Archive for May, 2009

Plants vs Zombies

I’m almost a week late with this post: I purchased Plants vs Zombies, Pop Cap’s foray into the Tower Defense genre, on Monday, and played all the way through Adventure Mode that day. (I’ve noted before now that recent Pop Cap games tend to treat the “adventure mode” or “story mode” as a kind of brief prelude to all the special challenges and minigames that occupy the bulk of the player’s time. Nonetheless, I regard adventure mode as enough to get it off the Stack.)

Tower Defense is one of the few genres born on the web, and still doesn’t have a great deal of representation outside of ad-supported Flash game sites. Perhaps this is why there’s still so much experimentation going on within the genre: there hasn’t been a major best-seller that everyone strives to imitate. PvZ‘s biggest experiment is splitting the playfield into several lanes that are mostly isolated from each other. (There are some effects that affect the lanes adjacent to where they’re used, but they tend to be expensive.) I didn’t care for this mechanic at first — it seemed like it just invited symmetric action, placing the same defenses along all lanes, which seemed like mere busywork. But it becomes more interesting when you’re short on resources, and still have to defend all the lanes separately and simultaneously. If you can’t afford what you need to destroy the zombies on all of them, you might switch to delaying tactics on some of them.

The title may sound like James-Ernest-style random wackiness, but when you think about it, it’s based on the attributes required for the tower defense genre to work: the attackers have to be slow and stupid (or at least undeterred by certain death), and the defenders have to be stationary. Which is not to deny that the particular choice of plants and zombies for these roles was made for their wacky value. The whole game is full of Pop Cap’s signature deadpan goofiness, and sometimes even surprises the player with humorous enemy behavior, just like I Was In the War. Pop Cap’s sense of humor is such an integral part of their more recent releases that I think it’s worth remembering that they didn’t always have one. Their first major success, Bejewelled, was about as funny as Tetris. I was reading an article recently about how Valve’s Orange Box shifted the gaming zeitgeist back towards humor, and it’s definitely had an influence on PvZ: after you win Adventure Mode, there’s a musical number that’s a clear attempt at being this year’s Still Alive. But Pop Cap’s sense of humor was developing well before the Orange Box: Insaniquarium (2004), like PvZ, used jokey character descriptions of the various entities in the game.

In fact, PvZ has quite a lot in common with Insaniquarium (which makes sense, because it was written by the same people). One of PvZ’s unlockable minigames, “Zombiquarium”, references it quite directly, and there’s a Tamagotchi-like “Zen Garden” mode that’s basically a plant-based version of Insaniquarium‘s “Virtual Tank” mode. Both games have an overall mechanic wherein the reward for completing a level is usually a new helper species with its own unique abilities. But most of all, they involve similar activity. Insaniquarium is all about caring for fish that secrete coins, which you click on to pick up before they disappear, then use to buy fish food, additional fish, and upgrades of various kinds, including weapons to ward off piscivorous aliens. (They could have called it Fish vs Aliens.) Similarly, in PvZ, the “sunlight” that you use to plant more plants is mainly emitted in coin-like chunks by things you’ve already planted (usually Sunflowers).

Now, most tower defense games have some mechanic whereby money — or mana, or whatever it is you use to buy more defenders — builds up over time, allowing you to keep adding more defenders as the battle rages on. Perhaps the most common thing is for every attacker you defeat to yield some cash; this is the approach taken by, for example, Desktop Tower Defense and Gemcraft. But PvZ is the only tower defense game I’ve played that expects you to click on the money to pick it up, rather than just deposit it in your bank automatically. It definitely changes the tenor of the gameplay, making it much more active. In a typical tower defense, you spend a lot of time just watching and waiting and planning your plans. Here, you’re constantly scanning for things to click on.


windosillWindosill is the sort of game where you have to poke at things to see how they react. It’s drawn comparisons to Cyan’s early works, such as The Manhole and Cosmic Osmo, because of its surrealist busy-box vibe. Those games, though intended for children, always had a slight tinge of menace to them, which I don’t think was intentional; it was just a side-effect of the gameworld’s utter unpredictability. In Windosill, though, it’s definitely intended, and contributes to the toybox-of-mystery ambience. Everything is clean and flat-shaded, but the palette tends towards dark blues and there are eyes where there shouldn’t be eyes.

It’s basically a Flash-based adventure game, consisting of a series of one-screen rooms. In each room, there are things that can be clicked and things that can be dragged and even things that can be spun or thrown; although the interaction is basically two-dimensional, the models are clearly 3D, and things tend to bounce and judder in response to your actions in a satisfyingly physical way (especially in comparison to other Flash adventures, which seldom go beyond clicking on things to trigger scripted behavior). Your goal in each room is to find a cube, which you then use to unlock a door, through which you drag a boxy toy car (cyan in color) to go to the next room. In most rooms, getting access to the cube means that the puzzle content is over, but the ritual of unlocking the door and moving the car gives the rooms an extra bit of unity, and provides a basis for unexpected variation at one point, when a room’s inhabitants grab the car away from you.

The whole thing can be completed in a single sitting, and in fact pretty much has to be, because there’s no way to save your progress. As such, I suppose a lot of people will balk at paying for the full version, even though it’s only three dollars. After all, there are tons of Flash adventure games out there that are completely free. I see it as a small price to support good interactive art.

The Gungan Frontier: Finished?

Open-ended games present some difficulty for deciding when to remove them from the Stack. The Gungan Frontier at least contains some optional discrete challenges in the form of those training missions, the last couple of which are more like missions that you train for by playing the main game. The penultimate mission asks you to turn around an ecosystem on the verge of collapse due to overharvesting, and get it to the point where it can support a city population of 60000. This would be most easily done by temporarily forbidding all harvesting while you get things into shape, if it weren’t for the stipulation that you lose the mission if the city population ever drops below 5000. I have now managed to pass this test (something I didn’t manage when I first bought the game), but my own best efforts at designing a stable ecosystem from scratch have been a lot closer to the losing end of that range. (Indeed, when I passed the 60k mark in the mission, it wasn’t with a stable ecosystem. Rather, I impatiently gave the city an extra population boom at the end by giving them permission to harvest as much as they wanted of everything, leaving the system in far worse shape than when I started. This is perhaps the grossest violation of the spirit of the game imaginable.)

Anyway, I’ve completed all the explicit challenges in the game, which leaves me with the implicit ones. Creating a stable ecosystem is actually quite easy: all you really have to do is throw in some plants and refrain from overharvesting them. Which raises the question of why you need animals in the system at all. There’s one species of plant that’s carnivorous, and another that supposedly uses an animal to spread its seeds, but for the most part, plants in this game don’t benefit at all from having animals around.

But adding animals to the mix is crucial to exploiting things for the city (in the same way that cows allow us to indirectly eat grass), and also for maximizing your “bio-score”, which seems to take biodiversity into account. But city population and bio-score are just numbers, and even when they’re both far from optimal, Boss Nass will regularly ring you up with effusive congratulations on your success. (I wonder if I can turn him off like Jar Jar? Past a certain point, he’s just as much of a pointless interruption as Jar Jar ever was.) More important, to my mind, is the because-it’s-there factor. The longest possible food chain seems to be five steps, with the Rancor as apex predator. Keeping a five-step chain stable would be a considerable challenge, and thus something one could pursue for its own sake. Then there are some exotic combinations to pursue. I mentioned a carnivorous plant, the Tooke Trap. It can combine with the Shiro, an herbivorous turtle-analogue, to form the Shiro Trap, a bulbasaur-like symbiote: the plant grows on the animal’s back to provide the plant with mobility and the animal with camouflage. Creating a system with a stable Shiro Trap population would require enough set-up that you’d pretty much have to pursue it as an end in itself.

The game contains a total of 85 distinct lifeforms, although the number of species is somewhat less due to multi-stage life cycles: one species of plant has spores that drift about independently, one species of animal lays eggs that you can harvest separately, a couple of animals have young with different diets and predators and terrain access than their parents. If a player really wants a thorough Gungan Frontier experience, there’s plenty of complexity to explore. The game itself contains encyclopedic data about each organism, but it’s not organized in a way conducive to big-picture planning. If I really wanted to delve into it, I’d start by making a chart of all the predator-prey relationships, annotated with observations about how much things eat and how fast they reproduce. (The game is packaged with a poster showing all the species, and I hoped at first that it would be such a chart, like the tech-tree posters often packaged with strategy games. But no, it just shows names and pictures.)

But I don’t think I want to delve into it that deeply. Self-imposed implicit challenges are never a requirement for removing something from the Stack. I’ve spent a significant amount of time fiddling with ecosystems on my own, and that’s all the game can ask from me.

The Gungan Frontier

gungan-surfaceA random pick from the stack today: The Gungan Frontier (released 1999, bought by me maybe six months later when it hit the bargain bins) is basically an ecosystem simulation, the sort where life forms roam about a 2D world, eating each other and dying off when they over-predate and so forth. Countless computer science undergrads (myself included) have written sims of this sort, but this one is a bit more elaborate than most, with multiple overlapping food chains and varying terrain. And, of course, it additionally allows player interaction, mainly by means of seeding the environment with organisms you’ve got in storage. By my reckoning, there’s enough interactivity to make it a game, but it’s a game like Sim City, in that it’s not essentially goal-oriented. There’s a set of training missions with explicit goals, such as raising the population of a particular creature to a certain threshold within a time limit, but in the game proper, the only goal is to keep things going indefinitely. But even though there’s no win condition, there’s definitely a lose condition: your stores are finite, so if things go extinct, you can’t necessarily replenish them.

gungan-cityThere’s one other thing about the game that makes it particularly Sim City-like: the city. The whole premise is that you’re creating this ecosystem for the benefit of a space colony, which harvests the organisms for food and building materials. If you like, you can switch the main view from the ecosystem to the colony, watching it add pods containing classrooms and hospitals and the like as it gains the necessary materials, or, if you’re not doing so well, watching those pods gray out through disuse as the colonists move out. It really seems like the colony view was designed to provide some of Sim City‘s particular experiences and motivations, but because the only things you can interact with are over in the ecosystem view, I seldom look at it. It seems a bit of a shame, because someone clearly went to some effort to create it.

The game was marketed as an educational game, but it seems to me to have aspects of what’s come to be called “persuasive” games as well. (I suppose these things are not clearly separable.) The whole point is to teach you the importance of caring for the ecosystem, so obviously there’s a bit of an environmentalist agenda there. But it’s a very non-specific environmentalist agenda, and somewhat muddled, what with its underlying assumption that wildlife exists primarily to be exploited. But consider how the harvesting of resources works. You can set the harvest rate for each species to a few rough categories: “None”, “Some”, “Lots”, “Maintain”, “As needed”. As far as I can tell, the “Lots” setting translates to “Render this species extinct as quickly as possible”. Although that’s handy in a few of the training missions, where you don’t have to worry about lasting consequences, it’s hard to imagine it being useful in a real game. No, the “Lots” option is not there to serve a gameplay purpose, but to convey a message, that unbridled consumption yields environmental devastation.

I should probably mention that this is nominally a Star Wars Episode 1 game. This doesn’t make a great deal of difference; of all the Star Wars-themed games I’ve played, this is probably the one that has the least to do with the movies. (The closest runner-up for that honor is probably Pit Droids, a puzzle game also from the Lucas Learning line.) A few of the organisms are taken from the movies; for the first time, you get to see dewbacks, rancors, and dianogas in the wild. But the Star Wars movies don’t contain nearly enough plant or animal species to form an ecosystem, so the bulk of the critters were invented for this game. Boss Nass will occasionally send you a voice message about how the colonists urgently need more materials, and sometimes Jar Jar Binks will pop up to say something utterly pointless. Finding the option to turn off Jar Jar is one of the game’s most satisfying moments. It’s almost as if he was included for the specific purpose of allowing the player to disable him.

The Final Cut: Continued Frustration

Before my last session, I would have said that The Final Cut is a game that has to be played twice: once to find out by trial and error what you’re supposed to do, and a second time to use your knowledge of the solutions to spot the clues that you were supposed to have noticed the first time round. But now, I have doubts that even this would be enough.

In the beginning of chapter 2, the detective finally meets his client, Robert Martin-Jordan, in person for the first time. Naturally he has a lot of questions. Some of these questions are about things that just plain haven’t happened. For example, one of the questions is about the things said on an audio tape that I had found, but had not yet found a means to listen to. (Perhaps he has the psychic power to divine the contents of audio tapes? I know there exists a man who can read the grooves on LPs…) Another of the dialog options is to tell him about how you were attacked up on the scaffolding. I had been up on that scaffolding, but there was no attack. All that happened there was a puzzlingly pointless first-person cinematic in which I pressed a button, after which the game returned me to the bottom of the now-unclickable ladder. Oh, and that somehow triggered the end of the chapter. I think I was doing things in the wrong order there.

The whole scaffolding scene had seemed incomprehensible at the time. (In retrospect, the button was probably the one mentioned elsewhere that turns the fire alarm on and off, but it didn’t seem to do anything. Unless perhaps the sound glitches prevented me from hearing the alarm. But if so, did I turn it on or did I turn it off? And either way, why?) But if I was attacked in that scene and didn’t notice, something was very wrong. So I found a walkthrough online to try to find out what was supposed to have happened there.

That walkthrough diverged from my experience of the game before it was even done with the intro movie.

After she leaves for bed, you observe a green car and have a momentary psychic flashback to the time your parents were killed in a car crash.

No I don’t! I saw the car, but there was no psychic flash, and this business about the detective’s parents is news to me. So at this point it looks like it’s just skipping over some of the cutscenes. But only some of them, which is odd. Maybe they’re using multiple codecs? Searching the web for reviews, I don’t see anyone else who had my problems. I see a lot of complaints about the story and the puzzles, but I guess my situation is like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation in reverse: the more fundamental problems blind me to the surface flaws.

At least the walkthrough showed me something that I had genuinely missed on my own: I had failed to find the camera angle that lets you access the document giving all the characters’ names. This is something to be careful about, guys. If you’re going to make basic information missable, some people are going to miss it. Given that the rest of the game assumes that you have this information, it would have been a good idea to make leaving the prologue and proceeding to chapter 1 contingent on finding this document. Instead, the game makes it contingent on watching Mr. Martin-Jordan’s welcome video, which contains no information that’s useful once you’re out of the prologue.

It looks like this one is going back onto the shelf for a while, alongside Tender Loving Care. I seem to be having poor luck with technical problems in adventure games lately. You might think that adventures would be less prone to failure than big-name titles, being less technically demanding, but this also means that they’re typically developed on low budgets by small teams with tight deadlines. Also, their low replayability means that they often don’t get a lot of fan attention after release, ScummVM notwithstanding.

The Final Cut: Initial Confusion

By now, I’ve voluntarily restarted The Final Cut several times. I’ve done this because the earlier bits don’t provide nearly enough context to understand what’s going on. You’re a detective, that much is clear. You’ve been hired to conduct an investigation. But no one tells you what you’re supposed to be investigating. The would-be filmmaker has left you a welcome-and-introduction videotape, but it fails to mention what he wants you to do, or even what his name is. The woman who hired you on his behalf goes to bed immediately after driving you to the mansion, and is mute besides, so there’s no getting information out of her. Snooping around the empty house yields a certain amount of data about various people, but at that point you still have no idea who these people are or what their relation is to the investigation; one of them may be the mute woman, but you haven’t learned her name yet at that point either. When you finally encounter a human being you can talk to, you can work out what the mystery is you’re supposed to solve: the cast and crew all mysteriously failed to show up one day. But the conversation only makes sense if the PC already knows this.

It’s as if I’m missing something I was supposed to learn all this from, possibly a manual. The only documentation I have is a jewel-case insert that explains the UI and not much else. I suppose I should search my pile of loose game manuals for something more substantial, but I remember being equally confused the first time I played the game, so I don’t think any such thing was included in the box. Maybe I’m the victim of a packaging error, or maybe the publisher decided to do without it in the American release. Still, relying on docs to deliver the premise is a mistake that few modern games would make.

The really galling thing is that the intro movie, which would be the perfect place to introduce the basics of the case, tells us next to nothing. The player character narrates how he got involved in this job, and does it in elliptic private-eye patois that evokes any number of films not by Hitchcock, but that’s all.

But then again, the lack of clarity doesn’t stop at the premise. While exploring a diner set, I was baffled by the PC suddenly writing “Sound Engineer: Fat guy” in the PDA he uses as a notebook. Only after restarting and playing the scene again did I notice that he had first glanced at one of the counter stools (there’s those subtle head movements again!), the seat of which was crushed. So, that explains the “Fat guy” part, but why did he think the sound engineer had been sitting there? Is this a manifestation of his psychic powers? Probably not; I’ve seen how his psychic powers work by now. He’s gifted with psychometry, or possibly cinemetry. When he touches objects, he sometimes gets a vision of a two-second clip from a Hitchcock film. (So there is a fair amount of FMV after all.)

Any confusion the player feels in the early parts of the game is exacerbated by the disorienting way that the camera cuts from position to position without warning as you explore the grounds. I recall getting lost and unable to find my way back to the mansion in my first session, years ago. By dint of repetition, I’ve got a better handle on the layout now — the main part is basically just two parallel roads with the mansion at one end and a large backdrop at the other, with various sets between them. It would be pretty much impossible to get lost if you could look around freely.

Fortunately, I seem to be pretty much past the initial confusion phase and into the phase of solving deliberate puzzles. This phase starts when you start finding bodies. There’s nothing like a corpse to give a detective concrete goals.

The Final Cut

Well, the Vintage Game Club is proceeding on to its next game 1As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played. , so I think it’s about time to admit to myself that I’m not finishing up the JRPGs just yet and proceed on to something else. Something nice and quick to finish, like an adventure game. I still have a passel of obscure European graphic adventures that I was formerly unable to play due to the GeForce bug.

So, last night, I reinstalled a couple of games, feeling kind of strange about it — it’s been quite a few months since I ran an installer from physical media. First, I tried out Ring 2, the second part of Arxel Tribe’s sci-fi adaptation of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Sound issues drove me away from this; if there’s one place you don’t want the music to be skipping and stuttering, it’s in a game based on opera. My second attempt was another Arxel Tribe title, The Final Cut. This had similar sound problems, but I was able to mitigate them with some fiddling. I still get some ugliness in incidental background noises, but at least the dialogue seems to be playing without problems.

The grand concept behind The Final Cut is that it’s based on, or at least inspired by, the works of Alfred Hitchcock. An oddball premise, but adventure games can get away with such things more easily than other genres. I haven’t got far in the game yet (I’m basically at the point where I abandoned it the first time), but so far, it doesn’t strike me as a very good match to the source material. I mean, if I were going to make a Hitchcock pastiche, I’d start off with the stereotypical Hitchcock protagonist: an ordinary man who, through no fault of his own, gets caught up in events beyond his control, like in North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Not all of his films have such a protagonist; sometimes it’s a spy or a master thief or something, but those sorts of roles aren’t specifically Hitchcockian; anyone can make a film about spies or master thieves. Well, the player character here is apparently some kind of psychic detective, which seems a bit outlandish. That’s the kind of premise you’d start with if you had heard of Hitchcock but had never seen his films. Or, more charitably, if you thought players wouldn’t be attracted to playing the Jimmy Stewart role.

The game is driven by the same sort of interface seen in Grim Fandango, which is to say, it’s the Alone in the Dark interface with the addition that the player character turns his head to look at important objects (something that worked a lot better in GF, due to the PC’s freakishly elongated cranium). In this UI, you drive your avatar around with keyboard or joystick, 2The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes. and the camera switches between fixed positions depending on your position. And this is the game’s second stumbling block as a Hitchcock imitation — that the camera is controlled exclusively by the player’s position. Hitchcock’s directorial style heavily depends on his control of the camera: I think of the way it emphasizes the separation between inside and outside in Rear Window, or creates tension by lingering on the impromptu casket in Rope, or how in Frenzy it follows a woman to the killer’s door, watches her go through, and then slowly backs off the way it came, as if abandoning her to her fate (and thus forcing the audience to abandon her as well). But here, even in noninteractive bits — which is to say, the dramatic parts — the camera just sits there. I suppose that even with an engine like this, you could give the director control of the camera in FMV sequences, but so far the only FMV bit I’ve seen is the intro.

So, if we don’t have Hitchcock-style premise or direction, what, apart from the blurb on the box, lets us know it’s a Hitchcock game? Well, there are scattered references to specific films — in particular, one of the early puzzles involves piecing together film titles from fragments. And I think the sets are probably from his films. (Note that when I say “sets”, I mean sets: the premise involves a wealthy eccentric who’s making a film on his estate.) I’m not sure of this because, frankly, most of Hitchcock’s sets aren’t all that distinctive. Maybe a real devotee would look at the hotel set and say “Aha! It’s the hotel from scene 17 of Topaz!” But people like me, who have seen a bunch of Hitchcock films and enjoyed them but didn’t rush out to buy the action figures 3On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here., can probably recognize the Psycho house and maybe the schoolyard from The Birds, and that’s it.

In short, so far this is Alfred Hitchcock: The Game in the same sense as Batman: The Ride. Still, there’s one bit that I’ve come across that seems like it fits the spirit of the films pretty well. Standing in for a missing actor, the player character gets in front of a bluescreen and mimes shooting at a dummy. As I go through that sequence, I know full well that it’s going to come back to haunt me later — I’m basically giving the filmmakers the raw materials to fabricate evidence that I’ve shot someone. And I can only assume that I was supposed to realize this, even as the PC blithely goes through with it, because that’s how suspense works: as in the famous example of the ticking bomb, it’s enhanced if the audience knows something that the characters don’t. But in a game, it can be taken a step farther: the audience doesn’t just watch the hapless protagonist do the wrong thing, but actively participates. Step by step, you’re given directions — “Stand on the X”, “Draw the gun now and point it at the dummy”, and so forth — and you execute them, because however strong your sympathy with the protagonist, your desire to advance the plot is stronger.

Hitchcock was no stranger to audience complicity, of course: he knew full well that people would pay good money to see him take sympathetic characters and put them through the worst day of their lives. He sometimes even made his audience feel like accomplices in his virtual crimes, as in the aforementioned scene in Frenzy, or the cleaning-up scene in Psycho, where the tension depends on the audience’s desire, at that moment, for the killer to get away with it. But it’s so much more direct in a game.

1 As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played.
2 The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes.
3 On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here.