Archive for the 'Word' Category

The Typing of the Dead: Finished

totd-endIn the final level of The Typing of the Dead, the rotting corpses give way to what look more like artificial life forms or androids, grey-skinned and sporting built-in lightsabres and other superpowers. The advanced tech doesn’t stop them from just standing there like ninnies and letting you type at them for a while before they attack, though. That’s just essential to the way the game is played, especially since the phrases you type are getting pretty long by that point, but it fit the zombies better, because you expect zombies to react slowly. The end boss, the Emperor (the bosses are all named for tarot cards), is even more artificial-looking, a demon made of clear plastic. According to its creator (in an unbelievably awkwardly-dubbed cutscene), it was engineered to solve the world’s ecological crisis by ruling over humanity. Maybe this was less stupid in the original Japanese, maybe not. Some people have said that the schlockiness of the House of the Dead 2 material complements the game’s campy and self-mocking sense of humor. I just say that the cutscenes are not a significant part of the experience, and skippable.

The first time I reached this point of the game, I had only a few remaining lives, which Emperor Perspex quickly removed. The game does some dynamic difficulty adjustment, at least for bosses: after you get killed a few times in succession, it starts using easier words. But in order to take advantage of this, you need lives to waste. So after my first attempt, I resolved to earn enough coins to play with 9 continues instead of 5.

There are five coins to be earned on each level, and each of the five is earned in a different way. You can make it easier to get particular coins by adjusting your approach to the game. For example, one coin on each level is earned by completing the level without any continues, and is most easily earned by setting the difficulty level to “Very Easy” and giving your top priority to avoiding damage, even if it means letting civilians die. Another is earned for scoring above a certain threshhold (the threshhold varies from level to level). This is best accomplished by setting the difficulty to “Very Hard” — which confers some kind of score bonus — and giving the civilians top priority — who cares if you lose lives yourself, saving those guys is worth a lot of points! A third coin comes from getting an “A” rating on a certain number of words. Ratings are based on how fast you type, but only the time from when type the first letter counts. So getting lots of A’s involves refraining from initiating attacks until you’re ready to type an entire word in a burst, which can mean ignoring both your health and the civilians.

This kind of strategizing may be missing the point of the game: you’re supposed to win through typing prowess, not through gaming the system. But it kept me interested enough to keep on playing, by giving me goals to strive for that seemed easier than trying to fight Emperor Plexiglass again. When I had my 9 continues, I made another run for the end. Ironically, by then I’d had enough practice that I only needed 4.

totd-creditsAfter the ending, there’s an interactive credits sequence: as the names of the developers scroll by, you can type them. Typing an entire section of the credits before it scrolls away releases a zombie from a bacta tank, and the released zombies dance to the background music, forming a chorus line of the dead. I found this bonus segment unexpectedly difficult, because the names are mostly Japanese, and Japanese uses different letter patterns than those the game trains you in — not many English words contain the sequence “ryo”, for example. 1The only one that comes to mind immediately is “cryogenic”.

Anyway, the game works! I can totally touch-type now, with punctuation and everything! It’s pleasing to be able to take a skill away from this experience; somehow, it’s always the weird games that are life-changing. Any game with a twitch element teaches you a skill, really, but usually it’s a skill that’s only applicable in playing that game, or sometimes other similar games. And this is definitely a twitch game — when I was at my best, I was typing from my brainstem. When I was at my worst, I was flailing at the keyboard madly, too panicked to see what I was doing wrong (usually something stupid like still trying to find a key I had already typed). That sense of panic, and the ability to overcome it, is something that you just don’t get from ordinary typing practice. I’d guess that even Mavis Beacon doesn’t provide it. No, if you really want to learn to type, what you need is zombies. Seriously.

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1. The only one that comes to mind immediately is “cryogenic”.

The Typing of the Dead: Coins

It may surprise you to learn the The Typing of the Dead was originally a coin-op arcade game. I don’t know much about the arcade version beyond what it says in Wikipedia, as it was never seen outside Japan. (Japanese keyboards feature both Roman letters and Japanese hiragana on the same keys. It’s not clear to me which mode the arcade version operated in; apparenly the Japanese Dreamcast version provided both options.)

You can see the game’s arcade roots in the PC version: there’s no notion of saving or even quitting the game (the docs actually tell you to use alt-F4 to exit!), and, as is often the case in arcade ports, it uses the concept of “Continues” as a substitute for inserting another coin. By default, you get five continues, each containing three lives. You can get more lives within the game by various means (such as rescuing civilians), but there’s no way to get more continues, short of starting over.

You can play the game in two modes: Arcade mode and Original mode. I found this use of the word “original” confusing — it doesn’t mean “This is the form the game had originally”, which more accurately describes Arcade mode, but rather “This mode is original to this version of the game”. Original mode complexifies things a little. It adds a simple inventory system — bonus items such as molotov cocktails that you trigger with the function keys. More importantly, it has a system of rewards for achievements such as completing a level without using any continues, or getting above a certain number of points. Each such achievement gives you a “coin”, and certain special options are unlocked by collecting coins. At 5 coins, you can set it to give you five lives per continue instead of three. At 15 coins, you can use nine continues in a game instead of five.

Now, I’ve managed to get to the final level of this game, the Umbrella Corporation-like corporate laboratory that created the zombie plague. And I have my doubts about whether I’ll be able to defeat the end boss under the game’s normal parameters. I may need those extra four continues. So I’m asking myself how honorable this is. On the one hand, it’s kind of like cheat codes. On the other hand, it’s something you have to earn, and even having it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win the game. If you can’t type fast enough to swat down the final boss’s missiles before they get you, all the continues in the world won’t help you.

Ultimately, it’ll probably depend on how bored I get. The game isn’t terribly long — another relic of its arcade origin — and so, while there’s some variability of content (depending on which people you manage to rescue), playing this game largely means seeing the same things over and over again. Which is, to be fair, the point. The whole thing is a drill.

The Typing of the Dead: Backward

I assume this game would be easy for someone who already knows how to touch-type. I can imagine a professional typist breezing through the whole thing on their first try without losing a single life. I personally never learned touch-typing, and had no real intention of doing so. Like many computer users, I had developed a certain amount of familiarity with the keyboard simply through using it a lot, and considered that adequate. I bought this game for its novelty, not its educational value. That’s why I set it aside for so long.

totd-heirophantIn fact, to the extent that I ever thought about it, I always more or less assumed that I was pretty close to being a touch-typist just from practice. It wasn’t until I started playing this game, years ago, that I understood how wrong I was. You just don’t notice how frequently you look at your hands to reposition them. Like blinking, it’s not something you’re aware of doing. Not until you try to refrain from doing it. Even apart from the mere presence of zombies, the game uses various tricks to punish you for looking away from the screen, such as bonus items that you can collect by pressing the right single key during the fraction of a second they’re available, and a trick boss on level 2 that goes through invulnerable phases where your keystrokes have no effect. Typing the way I had been typing was a handicap in these situations.

Still, I wasn’t terribly interested in learning to type properly. The only practical advantage I see to it is that it lets you keep your hands under a blanket while you blog on a cold winter night. So I really only took an interest in trying to touch-type when I realized that I’d eventually want to beat this game in order to remove it from the Stack. Well, the game contains some basic tutorials explaining the home position and which fingers go with which keys. With this knowledge, all I needed was practice. And so, for more than a year now, I’ve been going about things backward, trying to touch-type in my day-to-day life in order to be better at this stupid game.

totd-scoreboardBut I suppose that an educational game is working if you wind up educated because of it, regardless of exactly how it happens, and I can assert that it’s been something of a success. I’m still far from the skill level of my hypothetical professional typist, but I’m doing a lot better than I was the last time I had this game installed. The scoring screens displayed after every level have me pegged at just above average right now.

The Typing of the Dead: Getting Started

totd-struggleAnd while we’re talking about words as weapons, I really should bring this one out. One of the most absurdly-conceived educational games ever, The Typing of the Dead is a rail shooter — specifically, House of the Dead 2 — transformed into a typing tutor. Zombies stagger out labelled with words; typing the words damages them, with a gunshot sound accompanying each keystroke. The genius of this is that it naturally encourages touch-typing: you don’t dare look down at the keyboard when there are zombies shambling toward you, and there are as many in-game motivations to type quickly and accurately as there are to shoot quickly and accurately in the original game.

totd-keyboardThe most completely brilliant thing about it, though, is that this change in the world model carries through to the character models. Everyone who has a gun in House of the Dead 2 instead has a keyboard strapped to their chest, connected to a Sega Dreamcast on their back (even in the PC port). You don’t normally see your own shots being fired, but there are some cutscenes where you can see NPCs typing the zombies to pieces.

The fact that it was originally a Dreamcast game actually poses some problems for the modern PC gamer. Many console ports from that era use graphics with palettized texture maps, which is something that’s been dropped from recent graphics cards. So much for Direct3D backward-compatibility! Playing this game with my ATI card makes the game revert to software rendering, which is not just slow and low-res, it’s glitchy. Transparency in textures seems to just not work at all. I’ve solved the problem by reinstalling my previous graphics card, the nVidia one. I had given up on this card because of its inability to handle recent games well, but it seems to do alright with something this old. (Also, having inspected it again, I have some suspicion that its only problem was overheating due to parts of the heatsink being clogged with dust.) It looks like I may be doing a lot of card-swapping in the future, as the Stack contains games that are incompatible with either card. Or maybe I should just clear all the console ports of that generation from the Stack at once.

Anyway, even though it shares a basic conceit with Bookworm Adventures, it’s not really the same type of game at all. Bookworm Adventures is turn-based, and asks you to come up with the killing words on your own, thus rewarding people with large vocabularies (both in the sense of vocabularies containing many words and in the sense of vocabularies containing large words). The Typing of the Dead is all about reflexes, and always tells you exactly what you should type.

Bookworm Adventures: Finished

bwa-scoreboardBookworm Adventures is a pretty short game. It has three chapters (themed on Greek mythology, Arabian Nights stories, and classic horror — all it needs is a generic fantasy/fairy tale chapter and an African chapter and it would be the Quest for Glory series). I completed one chapter per session. I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I’m not a fan of padding games out unnecessarily. This game demonstrates all of the special attributes monsters can have — attack side-effects, defensive powers, vulnerabilities to particular categories of word — and once the game is out of new tricks, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. On the other hand, padding things out is largely what RPGs do. It somehow seems wrong to keep it short.

It may have been designed this way because PopCap is more comfortable with the casual stuff, and regarded Adventure mode as a mere introduction to the real meat of the game, Arena mode, which is unlocked when you finish the plot. In Arena mode, you challenge the various boss monsters again, starting over at experience level 1, but with all of the game’s magic items available. There are changes in how you acquire potions and how experience points are earned, but the main difference is that Arena mode is realtime. So much for sedate gameplay and falling asleep mid-battle. I don’t really care for Arena mode: much of the pleasure in Adventure mode came from searching for the very best word that the available tiles could make, and you just don’t have time for that when the enemy is killing you whether you play or not. Instead, you have to play whatever mediocre words you can find quickly. It’s probably more interesting to watch than Adventure mode, though, in which (as I played it, at least) the player spends a lot of time just staring at the screen without doing anything.

Bookwork Adventures: Sleepy

Two nights now, I have played Bookworm Adventures. And two nights have I fallen asleep playing it.

That’s sort of a double-edged thing to say. If it were a movie or a play, to say “I fell asleep” would be to call it boring. But in games, there’s the “I kept playing until I dropped from exhaustion” option. And honestly, it was a little of both in this case. If it were genuinely boring, I wouldn’t have kept playing even as I began to nod off. But it’s hardly exciting, either. It’s sedate. The background music is as comfortable and child-friendly as a lullaby, and the character animation consists mostly of things rocking gently in place. Aside from some optional time-limited minigames you can play for extra potions and gem tiles, it’s completely turn-based. And, since knowing what happened on previous turns doesn’t really help you much, you can actually doze off repeatedly during play without your performance suffering much.

Still, my mental state meant that I didn’t really process the plot at the beginning of chapter 2, when my first session ended. When I came back to the game the next day, I had no idea who the player character was talking to or how they met. The story element in this game is pretty light, though, and doesn’t affect player decisions at all; mainly it’s just a series of excuses to put you through different monster themes. Which is not to say that it’s bad — the whole thing was written by Stephen Bob the Angry Flower Notley, and is full of his sense of humor. It’s more G-rated than Bob, and I’d almost say it’s less gratuitously absurdist, but then I remember that it’s a story about a worm in spectacles who fights legendary monsters inside books.

Bookworm Adventures

bwa-fightA long time ago, in the heyday of Ultima, I had an idea. I felt that the combat tactics of the CRPGs of the day were generally shallow and uninteresting, and should be replaced by something else. Like, say, chess. Combat mode was generally a distinct mini-game anyway, not sharing any mechanics with the exploration/NPC-interaction mode. It wouldn’t be standard chess, of course — different enemies would have different sets of pieces (including nonstandard ones whose movement rules the player might have to figure out from observation), there would be magic items that gave pieces special powers, and so on.

I never implemented this idea, mainly because writing a program that could play chess decently under the kinds of varying condition that it demanded was beyond my abilities. But the core idea isn’t really about chess specifically, it’s about replacing the D&D-inspired combat simulation at the core of most RPGs with something completely different — maybe even something that doesn’t even try to resemble a combat simulation — while leaving the RPG superstructure intact.

There have been a few recent games that play with this idea. PopCap’s Bookworm Adventures looks like the shortest and simplest of them. In fact, it’s simple enough that it barely has that RPG superstructure: it has experience levels and equipment slots, but no exploration, no choosing your battles or when you’re ready for them. You go through a linear series of levels, each of which consists of a set series of combat encounters ending in a boss. The only reason you’d ever repeat an encounter is because you died — and since dying just sends you back to the beginning of the level with one less healing potion and doesn’t affect your XP, I can imagine someone deliberately dying just to gain experience levels faster.

Within each encounter, you trade blows with a monster by making words out of a set of 16 tiles. In the simplest case, each tile you use does 1, 2, or 3 hit points of damage, depending on the letter, and once used, they’re replaced with random new tiles. The tiles are arranged onscreen in a 4×4 grid, but the arrangement is basically irrelevant, and you can think of it as an oversized Scrabble hand. And, indeed, some of the thought processes involved are similar to those in Scrabble. You don’t want a hand full of difficult letters, but you also don’t want to waste your turns making low-scoring words just to get rid of them.

There are complications. Long words are rewarded with special “gem tiles” that provide damage multipliers and other special effects when played (like weakening the enemy’s attacks, or causing it to skip a turn), so there’s an element of resource-management in deciding when to use them. You can also get gem tiles for overkill on your final blow against an enemy, so there’s some motivation to use damage multipliers just in the hope of getting a stronger damage multiplier.

Bookworm Adventures is of course based on Bookworm, which is more the sort of casual game that PopCap is known for. I played Bookworm some when it came out, and felt the same way about it that I feel about most PopCap games: it was amusing enough while I played the demo, but I didn’t feel compelled to register it. The central mechanics in Bookworm and Bookworm Adventures aren’t quite the same — the arrangement of tiles is actually significant in Bookworm, which means you spend a lot of time trying to set up high-scoring words by clearing tiles that are in the way. But even taking that into account, I think it’s interesting how different the Bookworm Adventures experience is simply as a result of the motivations. I’ve never cared much about high scores, 1Perfect scores, now, that’s something else. That’s a challenge to be met. But trying to beat your old record is just an activity. but completing quests, defeating bosses, and collecting magic items that give me special powers? These are things I can get into.

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1. Perfect scores, now, that’s something else. That’s a challenge to be met. But trying to beat your old record is just an activity.