Archive for May, 2010

Icebreaker: Hyakugojyuu!

It’s funny: any particular level of Icebreaker might take a couple of minutes to complete, or it might take more than an hour, and there’s no way to tell which aside from playing it. As I played the last couple of levels, I knew I was close to the end, but had no good notion of how close. Close enough to finish today, it turned out, although I had a moment or two of doubt.

Toward the end, nearly all of the levels are slime-heavy, often filling the entire area around with the stuff. When slime was first introduced, I didn’t really notice how useful it is to the level designer: it provides a way to keep the player confined to set paths, while not restricting the movement of the Seekers at all. (Even the smartest Seekers have trouble navigating walls sometimes.) Level 149 in particular really shows this off: it’s essentially a maze of paths in a lake of slime, with Seekers constantly hurtling at you from all directions.

Level 150 is just a level like any other, with no boss monster or recapitulation of the lessons learned up to that point. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given that the levels aren’t really ordered, that access isn’t gated. And afterwards, the game ends without ceremony. Or at least, it does if you still haven’t got the in-game videos to work. The disc holds an obvious victory scene, set in what can only be described as pyramid heaven, with a choir of winged angelic pyramids surrounding the luminous pyramid godhead. I only looked at this after exiting the game. In the game itself, what happened was that I finished level 150 and was immediately whisked to a randomly-generated level. I’ve looked at a few randomly-generated levels now, and while I can’t say they’re as well-crafted as the designed levels, they’re at least satisfactorily different from each other. As in the designed levels, each picks just a few elements from the full palette.

Because of that transition from victory into more game, just like the transition at the end of every level up to that point, part of me isn’t sure that I’ve just won. I get up, I look around. I’ve spent most of the day on this game. It should be some ridiculous hour before dawn, with me shaking off the gaming-trance like a sleeper awakening. That’s how it worked when I was younger, and this is definitely the sort of game where it would apply. Perhaps these days I never really leave that altered state at all.

Icebreaker: More Specific Levels

The statutory two weeks are just about over for this game. When I posted yesterday, I was still shy of level 100, which is only 2/3 of the way through the game. I was thinking that I’d play up to the round number and call it quits for the time being, but my progress has suddenly accelerated — maybe I’m getting good at it or something — and it’s a holiday weekend, so I think I’ll make a try at powering through to 150. I’m up to 130 already.

I’ve encountered one more level with unusually difficult terrain: level 96, “Live and Let Slide”. The gimmick here is that the periphery consists of slime pits, and the outer edge of the playfield is all ice with blue pyramids on it. Thus, to break the blue pyramids, you have to venture out onto the ice and risk slipping into the slime. Well, that or wait for them to change color. I indulged in that a bit. Vanquishing this level took me fully 95 tries — yes, just one short of a pleasing coincidence, but I wasn’t about to let myself die one more time just for that. It’s also one of only three levels so far where I’ve needed to drop back from Hard difficulty to Medium.

Level 122, “The Valley of Death”, is another. The gimmick here is that the center of the playfield is walled in, surrounded by rock except in two corners. Inside, it’s wall-to-wall swamp, with zombie spawn points around the edges, so that you start off surrounded. The best way to clear this area is to kill zombies as seldom as you can get away with, because you can get them to trail you in a pack as long as they’re alive, but once they respawn, they’re likely to do it in front of you. This is really one of the basic tactics of the whole game, but compressed into a smaller space.

Like level 53, both of these levels were designed by Ken Megill. I’m starting to detect a pattern here, but have to be wary of confirmation bias. The game doesn’t tell you who designed a level unless you ask (by pressing the “Level info” button), which I seldom do. Checking out some other levels at random, it looks like Megill is responsible for an awful lot of them, possibly even the majority, and certainly not just the hard ones. But the very hardest ones are always his work.

The few levels designed by Andrew Looney himself are quite mild in comparison, and seem to be put together more to create pleasing visual patterns than for challenging play. I think my favorite of his is level 112, “Lemmings!”, which puts the player in a path girded by pits. Hordes of yellow Seekers charge from all directions, smashing through the green pyramids that surround the path and falling into the pits. Eventually you have to venture to the the end of the path, where it empties into the dangers outside, to deal with the few pyramids that have avoided destruction (mostly by changing color before the Seekers got to them), but you can spend a while shifting around within your safe haven and directing the destruction.

Looney also collaborated with Keith Baker on level 71, “Advanced Pits”, which is notable for its simplicity of conception: it simply fills the entire playfield with purple pyramids, the ones that turn into pits when shot. Why did it take two people to design this? Maybe the idea came out of a conversation. At any rate, this is one level that takes some planning to pull off successfully, because you need to preserve access to the parts you haven’t covered yet, and can easily destroy your escape route while trying to swat Seekers. I managed it by rushing to the edge at the beginning, then shooting as much as I could of three edges from the outside, creating a box that’s only exposed to attack from one direction.

That’s just a few of the things that the level designers have managed to do with the tools this game makes available. All in all, I think they did a really good job of exploring the possibilities. I wouldn’t have guessed from a description of the game elements that they would be capable of this much variety.

Icebreaker: The Text Adventure

You are in a pleasant grassy meadow. To the north, south, east, northeast, southeast, and southwest is a meadow; to the west and northwest is seething lava.
A red pyramid stands to the north.
A green pyramid stands to the south.
A blue pyramid stands to the east.

Since people have expressed interest in the IF adaptation of Icebreaker included on the CD, I suppose I should say a few words about it. In a way, it’s similar to the IF adaptation of Doom: when something is about to kill you, you simply type in a command beginning with the word “shoot” and that’s that, with no possibility of missing. Unless, that is, two seekers happen to come on you simultaneously from different directions, which can happen, but isn’t likely as long as you stay in the region where the pyramids and the natural obstacles are. This seems to be a 6×6 region, much smaller than in a normal Icebreaker level, and there are only 14 pyramids to destroy in it. It’s just as well that it doesn’t try to create a full Icebreaker level, if you ask me. The whole thing is basically a curiosity, and is just large enough to make its point.

The most interesting part is also the chief way it differs from the game it’s based on: the point of view. In the original game, you see a broad area around you — not the full playfield, but enough for you to make plans based on where everything is, and to see the Seekers coming. In the text version, all you can see is the square you’re on and the squares adjacent to it. Information about what’s going on elsewhere is conveyed through sound — which, actually, happens to some extent in the original game too: you can always tell when a Seeker offscreen has crushed a green pyramid from the distinctive “kssh”. But in the text game, “offscreen” means almost everywhere, so the noises play a larger role. Apart from that, the fact that you can see only one square around you means that it’s possible to forget where you are relative to other things — in other words, to get lost. Which means that, in grand adventure-game tradition, there’s motivation to draw a map.

The mechanics aren’t completely faithful to the original. You can’t edge between a pair of adjacent pyramids here; any attempt at movement sends you straight at the center of the square in the specified compass direction. You can shoot stuff by specifying a compass direction, but your shots seem to only have a range of one square: shooting at a red pyramid from two squares away does nothing. I have no idea if the pathing algorithm for the Seekers bears any resemblance to that in the original — it’s hard to tell, when you can’t see beyond one square — but I suspect not, because it has to happen on the level of grid-squares here, not on the pixel level. Still, you expect changes when going from one format to another. Icebreaker: The Text Adventure does a reasonably good job of aping the experience of the game it was based on, and that’s all we can really ask of it.

Icebreaker: Zombies

I’ve never really liked zombies in games. I’ve spoken of this before. They usually strike me as more annoying than scary. The zombie pyramids in Icebreaker are no exception to this, although for completely different reasons than in most games. My problem with the typical zombie is mainly aesthetic: they’re unpleasant to look at, in the same way as skin diseases, and the usual zombie moan is designed to grate on the ear. Of course, the degree of irritation varies from game to game. In general, it seems like the games that want their zombies to actually be scary try to achieve it by simply turning the irritation up, while games that treat them abstractly or humorously can stylize it away. And zombies don’t get much more stylized than the ones in Icebreaker.

No, the annoying thing about zombie pyramids is their effect on gameplay. Consider first the way that they can respawn underfoot. The chief effect this has is that when you’re standing still to blast something repeatedly — a stone pyramid, say — you might have to suddenly and unexpectedly abandon what you’re doing, move over a bit, and blast the freshly-spawned zombie before going back to what you’re doing. All other Seekers give you a little bit of tactical room to maneuver when they chase you, but zombies can effectively just say “stop what you’re doing for a few seconds right now or die”. Add to this the fact that zombies take three hits to kill, which tends to increase the amount of time that you spend standing still and blasting stuff, which tends to increase the probability of the above happening.

Also, there’s a strong bond between zombies and swamps. Swamp tiles seem to be the only places where zombies will spawn, so any level with zombies will have a lot of them. The other particular property of swamps is that they slow you down when you go through them. They don’t slow the zombies down, though, so you really want to stay on normal ground as much as possible, to preserve your speed advantage. But you don’t always have that choice; where there’s swamp, there will probably be large areas of swamp, with pyramids in the middle.

In short, zombie levels give you the three conjoined annoyances of slow movement, slow killing, and periodic but unpredictable interruption in your pursuit of goals. These all have the same effect on gameplay: slowing it down. And that’s what I find annoying.

Icebreaker: Seekers

One of the things that Icebreaker really gets right is the variety of enemies. Yes, they’re all pyramids. The variety is in their behavior. There are just enough truly distinct behavior patterns that it’s easy for the player to forget the full range of possibilities and be taken by surprise on encountering a type that hasn’t been seen in a long time. So let’s ruin that. Time for a monster inventory.

In general, Seekers come in lighter colors than stationary pyramids. There are four colors of basic Seeker, indicating what obstacles they know how to deal with: cyan ones go around stationary pyramids and rock tiles, but fall into pits; pink ones avoid pits, but get stuck trying to go through rocks and stationary pyramids; lime green ones can navigate both sorts of obstacle; yellow ones, neither sort. When I started typing this paragraph, I thought I was going to have to say that I didn’t really know which color signified what, and had to look it all up, but in fact, it turns out that I’ve seen them enough for the colors to have definite associations in my mind. The sight of a pink Seeker stuck behind a pyramid is a very common one; yellow is the only Seeker color for the first few levels of the game.

You might think that stupidity makes Seekers less dangerous, but that’s not always the case. A pink guy stuck behind a blue pyramid is effectively camping it, squatting exactly where you want to go. Moreover, stupidity increases the chaos of the battlefield. I compared the Seekers to Robotrons before — this is because, as in Robotron, it’s easy to get them all to cluster together into a clump that trails behind you. This makes them predictable. There are only two ways they can break formation: dying, or getting stuck. (Unlike Robotrons, Seekers respawn, so pits might as well be teleporters.)

Beyond the basics, we have several types of gimmick Seeker, most of which seem to be as smart as the lime ones. First, we have the Chameleons, which are basically lime Seekers that stand still and pretend to be green stationary pyramids until you get close, then come to life. This is the main thing I was thinking of when I spoke of old Seeker types taking the player by surprise; surprise is the Chameleon’s raison d’être. It’s kept within reason in the levels I’ve seen so far, though — there will be large fields of greens with a number of Chameleons scattered among them, but never a solitary Chameleon waiting to catch you off-guard in a level that otherwise doesn’t use them. Unlike most seekers, Chameleons don’t respawn, so there can be arbitrarily many on a level. Unlike real green stationary pyramids, Chameleons are vulnerable to blaster fire — which means that they provide a motivation for blasting willy-nilly at things that don’t look like they’ll be affected.

Orange Seekers are the only ones that come in a nonstandard shape. They start out unusually fat. Shoot them, and they split into two normal-sized pieces that keep chasing you. Shoot these, and they split again, into skinny things that can finally be destroyed. The interesting thing is that each stage is stupider than the last. The final stage is equivalent to yellow. I don’t know if the intermediate stage acts like pink or cyan — I’ve had limited opportunity to observe them, since the only time they ever appear is when you’re already shooting at them. I suppose the best way to keep an orange guy from following you would be to blast it until there’s only one of the smallest pieces left, then get that piece stuck on something. You wouldn’t want to destroy it all, because the whole thing respawns once it’s fully dead.

“Lurker” is apparently the name for the purplish ones that I only recall seeing once so far. (And I’m slightly over halfway through the game now.) This is the only enemy capable of moving faster than the player — but only for short bursts, after which it has to stop and catch its breath. The animation of a pyramid breathing heavily is very clear despite its lack of facial features or other usual signifiers. It’s one of the most amusing things in the game, and a good illustration of what minimalism in game art really means. When they’re moving, though, they’re by far the most panic-inducing of the Seekers. You get used to running away from things in this game, getting some distance and then circling around and leading them towards the green pyramids. It becomes automatic habit, and it’s a habit that gets you killed when there are Lurkers are around.

Finally, we have the Zombies: pyramids of mottled grey and green that burst out of the ground and take three hits to kill instead of one. Other Seekers respawn at the periphery of the playfield, but Zombies respawn anywhere, sometimes right under your feet. Note that all the other Seeker types have at most one novel quality apiece; Zombies, with two, break the pattern and hint at more complex possibilities — but possibilities that would make the gameplay less charmingly pure. I suppose that the mix might have come out of playtesting, but on the face of it, it seems like an arbitrary combination, and the only place where the game seems to let mimesis dictate mechanics.

Icebreaker: Rushing to my Doom

A peculiar phenomenon: sometimes I seem to be unable to distinguish between red and blue. You might think this would be one of the most basic things in the game — even to people with the most common forms of colorblindness, red and blue are so immediately and obviously different that they’ve been adopted as the canonical team colors in multiplayer games. Nonetheless, I’ve rammed into deadly red pyramids more times than I can count. I’m not talking about swerving to avoid a Seeker and hitting a red pyramid by mistake or anything like that: I’m talking about purposefully choosing to smash into them in the expectation that I will be the victor in the encounter.

Sometimes, I manage to shake off this delusion before impact. Occasionally this even happens long enough before impact for my brain to notify my fingers. But the act itself is the result of a state of confusion, and there’s no particular reason for confusion, once entered into, to resolve itself quickly. The source of the confusion is distraction, concentration on a different aspect of the game. I’ll be spending some time herding the Seekers around to destroy green pyramids, when suddenly I’ll run into a cluster of non-green ones. “Cool!” I’ll think, “I can just destroy these myself.” But at that point they haven’t registered in my mind as anything other than “non-green”, so I make a mistake.

Do I also make the opposite mistake, treating blue pyramids like red ones? I honestly don’t know. All that would entail is shooting at them to no effect, rather than getting yourself killed. I tend to shoot uselessly a lot anyway. It’s not quite the sort of game where you just want to keep the fire button held down all the time, because sometimes you want to keep Seekers alive, either so they’ll destroy green pyramids, or just to keep them from respawning in a less convenient place. But in many situations, especially at the beginning of a level, excessive fire doesn’t hurt.

What if it did?

I’m imagining a possible extension to the game: mirrored pyramids that reflect your fire. Possibly you could use them to do bank shots and shoot things around corners, but there would also be a risk of shooting yourself. The fact that diagonal shots are off from the grid lines would make it tricky to make this work, assuming that we keep them in the same orientation as the other pyramids, and determine the angle of reflection in the usual way; to accidentally hit yourself, you’d have to be either really close to the mirrored pyramid, or the shot would have to ricochet more than once. But assume that you got the tweaks right, and shooting willy-nilly posed a greater risk than it currently does. What would the effect be?

Well, obviously there would be less shooting. If you can’t shoot stuff with impunity, you do it less. Or, at the very least, you’re aware of refraining from doing it. And I suspect that this would give the game an even greater impression of puzzliness than it has now, even if the actual impact on gameplay was minimal. I don’t know if it would be a better or worse game, but it sure wouldn’t be the game we’ve got. As in any good shooter, part of the joy in Icebreaker is in just blasting away at stuff indiscriminately, even if you don’t do that all of the time.

Icebreaker: 53

I’m a couple of days late with this — it’s a busy time, and I seem to have entered one of those can’t-start-writing zones — but the latest news is that I’ve made it through level 53, “Mount St. Monday”. The level purports to be created by one Ken Megill (yes, Icebreaker takes the unusual step of identifying the designers of individual levels, and why not?), but I can only assume that this is a pseudonym for the Marquis de Sade, or possibly Torquemada. Maybe it’s just me, but this level seems difficult out of proportion to the levels around it on either side.

It’s all down to the terrain. Icebreaker has several sorts of terrain hazard: stones that block movement, pits that kill anything that attempts to move onto them, slime that kills you but doesn’t affect the enemy, swamp that slows you down, ice that makes you skid. Some types of Seeker pyramids know how to avoid specific sorts of obstacle: the basic ones always charge at you directly and either fall into pits or get stuck on rocks, but there are ones that will go around pits and ones that go around rocks and ones that do both. The area containing the stationary pyramids is a rectangle diagonal to the grid-lines, so that its edges are corrugated; around it is a very large margin of a default tile type, usually something navigable, providing the player with a place to do an end-run around a pack of pursuing Seekers.

Level 53, now. Level 53 has a volcanic theme: the normal ground tiles are blackened and cracked, the pits are pits of lava. At least half of the playfield is lava or rocks, and the margin is pure slime. You’re effectively trapped in a maze. To traverse this maze, you frequently have to cut across corners. All terrain hazards fill the entire map tile they’re on, but if you’re careful, you can move between two tiles that touch at a corner without incurring the hazards in either of the adjacent tiles. The player has doubtless learned this by now, but in the past, this has usually meant edging between two similar hazards. Here on level 53, we get the peculiarly cruel scylla-and-charybdis combination of corner-movement with a pit on one side and a rock on the other. Aiming for the middle and being slightly off on the rock side means you get stuck, but unsticking yourself by edging slightly pitward can spell death. And when you die in this game, you have to start the level over from the beginning. This happened to me a lot.

Icebreaker provides multiple difficulty levels, so I had been thinking for a while that if I ever found a level that was too tough for me, I’d just dial it down. But that’s not much help here, because the difficulty only seems to affect the number of enemies, and the enemies aren’t really the problem here. Or so I thought, until I cleared all the stationary pyramids for the first time. In order to win a level, you have to destroy not just the stationary pyramids, but the Seekers as well. As long as there are stationary pyramids remaining, dead seekers simply respawn out in the margin, but once the land is cleared, you can blast them for good. On most levels, this really just amounts to a brief victory ritual in which you turn around and open fire at the crowd on your tail. In level 53, there are a smattering of stupid pink Seekers that get stuck on rocks — specifically, having spawned on the outside of your maze, they get stuck on the rocks around the outside, in all directions. So after you’ve successfully navigated all the pinch-points once, you have to go back through them again, trying to reach the open spaces on the periphery from which you can blast the last remaining Seekers. Once, I got to this point only to realize, to my horror, that one of the Seekers had managed to get stuck on the outside in the wedge between two rocks, a place inaccessible to my fire, and which I couldn’t lead it away from. I had no choice but to start over.

Anyway, I’m past it now. But if this sort of thing becomes the norm in later levels, it could take me a long time to finish this game.

Final Fantasy VI: Tower of Mages

I’ve finally conquered the tower of the Cult of Kefka — not the tower of Kefka himself, but a lesser imitation, which can actually be climbed. It provides a nice bit of variety by changing the way combat works: within the tower, neither you nor the monsters can perform any attack other than casting spells. A largish fraction of the monsters seem to have the Reflect effect on them, too, even if they don’t explicitly cast Reflect first. This means that you can’t rely on direct-damage spells. At least, not targeted ones — area-effect spells do fine, and that includes most Esper summons, which count as spells. Alternately, you can cast Reflect on one of your own guys, and then cast direct-damage spells at him, reflecting them back at the enemy. (Spells can only be reflected once.) My favorite tactic here is to summon Carbunkle, which is the equivalent of casting Reflect on everyone in your party at once. Then you can cast a whopping big direct-damage spell like Fire 3 on your entire party at once, splitting the reflected effect four ways — and, of course, get the added advantage of complete protection from the enemy’s direct-damage spells while you’re at it. So, basically, most of the encounters here are a breeze once you figure out these tactics, as long as you don’t run out of mana — Carbunkle is one of the cheaper Espers to summon, but I still had to bring a load of mana restoratives in with me, and used most of them. Which wasn’t strictly necessary: Osmose, the mana-leeching spell, works really well here, if you can bear to waste valuable attack opportunities on it.

Anyway, the whole experience is a nice rules-puzzle. Encountering the Reflect-enhanced creatures for the first time, my reaction was basically “Aaaaah! What do I do? I can’t hurt it with spells, and I can’t take it down with a melee attack, like I’d normally do to something that I can’t hurt with spells!” But really, there are quite a few things you can do, once you think of them. You just have to get out of the rut of thinking like you do in normal encounters.

Even having mastered all that, though, I wound up basically playing through the whole thing three times, because of the tower’s boss. It’s not that he’s hard to beat — he has randomly-changing elemental resistances, but by this point, my entire team had mastered some non-elemental damage spells. I trounced him handily on first encounter, only to find that my entire party somehow perished during his death throes. On my second attempt, I was careful to keep everyone at full health and have some protective buffs on at the end, but the same happened. I resorted to hints to find out what was going on: apparently dying there is inevitable, and the only way to continue is through the Life 3 spell. Life 3? I had that spell, but hadn’t used it — generally speaking, the resurrection spells are ones you want to avoid needing to use. The in-game description of the spell was “Protects from wound”, which didn’t seem to justify its insane mana cost: there were other spells to protect you from damage, and other spells to heal damage as well. What I had forgotten is that “Wounded” is the game’s name for the status I had been thinking of as “Dead”. Life 3 is a preemptive resurrection, like the Ozmoo spell in Enchanter. Cast it on someone, and they’ll be automatically resurrected after the next killing blow.

I’ve been told by now that the edition I’m playing is not a very good translation. I keep finding more and more evidence of this. Some of the creatures in the tower had a spell called “Merton”, which seemed to be an area-effect heat-damage spell, judging by the graphics. Merton? I finally figured out that it was probably a bad re-romanization of “Meltdown”, and a glance at Wikia confirms it. But that didn’t impede my ability to play the game. This confusion over the meaning of the word “wound” did. I suppose “death” isn’t really a good description either — this is an effect that can be cured by a stay at an inn. “Unconscious” or “Knocked Out” would be good, and apparently some games in the series use the latter term. Maybe even the better translations of FF6 do. But I’ll keep playing the one I have.

Icebreaker: Missing

Icebreaker is not a game about precision aiming. No quick mousework is required, and nothing dodges your blasts. It’s controlled by an eight-direction digital D-pad or its equivalent, and the things you’re shooting at are mostly either slow and predictable, or completely stationary and arranged in neat lines. And yet, I find I miss fairly frequently. Why?

For one thing, collision detection seems to be somewhat buggy. Or maybe not; I’m having difficulty making up my mind about this. It’s definitely true that when a seeker pyramid is approaching me from due north, and I shoot due north, my shot will occasionally go right through it, possibly destroying a red pyramid directly behind it. But understand that seekers don’t simply glide rigidly from place to place. Rather, they trundle and sway, wobbling like they’re made of rubber. Sometimes they look like they’re actually leaping. I can almost convince myself that they’re leaping over my shots, or, more likely, swaying out of their way — the oblique isometric view means that the grid-lines are diagonal, so what looks like moving straight down could be a series of diagonal tacks. Or it could just be a glitch. The framerate and the speed of the shots are such that the shots actually do skip stretches of pixels between frames, visually if not internally.

But there’s another factor, and one which has got to be deliberate. I said that the grid lines are diagonal. And I said that you could fire in eight directions, including diagonally. But diagonal shots don’t follow the grid lines. They’re at a slightly different angle — off enough that you can stand still and blast at a row of three red pyramids, and destroy the first two but not the third. I’m not entirely sure if the same applies to diagonal movement, because movement typically involves frequent small stops and adjustments to deal with attackers, but it probably does. This difference sometimes allows the player to pull off shots that would otherwise be impossible — for example, shooting a red pyramid on the other side of a green one that would otherwise block the shot. But mostly it’s just something that you have to get used to.

Icebreaker: An excuse to talk about Icehouse

Something must be said about the game’s origins, about Andrew Looney and his obsession with pyramids. This is all well-documented elsewhere on the web — that is, after all, how I came to know everything I’m about to say — so I’ll be brief.

It started with a self-published novella called The Empty Citythe full text is now available online, if you’re curious. In this story, Looney described a tabletop game called Icehouse, and the ethos of cool that had developed around it. Icehouse, as described in the story, was a peculiar thing: a board game without a board, a strategy game without turns. If you saw an opportunity in the way the pyramids were arranged, you grabbed it before someone blocked it. Understandably curious about whether such a system could be made to work in real life, Looney decided to develop the in-fiction descriptions into a game that people could actually play. And thus began his career as a game designer.

But not, it must be said, a videogame designer. Icebreaker was and remains his only credit on Mobygames. He mostly does card games — his best-known work is probably Fluxx, a game where the basic conceit is that the cards you play change the rules (albeit only in specific ways, like how many cards you draw at the beginning of each turn and which combination of cards you need to win). I’ve played much of the Looney Laboratories catalog, but I have to admit that his games generally aren’t what I want from a game — too much alea, not enough agon. Usually the winning move comes as a surprise, which means there’s no opportunity to strategize against it. But tastes differ. Some prefer the beer-and-pretzels school of design, and I’ve noticed in particular that the people who like Fluxx the most are people who don’t usually like games. Anyway, Icehouse doesn’t fit this pattern at all. I find it almost unbearably stressful to play. Perhaps this is part of why people who bought Icehouse sets immediately started inventing other games to play with the pyramids — although aesthetic appeal of those pyramids also played a role, of course. If there’s one thing that the original Icehouse has going for it, it’s that every session results in a unique tableau that looks like the skyline of a Martian city.

Knowing all this, Icebreaker feels a bit like a game from an alternate universe where Andrew Looney’s life went differently. But my first exposure to the game came years before I had any other knowledge of the man or his works: I saw it reviewed in a gaming magazine or two on its initial release, where it was praised as new and different, but apparently not considered important enough to merit anything more than a few sentences in a sidebar. I remember seeing the comment in Electronic Gaming Monthly expressing confusion over the fact that you’re a pyramid blasting other pyramids, and thinking what a weird thing that was to find confusing. I mean, there are plenty of games where you’re a spaceship blasting other spaceships, right? It’s true that pyramids in real life don’t usually come equipped with blasters, but then, neither do real spacecraft. (Come to think of it, the ships in Spacewar are about the same shape as Icehouse pieces. Perhaps they were really pyramids all along!) But I suppose the confusion is more understandable given the blurb in the manual:

Icebreaker is about destroying pyramids. Pyramids are bad. They are evil and nasty. You’re outnumbered and alone. All you’ve got are our wits and cunning… Oh yeah. And a real big plasma blaster.

That’s as much story as you get in this game — yet another way it resembles the coin-op games of yore.

Some time after this, I learned of Icehouse and became intrigued enough to try it. When realized that Icebreaker was by the same person, I naturally wanted to try that too. And so, when I found a bin full of original Icebreaker boxes at a computer show, selling for cheap, I snatched one up. I really should have snatched up more than one, for distribution to the Interactive Fiction community, because the disc contains, as an easter egg, a text-based adaptation of the game by none other than Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin, author of such works as So Far, Shade, and Spider & Web, and a personal friend of Looney. It’s not much of a game — more of a joke, really — but it’s a text adventure, by a prominent author no less, published on CD-ROM and sold in stores, and that makes it a rarity. Really, I think more games should ship with text adventures as bonus items, and there are people who agree with me and are willing to make it happen. I suppose the biggest obstacle is getting approval: games are big business these days, and big business doesn’t like content that hasn’t been vetted by legal.

It’s a little eerie how I was led toward this obscure title by three different channels — computer game magazines, tabletop gaming, and IF. Or was it only two? I don’t remember where I first learned of Icehouse; it could have been from the IF community.

Older Posts »