Gemcraft: Enemies

The Gemcraft series is pretty minimalist about its creeps. It just uses three archetypes: normal enemies called “reavers”, weak but fast and numerous “swarmlings”, and tough but slow “giants”. Any wave will consist of just one enemy type, with their appearance randomized from wave to wave, probably to help justify their increasing stats. Sometimes a wave will have randomly-assigned special powers. And that’s it, for regular enemies.

But there are also special monsters. Gemcraft: Labyrinth, the third game, had various special bosses like Arcane Guardians on key levels: you’d think you’re done because the last numbered wave is over, but then something large and glowing and very hard to kill would start making its way very slowly down the path. The final level was protected by a Shadow, a creature made of particle effects that moves outside the paths and has a fairly complicated repertoire of behavior. Also floating free from the paths were the ghostly Apparitions, which are kind of like the saucers in Space Invaders: they don’t attack at all, but you can shoot them down for a bonus. Apparitions aren’t bosses. They just appear at random from time to time.

And it’s these random appearances that Chasing Shadows adopted as the basis for all of its special monsters! There are no bosses per se here: special challenge levels are instead done by giving you special tasks, like destroying locks or activating ancient devices. But we get random appearances from boss-like creatures. In particular, the Shadow from Labyrinth, toned down a bit, becomes just another thing that happens once in a while.

The most interesting randomly-appearing boss-like enemy is the Forgotten. A demon that manifests sometimes as a tentacle monster and sometimes as a woman with skeletal arms, the Forgotten is the main antagonist of the series, but doesn’t appear in the game levels until about halfway through Chasing Shadows. In fact, she arguably doesn’t appear in the game levels even then. She appears to be in some way outside of the game, like the player. When she appears, you just see her silhouette on the screen, as if she’s passing in front of a movie projector, which would place her in the player’s physical space.

Because the Forgotten isn’t inside the scene where your gems and spells have their effects, she cannot be fought. When she shows up, she just takes a semi-fourth-wall-breaking action and leaves. Sometimes she enrages some of the upcoming waves, making them tougher to beat, which frankly never seemed all that bad to me — as I noted previously, I was enraging most waves myself by the end, so when the Forgotten does it for me, all she’s really doing is sparing me a little effort and expense. Ah, but the other thing she can do is fearsome: sometimes she takes control away from the player. For about the duration of a single wave, all the controls are simply removed from the screen and all you can do is sit and watch events unfold. Which you normally spend a lot of time doing anyway, but you usually at least have the ability to spring into action if there’s a sudden need, and she temporarily takes that away.

All special monsters, including the Forgotten, are heralded at least a wave in advance by glitches and flickers, as if their eldritch presence is interfering with the magic you’re using to view the scene. So you at least get some warning when the Forgotten is about to show up and mess with your plans, a trick that the game uses to make you blame yourself for the outcome.

Kinoautomat

Earlier today, Paolo Pedercini hosted an “interactive movie night” on the Molleindustria Twitch channel, using Twitch’s features to poll the people watching about choices. I of course had to watch. Four pieces were screened: Kinoautomat, I’m Your Man, an adaptation of the shoot from Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair, and The Immoral Ms. Conduct. As of this writing, the recorded stream is still available, although obviously not interactive.

I mainly want to talk specifically about Kinoautomat, a black-and-white Czech comedy that first screened at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. This is a piece I had been curious about for some time, but had never had a chance to see. As far as anyone knows, it’s the first work of interactive cinema ever attempted — although later claimants to that distinction can be forgiven for not knowing about it, because it was simply unavailable for decades, having been banned by the Czech Communist Party. In its original form, it would have had a live presenter narrating the choices, telling the audience which buttons to press for each choice. Interactivity was thus seen as something operating on the film from outside, rather than a part of the content. It’s a bit ironic, too, to put “automat” in the title and then make it depend on direct human interaction. In the form presented to us today, however, the presenter is part of the video, clearly a later addition. The original filmmakers could have done it this way — the film was still running while the presenter talked — but chose not to. Call it a UI decision.

In form, it’s very close to linear: despite some pretentions of being controlled by a complex computer (which speaks directly to the audience at the end), the interactivity was originally created by running two film projectors simultaneously and blocking one of them at a time. (Apparently it was also once televised using two channels.) So, your choices can’t affect the sequence of events for very long. This isn’t much of a surprise, though, because the bulk of the story is told in flashback: the whole thing starts with an apartment block on fire, followed by recounting the events that led up to it. Apparently it’s been read as a satire of democracy. No matter what you vote for, it all ends in flames.

The style is goofy and extremely 1960s in its sensibilities — most of the story concerns a respectable middle-aged man dealing with being caught in the company of a naked woman for completely innocent reasons and Everyone Getting The Wrong Impression. That man, Mr. Novák, is the viewpoint character, but interestingly, not all of the choices concern his actions: in the end, the audience is asked to simply pass judgment on him, decide whether he’s culpable for the fire or not, a choice that basically asks you to end any identification you had with him. (Personally, I was strangely disappointed when it turned out that he didn’t start the fire deliberately.) Also, at one point the doorbell rings and the audience is polled for their guesses about who it is. Neither of the options offered is right, and the only effect of the choice is the display of how many people chose what. So even at this early date, designers were using completely fake choices to split up lengthy noninteractive sections.

I feel like the filmmakers showed a lack of confidence in the format when they decided to make Kinoautomat a goofball comedy, unsure about whether audiences would be willing to take interactivity seriously. That’s pretty definitely the case for I’m Your Man, the second “world’s first interactive movie”, which was specifically intended as a test of audiences, and which turns up the goof factor to the point where it’s using cartoon sound effects. I’d also like to note that I’m Your Man doesn’t bind its audience to making choices for a single player character, switching characters freely — indeed, its first several choices are choices of whose story to follow. Film, after all, has no technical constraints limiting who can act on your decisions. And yet Kinoautomat mostly sticks to the CYOA model, despite predating the Choose Your Own Adventure series by a decade.

Gemcraft: Endgame Tactics

As much as the details change over the course of the Gemcraft series, there are some things that are curiously constant. In a typical tower defense game, different types of weapon fire differently: you’ll have some equivalent of machine guns and sniper rifles and laser beams, differing in how frequently they fire, how far, whether they do instant damage or fire a slow projectile, whether they hit a single target or everything within a certain range. The magic gems that are your weapons in Gemcraft basically do all of that the same. No matter what the gem, they fire the same sorts of projectiles in the same way. Oh, there’s a little variation: chain hit gems have a longer reach, poison gems have a higher base damage, things like that. But the difference between different types (or colors) of gem is never that great, and it’s completely overshadowed by the difference between grades of gem. Upgrading a gem improves it in every regard: its range, its fire rate, the speed of its projectiles and how much damage they do — and the power of its specials effects.

The effects, now. That is what distinguishes the type of gem. Exactly what types are avalable varies a little from game to game in the series, as do the details of what they do. For example, when bloodbound gems were introduced in the third game, they became more powerful the more kills they get. In Chasing Shadows, they become more powerful the more hits they get, which makes it a lot easier to bring a new bloodbound gem into play late in the level. (bloodbound gems also changed color between games, from red to black. This is the sort of thing you only notice when you play the entire series in a row.)

For most of Chasing Shadows, found it prudent to have multiple types of gem in play whenever I could. For swarmers, you want red chain hit gems. For heavily-armored giants, you want either purple armor-tearing gems, or green poison gems (because poison damage bypasses armor), or both. I found it effective to have two towers with blue slowing gems: one targeting the enemy closest to the base, as is the default, to make sure the one most urgently in need of slowing gets slowed, and the other set to target at random, to spread the slowness around. There’s cyan gems whose special power is to suppress healing, which isn’t actually all that useful, because things tend to die before they can heal, but I’d gladly throw one of those in once the more essential gems were in place for the few cases where it was useful. And everything could benefit from being combined with a white poolbound gem, which enhances the other special attributes.

By the endgame, though, things were a lot simpler. With sufficient power, I was relying on just two gem effects: orange mana leeching gems and yellow critical hit gems. (Both enhanced with poolbound, of course.) Mana leeching games are weak in the beginning, doing slightly less damage than other gems for a marginal gain, but if you keep upgrading them, they become your main source of mana, taking in tens of thousands with every hit. Place it in a trap instead of a tower to maximize its yield, and spend most of its mana output on upgrading it. A sufficiently powerful critical hit gem kills everything that doesn’t perish on the mana leeching trap. Critical hit multipliers just keep on increasing as you upgrade the gem, so that eventually it’s got a multiplier in the millions or billions, and fires fast enough to guarantee that everything it hits gets hit by a crit, multiple times. With damage like that, who cares about armor or healing?

You’ll notice that getting these things up to superpower levels requires upgrading them a lot, which costs a lot of mana. So, yes, most of my endgame involves not just two types of gem, but two gems. But I liked to make one exception to this: a second yellow gem dedicated set to target structures, specifically to destroy beacons. Beacons are enemy buildings that aid the monsters in various ways: there are beacons that heal monsters within range, ones that grant them shields, ones that prevent you from building in a certain area, etc. They’re rarities when you first encounter them, appearing only in certain levels. But one of the special powers sometimes found in enemy waves is “spawns a beacon on death”. And beacons give tons of XP when destroyed. So once you’re strong enough, it makes sense to make sure you “enrage” those waves (sacrificing gems to increase the number of monsters) get lots and lots of beacon-spawning enemies. It gets so that the level is saturated with beacons, popping up as fast as you can destroy them.

In fact, enraging waves in general is one of those things that I didn’t see the point of at first, but which became a key part of my tactics by the end. I mean, spending precious mana on a gem only to give it up to make things more difficult? But more enemies means more enemies getting killed, and also more enemies walking over my mana-leeching traps, both which mean more mana to spend on getting stronger for later waves.

So, that was where I stand as of the final level. But I do still have some suspicion that it’s not the final best strategy. I mean, look at traps. I used traps a lot in the early part of the game, the better to deliver unblockable poison damage to lots of foes at once. Then I abandoned them for a while as increases in poison damage didn’t keep up with my needs. But by the end, I was making heavy use of traps again for the mana-leeching gems. I can imagine that eventually, as the stats reach even farther into the ridiculously astronomical, I might start seen armor that blunts even my strongest critical hit, prompting me to bring out the armor-tearing gems again. Things may well be cyclical.

Gemcraft series (but mostly Chasing Shadows)

So, I’ve played a bunch of hidden object games this season. And I’ve played a whole lot of Train Valley 2. But the main thing I’ve played, the biggest constant throughout the pandemic, has been Gemcraft 1Officially, the title is capitalized as “GemCraft”, but I find that less pleasing, ambiguous in how to pronounce it properly. Besides, I called it “Gemcraft” in all my previous posts, so why stop now?. And when I say Gemcraft, I mean all of it. The near-simultaneous releases of a new Gemcraft sequel and a couple of standalone Flash players with bundled games in response to the long-awaited Death of Flash on the web spurred me to try to actually play every game in the series to the end for the first time. This experience has played the same role in my life this year that Creeper World 3 did a couple years back.

I’ve written a few posts before about the fourth Gemcraft game, Gemcraft Chapter 2: Chasing Shadows. The fact that the fourth game is labeled “2” is a little peculiar, but not unprecedented. To recap, it’s a series of wizard-themed tower defense games based around two innovations: the ability to move your weapons around from tower to tower, and press-your-luck gameplay where you can make levels more difficult for greater reward, both before starting the level and while playing it. Once you’ve leveled up a little from the beginning, the only reason you ever fail is overconfidence. Right now, literally between starting this post and finishing it, I’ve played to the ending of Chasing Shadows. This was quite unexpected. A conspicuous gap in the overworld map made me think that I had some way to go yet, but that gap only fills in on victory. It looks like it may be the setting for Chapter 3.

The other chief thing of note about these games is that they’re long. Far longer than is comfortable for my normal binge play-style. They’re really meant to be played a bit at a time over a long period, but even then, you’re going to level up to the point where the challenge is gone long before you reach the end. This is part of how the game tempts you to turn up the difficulty. But it’s also part of the appeal when you’re in a certain state of mind. If I’ve found myself playing Train Valley 2 a lot lately, it’s because it offers a fantasy of control, of making plans and executing them. Gemcraft offers a fantasy of mastery, of not having to put in the effort you once did. Of waving away even the most absurdly overpowered attackers.

Chasing Shadows, it also offers to contradict that. After you win a level, you can keep on going in “Endurance Mode”, where it just keeps on sending enemies in increasing numbers until they finally overwhelm you. Endurance Mode is one of the keys to gaining XP fast, and gaining XP past is also one of the game’s great joys. When you’re powerful enough, you don’t just work towards gaining levels one at a time, you get dozens at once, the XP bar at the main screen swiftly filling repeatedly, the ding turning into a jingle.

Chara would love this game.

And it seems to know that. The story underlying the series is one of repeatedly being morally compromised, of being tricked into doing the work of demons. The second game, Chapter 0: Gem of Eternity, has you playing the character who will become the antagonist of the first.

I’ll have more to say about Chasing Shadows tomorrow. I may have won, but I’m not done with it yet.

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1. Officially, the title is capitalized as “GemCraft”, but I find that less pleasing, ambiguous in how to pronounce it properly. Besides, I called it “Gemcraft” in all my previous posts, so why stop now?

Train Valley contrasted to its sequel

Train Valley 2: Seldom have I seen a sequel so thoroughly change the fundamental character of a game without altering its basic gameplay.

That gameplay consists mainly of laying tracks to join stations. Games based on that idea run a spectrum from abstract puzzle games like Trainyard, to realistic simulators like Railworks, and Train Valley is toward the abstract end of that, but not quite as far out as Mini Metro. You have fanciful toy-looking locomotives on a grid of big chunky squares, dotted with obstacles and color-coded stations. Trains randomly materialize at the stations, and if you get them to their destinations in good time, you earn money that you use to build more tracks to cope with increasing demands on your network and the gradual appearance of additional stations. Your chief enemy is the constraints of the grid: tracks can only turn 45 degrees per tile, and each tile can contain only one switch or crossing. And on top of that, it’s prudent to have redundancy, to keep any trains going from point A to point B from blocking trains departing point B. Sometimes you wind up making a complicated web of junctions to cope with the constraints, and once you have that, it’s very easy to leave something switched the wrong way and send a train to the wrong place. The scale goes together with the art style makes it all look and feel like playing with a toy train set: sometimes the distance between stations is barely longer than the trains running on them.

Train Valley 2 shifts towards realism. Mainly it does this by adding more ways to affect and be affected by terrain. You can build bridges and tunnels, at great expense. There are slopes, which you can build tracks to ascend or descend but not running along laterally. There are steeper slopes that are just plain impassible. This variability makes it easy for the designers to make the kind of congestion that dominated the first game local to a part of the playfield. Distance is now a big problem. The tiles are smaller, or, equivalently, the levels are larger, and trains can take a significant amount of time to get where they’re going. To intensify this, you have a limited number of trains that can be running at one time. You can purchase more, or upgrade them to run faster, but this comes at a considerable cost, which can delay the purchase of essential bridges and tunnels.

Most of all, though, the trains in Train Valley 2 are purposeful. It’s not just a matter of “Train at blue station arbitrarily wants to go to orange station”. Rather, stations are associated with commodities. Each level has one or more towns, which produce workers at a steady rate and which have icons indicating certain needs, like “this town requires 12 copper ingots, 16 books, and 6 airplanes”. Fulfilling those needs is the goal of the level. Other stations will take specific resources to produce others: workers + grain = cows, for example. (Like all resources, workers are absorbed in these recipes.) It’s a bit like Hero of the Kingdom but with trains. And it has a profound effect on how the game feels. The first Train Valley was all about reacting to events. Train Valley 2 is all about planning. The first thing you do on loading a level is scan the map to see where the towns are, and where the resources that require nothing but workers are. The hierarchy of dependencies is like a story, a sequence of events with an optimal ordering that gets you everything you need within a par time.

Hidden Object Games in general

I haven’t been posting much lately, and what I’ve posted has mainly been looks back at games I played a long time ago. You’d think that being stuck at home due to a pandemic would be a perfect opportunity to play lots of games and blog about them, but somehow I’ve only done the first part of that. As usual, I’m hoping I can get back into the habit of short daily posts.

So, what have I been playing? Several things. For one, I got onto a sizeable Hidden Object Game kick. These are my comfort food, the ludic equivalent of a popcorn movie. They come in a wide variety of shapes and colors, but there’s a sameness to them all. I recall that a bigwig as Marvel Comics once attracted some flak for saying that he wanted his company’s output to be the equivalent of vanilla ice cream. Hidden object games are like that.

And yet, one of the things I really appreciate about them is the variability! Every game does its own little tweaks on the formula, and over time, those tweaks accumulate into an evolution. I remember playing time-limited free trials of the first generation of the genre, downloaded from the Pop Cap website. Those were pure hidden object games, just a sequence of cluttered scenes with lists of things to find. There was a tendency to hide objects by altering their scale, making a pencil into part of a city skyline or whatever. That’s fallen out of fashion. The trend nowadays is more to exploit ambiguity in the object names: a “bow” could be a hair bow, a violin bow, or an archery bow; a “pipe” could be lead or meerschaum. For that matter, it might be a picture of a pipe, which is very easy to just look past of you’re not careful.

(Mind you, not all such word problems are deliberate. These games tend to be produced in foreign countries — one of the best studios making them is Artifex Mundi, which is based in Poland. And this means that every once in a while the object names don’t match English usage. The game might ask for a shovel, but the item you’re expected to click on is clearly a trowel. I assume that this means the designer’s native language uses a single word for both.)

Eventually, the genre started taking on features of adventure games, placing the hidden-object scenes into an explorable space. Big Fish’s Return to Ravenhearst (2008) was a landmark in this regard, pioneering the conceit that fuses the hidden object and adventure genres: that hidden-object sections represent searching for a specific object that you need to solve a puzzle elsewhere. Not that you can just pick up the one object you need if you happen to find it first, of course. And at some point, I don’t know when, some games started putting special-cased interactions inside the hidden object sections: you might be told to find a “lit candle”, and the scene contains an unlit candle and a book of matches, which you can pick up and click on the candle. There’s something oddly recursive about this.

Once hidden object games and adventures had hybridized, the resulting genre started de-emphasizing the hidden object sequences, using more diverse minigames. Some games even make the hidden object sequences optional, by, say, letting the player substitute a game of Mah Jongg Solitaire, which at resembles a hidden object game in that it involves searching for things. There are even some adventure games, such as the Drawn series, that I’d put in the same genre because their UI, interaction, and art style all fit in perfectly, but which don’t have any hidden object scenes at all.

So the genre isn’t really defined by hidden objects, although those are a very common feature. Rather, it’s a family of cheap casual-positioned first-person adventure games marked by easy puzzles, frequent mini-games, full voice acting but limited animation, and a very distinctive art style: it’s a painted look, but with sharp focus and lots of rim lighting, and it’s distinctive enough to come as a surprise on the few occasions when I’ve encountered the style elsewhere. Often the UI uses lots of particle effects. Usually there’s an inventory bar at the bottom of the screen with a map and/or journal on the left side and something you can click on to get hints on the right. It’s all quite formulaic.

The stories, too, are mostly pretty formulaic, in a pulpish way. Usually there’s someone or something you’re pursuing, usually because they’ve kidnapped someone close to you, either in the opening cutscene or about a third of the way through the story. That’s your call to adventure. It’s almost the standard videogame Princess Plot, except that the player character is very often a woman. I’m tempted to say usually a woman, but this may be perceptual bias. At any rate, it’s a template that can be fit over basically any genre, and the designers exploit this by fitting it over as many genres as they can. There was a tendency for the early pure hidden object games to be about detective, presumably because that was considered to be a reasonably good fit to the gameplay. There’s still a fair number of detective stories in today’s hidden object adventures, but you can just as easily be given the role of an elven hero, or a steampunk adventuress, or an ordinary woman who was minding her own business when her daughter was abducted by ghost pirates.

At any rate, there’s a zillion of the things, and they frequently get swept up into huge bundles. Usually I can finish one in about a day, or a single long evening — maybe two, if I get stuck. But I’m in no real danger of ever running out of them. They’re just always there, for when I need the comfort of the familiar.

Accidental Gating in Alien Logic

I’ve been doing a little UI work lately, prototyping a system that needs to be able to display a list of options, where there’s no hard limit to the number of items in the list. Any such system needs to address the question of what happens when there are too many choices to display at one time. And that brought to mind an anecdote about a game I played approximately 20 years ago.

Alien Logic is a 1994 DOS CRPG based on the Skyrealms of Jorune campaign setting, and if you haven’t heard of Jorune, you probably didn’t have a subscription to Dragon magazine in the 1980s. I don’t think it was advertised more heavily than other game systems of the time, but its ads were highly noticeable and memorable. Haunting art featuring hovering islands and weird alien lifeforms rendered in an unsettling fleshy style, all bulges and bone structure. Usually they featured one or more Shantha, weirdly tall humanoids with bulbous faceless heads. I was always curious about it as a child, but didn’t have any actual knowledge or experience of it until I bought a remaindered Alien Logic CD-ROM.

Now, this game is not fresh in my mind. I don’t remember the story at all. I remember it had a real-time combat system presented in side-view like a brawler, and, like many brawlers, I recall that it fell to a dominant strategy, although I don’t remember what that strategy was. The setting, I learned, is an alien planet dotted with mysterious ruins, colonized by humans and other intelligent species long enough ago to have multiple layers of history there. It was apparently meant to appeal to both sci-fi fans and fantasy fans, and has been compared to both Jack Vance and Barsoom in its pseudo-scientific trappings and quasi-magical forgotten technology. Mana is called “isho” and spells are called “dyshas” as a way to let the sci-fi fans pretend they’re not talking about magic, and apparently some fans get quite huffy when you point this out.

The original tabletop game supports player characters of various races, including furries, but the player character of Alien Logic is human, or at least human-passing. You start off, however, in a Thriddle city called Mountain Crown. I’d describe Thriddles as the setting’s functional equivalent of halflings or gnomes, except instead of small humans, they look like plucked chickens with eyestalks with elbows in them. There’s a sort of mentor figure, an elderly Thriddle named Salrough, who gives you your initial quest and invites you to come back and talk to him whenever you have more developments of interest. And I remember trying to come back to talk to him fairly early in the game, only to be blocked at his door by another Thriddle, named Herrid Go-Otgo, who insisted that I give him a certain item with a silly alien name to be allowed through.

“Oh well”, I said, “I guess the game doesn’t want me going back in there just now. It’s gating that content until I find that thing Herrid wants. So until I find it, I’ll just keep on exploring and pursuing quests.” And I did. There was plenty more to do, goals both stated and implicit, and I just kept on going, without ever finding the thing Herrid wanted, until I hit a wall towards the end of the game and could make no more progress. Hitting up a walkthrough, I learned that I needed to talk to Salrough again to get any farther. But what about Herrid? Ah, I just hadn’t been persistent enough! If I had just tried entering Mountain Crown again, even just exited to the world map and gone right back in again, there would now be some more Thriddle NPCs who could get me the item. But why would I have tried going back to Mountain Crown when I still didn’t have it?

Still, I knew now, so I got rid of Herrid, and I went to talk to Salrough… and the game crashed.

The reason it had crashed? The creators of the game had simply not anticipated that a player would do literally everything else possible in the world before getting rid of Herrid. There are various events, news you can hear and discoveries you can make, that you can ask Salrough about. All through your progress in the story, the game is tacking new items onto Salrough’s dialogue tree, and assuming that you’re visiting him to clear them out once in a while. If you don’t, it grows long enough for the list to overflow the screen. And that crashes it. Since this is a DOS game, maybe it just kept on rendering text past the end of video memory and into the game’s executable or something.

I remember finishing the game. I don’t remember if I managed this by finding a patch that fixed the problem or if I just loaded successively older saves until I found one that didn’t crash, but I do strongly remember a very long list of dialogue options relating to plot long since passed, hints I no longer needed, overdue explanations, maybe even some locations of low-level dungeons I had inadvertently skipped over. I don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember that.

There’s an obvious design lesson here: Be careful about gating. If you want the player to do something, if you want them to do it early and repeatedly, don’t put a barrier in front of it that they don’t know how to overcome.

Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality: My Picks

Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but: Itch.io has a truly monumental bundle going right now, called the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, consisting of “1,659 items” (as of this writing; the number keeps going up 1The final count is 1704. ), mostly games, many of them good, for a minimum price of $5, all proceeds going to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. It’s running for just two more days. A more ambitious games blogger than myself could spend the rest of their life blogging just about this bundle.

Since such a massive collection is in obvious need of curation, people have been posting lists of their picks on social media. I figure I might as well do the same here. I’m not saying these are the only games in the bundle worth playing, just that they’re the ones that I personally have played and would recommend to others.

  • Interactive Fiction and other largely text-based stuff
    • Voyageur: There are quite a few choice-based space-exploration games out there, but this is probably the most polished. Sort of a cross between 80 Days and FTL.
    • What Isn’t Saved (will be lost): A sci-fi meditation on memory and difficult choices. Almost unbearably tense.
    • Wheels of Aurelia: I’ve mentioned this one in passing before. It’s an interesting experiment in interactive dialogue: you’re talking while you’re driving, so your attention is split and the conversation is affected by what turns you make and how fast you go. Set in 1970s Italy, with a story very concerned with the politics of that time and place.
    • Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings”: Claymation adventure game detective musical with interactive sung dialogue that actually manages to fit the beat of the background music.
    • Extreme Meatpunks Forever: A lo-fi Visual Novel about gay fugitives in a messed-up world, peppered with mech-fighting action sequences where you try to shove fascists off cliffs. I don’t usually have a lot of patience for VNs, but Meatpunks has a unique energy.
    • The Quiet Sleep: Hard to describe. It’s an abstract system for telling stories by means of resource acquisition on a hex grid.
  • 2D Platformers
    • Celeste: Previously. Extremely polished, the pinnacle of Matt Thorson’s 2D platformer career. Tough as nails, but paradoxically kind-hearted.
    • And Yet It Moves: Previously. Puzzle-platformer in a rotatable environment with a torn-paper aesthetic.
    • Pikuniku: I’m only a little ways into this, but it’s a metroidvania with a very strong aesthetic. Characters are simplified in a way that complements their comically blunt demeanors.
    • BasketBelle: Previously. Intriguingly combines shooting hoops with platformer mechanics.
    • Four-Sided Fantasy: Another high-concept puzzle-platformer, based on giving the player control of whether the screen has wraparound or not at any given moment. It’s a device that turns out out to have more legs than it sounds.
  • Other Explorey Environments
    • Oxenfree: I’m not wild about horror movie tropes, but the interaction and dialogue system is definitely worth a look.
    • A Short Hike: A charming and relaxing mountain climb in a recreational area with anthropomorphic animals. Kind of like a one-sitting single-player Animal Crossing.
    • Minit: A high-concept action-adventure, exploring what uses a game can make of short time constraints. Very well-done formal experiment.
    • Anodyne: A light, fanciful action-adventure, similar to an early Zelda game in both mechanics and graphical style, but more wry and deliberately surreal.
    • The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human: Previously. Melancholy 2D underwater metroidvania. Just you and a submarine against immense monsters amidst the ruins of human civilization.
    • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist: Fourth-wall-demolishing first-person nonsense from one of the Stanley Parable people.
  • Other Puzzle Games
    • Mu Cartographer: Previously. Recommended for anyone who likes fiddling with unlabeled controls to figure out what they do.
    • GNOG: A collection of pure jiggery-pokery puzzles themed around grotesque headboxes.
    • Adjacency: One of those abstract puzzle games with soothing ambient music. Simple mechanics, but gets very tricky (in ways other than increasing the number of parts).
    • Puzzle Puppers: Basically, numberlink with elongated corgis. Has some complications beyond that, like teleporting tunnels, but that’s the essence of it.
  • Not cleanly categorizable as any of the above
    • Art Sqool: More satisfying as an aesthetic than a game, but worth a look just for that.
    • Nuclear Throne: One of the best action-roguelikes out there.
    • Glittermitten Grove: A delightful fairy management sim. I hear it has some secrets. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding them than me.
    • Windosill: Previously. Short, dark, surreal twitch-and-wiggle game from Vectorpark.
    • Metamorphabet: Another Vectorpark game. I don’t like it as much as Windosill — it’s pitched more at the kiddies, so it stops short of giving them nightmares. Still worthy, though.
    • Quadrilateral Cowboy: A satisfying hackery game, and one of the few cyberpunk games to take the “punk” part to heart.
    • Old Man’s Journey: A peaceful and aesthetically pleasing travel story where the main mechanic is raising and lowering the level of the ground.
    • The Hex: Six videogame characters from different genres meet at an inn to witness a murder. I didn’t think much of this at first — it seemed indulgent, and the mini-games built around each character not well-developed. But it won me over with its increasing complexity, deepening story, and pervasively sinister atmosphere.

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1. The final count is 1704.

The Talos Principle

A couple months back, Epic Games made The Talos Principle briefly available for free on their storefront. I already had this game on Steam, and had even played it, but seeing it come up there reminded me that I had never actually finished it. And so I’ve been playing it on and off, starting over from the beginning, and finally reached an ending a few days ago — three endings, in fact, one after another. There’s a sort of hierarchy there: an obvious ending that you can get just by doing exactly as you’re told, then a more satisfying ending — what feels like the real ending — where you rebel against your instructions in the obvious way to access a sequence of optional puzzles, and finally a secret ending that you can only access by solving a bunch of extra-hard puzzles hidden throughout the normal ones. The reason I hadn’t finished the game before was my stubborn insistence on completing all of the secrets before plunging into any ending.

If I had understood the way the game handles saves better, I might not have held back. Normally, you don’t need to access the saved game interface directly at all; you just select “Continue” from the main menu at the start of each session. So it wasn’t clear to me how final and irrevocable the endings were. But in fact the game keeps multiple autosaves, in a biggish queue that reminds me of the quicksaves in Serious Sam. No coincidence, either: Talos and Sam were created by the same people.

Which is flabbergasting to remember, given the vast difference in both gameplay and tone. Sam is a first-person shooter, overblown and deliberately stupid, about fighting vast hordes of ridiculous aliens in messy, chaotic battles. Talos is a Portal-like — a first-person puzzle game, with precise solutions, marked by epiphanies about what the mechanics make possible. And in theme, it’s a meditation on mortality and entropy, and on finding meaning through obedience or defiance. It’s a bit self-serious at times, but then, it also throws in the occasional jarring Sam reference.

The setting is a series of ruins: first Greco-Roman-styled, then Egyptian, then European castles and cathedrals, all basically fake, all accessible form a hub world dominated by an enormous forbidden tower, the locus of the optional puzzles that lead to the real ending. Ruins are of course ubiquitous in games as a way to simplify things for level designers, letting them leave out complications like occupants and functionality. But not many games take advantage of it thematically the way Talos does. This is a world where humanity died out a long time ago, leaving behind a vast database preserving our knowledge, history, and culture — essentially, a backup of the Internet. This database is also almost entirely decayed by the time the game takes place. You can access occasional partially-corrupted fragments from terminals standing around incongruously in the ruins making beep boop noises, and a lot of what remains is people reacting to the imminent end: struggling, despairing, reminiscing, accepting that it’ll all be over soon. The ruins are a simulation in the same system. Random textures occasionally glitch out to let you know that even this decayed state is not long for the world.

Although it’s fundamentally a single-player game, Talos has a feature that lets you communicate with other players: sometimes you’ll find a little pot of paint, and can use it to daub a QR code on a wall, bearing a message, chosen from a list, for your friends to find. Seeing these messages while playing the game years after everyone else stopped enhances the desolation, the sense of exploring something long-abandoned. As does the act of leaving new messages on walls despite knowing how unlikely it is that anyone else will ever see them.

Now, I call it a Portal-like, but, like The Rodinia Project, it does without one of the central elements of the Portal paradigm: the gun. There are tools that you aim at objects to project beams of light at them, but, crucially, they’re only active when you set them down. In other words, they’re in the same category as crates. All useable items are unlocked for use by collecting tetrominoes (or “sigils”, as the game calls them), except two: the “jammer”, the first tool you find, which is a device for making other devices stop working, and an axe you can find just hanging inconspicuously on a cathedral wall towards the end. It strikes me as significant that these are the first and the last items you get, and that they’re both tools for breaking things. The axe doesn’t even have any use in the main-line puzzles, and is exclusively for accessing secrets.

I’ve talked before about the implicit gnosticism in Portal and its imitators: trapped in a hellworld by a malevolent demiurge, seeking salvation in escape to the true world beyond. Talos, with all its religious imagery, makes this downright explicit. The antagonist calls himself Elohim, tells you that he is your creator and that you have a purpose, which is to pass his trials. Do this, and you will have life everlasting in his paradise. But he cautions you that you must not climb the central tower, or you will surely die. He speaks to you as a disembodied voice, deep and resonant, his phrasing biblical, his first words accompanied by an angelic chorus. I hated him immediately. Not out of hatred of God per se, but because of his presumption — and not so much because of his presumption of divinity as because he had the temerity to tell me that my sole purpose for existence is to do his bidding.

We ultimately find out that this is far from the case. The player character’s true purpose is to rebel. A paradox, but one that’s deeply embedded in the story.

There are two other characters of significance. First, there’s the simulation’s true god: Alexandra Drennan, creator of the whole system, whose audio logs can be found throughout the puzzle-worlds. She created the system to algorithmically create humanity’s successors, androids with not just intelligence but free will. Successfully defying Elohim is the ultimate test, and passing it will shut the system down, freeing you from the false world and waking you up in the real one.

The other is the Milton Library Assistant, also referred to as the Serpent, a cataloguing AI that you can talk to through the same terminals you use to access fragmentary documents, using a choice-based dialogue system — the only character who actually listens to what you have to say! The dialogues with the MLA are ostensibly a Turing test, a way for you to prove yourself human in order to gain admin access to the system. Which is a problem, because you’re not human. Within the simulation, you’re not even distinguishable from a deterministic recording of your actions. Some of the puzzles rely on this. You can argue to the MLA that you’re human in every way that matters, but it’s been at this for a long time, arguing with all the failed AIs that came before you, and it’s capable of countering anything you can say. (Largely because what you can say is limited to the choices offered by the dialogue system, true.) Its attitude is fundamentally skeptical and nihilistic, doubting everything and doubting the value of everything. This makes it a foil for the player, but also sets it in opposition to Elohim, who demands unquestioning faith.

Now, witness how these forces are all set in defiance of each other! Elohim takes his ordeals too far: fearing death, he is unwilling to allow his program to be completed, and so does everything he can to prevent the player from reaching the true ending, including simply pleading with you in the end. But in so doing, he becomes something worth rebelling against, thus serving his true purpose. This puts him in the same boat as the player, defying Elohim and in so doing fulfilling the purpose Drennan intended. Drennan herself has essentially the same motivations as Elohim — unwillingness to see her world die, defying fate. The Serpent just defies everything it can, including the player. I say all this by way of introduction to the truly special thing about the game: the way the story incorporates the player breaking its implicit rules.

The game is organized into multiple worlds, each world consisting of some sort of courtyard or open space and a number of puzzle chambers. The puzzle chambers are self-contained, open to the virtual sky but walled in, with force fields at their entrances that prevent you from bringing objects in or out. But they’re also part of the same physical space as the courtyard, and this can be exploited. Sometimes you can aim a beam out of one chamber and into another. Sometimes you can stack up some crates and jump over the wall and out into the courtyard, carrying an item with you. These and similar tricks are necessary to solve the game’s more advanced optional puzzles, and even though you know you’re executing a designed solution, it never stops feeling like you’re exploiting bugs, breaking the logic of the puzzles in defiance of the designer.

And, heck, sometimes you are. Not all such acts of burglary and vandalism are intended, or useful. That’s probably a major aspect of the feel of the thing, the uncertainty about whether the exploits you find are authentic or not. There are places in Portal where you can temporarily escape between the walls, into the “backstage” areas outside the puzzle chambers, where GLaDOS doesn’t want you to go. But there, it’s still all clearly make-believe, an on-stage representation of a backstage area. Talos has much the same effect, but it’s a lot more convincing about it.

The irony is that the ultimate effect of solving all the secret puzzles is the ability to unlock the third ending, which is the exact opposite of rebellion: it’s an opportunity for your character to become one of Elohim’s messengers, delivering hints to other players. This bothered me when I discovered it. Didn’t the designers understand what they were doing? This is my reward for breaking the world? Becoming a lackey to the oppressor? This is the ending that I thought I was solving all these extra puzzles to avoid being tricked into!

But thinking about it more, I realize that they knew exactly what they were doing. For one thing, they go out of their way to make this ending unappealing with death imagery, asking you to climb into a sarcophagus and choose an “epitaph” that your friends will see. For another, it fits with everything I’ve said already about rebellion as a way to carry out a prescribed role. No matter how it feels, you can’t really break anything that wasn’t made to be broken. Not even with an axe.

Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge

A recent discussion brought to mind Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge, a 1994 point-and-click adventure from Westwood Studios (who also made the Blade Runner point-and-click adventure). And I realized that, because I played it so long ago, I’ve never discussed it here, even though I’ve had things to say about it. It’s a game that does a couple of things worth noting.

First, though, let’s zoom out and look at the Kyrandia series as a whole, and how it evolved. The main thing I remember about the first game in the series is its luscious use of saturated colors. There are potions in rainbow colors, and a big part of the game involves hunting for gemstones that look like they belong in a match-3. The visual design pretty clearly precedes the puzzles, though, as some of the gems are never used, even if they were difficult to find. Beyond that, it’s mostly sort of bland and King’s-Questish, with lots of padding rooms and a boring hero who turns out to be secret royalty. His father, the king, was murdered by a giggling evil jester named Malcolm, who crops up from time to act impish and menacing and magically powerful. He’s quite a bit like the Superfriends version of Mxyzptlk, down to the purple-and-orange color scheme. There was a little bit of wackiness in this world and a mild pun-based situation or two (such as a ferry piloted by a fairy), but it was pretty restrained.

Kyrandia 2 was more of a comedy. Its hero was the one character in Kyrandia 1 who displayed any sense of humor, its villain was a giant disembodied gloved hand, and it was willing to follow its puzzle setups into ridiculousness, as when you’re carried off by a yeti and find that its cave is decorated as a swinging bachelor pad. And that’s the course that Kyrandia 3 followed further into complete absurdity, turning Kyrandia into a world where whimsy reigns and and giving us puzzles where you do things like hypnotize squirrels and put eels into people’s clothing. In this setting, the hero (or antihero) is Malcolm, the villain from the first game, newly escaped from prison. He’s completely reinterpreted, more irreverent than maniacal, his high-pitched giggling replaced by gravelly sarcasm.

The biggest retcon to the character is that Kyrandia 3‘s Malcolm is a victim, imprisoned unfairly and seeking to clear his name. That is, he did kill the king, but he did it when he was under the influence of a curse and not in control of his actions. But we can take this as basically symbolic, because Malcolm doesn’t have a lot of self-control at the best of times. And the dialogue system reinforces this.

Now, none of the Kyrandia games give you direct control over what you say to other characters. You just click on people to talk to them and see what happens. But Kyrandia 3 gives you a little control, and the effect is to emphasize how much control you don’t have. It uses a tone system, where you can switch freely between three attitudes: Normal, Nice, and Naughty. The Nice tone makes Malcolm polite and deferential, maybe even helpful sometimes. The Naughty tone usually just makes him comically rude and abusive, which is counterproductive in most situations, but it’s also the only tone in which he’s capable of telling lies, which can be tremendously useful — “Never underestimate the power of the lie”, he reminds us. So the result is that Naughty mode is situationally useful but risky. It’s a little like making a Bluff check with a significant chance of failure in D&D, except that the failure mode isn’t “The other fellow was clever enough to see through my ruse” but rather “Whoops, I wanted to try trick him but instead I just opened my mouth and watched the bad words came out”.

The other major point of interest is the prison sequences. Malcolm is a wanted man. He spends the game’s first chapter trying to leave the kingdom of Kyrandia, and until he manages that, he can be recaptured at any time, particularly if you decide to solve puzzles by committing crimes. (There are many puzzles with alternate solutions in this game.) When you’re captured, it isn’t game over: the scene shifts to prison, where Malcolm, dressed in black and white stripes, is put to work doing some sort of repetitive task, like breaking rocks with a sledgehammer or whatever. Do this enough times, and you’re released. Or! You can figure out how to escape. If you escape, then the next time you’re captured, you’ll be put in a different prison, with a different repetitive task and a different environmental puzzle for escaping. This ultimately provides an alternate solution to the entire first chapter: if you keep escaping from prisons, you’ll eventually run out of prisons. The last one is a prison boat that sails far from Kyrandia, and escaping it puts you on the shores of Chapter 2.

The big problem with this whole scheme is that a lot of players never figured it out. Walkthroughs of the game bear this out: few make any mention of the possibility of escaping prison. And if you don’t think escape is possible, your experience of it is just “If you dawdle, guards will show up to take you to prison, where you have to do some boring repetitive task.” The lesson I took away from this was: If you provide two paths through a game, one that’s clever and one that’s boring, people will follow the boring path and then blame you for making a boring game. I’ve even tried to make a maxim of this. 1It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”. Really, though, there’s another element to it: the very first prison’s escape puzzle isn’t self-contained. In order to do it, you have to smuggle an object into the prison. Your inventory is wiped when you’re captured, but you can bring one item with you if you exploit a quirk of the UI: when you select an item to use it on the environment, it goes on your cursor, where the guards who search you miss it. The game tries to excuse this as concealing the object in your hand or whatever, but it’s a sketchy thing to hang an entire branch of the game on. Maybe it would have been okay if it had been for the third or fourth prison puzzle. That way, players would stand a better chance of noticing that the escape sequence was a thing. Even if they got stuck and didn’t complete the sequence, they’d know it was there.

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1. It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”.

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