Archive for April, 2022

Spring Thing 2022: Confessing to a Witch

I’m hesitant to write anything about this at all. It’s another demo for a work in progress, but it’s essentially a non-interactive demo. Just a sequence of pages, each with two or three sentences, a picture (mostly lush, pastoral photographs), and a single link to the next page. You get to the point where your quest begins, rescuing a young country witch who you have a crush on from some unknown danger, and that’s the end of the demo. It’s a teaser trailer, not so much a game as an advertisement for one. And I can’t begrudge its presence here — this sort of thing is what the Back Garden is for! But when I set out to post about everything in the Back Garden, it was with the intention of reviewing games, not ads.

But let’s at least talk a little about what the ad promises. The writing is amiable and, when it isn’t focused on the nervousness of young love, has that the-author-really-wants-to-live-in-this-world tone you see in a lot of fanfic. The photographic illustrations are very pleasant, at least when they’re outdoors, but a scene of a ransacked room has an unnatural collage-like aspect, and the interior views of the witch’s rustic thatched cottage clearly don’t fit inside the exterior — although that’s probably just magic at work. The overall feel reminds me a lot of the narrative component of hidden object games.

Spring Thing 2022: Phenomena

The blurb calls this an “interactive poem”, and I totally agree with that categorization. It consists of seven stanzas, each seven lines long, where each line has seven variations for the reader to choose from, flipping through possible combinations until you’ve formed something you’re satisfied with. The acknowledgements cite Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems as a formal inspiration, although I suspect the UI changes the experience somewhat. Phenomena is in Twine/Sugar Cube, and uses “cycling choices”, changing lines when you click on them, which means the options for each line are revealed in a specific order. Sometimes a line will be an obvious continuation of a previous-seen alternative, or a comment on it, which doesn’t quite fit into the notion that the poem is just the finished product of your choices. It’s more like the poem flows in two dimensions. (Perhaps it aims at three, what with the three layers of sevens, but two is my experience of it.)

Extracting meaning from such a work requires effort — enough effort that I’d probably resent it in a more demanding context, like the Comp. It starts off with a close encounter with a flying saucer, then spins off into tangents obliquely describing different ways of relating to UFOs: as omens and portents, as strangers to our world, as something apocalyptic and transforming. One stanza is just a disjointed series of individual words, and might not have any real meaning beyond that feeling of fragmentation. The final stanza, titled “I GUESS THIS WAS NEVER REALLY ABOUT UFOS, HAHA”, digs into the author’s intentions a bit, explicitly connecting it all to death and to “everything the night is a metaphor for”, but still keeps up the scattering of vague but portentious imagery. It makes me wonder if this is simply an inevitable product of the chosen format.

Spring Thing 2022: A D R I F T

I said before that the Back Garden is for experimental stuff, but it’s also explicitly for works in progress — basically, if the author feels that it shouldn’t be competing in the Main Festival, for whatever reason, it goes here. ADRIFT is in the latter category. The ending brings the initial crisis to a more-or-less satisfying resolution, but it’s very short, and the author has indicated a desire to expand it in a post-festival release.

That initial crisis: You’re a Soviet cosmonaut and you’ve come untethered from your spacecraft. Getting back to safety involves some light parser-based puzzle-solving with an apparent time limit imposed by your oxygen level. A little experimentation shows that the time limit is fake, that a warning about 15 minutes remaining is the last event, but it uses the warnings to create a little tension in a sequence where you have to excruciatingly wait for an object to drift within reach. (After which, in accordance with the same design philosophy, it never drifts out of reach.) This is the work of a first-time author, and I find it pleasing that the utility of this kind of fakery is already within their grasp.

The story is accompanied by pictures, and the pictures are stylistically 1980s-era in a way that I strangely haven’t seen imitated elsewhere. It’s not the artful, well-chosen pixel art popular in indie game nostalgia. It’s photographs color-reduced to the point of stylization so they can be forced into a palette they’re not suited for. I can only hope that people recognize what it’s going for: the look of pictures downloaded from pre-web BBSes.

My one suggestion to the author is to add more synonyms and alternate commands. Get some first-time players to send you transcripts of their sessions to see what people are trying that should work but doesn’t.

Spring Thing 2022: 5e Arena

This is essentially a proof-of-concept for a somewhat novel approach to computerizing a solo Dungeons & Dragons adventure. The player is expected to provide their own character, between levels 1 and 4. (Options for characters up to level 7 are purportedly going to be added in later versions.) The player is also expected to come furnished with an understanding of the rules of 5th edition D&D: much of the game is executed by hand, and, although the game gives you some assistance in tracking positions and HP, most of the relevant state is external to the game, in the player’s head.

In that regard, it has much in common with certain gamebooks I’ve seen, some of them specifically D&D-based. Occasionally such books get ported to computers, and it’s always an open question just how much the computer will automate and how much will be executed by the player. Does the computer roll dice for you? Make combat decisions for enemies? The guiding principle behind 5e Arena is to make the player do anything that the player, rather than the DM, would do in a tabletop D&D session. Thus, you roll the dice for your own attacks and skill checks, but the enemy’s attacks are automated. But even the automated rolls are interpreted by the player. You decide whether it hit. Just like a solo adventure in print, it all runs on the honor system, and you can just decide to tell it that you’ve won (or lost) a fight if you want. (The whole thing is even written in Twine Harlowe, which means there’s a “go back” button on each page. The author is clearly not concerned about cheating.) Furthermore, it trusts you to handle enemy movement, which would normally be done by the DM — after all, for all it knows, you might be casting spells that affect it. It’s placing no limits on what you can do. It even incorporates rules for rolling dice to simulate DM judgment about questionable effects.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, yes, if you want to handle the full range of possible player actions, including improvised ones, there’s only so much structure you can put into the system. But I’m not entirely convinced that this system hits the best compromise between structure and freedom. Perhaps it would be better if the system provided overridable defaults for NPC movement — or maybe that would just complicate the UI to no good purpose. It’s positioned as a solo D&D adventure, after all, not as a CRPG.

The story is basically just “Challenge a sequence of three opponents in gladiatorial combat”, with a choice of different levels of enemies. I played through honestly with a level 2 character that I just happened to have been playing recently with my regular D&D group, who lost in round 3 due to his slow speed and lack of ranged attacks, then simply browsed the rest of the scenarios. It actually stretches the minimal plot pretty far, throwing in twists like “Your opponent isn’t what it seems” and “Someone offers you money to take a dive, but you have to make Performance checks to sell it”. There’s enough material around the edges of the barely-a-combat-system to make it clear that the format would be viable for a fuller adventure.

Spring Thing 2022

This year marks the 20th year of the Spring Thing, a sister event to the annual IF Comp. It was conceived as a way of relaxing the hold that the Comp had over the IF community, relieving the dry spell after the Comp, giving people a place to release games that don’t fit into its strictures, and with less of an emphasis on competition — these days, it’s styled as a “festival” rather than a Comp. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Spring Thing event in the past, even though it’s been the venue for really good stuff. Let’s end that now!

But also, I don’t want to make a large commitment of this. Although the Spring Thing has always been smaller than the Comp, both have ballooned to unwieldy proportions over time — and that’s actually more of a problem for the Spring Thing, because the Comp’s rules encourage short games, and the Spring Thing’s rejection of that was one of the reasons for its founding. The current Spring Thing, which has been underway for two weeks already, has 47 entries, 12 of them identified by their authors as “full-length”. Fortunately, we can narrow things down with the event’s divisions. 41 of these works were placed by their authors in the “Main Festival” division, and six in the “Back Garden”, which is intended for more experimental works. Since the experimental works are the ones I tend to find most interesting, my current intention is to only cover just the Back Garden here.

Further Thoughts on Narrative in Dark Souls

I said earlier that Dark Souls doesn’t have story, it has lore. That’s not quite true, it turns out. In the early-to-mid part of the game, you get a lot of lore as flavor text on items, and it really seems like that’s all it is, just flavor, safely ignored. But once you unlock the game’s final layers, two things happen: you finally get an explanation of what your ultimate goal is, and you start directly encountering the legendary beings you’ve seen referenced over and over, usually to fight them. Story and lore merge, as what you’ve picked up incidentally about these characters establishes the weight and stakes of these encounters.

It’s a peculiar way to convey story information ambiently without exposition dumps, reminiscent of environmental storytelling. I’m trying to think of other games that do something similar, and the best I can come up with is Magic: the Gathering, where you can see numerous flavor-text references to a Planeswalker character before encountering the card for the character itself. That’s not quite the same, though, because M:tG really does just have lore without narrative.

The downside is that, as you may have gathered from my posts, it really does make it easy to overlook what story is there. I’ve been trained by so many other games that lore is inconsequential, a sort of optional extra of only tangential relevance to what I’m actually doing, and it takes a very long time before Dark Souls does anything to contradict that assumption. There’s got to be a better compromise.

Dark Souls: Full Circle

The story of Dark Souls is at root a solar one, although this isn’t obvious at first. The lore, revealed mainly through item descriptions, heavily involves one Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, a god who fought dragons and demons in ages past to create and sustain the Age of Fire. His time is nearing an end, which is probably why the whole world seems so run-down. The player’s assigned task is to unlock the way to his sanctum, the Kiln of the First Flame, a barren place filled with ashes, to defeat him and take his place, becoming the new fire of the world. Getting to that point, proving yourself a worthy successor, involves a whole lot of descending into darkness to symbolically pass through the abyss under the earth, meeting challenges on the way. There’s even an area specifically called The Abyss, a place of total featureless darkness containing nothing but screaming, anguished monsters.

Even the diegetic die-and-respawn cycle fits into this, if you think about it. The whole idea of returning from death is a big part of myths both solar and seasonal, and so it’s not swept under the rug like in most games, but made into the focus of the story. So I suppose it’s also fitting that the game just sweeps you directly into New Game+ at the end, starting a new iteration of the eternal cycle. It feels anticlimactic, though. After all that effort, you’re just told to do it all again, with no congratulations, no celebration, no credits. But then, this isn’t a celebratory, congratulatory story. It’s a story of decay and renewal, but with a strong emphasis on the decay. The great monsters you defeat are the previous age’s heroes, turned sour by the centuries, so even in the end, there’s still an implication that the same fate awaits you. “Hollowing” at a larger scale.

And with that, I think I’m done. There are still zones I haven’t visited, whose names I only know from the wikis, even an entire DLC expansion that I haven’t touched. But I find myself less motivated to pursue them now that I know that the designers never intended satisfaction. I’m told that the sequels come to emphasize the wrong elements, too — that Dark Souls had a (mostly undeserved) reputation for brutally punishing difficulty, so they leaned into that more. So I might give those a miss, too. But Elden Ring is being touted as a more accessible version, so maybe I’ll give it a try in ten years.

Dark Souls: The Dragon

The first real challenge area in Dark Souls is called the Undead Burg. It’s a series of buildings and towers and battlements that are all part of a large castle on a bunch of cliffs. At its end is a wide stone bridge leading to a massive gate leading out to the next area. That bridge is guarded by a dragon.

The dragon is red and spiky, and it breathes intense blasts of fire down the bridge. The closer you get to the dragon, the more damage you take from the fire, until it’s completely unsurvivable. This is one of those bosses that you’re not meant to actually fight on first encountering it. Halfway along the bridge there’s a stair down, which lets you clamber along the bridge’s supports until you find a way up, on the other side of the gate. (The gate cannot be opened from the outside, which makes perfect sense — it’s part of the defensive structures for a castle!) You can still see the dragon from the other side. You can climb up a tower nearby and look down and fire arrows at it, for all the good it does — they do damage, but only a little, and you definitely don’t have the resources to buy enough arrows to kill it at that point. No, you’re really meant to just put it behind you.

But all the same, I kept coming back to it every so often. There are times when you have no Humanity and very few Souls, and thus little to lose from challenging something likely to kill you. “Who knows? Maybe I’m strong enough by now.” I wasn’t. Lately, I hadn’t done this in a while, due to making encouraging progress elsewhere in the game — I seem to finally be slightly ahead of the difficulty curve. But then I noticed that I had somewhere picked up the Black Iron armor set, which gives very strong protection from fire (this being the reason it’s blackened), and in addition had access to an unlimited source of Twinkling Titanite, the substance needed to upgrade it.

Even with this protection, defeating the dragon took multiple tries and a certain amount of strategizing. I found it more effective to lure the dragon down the bridge and hide in a niche while it approaches than to try to charge into its flames. I found I needed a weapon that arcs upward, which is the one big failing of my trusty halberd. But in the end, the dragon was gone, and I could finally reach the other end of that bridge.

And the reward for this accomplishment was… marginal. You get 10000 souls for killing the dragon, which would have been a substantial boon earlier in the game, but at this point I can get that much in a single grinding loop. You get to open that gate, providing easy passage between two places that I have no reason to go to any more. And there’s a bonfire I can warp to. And that’s basically it. The difficulty of this fight is so out of proportion to its rewards that it really reinforces what I already knew: that the dragon’s purpose is not to be fought, but to be circumvented.

Dark Souls: The Use of Spoilers

I’ve gotten three great Lord Souls now — one of them, Gravelord Nito, on the first try, thanks to my holy greatclub! But it’s not enough to satisfy the Lordvessel. I begin to grow impatient with this game. I want to get it done and move on. Presumably its length is a selling point for the sane majority, who purchase new games at a rate of maybe one a year, but not for people like me, with our deep and luxurious backlogs.

And so I’ve been making copious use of wikis to speed things along. (Wikis, plural? Yes: for whatever reason, there seem to be two separate but largely equivalent Dark Souls wikis at the top of the search results, with similar content arranged and formatted differently.) This is something I was reluctant to do at first, lest it spoil the joy of discovery, but which has become more and more necessary as the known world becomes larger, and so does my inventory. The boss called Bed of Chaos (the platforming boss I mentioned previously) was something of a breaking point for me: I spent a lot of time running all the way through the lava fields into Lost Isalith and into its lair, only to get about five seconds of face time with it before I got pushed into a bottomless pit and had to do the whole run all over again. “Surely there must be a closer bonfire!” I cried, and lo, there was, behind a fake wall where I wouldn’t have noticed it in a thousand years.

I’m told that when the game was new, discoveries of this sort were part of the fan chatter, something excitedly posted on forums where everyone was making discoveries together. That’s one thing you miss out on by playing games ten years too late: participation in the community. But at least I can salute that community, and honor the labors I’m benefitting from.

Dark Souls: When You Can’t See

Sometimes, Dark Souls prevents you from seeing stuff. I think this is my biggest complaint about the boss fights: Most bosses are immense, and if you’re primarily a melee fighter, you have to get really close to them to fight them (which also tends to make a lot of their attacks pass harmlessly over your head). So you have this beautiful artwork doing impressive animations, but the camera is just a few feet away from its flank where you can’t see anything happening. I don’t think this was a deliberate design decision, but it’s what happens.

There are, however, places where interfering with visibility is definitely deliberate. In the Tomb of Giants, things are very dark. You find a lantern early on, but it only illuminates a very short range (basically, just long enough to keep you from stumbling into bottomless pits), and in addition, you have to be wielding and using it to get any benefit from it at all. What’s the difference between “wielding” and “using”? Using a lantern means holding down a button to keep it upraised, just like you do with shields. Note that executing an attack always lowers your shield or lantern, and doing a two-handed attack for extra power requires you to manually stash anything in your off hand (which can be done with the press of a button). So in the Tomb of Giants, basically every attack is done blind. Fortunately, you don’t need light to use target lock.

The Demon Ruins take the opposite tack, blinding you with excess light. The lava pools emit an intense glow, and everything else fades to silhouette, thanks to HDR lighting. There doesn’t seem to be a lantern-equivalent for this area, like glare-reducing sunglasses or whatever, but you can deal with it somewhat by looking away from the lava wherever possible.

Whether with glare or with darkness, reducing visibility has one practical effect for the level designer: it helps to hide graphical sins. The Crystal Cave and its hilly immediate exterior lack the graphical fidelity of other brightly-lit outdoor areas, like the Firelink Shrine, being made of distractingly coarse polygons. Perhaps the Tomb of Giants and Demon Ruins are like that too, but you can’t tell as easily.

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