Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal

Now that I’ve broken silence, I should probably say something about what I’ve been playing for the past few months. I pretty much skipped the IF Comp this year — I tried, but it was an especially big year, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it, and wound up playing less then 10 games total. Instead, I have to confess that I spent an enormous amount of time on Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal. Probably more than it deserved, but I found it a tremendously easy pastime to default to.

I’ve posted briefly about Creeper World and its first sequel before. All three games are basically novel real-time strategy games, in which you expand a network of nodes that carries the “packets” you need to build and power weapons to fight an enemy called “creeper”, which is a fluid. Creeper emerges from “emitters” and just kind of pools and spreads out until it starts damaging your structures. The third game is back to the top-down view of the first, but brings along some of the mechanical improvements of the second game: that you can harvest ore (if it’s available) to produce your own “anti-creeper” that physically acts like creeper but is on your side, and that you can actually destroy the emitters instead of just parking cannons around them to destroy any creeper the moment it gets emitted. Destroying emitters makes for a much more satisfactory and conclusive-feeling victory.

It then adds some new mechanisms of its own, steadily increasing the complexity by introducing new things you can build and the conditions that make them necessary, as is customary in RTS campaign modes. There’s a “forge” that lets you mine “aether” to research upgrades, terraforming machines that slowly reshape the land per your instructions, and so forth. I particularly like the “guppy”, a flying non-combat unit that carries a cargo of packets to a designated landing spot. This lets you leapfrog past creeper-infested areas and build in areas disconnected from your base, enabling tactics otherwise impossible. I suppose it’s the game design pattern of “Impose arbitrary restrictions, then grant the player special powers to overcome them”, but it’s a well-done example of it.

Still, even as the mechanics get more complicated, the winning strategy remains more or less the same. Rush to grab as much land as you can defend. Defend it. If you have enough power to keep a stable border with the creeper, you can spend any excess on building what you need to break the stalemate and grab more land. Levels vary what challenges they present, and what resources they provide to meet them, but the rhythm of the game remains constant.

Until Farbor.

Farbor is the second-to-last level in the campaign, and it makes you hurry. In it, a number of enemy drones are collecting ore — the same ore you use to create anti-creeper — to build a monstrous invincible spacecraft, Sinistar-style. You only have so much time to stop them. You can build weapons to shoot down drones and slow down progress, but some of them are are out of reach, and you still have to fend off creeper while you do it. It seems utterly impossible to do everything fast enough. In fact, it’s not as difficult as it seems, because it moves the goalposts a couple times. If you fail to keep the ship from being built, you’re told that it’s going to go over to another building that will power it up and make it unstoppable. And if it reaches that building intact, you’re then told that it will take a full twenty minutes to power up. But the first several times I tried the level, I quit and restarted well before that point, when all seemed lost. And I remained in that state for a couple of months.

During those months, I tried the bonus levels. And that’s where it turned from a game to a habit. By the time you reach Farbor, you’ve unlocked two distinct sets of bonus levels: Tormented Space, which consists of ultra-hard levels, and Prospector Zone, which has fairly gentle levels full of collectible nubbins. And in both cases, there are many, many levels to try. I’ve barely made a dent in even the Prospector Zone, let alone Tormented Space. Probably because of the quantity, there’s a certain sameness to the maps after a while. They vary on a limited set of axes: map size, whether or not there’s ore and aether, whether the map is fully-connected or broken into islands, what enemies you’re facing in addition to mere creeper. The standard strategy still applies, without a lot of the frills they added to the main campaign. But the fact is, that seemed to be what I wanted at that point. I could always make progress. I could always sit down at night with a level I had never seen before, and finish it. And that apparently appealed to me while I couldn’t do the same with Farbor.

Also, the predictability makes it oddly satisfying for a game about warfare. Especially in a large level, you tend to set up your weapons and just leave them alone for a while, operating as a big machine, packets zipping along their lines, guppies sailing back and forth on their errands. Sometimes you place a bunch of weapons in one part of the map and then turn your attention somewhere else, and then when you look at the weapons again, they’ve done their job and cleared all the creeper out of an area, which is highly gratifying.

Eventually I decided that I had gained enough expertise to tackle Farbor again, and learned what I’ve already said, and finished the game. And I might have stopped there, except that completing the campaign unlocks the Alpha Sector. This is another set of bonus levels, also large but not as large as the others. But these levels were made by testers during the game’s development, apparently before they had established standards of style or balance. So they’re not as polished as the other levels, but by the same token, not as uniform. One person will have a bunch of small levels clearly made by just scribbling around in the level editor. Another will have a meticulously-planned puzzle, where only one approach works, or even just use the scripting system to make a puzzle that has nothing to do with the usual mechanics of the game. Others take things to extremes, giving you a map that’s vaster than what you’ve seen before, or one that starts both you and the enemy off with far more power than you’re used to, or that bombs you with waves of creeper spores every second instead of every couple of minutes. Some levels are jokes. All of them feel personal. And that makes them fascinating to me. I can’t always sit down and win a level, because some of them are just unduly hard — the game specifically warns you that there’s no guarantee that they’re all even possible. But I can always sit down and see something new.

Come to think of it, the Alpha Sector is a bit like an RTS version of Cragne Manor. It’s even more like the fan-made levels that lots of games collect, I suppose, but enshrined as somehow special. Context makes it feel less like a user-made DROD hold and more like the rejected puzzles in an official hold’s Mastery area.