Archive for June, 2019

Dropsy: Hugs and Aliens

Now, I still haven’t finished Dropsy, so I could turn out to be wrong about this, but: It seems like most of the puzzles around befriending people are in the nature of optional side-quests. Advancing the story does require gaining cooperation from certain people, I think, but for the most part, you’re expected to simply want hugs for their own sake. Although if that’s not enough, the game does provide one other motivator for completists: there’s a record of everyone you’ve hugged, in the form of crayon drawings on a wall of the clown’s bedroom. This gives it a definite “Gotta hug ’em all!” aspect.

It also reminds me a little of The Witcher and its sexual conquest cards that drew so much attention. I was contemplating making that comparison into the basis for an entire blog post, exploring the question of what the difference is, but on reflection, it’s hardly even a question worth asking.

There are a few drawings already on the wall at the start of the game, of those that the clown has already had ample opportunity to hug: the clown’s green-haired colleague, their deceased friend, the dog. Yes, animals count. So does any sufficiently-huggable inanimate object, such as a statue or a tree. There’s one drawing that kind of puzzles me, though: it shows what looks like some kind of squidlike alien. 1UPDATE: It turns out to actually be a rather impressionistic depiction of a security robot from the corporate HQ lobby. Now, there is definitely an alien presence in the game. Off in the desert, there’s a guy in a camper-converted-into-a-storefront trying to sell merchandise related to his personal alien encounter, while a beefy man in black hovers nearby. Elsewhere, in a mysterious cave, I can catch a few glimpses of the very same tentacled being as in the camper man’s pictures, lurking but not particularly trying to hide its presence. The thing is, though, I haven’t hugged the alien, or any other aliens — unless it’s an alien shapeshifter. Maybe I could figure out who’s secretly an alien by process of elimination: it would be the one person who I’ve hugged who isn’t in any of my drawings. But that would have a strange implication: that the clown, who’s presumably the one making the drawings (although goodness knows when he finds the opportunity) saw the shapeshifter’s true form while I, the player, saw only its disguise. So more likely it’s just a bug.

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1. UPDATE: It turns out to actually be a rather impressionistic depiction of a security robot from the corporate HQ lobby.

Dropsy: Dog and Mouse

I’ve mentioned that Dropsy features a dog, which follows the clown around. Yes, you can pet it. You can also switch control to it, if you need to do something that the dog can do but the clown cannot, such as digging up some dirt or fitting through a doggie door. But it also functions as a hint device. The dog frequently leaves your side to go sniff something, and in so doing, draws attention to some of the game’s more difficult-to-notice clickables.

In my last post, I mentioned being stuck trying to deal with a man in a chicken costume. I’ve gotten through that part, and it’s all thanks to the dog. First, I noticed that the dog wasn’t just sniffing at this man, but enthusiastically barking at him. I had heard this barking before, but I didn’t notice it until I started paying more attention to the dog’s behavior in general. I was pretty sure that the chicken man was the key to my current mission, so hearing the dog bark made me realize that it was barking at him because he was important at that moment. This inspired me to take a walk through all the other rooms to see if there was anything else that the dog thought was important. And… there wasn’t. Which, as in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, was crucial to figuring things out! Knowing that there wasn’t anything directly relevant anywhere else, I focused my attention on the chicken man, and realized that I had been misinterpreting an ambiguous speech icon — I thought he had just been saying “I don’t like you”, but the clown icon wasn’t the one everyone else used to express similar sentiments. What he was really saying was specifically “Don’t hug me.”

Anyway, I’m significantly further along now. The clown’s partner has fallen ill, and lies on his cot, inert and miserable. Obtaining health care in the screwed-up corporatized system of this game is a big task for such a simple clown. But at the same time, I’ve befriended a mouse. Like the dog, the mouse follows me around and can be controlled directly to sneak through little holes. I have to say, the emphasis in this game is shifting more and more toward traditional adventurey mechanical puzzles instead of figure-out-what-will-make-people-happy puzzles. Obtaining the mouse required fiddling with a crane in a junkyard, and the puzzles requiring the mouse have mostly been about circumventing security systems. There are still a number of sad people who need cheering up, but they seem to be off the critical path.

Before I got the mouse, there was an empty slot for its icon in the verb menu, a silhouette of a mouse’s head right next to the icon for controlling the dog. There’s still one more empty slot next to that. I wonder what it is? A bird, maybe? That would solve some problems I have with objects too high to reach.

Dropsy: Missions and Exploration

Not much progress in Dropsy today. I managed to befriend a couple more people, but I’m very stuck on my current mission.

Yeah, there are missions. I hadn’t mentioned that. They’re given to you by a green-haired friend/coworker of the clown who sleeps in the same circus tent. The first mission, which I barely understood, was to deliver a gift to a grave. The second is to recover a tire that the coworker had taken off his motorcycle, but which was stolen by a bird. That’s where I’m stuck. The bird is easy to find, but it’s fierce, and drives off any clowns that approach its nest. I’m pretty sure the solution involves enlisting the aid of a guy in a chicken costume in the town, but he doesn’t like the clown and I have no idea how to change that.

Now, the reason that it’s easy to find the bird is that your current mission is marked with an icon on the world map. Another icon indicates your current location. Other locations you’ve visited are marked with simple dots, which really makes it look like you should be able to click on them for fast travel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Unexplored regions are shrouded by clouds. At the point I’m at, this just means places beyond locked gates or similar impasses, because obviously the first thing you do when you’re stuck is conduct a thorough exploration.

And even without solving any puzzles, it’s a fairly large and explorable environment, with a lot to see and do. Checking it all out is definitely what the game wants you to do. But to a certain extent, it feels like this clown just wandered off down a random road while his friend is waiting for that tire. It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d do in any adventure game, but it’s also in character.

Dropsy

My appetite for indie point-and-click adventures is not yet sated. Dropsy is a cartoony and low-res 2015 game by Jay Tholen, the less-familiar-to-me co-designer of Hypnospace Outlaw, in which you play as a clown. Not just a circus performer who takes off the greasepaint at the end of the performance, but a being that’s a clown around the clock, and has queasily non-human traits, like a rubbery flexibility and a never-changing gap-toothed rictus and an apparent complete lack of hands. Unpleasant enough to look at that I put off playing the game for four years. The sort of clown, then, that scares children — which is tragic, because, we learn, all he wants is hugs.

It’s worth noting how we learn this: from the UI. Most actions in the game are performed with a single click of a contextual cursor: look at, pick up, talk to, etc. A menu of icons lets you pick just a few other actions, such as picking an inventory item or switching control to your dog. One of these icons is the hug icon. It took me a while to figure out what it did, because it doesn’t work on most inanimate objects, but once you apply it successfully to a person you haven’t hugged before, you get a little fanfare and a special victory graphic. (The dog gets something similar for each fire hydrant it pees on. This game is not above that sort of humor.) So hugging is one of the game’s basic actions, and you’re rewarded for doing it. That means it fulfills the same role in the game as shooting in a typical action game. I have no idea how this game was thought up, but it seems like “hugs replace shooting as the main mechanic” is a prompt that could have produced it.

Not everyone is in the mood to be hugged when you first meet them, and attempting to hug someone prematurely will provoke negative reactions. The general solution to this seems to be simple acts of kindness. Ye gods this is a good-natured game. I’m starting to think that Tholen is the main source of the positive vibes I picked up from Hypnospace.

The thing that really impresses me from a design perspective, though, is that it’s all done completely wordlessly. The only legible word in the entire game seems to be the title. That’s unusual for the point-and-click adventure genre. The only other examples I can think of are the Amanita Design games like Samorost and Machinarium, which are set in strange and alien worlds, and use the lack of a common language to emphasize their unfamiliarity. Dropsy, exaggerated and cartoonish though it is, has a more mundane setting, centered around an ordinary American-looking city with a jazzy soundtrack, and the regions around it. But the absence of verbal communication still has an alienating effect. Characters speak in word balloons containing images, which are sometimes hard to understand — but this seems appropriate, because the clown seems like someone who would have difficulty understanding people. Text on things like signposts is replaced with a system of meaningless squiggles, suggesting that the clown is illiterate, on top of his other challenges.

It all makes him more childlike, his awkwardness in the world a matter for sympathy rather than fear or derision. Considering how horrifying he seemed on first impression, that’s a pretty powerful shift. It strikes me that the player character’s relationship to the player goes through more or less the same transformation as his relationship to most of the other characters in the game.

Fran Bow: Conclusion

After Fran leaves Ithersta, things become weirdly normal for a while. Just for a while, before the final plunge into unreality. We’ve had disturbing visions of ghosts and demons, and we’ve had a full-on fantasy world, and now, at the end, we get Ditkoesque surrealism, with strangely-connected floating platforms hosting odd creatures with odd obsessions. Fran isn’t afraid of them; her capacity to feel fear has long since burnt out. Indeed, one of the more frightening beings from earlier, a very tall skeleton in a top hat, turns out to be a friend and ally. The game does an excellent job of keeping this ambiguous, too, making it seem like he’s betrayed us once we’ve come to trust him. But once Fran has been through that, she can even accept help from her doctor from the hospital. There’s a sudden emphasis on keys and unlocking in the final chapter, and it’s clearly a sign that Fran is making breakthroughs.

The thing is, though, a completely surreal environment isn’t nearly as jarring and uncanny as an only slightly weird one. And that’s what we get in the lead-up to the ending. Fran somehow makes it back to her house, as has been her goal for the last couple of chapters. It’s an ordinary house, on an ordinary street, and the break in the unreality makes us suddenly uneasy about her unrealistic expectations. Fran just escaped from a madhouse. Her parents are dead. Things aren’t going to go back to normal just because she’s in the right place, but Fran doesn’t seem to realize this.

And then… things start to get rather silly. There’s a conspiracy of sorts going on. We got some inkling of this back in the hospital, where you could find indications that the labels on the magic pills had been deliberately switched, but when we start to learn the details of what was going on, it just doesn’t seem plausible, even though five minutes ago a skeleton in a top hat threw us a birthday party. The doctor from the hospital caught wind of the truth, and is investigating, and as part of his investigation, he invites Fran to help him dig up her parents’ graves — not because there’s anything in particular that he’s looking for, but just because he feels that showing an insane little girl the corpses of her parents would be a good idea somehow. Later, Fran’s aunt matter-of-factly claims, to all appearances expecting to be believed, that Fran’s parents were murdered by the cat. (Even Fran isn’t crazy enough to buy that.) Probably none of this would bother me if the Great Wizard back in Ithersta was doing it, but in the mundane world, it stands out.

There’s a lot we have to accept by the end that we didn’t have to accept in the very beginning: that Fran is special, that her otherworlds are objectively real, that the grown-ups in her life are plotting against her. That returning to her fantasy world is a positive development, and not just a retreat from reality. But I’m here for that. I’m going to recommend this game. The puzzles are nothing to write home about, and I have some reservations about its depiction of mental illness, but it’s got style, and it’s got heart. If character motivations get weird towards the end, it’s because it’s not really trying to be realistic, even in the reality scenes. Rather, it’s trying to depict a feeling, or a series of feelings, a progression from helplessness and victimization to empowerment, from horror to peace.

Fran Bow: Ithersta

I said that Fran Bow reminded me a little of Alice in Wonderland, but in chapter 3, it takes a sharp turn towards Oz. Fran has lost her horror pills, rendering the dark world inaccessible; instead, we find ourselves in the magical land of Ithersta, a brightly-lit, extremely whimsical fantasy world populated mainly by carrot people. Fran has been reunited with her cat by now, so, like Dorothy, her new goal is to return home. And to do this, she needs to enlist the aid of a Great Wizard.

Ithersta is a place of safety and healing. Fran reaches it simply by needing it to be there. When she arrives, she’s transformed into a tree, and unable to do anything for herself — you temporarily play as the cat until you can get tree-Fran to a healer, who at least restores her to humanoid shape, although she’s still made of wood and knows that this is a temporary form that she’ll have to abandon to become fully human again. This whole chapter is, to my mind, the most clearly metaphorical part of the game I’ve seen so far.

Since toggling between different worlds is a fundamental part of the game, we soon acquire a substitute for the pills: a clockwork device that lets us change the season. (“Time is just an infinite layered reality”, explain the locals.) Suddenly, we have four versions of every room instead of just two! There’s less of a contrast between them than there was with the pills, though, except perhaps in the Winter scenes, where snow covers the bright flowers and the rustic country market lies empty. This is the only time of year when the Great Wizard’s cave is accessible. It’s also the only time that the shadow creatures are seen in Ithersta.

So, for all the air of comfort, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s still an edge to things, and it has a lot to do with forgetting. The Wizard himself has forgotten everything he knew, and needs you to fetch him things to help him remember. Elsewhere, an unreadable plaque is described as saying “what everyone learn[s] in the precise moment of birth. But we forget its meaning within the first seven minutes alive… So, we have to spend our entire life… trying to understand it.” And the theme of a great truth that needs to be discovered keeps coming up. The entire questionably-real, comparatively-paradisical environment is telling Fran that there’s something she’s forgotten, something important that she needs to know before she can wake up.

Fran Bow

The keynote at Narrascope was delivered by Natalia Martinsson, who described how her point-and-click adventure Fran Bow was inspired by her own experiences with trauma. Fran Bow has been installed on my laptop for some time, but I never seemed to be in the mood for it. It’s a troubling game, grotesque and gruesome. But now, I’ve been inspired to make a go of it. I’m currently in the middle of the second chapter of five.

Fran Bow is a severely traumatized ten-year-old girl in a stereotypically awful mental hospital, which she spends the first chapter of the game escaping, with the aid of some magical pills. She’s first given the pills in the intro sequence, but they give her nightmarish hallucinations, so her doctor immediately orders that she never be given them again. However, in the hallucination, she hears her beloved cat, Mr. Midnight, telling her to seek the pills out again, and so she does. The hallucinations essentially form an alternate reality, Silent Hill-style: it’s the same rooms, but there’s blood and dead animals all over the place, and shadowy monsters roam about. Sometimes Fran is strangely oblivious about this given that it’s her hallucination, referring to clearly dead creatures as “asleep” and the like. Other times, she is not. Her manner is a little Alice-in-Wonderland-ish, a mixture of childish whimsy and insistent precision, which makes me think a little of American McGee’s Alice, which similarly had grotesque loony bin scenes. But those were constructed entirely out of trope. Fran Bow‘s treatment of the same theme is more heartfelt, I think, although I can’t know what I would have thought without having heard the author speak on the matter.

You can toggle between the two worlds at will, and sometimes the nightmare world has hints for real-world puzzles, usually scrawled on the wall in blood. I suppose it’s sort of shamanic, the use of hallucinogens to access the spirit realms and learn secrets of importance. In this realm, other patients at the hospital tend to have black shadow-creatures holding them, presumably manifestations of their mental illness. A couple of times, I’ve heard people say things like “You can see them, can’t you?”. The pills are, at the very least, enhancing your perceptions, showing you things that are in some sense objectively real. But more than that: there are puzzles based on bringing objects from the spirit world back to the real world with you. In the second chapter, the lines get blurred even more: there’s a couple of monstrous insects that really belong in the spirit world, but which you encounter in the real world. Maybe none of the adventure is real. Maybe Fran is still in her room in the hospital, tripping throughout.

At a different panel at Narrascope, it was pointed out how Black Mirror: Bandersnatch had a possible sub-plot about the main character going off his meds in order to regain control of himself. The consensus among the panelists was that this was a terrible lesson to teach people about psychiatric medications. Fran Bow leans in the opposite direction, but it’s still kind of the same: Fran doesn’t trust her doctor — in fact, she pretty much hates him — and so she enthusiastically takes pills that he doesn’t want her to have, and they turn out to be vitally important to her progress through the game, which I’m at the moment assuming is positive for her psychological recovery and growth. If “Go off your meds” is a bad message, surely “Take meds your doctor specifically forbids” is even worse? But I suppose it’s saved by its unrealism, as well as the sheer unpleasantness of Fran’s otherworld. Doing what Fran does outside of a game is such a clearly and obviously bad idea as to deter imitation in itself. At least, I hope so.

Just a few notes about Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2

OK, I just said, a mere few hours ago, that I probably wouldn’t post about this. But I’ve played through the first world of Kao 2, and I’m finding it pretty engaging, especially in comparison to its predecessor. It’s different enough from Kao 1 that I could almost (but not quite) believe they’re completely unrelated, that the two games were written by different teams that just picked up the boxing kangaroo theme independently, much like Atari 1Well, Sunsoft really. Atari was the distributor. did back in 1982. Kao 2 has camera-relative analog controls, and supports a different moveset, including rolls and double-jumps. It’s not designed so much around practicing levels until you get good at them: you get infinite lives now, and any power-ups required for advancement respawn if used up. Levels are less random in their theme and contents, and feature enemies that reasonably belong in their environments. There’s characters, and a story, and rather annoying voice acting. And, unlike the first game, it’s all about rescuing other animals. In short, it’s a lot more typical than the first game. Not as wacky and idiosyncratic. Probably less racist, although I haven’t played enough to be completely sure of that. Made in the same mold as the stuff that Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time look back on fondly. It reminds me of how old cartoon characters like Betty Boop that started off as borderline surrealist got remade into safer, more family-friendly versions of themselves in an attempt to compete with Disney. But I can’t definitively say it’s not an improvement.

The voice they chose for the title kangaroo is particularly revealing: he talks like a young boy. Maybe that’s how the developers were thinking of him all along, but it changes my perception of the character enormously. (Headcanon: It’s not the same character. In the first game, you may recall, the player character was really Denis. Kao was presumably off trying to rescue Denis throughout that game, that being his thing, and not having much luck because Denis had already rescued himself. This also explains why Kao doesn’t seem to have a pouch in the second game, although it’s possible the he has one but it’s concealed by the baggy boxing shorts he wears now.)

(Incedentally, now that there’s voice acting, we have a canon pronunciation for “Kao”. It’s neither like “cow”, as I had assumed, nor like “kayo”, as I had read online, but sort of like “kah-oh”.)

One thing I’ve seen that goes against my impression somewhat: In one level, there’s a crate full of dynamite, and sticks with lit fuses come out of it and chase you around, running on little legs. That doesn’t quite seem like a Kao 1 thing, but it definitely seems like something you’d see in an old Max Fleischer cartoon.

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1. Well, Sunsoft really. Atari was the distributor.

Kao: Finishing Up

I’m flying out to the east coast shortly to attend Narrascope, an interactive fiction conference. I was hoping that I’d have Kao the Kangaroo off the Stack and out of my brain before that happened, and it looks like I’ve succeeded. I took the final set of levels in a rush. I had accumulated 25 lives, and figured that would be enough. And it was, provided at least that I reloaded instead of accepting a death when it happened very near the start of a level.

The final set of levels, once you’ve beat up the boss alien, seems to be set in Australia. That is, it looks a lot like the tropical parts of the first few levels, but it’s got crocodiles (which function as platforms rather than enemies), and more of those dark-skinned primitives I was complaining about, and some long-legged birds that I took for ostriches when I first encountered one back in the shipboard level but which could just as well be emus. It all ends in a nice little puzzle-boss confrontation with the hunter from the intro cutscene that I didn’t think I’d ever see again. I guess it wouldn’t be a satisfyingly complete story without him, but I honestly wasn’t expecting a satisfyingly complete story. There’s also a nice bit of come-full-circle immediately before that, with a level that’s basically a recapitulation of level 4 in structure, but harder. Why recapitulate level 4 instead of level 1? Probably just because level 4 is more interesting.

Apart from the racism, the game is pretty much what I thought it was before I played all the way through it. It’s certainly not the worst-designed game of its kind — it’s got a decent amount of variety of action, at least, with its vehicle sections and puzzle bosses and maze levels (where the coins act like bread crumbs, showing you the paths you haven’t taken) and switches to side-view and Crash Bandicoot-style running-towards-the-camera-from-a-rolling-boulder bits. But when you’re not running from a boulder or piloting a vehicle, it’s mainly all about being careful and taking things slow. Maybe I’ll actually give Kao 2 a try. It was free, after all. Don’t expect me to post about it here, though, unless it really surprises me in some way.

Kao: Conversations with Winnie

The trick for beating the third boss was obscure enough that I wound up resorting to GameFAQs to learn it. Like the first two bosses, the trick was easy to execute once I knew it, but I don’t know how anyone managed to discover it. By dint of having more free time they’re willing to devote to the game than me, I suppose. By now, I’ve gotten to that level that I thought would be set in China, because the icon for it looked like a group of people wearing conical hats, but it turns out to be set on an alien spacecraft instead. What I took for heads and hats were just some sort of fluid tank that seems to be a common component of alien technology. What can I say? The icons are small, and grayscale until they’re unlocked.

One other thing of note about that GameFAQs walkthrough. The game lets you know how many collectables there are on each level — that is, how many coins, boxing glove powerups (missile weapons that you can use to literally “throw a punch” at distant enemies, like Rayman), and extra lives. Thus, the writer of the walkthrough, one “winnie the poop”, knew that there was an extra life on level 3, but was unable to find it, and pleads with the reader “If you found it, PLEASE e-mail me and let me know!” In fact I did know. I’ve mentioned Level 3 before; it’s the hang-glider-in-a-lava-cave level where I had gotten stuck in my first attempts at the game, so I was fairly familiar with it. The extra life is in fact right above the level’s starting point, where you can’t see it unless you jump up the stairs to where the hang glider is and then turn around instead of going hang gliding. I think that my theory back in the day was that in order to reach it I’d have to find a place in the cave that was wide enough to turn the hang glider around and glide all the way back to the beginning. This turns out to be unnecessary; a big leap from atop the pillars flanking the stairs followed by a tail swipe to extend your reach just a little bit is sufficient.

Winnie the poop was a prolific contributor to GameFAQs once upon a time, but this walkthrough was fifteen years old. It seemed unlikely that they were still interested in this information. Nonetheless, I had to try, didn’t I? So I sent an email to the address in the walkthough, and was unsurprised when it bounced back, addressee unknown, a reminder that even the people who once cared about this stuff have largely moved on.

It feels like that happens more and more as I play the older games in the Stack. The more they age, the less relevant they are. It can make me question my motivations, but it also comes with a certain sense of freedom. To me, an essential part of the pleasure of playing videogames is the idea that they’re something you do even though no one wants you to. It took me two months to write a post about Hypnospace Outlaw mainly because I felt like there was a chance that someone would be interested in reading my take on it. Kao, though? No one cares about Kao. That means the pressure’s off.

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