Heaven’s Vault: Language

I said before that Heaven’s Vault involves deciphering an alien language, but that’s not quite accurate. The inscriptions you find on random walls were (as far as we know at the start of the story, at least) inscribed by ordinary humans. It’s just that the writing system is ancient and largely forgotten, used only before a dark age in the nebula’s history. I even recall some early mention of a deliberate forgetting, a point at which a new empire declared itself to be the start of history and destroyed all records of what had gone before, although I didn’t have enough context at the time to register whether that was the start of the Ancient Empire (the earliest era tracked by the in-game timeline) or of the Modern Era. There certainly seem to be people around who are fanatical enough to gladly burn books, which makes both your investigations and the secrecy of your findings particularly urgent.

Moreover, the language encoded by this writing seems to be ordinary English. Each sequence of glyphs corresponds exactly to a single English word, even in its idiomatic uses. Word order is exactly as in English. It’s not so much a language as a word-level cipher. This disappoints me a little, but I suppose it’s all a concession to keeping things simple enough to not distract from the story.

I’ve encountered a few cases of words in an unknown language, mostly spoken by ancient machines. Is this supposed to be the same language as the inscriptions? Probably, but it feels a little strange, because I’m really thinking of the inscriptions as representing English at this point. It’s one thing to say “The ancients spoke English, but they had their own writing system”, another to say “Actually they had their own talking system for English too”.

Learning the language is a matter of guesswork. Whenever you find an inscription, you get to make a stab at picking out possible translations for each word out of a short list provided for you. Sometimes your guesses are informed by context: when you find an inscription on a well, and one of the possible translations of a word is “water”, it’s a pretty safe bet. When you’ve seen a word a certain number of times, the game may tell you that you’re certain that your guess was correct. Or it may say that it seems wrong now and make you guess again. The exact mechanics are obscure, but it has one very profound effect on the experience of the game: You want to find as many inscriptions as possible.

And the joyous part is that inscriptions are basically everywhere. Individually unimportant though they may be, usually only a few words in length, but each one you find feels like a treasure. A broken hand tool with a new word on it is more to be prized than a jewel without an inscription. Exploring a new site is a mixture of narrative and gameplay, and this word hunt is the gamish half.

Heaven’s Vault: Animation Style

While I’m still collecting data on the story and language, let’s describe the visual style of Heaven’s Vault a little. It’s peculiar. The environments are modeled in 3D, and a little stylized but reasonably detailed. Characters, however, are sprites. In other words, it’s basically like a Doom-era FPS, except a great deal more hi-res. And that’s strange. Sprites limit the number of different views you can have of a thing. Your basic Doom monster can be viewed from eight different angles. HV seems to have more angles than that — I counted ten for Aliya — but it’s still few enough to cause very noticeable pops. Similarly, walking around means moving smoothly through the world, but only shifting poses once per second or so.

Moreover, Aliya frequently leaves afterimages behind. You’ll just be walking around, and at a place where you paused or changed direction, you’ll get a spare image of her that slowly fades away. I don’t know what causes this. It may be linked to optional dialogue or something. Regardless, the effect is to emphasize that the rendering of characters isn’t meant to be realistic.

This whole approach seems less strange in conversations, where it reminds me of the static images commonly used in Visual Novels: typically one person on the left side of the screen, one on the right, each changing only to express emotion. The difference is that HV positions the characters in 3D space. It strikes me that much of the animation style is a result of trying to reconcile that VN-like or comic-like style, with its static shots of 2D characters, with free movement through a 3D world.

But such reconciliation only goes so far. There’s still a large visual contrast between the sprites and the world they live in. This may well be deliberate and thematic. It’s a subject/object distinction, for one thing. The people are part of your society, even the ones who hate and distrust you. The world is not. It’s far older than your society, and has its own distinct character that’s foreign enough to be an object of study.

Heaven’s Vault

Heaven’s Vault, Inkle’s latest, was released back in April, and I’ve been meaning to get started at it since. To be honest, I’ve never actually completed an Inkle game — not even 80 Days, which I’ve started numerous times. But HV has that one extra element that promised to be more compelling: the deciphering of an alien language. As people familiar with my own IF works could guess, this is a matter of some interest to me.

Not that I’ve seen a lot of stuff to translate yet. I’m still in the early stages, and presumably will have more to say about the translation mechanics later. For now, I’ll just say that it seems to be manageable without external note-taking. The game takes notes for you, organizing and indexing them in various ways. In fact, it does an impressive job of that generally. You’ll be talking to your robot sidekick and an offhand mention of something in the player character’s past will provoke an unobtrusive pop-up letting you know that it’s been added to the timeline of past events. Much has been made of the game’s eagerness to remind you of where the plot stands and what your goals are.

The management of history is particularly relevant to the story because that’s the player character’s job. You play the part of Aliya, a historian and archeologist, simultaneously looking for a missing roboticist and investigating the forgotten past of the game’s sci-fi setting. That setting is a peculiar one, apparently consisting of moons connected by airborne rivers that you navigate in a sort of mini-game. The player’s piecemeal discovery of the details of this world parallels Aliya’s discovery of its past and its past’s language.

The game’s dominant mode of interaction is conversation, but it often makes this simultaneous with freeform exploration, like in Firewatch or even with navigating the rivers, like in Wheels of Aurelia but with rivers instead of roads. That is, there are places where you enter a distinct dialog mode and are forced to make a choice (or let it time out), but there are also places where it just prompts you to optionally press a button to start or continue an ongoing conversation. In the latter case, you don’t get much choice over what you say; the prompts are along the lines of “Remark” or “Query?”, and the game is essentially just asking you whether you want more world-building right now or not. I pretty much always do.

More tomorrow!

Mu Cartographer

Mu Cartographer is a lovely little user interface puzzle. You’re presented with a screenful of knobs, sliders, and radio buttons, and have to make sense of them with no instructions. There’s some guidance provided by blue outlines indicating useful configurations, but only experimentation will tell you why they’re useful or how to accomplish them.

The largest element on the screen, the game’s focus, is a circular window into an algorithmic landscape. Various of the controls alter this view in various ways — the most straightforward being controls that scroll your view around, or zoom in and out, but there are also ways to change the color map, or the height of the hills, or the turbulence. This stuff makes it seem less like a real landscape and more like just a model that you’re manipulating, but the game counters this with story. Certain discoveries within the UI also reveal journal entries by three people lost in the world you’re manipulating, recording their terror and awe at the shifting mountains, their determination to somehow map the place anyway.

After a certain point, however, you’re pretty much figured out the mechanics, and the game settles into a loop, iterating on established tasks in a search for landmarks that are only visible when everything is configured just right, and their attendant journal entries. This phase of the game lasted longer than I would have liked, but it’s still a fairly short game for all that. One thing worth noting: There is a part of the UI that’s essentially a hint system, providing pointers to the landmarks, but using up a limited supply of fuel to do so. I didn’t understand what the fuel gauge was indicating until it was empty. If I had, I might have used it differently, saved it up for the times I was really stuck. On the other hand, maybe the initial floundering stages were the part where I needed it the most. It’s hard to say.

The ending… well, in a sense, there isn’t one. There definitely isn’t a roll-credits moment, but that’s not what I mean. There’s an endgame after you find all the landmarks, a new set of options that let you unlock a semi-hidden epilogue for each of the three explorers, summarizing their condition. But nothing changes for them. They’re still just as lost as when you started. It’s the sort of ending that leaves you wondering if that’s all there is. And to be clear: I’m not complaining. It’s kind of haunting. I suspect this ending will stick with me more than a conventionally satisfying one would.

Hypnospace Outlaw

I was a Kickstarter backer for Hypnospace Outlaw, intrigued by the premise of an alternate 1990s internet simulation. And I’m glad I caught it, because it’s both one of the funniest and one of the best-designed works of interactive fiction I’ve played in some time. It’s a mockery and celebration of a bygone era, when the entire web was a glorious mess of enthusiastic amateurism, lo-res and badly-constructed by people deeply invested in dorkishness and petty nonsense, but for that very reason extremely personal and revealing in ways lacking in today’s more slickly-invented internet personas.

Not that Hypnospace lacks invented personas. There’s a strong current of make-believe, of people using Hypnospace as a playhouse. One user page, for example, has a bunch of “potions”, with descriptions of their effects, and gives the reader permission to take whatever they need. The potions are just images. I remember doing similar stuff back in the day, setting up a “hotel” in my college VAX-11/780 account’s directory structure, opening up write permission and inviting other people to create “rooms” with text files. That was a machine accessed through text-only terminals, but the desire for imaginary spaces runs deep. People will push the limits of whatever is possible. Hypnospace Outlaw recognizes this.

But people will also give up halfway, and HO recognizes that as well. Some of the heartiest laughs come from coming across pages where some kid just typed a bunch of failed attempts at exiting edit mode, or figured out how to change the text on the default homepage’s buttons but didn’t figure out how to make them do anything. It’s not even cruel laughter at their incompetence, really, so much as the shock of recognition. We’re not used to seeing things so blatantly half-assed in a published game, even if it is diegetically half-assed. But without it, the game would be a lie. The web of the 90s was always barely half-constructed, full of placeholders, at least as much promise as actuality. The largely-unjustified belief in that promise was crucial to the zeitgeist.

It’s odd that the game gets the feel so right, given that it was co-written by Xalavier Nelson, who isn’t old enough to remember the 90s (as he enjoys reminding people on Twitter). Nelson is the author of Screw You, Bear Dad, a game that I didn’t like much. In particular, I had harsh words for its use of “interface screw” — interfering with the player’s ability to read the text. HO indulges in interface screw as well, but at least it’s justified in-world there. If you download software from a sketchy source, it’s going to do bad things to your computer. That’s so obvious that it actually held me back from progressing in the plot for a while. There are some online hygiene habits that are so ingrained that I was reluctant to violate them in the game, even though it was clear that I was meant to have the full 90s internet experience, good and bad.

But even the malware, scams, and blatant commercialism, by being so transparent, come off as endearingly goofy — and all the moreso when they seem to be trying to take themselves seriously. There’s a whole subculture called “coolpunk” that’s centered around doing remixes of a single commercial jingle, and even though they’re presumably doing it in a spirit of irony, they’re so earnest about their irony! The original of the jingle was written by a musician called the Chowder Man, whose other works (including several other commercial jingles) can be found throughout the game, and he’s basically the king of overwrought, earnest, 90s-tinged goofiness. The Chowder Man is definitely a Hypnospace celebrity, but it’s not clear to me if he’s supposed to be an actual celebrity outside of Hypnospace. It hardly matters. Hypnospace can have its own celebrities that no one outside Hypnospace has heard of. It’s just more make-believe, right?

Like the Web, the game is broad and explorable, with offshoots and deep rabbit-holes. But it does have a main plot, with a lot of guidance about where to go and what to do in the beginning, opening up to web-search sleuthing as you become more familiar with the Hypnospace. It impels the you through this plot by giving you a job enforcing Hypnospace’s terms of service. Wait, the 90s web has terms of service? But of course Hypnospace isn’t quite our web. It’s more like a melange of AOL and Geocities, and it definitely has a specific company in charge — which is the source of most of the story’s tension. The company behind Hypnospace doesn’t have the same priorities as its users. Your job as enforcer means you root out harassment and abuse, but also copyright violations, making fair-users justifiably angry at you. Surprisingly, though, this isn’t simply a matter of evil greedy corporation vs freedom-loving cyberpunks. The people behind Hypnospace are convincingly humanized, with their own personal home pages about their quirky interests that differ from those of the regular users only in that they have fewer spelling errors. If they’re making stupid decisions that alienate their users, its because they’re in over their heads. They’re a little startup in a field without a lot of historical precedent to lean on, and they genuinely don’t know what they’re doing, just like everyone else on Hypnospace.

In fact, there’s a sub-plot where the users effectively re-make the same stupid decisions as the company. At some point before the game starts, the company decided to reorganize their “zone” structure a little by combining five geek-fandom communities into one zone. The members of those communities were incensed, imputed nefarious motives to the reorg, and abandoned the combined zone to found their own “Freelands”. Which is… a combined zone, just like the one they left. Ah, but this one is under the control of the users! Well, one user. Who immediately sets himself up as a petty martinet, issuing notices to Freelands pages that don’t conform to his vision. It’s easy to see in this not just a satire of the 90s internet in particular, but a critique of power dynamics in online communities in general, both ancient and modern.

The one thing that the Freelands adds is one of those make-believe elements: instead of the standard Hypnospace zone menu, it’s set up as a multi-page map of an imaginary space, with people’s home pages embedded in it as towers and castles. This idea is later appropriated by the Hypnospace company as part of their slick new “Hypnospace 2000” initiative and presented as if they invented it. Hypnospace 2000 is frankly menacing, a visible attempt at eliminating everything vibrant about Hypnospace in order to make the whole thing more palatable to their corporate partners. It’s a small moment, but it’s the first point in that whole sub-story that made me really feel like the Freelanders really had a point, that they were being abused by the system and weren’t just overreacting to nothing. And this isn’t the only time this happens, that something is first presented as ridiculous but later turns out to have more to it. I’ll say more at the end of this post, when I get into spoilers for the ending.

But first, I have some comments on the UI and gameplay. Hypnospace is called “hypnospace” because part of the premise is that you access it via a special cyberspace headband while asleep. The internet is thus literally a shared dream, although the introductory video paints it as a productivity feature that lets you keep working 24/7 — a brilliant metaphor for the two-sided nature of wired life. And yet, even though it’s a dream, it uses the desktop metaphor. It’s a very thoroughly-implemented desktop, too. Although most of the game is played in the in-game browser, there are moments when you need various other apps — to listen to a sound file, say, or to crack an encrypted document. And these can be run from your in-game desktop, which can be customized with various desktop images that you can download from the fake internet. Desktop stickers are also a thing. You can get stickers from various sources and affix them to your desktop. And it all seems fairly pointless, because you hardly ever see your desktop. At least, I personally spent the majority of every session with Hypnospace Explorer open and maximized, and when I needed a different app, I usually used an app switcher in the main menu bar. I kind of wonder if this is deliberate, a sly bit of commentary on the wasted emphasis on desktop customizations in OS releases.

Some particular bits of the customization, such as the voice used by the optional in-game voice assistant, are put into a fake BIOS screen, which seems fittingly retro, although it occurs to me to wonder why it does. It’s not like BIOS screens have gone away. My primary game-playing machine gives a prompt to enter a BIOS menu when it boots. Ah, but how often does it boot? Mostly it just comes out of sleep mode. So I suppose I was seeing BIOS prompts a lot more in 1999 than I do now.

The game is split into multiple chapters, with time skips between them. on each skip, some pages will change while others stay the same (particularly the abandoned ones). At first, I was worried that there was no way back, and that I was going to miss content, but the final chapter has a clever way around that: it skips forward long enough that there’s a Hypnospace archival project going on, from which you can view pages from any chapter. And here’s where we get into spoilers for the ending.

I recall seeing some retweets from the developers along the lines of “Dammit, I didn’t expect this game to make me cry.” I can’t say I was moved to actual tears by the ending — possibly because I had that much warning — but I did, despite the warning, find it unexpectedly moving. It’s sort of a reverse of history: first comes the farce, then the tragedy. In an earlier chapter, people get worried about a made-up medical condition called “beef-brain” supposedly caused by excessive Hypnospace use, and a hacker collective takes advantage of their gullibility by selling them placebo images to “protect” their pages. But then an incident leaves six people dead, and Hypnospace is shuttered for years until the archival project comes along. The final chapter, then, sees you using the archives to conduct a long-overdue investigation of that incident to find out how much the Hypnospace company knew about the risks their users were facing. And at the very end, it does something brilliant. Only at that moment, after devoting your efforts to this investigation for some time, do you learn the names of the six people who died. And they’re all people you know. People who had become familiar to you through their Hypnospace presence, who you had laughed at or sympathized with or gotten annoyed at in the previous chapters.

It’s a beautiful moment because of what it shows: that this game cares about people. That’s been its attitude all along, but it’s really noticeable when it conjures characters out of a statistic. This is a good-hearted game that doesn’t need its minor characters to be flawless, or even good people, in order to be sympathetic and not deserve what happened to them. And I thank the developers for that.

Baba is You

Baba is You, released just under a month ago, was one of my hotly-anticipated titles of 2019. The original version, created for a game jam two years ago, left a strong impression of unexplored potential, and I’m happy to say that the commercial version explores that potential fairly thoroughly, and even goes beyond what I imagined possible. It’s a lovely, lovely puzzle game where a large percentage of the puzzles expose new possibilities, and require you to think about things in new and different ways.

The basic idea of the game is that the rules of the game exist in the same space as the things they apply to, and can be manipulated in the same way: via Sokoban-style turn-based block pushing. Each level is a grid of simple icon-like sprites, each single-colored and running a three-frame wiggle animation like an indie cartoon from the 90s. Some of those sprites are words, and the words form sentences, reading across or down, defining how the other sprites interact, like WALL IS STOP (wall icons form an impassable barrier), ROCK IS PUSH (rocks move when another moving object moves into them), and FLAG IS WIN (standing in the same place as a flag passes the level). Words can be pushed around, and changing the rule sentences changes the rules. Break up WALL IS STOP by pushing one of its words out of line, and walls are no longer obstacles, and become instead mere background decorations, like any other sprite without rules. As the game progresses, more words are introduced, always without explanation: the only text is the text of the in-game rules, so only by experiment can you figure out exactly what BELT IS SHIFT or BOX HAS KEY means.

It may sound very free-for-all, but the puzzles soon start locking away particular crucial rules behind walls, or placing them against the edges of the level, to prevent you from changing them. Sometimes the crux of a puzzle is a realization about what can and can’t be changed. Also, even when a particular rule change is possible, it isn’t always easy. Text has physicality. It can be awkward to rearrange it into the configuration you want. By the same token, text having physicality means that it can be used physically without regard to its semantics: pushing a word into a pool of water to fill it up, for example, or using a sentence to support a falling object. The best puzzles require you to manipulate form and content at the same time.

The most important predicate for these rules is YOU. Every level has a YOU statement, usually (but not always) BABA IS YOU — Baba is a sort of white oval-shaped quadruped. Apparently there’s some controversy over whether Baba is a sheep or a rabbit, but as far as I’m concerned, Baba is simply a Baba. (In the original game jam version, Baba looked kind of like a robot.) At any rate, the YOU property defines what the player controls, so if you break it apart, you wind up in control of nothing, a dead state emphasized by replacing the background music with an ominous rumble. But you can often push another noun into the place of BABA, effectively swapping your identity, turning some other game element animate while rendering Baba inert. Baba can then have other properties assigned to make it useful, or can even be transformed into a different object, with sentences like BABA IS KEY.

I’ve said before that one of the most distressing notions to my mind is that of a person turning into an inanimate object, a mere tool that someone thinks has more utility than the person did. This is the height of horror to me. Somehow, Baba is You doesn’t provoke this reaction. I think it’s partly because of the high degree of abstraction, but also partly because of the ease with which inanimate objects can be made animate. The rumbling void of absence-of-YOU remains fairly disturbing, though. There are a few puzzles that actually require you to temporarily abandon your presence in the world, to destroy the YOU rule and wait for autonomous movers (that is, things with an IS MOVE rule) to put it back together somewhere else, and it’s always a little scary. What if you got the positioning wrong and never come back? The game lets you undo arbitrarily many moves, so it’s not like you can’t get things back the way they were, but it has an effect nonetheless.

I’ve seen the game recommended to mathematicians in particular, and there’s something to that. The whole thing is not just mathematically abstract but aggressively formalist. Making any headway requires subduing your intuitive understanding of these icons and embracing the idea that they only have whatever meanings assigned to them, which can be changed if convenient. A few puzzles even tweak your assumptions by not giving things the properties you expect — for example, giving you a locked door that you can’t figure out how to pass until you realize that you can just walk right through it because there’s no DOOR IS STOP rule — but that sort of trick is kind of cheap, so it isn’t used very often.

Where it really starts getting mathematicianly, though, is in the later portions of the game, where it starts going recursive, and applying rules to layers of the game that you thought were outside them. (And we’ll be getting substantially more spoilery from this point on.) Like when it introduces the word TEXT. Text has always behaved like there was an implicit TEXT IS PUSH rule, but once you actually have the word TEXT to play with, you can alter its behavior in other ways. You can even turn all the text in the level to another object with a sentence like TEXT IS ROCK, although this is the very worst thing you can do, because it immediately erases all the rules, including the YOU rule. What about ROCK IS TEXT? What text does the rock become? The text ROCK, it turns out. Anything can be turned into its name. This is the sort of surprising-yet-inevitable result that really seems like a joke until you start finding puzzles that rely on it.

And that’s not the end of it. We get a word WORD, which is distinct from TEXT in that it’s a predicate, not an object type: any object of a type that IS WORD can be used in a rule as if it were text. And so the lines between the physical and the abstract blur a little more — although, frankly, the icons used aren’t all that much less abstract than the words. Both the text ROCK and the little monochrome picture of a rock are just representations of rock-ness, which is, again, an empty concept, its meaning totally contingent on the rules in the level.

Then there’s LEVEL, which is where the game really starts exceeding expectations. What happens when you can assign an attribute to the entire level you’re on? The answers largely make sense. If you make LEVEL IS WIN, you win the level. If you make LEVEL IS PUSH, then you can move the viewport around by pushing at the edges of the screen. And if you manage to make something like LEVEL IS FLAG, you wind up changing the level’s icon on the overworld map, which seems like a neat little easter egg, until you realize that it has consequences. The overworld map has always had the two basic rules, BABA IS YOU and FLAG IS WIN, off in the corner, and they seemed like mere decoration, because there is no baba or flag at that level, just a cursor. But once you can make a Baba and a flag? You can actually win the map.

And, as always happens when you win a level, you wind up in the map containing it. This is the start of the game’s secret second half. That is, it’s substantially less than half the game going by number of levels, but it’s easily more than half by play time. There is an “ending” you can reach without discovering this, that displays the credits and everything, but it’s kind of like the false ending in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: you’re nowhere near actually done with the game. I’m really impressed with this, because it’s uncovered by exactly the sort of “Let’s try this and see what happens” experimentation that’s been necessary throughout the game, just applied in an unexpected place, in what had previously seemed like a glorified menu. But hey, breaking this kind of hierarchy is what the game is all about.

This leads into a sequence of three maps and a smallish epilogue map. (I’ve completed the epilogue and gotten the “real” ending, but there are still some puzzles I haven’t solved, so I don’t consider myself really done with the game. There may be more secrets I haven’t seen.) The interesting thing about these later maps is the way they increasingly blur the distinction between level and map, putting more puzzle-objects into the maps, and integrating the levels, previously self-contained, into a map-level over-puzzle. First there are levels that the cursor can’t reach without being carried by a YOU. Then there are levels that are easy to “win”, but where the main puzzle is clearly to turn the level into some other object. Then there’s the glorious moment when you figure out how to turn objects on the map into levels. I think the pinnacle of this is a certain level in the map called “Meta” where the conditions on the map affect the solvability of a level — previously, causality had only reached outward, not inward, a constraint that I hadn’t even noticed until it became necessary to violate it.

The true final level is a victory lap, easily beaten once you’ve reached it, rewarding the player with cake. (You can stick the WIN clause on a number of different objects, but the cake really seems like the right one.) It does, however, afford the player an opportunity to destroy the universe, which is really something that more final levels should have. After that, it’s possible to unlock a concept art room, which is something I generally find uninteresting, unless, as in DROD, it has interesting interactivity. That’s certainly the case here: you’re given the usual interface, the words IMAGE, IS, and a bunch of individual letters. To view art, you have to spell out numbers: IMAGE IS O N E, IMAGE IS T W O, etc. You can get all the way through TEN this way, but there’s no L, so you can’t make ELEVEN. It is, however, able to recognize larger numbers that can be made with the letters available, such as FOURTEEN. There’s an M among the letters, which puzzled me at first, because there’s no number with an M in it (other than ones containing MILLION, but, again, no L). Then I tried MINUSONE and it worked. Typical of this game, to keep on rewarding speculative experimentation like this even in the extras.

Checking in

So it’s been well over a week since my last post, and I just wanted to pop in and say that I haven’t given up on Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness yet. I stopped at a natural stopping point, just as it goes all open-world, so that when I get back to it I’ll be able to play that section from its beginning. But I’ve spent the last week or so completely absorbed in a different game, which, for various reasons, I will not be posting about here. I finished that last night, just in time for the release of two other games I’ve been greatly anticipating, one of which I even kickstarted. But I’ll post about those. I just wanted to get this exposition out of the way so I wouldn’t have to include it in a post about a game.

TR6: Changelog

More ways in which the sixth Tomb Raider game differs from the first five:

The business of perfectly lining up a running jump across a gap by walking all the way to the edge and then taking a hop back seems to be impossible now, because there’s no way to take a hop back. Moving backward always takes a small step back, like in Walk mode.

No Secrets. That is, there are no officially-designated secrets. There are certainly places where you can solve optional puzzles to pick up a few more healing items, and the result may be that I spend more time backtracking and exploring alternate routes doing the equivalent of secret-hunting than I would if the game tracked secrets and thereby told me that I was done.

Adventure-game-style interactive dialogue sequences, where you pick what to say next out of a simple menu of, usually, two or three choices. A sign of an intended genre shift, perhaps. Lara is playing detective here. It seems like most of the choices I’ve seen so far are basically fake: you get a choice of two topics, and immediately after Lara’s finished asking about the one you choose, she immediately asks about the other one. But I’ve already seen one case of an NPC varying her behavior, choosing whether to give you the notebook Von Croy left for you or not depending on how nice you were to her.

In addition to a Walk mode, there’s a Stealth mode, where Lara creeps along and flattens herself against walls like Solid Snake. I’d say this is another sign of the genre shift, but it also seems like an attempt at doing a better job of the stealth sections of Chronicles. I haven’t gotten much use out of this yet, so I don’t really know how well it holds up. The police are sometimes amazingly oblivious to Lara’s presence even without it.

There’s no infinite-ammo pistols, but there is brawler-style hand-to-hand combat. If the Von Croy Tower section of Chronicles had this, it would have been very different.

Limited grip strength, like in Shadow of the Colossus. If you spend too long dangling from a ledge or climbing a drainpipe, you fall down. And with this comes an upgrade system: certain actions — for example, crowbarring a door open — are considered to be exercise that increases your strength, like in Quest for Glory. Apparently there are also exercises that upgrade your jump distance, but I haven’t found any of those yet. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s certainly not mimetic, and seems mainly suited to nonsensical gating. Also, I’m a little worried that missing some upgrade opportunities early in the game will lock me out of goodies later. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have some kind of progression other than accumulating ammo.

The levels seem very short in comparison to the older games. Probably the target hardware put limits on how much nicely 3D-modeled stuff they could hold in memory at once. Admittedly, most levels in the previous games were effectively several levels strung together, with chutes or self-locking doors keeping you from going backwards. Past a certain point, Angel of Darkness does the opposite, creating a large explorable space out of multiple nonlinearly-connected levels that you can travel among freely. This, too, seems like a genre shift. Tomb Raider games have a very specific structure, and it’s breaking that.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness: First Impressions

Going straight from the fifth Tomb Raider game to the sixth, it’s immediately striking what a change it is. After five games in basically the same engine with incremental improvements, suddenly there’s been a complete overhaul in the look of the thing. Environments look 3D modeled, instead of cobbled together out of tiles (however artfully). Lara herself is a bit less of a cartoon. The dialogue never cuts off slightly too early. Even the menus look slicker and higher-resolution. It’s all very next-generation — it’s been three years since the last game, and instead of the Playstation, they’re now targeting the Playstation 2. I wasn’t really paying attention when it came out — I don’t even own the game on physical media. (It periodically goes on sale for less than a dollar on Steam.) So all of this came as a surprise to me. The whole thing is just modern enough that it can run under Windows 10 without installing any additional DLLs, albeit only if you fiddle with the graphics settings a bit first. (The main thing you have to do is enable VMR9, whatever that means.)

The controls are basically the same as before — you’ve still got the core movement/jump/action controls, in the usual places. Crouch/crawl is in a different place. Hitting the Walk button now toggles walk mode on or off, instead of walk mode being active only while you keep the button pressed. More generally, the new-model Lara just handles a little differently, like driving a different car than the one you’re used to.

And she’s less of a pure puppet now. That is, the controls are less tightly coupled to her actions, more contextual, more semantic. I’m thinking there’s a sort of spectrum ranging from “the player’s controls map directly onto specific motions on the part of the avatar” to “the player’s controls are treated kind of like verbal commands, subject to interpretation”. Old-school Lara was near the former extreme, but not quite at it: the Action button was always quite contextual, and actions like pulling levers would automatically cause her to adjust her position. The opposite extreme is where, say, Arkham Asylum lies. When you press the Punch button in Arkham Asylum, Batman does not simply thrust his fist forward in front of him. He chooses a target and then does whatever is necessary to punch that target, turning his body or taking a step forward or even doing a somersault if that’s what it takes. Angel of Darkness is still nowhere near the Batman model, but it’s a step or two closer. You no longer have to manually turn around and back off a ledge to dangle from it: just standing at the ledge and pressing the Action button suffices. Even the movement keys are a little more contextual: you can vault onto a crate just by trying to move into it. This is fairly standard among modern 3D platformers, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a Tomb Raider.

The story is apparently considered to be still within the continuity of the first five games (unlike the later reboots), but it doesn’t seem very interested in filling in the gap between Lara’s apparent death and her turning up at Von Croy’s apartment in Paris. Yes, they’re still trying to make Von Croy a thing. That is, they do kill him off pretty quickly, but that’s happened before, right? His death kicks off the immediate plot, which is the hunt for a serial killer. Lara’s looking for the killer while the police look for her, believing that she’s the killer — which is a reasonable guess on their part, because, as I’ve pointed out, Lara is a serial killer. She’s just not the one who killed Von Croy, although she probably would have in the last two games if she had the opportunity. You might argue that she’s more of a spree killer — she doesn’t choose victims, she just charges into a building and slaughters everyone she comes across — but she’s done that repeatedly, which to my mind makes her a serial spree killer, which is something that I don’t think exists in real life. At any rate, she’s upset about the murder of Von Croy, possibly because she didn’t get to do it herself, so off she goes running across the rooftops.

More tomorrow, probably.

TR5: Repeat Until Done

The theme for the final level of Tomb Raider: Chronicles seems to be “doing things over”. It starts by in effect telling that you’re about to redo the last level. Titled “Escape with the Iris”, that level indeed concluded with Lara reaching the exterior of the VCI tower with the Iris in her inventory. But the final level starts with a helicopter attack driving her back inside. You spend the rest of the level trying to escape again, in a different way.

The ultimate boss monster is a bald-headed cyborg, a puzzle boss who can’t be killed by normal means, which is far more satisfying than the powered-armor guys I mentioned previously. Not long after you’ve killed him, you run into another one, with a different puzzle. There’s a couple of major sections where you need to execute a difficult bit twice: a set of moving laser gates that you have to go through and then return through, a button at the top of a tricky set of jumps that you need to press twice. This is exactly contrary to the usual Tomb Raider design, in which difficult feats generally result in opening up doors that let you skip them in the future. Yet more evidence that the chapters were designed by completely different people, I suppose.

Going for 100% Secrets adds its own do-over-ness. For the first time, the game here becomes Cruel in the Zarfian sense. It’s generally been Tough, or at worst, Nasty. Sometimes you slide down a chute and can’t get back up and any Secrets you left behind are lost to you, but at least it’s obvious when you’ve passed a point of no return. Here, Lara finds a shooting gallery, and shooting at some targets unlocks a door nearby for some reason. But if you shoot them fast enough, it unlocks an additional door, leading to a Secret. This happens fairly early in the level, so reading about it in Sinjin’s guide later on caused me to play most of the level a second time.

I really don’t know if I’d have had the patience to finish this game without that walkthrough. The puzzle to defeat the second cyborg seems particularly obscure to me, and I don’t know how anyone figured it out. Even worse, there are rooms where loading a save will trigger bugs, similar to the Crane Guy thing but less benign — more confirmation that they were making this primarily for the Playstation, where you can only save at checkpoints, and the PC version was an afterthought. I’m in the habit of saving a lot, so I’d inevitably trigger these bugs, then get stuck, then hit the guide and see that it says “DO NOT SAVE IN THIS ROOM OR YOU WILL TRIGGER A BUG AND GET STUCK”. And then I’d have to do the room over, which is at least thematic.

At any rate, I’m done. And for all my complaints, I did find the general experience of putting Lara through her paces pleasant, despite all the attempts at ruining it. I may just continue with Angel of Darkness next. Because apparently even the entire experience of playing through a Tomb Raider game is something I now feel compelled to do twice.

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