Archive for September, 2012

Chrono Trigger: Zabie Door

I keep seeing it mentioned that an experienced player can reach the ending of Chrono Trigger while skipping most of the content. I think of Myst as the extreme of this sort of thing: there, you can basically just skip straight to the ending if you know the combination to Atrus’s hidey-hole. Unless Chrono Trigger has some really non-obvious actions in the opening areas, it doesn’t look like it takes things quite that far. The first few chapters carefully shepherd the player through a set sequence of towns and dungeons, with no real power to skip ahead. It’s easy to overestimate your freedom on the first pass, because the game goes to some length to make the environment look explorable, but if you go too far off the rails, you just find there’s nothing to do out there before you hit the correct plot points. That phase of the game pretty much ends when you reach the portal hub at the End of Time, though. A lot of RPGs — JRPGs in particular, but not exclusively — seem to have a structure like this, starting linear and then fanning out at a certain point.

But just before gaining this more complete freedom, back in the ruins of the domed cities of the future, there’s a section with an obvious opportunity to skip ahead in a small way. It’s possible for the same reason that it’s possible in Myst: combination locks. There’s a “Zabie ultra high-security door”, which prompts you for a security code when used. On the consoles, the code is a sequence of buttons on your controller; iOS substitutes a translucent overlay with colored buttons. Now, the combination can be found at the end of a sequence of fights and obstacles in another room of the same dungeon, but if you already know the combination, you can skip that. And even if you don’t, there are hints right there on the door.

In the SNES version, the name “Zabie” was a hint: the combination is XABY. Ah, but this only works if you have buttons labeled A, B, X, and Y. The iOS version doesn’t. For that matter, the Playstation version doesn’t, and they didn’t change it to a “Trianglexcirclesquare ultra high security door” there. I don’t remember if there was an alternate hint for the Playstation version, but there definitely is on iOS: pressing buttons at random yields two different tones depending on whether you’re following the sequence correctly or not.

Now, this is not the first combination lock in the game. You had to go through another locked door to reach this point. But there, the game refused to even let you even try to enter a combination until you knew what it was, which reinforces the point that you were expected to at least try guessing at the Zabie door. Not only that, but the first door is kind of a tutorial for the business of the two tones, or at least it was for me. By the time I got back to the door after receiving the combination, I had forgotten the exact sequence, and had to make a few tries before getting it right. So by the time I hit the Zabie door, I knew exactly how to read the beeps.

In short, the whole “ultra high-security” business is something of a joke: the game takes pains to make the combination guessable. Whether you actually want to skip the section leading up to the combination is questionable: there’s loot and XP to be got by doing things the hard way, loot and XP which I personally went back and got after guessing my way through the Zabie door. In fact, there’s a lot of places where a skilled player can sneak past patrolling monsters, despite the fact that it’s ultimately kind of counterproductive to do so. I could see some point to avoiding encounters on the way to a boss fight if it weren’t for the fact that every boss fight is immediately preceded by a save point where you can rest up to full health and mana; as it is, avoiding fights or fleeing them seems like a kind of optional challenge, a way of showing off that you’ve mastered the mechanics enough that you can beat the game’s few unavoidable encounters without leveling up first.

Chrono Trigger: More Touchscreen UI Thoughts

By now I have found that “Save” button that I couldn’t find in my previous session, and am making copious use of it. It turned out to be offscreen, at the bottom of a swipe-to-scroll panel that certainly didn’t work that way on the original console. So let’s talk a little more about the UI changes that were made for the iOS port.

Obviously all of the menus are completely redesigned. The screen where you enter the names of player cahracters, for example, brings up the standard iOS keyboard, rather than making you select each letter with a virtual D-pad in strict imitation of the original. In the pause menu, which is where you do things like examine your character stats and equip new equipment, there are on-screen buttons for paging through your roster of characters without leaving your current sub-menu, something that was handled by the controller’s shoulder buttons on the Playstation.

But the same menus bear artifacts of the old UI. Sometimes you have to tap a button twice — for example, when selecting a save to load. Why? As near as I can tell, it’s treating the first tap as selecting the item, as you would with the D-pad, and the second tap pressing the A button. Something in the underlying code is expecting those two distinct actions, and someone decided to not rewrite things that deeply. A different but even stronger example: dialogue choices. Most dialogue doesn’t contain choices — as in most JRPGs, the protagonist’s spoken lines are for the most part merely implied by other characters’ reactions, but every once in a while you have to make a choice between two or more explicit options in response to a direct question. In the original, your choices would be displayed in a little window at the bottom of the screen, and you’d use the D-pad to move a cursor up and down between them. On iOS, your choices are displayed in big translucent buttons overlaid on the whole scene, the better to thumb them on a tiny phone screen. But the same text is still displayed, redundantly, in the little window at the bottom. Presumably because some developer decided that removing it was more trouble than it was worth.

One thing I said before turns out to be incorrect: you cannot select monsters in combat by tapping on them directly. Most of the combat interface uses tappable buttons, but targets have to be chosen by cycling through the options by either tapping left/right buttons or swiping, and that’s kind of horrible. I just didn’t notice this at first because the initial combats were too simple for it to be applicable. Facing one opponent, I tapped on it, and my tap was recognized — it was just recognized as a generic tap-anywhere-to-confirm-current-selection. I suppose that the way enemies move around makes the conversion more complicated here, but it’s nothing that would be beyond the realm of possibility for a more thorough port, so I’m disappointed with the actuality there.

But then, I feel a bit like the mere shift to tapping may fundamentally alter the feel of combat in the first place. The controller interface meant that substantial portions of combat — the bits where you just want the next guy to hit whoever’s handy — could be accomplished by pressing the button that’s already under your thumb a few times. The touchscreen UI makes this more difficult, and forces you to keep looking at your fingers, which is to say, away from the action. I feel like combat here is hectic, with all its frantic tapping, and that I’m constantly having to get a handle on what’s going on more quickly than I’m comfortable with. But then, when I think back on it, I remember having similar sentiments back on the PS2. Maybe I should just shift down from Active Battle Mode to Wait Mode, at least for a while.

Yes, it's a tutorial on how to press buttons.Back in Crono’s home town, there’s a motley bunch of family members and random adventurers hanging out in the mayor’s house to provide a tutorial when spoken to (the family providing basic interaction instructions, the adventurers focusing more on combat). I actually missed them the first time I played through the game’s opening, so effective was the game at steering me towards the plot. The way you interact with the game in iOS is so changed that much of this tutorial had to be altered, but I’m pleased to say that whoever wrote the new stuff managed to ape the conversational style of the original admirably, in all its goofiness.

Commencing Chrono Trigger

It was obvious what game would take slot C on the alphabetical rundown. I’ve been meaning to get back to Chrono Trigger ever since I started and failed to finish it three full years ago. It strikes me that I’ve developed a sort of second-order stack, consisting of games that I abandoned writing about for this blog about games that I had previously abandoned playing. I was suffering from something of a JRPG overload when I started Chrono Trigger, midway through both Final Fantasy VI and Recettear, and that limited my patience with it at the time. But it’s a culturally-significant enough game that I do want to finish it, if only so I can stop my futile efforts at avoiding spoilers.

But I’ve been dragging my heels at getting started at it again. I think I’ll probably be fine with playing it once I’m into it, but I’ve just been resistant to entering that mode. Mainly, I think, this is because I feel like I really would have to get started at it again, as in, start over from the beginning. It’s been so long since I last played it that I really don’t think my previous notes (which I have of course re-read) are adequate to getting me back into the swing of it. Oh, they’ll help, of course, as will mere memory. Knowing something of what’s to come, I’ll have opportunities to do things more perfectly this time around. Come to think of it, that’s more or less Crono’s attitude towards the overall plot, so this is a nice confluence of player and player-character motivation.

Also, after some consideration, I have decided that if I’m going to start over from the beginning, it is worth it to me to drop ten bucks on the recent iOS port, despite the app store reviewers’ complaints that it’s overpriced and not updated enough. I want to be able to do my grinding at idle moments while waiting on line at the grocery store or whatever. And really, I don’t want it to be too updated. The fact that it faithfully reproduces the pixels of the original is a plus for such as me, the historically-interested gamer. Touchscreen support is, however, an improvement I welcome. As in many JRPGs, combat is performed by making a series of choices: Attack/Magic/Item? Which sub-action within that category? Which target? and being able to just tap your choice rather than D-pad to it feels much better and more natural. There are some cases where they had to superimpose new UI graphics to make the touchscreen work, mind you, and those feel like an intrusion. The biggest and most obvious such is of course the virtual joystick that you use to navigate, which takes up a horrifyingly large portion of the screen. I think I’ll learn to filter it out eventually, but I tend to feel that the graphical portion of the joystick is just unnecessary in a game like this. In a more action-oriented game, where precision is paramount, I could see it being an important part of providing enough feedback, but here, you get all the feedback you need just by seeing what direction Crono is running in.

So far, I’ve been all over the Millennial Fair that forms the game’s opening, and taken the time this time round to explore as much of the rest of the world as is available before triggering further plot. It turns out there isn’t a lot to do outside the fair, other than wandering into the houses of some NPCs who only become relevant much later, if ever. I tried to be as thorough as possible about taking advantage of the fair, engaging in optional challenges and buying extra goodies before proceeding further. Alas, all I had done was wiped out in the first combat I lost, because I hadn’t yet figured out how to save the game. Supposedly you can save anywhere when you’re at the main map (as opposed to a city or dungeon), but the menu didn’t seem to have the “Save” option that I remember from before. I’ll have to figure this out before making another serious sally. For now, that single sad experience was demoralizing enough to delay this post for another week.

The Blackwell Legacy

It seems like Wadjet Eye Games has been in the indie gaming news a lot lately, whether announcing new titles, or winning awards, or unexpectedly getting things onto Steam. And every time I read about what they’re doing lately, I think to myself that I really should try some of their stuff. I mean, I consider myself to be a fan of adventure games. I even already have some of their games, acquired via bundles and sadly neglected. Such is the Stack. So finally I’ve taken the plunge and played through the first of the flagship series by the company’s founder, the illustrious Dave Gilbert.

The Blackwell games are essentially supernatural detective stories. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, Rosangela Blackwell sees dead people, and it’s her inherited responsibility to help them move on, with the help of her hard-boiled spirit guide, Joey Mallone. But she needs to know things about the deceased to help them, and their shades are too scatterbrained or hostile to provide the necessary information themselves, so that’s where the detectiving comes in. This is the sort of adventure game where dialogue is the dominant mode of interaction, and that uses a notebook of gathered conversation topics more than it uses its object inventory. It even lets you try to combine topics the way you combine inventory items, dragging them onto each other in an attempt to create new insights or to point out contradictions. The last time I saw this mechanic used was in Discworld Noir, which is apparently where Gilbert got the idea from. I honestly didn’t think it worked very well there: the necessary combinations were sometimes far from obvious (because they were puzzles), and the combinatorial explosion meant that you had to wade through a great many fruitless pairings to find them. The Blackwell Legacy solves this problem by aggressively pruning the topic list. Sure, a shorter list is an invitation to brute-forcing your way to plot-essential revelations, but when you’re dealing with topics rather than physical things, that’s actually kind of mimetic. Imagining Rosangela iterating over everything in her notes, racking her brains for possible connections, makes sense in a way that a typical adventure hero trying to combine everything in their inventory doesn’t.

The Blackwell Legacy also seems like something of a Sierra homage. The whole supernatural detective thing brings Gabriel Knight to mind, as does the loving depiction of real places in a real city (New York in this case), as does the division of the game content into “days” (there are only two, but the game is careful to point them out to us), as does the art style in some of the dialogue cameos (the close-ups of character faces superimposed on the screen while that character is speaking). For that matter, the fact that it uses dialogue cameos at all is something of a Gabriel-Knight-ism; the more-often-fondly-remembered games from Lucasarts never bothered with them. Part of the reason for them was to convey facial expressions, allowing a degree of emotional expression that would be difficult or impossible to pull off at the limited resolution of the in-scene figures without doing everything in broad, theatrical gestures. Now, Blackwell was made in 2006. There might still be readability concerns due to the fact that the characters’ faces simply occupy a small area on the screen, but the need to compensate for big blocky pixels is gone. Can you spot the two ghosts in this picture?Blackwell uses big blocky pixels anyway, which by this point in history has to be a deliberate artistic choice. The map screen — yes, of course there’s a map screen, that’s how detective games work — uses fuzzy antialiasing in a way that makes it clear that when the other screens use dithering for gradients or fill patterns, it’s not because they didn’t have a sufficient range of hues. It’s so you can admire the artistry of the dithering, like a cobblestone walk in a city of blacktop. And just look at the pixel-spray foliage in the screenshot. There’s a definite nostalgia element there. And today we have a fifth-anniversary special edition of the game, making even the nostalgia nostalgic in its own right.

There’s one other chief thing that The Blackwell Legacy is, and that’s an origin story. Apparently it was intended from the beginning to be the first of several episodes (currently four), and it shows. Much of the game is spent explaining the Blackwell family history, leading up to Rosangela meeting Joey for the first time, learning of her new abilities and obligations as a medium, and reluctantly coming to terms with the whole deal. After that, you get one typical “case” in which you get to use the abilities that have just been explained to you once or twice, and that’s it. It’s pretty short, all told. It’s essentially an introduction to being a Blackwell, practically a tutorial.

And yet, it took me four or five days to complete what should have been a one-sitting game. Why?

Mainly because I kept forgetting what my options were. This game provides just enough different forms of interaction, and spaces them out with enough dialogue (its dominant mode), that it’s easy to miss the one that you need to make the story progress at a given moment. For example, if you’ve forgotten that you can combine topics in your notebook, you’ll get stuck. At one point I even forgot about right-clicking. This game has a general scheme of left-click to perform actions, right-click to examine. So for a couple of sessions, I was left-clicking on things like posters on the walls expecting to read them, only to have Rosangela tell me that she didn’t want to take them, leaving me confusedly wondering what kind of game designer makes “take” be the only verb applicable to a poster. The visual resemblance to the classic Sierra games probably hurt me here, because the interface isn’t Sierra’s at all. (Heck, you can’t even use inventory items on the environment directly here, as in Sierra’s dominant mode; everything you pick up either gets applied automatically when appropriate or just adds an option to a conversation menu.) In the Sierra games, right-clicking was just a sort of UI shortcut, and never necessary, probably because they were designing with one-button mice in mind. So there’s an ingrained habit of mind there that I had to ditch hard.

The one major bit of non-UI-related stuckage I encountered was, however, very Sierra-ish. It had to do with a certain action only being available if you’ve talked to Joey about a certain thing while back in Rosangela’s apartment. Now, the author admits that this is a place where lots of people get stuck, because a lot of people haven’t bothered to talk to Joey about the necessary thing by that point, and there’s no obvious reason to go back to the apartment just then. But my experience was a little different from that, and I have to wonder how common my version is. I had in fact talked to Joey about the necessary thing, but then I quit without saving, because I didn’t think I had made any significant changes to the game state since my last save. So even though I, the player, had the necessary information, in my next session, Rosangela did not. To some extent, I blame the notebook, which lulled me into thinking that I could distinguish between significant conversations and insignificant ones.

Beyond that, my chief gripe is that despite its recent fifth-anniversary revamp, the game still has some major bugs — for example, I had to force-quit when I was unable to dismiss the menu after bringing it up in the endgame. But for all my plaint, I still think it was worth playing, mainly because the characters are engaging. Rosangela herself is socially awkward, practically a recluse (the very first obstacle in the game hinges on the fact that she doesn’t know anyone else in her building), but combatively defensive about it in a very New York way that I think a lot of introverted gamer geeks will find appealing. From that base, the story gives her a permanent unwanted companion (Joey) and a fate that forces her to get out and interact with people more than she’s comfortable with. The fact that some of those people are restless spirits just heightens the anxiety that’s already in the character — and the detail that several characters have been driven to suicide by a lost soul’s incessant pleas for help casts a spotlight on the downside of her unseverable relationship with Joey.

Plus, if you’re into developer commentary tracks (which you probably are, given that you read blogs like this one), the current version of the game contains not one but two: the commentary from the game’s original release, and additional notes for the fifth anniversary edition. It’s interesting to compare them, to see where Gilbert’s opinions have changed and where they haven’t. My chief takeaway here is that, like all artists, his esteem for his own earlier works has plummeted over time. He keeps on apologizing for things that didn’t even register as faults for me. The one criticism of his that I really agree with is that the noninteractive dialogue frequently runs overlong, a fairly common failing of new designers. Ironic that the only way to hear this confession is to turn on the commentary, which makes the game even more longwinded, and even specifically extends a few of the longer talky bits with complaints about their length.