Archive for April, 2016

English Country Tune: Puzzle Ruminations

The first of those two puzzles I mentioned in my last post finally yielded to copious use of process of elimination — I didn’t understand what I had to do until I had gone through everything that wouldn’t work. This opened up access to the rest of the game’s puzzles, which I made short work of, leaving only the other of the two, the one with the resonator.

I’ve mentioned the notion of formulating goals. To be clear, your ultimate goals in this game are usually obvious: get the larvae to their incubation chambers, plant all the gardens, free the whales, get your square to its goal spot, and so forth. But then you have obstacles. Let’s say you can’t reach a larva because it’s over on another structure, across a gap you can’t travel. This creates another goal: bridge that gap. For the most part, I felt like the low-level movement needed to accomplish goals in this game was the easy part, and that I only got really stuck when I couldn’t tell what the intermediary sub-goals were. But maybe that’s tautological.

Solving the resonator puzzle took an “Aha!” realization, and even with that, I didn’t fully understand why the solution worked before going over it in my mind in preparation for this blog post. It also requires a certain amount of reverse reasoning. This was possible because the puzzles in ECT are highly parsimonious, avoiding superfluous blocks and red herrings. Everything has a reason to be there, either as part of an obstacle or part of a solution. In most puzzles, if I didn’t see the purpose of a structure, it sufficed to just ignore it until its purpose became apparent, either because it was in my way or because I suddenly had a need of it. But in some cases, such as this one last puzzle, the path to a solution was unclear enough that imagining what a structure could be used for could clarify matters.

Many years ago, I made an attempt at classifying puzzles in games (and adventure games in particular) by the sorts of thought processes necessary for solving them. Such categories are necessarily vague, and many puzzles partake of more than one, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful as descriptions. The main categories I came up with at the time were something like this: First, you’ve got those “Aha!” moments, the epiphanies that transform your understanding of the problem. Classically, riddles fit in this category. Then you’ve got puzzles based on the application of known rules. This is the domain of mazes and jigsaw puzzles. Finally, there’s my favorite group, puzzles where you don’t know the rules at first, and have to figure them out through experimentation. This is a sort of puzzle that’s almost exclusively seen in videogames. I don’t think this old taxonomy had a slot for the kind of backward reasoning I just described, so maybe that should be considered a fourth sort.

ECT runs the entire spectrum. Whenever a new game element is introduced, you have to play with it to figure out how it works. (There are in-game descriptions, but they don’t tell you everything.) Once you know the rules, you apply them. But every once in a while, there’s a puzzle that uses the rules in a way that you haven’t thought of. And that’s where the epiphanies come in. My understanding is that Stephen’s Sausage Roll is similar. I’ll be getting back to that shortly.

English Country Tune: Almost Finished

English Country Tune, as I’ve said, keeps adding new elements. Hole punches that punch holes in your square, together with obstacles that require the right holes in the right orientations. Freeze buttons that turn things you can push into things you can climb. Resonators, which can’t be adequately described in one pithy sentence. The final two worlds take all the elements that have been introduced so far and use them together in various ways.

I’m now up to the final world, where I have two puzzles available to me, but I’ve been stuck on them both for a little while. One involves a Resonator, easily my least favorite of the game’s things, as it introduces a time element into something that’s otherwise been comfortably turn-based. The other is inconvenient to navigate, but is otherwise benign. In both, I’m having difficulty formulating goals. Like, in the second one, I know I have to position a whale in such a way that it helps me push a larva into an incubation chamber that’s waiting for it, just because those are the only two moving objects on the level. But I don’t really see how that could work.

I’m getting kind of impatient to get through these two puzzles and see the rest of the puzzles they’re gating. It’s funny how that works. Am I liking the game? Yes, yes I am. Do I want it to last longer? No, I want to get it over with as quickly as possible. I guess it’s like gulping your food.

English Country Tune: One-Sided

Replaying the beginning of English Country Tune for comparison purposes seems to have turned into playing the whole game. I only got a bit more than halfway through it when I first played it, and, aided by memories, I’ve already gotten well past that point. In the process, I’ve re-encountered one of the most interesting puzzles I’ve ever seen. Let me describe it.

First, understand that the player avatar in this game is a square, which moves about on the surface of an agglomeration of blocks by flipping end over end. There’s a puzzle set where you’re coated with green paint that plants seeds on contact with special “garden” tiles, causing a sort of abstract bush or something to sprout when you leave the tile, rendering that square impassible. Your goal throughout this set is to paint a bush on every garden tile. In other words, it’s a series of puzzles about covering a set of squares without retracing your path, just like the red trap door puzzles in DROD. The three-dimensionality adds an extra twist or two, but nonetheless, I personally have found this sequence to be by far the easiest part of the game. It is, however, followed by a much trickier set, in which your flippy square has green paint on only one side, so that it alternates between consuming tiles and not consuming tiles. Among other things, this means that you have to take advantage of the corners of blocks to switch your parity.

That’s interesting, but the really interesting puzzle is the first one in the one-sided set. Instead of the normal puzzle interface, the game gives you a simple level editor, and challenges you to create a one-sided-paint puzzle out of nothing but blocks with garden tiles on every exposed face, and then solve it. This is actually pretty tricky to do. Most simple shapes cannot be covered completely with an alternating paintbrush. Presumably the author noticed this in the course of developing the puzzles, and realized that the level design problem he was solving was a pretty good puzzle in its own right, worthy of inclusion in the game. I don’t think I’ve seen this sort of level-design puzzle elsewhere, and it’s something I’d be interested in seeing more of.

I’ve gotten far enough into the game to see one more instance of a puzzle that uses the level editor, but it’s not the same: it asks you to create a shape that interacts with the rules in a particular way, but doesn’t ask you to make a solvable puzzle.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll and English Country Tune

I’ve started replaying English Country Tune for comparison purposes. Taken at a highly abstract level, it really is a lot like Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Both are basically games about pushing things to destinations in a tile-based 3D evironment, with identical controls for navigating and rewinding. The biggest difference is that ECT is more thoroughly 3D: you can move on any surface of the agglomeration of blocks you’re clinging to, and the direction of gravity is highly conditional.

Both games consist of groups of puzzles which unlock other groups of puzzles when completed, but ECT handles this fairly abstractly, through what amounts to a menu, even if it is a strangely-presented one. SSR links its puzzle together much more cleverly. The “menu” you use to select puzzles is an island, which you navigate in exactly the same way as you navigate the puzzles. But that’s not all. Each puzzle consists of an isolated patch of ground, in a particular shape, with grills and so forth, in the middle of a large body of water. The island is literally composed of the terrain of all the puzzles, pieced together like a jigsaw.

ECT has a weird and unsettling atmosphere. Despite the name, its music consists largely of ambient organ chords with a lot of tension in them. Everything in the puzzles is sharply geometric, but artificial dust motes drift around, creating a sense of decay. Restarting a puzzle briefly makes a cloud of black pixels swarm around you like flies. Things that look innocently abstract have unsettling names: the first puzzle asks you to move a ball to a goal spot, but it refers to the ball as a “larva” and the goal as an “incubation chamber”. Some later puzzles involve a cube that projects light beams. This is called a “whale”. It’s all very alien.

I’ve noted feeling a sense of menace in SSR, but it’s a great deal more restrained about it, which might make it worse. Sausages are a singularly fraught thing to base a game around, being both phallic symbols and meat products. There are plaques that mention how there used to be a great civilization on the island, and my first thought on learning that was “What happened to them? Were they made into sausages?” But the game has so far refused to address such fancies, staying firmly in a straight-faced realm of childish tinkly music and sloppily pixeled building blocks. “What? It’s just sausages”, it seems to say.

Now, I’m only up to the third set of puzzles in SSR. But so far, the puzzles as a whole have had a greater cohesion than ECT. ECT is essentially based around an interface for moving around on the surface of a solid made of cubes, and the various puzzle sets explore different mechanisms for exploiting that: one world for pushing larvae into incubation chambers, one for whales, another for planting seeds on every face of the surface, etc. In short, new sections change the rules. SSR hasn’t had to do that so far. Some of the rules are latent at first — for example, you can’t pierce a sausage with your fork until you you have something to push against. But the actual mechanics don’t seem to change at all. All that changes is what the puzzles make it possible to exploit. The third set of puzzles has a focus on stacking sausages on top of each other, and on walking on top of sausages, which can cause them to roll backwards. This is stuff that was introduced in the second set of puzzles, but not used to anywhere near the same degree. I’ve noticed that under certain unusual circumstances, it’s possible for me to lose my fork. I expect that I’ll eventually hit a set of levels that requires me to do this deliberately.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Easing Up

Day 2 of playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll found me getting through puzzles much more quickly and smoothly than day 1. I definitely think that taking a break and sleeping on it had a positive effect here. Sometimes that’s what it takes for unfamiliar rules to sink in. One of the first things that you have to get used to in this game is that you have to walk backward a lot of the time, because otherwise your fork gets in the way. At this point, I’m doing that as a matter of course. Where I would previously look at a puzzle for the first time with pure bafflement, now I’m capable of at least identifying goals — this sausage has to go there, etc. — due to my better understanding of how sausages behave.

The game seems to be gated by periodic obstacles such that you have to finish all the puzzles in one section before proceeding to the next. The second section introduces the notion of height. In section 1, the only natural obstacles were grills and gaps in the terrain. In section 2, there are walls, which you can push sausages against to impale them on your fork, then pull them off against another wall. This means there’s a whole new mechanism for the puzzles to explore, but for my part, I find its implications fairly intuitive. Where each puzzle in section 1 was a struggle, to be tried and abandoned and revisited, I’ve completed all but two of the puzzles in section 2 on my first attempt.

Essentially, there are two mechanics that needed to be introduced to the player, one that’s hard to grasp and one that’s easy to grasp. But the hard one had to be introduced first, because it’s the basic movement mechanics. I suppose that subsequent sections will add further complications, as is customary in puzzle games. Given what’s happened so far, I have no idea whether they’ll make things easier or harder than what I’ve seen.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll.

OK, yes, I’ve taken the bait. My impression from pre-release screenshots and the like was that Stephen’s Sausage Roll was going to be just another entry in the burgeoning genre of little Puzzlescript-like puzzle games — a genre that the author is no stranger to, as he’s the creator of Puzzlescript. (SSR even uses the same hotkeys!) But the price point seemed awfully high for that. So I asked around, and found out about its testimonials, and now I’ve bought the thing. I suppose you could accuse me of falling prey to the bottled water fallacy, of valuing it more simply because it’s more expensive. But I kind of want there to be more of a market for premium puzzle games, so I’m doing my part to support that.

Also, I did quite like the previous commercial release by the same author, English Country Tune, even if I never completed it. That one got very difficult.

SSR pretty much starts out that way. There are no “beginner” levels that indirectly tutorialize the mechanics; you’re just thrown into the deep end (he says, not yet knowing how deep the real deep end is). There’s a plaque near your initial position that describes the controls, but it seems like something of a joke, because you need to use the controls it describes to reach it. The first few levels are small, but that means they’re cramped, and it’s difficult to make a single move without nudging a sausage into the abyss. Making any progress at all requires multiple non-obvious realizations about how basic movement.

The basic mechanics: Your goal on each level is to cook a group of very large sausages by pushing them onto grills, Sokoban-style. (This is not explained explicitly in the game, but once you see what a grill tile does to a sausage, it’s pretty obvious what you’re meant to do.) Sausages are two tiles in size, and both tiles must be cooked. Furthermore, each sausage-tile must be cooked on both sides: pushing a sausage latitudinally rolls it over. Many block-pushing games make a point of removing blocks that have reached their final destination or otherwise been fully processed. That does not happen here, and cooked sausages can become serious obstacles, because pushing a cooked side onto a grill burns it and loses the level, although just leaving a sausage on a grill does not burn it. You have a fork permanently fixed to your front, which can be useful for poking sausages off grills (which are impassible), but which is always in danger of delivering pushes you don’t want. The way it swings as you turn reminds me a little of DROD, even though it controls completely differently. After cooking all the sausages, you have to return to your starting point. I’ve seen one level so far that makes that the hard part, by making it so that the obvious way to cook the sausages leaves them in positions that you can’t get past without smacking them with your fork and burning them.

And that’s about all I have to say for now, because I haven’t yet gotten far enough in to make grand pronouncements about what it all means. Hopefully I’ll be able to make enough progress to say more in my next post, but the prospect feels daunting and even a little menacing right now.

The Stick of Truth: Finished

Suppose you have two weapons. One hits for 100 points once per turn, the other hits for 20 points five times per turn. They seem equivalent, right? But if you find a socketable weapon upgrade item that makes each hit do 5 more points, weapon B gets more mileage out of it than weapon A does. On the other hand, if you find an upgrade that makes a weapon do one additional hit per turn, weapon A is the clear winner.

Considerations like these occupied a surprisingly large portion of my time playing The Stick of Truth. With factors like elemental damage, damage reduction, status effects, and so forth, the math of combat is elaborate enough that one piece of equipment usually isn’t obviously better than another at a similar level. And the game keeps throwing new equipment at you! A major quest can give you multiple entire outfits to choose from, in addition to all the items you can buy from stores.

And the thing is, by the end, it’s kind of irrelevant. I developed a dominant strategy: at the start of each fight, I’d have the PC and Kyle both use their costliest skills, which do massive damage to all enemies. For most non-boss-fights, that was enough to end matters without even using a weapon at all. But I suspect that pretty much any strategy you choose would work in the end. It’s not a difficult game. In fact, it’s so not-difficult, I managed to basically miss out on an entire major mechanic, because I confused Power Points (used in special abilities) with Mana (used exclusively for farts), and thought for most of the game that I couldn’t afford to use fart attacks in combat. Farts, in addition to providing powerful attacks, have the particular virtue that they interrupt enemies in the act of preparing spells. But it didn’t matter. I survived without being able to do that.

Nonetheless, the game tries to motivate you to collect all the outfits and weapons just by keeping track of them in a “Collectibles” menu, and awarding an Achievement for filling in all the spots in that menu. It does a similar thing with the Chinpokomon figurines scattered around the town, and which don’t seem to have any relevance to the game beyond collection for collection’s sake. Making friends is also treated as a collection game, although this time it’s one that unlocks combat perks.

Now, I realize not everyone feels like this, but I’m into collection for collection’s sake. And this game, like many modern games, is polite enough to let completists like me continue playing after the final boss is defeated and the credits have rolled. But, despite some twinges, I don’t think I’ll take the bait. Collecting all the outfits would require grinding for cash, and that’s something I just don’t feel like doing. The game has been blessedly grind-free otherwise; simply making progress in the story provided me enough XP that combat became too easy to be interesting.

Plus, there’s thousands of other games out there waiting to be played. Let’s try another one.

The Stick of Truth: Horrors

I’m pretty far into The Stick of Truth now. The story is divided into a series of days and nights, with the days spent questing around the town and the nights devoted to self-contained scenarios in more fantastical environments. Day 1 is spent recruiting for the human side, so they can recover the Stick from the elves who stole it. Day 2 starts similarly, but turns into mostly questing on the elves’ side. At the end of day 2, the elves and humans join forces against a new threat, and at the point I’m at in day 3, I’m still trying to recruit more allies in preparation for the presumed final assault. At the same time, there’s a second story going on in parallel, about a government cover-up of a UFO crash and subsequent spillage of alien goo that creates Nazi zombies.

The story been exploring various dimensions of unpleasantness throughout — scat jokes, racism, bullying and other acts of juvenile cruelty, children being exposed to nudity and sexuality in uncomfortable ways (including an extended sequence where the player character watches his parents have sex), anal probing, zombies. But it’s only at this late stage, well into what I believe to be the final chapter, that I finally reach a point that’s nearly overwhelmingly revolting: the abortion clinic scene.

I won’t go into detail. It involves hiding from the Men In Black by pretending to be a doctor, and consequently going through a special QTE sequence. Failure results in cartoon gore 1Not to be confused with cartoon Gore. He appears in the game too, but elsewhere., followed by death and starting the sequence over. I’m not sure why this makes me queasy while the rest of the game leaves me relatively unmoved. Maybe there’s just something special about the combination of botched surgery and genitalia. Maybe it’s the way that the QTE makes you pay attention to what’s going on, instead of just watching for button prompts or abstract sparkles like in the combat system. Maybe it’s the combination. Regardless, I had to shut off the game for a while at this point, and contemplated just abandoning it there.

But I did come back. I have a desire to see this through to the end, and I think this has a lot to do with how compelling the game’s RPG treadmill is. (I may go into that in my next post.) And, thankfully, the next mission breaks the gross-out a bit by sending you off to Canada, which, in South Park continuity, is rendered in an even less realistic style than the USA.

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1. Not to be confused with cartoon Gore. He appears in the game too, but elsewhere.

The Stick of Truth: Enemies and Lore

Now, I said that The Stick of Truth puts you into a war against (kids pretending to be) elves, but elves are far from the only things you fight. You fight anyone who stands in your way, or who is the subject of a quest, including characters who aren’t even part of the LARP. For example, at one point, the only thing that stands in the way of sending a war party to recover the stolen Stick is that one of your teammates is in detention down at the school. In the course of rescuing him, you battle a number of hall monitors — and, blurring the lines between reality and make-believe further, you do it with exactly the same combat system as usual, magical abilities and all. You can even receive quests from people outside the fantasy scenario, like when the mayor asks you to help solve the town’s homeless problem by beating up homeless people. The inner game is fully integrated into what passes in South Park for reality.

But then, little kids doing magic fits right in, because the town of South Park is no stranger to the outlandish and bizarre. I have only a slight familiarity with the show’s lore, but I know that it’s seen such sights as Jesus and Satan, underpants gnomes, and talking poo. So when I find myself fighting alien abductors, or a herd of Nazi zombie cows, I assume that it’s just drawing more from the show.

I really like how these lore references are handled, by the way. This is an area where I felt the 1998 South Park FPS fared badly: it assumed that anyone who played the game was already familiar with everything from the show. But here in The Stick of Truth, part of the premise is that you’re a new kid in town. Your primary quest is to go and make friends, and that leads you into the LARP and thus into the rest of the game. Because the player character is a newcomer, the game has an excuse to treat the player as a newcomer as well. Even in the few cases where I do recognize something, the game’s brief introduction to it is at least an opportunity to crack a few jokes about it.

The Stick of Truth: Shallow and Deep Theming

When I call The Stick of Truth a “South-Park-themed RPG”, I mean that it’s an RPG at its core and a South Park property on its surface. If you replaced the graphics, dialogue, and flavor text with something more like standard fantasy RPG material, you’d have a game that plays the same, but it wouldn’t be at all recognizable as South Park.

You might be tempted to say that this is simply how licenses of this sort work, that they’re always just veneers on top of an established genre. But it isn’t necessarily so. Consider how the gameplay of Wing Commander was clearly and obviously inspired by Star Wars, despite having a story and setting that drew more from the Man-Kzin Wars stories. The resemblance to Star Wars exists only at the level of gameplay, but was strong enough to draw comment at the time. And that kind of gameplay-level connection to the source material is what The Stick of Truth pointedly lacks.

Nonetheless, there are a few ways that the source material touches the game at a deeper level. The first comes at when you choose a character class, which, due to the LARP-within-a-game plot, is something that happens in-story, the choice presented by the character of Cartman. You have a choice of four classes: Fighter, Mage, Thief, and Jew. This both continues the Jewish jokes from the show and enables more of them in the game, but it isn’t just a throwaway gag: Jew is a fully fleshed-out character class, with its own special abilities based on more Jewish jokes. Naturally, this is the class I chose, on the basis that it’s the only one unique to this game. Then I thought: wait, it’s probably just Cleric under a different name, isn’t it? But it isn’t. I don’t really have a handle on what the specialization of the Jew is supposed to be — possibly it’s the generalist class, like Final Fantasy‘s Red Mage. It does seem to have some focus on abilities that become stronger as you sustain damage, which I suppose could be another tasteless Jewish joke, an encouragement to get your Jew beat up a lot.

If there’s no Cleric class, where do you get your healing? Largely from snack foods, but also from Butters. Butters is a supporting character from the show who I was unfamiliar with. In the game, he’s a Paladin who joins your party and can heal you with a laying on of hands, which he interprets as patting you on the back and saying “I got your back, bro” or similar sentiments. Again, skin-deep theming. Apparently the Paladin role suits the character’s innocence, but it’s just a mapping of an existing character to an independently-existing role. Eventually, however, you acquire other party members you can swap him with, and the first one you unlock is Kenny. If you know anything at all about South Park, you probably know that Kenny dies in every single episode, only to come back without explanation in the next. This inspires one of his powers in the game. If he falls in combat, rats drag his carcass away. A few rounds later, he just walks back in and resumes fighting as if nothing happened. So, here, we have gameplay drawn from the source material.

Then there’s the fart jokes. This game makes farts into one of your fundamental skills, both in combat and in solving environmental puzzles that allow you to bypass fights. This defies easy classification as deep or shallow theming. On the one hand, Cartman, who teaches you the secret of power-farting, refers to it as a “dragon shout”, specifically pointing out its resemblance to the Dragon Shout abilities in Skyrim. On the other hand, the game does use the ability in particularly South-Park-fart-joke ways, like letting you fart through open flames to create explosions.

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