IFComp 2012: The Sealed Room

And now for this year’s sole game written in Alan. As usual, I’m playing the games in a randomized order, but the singletons seem to be all clumped together. Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2012: Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea

This is this year’s sole Adrift game. Spoilers follow the break.

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IFComp 2012: Shuffling Around

Our next game is by one Ned Yompus, but I strongly suspect that this is a pseudonym, for reasons that will shortly become clear. Spoilers follow the break.

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Escape from Summerland

Spoilers follow the break.

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Bugdom Beaten

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most games go unfinished. Or at least, that’s how it used to be — I don’t know if modern trends have changed this or not. On the one hand, shorter games have come into vogue, but on the other hand, there are a lot more of them, and they’re available for cheap, and often in bundles. It’s certainly the case that more games go unstarted these days.

Anyway, I don’t have figures to back this up, but I suspect that Bugdom is one of the games more frequently left uncompleted, simply on the basis that probably most of the people who had it got it bundled with their iMacs, and that those who tried it at all probably didn’t play past the first two levels. To these people, I say: It is a better game than you think it is, with a decent variety of action. But it is probably not worth your time all the same. I’m proud to now be among the few people to have played the game to completion, but I’m also glad to have it behind me. So eager to finish was I that I did finally abandon the pursuit of collectibles for the last few levels, ending the game with only three of the game’s four gold clovers.

I might have been more patient if it weren’t for the glitches. I already mentioned one major glitch — the failure to occlude particle effects (both fire and splashing water, it turns out) — but there are more serious ones. For one thing, whenever I loaded a game started in another session, it started with my health at zero. The first part of every new level was thus a frantic search for a health item to keep me from getting killed by the merest pinprick. But there was one more glitch that the game was saving up for the endgame. It has to do with the save system.

Imagine you’re powering through level 9, the fire ant tunnels. You’ve been through most of it several times, but you keep missing your timing in the rope-swinging sections and falling into the lava. Finally, though, you get to the end with a reasonable number of lives in reserve. As usual, the game asks if you want to save. You do. Now, there are ten levels, which means that in a complete playthrough, you get nine opportunities to save. But for some reason the save screen has only eight slots. No problem, you think, I’ll just overwrite the first one. You try this. The game crashes.

It does this consistently. My first thought was to delete the file for save slot 1, but when I did this, it stopped recognizing all my saves. Well, it only let you save to the first of the empty slots, so under normal operation, there wouldn’t be any occupied slots after the first empty one. Experiment proved that it would find saves up to the first empty one, then give up. My save for level 9 was of course in the very last slot, but renaming the file was enough to shift it up to slot 1 and leave slot 8 empty. Anyway, the lack of complaints about this problem on the Internet lends weight to my guess that few people even tried to play the game to completion.

Anyway, beating the end boss was a cinch compared to that. So much for Bugdom, then, until I do the sequel, which is already on the Stack. Did you know there was a sequel? It’s even been ported to iOS, which is something they didn’t bother to do with the original.

Bugdom: Into the Dark

Those fireflies, by the way, are annoying. They pick you up and carry you to an earlier point so you have to regain ground.Well, I’ve given a good solid explore to Bugdom‘s level 8 (out of 10), a place of rocky crags and steep defiles and occasional acid pools. I anticipated my latest session also being my last, seeing how I often give an extra push towards completion when I get close enough to smell it, but level 8 defeated this aim, mainly by being so darned large. Size is kind of important to the way this game produces difficulty: by putting more stuff between you and your goals. Not necessarily harder stuff, just more of it. If you mess up and let yourself get hit by one spear-wielding ant in ten, then a hundred ants will hit you ten times, which is probably enough to kill you. It should be understood that, although most enemies are killable, you receive no benefit for killing them other than not having to deal with them any more. Killing doesn’t even score you points. So the game as a whole is tilted somewhat towards running away from things, but all the moreso on this level, where it would take so long to make a significant dent in the forces arrayed against you.

I suppose it’s all another nudge to use the curl-up-and-zoom feature, whether to zoom past enemies or to bowl into them for quick damage. Kicking enemies to death just takes too long to be practical when the enemies are clustered together in large groups. Understand that your basic spear-carrier ant has to be kicked three times before it stays down, that it’s temporarily invulnerable while it recovers from each kick, so even killing an isolated foe takes a while. In addition, the kick animation rather awkwardly locks you in place for the second or so it takes to run fully, leaving you vulnerable to any other attackers in the vicinity. It’s all part of what gives the game the sense of clumsiness I noted in my first post.

The other notable thing about level 8 is that it takes place at night. I don’t think this actually has any effect on visibility — the clipping plane is pretty close to the camera throughout the game — but it seems like you can’t see as much because the distances are greater. I mean, on the smaller levels, you can often see all the way to the far wall of whatever area you’re in, making the exact range of visibility irrelevant. As such, you can actually typically see farther in the darkness of level 8. So the darkness is mostly stylistic. As is often the case in videogames, the first level is sunny and green, and the environments get darker and more threatening as you enter the den of evil at the end.

Plus, darkness shows off the fire better. This level introduces fire-breathing enemies (they’re fire ants, get it?), and you can often see them as spots of glow on the horizon before you can make out the ant behind it. Especially if you’re subject to the glitch I’ve been experiencing here. On my machine, fire can be seen through otherwise-opaque walls, which can be quite disorienting. I assume that the Mac version didn’t have this problem, but honestly I have no idea.

80 Days: Vehicles

Over the weekend, I got all the way through the Yokohama chapter and the boat ride that followed it. I probably could have finished the game then, but I turned away because I was finding the dialogue tiresome. It often runs unnecessarily long with attempts to create humor by pointing out the same character quirks over and over again: one man’s obsession with kilts, another’s seasickness, etc. It grows especially bothersome when the quirks it’s making fun of are ethnic.

Nonetheless, I felt Yokohama was an improvement over the previous two chapters, mainly because of the environment modeling. Cairo was all just flat and sand-colored, including the buildings. Bombay, apart from a bit of temple statuary, was more or less the same, only browner. In Japan, the architecture in general becomes more colorful and ornamental, the land hilly and criss-crossed by rivers. And I think it’s also just bigger, with the result that this was the first chapter where I found it practical to make use of vehicles.

There have been vehicles available for hire since the beginning, all fanciful. I mentioned the monowheel already. Camels were available in Cairo, and everyplace seems to have three-wheeled cars that remind me of my goblin turbo-trike, as well as flying carpets, which Oliver rides standing up, like it’s a surfboard. Yes, even Yokohama has flying carpets, patterned after the Japanese flag. I expect America will have flying Mohawk carpets or something.

I suppose that the designers imagined that the players would use vehicles a lot more than I’ve been doing. Going fast is a central idea to the story, and GTA sequels were still topping the charts when the game came out. But GTA let you just take whatever car you fancied, while 80 Days expects you to pay for them with your limited in-game money, and that makes a big difference. (Part of the reason I gave them another chance in Yokohama is that, for the first time in the game, someone lends you the use of a carpet and a car for free.) Mind you, money isn’t all that limited, and I’ll probably end the game with a very large surplus (unlike Fogg), but I had no idea how that would turn out when I was just starting the game and making my first judgments about whether vehicles are worth it. And my initial conclusions were that they hardly even saved you time. On an unobstructed straightaway, they’d handily outdistance a pedestrian, but once I had to take a turn, or swerve to avoid a wandering cow, I’d overturn or underturn and get stuck on the side of a building until I edged back and forth enough to get free. Also, the animations of getting on and off the things take enough time to make it unsuitable for short hops.

One vehicle in particular deserves special mention: Kiouni the elephant. Kiouni is an unusual case in that he actually travels slower than you can go on foot. (This was definitely not the case in the novel — maybe he’s getting old?) But you need an elephant’s strength in a couple of puzzles, so it’s necessary to get Kiouni to the appropriate places. I had some problems with this, similar to when I got stuck rescuing the zeron on the airship: on a brief trip into the world’s smallest jungle, I needed to get Kiouni up a gentle slope that I could take on foot without problem, but which he seemed to slide down as fast as he could climb it. The alt-tab trick didn’t work here, but I found I could overcome the problem by staying on the very edge of the road and walking at a 45-degree angle to it.

Apart from the vehicles you can ride around within the cities, there are the larger vehicles joining them: the airship, the train, and the ocean liner, each modeled as an environment you walk around in, each extremely large for its type, and each suffering problems that slow it down unless you can solve them. You have to take each of these once, but you get a choice of which of these vehicles to ride at the end of each chapter, within certain limits of reason — that is, you can’t take a train from Yokohama to San Francisco, and consequently if (like me) you didn’t take the train on the first leg of the journey, you have to take it on the second. Notably, because you can vary when the vehicle sub-chapters occur, nothing in them can make any reference to where you’re coming from or going to.

Regarding that airship: Now that I’ve read the book, I find it a little strange how persistently adaptations of it put parts of the voyage in the air. The original has Fogg traveling by train, boat, elephant, and even, in the most fanciful moment, a wind-driven sled, but never by air. Which makes perfect historical sense: the only air transport available in 1873 would have been balloons, which are hardly what you’d use when you’re in a hurry. Not that this stopped the most famous film adaptation from famously using a balloon, of course. There just seems to be a strong appeal to the idea, as if someone circumnavigating the globe at great speed belongs in the air. Verne himself frequently uses imagery of flight, describing fast-moving vehicles as leaving the ground and comparing Fogg to a body in orbit.

80 Days: Wasting Time

Now, I called 80 Days “puzzle-light”. And I stand by that: this is not a game about figuring things out or coming to realizations that transform your understanding of your situation, unless it’s a realization about how to reach point B from point A. When there’s an epiphany to be had, some NPC will have it for you. Nonetheless, it is possible to get stuck and have no idea what to do next. I’ve gotten temporarily stuck twice so far. Just not in ways that the designers intended.

My first sticking-point was the one that ended my efforts with the game back in 2006. It turned out to be entirely due to the game being finnicky about mantling (pulling yourself up onto a chest-high block or wall with your arms). You do it by pressing the space bar, which is the jump button, but you have to be just the right distance from the thing you’re mantling onto, and perfectly square with it, or you just jump in place. The game is just as fussy when it comes to climbing ladders, but at least a ladder is obviously climbable, which encourages one to keep trying, whereas it’s not obvious at first that mantling is possible at all. So when I encountered the first place where it was necessary — in a ruined Egyptian tomb, which is kind of appropriate, considering what a Tomb Raider-ish move it is — I gave up trying too soon. This time around, I was more determined to get through the game.

The second was on the dirigible I took from Cairo to Bombay, which turned out to be a lengthy chapter in its own right, and in some ways more satisfying than the Cairo chapter: the smaller space to explore makes for a tighter design and a better sense of place, and the glimpses of the ground below, hazy with distance, are handled very well. At one point, a rare bird called a “zeron”, exotic but ungainly, gets stuck in the rigging, and Oliver has to climb out onto the superstructure to free it. Now, the main vessel’s gondola has long struts extending from either side, on which mini-blimps are docked like dinghies. One of these mini-blimps was in my way, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get past it. After spending far too much time stuck there, I finally looked online for hints, only to find that no one else seemed to even regard it as a problem. Even then, I thought there must be some trick I was missing until I found a video playthrough in which the player just crouched and crawled under the thing, just like I had been trying but failing to do. Fortunately, the mere act of alt-tabbing out of the game to google for help seemed to somehow jar something loose, and I was able to continue from that point. (I’ve gone back and retried this, and it doesn’t work consistently. But it works a great deal better than not doing it.)

After getting through a part where you spent a lot of time stuck, the natural next step is to reload the last checkpoint and go through it again, but do it quickly this time. After all, the game has a time limit, and a day/night cycle and on-screen clock to constantly remind you of it. At least, it does if you choose to play it that way; you get a choice of three levels of difficulty at the beginning, and the time limit is waived in the easiest one. The manual suggests playing in this mode “if you want to peacefully explore the world”, which is normally how I like to play adventure games, but it just seems wrong here. This is a game that’s named after its time limit. There’s a whole major mechanic involving an energy meter that you can replenish by resting (which costs time) or eating food (which costs money), and easy mode bypasses that entirely. This is clearly not how this game is supposed to be played.

But then again, look at how I’m playing it instead: reverting to saves in order to do things more optimally, hoarding time the way I’d hoard ammo in a different game. This can’t be the way the game is supposed to be played either. The time limit is there to be raced against, not brute-forced away. One of the more colorful user interface features is a track that lets you compare your progress to Phileas Fogg’s, showing both your progress and his on the current day of the voyage. It’s a little weird if interpreted literally, because Fogg’s progress was different from yours. How do you compare your progress at rescuing the zeron to Fogg’s progress doing nothing of the kind? But the real meaning of the track is clear: Fogg made it in 80 days, so as long as your token isn’t lagging behind his, you’re progressing fast enough. I should probably take that to heart.

Dungeons of Dredmor: Patch and Crafting

Right after my last post, Dungeons of Dredmor got a pretty major patch, which Steam downloaded for me automatically. It always feels a little strange when a game spontaneously changes in significant ways just a few days after I start playing it, particularly an offline, single-player game. And it is a pretty major update: there are three entirely new equipment slots (for gloves, belt, and trousers), an entire skill specialization has been removed and its component skills shuffled into other specializations (apparently rendering one of the Steam achievements unachievable), new varieties of trap and vending machine have sprouted. Before the patch, wands used a strange and experimental system of “entropy” and “burn rate” to determine at random when they would become useless; after, they use a more conventional system of charges, which is a little disappointing to me, as I was looking forward to mastering the less-familiar system.

The single most intrusive change is the new crafting interface: the changelog states “we stole the old one from Minecraft, we stole the new one from Terraria”. What this means is that instead of putting items into slots in a special interface and hitting a button to put a combined item in another slot, with an optional recipe list to expedite the process, the recipe list is now all there is. You scroll this list until the recipe is under an unmoving pointer, then hit a button to execute it, using items from your inventory. This means it’s no longer possible to abuse the crafting interface to extend your carrying capacity, which is probably a good thing all told.

I find the new system unsatisfactory in a number of ways, however. The icons representing the recipe targets no longer have tooltips, leaving me guessing a little about what I’m creating. The scrolling list, unlike other scrolling lists in the game, doesn’t recognize the mouse scrollwheel, and the interface itself, unlike all other pop-up interfaces in the game, can’t be closed by pressing ESC. These are obviously bugs, though, and will probably be addressed in further revisions — indeed, I notice that Steam has downloaded another patch as I write this, so they may even be addressed already. But the interface is by its nature less convenient for certain things, like making ingots out of ore. Ingots are the basic ingredients for most smithing recipes, and ore is the basic ingredient for ingots. It doesn’t have a lot of other uses, so in most cases, you want to smelt your ore the moment you find it. In the old interface, you’d do this by picking up the ore off the ground and throwing it into your portable ingot-making tool, then hitting the “smelt” button. In the new interface, you have to find the appropriate recipe in the scrolling list, which slows the process down considerably. To make matters worse, you can’t just click on the recipe when it comes into view. You have to scroll it to the center, the spot pointed to by that pointer.

But again, maybe they’ve improved this already. And if they haven’t, they probably will. It may feel a little strange to play a game that’s being frequently patched, but it has advantages.

Gromada: Crash Investigation

OK, I’m having technical problems with Gromada. There’s one level that consistently crashes to the desktop. It doesn’t do it immediately, and it doesn’t do it at a consistent time, but I can’t get through the level without a crash, regardless of what I do. The level does do some peculiar things that I haven’t seen happen on other maps — specifically, it involves a bunch of pre-damaged enemy tanks, and a repair center that will eventually give one of them a key as it repairs it. I can believe that this construct somehow gets into an untenable state when multiple tanks try to access it at once, or something like that. But this speculation doesn’t help me much. I don’t have a fix or a workaround.

I do, however, have an error log. It isn’t terribly informative about the problem, though. It mainly just seems to be a bunch of diagnostic print statements that got left in the release, lots of “sprite free” and “Beginner curclock=27106024” and the like. There’s one line that gives me pause, though: “SND::Can’t control CdAudio volume”. CDAudio? Is this game supposed to be playing CD music? There’s some evidence to support this. I hadn’t been getting any kind of background music during the missions; the only music I had heard in the game was a jolly jingle on winning levels. And yet, the options menu contains a music volume slider, which doesn’t seem to affect that jingle at all.

Well. I tried playing the disc in Windows Media Player, but it didn’t recognize it as having audio tracks. Perhaps my current system just doesn’t recognize audio CDs at all? It’s been quite a while since I last used one. But no, I tried one out and it worked fine. Perhaps it’s just hybrid audio/CD-ROM discs that give it trouble? It took me a while to locate a disc in my collection that I knew to be a hybrid — I know I have several, but I’ve forgotten which ones they are. The only one I could think of was Spirit of Excalibur, a game which uses CD-audio tracks for NPC speech and rather memorably starts the speech tracks with every insult to the player character in the game. Yes, a memorable game, but not a memorable name, so it still took me a while to find it. Anyway, the system handled it just fine. So unless Gromada uses some weird audio format that later operating systems don’t recognize, it looks like there aren’t any audio tracks on the disc. Perhaps the original Russian version was different. At any rate, I’m going to assume that this isn’t actually the cause of the crash.

The crash doesn’t actually stop my progress entirely. After you’re a few levels in, Gromada makes two levels available at once, and after that, three. This doesn’t seem to be a branching structure, but rather just a choice of ordering. Still, this means I could keep on playing other levels. But I’m discouraged now, and I don’t want to bother finishing any more levels until my problems are resolved. Which may never happen: this is a game with basically no web presence, and nary a patch. I’ve found a few cheat codes, but those seem to be the only words anyone has to say about it. Bethesda customer support acknowledges its existence, but only just barely.

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