Archive for April, 2008

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.

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.

End of Uru

Myst Online: Uru Live is being shut down less than 24 hours from now. I report this with some sadness and some frustration — frustration because I only learned today that this was going to happen. If I had heard the news when it was first announced two months ago, I would have made more effort to experience it while I could.

I actually registered an account on Uru a few months ago, shortly after completing Myst V, but never got around to playing it much: it seemed like there was a lot of ground to cover to catch up to where the regulars were, and I just didn’t feel like I had the time. Also, it seemed like a lot of the new content was best done with a group — things that would involve running around to a sequence of points on a very tight time limit if tackled alone, but which a group could handle trivially just by stationing people in the right places before the timer starts. I never got deep enough into the social aspect of the game to join or organize groups to for this purpose, and also had the handicap that I was a latecomer who wanted to see the stuff most players were already bored with.

Nonetheless, I intended to sit down and play through the whole thing at some point, and now may never have another chance. As a completist, this limited opportunity of access to content has always bothered me about online games. From what I saw, Uru was actually unusually completist-friendly as online games go, keeping previous Episodes accessible like a stack of magazines in the attic. But such a stack, unlike the Stack, is not under the control of its players. I know that I probably won’t actually complete every game I’ve started during my lifetime, but I like to think that I still could reopen any particular one if I choose. It seems like there are two different mindsets here: Some people are more inclined to see games as events akin to live performances, something you participate in, but which then passes, along with its moment. Others approach them more like books, something that can be stored and returned to. The performance attitude may be more realistic: ultimately, everything is transient. But how transient is often up to us. In my lifetime, cinema has transitioned from a transient medium to an archivable one. Sometimes it seems like games are going the other way.

Half-Life 2: Ending

hl2-factoryThe original Half-Life memorably begins as a literal “game on rails”, with the player confined 1Actually, you can get out while the car is in motion if you really want to. You just die immediately. to a train car as it passes by various scenes you’ll encounter later in the game. It’s essentially a cross between a theme park ride and machinima.

The equivalent scene in Half-Life 2 comes toward the end, when Gordon rides around the invaders’ cavernous citadel in a coffin-like restraint hanging from a network of rails, a device seen earlier hauling prisoners around. Where the Half-Life train was a vehicle of foreshadowing, this is one of recapitulation and recontextualization, as you’re shown the things you’ve been fighting against — the gunships and tripod robots and cyborgs (for that’s what the Combine soldiers are, as the player certainly suspects by this point) — as mass-produced components of a vast, inhuman war machine that Hitler could only dream of.

It would be daunting to stand alone against all this if it weren’t for the fact that you know the game is ending soon and all you really have to stand against is a final puzzle-boss. The game powers you up for the last few battles, doubling your maximum “energy” (armor) and granting you a last-minute Ulitmate Weapon, after destroying all your other weapons to make sure you use only the Ultimate one.

The crazy thing is that the Ultimate Weapon is a powered-up Gravity Gun. The Gravity Gun is one of three special-purpose weapons in the game, the other two being the Pheropod that controls the bugs, and the rocket launcher. (A rocket launcher may not sound like a special weapon — it’s part of the Doom-standard arsenal, after all — but Half-Life 2 turns it into a special weapon by (a) only letting you carry three rockets at a time and (b) providing enemies that can only be killed by hitting them with more than three rockets. Thus, it’s not so much a weapon as a device the designers use to make you run around looking for ammo while getting shot at.) The Gravity Gun’s merits are basically that it can thump headcrabs at a slightly greater range than the crowbar, and that you can throw it into reverse to attract objects. The latter function is much more useful than the former: throughout the game, one can use it to pick up supply boxes lodged in unsafe or inaccessible spots, and there are specific scenes where you can use it to do things like pull the plug out of a force field generator while on the wrong side of the force field. In short, it’s more tool than weapon, and appropriately goes under the same hotkey as the crowbar. It’s a clear precursor of the Portal Gun in both its non-combat utility and its three-flanged design. But after receiving a shot of alien mojo, it becomes capable of hurling enemy soldiers about like rag dolls.

I talk about “aliens”, but the game is oddly non-specific about what the “benefactors” are. You see lots of clearly alien technology, but you never see what’s behind it. There are aliens, sure, but the only ones you see are mere animals (like the headcrabs and antlions) or on your side (like the Vortigaunts). The ultimate enemy in the game is not one of the invaders, but just their quisling, Dr. Breen. Breen is a transhumanist apologist for alien atrocities who seems to have bartered control of Earth for protection against the creatures unleashed back in the first game. Breen is also a personal acquantance of Gordon from Black Mesa. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that Breen was an administrator there. This makes so much sense.

Breen is also the only other character who hints that he knows about the enigmatic G-man, the Agent Smith-esque prime mover behind all the events of the series (it’s implied that he supplied the “anomalous materials” that Black Mesa was conducting research on, which would explain how he met Breen). Occasionally throughout the games, the G-man can be seen watching you from inaccessible locations, as if checking up on your progress, and in the ending of Half-Life, he offers you employment, although if you refuse his offer, you simply die alone in an alien world. Half-Life 2 apparently begins with the G-man waking up Gordon and re-inserting him into normal time, and ends with him freezing time to remove Gordon until he’s useful again. Even within his role in the game, he almost seems meta, which makes Breen’s knowledge of him seem a little Metal Gear Solid-ish. I saw an article somewhere arguing that the G-man is the personification of Valve Software: he sets everything up, he’s omnipresent within the game, he takes you away from the Half-Life world for years at a time between scenarios, and he offers you a mere illusion of choice — something he acknowledges outright in the ending scene of Half-Life 2. The Vortigaunts call Gordon “The One Free Man”, which is supremely ironic, given both the gameplay and the story. On the other hand, he’s also the one character in the game who isn’t controlled by a computer.

1 Actually, you can get out while the car is in motion if you really want to. You just die immediately.

Half-Life 2: Level Transitions

If there’s one thing the Half-Life games do well, it’s keep the player playing. Partly they do this by keeping the gameplay varied, following up an intense firefight with a puzzle area, or a tunnel crawl where headcrabs leap at you from close up with a rooftop scene where you have to take down a flying gunship by means of steerable missiles.

More insidiously, though, they keep you playing by simply never giving you permission to stop. Most FPS games divide play into levels, and make it very clear when you go from one level to the next, usually in advance, making it easy to say “I’ll just finish this level and quit”. In Portal, for example, level transitions are signalled by arriving at an elevator. When you get in the elevator, the next level loads, as signalled by the word “Loading…” appearing in the middle of the screen. When you emerge from the elevator, the first thing you see is a sign indicating what level you’re on — the idea of levels is part of the story as well as part of the underlying technology. When you reach the point in the story where the levels stop, you no longer get the elevators, but you still occasionally get that “Loading…” message as you walk along.

And that’s mainly what happens in Half-Life. The transition is something you don’t see coming, and once it happens, you’re already in the next level, so you might as well keep playing. Beyond levels as unit-of-loading, the game is divided into Chapters, which are units of story and which are often themed around new gameplay elements (kind of like in DROD). But even the transitions between chapters are subtle, only signalled by a chapter title briefly overlaid on the screen while play continues as normal. The new weapon or monster or whatever that defines the chapter doesn’t necessarily show up right away, either.

The game is not without obvious stopping points — every once in a while there’s a Resistance base where you can replenish your ammo and listen to people talking plot. But I’ve been finding that I don’t stop at those places. I stop when I’m repeatedly failing to get through a fight. I figure that if I’m making no progress, it’s because I’m approaching it wrong, and should try it with a fresh mind later. This means that my typical session starts with a tough battle. This can’t be what the designers had in mind.

Half-Life 2: Women

Apparently the folks at Valve decided that one of the flaws in the original Half-Life was the lack of sex appeal. Every human (or apparently human) character is either a wrinkled scientist, a security guard 1known as Barney — yes, there are multiple security guards, but they’re all known as Barney with an unflattering uniform and a hick accent, a faceless enemy soldier, or a creepy probably-alien G-man. And with the exception of some special-forces ninjas who you hardly ever see (because they’re ninjas), they’re all male.

Half-Life 2 corrects this by (a) handsoming up Barney and making him into a hero of the resistance, and (b) introducing the young, attractive, tough-as-nails Alyx, daughter of one of the scientists and occasional companion to the player on missions. Alyx provides essential technical support as well as essential dialogue, driving the plot whenever she’s present. She’s handy in a firefight, too, helping you to flank the enemy: there’s one bit where she suggests that you surprise some CP troops by coming through two different doors at once, and it works beautifully if you follow her advice. And when you part ways, she says “Gordon… Take care of yourself” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that she’s the action hero’s designated love interest.

But personally, my heart belongs to another: the nameless resistance sqaddie who, alone with me in a courtyard littered with dead soldiers, spontaneously shared with me an incredible insight into her character. “Sometimes,” she said, “I dream about cheese.”

I’m probably not doing justice to the profundity of that statement. The delivery probably has a lot to do with it. But this is a person who’s living in a battlefield, who has to fight for every moment of her existence. And still, sometimes, she dreams about cheese. It was just a strange and beautiful moment.

The tragic thing about nameless squaddies, in both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, is that they always die. They come to you with great faith: you’re the famous Gordon Freeman, hero of the Black Mesa incident! With you on their side, they stand a fighting chance! And then they start following you around, and they help you survive encounters that would have been very difficult otherwise, and then, one by one, they either get killed because you told them to go somewhere, or get killed because you didn’t tell them to go somewhere. But I took some personal interest in Cheese Girl, hoping that she, if no one else, would survive until we parted ways. No such luck. She was, in fact, the first to die. Later, though, thanks to the fairly small NPC pool, I met her again. And she joined my team again, and got killed again. It’s just like Silent Hill 2.

1 known as Barney — yes, there are multiple security guards, but they’re all known as Barney

Half-Life 2: Bugs

hl2-bugsThe Half-Life games have a reputation as the thinking person’s gorefest. They focus more on environmental puzzles than the typical FPS. They pander to the intellectual mystique by giving us a bearded, bespectacled action hero with a PhD in theoretical physics. But mainly, the original was one of the first games of its genre to try to tell a compelling story, and to do it entirely through the FPS medium rather than through cutscenes or journal entries.

The story told wasn’t just a simplistic good-vs-evil one, or even morally-questionable-vs-evil (as seems to be fashionable in the more violent games these days), but one of confusion, of terrible things happening without anyone wanting them. One of the more effective plot elements is the re-evaluation of the soldiers. At first, the PC’s colleagues believe that soldiers are coming to rescue them from the monsters they’ve inadvertently unleashed, but it turns out that their orders are to contain the incident by killing everything on the site, scientists included. The soldiers are initially depicted as brutes who enjoy murdering unarmed civilians — “I killed twelve dumb-ass scientists and not one of ’em fought back. This sucks.” — which justifies in the player’s mind anything you do to them in return. But later, you overhear other soldiers talking about Gordon Freeman, the player character, who’s been declared enemy #1 at that point. One of them says “All I know for sure is he’s been killing my buddies”, humanizing their side of the struggle. The climax of this part of the story is when you overhear a commander declaring in no uncertain terms that he disagrees with the orders. If that had happened earlier, there could have been reconciliation, but it’s too late. When he sees you, he will recognize you as the person who’s been killing his men. He’ll try to kill you to prevent you from killing him, which means you have to kill him to prevent him from killing you. You have to wonder how many real-world conflicts play out the same way, fear of violence making it a certainty.

Half-Life 2 also has masked soldiers, the “CP” (opposite of the PC?), first shown abusing the citizens of the dystopian city where the game starts. If the player is ever given reason to sympathize with them, I have yet to reach that point. OK, there is a scene at a recruitment office, where an applicant tells you that, although he doesn’t like the CP, he’s decided to join them because it beats starving to death on the street. But that’s been it so far. The game has, however, been rehabilitating the monsters. One of the most common monsters from Half-Life was the Vortigaunts, very-rougly-humanoid aliens that can shoot energy beams. In Half-Life 2, a number of them have learned English and joined the human resistance, and provide you with lots of assistance, making me feel guilty for having killed so many of them back in the first game. And one of the things that the Vortigaunts give you is the means to tame the bugs.

The game calls them “antlions”, even though that name is already taken. They’re roughly the size of large dogs, and they burrow under the sand, emerging to attack anything that walks on it, endlessly spawning more to replace those killed. One of the more interesting bits of gameplay is a sandy area with scattered rocks, where you can move safely as long as you stay on the rocks. If you slip, bugs come, and you have to get back on the rocks before you can kill them all, but their attacks tend to push you off.

Now, the bugs aren’t the sort of thing that can say “All I know for sure is he’s killing my buddies”. They’re dangerous animals, nothing more. Once you have a Pheropod, though, they’ll never hurt you: they’ll just follow you around, unless you throw the Pheropod at something, in which case they’ll rush over there and attack whatever they find. You can use this to fight battles without putting yourself at risk, crouching behind cover while your chitinous minions do all the work and get slaughtered in great numbers for your benefit. (This is another way that it’s a thinking person’s game: scenes that reward tactial thought more than quick reflexes. It’s the polar opposite of Serious Sam.)

There’s some uneasiness about this kind of fighting, though, because you’re basically using monsters to attack humans. In fact, you’re using them only against humans, as it’s established pretty early that the bugs are no good at all against monsters. Back in the first Half-Life, it was whispered among the soldiers that Freeman was responsible for the whole emergency — that he had deliberately summoned the monsters. While it’s true that he had a hand in the experiment that created the rifts between Earth and Xen, there was nothing deliberate about it. But now, in the sequel, you really are summoning alien monsters and setting them on your enemies. I really hope that the CP is making video recordings of these fights, because there’s some priceless anti-resistance propaganda to be made from this.

Half-Life 2: Ha-ha

hl2-pastoralIt turns out that Half-Life 2 does have a lot of open-air scenes after all. It’s also a very linear game, but the line varies in thickness: sometimes you’ll be out driving a vehicle (I’ve used a fanboat and a dune buggy so far, both of which look like they’re made of scrap metal), with a large area around you to do wide turns in, and suddenly your path will be blocked by a gate that can only be removed by throwing a switch inside a nearby building at the end of some small rooms and twisty hallways.

When you’re outside, the game does its best to give an impression that the environment is larger than it actually is, and that you have more options than you actually have. Obviously it isn’t just FPS games that try to do this: adventures have been creating the illusion of rooms just out of your reach since the intro to Planetfall. What it means in Half-Life 2 is that attempts at exploring the periphery loop back fairly quickly, and the game takes advantage of the beefiness of its graphics engine to render unreachable scenery objects in full detail out to a considerable distance. I haven’t encountered the “invisible wall” effect found in many other games, constraining you when you stray from the path by halting your forward movement for no obvious physical reason, but there are lots of places that look like they’re passable until you’re very close, at which point it’s clear that the slope is too steep or the gap is too wide or whatever.

It reminds me of a landscaping technique sometimes called a “ha-ha”. A ha-ha is essentially an inconspicuous ditch or drop-off with a retaining wall. The idea is that it gives you a seemingly-continuous view from your manor window of verdant pastures unmarred by fences, but still keeps the cattle off your croquet lawn.

But, although the player’s view in Half-Life 2 is the illusory continuity seen from the manor house, you’re not on the high ground. The ha-ha is there to limit you. Thus, the level designers of Half-Life 2 treat the players like cattle.

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