Archive for July, 2019

Ankh: One Last Thought

Now, I’ve compared the Assil/Thara relationship in Ankh to both Guybrush/Elaine and Prince/Farah. But on reflection, there’s one component of both of those that’s missing: male incompetence. In Secret of Monkey Island, Elaine has the whole LeChuck situation in hand until Guybrush shows up and, in his eagerness to rescue her when she doesn’t really need it, inadvertently wrecks her plan. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Prince unleashes the power of the Sands without meaning to, creating the conditions that he and Farah spend the entire rest of the game trying to reverse.

Nothing like that happens in Ankh. Yes, Assil sets his own misfortunes in motion through a moment of clumsiness, but this doesn’t affect Thara directly, and happens before he even meets her. If anything, Thara is the one who steps into this role, attracting the attention of the Pharaoh’s guards at one point by defacing some statuary while Assil is otherwise occupied.

The point is one of forgiveness. In Monkey Island, the male hero is forgiven instantly, once he’s cleared up the mess he caused. In Prince of Persia, he’s never really forgiven — once he rewrites history, his transgressions are forgotten, but that’s not the same thing. But in Ankh, there’s nothing for Thara to forgive. From her point of view, he’s been a perfect angel, and if her hostility toward him drops a few notches from when they first meet, it’s because that hostility was never warranted in the first place. It was just her lashing out because of her situation.

Instead, Assil’s ending reconciliation is with the Pharaoh — one of the story’s villains, whose dislike of Assil was basically a matter of whim, not based on anything Assil actually did. The more I think about this, the more I feel like the story is lacking something. Assil is just a little too abrasive for no one to ever be legitimately angry with him.

Ankh: The Underworld

Osiris is the only god we see in this game, and he’s basically portrayed as a demon — immensely powerful but trapped, and summonable with the right rituals. His interest in the Ankh is simply that it’ll let him return to the mortal world and escape the endless paperwork of processing all the dead souls of Egypt — although, apparently only Egypt; when Thara shows up in a sort of Han Solo Death Star moment, he has no power over her because she’s Arabian, not Egyptian. A convenient way to mix mythologies, this notion of limited jurisdiction! The game doesn’t delve into the implications, but I suppose the sequels might.

When Assil tells Osiris how he overcame the obstacles on the way to this place, Osiris says “So, you think you’re really clever, don’t you?” — to which Assil replies “Well, yeah. A little.” The thing is, though, he didn’t need to be all that clever to get that far. The Underworld is built up as this terribly difficult and dangerous place where you’ll face great trials, but when you actually get there, it’s just about the easiest section of the game. It’s a bit anticlimactic. Now, I’m all in favor of things easing up at an adventure game’s climax, which is a bit counterintuitive — the obvious approach is to put the greatest challenges at the end. But really, the ending is where you want to keep momentum. There’s few things worse than getting stuck right when you were on the verge of wrapping everything up. But I think this game carries that a bit too long. It isn’t just the final confrontation that’s easy, it’s the entire final chapter.

Alas, the bugs are a larger obstacle. I haven’t been talking much about the bugs in this game, even though they’re all over the place, because they’ve been minor cosmetic things — a pop in the animation here, a dialogue that can be hit out of sequence there. Exits that can be clicked from the wrong side. The occasional permeable wall. The very first thing you see in the game is the “walk to” cursor appearing briefly before the main menu comes up. Just little things like that, things that I’d want to iron out before shipping if I were working on the game. Here in the endgame, though, for the first time I hit a bug that actually interfered with my progress and made me load a save. (Fortunately, I’ve been keeping multiple saves. In fact, that’s one of the bugs: the option to overwrite saves instead of creating new ones doesn’t work.) What happens is: If your confrontation with Osiris goes wrong, the game resets to just outside his lair, with Assil excusing the whole thing as just a vision. But it doesn’t always reset things as thoroughly as it should, and one time the camera stayed inside, making it impossible for me to click on the stairs into the place. You’d think that the “Anniversary Edition” remake would be an opportunity to fix this sort of thing, but heck, maybe it introduced it.

As to the ending, the Pharaoh’s daughter is basically a non-character, just a thing that has to be retrieved. Assil and Thara basically wind up together, which, okay, by that point they’ve kind of earned. I mean, they’ve literally been through hell together. Confronted an actual god and defeated him, which is actually in character for Thara, what with her anti-authoritarian streak. I was kind of afraid that the story would demote her from Independent-Minded, Self-Willed Rebel Woman to mere Hero’s Girlfriend, but it really doesn’t do too badly on that score, given that this is still a story centered around the male hero.

I have mixed feelings about this game. It’s definitely not as polished as the design deserves. The humor often fails, or perhaps just isn’t pitched at my level. Even after I learned to run, there was still way too much walking around. But it could have been a lot worse.

Ankh: Ankh

One piece of good news: I figured out how to run! You do it by double-clicking. This greatly improves the experience of crossing the desert. Just like in The Watchmaker, I’m only learning how I’m supposed to be interacting with the game when it’s half over. But in The Watchmaker, I had only myself to blame for not reading the manual. Here, I have no manual. I really feel like the game is supposed to have one, but it’s not in the box, nor on Steam.

Mind you, the game is also politely making running across the desert a bit less of an issue by repeatedly temporarily locking me into rooms. Limiting the scope in this way makes it easier to find all the necessary items. In my last session, I didn’t need the walkthrough at all. The two-player-character section is over, though, which is a shame.

This seems to be one of those getting-in-deeper-and-deeper-trouble stories. People make attempts on Assil’s life, the death curse (which initially manifested as a tattoo on his hand) spreads across his body and starts to interfere with his motor functioning (in cutscenes, at least), and after a certain point, not only does the Pharaoh have it in for him, but Osiris himself does as well. Well, mortals have managed to survive the wrath of the gods before. There are myths about it. Consider Odysseus, arguably the prototype for your Monkey-Island-style adventure game hero, overcoming trials and challenges through a mix of trickery and perspicaciousness.

What did Assil do to earn the personal enmity of kings and gods? Mainly, it’s not really about him. It’s about the macguffin he wears around his neck: an ankh necklace, acquired in the same mishap that earned him his death curse. Why it’s so important, I don’t know, except that it apparently came from the gods, and the gods want it back. Assil himself mistook it for a bottle opener. In fact, he’s not the only character to make that mistake, which seems really strange to me, given what a prevalent symbol it is in Egyptian antiquity. Sure, this game isn’t a realistic depiction of Egypt, but it’s a little like setting a game in, say, France and having half the cast not know what the Eiffel Tower is.

My main task right now is to find the Pharaoh’s daughter, who Osiris has taken away to the Underworld, to ransom her for the ankh. So, we’re back to rescue-the-princess again. NPCs start gossiping about the disappearance immediately after Thara leaves your side, intending to lay low for a while, and this made me initially wonder: Is Thara actually the Pharaoh’s daughter? This turned out not to be the case, but it would have been interesting. Thara is fiercely opposed to the Pharaoh’s rule, but expresses this opposition mainly through defacing monuments and throwing banana peels — in other words, trying to humiliate him rather than overthrow him violently. I could easily see a father-daughter dynamic in that.

Ankh: Thara

OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve been using hints. Steam has an excellent walkthrough for this game, by user GratefulDead94, that’s organized into short sections, each devoted to a single puzzle. Here’s the thing: I’ve really been finding that I don’t need help with the puzzles. The puzzles are pretty clear. When I get stuck, it’s invariably because I missed some small, difficult-to-notice object. Using the walkthrough is basically equivalent to the feature some adventure games have where you can press a button to highlight clickables. This is in contrast to my recent experiences with The Watchmaker, which had both hard-to-notice objects and unclear puzzles.

Actually, in some ways I wish this game were a little more like The Watchmaker. The ability to zoom into first-person mode would be welcome in some places, store shelves and the like where there are lots of little things in a small area. And in one respect, the game becomes a lot more like The Watchmaker in Chapter 3, where you rescue the captive damsel I mentioned in the previous post and she joins you as a second playable character. But already I’m liking what Ankh is doing with two-person puzzles better than anything The Watchmaker did. It quickly finds a way to separate the two of them, but keep them in different parts of the same environment, where their actions can affect each other. It reminds me a lot of the sections involving Farah and the Prince working together in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m noticing that the female lead has a lot in common with Farah. For starters, her name is Thara, which is pretty blatant. Both are members of important families from lands to the east: Farah is a princess from India, Thara is the daughter of an ambassador from Arabia. Both are captives, yet both are strong-willed and argumentative and willing to insult the hero to his face. Both, against their will, wear skimpy red outfits — Farah because it’s what her captors gave her, Thara because it’s all that Assil could find to replace her prison clothes. It seems likely that Thara is not just a deliberate homage to Farah, but that this was supposed to be obvious to the player. PoP:TSoT was just two years old when Ankh was originally released, so would have been fairly fresh in people’s minds. It only took me as long as it did to notice the similarity because it’s been so long since I’ve played it.

And what of their male counterparts? I suppose there’s some similarity of personality: Assil and the Prince are both a little self-centered and annoying to people around them. Also, over the course of PoP:TSoT, the Prince gradually loses pieces of clothing, ultimately ending up shirtless. Assil is already shirtless. But Assil doesn’t have the Prince’s acrobatic ability to back up his arrogance. He’s basically Egyptian Guybrush, his successes based more on a willingness to embrace absurdity than on any kind of skill or virtue. (Indeed, multiple puzzles have emphasized his lack of skills: he can’t swim, can’t play the flute, is no good at handicrafts.) Now, when Guybrush first meets Elaine in Secret of Monkey Island, she’s instantly and bafflingly attracted to him for no apparent reason. This is an accurate depiction of how romantic relationships seem from the male perspective, but it clashes with everything else that’s established about Elaine’s personality so much as to be jarring, as if Guybrush is unwittingly exerting some kind of creepy voodoo mind control or something. Farah, meanwhile, despite a definite and believable undercurrent of sexual tension, sees the Prince first and foremost as the source of her misfortunes, and never completely comes to trust him. So what do you get when Guybrush meets Farah? I’ll be returning to this vital question later.

Ankh: Into Chapter 2

So everything I speculated about in my previous post has turned out to be true. Fixing the camel wash was in fact just a matter of finding a hard-to-notice useable — hard to notice in part because it was part of a tree, rather than a discrete object in itself. This didn’t lead to cleaning the statue in the way I thought it would, but it did lead to cleaning the statue. I’ve seen the Pharaoh, who’s depicted as a comical despot along the same lines as Kuzco in The Emperor’s New Groove (a film that precedes Ankh, but not the game it’s based on, so who knows if there’s influence there). He didn’t fix my curse, though. He just sent me through a trap door into Chapter 2 (out of goodness knows how many) without even hearing me plead my case. I have another lead now, to go see the priests at the temple of Osiris instead, which is going to require tricking my way past another guard. This game sure likes its guards.

Somewhere along the way, the task “ID_TODO_05b” got added to my task list. Whatever that was, I seem to have accomplished it.

My one big complaint about this game at this point, apart from the exoticizing premise, is that there’s so much walking around. This is really my main complaint about point-and-click adventures in general, and the reason I so seldom have the patience for them any more, but it’s made even worse when some of the rooms are on the other side of an expanse of desert. You can’t even run! The game does provide one shortcut: from within the desert, there’s a button that takes you back to the ferry dock. So once you’ve taken the time to trudge out to Giza, you can get back to Cairo pretty quickly. But it does provide an incentive to not leave Cairo. I know I have one more task out there on my list, but I have no reason to believe that I have the means to do it yet.

Back in Cairo, I do at least have some ideas: I need to get past that guard; conversation with the guard leads me to believe that I can trick my way past him if I can provide some music for him to dance to; I have a flute. Unfortunately, I cannot play the flute. Maybe I need some NPC help? This chapter also introduces a captive damsel, possibly the Elaine Marley of the story given her feisty attitude, which is what got her locked up in the first place. Strangely, her rescue isn’t on my task list, but it’s clearly something I’m supposed to at least believe I’m supposed to do. Much of my opinion of this game as a Monkey Island imitation will depend on how that turns out.

Ankh: Goals

Not a lot of progress to report. I have some clear goals, and even some speculative ideas about how to accomplish them, but I think I’m at a point where everything is contingent on finding some useable object that I haven’t found yet. So all I can do is wander through all the rooms again, waving my cursor around and hoping.

So let’s talk about those goals. The main one is delivered in the opening cinematic, in which Assil, a young man in a white shendyt, receives a death curse from a mummy as a result of a minor accident. Assil is the player character. The only person who can lift the curse is the Pharaoh, so you have to gain access to his palace. The palace guards won’t let you through, but they’re terrified of crocodiles due to the recent incident with the pirates, so your obvious recourse is to either instigate or fake a new crocodile attack. And I’ve managed to obtain a few things that seem like they could be used as components of an ersatz crocodile, but Assil refuses to put them together. So I suppose I’m just left expanding where I can explore until I have the rest of the necessary resources, possibly including a taxidermist.

One of Assil’s friends tells him about a treasure map, which seems like a useful thing to pursue, but in order to buy it, he’ll need “a lot of gold”. I have a piece of old statuary that Assil thinks is probably gold underneath all the dirt, but I’ll need to clean it to find out. The waters of the Nile itself are inadequate for this purpose — that’s where I found the thing in the first place. I figure I probably have to use the camel wash station over in Giza, a mechanical device similar to a car wash, but it’s missing a crank. So, I need to find or make a crank. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Very clear goals, but after a few steps, they depend on things that I don’t know how to do.

One thing that’s been a great help: Pressing the tab key brings up a list of your current tasks, which can clarify things enormously. For example, at one point I tricked a tailor into giving me a pair of scissors by telling him it was my job to sharpen them. When I did this, my only thought was “Alright! I have a pair of scissors now! That’s bound to come in handy.” But when I later checked my task list, I saw that I was actually expected to sharpen the scissors and bring them back to the tailor. Once I knew that, I knew exactly what to do — sharpening the scissors is a minor puzzle in itself, but I had seen the place to do it, and only hadn’t done it yet because it hadn’t occurred to me that the whole business was anything more than a ruse.

Perhaps the task list was specifically a result of playtesting. Perhaps the reason that “sharpen the scissors for the tailor” is on the list is because other people, testing the game, had the same reaction as me. If so, it’s a good reaction for the developers to have, at the stage of development when reworking the puzzle will be too costly due to all the animation and voice acting being locked-in. The task list is just text. Text is cheap.

Ankh

Ankh, a 2005 comedic point-and-click adventure set in ancient Egypt, got onto the Stack in a roundabout way. It has two sequels, which somehow wound up in my Steam library, probably through some kind of adventure game bundle. I naturally wanted to play the first game before trying either of those, but strangely, it wasn’t on Steam, so I went and found a copy on disc, probably from ebay. Some time later, before I got around to even removing the shrink wrap, it got put on Steam anyway, as an “Anniversary Edition”. And that’s what I’ve started playing now. The disc remains untouched.

I hadn’t heard of the Ankh series before it got steamed, but it was a hit in Germany, according to Wikipedia. Also from there I learn that the 2005 version is a remake of a 1998 game for the Acorn Archimedes. I have found essentially no other information about the original version, and how the 2005 version changes it. I assume that the graphics, at least, were completely redone. They’re completely 3D-modeled, something that the Archimedes could hardly support.

Its aim is fairly transparent: it wants to be Monkey Island But In Egypt. So everything is kind of cartoony and stylized, with rampant anachronisms and no attempt at historical accuracy. Egypt, it seems to me, is more prone to this than most places; the popular imagination in the West tends to compress literally thousands of years into a single concept of “ancient times”, as if the building of the great pyramids, the reign of Cleopatra, and the historically dubious exodus of the Jews all happened simultaneously. And once ancient times are over, it’s as if history somehow just stops happening to the place. That is the milieu of this game: Egypt Without Research.

It does a pretty good job of aping Monkey Island, though — possibly a better job than some of the later Monkey Island games — at least in terms of tone and rhythm. One thing struck me as particularly Monkey Island-ish: the use of multiple NPCs to deliver semi-contradictory fragments of backstory that mesh into a complete picture. In Monkey Island, this was how you learned about LeChuck. In Ankh, there’s this whole deal with a recent failed attack by pirates (just in case you hadn’t made the Monkey Island connection yet) inadvertently driving crocodiles into the palace grounds.

Happy Prime Day!

So I had this notion that once I was finished with The Watchmaker, I’d try streaming again. My bandwidth circumstances have changed somewhat since my last attempt, and there’s a good chance that I could put together a stream with a decent framerate now.

But Twitch is owned by Amazon, and as luck would have it, there’s a pretty major Amazon strike/boycott going on right now. So my return to streaming is postponed.

Rather than clutter up this blog with more announcements, I suggest that anyone interested in seeing me stream subscribe to my Twitch channel, https://www.twitch.tv/muckenhoupt, and/or my Twitter feed, @CarlMuckenhoupt.

The Watchmaker: The Final Hour

The ending to The Watchmaker is a bit like the ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark: the heroes completely fail to stop the bad guys, and just wind up sort of being present while the bad guys destroy themselves. Except here it’s more like two factions of bad guys destroying each other. We’re given reason to believe that the watchmaker himself was a good man, and created his cabal of immortals with noble intent, but he’s been out of the picture for some time, ever since his followers rebelled against him. It’s all quite biblical, really.

There’s still a little bit of a mystery left: Krenn, who founded the Knights of the Apocalypse, mentions in his diary a suspicion he has that his discovery of the watchmaker’s writings was more than just fortuitous, that they had been deliberately left where he would find them. Who, then, did this? I’m guessing one of the other immortals. Not the watchmaker himself, because he’d been dead for decades at that point, but someone loyal to him and unseen in the game. But that’s fodder for sequels that will never be made.

So anyway, the whole ending sequence is full of enemies who mean you harm. This is a pretty major shift. I think there are one or two opportunities to get a “Game Over” in earlier sections, but this is the first place where it’s easy. There’s a few stealth/action sequences, even. And I can’t say I like it. Action sequences in adventure games are just a bad idea, and forcing the player to replay from a recent save adds nothing good to the experience. (And I say this having implemented quite a few such sequences myself!) “But”, you may object, “without action sequences that potentially result in Game Over, how do you convey a sense of physical danger?” My advice is: Don’t use adventure games to tell stories that rely on a sense of physical danger. Use action games for that.

One peculiar thing about the endgame: When Darrel descends into the (rather small) labyrinth that leads to the pendulum chamber, he gives all his inventory to Victoria. This kind of makes sense from a gameplay perspective, as a way of simplifying things, getting rid of the cruft you’ve accumulated over hours of play and making you start over fresh in a new environment. But it really makes no sense at all in the story: “I may not be able to get back out, so I’d better get rid of any tools that might be useful down there.” And even considered as a gameplay thing, it’s followed by Darrel getting captured and Victoria going in to rescue him, with all the inventory Darrel gave her.

The very last puzzle of note in the game is one where I needed the walkthrough — not even for the conceptually-obscure part of the puzzle, which was within the realm of things I had been trying, but to find out that “candle” was a separate clickable from “candlestick”. A fitting end for a game of lousy puzzles. And yet, I have to admit that in these last few sessions, I was really enjoying it, and looking forward to it between sessions. Perhaps enjoyment of interaction is a lower bar than we give it credit for, much like how food doesn’t have to be high cuisine to be filling. Certainly the game became a lot more enjoyable the moment I learned how to control it properly. Also, by the end I was really inhabiting the castle, feeling it as a place. Its layout is irregular, with its curving tower walls, and entire floors you can only reach indirectly, making it confusing enough that even the player characters comment on it. This makes it all the more gratifying when it becomes familiar enough that you can navigate it easily. It’s been suggested that the real fun in games comes from mastering complex systems, and the geography here may qualify.

One last tangential note: There is a game on Steam called The Watchmaker, which I actually picked up in the recently-passed summer sale, but it’s completely unrelated. It’s a 3D platformer set in a world of enormous gears. It does, however, have some notions in common with the game I just played. Both games have a notion of clockwork mechanisms not just measuring time but controlling it, and of halting or reversing the aging process — in the platformer, you’re aging at an unnaturally rapid rate, and have to continually find resources to rejuvenate yourself to avoid aging to death. It’s fun to imagine that the games are in fact linked, that the platformer is the purgatory experienced by the watchmaker from the adventure game after his death or something. That his responsibility to repair the mechanisms that compose his world is his punishment for interfering with the natural flow of time back in the mundane world.

The Watchmaker: Nearing the End

I’ve reached the endgame. Darrel descends into the labyrinth underneath the castle where the pendulum device is stored, while Victoria keeps watch outside. I mentioned before that the game really regards Darrel as the hero, but this is the first part where it really forces the issue. There have been other tasks that only one character or the other could perform, but not entire areas that only one character could enter.

I said before that the single-character tasks seemed to be gender-linked more than profession-linked — Darrel’s superior upper-body strength, Victoria’s ability to get the shy maid talking — but this hasn’t continued to be the case. Victoria can read Latin and make convincing legal threats. Darrel can talk to people about the occult. (For the most part, he doesn’t actually say anything about the occult that Victoria couldn’t, but the mere fact that he’s available keeps Victoria from trying.) There was one bit where the difference in capabilities struck me as nonsensical, and caused me to get stuck: I was clearly supposed to sprinkle some blood on a rose to fake an omen that the superstitious Jude had been reading about, but only Darrel could do this. I knew exactly what to do, but had no idea why Victoria was refusing to do it. I had to hit the walkthrough to resolve that one, and also consult the manual to find out how to transfer items between characters, something I had previously done only inadvertently. It turns out you can shuttle items between them even when they’re in different rooms, as if by radio. A welcome if unrealistic convenience.

So yes, the walkthrough continues to be an important part of playing this game, and I don’t recommend playing without one. I was, however, pleased to find that in my latest flurry of activity, I was able to solve unaided several puzzles of the sort that I probably would have called unfair if I hadn’t been able to solve them. It’s as if I have enough data by now to be able to guess what the author is thinking, at least some of the time.

One thing that the walkthrough really makes me notice is the way that time substitutes for score. Time only advances in response to player actions, and the amount it advances varies from action to action, so the walkthrough notes this with both the amount and a running total, like “(5:45, +15 mins)”, exactly as if the minutes were points. I guess it’s appropriate for a game so clock-themed, but it also runs a little counter to expectation. This is a game with a deadline. The world ends at midnight unless you succeed in your mission, supposedly. I’m still suspicious about this, mind — now that I’ve had a second look at the backstory, the Knights of the Apocalypse really seem to think that their little ritual will just end the reign of the immortals, not the world. Regardless, time advancing means time running out. It should be experienced as a bad thing. But it’s instead experienced as a good thing because it means you’re making progress, kind of like how the player came to look forward to the destruction of the crystals you were supposed to be protecting in Final Fantasy V and similar.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »