Archive for April, 2018

Desktop Dungeons contrasted to other Tower of the Sorcerer-likes

Really, Tower of the Sorcerer spawned a mini-genre. In addition to DROD RPG and Desktop Dungeons, there’s DungeonUp, which I haven’t mentioned before — I got it from some bundle a while back and played it blind, and found it a delightful little variation on the now-familiar theme.

I imagine there are other examples of TotS-like out there that I haven’t discovered, and if anyone reading this knows of any, I’d like to hear about them. The defining characteristics of the mini-genre are, to my mind, passive monsters that stay still, possibly blocking passageways, until killed or otherwise acted on, and deterministic combat based on the formula “damage = attack – defense” or something similarly simple.

Beyond that, there are some notable similarities between TotS, DROD RPG, and DungeonUp that Desktop Dungeons is notable for rejecting. All three of what we might call the synoptic TotS-likes feature: Unlimited hit points, with healing potions simply adding to your current total like in Ultima 1; machines that let you purchase upgrades to attack, defense, or health for gold; multiple dungeon levels, with the benefits of health potions and upgrade machines increasing by level; locked doors in multiple colors, with corresponding keys. There’s no notion of experience or character levels, since their purpose is absorbed by health potions and upgrade machines. DROD RPG adds mechanics derived from DROD, including diagonal movement and facing rules. DungeonUp adds randomized dungeon layouts and adventure-gamish “Aha!” puzzles. But there’s so much shared foundation here that the games have fundamentally the same feel and tactics.

Desktop Dungeons, meanwhile, takes just the barest basics of TotS and runs off in its own direction with them. Some of what it does is adding back familiar RPG-isms like character classes and experience levels, but it doesn’t do this in a cowardly clinging to the familiar. It does it because of what they can add to the puzzle. For example, as in a lot of CRPGs, leveling up instantly restores your health and mana to maximum. This can be exploited! One of the game’s most basic tricks is hitting a tough monster a few times, then slaughtering something weaker to level up and get your health back, then resuming your previous fight. You can’t do that in the other TotS-likes, not just because they have no notion of leveling up, but because they don’t let you break away from combat. Once you start hitting something, you just keep on hitting it until one of you dies. There’s no reason for them to let you break away; the rules of those games provide no benefit for killing something halfway. DD provides so many reasons to do it, from healing to renewing your buffs to “I don’t actually want to kill it yet, I just attacked it because my weapon has a knockback effect that pushes it into a wall, and destroying walls pleases my god, and that gives me just enough piety for this boon I’ve been after”.

Desktop Dungeons: Race

I’ve seen the use of cliché and even stereotype defended on the basis of efficiency. The idea is that it’s an expositional shortcut, a way of exploiting shared culture to lessen the heavy lifting required of both the author trying to convey ideas and the audience trying to understand them. Genre in games fills a similar function where it’s even more needed. When we choose to play games with wizards and dragons in them, it’s not typically because we’re in love with the idea of wizards and dragons. It’s because wizards and dragons don’t require a lot of explanation. Even when the familiar elements deviate from expectation, the very fact that there is an expectation helps us to grasp that deviation.

Desktop Dungeons exploits this a lot, thank goodness. It’s got so many unfamiliar mechanics that we really need familiar pigeonholes for them. I think the most intriguing example is its treatment of race. You’ve got the standard assortment of dwarves and elves and so forth, albeit with their places in society all mixed up and humorized: elves live in the slums and and are regarded as disreputable, orcs have opulent mansions and talk posh, dwarves have frat houses. It’s in the dungeons, though, that it gets interesting.

In the dungeons, your inventory space is limited, and you can’t drop items or sell them to shops. If you need to free up some room to pick up something new, you have to destroy something — or rather, “convert” it. Converting items adds points to a pool, and every time that pool fills up, you get a boost of some sort. Exactly what that boost is depends on your race. This is the only difference between the player races. If you want racial bonuses, you have to earn them by trashing stuff. It’s weird and it’s subtle and, just like everything else in the game, you have to learn how to use it effectively if you want to beat the Hard dungeons.

Races are unlocked one by one as they join your kingdom in gratitude for rescuing them from dungeons. At the start of the game, all you have is humans. The human conversion reward is a permanent increase to your attack bonus. Then you find elves, which get an increase to their maximum mana as their reward, and dwarves, which get increased health. Attack power, mana, health: these are the three primary stats your character has. They’re the three things that you can find stat boosters for scattered in the dungeon. And they’re assigned to a fairly archetypal set of races — basically, normal, gracile, and robust people. So once you’ve gotten over the weirdness of the conversion system, this arrangement feels fairly elegant, natural, and even necessary.

And then you find the halflings.

The conversion reward for halflings is a healing potion. You’ve become used to the idea of sacrificing objects for enhancements to your intangible characteristics, but now you’re turning objects into other objects. Next come the gnomes, which get mana potions, and at this point maybe it starts to seem systematic again. Health and mana potions, like stat booster objects, are scattered loose in every dungeon, in consistent quantities. It’s just giving you one race for each thing you can consistently find.

But then you get the monster races. Orcs get additional base damage as their reward. How is this different from humans? That’s a little technical. Your base damage is, by default, five times your experience level; your attack bonus is a percentage increase on top of that. So if you have items or spells greatly increase your attack bonus, you can get more out of it by increasing your base attack. Finally, after that, you get goblins, which get experience points from conversion, enabling them to level up quickly without fighting anything. And with that, any sense of pattern is broken. Conversion rewards can be anything the designer thinks up. The whole sequence, from humans to goblins, is like a little story about a weird system that becomes weirder every time you get used to it.

Desktop Dungeons Contrasted with its Past Self

So, I haven’t been posting a lot lately. What have I been playing? Mostly I’ve gotten on a Desktop Dungeons kick. This is something that’s happened every several months for the past several years. Each time, I start over from the beginning, and each time, I make a little more progress than the last time. This time I’ve actually managed to unlock the final boss’s dungeon, although I don’t yet feel confident in assaulting it.

I’ve written about Desktop Dungeons before, but that was about the alpha version. The long-anticipated release version is quite significantly changed. Oh, it keeps the basics: self-contained randomly-generated dungeons that take about a half an hour to play, Tower of the Sorcerer-like deterministic combat against stationary monsters, healing and mana regeneration resulting from exploring new territory. But it’s got a campaign now. It’s the story of a new kingdom using the proceeds from dungeon expeditions to fund buildings that unlock new classes or provide other benefits. This kingdom is ringed with various territories containing dungeons with different tilesets, monster types, and other properties — for example, the lands to the south are jungles, which largely replace the dungeon walls with hostile plants that you can hack through if you’re willing to suffer the consequences.

Within the dungeons, the main change is how much more rich and complex the mechanics have become. For example, I mentioned before that if you find the appropriate altar in the dungeon, you can pledge yourself to the god of magic, greatly increasing spell damage in exchange for binding yourself to never making melee attacks. That kind of absolutism is out the window. Instead, there’s a system of “piety”, a resource that increases and decreases as you do things your god likes or doesn’t like. Accumulate enough piety and you can spend it on boons, the details of which vary by the god. But sometimes violating your god’s commandments in pursuit of your goals can be worth it.

Or consider spells. Many spells have side effects now. Casting the spell that destroys a wall tile also gives you a layer of “stoneskin”, a temporary defensive bonus — I imagine this as the result of all the rock particles from the demolition settling on you. Sometimes you destroy walls just for the stoneskin. The spell that gives you First Strike also grants a stacking dodge bonus — giving you a motivation to cast it even when First Strike is irrelevant. Even the fireball spell, the simplest and most direct of combat spells, has subtleties now. In addition to doing damage, it gives its target a stacking effect called “burning”. When you do your next melee attack, every layer of burning pops off and does a point of damage. If you track the burn carefully, sometimes you can kill a monster by attacking something else, exposing yourself to one less counterattack in total. But also, burning monsters heal slowly. So if you’re going to do strike-and-retreat style play, whittling a monster down by repeatedly attacking it and then exploring to heal, it’s vitally important to do your fireball after your melee attack, not before.

You can ignore these details at first, mind. I remember some comment thread complaint about how the game was basically trivial because all you have to do is look for monsters and kill them in order from weakest to strongest. That works for the Easy dungeons, and maybe for the Medium-rated ones if you’re playing as a Fighter. But for anything else, the inevitable result is that you eventually reach a point where the weakest monsters remaining are too strong for you. In order to keep pace, you need to pursue XP bonuses, and the easiest XP bonus to get is the one that comes from killing a monster that’s higher-level than you — the greater the level difference, the greater the bonus. Pulling this off means exploiting tricks, and the more of the fiddly points about the rules you’ve mastered, the easier it is to think of a trick you can exploit.

And that is the fundamental character of the game. It’s all about mastering all the tricks. The greatest satisfaction it affords is when you think you’re not going to be able to beat the dungeon boss, and you’re about to give up, but then you think of something clever and just barely pull it off.

The Librarian’s Almanaq Contrasted to Journal 29

I recently solved my way through a couple of unrelated puzzle books, Journal 29 and The Librarian’s Almanaq — although perhaps they’re better described as metapuzzle books. These are not merely books that contain puzzles, but books that are puzzles: multi-stage puzzles that take advantage of the physical properties of books. And yet they approach this in such different ways! To put it briefly, Almanaq aims at being a puzzlehunt1I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it. in book form, while Journal is modeled on web-based riddle games like notpron, where the solution to each puzzle yields the URL of the next.

Structurally, this means that while Almanaq is kind of freeform and unpredictable, with lots of paging around through the book to look for things, Journal 29 is designed as a sequence of discrete puzzles, each two-page spread acting like a single web page. Journal isn’t quite as linear as its inspirations, though. Since you can’t actually lock access to pages of a book, it settles for solution dependencies: solving each puzzle yields a “key”, a word or other short text, which later puzzles can reference by number. A puzzle might reference multiple keys, and finding them all is generally necessary — often the keys are the only indication of a puzzle’s goal.

One weird point about this: The puzzles don’t yield the keys directly. Instead, there’s an online component. When you solve a puzzle, you go to the website and type in the solution, and that gives you the key. A couple of the puzzles rely on other resources from the website, too, combining keys into URLs for you to visit. I really don’t care for this. I’ve complained about such things in the IF Comp before, but it’s a bigger concern there, where archival is half the point, than here, where the pages are designed to be marked up with pencil over the course of solving puzzles, making the whole thing ephemeral and unreplayable. Still, I find the reliance unaesthetic. I suppose it has one virtue, that it makes it impossible to work backwards, solving puzzles from the keys they produce. But I suspect the main motivation is metrics. The online component makes it possible for the author to track which puzzles go unsolved. I hope they’re at least finding this instructive.

Once you have a mandatory online component, you have to ask: Why the book? Is this in fact just an online riddle-game that puts its graphics in the form of print instead of some digital format? But no, some of the puzzles use the medium of print in clever ways. One puzzle requires you to fold over some pages to complete a picture, another uses the uninked parts of a page as a grille for obtaining letters from the next page, and so forth. It’s a small fraction of the puzzles that pull such tricks — by my count, just eight of the 63 puzzles really need the book, although sometimes this is a judgment call. But that ratio means it can come off as a surprise every time it happens.

The reason it can come as a surprise is that the puzzles here are scant on instruction. The basics of how to look up keys on the website are covered in the book’s introduction, but other than that, you’re generally just given some pictures and have to figure out what to do on your own, just like in those web-based riddle games. There’s a fictional premise that the book was recovered from a lost archeological expedition, and some of the graphics lean into this with pictures of ruins or rubbings or sketches of alien skulls or whatever. The puzzles aren’t really designed to make sense with this fiction, but they use it as mood-setting, as a way to invest the act of poring over a mysterious book with a little meaning, however tangentially. It reminds me a little of how hidden-object games tend to adopt mystery and detection themes as a reason for why you’re scouring scenes for random objects, however little sense that makes.

Almanaq, by contrast, has lots of instructions. The premise here is that if you follow the book’s instructions precisely, you will attain enlightenment — and that’s all the premise you get. Indeed, there’s one sub-puzzle that consists entirely of instructions, but instructions that are complicated enough, with enough conditional exceptions, that they’re difficult to follow correctly. (It took me three tries.) But the presence of instructions means that the average page can be far less informative and more enigmatic than the average page in Journal. Flipping though the book, you’ll see a pattern of hexagons containing letters here, a crossword grid without clues there, and then a page with just some thick lines running through it, or a page full of Shakespearean dialogue in iambic pentameter. Some of these things will be used in puzzles. Others are decoys. There are entire types of puzzle, entire genres, that are only seen as decoys. Only by faithfully following the instructions will you know which is which.

The very first thing that the initial instructions tell you to do is to rip the initial instructions out of the book. Ironic, for a book with “Librarian’s” in its name! This goes against everything I had learned about how to treat books so much that I was hesitant to do it at first, but I convinced myself that the pursuit of enlightenment would necessarily involve overcoming my ingrained habits. This is, I think, important. To tear out that page is to commit yourself, to declare that you trust the instructions and will follow them wherever they lead.

The second thing the instructions tell you to do is find certain other pages and rip them out as well, for use as tiles in an assembly puzzle. The instructions give advice on how to rip neatly, but ripping is never neat, and I think that’s part of the point. It’s still humbling you, to make you receptive to enlightenment, or at least to ensure your obedience. There’s some verbiage about how you “don’t need” to use a knife or scissors, which is phrased as encouragement or kindness but acts more like a taunt or criticism. I got better at the ripping with practice, but the more neatly-ripped pages still shared the puzzle with my earlier, rougher efforts.

That initial puzzle gives you the key to finding the pages for the midgame, consisting of several parallel puzzles of different sorts, all of which are ripped out, and in some cases manipulated further. (This time, scissors are sometimes necessary.) In keeping with its puzzehunt ambitions, the book suggests playing with a team, in which case each midgame puzzle can be physically handed to a different team member. This all funnels into a final metapuzzle, and the final step of that final puzzle wowed me. I won’t say why here, in part because I don’t think the impact could be adequately communicated by a mere description. Viewed dispassionately, without being primed by the rest of the game, it may be barely better than the “Aha!” moments from Journal. But at the time, it felt like the book was making good on its promise of enlightenment. It wasn’t, of course, but it did a good job of making me feel like it was.

Now, I enjoyed both of these books. But I enjoyed Almanaq a great deal more. It was purer in its bookness, and took advantage of it more thoroughly, turning the entire book into an arts-and-crafts project. Its less-linear structure made it less stuckable. And of course there’s that ending. Journal, like certain other riddle-games, uses familiar ancient-astronaut imagery to suggest earth-shattering revelations without actually delivering anything other than vagueness. Somehow, Almanaq‘s approach of not even having anything to be vague about works better for me. Aliens just make me more aware that you’re pretending.

And then… I’m fairly sure that I’ve exhausted Journal, but Almanaq leaves some possibility that there’s more to be discovered. I’ve looked at the unused pages a bit, and found one page with a fairly obvious hidden message on it. Is there more like that? Are any of the mysterious decoy puzzles actually things that can be solved? A particularly devious designer could exploit ambiguity in the introductory puzzle to create multiple paths through the rest of the book. I really don’t think anything like that is going on here, but just imagining the possibility is a little exciting.

Apparently the author of The Librarian’s Almanaq is currently preparing a sort-of-sequel called The Conjuror’s Almanaq, this time modeling it after escape rooms. I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be interesting to see how it differs.

1 I’d never seen “puzzle hunt” contracted into one word before this book, but I embrace it.

Celeste Contrasted to Super Meat Boy

Celeste, by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, keeps drawing comparisons to Super Meat Boy. They’re both hard-as-nails platformers that expect you to die a lot, and create most of their difficulty through environment rather than enemies. But they couldn’t be more different in tone. SMB, like most of Edmund McMillen’s works, is gleefully gross and grotesque, and draws humor from its slapstick cruelty to the player. Celeste, for all its difficulty, comes off as kind and gentle.

Much has been made of Celeste‘s “assist mode”, a suite of gameplay tweaks that make the game easier in various ways, from slowing it down to granting immunity to spikes. These can be enabled and disabled from the pause menu at any time, so you can turn on an assist for just long enough to get past an obstacle that’s giving you trouble, if you like. The important thing about assists for the feel of the game, though, is that the game doesn’t try to shame you out of using them. They’re not presented as cheats. The game recommends starting off without any assists to get a feel for things, then enabling whatever assists you need to get the most out of the experience. It’s curious how effective this “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back” framing is in setting the mood, considering that the game designers who give you this kindness are the same ones that created the brutally difficult world that makes such kindness necessary.

But then, even the difficulty of the world has a gentle character. Let’s compare it to Super Meat Boy again. SMB is driven by an antagonist, Dr. Fetus, who kidnaps the hero’s helpless girlfriend just to be mean. Every single level sees Meat Boy going to heroic efforts to rescue her, only for Dr. Fetus to appear out of nowhere the moment you reach her and snatch her away. (In this, it’s basically taking elements of ur-platformer Donkey Kong and turning them up to eleven.) So, the game is effectively taunting you into progress, and part of the player’s presumed motivation is a desire to finally pay back the bad guy for all he’s put you through. Celeste is driven by the protagonist, Madeline, who simply sets out to climb Mount Celeste as a voluntary challenge — which is exactly what it is for the player. She’s here to sort out some emotional baggage, and her mantra is “I have to believe I can do this”. Part of your motivation is wanting to prove her right, because you identify with her.

When I imagine a SMB level, the main thing I think of is circular saws on swing-arms: obstacles that were clearly created by a hostile god just to be obstacles, having no purpose other than making Meat Boy’s path more dangerous. That is what SMB challenges are made of. Celeste‘s basic challenges are made of emptiness. Difficult areas are made difficult by the lack of solid ground to stand on. You see a distant scrap of rock, and even if it looks impossible to reach, you hang your hopes on somehow flying through the air to it. You most powerful tool for this is the air-dash, which, barring assists, you can only use once per jump — unless you touch something that recharges it, usually a floating crystal. In the more advanced levels, Madeline hardly ever touches the ground, instead dancing from crystal to crystal like some kind of air elemental.

These crystals are just as artificial an intrusion on the world as SMB‘s buzzsaws, but helpful instead of harmful. And that’s crucial to the feel of the thing. Celeste Mountain isn’t fundamentally hostile to you, but it’s dangerous because of its indifference. But you can win, because you have help.