Archive for May, 2007

DROD: Eater of Time

So, this game is taking over my life.

Seriously, I’m going through the sterotypical alcoholic’s denial thing. I come home, I fire up DROD for a quick session. Then the session goes longer than I intended, but instead of stopping, I decide to just finish up the room I’m on. Once I finish it, I decide to have a look at the next room. And step by step it goes, until the next morning when I come to work late with no good excuse. It’s kind of alarming. Maybe there’s something to this “game addiction” concept after all. (People often call games “addictive” as a term of praise, but Everquest showed us years ago that addictive does not imply fun.)

I suppose I don’t have it too bad. For one thing, this isn’t something debilitating like heroin we’re talking about here, this is mental exercise of the sort that supposedly delays the onset of dementia in old age. Also, I did take a nine-day break from DROD in the middle, and didn’t really crave it during that time. So the “I can stop any time I want” argument has some weight. And, since the game is finite, and there’s not much point in solving puzzles twice, I will in fact have to stop playing at some point.

I think that’s going to happen soon. The last level I completed was called “Upper Lowest”, and the one I’m on now is called “Lowest Proper”, which really sounds like the end. Mind you, given the game’s sense of humor, there could easily be a level called “Below Lowest” or “Even Lowester” or something. But Lowest Proper has a major adversarial NPC running through all the rooms, out of reach, trying to control things to block my progress — which is a lot like the final level in King Dugan’s Dungeon. This is pretty definitely the climax, and anything that comes afterward will be denouement.

Which means all I have left to do now is solve the hardest, most time-consuming rooms in the entire game. And then hunt down all the secret rooms I missed and solve them in order to open the Master Wall and gain access to the bonus material. Which, for all I know, may have more puzzles in it. And then try out some of the downloadable fan-created holds…

DROD: Unarmed

drod-crowdOne of the first things that an experienced DROD player learns upon downloading the demo of The City Beneath is that there are sections of the game where Beethro has to sheathe his sword. It’s natural to assume that this is plot-driven, an excuse to keep the player from going on a slaughter rampage in the City itself. To a certain extent this is true, although the designers have other ways of keeping important NPCs out of sword’s reach when they have to. But the game also sends the player into some puzzles unarmed.

You might wonder how this is possible, given that the goal in every level is to kill all the monsters. Well, that’s the goal in every level, but not necessarily in each room. The goal in a room can be simply to get across it in order to reach another room. And there are places in The City Beneath where this is difficult, most notably a series of rooms in the City proper where crowds of workers bustle between a series of workstations, getting in Beethro’s way. Really, though, the entire series has had parts where the sword was irrelevant, including the infamous maze level in King Dugan’s Dungeon.

Also, killing things doesn’t necessarily involve your sword. There aren’t any monsters stupid enough to simply walk off cliffs, but there are hot tiles, bombs with fuses, mimics and other armed NPCs. The unarmed delver’s most interesting option for killing things is the Fegundo, a phoenix-like bird found in certain rooms. One you take control over it (by stepping on a special tile), the fegundo will fly in whatever direction you face every turn. When it hits an obstacle, it explodes, only to rise again five turns later. Suprisingly, the most interesting part of that is the “whatever direction you face” clause. When you’re armed, you can only turn as fast as you can swing your sword, which is to say, 45 degrees per turn. But when you’re unarmed, you can instantly turn to face any direction by walking that way. (Even if there’s an obstacle that prevents you from moving, you’ll turn to face it.) So in fegundo areas, the sword isn’t just irrelevant, it’s a liability. If only Beethro could sheathe it voluntarily! But that would ruin some good puzzles, and that concern, as always, trumps common sense.

DROD: Giants

drod-giantsBy now, I seem to have pretty much left the City behind. The story has taken me to the forgotten spaces below the city, home to the Stone Giants.

Stone giants are what would be called “Large” in Dungeons & Dragons. That is, they have a 2×2 footprint. Although they look more threatening this way, the larger size doesn’t make them more more powerful or even let them move faster. Quite the reverse: it limits their mobility. There are puzzles to be made from this weakness, by forcing the player to either take advantage of it (ducking into narrow tunnels to escape them), or overcome it (herding them through difficult passages). When hurt, stone giants break apart into four one-tile stone golems (a familiar monster from JtRH), leading me to suspect that they’re made of the same kind of rock as seen in Asteroids. Golems collapse into impassible rock when slain. Since obstacles of this sort are the giants’ greatest weakness, it’s like the giants carry within themselves the seeds of their own downfall. (Much like the Rooted Empire itself, it seems. There’s some kind of parable about hubris and data storage going on back in the story. More about that later, probably.)

The reason I’m taking the time to write about the giants in particular is that this is the first new creature shape in The City Beneath. The original DROD had three shapes. You had your standard one-tile creatures, such as roaches, goblins, wraithwings, and evil eyes. You had tar, which formed amorphous multi-tile blobs, at least two tiles thick in all places. And you had serpents: one tile wide, arbitrarily long, moving in right-angle wiggles like in the classic Worm. Journey to Rooted Hold introduced several new monsters, including new kinds of serpent and tarstuff, but added only one more shape: standard-plus-weapon, a shape used for armed guards and the Slayer. In a sense, even that wasn’t really a new shape, because that’s Beethro’s shape.

Well, The City Beneath gave us another new serpent and another new tarstuff, but only at this rather late stage of the game do we start seeing giants. I wonder why? Perhaps the designers felt that the stone giants had limited potential for reuse. Or maybe not; if you’re introducing a new element on nearly every level, something has to come in near the end.

DROD: Solving Puzzles

drod-speedI don’t think I’ve adequately described the experience of solving a DROD room. There are essentially two modes of thought involved, which we may as well call “strategic” and “tactical”. The difference is that tactical thought involves using the “undo” feature repeatedly, whereas strategic thought involves “restart room”. Some rooms emphasize one, some emphasize the other. I recently encountered a room in the Pirate Hideout level that seems good for illustrating both modes and the interplay between them. The solution to this room is given away in some detail below.

Basiclly, what we have here is a simple, wide-corridored maze sprinked with Roach Queens. The Roach Queens are held immobile in little chambers lined with one-way force arrows. The roaches spawned by the queens can get out of the chambers, but you can’t get in to kill the queens until you open a way in. All of the chambers have gates that are color-coded red, which means that they’ll only open after you’ve collapsed all of the trap doors in the room. The trap doors (which show as pink floor tiles in the screenshot above) are scattered throughout the maze. In addition, there’s a Brain in a small area that you can only exit through a green gate, which will open when all of the monsters are dead; this means that you have to kill the brain last. Understanding this gives you a series of strategic goals: go through every part of the maze stepping on trap doors, then go through it again killing roach queens, then kill the brain. This much, you could plausibly figure out just by looking at the level layout (although in practice there are always details that escape my attention until their importance is forced on me during play).

So far, so easy. The difficulty comes in when you actually have to navigate the maze, with roaches coming at you from all directions, guided by the brain. Remember, your sword only points in one direction at a time, and you can only swing it in a 1/8 arc per turn. So surviving involves tactics such as taking advantage of the walls for cover, going after small groups of roaches first in order to have fewer directions to watch, and maneuvering to kill one roach every turn whenever possible, lest they grow too numerous and choke the hallways.

In fact, it soon becomes clear that the queens in this room are generating roaches faster than you can kill them, and that to survive long, you need an extra edge. This is provided by speed potions. Introduced earlier in this level, speed potions are the level’s theme and the key to all of its rooms. They act pretty much like the speed potions in Nethack, allowing you to move at double speed until you leave the room. There are two in this room, but neither is easy to reach without getting killed. So, tactical concerns introduce a new strategic goal: get one of the speed potions before doing anything else. Once you’ve got the potion, you have to discover new tactics that take advantage of it. You still have to kill the roaches as efficiently as you can to avoid being overwhelmed, and a lot of the habits of defensive swordsmanship are no longer necessary. Given the right timing, you can defend a three-tile-wide hallway without retreating, or charge into a pair of roaches side by side, rather than spending a turn blocking one with your sword to separate them.

Now, it took me a while to notice this, but one of the two speed potions in the room, the one harder to reach, is not optional. You have to walk over it in order to reach one of the trap doors, and walking over a potion automatically applies it. I had naturally been going for the easier-to-reach potion first up to this point. What happens when you drink two speed potions? This was the first room to contain two, so I didn’t know. It turns out that they cancel out, reducing you to your original speed. This is disastrous. My first thought was that if I saved that trapdoor for last, I could immediately start killing queens, reducing the roach influx to something I could manage without the extra speed. This failed: you can kill at most one queen before getting killed. So I tried another approach: restarting from scratch and going for the hard-to-reach potion first. This took some tricky footwork, and I wasn’t really convinced that it was possible, but I did finally manage it, and was fairly confident that I had cracked the puzzle.

Once you start killing the queens, it’s all mopping up. The tactical concerns become gradually easier as roaches are produced in smaller numbers. After giving the screen a final look-over to make sure that I haven’t missed anything, I plunged my sword into the brain, and Beethro gave a hearty chuckle, a signal that the room was solved.

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