The Librarian’s Almanaq Contrasted to Journal 29

I recently solved my way through a couple of unrelated puzzle books, Journal 29 and The Librarian’s Almanaq — although perhaps they’re better described as metapuzzle books. These are not merely books that contain puzzles, but books that are puzzles: multi-stage puzzles that take advantage of the physical properties of books. And yet they approach this in such different ways! To put it briefly, Almanaq aims at being a puzzlehunt1I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it. in book form, while Journal is modeled on web-based riddle games like notpron, where the solution to each puzzle yields the URL of the next.

Structurally, this means that while Almanaq is kind of freeform and unpredictable, with lots of paging around through the book to look for things, Journal 29 is designed as a sequence of discrete puzzles, each two-page spread acting like a single web page. Journal isn’t quite as linear as its inspirations, though. Since you can’t actually lock access to pages of a book, it settles for solution dependencies: solving each puzzle yields a “key”, a word or other short text, which later puzzles can reference by number. A puzzle might reference multiple keys, and finding them all is generally necessary — often the keys are the only indication of a puzzle’s goal.

One weird point about this: The puzzles don’t yield the keys directly. Instead, there’s an online component. When you solve a puzzle, you go to the journal29.com website and type in the solution, and that gives you the key. A couple of the puzzles rely on other resources from the website, too, combining keys into URLs for you to visit. I really don’t care for this. I’ve complained about such things in the IF Comp before, but it’s a bigger concern there, where archival is half the point, than here, where the pages are designed to be marked up with pencil over the course of solving puzzles, making the whole thing ephemeral and unreplayable. Still, I find the reliance unaesthetic. I suppose it has one virtue, that it makes it impossible to work backwards, solving puzzles from the keys they produce. But I suspect the main motivation is metrics. The online component makes it possible for the author to track which puzzles go unsolved. I hope they’re at least finding this instructive.

Once you have a mandatory online component, you have to ask: Why the book? Is this in fact just an online riddle-game that puts its graphics in the form of print instead of some digital formats? But no, some of the puzzles use the medium of print in clever ways. One puzzle requires you to fold over some pages to complete a picture, another uses the uninked parts of a page as a grille for obtaining letters from the next page, and so forth. It’s a small fraction of the puzzles that pull such tricks — by my count, just eight of the 63 puzzles really need the book, although sometimes this is a judgment call. But that ratio means it can off as a surprise every time it happens.

The reason it can come as a surprise is that the puzzles here are scant on instruction. The basics of how to look up keys on the website are covered in the book’s introduction, but other than that, you’re generally just given some pictures and have to figure out what to do on your own, just like in those web-based riddle games. There’s a fictional premise that the book was recovered from a lost archeological expedition, and some of the graphics lean into this with pictures of ruins or rubbings or sketches of alien skulls or whatever. The puzzles aren’t really designed to make sense with this fiction, but they use it as mood-setting, as a way to invest the act of poring over a mysterious book with a little meaning, however tangentially. It reminds me a little of how hidden-object games tend to adopt mystery and detection themes as a reason for why you’re scouring scenes for random objects, however little sense that makes.

Almanaq, by contrast, has lots of instructions. The premise here is that if you follow the book’s instructions precisely, you will attain enlightenment — and that’s all the premise you get. Indeed, there’s one sub-puzzle that consists entirely of instructions, but instructions that are complicated enough, with enough conditional exceptions, that they’re difficult to follow correctly. (It took me three tries.) But the presence of instructions means that the average page can be far less informative and more enigmatic than the average page in Journal. Flipping though the book, you’ll see a pattern of hexagons containing letters here, a crossword grid without clues there, and then a page with just some thick lines running through it, or a page full of Shakespearean dialogue in iambic pentameter. Some of these things will be used in puzzles. Others are decoys. There are entire types of puzzle, entire genres, that are only seen as decoys. Only by faithfully following the instructions will you know which is which.

The very first thing that the initial instructions tell you to do is to rip the initial instructions out of the book. Ironic, for a book with “Librarian’s” in its name! This goes against everything I had learned about how to treat books so much that I was hesitant to do it at first, but I convinced myself that the pursuit of enlightenment would necessarily involve overcoming my ingrained habits. This is, I think, important. To tear out that page is to commit yourself, to declare that you trust the instructions and will follow them wherever they lead.

The second thing the instructions tell you to do is find certain other pages and rip them out as well, for use as tiles in an assembly puzzle. The instructions give advice on how to rip neatly, but ripping is never neat, and I think that’s part of the point. It’s still humbling you, to make you receptive to enlightenment, or at least to ensure your obedience. There’s some verbiage about how you “don’t need” to use a knife or scissors, which is phrased as encouragement or kindness but acts more like a taunt or criticism. I got better at the ripping with practice, but the more neatly-ripped pages still shared the puzzle with my earlier, rougher efforts.

That initial puzzle gives you the key to finding the pages for the midgame, consisting of several parallel puzzles of different sorts, all of which are ripped out, and in some cases manipulated further. (This time, scissors are sometimes necessary.) In keeping with its puzzehunt ambitions, the book suggests playing with a team, in which case each midgame puzzle can be physically handed to a different team member. This all funnels into a final metapuzzle, and the final step of that final puzzle wowed me. I won’t say why here, in part because I don’t think the impact could be adequately communicated by a mere description. Viewed dispassionately, without being primed by the rest of the game, it may be barely better than the “Aha!” moments from Journal. But at the time, it felt like the book was making good on its promise of enlightenment. It wasn’t, of course, but it did a good job of making me feel like it was.

Now, I enjoyed both of these books. But I enjoyed Almanaq a great deal more. It was purer in its bookness, and took advantage of it more thoroughly, turning the entire book into an arts-and-crafts project. Its less-linear structure made it less stuckable. And of course there’s that ending. Journal, like certain other riddle-games, uses familiar ancient-astronaut imagery to suggest earth-shattering revelations without actually delivering anything other than vagueness. Somehow, Almanaq‘s approach of not even having anything to be vague about works better for me. Aliens just make me more aware that you’re pretending.

And then… I’m fairly sure that I’ve exhausted Journal, but Almanaq leaves some possibility that there’s more to be discovered. I’ve looked at the unused pages a bit, and found one page with a fairly obvious hidden message on it. Is there more like that? Are any of the mysterious decoy puzzles actually things that can be solved? A particularly devious designer could exploit ambiguity in the introductory puzzle to create multiple paths through the rest of the book. I really don’t think anything like that is going on here, but just imagining the possibility is a little exciting.

Apparently the author of The Librarian’s Almanaq is currently preparing a sort-of-sequel called The Conjuror’s Almanaq, this time modeling it after escape rooms. I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be interesting to see how it differs.

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1. I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it.

Celeste Contrasted to Super Meat Boy

Celeste, by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, keeps drawing comparisons to Super Meat Boy. They’re both hard-as-nails platformers that expect you to die a lot, and create most of their difficulty through environment rather than enemies. But they couldn’t be more different in tone. SMB, like most of Edmund McMillen’s works, is gleefully gross and grotesque, and draws humor from its slapstick cruelty to the player. Celeste, for all its difficulty, comes off as kind and gentle.

Much has been made of Celeste‘s “assist mode”, a suite of gameplay tweaks that make the game easier in various ways, from slowing it down to granting immunity to spikes. These can be enabled and disabled from the pause menu at any time, so you can turn on an assist for just long enough to get past an obstacle that’s giving you trouble, if you like. The important thing about assists for the feel of the game, though, is that the game doesn’t try to shame you out of using them. They’re not presented as cheats. The game recommends starting off without any assists to get a feel for things, then enabling whatever assists you need to get the most out of the experience. It’s curious how effective this “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back” framing is in setting the mood, considering that the game designers who give you this kindness are the same ones that created the brutally difficult world that makes such kindness necessary.

But then, even the difficulty of the world has a gentle character. Let’s compare it to Super Meat Boy again. SMB is driven by an antagonist, Dr. Fetus, who kidnaps the hero’s helpless girlfriend just to be mean. Every single level sees Meat Boy going to heroic efforts to rescue her, only for Dr. Fetus to appear out of nowhere the moment you reach her and snatch her away. (In this, it’s basically taking elements of ur-platformer Donkey Kong and turning them up to eleven.) So, the game is effectively taunting you into progress, and part of the player’s presumed motivation is a desire to finally pay back the bad guy for all he’s put you through. Celeste is driven by the protagonist, Madeline, who simply sets out to climb Mount Celeste as a voluntary challenge — which is exactly what it is for the player. She’s here to sort out some emotional baggage, and her mantra is “I have to believe I can do this”. Part of your motivation is wanting to prove her right, because you identify with her.

When I imagine a SMB level, the main thing I think of is circular saws on swing-arms: obstacles that were clearly created by a hostile god just to be obstacles, having no purpose other than making Meat Boy’s path more dangerous. That is what SMB challenges are made of. Celeste‘s basic challenges are made of emptiness. Difficult areas are made difficult by the lack of solid ground to stand on. You see a distant scrap of rock, and even if it looks impossible to reach, you hang your hopes on somehow flying through the air to it. You most powerful tool for this is the air-dash, which, barring assists, you can only use once per jump — unless you touch something that recharges it, usually a floating crystal. In the more advanced levels, Madeline hardly ever touches the ground, instead dancing from crystal to crystal like some kind of air elemental.

These crystals are just as artificial an intrusion on the world as SMB‘s buzzsaws, but helpful instead of harmful. And that’s crucial to the feel of the thing. Celeste Mountain isn’t fundamentally hostile to you, but it’s dangerous because of its indifference. But you can win, because you have help.

Wonderquest: Level 8 Reflections

I’m up to Wonderquest‘s eighth level, which I think must be just about where I stopped the first time around. One thing in particular I remember: some dialogue where someone asks Chen the Scientist whether he believes in God. This isn’t something you often see discussed in games that aren’t specifically about God, although it’s plausible that it would come up in the circumstances. You’ve got a bunch of strangers from different walks of life and different cultures thrown together and relying on each other for survival over a longish period; it makes sense that they’d want to sound each other out on matters they consider important. But it would be an uncomfortable moment, and I remember it made me a little uncomfortable even to see it in the game back then, especially when the designated scientist replies that of course be believes, the signs of a guiding mind are all around us. What I didn’t remember, however, is that it’s all just a lead-in to a joke, a wink to the audience about how the world is made of tiles and has all these puzzles built into it.

We get a major new non-DROD-based element on level 8, beam emitters that emit beams that act as obstacles, kill stuff that’s in the way, and even slowly burn their way through forest tiles. Force arrows can deflect the beams, as can Lucas the Priest’s shiny crucifix, making him a great deal more useful, at least for the duration of this level. I had been thinking of Lucas as the one real downgrade character, characterized mainly by his movement limitations, never preferred, only used when the game forces the issue. But when you think about it, the real downgrade is the one you start with, Jax. There are very few situations where Nikolay the Archer isn’t simply preferable to him.

It’s worth noting that switching characters persists from room to room. If you leave a room in control of the Archer, you’ll still be the Archer when you enter the next room. The Second Sky tried to make it look like it had a similar system for its weapons, but I’m pretty sure that it was faking — that each room simply had its own default weapon, and the game contrived to make sure you were already wielding it before you entered. Whereas in Wonderquest, there are rooms you can enter as multiple different people. Usually this just means the room is partly water, and you can sail in from an adjacent room as Berk the Sailor, and have no place to land, and have to go somewhere else to come ashore and reach the room the proper way. Anything other than that risks breaking the puzzles by coming in with the wrong powers, and so rooms where you can change who you are tend to put unbypassable change-back-to-Jax tiles at all their exits. But there are secrets to be found by exploiting the exceptions.

At any rate, by level 8, the puzzles are getting quite complex, and character-switching and beam emitters are only part of it — although it should be remembered that complexity is pretty much orthogonal to difficulty, and some of the least complex puzzles in DROD are among the most difficult ones, including some that I’m still stuck on. One of the more convoluted multi-stage puzzles on level 8 is identified by a scroll on the ground as the first complete Wonderquest room ever made, which surprised me a little. I’d expect the first puzzle made to be one that uses fewer elements, so that you wouldn’t have to implement a whole bunch of new ideas to get it working.

Game Idea: Locked Room Mystery

A recently-announced itch.io game jam is giving me ideas — ideas that are probably too vague and ambitious for the jam, so I’m going to describe them here instead. The jam is titled “No Shit Sherlock“, and it bears this mission statement:

How many times have you bought a detective game hoping to feel like Sherlock Holmes and got disappointed? I’ll tell you. Too many.

Detective games are broken, most of them at least.

These games should be about feeling like the smartest person in the room. Seeing what everybody else missed and connecting the dots. Getting to that wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on.

Why aren’t we making better detective games? Well, because it’s damn hard. We need to experiment, go wild and try out new things. And when it comes to trying out new solutions nothing beats a jam. Let’s get together as a community and fix detective games for the sake of humanity

Now, a thing about game jams: The ideas you get are going to be influenced by whatever is on your mind, which tends to be the games you’ve been playing. For example, when there was a Myst jam a couple of years ago, I was spending a lot of time playing a tower defense game, and so it occurred to me that Myst‘s “Channelwood” section, with its network of walkways, bore a superficial resemblance to a tower defense, and I wound up making a tower-defense-ish thing in that setting. Nowadays, I have DROD on the mind, and it’s in that frame of mind that I read this announcement. And… it’s a surprisingly good fit. “That wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on”? The only difference between that and the the experience of discovering the lynchpin in a good DROD puzzle is the tense, whether you’re figuring out what already happened or what has to happen.

Locked room mysteries in particular resemble DROD puzzles, or a certain style of DROD puzzle: the ones that look flatly impossible until you have the right clever idea. Finding that clever idea is often a matter of deduction — once you have eliminated the unworkable, whatever remains, however difficult, must be correct. I’m imagining (vaguely) a game that makes this shared sensibility more explicit.

You’d have a room — probably a grid of discrete tiles, just like in DROD, to keep things simple. You’d start by being shown the room in its final state, as it was when the police arrived. DROD lets you right-click on elements to get more information about them, and Wonderquest does it on mere hover; dress this feature up with a magnifying-glass-shaped cursor and it becomes thematic. This would give the player some ability to learn about how things behave and start to form theories about what must have happened before proceeding to the second stage: reproducing events. A flashback, in which you control one suspect of your choice and try to make the room match the state in which you found it. All other suspects would behave according to simple deterministic rules, as would everything else in the environment. Maybe there would be obvious approaches that almost work, but not quite — the bloodstains are one tile away from they belong, or the broken glass is on the wrong side of the window. Any such discrepancies would be highlighted, and you’d get to try again.

The key thing here would be to try to eliminate ambiguity. It seems to me that most mystery games, if they make any attempt to induce clever deductions on the player’s part, fail by relying on assumptions that the player may not share. The player gives up and reads the solution, and at a crucial point it says “The only way to the second story window was by a ladder in the garage…” and the player’s response is “What? I could climb that wall!” A droddified reconstruction stage would make it clear exactly what the mechanics of the gameworld are, and thus what is and is not possible.

Wonderquest: Characters

Character-switching is really the main thing distinguishing Wonderquest from DROD, as far as I can tell. There are two ways it can happen. First, you can step on a tile that simply transforms the character under your control to a different one. The fiction is that all the characters in your party are travelling together, so I suppose this is an abstraction of giving a different person the lead. And he’ll remain in the lead even if you walk into a different room — often rooms will prevent this by putting tiles to change you back at all of a room’s exits, but there are occasional secrets guarded by obstacles that can only be overcome by transforming in another room some distance away.

But the more interesting way to switch, puzzle-wise, is the Party Splitter tiles. In any room containing Party Splitters, some will be marked with an icon and others will be empty. Step on one with an icon, and you gain control of the corresponding party member while leaving the one you were previously controlling behind. Once you’ve done that, you can step on an empty splitter of the same color to switch back, leaving your current character dormant at that spot. It’s kind of like switching back and forth between clones or squaddies in DROD, and has some of the same uses, like ping-ponging monsters around as they keep switching who to pursue. But unlike in DROD, you can’t just do it anywhere, and the characters are not interchangeable. They all have unique abilities and limitations. This makes the act of switching more interesting and meaningful.

Here are the abilities and limitations of the characters I’ve acquired so far.

Jax, the Beggar: The initial player character. Armed with a knife. Completely equivalent to Beethro in the DROD games.

Nikolay, the Archer (or Trekker, depending on which part of the UI you pay attention to): Capable of killing at a distance of five tiles, provided they’re in a straight line in one of the eight directions you can face. Perhaps ironically for an archer, he can’t step on force arrows. He can, however, climb towers that Jax can’t, and from atop them fire arrows over obstacles.

Berk, the Sailor: Capable of traveling on water, but can’t come on land unless it’s to step on a character-change or party-splitter tile, which seriously curbs his usefulness. Unique for not being displayed on the map as a human figure; instead, he’s shown as a little boat. No offensive capabilities. Honestly, he feels more like a mode of transportation than a character, but he uses the same character-changing mechanics as everyone else.

Lucas, the Priest: At this point, we abandon all attempt at linking the character’s profession to their abilities. Lucas’ main advantage is that he’s invisible to Eyes (which act just like the ones in DROD). The game explains this as him blinding them by reflecting light from his crucifix, which is also his weapon, equivalent to Jax’s knife. At any rate, it’s a fairly minor power, only useful because the puzzles are designed around it, and doesn’t feel like it makes up for his limitations: he can’t walk on grass, which is the main terrain type in most rooms, and he can’t move diagonally (another possible irony, considering how certain other games make their clergy only capable of moving diagonally). Not being able to move diagonally lets the author use him for pure Sokoban puzzles, which may or may not be a good thing for the work.

Chen, the Scientist: Another mishmash of disparate traits that don’t have much to do with his profession. He’s armed with a bamboo pole that sticks out in two opposite directions, letting him attack monsters on both sides at once. He can’t step on mud, which is usually where the Priest is found, as if science and religion are too incompatible to share turf. But most importantly, he can swim. He has to remain within 2 tiles of shore, but unlike Berk, he can land anyplace, provided it’s not mud.

It’s a highly international group, hailing from New York, Russia, Denmark, Brazil, and China. They’re all male, though.

Wonderquest

It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I think that I’m going to have to do something I’ve never done before: shelve a main-line DROD title while it’s still incomplete. Oh, I’ll get back to it. But for now, I’m playing other things, including one thing that I had previously intended to start after beating The Second Sky: Wonderquest, the only known DROD imitation outside of that one room in Frog Fractions 2, the one that looks misleadingly like Nethack. FF2 does that a lot, hiding a game pastiche under the skin of a different game pastiche.

Wonderquest isn’t like that. It doesn’t hide what it’s imitating at all. It’s about as blatant an imitation as you can get. You hit orbs to open doors, your initial enemies are roaches which move exactly like DROD roaches, there are roach “spawners” that only differ from DROD roach queens in that their spawn cycle is 24 turns instead of 30. The initial player character even wears the same color of shirt as Beethro. So let me introduce Wonderquest further by describing how it’s different from DROD:

Instead of a dungeon, Wonderquest is set in a jungle. It’s functionally equivalent to a dungeon, just replacing stone walls with impassable forest. The player characters are from various places on Earth, and have no idea how they wound up there. Instead of a Smitemaster, your initial character is identified as a “Beggar”.

It’s not nearly as slick as DROD. The tiles are noisy and repetitive. The music and sound effects are low-fidelity. The controls are a little awkward, even after you rebind them to match the DROD keys — holding down a movement key to go faster here results in zooming out of control, and is almost always a bad idea. Movement is animated continuously rather than moving in discrete steps from tile to tile, which probably seemed like an improvement to the designer, but I find it just muddies my understanding of what’s going on. The dialogue, revealed entirely by stepping on scrolls, is pretty terrible. The whole thing is a little amateurish, but amateurish in a way that I find a little comforting, hearkening back to a less commercial age of indie game development. Retro, but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s doing it on purpose.

This extends to the puzzles as well, at least in the early stages. Lots of repetitive action, with enemies in quantities that don’t make the puzzles harder or more interesting. I suppose it’s really no worse that some of the stuff in King Dugan’s Dungeon, but even that comes as a shock after playing so much of The Second Sky. For example, here’s a puzzle with two chambers, where you have to do exactly the same thing to both chambers. TSS had a number of puzzles that looked like this at first glance, but some slight asymmetry — maybe even just the placement of the entrance — meant that the seemingly-identical parts had to be approached completely differently. Here, there’s no such subtlety.

That said, there are ways that it’s going beyond DROD, even in the first few levels. As I noted before, Wonderquest had tiles that change your weapon before DROD did, something that’s also true of force arrows that can be disabled like doors. Also, there’s an element that Wonderquest introduces on, a rolling ball that moves every turn in the same direction, unless stopped by a wall or redirected by a force arrow, potentially pushing crates or crushing monsters as it rolls, or activating orbs and pressure plates. This gets used a lot, sometimes in large quantities. There are rooms dominated by the balls bouncing around, a flurry of mechanical activity that ignores the player. Balls in isolated tracks are the main thing powering things like time limits and cyclical door-opening. One level in TSS had something similar to balls, rodent monsters called “lemmings” (presumably inspired by the game Lemmings) that move forward, ignoring the player, destroying everything destroyable in their path, but they were never as ubiquitous as the balls are here, or used with such versatility.

As I write this, I’ve reached a level with giant butterflies that move in knight’s-moves, an idea found nowhere in DROD — probably because there isn’t a lot you can do with it, puzzle-wise. But Wonderquest has lower standards for its puzzles, and is content with providing multiple rooms where you’re simply mobbed by a swarm of the things.

I know there’s a great deal more to come. I’ve played a few levels further than this, years ago, and remember some additional characters, with unique abilities. Also, the main UI has spots for a resource-gathering mechanic that I never played far enough to see. I hope to see it this time around.

The Second Sky: Movement Order

More than a week since my last post! I’m still playing The Second Sky, but I’ve slowed down considerably. I don’t play every day, and when I do, I consider it a good session if I finish even one room. A far cry from my reaction to The City Beneath.

It’s all because the puzzles — or at least, the endgame puzzles, which are still somewhat optional unless you’re stubborn enough to insist on the best ending — are so much harder this time around. Before this game, Journey to Rooted Hold was definitely the most difficult, even if you ignore the Challenges that consumed so many days on this blog. And given how much easier Gunthro was than The City Beneath, I really wasn’t anticipating such an extreme reversal. But it makes sense. We’re at the final chapter of the final chapter. If you’ve come this far, you’re an expert on everything the puzzle designers can throw at you. That means they can freely exploit minutiae like movement order.

See, every monster has a number, which you can see when you right-click on it. When you move, the monsters move in order from lowest to highest, and this can have effects on what happens. Consider a row of Roach Queens lined up against a wall, as in the screenshot. Roach Queens run away from the player, and prefer north/south to east/west movement when they’re blocked from moving diagonally. What happens when you move one square to the north? You can’t answer that from the screenshot; there isn’t enough information. If they’re arranged from east to west, such that the easternmost one moves first, then each roach will simply move one square southwest, except for the last, which will have no empty space to move into. The next turn, the same will happen again, except the last two will be blocked, and so forth until they’re all hugging the western wall. But if they’re arranged from west to east, the leftmost one will move south first, then the next one will be unable to move southwest and instead move south, and so forth. They’ll remain in a horizontal row and march south in lock-step.

The latter is in fact what happens in this puzzle, and it’s pretty easy to keep the roaches neatly ordered as you chase them south, then back north, then southwest, timing your actions to their spawn cycle. Which is good, because you need them in a row at the very end, for reasons I won’t go into. But before you get there, the geometry of the room acts against you, splitting the first and last roaches out of the line. By the end, you need to get the roaches in a different order, probably 3124, presumably by using the right-hand walls in just the right way. The uncertainty of my words comes from the fact that I haven’t yet solved this puzzle.

I’ve known since the very first DROD that movement order can make a difference, but I never needed to pay attention to it precisely. “Move these guys against walls some to get them to shuffle around” was always adequate. Here, I don’t just need to know movement order, I need to deliberately manipulate it. And that’s what this chapter is like.

The Second Sky: More Fluff

One of the larger (but not the largest) of the very large levels in The Second Sky‘s eleventh chapter is all about Fluff so let’s talk about Fluff. Fluff is depicted as cottony white clouds, but these clouds are as impassible as any other obstacle. It’s like tarstuff, in that it needs to be two tiles thick at all points, and when it isn’t, the thin parts break off into monsters, called Puffs. Or maybe it’s wrong to classify Puffs as “monsters” — they don’t count as such for level completion. Sometimes completing a Fluff room means fleeing just before the massed Puffs overwhelm you. Which they can do, because, like Wubbas and Serpents, you can’t hurt them with your sword.

Oh, they’re not unkillable. Explosions will take Puffs out, and if you have access to a pushing weapon, you can crush them against walls or obstacles, including other Puffs. Similarly, Fluff can’t be cut with sharp weapons, but only with blunt weapons or explosives. But not all Fluff rooms provide these things. Instead, the chief weakness of Puffs is that they’re slow. They only move once every five turns. They’re the only creature with this property, and it completely changes how you deal with them in puzzles. Among other things, it means they can’t cross Hot Tiles unless they’re pushed. Leading a Puff to an opportune spot involves a lot of waiting, and often you have to deal with other things while you’re waiting, so it’s more like just making sure you wind up in the right place relative to the Puff after every fifth turn.

Fluff, I say, is essentially a tarstuff, but it’s a peculiar form of tarstuff. It’s the only form of tarstuff that flies; in both Fluff and Puff forms, it can go over pits and water, and doesn’t trigger pressure plates. Also, there is no such thing as a Fluff Mother. Instead, there are vents, an architectural feature that cannot be killed. If a vent is covered by Fluff, then that Fluff expands every 30 turns by the normal Tar Mother expansion rules. If it’s not, then the vent simply emits a Puff instead. But vents tend to become covered by Fluff over time, because of Fluff’s most notable unique feature as a tarstuff: it can reform. Puffs adjacent to Fluff can merge with it. If four or more Puffs gather in a tar-stable shape, they meld into new Fluff.

I think the most important thing about Fluff, though, is that it hates all life. Puffs are the only thing that will actively pursue and kill both the player and the monsters — which is another good reason for excluding it from the “monster” category, because they don’t kill each other. (Slayers will sometimes kill monsters in pursuit of the player, but only because they’re in the way. They don’t hunt down monsters the way Puffs do.) There are multiple rooms with no monsters other than Puffs and the passive and immobile Brains, where your goal is to bring them together.

The great thing about all these unique features is that so many of them can be used in puzzles as either obstacles or solutions, depending on context. Puffs being slow is a good thing, until you need to get them somewhere within a time limit. Puffs attacking monsters is a good thing, unless you need the monster alive to weigh down a pressure plate or something. Puffs forming into new Fluff is good if you need to create an obstacle to keep that monster standing on the pressure plate, but bad if it blocks your only way out of the room. Vents are bad if they fill the room with inescapable Fluff, but good if they’re the only way to kill monsters. This is rich puzzle fodder, exactly the sort of thing DROD thrives on.

If a Puff dies over water, it lets out a burst of cold that freezes its tile into thin ice, which is equivalent to a trap door: you can walk on it once, but it collapses as you step off. I learned this in the first Fluff level, but there’s so much about Fluff that’s peculiar that I had completely forgotten this one detail the next time I needed it. I think this is the first time I’ve found the monster descriptions in the help menu really useful.

The Second Sky: The Final Chapter?

The Second Sky is the largest DROD by a very comfortable margin. That much is clear to me now. It’s like the designers, knowing that this was going to be the final episode, decided that they had to use all their ideas now. The thing is overflowing.

Previous episodes grouped rooms into levels, but TSS additionally groups levels into chapters. I suppose that’s essentially what Gunthro and the Epic Blunder did, too, but this time it’s more formalized, and there are more chapters. A chapter can be linear, going through a sequence of levels one after the next, or it can be open, just giving you access to a bunch of new levels and letting you flit between them as you like. I’ve been doing a lot of such flitting about, because the puzzles in this game aren’t just numerous, they’re also very hard.

I said earlier that I was hitting the end of the game, and just taking some time to finish up side-quests before finishing it off. The game encouraged this notion by providing an isolated campsite where I could go to wait out the Turning whenever I was so inclined. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that — not without finishing everything I had started! So over the past few days, I have taken care of unfinished business, even going back and clearing out the Tar Recycling Annex, which has nothing to do with Beethro’s goals at this point in the game but which does have a RCS stamp for my collection. It was here that I needed a bit of a nudge from the Caravel Forums hint boards, but only for one of the four rooms I had previously given up on.

And, having done all that, and having set the plot in motion again, I find that there’s an entire additional chapter, with some really big levels. I’m not as near the end as I had thought. The campsite is still there, in case I want to give up, but nah.

Without going into too much detail, Beethro’s plan for saving the surface-dwellers from the Turning in the chapter I just finished involves posing a really difficult question to the Truth Vessels, one that they’ll need to keep spawning more Truth Vessels sorcerer’s-apprentice style to answer. It’s another of those metaphor-for-game-design moments, Beethro trying to come up with an adequately difficult puzzle for a whole bunch of other people to solve. And there’s a neat bit of resonance there, because if the player decides to end the game early, it means Beethro gives up on looking for really tough puzzles for his audience, and the consequence for the player is that you miss out on a bunch of really tough puzzles. We are the Truth Vessels.

FreeCell Quest

It’s a habit that’s become as regular as clockwork: There’s a Steam sale. I buy some cheap stuff. Among the cheap stuff is some kind of Puzzle Quest imitation, which eats at least a day of my life. Even if it’s not particularly good, even if I have other games I’d rather be trying out in my limited time off, I wind up compulsively just-one-more-leveling to the exclusion of all other activities for a while. The one difference this time around is that I didn’t actually buy FreeCell Quest in the sale; it was in a Humble Bundle earlier in the month.

FreeCell, for all that it’s a form of solitaire, is at heart a puzzle game, and FreeCell Quest is a collection of intentionally designed FreeCell puzzles. The quest aspect adds context and flavor to that base, but skimps on story. You get a fantasy map to walk around on conquering cities by playing FreeCell at them, and that’s pretty much it for plot. The game says you’re “liberating” the cities from some evil force rather than conquering them, but in the absence of any information at all about the enemy, I’m taking that as a euphemism. As it is, all you every see of each town, fort, monastery, or other point of interest is a game of FreeCell, and in some cases a shop menu for buying upgrades.

Mechanically, though, it turns out to be one of the more satisfying entries in the Puzzle Quest-imitation genre. It actually goes to the effort of making the puzzles meaningfully different, for one thing. Each location has stats you can view on the map: how many columns, how many cards (from half a deck up to two decks shuffled together), how difficult the shuffle (which seems to have to do with whether the kings or the aces are in front). We quickly notice that these correlate with the location’s type: villages are wide, forts have difficult shuffles, etc. The number of cards simply increases across the board as you get farther from your initial location. It’s very easy to see these qualities as abstractions of the locations’ physical properties. That’s the kind of reading-into that I like to see in these games.

Battles are asymmetrical. The player’s stats are hit points and mana, which increase as you level up from winning battles, and defense, which increases as you buy better equipment with money from winning battles. The enemy doesn’t have hit points; you win a battle simply by sorting all the cards onto the foundations. Every once in a while in real time, the enemy attacks you by casting a spell from one of the cards that currently can’t be moved; if you can free the card before the spell is fully cast, the attack is canceled. You can cast spells as well. The cheapest spell, costing a mere 1 mana, is the Undo spell, which lets you take back a move. At first, I thought of this spell as theoretically useless: sure, it’s handy when you make a mistake, but an ideal player wouldn’t make mistakes. But it turns out to be very good for defense! Often, an attack will come from a card that’s buried under something you don’t really want to move, because the only place to move it to is an empty slot that you have other uses for. So what you do is, you move the cards to cancel the attack, then Undo. The attack remains canceled. There’s also a spell you can cast to just cancel any attack without moving any cards — this is, in fact, the spell I cast most frequently, because things are often trapped too deep for the Undo trick. But when you can pull it off, the Undo trick is significantly cheaper.

Most of your spells are about moving cards. For example, there’s a spell to move a card one spot forward in a column, a spell to rearrange an entire column at random, a spell to push kings all the way to the back. My favorite spell is one that plucks out a card that can be placed on a foundation from anywhere on the board, but it’s very expensive to cast. These are the sorts of spells I was wishing for in Runespell: Overture, ones that affect the mini-game layer instead of just the RPG layer. Their chief purpose in the game is to let you attack puzzles you’re not otherwise ready for by choosing to spend lots of mana instead of figuring out how to rearrange things manually. That’s important because of the way the game limits your access to cells.

Ordinarily, FreeCell gives you four cells that you can stash individual cards in. FreeCell Quest starts you off with only one, which means only the smallest and easiest puzzles are doable without the aid of spellcasting. Additional cells, to a maximum of six, must be earned through conquest. The game dresses this up in some additional complexity, but what it comes down to is that the number of cells you have correlates with the number of distinct locations you’ve beaten. As a result, cells are grindproof. You can always get more XP and money by replaying locations. Sometimes the game even forces you do to this, declaring that a town you’re passing through has fallen to the enemy and has to be re-liberated. But you only make progress towards a new cell when you beat something new. Cells are the most important upgrade there is, more powerful than health or mana, so that keeps driving you into new and more difficult territory, which forces you to take advantage of your spells to compensate for the cells you don’t have yet.

In short, there’s some good thought behind this game. Despite a day and a half of obsessive play, I haven’t beaten it yet — it’s pretty long. But I’ll probably keep coming back to it until I do.

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