Archive for April, 2012

Draw Something

Draw Something has been popular enough lately that you probably know someone who plays it. I certainly do. Two of my coworkers have been playing it quite a lot lately, both with each other and with other friends outside the office. As resistant as I normally am to social games, particularly ones that can be played on Facebook, this one looked fun enough to draw me in. I mean, let’s face it: who doesn’t like to draw? It’s a skill that we all have, something every child knows the appeal of, but unless you’re an artist by vocation, you probably don’t do it very often. Draw Something gives you an excuse to exercise your long-neglected drawing urges, and adds just enough constraints to provide cover for your lack of talent.

That said, I’ve already grown tired of it. It’s gotten repetitive, partly due to actual repeated words — the other players in the office complain about this, saying “How hard would it be to hire an intern to vet a few thousand more words?”, but I suspect that there’s a bit of a birthday paradox going on. But even without exact repetition, I’m finding subsequent rounds with the same partners too similar to stay interesting. And without the ties of a social network platform to keep me playing beyond the point of enjoyment, that’s that. It might sustain my interest more if there were some permanent record of the pictures you’ve drawn and seen, so that I could feel like my creative efforts were building something, and so I could show them off to other players after the fact. I suppose I could take screenshots manually, but that would only work if I could consistently remember to do it.

Let me describe the basics of the game before going any farther. Draw Something is a game played asynchronously by two people. First, one of them has to draw a picture from a randomly-chosen word. You get a choice of three words per round, designated “easy”, “medium”, and “hard”, although it’s easy to disagree with the categorization sometimes. Once your picture is complete, you hit a button and it’s sent to the other player, who watches the picture get drawn stroke by stroke, just as you drew it (except sped up a little), and has to guess the word, building it out of a scrabble-hand-like bin of letters, some of which are unneeded. Once they either guess right or give up, they draw a picture for you to guess, and the whole thing iterates indefinitely.

Now, there have been a lot of games very similar to this, both online and off. I remember one web-based variant in particular that had a number of people in a chat room, all watching the drawing as it was taking place and competing to be the first to guess correctly. That seems like the more typical version, but its dynamics are completely different from those of Draw Something. For one thing, it was synchronous. That’s the traditional model for parlor games: a bunch of people sit down together for a game session. Putting such a game on the web just means that the players don’t all have to be in the same room (or even the same continent). Draw Something, by contrast, is designed to be played in spare moments throughout the day. Not only does it not demand simultaneous participation by both players, it actually forbids it. For another thing, Draw Something isn’t competitive — or at least, not within a match. There may be competitiveness among players in different matches to see who can maintain the longest unbroken chain of correct guesses (as the game keeps track of this figure and displays it prominently on the main menu), but within a match, your goal and the other fellow’s are the same. Whenever a picture is guessed correctly, both the drawer and the guesser get the same increase in their streak number, and the same number of “coins”.

Coins. That’s the game’s business model. If you have enough coins, you can use them to buy “bombs”, which have two uses. In the drawing phase, if you don’t like any of the words available to you, you can set off a bomb for a new selection. In the guessing phase, you can set off a bomb to eliminate some of the unused letters. Also — and this verges on parody — you can use coins to buy packages of additional colors to draw with. I don’t know of any other drawing game that treats colors as upgrades, but here, your initial color set is pretty meager, and doesn’t even contain a brown or a green, so there’s a strong motivation to buy at least one more color set. The thing is, every purchase costs hundreds of coins, and you only get at most three coins per round of play. (One for easy, two for medium, three for hard.) It’s all set up to make you impatient with earning coins so that you’ll pay money for them instead.

Now, the one thing I remember the most about that older synchronous drawing game I described above was that there were players who started their turns by ignoring the word and instead drawing things like penises, and presumably giggled at the resulting chat room full of people scrambling to be the first to type “penis”. I haven’t seen this happen in Draw Something, and I assume it’s because the asynchronous play spoils the fun of that sort of trollery. The anonymity also plays a role, of course — most games of Draw Something are between two people who know each other. But not all. When I first started playing, and was eager to draw more things, I started up a number of matches with random strangers while waiting for the people I knew to respond, and I didn’t see a single rude picture. I did, however, see inappropriate pictures of another sort: ones where the person didn’t really draw a picture at all, but simply used the drawing interface to write the word. In fact, it seemed like the majority of random players did this, and I’m not at all sure why. Maybe they were just griefing. Maybe they were doing it to get free coins faster. Maybe they just hold the game in contempt, and don’t consider unenforced rules to be worth following (which raises the question of why they’re playing at all). Maybe they just didn’t understand that what they were doing was objectionable — there didn’t seem to be any explicit rule against it.

When I received a written word instead of a picture, my first reaction was to end the match right there. Unfortunately, in the iOS version, you can only cancel matches from the main menu, and it takes a while to get there. You can’t get out of guessing mode until you either guess correctly or pass, and once you’ve done that, it immediately throws you into choosing a word and drawing it. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be playing any more with that person, I would immediately hit the “done” button without drawing anything in order to get back to the main menu and cancel the match. Which leaves me wondering: were my blank pictures sent? Perhaps the word-writers think I’m the griefer, and are wondering at my motivations for sending them an unguessable picture.

Apollo 18+20

Twenty years ago this year, a band called They Might Be Giants released one of their better-regarded albums, Apollo 18. In celebration of this anniversary, Kevin Jackson-Mead organized a “tribute album” of short text adventures, one for each song, by various authors, including myself: I did “My Evil Twin”. The full package was released two weeks ago, and got mentioned on various major websites like rockpapershotgun and metafilter. This is about as good as publicity for IF gets these days, but, as one of the participants, I found the coverage unsatisfying, lacking commentary and analysis. Now that I’ve played all the games, mostly to successful conclusions, it’s time to redress that.

Now, if you’re familiar with the album, you might be wondering about Fingertips. Fingertips is the musical equivalent of WarioWare: a sequence of songs about ten seconds long each, with clashing styles and humorously enigmatic lyrics. Rather than simply presenting this as a medley that you listen to as a unit, the CD had each of the songs on a separate track, and encouraged the listener to play the entire album on shuffle — and I can report from personal experience that it’s even more effective to shuffle them into a larger and more varied music collection, so that, say, a Philip Glass composition or one of Satie’s piano pieces might be followed by John Flansburgh belting out “What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here?” and then falling silent.

Yes, each Fingertips song gets its own game. But to imitate the form of the songs, there was a rule that they had to end after only one move. This is a formal restriction that actually has some precedent in IF. Sam Barlow’s Aisle (1999) was the trailblazer, demonstrating the narrative possibilities of a single move, and Rematch, written by Andrew Pontious the following year, surprised everyone by showing that the same structure could make for an elaborate and deeply-implemented puzzle game. But that’s about as far as the experimentation went; in the decade-plus since Rematch, the only other one-move games I’ve seen have been a few joke items, mostly parodies of Aisle. That means that the 21 Fingertips games now form the majority of this sub-genre.

Mind you, some of them really strain the one-move descriptor. There are a couple that let you examine objects freely, only counting it as a move when you take an action that affects things. A lot of them rely on iteration — for example, the adaptation of the initial “Fingertips” (a song that consists of the word “Fingertips” repeated four times over a banjo accompaniement) uses a time-loop premise to excuse the fact that the player has to spend several turns examining objects, taking inventory, and so forth in order to figure out the one command that averts the destruction of the space station you’re on. Although each move is followed by a paragraph describing the station blowing up, it feels more like a single multi-turn playthrough. Mind you, Aisle and Rematch were also heavily based on iteration, but it somehow seems less right to expect the player to keep on entering commands for ten minutes when you’re adapting a ten-second song. And while some of the Fingertips games really are over after a single command, some of them took me longer to bring to a satisfactory conclusion than some of the non-Fingertips games in the collection.

Mind you, the one Fingertip that kept me occupied the longest, Who’s Knocking On the Wall, not only didn’t rely on iteration, it actively discouraged iteration: the whole thing is an elaborate randomly-generated logic puzzle, which gets re-randomized on each attempt, making all your reasoning worthless the moment you make a wrong guess. This is one of the more technically impressive works in the collection, despite its constraints and despite the narrow range of input it accepts.

As for the rest of the songs on the album, the game authors took a variety of approaches. Some attempted to base their story on the song, others took greater liberties, and one or two just launch into a puzzle environment with a vague connection to the song’s title. That last category definitely contains Turn Around, but I say “one or two” because Space Suit is a special case: based on an instrumental, it has no lyrics to adapt. But at least it presents a strange enough environment that you can easily imagine the song playing in the background, which is actually a fairly rare thing in these games — I know I personally didn’t make much effort to make my game fit the tune as well as the words. The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) is of particular note in that it not only tells a story that unites the song’s nonsensical lyrics, it also imitates the song’s structure: just as the song alternates between two sections with different styles and different vocalists, the game shunts you back and forth between two player characters in different, but linked, situations. I Palindrome I, by noted palindromist Nick Montfort, links to its song solely through its form, ignoring its vague suggestion of a story about filial antagonism and menacing intergenerational patterns in favor of just palindroming it up.

The thing is, the vagueness of TMBG’s lyrics makes it difficult to say for sure in some cases what’s a result of disregarding the song and what’s a sincere difference of interpretation. Discussions with friends back in the day revealed disagreement about whether “Spider” was about a guy named Spider or a literal spider. The game takes the latter view, but also makes spiders the villains rather than the hero, which is something that hadn’t even occurred to me: the line “Spider!” followed by “He is our hero” seemed pretty clear, but the whole song is a collage of samples, so I can see how someone else would consider the two lines completely disconnected. Narrow Your Eyes strikes me as pretty far from the spirit of the song, which is about a disintegrating relationship, much like such other TMBG songs as “They’ll Need a Crane” and “I’ve Got a Match”. The game instead has the PC racing to a wedding rehearsal, the only obstacle being a supervillain who gets in his way. The thing is, despite this drastic shift of tone, the game does take care to imitate superficial details from the lyrics (where it provides details to imitate), which raises the possibility that the author simply didn’t see the song the same way I did (although lines like “Our love’s never coming back” make me doubt that). It’s certainly in the spirit of other TMBG songs.

In one case, I have to admit that my own view of the song is probably the weird and atypical one: I’ve never really seen the experience described in “The Statue Got Me High” as a bad one. Sure, it talks about being killed and set on fire, but it also talks about being dissatisfied with human company afterward, which makes the whole dying-and-burning thing seem metaphorical. And this is the sort of metaphor used in describing mystical or religious experiences. This is the same album that contains “See the Constellation”, which describes looking at the stars and having a vision of being the stars looking at yourself on the ground below (an idea disappointingly ignored by its more prosaic game adaptation); a song about experiencing a personal transformation on looking at a work of art would not be out of place here. Mind you, the final stanza about the fire engine and the charred and smoking chair kind of goes against this interpretation. At any rate, the game adaptation takes the death and the burning literally. But I can’t complain about the result, which is to my mind the most brilliant use of the medium in the entire collection. Essentially, the game gives you a situation with no apparent connection to the title, with a clear goal, a puzzle and clues to focus your mind on. And then, just when you have enough information to start making progress, the statue renders it all irrelevant. This is very much in the spirit of the song even in my weird interpretation: whatever it is you think is really going on in those lyrics, the narrator’s encounter with the statue changes everything for him.

I suppose one of the biggest challenges for the authors was coming up with goals and motivations. Even when TMBG’s songs aren’t outright nonsensical, they’re usually more descriptive than narrative. “Dinner Bell” and “Mammal” consist largely of lists of things, and so both were adapted into treasure-hunts; the strange part is that in both cases the authors motivate it by adding on a premise involving oppression by animals, something that wasn’t a factor in the songs at all. “She’s Actual Size” is basically just words of idiosyncratic praise for an unnamed woman, and I’m still not entirely sure what’s supposed to be going on in the game.

I speak of the vagueness, the nonsense, and the lack of obvious goals in the lyrics as challenges for the authors, and this may have given you the impression that some other album, from a different band, would have made a better basis for such a project. But from a player’s point of view, these attributes are strengths. They make for a greater variability than adaptations from a more narrative source would, and that leaves the player guessing wondering what on earth the game version of, for example, “Which Describes How You’re Feeling All The Time” will be like. (It turns out to be a fast-paced word game.) It also has me inevitably thinking about how I would have adapted the same songs. I think the only game that’s more or less the same as my imagined version is Fingertips: I Don’t Understand You, because the joke there is kind of inevitable in an IF context. I already had specific plans for If I Wasn’t Shy and Fingertips: I Walk Along Darkened Corridors from before they were claimed by other participants, but it was only after playing Fingertips: What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here? and seeing how far it was from my expectations that I realized I had expectations for it, and consequently clarified those expectations in my mind to something like a design. I almost feel like I want the whole project to be run again so I can get some of my ideas into more concrete form.

Ah, but that would take away from the time to work on genuinely new projects. Better to tackle a different album. Anyone up for Flood?

Treasure Adventure Game

Tree-climbing is the closest real-life activity to platforming I know of.So, I’ve got a little catching up to do now, and multiple things to post about. The week before last, I intended to play through Bugdom (or as much of it as I could get through, anyway) and post about that, and obviously that didn’t happen. What happened instead is that GOG made a retro metroidvania-style platformer called Treasure Adventure Game available for free, and I found it so compelling that I wound up spending most of my gaming time for the week on that instead.

Like VVVVVV, TAG is something of a love letter to a particular era of gaming — in this case, the SNES era. Beyond the pixel art and chiptunes, it’s got such Nintendoisms as the kid hero whose mother-figure sees him off on his journey, dialog where you don’t hear the player character’s side, sudden discrete shifts in terrain type (including a small desert with quicksand pits), and an inventory screen with silhouettes of the items you haven’t collected yet. I suppose it’s de rigeur these days for indie platformers to reference the games that their developers played as children, but that isn’t really what’s going on here; only in the final boss fight does it reference anything directly, using sprites ripped straight from Mario and Castlevania and a couple of others. When this happens, it comes as a bit of a shock, because up to that point the game has been carefully building its own world — one that works by familiar rules, but has its own history and even its own implied continuity with other, nonexistent games: the overarching goal for most of the game is to collect twelve treasures used by a previous legendary hero in his quest, which we’re told were gathered together again by an archeologist and then lost again a few years before the adventure begins.

You can’t use these treasures yourself, as their magic faded long ago, but they’re described as exactly the sort of thing you’d find in a videogame. For example, there’s a “Chaos Whistle” that “would confuse enemies, causing them to attack their allies”, and an “Echo Mirror”, “used as a shield to reflect spells cast at him back at the attacker”. Rather pointedly, the player character collects twelve tools of his own over the course of the game, albeit for the most part humbler and more prosaic ones, such as a shovel and a flashlight. Things that a young boy who goes exploring might find useful.

Because that’s the one of the main themes here: not just exploring, but a Nintendoized version of the kind of exploring found in stories for boys. There’s buried treasure to dig up, dirt tunnels to crawl through, a secret laboratory in the forbidden tunnels underneath an office building. There are also talking bugs and a variety of silly hats to wear, some of which actually have effects on gameplay. It’s very much a childhood fantasy of a game, by which I mean not just that the content is like a child’s fantasy (of having freedom and power, of having meaningful things to do in the world — in short, a fantasy of adulthood), but that it’s the sort of game that we wanted games to be when we were children, but which the actual games of the time fell short of. But the nostalgia factor means that it’s not really pitched at children, so it’s more like a memory of a fantasy, or a fantasy of being young to have a fantasy like this one.

Mind you, there are things here that no official Nintendo game would include. I refer specifically to the drug references. OK, yes, Mario does magic mushrooms. Ha ha. Well, that which you could read into Mario is downright explicit here. There’s a cave realm inhabited by mushroom people who talk like stoners, who are described as “junkies” by your parrot sidekick, and some of whom are hallucinogenic: touch them, and the screen warps alarmingly, while platforms that you couldn’t see or stand on before appear, allowing you to, well, get higher. I don’t want to make it sound like this a game about drugs overall, though. This is just one section in a large game, and elsewhere, the only things hinting at drugs are occasional bongs in the background in the pawn shops and junk stores found in most of the game’s towns.

Now, I call it a “large game”, but I managed to finish it in less than a week. It may not be large in an objective sense. But it does a very good job of seeming large. Partly I think this is due to the due to the amount and variety of background detail, like the aforementioned bongs. True, it’s all coarsely pixelated, but this in fact helps: the backgrounds are made of the same sorts of sprites as the foreground, which means that anything could be interactive until you try and fail to interact with it. Even when you can’t interact with stuff, very often the NPCs do. This gives it a sort of Little Computer People vibe, as if there really is a simple, pixelated world going on unrelated to your platforming heroics. And the sense of world is reinforced by the fact that it’s contiguous: everything outdoors exists in a single space. Interiors break this consistency — buildings tend to be larger on the inside — but the world as a whole is one big platforming space, not even divided up into screens, composed of multiple islands that you sail between in real time, without exiting to a world map or anything of the sort. (There is a shortcut to travel, but you can’t access it until you’ve been most of the way around the world the hard way.) Late in the game, you acquire a diving helmet that lets you explore the depths between the islands, where there’s sunken treasure to be found. The interesting spots underwater are sparse, but the underwater is still a consistent, contiguous world, with as much ocean floor as there is ocean surface, and that helps the sense of scale.

Now, about that boat. Boats are seldom a good idea in games, in my opinion. I particularly dislike them in strategy games like Civilization and Empire; they’re probably part of the reason I haven’t finished the Plane of Water level in Heroes Chronicles: Masters of the Elements yet. In such games, you usually have to build the boat, using up resources in the process, then gather your units and go through a special boarding step, and then very often your units can’t use their normal actions, and the whole thing is vulnerable to sinking. Even in a platformer, a boat typically means learning a distinct and less-capable control system. The point is that, although boats in games are in theory a convenience, letting you cross otherwise-uncrossable bodies of water, they’re typically experienced as an inconvenience. Well, the boat in TAG is about as convenient as a boat can be. Supposedly, it uses advanced technology to shrink down and fit in your pocket when not in use. The effect in the game is that when you jump into the water, be it the ocean or a pool in a cave, the boat appears automatically, and when you jump back onto land, it goes back in your pocket. It does prevent you from attacking normally, but once you’ve upgraded it with a cannon, it more than makes up for it. There are even places where you deliberately jump into the water just so you can use the cannon.

I do have a couple of complaints. The default key bindings are weird; fortunately, it’s a simple matter to rebind them. (The game seems to want to be played from a gamepad with four face buttons. I played with arrow keys and WASD instead.) There’s a strange business with (non-hallucinogenic) mushrooms throughout the world: there are bouncy mushrooms you can trampoline on, but in some places they start off too small to be used this way, and only grow to maturity after you’ve reached the place they allow access to by some other route. In other words, they become a shortcut for return visits. The problem is that the immature form looks too much like the mature form. It’s quite frustrating, early in the game, to learn that pink speckled mushrooms can be jumped on, then unexpectedly not have it work. This is more like what I described with boats in other games: a convenience that’s experienced as an inconvenience.

Overall, though, this is a really good game, and I suggest you try it if you haven’t already — it is free, after all. It’s particularly good at reusing locations, making the meaning of a particular island or dungeon room change as you gain new tools and can approach it in different ways. And that’s metroidvania in a nutshell, really.