JtRH: Last Minute Subject Change

No progress on the JtRH L7:1E Challenge. I noticed that Steam’s description of the “kill the Slayer” Achievement is “(JtRH) Kill 39th Slayer in any room except L7:1E, L22:3N2W or L25:2W”, specifically excluding the room I’m stuck on, as well as the room on the final floor where the Slayer is supposed to die. I figure this could mean that completing the L7:1E Challenge requires killing the Slayer after all. Or it could mean that doing things the normal way and getting the invisibility potion makes killing the slayer way too easy to count as a Challenge. Regardless, I spent some time trying to kill the Slayer, but had no success.

At this point, I’m ready to openly ask for help. I’ve tried looking online already, but the old Caravel forums where the Challenges were first mooted don’t explain how to do them, and the new Steam forums are pretty thoroughly useless for anything other than tech support, and the game is obscure enough that just googling for help doesn’t yield much of anything other than the Caravel and Steam forums. In fact, the top hit for “drod L7:1E” is my own previous blog post on the subject, which is oddly embarrassing.

The Caravel forums turn out have some good general advice on killing the Slayer, though. The first time I managed to do it in a room where you’re not supposed to, I managed it by making the Slayer walk onto a force arrow. Getting within killing range of the Slayer makes him counter your every move in ways that are often symmetrical about a pivot: you tilt your sword this way and he tilts his the opposite way, you move south and he moves north, more like you’re dancing than fighting. The force arrow broke this symmetry, allowing me to get close to him without him being able to do his usual counter. But it turns out that special-terrain tricks like this aren’t really necessary. All you really need is walls in the right configuration — an interior corner with a single block jutting out will do. Alas, L7:1E has no such thing.

…Is what I was in the middle of writing when I suddenly found some threads on the Caravel forums about more advanced Slayer-killing techniques. It turns out that there are Slayercidal dances that require only a straight wall and enough empty space. It took some finagling to get Beethro and the Slayer into the starting positions for such a dance, but it was quite possible within the constraints of L7:1E. So now I get to continue! Yay!

Games Interactive: World’s Most Ornery Crossword

gi-wmocGames Interactive seems to have only one World’s Most Ornery Crossword. I suppose that’s fitting. The magazine only ever carried one per issue, as a sort of capstone to the “Pencilwise” section. If they had published more than one at a time, it would cast doubt on the “World’s Most” claim. Things are no different here.

There are two distinguishing things about World’s Most Orneries. First, there’s the size. The grid is 25×25, which is larger even than the Sunday puzzle in the New York Times. The makers of Games Interactive decided not to fit this all onto the screen at once, instead making it scroll vertically, even though they really didn’t need to. Even under the constraints of the game — running at 640×480 resolution, with a 43-pixel header and a 50-pixel footer — there’s room enough for 25 rows of 15-pixel squares, which is large enough to hold the font used for the clues, along with a black line separating rows and a two-pixel margin. As it is, we instead have 19-pixel squares. 25 rows of 19 pixels takes 475 pixels. So perhaps 19 pixels was chosen because it’s the largest size that they could use and still fit an entire World’s Most Ornery Crossword on a 640×480 screen. If so, it’s too bad they messed it up by using up vertical space with headers and footers.

Selecting a word, whether with keyboard or mouse, automatically scrolls the grid to make the entirety of that word visible. This is fortunate, because the scrollbar is unreliable. Navigating between words with the arrow keys is also broken: trying to move up or down instead moves the cursor a bunch of spaces left or right. I haven’t probed this deeply, but I’m guessing that the navigation code is assuming a 15×15 grid, the size of all the easy crosswords in the collection.

The other distinguishing feature of the WMOC is that it has two sets of clues: the Hard Clues and the Easy Clues. In the magazine, the Easy clues were printed on half of an adjacent page, with the intent that you’d use the Hard clues by default and could switch to Easy by folding the page over. Resorting to Easy always felt a little like cheating, but it was at least a relatively honorable form of cheating. In Games Interactive, there’s a button for switching to Easy, but, interestingly, it only affects the currently-selected word, minimizing the cheat factor.

There’s another cheat mechanism shared by all the crosswords in the game: the Hint button, one of the few ways that the puzzles in this game benefit from being computerized. Pressing this button deducts a point from your score and reveals a random letter in the current selected word, possibly a letter you’ve already filled in correctly. I’ve resorted to requesting hints on a few occasions when the puzzles expected me to know the names of athletes or musicians, but it’s not clear to me if it hurts your score less than just getting a letter wrong. Anyway, even though Easy is cheaty, and the game treats it as such, it doesn’t consider it to be the same sort of cheaty as Hints. Easy doesn’t affect your score at all. The only motivation you have for not dropping down to Easy is your own sense of honor — which is the case for a lot of computer games, come to think of it.

Dark Fall: Light Rise

I ultimately gave up and consulted a walkthrough to find the final missing word, apprehensive about accidentally reading spoilers for other things even though there really wasn’t anything left to spoil. It turns out that I had seen the word already. It was just presented in a way that was too subtle for me.

And with that, I could conclude my part of the story, trapping the Dark Fall and freeing all the spirits it had been holding, in some cases for centuries. The closing cutscene shows them in the form of points of light, rising up through a peculiar funnel-like structure in the ceiling. Then it shows a number of changes happening throughout the site that seem to indicate that you freed them retroactively, making it so that the spirits were never trapped at all, there were no disappearances and no investigation. One of the more famous disappearances occurred in the 17th century, and is the basis of the a folk song that you can see framed on a wall; this vanishes before your eyes. So this can’t possibly actually be the same ritual that trapped the beastie in the first place, because obviously it wasn’t written out of history yet when you first arrived.

I suppose it’s a good thing that they got to do a sequel, because there’s quite a lot left unresolved. My suspicions about Hadden Industries were never addressed, nor was the peculiar behavior of their equipment. I never did learn anything from talking to the ghosts that I didn’t also learn from documents. There’s some slight suggestion that the player character is dead and doesn’t know it — in the end, the player’s view seems to fly up through the ceiling with the rest of the spirits. But if so, your death is erased from history along with everything else. I’ll be continuing with Lights Out: Dark Fall 2 shortly, and keeping an eye out for answers.

Overall, this game is actually a pretty satisfying specimen of its type, despite all my complaints. It’s got a good variety of puzzles, including a few that require you to put together information from both documents and the environment. I do think it would be improved by some way to highlight hotspots, though. And even that much would be inadequate for some puzzles. In most places, you can rotate the camera to face any of the cardinal directions, even if that means facing a blank wall. One of my last breakthroughs was realizing that there was a hotspot to go through a gap in a fence that I hadn’t actually looked at since my initial foray. Perhaps this is part of the author’s intent; perhaps making discoveries by assiduously searching every surface is part of the desired experience. But if so, I say there’s just too much of it.

And there I go complaining again. Maybe I should just stop now and see if I can be more positive about Lights Out.

80 Days: San Francisco

The 4th of July seemed like an auspicious date to begin the American leg of the journey. The only stop on the entire continent is San Francisco, which happens to be the city I’m in as I play the game. I can report that the simulacrum is a reasonably satisfying representation of the reality. Even though it’s supposed to be set in a different (if indefinite) era, the slope of what I assume to be Powell Street (because it’s right in front of your entry point and it has cable cars running on it) feels just right, and the facades of the houses could be any residential street today. Those streets, by the way, are quite wide and, as in the real city, mostly arranged in a grid, which means this is the best place in the entire game to drive around in a fast car. It even provides a new and faster-looking variety of fanciful car for you to try out. You’re in America now.

There are two spots in this chapter where I failed, in two different ways. The first was a rather Myst-like puzzle involving routing power through a set of electrical boxes with color-coded cables and no clear instructions about what the color-coding indicates, with lots of note-taking and running around to try switches located in different places. Now, I like this sort of puzzle, and I’m not bad at them, but I wasn’t able to solve it within the time allowed — partly because I broke off in the middle to drive back to Oliver’s hotel before he dropped from exhaustion. Now, what happens when you fail to solve a puzzle in this game varies with context. Sometimes your progress is simply blocked indefinitely; sometimes it’s game over; sometimes the punishment is simply the time you spent trying, and the game lets you continue without solving it after enough time has passed. This puzzle was one of the latter sort, and I decided to just keep on playing after I failed, being close to the end and having a considerable lead on Fogg’s time. But it turns out that the approach I was trying at the very end was in fact the thing that would have worked if I had been allowed to keep going, so I feel a little cheated there. Time limits are just bad for puzzles with a strong “Aha!” factor, and possibly for all puzzles of any sort.

The second place I got stuck was in trying to sneak into Fix’s local office to retrieve the last of Uncle Mathew’s patent documents, which Fix had stolen just to slow me down. I have to say that the Fix in the book is a much more sympathetic character. There, he’s sincerely trying to do the right thing, but under a misapprehension about Fogg. The game’s Fix, on the other hand, is just plain mean, a paranoid bully who stoops even to crime, which you’d think would shame his policeman forbear more than Oliver’s travels could. But at least he’s specifically stated to be a different character.

Anyway, I had to break into his office, which was guarded by a bunch of cowboys, and was told that I needed to disguise myself as a member of the cleaning staff. But I couldn’t find a cleaning staff outfit anywhere. After banging my head against that for a while, and taking multiple breaks, I finally resorted to a walkthrough. It turned out to be behind one of the other doors in the building — one undistinguished office door out of many, most of which I had tried, just not the right one.

This gets into one of the big problems with putting an adventure game into an environment like this one. It’s a big environment — not nearly as big as the real city, but big enough that you need some guidance about which of the thousands of environmental objects are interactive and which are backdrops. For most objects, it’s easy to tell: if you’re close to an interactive object and aiming the camera at it, it gets a bright green border around it. There are just three exceptions: people, vehicles, and doors. In the case of people and vehicles, no indicator is necessary, because you can interact with them all — just not necessarily in any useful way. Most NPCs respond with a randomly-chosen line of dialog that essentially boils down to “I’m just here to make the area look populated”. Doors, though, are generally assumed to be permanently locked and effectively just painted onto the wall unless there’s something setting them apart. It could just be that the door is better-lit than the ones around it, or that there’s a quest marker displayed right on the other side of it on the minimap, but there was always something, until the point when there wasn’t.

At any rate, I did ultimately get through the chapter and into the home stretch, the trip back to England, which I’ll talk about in my next post. The musical number at the end of San Francisco is a moment like the ending of Ultima 6, where you hear the Rule Britannia and the Gargoyle theme played together for the first time and realize that they harmonize perfectly (that is, that the reason that Gargoyle music sounds so weird is that it’s Earth music with the melody removed). There’s a particular bit of muzak-y disco that the game has been using as background music basically since the beginning, but only when I heard people singing over it was it clear that it was the instrumental track to “YMCA” by the Village People — and that the game content has already introduced character models for a cowboy, a policeman, and an Indian chief. There’s even a construction site — that’s where the electrical-box puzzle took place — which I speculate was originally planned to provide an excuse for including a construction worker model as well.

PQ4: Whining about Getting Stuck

pq4-fenceDespite my earlier reluctance, I’ve dipped into the walkthroughs for Police Quest 4 several times now. Not because it has difficult puzzles, but because the things that aren’t puzzles are sometimes difficult — for example, parsing the art. I had a particular problem at first with finding the exits to scenes. The worst case of this was at the scene of the first murder, where you have to walk off an edge that, to me, looks fenced off. Making it worse, you actually can’t leave in that direction the first time you’re at that location, on the night that the body is discovered. It’s only the daytime version of the scene that can be exited. Sometimes the game just arbitrarily declares certain exits to be non-useful, and the only way to tell which is by trying to use them. But by now I’ve got into the habit of trying to exit every scene in every direction, so there’s no good reason for me to get stuck in that way any more.

The pixel-hunting is another matter. Most of the scenes are cluttered with scenery, some few undistinguished bits of which will be crucially clickable. Like a lot of Sierra’s adventures, Police Quest 4 is divided into days, with each day triggering new events and opening up new locations. Days advance in response to plot developments, and plot is gated in arbitrary ways: if you know you need to talk to the victim’s relatives but they aren’t at home, it could be because you haven’t picked up a completely unrelated item in a different part of town. There was one point back in day 1 where I thought I had an actual chain of reasoning that put me on the right path: learning that the dead cop, Hickman, had been undercover as an employee of a nearby diner, I figured I was supposed to snoop around the diner for clues. I couldn’t get in, but there was a prominent employee’s entrance, locked. So I figured Hickman had a key. Where would that be? In his pocket, of course! So I went to the morgue and found a previously-unnoticed envelope containing his personal effects. But all I could do with it was deliver it to his grieving widow, and although that did unlock further events, they weren’t events related to the effects or the diner: instead, it made a potential informant telephone me when I got back to HQ. I still haven’t been inside that diner, and by now it really seems like I never will.

Thinking is futile when cause and effect make no sense. All you can do is go everywhere and try everything and hope that you hit on the things that the author thought of. Or, of course, play from a walkthrough, which may be what Sierra had in mind at this point: why sell a solvable game when you can sell a game and a hint book? If there’s one thing we can truly thank GameFAQs and its ilk for, it’s putting an end to that sort of foolishness.

PQ4: Score

Just a short session this time, so let’s talk about something that has pretty much nothing to do with the game content: the scoring system. I’ve said before that I don’t really care about getting lots of points in games unless it affects gameplay in some way — for example, by giving you extra lives — or unless the game has achievements of some sort built around it, explicitly or implicitly. For an adventure game, the simplest sort of implicit achievement is the full score. Typically, you only get points for solving puzzles, advancing the plot, performing significant actions in character, and/or discovering easter eggs. Opportunities to do any of these things are limited, so it’s possible to do them all, and to a completist like myself, that’s appealing: it means that I’ve played the game as thoroughly as possible and seen everything it has to show me. If the maximum score is a nice round number like 1000, all the better.

Now, a lot of the Sierra games didn’t have nice round numbers for their maximum scores. One gets the impression that the authors just assigned points willy-nilly and counted them up after the fact. In fact, in one case they miscounted, leaving the maximum score as reported by the game tantalizingly unachievable. PQ4 avoids this problem by not giving any indication of what the maximum score is. (Although if I wind up with 998 points at the end, I’ll be suspicious.)

Still, despite this lack of feedback, old habit compels me to try to get all the points out of every scene. Sometimes the game makes this difficult. For example, in the opening crime scene, there are a couple of young men hanging around just outside the perimeter. If you talk to them and take notes in your official police notebook, you get two points. They don’t have any useful information, but you get points as a reward for thoroughness. If you show your badge first, you get another two points, a reward for following correct procedure. But if you decide to spend time inspecting the body or something first, they leave after a while, depriving you of these points — a punishment for guessing wrong about the game mechanics. No doubt I’ve already missed some points of this sort, and without knowing the maximum score, I’ll never know.

Except of course that I can know. We’re in the age of the Internet now. Walkthroughs and point lists are easily accessible online. (Even in 1993, this was starting to be the case, but the web has made game cheats so much easier to find.) Even in the old days, there were recourses. I personally went so far as to hack into some Sierra games in pursuit of the maximum score, decompressing the game resources and looking for anything unfamiliar, be it an animation or a line of dialogue. In one case, I even delved into the code — I never really decoded them completely, as SCI scripts are distributed in a byte code format (kind of like Java), but I was able to identify some byte sequences that were always found around numbers corresponding to score increases, and look for rooms that had more of those sequences than I knew about.

But that was long ago, when I had more free time, and when point-and-click adventures were still rare enough that I felt the need to squeeze all the entertainment I could out of them. (And yes, dissecting a game counts as entertainment. Sometimes it’s more fun than playing it.) I still have the tools I wrote to accomplish this, so I may wind up using them on PQ4 — it seems like a more honorable approach than reading someone else’s walkthrough. But there’s a good chance that they won’t work; Sierra did change how they packed their data once in a while. Some of the code from these tools was eventually folded into the FreeSCI project (itself now folded into ScummVM), so I may give that a look too. But I don’t know how much effort I’ll want to devote to this when the answers I’m trying to wring from the code can be more easily obtained at GameFAQs.

The Humans: Glitches

humans-impossibleI’ve just been through level 117 — that is, level 37 of the expansion. Thanks to that Wikipedia article, I had advance warning that this level was bugged and impossible to complete. I didn’t really trust the article, though, and had to give it a try for myself. It is in fact possible to reach the red floor tile on this level — in fact, it’s possible to reach it much more efficiently than the designer probably intended. There’s an obvious route that goes clockwise around the entire level, picking up an extra human and killing a dinosaur along the way, but once you have the rope, you can take a shortcut straight from the start point to the exit. I’ve been encountering a lot of that lately. It doesn’t do much good here, though, because the exit doesn’t work. Even when you have multiple humans standing right on it, the level doesn’t end. So I’ll take what I’ve done as good enough and skip ahead to 118 with the level password.

The reason I didn’t trust Wikipedia on this matter is that I had independently seen someone on a web forum (which I can’t find now) complaining that level 39 of the original levels was impossible, which it wasn’t. It was probably trickier than intended, though. The accusation was that you couldn’t make a particular jump on the loathsome wheel, and indeed I was unable to do so — but with a little luck, I managed to work around it. This is not the only place where wheel jumps seem to be more difficult than intended. I suspect the increased framerate is to blame, but it could just be a glitch.

It wouldn’t be the only one. I’ve repeatedly had trouble riding pterodactyls: a lot of them seem to be flying just a little too low to allow you to step off onto the platform they’re obviously taking you toward. In some cases this may be deliberate: the platform at the end of the pterodactyl’s route is a red herring and you’re really meant to step off and drop onto a different platform in the middle of the route. In other cases that’s definitely not the answer. I’ve found that it’s actually possible to make stacks on the top of a pterodactyl’s back, allowing the guy on top to step off onto a higher platform — it’s a weird thing to do, but when you come down to it, a pterodactyl is just a kind of moving platform in this game. And I’ve seen one level where it seemed to be actually necessary to do this. But the consequences are blatantly bugged: whenever I try to unstack humans on a pterodactyl’s back, they vanish and go somewhere they’re not supposed to be — offscreen somewhere, or in the middle of a wall or something. Often they immediately die, which isn’t so bad: as long as I still have humans in my pool, I’ll just get a new one standing on the last stable ground that the dead guy touched.

The pterodactyl-unstacking bug seems like a serious problem. I don’t see any other mention of it on the web — not that this is an easy title to google for — so it could be specific to fast systems, or to DOSBox. But I can believe that it’s mere carelessness on the part of the developers. If I understand corerctly, the game was developed primarily for the Amiga, so the DOS port may not have received the same attention. But then, the way that so many of the puzzles can be short-circuited suggests a lack of attention in all versions, as does a certain comment found in the startup sequence of the Amiga CD release:

the game to me is fucking crap – and i’m doing humans 2 now as well and guess what???

The thing is, the mistakes that make the game harder and the ones that make it easier kind of cancel out. I’m not exactly playing the game that the designers had in mind, but sometimes it seems like I’m playing a more interesting one.

Time Zone: Finishing Up

time_zone-endI have reached the end of Time Zone by dint of repeatedly referring to walkthroughs. I would have liked to have gotten through it unaided, of course, but I think I solved as much of the game honorably as any reasonable person could expect me to (and possibly more), and don’t regret cheating one bit. It turns out that this game rates the top slot on the Zarfian Cruelty Scale. 1It’s always struck me that Andrew Plotkin was a little brilliant to recognize that Cruelty is distinct from Difficulty. They’re related, but they’re not the same, and one can like difficult games without liking cruel ones. I knew from early on that it was easy to make irreversible mistakes — that much is clear as soon as you accidentally destroy something through time travel, which is likely to happen the very first time you travel in time. But it turns out that one of these irreversible mistakes is simply failing to wait in one location for five turns after you reach it for the first time. Go exploring and you miss a crucial event, with no indication that you missed anything (other than your eventually becoming stuck). A colleague of mine refers to the period when this game was written as “back when games hated you”. It’s a whole different ethos, and one which we’ve done well to abandon.

I’ve already spent far more words on this game than the game itself contains, so I’ll just say a few more things about the overall experience before I clear it from the Stack.

First of all, the map is large, and not just by Apple II standards. My maps are not exhaustive, but I count something close to a thousand rooms. However, most of them are undistinguished, and there are only a modest 30 or 40 takable obejcts. If you eliminated the padding, I think this would be a substantial but not extraordinarily large game. And in addition to mere padding, the game devotes a lot of space to red herrings: ten of the 35 2The official count is 39, but that seems to include Antarctica in every visitable time period. Antarctica, in all periods, consists of a single room where you die if you don’t just get back into the time machine immediately. It seems to be implemented as one room for all periods, and I see no reason to count it as separate zones. visitable zones are useless towards solving the game.

time_zone-samuraiSecondly, there’s an awful lot of violence. Enough that it doesn’t seem in character for Roberta Williams, who’s best known for family-friendly disneyesque stuff. King’s Quest 1 in particular was known for providing violent and nonviolent solutions to the same problems (such as killing an ogre or waiting for it to fall asleep), and awarding more points for the nonviolent ones. Later episodes in the King’s Quest series eliminated the violent solutions entirely. But then, she also wrote grisly stories such as Mystery House and Phantasmagoria, which revel in their gruesomeness in a way that Time Zone doesn’t. Instead, the violence here is as casual as the violence in an action game: if someone’s in your way, you kill him, and that’s that. time_zone-aborigineAnd, since you’re globe-trotting, and the game only affords minimal descriptions and cartoony graphics, the people you kill are often ethnic caricatures. I commented before on something similar in GTA3, but it’s arguably worse here, because the author isn’t even trying to be shocking or transgressive. Instead, stereotypes are used here for the traditional reason: as an alternative to creating individual characters.

Oddly, the author seems more willing to let you kill humans than animals. When you successfully attack a hostile animal, you wound it and it escapes, whereas humans are usually killed outright. At first I thought this might be a matter of the author sympathizing with the animals more (they’re not really morally culpable and all that), but now that I think about it, the only times humans leave corpses is when they’re carrying objects that you need.

Thirdly, I’d like to take back a couple of the things I said in earlier posts. The game does not make much use, if any at all, of the destruction of anachronistic objects to force different solutions to similar puzzles in different time periods. I wrote that with one particular example in mind, and that turned out to be a misunderstanding on my part. Also, contrary to both my comparison to Timequest and my statements about general time travel tropes, Time Zone does allow you to try to alter history by preventing Julius Caesar’s assassination. But if you do, Caesar dies at the appointed time anyway, stumbling over his own feet and conking his head on the floor. So you can alter history, but you can’t alter it much.

Finally, let me talk about the endgame a little. It takes place in the largest zone, and the only one to span two disks, the planet Neburon in the year 4082. The goal of the whole game is to prevent the ruler of Neburon from destroying the Earth; I didn’t mention this before because only in the endgame does it become relevant. From the point of view of the endgame, the whole purpose of the time-travelling portion of the game is to collect tools (including Caesar’s ladder) that are useful for solving the endgame’s puzzles. In a sense, this can be said of any other zone, but it’s different in the endgame. This is another one of the parts where the game hates you: past a certain point, there’s no going back, so you need to be already carrying all of the tools you’ll need, and it’s not clear which ones those are, sometimes even after you’ve seen the obstacles that require them. Due to the inventory limit, you can’t bring everything you’ve found. Due to the red herrings, you can’t be sure that you have access to everything you need yet, or which of the objects you haven’t used yet are needed. It’s all designed to make you restart the endgame repeatedly, and was probably intended to make the experience last longer — remember the author’s remark about how long it would take for anyone to solve it! But extending gameplay by making the player do things repeatedly is only a good idea if they’re things that the player enjoys doing. Action games can get away with repetitive activity (and indeed would be impossible without it), but the enjoyment in adventure games comes mainly from finding the solutions, not from typing them in after you’ve found them once. Redoing things is tolerable within limits, and restarting a game afresh after getting quite advanced can even be enjoyable, as the later parts of the game can allow one to see the earlier parts in a new light. But that’s as far as it goes.

So with the repetition and the casual violence, I’d say that the main lesson Time Zone had for the industry, apart from a warning about overcharging (it listed for $99, and was a commercial failure), is that puzzle-based adventure games don’t work like action games, and that similar techniques will leave a different impression in an adventure than in an action game. This may seem obvious now, but Time Zone isn’t alone among early adventures in using action-game features for no good reason. Even the venerable Colossal Cave adopted the arcade standard of three lives per game, despite also allowing the player to circumvent this limit by saving.

1 It’s always struck me that Andrew Plotkin was a little brilliant to recognize that Cruelty is distinct from Difficulty. They’re related, but they’re not the same, and one can like difficult games without liking cruel ones.
2 The official count is 39, but that seems to include Antarctica in every visitable time period. Antarctica, in all periods, consists of a single room where you die if you don’t just get back into the time machine immediately. It seems to be implemented as one room for all periods, and I see no reason to count it as separate zones.

Nightlong: Cheating

nightlong-syringeIt turns out that VST is just some unspecified new cyberspace/VR technology, but one with side effects that kill people after a few months. Genesis, under the direction of Hugh Martens (your employer), is still trying to eliminate the problem, but they’re doing this by testing it illegally on prison inmates. Martens, meanwhile, has gone cartoonishly wacko about covering the whole thing up, and has been killing people left and right. If nothing else, this clinches the loyalty thing. If you completed your original assignment and brought Martens the truthmongers, he’d just kill you for knowing too much. Not that the game gives you a choice in the matter.

The final act of the game takes place on the prison island of Rocas Perdida, where the experiments are taking place. And it is at the very beginning of that section that I got very badly stuck. For the first and last time in the game, I resorted to a walkthrough.

This is something I really try to avoid doing. Walkthroughs are a necessary evil at best. The whole point of an adventure game is the pleasure of figuring things out, and using hints robs you of that. Worse yet, to cheat at all is to acknowledge that you’ve lost your trust in the author, that you don’t expect that you’ll be able to solve the puzzle. This lack of trust damages your experience of the rest of the game afterwards; once you’ve started down that path, it’s easy to give up on puzzles too early. I’m not even going to get into the problem of badly-written walkthroughs that give away too much, as that didn’t happen this time.

The problem, and to some extent the saving grace, of Nightlong is that I had a solid notion of what kind of unfairness I expected from it. As I’ve noted before, this is a game prone to tiny, all-but-invisible hotspots. I’d been temporarily stuck in the game many times before this point, and with only one or two exceptions, it was always due to failing to notice a hotspot. At one point, I was actually able to work backward from the expected solution to a puzzle, figuring out what sort of item I’d need, and then where I’d be likely to find it. And sure enough, it was there, and nearly unfindable unless you were looking for it specifically. This was far more satisfying than finding it by waving the cursor around at random would have been. But that was an exception. For the most part, finding something clickable in this game is a surprise. So when I got as thoroughly stuck as I was, I was fairly certain that there was a tiny hotspot that I was missing, despite repeated searching of all available rooms.

It turned out that it wasn’t a tiny hotspot. There were two hotspots with the same name close together, and I had somehow managed to avoid using the right action on the right one, despite revisiting them repeatedly. I probably should have slept on it and come back fresh, but I sometimes find it hard to convince myself of that when I know I’m nearing the end.

When I do resort to hints, my reaction is pretty much always the same, regardless of what they reveal: “That was it? What a gyp!” Even if I don’t cheat again, it can take a while for this minor sense of resentment to fade. Solving tougher puzzles later in the game helps, re-establishing the “you throw ’em at me, I’ll solve ’em” dynamic. That happened here. There was a nice convoluted unrealistic adventure-game puzzle (illustrated in the screenshot above), and the final puzzle of the game was a tasty little cryptarithm — arguably soup cans, but it hit the spot.

Anyway, it’s off the stack now.