Archive for 2014

Hadean Lands: Setting and Transformation

If there’s one thing every sufficiently-large puzzle game needs, it’s an excuse. Some reason why walking around and doing stuff requires convoluted shenanigans. You’re sneaking around a high-security facility and would be observed if you took the obvious routes. You’re exploring a ruin, and a lot of the floors and staircases are collapsed and impassible. It’s all a test. There’s wild magic interfering with you. The whole world is stylized enough that you automatically don’t take it seriously.

In Hadean Lands, the primary excuse consists of fractures in time. Something has gone wrong and various bits of the “marcher” (alchemical spaceship) you’re on are frozen in time, with barely-visible barriers separating you from your trapped-mid-stride crewmates, or from glimpses of alien planets. Yes, planets, plural. Whatever befell the marcher has twisted space up enough that different fractures show plainly different worlds: a Hadean land here, grey and airless, a Thalassan land there, covered in toxic sea.

But then, there’s some indication that having access to multiple worlds at once is normal. One room has a dome full of windows, each showing a different sky. Apparently the marcher uses this to navigate. And then there’s the peculiar matter of the basement, which leads to a ledge on an underground chasm, which is deep enough that you can’t see the bottom. The chasm has a number of doors leading to parts of the marcher, which makes it seem like a permanent feature of the thing, not a by-product of the time-fracturing accident. And yet, it’s underground. Perhaps the marcher isn’t so much a ship as a building that generates portals? But it’s described in nautical terms otherwise.

So basically the setting keeps you a little unbalanced by combining disparate ideas, convincing you it’s one thing and then showing you that it’s another. Even the base concept of “alchemists on a spaceship” works into this. Even the mechanics, as described last post: inventory items that you later realize you don’t need to pick up, a reset button that preserves state. Alchemical transformations symbolized by transformations of understanding, and vice versa. I’ve found a scrap fragment referring to the creation of a homunculus, and I won’t be at all surprised if it turns out that this is what the player character was all along without knowing.

Hadean Lands: Knowledge Mechanics

I had a plan. I was going to do a series of posts about Hadean Lands in lieu of writing about the Comp this year. Hadean Lands seems like a likely Best Puzzles winner at the Xyzzy Awards, and an almost certain finalist, so if I wanted to do writeups of that category again (as I have done for the last two years), it would be good to get my thoughts about it down in advance. Once I had that done, I could move on to blogging other games, ideally before the Steam holiday sale.

The proximate cause of this plan’s failure was an extended crunch at work, but that’s been over for a while now. No, the reason the plan failed is that it was easily derailed. Having started the game, and put it aside, I found it daunting to return to. The amount of stuff you have to know about just seems to keep growing! Scrap paper is particularly deceptive. You’ll have an incomplete description of a useful ritual, and you’ll see a bit of scrap paper in a hard-to-reach place, and you’ll hope that it might contain the secrets you’re seeking, but when you finally solve the puzzle to reach it, it’ll more likely turn out to be instructions for a completely unrelated ritual — one that you don’t have any immediate need for, but which, by its mere presence, you now know that you’ll have to perform at some point. Sure, every ritual you can perform increases your powers, but until you have what you need to perform it, it’s just a looming obligation.

Now, the author knows that he’s built a daunting game. This is largely the point of it: to give the players the experience of mastering a large and complex system. And to that end, the game gives the player quite a lot of help, keeping track of all the formulas and rituals you’ve discovered and letting you repeat them with minimal fuss, not troubling you with intermediary steps that can be taken care of automatically, even automatically unlocking doors that stand in the way of necessary ingredients and the like. Everything has to be done manually once, but no more. And if you accidentally destroy something crucial and get the game into an unwinnable state and haven’t saved in a long time? You still don’t have to repeat anything. At various places on the map there are dark voids, part of a general rupturing of time and space in the vicinity of your alchemical spaceship. Entering one of these voids resets the state of the game to the beginning, except for the player character’s accumulated knowledge, which is the one important thing. With the ability to automatically skip over the details, starting over is no chore.

Indeed, it will probably be essential. I’m still in the early stages, but I think I can see how this is going to go. The goals you’re trying to reach in this game — the rewards for solving puzzles — basically come in two sorts: materials and information, the stuff used in alchemical rituals and the instructions on how to use them. Sometimes a ritual will consume a thing, so it can only be performed once. And what if two rituals both require the same consumable ingredient? Well, if the ultimate reason you’re performing the ritual is to gain access to information, you can just reset afterward and keep the information. It effectively doesn’t cost anything at all.

This may sound like sequence-breaking. After all, if the only thing standing between you and your goals is information, a player who has that information can make the protagonist act on it without learning it, like skipping directly to Atrus in Myst. Well, the author has come up with a clever way around that: Formulas. These are the incantations used in rituals by means of commands like “recite the word of anaphylaxis”, and the point of them, beyond flavor, is that the player character has to actually learn the word of anaphylaxis first. This means that formulas act more like inventory items than information, but, unlike your material inventory, you get to keep them across resets.

Meanwhile, the material inventory becomes more like information. Contrary to ingrained adventure-game habit, picking up every item you find isn’t important, and can even be detrimental if you’re planning on walking through a fire or something. Knowing where you can find a thing is for most purposes as good as having it in your hand; at worst, you can go to its location and pick it up with just two commands, and if it’s part of a ritual you’ve performed once before, you don’t even need that. And when I say “knowing”, I am again talking about player-character knowledge rather than player knowledge. The PC knows where things are even if you forget — and, yes, retains that knowledge across resets.

Hadean Lands

Hadean Lands, a text adventure by renowned IF author Andrew Plotkin, was the first successful Kickstarter project I ever backed. He asked for a mere $8000, and got nearly four times that, which seemed like a lot of money for a Kickstarter back in 2010. And, just as he got four times what he asked, he took four times as long as he expected. The most anticipated text adventure in many years, it shipped just a few days ago, and I finally gave it a serious try this weekend.

Despite a multi-hour session, I feel like I’ve just barely started it. The whole thing is predicated on alchemical rituals that require combinations of ingredients under specific elemental or planetary influences established by symbols and incenses, and sequences of commands like “invoke lesser phlogistical saturation” or “recite the categorical imperative”. In other words, this isn’t your “select a spell from a list” system; magic takes work. Even just following instructions written out for you can require research to find out what those instructions mean. It reminds me a little of spellcasting by typing sequences of text from the manual in King’s Quest 3 and a little of the more involved schools of ritual magic in Ultima VIII (a game that I remember as essentially a series of demos for different magic systems), but with one big difference: it’s systematic. Rituals aren’t just arbitrary sequences of actions, they’re techniques that produce specific effects, and that can be tweaked to produce different effects if you understand the theory behind them. Just getting out of the first room requires making a reasonable substitution in the one recipe available to you at that point, tutorializing this variability.

And it keeps on tutorializing for a good while, introducing new aspects of alchemical practice one by one, mainly by means of blocked doors. Here’s one that’s rusted shut, here’s one that’s rusted even more so that your previous anti-rust ritual doesn’t cut it, one overgrown with mold, one that’s locked and the key tossed in a blazing furnace. I’ve reached the point where things open up a bit, where I have multiple unsolved puzzles in front of me and multiple recipes that I have no immediate use for. It’s still looking like alchemy is always the answer to every puzzle, though.

Fortunately, the game only expects you to perform each ritual once. Repeating a ritual is as simple as typing “make fungicide” or whatever, provided you have access to everything you need. I understand that macro-instructions of this sort become increasingly important as the game goes on. We’ll see how that goes in future posts.

The Ship

Okay, enough dawdling. Time to tackle another game that I bought on CD-ROM a long time ago and which now has Steam trading cards. The Ship, a murder simulator set on a 1920s-plus-anachronisms cruise liner, was one of my last purchases from the bargain bin of a bricks-and-mortar software retailer. I picked it up mainly because the cover blurbs promised something new and different and innovative, and I was already in that state where these attributes were more appealing than “fun” or “well-crafted”. (Blogging may have something to do with this. It’s definitely easier to describe what a game does differently than what it does well. It’s probably more informative to boot.) But then, having bought it, I waited eight years to actually give it a try, ruining the newness. My first impression of the game’s content is that it has stylistic elements of Bioshock (ironic juxtaposition of brutal violence with art-deco opulence and old-timey music recordings) and Team Fortress 2 (the particular style of gangly-limbed caricature used in the character models and their animations), both of which were released a year later.

Although The Ship comes with a short single-player “story mode” campaign, it is essentially a competitive multiplayer FPS along the same lines as its enginemates TF2 and Counterstrike. Its chief difference from them is that it’s designed from the ground up to support gameplay more like live-action Assassin. At any given moment, you have one other player you’re trying to murder. As such, the game goes to some length to make individual characters recognizably distinct in both face and wardrobe, and reserves a biggish portion of the UI for a portrait of your target and a statement of their last known location. Combat usually involves improvised hand-to-hand weapons like golf clubs and frying pans rather than guns, and tends to be quick and deadly, an aggressor suddenly pulling out a weapon and dispatching a target who doesn’t get much chance to fight back, preferably from behind. So it’s a little like if everyone in a TF2 match were playing the Spy. Indeed, there’s a hint of Spy Party in the design. Although you know who you’re hunting, you don’t know who’s hunting you, unless they give themselves away through their behavior — say, by following you around. I can imagine advanced players developing tricks to mask their intentions.

Alas, I will probably never see any advanced players. I was unable to play a genuine multiplayer game, due to the in-game matchmaking no longer working. Apparently there are still servers out there that you can connect to manually, but by the time I learned this, I had played to satiation against bots. And frankly, if the servers take any special effort to find, they’re probably populated entirely by people who have spent the last eight years honing their skills at this particular game. Being the newbie in such an environment does not sound appealing. Oh, I’ll give it another try if someone tells me it’s worth it, but for now, I’ve been through the single-player content and tried all the game modes and consider The Ship to be off the Stack.

There are a couple of other mechanical peculiarities worth noting. First of all, there are places where it’s unsafe to fight. If you draw a weapon in view of a guard or a security camera, or linger too long in a staff-only area, you will be arrested, relieved of your weapons, and temporarily thrown in the ship’s brig — which isn’t just a time-out, it’s a small explorable area where you can still fight other imprisoned players if you can find a shiv. If your target gets arrested, you could conceivably trigger your own arrest deliberately in order to pursue them, although in most situations it would probably be more effective to wait right outside the brig, to ambush them when they’re released and haven’t found a new weapon yet.

Now, this mechanism creates murder-free zones where you can sit safely, and it would be a shame if the players just sat there timidly. So the game has a system to force you out of them: Needs. This works kind of like The Sims. Your character requires periodic sleep, especially if you exert yourself. You need food and drink, which in turn produces a need to go to the bathroom, which increases your need to wash. There are even Needs for social interaction and reading material. All of these Needs slowly fill meters, which are normally hidden from view until they’re at least half full. I’m not entirely sure of the consequences of letting the meters fill up completely. The only meter I ever allowed to fill was Hunger, once, when I was still getting used to the rules. This killed my character. Do all the meters do this? If you don’t read anything, can you literally die of boredom? It would take a while to find out; these meters fill pretty slowly. That’s because keeping your Needs satisfied isn’t really meant as a challenge. It’s just a way to force the players to actually engage in evironmental activities other than stalking their prey, and behave a little more like a passenger on a cruise ship. I can’t say it’s entirely successful at this. There’s a screenshot on the box that shows a character stealthily sneaking up on someone who’s obliviously leaning on a rail and gazing out over the ocean, but that would never happen in practice, because there’s no reason to gaze out over the ocean. You never take leisurely saunters around the promenade deck. You satisfy your needs as efficiently as possible to get back to the business of killing. It’s less like being a passenger on a cruise and more like being a TF2 character who needs to run to the bathroom every few minutes.

The premise of the whole thing, explained in the intro cutscene in story mode, is that a masked sadist known as Mr. X has given out a number of free tickets to the cruise, only to reveal once the ship is underway that he’s diverted it from its scheduled course until the passengers murder each other for his amusement. This at least makes sense of some of the game’s rules: they’re dictated by the whims of a madman. In particular, killing your designated victim gets you a cash reward, and the size of the reward depends on the weapon you used. A keypress brings up a list of the current per-weapon rewards, which changes whenever someone gets a kill, because obviously Mr. X craves variety and doesn’t want to see the same weapon used over and over again — and neither do the players or spectators, of course. This, I felt, induced desired behavior much better than the Needs did.

The peculiar thing about Mr. X is that he’s obviously the villain of the story, but, due to the gameplay model, you never get to confront him, or even act against him in any way. He’s not so much an end boss as a personification of the game itself, and the players are his partners in crime. Even the player characters may have been hoodwinked into the whole situation, but once there, all they can do is cooperate with his insane demands or lose. That’s rather grim, isn’t it? This is a world where evil is all-powerful and untouchable, and everyone else dances to its tune, fighting each other instead of the real enemy.

Ah, but what about the single-player campaign? Unlike the multiplayer modes, it has a plot that moves forward, and can contain changes to the status quo. But if anything, it just turns up the grimness even more. We learn that Mr. X has no intention of letting anyone leave the ship alive, and plans to send a helicopter to drop bombs on it when he’s through with his fun. A friendly bellboy offers to help you escape if you give him a large sum of cash, to be obtained through various missions on the ship, mostly criminal in nature: steal a painting from the captain’s quarters, whack a bunch of thugs who someone’s mad at, move your way up to another mission source who pays more. It reminds me a lot of the missions in GTA3. When you’re done, you just make off in a dinghy while the ship sinks behind you, emphasizing the pointlessness of everything you were asked to do, and also how small your victory was. This is followed by a tacked-on Prisoner-esque coda in which you wake up in the sickbay of another of Mr. X’s ships, presumably because an ending where you actually escape was considered too hopeful. You’ve seen more story than you do in deathmatch mode, but you’re still trapped in a never-ending cycle. I feel like this seals off any possibility of even thwarting Mr. X in a sequel or a fanfic, even in a minor way. Such a thing would be too far from the spirit of the game to believably happen in the same world.

The Recent Unpleasantness

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a blog post about the whole #GamerGate kerfuffle. I haven’t been in a writey mood, but it seems important to get some words down, if only to get them out of my head. But then, every time I write a couple of paragraphs, I find some other article that says what I was trying to say, only better. So let’s start off with something more personal, that other people wouldn’t be able to say. Let me tell you the story of my closest encounter with an internet hate mob.

It wasn’t all that close an encounter, really. I wasn’t involved directly. But my employer was. It happened three years ago, and it started with a dispute over some minor surface damage to a vehicle that had been loaned to the company. I imagine that the company and the vehicle’s owner could have settled things between themselves if they tried, or, if that failed, taken it to small claims court. But the vehicle owner was impatient, and posted his grievances to reddit. In this post, he named the person who had been his initial point of contact at the company. She wasn’t really involved in this dispute, was definitely not responsible for the damage, and in fact had quit her job a few weeks prior to this point. In fact, she was trying to enjoy her first real vacation in a long time when it hit: nonstop angry and incoherent phone calls from strangers who had even less connection to the dispute than she did.

Now, this was a fairly minor hate mob, and blew over relatively quickly, but any amount of personal harassment is too much. The reason I think this episode might be of interest to people not directly involved is what it illustrates about the mob mentality. The chosen victim in this instance was not only innocent of any wrongdoing, she hadn’t even done anything to call attention to herself. She wasn’t a public figure. She didn’t make a blog post that people took exception to. She just got accused by someone else, and a few angry strangers took that as permission to mistreat her. I’ve long felt that the lesson here is that none of us are safe, that you can just arbitrarily become the victim of mob justice no matter what you do. I’ve compared internet mobs to house fires before. If someone is trapped in a burning house, you don’t take the fire’s side, or say “maybe the fire has a point”. Fires don’t have points. They’re just fires. If they burn someone who deserves it, it’s purely a coincidence.

But there’s one more detail that seems relevant now. I haven’t spoken of this on this blog before, because I like to keep it separate from my professional life, but: I am a game developer. I’m a programmer for Telltale Games 1This is of course why I haven’t posted about any games by Telltale since 2008. When I played Sam & Max, it was research for a job interview. At that interview, I was presented with a copy of CSI: Hard Evidence, on the basis that I’d probably be working on the next CSI game if they hired me, and I should know a little about it first., and the vehicle involved in the dispute was a replica Jurassic Park jeep used in the Telltale booth at PAX. The mob had come from reddit’s videogame forums.

Now that that’s said, let me tell you a little about how #GamerGate looks from my vantage point inside the industry. There’s a notion I’ve seen expressed that #GamerGate is essentially about rescuing the games industry from Social Justice Warriors — that we game developers are being bullied into changing our games and compromising our artistic vision to meet the demands of SJWs, and that the only reason we don’t speak out about it is that we’re afraid. Because the SJWs have a stranglehold on the press, and can punish us if we don’t play ball.

Speaking as a game developer, and as someone who talks with other game developers on a daily basis, this whole idea is pure fantasy. Seriously, no one in this industry is chafing at the constraints of the SJW mafia. We have real constraints that do chafe: constraints imposed by publishers and IP license owners, by Sony and Microsoft (both of whom have new consoles out right now, with brand new certification requirements), by the limitations of our target hardware. Take us out for drinks and these are the things we’ll complain about. SJWs do not make the list.

I can’t deny that there are people trying to ruin games, however, because we’ve all experienced the effects. For as long as games have been online and multiplayer, a certain subset of players have dedicated themselves to ruining them for everyone else, whether by killstealing, or attacking their teammates, or just being abusive and annoying on in-game chat until other people quit in exasperation. We call these people “griefers”.

I suggest that online harassment of individuals should be considered a form griefing.

I hope that’s not belittling — clearly it’s worse than ordinary griefing, because it’s in real life, rather than a game you can quit. (And no, quitting your job doesn’t stop the abuse. If anything, it seems to encourage the griefers, who see it as a sign that they’re “winning”.) Mainly, I wish to suggest that griefing and harassment stem from a similar source, and that this is why gaming seems to have a much greater problem with harassment than other fields. You can’t grief people through movies or comic books, but you can in a game. And so gaming is where the griefers make their home.

Now, if you bring up the ongoing griefing campaign in a place more populated than this, you’ll inevitably put people on the defensive. They’ll object to being tarred with the same brush as the griefers, and insist that they’re just trying to have a dialogue about ethics in gaming journalism. To this, all I can say is: I’m just talking about the griefers. If you’re not a griefer, I have no quarrel with you. The only person grouping you with them is yourself, and you really shouldn’t do that, because they’re not actually on your side; griefers are never on anyone’s side, even when they’re on your team. You want a dialogue? The griefers are preventing that, drowning any reasonable disagreement in a flood of bile and vitriol. It’s hard to notice sincere concerns, let alone respond to them, when they’re buried under a thousand insults and death threats.

And there’s the problem with any attempt to use #GamerGate for any purpose other than griefing: it automatically groups you with the griefers. The tag was started to spread one of the sleazy Zoe Quinn hate videos. For a while, if you searched for “GamerGate” on Google, the first hit that purported to explain it from the Gater side was just a list of links to similar videos attacking Quinn and Sarkeesian, rather than anything to do with journalistic ethics. That’s changed: now, judging by Google hits, the primary non-griefing purpose of #GamerGate is defending #GamerGate from accusations that they’re nothing but griefers. This is not productive! I say let the griefers have their tag. They don’t define us as gamers, and we are not their shield.

1 This is of course why I haven’t posted about any games by Telltale since 2008. When I played Sam & Max, it was research for a job interview. At that interview, I was presented with a copy of CSI: Hard Evidence, on the basis that I’d probably be working on the next CSI game if they hired me, and I should know a little about it first.

BloodRayne: Double-Teamed

Act 3 of BloodRayne has about half as many levels as act 2, but nonetheless I wound up playing through all of Act 2 in a single day, and splitting up Act 3. The reason is that Act 2, for all its length, kept on moving forward, whereas in Act 3, I got stuck in the final confrontation. Understand that this is one of those games that only saves between levels, and losing a fight means restarting the level from the beginning. But even so, there’s a sense of progress if you can keep on doing more damage before dying on each iteration. In the last level, I was lacking even that, so I took a break. Let me go into a little detail.

The end boss is actually two bosses who aren’t friends: they try to fight each other when they’re not attacking you, but aren’t capable of inflicting significant damage on each other. One the one side, there’s the demon Beliar, a sort of slow-moving headless and inhuman skeleton made of sharp bits, who periodically returns to his spawn point in the center of the room and grows larger. If he gets big enough, he wins, in a FMV cutscene that I never saw during gameplay, because I generally died long before it was a possibility. On the other side, there’s Gruppenführer Jurgen Wulf, the man to blame for Beliar taking physical form, and who now, predictably, regrets it. As the player knows from earlier cutscenes, Wulf has super-speed and a sort of Street-Fighter-ish fire punch he can do if you stand still for it. There’s plenty of loose guns around due to the slaughter that preceded the fight, but neither enemy is a good target for gunfire — Wulf because he’s hard to hit, Beliar because guns just don’t seem to do much to hurt him.

The key with Wulf was obvious: bullet-time karate. But that’s not a realistic option with a guy made of knives. I had a hard enough time making so much as a credible dent in Beliar that I wound up hitting up the Internet for hints, thinking there must be some trick I was missing. Apparently he has one vulnerable spot, which you can aim at in sniper mode, but even now I’m not quite sure where that is — it’s his “heart”, but exactly where that is was kind of muddied by his peculiar anatomy and the fact that he never stays still long enough to get a good look. (Alas, you can’t be in sniper mode and bullet time simultaneously.) These may be problems peculiar to the PC version, though, because I didn’t see anyone else with similar complaints.

I did, however, see a certain amount of disagreement on a key question: what order should you kill the two enemies in? On the one hand, Beliar is the one responsible for the time limit. If you take him out, you have all the time you need to finish off Wulf. On the other hand, Wulf is relatively quick to kill, and once he’s not running around and distracting Beliar any more, Beliar becomes a lot easier to control. One forum post recommended letting Beliar grow a few times and then dashing into a tunnel: if he’s following only you, he’ll get stuck on the tunnel entrance and be easy to shoot. This only works for a little while, but apparently that can be enough to kill him if you can find his heart. I ultimately wound up taking Wulf out first, then killing Beliar mainly with explosives to the general chest area, letting splash damage do what my aim could not. But this was only after trying it both ways, multiple times. Experiments were helped by one pleasant surprise: after you kill either one, you get to save the game! This is the only place in the entire game where you can save mid-level.

Each kill was also accompanied by a short FMV cutscene, with some variation depending on ordering. All the FMV in the game was shown in a different resolution than the game itself, which was a bit of a problem: my current hardware takes several seconds to adjust to a change in graphics mode, so I always missed the beginning of the clip. (And they’re short clips, so that was a high proportion of the whole.) Fortunately, all the video exists on disc in the form of perfectly ordinary mpegs that I could view afterward to see what I had missed.

And that’s it! I’m done with BloodRayne, and actually have been for several days now. It has sequels, but I don’t have any of them, and even if I wind up acquiring them through a bundle or something, they won’t have the same status for me without physical media. After finishing the game came a little ritual I haven’t had an opportunity to engage in for a couple of years now: reshelving the CD-ROM, moving it from the area reserved for the Stack to the place for completed games. I suppose this means I have to decide what the new Oath is. I’ll be updating that page shortly.

BloodRayne: Increasing Firepower

Act 3 of BloodRayne turns things even more Wolfensteinish by moving the action to a German castle. In something of a subversion, it’s not a Nazi fortress, but a Vampire fortress being attacked by Nazis, who want the final piece of that demon-awakening artifact they’ve been hunting. As with the Daemites in act 2, this means you have two sets of enemies that fight each other. In some cases, you don’t have to lift a finger to kill the people on your hit list: it suffices to stand back and watch them get torn apart by the monsters they unwisely antagonized.

It’s not like they came entirely unprepared, though. The Nazi vampire-castle-storming force is much better armed than the Argentina bunker defense contingent, with more guys with more powerful guns. Some of them even have jetpacks. Finally, I’ve reached the point where there’s so much fire directed at me that hand-to-hand combat isn’t cutting it any more, and firing guns back seems like a necessity of gameplay rather than just an additional part of the underlying power fantasy. Appropriately, the game chooses the beginning of Act 3 to introduce the sniper-zoom-in vision, one of the four supernatural-vampire-perception modes that you can switch between at will. (That isn’t what the game calls it. The official name of sniper-zoom-in vision is something much more highfalutin.) The other three modes are normal vision, a mode that makes everything glow blue and highlights your current goal point, and (starting in Act 2) bullet time. Yes, this game gives you infinite bullet time; the only reason to ever not be in bullet time is because you want to actually get places at a faster speed than excruciatingly slow. To my mind, the chief virtue of bullet time mode is that it lets me actually follow Rayne’s high-speed acrobatic combat maneuvers, which are otherwise a bit incomprehensible. I guess this is part of what made me prefer hand-to-hand throughout Act 2. I really haven’t found sniper vision as useful, though, even as I use guns more.

The pinnacle of the increasing firepower, though, is the Nazi mechs. They’re small as mechs go, and look kind of like Metal Gear would if it had been built during the 1940s. You get to take control of one at one point, although the game does much less with this than, say, Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay did. You don’t even get to stomp around on puny humans, which is to my mind the chief appeal of mechs. Instead, it basically just sends you to fight a number of other identical mechs in an enclosed space, after which you have to get out and continue on foot because the mech’s weight would collapse the stairs if you didn’t. It’s a little weird, narratively. Throughout the rest of the story, Rayne’s big combat advantage is her vampire powers. Even when she fights other vampires in the castle, they’re mainly just less powerful than her, and on the few occasions when she meets one that isn’t, it’s a puzzle-boss that she has to defeat with cleverness rather than force. But that mech fight? She doesn’t have any vampire advantages when she’s piloting a mech, and she certainly doesn’t have any training (dialogue suggests that she’s never even seen one before), but she manages to take on three other equally-powerful mechs at once and win anyway. Now, there’s a certain mythic tradition, seen also in superhero comics, wherein heroes who are strongly associated with a particular weapon or ability have to defeat one enemy without using it, thereby establishing that the real source of their continuing victories is their intrinsic worth as a hero, not their gear or their superpowers. And you could argue that the mech fight is an example of this, showing how Rayne keeps on kicking ass on a level playing field. It just strikes me as a little strange that the leveling is accomplished by giving her access to a walking tank with an infinite rocket launcher.

BloodRayne: Act 2

Act 2 of BloodRayne officially takes place in Argentina, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. The whole thing is set indoors, in a massive beige-and-grey bunker built into a mountain, and in the mines and caverns underneath it. As I said in my last post, it becomes like Wolfenstein, and not just cosmetically. The most recent Wolfenstein game at the time of BloodRayne‘s release was the 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which I remember being notable for three things: large areas created by cut-and-pasting entire rooms (chiefly barracks), wall-mounted alarm boxes that the Nazi troopers would use to call for reinforcements if you let them, and the addition of supernatural elements to the setting, including an excavation to recover a powerful ancient artifact that they ultimately can’t control. BloodRayne apes all three.

“Nazis try to obtain powerful artifact that they ultimately can’t control” is something of a cliché by now, probably mainly due to the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, although there the artifact was divine rather than eldritch. It definitely wasn’t part of the original Apple II Castle Wolfenstein, though, which was released the very same year as Raiders. Interestingly, though, BloodRayne reminds me a bit of that game due to the initial enemies. In Castle Wolfenstein, there were two sorts: common soldiers and SS officers, the chief difference being that the SS wore bulletproof vests, and were thus immune to your normal attack. If you wanted to kill an SS officer (rather than just avoid him), you had to use a grenade. BloodRayne similarly divides its enemies into the ordinary soldiers and the officers of the Gegengeist Gruppe, a special anti-occult division. GGG officers have special training in how to fight vampires, and can ward off your attempts at biting them, unless you attack from behind.

Rayne’s mission is one of assassination. You get a hit list at the beginning, and cross one name off it after each boss fight. The first few bosses are just vanilla GGG officers with particularly large numbers of bodyguards, but after a certain point they start going a little more Metal Gear. The first really difficult boss fight happens in a chapel, where the pulpit is actually an armored machine gun turret that can zip down the aisle on a rail, its occupant cackling, forcing Rayne to run back and forth. Another of the bosses is a fellow half-vampire, the only female enemy we’ve seen since Louisiana, wearing the incongruous combination of a surgeon’s mask and a shirt unbuttoned to her navel. This is the “prove your worth as a hero by defeating something that’s just like you only moreso” fight: she’s got most of Rayne’s moves, but larger breasts.

If you ignore the Louisiana section, the content generally follows the same paradigm as the original Tomb Raider: it starts off fairly realistic for a videogame, and becomes gradually freakier as you get deeper into it. The biggest turn comes with the reveal of the Daemites: fleshy skull-like levitating heads with spinal tails. I’d almost say that it’s the return of the sex monsters, that the Daemites are basically giant sperm, except that it took me hours to even think of that connection, mainly because they don’t move like sperm at all. But at least they behave like a proper Alien-style rape monster, killing Nazis by forcing themselves down their mouths — not to reproduce, but to take control of their bodies by popping their heads off from underneath, like that one scene in Eraserhead. Although they’re at first presented in such a way as to make them seem like the products of Nazi mad science, it ultimately turns out that the mad scientists had simply captured them for study, from the caves below, where more twisted things await and the decor becomes gross and organic.

Daemites, like spider monsters, cannot be bitten, which makes the Daemite-heavy sections harder. They also don’t drop guns, which I suppose would be a downside for players who use guns a lot. I personally find that in this game I prefer hand-to-hand combat, except in situations where guns are clearly advantageous, such as when there’s a sniper on a ledge above you — and even then, Rayne can probably leap to that ledge and take out the sniper with a bite in about the same time it would take to shoot him.

BloodRayne: Sex and Violence

Although the main focus of BloodRayne is on a sexy vampire fighting Nazis, the story opens in the misty swamps of Louisiana, where you instead fight Zombies. The game calls them “mutates”, but it’s not fooling anyone, especially when the whole reason they’re there ultimately turns out to be a “voodoo ritual”. The zombies are suitably gross-looking, textured with glistening decay, although some of them have distorted arms and spiky hands that, to my expert eye, look less like mutations and more like animation glitches of the sort that tend to happen during game development. Perhaps that was the inspiration.

The zombie disease, we learn, is spread by spider-monsters, which are birthed by “bio-masses”, which are essentially just veiny, undulating, tentacled wombs with vaginas in front. Rooted in place and utterly passive, their only way of fighting back as Rayne slices them apart with her bat’leth is by disgorging more spider-monsters. The end boss of Louisiana is a gargantuan combination of the spider-monsters and the bio-wombs, called “the Queen of the Underworld”.

Combining sex with things deadly and grotesque is of course a staple of horror movies, from Cat People to Friday the Thirteenth to Alien, because it’s an easy way to make people ill at ease. But there’s something weirder than normal “sex = death” horror going on here. First of all, Rayne, personification of the “sex = death” equation, is the hero. Secondly, throughout the first act, the men that Rayne uses her eroticized bite attack on are gross and diseased. It would make horror-movie symbolic sense for a gross, diseased man to attack and kill people in a sexualized manner, but it’s the reverse here: the sexualized attack by the young woman is what kills them. It’s as if she prevents them from raping her by raping them first. Thirdly, although the most powerful beings on both sides of the fight are female, the female enemies are dehumanized, reduced to their reproductive functions. Because they’re not human, Rayne can’t use her sex attack on them.

I can see some symbolic sense in some of this. Rayne isn’t simply sex, she’s sex for pleasure, selfish hedonism without regard for the other party, as represented by the fact that she gains health from coupling while her partner loses it. Which is still a weird choice for a hero figure, but let it pass. Her enemies in the first act are potential negative consequences of this unbridled lifestyle: disease and unwanted pregnancy. From this point of view, it makes sense that the pregnancy-monsters can’t be attacked sexually, but what then are we to make of Rayne’s freedom in attacking the disease-monsters? Most likely I’m trying to make more sense of it than it supports, and the design thought only went as far as “let’s throw in some sexual imagery to make it edgier”.

The weirdest part is that, once the Louisiana mission is over, it just kind of throws all this away and dumps you into the middle of Castle Wolfenstein. But that’s a matter for the next post.

BloodRayne: Getting Started for Real

Giving up on RadeonPro, I try out another program with framerate-limiting capability, MSI Afterburner. Finding the option in its UI for limiting the framerate was something of a challenge. These programs aren’t really built with this use in mind; mainly they’re about making things go faster, not slower. To the extent that they support framerate limits, the intent is to make things go at a steady rate and to prevent “tearing”. Ironically, capping the framerate seems to have introduced a certain amount of tearing in BloodRayne. But it fixed the sound issues, so it’s an overall improvement.

So! Now I get to actually play the game, instead of just listening to the opening cutscene and exiting repeatedly. And that means it’s time to describe the premise.

BloodRayne‘s premise seems like something you’d get out of a random videogame premise generator, or possibly Mad Libs: someone started with the template “You’re a [adjective] [badass hero type] who fights [villain]”, and it got filled in with “sexy”, “vampire”, and “Nazis”. Actually, the player character, Rayne, is only half vampire, which gives the story permission to pick and choose what her powers and weaknesses are, and make them different from any Nazi vampires she winds up fighting. The first level wastes no time in letting us know through expository dialogue that she’s unaffected by holy stuff, but water hurts her, providing for some “the floor is lava” challenges in a flooded town. She can jump something like twenty feet high and run on telephone wires, all while wearing a tight leather outfit and high heels. She has some kind of arm-mounted blade weapons that look like Klingons would use them, and she can scavenge guns, but her most effective attack against humans is simply the bite, which is an instant kill and replenishes her health.

When Rayne bites a man (and it always seems to be a man), she leaps onto him, wraps her legs around his torso, and rocks back and forth a little while she makes slurping noises and little moans of pleasure. This is a basic attack, activated by one button-press. You grow very familiar with this animation very quickly.

Speaking of absurd sexualization, this game also features some of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of “jiggle physics”. Or, well, I’m not sure there’s any physics involved. It could just be hand-animated: since you view Rayne from behind during gameplay, like in Tomb Raider, you only get a good look at boobs during cutscenes. But when you do get a look at them, the designers want to make sure you get a really good look. Rayne’s mentor, Mynce — another half-vampire wearing a different style of fetish gear — has a habit of making sudden bounce-inducing gestures during conversation. Even the BloodRayne logo, which Rayne wears around her neck, is a stylized picture of boobs.

And it isn’t even particularly titillating. The game is, metaphorically speaking, standing there saying “Eh? Eh? Boobs, right?” and waggling its eyebrows. Maybe I’m just too old for this stuff. Maybe everyone over the age of twelve is. I’ll have more to say about weird sexual dynamics in my next post, where I’ll describe the game’s first act.

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