Archive for January, 2011

DHSGiT: Minigames

I said before that we’d take a closer look at what Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble uses in place of combat, so let’s do that now. This is a game made chiefly of mini-games. You have up to four girls in your team, including one leader or “queen”. When you choose to interact with a NPC, you also select one girl to do the interacting, using an action that varies with the girl and the situation. Sometimes a girl’s action will be “accept” or “ignore” or “parley”, and sometimes it will be a game.

In keeping with the old-timey style, the only icons and symbols the game uses are things that could plausibly be found in a vintage board or card game. NPCs are represented on the board by silvery tokens of the sort you might find in an old Monopoly set, and the four character stats are represented by the four suits of a standard deck of playing cards: hearts for popularity, spades for rebelliousness, diamonds for glamor, and clubs for savvy. It takes a while to get used to this mapping, but you get exposed to it a lot as you play.

There are four main mini-games that represent different ways of dealing with NPCs: taunt, expose, fib, and gambit. They all use the “suit” symbols in some way, and each game focuses on a single stat — but not exclusively. One of the nicer things about the design is the way that any stat can help in any game, and that overspecialization in just one stat can lead to failure even in the game you’re specializing in. (Besides, it doesn’t pay to specialize too much because you have no control over which games are available to which girls in any given context.) A fifth game, flirt, is basically only useful for acquiring boyfriends, and has no particular stat focus.

Taunting is the classic Monkey Island-style insult fighting, where you take turns tossing barbs. Popularity, as I mentioned before, functions as hit points here, and is displayed on either side of the play area as a row of heart icons. Other stats seem to determine the strength of attacks, or perhaps just determine which insults a girl can access. Every insult has a comeback that turns it back at the attacker. Success in this game is largely a matter of building up a large repertoire of insults and responses, which can only be done by playing the taunting game a lot and losing. A high popularity can shield you from the effects of your experiments to some extent, but it only goes so far. Losing at this or any other game can cause the girl to sit out for a period of time, and this is the one game that I ever play with the expectation that this will happen and that I will be happy with it.

Exposing secrets is a little word puzzle. You’re given a sequence of club, diamond, and heart symbols, each of which stands in place of a word in a short sequence of sentences. You get to select symbols to turn into words, but your stats impose a limit on how often you can do this — for example, if your popularity is 3, you can flip only three hearts into words. Spades are wild; you can use your rebelliousness to turn over anything. But once you’re out of spades, you have to guess the remaining words from context, picking them from a list of possibilities. I find this game to be by far the easiest, because it’s the least random, and because failing it just makes the next attempt a whole lot easier. For a given character in a given situation, the words don’t change at all, so a lot of the time you can just keep on exposing words with different girls until you know them all. But even that isn’t necessary most of the time, because once you have some context, you can get most of the guesses right. This is also the one game that’s most directly connected to the plot: the sentences you uncover are all about character backstories and the like. For these reasons, I usually go for the “expose” option when it’s available.

Fibbing is done through an escalating bluffing game based loosely on poker. You and your opponent each have five randomly-chosen tokens, which can display any of the suits or be blank, with probabilities that I believe are determined by your stats. You get one free “flip” or draw for each point of glamor. And you and your opponent take turns making claims about what’s on your tokens, with each bid exceeding the last: if you say you have two pair, your opponent has to either claim at least a full house or call your bluff. (Understand that we’re still dealing with just suits, not values; a “pair” would mean two tokens with the same suit.) Being able to put together a good hand is obviously desirable, but not entirely necessary, as long as you can judge exactly how high you can bid without being called. But obviously there’s a luck factor regardless.

The above games are easier to grasp by observation than to describe in words. Gambit, less so. The game sensibly leaves it out until the end of the first chapter, and lets you practice it as much as you want when it does. It’s sort of a more complicated rock-paper-scissors. There are three slots, called Brazen, Smooth, and Devious. You have two numbers — one is your savvy, the other is some other randomly-selected stat — and you have to put them into two of these slots. Your opponent does likewise, often in a way that fits their character. Then all choices are revealed and evaluated, in slot order, and the person with the highest tally wins. If you put anything under Brazen, you score that many points and cancel the effects of your opponent’s Smooth. If you put anything under Smooth, and it hasn’t been canceled by your opponent’s Brazen, you get that many points and cancel the effects of your opponent’s Devious. And if you put anything under Devious (and it hasn’t been canceled by an uncanceled Smooth), you get to steal any points that your opponent got from Brazen. (The number of points you put under Devious has no effect; all that matters is whether you put anything at all there.) The UI goes to some length to make it clear what’s going on after the reveal, putting a big X on canceled stuff and animating the Devious marker sweeping the Brazen from one side to the other, but you still have to already understand how it works in order to make sensible choices. This is the one game that can end in a tie, which generally seems to count like a win at the story level, but you don’t get XP from it. If all the numbers are equal, Brazen-Devious beats Brazen-Smooth, which beats Smooth-Devious, which beats Brazen-Devious. But of course it’s seldom the case that all the numbers are equal, and high stats can still overwhelm low stats. But if you can predict what the opponent is going to pick, you can usually beat them even from a disadvantage (particularly if you can take advantage of Devious). There’s an item you can obtain that’s an enormous help: it lets you know in advance one of the slots your opponent is going to pick.

Flirting is a matter of figuring out correct responses to a randomly-chosen sequence of stimuli by trial and error. The boy might show you a diamond, for example, and expect you to reply with a heart — in this context each suit has a description like “laugh” or “bat eyelashes”, but I don’t remember the details. The correct responses are consistent within each boy, and if you guess wrong, you get to try again. But the number of times you can use a particular move is limited by your stats: a savvy of 3 means you can only use the “clubs” response 3 times, for example. Flirtations vary quite a lot in difficulty. In the more difficult ones, the moves (both his and yours) consist of two or even three picks in a row, which can make it mathematically impossible from the get-go if your girl’s stat total isn’t high enough. But even for the easy ones, having any stat too low is a liability. Boys successfully flirted with become boyfriends, which are more like accessories than characters, providing stat bonuses and a certain amount of protection from failure: when a girl would normally leave for a number of hours, the boyfriend leaves instead. But as far as I can tell, flirting is always completely optional.

My memories of the beta/demo I played years back are now dim, but I know that some of the games were different then. The “fib” mini-game was completely replaced — originally it was some sort of shell game. But also, if my impressions are at all accurate, the role of stats outside of their specialty games has been expanded somewhat. Or, if not expanded, at least clarified.

Faerie Solitaire: Continuing

I spent a bit more time on Faerie Solitaire last night. Sleepy of mind, I wanted something simple to distract me, and isn’t solitaire the canonical distraction? The Solitaire app that still comes with Windows was the thing filling the “casual game” niche before anyone figured out that there was a market there.

But of course that solitaire does’t play the tricks that the for-profit games do to keep you interested and then, eventually, tell you that you’re done so you’ll buy a sequel. More precisely, they tell you that you’re done when you dispose of all the cards, which I suppose is an “eventually” thing, but they don’t have a long-term goal you’re working towards, a campaign mode containing hundreds of hands, with bits of story punctuating chapters. Ending with a single victory seems like the wrong granularity if you want people to play continuously and obsessively. Faerie Solitaire certainly doesn’t. In fact, it employs something of the same gimmick as Half-Life: it never gives you permission to stop. When you finish a match, it doesn’t present you with a menu that has a “quit” option. It gives you a special screen displaying your progress, but the UI has only one button, labeled “Continue”. In order to quit, you have to quit after the next round has started.

The thing is, though, despite the lack of such gimmickry, people did play Windows Solitaire obsessively for millions of man-hours. Was it just the lack of alternatives, or is there still something we can learn from it?

Faerie Solitaire

Now here’s one that I probably wouldn’t have tried, let alone bought, if it hadn’t been part of a bundle. Faerie Solitaire is apparently a fantasy-themed variant (and near-homophone) of the golf-themed Fairway Solitaire, a game I know almost nothing about. But now that it’s flounced its way onto the Stack, scattering glitter all over the place, I might as well give it a whirl.

It’s basically a get-rid-of-all-the-cards game, and feels quite a lot like that thing with the Mah Jongg tiles that there seemed to be a hundred different indie casual implementations of a few years ago. You have a bunch of cards on the table in stacks, and you have a “foundation” card. You can remove cards from the top of the stacks and place them on the foundation, but only if their value is one greater or one less than the current foundation card. If you can’t make a move like that, you draw a new foundation card from the deck. Play ends when you clear the board or run out of deck. Either way, you keep going to the next level, trying to build up a total score that exceeds some threshold. The exact rules of scoring are left obscure, but apparently it helps to go for long runs without resorting to the deck. It’s a game with a large random factor, where you’re often left just going through the motions with no need of thought, but every once in a while you have to make a real decision.

The whole reason that this game can have levels, and therefore a campaign mode, is that the layout of the stacks can vary. Stacks can branch or merge or take on pyramidal shapes where one card controls access to many. (This is particularly reminiscent of that Mah Jongg tile game.) The designers also try to introduce a little variety with special layout features like ice cards, which can’t be removed until you melt them by reaching a fire card elsewhere on the board. But when you come down to it, that’s just a little window dressing on an ordinary stack that’s been divided between two places on the screen. It does have the practical effect that it can split the stack in ways not otherwise geometrically possible, because there can be arbitrarily many ice cards on the board, all melted by the same fire card. There’s a similar gimmick with flower and thorn cards that go the other way: in order to release the thorns, you need to hit all the flowers. Either way, though, it’s mostly just an illusion of variety.

For that matter, the whole “faerie” aspect is a veneer. It’s a pretty thick veneer, though. There’s a whole thing where clearing the last card in a stack sometimes reveals an egg, which you can hatch into a magical critter that you keep in a menagerie in fairlyland, and which can grow up into a larger critter with some color text if you let it earn enough experience (which it gets by watching you play cards) and then give it a specified number of some Catan-like resources that you also occasionally find under stacks. As far as I can tell, none of this has any impact on the game. It’s a sub-game that you’re expected to pursue for its own sake.

Also, playing cards earns you money that you can spend on upgrades, like additional free undos, or the ability to peek at the next card in the deck. Increasingly sophisticated ways to cheat, in other words. Except of course that since they’re codified in the rules, and the player has to earn them, they don’t really feel like cheating. It’s the benefits of cheating without the gnawing sense that you’re missing out on the intended experience.

To be short about it, what we have here is a rather thin game buttered over with the leveling, purchases, upgrades, unlockable extra modes, pseudostory, and graphical bling that are used by casual games in general, but that I associate most strongly with PopCap. The fairypets, although they just sit there without so much as a spot animation, are sort of a lo-fi version of the Zen Garden and Virtual Tank from Plants vs Zombies and Insaniquarium respectively.

Final Fantasy VI: At Long Last

Of all the Final Fantasies I’ve played — and I’ve played exactly half of the main-line titles by now — FF6 is the one that took me the longest to beat. Not because it’s a longer or tougher game than the others, but because I kept stopping. I guess this is a pretty good indicator that I didn’t find it as compelling as FF5 or FF7. The story and setting are interesting enough, but most of the time, my attention was on the mere mechanics, which just didn’t keep me interested the way FF5‘s freewheeling Jobs system did. I can blame my urge to optimize for part of that: the dual use of Espers, teaching spells continuously and raising stats when you level, meant that I spent a lot of time shuffling them around from person to person.

Ah, but I leave out the Espers’ third use, that of summonable. That’s because I was hardly ever using them that way toward the end, as my characters came to dwarf them in power. Maybe half of them knew the Ultima spell (the ultimate area-effect direct-damage spell), and most of them knew Cure 3 (enough healing power to usually restore the whole party to full health) and Life 2 (resurrect and restore to full health). These are all big mana-drains, but they also knew Osmose (absorb mana from an enemy) — something that I never used much for most of the game, but which proved useful in the three-stage boss fight against Kefka.

There’s a certain amount of philosophizing before and after the fight, with Kefka taking a garden-variety nihilistic stance, countered by Terra’s nurturing the-journey-not-the-destinationism. With his makeup and hyena’s laugh, Kefka always seemed a bit like the Joker, but when he goes into ultimate-battle mode, he adopts a more mock-angelic form that’s a clear anticipation of Sephiroth in FF7. I suppose that to people who played the games in order, it came off as Sephiroth being a variation on Kefka’s theme, but from my point of view, Kefka looks like a transitional form, a step on the way to the more familiar.

At any rate, as I had been told, the end boss fight turns out to be pretty easy once you’ve come that far and survived the other encounters in Kefka’s junkyard tower. The main obstacle to completing the dungeon is simply its length. I may be just remembering badly, but I don’t recall the final dungeon in FF7 taking anywhere near so long to traverse. And, once you’re through with it, you get the cutscenes. Just like in FF5 (or, at least, the Playstation remake of FF5 that I played), this game just doesn’t want to end. It wants to keep showing you stuff for as long as you’re willing to look at it.

Notably, there’s a series of in-engine vignettes showing the crew rushing to escape the tower before it collapses: each character (or set of related characters) gets their own little mini-sketch highlighting their role in the story — yes, even Gogo and the yeti, who aren’t really part of the story, and who shouldn’t even need to escape the tower, because I left them cooling their heels on the airship. Each of these vignettes is preceded by a credits-like listing, showing their name twice, in small letters in the form it’s usually given and then its full form in larger letters: “Edgar as EDGAR RONI FIGARO”, for example, or “Gogo as GOGO”. It took me a while to realize that the first form was probably the player-assigned name, and that it only looked weird because I hadn’t renamed anyone. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m strange for doing that, if most people reassign them. Certainly whoever designed that sequence assumed that they do.

Once out of the tower, the real credits for the game are punctuated by scenes of the world, freed from Kefka’s random destruction, being restored: the grass comes in green again, a child is born, a seedling sprouts where some children planted it, some villagers manage to finish repairing a building without it getting wrecked again. These are all things that were set up as you roamed about talking to NPCs earlier in the game, and it feels very good to have things tied together like that, to make it clear that your actions have made a difference — but also that your actions aren’t solely responsible for the recovery. This is a matter of people all over the world working to heal it, not a burst of magical Disney energy restoring everything. In fact, that’s kind of important to the themes here. In the end, defeating Kefka involved destroying magic.

Now, lots of fantasy stories, from The Lord of the Rings to Spellbreaker, culminate in the end of the magical age and a transition into something more like the real world. I suppose it’s a metaphor for growing up. But usually it’s portrayed as a loss. Here in FF6, magic is unquestionably a bad thing, and the world is better off without it. There are mentions of the Mage Wars that almost ended the world a thousand years ago, and the Empire’s attempts to resurrect it result in a cataclysm of similar proportions. The only thing that makes the heroes hesitate to get rid of it all is half-Esper Terra, whose fate once the Espers are gone is uncertain. She survives, but only by giving up her magical half — just like the world itself. It suddenly strikes me that this is the reason for her name.

At any rate, that’s one more Final Fantasy off the Stack. Two more were released while I was playing it. The game is very completist-friendly, providing the winner with big lists of all the spells, lores, blitzes, rages, and dances the various characters did and didn’t get. The only place where I was at all complete was Cyan’s sword techniques, and that only because completing a certain quest unlocks all the ones you haven’t got yet in a single lump. I did manage to find and kill all eight of the Great Dragons, and received for my trouble an Esper that I hardly used. Contrary to expectation, it wasn’t Bahamut, either; I never did find Bahamut, although the lists tell me he was around somewhere. The one place where I failed completism most completely was the Arena, where you can wager items on noninteractive duels (one of your guys vs a monster of some sort) in order to win better items. I had used the Arena minimally, due to a misunderstanding on my part. I had found that most of the time I wound up in combat with a freaky-looking facecloud called Chupon who seemed completely undefeatable, because he would always use his Sneeze attack to simply expel my guy from the ring. “I should hold off on arena fights until I know how to block a sneeze!” I thought. “I don’t want to wager a valuable item and have Chupon just take it away from me.” Well, it turns out that the opponent you get is determined by the item you wager, and Chupon is the player’s punishment for wagering too low. So I missed out on some stuff there, but obviously nothing I needed to win the game.

Since I’ve already played FF7 and FF8, the next game in the series I play will be FF9. We’re getting pretty close to the end of Final Fantasy on the Stack, provided I don’t buy any more or take another two years to play each of the remaining games. But I’ll probably want to finish Chrono Trigger and Recettear before starting any new JRPGs.

2010 Wrap-Up

2010 was a special year for The Stack: it was the year of the Chronological Rundown, an experiment I’m not in a hurry to repeat. How did it go? Here’s a summary:

Year Title Finished? On schedule? Dinosaurs?
1986 Wizardry III No No No
1987 Might and Magic No No No
1988 Pool of Radiance Yes No No
1989 Curse of the Azure Bonds Yes Yes No
1990 Secret of the Silver Blades Yes Yes No
1991 Heimdall No No No
1992 The Humans Yes Yes Yes
1993 Police Quest 4 Yes Yes No
1994 Final Fantasy VI No No Yes
1995 Icebreaker Yes Yes No
1996 Command & Conquer: Red Alert No No No
1997 Evolution Yes Yes Yes
1998 Tender Loving Care Yes Yes No
1999 Dino Crisis Yes No Yes
2000 Deus Ex No No Sort of
2001 Bioscopia Yes Yes Sort of
2002 Freedom Force Yes Yes Yes
2003 WarioWare, Inc. Yes Yes Sort of
2004 Escape from Butcher Bay Yes Yes No
2005 Killer 7 Yes Yes No
2006 Gumboy Yes Yes No
2007 Bioshock Yes No No
2008 Obulis Yes Yes No
2009 Batman: Arkham Asylum Yes Yes No
2010 VVVVVV Yes Yes No

Special notes on dinosaur content: Deus Ex has bird-like monsters that I believe to be feathered dinosaurs but which were not identified in the parts I got to over the course of the year. Bioscopia had no actual dinosaur specimens, but there was a man-sized theropod statue holding a sign at one point. Surprisingly, there’s another dinosaur holding a sign in a cutscene in WarioWare — is this a widespread phenomenon I wasn’t aware of? Overall, though, I think the winner for dinosaur content is Evolution, which not only had the greatest variety of dinosaurs, it’s the only game that had dinosaurs for their own sake, rather than as obstacles for the player or as signposts.

Most of the year was spent slowly drifting behind schedule, but shorter games toward the end allowed me to pull ahead and even spare a month for the IF Comp. Does this mean games have gotten shorter over time? Not necessarily: it should be borne in mind that the games that are on the Stack are ones that I haven’t finished yet. A twenty-year-old game that can be completed in a day is very unlikely to still be on the Stack. And yes, such things definitely exist: the first games in the Ultima and Final Fantasy franchises both qualify.

As for the project of reducing the Stack, this has been the worst year yet, and it’s all because of Steam and their special deals on multi-game bundles. I’ve been considering altering the terms of the Oath to handle this better, but I honestly don’t want to — the games I buy this way are for the most part short, interesting indie works that I might never get around to trying otherwise. But this still mainly a manifestation of the weakness of will that brought the Stack to its current size in the first place. Buying games, or books, or building up a huge Netflix queue, is an act of denial, a refusal to admit how short our time is in this world and how much of that time is wasted on mundanities. The Oath forces me to acknowledge my limitations, and to make the most of time by being selective — or it would, if it weren’t broken.

And yet, there’s something I’m contemplating doing with my gaming time that will likely leave me with even more games unfinished. More info later, possibly.

Final Fantasy VI: Planning for the End

It strikes me that if I’m going to be wasting time on a JRPG, I might as well try to finish FF6. I mean, ye gods, it’s been more than two years since I started it. I had kind of hoped to be done with it by year’s end, but it looks like that’s not happening. In terms of game state, I’m ready to storm Kefka’s tower. In terms of brain state, hardly. I have a vast array of equipment and abilities that I’ve once again forgotten how to use, so I’m taking all the characters out grinding first, not so much to increase their level or let them learn more spells (helpful though that will be) as to remind myself how they all work. There’s one fellow in my party roster who I didn’t recognize at all at first: Gogo the mime, a very late addition from the 2010 sessions. Gogo was in FF5 as an optional gimmick boss who unlocked the Mime job, but here, he joins your party. Presumably he noticed that all of the player characters were in your party and decided to imitate them. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve actually used Gogo at all, but I’m going to have to when I go after Kefka.

Why will I have to? Because the final dungeon makes you split the party into three groups, which means twelve characters: there are four slots per group, and leaving a slot empty is just a waste. (Even an otherwise-useless character will draw the occasional attack away from the useful ones.) There are fourteen playable characters. One, Shadow the Ninja, is still AWOL — I’ve met him, I’ve talked with him, he still won’t rejoin the party. 1My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this. And one, the yeti, I just don’t want in my party. He’s uncontrollable, and sometimes not being able to rein in a character in combat is a liability, as when fighting a monster that does counterattacks. So that leaves me using all of the other twelve.

A couple of the remaining characters are also a little uncontrollable for my tastes, but not too much so. Gogo does only one thing: mimic the previous action (importantly including spells he hasn’t learned, which he casts without consuming mana). But that’s generally going to be something you want done, right? Not always, admittedly: if you just had one guy cast Cure 3 to bring the party back to full health, Gogo doing it again doesn’t help. But you can always just skip his turn if you don’t want him to act.

Gau, now. Like Gogo, Gau the wildboy doesn’t have a normal “Fight” command in his combat menu. It’s replaced by “Rage”, which assigns him a set of monster attacks and renders him Berserk, which makes him uncontrollable. But you know something? That’s not his only option. He has the normal “Magic” option that any character has. So I’m trying to train him up as a mage. I have an Esper that increases your magic power stat by 2 on leveling, and I wanted to level Gau a bit anyway, because he was lagging behind the others from lack of use. A little time at dinosaur forest, and he’ll be as good a spellcaster as Terra and Celes.

And then we storm the tower. Next post: Victory! Maybe.

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1. My mistake: it turns out that Shadow did in fact join the roster of available characters. I guess his refusal to join immediately just referred to the active group, which had no unoccupied slots. This renders my reckoning here false. I guess maybe I’ll be leaving Gogo behind after all. On the other hand, extra casting for free! I’ll have to think about this.

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