Archive for August, 2022

Litil Divil: Farewell Maze 4

I’ve finally made it to the fifth maze! Only temporarily, though. As usual, I didn’t find the save room on my first visit, so the next time I play, I’m going to be retracing some ground on level 4. Fortunately, that path isn’t so bad. There are two challenges remaining on it, both far enough past the save room to make it not worth going back, but they’re both things I’ve cracked. One is a pure puzzle, with Mutt and a sort of minotaur-like bruiser taking turns stepping around on a life-sized chessboard where certain marked squares have effects on the opponent’s position. I haven’t worked out the meanings of the marks, but the board doesn’t change, and neither does the opponent’s movement algorithm, so once you’ve found a sequence that works, you can just key it in without risk.

The other is a moving platforms scene, a relative of the lava crossing I mentioned before. I’ve come to dread these things. They tend to be the hardest challenges in the game, owing not just to the difficulty of the execution but the random elements that can wreck you at the last minute. In other words, they’re the sort of thing that I try to win once, then head back to the save room so I don’t have to do it again. But this one is much closer to the level exit than to the save room, making that a harder call. Gladly, though, it turned out to be quite manageable, once I had observed it enough. The room has three rows of platforms, two rows moving right separated by a sparser left-moving row, which you have to cross to reach a couple of buttons at the room’s extremes, then cross back to reach the door they opened. Riding the platforms across the room at random are two guys with green robes and distance weapons, ready to knock you into the abyss when you’re on the same row. The key to the whole thing is noticing that the two guys have different weapons: one has a spear, the other a bow and arrow. When the spear guy throws it at you, he doesn’t get it back until he’s carried all the way off the screen. So the the first thing you need to do is jump onto his row and then off again, to make him waste his spear. The bow and arrow, meanwhile, takes three hits to knock you off, provided you don’t panic and try to dodge onto a platform that’s out of reach. So you can afford to simply let him hit you a couple of times while waiting for your stop.

This is a pretty satisfying puzzle, in large part because the tactics that make it easier are so easily articulated. If you asked me how to defeat the earlier lava sequence, or the even earlier bubble room that I haven’t mentioned before now, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. It would be a lot of “Wait until the time is right. You’ll know it after you’ve seen it happen six or seven times.”

Litil Divil’s Design Sensibility

A colleague noticed that I was playing Litil Divil — he doesn’t read this blog, but we use Discord, and my Discord account is linked to my Steam account, so he could see what I was playing that way. He remembered finding the game tremendously impressive in its day, and asked how well it holds up. I sadly had to inform him that it does not hold up well. But it’s an interesting question, because the obvious way for a 30-year-old game to age badly is in its graphics, and I really don’t feel like that’s the case here. Indie games have made pixel art fashionable again, and this game still has pretty good pixel art — I suspect a modernized version would mainly just give Mutt more frames of animation.

But the gameplay feels positively antiquated! And I struggle to articulate exactly why. It’s big on the design philosophy of “If you liked doing it once, you’ll like doing it over and over”, but that’s never really gone away — mostly the difference is that modern games more effectively make players actually want to perform repeated actions, by exploiting the mechanisms of addiction that have been called “gamification”. Litil Divil, despite being a game, isn’t particularly gamified. In some ways it’s anti-gamified. When you fail in a mini-game, you can’t just give it another try. You have to navigate to it in the maze again first. This discourages continued play.

I’ve been thinking of this game as having a coin-op arcade sensibility, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, unlike arcade games, it does have save points — it just makes them uncomfortably sparse. But also, by the time it came out, it was normal for coin-op games to let players insert another quarter to avoid losing progress. I guess the thing that stands out here is that it really is structured like a modern game, just without modern conveniences. I compared it to Dark Souls before. Dark Souls and Litil Divil really have a lot of their structure in common: you spend your time exploring a network of twisty passages with sparse save points, occasionally confronting special challenges (boss fights in the case of Dark Souls) that either block the path or grant special items useful elsewhere. But in Dark Souls, when you beat a boss, the game saves your progress. If you die, you get sent back to the last save point, but you’re not expected to fight the boss again. Litil Divil hasn’t caught up on that particular design innovation, and that’s a big part of what makes it frustrating.

Litil Divil: Load Screen

Let’s have a UI post, because the load menu is the very worst part of this game. Take a look at it! Oh, sure, it doesn’t look that bad out of context, but you have to remember one thing: This game does not support a mouse. Input is strictly through the arrow keys and two action buttons, approximately equivalent to a NES controller. NES games often have pretty good menus, based around moving focus around with the D-pad. Now look at that screenshot again and ask yourself: Where is the focus?

The menu here indicates focus by a red border around the selected element, which blinks on and off, staying in each state for about a second. A second is a long time in UI-land, and it’s an especially long time for important visual feedback to be invisible. On top of that, whenever the focus moves, it starts over from the beginning of its cycle — which would be great, if that were the part where it’s visible, but it’s not. The whole thing is set up to make you either wait for a second after each keypress, or operate blind. Neither is ideal, but it might not be so bad if the whole thing weren’t also set up to make you need to move the focus multiple times in succession: it starts in the “cancel” button at the bottom, but usually the very first thing you want to press is the up/down arrows on the right, which control which level you’re dealing with, and you have to go through multiple save slot buttons to get there, even if they’re empty and disabled. I usually find myself keying in multiple presses to move to the button I want, then waiting to confirm that I’m on the right one before pressing it.

The leftmost button is for starting the level over rather than loading into its save room. That seems like it should be useful: if you haven’t found the save room on level 4 yet, you could use it to start from the beginning of level 4 instead of the save room on level 3. But in fact it’s disabled on levels where you don’t have a save yet.

Litil Divil: Traps

I keep mentioning the traps in the maze, but I haven’t really described them. Let’s do that now.

Traps are, at root, things that hurt you a little bit if you’re in the wrong place, and play an animation of both the trap triggering and Mutt reacting to it. The most basic trap is the spike trap: a row of little holes in the floor, stretching a little less than half the width of the corridor, easy to walk around or jump over provided you notice it in time. Noticing it is less trivial than it sounds: you can only see a rather short distance ahead, and Mutt himself blocks a significant portion of your view. When exploring new areas, or areas with known traps, I inch forward a bit at a time to avoid blundering into things.

There are barred windows, from which emerge hands that punch you in the ear if you walk too close. Bow-and-arrow traps that fire if you’re too far away. Open pits, which can appear left, right, or center of the corridor, don’t merely damage you but also impede your progress: after Mutt falls into a pit, he climbs out on the near side. There are grotesque faces that appear in pairs, one on either side: one of them will emit a gout of flame when passed, forcing you to hug the opposite wall, but as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to predict which. You just have to suffer the effects once, then remember which side is the bad one, or mark it on your map, or just resign yourself to taking damage every time you pass that way. These things are then combined, in recurring patterns, like two windows on either side of the corridor and a pit in the middle. The obvious answer is to jump over the pit — but then the game introduces a monstrous hand that reaches out of some pits and grabs you when you’re overhead. (The game is fond of hands reaching out from holes in general, really.) The designers are blatantly trolling the players here. As with the faces, you have an opportunity to memorize which things are and aren’t safe. Jumping diagonally seems to help sometimes. There exist fields of massed inconveniently-placed pits where it’s basically required.

One thing that’s not quite a trap in the same sense: Every once in a long while, there will be an X chalked on the floor. Stand on it and press the action button, and it might fully heal you. This is essential for extended exploration, as there’s no other source of unlimited healing — there are bits of food to be found, but they can only be consumed once. But sometimes, instead of healing, a piano falls on you. This perfectly encapsulates the game’s attitude.

Litil Divil compared to Dark Souls

I’ve mapped out as much of maze 4 as I can currently access. There are two challenge rooms available. One involves pieces of floor disappearing in a regular pattern, and the regularity makes it predictable enough that I’ve managed to beat it. However, it opened up no new territory, instead rewarding me with a tennis racket. The other involves leaping from stone to stone as they float down a lava river, and I guess the rest of the level must be on the other side of that — the rest of the challenges, the exit, and most particularly the save room.

And not being able to access the save room is a real problem! Without it, I have to restart from the save room on level 3 every time I launch the game, and that’s a significant way back in the maze, separated from the exit by a lot of walking and a lot of traps, followed by the two bridge battles punctuating every level’s exit and entrance. I’m remembering now why my approach to this game back in the day turned from binging it to playing it once in a while, between other things. It just requires a lot of repeated activity. Very likely the trampoline room where I got stuck before had similar issues.

I’m tempted to say things like “Of course, this was how things were in the old days. In the immediate wake of the coin-op model, games didn’t really have a lot of content, and instead were designed to make you re-experience lots of it repeatedly to produce the sort of total play time that players demanded, something that’s become less of an issue in recent years due to the content glut of the indiepocalypse”. But then I think of Dark Souls. That, and games like it, also feature lots of long runs through the same passages repeatedly whenever you die. And it felt a lot more tolerable there — why? The sense of progress is a big factor, I suppose. In a soulslike, your losses from death aren’t complete. Even if you lose a huge stash of Souls, you still have any inventory you collected on the way, as well as any progress in killing non-respawning enemies or other permanent changes in world state. Litil Divil provides no such mercy. But also, I think the greater variation in the architecture makes it easier to bear Dark Souls runs. Corrodors in Litil Divil are all the same, modulo traps and the occasional skeleton. Variation, even just small changes in the slope of the ground or the texture of the walls or the degree of light, helps to make places feel like places, rather than points in a homogenous mass. And being able to look around and think “I know where this is” helps give a sense of progress to the whole thing.

I suppose the way to get through this is to adopt the meditative mindset, ritualize the passage through the maze and abandon attachment to result. That’s gotten me through games before. It’s just that it’s a frame of mind that conflicts with that produced by the challenge rooms that are the actual goal of each sally.

Verwald’s Treasures

The latest week-long pause in this blog’s regular content was brought to you courtesy of Verwald’s Treasures, an online wizards-and-polyhedra-themed puzzle extravaganza by estimable puzzlewright Nathan Curtis. A sequel to his earlier puzzle extravaganza What’s That Spell, it was kickstarted in 2018 and repeatedly delayed until its release two weeks ago. I didn’t start it immediately, thinking I’d devote a full weekend to clearing the thing, but, much like its development, the solving wound up taking longer than expected.

It’s the sort of metapuzzle-oriented thing that fans of Panda Magazine and the MIT Mystery Hunt will be familiar with: a melange of crosswords and assembly puzzles and Japanese spatial logic puzzles and the like, where solutions unlock more puzzles and every puzzle yields a word to be used later. Each puzzle thus effectively has two stages: first solve the puzzle presented, then figure out how to extract a word from it. Sometimes the second stage is trivial, as when a crossword has some highlighted squares. Other times, it’s the bulk of the puzzle’s difficulty, as you stare at the filled-in grid with no idea what to do next. This goes a long way to establishing a pattern that most of the puzzles are not simply what they appear to be on the surface.

Although putting the whole thing online is important to the layered structure, the individual puzzles are not electronic and could have been delivered in print form — indeed, some of them are positively designed to be printed out. I wound up with a small bookworth of printouts by the end. Some are even designed to be cut out and reassembled, although I sometimes found it more convenient to use an image editor for this. Helpfully, where appropriate, the website uses individual images that can be copied from the browser, instead of encapsulating the whole puzzle in a PDF.

I’ve been following the puzzles of Mr. Curtis for some time, so the types seen here were generally familiar to me — in particular, the Pathfinder, a sort of crossword variant where the answers take twisting paths through the grid, is something I’ve come to think of as his signature format. Even the familiar puzzles are done in some sort of novel variant, though, and in the later, more difficult sections, you’re expected to figure out the novelty without instruction. It can be easy to get on a completely wrong track and, in effect, try to solve a different puzzle than intended. Fortunately, there’s an excellent hint system that provides the gentlest of nudges on demand, as well as heavier ones if you decide you need more, all without revealing its full scope. To my mind, the climactic penultimate puzzle more or less requires extensive use of this system, as it’s a real read-the-author’s-mind puzzle otherwise — and even then, still requires some effort to interpret, as the hints use some confusing phrasing that describes the process of constructing the puzzle rather than the process of solving it. The actual final puzzle, in contrast, is extremely gentle, just putting a capstone on everything else you’ve done, to help you feel competent again after the struggle. I recall feeling grumpy about the final puzzle of What’s That Spell? after the hints assumed that I understood what I was supposed to be doing more than I actually did, so the gentleness here of both the hints and the final puzzle are extremely welcome.

Anyway, I recommend it, if you’re a fan of this sort of thing. The website is set up to facilitate team solving, but I can attest that it can be solved solo.

Litil Divil: Gold Shenanigans

I’ve made it through level 3 — it turns out this isn’t the level with the trampoline where I got stuck previously after all. In fact, it only has one challenge room at all, and no shop. I’m assuming that this is a sort of special “Oops! All Maze!” level and that I won’t see the game go to the same extreme again.

Level 3 also introduces something I wasn’t sure I’d see: optional items. There’s a dead end in the maze where you can find a key, guarded by an arm from a window like the toll-taker, except he demands a watch. You can find a watch further along in the maze, where you probably haven’t been yet when you meet the watch-taker for the first time. If you don’t have a watch, he instead takes all your gold and lets you through. The familiar toll-taker is also found near the exit, as usual.

Now, I said before that the toll-taker requires all the gold in the maze. I don’t really know if that’s strictly true. I just know that whenever I haven’t given him all the gold in the maze, he’s sent me away for more. Maybe he has a minimum acceptable amount, but takes as much as you have. Maybe he’ll accept whatever’s left over after the watch-taker takes his cut, which would make the actual watch downright useless. But even assuming that you can’t let the watch-taker have any gold and still win the level, there’s an alternative to using the watch: Just go the watch-taker’s dead end before collecting any gold.

On top of that, if I’m not mistaken, you don’t even really need the key he’s guarding anyway. Past that point there are two locked doors, and two keys you can find. Making you look for the watch at all is pure trollery. Maybe I should keep the watch — unlike gold and keys, inventory is preserved across levels, and I could see this game suddenly requiring you to have something you gave away two levels ago.

Litil Divil: Some Puzzles

I finally found the save room in maze 3, and close by, a single challenge room. On the other side of the challenge lies more maze. I have not yet found any more rooms. This maze is a lot bigger than I remember them being. And on top of that, the one challenge room I found? It’s another maze. A smaller one, with different rules and different presentation: multi-tiered, isometric, and with a sort of node that you disappear into at every bend or intersection. Key to solving it is realizing that pressing the primary action button while in a node switches you to a view of the inside of the node, where items and elevator platforms are hidden. That’s the kind of puzzle you find in the rooms. There’s always a bit of guesswork before you can start solving them for real.

Some other notable puzzles I’ve seen so far:

The very first puzzle you encounter on level 1 involves a spider-demon that sits in place and spawns spiders, which follow you erratically and attack you. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the action buttons make you step on spiders, or occasionally pick them up and eat them, but it’s a losing battle: the demon just spawns more to replace any that you kill, and you can’t do anything to stop it. Until, that is, you buy some bug spray from the shop. Then the two action buttons do two different things, one stomping and one spraying.

A sort of wizard’s laboratory, with a row of colored flasks, a bubbling cauldron, and four wizards playing poker — although before long, one of them gets irritated at another and turns him into a frog. Get close enough to the flasks, and you enter a special mode where you select stuff to throw into the cauldron. The correct combination is found elsewhere in the maze. Even once I had that, it took me a while to find the place I had to stand to take a drink out of the cauldron. Drinking the correct concoction temporarily turns you into a mouse, letting you escape through a hole in the wainscotting on the opposite side of the room — but only if you can evade the cat that’s been sleeping by the poker table until that moment.

A sleeping dragon on a treasure hoard, albeit apparently not the sort of treasure you collect in the maze. There’s one item in the hoard you need, but it’s on the other side of the gouts of flame the dragon is breathing out of its nose in its sleep. You can, however, reach a heap of large gemstones, and pick them up and throw them (with no ability to alter distance or direction). I suspected early on that the solution was to throw the gems to plug the dragon’s nostrils, but it still took me multiple visits to find the exact spot you have to stand on to get them in place. And even then, you have limited time before the gems burn up.

So there’s action elements in most puzzles, just as there’s a puzzle element in most of the game’s action scenes.

Litil Divil: Overall Patterns

I’ve made it to the third maze. Despite a considerable time spent exploring, I have yet to find a single room — not even the save room, with the result that I have to restart from the save room in level 2 every time I run out of health. (In case I have not yet made it clear: This is not a friendly game.) Let’s look at the patterns established in the first two mazes and assume they hold through for the rest.

Each maze starts and ends with a fight against a monster on a bridge. Coupled with the fact that you can’t save between mazes, this means you wind up doing two bridge fights in a row. The maze-start monster and the maze-end monster are distinct, but there seems to be only one maze-start monster (a troll with a club) and one maze-end monster (a squat, grinning, vaguely lizardish demon with a flail), just palette-swapped and possibly with increasing health. The maze-start monster can’t actually defeat you, because the price of defeat is always being ejected from the room with slightly less health, and before you’ve entered the maze, there’s nothing to eject you to. All it can do is block your way indefinitely.

Every maze I’ve seen has the following rooms: the save room, where you can save the game; the shop, where you can exchange the gold you find scattered through the maze for items needed to solve puzzles; the exit with its aforementioned bridge fight; and seven challenges, for a total of ten rooms per maze, matching the Steam blurb’s claim of “five hellish levels of treacherous tunnels with more than 50 raucous rooms of gameplay”. Three of the challenges yield items you’ll need to exit the maze. The other four are just obstacles, blocking the path to sections of the maze. One of the obstacle rooms seems to always be a special arena fight that you need an item from the store to win. All challenges disappear after completion, turning into just more corridor.

There are occasional locked doors in the maze, not leading to rooms, just blocking the way until you collect a key lying in a dead end somewhere. One locked door shortly before the exit is special: the key is provided by a sort of toll taker who reaches a very long arm from a nearby barred window, demanding all the gold in the maze (less the price of all the items in the shop). In this way, the game motivates you to explore the maze thoroughly, as coins could be anywhere. Then it trolls you by including long, winding, trap-filled sections that don’t hold anything worthwhile at all.

Litil Divil: Maps

Like many other maze-themed games, Litil Divil makes it basically essential to draw a map. Oh, it has an automap that fills in as you explore, but it only shows a meager 8×8 section of the maze at a time (in maps that can be in the neighborhood of 40 tiles on a side), and doesn’t communicate essential information like “How do I get back to that one puzzle room that I think I have the resources to solve now?” Back when I played this game for the first time, I drew crude schematics of the maze, just lines showing how things connected, bendy in places because they weren’t drawn to scale. That was okay in practical terms, and acceptable when I was just playing a game I had picked from a bargain bin. But when I’m looking at closing out a twenty-year pretend obligation? That feels momentous enough to warrant something tile-accurate, drawn on an actual grid.

The game makes some attempt at thwarting this: one spot in maze 2 pulls the old Infinite Hallway trick, periodically teleporting you backward inconspicuously until you get suspicious and turn around to see if you’ve actually gotten anywhere. But for the most part, the only thing getting in the way of accurate maps is the mere fact that it’s hard to tell how long a long, featureless corridor is. Your movement isn’t bound to the grid, so the only good way to tell when you’ve advanced to the next tile is to look at the automap — and you can’t even tell then, if the map view looks the same centered on the next tile as on the current one.

The game also discourages simply taking the time to draw more than rudimentary maps, by having Mutt’s health bar steadily drain all the time when you’re in the corridors. It should be understood that health is purely a corridor thing; it’s not reflected in the challenge rooms at all, not even the combat challenges, which effectively have their own per-room health. Challenges do affect health, though: completing one restores a large measure of it, and leaving a room without completing it takes some away. To minimize loss, you should always go to a challenge you can win by the most direct route available, avoiding any traps along the way, and win it in one try. In practice, it makes more sense to visit the maze’s save room whenever you beat a room that you don’t want to repeat. But directness is important regardless. You know what helps with that? Maps.

The overall effect is that I always leave the save room with specific intent. Either I’m exploring, and expect to die in the halls, or I’m trying to do something specific and concrete, like beating a room or looping over a known sequence of hallways to collect the treasure, and then make it back to the save room alive.

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