Archive for September, 2011

Machinarium: Gameplay and Hints

I’m pretty sure I’m nearing the end of this game. Like many adventures, it’s fairly short. And unlike Samorost, in which each room is a self-contained mini-adventure, Machinarium has a layout that returns on itself a lot and makes you revisit locations for different purposes and from different directions. One of the first locations has a bridge that you try to cross, only to slip on an oil slick and fall into the lower city; the same location appears again, from the other side of the bridge, much later on.

The puzzle content turns out to be mainly a mix of self-contained mini-games and environmental inventory-item use. There’s a little bit of combining of inventory items thrown in, but only in fairly obvious ways, and a little bit of Myst-style contraptioneering, but not nearly as much as you might expect given that the setting is all about fanciful machines. Some of the self-contained puzzles are old chestnuts, including one or two that even appeared in The Seventh Guest [EDIT: Looks like I’m wrong about that. See comments.], but others seem to be genuinely original, like when you have to find a minimal way to block the flow of water through a complicated tangle of branching pipes. I had fun with these puzzles, and didn’t get truly stuck on them once.

And this is one of the clearer examples.The environmental puzzles, on the other hand, I’ve got stuck on several times, either as a result of not noticing a clickable item or simply because the required action was one of those unpredictable ones that you need to just try rather than figure out. Fortunately, there’s an excellent in-game hint system, one I like so much that I’m actually kind of glad that I got stuck so that I could experience it properly. First, every scene has one free hint that displays, in a thought balloon from Josef, a picture of your ultimate goal for that scene. It’s a bit like the high-level course correction that some text adventures provide in response to the command “help” or “think”. This has never really been enough for me when I’ve resorted to hints, but I appreciate that it’s there, because if I actually had been so off-base in my thinking that all I needed was a statement of intent to put me right (as has happened in other games), I wouldn’t want or need anything more detailed. Second, you can access a more detailed depiction of every action you have to take in your current room. This is the part that I described as being “in comics form” in my last post, but let me describe it more fully now: it’s in the form of an opened book, with line drawings on the right-hand page while the left-hand page is filled with text in a made-up alphabet and perhaps an explanatory illustration that you can puzzle out the significance of, kind of like the Codex Seraphinianus. The panels depicting the actions, too, require a certain amount of interpretation — even though they’re illustrations, you have to read them — and they leave out any steps that have to be performed in a different room, such as picking up inventory items. While the absence of a particular action you were expecting in the hints for your current room can itself be a significant clue, the fact that it’s left out helps it to feel like you’re figuring out the last steps yourself instead of just following directions. Secret: the Spiders of Josef HintbookThis sense is further helped by the way you access the full hints: by playing a mini-game, a crude scrolling shooter with Gameboy-style graphics in which you guide a key through spider-infested tunnels to a waiting keyhole. It’s not an engaging enough activity that I’d ever choose it when I’m not stuck, but it puts a speed bump on the process of getting hints, makes them non-free in a way that I think works better than rationing out hint tokens or whatever. It’s not too difficult once you’ve worked out how to work it, but can still take me three or four tries to get through, and that’s enough to make me feel like I’m not cheating. I earned those hints.


If Josef had the jumping ability he has in SMB, he wouldn't need to push those crates around.In my weekend Super Meat Boy session, I unlocked a new playable character: Josef, the protagonist of Machinarium, a game that, coincidentally, was recently ported to the iPad. Taking this as a cue to finally play the thing, which has been languishing on the Stack ever since its inclusion in a Humble Indie Bundle, I have now gotten a taste of both the PC and iPad versions.

Machinarium was created by the same team as Samorost and its sequel, and has something of the same feel. It’s a more coherent world, both logically and artistically, and more like a conventional point-and-click adventure, with an inventory, and an avatar whose actions you control and who goes where you click (although only approximately: it’s more like he has a set of fixed positions that he can move between, but the UI presents it as if it were classic Sierra/Lucasarts-style navigation). But it has something of the sensibilities of a twitch-and-wiggle game, where you seldom know at first what a given click will bring. Even the splash screen emphasized this: the very first thing you see in the game is the title drawn in thick letters with a scribbly fill (anticipating the illustrative style used throughout), which warp and morph when the cursor passes over them.

Our cleverer readers may now be wondering how they manage that on the iPad, which doesn’t have a cursor in the same sense as the PC. The answer is that they don’t. The iPad version skips the splash screen entirely. This is just one of several small ways in which the PC version is superior.  The lack of a persistent cursor on the touchscreen means that there’s less feedback about what’s clickable; the game shows a cursor briefly when you tap things, but you lose the passive feedback. There are a few places where the iOS version compensates for this by superimposing arrows on the screen to indicate actions you might otherwise miss (which is particularly important in timed sequences), but this is an inelegant solution. I suppose that for some people the convenience of portability, or even just love of Apple, will counterbalance these deficiencies, but I intend to finish the game with a mouse, even though I’m farther along on the iPad at this point.

Now, I said that the protagonist is named Josef, but I have to take Ed McMillen’s word for this, because, like Samorost, the game itself is completely wordless (apart from a few early tooltips that instruct the player in basic controls). Even the hints are wordless, showing rather than telling the actions you must take, in comics form. Talking with other characters yields voice-like squeals and gibberish, often accompanied by a cartoon-style speech balloon bearing a picture of what that character wants from you. In typical adventure-game fashion, this usually means a sub-goal you need to achieve to get what you want from them, but there’s at least one case where it’s a complete red herring. I think the use of pictures instead of words made this particularly unexpected: how could I doubt the existence of an item I had seen?

Josef is a robot, as are all the inhabitants of the city where the game takes place, including the animals. (Possibly the city itself is called Machinarium? As with Josef’s name, this is unclear from the game content.) It’s a ramshackle place and the robots all seem old and dented and in need of a good cleaning and oiling, badly repaired or perhaps just awkwardly designed. But it’s a graceful sort of awkwardness. Josef himself frequently displays a machine’s imperviousness to discomfort, for example allowing himself to go stiff, tip over, and fall from a ladder instead of going to the effort of climbing down. In effect, he temporarily becomes an inanimate object during this animation. A city of robots is a place where the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not rigid, and that cuts both ways: any machine can become a character, with its own motivations and opinions. It’s a bit like what Syberia was trying to do, but to a greater extreme and with more of a sense of humor.

Super Meat Boy: Beyond Death

I recently saw a couple of writeups from different sources about a Flash-based game called Hollow, a short, difficult platformer that really made me think that its author admires Edmud McMillen: the player character reminded me a lot of the bobble-headed monsters from Gish, and the whole style of extremely difficult platforming with minimal downtime on death owes a lot to Super Meat Boy. And, once Super Meat Boy was in my mind, I had the urge to give it another whirl.

I said before that world 4, the “Hell” world, seemed to be beyond my abilities, but now, I’ve not only got through it, I’ve passed the world after it as well. Perhaps Hollow helped to get me into the right mindset. The thing about these levels is that, however impossible they look at first, they do yield to persistence and practice. After trying and failing enough, the trickiest jump sequence becomes temporarily easy, the necessary moves burned into short-term muscle memory. The one real challenge, then, is convincing yourself to spend enough time replaying a given level to beat it — and it’s much easier for me to do this in a shorter game.

It seems like the boss levels are getting easier at this point. The first three worlds all had some kind of time pressure in their boss fights — in particular, world 3 ended in a race against time instead of a conventional boss. But there doesn’t seem to be any time factor at all in world 5, and in Hell, time is actually on your side: the boss fight is a survival challenge, where all you have to do is stay alive long enough for the massive but idiotic opponent to brain himself via repeated failed attempts at head-butting.

The boss fight in Hell is worth special note because it’s one of the few places where a platformer acknowledges the hideousness consequent on taking the action literally. The boss, apparently named “Little Horn”, is a colossal Meat Boy formed from hundreds of Meat Boy’s former lives. In the cutscene that introduces the fight, we see dead Meat Boys raining down into Hell, visibly disturbing the living Meat Boy as he grasps what they are and just as quickly suppresses this knowledge. Now, usually in platformers there’s an unspoken assumption that, when you die, everything since the last checkpoint unhappens. But this isn’t the first suggestion that this isn’t the case here. Meat Boy leaves red stains on everything he touches, and those remain in place from life to life. (Sometimes I even use the stains as guides to help me repeat actions precisely.) When there’s an explosive hazard, sometimes one life’s spatter of blood is still airborne when the next life starts. But such things fade from the attention, until the game feeds us a cutscene that reminds us of them.

Thinking about it mythically, journeys through Hell are all about conquering death. Thus, it’s fitting for Meat Boy to encounter and defeat here a creature literally formed from his own numerous deaths. The symbolism gets a little weird when you consider that meat is, by definition, something that’s already dead, but this can be taken as showing how complete his mastery of his own mortality is — an interpretation made stronger by the self-destructive behavior the game provokes, accidentally leaping headlong into circular saws and not caring much. Meanwhile, the chief antagonist is Dr. Fetus, someone who hasn’t even been born yet. So far from mastering death, he hasn’t even gotten started at mastering life. No wonder he resents Meat Boy so much.

If I read the art correctly, dead Meat Boys continue to be a menace in the next world, where zombie versions of yourself pursue you. World 5 is actually unusually dense with active enemies of various kinds (counting guided missiles), considering that the world is titled “Rapture” and it’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. All this seems to go away in world 6, “The End”, which goes back to basics: just player versus environment, with circular saws on tracks or swing-arms as the only moving elements other than the player character. The End has only five levels before the boss fight, but they’re so preposterously difficult that I haven’t got through them yet. Furthermore, it should be noted that The End is actually the second-to-last level, and also that there’s a whole mechanic concerning “light” and “dark” versions of every level, where the light version is what you get by default, and the dark version has to be unlocked by beating a certain time to get an “A+” rating on the light version. (There are no other ratings. You get an A+ or nothing.) Steam has two separate Achievements: “The End”, for beating the light world, and “The Real End” for beating the dark world. I think I’ll probably only be going for the fake end, but we’ll see how I feel after I’ve reached it.

Heores Chronicles: Power to Max

Having learned my lesson about difficulty settings back in Conquest of the Underworld, I’m keeping things set to the default for the moment. Progress is nonetheless slow, owing to my insistence on getting every last crumb of permanent upgrade on the map before continuing. There are obelisks that grant experience, enchanted trees that instantly raise any visiting hero’s experience level (subject to the maximum imposed by the map), towers where you can improve defense strength and shrines where you can raise your maximum spell points, and so forth, all usable once by each hero. Furthermore, the tooltip for such things helpfully tells you whether the currently-selected hero has visited them or not, making perfectionism all the more tempting.

I’ll probably stop being so obsessive about it at some point as the maps grow larger, at least with my lesser heroes. At the point I’m at, I can take three in addition to Tarnum from one map to the next, but this might not last for the whole episode: I recall reaching a point in Conquest of the Underworld where suddenly everyone but Tarnum was taken away, and I think this may have happened in Warlords of the Wasteland as well (at the point when Tarnum had everyone who he felt was a threat to his power killed). So this may be one of the series’ repeated plot points/gameplay mechanics, and if it is, there will come a point when buffing anyone but Tarnum isn’t worth it.

As for Tarnum himself, there’s already some indication that we’re heading for him becoming an invincible superhero again by the time we’re through. This being the episode that focuses on wizards, this means improving his spellcasting. There’s a set of four artifacts, elemental orbs, found on different maps: as with the Angelic Alliance, they remain with you from level to level. Now, the whole spell system in this game is linked to the four elements: every spell has an associated element, and each element has a “mastery” skill (Air Mastery, Water Mastery, etc.) that improves the effects of spells in that element and makes them cheaper to cast. I’m being careful to make sure Tarnum keeps enough open skill slots for all the masteries as they become available, because eventually he’s going to have all the spells. Every single one, including all of the rarest and most powerful ones. That’s what the orbs do: each gives its bearer access to all the spells in its associated element. Knowing how this game works, there may even be some additional synergy effect for holding them all.

The orbs are significant to the story as well: they’re the heroes’ only way home. I’ll go into more detail about this later, when I’ve seen more plot.

Heroes Chronicles: Masters of the Elements

So, on into Tarnum’s third adventure. The story so far: In Warlords of the Wasteland, Tarnum was a Barbarian in a land conquered and enslaved by evil wizards. He led a successful rebellion, then became a conquerer and enslaver himself, slaughtering his own people when he considered them counterrevolutionary, murdering his advisers when they told him he was going too far. Episode 1 ended with his star still in the ascendant, but when you’re the best gunslinger in town, everyone starts gunning for you, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets lucky. And so somewhere between episodes 1 and 2, Tarnum went and got himself killed.

But instead of just going to Hell like you’d expect, he somehow wound up staying in the mortal world as a servant of the “Ancestors”, apparently working off his bad karma. At least, until Episode 2, Conquest of the Underworld, which had him actually invading Hell, but not to take up permanent residence. He was there on a mission to rescue the abducted soul of one Rion Gryphonheart, the former king of the Knights who took over after Tarnum’s Barbarian empire fell — and the person who killed Tarnum in battle. Tarnum didn’t much like the idea of helping his mortal enemies, and considered the possibility that it was all some kind of immense joke at his expense on the part of the Ancestors, but it turned out that they chose him for the task to teach him a lesson, that the Knights and the Barbarians aren’t so different, that in fact he should be calling them family.

Masters of the Elements takes this a step further. One of the defining properties of the Heroes Chronicles series is that each episode focuses on a different subset of the various playable sides from Heroes of Might and Magic, giving Tarnum himself a different character class from episode to episode. This time around, he’s a Wizard. The one thing he despises the most. The thing he led a continent-spanning crusade to wipe out during his mortal life. I’m only a little way into the story, but he’s already made plenty of disparaging comments (via triggered text pop-ups) about the people he’s forced to work with here. I think he’s already gradually coming to appreciate their point of view, though. The entire mission here would be impossible without magic.

The essential idea is that a ten-thousand-year truce between the Ancestors and the Elemental Lords is ending, and rather than wait for them to attack the prime material plane, Tarnum is heading to their home turf to forcibly convince them that renewing the truce is in their best interests. The whole idea of visiting the Elemental Planes, similar to the Underworld back in episode 2, is essentially just a coat of paint on standard HOMM3-engine dungeons, but those dungeons are themselves essentially just a texture swap on the above-ground bits, so I suppose it all evens out.

The differences between Barbarian, Knight, and Wizard, on the other hand, have distinct gameplay effects. It’s been a while since I played any of the other classes, but nonetheless, I’m getting a very strong sense that using spells in combat is a more viable and indeed essential option than previously. Also, playing with the types of creatures generated by wizard towers gives you access to some very powerful ranged attacks. Every type of town has some kind of low-level unit, like gobins or imps or skeletons, that can be produced very cheaply or picked up for free from outbuildings, and that you can wind up with hundreds of in a stack. The low-level unit for Towers is the gremlin, which can be upgraded (still pretty cheaply) into the master gremlin, which is, I think, unique among the cheapo creatures for having a ranged attack. They die by the dozens if the enemy can close with them, but the ranged attacks are pretty good at preventing this from happening. It’s the “glass cannon” approach, traditional role of wizard-types since D&D.

Random Pick

As promised, a random pick today. The first roll of the dice got me Arthur’s Knights: Tales of Chivalry, a Cryo adventure from 2000, but I wasn’t able to get it working. I remember initially shelving it because of the GeForce bug that made the background render partially on top of sprites, but now it doesn’t even get far enough for that to manifest. Putting it into Windows 95 compatibility mode gets me as far as the main menu, where I can tweak the options to my heart’s content, but actually starting a game from there makes it crash to the desktop. The only concrete advice I’ve found online was a suggestion to turn off DirectX sound acceleration, which is already on my list of things to try when Windows games prove recalcitrant; apparently it worked for someone here, but not for me. If anyone reading this has better suggestions, I’d like to hear them, but for the moment, this is going back on the shelf once more.

So, having given up on that, my next random pick was the final episode of Heroes Chronicles, the episodic series of Heroes of Might and Magic III scenarios. My usual practice for random picks is to treat anything from a series as representing the series as a whole, so what I’ve actually picked is episode 3, Masters of the Elements. Yes, this practice means that my random picks are more likely to hit things with many sequels on the Stack. I consider this a good thing. Those are the games that really need playing.

Moreover, the Heroes Chronicles series as a whole became a wider target quite recently. You may recall that, in addition to the episodes that were published on CD-ROM, there were a couple of extra episodes available only online — one that you needed two registered episodes to download, and another that you needed three. Two more episodes besides those were added later in a collection package, making the extra episodes equal in number to the original retail ones. And that collection package was recently made available (and temporarily put on sale for five bucks) at GOG. So now the series occupies six remaining slots in the Stack instead of just two.

Even though I have Masters of the Elements on CD-ROM, I chose to install the GOG download, just to eliminate the inconvenience of physical media. Oddly enough, given my retrogaming habit, this is my first real experience with GOG. I’ve had an account with them for a while now — I registered when I was having difficulty getting Tex Murphy: Overseer working and I noticed that they had a version rejiggered to work with modern machines, but I changed my mind about buying it from them when I saw that it wasn’t the DVD-quality version. I do like their curatorial approach, though, and even though I don’t recall having incompatibility issues the last time I played a Heroes Chronicles episode, I appreciate knowing that the likelihood of running into them has been minimized, especially after my troubles with Arthur’s Knights. (I wish they’d pick up the Cryo games. I always seem to have problems with them.) And now that I’ve used their custom downloader and front end — something that’s completely optional, by the way — I have to say the experience is positive, nicely practical and minimal and unobtrusive.

Next post, I’ll try to talk a little about the Master of the Elements content.

WoW: Clambering back out

One errand I left incomplete when I left for PAX last week: getting Oleari up to level 70, the Burning Crusade level cap. She was only about a dungeon and a half away from that milestone, and it didn’t seem right to just stop playing until I reached it. I have done this now, and a fair bit more: there’s a sort of dungeon nexus in the ruins in Terokkar Forest, with multiple dungeon questgivers in easy walking distance of each other, and that pulled me in for longer than I had intended. I came away from PAX with a refreshed enthusiasm for all the nifty new indie games out there and a determination to play them, but after a few hours of WoW, all I wanted to play is more WoW. This game is dangerous.

Of course, having reached the level cap, and not being willing to buy another expansion until I’ve explored Outland more thoroughly, I’m no longer getting experience for completing quests. But I’m getting guild reputation, which is more of a concern for me right now, and getting it much faster than previously: high-level quests seem to yield a lot more rep than low-level ones. Whether the guild is worth it is open to question: it’s shrunk to a mere 10 members since I joined, less than half its peak size. I don’t know why this is, or whether it’s normal. I tried asking on the guild chat, but no one replied. Maybe it’s a sore point right now. At any rate, I’ll assume this happens to every new guild until someone tells me otherwise.

Looking back, I see that WoW basically ate this blog for the entire month of August. I’m forcing myself away for at least as long as it takes to complete one randomly-chosen game from the Stack. I’ve got a whole bunch of half-completed games that I started blogging and mean to get around to — you can see them listed on my Backloggery page as “Now Playing”, inaccurate though that description is — but I really think I need something fresh. Next post, we’ll find out what.

PAX Gamified

It’s been a busy week. And PAX was the start of it. And of all the games available for play or merely on display, there was one that I felt I needed to post about here: this year’s iteration of the PAX XP challenge.

PAX XP was introduced at last year’s PAX Prime as a way to encourage people to participate in every aspect of the convention, rather than just ensconce themselves in one area, as is very easy to do. It accomplishes this through what’s come to be called “gamification” — yes, even gaming conventions are being gamified. I suppose it’s the audience most likely to be receptive to such things. Here’s how it worked last year: Ten people, stationed at specific locations listed on the PAX XP card you got with your program, held special hole-punches, and would punch the appropriate slot on your card either on request or, in some cases, after you performed a simple quest, such as getting up from a beanbag chair or reciting the Konami Code from memory. Once you got all ten holes punched, you could “level up” by turning the card in for a PAX XP keychain fob — a good choice of prize, it seems to me, because it provides an undeniable physical recognition of your accomplishment while at the same time being valueless enough that it doesn’t inspire cheating.

It should be noted that PAX XP wasn’t even the only such activity running at PAX. There was a similar set of simple activities run by a group of indie developers this year as an enticement to visit all their booths. Both this year and last, Magic: the Gathering people had people stationed throughout the grounds running puzzles that got you an invitation to some kind of M:tG event. (Last year, I finished all their puzzles simply because I liked puzzles, but had no interest in the event.) The thing is, these other activities were blatantly geared entirely towards publicizing their particular products. PAX XP 2010 had a little bit of that — one of the hole-punch-carriers was stationed inside a Plants vs Zombies exhibit — but mostly it was about calling your attention to attractions that you had already paid for, and that made it somehow feel more legitimate.

This year’s PAX XP challenge was a bit different from last year’s. 1Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution. Instead of tying up 10 people with hole punches, they posted throughout the grounds 38 laminated sheets of paper bearing QR codes, each decodable to a letter 2Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes. and a clue. (So, already it’s more like a real game.) The letters were to be unscrambled to form a phrase which you could say at the main desk to get this year’s keychain (which is larger and more impressive than last year’s). The clues were mostly things like “Word 2 has one more letter than the final word” and “The letter O appears in four words straight”, but a few of them gave the location of other QR codes. One QR code prominently posted at the entrance yielded “Defeat my puzzle and become the hero of PAX!”, which seemed useless at first, but turned out to be a strong hint about the whole sentence, if you had the necessary cultural references.

Notably, finding all the clues wasn’t necessary. I managed to figure out the sentence from only 24 of the 38 — and this was despite a couple of inaccuracies in the clues. (Two QR codes gave L as their letter, even though one of the clues directly stated that there was only one L in the sentence. One clue incorrectly stated that the letter T only appeared at the beginning of words.)

The really clever thing about using QR codes is that by now most of us automatically filter them out, like banner ads. Consequently, they’re unobtrusive, and easily ignored by people who don’t want to participate in the riddle-hunt. But at the same time, they give the people who are participating a reason to pay attention to QR codes. A few of the commercial exhibits had codes posted that looked like they could be PAX XP clues but turned out to be their company URLs. I’m not sure if my confusion there was deliberate on their part or not; if it was, it didn’t work very well, because I didn’t actually open the URLs after decoding them, but I suppose someone with a different decoder app might have opened them automatically.

I can’t say for sure how popular the whole thing was, but I managed to win an additional “speed demon” award for being one of the first solvers, and that was on the second day of the convention. Also, only once in the entire three days did I see someone else pointing a phone at one of the codes, and he turned out to have no idea what it was about, having not read his program yet. But I suppose that in most cases taking a snapshot of the code is a quick procedure that you wouldn’t notice happening; in this one fellow’s case, it was rendered difficult by glare on the lamination. But hunting for scattered clues is a very adventure-gameish idea, and most gamers aren’t adventure gamers. I suppose there must be enough people participating for the organizers to think it’s worthwhile to keep doing it, at least. It’s not like everyone has to do everything, even if that sentiment goes against the original point of the exercise.

1 Apparently the version described here was also used at this year’s PAX East, with a different solution.
2 Actually, one “letter” was an apostrophe. Other punctuation was not included in the codes.

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