Archive for May, 2016

Oddworld: Monster Behavior

I seem to recall that Abe’s Oddysee tried to hype up the sophistication of its NPC behavior, and how the monsters had varying emotional states. It’s possible that I’m confusing this with the sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, which had varying emotional states for the rescuable Mudokons, and mechanisms for managing them, soothing the angry and cheering the sad. But the Slig guards in the first game (and its remake) definitely do have multiple states: a regular patrolling mode, an alert state when they’ve heard something but haven’t seen you yet, an agitated state when they’ve seen you and lost you. I have a very clear memory from my original play-through of a Slig guard who kept spotting me and losing me, getting more and more agitated until he beat a captive Mudokon to death. It’s nothing groundbreaking, really — just the sort of state machine you expect from a stealth game. So I wouldn’t brag about on the box, but that’s probably why I’m not in marketing.

Apart from the Sligs, there are three other sorts of monsters. The simplest of these are the Slogs, which are basically just alien attack dogs that charge and leap at you, heedless of obstacles and dangers. The Sligs keep them around in kennels that open on some sort of trigger and release multiple slogs at a time, at which point you need to already have some sort of defense, such as a ledge you can jump up onto. When you think about it, it’s a little weird that Abe is the only creature in the whole game capable of climbing up onto higher platforms. There are lots of creatures on platforms already, but how did they get there?

The other two creature types are the Scrabs and the Paramites, monsters revered as sacred by the Mudokons and valued as meat by their captors. Scrabs are clattering carapaced creatures with a crab’s pincer for a face. They’re described as territorial, meaning that they’ll chase after you if you’re within their territory and leave you alone otherwise. But their territory usually extends to the entire area they can traverse anyway, so their behavior isn’t much different from that of Slogs. There’s one major difference: Slogs attack in packs, but if a Scrab encounters another Scrab, they’ll ignore you for as long as it takes to fight each other to the death. This is presented as one of the basic rules of Scrabs in the instructions in the Scrab temple, so I was a little surprised at how little it comes into play. I think I saw exactly one Scrabfight.

The scuttling tentacled web-weaving Paramites are, to my mind, the most interesting of the creatures. They follow you around, but not too close. They turn aggressive when you get a bunch of them together, but they avoid confrontation when they’re alone. They will, however, kill you if you corner them. Even if that’s not your intention. So a typical Paramite encounter leaves me saying “I don’t want trouble, you don’t want trouble, but I need to be over where you are, and that means I need you on the other side of me.” This is something you can make puzzles from.

Oddworld: The Front-Loading of the Secrets

Escaping from the plant in the game’s first act is more or less linear, apart from excursions to rescue captive Mudokons. Out in the wild, this breaks up a bit. Each of the two temples is a hub, with open doors leading to various test chambers, and in each chamber, you do a little ritual involving a fire and some bells. This introduces the structure found throughout the plant on your return. Each zone (or “zulag”) of the plant has a hub like the ones in the temples, and each room off the hub contains a lever needed to unlock access to the next zulag.

Now, there are secret areas with captive Mudokons throughout the game. Even the temples contain some portals back to the zulags. But the funny thing is, the initial escape areas have a lot more of them than anyplace else. The game really wants you to leave some behind, and furthermore, it wants you to know that you’ve left some behind: billboard-sized signs displaying your rescuing stats, including the number of Mudokons you’ve failed to rescue, are a common sight in factory-controlled areas. So I’m fairly sure that I actually haven’t left any behind in my current run. But for most of the game, this hasn’t been hard. A little care and diligence, and you’ll find the few secrets scattered around without much trouble. Except during that initial escape. That’s the only place where I’ve gotten stuck, hunting through all the rooms I’ve already seen for secrets that I knew must be there but couldn’t find.

In fact, this has been the downfall of my attempts to replay Abe’s Oddysee in the past. When I acquired it on Steam, years after playing it from CD-ROM, I thought I’d play it through again, but I couldn’t find all the secrets in the initial escape, and eventually gave up. The game wants you to fail to rescue everyone on your first pass through the game, and after that first pass, it really wants you to start over from the very beginning. I honestly don’t remember if I played all the way to the ending on my first pass or not, but I definitely went back and found all the secrets and rescued all the Mudokons. But on later attempts? On later attempts, I was in a state that the designers don’t seem to have thought of or cared about. It wasn’t my first pass through the game, so my pride wouldn’t let me act like it was. I wasn’t about to let those Mudokons go unrescued. But at the same time, the game’s contents and structure were no longer fresh in my memory. So I had close to the same disadvantages as a first-time player. The combination produced discouragement.

And yet I have somehow avoided such discouragement this time through, and was willing to play through the initial escape enough times to clear it completely. I think this is mostly just due to the HD remake handling so much better than the original. It’s easier to keep playing something when the mere act of moving is less frustrating.

Oddworld: Temples

I tend to think of Abe’s Oddysee (and therefore New ‘n’ Tasty) as “that game about the alien meat processing plant”. And that’s fair: that’s where the bulk of the game takes place, including both the beginning and the ending. But there’s a substantial chunk in the middle where Abe journeys to a couple of distant temples to prove his worthiness to be the hero of his people by passing a set of puzzle-trials. Do this, and you’re rewarded with the supernatural powers you’ll need to complete the rest of the game.

It’s funny how pervasive this idea is in games, considering its lack of precedent in fiction, myth, or reality. When I see an ancient temple in a game, my first thought is “Aha, this is where I must undergo a series of trials to come into my full powers as the Chosen One!” On the basis of games, you’d think that this is the sole purpose of temples. The closest thing to this outside of games is your Indiana Jones and similar scenarios, which share the temple-as-elaborate-puzzle-mechanism idea, but are significantly different in that the puzzle-solver isn’t a Chosen One proving his worth to his gods, but rather, an outsider, cracking the secrets of a civilization other than his own. This makes it more directly an exercise in colonialism.

Bear in mind that the native Chosen One plot can still be based on colonial notions. This is certainly the case in the Oddworld, which is all about the fantasy of the exotic other and the Noble Savage. Outside of the industrial factory’s twisted and oppressive capitalist nightmare, Mudokons live in harmony with nature, build monumental structures out of crude stone and wood, and channel mysterious energies by chanting. The middle section of the game exists largely to set up this duality, to show you an environment dominated by the Mudokon way in order to contrast it with everything else you’ve seen.

But even as it does this, it kind of undercuts it by making Abe monstrous. It’s in the middle section that you learn (if you haven’t figured it out already) that you have mind control powers. By chanting, you can take over the guards that patrol the factory. And it’s presented in a way that makes it clearly hostile and unpleasant for the host body: when you start chanting, the guards start running back and forth in agitation, yelling “Ow!” and “Help!”. And once you’ve got them, they don’t come back. When you’re done making a guard do what you want, the only way out is to make them explode. Now, these guards are highly unpleasant creatures, of a species called “Sligs”. They look kind of like squids riding cybernetic goat legs, they mutter about wanting to shoot people, and they sometimes beat the captive Mudokons for kicks (or out of frustration at their inability to shoot you). Nonetheless, however repulsive they may be, the act of dominating and then exploding them crosses a line. No one can claim to be simply a good guy once they’ve done that.

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty

The new Humble Monthly brings me Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, a remake of 1997’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. I played the PC port of Abe’s Oddysee back in the day, and liked it enough to play the immediate sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, as well as to pick up further Oddworld games in Steam sales and then not play them. I understand the ones I haven’t played mix things up a bit, but the basic idea behind the Abe games is that they’re puzzle/action-platformers in an alien setting of juvenile grotesquery. The whole thing starts in a meat-processing plant, where Mudokons, the player character’s species, have just been downgraded from workers to meat animals, prompting the player to both escape and rescue as many of his kin as possible.

In contrast to D/Generation HD, I have to say that New ‘n’ Tasty largely improves on the original. I guess it’s helped by the way that the original was basically straining against its technology anyhow. Abe’s Oddysee had 2D sprites pre-rendered from 3D models. New ‘n’ Tasty can just put the 3D models directly in the game and render them at a higher resolution than those sprites. The original had occasional FMV transitions between locations, the better to give the illusion that everything was happening in a single cohesive space. NnT can actually move the camera around in that space. This is applied even in ordinary spaces: the original divided the world up into discrete screenfuls that the camera would jump between as you exited one and entered another, but NnT has the camera follow you continuously. This might make the bigger puzzles easier by removing the need to stitch together spaces in your head that are presented separately.

Rescuing Mudokons involves leading them to locations where you can open a portal. The game supports a simple set of commands for this: “Hello” to get the attention of whoever you’re facing, “Follow me”, “Stop”. In Abe’s Oddysee, you could only address one Mudokon at a time, and as a result sometimes had to go back and forth between where the Mudokons were gathered and where the portal is. Abe’s Exoddus added an “Everybody” command that allowed you to get an entire roomful of Mudokons to follow you at once. NnT retrofits this into the original scenario, and to get more mileage out of it, it increases the number of rescuable Mudokons threefold. There’s something to be said for this: to the extent that looking for Mudokons to rescue is a sort of treasure hunt, finding a whole bunch of them standing together feels more significant than finding one alone, even though there’s no practical difference for the completist player.

Where the original had instant death from every hazard, NnT introduces a health system that lets you take several hits. This is optional; if you play on Hard mode, the old one-hit kills apply. I think the health system probably makes for a better game, but I’ve been playing on Hard mode anyway, out of sheer stubbornness and a sense that if I beat the game this way once, I should be able to do it again. There are a lot of Mudokons hidden away in secret areas with specially-hard challenges, where you have to dodge spinning meat blades with exceedingly exact timing. I fail dozens of times in these areas before succeeding; some of them I’m not entirely convinced are humanly possible to pass except by luck. So health probably helps there.

Not that you’re really expected to complete all the challenge areas on your first pass through the game! You can pass through all the levels and reach an ending without rescuing a single Mudokon, although if I recall correctly, the ending you get that way basically scolds you and says “I guess you aren’t the Chosen One after all”. But there are Mudokons in the first chapter that you can only rescue by means of techniques taught in the later chapters. A more modern game would let you advance farther into the game, learn what you need to learn, then come back to save the Mudokons you left behind — possibly even letting you continue to try for perfection after getting the initial ending, like continuing to hunt for Riddler Trophies in Arkham Asylum after the final boss. But no, in Abe’s Oddysee, once you leave the first chapter, any Mudokons left behind are immediately killed. And New ‘n’ Tasty doesn’t change that.

D/Generation vs D/Generation HD

Still very stuck on the same three puzzles in the third island segment of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, I decided to spend a little time on something different. I remember quite liking the MS-DOS version of D/Generation back in the day, and the recent HD remake was in a bundle, so I gave it a try.

The original D/Generation was something of a surprise for me. The box art made it look like some sort of dreary horror game, and the premise — that you’re tapped in a futuristic office building with a bunch of hostile globular mutations — sounded like a run-of-the-mill shooter. But in fact it’s mainly a game about solving door puzzles by triggering switches remotely by banking bullets off walls. Or at least the better parts of it are like that. Those are the parts I remember.

And, while I’m aware of how memory lies, I have to say that I think the original version was in some ways better. The HD can make it look more realistic, but realism wasn’t what I liked about it — quite the opposite! The original version’s stylized isometric pixel art may have cost it sales in 1991 (and is probably the reason for the misleading cover art), but it fit the game to a T. The environment is quite artificial and blatantly tile-based. The first two enemy types you encounter 1That is, the A/Generation and the B/Generation are spheres and cylinders. This was a game styled around visual clarity, and the remake throws a lot of that away because it’s insufficiently appreciated.

Speaking of visual clarity, I really dislike the change to how walls a displayed. In the original, any wall or door that obstructed your view of a room interior was displayed as a cutaway, just a bar along the floor at approximately 1/4 the height of a full wall. In the remake, all walls are full-height, but turn transparent when you’re near them. The result is that you usually can’t see the full layout of a level when you enter it, and this interferes with my ability to immediately start making a plan of action.

The original had these green floor-mounted rotating turrets, part of the building’s security system that had been somehow turned against the humans. The remake reinterprets them as some sort of mutant worms with toothy mouths, even though they still behave like rotating turrets. In the very first room in the building, the remakers decided to add a gratuitous corpse, even though the mutants absorb their prey. Basically, it seems like they wanted the game to be Isometric System Shock. Whereas I want it to be more like Realtime DROD With a Laser Gun. (It even shares with DROD the mechanic of “special door that opens when there are no more monsters in the room”.) So yeah, I’m a little disappointed with their choices.

There’s one thing, however, that I’m disappointed was left exactly the same: limited lives. As in, if you get killed too much, you either load a save — a manual save, not an autosave — or you start the whole game over from scratch. This is not something I expect from a modern game. The only way to gain more lives is to rescue survivors, which has odd implications when you think about it. So I suppose there’s some motivation to leave lives in just as a way to make players want to rescue survivors. But honestly, you don’t have to bribe me like that. The “Survivors Remaining” count in the UI is enough to make me want to rescue them all.

1 That is, the A/Generation and the B/Generation

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