Archive for 2024

Robin Hood: Combat Mode

When characters in this game trade blows with sword or staff, they become locked in a combat mode that only ends if one of them is downed (either dead or unconscious) or one of them somehow manages to put enough distance between self and assailant to break it. In this mode, characters cannot take any of their special per-character actions, like throwing coin purses or eating food to heal themselves. (This is why Robin can generally needs to take enemies by surprise to pull off a sucker punch: once they’ve drawn a sword, they can force him into combat mode instead.) Once they’re in combat mode, they don’t need to be told what to do; they’ll just keep fighting. If you want them to fight effectively, however, you’ll want to take direct control.

This is done by means of mouse gestures. Select a character in combat mode and left-drag on the playfield, and the cursor will leave an orange trail behind it, so you can draw a simple shape that determines what you do. A straight line towards an enemy means a thrust, a circular arc means a swing that can hit multiple people, stuff like that. A figure 8 does a slow but powerful finishing blow. It’s all clearly meant to convey a sense of the cut and thrust of swashbuckling, but, like most mouse gesture systems, I mainly find it a little awkward. It’s made especially awkward by context: when the selected character isn’t in combat mode, left-dragging on the playfield is interpreted as a “select multiple’ action, as is normal in RTS interfaces. And in large melees where multiple foes are attacking a character at once (which is to say, the situations where manual control is most crucial), it happens fairly frequently that I try to do a swing just after the enemy I was targeting falls, resulting in deselecting the character I was controlling. There should be a name for this general sort of erroneous behavior resulting from transient changes in state changing the meaning of an action.

Apart from that, I find it interesting that this whole system tends to result in the action centering on one fight at a time. Fights that aren’t currently the focus of your attention tend to go into a holding pattern, both sides fending off most of each other’s automatic attacks, unless one side or the other is greatly outmatched in skill or numbers. Selecting a character to control is, in effect, like directing the camera in the swashbuckling films the game takes inspiration from, telling the game that this is the important one for the moment.

Robin Hood: Little John has Joined the Party

Having now acquired Little John, I get to bring him on missions. As expected, he’s a variant on the Strong Merry 1Tangentially, the game’s random name generator has given me a merry man amusingly named Much Strong. He isn’t even a Strong Merry. He’s an archer. — he’s basically the strongest merry, and has most of the standard Strong Merry abilities plus a couple of additional ones of his own. In particular, he has the same sucker punch as Robin, allowing him to take down most enemies instantly and nonlethally, provided he can get close enough without them engaging him in combat. Having two characters who can do that on the same team is actually something of a game-changer: when Robin fails in his approach and winds up tangled in combat, John can take advantage of the distraction to deliver the punch, and vice versa. They’re like a tag team, the two inseparable friends.

The second plot mission after that seems built to emphasize this use, too. A potential ally is being held prisoner in his own castle, so you have to break him without killing anyone on the way in — those are his own men! (He’s okay with you pummeling them unconscious, tying them up, and leaving them in a closet, though.) I think this is the first time the game has actually forced the player to refrain from killing, rather than just suggesting and encouraging it. For my part, it just meant I had to continue playing the game exactly as I had been up to that point.

I’m really considering ditching the no-deliberate-killing policy at this point, though. It would open up new options, like actually letting Robin use a bow once in a while. As it is, I’m mainly using the same tools and techniques to slowly and methodically win every level. There’s a satisfaction to those techniques — it’s essentially similar to the satisfaction of tidying up — but when I was taking a similar approach in Deus Ex, it was largely to facilitate exploration, and that’s less of a factor here, where the same three castles are used repeatedly.

Recall that the game punishes killing by making it more difficult to recruit additional merry men. But I have more than enough merry men already, more than I can easily manage. And here’s the thing about extrinsic motivations: once established, they tend to devalue intrinsic ones.

References
1 Tangentially, the game’s random name generator has given me a merry man amusingly named Much Strong. He isn’t even a Strong Merry. He’s an archer.

Back to Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood

I think it’s about time we got back to this game, don’t you? I planned to finish it up months ago — I wanted to get it done before IFComp started! — but things happened, and momentum was lost, and I’ve found it to be a difficult game to get back into. There’s just a lots of little bits of friction: partly it’s the graphics (not quite high-res enough for the level of detail it’s aiming at), partly it’s the UI (just a bit too complicated for its framerate), partly it’s the gameplay (just complicated enough that I can’t just jump back in without a refresher). These are of course the reasons I left it unplayed for so many years in the first place.

And then there’s the position I had left it in: stuck in my attempt at rescuing Little John because of the interference of a mounted knight. The good news is that I’ve now gotten past that level. The bad news is that I basically didn’t learn anything from it. I just replayed from a save until I somehow managed to clear out all the enemies in the vicinity of Little John without the knight noticing. I don’t know how I did it, and I certainly don’t know how to deal with knights in general, which seems like it’s going to be a problem from here on. Afterwards, I attempted a side mission, just another “mug a tax collector” bit like I’ve done several times already, but this time there was another mounted knight in his escort. I’m going to be seeing a lot of these guys, it seems. Maybe there’s a trick to subduing them than I haven’t discovered, or maybe they’re just there to encourage stealth. I just don’t know. I’m going to have to learn.

Stepping back a bit, this whole problem, of beating levels by save-scumming instead of by doing whatever it is the designer intended you to do, is probably something I encounter a lot, particularly in RTS games (a genre that’s cousin to this game). Back when RTSes were best-sellers, there seemed to develop an assumption that anyone who bought a new one had already mastered the form. Well, I’ve played through Warcraft, and Command & Conquer, and half of Command & Conquer: Red Alert, and I pretty much save-scummed through them all.

Roottrees, AI, and Perception

Outside of IFComp season, it’s rare that I explicitly assign a game a status of “will not finish” — this blog owes its very existence to my tendency to go for “will finish later” instead. It’s even rarer that I post about it here when I do. But here we are. My experience with The Roottrees are Dead has some peculiarities worth recording.

The Roottrees are Dead is a free online deduction game along the lines of Return of the Obra Dinn and The Case of the Golden Idol. The plot involves identifying heirs to a fortune by filling out an extensive family tree, using information largely obtained from in-game web searches. (The UI for this feels weird: rather than show you the individual search results, it narrates a summary of them, but it displays this narration on the in-game CRT as if it were the search engine output.) There’s a tutorial where you have to identify three sisters in a photograph before you get access to the full family tree, although even in the tutorial you have full access to the search engine, as well as a long list of names you can search for long before they become relevant.

And that’s basically as far as I got. One of the three sisters was easy to identify, but the other two? I could not tell which was which from the information given, and even though there were only two possibilities, I was too proud to simply take a random guess so early in the game. Or perhaps not just proud; my experience with games of this sort is that guessing degrades the experience. It’s not just that it deprives you of the satisfaction of feeling clever at that moment, it’s also that each thing you puzzle out teaches you a little bit about how the author thinks and what kind of information is important. Skipping stuff without even an after-the-fact explanation of how you were supposed to have figured it out makes it harder to figure out more things later. And this was the tutorial, the part of the game that’s specifically meant to teach you, so skipping through it without learning what I was supposed to learn seemed potentially disastrous for what followed.

And so, when I finally gave up after an hour or two of diving down in-game web-search rabbit-holes and finding no new information about the sisters, rather than just guess, I sought hints. I was flabbergasted to learn that the intended solution involved noticing that the sister in the back is wearing a plaid shirt. I had seen the mention of plaid in the web-search text about the sisters, but had rejected it as relevant to the photo because obviously no one in it was wearing plaid; the shirt that I was now being told is plaid was clearly a shirt with red-and-black horizontal stripes. I took a closer look at the picture — maybe it was really plaid, and just looked like stripes to me? No, scrutiny just confirmed my initial impression.

Now, here’s the weird part. I’ve talked about this with several other people online, on the game’s official Discord channel and elsewhere. Every single person who weighed in on the matter had simply perceived the shirt as plaid. Some conceded that it’s actually striped if you look more closely, but they didn’t notice this at first glance. I didn’t perceive it as plaid at first glance — I still can’t perceive it as plaid no matter how hard I try. But apparently I’m the only one like this! This game has been out for three months, and this is the very first photo in it — heck, it’s on the game’s title screen! — and you have to inspect it closely for details figure out who the third sister is, and yet I find no trace of anyone else online having my problems. I suppose some people might have had problems, and guessed, and got on with it. But additionally the game has more than 20 credited beta testers, all of whom apparently signed off on the photo. The author himself appears to have seen nothing wrong with it. Wait, how? I can understand, at least in theory, how you could look at a picture of a striped shirt and not notice that it isn’t plaid, but how do you make a picture without noticing what you’re making?

The answer is that you use AI. I think we all understand by now that if you tell a neural net to give you a picture of a woman in a plaid shirt, it’s not at all surprising if it gives you a striped shirt instead. All the author had to do is not notice that it isn’t plaid, just like nearly all the players. This, it seems to me, is a big problem with AI generation: that it lets you produce art without any human mind paying a whole lot of attention to it. That might be acceptable in some situations (although it sometimes results in people with more arms than intended, and there are very few situations where that’s acceptable), but in a sleuthing game, it’s potentially deadly. I’m told that AI generation was just the first step in this game, that a lot of the pictures were retouched or had details added by hand for the sake of the puzzles. So the generation of these pictures did involve a human element beyond a casual glance, at least some of the time. Surely the very first picture in the game, the one that’s making a first impression, would be worth such care? But again, I have to remind myself that this is apparently a Just Me problem.

But speaking as Just Me, that first impression has, I think, already done irreparable damage. A game of this kind needs the player to trust it to deliver the necessary information clearly and accurately, and that trust has been broken. If I play further, I’ll always be wondering if I’m really seeing what the author intended. If it had happened later in the game, I might have decided to just keep going anyway, just to get to the end. But since it happened before I even got into the game proper, I feel free to just let it go.

14 Minesweeper Variants

I’ve got just one more recent acquisition I’d like to describe before getting back to unfinished business. 14 Minesweeper Variants is exactly what it says on the tin, but also more than that.

Before I get into detail about the variants, I’d like to take a moment to praise it simply as a Minesweeper implementation. It’s got all the UI conveniences you could wish for in a modern spatial logic game, such as highlighting neighboring cells on rollover and dimming numbers that can no longer affect anything. It even gives you a little freeform paint interface so you can take notes on the grid. The only other similar game I’ve played with integrated paint is Tametsi1The word “tametsi” sounds Japanese to me, but it’s not. Apparently it’s Latin for “although”., a sort of Minesweeper/Picross hybrid with puzzles that exploit non-square grids, and I think I overall prefer 14MV‘s version. Also like Tametsi, 14MV never gives the player puzzles where guesswork is necessary, the bane of the usual randomized Minesweeper. There’s some suggestion that the puzzles here are still randomly generated: each comes with an ID number, and you can request puzzles by ID, just like in Freecell. Plus, the credits list a solver algorithm, which seems like it would only be useful for procedurally-generated puzzles — or maybe it’s just used for the hints? The hint system is so good. When you request a hint, it highlights one or more squares that you can figure out, along with the squares relevant to figuring it out and any special rule variants needed, but still leaves it up to you to actually apply this information.

One more thing worth noting: In contrast to both Tametsi and vanilla Microsoft Minesweeper, these puzzles are small. The smallest ones are 5×5 and even the largest are just 8×8. The smallest size Microsoft offers is 9×9. This is to the game’s benefit, if you ask me. And even at these small sizes, an 8×8 puzzle feels qualitatively different from a 5×5 one, giving a significantly different ratio of edge squares to interior.

Larger sizes are unlocked one by one as you finish quotas of puzzles, and so are the variants, giving a nice sense of progression along two axes. The variants included are well-chosen — they’re all fairly elegant, and each requires you to adjust the way you think about the puzzle in a different way. A few examples: There are no completely empty 2×2 blocks. There are never three mines in a row, orthogonally or diagonally. The numbers given are all either one more or one less than the actual number of adjacent mines. Instead of counting mines, the numbers indicate the total number of empty spaces directly north, south, east, and west until the first mine. All the empty spaces form a single orthogonally-connected group and all the mines are in groups connected to the edge. If you’re a fan of Nikoli-style Japanese spatial logic puzzles, some of these rules may sound familiar. It kind of feels like the game’s thesis is that Minesweeper is essentially part of that family, and that the only thing that keeps it from being normally classed with them is that it relies on hidden information, and thus cannot be done purely in print.

Of the fourteen variants, seven alter what the numbers in a square mean, and seven place additional restrictions on the arrangement of mines in the grid. It took me a long time to notice this, even though the puzzle selection menu clearly indicates the two groups as two parallel columns, each in its own independent unlock sequence. But this distinction becomes very important in the endgame, when the game starts combining variants. This is where things get magical. You get puzzles that use one rule from each column, a number rule and a mine-placement rule. You get puzzles where the number rule varies from clue to clue, indicated by a letter in the cell in addition to the number. And finally, you get both at once, puzzles with both a mine-placement rule and varying number rules. And it all feels like this is what you were training for by doing the individual variants, which seem so simple now. It isn’t really that the puzzles get harder per se — if anything, throwing in a mine-placement rule means adding constraints, which lets you do more with less information. But it greatly increases the number of things you have to take into consideration to make progress.

Now, there have been a lot of games based on Minesweeper, albeit few noteworthy ones. And usually they don’t have any good ideas for improving on the original. Mostly what you see is the addition of powerups — limited-use tools that let you break the rules in some way, surviving mine explosions or peeking at squares or whatever, valuable for eliminating ambiguity created by random mine placement but ultimately weakening the puzzles as puzzles. I’ve seen Minsweeper with realtime elements, Minesweeper with RPG leveling, Minsweeper with interstitial narrative. All in pursuit of giving a sense of progression, something to give the player an experience that’s more than just an isolated puzzle. And I’ve never seen any of them do that as effectively as this, the least flashy and most competent of Minesweeper games.

References
1 The word “tametsi” sounds Japanese to me, but it’s not. Apparently it’s Latin for “although”.

The Case of the Golden Idol

The Case of the Golden Idol is a grisly little story in the Weird Tales genre, half murder mystery and half supernatural horror, set in a world of Georgian-era caricature. I had been putting off starting it because I didn’t feel up to starting another large, information-intense game while I still have the likes of Deus Ex to get back to (and I will get back to it, soon), but in fact it turns out to be reasonably short, and what’s more, segmented. It’s been frequently compared to Return of the Obra Dinn for its fill-in-the-blanks gameplay, its investigation by examining static tableaux, and probably even its time period, but where Obra Dinn was all one big puzzle, Golden Idol is a series of vignettes, with only the finale reaching beyond its boundaries in any significant way.

And that means the vignettes can differ significantly in their content. The UI for solving a scene is always basically the same, involving dragging words found in the scene 1Sometimes the word is used in the scene in a way completely unrelated to its use in the solution, which strikes me as a bit cheap. into empty slots in various texts and diagrams, but exactly what you’re completing this way is highly contextual. The first several scenes are heavily concerned with identifying all the characters involved, but later chapters drop this. Every vignette contains at least one death, but this is kind of incidental; unlike Obra Dinn, where the deaths are an essential part of the mechanics of how the story is revealed to the player character, Golden Idol doesn’t even have a player character. The player is simply external to the story.

That point is worth expanding on. So much thought on narrative in games simply assumes that the player has to take on a role within the story, through with to interact with it, and Golden Idol is a sterling example of a game that’s entirely focused on narrative but which simply doesn’t do that. And it’s not simply a matter of playing a character who isn’t depicted onscreen. The player has a vantage point that would be impossible for any in-world character, with access to everything, able to inspect the contents of locked containers, sometimes even able to see characters’ private thoughts. Not quite an omniscient narrator, because even though you’re all-seeing, you’re very much not all-knowing. It’s a bit like the naïvist interaction in Samorost and other Amanita Design games. Fitting with this view, although the tableaux are more or less moments frozen in time — one of them depicts an explosion! — they can contain sequential elements like dialogue. It’s similar to how actions are depicted in comics, really: it doesn’t make perfect logical sense, but it’s understood at a gut level, and that’s enough. (The non-realistic art style might be of help in getting player into the right mindset.)

I’ve commented before on how one of the strengths of interactivity of storytelling is that it can make progress in the story contingent on the player actually understanding things. In Golden Idol, that’s basically the entirety of the gameplay. You’re given a bunch of information, much of it visual, and in order to proceed to the next scene, you have to demonstrate that you understand the implications. But it’s not quite as simple as that makes it sound. For one thing, it isn’t just the information in the scenes that’s guiding you to the answers, but the questions themselves, letting you know what details are important by what kind of things they track. Sometimes I thought I understood everything that was going on, but the mere fact that I hadn’t filled in all the blanks let me know there were gaps in my understanding. For another thing, there are gaps even in what’s asked. Sometimes the game only gives you the words to identify someone by a title or a pseudonym, but you can figure out who they really are by reading between the lines. Only in the very end does the game force you to make all the connections, and when you do, it comes as a revelation, even though you had all the necessary information already. It’s basically doing the opposite of what bothered me about Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

References
1 Sometimes the word is used in the scene in a way completely unrelated to its use in the solution, which strikes me as a bit cheap.

The Talos Principle 2

A couple months back, a sequel to The Talos Principle dropped quite unexpectedly, nine years after the original. I know I’m not the only one to be taken by surprise. I picked it up in the holiday sales, and have now 100%ed it. This is not nearly as difficult as it was in Talos 1. The main-line puzzles strike me as generally simpler than in the original, each based entirely around a single trick.

It manages this mainly by steadily expanding the set of puzzle elements, and it’s a little impressive how many of the new components sound like they’d make the puzzles utterly trivial. Teleporters! Extra bodies for you to control! Portable beam emitters! Universal activators that just switch anything on! But each has an important limitation, usually that it’s in some way bound by line-of-sight rules. This has really always the main factor making the familiar beam puzzles difficult, but it’s dressed up in a bunch of different ways now.

As for the optional harder puzzles, well, they’ve become more systematized. Each of the game’s twelve main puzzle-areas has two optional slightly-harder puzzle-chambers and two “star” challenges chosen from three types: a chase sequence where you pursue some particle effects around the map, a sort of riddle where you’re shown a map or other image and have to figure out what it depicts and what to do with it, and a sort where you have to somehow connect a beam from the puzzle chambers to a target outside them. All three types of star challenge involve searching the lands around the puzzle chambers, which can take a while, because the lands are almost unexplorably large this time around. With my stubborn insistence on completion, I might have spent more time running around looking for stuff than solving the real puzzles. Also, the last type, with the beam, is the only one that resembles the boundary-violating star puzzles from Talos 1, and while it plays some neat tricks with the idea, I think it loses a lot by being a set type, where you know more or less what you’re supposed to do. Specifically, it loses the sense of breaking the rules that was a big part of the game’s character, and in my opinion the most memorable thing about it. But I suppose the new stuff is supposed to be more approachable. Like the more actiony bits in an action-adventure, it gives you stuff to do when you’re fatigued from solving puzzles. Except I don’t think I ever was.

Even though the core puzzle-solving isn’t greatly changed from the original, I appreciate that the designers decided not to simply rehash the plot or setting. Where Talos 1 was explicitly set in a simulated environment, Talos 2 is supposed to be set in the physical world, where the robots awakened by the events of the previous game have formed a society. Like DROD: The City Beneath, there are biggish sequences where you just explore a puzzleless home town with NPCs wandering around. Some of the NPCs accompany you on your mission. You might think that they could help you in the puzzle chambers, and thereby enable complicated multiple-person puzzles like in Portal 2 or The Lost Vikings (something hinted at by the way NPCs help you along in the final few puzzles in Talos 1), but even when the game does provide puzzles of that sort, it doesn’t use your companions for them. (My uninformed speculation is that the designers initially provided companions with the intent that they be used in these puzzles, but changed their minds to justify line-of-sight rules.)

And, being set in the physical world, the existence of puzzle chambers suspiciously similar to the ones from the simulation is something of a mystery. Who made them, and why, and most particularly, how? These are the questions that drive the plot, and they’re all answered satisfactorily by the end. The ultimate revelations reminded me of Obsidian 1I realize references to obscure games I haven’t blogged about will be lost on most readers. I’m okay with that; I write this blog mainly to collect my own thoughts, and only secondarily to share them., one of my favorite 1990s Mystlikes, but with a stronger sense of motivation — I suppose making every single character an AI helps prevent lazy “rogue AI goes mad” plotting. And at any rate, the thing that sets it apart from Talos 1 isn’t the resolution, but the fact that there’s a mystery about it at all.

Mostly, though, the feel of the thing is different from Talos 1 because it’s not dominated by a sense of loss and decay. (Possibly as a reaction to this, it also has less of the gratuitous silly stuff, or maybe the larger spaces just lessen its density.) The robots — who call themselves “humans”, on the basis that they’re the progeny of and successors to the original biological ones — are building a home for themselves, a society, a future. And in the background of the story is an endless debate over what kind of future they want to build.

This takes the place of the “What is human?” philosophizing of the first game. Even Straton of Stageira, the fictional Greek philosopher who formulated the Talos principle, is dragooned into weighing in, extending his principle to apply not just to people but to the polis. And look, the philosophy in Talos 1 was pretty bloodless and abstract, especially compared to the global tragedy underneath it; it’s fundamentally a definitional argument, and thus only of interest because of how those definitions affect the decisions of an arbitrary authority (which is why the real story there is one of obedience vs rebellion). The philosopher-robots of Talos 2 are debating things that directly affect public policy, and thus their lives. But it still feels a little airy. Robot society is small and relatively new, and doesn’t have the complications of history, of biology, of ethnicity and nation and race. The divisions are shallow, based entirely on personal opinions, without the weight of tradition (despite the efforts of some robots to revere their creators). It’s an internet rationalist’s paradise.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to notice how political the game gets. The main point of contention is unfettered growth and expansion vs regulation, limited population, and deference to the balance of nature — with no real moderate stance presented. The player can take either side, affecting the ending, and, having looked at all the ending cinematics on Youtube, I’d say it does a pretty good job of at least giving the players inclined towards one side or the other something that they’d find satisfying. But on the way there, it seriously favors the unfettered expansion. Limitationists are portrayed as fools, hypocrites, or hypocrites pretending to be fools, with just one exception, and even he doesn’t make a satisfying case for his position, as if the writer didn’t really understand it. And these are the people who are in charge and culturally dominant at the start of the game, resulting in citywide malaise, a breaking of the human spirit, an obsession with the past, and not just an inability to innovate but an inability to even adequately maintain the existing infrastructure they depend on. Meanwhile, the people who walked away from that society create incredible things. This is not far removed from the plot of Atlas Shrugged. It’s not that the reaction it’s trying to provoke is wrong, exactly, given its context. But I’m instinctively wary of narrative rhetoric that’s historically been used mainly in support of loathsome and antisocial positions, and I’m a little taken aback at how little recognition this aspect of the game has gotten from other commentators.

But then again, worse can be said of a very large proportion of all games. Probably the majority of the titles on my Stack implicitly endorse war and/or colonialism. Heck, a lot of them endorse monarchism. And I just kind of accept that, because they don’t leave room for any other points of view. At least Talos 2 acknowledges that people might disagree.

References
1 I realize references to obscure games I haven’t blogged about will be lost on most readers. I’m okay with that; I write this blog mainly to collect my own thoughts, and only secondarily to share them.