Archive for July, 2016


squarecellsDue to my recent experiences with Games Interactive, the main thing that I was thinking when I tried SquareCells was “Finally, Paint By Numbers done right!” It’s not quite Paint By Numbers, though. The answers don’t form meaningful pictures, the better to emphasize logical deduction. And, while it incorporates nonograms into its ruleset, it combines them with another grid puzzle system that I’m sure I’ve seen before but can’t think of the name of right now: numbers on cells of the grid, indicating the size of the polyomino containing it. The game starts with pure nonograms, but most of the puzzles mix the two systems, putting nonogram numbers on some but not all rows and columns. It works kind of like Hexcells, the previous title by the same developer, except that Hexcells starts with Minesweeper rules and adds nonogram numbers to that. (One peculiarity: in Hexcells, a number on a row or column normally just gives a count of the number of cells used, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re adjacent, unless it’s in brackets, like “{3}”. In SquareCells, it’s the reverse.)

Still, it’s close enough to Paint By Numbers to make me really appreciate all the little things it does to improve the experience. Like automatically saving your progress when you quit in the middle of a puzzle. Graying out numbers when they’re satisfied. Playing soothing ambient electronic music in the background instead of jazz. Those are all fairly obvious things, but there are some touches I wouldn’t have thought of, like the little arrows that point at the end of the row and column your cursor is over, making it easier to find the relevant clues. One unusual choice that really shows that the developers were paying attention to the play experience: instead of starting completely empty, the grid starts completely filled. Or rather, everything starts off in a third state, and the puzzle isn’t finished until you’ve marked every cell as either full or empty. But the initial state looks a lot more like the full state than the empty state, and cells marked as empty are completely and irrevocably deleted, while cells marked as full can be toggled back to unknown. I’ve noticed before how the process of solving nonograms feels more like carving the solution out of a block than like drawing it, and this UI reflects that.

The one thing the Games Interactive version had that I really miss is the ability to take notes on the grid.

Magnetic: Cage Closed

What we have here is a really obvious Portal imitation. No surprise there; that’s what I wanted. That’s why it was on my wishlist. The novel puzzle-solving gun in this instance is a magnet gun, which isn’t even all that novel: it’s a lot like the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, except that in addition to pushing and pulling objects, it can also propel the player by pulling or pushing against specially-marked walls, ceilings, and floors. With this, you go through series of contrived puzzle rooms while a voice over the PA system taunts you, just as in Portal. At one point, there’s an earthquake or something and you escape beyond the walls of the puzzle rooms for a while, and it reminded me so much of similar sequences in Portal 2.

In fact, it’s so much a Portal wannabe that I think it’s more interesting to note the differences than the similarities. Chiefly, where Portal was set in what was ostensibly a laboratory or “testing facility”, Magnetic drops all pretense that the setting is anything other than a prison. It’s a prison that’s currently being used for testing experimental magnet guns, but you get enough backstory over the course of the game to know that the test chambers are older than this project, that the prison has been sending prisoners into death-traps with a cruel promise of freedom for some time.

Now, the backstory is sparse. You never really learn a lot about the prison, or why you’re there, or the conditions that produced it. There’s a mention of a war, but this is never elaborated on. What you do know is that you’re the captive of a sadistic warden who trash-talks you to the point of monotony, but who is in some ways constrained by Karen, the prison psychologist, who’s a potential ally.

Unlike Portal‘s single through-path, the first chapter of Magnetic, before the earthquake, is spent in a repeated routine. You go from your cell into a transport that takes you to the test chambers, you solve some puzzles, you return your magnet gun and get a little talk and a sort of test choice from Karen, and then you get transported back to your cell (making it easy to decide to take a break from playing). One of the choices is just a quiz to see how well you remember the preceding test chamber. Another is a moral choice: another prisoner is described to you, along with her crimes, and you get to choose whether she should be executed or sent to the test chambers like you. I suppose the implication is that you were picked for testing the same way. What effect do these choices have? I don’t know. The game has nine endings, but the final level gives you a choice of only three paths, so earlier choices must figure in somehow.

Karen describes those three paths somewhat oracularly as the one that gives you a chance of revenge against your captors, the one that gives the most direct path out but which comes at a price, and the one that gives you the greatest chance of happiness. I chose the latter, and got a pretty straightforward escape ending as a result. The save system makes it inconvenient to go back and change your mind, so I don’t think I’ll be doing that soon. But I assume that not all of the endings are good. If you choose death for your fellow prisoner, does your guardian angel decide you’re not worth saving?

I suppose the whole thing is kind of gnostic, with its wise woman offering liberation from the angry demiurge. In which case, what are we to make of the fact that, after escaping the confines of the chambers in chapter 2, you have to go back inside to finish the story and the game? I guess it could be representative of a mystical experience, a temporary look at reality from outside, after which you return to your life with new knowledge — specifically, the knowledge that the test chambers and transports are suspended in a seemingly limitless void. Portal 2 did something similar, but it feels a little different in a prison setting than in a mad-science complex, where phantasmagoria is more expected. Although the very existence of test chambers means we’re already pretty far from the realms of the real in both cases.

Anyway, the puzzles were mostly pretty satisfying, apart from the ones requiring difficult platforming. There was one towards the end where you have to pull yourself up to a magnet on the ceiling in order to be able to aim downwards at another magnet to repel yourself across a gap, and the act of switching between facing-up-and-pulling and facing-down-and-pushing fast enough for it to work was difficult enough that I’d think there had to be another solution, if I hadn’t spent so much time looking for one.


sisimian.interface++ is a sort of game I always find interesting: a game that takes a single form of interaction and explores what you can do with it. In this particular case, the verb it’s exploring is “calibrate”. On each level, you have a graphical display that moves in some way in response to the mouse, and which you have to bring to some kind of sweet spot via minute tweakings. In the first and simplest form, you have a square that you have to move into a square-shaped frame, but what if the square moves in a different direction than the mouse? What if the square and the frame both move in different ways? What if something moves irregularly or in a sine wave or orbits a point in response to linear motion? What if there are multiple squares and it’s not clear which goes to which frame? What if instead of a square, it’s multiple shapes that fit together to compose a square when they’re in the right position? What if we add orientation to the mix, making the squares spin about their centers in addition to moving around? What if we make motion affect color? What if we move things in three dimensions? What if we just throw a whole bunch of things on the screen that move in different ways and make it unclear what the target position looks like?

There are a lot of games that have some sort of mini-game along these lines, usually to represent some sort of machine calibration, or sometimes lockpicking. I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen a specific case of it, rotating a collection of pieces until they line up to form a picture, spun out into a full game. But I think there’s value in putting a whole lot of variations on the theme together like this.

If it doesn’t explore the entirety of the form’s potential, it’s because it’s keeping things abstract and mainly based around squares and straight lines. So, no levels where the target image is a photograph, or where you’re manipulating the frequency and offset of a waveform. Keeping things simple presumably helps when you finish the levels and try out Endless mode, which seems to generate levels procedurally. I could easily imagine endless mode of this game on a projector at a party, as a toy for introverts that’s also a non-distracting source of varying abstract background visuals.

The Magical Silence

tmsThe Magical Silence is one of those surreal stream-of-consciousness games like Samorost or Windosill, where you click on bizarre landscapes with no idea what your clicks will provoke. As usual for this sort game, it’s very short. I guess a lack of coherent system means that content doesn’t stretch as far.

There are three things about it that I think are worth commenting on. First, it is highly vertical. The whole game, apart from its intro and outro, takes place in a single scrolling 2D space, and this space is much taller than it is wide. It’s an unusual choice, and one that I think could be taken better advantage of in other scenarios. This is a world that’s mostly sky, with water at the bottom, but I can easily imagine doing the same with a tall building, or a forest.

Second, it makes use of button-mashing. That is, sometimes you have to do more than just click on something, you have to click on it repeatedly and rapidly. In most cases, this was easy to figure out. When I click on a chameleon’s top hat, and it just wobbles slightly, I know that I’m after a stronger effect, like knocking it off completely, and that makes me try clicking it again and again. But down at the bottom of the world, there are a set of four squares that just flash and emit electronic tones when clicked, and you’re supposed to mash those as well. I had to look at the Steam forums to find this out, and there I learned that I wasn’t the only one to get stuck there.

Thirdly, it’s unusually morbid for a game of this sort. It starts with a cartoon dog sitting alone in a dark room with a bottle in front of him. He asks you to go through a door into his imagination to fix “something strange to my head”. (The author is apparently from Siberia, explaining both the grammar and the outlook.) When you finish, and re-emerge into the dark room, the dog has finished the bottle and is preparing to hang himself. “Now I am calm”, he says. “Now you must to finish the game!” You to finish the game by removing the chair he’s standing on. These games often have an air of menace, rooted in their utter unpredictability. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one take it as far as “Everything you did was to help a dog commit suicide”.

[the Sequence]

sequence[the Sequence] is probably my favorite acquisition of the Summer Sale. It’s a little bit Spacechem and a little bit The Incredible Machine, which kind of makes me realize that Spacechem was really a descendant of The Incredible Machine all along. All these games share a paradigm of setting up a mechanism and then letting it rip, trying it out to see if it does what you want it to do. As such, they’re all really about computer programming. But [the Sequence] doesn’t even pretend otherwise; it’s computer-themed, and its mechanisms, although spatially-arranged, are highly abstract.

Each level has the same objective: on a discrete grid, move a little round thing — officially a “binary data point”, but I can’t think of it as anything other than “the ball” — from a source tile that produces an endless stream of them to a goal. Getting four balls from start to goal without collisions is considered to be adequate proof that you’ve created a loop that can continue indefinitely. You accomplish this by placing objects on the grid that can move the ball around. For example, there’s a type of object that can push the ball one square away, another that can grab it from an adjacent tile and then rotate 90 degrees and drop it, another that’s a shuttle that moves one square in the direction it’s pointing every turn and can drag the ball with it, and so forth. These are represented by really well-designed abstract icons that clearly communicate what they do and where and in what direction. I won’t call them “intuitive”, because I don’t think you could guess their function purely from their appearance, but once you’ve seen them in action, they’re highly memorable.

The real trick, however, is that the objects don’t just affect the ball. They can also affect each other, effectively becoming nouns one moment, verbs the next. Like, maybe you need a pushing device in two different places, but have only one available in your inventory. That just means you need to construct a device to move that pusher around. There are even objects whose only purpose is to affect other objects, like the polarity reverser, which turns a pusher into a puller, or reverses the direction that a rotator rotates.

It’s all very much about lynchpins, flashes of insight about what the rules enable. A typical puzzle makes some aspect of the solution obvious, yet seems impossible: “The only thing I’ve got that’s capable of carrying the ball all that distance is a shuttle, but how do I get the shuttle back to the starting position without a polarity reverser?” And it’s kind of impressive how much it manages to force specific solutions through nothing more than the level geometry and the choice of tools. On the few occasions when I’ve been seriously stuck, it was because I was mistaking a puzzle’s intentions on a fairly high level.

The game’s title derives from the fact that the objects take turns. Getting the behavior you want often depends on adjusting the order in which the objects act. I’ve long felt that coarse placement grids are a good thing in contraption games, making the solutions more certain and less fiddly. Giving the player absolute control over the sequence of action effectively does the same thing for time.

Press X to Not Die

Press X to Not Die is first-person FMV in the key of stupid. That’s its basic draw: Laugh at how stupid it is, and, by extension, how stupid FMV games in general are. The FMV genre is a thing of the 1990s, after all, apart from a few modern revivals like Her Story (which, significantly, imitates the look and feel of a 90s operating system). And 20 years is about how long it takes for things that were originally regarded as merely bad to become appreciated as enjoyably bad.

It gets the low-budget schlock aesthetic pretty much right, with its bad acting and unconvincing violence. At one point it teases a possible shower scene (without following through), and all I could think of was a similar moment in the 1993 FMV game Critical Path. The interactivity seemed a bit off the mark, though. There are two forms of interaction in the game: choosing dialogue from a menu (which provides a certain amount of branching), and QTEs of various sorts, including randomized button presses and rapid button-mashing. I can’t think of any actual 90s FMV game that worked like this; rather, it’s a combination that I personally associate very strongly with certain more modern games that arguably might as well be FMV. So, I could believe there’s a sly wink there, if I thought the game had any interest in subtlety.

The premise is that nearly everyone just starts attacking each other in the streets for no apparent reason, with only a few people unaffected, such as the protagonist and his girlfriend. In other words, it’s basically a zombie apocalypse scenario, except that they didn’t even splurge on zombie makeup. Now, to spoil the plot — and here things get really stupid — it ultimately turns out that the common factor linking the survivors is that they’re all gamers. The QTEs you’ve been performing throughout the game are part of an experimental system that’s supposed to render people capable of performing complex tasks “with the ease of pressing a button”. But only people who play videogames are capable of thinking like that. Anyone else goes mad trying.

This leads to a cringeworthy but weirdly self-defeating moment. When this revelation comes along, the player character turns to his girlfriend and says, with surprise in his voice, “You’re a gamer?”, and in reply, she shrugs and says “Angry Birds”. Now, my first reaction to this was that the game was displaying the unfortunate sexist attitudes that infest geekdom: that it’s surprising when a woman likes games, and also that women only play casual games, which don’t really count. But when you think about it, the fact that she’s immune to the insanity shows that she really is a gamer, in an objectively confirmable sense. Casual games do count in this world. They may even count more. The girlfriend character uses her personal QTEs to do things like hack through electronic locks, while the player gets things like a button-mash to climb over a fence that has a perfectly serviceable gate in it.

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