Archive for 2011

Bullet Candy

Bullet Candy snuck onto the Stack through a bundle some time ago. I was reminded of it by something called “Bullet Candy Perfect” in the latest Indie Royale bundle; I’m not clear on its relationship to the earlier game, whether it’s an enhanced version or a remake or a sequel or what, but I’m tentatively counting them as separate titles. Come to think of it, those various descriptors might be hard to tell apart, given how abstract and plotless the game is.

It’s a 2D “bullet hell” shooter set in space, with an overall design geared mainly towards filling the screen with sparklies and particle effects. (Even the power-ups that some enemies drop have particle effects, which to my mind makes them look like projectiles. I was several levels in before I even realized they were power-ups, because I kept dodging them.) I recall that it was compared to Geometry Wars a lot, but since I haven’t played that either, the main thing it reminds me of is Robotron. Seriously, the feel is so similar that it’s got to be homage. It even has indestructible enemies that jerk backward a little when hit with your bullets, just like the hulk robotrons. The one really big difference in feel is that you can shoot in arbitrary directions, rather than just eight.

Also, you can play with mouse and keyboard, and that changes the dynamics considerably. With mouse control, you shoot toward the cursor. That means that the classic Robotron maneuver of sweeping the entire screen by skirting the edges and firing constantly inward doesn’t work quite as well, because unless you’re moving the cursor in parallel with your ship (which would be tricky), your direction of fire will keep changing. On the other hand, it also means that you can often park the cursor on top of an enemy in order to keep firing at it regardless of where you move. But that’s less useful than it sounds, because such purposeful use of the cursor would require taking your eyes off your ship for a moment, and that’s a quick way to die. I’m thinking gamepad has the advantage here.

The main game mode has 50 levels, all of Robotron-like brevity, and every fifth level is a continue point, a place you can start over from when you run out of lives if you don’t care about your score. Through copious use of continues, it’s possible to play the game from start to finish in a single session. Thus, off the Stack it goes. I guess you’re intended to try harder difficulty settings at this point, or other gameplay modes, like survival mode or asteroids mode. And actually, I’m finding asteroids mode pretty engaging. It’s the same basic mechanic as the classic Asteroids, but easier to control and much faster-moving.

Zen Puzzle Garden

I’ve knocked off a few more levels of Zen Puzzle Garden. I’m not sticking to the sequence at this point; I’ve visited every level in the game, and I’m skipping around freely, looking for anything that I feel like I have an idea of how to go about solving.

I tend to pay more attention to ones with an unusual or eye-catching layout, of course. Especially since most of the levels pretty much look the same. Like I said before, this is not a game where you can tell the difference between an easy level and a hard one just by looking at it. There are a few levels that are split into multiple disjoint gardens, and there’s a mechanic introduced about halfway through, involving fallen leaves in three colors — the only vivid colors on the playfield — that have to be picked up in a specific order. That’s about it for variety, at least of the sort that you can notice without sitting and thinking about it.

Not a serious attempt at solving this level.Fair or not, the effect is to make it seem like all the puzzles are more or less the same. Or, to put it more positively, like they’re all just instances of one big puzzle. Mathematical analysis really seems like the way to go here. I still haven’t really delved into that, beyond noticing a few patterns, local arrangements of tiles that correspond to solvability or nonsolvability. The most basic such pattern can be seen in the upper right corner of the board in this screenshot (although it’s too faint to be visible in the thumbnail): I’ve raked paths around a stone so that it lies in the inner corner. This makes it unsolvable. Consider the three tiles immediately to the north, northeast and east of the stone. Raking the north tile will necessarily involve going through the northeast tile, which will turn the east tile into a dead end. Likewise, raking the east tile will turn the north tile into a dead end. Either way, you’re stuck.

Chocolate Castle

I hope Prince Pondicherry isn't mad that I fed all his chocolate to animals. At least it won't melt now.I polished off Chocolate Castle last night. It’s definitely the most compelling of the Lexaloffle minigames, as well as the most polished.

Most puzzles in this game have a structure that can be chopped into distinct stages. For example, you might have a rabbit (which eats white chocolate) trapped inside a dark chocolate block, so your first goal is to get all the dark chocolate together so you can clear it, then turn your attention to the white. Towards the end, the sub-goals become subtler, more a matter of getting one particularly awkward block past another in order to free up some space for the manipulations you really want to do. Sometimes the sub-goals were so numerous, and took me so long to execute, that I wished I could save my progress within a level, or even keep multiple such saves in cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach. Ah well, at least the game lets you undo arbitrarily. It even accepts the standard Windows idioms for undo/redo hotkeys, which Zen Puzzle Garden didn’t.

Speaking of cases where I wasn’t sure if I was taking the right approach, there’s one mechanism that’s all but guaranteed this sensation: Turkish delight. This is a rare confection, eaten by cats, which then explode, destroying all adjacent walls and chocolate. Where other confections tend to come in large blocks that limit where you can drag them to, Turkish delight is always just one tile in size, and therefore very portable. So, it’s a tool for making a hole anywhere you want — but there’s likely only one spot where it actually does any good, and it’s not necessarily obvious. On one level, I didn’t even use it to blow up a wall. I used to to chop up a snake instead.

Snakes are another game element I haven’t described. They’re essentially a sort of block that’s a sort of rope. You drag them by the head, and the body, which occupies multiple tiles, follows behind in the manner you’d expect of a snake on a grid in a videogame. Sever it, and it turns into two snakes. It’s also capable of eating rabbits, if you drag it through them. I assume it’s capable of eating other animals as well, but I don’t remember any opportunities to confirm this, whereas there’s one level where eating rabbits is hard to avoid. After completing each level, you’re rewarded with confetti and balloons. If any rabbits got eaten, the balloons are black, which feels a bit like the game is scolding you for taking the easy way out.

But snakes and Turkish delight are both rare. Mostly the game just keeps on finding ways to exploit its base rules, right up to the end.


My methylene factory. It's probable more complicated than it needs to be.Spacechem is one of those games that intrigued me from the moment I saw screenshots, because it didn’t much look like any other game. I probably would have bought it eventually out of curiosity even if it hadn’t been bundled. I had some problems at first getting it to behave properly: even after exiting the app, whatever dreadful things it was doing to my video card persisted in some way, making Firefox show up split diagonally into normal and all-black triangles. But the Steam support forum recommended a small modification to the config files, and that seems to have taken care of it. I’ve spent a couple of hours on it by now, long enough to get a good idea of how it plays, although in some ways it feels like I’m still in a tutorial. This is a game that keeps on introducing new complexity for a good long time.

It strikes me as a game designed by and for computer programmers. At its core, it’s about creating processes for assembling molecules, using a sort of 2D programming language with two threads of execution, like a concurrent version of Befunge. You have a grid and two cursors, one red and one blue, that move along looping tracks that you can set up however you please by placing arrows that make them change direction. Each grid cell can contain at most one redirection arrow per track, and also at most one command. These commands are what you use to assemble molecules out of atoms. You have commands to release an atom or molecule to a specified input area, to pick up and drop whatever is in the same spot as the cursor, to deliver completed molecules you’ve dropped in the output areas, and to use the “chemical bonder” tool, which has a fixed location on the grid, to connect or sever atoms sitting on it.

The chemical bonder is of course not how chemical bonds are made in real life, but that’s okay, because you’re not making real molecules. You’re making chemical diagrams, 2D pictures made of letters and lines, with everything sitting in a single plane and joined at right angles. But unlike the pictures in your chemistry textbook, it’s not just a simplifying abstraction: the geometry of these pseudo-molecules is important to gameplay. Each atom takes up one cell of the grid, making you shift and rotate molecules on the bonder. The developers call this “fake chemistry”.

A working chemical process, once you get it going, moves like a robotic assembly line, and can be made to go at various speeds, the lowest speed being mostly useful for debugging. It seems like every puzzle requires you to make 40 of the target molecule. At first it seemed like this was just a way to give you an opportunity to admire your machine in operation, but it’s also a test to see if it can iterate effectively. Your first iteration isn’t necessarily like subsequent ones, due to timing issues and the possibility of atoms crashing into each other.

Campaign mode is separated into nine chapters, or planets. I’ve completed the first two, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing through the rest, like I do for so many puzzle games. It’s already becoming intimidatingly complex. I suspect that I’m making things more complicated than they need to be, though, due to inexperience with the optimization tricks peculiar to this system.

Lexaloffle Retro Minigames

I’m rather behind on my posting here, which interferes with my playing: I’m sworn to post per day for each game I play, which means that if I play a game and don’t post, I can’t play it again until I’ve posted. Usually this means I just don’t play anything from the Stack until I’ve written something, but something inspired me to play the three Lexaloffle mini-games I acquired from the most recent Humble Bundle in a row, one per day. I haven’t finished any of them, so let this be the introductory post for all three.

Already raked myself into a corner hereThe first one I tried was Zen Puzzle Garden. The goal here is to rake every grid-square of sand in a series of rock gardens, starting each stroke from the edge and using traditional videogame ice level movement mechanics, which is to say, you can’t change direction until you hit an obstacle, such as a rock or a tile you’ve already raked. I’ve completed somewhat over half the puzzles here, but the half I’ve completed is the easy half. It lets you play the puzzles in any order you want, choosing them from a grid between times, but if you play them in order, it takes a good long time to get at all difficult — so long that I began to wonder if there was going to be any real challenge to it at all. It’s certainly not obvious from the rules that there could be. Even in the later stages, I find some levels much easier than the ones around them. I think there may be some sort of parity issue, so that I sometimes luck into making moves with the right parity, but I haven’t analyzed it that deeply yet. If there is, then the levels with movable blocks presumably require you to move them to spots that make the parity come out right.

Jasper's JumpyThe second game I tried, Jasper’s Journey is a platformer about an elf rescuing a cat from a witch by throwing fruit at monsters. Or at least, picking up fruit replenishes your ammo. There’s a lot of collectibles scattered around, both fruit and treasure, the latter being spendable at the inns that appear once in each level. Now, I’ve only gotten three levels in, which is apparently still within the amount covered by the demo, so anything I say about the game’s general character may be dead wrong, but the parts I’ve seen have been made mostly of vast open spaces with lots of branching paths, including non-obvious ones that lead to more treasure and ammo. It reminds me of Sonic the Hedgehog in its expansiveness, but doesn’t emphasize speed or impose time limits. The emphasis is instead on exploration. When I found a passage leading to a large network of underground tunnels in level 2, I felt like I had made a discovery — even though it is in fact an unavoidable part of the main sequence through the level. Each level contains three golden orbs, their purpose unexplained by the in-game instructions. I think they unlock a bonus room between levels if you find them all, but their real purpose, their game-design purpose, is to give exploration a definite goal, and to let you know when you’ve explored enough. If you’ve got all three orbs, there probably isn’t anything left to find.

So, wait. You're feeding dark chocolate to the dog?Finally, there’s Chocolate Castle, which is a series of sliding block puzzles. The basic idea is that the fluffy animals on each level have to completely eat the enormous blocks of confectionery lying around. Each animal only eats blocks that match it in color, and only eats a single contiguous set of blocks before vanishing. In most levels, there’s only one animal of each color, so you have to put all the blocks of that color together before allowing it to feed. But you have to be careful about this, because once you put similarly-colored blocks together, they fuse permanently. This is a pretty rich ruleset, allowing for a great deal of variation in the practical goals. One level might be something like a traditional klotski; another might fill most of the playfield with blocks of just one kind of chocolate, with so little free space that your main challenge is to avoid fusing them prematurely; another might immobilize two pieces of chocolate with walls, and make you figure out how to bridge the gap between them. It makes for a much more appealing game than Zen Puzzle Garden, where the differences between levels are subtle and the goals are always the same.

All three games have a graphical style that reminds me a lot of early VGA games, from back in the days when the graphic artists suddenly had 256 colors instead of 16 and hadn’t figured out yet what to do with them. I don’t mean it’s clumsy or amateurish, exactly, but there’s something about the flatness of the palette. Chocolate Castle definitely makes the best use of it: the smooth sheen just makes the chocolate more delicious-looking.

IFComp 2011: Hat Mystery

OK, something very cool happened last night that people watching the IF Comp from the outside should be told about. An enigmatic post appeared on the forum at

No one has yet put together the full truth. Will the man with the hat ever be redeemed?

(signed) Lyman Clive Charles, Pam Comfite, Cameron Fox, and Edmund Wells.

The four signers are the authors of Cold Iron, Playing Games, Last Day of Summer, and Doctor M, respectively. Since Edmund Wells was known to be a pseudonym, it seemed likely that the other three were as well.

This sparked excited discussion on IFmud, the MUD were various IF authors and enthusiasts gather. No one seems to have suspected a connection between them beforehand, but once you isolate them like this, some patterns jump out. Yes, all four involve a mysterious stranger in a vaguely-described hat — although in Doctor M, the one where he plays the largest role, he isn’t wearing the hat when you meet him; he’s lost it and you have to find it for him. Which links to another commonality: in all four games, you trade a found item to the stranger for something else. Furthermore, the items are repeated from game to game: you trade a pocket watch for a gemstone in Games, a gemstone for a knife in Iron, a knife for a hat in Summer, and a hat for a watch chain in Doctor M. Clearly something was up. Other confirming details became apparent. For example, both Iron and Summer prominently feature a storybook written by a reverend, and a set of four paintings in Doctor M clearly depict scenes from each of the four games, once you’re sensitized to the connection.

A few hours later, a collaborative effort had put together the clues found in all four games and finally redeemed the man in the hat. I won’t go into detail here — Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin has posted a near-complete transcript of the proceedings if you’re interested — but it turns out that some of the games involved contain hints for actions you can perform in other games, some involving details that served no obvious purpose within their own context.

Once the riddle was solved, the authors unmasked themselves. Lyman Clive Charles tuned out to be Zarf himself, who had been discreetly observing the unraveling without comment. This surprised me, because Cold Iron had seemed rather cursory and incomplete, but I suppose that’s because so much of its content was bound up in the hat mystery. Also surprising is that Doctor M is the first released work by its author, Mike Hilborn. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Apparently the authors were hoping that someone would discover the secret during the Comp, and worried that the clues were too obvious, that people would pick up on the secret too quickly. It’s always hard to judge how difficult a puzzle is without testing it on people, which is difficult for secret puzzles like this one. I recall that Kit Williams, creator of the treasure-hunt book Masquerade, expected it would take a week or two for someone to solve its puzzle and find the jewel, but in the end, even the person who claimed the prize turned out to have cheated.

For my part, I recall noticing two indescribable hats in two of the games I played in close proximity, but thought of it as just a funny coincidence, not worth mentioning in my reviews. The thing is, there were a lot of funny coincidences in this Comp. I myself joked in a previous post about collusion between the authors of all the detective games. I mentioned the odd coincidence of two games about little girls playing hide-and-seek, but I didn’t even realize at the time that both were by Australians. Even the games in the hat mystery have strong connections to ones not involved. Cold Iron and Last Day of Summer both involve a rustic’s relation to a reverend, but so does Beet the Devil, which, like Playing Games, uses a tunnel hidden by a bush to divide the prologue from the midgame. (If I had noticed this during the Comp, I probably would have wasted some time searching Beet the Devil for that storybook.) Furthermore, 38 games is a lot, so without that nudge advising us to look at that group of four together, we didn’t really have a foothold. The nudge, however, is all it took.

Blocks That Matter

It seems to me that indie games have reached a sort of turning point of inter-referentiality. In-jokey stuff abounds wherever nerds gather, but with Super Meat Boy, it escaped the confines of TIGSource and entered the marketplace. Blocks That Matter continues this trend: its story is indie-game-themed in the way that other games are fantasy-themed or mystery-themed or whatever. The premise is that its developers, a pair of wisecracking Swedes, have been kidnapped by someone who wants to play their latest game before its release. But they haven’t been working on a game, they’ve been working on a robot — a tiny cubical block-drilling-and-reassembly robot which is now their only hope for rescue.

Blocks that are ScatteredAnd so you puzzle-platform your way to your creators through indestructible tunnels littered with blocks in various materials, receiving instructions and banter by radio every couple of levels. The chief inspirations for this game, according to the developers, are Boulderdash, Minecraft, and Tetris. And while I can see bits of all three — Boulderdash‘s falling rocks, Minecraft‘s dig-and-build mechanic — Tetris is the single most obvious source of inspiration. Your avatar is called “Tetrobot”, and has the ability to mine blocks and then place them elsewhere — but only four at a time, in a tetromino shape. Consequently, not only do you sometimes mine a block only to immediately reconstitute it elsewhere, sometimes you place a block only to immediately re-mine it, because you only needed to place it to fulfill the tetromino requirement. Also, at one point, you get an upgrade that lets you delete blocks in continuous horizontal rows of eight or more, Tetris-style. This and the block-placement limitation are handwaved as consequences of “Pajitnov physics”.

There are several other upgrades to your abilities over the course of the game, but other than the one in the first level that grants you basic drilling ability, they’re mostly kind of disappointing. Like, you get the ability to collect metal blocks, which were previously undrillable, and shortly afterward, undrillable crystal blocks start appearing, which are in turn made drillable by another upgrade. There are several different block materials with different properties — sand blocks that fall when unsupported, flammable wood blocks, ice blocks that slide horizontally when you try to drill them — but most materials only differ cosmetically, at least by the end.

The main thing you get from these upgrades is the ability to go back to previous levels and accomplish the goal you couldn’t always do the first time: getting the Block That Matters. Every level has exactly one, in the form of a locked treasure chest. Carry it to the level’s exit portal, and it unlocks to reveal a block representing a game that the authors like. (Some of them are indie, some not.) This strikes me as a brave thing for the authors to do, because it runs the risk that the player will say “Yeah, Lode Runner! I remember that, it was a great game! … Why am I not playing it instead of this?”

Anyway, I do think it’s ultimately a good thing that the game makes some of the Blocks That Matter inaccessible until after further upgrades, because it gives the game an element of nonlinearity. If it had been possible to collect each on the first pass at a level, I would have done so, and then wouldn’t have anything to go back to when I was stuck.

And yes, I did get stuck sometimes, for a while. There are puzzles here that require special insights into the game mechanics, like how to place blocks in a useful way in a confined space. I think the one point I was stuck on the longest was one with a small pit lined with TNT blocks, which explode a few seconds after you try to drill them. It seemed like an impossible situation: the only way to clear the way was to detonate the blocks, which you could only do by jumping into the pit, from which there was no way to escape the explosion. But in fact there was a way. It just wasn’t the sort of thing you do in most of the rest of the game.

Blocks that LadderThere are actiony bits, where you have to dodge moving elements like slimes or dripping lava, but it’s mostly sedate and self-paced. Even slimes can be destroyed without dodging by dropping sand blocks on them; even lava can be stoppered by putting a stone or metal block right underneath it. Placing a tetromino involves going into a special “edit mode”, in which time is frozen. Sometimes I went into edit mode just to pause the action while I assessed my situation, but even that was usually unnecessary.

There’s a certain amount of busywork involved in just collecting blocks that will be useful elsewhere, and in some levels, where there are multiple stages of puzzle, I found myself repeating the earlier stages a lot because I was making mistakes or getting killed in the later stages. There are a variety of ways a game can avoid this — checkpoints, rewind functions, etc. — but the developers here didn’t implement any such things. I hope they consider adding them if they ever do a sequel. Nonetheless, I call this a pretty good game, well worth the fraction of the bundle money I spent on it, and the few hours it took me to reach the finish and get most of the Blocks That Matter. The few I haven’t got are in the more action-oriented levels, and will probably stay there, curious though I am about what games they reveal.


I am a bundle junkie. That much is clear by now. My Stack has been growing by leaps and bounds lately, and it’s all due to the proliferation of bundles. In the final days of the Comp, two prominent time-limited pay-what-you-want indie bundles approached their deadlines, one Humble, the other Royale. And I had no points left to obtain them under the terms of the Oath. Despite not having particulately cared about the games involved before they were bundled, my reaction was to step up on the Comp-playing to get that out of the way so I could focus on finishing something for the sake of affording the new stuff.

Time to crate: about two seconds if you choose this dream first.Trauma seemed ideal for this purpose: it’s by all accounts short, and it is itself something I obtained in a recent bundle. Also, it seems a lot like a Comp game, in both length and content. The premise is that it’s the dreams of a woman recovering from a road accident, although that framing isn’t terribly relevant to the content of the dreams, except to the extent that it gives them an extra poignance, and makes it clear that this person really does have genuine problems just now. Without that, the frustrated and defeated tone of the voice-overs might come off as whiny. 1The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary. One of the dreams is about following a well-marked road that ultimately turns out to just go in circles, a clear metaphor for her concerns about her life’s direction. Another involves going off the beaten path looking for a road less traveled, but it turns out to be just as circular as the first, just more difficult to follow. For the PC, merely living is extremely difficult right now, and she’s wondering if it’s worth the effort.

It’s very slickly produced, especially in the cutscenes of the protagonist talking with her doctor that you get after completing each dream, featuring close shots of the her fingers and eyes in such sharp focus that it looks like they were shot through a microscope. Mainly, though, I see it as an experiment in form. It’s more or less a Mystlike, only simpler — which is saying something, because Myst itself was a drastic simplification of the adventure game. And, like the first wave of Mystlikes, exploration is a matter of clicking around between still images — there’s some spot animation, but not a lot. Hovering the cursor over a movement hotspot superimposes a fuzzy version of its destination over the scene, like an out-of-focus photograph, and like a photograph, it’s presented as a 2D image, rotated in 3D space to match the angle you’d be observing it from. It even acknowledges the photographic nature of the graphics by playing the click of a camera whenever you move from one to another.

The photography theme continues into the game content: in each of the game’s four dreams, there are nine polaroids scattered around, tacked to trees and the like. Some of them are pictures of moments from the protagonist’s life, sush as her first day at law school. Some show mouse gestures you’ll need to perform special actions — each dream has exactly one, but you can find alternate endings by using the gestures from each dream at appropriate spots in the others. And some give hints about how to do this by showing those spots, tying together scenarios that are otherwise self-contained, apart from thematic unity. Finding all nine photos in each dream is an optional extra challenge. Finding all the alternate endings gives you a proximity-to-photograph sense that helps with this, a very gamic element in what’s otherwise mostly an interactive art piece.

The angles between vantage points are freeform enough that I sometimes had difficulty navigating, particularly in the fourth dream, where much of the area you can explore lacks persistent landmarks. This is a very prevalent problem in Mystlikes, and even the extra feedback you get from the appearance of the rollover smudges doesn’t solve it. That’s pretty much the only difficulty in the game, though. I managed to even find all of the optional extras in a single session.

1 The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary.

IFComp 2011 Conclusions

As mentioned previously, the Comp results are up already. (I managed to play through the last of the games a couple of days ago, but I’ve been slow to write up my thoughts for this blog.) First place went to Taco Fiction, which isn’t a big surprise; I myself gave it the highest score this year. Six was second, and The Play was third, an amazingly high showing for web-based CYOA. Doctor M took the Banana, and richly deserves it.

The obvious big pattern this year was of course the private eye, but that accounts for only four of the 38 entries: PataNoir, Schlig, Camelot, and Falcon. It strikes me that we had something of a stealth theme in religion. Aside from the two blatantly biblical games, we had four games (Beet, Calm, Summer, Iron) that had clergy of some sort as prominent background characters, seen or unseen. Benevolent background characters, at that. That’s a break from tradition. Back when IF was all about exploring dungeons, if you found a chapel or a shrine, it was a safe bet that it was used for the unholy rites of unspeakable and demonic gods, and probably human sacrifice as well. The only game in that tradition this year is Kerkerkruip.

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Next post, we get back to the Stack. I’ve already got some play to report on, days late.

IFComp 2011: Escape from Santaland

Well, the Comp is over, and the results have just been posted over at But I still have one more review to belatedly write. And even though the Comp rules no longer require me to put my spoilers after a break, I might as well maintain consistency here.

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