajectory. You can fire projectiles left and right, and there are a few enemies that can do the same. Surprisingly, such missiles fall. There’s a trick I’ve seen used a couple of times wherein a frangible block is placed on the floor. Since you can’t shoot straight downward, the only way to break it and open up whatever passageway it blocks is to stand at a sufficient distance (about five tiles) that your shots will hit the ground at that spot. Another constant throughout the levels is “sproing flowers” (as the in-game docs name them): blue flowers that propel you upward at speed when you jump on them. They also have the same effect on downward-moving projectiles. I have yet to see a puzzle that relies on this, but it seems like the sort of thing this game would do.

Jasper’s Journeys: Inns

Like a gas station in the middle of the desert, he can charge whatever he wants. It's not like he's going to lose regular customers.If there’s one game element that defines the Jasper’s Journeys experience more than any other, it’s got to be the inns. Every level has at least one, although it might be difficult to find or reach. At the inns, you can exchange all the treasure you’ve been accumulating for practical stuff, like fruit (increases your ammo supply) or shields (effectively, hit points; you can carry up to three, which means you’ll be able to withstand damage three times without dying), or even, occasionally, potions. Potions are powerups of various sorts that last for the rest of the level, and are sometimes absolutely necessary for looting the level completely. They’re reasonably rare.

Most importantly, inns are where you can save your progress. Yes, it’s a save point, that console-standard mechanism despised by PC gamers everywhere. Worse, even: like everything else you can do at an inn, it costs money. Not a lot of money, mind you. A save is the cheapest thing you can buy, and if you’re exploring every level thoroughly, you’re rolling in cash pretty quickly. (If you’re not, you’re pretty much missing the point of the game.) Nonetheless, the fact that it costs money at all makes me reluctant to use it more than necessary. It’s irrational, perhaps, but it’s a real and honest reaction.

Now, when I say that you can save your progress, understand that, despite its retro styling, this game is not so old-school as to respawn its monsters. If you kill something, it stays dead, and you can venture through the area it used to guard in relative safety. Given this, I think the inns actually have an overall positive effect on the experience. If you could save at will, you could make things easier by saving after each and every kill. If you could save any time you went back to the inn, but didn’t have to pay, you could do the same thing, just stretched out over a longer period and made boring because of it. But the way it is, the game essentially spurs me to complete some more significant activity before saving. Make a complete loop of a particular cave, for example, or go as far upward as I can through the clouds (which are solid enough to stand on). The inn becomes your home base, the safe place that you always return to for the sake of securing your gains, which is important, because the tasks I perform before returning are risky. Risky enough that I frequently fail and have to start over — for some definition of “fail”. Sometimes I start over just because I lost more health than I wanted to. At any rate, this cycle is essentially the same as the way you’d play the game if the inns didn’t exist: every time you die, you’d wind up at the start of the level and have to start again. The difference is that, for the most part, you get to choose just how granular it is, how much you want to not have to redo.

Bullet Candy

Bullet Candy snuck onto the Stack through a bundle some time ago. I was reminded of it by something called “Bullet Candy Perfect” in the latest Indie Royale bundle; I’m not clear on its relationship to the earlier game, whether it’s an enhanced version or a remake or a sequel or what, but I’m tentatively counting them as separate titles. Come to think of it, those various descriptors might be hard to tell apart, given how abstract and plotless the game is.

It’s a 2D “bullet hell” shooter set in space, with an overall design geared mainly towards filling the screen with sparklies and particle effects. (Even the power-ups that some enemies drop have particle effects, which to my mind makes them look like projectiles. I was several levels in before I even realized they were power-ups, because I kept dodging them.) I recall that it was compared to Geometry Wars a lot, but since I haven’t played that either, the main thing it reminds me of is Robotron. Seriously, the feel is so similar that it’s got to be homage. It even has indestructible enemies that jerk backward a little when hit with your bullets, just like the hulk robotrons. The one really big difference in feel is that you can shoot in arbitrary directions, rather than just eight.

Also, you can play with mouse and keyboard, and that changes the dynamics considerably. With mouse control, you shoot toward the cursor. That means that the classic Robotron maneuver of sweeping the entire screen by skirting the edges and firing constantly inward doesn’t work quite as well, because unless you’re moving the cursor in parallel with your ship (which would be tricky), your direction of fire will keep changing. On the other hand, it also means that you can often park the cursor on top of an enemy in order to keep firing at it regardless of where you move. But that’s less useful than it sounds, because such purposeful use of the cursor would require taking your eyes off your ship for a moment, and that’s a quick way to die. I’m thinking gamepad has the advantage here.

The main game mode has 50 levels, all of Robotron-like brevity, and every fifth level is a continue point, a place you can start over from when you run out of lives if you don’t care about your score. Through copious use of continues, it’s possible to play the game from start to finish in a single session. Thus, off the Stack it goes. I guess you’re intended to try harder difficulty settings at this point, or other gameplay modes, like survival mode or asteroids mode. And actually, I’m finding asteroids mode pretty engaging. It’s the same basic mechanic as the classic Asteroids, but easier to control and much faster-moving.

Zen Puzzle Garden

I’ve knocked off a few more levels of Zen Puzzle Garden. I’m not sticking to the sequence at this point; I’ve visited every level in the game, and I’m skipping around freely, looking for anything that I feel like I have an idea of how to go about solving.

I tend to pay more attention to ones with an unusual or eye-catching layout, of course. Especially since most of the levels pretty much look the same. Like I said before, this is not a game where you can tell the difference between an easy level and a hard one just by looking at it. There are a few levels that are split into multiple disjoint gardens, and there’s a mechanic introduced about halfway through, involving fallen leaves in three colors — the only vivid colors on the playfield — that have to be picked up in a specific order. That’s about it for variety, at least of the sort that you can notice without sitting and thinking about it.

Not a serious attempt at solving this level.Fair or not, the effect is to make it seem like all the puzzles are more or less the same. Or, to put it more positively, like they’re all just instances of one big puzzle. Mathematical analysis really seems like the way to go here. I still haven’t really delved into that, beyond noticing a few patterns, local arrangements of tiles that correspond to solvability or nonsolvability. The most basic such pattern can be seen in the upper right corner of the board in this screenshot (although it’s too faint to be visible in the thumbnail): I’ve raked paths around a stone so that it lies in the inner corner. This makes it unsolvable. Consider the three tiles immediately to the north, northeast and east of the stone. Raking the north tile will necessarily involve going through the northeast tile, which will turn the east tile into a dead end. Likewise, raking the east tile will turn the north tile into a dead end. Either way, you’re stuck.

Chocolate Castle

I hope Prince Pondicherry isn't mad that I fed all his chocolate to animals. At least it won't melt now.I polished off Chocolate Castle last night. It’s definitely the most compelling of the Lexaloffle minigames, as well as the most polished.

Most puzzles in this game have a structure that can be chopped into distinct stages. For example, you might have a rabbit (which eats white chocolate) trapped inside a dark chocolate block, so your first goal is to get all the dark chocolate together so you can clear it, then turn your attention to the white. Towards the end, the sub-goals become subtler, more a matter of getting one particularly awkward block past another in order to free up some space for the manipulations you really want to do. Sometimes the sub-goals were so numerous, and took me so long to execute, that I wished I could save my progress within a level, or even keep multiple such saves in cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach. Ah well, at least the game lets you undo arbitrarily. It even accepts the standard Windows idioms for undo/redo hotkeys, which Zen Puzzle Garden didn’t.

Speaking of cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach, there’s one mechanism that all but guaranteed this sensation: Turkish delight. This is a rare confection, eaten by cats, which then explode, destroying all adjacent walls and chocolate. Where other confections tend to come in large blocks that limit where you can drag them to, Turkish delight is always just one tile in size, and therefore very portable. So, it’s a tool for making a hole anywhere you want — but there’s likely only one spot where it actually does any good, and it’s not necessarily obvious. On one level, I didn’t even use it to blow up a wall. I used to to chop up a snake instead.

Snakes are another game element I haven’t described. They’re essentially a sort of block that’s a sort of rope. You drag them by the head, and the body, which occupies multiple tiles, follows behind in the manner you’d expect of a snake on a grid in a videogame. Sever it, and it turns into two snakes. It’s also capable of eating rabbits, if you drag it through them. I assume it’s capable of eating other animals as well, but I don’t remember any opportunities to confirm this, whereas there’s one level where eating rabbits is hard to avoid. After completing each level, you’re rewarded with confetti and balloons. If any rabbits got eaten, the balloons are black, which feels a bit like the game is scolding you for taking the easy way out.

But snakes and Turkish delight are both rare. Mostly the game just keeps on finding ways to exploit its base rules, right up to the end.

Spacechem

My methylene factory. It's probable more complicated than it needs to be.Spacechem is one of those games that intrigued me from the moment I saw screenshots, because it didn’t much look like any other game. I probably would have bought it eventually out of curiosity even if it hadn’t been bundled. I had some problems at first getting it to behave properly: even after exiting the app, whatever dreadful things it was doing to my video card persisted in some way, making Firefox show up split diagonally into normal and all-black triangles. But the Steam support forum recommended a small modification to the config files, and that seems to have taken care of it. I’ve spent a couple of hours on it by now, long enough to get a good idea of how it plays, although in some ways it feels like I’m still in a tutorial. This is a game that keeps on introducing new complexity for a good long time.

It strikes me as a game designed by and for computer programmers. At its core, it’s about creating processes for assembling molecules, using a sort of 2D programming language with two threads of execution, like a concurrent version of Befunge. You have a grid and two cursors, one red and one blue, that move along looping tracks that you can set up however you please by placing arrows that make them change direction. Each grid cell can contain at most one redirection arrow per track, and also at most one command. These commands are what you use to assemble molecules out of atoms. You have commands to release an atom or molecule to a specified input area, to pick up and drop whatever is in the same spot as the cursor, to deliver completed molecules you’ve dropped in the output areas, and to use the “chemical bonder” tool, which has a fixed location on the grid, to connect or sever atoms sitting on it.

The chemical bonder is of course not how chemical bonds are made in real life, but that’s okay, because you’re not making real molecules. You’re making chemical diagrams, 2D pictures made of letters and lines, with everything sitting in a single plane and joined at right angles. But unlike the pictures in your chemistry textbook, it’s not just a simplifying abstraction: the geometry of these pseudo-molecules is important to gameplay. Each atom takes up one cell of the grid, making you shift and rotate molecules on the bonder. The developers call this “fake chemistry”.

A working chemical process, once you get it going, moves like a robotic assembly line, and can be made to go at various speeds, the lowest speed being mostly useful for debugging. It seems like every puzzle requires you to make 40 of the target molecule. At first it seemed like this was just a way to give you an opportunity to admire your machine in operation, but it’s also a test to see if it can iterate effectively. Your first iteration isn’t necessarily like subsequent ones, due to timing issuea and the possibility of atoms crashing into each other.

Campaign mode is separated into nine chapters, or planets. I’ve completed the first two, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing through the rest, like I do for so many puzzle games. It’s already becoming intimidatingly complex. I suspect that I’m making things more complicated than they need to be, though, due to inexperience with the optimization tricks peculiar to this system.

Lexaloffle Retro Minigames

I’m rather behind on my posting here, which interferes with my playing: I’m sworn to post per day for each game I play, which means that if I play a game and don’t post, I can’t play it again until I’ve posted. Usually this means I just don’t play anything from the Stack until I’ve written something, but something inspired me to play the three Lexaloffle mini-games I acquired from the most recent Humble Bundle in a row, one per day. I haven’t finished any of them, so let this be the introductory post for all three.

Already raked myself into a corner hereThe first one I tried was Zen Puzzle Garden. The goal here is to rake every grid-square of sand in a series of rock gardens, starting each stroke from the edge and using traditional videogame ice level movement mechanics, which is to say, you can’t change direction until you hit an obstacle, such as a rock or a tile you’ve already raked. I’ve completed somewhat over half the puzzles here, but the half I’ve completed is the easy half. It lets you play the puzzles in any order you want, choosing them from a grid between times, but if you play them in order, it takes a good long time to get at all difficult — so long that I began to wonder if there was going to be any real challenge to it at all. It’s certainly not obvious from the rules that there could be. Even in the later stages, I find some levels much easier than the ones around them. I think there may be some sort of parity issue, so that I sometimes luck into making moves with the right parity, but I haven’t analyzed it that deeply yet. If there is, then the levels with movable blocks presumably require you to move them to spots that make the parity come out right.

Jasper's JumpyThe second game I tried, Jasper’s Journey is a platformer about an elf rescuing a cat from a witch by throwing fruit at monsters. Or at least, picking up fruit replenishes your ammo. There’s a lot of collectibles scattered around, both fruit and treasure, the latter being spendable at the inns that appear once in each level. Now, I’ve only gotten three levels in, which is apparently still within the amount covered by the demo, so anything I say about the game’s general character may be dead wrong, but the parts I’ve seen have been made mostly of vast open spaces with lots of branching paths, including non-obvious ones that lead to more treasure and ammo. It reminds me of Sonic the Hedgehog in its expansiveness, but doesn’t emphasize speed or impose time limits. The emphasis is instead on exploration. When I found a passage leading to a large network of underground tunnels in level 2, I felt like I had made a discovery — even though it is in fact an unavoidable part of the main sequence through the level. Each level contains three golden orbs, their purpose unexplained by the in-game instructions. I think they unlock a bonus room between levels if you find them all, but their real purpose, their game-design purpose, is to give exploration a definite goal, and to let you know when you’ve explored enough. If you’ve got all three orbs, there probably isn’t anything left to find.

So, wait. You're feeding dark chocolate to the dog?Finally, there’s Chocolate Castle, which is a series of sliding block puzzles. The basic idea is that the fluffy animals on each level have to completely eat the enormous blocks of confectionery lying around. Each animal only eats blocks that match it in color, and only eats a single contiguous set of blocks before vanishing. In most levels, there’s only one animal of each color, so you have to put all the blocks of that color together before allowing it to feed. But you have to be careful about this, because once you put similarly-colored blocks together, they fuse permanently. This is a pretty rich ruleset, allowing for a great deal of variation in the practical goals. One level might be something like a traditional klotski; another might fill most of the playfield with blocks of just one kind of chocolate, with so little free space that your main challenge is to avoid fusing them prematurely; another might immobilize two pieces of chocolate with walls, and make you figure out how to bridge the gap between them. It makes for a much more appealing game than Zen Puzzle Garden, where the differences between levels are subtle and the goals are always the same.

All three games have a graphical style that reminds me a lot of early VGA games, from back in the days when the graphic artists suddenly had 256 colors instead of 16 and hadn’t figured out yet what to do with them. I don’t mean it’s clumsy or amateurish, exactly, but there’s something about the flatness of the palette. Chocolate Castle definitely makes the best use of it: the smooth sheen just makes the chocolate more delicious-looking.

IFComp 2011: Hat Mystery

OK, something very cool happened last night that people watching the IF Comp from the outside should be told about. An enigmatic post appeared on the forum at int.fiction.org:

No one has yet put together the full truth. Will the man with the hat ever be redeemed?

(signed) Lyman Clive Charles, Pam Comfite, Cameron Fox, and Edmund Wells.

The four signers are the authors of Cold Iron, Playing Games, Last Day of Summer, and Doctor M, respectively. Since Edmund Wells was known to be a pseudonym, it seemed likely that the other three were as well.

This sparked excited discussion on IFmud, the MUD were various IF authors and enthusiasts gather. No one seems to have suspected a connection between them beforehand, but once you isolate them like this, some patterns jump out. Yes, all four involve a mysterious stranger in a vaguely-described hat — although in Doctor M, the one where he plays the largest role, he isn’t wearing the hat when you meet him; he’s lost it and you have to find it for him. Which links to another commonality: in all four games, you trade a found item to the stranger for something else. Furthermore, the items are repeated from game to game: you trade a pocket watch for a gemstone in Games, a gemstone for a knife in Iron, a knife for a hat in Summer, and a hat for a watch chain in Doctor M. Clearly something was up. Other confirming details became apparent. For example, both Iron and Summer prominently feature a storybook written by a reverend, and a set of four paintings in Doctor M clearly depict scenes from each of the four games, once you’re sensitized to the connection.

A few hours later, a collaborative effort had put together the clues found in all four games and finally redeemed the man in the hat. I won’t go into detail here — Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin has posted a near-complete transcript of the proceedings if you’re interested — but it turns out that some of the games involved contain hints for actions you can perform in other games, some involving details that served no obvious purpose within their own context.

Once the riddle was solved, the authors unmasked themselves. Lyman Clive Charles tuned out to be Zarf himself, who had been discreetly observing the unraveling without comment. This surprised me, because the whole thing had seemed rather cursory and incomplete, but I suppose that’s because so much of its content was bound up in the hat mystery. Also surprising is that Doctor M is the first released work by its author, Mike Hilborn. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Apparently the authors were hoping that someone would discover the secret during the Comp, and worried that the clues were too obvious, that people would pick up on the secret too quickly. It’s always hard to judge how difficult a puzzle is without testing it on people, which is difficult for secret puzzles like this one. I recall that Kit Williams, creator of the treasure-hunt book Masquerade, expected it would take a week or two for someone to solve its puzzle and find the jewel, but in the end, even the person who claimed the prize turned out to have cheated.

For my part, I recall noticing two indescribable hats in two of the games I played in close proximity, but thought of it as just a funny coincidence, not worth mentioning in my reviews. The thing is, there were a lot of funny coincidences in this Comp. I myself joked in a previous post about collusion between the authors of all the detective games. I mentioned the odd coincidence of two games about little girls playing hide-and-seek, but I didn’t even realize at the time that both were by Australians. Even the games in the hat mystery have strong connections to ones not involved. Cold Iron and Last Day of Summer both involve a rustic’s relation to a reverend, but so does Beet the Devil, which, like Playing Games, uses a tunnel hidden by a bush to divide the prologue from the midgame. (If I had noticed this during the Comp, I probably would have wasted some time searching Beet the Devil for that storybook.) Furthermore, 38 games is a lot, so without that nudge advising us to look at that group of four together, we didn’t really have a foothold. The nudge, however, is all it took.

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