Archive for December, 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.