Archive for the 'Mystlike' Category

Myst V: Still Trying to Get Started

I haven’t been doing much gaming for the last week or so. I’ve been busy, and expect to remain busy for another week or two. I did, however, take the time to do a little experiment. The company I work for has given me a Dell laptop — specifically, a Latitude D620. I installed Myst V on it, and sure enough, it gives a quite acceptable framerate in the part where it was bogging down to unplayability on my usual machine, which has a faster CPU and more memory. I may eventually just hook up the laptop to my monitor and mouse and play it from there, but this would be inconvenient for various reasons, so I’ll leave that as a last resort.

By now, I’ve played through the opening several times. After an intro sequence with a voice-over by Atrus, the game starts in the world (or “age”, as the Myst series calls them) of D’ni, in the chamber where the original Myst ended. Exploring from there, I soon met Yeesha, last seen as a little girl in Myst IV, now grown up and resembling the creepy messianic figure she appears as in Uru. 1 For those not hip to Uru: It’s basically a multi-player online Myst spin-off, set some time after the games in the series proper. The online part was cancelled shortly after launch, then the content packaged as a single-player game, and more recently the online game has been launched again. I may join Uru Live after I finish Myst V. She said a bunch of stuff that I didn’t have enough context yet to understand. I remember from Uru that Yeesha has this annoying habit of never explaining what it is she’s talking about, as if she were one of the fragmentary journals that litter the series. Then I was teleported to another “age”, where someone called Esher gave me another spiel, mainly about not trusting Yeesha. This is the point where the framerate started really degrading, and I gave up shortly afterward. (There was a tunnel leading to some content, but I didn’t spend long on it.)

So I got speeches from Atrus and Yeesha and Esher, and after hearing them repeated, I’m starting to make a little sense of them. Atrus and Yeesha said things that might mean that Atrus is dead, although they both couched it in terms vague enough to admit other possibilities: in a game where people routinely travel between worlds, to say that someone is no longer of this world doesn’t mean much. Also, Yeesha spoke of a “tablet” that “responded” to me, and which would be “released” after I did some stuff. I’m starting to think that this is a part of a certain small table-like structure of stone slabs that I was examining just before Yeesha appeared. Or maybe not. It would make sense of the claim that it “responded” to me — the table glowed or something the first time I poked it, although there didn’t seem to be any other effects, beyond triggering Yeesha’s cut-scene. It would be easier to interpret these speeches if they were written down rather than delivered orally.

Come to think of it, doesn’t the UI provide transcripts? Something to look into the next time I try it.

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1. For those not hip to Uru: It’s basically a multi-player online Myst spin-off, set some time after the games in the series proper. The online part was cancelled shortly after launch, then the content packaged as a single-player game, and more recently the online game has been launched again. I may join Uru Live after I finish Myst V.

Myst V: Framerate Woes

Myst V: End of Ages has been sitting on the stack waiting to be played for a few days now while I finished up Rhem. There’s some kind of be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing going on here. In my first post on Rhem, I wondered if it would be better with a 3D graphics engine. Myst V has such an engine, and it’s causing me no end of grief. I just can’t seem to sustain a playable framerate, even when I turn all the graphics settings down to minimum. A session might start at about 20 FPS 1 All framerate figures here were obtained using FRAPS. (not great, but something I can get used to), but it always gradually decays to an inevitable plateau of 6-7 FPS, even if I return to the location where I was getting the 20 FPS initially.

My machine exceeds the game’s minimum requirements in every respect, and the Ubisoft forums show that people with less powerful systems than mine have gotten it to run smoothly without problems. But I’ve gone through the measures prescribed by tech support, and nothing helps. I’m starting to wonder if I turned off some driver setting in order make an older game run and forgot to turn it on again, but I can’t find any trace of such a thing.

Anyway, I’m shelving it for now. Maybe some ideas about how to get it running smoothly will turn up.

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1. All framerate figures here were obtained using FRAPS.

Rhem: The Rest

rhem-notesMy previous Rhem sessions, taken all together, cover a minority of the game. I have just completed the rest in a single marathon session. People who do cryptograms are familiar with the moment when the code “breaks” and suddenly you’re discovering new leads faster than you can follow up on them. Rhem and other nonlinear puzzle-based adventure games have a similar tipping point. Not entirely for the same reason: here, it’s more do do with eliminating clues than finding new ones. But both forms share the property that the more you understand, the easier it is to understand more.

The chief reason for this in adventure games is that the more you see of a game, the better you understand how the author thinks. There are a few basic organizing principles in Rhem that, once grasped, make the whole game easier to think about. One is the overall structure of the map: there’s a large central area, with various drawbridges and rotating platforms and the like to make it difficult to get around, and there are various mostly-self-contained peripheral areas hanging off of it. The fact that the peripheral areas aren’t entirely self-contained, coupled with the lack of an obvious boundary between them and the central area, obscures this structure. But recognizing it is useful, not just for navigation, but because it lets you make certain assumptions — for example, that actions performed in the central area won’t affect things in the periphery. This assumption isn’t always true, but whenever there’s an exception, there’s some kind of clue indicating it.

Another very big part of the author’s style is heavy use of the close-the-door-behind-you puzzle. This is one of the basic puzzles of the Myst-like genre, because it’s one of the few puzzles, other than combination-lock variants, that you can do with a one-click interface and no inventory. 1 Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame. Here’s how it goes: A room is initially reached through a door that can be only opened and closed from the outside (typically because it’s button-operated). The contents of the room directly or indirectly grant access to an alternate route into that room. The trick is that closing the door alters the room in some desirable way — maybe there’s something written on the back of the door, maybe there’s a passageway that’s concealed by the door when it’s open, whatever. So you have to close the door from the outside, which players won’t normally do, and enter through the alternate route. Understand that I mean these words in an abstract and general way: the “room” can be a hallway or even outdoors, as long as access to it is limited, and the the “door” might be a ladder or a drawbridge or something, as long as it has two positions, one passable and one impassible, and no immediately obvious reason to return it to the impassible position. I think every single game in the Myst series uses this puzzle at some point, but Rhem really exploits it for all it’s worth, dressing it up in all kinds of guises and daisy-chaining instances of it in loops where one room’s door is another room’s alternate route. After my first session, I wrote that the game’s layout was hard to grasp, even with a map. By the end, I had pretty much internalized it, due to repeatedly running through that central area in order to get to the other side of closed doors.

In the course of solving this game, in addition to the notations on my map, I covered most of one side of a standard sheet of paper with notes that will be incomprehensible to me in a month or two. Zarf’s review mentions taking six pages of notes, which I suppose shows different habits: his notes may be more verbose, and he probably wrote things down that I didn’t. In cases where I discovered information and already knew where it was to be used, I often just temporarily committed it to memory. Consequently, the bulk of my notes were taken in the beginning, when I didn’t yet understand anything. But also, in many cases I circumvented note-taking by taking screenshots. This isn’t something I often do in adventure games, but Rhem pretty much asked for it: several points showed complicated screenfulls of data that I didn’t yet know how to filter into something simple to copy down. And, being old and written in Macromedia Director, the game switches to the background quickly and without hassle, making it easy to switch to an image viewer whenever I wanted to check on stuff. My map is based around two screenshots of partial maps found in the game, assembled in an image editor and printed out so I could write on it.

Anyway, I have to agree with what pretty much every review of Rhem says: it’s great stuff, if you like this sort of thing. It’s all a big complicated system made of rusty piping and cinderblocks, and the joy of the game is in coming to understand that system.

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1. Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame.

Rhem: Room of Mystery

rhem-photoI seem to have solved Rhem’s second major puzzle, and in so doing gained access to the first hint of what passes for a plot in this game. (By which I mean, an excuse to assign new player objectives: I’ve been offered help escaping Rhem in exchange for finding four parts of a discarded letter.)

More importantly, the same area seems to be the motherlode of cryptic hints. A machine labeled “SIMULATION” displays shapes, which change into other shapes at the press of a button. Another machine with a keypad dispenses sheets of paper with rows of pixellated runes, some labeled with numbers. Even a portrait of two young boys seems like it’s hiding a message, if only I knew how to begin interpreting the colors. Some of this is clearly connected to things I’ve seen before, although the nature of the connection is obscure. It’s all in one small room, not like the large explorable areas outside.

The thing is, I may well be laughing at this a day or two from now, after I discover the real cryptic hint motherlode. Every time I sit down to play this game, I make substantial progress in figuring things out, but still wind up with more mysteries than I started with.

Rhem: Induction

rhem-controlsI think I’ve gotten just up to where I stopped playing Rhem the first time. My last major accomplishment was setting everything up correctly in a control center for a system of pipes, allowing water to flow where I needed it in order to gain passage to the second major section of the game. Getting the right settings involves piecing together information from four other places, information partly in the form of unexplained symbols whose meaning and significance has to be derived from context.

For my money, this kind of inductive reasoning is the essence of the genre (both adventure games in general and Myst clones in particular). And it stands in contrast to the sort of reasoning needed in DROD and other rules-based puzzle games. In those, you pretty much have complete information about how all the elements work. The challenge is to figure out the consequences of what you know. It’s very mathematical. Rhem, on the other hand, is scientific: you start with incomplete information, and have to notice patterns in order to figure out how to complete it. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be reading uncommented source code: all the symbols were presumably meaningful to whoever made them. Heck, it’s not all that different from the ad-hoc notation I’ve been using to take notes while playing the game. There are certain fixtures repeated throughout the map, comprising seven buttons arranged around a screen; press the right buttons in the right order, and you get what I can only assume is a clue for a puzzle I haven’t encountered yet. When I encounter one, I note it on the map with a special glyph, a simplified representation of its shape. I could imagine someone else finding my map and being as puzzled by these symbols as I am by the symbols in the game.


rhem-stairsWhen I said yesterday that I wanted something more thinky, what I was planning to do was pick up a copy of Myst V: End of Ages at one of the various retailers I pass on the way home from work. But it turns out that it’s no longer on store shelves (although, for some reason, Uru: The Path of the Shell is.) I have already made other arrangements to acquire it: as a completist, I definitely want to finish the Myst series sometime, even though the series seems to have peaked at Riven. But in the short term, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing: a blatant Myst imitation. Fortunately, I have several.

Rhem is one of the better ones, and in some respects utilizes the form better than any of the actual Myst games. Andrew Plotkin’s review does a good job of explaining this. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have anything significant to add to what he says. I will note, however, that while his review talks at some length about three CDs and overcoming the need to swap disks, the game was later re-released on a single CD, apparently the result of better video compression. This is the edition I’m playing.

My history with Rhem is typical of my experience of graphic adentures. I started it, got a good way into it, got stuck, got distracted, and set it aside to finish later. Well, this is not a game that you can just abandon for a week and remember enough of to keep playing. Some time later, after some system upgrades, I tried to play it again, but hit strange technical problems. The publisher’s tech support was unable to help me, as is usually the case with games more than a year or two old. Whatever the problem was, subsequent upgrades seem to have fixed it. (I love it when that happens.) I have of course forgotten most of the game, but I have a vague recollection of what I did before that makes it a little easier to figure out what to do.

Faded familiarity does not, however, make the map easier to navigate. Talk about twisty passages — Rhem is made largely of catwalks and stairways that cross over and under each other a lot, ruining my sense of where I have and have not been already. The game provides a partial map at one point, and I’m relying on that a lot, when I can figure out where I am on it. Annotating the map with the locations of stairs helps a lot. I may wind up making a simpler map that only notes junctions, once I have a better handle on the layout. As much as the author has tried to ease navigation within the framework of a Macromedia Director adventure game, I really think this aspect of the game might be served better by a full 3D engine, where continuity of motion would make it easier to keep track of which peripheral objects are which. Or maybe not: it would slow down movement, now handled by swift mouse clicks. Besides, it’s not like the author had the time or the budget to develop such a thing. This is another of those indy efforts, sold at first exclusively through the author’s website, and I’m glad that he chose to devote his efforts towards a game rather than a new engine. But the point is, Rhem is conceived as a continuous three-dimensional object, and understanding how that object is put together is crucial to figuring out the game. I made comments to this effect about The Neverhood, but it’s even more true here.

The Forgotten: It Ends

The end! Huzzah!I seem to have finished The Forgotten. This happened quite abruptly.

Adventure games are often short. I remember completing Myst in more or less a single sitting. They don’t usually leave quite so much unresolved as this game, though. The docs describe this as the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it doesn’t even seem complete enough to be a chapter. It’s more like a story told by someone who stops in mid-sentence to take an important phone call. There are things that are clearly clues for puzzles that never appear, as if they had to cut things out to meet a deadline. The very first thing that happens in the game is that you find a box containing a rusty pistol and a broken pocketwatch, together with a note stating that you’ll know what to do with them when the time comes. Neither is ever used. I suppose that the entire game is just the first act, and Chekov’s rule talks about the third, but still.

It seems to me that there’s something like the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. (Self-denying?) The attempt at episodic narrative yields an incomplete and unsatisfying game, which results in bad reviews, low sales, and ultimately the cancellation of the project before any more episodes can be made.

By the end, I’d briefly held four cards, but not really gotten a chance to use any of them: two were acquired at the very end, and one had to be abandoned to solve a puzzle immediately after obtaining it. The game’s puzzles were mostly mechanical things of the sort that any post-Myst graphic adventure would have. I also learned, from the journals scattered about in lieu of characters, something of what other people had done with their cards: at least one deck provided the power of time travel, and Amelia Earhart apparently had a “flight deck”. Yes, Amelia Earhart figures into the plot. So does Anastasia Romanov. Using people who disappeared gives the authors an excuse to not have them around where the player can interact with them.

Like I said, constrained and linear. The game provides lots of scenery that you can look at, but relatively little that you can interact with, and basically no way to affect game state other than the ways that are necessary to complete it. In short, it’s a typical post-Myst graphic adventure.

The Forgotten: It Begins

There are basically bones all over the place in this game.So, after spending so much time on GTA3, I figure the next thing I pull off the stack should be as unlike it as possible. It has to be nonviolent, it has to offer highly constrained and linear gameplay, and, most of all, it has to be obscure. Searching the stack, I see the perfect thing: The Forgotten, an aptly-named first-person adventure game from 1999 in the gothic horror/fantasy/mystery genre. When this game was new, I played it until I got severely stuck, then shelved it. Starting over from the beginning, I find I remember very little about the game consciously, but it’s still familiar enough for me to waltz through the parts I had seen before. I’m already into new territory.

The premise of the game is like a cross between Cardcaptor Sakura and H. P. Lovecraft. Individuals called “collectors” pursue magical cards crafted by the powerful and mysterious beings who held dominion over the earth before the rise of humankind, but the cards are a kind of trap, and the collectors who use their power too much wind up collected themselves. This is a promising basis for a game. Collecting items that give you special powers is always fun. But so far, it hasn’t met its promise. I only have one card, and it’s only been usable once, teleporting me like a Myst book to a decrepit and abandoned street in New Orleans. It doesn’t even let me teleport back.

I like to think that every game has a lesson for us, whether about life or about game design. In the case of The Forgotten, the lesson concerns hubris. To quote from the docs:

The Forgotten is not just a single game. It has been conceived, and the plot line developed, as a series of games that will progress over time, each module developing the story line and taking advantage of the latest technology available to us during the development process.

The first installment, It Begins, is meant to introduce the player to the series: the plot line, the recurrent locales and themes, the interface and the basic nature of the gameplay. There are objects and cards collected here that will be used later as the player progresses through the story…

Such confidence! Elsewhere, the titles of the other six episodes are given. Eight years later, this is still the only episode. The official website has some material on episode 2, but this hasn’t been updated since 2002 at the very latest.

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