Archive for January, 2024

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.

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.

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.

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.