Archive for November, 2011

Blocks That Matter

It seems to me that indie games have reached a sort of turning point of inter-referentiality. In-jokey stuff abounds wherever nerds gather, but with Super Meat Boy, it escaped the confines of TIGSource and entered the marketplace. Blocks That Matter continues this trend: its story is indie-game-themed in the way that other games are fantasy-themed or mystery-themed or whatever. The premise is that its developers, a pair of wisecracking Swedes, have been kidnapped by someone who wants to play their latest game before its release. But they haven’t been working on a game, they’ve been working on a robot — a tiny cubical block-drilling-and-reassembly robot which is now their only hope for rescue.

Blocks that are ScatteredAnd so you puzzle-platform your way to your creators through indestructible tunnels littered with blocks in various materials, receiving instructions and banter by radio every couple of levels. The chief inspirations for this game, according to the developers, are Boulderdash, Minecraft, and Tetris. And while I can see bits of all three — Boulderdash‘s falling rocks, Minecraft‘s dig-and-build mechanic — Tetris is the single most obvious source of inspiration. Your avatar is called “Tetrobot”, and has the ability to mine blocks and then place them elsewhere — but only four at a time, in a tetromino shape. Consequently, not only do you sometimes mine a block only to immediately reconstitute it elsewhere, sometimes you place a block only to immediately re-mine it, because you only needed to place it to fulfill the tetromino requirement. Also, at one point, you get an upgrade that lets you delete blocks in continuous horizontal rows of eight or more, Tetris-style. This and the block-placement limitation are handwaved as consequences of “Pajitnov physics”.

There are several other upgrades to your abilities over the course of the game, but other than the one in the first level that grants you basic drilling ability, they’re mostly kind of disappointing. Like, you get the ability to collect metal blocks, which were previously undrillable, and shortly afterward, undrillable crystal blocks start appearing, which are in turn made drillable by another upgrade. There are several different block materials with different properties — sand blocks that fall when unsupported, flammable wood blocks, ice blocks that slide horizontally when you try to drill them — but most materials only differ cosmetically, at least by the end.

The main thing you get from these upgrades is the ability to go back to previous levels and accomplish the goal you couldn’t always do the first time: getting the Block That Matters. Every level has exactly one, in the form of a locked treasure chest. Carry it to the level’s exit portal, and it unlocks to reveal a block representing a game that the authors like. (Some of them are indie, some not.) This strikes me as a brave thing for the authors to do, because it runs the risk that the player will say “Yeah, Lode Runner! I remember that, it was a great game! … Why am I not playing it instead of this?”

Anyway, I do think it’s ultimately a good thing that the game makes some of the Blocks That Matter inaccessible until after further upgrades, because it gives the game an element of nonlinearity. If it had been possible to collect each on the first pass at a level, I would have done so, and then wouldn’t have anything to go back to when I was stuck.

And yes, I did get stuck sometimes, for a while. There are puzzles here that require special insights into the game mechanics, like how to place blocks in a useful way in a confined space. I think the one point I was stuck on the longest was one with a small pit lined with TNT blocks, which explode a few seconds after you try to drill them. It seemed like an impossible situation: the only way to clear the way was to detonate the blocks, which you could only do by jumping into the pit, from which there was no way to escape the explosion. But in fact there was a way. It just wasn’t the sort of thing you do in most of the rest of the game.

Blocks that LadderThere are actiony bits, where you have to dodge moving elements like slimes or dripping lava, but it’s mostly sedate and self-paced. Even slimes can be destroyed without dodging by dropping sand blocks on them; even lava can be stoppered by putting a stone or metal block right underneath it. Placing a tetromino involves going into a special “edit mode”, in which time is frozen. Sometimes I went into edit mode just to pause the action while I assessed my situation, but even that was usually unnecessary.

There’s a certain amount of busywork involved in just collecting blocks that will be useful elsewhere, and in some levels, where there are multiple stages of puzzle, I found myself repeating the earlier stages a lot because I was making mistakes or getting killed in the later stages. There are a variety of ways a game can avoid this — checkpoints, rewind functions, etc. — but the developers here didn’t implement any such things. I hope they consider adding them if they ever do a sequel. Nonetheless, I call this a pretty good game, well worth the fraction of the bundle money I spent on it, and the few hours it took me to reach the finish and get most of the Blocks That Matter. The few I haven’t got are in the more action-oriented levels, and will probably stay there, curious though I am about what games they reveal.

Trauma

I am a bundle junkie. That much is clear by now. My Stack has been growing by leaps and bounds lately, and it’s all due to the proliferation of bundles. In the final days of the Comp, two prominent time-limited pay-what-you-want indie bundles approached their deadlines, one Humble, the other Royale. And I had no points left to obtain them under the terms of the Oath. Despite not having particulately cared about the games involved before they were bundled, my reaction was to step up on the Comp-playing to get that out of the way so I could focus on finishing something for the sake of affording the new stuff.

Time to crate: about two seconds if you choose this dream first.Trauma seemed ideal for this purpose: it’s by all accounts short, and it is itself something I obtained in a recent bundle. Also, it seems a lot like a Comp game, in both length and content. The premise is that it’s the dreams of a woman recovering from a road accident, although that framing isn’t terribly relevant to the content of the dreams, except to the extent that it gives them an extra poignance, and makes it clear that this person really does have genuine problems just now. Without that, the frustrated and defeated tone of the voice-overs might come off as whiny. 1The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary. One of the dreams is about following a well-marked road that ultimately turns out to just go in circles, a clear metaphor for her concerns about her life’s direction. Another involves going off the beaten path looking for a road less traveled, but it turns out to be just as circular as the first, just more difficult to follow. For the PC, merely living is extremely difficult right now, and she’s wondering if it’s worth the effort.

It’s very slickly produced, especially in the cutscenes of the protagonist talking with her doctor that you get after completing each dream, featuring close shots of the her fingers and eyes in such sharp focus that it looks like they were shot through a microscope. Mainly, though, I see it as an experiment in form. It’s more or less a Mystlike, only simpler — which is saying something, because Myst itself was a drastic simplification of the adventure game. And, like the first wave of Mystlikes, exploration is a matter of clicking around between still images — there’s some spot animation, but not a lot. Hovering the cursor over a movement hotspot superimposes a fuzzy version of its destination over the scene, like an out-of-focus photograph, and like a photograph, it’s presented as a 2D image, rotated in 3D space to match the angle you’d be observing it from. It even acknowledges the photographic nature of the graphics by playing the click of a camera whenever you move from one to another.

The photography theme continues into the game content: in each of the game’s four dreams, there are nine polaroids scattered around, tacked to trees and the like. Some of them are pictures of moments from the protagonist’s life, sush as her first day at law school. Some show mouse gestures you’ll need to perform special actions — each dream has exactly one, but you can find alternate endings by using the gestures from each dream at appropriate spots in the others. And some give hints about how to do this by showing those spots, tying together scenarios that are otherwise self-contained, apart from thematic unity. Finding all nine photos in each dream is an optional extra challenge. Finding all the alternate endings gives you a proximity-to-photograph sense that helps with this, a very gamic element in what’s otherwise mostly an interactive art piece.

The angles between vantage points are freeform enough that I sometimes had difficulty navigating, particularly in the fourth dream, where much of the area you can explore lacks persistent landmarks. This is a very prevalent problem in Mystlikes, and even the extra feedback you get from the appearance of the rollover smudges doesn’t solve it. That’s pretty much the only difficulty in the game, though. I managed to even find all of the optional extras in a single session.

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1. The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary.

IFComp 2011 Conclusions

As mentioned previously, the Comp results are up already. (I managed to play through the last of the games a couple of days ago, but I’ve been slow to write up my thoughts for this blog.) First place went to Taco Fiction, which isn’t a big surprise; I myself gave it the highest score this year. Six was second, and The Play was third, an amazingly high showing for web-based CYOA. Doctor M took the Banana, and richly deserves it.

The obvious big pattern this year was of course the private eye, but that accounts for only four of the 38 entries: PataNoir, Schlig, Camelot, and Falcon. It strikes me that we had something of a stealth theme in religion. Aside from the two blatantly biblical games, we had four games (Beet, Calm, Summer, Iron) that had clergy of some sort as prominent background characters, seen or unseen. Benevolent background characters, at that. That’s a break from tradition. Back when IF was all about exploring dungeons, if you found a chapel or a shrine, it was a safe bet that it was used for the unholy rites of unspeakable and demonic gods, and probably human sacrifice as well. The only game in that tradition this year is Kerkerkruip.

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Next post, we get back to the Stack. I’ve already got some play to report on, days late.

IFComp 2011: Escape from Santaland

Well, the Comp is over, and the results have just been posted over at ifcomp.org. But I still have one more review to belatedly write. And even though the Comp rules no longer require me to put my spoilers after a break, I might as well maintain consistency here.

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IFComp 2011: Operation Extraction

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2011: Vestiges

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2011: Tenth Plague

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2011: Sentencing Mr. Liddell

Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2011: The Elfen Maiden

There seems to be some confusion over the title of this one. It was originally listed on the Comp website as The Elfen Maiden, then got changed to A Comedy of Error Messages. The version I played was titled The Elfen Maiden: A Comedy of Error Messages, so I’m not entirely sure how that fits in. Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2011: Calm

Spoilers follow the break.

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