Archive for July, 2012

Advent Rising: Ending

In some ways, Advent Rising is a better Jedi Knight than the Jedi Knight games. It has a lot to do with not having any obligation to stick to an established fictional milieu, in either detail or in philosophy. For example, in a Star Wars game, using Force powers for direct attack is the province of the Dark Side. Advent Rising doesn’t care about that: Gideon is the good guy purely on the basis that he’s trying to save the human race from destruction at the hands of cruel and merciless alien invaders, and if he chooses to kill his enemies with energy blasts from his hands rather than energy blasts from zap guns, no one is going to take him to task for it. And without the need for a distinct class of white magic, the designers are free to weaponize the utility spells. The jumping power, at higher levels, includes the option to produce a powerful shockwave on landing. The level design keeps on including stretches set on cliffs or bridges or inside tall buildings with large plate glass windows just to give you the opportunity to hurl enemies to their doom with your telekinesis.

But there’s enough Star Wars in the mix to keep reminding me of it. There’s one boss fight on a rooftop against a singularly unpleasant-looking alien, a sort of skeletal she-demon with a metal plate where you’d think her eyes should be, who attacks with both a zap gun and lightning-fast alien kung fu (including moves that can’t be performed without a tail). Despite the difference in appearance, it doesn’t take long to realize that she’s basically Boba Fett. You can’t just knock her off the roof because she has a jetpack. If you manage to land a hit on her, she jumps off the roof of her own accord, only to rise up a moment later in a small spacecraft and attempt to blast you with its cannons. When you finally drive her away, she even comments that she wanted to take you alive, as if some unknown Jabba-analog wants you frozen in carbonite on his wall.

The real reason she wanted Gideon alive didn’t occur to me until well after completing the game. I suppose I should have noticed what was going on sooner, because most of the clues were there in front of me. I’m going to describe the ending, and that will require describing the beginning, because the ending pays off a mystery established in the opening cutscene and then forgotten by the player. Basically, the opening cutscene shows a brief and wordless confrontation between some serious-looking floating bald-headed guys in long, flowing garments in some sort of weird and indeterminate glowy orange place. There is no obvious connection between this scene and the following scene of Gideon’s shuttle arriving at the space station, or indeed with most of the game that follows.

Now, the ending. Like Prince of Persia (2008) would later do, Advent Rising takes the tricky approach of putting the real ending after the closing credits. But where PoP was subtle about it, letting the player not just figure out what to do next but figure out that there was anything to do (the main hint being that the game was still letting you walk around), Advent Rising just throws you into a sudden and unexpected additional boss fight. It starts with what seems like just a bonus cinematic and sequel hook: a cutscene of the good guys finally arriving at the Galactic Senate to testify against the Seekers, who apparently have been doing their genocide and planet-busting in secret while presenting a benevolent face to galactic society at large. (This is the one Star Wars riff that seemed most drawn from the prequel trilogy.) The presentation of a living human causes a stir, but Gideon’s thunder is quickly stolen by the arrival of a “real” human — which is to say, one of the bald-headed guys from the opening, floating and radiant and looking far more worthy of being worshiped as a god by aliens than Gideon is. This new arrival calls Gideon’s people subhuman savages who tried to usurp their betters, and explains that, while it’s true that the Seekers made war on these mere primates, it’s entirely alright because it was done on the real humans’ behalf.

And for a moment, I had the thought: what if he’s right? What if this creature is what all the legends about humans had in mind all along? Just because the translator devices render the aliens’ word for their legendary space gods as “human” doesn’t mean that humans really are their legendary space gods. (It’s made explicit that the translators are programmed by feeding them a large quantity of language data. False assumptions could contaminate such a process.)

The one thing that didn’t quite make sense to me was that Gideon recognized the floating bald-headed person. When it arrives, Gideon says “Ethan?”, and when he defeats it, he says “You may have my brother’s face, but you’re not him”, both comments referring to his brother who got left behind on the space station when it was destroyed in the first chapter. (Well, actually, that doesn’t necessarily happen: you have the option of saving Ethan at the cost of losing Olivia, Gideon’s fiancee. Apparently if you do this Gideon recognizes the interloper as Olivia instead.) This reaction seemed strange to me, because I, the player, didn’t recognize the floating guy at all. At the time, I thought there might be some kind of illusion or mind-control mojo going on, making Gideon see a resemblance that wasn’t there — which would be a strange separation of player knowledge from avatar knowledge for so late in the game 1Usually when there’s a large gulf between what the player knows and what the player character knows, it’s at its greatest at the game’s beginning. The characters know things about their present and past situation that the player will later learn from cutscenes, and the player tends to have some advance story knowledge, if only from the title and genre. Over the course of play, the player and avatar both converge towards complete knowledge of the story. It would be interesting to see a game that goes the other way. — but now I think we’re just running into the limitations of the character models. The hair is the only thing making them recognizable, so when you take that away, you need to identify them in dialogue.

Anyway, when I think about it, I never saw Ethan die. He was last seen on a space station overrun by Seekers, who were occasionally grabbing people and scanning their brains. It’s obvious that they were looking for people with psychic potential, but now I understand why: to capture and control them, and turn them into weapons. There was an exchange when fish-alien Yoda 2He’s actually a bit of a subversion of Yoda, in that he’s considerably less powerful than Gideon after just a little training. first explains the powers to Gideon: Gideon says “So it’s a weapon”, and the response is a hesitant “…Interesting that you would draw than conclusion.” At the time, I interpreted this as “Humans are so innately violent that they see nothing but weapon potential in their magical gifts. Perhaps we were wrong to approach them”, but now I think it means he knew a little more than he was letting on about what the Seekers were doing with their abductees.

Ethan/Olivia is one of those puzzle-bosses that’s vulnerable to only one approach, or, more specifically, to only one of your powers. You get new powers at a rate of one per chapter for most of the game, and some of them have alt-fire modes, but even so, you have less than a dozen things to try here. And yet, I had to hit up a walkthrough to win. The reason is that one of the powers is misleadingly close to effective. The baddie’s chief weapon is a ball of darkness that homes in on you and passes through obstacles. It takes away most of your health with a single hit, but he takes several seconds to gather the darkness together — long enough to prepare for it. Now, one of Gideon’s powers is a sort of brief disco-ball of force that reflects projectiles. Perhaps I could use it to reflect the ball back at its thrower? Not quite: it does reflect, but it veers off in a curved path. But I found that if I stood quite close to Ethan, that curved path would orbit me a few times. If I jumped up at just the right moment, perhaps I could get that orbit to hit Ethan? I spent a long time trying to get this to work, but it simply doesn’t. Yes, you do have to swat the ball back at the boss a few times in a sort of deadly Jedi tennis, but there’s a much simpler way to do it.

This was a little disappointing, considering how most of the game allows for multiple viable approaches. Some of the early levels even let you pass by enemies without engaging them. It’s not quite stealth sections, but more just that they’re too busy fighting the people who are actually shooting at them to pay much attention to anyone who isn’t. This of course ends once they know you’re the Kwisatz Haderach, but that’s also when you start getting the choice of whether to shoot dudes or just throw them out windows.

Anyway, it’s a fairly satisfying game, even if the controls are over-complicated and the story leaves a lot unresolved. Apparently it was intended as the first part of a trilogy, but the sales figures put the kibosh on that. The art remains vibrant and compellingly composed throughout, and although the plot is cliché in outline, having a real writer on board seems to have helped a lot. In particular, although the game starts off with a race of good aliens and a race of bad aliens, it manages to give you just enough of the politics backgrounding the conflict to complicate matters. The Seekers aren’t all Seekers, and the few fish-guys who help you are rightly regarded as dangerous by many (most?) of their own people, who prefer the status quo, in which they’re not involved in a galactic war that’s arguably none of their business. I suppose that’s where it really parts ways with Star Wars, which never gave the impression that anyone other than outright villains actually thought that the Empire was a good thing.

1 Usually when there’s a large gulf between what the player knows and what the player character knows, it’s at its greatest at the game’s beginning. The characters know things about their present and past situation that the player will later learn from cutscenes, and the player tends to have some advance story knowledge, if only from the title and genre. Over the course of play, the player and avatar both converge towards complete knowledge of the story. It would be interesting to see a game that goes the other way.
2 He’s actually a bit of a subversion of Yoda, in that he’s considerably less powerful than Gideon after just a little training.

Advent Rising: Laying it On Thick

The plot of Advent Rising falls pretty firmly into the category of Wish Fulfillment Fantasies for Boys. That’s a pretty big category, which includes a large portion of all videogame releases — probably a majority of the AAA titles. But Advent Rising seems like an especially egregious example. This is a game that’s so concerned with showing the player character as the most special person in the world, it double-layers it.

First of all, when you make first contact with aliens in the first chapter, you find out that the entire human race is the most special and miraculous species in the galaxy. Humans are spoken of in legends of old, and thought by many to be entirely mythical. Others have devoted their lives to seeking us out. When they find us, they either kowtow and address us as “Exalted ones” or exterminate us, smashing the very planets we inhabit to pieces. But either way, it’s all about us.

Then, on top of of that, Gideon, the player character, is of course the most specialest human. You are of course the very best at magic alien Jedi powers, but even before you get them, you’re already special. You’re a VIP, part of the First Contact delegation (if only the pilot). You’re the first human to receive a universal translator implant, and after a certain point in the story, you’re the sole surviving human with one — and thus the only person who can understand aliens. I mentioned a scene where you get into a fistfight with resentful space marines, jealous of you but of course ultimately not as good at you at fighting, which is supposed to be their specialty. There’s another scene shortly afterward where one of them actually gets so fed up with how much better you are than him that he tries to murder you — possibly as foreshadowing of the invasion to come, as the Seekers seem to have similar motivations. You can either kill him in self-defense or subdue him non-lethally without much consequence either way, because you’re just that much more important than him. Come to think of it, this must be part of Orson Scott Card’s contribution to the story. It’s a lot like the weird social dynamic in Ender’s Game, but with less justification.

All this makes it just wish-fulfillment fantasy. The part that makes it specifically wish-fulfillment fantasy for boys is the wardrobe. Starfleet miniskirts are standard issue for female supernumeraries, while the two human female characters who have names — both of them young and hot, one of them Gideon’s fiancee — sport midriff-baring short tops whenever they’re not in spacesuits. The manual has a picture of the two of them together, and I actually laughed when I saw it.

Advent Rising: Action Catalogue

I said that the gameplay in Advent Rising is largely about running around and shooting stuff, and that’s broadly true, but it’s not the only sort of interaction you get. There are driving sequences, of the sort you get in the likes of Halo and Half-Life 2, where you can get out of the vehicle and walk around whenever you want, but you ultimately need it to complete your mission, usually because there’s a gap or barrier you can only get past with a turbo-assisted jump. As is typical for a car in a shooting game, ramming your enemies is a much quicker and more effective way to kill them than shooting at them: some of the enemies even have shields that can stop a barrage of future-machine-gun fire but not a car, which makes me wonder what the car’s got going on that the bullets don’t. Maybe it’s made of the same stuff as all those rotating fans in various games.

There are also bits involving stationary anti-aircraft turrets, which means shooting but not running around. (You can think of the driving sequences as a form of running around without shooting, I suppose. Add in the lengthy inter-chapter cutscenes as neither running around nor shooting and you’ve got a complete set of combinations.) Like the turbo-jeeps, these are things you can mount and dismount at will, and the presence of a turret doesn’t automatically mean that there’s anything worth shooting with it. By now, I’ve even used a turret in an alien vessel. It was remarkably like the ones built by humans, just styled differently. I’m not sure why that bothers me more than the fact that their sidearms work just like ours.

But really, it’s just a specific application of something that’s generally true in this game: that all environments, regardless of what alien species built them, use the same interactive components, such as doors, elevator platforms, and control panels. You have to learn to recognize them, mind you. The friendly aliens (as opposed to the ones you spend your time shooting) seem to have evolved from something aquatic, and have technology based around control of water — the cutscene of docking at their ship shows your shuttle splashing into a pool to dock, which I suppose makes sense as a somewhat literal way to dampen your inertia. The doors on their ship are rippling mirrors that look like they’re made of quicksilver, which you simply step through instead of opening them. But in terms of functionality, they’re exactly like the doors back home. Human doors in this game have a color-coded strip at the top that’s red when a door is locked, cyan when it’s unlocked. The liquid doors have a subtler indicator showing whether they’re permeable at the moment, and it takes a little trial and error to learn to recognize it.

But then, learning is what that section of the game is about, I suppose. Once you’re onboard the ship of the friendly aliens — I can’t even remember whether we’ve been given a species name for them or not — you learn that the reason that the centaur-like unfriendly aliens — called the Seekers — are trying to exterminate the human race is that humans have this incredible unrealized psychic potential, which you then get trained to use in a noninteractive montage. Once you’ve got these powers, the game’s ambitions are finally clear. It’s not trying to be Star Trek. It’s not trying to be Mass Effect. (It was released a year too early for that anyway.) It’s trying to be Jedi Knight. Seriously, your special powers are the equivalent of Force Push, Force Throw, and Force Jump. Armed with these, you immediately get put into an assault mission on the surface of a Seeker battleship, where you can dispatch enemies by just plucking them up and throwing them off into space.

Not being a Star Wars title probably helps the game here. For one thing, it’s free to develop these powers — their uses, their visuals — any way it wants, rather than being tied to movie canon. Also, I remember playing Jedi Knight and being impatient with the early sections, before you get your Jedi training. I mean, it said “Jedi” right there in the title, but it was holding back on me. It was like buying a game called, say, “Tank Driver”, and then finding out that you spend the first two hours of the game crawling through trenches to reach the base where the tanks are. Sure, Advent Rising had blurbs on the box promising powers, but there was no way of telling how prominent they would be.

It turns out they’re pretty prominent. This game lets you wield two guns at a time, one in each hand, each controlled by one of the gamepad’s trigger buttons. (Yes, I’m playing this with a gamepad now. It’s really designed for it.) Powers work the same way, which is to say, in order to use them, you have to give up one of your gun slots. I’ve pretty much permanently assigned one trigger to Force Push, and I’m contemplating just going full Jedi and not using guns at all. The only thing that makes me hesitate is that the game keeps bringing in new types of gun, some of which are situationally useful.

So, there’s a good variety of action in this game, and a good amount of it, too. And it’s often tough enough to make me die repeatedly (and not always because of camera control issues). I was a little surprised about this, considering how the opening chapter seemed to be going for a more cinematic experience, with lots of cutscenes and lots of walking around just to show off the sets. The one sort of action that’s conspicuously absent is space combat. Space battles are a big part of the story, and on top of that, the player character is supposed to be primarily a pilot. He takes down a Seeker fighter squadron in a cutscene, but the only time I’ve had control of a ship so far is that shuttle in the prologue. Perhaps the script was written before they decided not to include a space combat mechanic.

Advent Rising

Proceeding into the alphabet proper, let’s take a look at Advent Rising, a sci-fi epic from 2005. (I’ll probably be comparing it to Mass Effect when I get around to playing Mass Effect.) This is one of those games that my hardware wasn’t capable of handling at an acceptable framerate when I first tried it, so I set it aside pending further upgrades. Those upgrades have long since happened, and now, so far, it runs perfectly smoothly and looks great. Which is important, because the look of this game is clearly something they put some effort into, and largely the reason I picked it up. It’s very slick and colorful, and possibly anime-influenced (but without the “big eye” thing). The environments I’ve seen so far are visually pleasing, with lots of inconsequential detail, including NPC conversations — co-written by Orson Scott Card, of all people — that you can listen in on for flavor. It’s a shiny future, reminiscent of Star Trek, only a bit sexier and a bit more macho — more Riker-oriented, if you will. The player character’s brother, who seems to be a major character, even has Riker’s beard.

The game opens with protagonist Gideon Wyeth, under the player’s control, flying a shuttlecraft to dock at a station near a vast and mysterious alien vessel, like Clarke’s Rama or the dungeon-substitute from Starcross. Radio chatter fills the time and informs you about the basic situation while you do this, which strikes me as a good technique for infodumping: it keeps it in the background and lessens your impatience with it by keeping you occupied while it goes on. It strikes me as a little similar to what the Half-Life games do in letting you keep piloting Gordon Freeman around while plot-relevant conversations go on around him, but with the addition of a goal. Once you reach the station, the game crashes. I vaguely remember this happening back in the day as well. Fortunately, you can resume the game from the beginning of the next scene with no further ill effects.

After that, the gameplay seems to mostly revolve around running around and shooting at things, from a third-person perspective, using a complicated multi-finger scheme that’s probably more comfortable on a gamepad than on mouse and keyboard. The PC version supports gamepads, but, oddly enough, the button assignments for it seem to be entirely empty by default. I’ll have to look up the control scheme from the Xbox version and try it out. The early content is basically all a big controls tutorial, but with plot worked in. The unarmed combat tutorial, for example, takes the form of a barroom brawl, Gideon and his war-hero brother against some disgruntled soldiers who resent his VIP status.

I haven’t played enough to get far yet, but I know from back in the day that the inciting incident that ends the first act is an alien attack on the station, resulting in fires and debris that bogged the framerate down to unplayability on my old machine. Here’s hoping it’s better now.

1000 Amps

While I’m on numbers, I figured I might as well give 1000 Amps a try. A recent release, I’ve just managed to get all the way through it over the weekend, and find the experience most satisfactory. This is a puzzle-platformer with the emphasis on puzzle, and I think it’s worth commenting on its technique.

First, the basics. This is a game about a struggle between light and darkness. I don’t mean that as as a metaphor for good and evil, I mean literal light and darkness. The gameworld is a large tile grid divided up into rooms, and each room starts off completely dark, with no visible content. You illuminate and reveal tiles by bumping into them, and generally the first stage of figuring out any room consists of just blundering about blindly for a bit until you learn its general shape. Now, some tiles are light tiles. Light tiles, once illuminated, give you more power, which lets you jump higher, but only in that room. Every new room you enter starts off dark, and thus you start off powerless there. For that matter, if you leave a room without completing it, it’ll be back to complete darkness if you come back. To complete a room and render it fully illuminated forever, you have to illuminate all of its light tiles.

Why would you leave a room incomplete? Well, for one thing, some of them are unsolvable until you find certain upgrades. Most of the upgrades are in the extreme reaches of the map, and difficult to obtain, but the very first one is put right in your path early in the game, essentially as a way of letting you know that this game has an upgrade mechanic. This first upgrade lets you teleport to the position of the mouse cursor by clicking.

Possibly your reaction to this is to question how a platformer that lets you just reposition your avatar wherever you like could be at all challenging. But that ignores the reason why it’s in there. Game designers don’t grant you extra powers to make the game easier, they do it because it lets them make the game harder. Once you have teleport ability, it starts becoming necessary to use it, sometimes in non-obvious ways. And there are significant limitations on its use. You can’t teleport until there’s at least one light tile illuminated, and every time you do, the tiles in your immediate vicinity go dark. In confined spaces, you may be forced to snuff out the light that lets you teleport in the act of teleporting. Still, even given these limitations, teleporting, when you get it, fundamentally alters how you can approach the game, and makes it less about Meat Boy reflexes.

Now, the first several rooms you encounter are immediately solvable. When you start encountering ones where you need an upgrade first, it breaks a pattern. And that break is itself part of a general pattern for this game: it sets expectations, then it violates them. You start off thinking of rooms as things you can solve as soon as you reach them, but that doesn’t pan out. Even then, you still think of rooms as self-contained units that you can solve without reference to the contents of any other room as long as you have the necessary powers, but then you start discovering rooms whose solution depends on approaching them from the right direction. In some cases you can only solve a room if you jump into it from the room below, which means you have to illuminate that room enough to support such a jump. Some rooms don’t have floors. Some aren’t even contiguous — they’re made of up multiple pieces, separated by other rooms, and the only way to get from one piece to another without leaving the room is by teleporting. I won’t go into the last couple of surprises, but it does keep on redefining what’s possible right up to near the end. And that’s kind of cool.

80 Days: The End

I’ve been pretty free with spoilers for this game, on the grounds that no one who hasn’t played it yet is ever going to. But in this post, I’m going to be spoiling the ending to the book as well. I realize that there’s a very good chance that you already know how the book ends even if you haven’t read it — I certainly did — but I still remember having the ending to A Tale of Two Cities spoiled for me by someone who assumed that everyone knew it already, so.

I had been wondering how this game would handle the final leg of the trip, from San Francisco back to England. It conspicuously offered exactly three forms of transport between its cities — rail, ship, and dirigible — and I had already used all three. It turns out to use all three again in a single composite chapter, through a series of misadventures and mishaps that sends you fleeing from one to the next, re-meeting various NPCs along the way. In the end, you wind up stealing a small steamboat and doing one of the few things in the game that’s at all faithful to the book: pulling up the planking of the deck to feed the fires when the coal gives out.

In fact, the designers chose this moment to suddenly start sticking close to the book in general, perhaps realizing that they couldn’t improve on its ending — or, given that everything after the steamboat happens in a noninteractive cutscene, perhaps it was more a matter of obligation, that the story has to end like this because everyone knows that this is how the story ends. Like Fogg, Oliver gets thrown into jail for a day on false charges brought by his nemesis Fix, and believes all to be lost until he’s reminded that he’s gained a day by circling eastward. It’s a little incredible that he would make this mistake, given all the reminders of Fogg’s voyage he’s encountered along the way, but there it is. Also, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that Verne leads up to the revelation very well. First, he makes a point early on of Passepartout getting confused about time differences, and obstinately keeping his watch on London time, insisting that the watch is right and the sun is wrong. Then he brings it up again when he crosses the 180th meridian, where his watch is exactly 12 hours off and therefore displays the correct time once more. So if you’ve forgotten about the time changes, you have a reminder halfway through the book. Thus, the revelation that Fogg had a subjective 81 days all along doesn’t come out of nowhere. In the game, it does.

Now, as I mentioned, the game lets you compare your time to Fogg’s, and I had a comfortable lead over him leaving San Francisco. To make me reach England just in time to be apparently late, the game had to cheat a bit. Actually, whenever you switch settings, it advances the time ahead several days, so it could have been cheating all the time. But it was definitely doing so at the end, putting me onto the ocean liner at exactly 75 days and the steamboat at 80. Suddenly I was behind Fogg — if, as I put it before, I was hoarding time the way you hoard ammo in other games, this was like one of those moments when a game takes all your weapons away. The result is that the time limit is very tight for the final interactive bit, and I failed a few times before I succeeded. Thus, I got to see what happens if you exceed 80 days before the final cutscene, where you’re supposed to. An alarm sounds as the final seconds tick away, and then you get a simple dialog box telling you that your efforts have failed and accusing you of being a bad nephew, which seems a little harsh given the heroic effort that was asked.

All in all, as you’ve probably gathered, this is a very goofy game. Goofiness is something that can be enjoyed if you’re willing to roll with it, but honestly, I found this hard to do. It’s kind of interesting as an experiment in form — adventure game in a GTA-like environment — and I feel like its failures aren’t mainly due to that experiment. Perhaps someone will return to it and create a better game in that format in the future. Perhaps someone has already done so and I just don’t know about it.

80 Days: San Francisco

The 4th of July seemed like an auspicious date to begin the American leg of the journey. The only stop on the entire continent is San Francisco, which happens to be the city I’m in as I play the game. I can report that the simulacrum is a reasonably satisfying representation of the reality. Even though it’s supposed to be set in a different (if indefinite) era, the slope of what I assume to be Powell Street (because it’s right in front of your entry point and it has cable cars running on it) feels just right, and the facades of the houses could be any residential street today. Those streets, by the way, are quite wide and, as in the real city, mostly arranged in a grid, which means this is the best place in the entire game to drive around in a fast car. It even provides a new and faster-looking variety of fanciful car for you to try out. You’re in America now.

There are two spots in this chapter where I failed, in two different ways. The first was a rather Myst-like puzzle involving routing power through a set of electrical boxes with color-coded cables and no clear instructions about what the color-coding indicates, with lots of note-taking and running around to try switches located in different places. Now, I like this sort of puzzle, and I’m not bad at them, but I wasn’t able to solve it within the time allowed — partly because I broke off in the middle to drive back to Oliver’s hotel before he dropped from exhaustion. Now, what happens when you fail to solve a puzzle in this game varies with context. Sometimes your progress is simply blocked indefinitely; sometimes it’s game over; sometimes the punishment is simply the time you spent trying, and the game lets you continue without solving it after enough time has passed. This puzzle was one of the latter sort, and I decided to just keep on playing after I failed, being close to the end and having a considerable lead on Fogg’s time. But it turns out that the approach I was trying at the very end was in fact the thing that would have worked if I had been allowed to keep going, so I feel a little cheated there. Time limits are just bad for puzzles with a strong “Aha!” factor, and possibly for all puzzles of any sort.

The second place I got stuck was in trying to sneak into Fix’s local office to retrieve the last of Uncle Mathew’s patent documents, which Fix had stolen just to slow me down. I have to say that the Fix in the book is a much more sympathetic character. There, he’s sincerely trying to do the right thing, but under a misapprehension about Fogg. The game’s Fix, on the other hand, is just plain mean, a paranoid bully who stoops even to crime, which you’d think would shame his policeman forbear more than Oliver’s travels could. But at least he’s specifically stated to be a different character.

Anyway, I had to break into his office, which was guarded by a bunch of cowboys, and was told that I needed to disguise myself as a member of the cleaning staff. But I couldn’t find a cleaning staff outfit anywhere. After banging my head against that for a while, and taking multiple breaks, I finally resorted to a walkthrough. It turned out to be behind one of the other doors in the building — one undistinguished office door out of many, most of which I had tried, just not the right one.

This gets into one of the big problems with putting an adventure game into an environment like this one. It’s a big environment — not nearly as big as the real city, but big enough that you need some guidance about which of the thousands of environmental objects are interactive and which are backdrops. For most objects, it’s easy to tell: if you’re close to an interactive object and aiming the camera at it, it gets a bright green border around it. There are just three exceptions: people, vehicles, and doors. In the case of people and vehicles, no indicator is necessary, because you can interact with them all — just not necessarily in any useful way. Most NPCs respond with a randomly-chosen line of dialog that essentially boils down to “I’m just here to make the area look populated”. Doors, though, are generally assumed to be permanently locked and effectively just painted onto the wall unless there’s something setting them apart. It could just be that the door is better-lit than the ones around it, or that there’s a quest marker displayed right on the other side of it on the minimap, but there was always something, until the point when there wasn’t.

At any rate, I did ultimately get through the chapter and into the home stretch, the trip back to England, which I’ll talk about in my next post. The musical number at the end of San Francisco is a moment like the ending of Ultima 6, where you hear the Rule Britannia and the Gargoyle theme played together for the first time and realize that they harmonize perfectly (that is, that the reason that Gargoyle music sounds so weird is that it’s Earth music with the melody removed). There’s a particular bit of muzak-y disco that the game has been using as background music basically since the beginning, but only when I heard people singing over it was it clear that it was the instrumental track to “YMCA” by the Village People — and that the game content has already introduced character models for a cowboy, a policeman, and an Indian chief. There’s even a construction site — that’s where the electrical-box puzzle took place — which I speculate was originally planned to provide an excuse for including a construction worker model as well.

80 Days: Vehicles

Over the weekend, I got all the way through the Yokohama chapter and the boat ride that followed it. I probably could have finished the game then, but I turned away because I was finding the dialogue tiresome. It often runs unnecessarily long with attempts to create humor by pointing out the same character quirks over and over again: one man’s obsession with kilts, another’s seasickness, etc. It grows especially bothersome when the quirks it’s making fun of are ethnic.

Nonetheless, I felt Yokohama was an improvement over the previous two chapters, mainly because of the environment modeling. Cairo was all just flat and sand-colored, including the buildings. Bombay, apart from a bit of temple statuary, was more or less the same, only browner. In Japan, the architecture in general becomes more colorful and ornamental, the land hilly and criss-crossed by rivers. And I think it’s also just bigger, with the result that this was the first chapter where I found it practical to make use of vehicles.

There have been vehicles available for hire since the beginning, all fanciful. I mentioned the monowheel already. Camels were available in Cairo, and everyplace seems to have three-wheeled cars that remind me of my goblin turbo-trike, as well as flying carpets, which Oliver rides standing up, like it’s a surfboard. Yes, even Yokohama has flying carpets, patterned after the Japanese flag. I expect America will have flying Mohawk carpets or something.

I suppose that the designers imagined that the players would use vehicles a lot more than I’ve been doing. Going fast is a central idea to the story, and GTA sequels were still topping the charts when the game came out. But GTA let you just take whatever car you fancied, while 80 Days expects you to pay for them with your limited in-game money, and that makes a big difference. (Part of the reason I gave them another chance in Yokohama is that, for the first time in the game, someone lends you the use of a carpet and a car for free.) Mind you, money isn’t all that limited, and I’ll probably end the game with a very large surplus (unlike Fogg), but I had no idea how that would turn out when I was just starting the game and making my first judgments about whether vehicles are worth it. And my initial conclusions were that they hardly even saved you time. On an unobstructed straightaway, they’d handily outdistance a pedestrian, but once I had to take a turn, or swerve to avoid a wandering cow, I’d overturn or underturn and get stuck on the side of a building until I edged back and forth enough to get free. Also, the animations of getting on and off the things take enough time to make it unsuitable for short hops.

One vehicle in particular deserves special mention: Kiouni the elephant. Kiouni is an unusual case in that he actually travels slower than you can go on foot. (This was definitely not the case in the novel — maybe he’s getting old?) But you need an elephant’s strength in a couple of puzzles, so it’s necessary to get Kiouni to the appropriate places. I had some problems with this, similar to when I got stuck rescuing the zeron on the airship: on a brief trip into the world’s smallest jungle, I needed to get Kiouni up a gentle slope that I could take on foot without problem, but which he seemed to slide down as fast as he could climb it. The alt-tab trick didn’t work here, but I found I could overcome the problem by staying on the very edge of the road and walking at a 45-degree angle to it.

Apart from the vehicles you can ride around within the cities, there are the larger vehicles joining them: the airship, the train, and the ocean liner, each modeled as an environment you walk around in, each extremely large for its type, and each suffering problems that slow it down unless you can solve them. You have to take each of these once, but you get a choice of which of these vehicles to ride at the end of each chapter, within certain limits of reason — that is, you can’t take a train from Yokohama to San Francisco, and consequently if (like me) you didn’t take the train on the first leg of the journey, you have to take it on the second. Notably, because you can vary when the vehicle sub-chapters occur, nothing in them can make any reference to where you’re coming from or going to.

Regarding that airship: Now that I’ve read the book, I find it a little strange how persistently adaptations of it put parts of the voyage in the air. The original has Fogg traveling by train, boat, elephant, and even, in the most fanciful moment, a wind-driven sled, but never by air. Which makes perfect historical sense: the only air transport available in 1873 would have been balloons, which are hardly what you’d use when you’re in a hurry. Not that this stopped the most famous film adaptation from famously using a balloon, of course. There just seems to be a strong appeal to the idea, as if someone circumnavigating the globe at great speed belongs in the air. Verne himself frequently uses imagery of flight, describing fast-moving vehicles as leaving the ground and comparing Fogg to a body in orbit.

80 Days: Reading the Book

Like many games based on existing stories, 80 Days assumes that you’re familiar with the original. That is, you never need to know the original story to figure out what to do next (unlike some games), but it keeps on dropping in references with the expectation that you’ll know their significance. A descendant of Inspector Fix, the detective who pursued Fogg around the world in the mistaken belief that he was a bank robber fleeing justice, repeatedly interferes with your journey in a strange and obsessive attempt to clear his family name by wiping that whole affair from public awareness. The Bombay chapter contains a woman named Aouda and an elephant named Kiouni, just like the book, but here it gets a little strange, because Kiouni is supposed to be the very same elephant as accompanied Fogg (and is now a minor tourist attraction for that reason), while Aouda is definitely a different person: the original was a European-educated Parsee noblewoman, while the game’s version is a minor Bollywood actress, providing the basis for the Bombay chapter’s predicted musical number. (Bollywood? Exactly when is this game supposed to take place, anyway? The answer is that it’s firmly indefinite, and full of gratuitous anachronism. People walk about in Victorian fashions but make modern pop-cultural references. The technology isn’t quite right for any era. It’s all something of a cartoon.) The original Aouda wouldn’t be in India anyway, as she fled with Fogg, fearing death at the hands of fanatics. Is it just a coincidence that you meet someone with the same name? Perhaps not: she’s engaged to Kiouni’s current owner, and I speculate that she chose her screen name after hearing him tell the story of Aouda’s rescue (which he seems to do at the drop of a hat).

Now, when I started the game, I myself wasn’t really familiar with the book. I had never read it, nor seen any of its numerous film adaptations, and had no idea who Inspector Fix and Aouda were. But the game’s name-dropping convinced me to read it, if only to appreciate the game better. It turns out to be a reasonably short book, and I’m currently about halfway through it. So the details are quite fresh in my mind as I play through the equivalent sections of the game. They are of course quite different, in both details and tone. The game is considerably wackier, and this comes as no surprise. (For crying out loud, the last chapter I completed, on the train out of Bombay, had a vampire in it.) But Verne is something of a literary caricaturist, and he portrays Fogg’s meticulous habits, unvarying down-to-the-minute daily schedule, and implacable faith in his ability to account for any unforseen obstacles with something that I’d also call cartoonish exaggeration. (In fact, he reminds me a bit of the DCAU version of the Clock King.) The one aspect of Fogg’s character that I find the most interesting, from a narrative point of view, is his utter lack of curiosity about the world he’s racing around. He’s shown as never leaving the boat or train he’s on unless absolutely forced to. He’s not on this mission to sightsee, he’s on it to win a bet. And that’s interesting because it’s at odds with what the reader, or player, wants. We’re here to sightsee. So it’s little wonder that Passepartout, Fogg’s servant, winds up being the viewpoint character for much of the novel. The game gets around the problem by giving us a completely different character, with completely different motivations, ones that force him to engage the environment. For Fogg, Bombay is just a stop between Suez and Calcutta, a place where he gets off a boat and onto a train. For Oliver, it’s a destination, a place with hidden treasure in the form of one of Uncle Mathew’s patent papers.