Archive for February, 2015

Dark Fall: Wrong Orders

Not much progress in my last session, beyond revisiting places and taking better notes this time. I’m starting to think I’ve been approaching this game wrong. I started out the way I’d start any mystlike: by exploring the entire accessible environment. In fact, most of the rooms of the hotel are empty and uninteresting, apart from atmospheric details like ominous and incomprehensible muttering heard in one room, or a pair of scissors embedded in the wall in another. Only a few have details you can inspect more closely, drawers you can open, and so forth. When I went back to the lobby again (finding a few more clues in the process), I think I finally understand the purpose of those breakfast orders I had noticed before: each one mentions a room number. Those specific rooms are ones of interest. It makes sense, I suppose. The orders show that those rooms had guests in them immediately before the hotel was completely abandoned.

Then there’s the matter of the telephones. There are two: one in the lobby that rings spontaneously when you enter the room, one by the station waiting room that you have to use a coin on. In both cases, on my first interaction with them, all I heard was a sound like a radio being tuned. It turns out that I was too impatient. If you sit and wait on the phone long enough, eventually you get a voice on the other end, giving you some slight orientation. One of the voices says to find a key that he hid in a teapot, although he can’t remember where he left the teapot. This could have lent some meaning to my earlier explorations. There are multiple teapots around, so every time I saw one, I could have been thinking “Maybe that’s the one!” But in fact, by the time I heard the hint, I had already found the key.

There’s a problem here, and it has two halves. One half is that the stuff that the author wants to hint at is too easy to find without those hints. The hotel isn’t large enough to discourage exhaustive exploration. Interactive details are sparse enough that each one of them attracts interest even if you don’t have the context that’s supposed to motivate that interest. The other half is that the motivating context is far too unobtrusive. I suppose that the ringing telephone was supposed to be a solution to this, and it certainly got me to head straight for the phone and pick it up, but it was derailed when I didn’t hear anything useful. Put the two halves together, and you have solutions that are easier to find than clues. There’s actually a general source of gentle hints, an invisible friendly ghost who hangs out on the bridge over the train tracks, but he’s the worst of all. As the ghost warns, he can only help you if you come directly to him from the thing you want help on, but there isn’t any obvious direct route to the bridge from most of the hotel, so I’ve only managed to get him to comment on one puzzle located very near the bridge. It all seems like the sort of thing you get when an author makes assumptions about what players will do, instead of doing adequate playtesting.

There are other cases where things went in the right order, mind you. For example, I found the correct coordinates for the theodolite puzzle by reading a journal, rather than by twiddling the theodolite at random. But that was just good luck. I did find the theodolite and spend some time twiddling it first.

Dark Fall: UI

There’s a clunkiness to interacting with Dark Fall. It’s mostly just the clunkiness endemic to Macromedia Director mystlikes, of waving the cursor around to look for hotspots, and of not being sure whether clicking on a journal page will turn the page or close the journal. But it’s also got some clunkiness all its own as well.

Mainly it’s about hotspots going away. Let’s say you find a desk. You click on the desk and it goes to a close-up view from which you see a drawer. Click on the drawer and it opens, without leaving that view. When you’re finished looking in the drawer, you might try to back out to the main view of the room, only to discover that you can’t. As long as the drawer is open, the hotspot to leave the desk is gone. You have to close the drawer first. Most games of this sort would let you back out and, as a consequence, close the drawer automatically (by forgetting that it was open). Even weirder, there’s one close-up view I’ve seen where there are two drawers visible, and you can only open one at a time. If you open the left drawer, you have to close it in order to open the right drawer.

It makes it seem like most things are modeled simply as a graph. Moving from place to place in an adventure game usually means moving between nodes of a graph, and in a first-person game with discrete and unmoving camera positions, each camera position is a node on a graph, including the close-up view of the desk. But here, opening a drawer or examining a newspaper also moves you to a new node on the same graph, no different from walking into another room. Not everything is modeled this way; there exist a few machines and combination locks with multiple twiddlable controls. But they’re pretty sparse.

One other peculiar thing about the UI: its treatment of inventory. There is some small number of inventory items displayed at the top of the screen, which I suppose means it’s not a pure mystlike, but then, neither was Myst by that standard. And there are environmental objects that are clearly flagged as things you use inventory items on — when the cursor is over them, it changes into a stylized wrench. But the UI doesn’t support clicking on that wrench area with an inventory item. Instead, you just click on an item in your inventory, and if it has a use from your current camera position, it will be used. The wrench cursor looks like it’s a hotspot highlight, but it’s not. Perhaps this is another example of the graph-node mindset. Even the inventory is treated as links you can click on to transition to a different node.

Dark Fall: The Journal

There are three games in the Dark Fall series. I have the first two on physical media, although I never got around to playing far past the opening scene of the first one. I’ve somehow acquired all three on Steam as well, and the third one has Steam trading cards, where they’ve been tantalizingly out of reach due to my stubborn insistence on playing games in order when possible. So I started again on the first last night, and have already seen a lot more of it than I did back in the day.

Dark Fall: The Journal is a Mystlike set in a abandoned and decaying hotel and railway station in Dorset, haunted by several people who went missing in the 1940s, as well as some vague Great Evil that was presumably responsible for their disappearance. The ghosts manifest mainly as disembodied voices, either talking to the player directly or repeating sound snippets from their lifetimes. It’s something of a period piece — the voices are stuck in the habits of their time, and even if the decor is moldering and weathered, it’s full of moldering and weathered period touches, largely in the advertisements around the station.

By now, the work as a whole seems like a period piece at the stylistic and technological level as well, all pre-rendered still images populated with cruder objects than you’d expect in realtime today. It must have been behind the technology curve even at its release in 2002, although it makes a good effort at hiding it by keeping things dimly-lit.

I think the reason I gave up on it the first time around was that I wanted puzzles, and it wasn’t giving me any. You can go for a good long time before encountering them. The focus is instead on exploration, atmosphere, and oodles of printed matter: letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, all giving backstory. Having just browsed around, I haven’t yet really got enough of a grip on the shape of the story to put the details together into something coherent. There seem to have been some people doing dangerous rituals, which probably summoned the lurking evil presence. Six people went missing, including a young boy. One of the guests was an actress who became a laughing-stock through a failed theatrical production, but I don’t know if she’s one of the ones who went missing or one of the ritualists or both. There were flood warnings. The station was closed. Closer to the present day, some ghost hunters showed up and put cameras in various places. There’s a strange emphasis on breakfast orders. I’ll probably need to start taking notes, associating names with room numbers and the like. I think it’s probably possible to reach the end of the game without taking the effort to understand the story — certainly the few puzzles I’ve solved so far have been simple adventure-game material, such as finding a lamp for a dark corridor or a combination for a lockbox. But putting together the backstory seems like it’s the point of the work.

Hadean Lands: Ending and Speculation

My last few sticking points in Hadean Lands weren’t about things I hadn’t discovered, but about things I had discovered and then forgotten about. There are enough one-use rituals in the game that it’s easy to assume that you don’t have to think about a thing any more after you’ve found one use for it, and there’s such a sheer quantity of stuff in the game that any such forgetting is a welcome simplification. I think that some of my earlier sticking points may have been blessings in disguise, because being unable to perform a ritual kept me from discarding it as already-used and kept me sensitive to additional uses.

That’s about all I can say about the ending without spoilers. So let’s get on with the spoilers already.

The ending itself is something of a downer, at least if you misread where the story is going as badly as I did. By the end, I had only two listed “doors” left: the fifteen “fractures” that I didn’t expect to actually get past in the game (mainly because the in-game map stopped at them), and the marcher’s main entrance in the portico. The latter was sealed shut, because the entire ship was stuck on a Hadean land — a planet without atmosphere — and opening any exterior door other than the airlock would be disastrous. To my mind, that meant that I had to get the marcher safely home, or at least to some more hospitable planet, before I could open the portico doors. This implied that I would see the marcher successfully reach home during gameplay. Opening those doors would be my ultimate moment of triumph.

I should have known better, considering the author’s track record. Zarf does not write triumphant endings. Zarf writes enigmatic endings. Completing the Great Marriage ritual in the proper location triggers a brief epilogue that puts you back at the moment when all hell broke loose, buried in rubble, and it’s as frenzied and confused as you’d expect an emergency on an alchemical spaceship to be — the text can’t even settle on what tense to use. Your actions are highly constrained, most commands producing just a “There’s no time for that”. You lose all the knowledge you accumulated over the course of the game. It’s not even entirely clear whether you’re controlling the same character as before. And the game leaves things in more or less that state when the story ends, with only some slight reassurance that things are going to be okay and that your actions have made some sort of difference.

It leaves open a lot of questions. What exactly happened to the marcher? Why are all the books in the library blank? Why are there alien glyphs on the walls, why are they so efficacious in dragon rituals, and why, once you can translate them, do they provide such good information about what you should be doing? Where did the new notes that appear after you perform the Great Marriage for the first time come from? There’s much fodder for speculation here, and not much to go on. But there is one thing that seems fairly clear, if you look at all the available information from the perspective of the endgame. And that is the nature of the player character, Ensign Forsyth.

For there’s definitely something peculiar about Forsyth. Examining yourself with the resonant oculus establishes that beyond a doubt — a touch that reminded me of the subtle and optional foreshadowing about the Jester in Zork Zero. But even if you don’t do that, there are hints in the very foundations of the game: the fact that you’re still moving around while everyone else is frozen in time, the way that you easily master rituals that are supposed to be far beyond the abilities of a mere swabbie. I speculated before that the PC is actually a homunculus, on the basis of nothing more than seeing that word scrawled on a clearly important scrap of paper. I changed my mind about that when I found another paper explaining what a homunculus really is: “a seed of animation without volition… It cannot act or move on its own; but in combination with other works, it may become something greater.” The first time you perform the Great Marriage, it creates a homunculus, which appears as a sort of silvery scribble on the walls, following you from room to room until you bring it into contact with one of the ailing dragons, at which point it combines with it and brings it back to its full power.

Now, I mentioned before that fragments of abstract alchemical theory were found near each of the four dragons. These are clearly important, simply because they were hard to reach, but it was hard to see how at the time. To summarize them:

  • One talks about the little-understood “transition echo” phenomenon, “traces left behind, howsoever briefly, when any entity enters the Higher Spheres…”
  • One speculates that “the soul exists in an as-yet-undetected medium”, and that the the echo phenomenon is “a transitory vibration of this substance”, “[l]acking volition or identity”.
  • One alludes to an “investigation of the echo phenomenon” that suggests that “the human soul can be created, destroyed, or duplicated”.
  • And finally, one very incomplete fragment mentions a technique “to combine an aitheric vibration — the transitory structure — with a spark of animation” to “create a self-sustaining aitheric form”.

So, combine all that with the homunculus definition, and the game is hinting pretty broadly that it’s possible to use a homunculus to animate the aitheric “echo” of a human, creating a “self-sustaining” soul duplicate that can last beyond the echo’s normal decay. There’s one more piece to the puzzle: a half-remembered ghost story about another marcher, the Cold Crucible, which has been glimpsed “lost and drowned in a Thalassan sea”, which is odd because the Cold Crucible actually made it back to port without mishap. The echo of something that didn’t happen? The relevant thing here is that entire ships can leave echoes. I posit that, up until the ending, the player character is actually a homunculus-animated echo of Forsyth, walking around on an echo of the ship. This explains a great deal! The other crew members are frozen in time because they’re just echoes, and not animated like you. The books are unreadable because the echo isn’t that detailed. The dragons remain repaired across resets for the same reason that you retain knowledge: once repaired, they too are animated by a homunculus. Actually, there seem to be multiple echoes at different points in time, which you move between (lasting beyond the echo’s decay?) whenever you make a permanent change to the repair of the ship — hence the crew members moving from place to place at such junctures, hence the additional notes.

But it doesn’t explain everything. The alien presence is still as mysterious as ever — moreso, even, now that we’re aware of the possibility that their ship is also an echo. Maybe closer scrutiny could suggest what they’re all about, but any theorizing about them seems iffier than what I get from the echo fragments, which just about spell things out if you piece them together. I’m not at all sure that even Zarf knows what the deal is with the alien graffiti. Sometimes mystery is just there for the sake of mystery, rather than for the sake of solving.

Hadean Lands: Familiarity

In a typical adventure game, the player starts off knowing nothing about the world. As much as early adventure games were about solving puzzles and hunting for treasure, they were also about exploring the unknown. Even the text parser works into this theme by being close to a blank slate, telling the player as little as it can about what the possibilities are, forcing you to experiment. Unfortunately, the conventions that make the form well-suited for this usage become an obstacle when you’re trying to tell a story about things that should be familiar to the player character. Set an adventure game in the protagonist’s apartment, and the player will spend the start of the story experimentally trying out the faucets and peering under furniture as if it were all completely novel. This is part of the reason that amnesia is such a popular cliché in adventure games: it provides a narrative excuse for the player’s experience of the gameworld.

Hadean Lands is almost entirely set in the interior of the spaceship that the player character calls home. It is of course completely unfamiliar to the player. However, the game does some clever things to mitigate the dissonance, starting by messing things up. The PC is familiar with the place, but when you throw in the time/space fractures and the frozen crew, it’s not quite the place the PC is familiar with. Just getting out of the starting room involves going through a crawlway that the PC has never been in before, because the familiar door is unusable. So even though the player and the PC are starting from different points, they’re learning about the situation together.

Things are described in exotic and unfamiliar terms: ritual bound, exoscaphe, sophic lanterns. At the same time, these are interleaved with enough offhand exposition about the craft and crew to convey the fact that the PC is familiar with things even if you’re not. Even the choice of article helps: entering a room and seeing “an exoscaphe” would be a discovery, but “the exoscaphe” is something you expected to be there. A lot of things are mentioned before you see them: “to the west is the ornate door of the Birdhouse”, says one room description, before you have any idea what the Birdhouse really is. My favorite touch is the use of beakers. Whenever you use liquids in a ritual, the text mentions grabbing a beaker from the general clutter surrounding the ritual bound, and disposing of it afterward. The beakers, and the clutter from which they come, are not mentioned in the room description or modeled as separate objects outside of the ritual. I assume this decision was mainly a matter of cutting down on the complexity of the simulation, but what it says to the player is that these are details that the PC’s second-person narrative voice doesn’t bother mentioning, because they’re commonplace enough to be taken for granted. Grabbing a beaker automatically is kind of like the other automatic actions, like performing rituals, except that you don’t have to teach the game how to do it first: it was learned in the PC’s training.

Ultimately, this is a long game, and most of it is spent revisiting the same locations repeatedly, so after a while, the player gets to know the environment pretty well. And as you repair things and open up passageways that should have been passable but weren’t, the ship approaches the state that the PC is familiar with as well. It becomes a place that you live in comfortably. So it comes as quite a shock when you venture outside and find an alien spacecraft.

It’s not just a little bit alien, either. It’s so alien that just being in its interior interferes with your body chemistry. But even without that, it feels like an intrusion from a different genre, less Enchanter and more Starcross, all metal planes and sharp angles and emptiness and incomprehensible technology. Much of what’s going on back home is incomprehensible to the PC, but at least the weird stuff is overlaid on the familiar. Here, for the first time, that’s stripped away, and the PC is just as lost as you are. Making progress here requires repeatedly retreating into the familiar, to make new preparations to deal with what you find.

Hadean Lands: Learning the Alternatives

Unstuck again and on something of a roll. I seem to be nearing the end: I have the functions of all the dragons restored, and the Doors command lists only three items, one of which I don’t expect to be resolved until the very end.

At this late stage, there’s a strong pattern emerging: I’m being repeatedly required to do things I’ve done before in different ways. It reminds me a bit of what I once called the close-the-door-behind-you puzzle. This is a puzzle found repeatedly in the Myst games. In it, you first gain access to a room through a door that can only be opened and closed from the outside (usually because it’s a button-operated sliding door), but something in that room opens up another passage to it, directly or indirectly. The puzzle, then, is to realize that there’s some advantage to be had from entering the room while the initial door is closed — say, there’s a clue written on the back of the door or something.

The late puzzles in Hadean Lands are kind of like that, except with alchemy instead of doors. You learn a ritual that gives you access to an area that directly or indirectly leads to gaining a different way of producing the same effect without consuming the same ingredients. For example, there are those two Aura Imitation rituals I mentioned before: one uses Elemental Water and one doesn’t. This is a big deal because the main reason you need an Aura Imitation ritual is to access a place where you need to do a ritual that requires Elemental Water, and you won’t be able to do it if you used up your Elemental Water getting there. But that same place contains a paper giving a formula you’ll need in order to get all the ingredients of the version of Aura Imitation that doesn’t use Elemental Water, so you have to go there at least once with the wrong ritual before you can do it with the right one.

Or consider another case: leaving the ship. The first time you do this, you can’t leave through the airlock, because it’s powered by one of the nonfunctional dragons. So you leave through a window, using the Glass Permeability ritual. Outside the ship, you can find some mercury, which is essential for making a dragon fulcrum, which you can use to get the airlock working again. In this case, you’re ultimately not substituting a ritual for an equivalent ritual, you’re producing a way to do without Glass Permeability entirely, freeing up all its ingredients for other uses.

I’m at the point where I’ve been considering making charts of all the rituals that consume ingredients so that I can see exactly what the contingencies are. I understand that the author wrote specialized software tools to verify that the game was completable and that the player couldn’t skip stuff. I haven’t really found it necessary yet, though. I’m still doing most things by indicating my intentions and letting the game take care of the details — just telling it to go through that airlock and watching it automatically brew the potion that lets me survive in vacuum, for example. When it gets stuck because I already used an ingredient in another ritual, that’s when I start looking at alternatives. One thing that’s worth noting here: when the game’s automator has a goal that can be met in multiple ways, it chooses the method most recently used. So once I go through that airlock instead of the window, the game remembers that and does it the same way the next time I tell it to go fetch the mercury. Thus, I can build up a set of correct choices piecemeal.