Archive for 2021

Arkham City: Catwoman

One thing that Arkham City does to keep things fresh, at least in the “GOTY Edition” that I’m playing: You get to play as Catwoman every so often. In fact, the prologue gives you control of Catwoman before Batman. Other than that, it seems to work kind of like the Venom chapters in Ultimate Spider-Man: you play as Batman for a while, then you finish a chapter and it switches to Catwoman for a while. Since I’ve been going after side-quests instead of advancing the main story, I haven’t seen a lot of Catwoman, but I have put her through her paces in the city at large. She even has her own Riddler Trophies, in pink instead of Riddler green. Trophies For Her.

Even under the player’s control, she’s predictably othered, but not just with the obvious sexualization. She moves in frankly inhuman ways, leaping like an animal and clinging to the underside of gratings like a xenomorph. Batman grapples and glides around the city; Catwoman climbs buildings by clinging to them like a tree frog and jumping to higher handholds. Batman has his “Detective Mode”, an augmented-reality filter built into his cowl that enhances details and reveals secrets; the same button on Catwoman activates “Thief Vision”, the source of which is unclear and may be somehow innate.

Come to think of it, Batman in these games has always been a bit Spider-mannish, with all the zipping around on ropes, and Catwoman clinging to walls and ceilings gives us elements of Spidey’s moveset that the game was otherwise missing. And there’s lot here that has a feel similar to the Spider-Man games I’ve played, much moreso than in Arkham Asylum: the opportunities to rescue random innocents, the Zsasz challenges that send you racing from one payphone to another. It makes me wonder just how much it’s a result of deliberate imitation. The hit Spider-Man games of the last several years hadn’t been made yet, of course. Maybe it’s just convergent evolution, two studios hitting on similar approaches to street-level superheroics.

Arkham City: Riddle Games

Last night’s session involved zero progress in the main plot and a whole lot Riddler Trophies. Let’s talk about those.

As in Arkham Asylum, Riddler Trophies are little question mark doodads left in hidden or difficult-to-access locations by the Riddler. In Arkham Asylum, the Riddler existed only as a disembodied voice, with no character model. That role in City is taken over by Victor Zsasz, who talks to you on the city’s anachronistic-by-game’s-release payphones; the Riddler has more of an embodied presence here, although it’s still a relatively subdued one, more spymaster than warlord. He doesn’t have his own gang patrolling the streets like the other major baddies, but his people have infiltrated all of the other gangs. He doesn’t have turf, but he has secret hideouts, where he sets up special tests for you. In order to be permitted into these tests, though, you first have to collect trophies scattered through the world.

Often they’re locked in a distinctive little dome that opens up when you activate the associated machinery. There are lit-up question marks on the city’s walls, and you come to recognize that the dots under them are buttons that can be pressed by thwacking them with batarangs. There are trophies that seem inaccessible until you realize that you can snag them with your grapple, or dodge through a low opening by sliding under it like a baseball player, a move you learned in the early tutorial but haven’t used much since. There are question mark buttons that don’t seem to do anything, until you figure out how to trace their power lines. It’s all about knowing what you can do, and how to do it.

And that means the difficulty of the puzzles has a lot to do with how much you remember the controls from Arkham Asylum. A lot of things are automatically tutorialized when you have to apply them in the main story, but not everything, and never for Riddler Trophies. When I started playing, I didn’t even know how to switch gadgets. You’re taught how to use the left and right trigger buttons on a controller to aim and throw a batarang, but not how to use the D-pad to swap in other aimable devices, like the cryptographic sequencer or the explosive gel. Before I discovered this, my options were severely limited. (In fairness, I could have read the manual, but who thinks of that when the in-game tutorials have been so good about everything else?)

My experience of the designated “Riddles” are a more extreme example of this. At a certain point in your dealings with the Riddler, you get a new page added to the pause menus, a grid keeping track of what Riddler Trophies you’ve found in each region, as well as various other little achievements, like breaking security cameras or popping balloons in the Joker’s territory. And some entries in the grid are Riddles. Select them, and the Riddler’s voice gives you a riddly and roundabout description of some kind of landmark, often a Batman-related one like the Ace Chemicals building or the alley were Bruce Wayne’s parents died. 1There’s a button prompt there to “pay respects”. Apart from the choice of button, it’s identical to the much-derided “Press F to pay respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which it preceded by three years. Find the landmark and scan it in via Detective Mode, and the Riddler contacts you to confirm the answer and check it off on the grid.

The thing is, I discovered all this almost precisely backward. The grid made no impression on me; I didn’t thumb around it far enough to hit any of the riddles. Instead, I only really became aware of the Riddles when they started showing up on my map. See, those Riddler henchmen that I mentioned infiltrating the gangs? You can find them in the patrolling goon squads, clearly identified by the UI. If you can pummel everyone in a group unconscious except for the Riddler guy — a nontrivial task, given how incomplete your control is over exactly who Batman punches when you mash the punch button — you can interrogate him to get the locations of a bunch of randomly-selected Riddler Trophies and Riddles. It’s an invaluable service, given the size of the city and how much effort it would take to find everything manually. The Riddles show up on the map as a marker just labeled “Riddle”. It took some experimentation to figure out that I had to scan them, but the UI’s reactions like “Subject obscured” and “Subject too small” were a great deal of help. And when I at last got one not too small, or too obscured, but just right, I got the Riddler’s voice in my ear explaining the answer — but it was an answer to a question I had never heard. A couple such experiences finally aroused my suspicion enough to make me check the grid and see the intended entry point that I had sauntered past obliviously.

The thing is, I can’t even be angry about such failures of communication, because the Riddles are optional, and because they’re riddles. The whole point of riddles is coming to understand them after being initially confused. I don’t think my experience is the intended one, but at least it’s fitting.

1 There’s a button prompt there to “pay respects”. Apart from the choice of button, it’s identical to the much-derided “Press F to pay respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which it preceded by three years.

Batman: Arkham City

Lego Batman has inspired me to go back to another Batman game I’ve been neglecting. I had played this for a few hours back when it was… well, not new, exactly. Old enough to be bundled. But even that was on the order of ten years ago now. Anyway, I’ve already gotten farther into it than I did back then, and may even reach the ending at some point, if I can stop being distracted by side-quests and Riddler trophies. The Riddler trophies are my favorite part of the game: many of them are puzzles based on understanding the implications of the game mechanics and exploiting them in ways that the rest of the game doesn’t push you to discover.

The game’s elevator pitch is “Arkham Asylum, but open-world”. That’s why side-quests are such a factor. Early on, it tells you that there’s a time limit of ten hours before the “Protocol Ten” is implemented, whatever that is, and that caused me some distress on my first pass, because it seemed like it was telling me that I couldn’t muck around as much as I wanted to. This time around, I’ve looked online and reassured myself that the time limit is fake, and that the number of hours remaining ticks down in response to plot events rather than real time.

The setting is basically Escape from New York but with Batman villains: a section of Gotham City walled off and populated entirely with criminals, the insane, and a smattering of “political prisoners” who were dumped there with dubious legality when they started asking questions about the facility’s real purpose. Major villains like the Joker and Two-Face have their own little fiefdoms; a lot of the random chatter between random thugs is discussions of the hot topics of inter-gang politics, like who’s going to take over Joker’s territory if he dies of the medical condition he’s been suffering from since the end of the previous game.

In tone, it’s AAA macho, with a side of absurd sexualization in the form of Catwoman. This is another part of why I left it alone for so long. There’s been a lot of talk lately about “Wholesome Games” as a genre or as a movement. Well, this is a superb example of an Unwholesome Game, the sort Dr. Wertham would look at and say “That’s so true to the original comics”. 1Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful. The opening sequence, involving Bruce Wayne sans bat-gear being brutalized as he’s led into the facility in handcuffs as another political prisoner, is absolutely engineered to appeal to people who enjoy being angry, and who want reasons to feel angry and to feel righteous about it. While I’m enjoying the game on the whole, it very much strikes me as targeting the very worst in gamers.

I inevitably wind up comparing them in my mind, the two Batman games I’ve played this week. In many ways, they’re not as different as you might think! The gameplay is deeper in City, but the environments are more richly interactive in Lego; it’s rare that objects in City can be interacted with at all. (After Lego, it felt vaguely wrong to just walk by a desk in City without smashing it into lego studs.) Combat in both is button-mashy — City provides more incentive to attempt combos and special moves once in a while, but you can mostly get away with just hitting people until they fall down if that’s all you feel up to. Their tone is fundamentally different, but even Lego chooses a Gotham City that’s run-down, dirty and decaying — normal for Batman these days, I suppose, but that game drew a lot of inspiration from the 1960s TV show, where Gotham wasn’t like that at all. City takes it a few steps farther, mind. Arkham City is what the normally-run-down Gotham becomes after it’s been completely abandoned by its government and service workers for a few months.

1 Well, except he’d probably say there wasn’t enough homosexual subtext to be completely faithful.

Lego Batman: Extras and Secrets Revisited

By now, it’s abundantly clear to me that the Traveler’s Tales Lego games are fundamentally meant not just to be won, but to be 100%ed. The secrets aren’t all that hard to find, and involve many of the games’ best tricks, things you don’t want to miss out on. But I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was writing about Lego Star Wars back in 2007. In one post, I mentioned how one of the upgrades I had not yet purchased was a 10x multiplier on lego stud intake, which seems like it would be a great way to afford the really expensive purchasable upgrades and characters, until you notice that the 10x upgrade costs more than everything else put together. Saving up for that hardly seemed worth it.

However, that’s not all there is to it. In all of the games from Lego Star Wars 2 onward, there are in fact other, cheaper score multiplier upgrades — I just happened to find the most expensive one first. See, before you can purchase upgrades, you have to physically locate the lego blocks containing them. (In Lego Indiana Jones, you also have to find or assemble a mailbox so you can send it back to Barnett College.) Before you do this, you don’t even know what upgrades are available. The customary progression seems to be a 2x multiplier in the first few levels, then 4x, 6x, 8x, and finally 10x, scattered throughout the run, interspersed with other upgrades. Furthermore, the multipliers stack — and not in the half-hearted additive way usually seen in bonus multipliers in games: if you activate the 2x, 4x, 6x, and 8x bonuses all at once, the result is not 20x, but 384x. This makes the 10x multiplier trivially affordable, along with everything else in the game. It’s still pointless, but it’s no longer pointless and difficult.

Lego Batman adds a neat twist to all this: it makes the multipliers the exclusive province of the Villain levels. In fact, instead of spacing them out over the course of the game, the upgrades in the first five levels of the Villain campaign are simply the five multipliers, followed by the “stud magnet” upgrade. It seems appropriate, associating villain play with both avarice and borderline cheating. Except I don’t really feel like using the multipliers gained this way is cheating — it would be cheating to unlock them with a cheat code, but if you solved an in-game puzzle to obtain it, that means you earned it.

What upgrades does the Hero campaign provide while this is going on? It seems to be entirely about “suit upgrades”: things that specifically affect the functions of the various Batman and Robin costumes. More batarang targets, faster grappling, immunity to bullets, that sort of thing. Somehow this feels like it goes against the hero/villain dynamic: the villain upgrades generously benefit everyone, the hero upgrades selfishly only benefit the heroes. But that’s the superhero ethic, I suppose. I remember a review of Warren Ellis’s Planetary, a comic whose main villains are plainly modeled after the Fantastic Four, that pointed out that it isn’t even a matter of “What if the Fantastic Four were evil”, but that, by hoarding potentially transformative technologies for their exclusive use, the canon Fantastic Four are already evil as judged by Planetary‘s values.

Still, that’s a bit of a stretch here, in a game where the putative heroes and villains fight side by side all the time in Free Play mode, united by their shared obsession with gratuitous property damage.

Lego Batman

Lego Batman is special to me: it’s a game whose existence I predicted, in a comment thread on this very blog. It just seemed like a natural next step after Lego Star Wars, as Batman kits were one of Lego’s bigger sellers. I actually bought and played it a bit years before my current Lego kick, but didn’t complete it then, mainly because it’s effectively twice as long as the other Lego games, consisting of two entire trilogyworths of levels. As of this writing, I’ve completed both trilogies in Story Mode, but have not yet 100%ed it. The trilogy as an organizing principle is obviously a holdover from Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones, but here, for the first time, Traveller’s Tales isn’t adapting a trilogy of movies. Instead, they’re just making up a completely new set of villain team-up stories, unencumbered by the need to pretend that a scene that was compelling on the silver screen necessarily makes for good lego play.

Mechanically, it brings two new things to the table: batarangs and special-purpose costumes. Batarangs are just a projectile weapon where you can program in a certain number of designated targets (either enemies or breakable lego objects), like in that one scene at the beginning of Batman Returns. Doing this — both selecting targets and waiting for the batarang to flit between them — is slow enough to make it not very useful in combat, except to pick off people shooting at you from unreachable ledges. It’s sometimes used as a puzzle-solving tool, to break things out of reach, but guns work just as well for that, when you have them — which you obviously don’t, when you’re playing as Batman in Story mode. Most of the villains carry guns, though, when you unlock them.

Costumes are a way for Story Mode to partake in some of the variability that Free Play mode gets by letting you switch characters: Batman and Robin are each effectively multiple characters, with special abilities determined by what they’re wearing, which they can change at designated costume-change pads (which you typically have to assemble from pieces). So it functions a bit like the pick-uppable tools in Lego Indiana Jones, except that they’re tools that can only be used by specific characters: Batman has Batman costumes, Robin has Robin costumes. (Batgirl doesn’t appear in Story mode. If you unlock her in Free Play, she’s treated as just a variation on Batman, and uses Batman costumes.) The specific abilities costumes grant are an odd assortment. There’s some obvious ones, like the one that lets you glide and the one that lets you plant explosives, but there’s also things like a costume with a sonic device that breaks glass (which, contrary to expectation, is the strongest frangible material in the game and can’t be broken in any other way, even by the aforementioned bombs) and, for Robin, magnet-boots that let you walk on metal walls and a vacuum device for collecting scraps and recycling them into useful objects. It all reminds me of the goofier sort of action figure accessories, the kind where a toy company just makes up vehicles with no basis in the source material.

But goofiness is the order of the day, isn’t it? This is a Traveller’s Tales Lego game, and that means making everyone a little childish, to excuse the fact that even the heroes spend most of their time smashing scenery. The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie have forever defined the character of Lego Batman for us, but that was years away when this game was made. Instead, it seems to draw inspiration from a mishmash of the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Animated Series, and the Adam West TV series. (The comics that inspired all three sources don’t seem to be much of a factor directly.) You can see this most clearly in the villain roster: among others, we’ve got a Joker with a lethal joybuzzer (with enough juice to power electric motors), the monstrous B:TAS version of Clayface, and Killer Moth. The Penguin’s special ability, in addition to umbrella-gliding, is that he can release exploding penguins, like in Batman Returns, but otherwise he’s solidly Burgess Meredith-based: this is a Penguin who prances about gleefully, swinging his umbrella around like a swashbuckler.

The character animation in all these games is excellent, by the way. The stylization leaves the faces with limited room for expression, so they compensate in the walk cycles and combat moves. There’s one detail I find particularly pleasing: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy both have a double-jump ability, but they execute it completely differently, Harley going into an aerial somersault like a circus acrobat, Ivy seeming to ride the wind like an earthbound goddess.

At any rate, as usual for Batman, the villains are the highlight. Which I suppose is why they have their own trilogy.

It’s done in a narratively interesting way. After you play an episode of a trilogy as Batman, you get to play the villain version of the same episode. The gleeful destruction feels more appropriate this time around. The cutscenes go into more detail about exactly what the villain was trying to accomplish, and how. Sometimes you’ll be going through the same familiar level geometry that you did as Batman (just fighting cops instead of minions this time), sometimes your path will break away and go somewhere completely new. But you always ultimately wind up in the boss room, where Batman confronted the villain you’re playing, and you know that the level is about to end — specifically, that it’s about to end right at the edge of triumph, just before Batman bursts in and ruins everything. I’ve mentioned before the idea of a Lord of the Rings game where you play as Gollum, where the final level would end right after Gollum triumphantly wrests the ring back from Frodo at Mount Doom, before we see what happens next. It’s a bit like that.

There’s something a little uncanny about the villain episodes, too. When you play as Batman, it feels like you’re playing through a series of challenges and obstacles set up by the villain. But then you get to be the villain in the same situation. To some extent, you’re engaged in setting up the things the way Batman found them, but you’re doing it in a context where things have been set up for you to set them up — including in scenes that, in-story, were improvised, the result of the original plan going off the rails. If the Joker prepared the way for Batman, who prepared the way for the Joker?

Lego Indiana Jones

I’ve had a lot to say about puzzle books and puzzle boxes this year, but it’s been fully three months since I posted about an actual videogame. What have I been playing? Well, for one thing, during the summer sales, I bought several of the Lego games by Traveler’s Tales, some of which have been sitting on my Steam wishlist for an entire decade. These are all cast from the same mold as Lego Star Wars, but with different IP franchises. As of this writing, the only one I’ve finished (and indeed 100%ed) is the earliest application of the formula to a non-Star Wars franchise, Lego Indiana Jones.

I seem to recall that this game was critically panned on its release, although I don’t understand why. It seems to me a perfectly serviceable instance of its type. Like all of these games, it’s mainly about breaking everything in sight, turning them either into showers of lego studs that you can use to unlock power-ups, or into collectibles of various sorts, or just into piles of bricks that you can assemble into something else (although you have no control over what). Assembled objects are often bridges or mechanisms necessary for proceeding through a level, and there’s basically no way of predicting which random bits scenery have to be torn down to make the things you need, so you really do wind up smashing absolutely everything you can, just in case. There’s also combat and puzzles.

As in the other Lego games, completing a level unlocks it in “Free Play” mode, which means you can replay it with different characters and use their special abilities to access secrets and collectibles that were unavailable on the first pass. Ah, but what kind of special abilities do Indiana Jones characters have? The interesting thing is that (A) characters are mainly distinguished by tools rather than innate qualities, and (B) the same tools can sometimes be found lying around loose. So, for example, the airplane mechanic from the first act of Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wrench, which means he can repair machines, but so can any other character who picks up a wrench. The mechanic is still valuable in Free Play mode, because he has a wrench all the time, and thus can repair machines in places without environmental wrenches. There’s a repeat-the-sequence mini-game that can only be attempted by a character holding a book, and books are built into all the Academic characters: Belloc, Marcus Brody, Henry Jones Senior, Elsa Schneider, but notably not Indy himself, even when he’s dressed as a professor rather than an adventurer. But when Indy picks up a book, he’s as academic as anyone. There’s one case of this that was so contrary to sense that it left me stuck and in need of hints: in the Temple of Doom sequence, there are certain statues of Lego Kali. Approach one, and help text helpfully informs you that the Thugee know how to use these statues to reveal hidden passages. I took this at face value: to access the passage, I’d have to use a Thugee character in free play mode. But it turns out all you need is to be wearing a turban.

Weapons, too, count as tools in this sense. The unsung hero of my playthrough was a nameless German solder (who obviously switched sides in Free Play) whose power was simply a built-in rocket launcher, useful both for ending fights quickly and for demolishing lots of scenery at once — including shiny metallic objects that are only vulnerable to explosives, and which tend to have puzzles built around them that the rocket soldier bypasses.

As to the content, mainly it just strikes me that Indiana Jones is a deeply strange choice of IP for this treatment, and probably wouldn’t have been done were it not for its general proximity to Star Wars. There’s even an entire set of secrets in the game built around finding out-of-place Star Wars characters, which culminates in — what else? — unlocking Han Solo for use in Free Play. In fact, I’ll admit that all the gameplay centered around unlocking secrets fits Indiana Jones plots very well — that’s basically what everyone in the movies is trying to do, right? The Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail: all are essentially powerful upgrades that grant special abilities, hidden behind puzzles and/or combat challenges. This game just expands on that, taking fairly short sequences from the films and folding them out into something more substantial.

But it also sillies them up, and that’s where the whole thing becomes strange. This is a kid-friendly E-for-Everyone game based on really disturbingly violent films that were directly responsible for changes in the film rating system. Temple of Doom in particular is a sickeningly cruel flick, with a paranoid world-view, where seemingly friendly people are secretly plotting to entrap and enslave you, not even for any personal benefit but simply in the service of pointless evil. Even the well-meaning can be subverted and controlled and made into enemies, and the only way to turn them back is with pain. By hurting them until they’re your friends again. And the game just puts a thick layer of goofy slapstick over all that. The nightmarish human sacrifice scene, where the Thugee lower a caged and struggling man into the bowels of the earth, is recreated here in lego, except the victim is basically fine afterward, the fires below having merely burned his clothes off embarrassingly.

My personal experience is also made peculiar by the way that I’m a lot less familiar with the movies than I am with other games based on them. My first impressions of Temple of Doom came not from the film, but from the 1985 coin-op arcade game. I saw Last Crusade in the theaters before I played the classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure, but I spent many more hours on the adventure. So it’s largely these other games that I was reminded of while playing it. Particularly the music — there’s a ton of incidental background music that’s seared into my memory in its Soundblaster arrangements. Hearing the full film score versions provokes an odd recognition: Whoa, that’s what I was supposed to be pretending I was hearing?

In Lego Star Wars, you could wander around the Mos Eisley cantina between missions, and all the characters you had unlocked would be there too. In Lego Indiana Jones, this role is taken by Barnett College, which makes the juxtapositions more startling: after a while, the campus is crawling with Nazis, Thugee, and Grail Knights. This is supposed to be an institution of learning, not a wretched hive of scum and villainy! It does, however, culminate in using all those characters’ special abilities in a puzzle sequence right there in the hub world. Did Lego Star Wars have anything like this? If it did, I’ve either forgotten about it or just never noticed it. Again, I think the genre helps. The idea that there are secret passages all over the place fits better here, even if the characters that make it possible don’t.

Apparently there’s a second Lego Indiana Jones game that basically just does Crystal Skull. That seems to be the trend now, doing individual movies instead of trilogies; there’s a game just for The Force Awakens as well. I’ll probably give Lego Crystal Skull a miss unless someone recommends it. I just don’t have the same connection to it. But if they ever do Lego Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I’m definitely interested. Last Crusade has given us an example of what a classic point-and-click adventure and a Lego game based on the same source look like, and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing the same thing again but without the source.


While we’re on the subject of puzzle books, there’s one other I’d like to describe. Tachyon, by Stephen Boughton and Daniel Sage, is very much in the vein of Journal 29: each two-page spread presents a single puzzle (which, in most cases, doesn’t really need that much space), and solving it gives you a word that feeds into a later puzzle. It’s essentially the same format as Codex Enigmatum and its sequel, Codex Mysterium, except that in those, solving a puzzle gives you the key directly, and in Tachyon, as in Journal 29, it’s indirect: solving a puzzle gives you a password to enter into a web site to get the actual key. Still, all four books are similar enough in format to clearly belong to a distinct mini-genre, and I find myself wondering about its origins. Journal 29 is the oldest of these books that Amazon recommends when I look at any of them — is it in fact the thing that the others are all imitating, or does it go back further in time?

Of all these books, Tachyon is the one with the closest thing to an actual story. It’s still mostly suggestive theming rather than narration, but there is some narrative, at least, spread out over both the pages of the book and, occasionally, the web site that provides the keys. Basically, it’s about the narrator’s attempts to decipher the notes left by his missing father, a physicist. Find the codes to activate his machines and possibly you can turn back time and stop his disappearance. Not that the puzzles that occupy most of your attention are particularly related to this story.

The puzzles, as in all these books, are short, and consist mostly pictures and diagrams presented without explanation, or with instructions consisting of a couple of key words from previous puzzles. The whole challenge in each is figuring out what the author wants from you. In that respect, it more resembles an adventure game than a puzzle hunt. There’s some reliance on technological knowledge: one page expects you to know how to send text messages with a numeric keypad, which was a stage of phone technology that I personally skipped over. And honestly, I found some of the puzzles unsatisfying, either because they were too facile or made what I felt to be unreasonable assumptions, causing me to seek hints even though I had got the central insight right.

But I have to give it kudos for its ending. This book plays with form in a way that none of the other books I’ve mentioned have attempted. Spoilers ahoy.

The web site that provides the keys prompts you for a solution to the final puzzle just like all the others, even though there’s no possible use for a key from there. When you do, it gives you the story’s climax: the narrator’s discovery that he made a mistake in interpreting the key word from the very first puzzle. This produces an entire chain of revisions: change a key word, and you have to redo the puzzle that uses it, yielding another altered key word, until you reach the final puzzle. As in the story’s premise about going back in time, you get a chance to do things over and make them right.

Now, this means less than it probably sounds like. The nature of these puzzles is that there isn’t much to solving them a second time: you’ve already had the crucial insight into interpreting them. Also, the indirectness of the keys means that the puzzles aren’t really related to each other in a way that would be complicated by the altered chain. Still, it’s kind of impressive to realize that each puzzle involved had to be designed around two different solutions, with just a word making the difference. Moreover, I find it encouraging to see this kind of playfulness in what was otherwise seeming like a very rigid format. Maybe there’s some real potential in this mini-genre.

Daedalian Depths: The Final Answer?

In my last post, I hadn’t yet solved the final riddle of Daedalian Depths. I think I have, now. I’ve definitely solved most of it. There’s an overall pattern to the shortest path through the maze, and there are enough hints about that pattern that once you know what you’re looking for, you can find enough minor details confirming the pattern for it to become a certainty. (I took perhaps longer than I should have to discover this pattern: there’s a pretty blatant hint that went over my head until after I figured it out by other means.)

But it really feels like there should be just one more step. The final riddle asks you to find a set of five legendary artifacts “hidden in plain sight” along the shortest path. The picture of the last room has five pillars set up to receive them. This really feels like it’s a setup for a final metapuzzle, building a five-letter word, or perhaps a five-word phrase. That’s how it would work in a puzzle hunt, where answering the last riddle in text is how you confirm that you’ve won. There’s even a really tempting way to extract a word from the treasures: the shortest path is exactly 25 rooms long — 26, if you include the numberless initial illustration. So if you map each room’s position on that path to a letter in the obvious way, and take the letters of the five rooms containing the artifacts, what do you get? Unpronounceable gibberish. Same for a couple of other mappings I’ve tried. I’m starting to really think that I’m carrying things too far, looking for more hidden meanings when I’ve already wrung the thing dry.

This is especially disappointing because it would have been so easy for the author to place the artifacts in rooms where they do decode to something meaningful! With one exception, they’re not particularly bound to the contents of the rooms where they’re found. If I were in the maze for real, I’d totally move them to rooms where they spell something out, so the next guy could have the satisfaction I was denied, if I could find a way to keep the exit gate open while I did so.

Daedalian Depths

Daedalian Depths is a gamebook in the tradition of Chris Manson’s Maze, where “in the tradition of” is a politer way of saying “that blatantly imitates”. Andrew Plotkin has a review of it here; like him, I got a copy when it was released, but I’m in such a puzzle glut that I didn’t get around to going through it until now. It’s by Rami Hansenne, who also created Codex Enigmatum, which is a lot like Journal 29, which is based on web-based riddle chains like notpron. These are all puzzle-hunt-like things where the solutions of puzzles feed into other puzzles. Journal 29 used a web site as an intermediary between its interlinked puzzles; Codex Enigmatum has an online solution checker, but doesn’t absolutely require it; Daedelian Depths doesn’t have an online component at all. It’s meant to be self-confirming, like a cryptic crossword.

But more importantly, it differs from Codex Enigmatum by the Maze format. Everything is placed in illustrations of rooms, with a page of facing text; clues in each room let you know which exit to take, which is to say, which page to turn to next. CE didn’t have any overarching context other than itself as a book. This makes a tremendous difference to the feel of the thing, making it come off as more of a cohesive whole rather than a mishmash of disparate puzzles, even though that’s really what it is. But it still carries a lot of the CE/J29 feel as well, simply due to the cheap paper and fuzzy, indistinct art style. It’s better than Maze in a lot of ways, but production values are not one of them. (CE and J29 at least had the excuse that you were expected to write on them with pencil.)

I’ll reiterate what Zarf said: The most important innovation this book has over Maze is simply that its riddles are reasonably solvable. Maze had a contest associated with it, so it was expected that most people wouldn’t solve it. DD wants you to win, however much it pretends otherwise. Its second most important innovation is redundancy. Every page has multiple clues indicating which door to take. Sometimes I can’t figure them all out — sometimes I don’t even notice them all. But having multiple clues means I don’t need to. Not only that, multiple clues means that individual clues can afford to be sketchy. This is where the self-confirmation factor gets in: multiple sketchy clues that all point at the same thing add up to good certainty. It’s like science that way.

Let me give a concrete example of what I’m talking about. In one room, there’s a portrait of Beethoven on the wall, showing him standing in front of a large full moon. It’s not the focus of the room or anything, it’s just a detail in the background. But it’s rendered in enough detail to seem important. The juxtaposition of Beethoven and moon suggests the Moonlight Sonata, aka Piano Sonata #14. And indeed the room contains a door labeled “14”. This connection is tenuous enough that it might not convince you on its own that door 14 is the right one, but it’s a strong confirmation.

At any rate, I’m mainly posting about it here as a way to get eyes on my notes. Here they are! If you have the book, you can use this as a source of hints, but what I really want you to do is comment and add to it. Even though I’ve found the correct path through the maze, there are redundant clues that I do not understand, and I want to understand them. To that end, I tried to find an existing forum or wiki, but the results were disappointing, particularly for rooms off the main path; even the author’s own message board had very few comments. So I’m trying to fill that gap.

Demoniak: Getting Things Together

My last post probably made Demoniak sound easier than it is. Not everything can be accomplished by switching characters. On the default-second planet, Fundamenta, your primary task is to find a hermit named, of all things, Salman Rushdie — presumably not the famous author, given that the game is set a hundred years in the future (which is to say, 2090) — to learn the whereabouts of an artifact you need. I can land my heroes on Fundamenta. I can switch control to Rushdie and exit his hermit-hole. I cannot seem to bring them together. The set of rooms that each has access to have no obvious connection. They may as well be in disjoint worlds.

And that raises an interesting point: that even when you “become” Rushdie, you don’t have access to his knowledge. Same goes for Doctor Cortex, and for the warden on Freezyassov. They all have knowledge of secrets, but the only way for the player to learn those secrets is to bring the characters into contact with the right other characters and observe the resulting automatic conversation.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to regard the anything-goes-ness as more a liability than an opportunity, a way for random combat to interfere with what you’re actually trying to do. Sometimes I’ll switch back to the heroes to discover that one of them got killed while I wasn’t looking. I don’t know who’s picking these fights, but I have suspicions about Sondra Houdini. I’m starting to think I should just get all the supernumerary guards and the like killed in advance by making them fight each other before the heroes enter the scene. But what if one of them knows something?

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