Archive for December, 2019

Hero of the Kingdom series

Every once in a while, someone writes a game that isolates a single feature found in more elaborate games and makes an entire game out of just that. The “Hidden Object” genre is perhaps the most familiar example. Hero of the Kingdom, a series of three shortish casual-positioned games in the heroic fantasy genre, is another. Hero of the Kingdom starts with the sort of resource management system familiar from RPGs like World of Warcraft: gathering, crafting, bartering. And it just sort of pares away the rest of the RPG.

Oh, sure, there’s monster-slaying too, but monster-slaying is made into just another sort of resource-gathering, mechanically identical to fishing or gathering herbs. Any of these activities will have certain resources that it requires, and certain resources that it consumes. To catch a fish, for example, requires a fishing rod and consumes bait. Hunting a deer might require a bow, and consume a couple of arrows and some “Strength”, which is a resource produced by resting and consuming food. Slaying an ogre might require a sword and a certain level of Combat Skill, as well as consuming some Strength and a healing potion or two, but it’s still just a matter of exchanging resources for a reward. In particular, it is impossible to lose fights in these games. If you have the necessary resources, you will win. If you do not, you will not be allowed to engage the enemy at all. And the resources needed are quite specific, too. There are various weapons you can obtain, but they’re not the slightest bit interchangeable; if an enemy requires a sword, a spear is no more useful against it than it would be for picking berries or chopping firewood.

There’s a card-game-like abstractness to all this, but that ignores the exploration aspect. The whole thing takes place on a network of lavishly-illustrated isometric landscapes, with various of the joining paths blocked by monsters. Most actions are performed by clicking icons superimposed on this world, although a few of the more primitive activities, such as searching for mushrooms, are done hidden-object style. The peculiar thing about this is that the player has no avatar on the screen. It’s not the disembodied-presence approach of a Samorost, either. It’s clear that you’re controlling a player character with a presence in the world, because NPCs will address you and say things like “That was amazing, I’ve never seen such skilled fighting!” after you click on an orc. Your character just isn’t displayed with everyone else.

The three games (so far) in the series use this system to tell different stories, albeit all ones that fit the usual parameters of heroic fantasy games. The plot is all about building up your power (that is, wealth) to defeat increasingly fearsome foes until there’s none left and you win. Mechanically, though, it’s largely about denuding the gameworld of its natural resources. The third game changes things up a bit by respawning stuff after a while, but in the first two, the total amount of everything you can find is simply finite, so areas you’ve already plundered are exhausted forever, while any new areas you open up are ripe for the picking. Talk about implicit colonialist attitudes.

Anyway, it’s a series that’s worth looking at just because there’s nothing else quite like it. Possibly the closest thing is the 12 Labours of Hercules series and its ilk, which have a similar monsters-as-obstacles-requiring-resource-gathering approach. But those are hectic races against time in a cartoony style, and Hero of the Kingdom couldn’t be farther from that.

Sole and Ciphers

Sole is a game that apparently I kickstarted? I don’t remember doing so, but it’s the sort of thing I kickstart. At any rate, it was released earlier this year, and I’ve played through it now, so I might as well post about it.

It’s what you might call a beauty game — that is, it’s in the same broad genre as Flower, Journey and ABZÛ (and borrows aspects from all three). These aren’t quite walking sims, because you have some minor puzzles to solve and goals to pursue, but the main reason those puzzles and goals exist is that they’re a convenient way to lead you to the more visually impressive parts of the environments. In Sole, you’re a literal light in the darkness, a radiant rolling ball exploring a dark series of caverns and ruins, wreaking restoration in its wake, making plants spring from the earth and causing crystals to start glowing, a convenient way to tell where you’ve been already. The whole thing is a sort of katabasis myth, a journey through the underworld that starts with a long roll downward and ends in flight. It’s very solar. In fact, the Achievement for winning the game is called “Sol”.

The title isn’t just a pun, though. Originally, the designers wanted the game’s dominant feeling to be one of loneliness. But they changed their mind at some point and decided to instead go for the feeling of being lost. I know this much about the designers’ intent because they explicitly talk about it within the game, in luminous runic graffiti that appears when you get close enough to certain walls. Now, these design notes are in a made-up alphabet. There are optional collectibles that reveal the cipher key, one letter at a time, but to my mind, they weren’t really necessary. I’m pretty good at cryptograms. When I found my first runic message, I deciphered it immediately without knowing there was an “easy way” available. But in retrospect, it seems like in doing so I missed out on what the designers had in mind. I was supposed to stare wonderingly at the incomprehensible glyphs, contributing to that sense of being lost. Finding the keys was supposed to be meaningful, a way of making progress toward understanding, not just collectibles for collectibles’ sake — although it would switch over to that for anyone eventually, I suppose, when you’ve found most of the alphabet.

A peculiar thing about deciphering a made-up alphabet: Once you’ve made sense of a few words, you’re not so much deciphering the text as reading it. Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, the creator of Knytt and Uurnog, has recently been doing an experiment where he’s been changing his system font to one of his own making, with made-up glyphs, to see if he could learn to read it as fluently as normal letters. As I note in the replies, I can read his script about as well as I can read katakana: haltingly, making mistakes sometimes, but also sometimes recognizing an entire word at a go. And this is something I can’t do with the more usual sort of cryptogram that represents letters with different normal letters. Essentially, it involves convincing myself that the glyphs I’m looking at are just variations on the more familiar ones. A few letters look very much like their standard versions — in both Sole and Nifflas script, “l” is a gimme. Others are close enough that you can swallow the differences: a Nifflas “e” lacks the middle stroke, but it’s a curve that’s open on the right, and that gives it some recognizable e-ness. And in other cases I’ll grasp at straws to fit a glyph into my mind’s conception of a letter, but still manage it somewhat.

I think back to my experiences with Dropsy, which had a cipher alphabet that I somehow completely managed to fail to recognize as a cipher alphabet. Why was this so much less readable to me? Part of it is that you usually see it in smaller snippets — just a word or two on a shop’s door or whatever — and that these are inherently less easily decipherable than a full sentence full of short common words like “the”. Not all of the graffiti in Sole is design notes. Some of it is the equivalent of “Kilroy was here”. Maybe if I had seen some of those first, I would have had something more like the intended experience.