Archive for 2023

ParserComp 2023: Dream Fears in a nutshell

The author’s description of this one is simply “shitty game”, and it’s hard to disagree. In form, it’s basically an amateur graphics demo, with blocky people and animals with wacky shaders floating in space in front of a bunch of particle effects, bound together by a story of a dream about a “fear fairy” helping you to conquer your greatest fears (which turn out not to be thematically interesting ones, but, like, fear of spiders and stuff). There are occasional command prompts, but you’re told exactly what to type — anything else is simply unrecognized, even if it varies only in spacing or punctuation. Only one prompt offers you a choice of things to type in. The rest might as well be “click to continue” prompts, except that then it wouldn’t be allowed in ParserComp. Which would be a good thing. I’ve complained before about the sort of Twine piece that’s mostly composed of linear, noninteractive text chunks joined together by hyperlinks without player agency, but now I’ve discovered something worse. At least the pseudo-interactive Twine stuff doesn’t make you type in the text of the links.

ParserComp 2023: Late-Imperial Sky Witches Star In: Meet Cute

And right off the bat, here we have a freestyle entry that’s old-school-IF-like but doesn’t really have a parser (or even a command line): it’s written in Gruescript, Robin Johnson‘s system for hypertext games with an underlying parser-game-like world model. But while Johnson basically uses his system to provide a more modern interface to a traditional rooms-and-inventory adventure game, this piece is entirely about an interrogation, where inventory objects are chiefly topics to be asked about. In fact, it doesn’t distinguish between physical inventory and abstractions like the “her name” and “poetic bullshit” — they all go into the same inventory, and can be dropped. In a less enigmatic game, I’d assume this was a bug. Here, I can believe it’s a deliberate effect, a “this world works differently from yours” thing. For it’s clear from a dozen offhand references that there’s world-building going on just offscreen, where we can barely glimpse it. There’s something to be said for the parallelism of the player character prying into the captive’s secrets while the player effectively interrogates the game, trying every trick to loosen its lips about its setting and mechanics.

It’s very short, and doesn’t have a satisfying ending. I thought for sure that I had gotten the game into a stuck state, from which I could only access inconclusive conclusions, but the source code shows that, while there were in fact some easy-to-miss conditional effects I had failed to find, they don’t have any material effect. I kind of suspect it’s a “Uh-oh, the deadline is almost up, I’d better just slap an ending on and submit what I’ve got” job.

ParserComp 2023

ParserComp is very young, as annual events go, and still experimenting with what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Its basic mission is to satisfy the curmudgeons who miss how the big IFComp used to be before the influx of Twine, and it’s been something of a failure in that regard so far. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s hosted on, attracting a different set of authors, who see it as just another jam with a novel constraint. But whatever the reason, ParserComp has attracted a significant number of entries that don’t fit the spirit of the thing — either they’re graphical games that just barely have parsers, or they pretend to have parsers but don’t really. (A parser is not just a command prompt!) But no one’s policing this, probably in part because it’s such a small event that they need the questionable cases to fill out the numbers.

At any rate, this year the organizers decided to deal with it by splitting the event into two categories, “classic” and “freestyle”, with a winner to be declared in each category. There are eleven “classic” and five “freestyle”, which is a small enough total that it’s pointless to try to identify trends and talk about what it means for the future of ParserComp and whether the split is a good idea or not, tempted though I am to do just that. I guess I’ll just have to play some games. I will be playing all sixteen games, in random order, classic and freestyle mixed together.

Deus Ex: What Happened?

And here we are, nearly four months after I said I’d be picking up the pace on Deus Ex soon. I have a history of dragging my heels in this game, but I seem to be a lot worse about it this time around than in my 2010 sally: in six months, I still haven’t covered the same ground as in two weeks back then. What happened? I’ll tell you what.

When we last left off, I was, as per the post title, “nearing the turn” where player character J. C. Denton finally turns against his fellow UNATCO agents in a really noticeable way, whether the player wants him to or not. As I mentioned before, this is the point where I had previously avoided a long and difficult firefight down the stairs of a multi-story building by instead jumping off the roof, an act made survivable by a leg upgrade I had acquired. This time around, I didn’t have the leg augmentation. After spending some time backtracking to see if I could find it, I hit up a walkthrough and learned that I had missed it several levels back, in a place I couldn’t access any more without replaying a largish section of the game. This was fairly discouraging! The upgrade isn’t completely essential, of course, but I felt cheated out of the option of using it. (This may well be the core attitude that makes me ill-suited for this game.) I knew I wasn’t going any further until I got the upgrade, and I didn’t feel like replaying so much right away, so I stopped dead and lost all momentum.

And once in that state, I had a hard time getting out of it. Back in real life, I was working on a contract that I found particularly draining, and which left me too tired to play anything as involving and demanding as a Deus Ex. I instead spent my free time during these months playing a number of low-effort and low-context games, like idle games and tower defenses, two genres of game that you largely play passively. I played quite a lot of Train Valley 2 — it has several DLC packages now, some of which are just curated collections of Steam Workshop levels that you could play for free individually. I bought those collections anyway, to avoid the burden of choosing. That’s the state of mind I was in.

The contract ended in June, and I took a bit of a break to recover. But by then, there was another obstacle to resuming Deus Ex: It was summer. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a very dark game, not just in tone but in actual illumination. You really need to play it in a reasonably dark room just to be able to see what’s going on. My current apartment captures enough sunlight to make it basically unplayable during daylight hours, even with the blinds closed. And daylight hours currently last well into the evening. So, no more conspiracy-busting for me until autumn.

In the meantime, this month has given us both a major Steam sale and this year’s ParserComp. Let’s go with ParserComp for now. There’s a modest 16 entries, and enough time left in the judging period to vote on all of them if I get cracking.

Deus Ex: Nearing the Turn

I expect I’ll be posting about this game more frequently soon, because I’m catching up to the point where I left off last time. I’ve passed the point where Paul, the brother of player character J. C. Denton, officially turns against UNATCO, and I’m basically at the point where J. C. does so as well — although I haven’t taken the plunge, saving it for a fresh session. Remember the bit I described before, where in my previous go-through I had jumped off a building, because after I got to the top it was suddenly swarming with enemies? Somehow, I had forgotten the plot-significant detail of exactly why it had been suddenly swarming with enemies: on the way up, they had been friends.

I still say that the folks that Paul has thrown in with, the NSF, aren’t much better, at least when it comes to respect for human life. The main thing they have going for them is that they haven’t been responsible for atrocities on the same scale and depth as those of UNATCO and its secret masters, but that’s mainly attributable to the fact that they don’t have as much power. I really want a pox-on-both-your-houses option, and I suspect that one will be provided before too long — I vaguely recall that a mysterious third party helps J. C. out during the upcoming escape sequence. I’ve seen it said that part of the 0451 vibe is that the player character serves as a balancing force between two catastrophic extremes: Ryan’s callous individualism and Lamb’s oppressive collectivism in the Bioshock games, the destructive chaos of the Trickster and the inhuman order of the Mechanists in Thief. I’m not really convinced this applies to Deus Ex, though. The two sides here don’t really seem like opposing ideologies. It’s military-industrial complex vs reactionary militia. That’s just two flavors of conservative warmonger.

Deus Ex: Swimming

Put on a trenchcoat
And fight some conspiracies
Get experience
And level up abilities
Will you pick rifle
Or computers?
Don’t pick swimming, because
It’s fairly useless
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s lyrics to the Deus Ex title theme

Having seen this advice years ago, I have in fact not yet put any points into swimming. But I keep seeing places where it seems like it would be useful. This is a game that’s largely about giving the player alternatives, and it goes well beyond just the obvious “sneaking or violence” choice — I’ve just been through a bit where the sneaking option bifurcated into “avoid being spotted by finding a route through a maze-like agglomeration of shipping containers, or leap around on top of the containers where no one’s looking”. Pick the lock of the front door or awkwardly stack crates and climb in through a second-story window. Spend resources to avoid taking damage from environmental hazards or just take the damage and spend resources to heal afterward. The point is that lately I’ve been seeing an awful lot of alternate routes that involve swimming underwater.

One could conceivably build one’s character as a dedicated swimmer, seeking out underwater shortcuts everywhere. It would be an eccentric build, though, and I wouldn’t recommend it to the first-time player; as far as I can tell, there just isn’t a whole lot in the swimming sections other than swimming. You get access to some underwater supply crates, but for the most part, making that choice just means circumventing a lot of other interesting choices and missing out on a bunch of game.

Nonetheless, having decided to indulge that choice, the level designers are left having to support it. It’s a bit like an old Superfriends episode, where every scheme they thwart and emergency they handle has to have some kind of maritime component to justify Aquaman’s continuing presence on the team. But here’s the thing: I’ve explored a bunch of water tunnels — sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes because I fell into a cistern — and I have yet to see one that actually requires you to sink points into the Swimming skill. It takes a while to start drowning, and even when you do, it takes a while to drown for a noticeable mount of damage. Maybe the later levels will provide longer water-filled tunnels to help the Aquacyborg players feel like it wasn’t a complete waste. Or maybe not. We have been told it’s fairly useless, after all.

Deus Ex: Pacifist Arsenal

The lair of the “mole people” — by which the game simply means people squatting in abandoned subway tunnels — has been overrun with NSF troops, who the mole people do their best to ignore. I’ve found this whole scene less difficult than I remember from my first pass at the game. I think I took a different approach back then, inching around stealthily, trying to find the moments in the guards’ patrol cycles when I could make my way without raising an alarm. This time around, I’m okay with being seen as long as I can render the witness unconscious before he damages me too much.

Let’s use that as an excuse to talk about the game’s array of nonlethal weapons somewhat. There are three that I’ve been using routinely. First, there’s a miniature crossbow that fires tranquilizer darts. (Or just plain darts, if you don’t care about lethality.) A single dart, preferably delivered from concealment, is enough to take down a normal unaugmented human. The one downside is that it takes a while to take hold, and the person affected tends to run around alerting others until he collapses. Still, it’s a lovely tool, and I’d use it all the time if its ammo weren’t so scarce. Every once in a while you meet an NSF soldier armed with a similar device, and it’s always a joyous moment, because you get to scavenge his ammo.

I suppose the reason tranq darts are doled out so sparingly is to force the player who doesn’t want to kill to use the melee weapons. There are two: the riot prod and the telescoping baton. The baton is a bit like the blackjack in Thief: the Dark Project: best applied to the back of the head of someone who doesn’t know you’re there, although it’s a bit tricky to pull this off. It’s a lot faster than the blackjack, though, and thus less useless in general melee. You can use it to take down someone who’s spotted you if you don’t mind getting shot a few times.

The riot prod is a melee weapon that uses ammo, in the form of “prod chargers”. One hit with it will render an opponent stunned, a state in which they just stand there and vibrate for a little while. A second prod will knock them out, but that’s a waste of prod ammo. The better approach is to quickly switch to the baton for the coup de grace — which still seems to be more effective when applied to the back of the skull, so the ideal approach is a prod-stun followed by circling behind while the weapon-change animation plays.

In addition, there are two other nonlethal weapons that I know about but don’t use so much. There’s pepper spray, which I simply haven’t figured out how to use effectively and takes pretty rare ammo, and there’s tear gas grenades, which are rare enough to be saved for only the really difficult fights. Tear gas is a bit like the riot prod, in that it causes temporary helplessness, but has the disadvantage that fully exploiting it by clubbing people on the back of the head before they recover usually requires walking into the cloud yourself and taking damage from it.

Which brings to the question of what exactly nonlethal damage means when applied to the player character. As far as I can tell, it’s not in practice any different from lethal damage. When you’ve taken more than you can withstand, it’s game over, no matter if you’re dead or technically only unconscious. Indeed, I’m not at all sure that lethal and nonlethal damage are tracked separately for anyone. It seems like the difference between death and unconsciousness is purely a matter of what kind of weapon dealt the final blow.

Deus Ex: Ladders

Let’s talk about this game’s treatment of ladders because I’ve been dealing with them a lot lately. They’re kind of a fascinating snapshot of a moment in the history of the medium. The whole idea of a ladder here is that it’s a segment of wall, usually with its own special texture, that keeps you from falling when you’re touching it and which lets you move freely up or down, or really in whatever direction you’re facing. Note what this lacks that nearly any 3D game containing ladders would have nowadays: any notion of “locking on” to the ladder and constraining your movement to it until you do something to explicitly let go. That and the complete 3D freedom of movement mean that if you’re not completely square with the wall, you can easily go veering off to the side and fall. It’s especially easy to slip up this way when parts of the ladder are in darkness, which they very often are in this game’s eternal nighttime. And then there’s the perilous matter of mounting ladders from the top, a skill I still haven’t mastered. Do it wrong and you simply fall the full height of the thing. There’s a factoid (made famous by a Gravity Falls quotation) that having a ladder in your house is more likely to result in injury than having a gun in your house. While I don’t think my deaths from ladders in this game outnumber by deaths from guns, I’m not entirely sure of it.

Why does the game do it this way? Well, in part it’s because best practices for handling ladders weren’t well-established yet when it was made. Indeed, they’re not consistently followed even in games released long afterward; I’m told that GTA5 (2008) has notoriously dodgy ladders. They’re simply a nontrivial thing to get right. Moreover, though, this is a game in the design lineage of System Shock, which had similar issues. And in System Shock, it was the result of a design philosophy. Although it didn’t really wind up this way, part of the initial idea behind System Shock was to be “Sonic the Hedgehog in 3D” (at a time when Sonic itself wasn’t), a game of flowing kineticism produced by simulated physics as a coherent unit, with special cases and special interactions kept to a minimum. The idea of a ladder as a sort of short-range gravity-nullification field fit into that design philosophy perfectly. Deus Ex is even less of a Sonic-like than System Shock ever was: the stealth mechanics mean you spend more time crouching and waiting than running and jumping. But the physics remain.

Deus Ex: Thinking about parts of the game other than the part that I’m playing right now

At this point, I’m creeping around the warehouse district, playing hide-and-seek with NSF sentries on the rooftops. I’ve played this part before, but I have absolutely no memory of it. It’s immersive filler: not bad, perfectly absorbing in the moment, but doesn’t leave a strong impression. I remember having similar thoughts when replaying the original Half-Life and being surprised at just how much ordinary FPS action against human soldiers there was that I had forgotten about completely, padding out the space between the impressive set-pieces and creatively-designed alien monsters that I associate with the Half-Life brand. But it’s kind of different: the striking thing about Half-Life‘s filler levels is that they were contrary to what I remember the game being like. Deus Ex‘s filler is perfectly Deus Ex-y.

What sort of thing do I find more memorable in this game? An example that I haven’t quite reached yet: after you make your way to the top floor of a building, the floors beneath you fill with enemies. The last time I was there, I did something I thought was clever: rather than fight or sneak my way floor by floor past them, I switched on an upgrade that helps you take less damage from falling and simply jumped off the building. I still took a lot of damage, but possibly not more in total than I would have taken from going down the slow way. At any rate, it was a noticeable thinking-outside-the-box moment, or at least felt like it at the time, but on reflection it seems very planned. But the way that the game just gives you the tools and lets you think of the use on your own made it a special moment.

I haven’t decided yet whether I want to do things the same way this time around. Ordinarily I’d want to go wherever the guards are, because they must be guarding something worth having, but this particular place has the peculiar feature that I’ll have already finished my explorations before they show up. But the leg upgrade that lets you survive jumping off a building also increases your running speed, so it might be worth trying to just book it past everyone instead.

Deus Ex: Hell’s Kitchen

And so I’m on to Hell’s Kitchen (or a small fragment of it, anyway), on the west side, just south of Central Park. This is traditionally a poor immigrant neighborhood, and is depicted as such in media, but in reality it’s been mostly gentrified for decades. It even goes by the name “Clinton” now to try to shed the old name’s slummish connotations. I recall the Netflix MCU Daredevil series was set in Hell’s Kitchen (because you basically couldn’t do otherwise, the character is as strongly bound to the place as Batman is to Gotham City), and used the destruction wrought on the city in the first Avengers flick as an excuse for why the neighborhood is back to being as run-down and dangerous as it was in the 1970s. Deus Ex gets the same effect from the general breakdown of American society.

Here, I think I’ve finally given up on trying to save absolutely everyone’s life. I really kept that up longer than I should have; the main reason I kept at it in the Battery Park segment was that Anna Navarre, one of the player character’s pointedly evil cyborg colleagues, kept insisting on congratulating me on losing my inhibitions about killing, and I didn’t want to let her have that satisfaction. 1Ultimately, it turns out there’s a known bug that sometimes makes her say that even when she shouldn’t. Ah well, I know I’m doing a pacifist run even if she doesn’t. But Hell’s Kitchen has a section where UNATCO is in a shooting war with the NSF, just like Battery Park did, only larger. Holding back every possible casualty there just seems too onerous. I’m still trying to keep anyone from dying because of me, though, even by accident.

It’s a section with good diversity of action, with branching and side-quests and sub-levels. Less than a block away from that shootout, there’s a bar where you can question the locals. Appropriately enough, many of the locals are worried about all the shooting going on nearby. Some of the interiors seems to me a bit more ambitious than the environment models can really support, though: much like in Tomb Raider, the world is built to a scale for action and adventure, not normal human inhabitation.

And below the streets is the secret hideout of the MJ12 troopers with their ridiculous G. I. Joe outfits. As much as the game’s dialogue and in-game reading material aims at being more serious and thought-provoking than your typical circa-2000 FPS, there’s always something to stop the player from taking it too seriously.

1 Ultimately, it turns out there’s a known bug that sometimes makes her say that even when she shouldn’t. Ah well, I know I’m doing a pacifist run even if she doesn’t.

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