Archive for August, 2012

Bugdom Beaten

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most games go unfinished. Or at least, that’s how it used to be — I don’t know if modern trends have changed this or not. On the one hand, shorter games have come into vogue, but on the other hand, there are a lot more of them, and they’re available for cheap, and often in bundles. It’s certainly the case that more games go unstarted these days.

Anyway, I don’t have figures to back this up, but I suspect that Bugdom is one of the games more frequently left uncompleted, simply on the basis that probably most of the people who had it got it bundled with their iMacs, and that those who tried it at all probably didn’t play past the first two levels. To these people, I say: It is a better game than you think it is, with a decent variety of action. But it is probably not worth your time all the same. I’m proud to now be among the few people to have played the game to completion, but I’m also glad to have it behind me. So eager to finish was I that I did finally abandon the pursuit of collectibles for the last few levels, ending the game with only three of the game’s four gold clovers.

I might have been more patient if it weren’t for the glitches. I already mentioned one major glitch — the failure to occlude particle effects (both fire and splashing water, it turns out) — but there are more serious ones. For one thing, whenever I loaded a game started in another session, it started with my health at zero. The first part of every new level was thus a frantic search for a health item to keep me from getting killed by the merest pinprick. But there was one more glitch that the game was saving up for the endgame. It has to do with the save system.

Imagine you’re powering through level 9, the fire ant tunnels. You’ve been through most of it several times, but you keep missing your timing in the rope-swinging sections and falling into the lava. Finally, though, you get to the end with a reasonable number of lives in reserve. As usual, the game asks if you want to save. You do. Now, there are ten levels, which means that in a complete playthrough, you get nine opportunities to save. But for some reason the save screen has only eight slots. No problem, you think, I’ll just overwrite the first one. You try this. The game crashes.

It does this consistently. My first thought was to delete the file for save slot 1, but when I did this, it stopped recognizing all my saves. Well, it only let you save to the first of the empty slots, so under normal operation, there wouldn’t be any occupied slots after the first empty one. Experiment proved that it would find saves up to the first empty one, then give up. My save for level 9 was of course in the very last slot, but renaming the file was enough to shift it up to slot 1 and leave slot 8 empty. Anyway, the lack of complaints about this problem on the Internet lends weight to my guess that few people even tried to play the game to completion.

Anyway, beating the end boss was a cinch compared to that. So much for Bugdom, then, until I do the sequel, which is already on the Stack. Did you know there was a sequel? It’s even been ported to iOS, which is something they didn’t bother to do with the original.

Bugdom: Into the Dark

Those fireflies, by the way, are annoying. They pick you up and carry you to an earlier point so you have to regain ground.Well, I’ve given a good solid explore to Bugdom‘s level 8 (out of 10), a place of rocky crags and steep defiles and occasional acid pools. I anticipated my latest session also being my last, seeing how I often give an extra push towards completion when I get close enough to smell it, but level 8 defeated this aim, mainly by being so darned large. Size is kind of important to the way this game produces difficulty: by putting more stuff between you and your goals. Not necessarily harder stuff, just more of it. If you mess up and let yourself get hit by one spear-wielding ant in ten, then a hundred ants will hit you ten times, which is probably enough to kill you. It should be understood that, although most enemies are killable, you receive no benefit for killing them other than not having to deal with them any more. Killing doesn’t even score you points. So the game as a whole is tilted somewhat towards running away from things, but all the moreso on this level, where it would take so long to make a significant dent in the forces arrayed against you.

I suppose it’s all another nudge to use the curl-up-and-zoom feature, whether to zoom past enemies or to bowl into them for quick damage. Kicking enemies to death just takes too long to be practical when the enemies are clustered together in large groups. Understand that your basic spear-carrier ant has to be kicked three times before it stays down, that it’s temporarily invulnerable while it recovers from each kick, so even killing an isolated foe takes a while. In addition, the kick animation rather awkwardly locks you in place for the second or so it takes to run fully, leaving you vulnerable to any other attackers in the vicinity. It’s all part of what gives the game the sense of clumsiness I noted in my first post.

The other notable thing about level 8 is that it takes place at night. I don’t think this actually has any effect on visibility — the clipping plane is pretty close to the camera throughout the game — but it seems like you can’t see as much because the distances are greater. I mean, on the smaller levels, you can often see all the way to the far wall of whatever area you’re in, making the exact range of visibility irrelevant. As such, you can actually typically see farther in the darkness of level 8. So the darkness is mostly stylistic. As is often the case in videogames, the first level is sunny and green, and the environments get darker and more threatening as you enter the den of evil at the end.

Plus, darkness shows off the fire better. This level introduces fire-breathing enemies (they’re fire ants, get it?), and you can often see them as spots of glow on the horizon before you can make out the and behind it. Especially if you’re subject to the glitch I’ve been experiencing here. On my machine, fire can be seen through otherwise-opaque walls, which can be quite disorienting. I assume that the Mac version didn’t have this problem, but honestly I have no idea.

Bugdom: Roll-up

Amazingly enough, I managed to get through level 4 unscathed. Level 5 turns out to be the game’s first boss fight, an aerial battle on the back of a firework-spitting dragonfly in a large and very open space. The boss in this case is a beehive — stationary, large, and without defenses of its own, but with a substantial health bar, and while you’re whittling it down, you’re attacked by bees. Still, not very difficult.

Level 6 takes place inside the hive, which is much larger than it looked from the outside. It’s the first enclosed space I’ve seen in the game. Not that it makes a lot of difference — the ceiling is high enough to not interfere with jumping, which is fortunate, because you jump a lot here. In addition to the environmental hazards — unswimmable pools of honey, crossed by chains of moving or sinking platforms — there are three distinct varieties off bee patrolling the place. There are biting grubs, which can only be kicked from close enough to be dangerous, but which can be squashed by jumping on them. There are big beefy soldier-types that turn around and shoot their stingers at you like cannons and then expire, but this provides enough of a warning that it’s generally easy to jump out of the way at the right moment. And there are the flying ones, just like the ones back in level 5.

And those flying ones are a problem. You don’t have a dragonfly to shoot them down with any more. They fly too high to be kicked; I don’t think it’s possible to kick them even when they dive at you. They’re difficult to run away from, too. I’ve only managed to get through this level with unacceptable loss of life, and it’s mainly due to this one type of creature.

Level 7 is another boss fight, but a fairly inscrutable one. As far as I could tell at first, I was incapable of hurting the boss bee, but it was equally incapable (or uninterested) in hurting me. It just made numerous mounds of honey on the floor of the arena, which didn’t seem to have any effect or use. By now, I’ve gone online to find out what the secret is, and I guess it’s the same secret as for defeating the fliers in the hive. You have to take advantage of one of Rollie’s basic abilities that I haven’t been using much: the ability to curl up into a ball and rocket about like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Now, it isn’t the case that I’ve never used this skill. I used it a bit back in the land of giant feet, the better to dart from one safe point to another. But it’s not something I do regularly, and there are three reasons for that. First, your ability to stay rolled is limited. There’s an energy meter for it, and that makes me want to hoard it. Second, it’s awkward to execute if you’re playing from mouse and keyboard. Bugdom puts movement on the arrow keys, far away from all the other controls, apparently in the expectation that you’ll either use two hands on the keyboard or do all your movement from the mouse. But, educated by other games, I find it much easier to move around with one hand on the mouse and one on arrow keys, which means that any action that can’t be performed easily from this position requires a moment of calm in which to reposition my hand. Thirdly, it’s dangerous. If you’re rolling at great speed, it’s all to easy to go barreling into enemies or hazards. (And if you’re not, there’s not much point to wasting your limited stay-rolled energy.)

But even as I say all this, I recognize that, by not taking advantage of this ability more, I’m probably missing the point of the game. You’re supposed to spend your time zooming around like a golf ball. That’s the fun part. It’s just not what makes for steady progress. And it’s a bit of poor design that these two things conflict as much as they do.

Bugdom: Personal Standards

My last brief session brought me through to the second segment of level 4, a largish open area where you learn to ride dragonflies, and into the third segment, where you use your new-gained skills in a sort of entomological version of the Death Star trench run. (Unlike Luke, you can dismount at any time, but the territory is dangerous enough to make this a bad idea.) If I can get through this, I’ll be into terra incognita.

Actually, I have a feeling that I managed to reach level 5 at least once back in the old days, but didn’t save my progress, because I was unsatisfied with my completion of level 4. Which leads to the question: just how perfectionist do I want to be here?

Every level has scattered collectibles. First, there are the captive ladybugs, trapped in cages made of spiderweb. The only benefit for rescuing them is bonus points at the end of the level, and I’m basically ignoring that, but nonetheless, my feeling is that leaving a ladybug unrescued is unacceptable. Not just for plot reasons, either: each ladybug represents a highly-visible optional challenge. Leaving some of them alone means failing to experience some of the game content. Furthermore, when the game counts up bonus points, it makes it very clear just how many ladybugs you left behind, so there’s a scold factor as well.

The other collectibles are all contained in abundant and identical nutshells, which you have to kick open to find out what’s inside them. Sometimes it’ll be a health item or power-up or extra life, sometimes it’ll be an enemy that attacks you if you don’t move quickly (which is particularly annoying if you’re facing forward at the time, because the avatar blocks your view of what’s happening), but usually it’s a clover, which is simply more points. Now, there are three colors of clover: green, blue, and gold. There are exactly four blue clovers on every level. There are exactly four gold clovers in the entire game. Completing these collections seems like a goal worth pursuing. But green clovers are just filler. Their number varies from level to level, and you’re not given any information about how many you missed, so clearly the game designers don’t want me worrying about it.

Lives, now. This is arguably a game that doesn’t really benefit from limiting the number of times you can die, but it does it anyway. The game lets you save your progress permanently only between levels, so whenever you save, you’re effectively declaring that you think you can pass the next level with as many lives as you have at that moment. You can have only up to three lives in reserve, so picking up more than that is a waste. Furthermore, I’d say that entering a level with the full amount is also a waste, because the levels seem to generally let you pick one up close to the beginning. Also, if you’re nearing the end of a level with full lives, and suddenly get killed by something you weren’t expecting, the absolute perfectionist would have no choice but to start the entire level over. And levels are long enough that I don’t want to have to do that. But I do want to enter each level no more than one life down, if I can.

I may well lower my standards as I get further into the game, but right now, this is what I’m shooting for. And honestly, it doesn’t seem so far like it adds much to the difficulty of the game. I want to kick most of the nuts anyway, in the hope of finding an extra life once in a while.

Back to Bugdom

Picking up Bugdom from where I left off, I’ve managed to breeze through level 3 and make a little headway into level 4. It won’t be long before I catch up to my initial sally from before this blog.

Where level 2 was basically similar to level 1, just longer and more difficult, subsequent levels start introducing new stuff. Level 3 is water-themed, built around a pond festooned with lily pads. There was a certain amount of swimming in level 2, but but on level 3 there are enemies that can swim faster than you. I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be. They’re brown and long-legged — possibly semi-transformed tadpoles? At any rate, they effectively turn the water into a no-go zone, or at least a get-out-quick zone when you inevitably miss a jump or two. Traversing the water over longer distances requires the assistance of what I assume to be a water strider dressed as what I assume to be a cab driver. A grotesque worth of the Joker, anyway, and difficult to control. He moves forward at speed for as long as you sit on his back, while you steer with the mouse. But the steering is ridiculously sensitive, so you mostly spin in place for a while, then go in a straight line until you hit a wall, then spin in place there.

As I remember it, level 4 has a similar vehicle section, only airborne. That’s the part that caused me enough difficulty to give it up last time. I haven’t quite gotten there yet this time around, because I’m still working on navigating the extreme hazards on the way: paths trodden by enormous bare human feet, on trousered legs stretching out of sight into the sky, each capable of halfway killing you at the slightest touch (yes, even if it doesn’t step on you, even if you stumble into a foot that’s already on the ground). The presentation, and especially the soaring music, gives this an epic feel, relative to the hazards you’ve faced so far. This is the land of the titans. The feet move around in regular patterns, just like the other invincible hazards like the slugs in the first two levels, but it’s even more imperative to watch them in advance and know where they’re going to be and when, because once you’re close enough to be stepped on, you’re too close to see and react to the foot descending from the sky at your position. And watching them closely enough to predict their movements reveals a peculiar thing: the feet are not paired. They’re just individual feet, moving in cyclical patterns independent of any other feet. What’s even weirder is that you don’t notice this at first. The first time you see a foot, it gives the impression that the other foot is just offscreen. But there is no other foot.

Analogue: A Hate Story

Somehow I get the impression that there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer-thin layers that fill her complex.Christine Love’s hate story is of course a follow-up to her BBS novella Digital: A Love Story, although set centuries later, in what is only minimally implied to be the same world. My first reaction to it is that it is Portal (Activision, 1986) done right. Seriously, the parallels between the two works run far, if not deep. Both are primarily text-based works with multi-leveled narratives concerning a mysteriously vanished population and the player character’s attempts to recover its history from computer records, aided by an AI guide who unearths more records in response to your reading what’s already been presented. And both are only hesitantly identified by their creators as games. As Love put it in a recent interview: “I always thought that I’d just end up being a novelist. Then everyone told me that Digital: A Love Story was a game, just because it had interactive elements…”

So, what does Analog get right that Portal didn’t? Nonlinearity, for one thing. Like the long novels of old, it contains digressions that illuminate the main plot, but aren’t essential to it, and thus can be encountered at whatever point in the storyline you become curious enough to pursue them, if at all. (Actually unlocking 100% of the text items in this game grants an Achievement on Steam, and it’s an Achievement I haven’t gotten yet despite reaching three different endings.) These take the form of diaries or letter exchanges between various long-dead persons that the AI thinks will interest you, or which will illustrate a point. Like Digital, this is mainly an epistolary novella, and that’s another point that’s an improvement over Portal. Instead of using the AI guide as an interpreter of data with a purportedly neutral point of view, you get the raw source material plus the AI’s interpretation, and get to decide for yourself how much you agree with it.

For your guide doesn’t just have a point of view, she has outright biases. Mind you, they’re biases that no reasonable modern person would disagree with. (You get opportunities to act as if you do, but that’s bound to be role-playing.) The basic idea — and I’m delving deep into spoilers here — is that society on the generation ship you’re investigating had regressed to a monstrously oppressive set of antiquated traditions, specifically those of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, in which women in particular are as a whole no better off than slaves, barely regarded as human and valued only as instruments for producing male heirs. The first AI you meet, *Hyun-ae 1As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI., is actually the digitized personality of a more modern person, a teenage girl brought out of cryo-stasis during this period, repeatedly punished for not being submissive enough, and expected to immediately marry against her will. When she pleaded for her independence, the whole notion was so alien to her family-cum-captors that they could only interpret it as a rebellious and unfilial declaration that she wanted to become a prostitute and bring shame on the family name.

Still, as much as you might feel sorry for Hyun-ae, it’s clear that *Hyun-ae 2The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization. is providing you information selectively, even hiding things from you, in the hope of maintaining your goodwill. There’s a particular technique used in the dialogue 3Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions: sometimes *Hyun-ae will start to say something and then instantly erase part of it. (You have to let the text scroll in, rather than click to make it appear all at once, to notice this.) Also, one of the first text items you uncover is a message from the ship’s previous controlling AI, named *Mute. If you show this to *Hyun-ae, she immediately deletes it. This is all to the good of the work. Secret agendas just make seemingly-friendly NPCs more interesting, as anyone who’s played Planescape: Torment can tell you. But it’s easy to excuse her, because it’s clear that her experiences have made her cagey. She doesn’t fully trust you, doesn’t know if you share the neo-Joseons’ world-view or not.

In the second act, you get to reactivate *Mute, who immediately presents the devil’s advocate position. *Mute is unapologetically in favor of the status quo, dismal subjugation of half the population and all, and furthermore is kind of catty and sleazy about it: when she shares her digressive epistolary tales of tragically unhappy marriages, it’s for the sake of the pleasure of being aghast at how scandalous they are. So you’ve basically got a good girl and a bad girl at this point, except that this is also the chapter where you learn that it was Hyun-ae who killed everyone on the ship.

And most of the rest of the work is spent exploring that in one way or another. You’ve presumably already come to sympathize with *Hyun-ae by this point, but does that extend to forgiving genocide? Admittedly, she was sorely provoked. But slaughtering oppressors and oppressed alike? Ah, but the story points out that the oppressed had internalized their oppression, and were just as culpable as anyone of perpetuating it. Perhaps when a dystopia gets bad enough, blowing the airlocks is the only way out. True, the historical precedent in the Joseon dynasty — which, according to the endnotes, was even worse than what’s seen in the story here — didn’t last forever. But it did last a long time, and Korea at least was part of a world that was generally advancing, while the generation ship is portrayed as stagnant and degenerating in knowledge.

But frankly, I don’t think such considerations are all that relevant to what decisions most players will make. The fact is, *Hyun-ae is a love interest — as the author puts it in the interview cited above, “Analogue is a game where a survivor of horrific trauma falls in love with the first person she meets”. This is very clear from her behavior, and becomes increasingly clear as the story goes on. In the majority of the occasions where she deletes what she’s said, it’s because she’s stated her feelings too directly. And everyone loves a love story, or at least cooperates with one. This is a lesson I think was most clearly taught by Andrew Plotkin’s So Far (which I will now spoil). So Far is a mysterious and surreal text adventure dominated by a repeated motif of things that have to be kept apart, because things will go disastrously wrong if they’re allowed contact. It ends with a question — “Can you forgive me?” — that, in context, signifies an opportunity to reconcile estranged lovers. Despite everything that the player has learned about how the game works, nearly everyone says “yes” to this the first time they encounter it. If we unthinkingly respond this way in a game that’s doing so much to allow us to realize that it’s the wrong choice, what are the odds we’ll choose any differently in one that’s trying to convince us that the computer has a crush on us?

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1. As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI.
2. The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization.
3. Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions

Reasons for Silence

So, I’ve fallen silent again. My last post, on the ending of Advent Rising, was a week ago, and it was about a week late — I had actually finished the game sometime the previous weekend. In truth, my attention has been occupied lately with first looking for a new place to live, then arranging to move, and most recently with packing. I’ve been playing various games all the while, of course — this is the first Steam Summer Sale I’ve been through without the strictures of the Oath, so I predictably splurged — but they haven’t been in alphabetical order, so I haven’t been posting about them.

But that’s too prosaic. So let’s say instead that the last two weeks have been dedicated to the secret, forbidden letter between A and B. Do you doubt there is such a thing? I say the gap between First and Rest, like that between unity and plurality, is too great to simply pass over without something occult lurking unobserved in the interstice. A game starting with this letter-that-is-not-a-letter would be subtle enough that one wouldn’t necessarily even notice that one was playing it. And naturally one could not post about it afterward, because how would you even type its title? It starts with a letter whose Unicode code point is at best fractional, and quite likely something exotic out of the fever-dreams of John Conway.

Anyway, I’ll be moving on to B soon. But first, I think I have another post about an A game coming on, similar to how I proceeded after 80 Days.