Archive for June, 2020

Accidental Gating in Alien Logic

I’ve been doing a little UI work lately, prototyping a system that needs to be able to display a list of options, where there’s no hard limit to the number of items in the list. Any such system needs to address the question of what happens when there are too many choices to display at one time. And that brought to mind an anecdote about a game I played approximately 20 years ago.

Alien Logic is a 1994 DOS CRPG based on the Skyrealms of Jorune campaign setting, and if you haven’t heard of Jorune, you probably didn’t have a subscription to Dragon magazine in the 1980s. I don’t think it was advertised more heavily than other game systems of the time, but its ads were highly noticeable and memorable. Haunting art featuring hovering islands and weird alien lifeforms rendered in an unsettling fleshy style, all bulges and bone structure. Usually they featured one or more Shantha, weirdly tall humanoids with bulbous faceless heads. I was always curious about it as a child, but didn’t have any actual knowledge or experience of it until I bought a remaindered Alien Logic CD-ROM.

Now, this game is not fresh in my mind. I don’t remember the story at all. I remember it had a real-time combat system presented in side-view like a brawler, and, like many brawlers, I recall that it fell to a dominant strategy, although I don’t remember what that strategy was. The setting, I learned, is an alien planet dotted with mysterious ruins, colonized by humans and other intelligent species long enough ago to have multiple layers of history there. It was apparently meant to appeal to both sci-fi fans and fantasy fans, and has been compared to both Jack Vance and Barsoom in its pseudo-scientific trappings and quasi-magical forgotten technology. Mana is called “isho” and spells are called “dyshas” as a way to let the sci-fi fans pretend they’re not talking about magic, and apparently some fans get quite huffy when you point this out.

The original tabletop game supports player characters of various races, including furries, but the player character of Alien Logic is human, or at least human-passing. You start off, however, in a Thriddle city called Mountain Crown. I’d describe Thriddles as the setting’s functional equivalent of halflings or gnomes, except instead of small humans, they look like plucked chickens with eyestalks with elbows in them. There’s a sort of mentor figure, an elderly Thriddle named Salrough, who gives you your initial quest and invites you to come back and talk to him whenever you have more developments of interest. And I remember trying to come back to talk to him fairly early in the game, only to be blocked at his door by another Thriddle, named Herrid Go-Otgo, who insisted that I give him a certain item with a silly alien name to be allowed through.

“Oh well”, I said, “I guess the game doesn’t want me going back in there just now. It’s gating that content until I find that thing Herrid wants. So until I find it, I’ll just keep on exploring and pursuing quests.” And I did. There was plenty more to do, goals both stated and implicit, and I just kept on going, without ever finding the thing Herrid wanted, until I hit a wall towards the end of the game and could make no more progress. Hitting up a walkthrough, I learned that I needed to talk to Salrough again to get any farther. But what about Herrid? Ah, I just hadn’t been persistent enough! If I had just tried entering Mountain Crown again, even just exited to the world map and gone right back in again, there would now be some more Thriddle NPCs who could get me the item. But why would I have tried going back to Mountain Crown when I still didn’t have it?

Still, I knew now, so I got rid of Herrid, and I went to talk to Salrough… and the game crashed.

The reason it had crashed? The creators of the game had simply not anticipated that a player would do literally everything else possible in the world before getting rid of Herrid. There are various events, news you can hear and discoveries you can make, that you can ask Salrough about. All through your progress in the story, the game is tacking new items onto Salrough’s dialogue tree, and assuming that you’re visiting him to clear them out once in a while. If you don’t, it grows long enough for the list to overflow the screen. And that crashes it. Since this is a DOS game, maybe it just kept on rendering text past the end of video memory and into the game’s executable or something.

I remember finishing the game. I don’t remember if I managed this by finding a patch that fixed the problem or if I just loaded successively older saves until I found one that didn’t crash, but I do strongly remember a very long list of dialogue options relating to plot long since passed, hints I no longer needed, overdue explanations, maybe even some locations of low-level dungeons I had inadvertently skipped over. I don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember that.

There’s an obvious design lesson here: Be careful about gating. If you want the player to do something, if you want them to do it early and repeatedly, don’t put a barrier in front of it that they don’t know how to overcome.

Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality: My Picks

Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but: Itch.io has a truly monumental bundle going right now, called the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, consisting of “1,659 items” (as of this writing; the number keeps going up 1The final count is 1704. ), mostly games, many of them good, for a minimum price of $5, all proceeds going to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. It’s running for just two more days. A more ambitious games blogger than myself could spend the rest of their life blogging just about this bundle.

Since such a massive collection is in obvious need of curation, people have been posting lists of their picks on social media. I figure I might as well do the same here. I’m not saying these are the only games in the bundle worth playing, just that they’re the ones that I personally have played and would recommend to others.

  • Interactive Fiction and other largely text-based stuff
    • Voyageur: There are quite a few choice-based space-exploration games out there, but this is probably the most polished. Sort of a cross between 80 Days and FTL.
    • What Isn’t Saved (will be lost): A sci-fi meditation on memory and difficult choices. Almost unbearably tense.
    • Wheels of Aurelia: I’ve mentioned this one in passing before. It’s an interesting experiment in interactive dialogue: you’re talking while you’re driving, so your attention is split and the conversation is affected by what turns you make and how fast you go. Set in 1970s Italy, with a story very concerned with the politics of that time and place.
    • Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings”: Claymation adventure game detective musical with interactive sung dialogue that actually manages to fit the beat of the background music.
    • Extreme Meatpunks Forever: A lo-fi Visual Novel about gay fugitives in a messed-up world, peppered with mech-fighting action sequences where you try to shove fascists off cliffs. I don’t usually have a lot of patience for VNs, but Meatpunks has a unique energy.
    • The Quiet Sleep: Hard to describe. It’s an abstract system for telling stories by means of resource acquisition on a hex grid.
  • 2D Platformers
    • Celeste: Previously. Extremely polished, the pinnacle of Matt Thorson’s 2D platformer career. Tough as nails, but paradoxically kind-hearted.
    • And Yet It Moves: Previously. Puzzle-platformer in a rotatable environment with a torn-paper aesthetic.
    • Pikuniku: I’m only a little ways into this, but it’s a metroidvania with a very strong aesthetic. Characters are simplified in a way that complements their comically blunt demeanors.
    • BasketBelle: Previously. Intriguingly combines shooting hoops with platformer mechanics.
    • Four-Sided Fantasy: Another high-concept puzzle-platformer, based on giving the player control of whether the screen has wraparound or not at any given moment. It’s a device that turns out out to have more legs than it sounds.
  • Other Explorey Environments
    • Oxenfree: I’m not wild about horror movie tropes, but the interaction and dialogue system is definitely worth a look.
    • A Short Hike: A charming and relaxing mountain climb in a recreational area with anthropomorphic animals. Kind of like a one-sitting single-player Animal Crossing.
    • Minit: A high-concept action-adventure, exploring what uses a game can make of short time constraints. Very well-done formal experiment.
    • Anodyne: A light, fanciful action-adventure, similar to an early Zelda game in both mechanics and graphical style, but more wry and deliberately surreal.
    • The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human: Previously. Melancholy 2D underwater metroidvania. Just you and a submarine against immense monsters amidst the ruins of human civilization.
    • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist: Fourth-wall-demolishing first-person nonsense from one of the Stanley Parable people.
  • Other Puzzle Games
    • Mu Cartographer: Previously. Recommended for anyone who likes fiddling with unlabeled controls to figure out what they do.
    • GNOG: A collection of pure jiggery-pokery puzzles themed around grotesque headboxes.
    • Adjacency: One of those abstract puzzle games with soothing ambient music. Simple mechanics, but gets very tricky (in ways other than increasing the number of parts).
    • Puzzle Puppers: Basically, numberlink with elongated corgis. Has some complications beyond that, like teleporting tunnels, but that’s the essence of it.
  • Not cleanly categorizable as any of the above
    • Art Sqool: More satisfying as an aesthetic than a game, but worth a look just for that.
    • Nuclear Throne: One of the best action-roguelikes out there.
    • Glittermitten Grove: A delightful fairy management sim. I hear it has some secrets. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding them than me.
    • Windosill: Previously. Short, dark, surreal twitch-and-wiggle game from Vectorpark.
    • Metamorphabet: Another Vectorpark game. I don’t like it as much as Windosill — it’s pitched more at the kiddies, so it stops short of giving them nightmares. Still worthy, though.
    • Quadrilateral Cowboy: A satisfying hackery game, and one of the few cyberpunk games to take the “punk” part to heart.
    • Old Man’s Journey: A peaceful and aesthetically pleasing travel story where the main mechanic is raising and lowering the level of the ground.
    • The Hex: Six videogame characters from different genres meet at an inn to witness a murder. I didn’t think much of this at first — it seemed indulgent, and the mini-games built around each character not well-developed. But it won me over with its increasing complexity, deepening story, and pervasively sinister atmosphere.

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1. The final count is 1704.