Archive for February, 2021

Box One

I’ve talked a little about the emerging genre of puzzle-packages, a genre so new that there isn’t really an accepted name for it yet. My experience of the thing is mainly of boutique indie experiences with small runs, but more mass-market versions exist. I recently played through one that’s so mass-market, it’s sold (exclusively) at Target: Box One, presented by Neil Patrick Harris.

Now, I’m hesitant to describe this work in much detail, in part because the post-game content is so insistent that I not reveal any of its secrets. So let’s start off with vague generalities. Escape rooms and puzzle hunts are usually best solved by teams, in part because it lets the hints be vague enough to go over some people’s heads. Box One, however, explicitly bills itself as a game for one player, and that seems like the right amount to me. In fact, it may be ideally suited for half a player — that is, a player who has other stuff going on and isn’t giving the game their full attention. I’ll get into why I say this in a bit, but it’s spoilery.

Materials in and around the game put forth the narrative that “single player” was the game’s central innovation — that it was conceived not as an escape-room-in-a-box or a puzzle-hunt-at-home, but as a party-game-by-yourself, essentially a solitaire version of the previous “presented by Neil Patrick Harris” game, Amazed (which I know nothing about). This raises the question: Do the designers not know of the genre they’re participating in? I find their ignorance unlikely, but they’re not assuming that the player knows about it. (Spoilers turn up one notch every paragraph from this point onward.)

Now, as someone who was aware of the genre, and was expecting a puzzle-package, opening the box was initially disappointing to me, as it seemed that all it contained was a tall deck of “challenge cards” (to be drawn and acted on one by one, Pandemic Legacy-style), a notepad, a pen, and a large spacer to fill out the box. There ultimately turns out to be more to it, but the first phase of the game, in which you just draw cards and answer interlinked trivia questions, lasted long enough for me to genuinely think that this was all there was going to be. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised when the twist occurred, even though I had gone in expecting it. That’s a feat pulled off well.

The game turns out to have a substantial online component, which always seems a little like cheating to me. I bought this box as an alternative to playing videogames, darn it. It gives Neil Patrick Harris the opportunity for a little screen time, though, and he’s always a treat to watch. He’s basically in Doctor Horrible mode here, playing himself as a comically self-centered heavy against the story’s true hero, played by an actor who does a lot more acting than NPH but doesn’t get his name on the box. It seems a little unfair, but it’s an unfairness that’s at least in line with the story.

Everything funnels into what is essentially an escape room turned inside-out, the player using the game’s website to remotely help the hero escape captivity. But before you can get started at that, there’s a built-in delay of 24 hours. I suppose the intended effect was to split the game into two episodes — you were supposed to hit the “Come back tomorrow” and actually put the box aside and do something else. This is the game’s biggest misstep, at least for a player such as myself. For why would I stop poking around and seeking secrets, just because one avenue of progress is blocked? That’s not how you play adventure games! (And yes, I was pretty much thinking of it as an adventure game by this point.) As a result, I found most of the game’s secrets before the game led me to them, and that’s a shame, because it meant I missed out on some of the showmanship of the reveals, the “omg it was there all along and I didn’t see it until you pointed it out” factor.

For all that, it’s a pretty satisfying experience. It’s basically all about hiding information in as many ways as possible. It’s just optimized for a player who’s willing to sit down and follow directions sometimes — something it actually emphasizes in the beginning of the challenge cards. To its credit, it is also fully resettable, provided you take care not to damage the components.

Hades: Random Musing

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Supergiant’s Hades over the last few months, but I don’t intend to do a full series of posts about it. I feel like it’s been getting enough attention lately that reiterating every little thing about it would be unnecessary. But I do have a few stray observations I’d like to get down.

First, others have observed that Hades bears a lot of resemblance to Slay the Spire at the large scale, despite being a completely different genre: Spire is a turn-based deck-building game, Hades a fast-paced action-RPG. But both games are all about battling your way upward, through three main layers of guarded rooms followed by a smaller fourth containing the final boss, in one-sitting sallies where you’re expected to fail most of the time, Roguelike-style. Now, I said before that one of the notable things about Slay the Spire is that it manages to make each layer of its hierarchy of goals — beating the first tier, beating all three main tiers, doing the same with the three main classes, unlocking the final encounter and actually slaying the spire — feel like a real victory when you first manage it. Well, Hades does this even harder. When I escaped the underworld for the first time, I thought “Yeah! I beat the game!” When I escaped the underworld enough times to complete the main plot, and the credits rolled, I again thought “Yeah! I beat the game!” In both cases, it was accompanied by story elements that made it clear that I wasn’t really finished. Even when the credits roll, anyone familiar with the myth of Persephone knows that we’re only halfway through that story. I’m currently trying to help her complete it. I wonder what happens then? The game has got to run out of story eventually.

Speaking of familiarity with myth, I hadn’t heard of Zagreus (the player character) before playing the game, and somehow it didn’t occur to me to look him up and find out if he had any precedent in myth until I was very far into the game. Now, there’s a minor sub-plot in the game where Zagreus and Dionysus prank Orpheus by telling him that they’re really the same person, and spinning tall tales about this combined person’s exploits. Later, Zagreus tries to come clean, but Orpheus refuses to believe him, calling it false modesty and continuing to spread his lies through song. The point is, reading the opening lines of the Wikipedia article on Zagreus retroactively made that at least 20% funnier. I suspect there are subtler mythology gags that I haven’t even noticed.

One thing this game has really impressed upon me is just how many different gods of the dead there are in the Greek pantheon, and how many psychopomps. I assume that this is the result of different traditions merging: This group says Hermes takes your soul to the afterlife, that group says it’s Charon, these other guys say Thanatos, but now they’re all part of the same group so someone comes up with a big retcon in which they can all be right simultaneously.

The game has multiple kinds of in-game currency, and the interesting thing about them is that they’re mostly but not entirely separate. There’s gemstones, which mainly buys cosmetic enhancements to the main house, and shards of pure darkness (which is somehow purple), which you use to upgrade your character, and nectar, which you gift to other characters to improve your relationship, and titan blood, which upgrades weapons. To some extent, these are convertible, but I found I generally wanted to use my gems as gems rather than using them to buy some other resource, even though I didn’t really care much about changing the house decor for its own sake. But the weird part really comes in with the diamonds. Diamonds are normally gained by defeating the level 2 boss, which you can do only once per sally. You only ever have a few of them at a time. I’ve found two main uses for them: buying out the contracts that Hades made with certain characters, and some of the more expensive pieces of furniture. The former affects story (and can have mechanical rewards as a side effect), the latter might sometimes affect the story but usually doesn’t. And yet, I find myself sometimes splurging on the cosmetic effects, rather than saving up to help my friends! The closest I can come to justifying this is by calling it curiosity.

The game starts in media res, leaving out any opening cutscene in favor of getting right into the action. A lot of what you learn about the backstory is learned through suggestion and implication rather than stated outright, at least at first — you suspect that Zagreus is deceiving the Olympians long before this is stated outright. And in some cases, the secrets that eventually come out are ones that the player is likely to know already, even when the player character doesn’t. The very fact that Zagreus doesn’t know that Demeter is Persephone’s mother, even after talking to each of them independently multiple times, is itself one of those bits of backstory that the player learns by implication.

Orpheus repeatedly refers to Eurydice as his “muse”. When you finally meet Eurydice, she informs you that in fact she wrote most of Orpheus’ material. But when you think about it, isn’t that what he said? The poets of antiquity invoked the muses in terms like “Speak through me” and “Whisper into my ear”. They always gave the muses full credit as the real authors of their works, the artist being merely a vessel. Something to bear in mind whenever an artist calls someone “my muse” in real life.

Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt

I’ve said before that I use my Steam wishlist less as a wishlist and more as an “I’ll have to remember to give that another look when it has more reviews” list. But there’s one way even Steam itself implicitly acknowledges that they’re not really wishlists: it lets you add free-to-play games to them. Although even that’s a kind of wish: “I wish I had time to play this”. I’ve accumulated a sizeable stack of such recorded intentions there over the years, and we’ve been in weirdly vague national quarantine so long now that over the weekend I decided it was finally time to give some of them a try.

Of those I tried, the one that pleased me most was Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt, a one-sitting retro action-JRPG from 2014. Well, not exactly J, really — it’s clearly in the same genre as Final Fantasy, but the developer is Swedish. In fact, the developer is Ludosity, the quirky and prolific indie studio responsible for such games as Ittle Dew, Bob Came in Pieces, and Card City Nights. If you haven’t heard of Card City Nights: It’s a little bit like if you spun off the collectible card game from Final Fantasy 8 into its own game, except that instead of being themed after FF8 characters, it’s themed after the Ludosity back catalog. And that’s where I first heard of Princess Remedy.

The high concept here is that instead of killing, you’re healing. Princess Remedy is a trained medical professional, and the encounters that earn you loot are with sick or injured people who need your help. And a lot of the people you’re healing are monsters. That’s part of the joke: you go into a cave and walk up to a skeleton or a giant spider or whatever, and instead of attacking you, it tells you about its problems and you help it. In a way, it anticipated Undertale.

Now, I’ve mused before about the idea of an RPG that puts more detail into healing than hurting. That’s how it is in real life, after all. Medicine is far more complicated than combat. And yet, combat-based RPGs pretend the reverse, giving you all sorts of options for special moves in fights while reducing all healing to just saying magic words and/or administering a nostrum. So I think there’s some unused potential in the idea of a game that takes healing seriously.

Princess Remedy is not such a game. It is a very silly game, and its healing sequences are just combat with minimal window dressing: you shoot bullets that look like bandages, pills, or syringes, while attacked by the enemies that are, I suppose, representations of the ailments you’re curing. So the healing theme is skin-deep, but as skin-deep themes go, it’s still a fairly significant one! You get to do all this shooting and still, in the end, feel like you helped absolutely everyone and hurt no one. And anyway, a more convincing depiction of healing would probably work against the feel of the thing. If an injury has a realistic remedy, that means it was a real injury, and someone was really hurt. This game is too lighthearted to ever acknowledge that real hurt even exists. Quite a few of the complaints you cure are explicitly imaginary.

The end boss is very much an imitation of Final Fantasy end bosses, and in particular the final fight from Final Fantasy 6: rising up a sort of pillar of illuminated-manuscript grotesquery made flesh, towards a mock-angelic peak. Except the graphical style of the whole game is a generation or two more primitive than even Final Fantasy 1. It’s more C64-ish, made mainly of monochrome sprites in different colors on a black background. There should be a word for this kind of mixed retro. Maybe “mixed retro” will do.

Said last fight is against the myriad ailments of a very sick prince, who you’re told in advance is Princess Remedy’s age (wink, wink). And yet, afterward, when the inhabitants of Hurtland declare you queen in gratitude, you don’t have to marry him if you don’t want to. You can instead marry literally anyone in the game, regardless of gender or species, and just load into the final save and pick someone else if you change your mind. I personally married the prince’s servant on my first try, basically just because he was the closest person who wasn’t the prince, but I think the best choice is to get back together with Remedy’s ex-girlfriend from medical school, who spends the game hiding in a secret area, suffering from a broken heart, which you can cure like any other ailment. Although I can also respect any Ittle Dew fans who choose Ittle, who makes a cameo here. Sure, Ittle is entirely too young to marry, but that’s where the underlying “not taking any of this at all seriously” attitude kicks in. The effect of your choice is utterly minimal, changing just a sprite and a couple of lines in the outro cutscene, but feels important nonetheless.

I understand there’s a non-free sequel. I’ll have to give that a look.

The Longing: An End

The Shade is free. Some images shown over the closing credits show him being taken in by a family of trolls and, in a word, humanized. No longer a solitary weirdo, he’s one weirdo among many. The King, meanwhile, has crumbled into rubble with the last of his kingdom. I’ve gone and looked up videos on Youtube of the other endings, and this one is clearly the best, the one that the developers consider to be the real ending. Actually waking the King is not in any way rewarded.

And, having looked up said videos, I have to ask: Was it worth it? Worth playing, rather than just reading about to appreciate the concept and/or watching videos of the exciting bits?

You can ask that of any game, I guess, but it’s a more pressing question when asked of a game where you spend so much time not doing anything. Much of what this game has to teach us could be communicated more efficiently. I do think that the final hours in particular were best appreciated interactively. When the old man finally walked onto the screen, confirming my suspicions of how this was going to play out, that moment felt monumental, a culmination of increasingly intense anticipation. They made a solid choice when they decided to make the player spend the ending actively waiting, watching for a time-limited opportunity to seize, rather than just checking in to see if enough time had passed yet.

But also, it strikes me that an awful lot of the game is simply irrelevant to getting the best ending. So much of the content is devoted to improving your home so time will pass faster there, but how do you escape? Not by waiting for weeks to pass. If you know what you’re doing, you can speedrun the game in just a few hours. I can think of no greater violation of the spirit of the thing, but it’s doable. I personally deliberately put off escaping when I was pretty sure I knew how (correctly, it turns out) just because I wanted to see more of what the caves had to offer. But is that what the Shade would want?

The Longing: Stakeout

At this point, I’m actually going through with what I identified as the proper approach in my last post: camping in one spot for 24 hours, waiting to see if anything happens. Specifically, I’m at the blocked entrance to the caves, which I’ve seen people walk past in dreams. If I see an old man go by, he’s headed for the nearby well, which I’m thinking I can use to escape once he lowers a bucket in.

Obviously this isn’t an activity that occupies my full attention, but it does require steady vigilance. Or perhaps not: I probably don’t need to keep a close watch during the nighttime, because it’s always sunny in the dreams, and besides, who fetches water in the dead of night? Also, every daily event I’ve seen so far happens at the top of the hour, so I very likely only need to check in then. Nonetheless, I’m keeping a window open, just in case. But for all I know, fetching water might not even be a daily event. Maybe it only happens weekly. Maybe it only happens once. Maybe I have to wait out the full 400 days for it to happen.

And really, this uncertain waiting is something I’m subjecting myself to. I could give up and go for either of two other endings. First, I could just wait out the 400 days and wake up the King. This wouldn’t take long — I’m at less than 40 game-days to the deadline, and the time ratio at home is at about 20:1. But I’m reluctant to give the King what he wants, for reasons I’ve already gone into. Secondly, there’s the secret, the one you unlock by following those cryptic clues I’ve been obsessing over. I’ve gotten that to the point of opening up a portal with light streaming from it, which apparently leads to a secret ending. But I took so many hints to get it that far, essentially playing the game out of a wiki by the end, that it would feel cheaty to accept it as my ending. I want an ending that I earned.

And in this game, you earn things by waiting for them.

The Longing: Wait is a Verb

Having seen the “birthday present”, I did wind up taking mild hints on the mysterious door. I don’t feel too bad about this because it’s clear that this whole endeavor is optional, unrelated to the project of escape. There were two parts I was stuck on — obtaining the key, and finding the door again — and both of them turned out to be linked to transient events that occur once in every 24-hour cycle. That’s 24 hours game time, which means that if you know when the events are scheduled to occur, you can spend most of the wait at home, where time goes faster. But without hints, the only way to know when the events occur is to observe them. So the honest way to solve these puzzles would be to think “This seems like an important place. Let’s just sit here for an entire day and see if anything happens.” Which might be unreasonable for a critical path puzzle, even in a game themed around waiting, but, again, this is all in pursuit of an optional secret.

The mysterious door leads to a small room, essentially just a forgotten storage closet, containing a couple more books, a large portrait of the King which presumably goes in the Shade’s home with all the other decorations, and a tall crystal that by now I recognize as the important thing for the secret. More importantly, however, it pulls another prank on the player, like the business with breaking your first mattock. The mysterious door only appears for a little while. It might be possible for the prepared player to go through, grab all the loot, and leave before the door vanishes again, but it’s really set up to take you by surprise and leave you stranded in a doorless closet for 24 real-world hours until the door reappears again. The Shade himself, reacting with his customary sense of resignation, recognizes this as basically just a miniature version of the rest of his life.

And this whole adventure made me realize: If there’s one thing that I’ve come to admire about this game, it’s the devotion to exploring its theme. It doesn’t just make you wait for 400 days, it comes up with various different kinds of waiting, with different feels. Waiting in different contexts, for different purposes; waits of minutes, hours, weeks; one-time waits and repeated waits; waits that you can shorten and waits that you can’t; waits where you can go and do other stuff while you’re waiting, and waits where you have to stay in once place; waits you initiate deliberately and waits that are forced on you. It’s a style of game design we’ve all seen before — Nintendo in particular has been praised for their ability to create entire game franchises out of the appeal of a single verb, starting by filling in the blank in the sentence “It’s fun to _____”. Mario is based on the verb “jump”, Zelda on “explore”, Pokémon on “collect”. But The Longing chooses the verb “wait”, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as fun at all.

The Longing: Anticipation

The Shade’s birthday is fast approaching. That is, it’s six in-game days away as I write this, but time is advancing at a a solid 16 seconds per second, or 17 while the Shade is asleep, so it should hit around dinner time. I have the game running in a second monitor so I can watch him sleep while I work. Sometimes the view shifts to show his dreams, the same scenes repeating, suggesting how to escape.

It’s a peculiar thing. All through the game, I’ve been waiting for things to happen, for obstacles to remove themselves or for the effects of my actions to take hold. This is the first event that’s been a possible time limit: something is going to happen on the 365-day mark, and if I’m not around to take advantage of it, for all I know, maybe it’ll go away. I understand there’s a way to make time run backwards, so missing it isn’t necessarily final. For that matter, if you think you’re going to miss an event, due to being unable to play the game when it occurs, you can always park the shade in the Halls of Eternity, where time is suspended. Nonetheless, I somehow feel like this is a critical moment that I don’t dare to miss. I suppose it’s a dry run for the 400 day mark.

In the meantime, I’ve solved at least part of the stone face’s secret: I’ve found the “hidden domain”, and indeed there were books there to abscond with. It turns out to be a tower — the Shade has now been above ground, although he doesn’t know it, as the tower has no doors or windows or passages out other than through the cellar. The journal informs me that I’ve now explored every part of the cave, even though I haven’t figured out how to make the mysterious door reappear, or seen what’s on the other side. I may wind up taking a hint for that, but it isn’t all that urgent while I still don’t have the key.

The game goes to some lengths to make the cave system appear large, but it’s really not, compared to other games. It’s small enough to fit comfortably in one’s head, once you’ve wandered enough to make it familiar. But it’s sparse. It contrives to give a sense of scale just by having large distances between things of interest, making you plan your excursions.

The Longing: Birthday Riddle

I’m about a month into The Longing, and also well over 300 days into it. I haven’t given any progress reports for the last few weeks because I’ve mainly just been letting the Shade sleep in the bed I crafted for him, which seems to be the best way to make time pass faster while logged off. I’m doing this because there have been hints that the next big content-revealing event is the Shade’s birthday. Recall that the King creates the Shade at the beginning of the game. His birthday should thus happen after 365 days have passed, which is to say, when the 400-day countdown reaches 35 days left.

Basically, I’m trying to interpret the stone face’s secret. I know it’s a secret because the Shade specifically asked the face “Can you tell me a secret?”, and once I managed to pay for the answer, I was told:

You may find a hidden domain, if you try to breathe freely… You may find a mysterious door, if you look for it where you can see the most… You may find a birthday present, in a most beautiful place… If you put it all together, a wondrous secret is revealed.

This made sense of two things I had experienced previously. To address the second point first, I had at one point found a door in a place where I’m sure there had been no door before, Silent Hill-style. It was locked, though, and I had no key. The “try to breathe freely” part I think is linked to the smelly fire. This is something you have the option to create in the fireplace in your home. It requires sulfur, which I took a long time to find, but once I had some, I knew I had to give the smelly fire a try, just because it was something I hadn’t been able to do before. As I posted to Twitter at the time, “THIS WAS A MISTAKE”. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but the result is that you’re driven out of your dwelling and can’t go back for several hours. You can’t even shorten that wait, because the only place you can make time advance faster is in the home you were just driven out of.

It was some time after this that the stone face told me the secret. I hadn’t made any connection between the mysterious door and the smelly fire before, but I’m pretty sure that I saw the door shortly after building the fire for the first time, so I came to the conclusion that the fire produced the door somehow. But now I’m thinking that I was wrong about this. For one thing, subsequent attempts at door summoning by means of smelly fires have failed. For another, now that I look at the riddle again, it seems more like the “breathe freely”, the door, and the birthday present are three independent pieces. And finally, there’s the matter of the books.

See, I’ve explored everything obvious to explore. There are no visible doors or passages I haven’t been through. And yet my bookshelf is only about half full. The obvious explanation is that there are more books in the “hidden domain”. But would the designers really lock away half the book content until after the game is more than 7/8 over? I could believe that if the place I hadn’t accessed were the library, but I’ve already been there. No, more likely I can already access the “hidden domain” somehow, and there’s books there, and maybe there’s also a key there that opens the locked door and lets me get more books. So now I’m going to stop sleeping and start experimenting, because apparently I have some stuff to figure out before that birthday present appears.