Archive for February, 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.

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.