Archive for August, 2019

Bloodnet: People and Humans

The interaction in Bloodnet is unintuitive. Even the mere acts of walking around, picking up objects, and talking to people don’t conform to the usual expectations of point-and-click adventures. To move, you press the left mouse button and hold it. Stark will move towards the cursor as long as the left mouse button is held down. Because of this, doing anything else, such as picking up objects or talking to people, uses the right mouse button. And anything more complicated, such as modifying your hardware or venturing into cyberspace, has a system of rules and meanings to learn on top of its own unintuitive UI.

So I think I’ll be learning the systems here one at a time. In the starting phases, I can get away with just wandering Manhattan and talking to people. Recruiting a posse. Unwelcome combat encounters, it turns out, can largely be avoided just by not wandering around completely at random. Sticking to the places mentioned in Stark’s uncomfortably verbose contacts list, and places that people you meet in those places tell you about.

Most dialogue is lengthy and noninteractive. You right-click on someone and you get several paragraphs of text, laden with made-up hacker jargon, maybe punctuated by a yes-no question, usually about whether you accept the person’s asking price to join your party. One peculiar thing: The game will give you either printed text or voice acting, but not both. And it’s governed by whether or not you have sound enabled. “Sound”, mind you, is separate from music. Heck, it’s willing to use two different devices for them, so you can play sound through your Soundblaster Pro and music through your Roland LAPC-1. That’s this game’s vintage. And, as such, unwritten standards about how to present dialogue in an adventure game were not completely settled yet. Voice acting seems to be something of an afterthought here; if you use it, it goes into the same dialogue UI presentation, desaturating the scene and placing character portraits at opposite corners, but the bulk of the screen, where it would otherwise be putting the text, simply goes unused. It feels a bit like listening to a radio drama. One with hammy acting.

I’ll say this for it: at least the character dialogue is more true to cyberpunk literature than in most so-called cyberpunk games. The minor NPCs are ethnically and racially diverse, and largely downtrodden and traumatized. Some rely on cybernetics because they’re disabled. They form street gangs with names like “Flux Riders” and “Electric Anarchy”, living in squats where they can tap into cyberspace illegally, fighting the Man, or rather, the TransTechnicals megacorp, which basically rules Manhattan and is secretly run by vampires.

Stark himself fits into the category of “relies on cybernetics because of disability”. Even before he got vampirized, he was a victim of “Hopkins-Brie Ontology Syndrome”, a neurological condition that sometimes strikes deckers, making their perceptions of cyberspace and meatspace blur together. The implant helps with that, stabilizing his mind. It’s just a lucky coincidence that the stabilization helps him resist vampiric mind control. There may be a Christian allegory in there. His strength results from his imperfections.

But regardless of the religious implications, I think this aspect is worth paying attention to in light of more recent cyberpunk discourse. There’s been some complaint lately about cyberpunk-themed games presenting Cybernetic Augmentation as reducing your Humanity, asking “Are you truly human when you’re part machine?” and so forth, a question that’s frankly insulting to anyone with a medical implant or prosthesis. Indeed, such devices can be powerful tools in restoring a person’s sense of their own humanity, by enabling them to participate in society in ways that might otherwise be lost to them. Bloodnet has a “Humanity” stat, but it’s not about Stark becoming less human as he becomes more cyborg. It’s about him becoming less human as he becomes more vampire. Cybernetics is how he resists that.


Bloodnet, from 1993, is one of the games that’s spent the most time on my Stack. Before there even was a Stack, really, there was always just a game or two that I hadn’t finished yet, and then Bloodnet, that one game that I had bought a few years back and never got very far in but intended to get back to at some point.

It’s one of the few point-and-click adventure games from Microprose, which also produced Dragonsphere and Return of the Phantom, both of which I rather liked, and Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, which I haven’t played and am not at all sure I want to. These games all share a certain graphical similarity, a sort of soft-focus VGA collage, that made me think that Bloodnet would play like the others, but it doesn’t. It’s a mashup in both form and content, a hybrid of point-and-click adventure and RPG telling a cyberpunk vampire story. It’s kind of like if Shadowrun had chosen to imitate White Wolf instead of TSR.

At the start of the story, a freelance decker with the unlikely name Ransom Stark is (sigh) betrayed by a client, but rather than just trying to kill him like in a normal cyberpunk game, the client turns out to be a vampire, and tries to turn Stark into his vampire thrall. But his attempt at domination is thwarted by Stark’s neural implant, leaving Stark in control of himself but vulnerable to a bloodlust that will erode his humanity over time if he can’t do something about it. All this is told in an opening slideshow/dialogue sequence that I remember finding cringingly, embarrassingly bad once, but which now strikes me as utterly hilarious. You could put this stuff on Hypnospace. It would fit right in.

The main reason I never got far is that the game throws you into the deep end. It has a very weird UI, a whole cyber-upgrade system to learn, and a baffling cyberspace where you have no idea how to interact with anything. That’s just in the first room. If you try to leave the first room, you’ll probably run into a combat encounter that you’re not at all prepared to deal with, as character or as player. I’ll probably describe all these systems in future posts, once I’ve come to understand them. Reading the manual will be very necessary.

Touché!: Conclusions

My journey through Geoffroi le Brun’s journey had a twist ending not found in the game itself.

The final confrontation with Cardinal de Guise takes place in William de Peuple’s castle, where every room is a point of no return, a gauntlet of puzzles where each new room shows the depths of the Cardinal’s villainy in progressively plainer terms, culminating in the conjuration of a skeleton army. Where Monkey Island had voodoo, Touché! has necromancy. It’s more incongruous here, though. The pirate tales that inspired Monkey Island were quite varied and had some intersection with stories of ghost ships, but all pop cultural ideas about Musketeers come from a single source, one which is by all accounts surprisingly true to history. The addition of magic to this setting reminded me of the Don Bluth cartoon Anastasia, which portrayed Rasputin as a sorcerer who brought about the fall of the Romanovs with his spells.

Several rooms before that, though, was a place where I got stuck. My inventory was fairly depleted by then, and there were only so many interaction points in the room, so it didn’t take long to exhaust my options. So I came to the unfortunate conclusion that I needed some undiscovered object left behind in the main part of France. After considering the few unresolved situations back there and the few inventory items I hadn’t found a use for yet, I reloaded a save and found the solution: I did indeed have a means of freeing that accused witch I talked about in the previous post. Furthermore, if I went back to an even older save, I could, as I had guessed, free her to bring back Atoff to administer my marksmanship test. In other words, the game is indeed Cruel (or possibly just Nasty; these gradations blur a bit at the edges), but for opposite reasons than I had thought. Atoff’s absence, which I had thought was a cause of deadlock, was actually an attempt at removing it, a way to guarantee that the player has the old woman’s reward before reaching the endgame. My replaying part of the game to avoid this limitation had backfired. And the Cruelty still seems to be accidental. The game otherwise takes care to make sure you have everything you need when you enter the endgame, even making Geoffroi refuse to give Henri two crucial items that he’ll need when Henri isn’t available.

Overall, I can’t really recommend this game to any but the most enthusiastic enthusiast. It’s not just that it’s not quite up to the standards of Monkey Island, it’s that it’s not up to the standards of other Monkey Island imitations. The humor is kind of weak, the characters are all a bit unlikable, and the puzzles get a little cat-hair-mustache at times. That is, it’s not nearly as nonsensical as the worst of The Watchmaker, but there are multiple bits that necessitate exhaustive guesswork — probably the worst is a part where you forge a key by coating your dagger in candle wax, inserting it into the keyhole to get an impression, and filing down the result. Not one step in that process makes sense. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t often have the courage to go for the truly wacky adventure game puzzles, the kind that make you feel clever for getting inside the author’s headspace. Probably the closest it comes to that is the part where you repair Michaelangelo da Vinci’s experimental steamboat with random found items.

Also, there’s frequent mismatches between the art and the text or logic, as if there wasn’t a lot of communication between the artists and the writers. There are sundry little things like someone describing a man as “over by the door” when he clearly isn’t, or Geoffroi identifying a window of an inn as his room when it really should be around the other side. There’s a rope that’s being used to moor a boat when you take it, which is later shown as long enough to reach a cathedral ceiling and back multiple times. I’ve already mentioned the rampant asset reuse. There’s a scene that I found particularly striking in this regard, of people queued up in front of the Louvre, waiting to see the Chancellor. The game calls one of them a wealthy man, sumptuously dressed. Another is described as dressed all in black. Dialogue with these two people makes frequent mention of their distinctive clothing. Their sprites are identical.

I will say, though, that there’s something about this game that kept me going without rushing to get it over with for a long time, longer than the other point-and-click adventures I’ve been playing lately. Maybe just the clarity of the art, or the resemblance to fondly-remembered games of yore.

One last thing I’d like to note: the role of swashbuckling. I haven’t commented on it before, because it plays such a strangely minor role for a story about Musketeers, but there are in fact multiple places where Geoffroi can brandish his sword — and usually lose. He seems to be able to hold his own against single opponents, but he’s usually outnumbered. What’s really notably absent, though, is any sort of swordfighting mini-game. When you want Geoffroi to fight someone, you just click his sword from his inventory on them, and the rest just happens automatically. It’s notable because, of course, of Monkey Island, which had a swashbuckling mini-game that’s frankly a lot better-suited to the Musketeer milieu than the pirate one. The presence of a sword trainer who doesn’t actually train you in swording makes me suspect that there were once plans for something more, but when you come down to it, why bother when the perfect solution has already been done?

Touché!: Accidental Cruelty?

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last post. Time seems to be passing at a faster than normal rate these days. But also, when we last left Geoffroi le Brun, I was resorting to stuff like “try everything in your inventory on every environmental feature that you can use inventory items on”, and still not really getting anywhere, and that didn’t really make me feel like continuing. Today, I went so far as to browse the strings in TOUCHE.DAT — something I don’t like to do, because it’s nigh impossible to avoid spoilers. I didn’t need to look very deeply, though, before I had an inkling about what my problem was. An inkling that I didn’t like, but which seems to bear out so far.

As you may recall, I was trying to recover William de Peuple’s will from a highwayman. Consulting with the Musketeer captain back at base, I found reason to suspect that the highwayman had gone to Le Mans. The problem, then, is that my travel pass didn’t cover Le Mans, and the captain refused to extend it until I got certified in marksmanship. “Just talk to Atoff”, he said. Atoff is the Musketeer in charge of training. Just one problem: he wasn’t around. Everyone except the captain and D’Artagnan had left to throw rotten fruit at a suspected witch pilloried in the town square, although they weren’t to be seen there either.

I had been assuming that I could get him back somehow, probably by freeing the witch. What my cursory examination of the data showed was a lack of any obvious text about this among the interactions with the witch. And that got me thinking.

See, the thing is, the appearance of the pillory is linked to your visits to Juliette. The game makes you find three different ways up to her tower by changing what’s in the area after each visit. The pillory is the final step in this process, giving you access to rotten fruit that leads, in a roundabout way involving several other puzzles and a trip to Paris, to Juliette’s father leaving the house so you don’t have to sneak in through the window any more. I had put the game into this state some time back, and as a result, Atoff was no longer where I needed him. But what if I just didn’t make the witch appear in the first place? Juliette is pretty much optional until somewhat later in the story. Going back to an earlier save, I can just leave her alone until after I’ve had a chance to talk to Atoff about the marksmanship test.

The thing that bothers me is that this is so very much a game in the mold of Monkey Island, but it seems to be violating one of its core design principles here: that no matter what the player does, the game should never cut off the possibility of victory. Certainly the rest of the game has followed this principle, so it really looks like this one moment of Cruelty is a mistake. And yet, it’s a mistake that would have been inevitably found by adequate playtesting! A player who doesn’t already know what they’re supposed to be doing will very likely drive Atoff away before encountering the highwayman, even if they only visit Juliette when given a concrete reason.

I could still be wrong about this. Maybe there really is a way to get Atoff back after he leaves. But if so, I can say with confidence that this constitutes an optional puzzle, one that some players will skip without knowing they skipped anything. In effect, reverse cruelty. And that still doesn’t seem like it’s in this game’s style, or Monkey Island‘s.

Geoffroi cheats on the test, by the way. This is one of the few moments where he really seems like he’s doing what Guybrush would do.

Touché!: Usability Shenanigans

Like most point-and-click adventures, Touché! lets you use inventory items as verbs, applying them to environmental objects or other inventory items. To a game designer, this is an easy way to create enough potential actions to prevent the player from simply cycling through them all instead of solving the puzzles by understanding them. But as a player who’s currently stuck, I naturally want to subvert this, pruning the possibilities to something I can deal with.

A while back, I noticed a pattern that should help, and I spent my last session confirming and exploiting it. The pattern is this: If an environmental object can have an inventory item usefully applied to it, using any object on it, right or wrong, will provoke some reaction, if only just Geoffroi saying “I can’t use that there” or the like. If not, clicking an inventory item on it will just return the object to your inventory as if you had clicked it on nothing.

Realizing this cuts down on the things I have to think about a lot! For example, in Geoffroi’s room at the inn in Rouen, there’s a locked door leading to a neighboring room. There are several little clues pointing to the importance of gaining access to that second room (starting with the fact that it exists at all, when the same space in the near-identical inn in St. Quentin is empty), but I haven’t done so yet. If you examine the door, you’re told that nothing short of a crowbar will get you through. So… I’ve been kind of hoping that a crowbar would show up. But now, I know that won’t happen. The door doesn’t respond to using a handkerchief or a cantaloupe on it, so it won’t respond to anything else. Perhaps I’ll find a way to reach that room through the window and open the door from the other side or something, but I’m not getting in the straightforward way.

Realizing that you don’t need to bother interacting with something in a particular way is a sort of negative discovery, one that spares you wasted effort but doesn’t move you forward at all. More interesting is the positive discovery of a possible interaction you hadn’t considered. And so I’ve been through all the rooms to see exactly what items are locks that need keys. In the process, I discovered a few anomalies. The blacksmiths in St. Quentin and Amiens respond to objects, but the one in Rouen does not. One and only one of the two guards outside the Louvre does — and he’s also the only one you can talk to. The doorway to the Musketeers headquarters accepts items and I have no idea why. Maybe it gets locked later on? I can believe that characters might be false positives, that the designers may have just decided to handle the case of “what if the player tries to give them something” because it’s something the player might plausibly try, not because it ever does anything. But that door is another matter.

At any rate, the two most intriguing use points I found were things I was already kind of aware of: a pot of purple paint in the Amiens smithy, and a pot of soup hanging over the fire in the Rouen inn. (An identical pot in the St. Quentin inn doesn’t accept items.) And so I’ve experimentally tried everything in my inventory on them. Result: partial success! Most things used on the soup pot just make Geoffroi say “Why would I want to get that covered in soup?”, but use an altar cloth snaffled from a church, and it’s transformed into a sticky altar cloth. Which… doesn’t seem like an improvement on the face of it. I have no idea why I want this. But I suppose that’s what happens when you try to skip straight to the solutions without understanding the problems first.

Touché!: Inventory

And I’m stuck again. I’m accumulating a nice big collection of inventory items, though. That’s the one thing I’m consistently capable of doing. I’m imagining a point in the future when the rest of the game consists of just using up all the junk I’ve been carting around, one item after another, pouring it out and transforming it into plot.

The inventory interface in this game is a little peculiar: it’s divided into two pieces. You have Geoffroi’s inventory, which is normally displayed at the bottom of the screen, and you have that of his manservant Henri, which replaces Geoffroi’s when you ask for it by speaking to Henri. Henri doesn’t normally pick up objects on his own, but there are a few special cases, like when Geoffroi pole-vaults into a window and Henri, staying behind, retrieves the pole. You can, however, hand objects back and forth between the two freely, provided that they’re in the same room.

The very first thing Henri obtains is William de Peuple’s corpse. Geoffroi objects that you can’t just leave him lying in the street, but doesn’t want to touch him, so Henri picks him up instead. The stated idea is that you just need to get him to a priest for burial, but, despite an abundance of places of worship, I haven’t yet found one that will take him. So Henri is just carrying a corpse around everywhere we go. The first few times I opened his inventory, it was a bit of a shock to be reminded of this.

I can imagine ways that the game could exploit the division, forcing you to divide useful items between the two while they’re separated or whatever, but it hasn’t really done that. And I frankly don’t see much point to giving things to Henri when it’s not necessary for a puzzle. I’ve contemplated using him as a sort of trash bin, carrying around items that I’ve already used in a puzzle and don’t expect to need again, or alternately items that I haven’t used yet but think I know the use of, thus clearing Geoffroi’s inventory for things I can productively contemplate. But I don’t really have enough confidence to do this.

One other notable thing: Money is not part of your inventory. Your current amount of money is simply a stat, listed to the left of the inventory in the UI. And it’s a stat that’s almost always 0. At the very start of the game, you have 25 francs, but they’re stolen in the introductory chapter. Since then, I’ve found exactly 1 franc, which I’ve already spent on the only thing I’ve seen that costs 1 franc: a plaster replica of the cathedral at Rouen, which I haven’t yet found a use for (although I have suspicions). This all seems to be a big joke, really. As I’ve noted before, you don’t need cash on hand for your basic expenses, but there are quite a few shops and stalls where everything costs at least 2 francs, putting it completely out of your reach unless you can barter for it. At this point, I honestly don’t expect to see any more money; the presence of that “0” in the UI is just a reminder of Geoffroi’s situation. The big punch line: When you’re accosted by a highwayman, he robs Henri of the 100 francs that he’s had on his person all along, but which you didn’t know about because it wasn’t part of his inventory.

Touché!: How to Hide a Church

Finally, some movement in the main plot! I’ve recovered de Peuple’s will (only to have it stolen by a highwayman almost immediately), and I’ve actually met Cardinal de Guise, who’s definitely a baddie and definitely behind the murder. De Peuple’s castle, it seems, is crucial to his plans to wipe out the Protestants once and for all. Geoffroi himself is displaying signs of dramatic irony at this point, reverting to almost willful idiocy as he fails to put two and two together, lest the knowledge threaten his sense of loyalty to power.

I think it’s worth describing the sticking-point I just passed and how I came unstuck. It was, of course, a matter of a missed clickable — in this case, an entire church. It was nestled into the background of the sole exterior view of St. Quentin, where it blended into the skyline so well that I didn’t even think to check it for interactivity. A conversation inside the tavern, however, yields the tidbit “Did you know that the famous Cardinal de Guise is here in St. Quentin?”, in response to which you can ask where you can find him and be told that he was last seen heading to the church. I had heard that dialogue before, but didn’t think it was immediately useful, because (a) I had no real reason to be looking for the Cardinal yet, and (b) it seemed like I’d have to do something about the roadblock before I could really explore the city. It was only after seeing the information again after noting on this blog that I had been to places of worship in only three of the four cities I had visited that it stood out for me enough to remain on my mind when I left the tavern and noticed the steeple in the background. Maybe I shouldn’t be criticizing Geoffroi’s intelligence.

Also, maybe I should take notes more. Note-taking and mapping used to be a crucial part of the adventure-game experience, back in the early days, but today’s sensibility is that they shouldn’t be necessary. Monkey Island was a huge step in that direction, putting overland maps into the game and making sure all crucial dialogue was repeatable. Touché! is definitely post-Monkey Island, and has much the same approach, but it’s also large and complicated enough that I find myself forgetting stuff unless I reflect on it here.

Touché!: Historicity

One thing really distinguishes Touché! from the likes of Ankh and Monkey Island: it’s set in real places, at a specific point of history.

I don’t want to overstate this. It’s still inspired primarily by The Three Musketeers, a work of fiction, and on top of that, it’s basically a cartoon. There are blatant anachronisms for humorous effect, and also less obvious ones: the game is supposed to take place in 1562, about 60 years before Musketeers were a thing. (The novel starts in 1625. Nonetheless, D’artagnan appears as a minor NPC in the game.)

But 1562, it seems to me, was chosen for a specific reason. That’s when the long-standing hostility between the Catholics and the Huguenots erupted into open war.

Conflict between Catholics and Protestants is constantly in the background of this adventure, from the musketeers in Rouen making preparations to go fight the English and their “protestant scum” allies at Le Havre, to the manned roadblock on the road to Burgundy to keep people from joining the rebels. And, as a defender of the French monarchy, the player character’s perspective is very firmly on the Catholic side. Of the four cities I’ve seen, two feature cathedrals you can visit, and one a monastery. Geoffroi takes a moment to praise the inspirational beauty of the Rouen cathedral’s architecture. And yet, Geoffroi is basically untouched by the conflict! For all that he’s technically a soldier, war seems to be other people’s concern; the musketeers apparently mobilize while he’s off on other errands. His chief concern is pursuing an assassin who was seen paying people with Spanish silver, and Spain was hardly Protestant at this time.

I’m not very familiar with The Three Musketeers — I’ve seen one film adaptation, and that’s it. But I do remember that the main villain was a Cardinal, who was trying to engineer a war with England. So on the surface, this game seems like something of a reversal of that, with its pro-church attitude and view of war as constant and inevitable. But I’ve seen a couple mentions of a “Cardinal de Guise”, which seems like an obvious person to step into the Richelieu role. This game does like its pun names.

Touché!: Stasis Report

I took a couple of days off from this game, discouraged by lack of movement in the plot. I’m still in the story’s early stages, i think. The strange thing, though, is that I’m not tempted to cheat. That’s because I keep on discovering new things to do in the game. Little things, like I find a new inventory item, or make a little headway in the B plot. Just not things that are directly helpful in advancing my main goals.

I can skip ahead somewhat. I know that at some point, once I’ve tracked down the villains and recovered William de Peuple’s will, I’m going to have to take it to Paris and find the appropriate authorities to receive it. And I can go to Paris and try to solve the puzzles around successfully navigating the city, which you apparently can’t do without a local to guide you, but I know I ultimately won’t be able to do anything useful there until I get unstuck were I’m stuck. Oh well, at least I can eliminate inventory items from consideration this way.

So, here’s where things stand: My primary task is still to hunt down this blue-cloaked assassin. He was headed towards St. Quentin, and possibly thence to Holland, but was struck with food poisoning on the way and stopped at a monastery in Amiens for medical care. I need to disguise my manservant as a monk to investigate further (Geoffroi has facial hair that prevents him from passing as a monk himself), which is one of those “Find the Three Things” quests so common in point-and-click adventures. I’m having difficulty finding one of the three things.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned B plot: wooing the fair Juliette back in Rouen. This is a pro forma romance; neither Geoffroi nor Juliette shows much real interest in the other, but they’re willing to let things play out regardless. This part of the game is an exception to the pattern I noted before about always moving forward: Juliette sets you tasks that can only be met by visiting other cities and returning to her. My last major breakthrough was finding a way into the tavern in St. Quentin (which, much like the blacksmiths and tailor shops, is almost identical to the tavern in Rouen, but makes different bits of the scenery clickable). There, I found none other than Alexandre Dumas himself, despite his birth being several centuries in the future, and convinced him to write a poem in Juliette’s honor so I could present it to her as my own work. Now she wants flowers. These two deserve each other.

And there are assorted other things in Rouen that I don’t know what to do with. One Michaelangelo da Vinci potters about at the edge of town. I had to solve a puzzle to be able to talk to him, but he runs out of things to say pretty quickly. There’s a bunch of little things drawing my attention to the fact that there’s a souvenir stand directly between the Musketeer headquarters and the cathedral, where it keeps getting hit by errant musket balls, but I have no idea where it’s going with that.