Litil Divil: The Terrible Trampoline

I’ve finally reached the trampoline room.

I haven’t gotten through it yet, but it really does seem likely to be the last challenge in the whole game, apart from the customary unvarying end-of-level fight. By numbers, it should be. But also, the architecture leading up to it seems suitably climactic. The meandering tunnels narrow to a focused point, and the final approach is a straightaway coupled with a serpentine path filled with gold — not a maze to get lost in, but one to get rich in. If you can spare the time, anyway — this is far enough from the save room that just getting there leaves you low on health.

The interior of the room is just as I remember. We stand on the ribcage of a huge skeletal demon. The room’s only other feature is a small round trampoline. If you walk into the trampoline, you just kind of trip and fall over and flip the trampoline in the air briefly. If you press one of the action buttons just before walking into the trampoline, the exact same thing happens. But I remember seeking help back in the day, and being told that this was basically the right approach, that it’s tricky to pull off but you should be able to jump onto the trampoline with the right timing. But once I was able to play with it again, I quickly convinced myself that this is malarkey. There had to be some secret, something I wasn’t doing. But what?

I’m not too proud to seek help again. Alarmingly, when I searched for “litil divil trampoline”, two of my own blog posts were in the first page of results, a good sign of a game too obscure for me to hope for much help. But there was, at least, a two-post thread on the GOG forums that seemed to give an answer: you have to start in a specific place, down along the spine as far as you can go, and hold down the primary action button (the Z key) to break into a run. Now, I’m fairly sure that I had tried each of these two things individually, not just to no success but to no apparent effect at all. Does Z only make you run if you’re in the right place, and aimed in the right direction? That seems like bad puzzle design to me. There have been other puzzles with location-specific actions, and sometimes they’ve been excessively difficult because the area where the action can be performed is smaller than it should be, but this one seems particularly egregious.

I’m reminded a little of an experience I had in Final Doom, a level pack for Doom II. This has a bit in an early level where you’re on a ledge above a lava moat, and the only way to get past the lava is to run off the ledge by holding down the shift key. When I played this, I didn’t know that running was an option — perhaps I had forgotten about it, or perhaps I had simply managed to get through the entirety of Doom and Doom II without ever knowing you could run. I mean, as far as I’m aware, there had never before been a place where running is absolutely necessary, the way it was here. At any rate, I was stuck, and wound up looking for hints. The hints I found simply said to run off the ledge to clear the lava. Not knowing what this really meant, I just tried walking off the ledge and into the lava repeatedly, wondering what I was doing wrong.

Perhaps the first trampoline hint I got back in the day had a similar problem: perhaps it said to run, but didn’t specify how. If so, that’s worse here than in Final Doom. At least there, the controls were documented. The hint’s assumption that players already know how to run was basically reasonable, and I have only myself to blame for my own stupidity.

Deus Ex: Escape from New York

I just spent pretty much an entire day playing Deus Ex (or, more accurately, an entire night, because it’s a very dimly-lit game, full of shadows suitable for skulking, and thus best played without ambient sunlight). It seems to me that this is a game best played in long sessions like this. It’s easy to get bogged down in tactics otherwise. If you play for only a half an hour, the focus of your session can wind up being something as trivial as making your way to the end of a tunnel, rather than the plot-level activities that such micro-goals make up. This, I think, is why I’ve only made significant progress on the weekends.

And significant progress it is, this time: I’ve finally reached the point in the story where I leave both New York and UNATCO behind, which seems like a good place to stop for the moment. I have a few comments on the way the shift in plot was handled. There will be spoilers, but in a way, it’s hard to spoil the story here, because everything of importance is so heavily foreshadowed.

First of all, turning against UNATCO is not only inevitable, but happens at a very specific point. I was not only surprised at this, I was surprised that I was surprised: I’ve been given plenty of warning, in game and out, about what was going to happen. But when the moment comes, it comes quite suddenly. Before the decisive mission, there’s a sense that you’re juggling loyalties. The player character’s boss, one Joseph Manderley, as much as told me that I’d have to start putting more effort into getting the real powers behind UNATCO to trust me, just before it all became moot.

Understand that this is only notable because the game continues to give the player more influence over the course of events than most games provide. Secondary characters live or die as a result of your actions. The entire New York segment of the game leads up to a confrontation at a hotel in which UNATCO troops, your former colleagues, come for you and your brother Paul, another rogue agent. You can take a stand alongside him, saving his life in the process, or slip out the back while he sacrifices himself to buy you time. Quite a few later conversations have to have versions for both branches, and there’s an entire sub-quest about finding his cadaver in MJ12’s secret medical research laboratories. If you escape, and evade capture, you get an optional boss fight with Anna Navarre, your cyborg mentor who earlier complained about your being too soft if you used nonlethal force against the NSF. It’s possible to ditch this fight even after it starts; again, later scenes accommodate her being alive or dead.

Defeat or escape from Navarre and you wind up in the one encounter that I believe to be completely unwinnable. You can make a pretty good go of it, though. It’s like the last few seconds of the first episode of Doom, where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by baddies and have no way to shoot them all: the episode simply ends when you die. According to legend, some exceptional Doom player actually did manage to win that fight, only to find himself stuck in a small room with no doors and no way to trigger the end. Similarly, on emerging from the subway tunnels in Deus Ex, even if I power up my defensive augmentations and don thermoptic camouflage and try to make a break for freedom, it seems like I’m stuck in a smallish area surrounded by invisible walls. At any rate, the next scripted plot event involves the player character escaping from a holding cell, so you have to get captured somehow. The interesting thing is how much choice you get about when and where. From the moment the troops come for you and Paul at the hotel, being defeated in combat results in capture instead of death. One way to skip the fight with Navarre is to simply get captured before you reach it. Lasting farther into the sequence gives you more experience points, and to a certain extent more story, but this is one case where player actions have consequences that aren’t terribly lasting. You’re going to wake up in that cell no matter what.

I assumed at first that the cell was simply one of the cells I had seen earlier in UNATCO HQ, where certain NFS officers wound up. It seemed a reasonable assumption, given that I had been captured by UNATCO troops and that Navarre, a UNATCO agent, stops by to taunt you if she’s still alive at that point. But no, it’s actually deep in a secret MJ12 compound, complete with more guards in MJ12 uniforms and scientists working on weird biological experiments. (Some cages contain strange bird-like creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to current concepts of the velociraptor. I just can’t escape the dinosaurs these days, can I?) And there’s a glorious moment, after painstakingly wending your way through the ducts and hallways, when you finally reach the facility’s sole exit, and discover that the entire thing is the previously-inaccessible “Restricted” area in the lower reaches of UNATCO HQ. A connection between MJ12 and UNATCO is pretty much a given by that point, but providing a literal “connection” in the sense of hallway makes it all that much more satisfying somehow. It turns the whole conspiracy from allegations about individuals to something so fundamental it’s built into the very architecture, a fact on the ground (or under the ground, as the case may be). Perhaps this is why the Masons are such a popular subject for conspiracy theories.

The game has been pretty good about reusing environments in different ways, but I think UNATCO HQ is the first area that you initially become familiar with while it’s safe, and only later becomes full of enemies. The enemies are, of course, the people who you earlier befriended — all the more reason to stick to nonlethal force, says I. Except not all of them are enemies: most of the NPCs with names, found in their usual offices, are on your side, at least if you play it like I did. One guy helps you escape but is otherwise loyal to UNATCO (expressing dismay that it’s been corrupted but hope that it can be redeemed), another expresses an intention of joining you in Hong Kong as soon as he gets the chance. Another gives you a choice, asking whether he should come with you or stay behind as your agent, feeding you information about UNATCO’s doings. In other words, conspiring with you. Creating a new conspiracy.

Let’s hope it turns out better than the last one. Presumably this is an ad-hoc conspiracy, to be dropped once its aims are met, much as Cincinnatus voluntarily relinquished the dictatorship of Rome. There’s a brief mention of Cincinnatus in the game, a passage in a book on the Society of Cincinnati, an order founded shortly after the American Revolution. It makes the dubious claim that the Society exists primarily to seize dictatorial control over the United States in the event that it becomes necessary. I can’t vouch for the book’s reliability even within the context of the game — it could well be just another conspiracy theory thrown out in the name of inclusiveness. But if the authors want us to read that passage, it’s probably because they want us to think about its implications for the player’s actions. But we’ll see.

TF2: More Things

I think I really have to declare TF2 to be off the stack by now, if only because I haven’t been posting about it. Completion was a difficult concept with this one from the beginning anyway. Also, I have an unofficial policy that work-related gaming doesn’t count, and arguably TF2 as I’ve been playing it fits that description. At one point, when discussing the day’s tasks with a manager, he explicitly included TF2 in the schedule. It isn’t mandatory, I objected. He replied that it kind of was: for the sake of morale, we have to take advantage of the lulls in an otherwise frenzied schedule. And, due to my machine’s illness, I’m still not playing it at home at all.

And anyway, I really have met my initial goal of playing every class for a substantial period of time. The one that I took to last was the Engineer, whose main means of attack consists of building an automated sentry gun and then sitting back and waiting. I had found it very difficult to do anything useful as an Engineer on the King of the Hill maps: sentry guns don’t last long when all the action is concentrated in one place. But we’ve been doing some Capture-the-Flag maps lately, and those are positively ideal for the Engineer. In CTF, the general pattern seems to be a raging battle somewhere in the middle of the map, with an occasional solitary player (usually a Scout) slipping through the cracks and penetrating the base where the Intelligence 1In TF2 CTF mode, the “flag” is a briefcase full of important documents. is kept. So there’s a place where enemies will inevitably eventually show up, and when they do, they’ll most likely be alone.

I’ve managed to get First Milestone with only one class since my last post: the Spy. It happened quite unexpectedly, when there was only one other person on the server, which makes some of the Spy’s Achievements a great deal easier. The one that pushed me over was the one you get for killing the player you’re disguised as. Well, when there’s only one other player to be disguised as, that’s not hard. I have some misgivings about this — I’ve been adamant about getting my Achievements honestly over the course of normal play, and we were just messing around at the time, not actually playing the game per se. But “messing around” is playing, no?

Anyway, I’m mainly playing Scout lately, because that’s where I’m lagging behind in Achievements. There are a couple of Achievements that you basically just get for playing a Scout for a long period of time, but most of the Scout Achievements depend on playing well, and the Scout actually requires skill to play well. Its chief strength is being able to move fast and dodge fire, which doesn’t happen automatically. (This is the opposite of the Heavy, which basically can’t dodge anything but also has less need to dodge anything.) I’ll say one thing for it, though: after you’ve played as Scout for a while, all the other classes seem unbearably sluggish. In fact, pretty much all of the classes have specific virtues that the player can acclimate to, and then miss when switching to another class; I get the impression that a lot of people just play one class exclusively as a result.

Let’s talk about the Team Fortress 2 scoring system for a moment, if only because I had a couple of paragraphs typed up already. (I was intending another “Five Things” post.) TF2 has a scoring system. (In fact, in a sense, it has two. See below.) This was not obvious to me when I first started playing, because the score is irrelevant to winning and losing. You get to see the individual players ranked by score at the end of a match, and the players on the winning team tend to have more points than the players on the losing team, but that’s because the things that get you points tend to be the sort of things that help you win, not because there’s a direct cause/effect relationship. (I can imagine a game mode in which the winning team is simply the one that scores the most points total, but if such a mode exists, I’ve never seen it.) Obviously you get points for kills, but if that were it, it would be unfortunate for the Medic. You get half a point for assisting a kill, which usually means doing damage before the killing blow is struck. Medics get credit for kill assists just by healing the person actually doing the killing. That’s a pretty good bit of design: it gives the medics a way to get points that requires them to be involved in the battle like everyone else, rather than hanging out where it’s safe and waiting for people to come to them. Some other classes also get points for being played the way the designers want them to be played when it’s difficult to do so: Spies score extra for backstabs, Snipers for headshots. Getting a Revenge kill — that is, killing someone who’s killed you three or more times — is worth a point. Working directly towards your mission objectives is worth points: capturing a control point is worth two, defending one by killing an enemy in the process of capturing it is worth one, etc. It’s all rather complicated, which is why it’s fortunate that you never actually have to think about it.

In addition to the in-game score system, there’s a fairly popular server mod called HLstatsX that tracks your lifetime performance on the server where it’s installed. It was recently installed on the server we use in our office sessions, which, since I’m still having problems with my home box, is the only place I’ve been playing lately. You can see my stats here. It tracks many things, but the one thing it makes you aware of during the game (via in-game messages) is its own point system, which persists from session to session. HLstatsX points are usually awarded for the same things as TF2 points, but in different quantities. In particular, kills yield a number of points determined by the ratio of the the killer’s and victim’s point totals; killing someone who has more points than you gives you more points than killing someone who has fewer points. At the same time, the victim loses half as many points as the killer gained. It seems like the intent here is to make the points system into something like the ranking systems used in Chess and Go, but those systems are designed to make the ranking depend solely on the player’s skill, whereas in HLstatsX, it’s not. Because the victim loses only half the points gained, killing isn’t zero-sum; each kill increases the average score. As do the points from other sources. So the number of points you have is only partly a measure of your skill; mostly it’s a measure of how much time you’ve spent playing. (When someone captures a control point, their entire team gets two points each. So it’s possible to get points just by sitting in your base and waiting.) Thus we see the variable score for killing as mainly a way to let newer players catch up to everyone else faster.

Anyway, looking at my experience of the game so far, I find that in the heat of battle, when the mind is focused on pursuing a goal, it’s easy to forget to notice the game’s absurdity. Every once in a while we try a new map, and sometimes that’s enough to bring the absurd back to my attention — many of the maps are based around rustic or decrepit exteriors as a facade over secret bases, where you can see gleaming boardrooms and computer banks just out of reach (and of course the secret bases of the two enemies are usually separated by just a few dozen yards) — but sometimes it actually takes me a while for this to penetrate my consciousness, which is otherwise occupied with trying to figure out the lay of the land. But I suppose that it all affects the experience of the thing even if you’re not paying attention to it, as architecture always does. (Are there people with training in architecture working in level design? It seems like a relevant skill.) And besides, the developers have made it clear in commentary and interviews that they, too, put the gameplay first and the absurdity second — that, in fact, the absurdity was developed as a way of enhancing gameplay. The bases are unrealistically close together because that makes for a better game, and once they do that, they might as well play it for laughs rather than make excuses for it. The broad caricature in the character design was adopted to make it easier to recognize different classes from a distance. Rocket-jumping was inherited from Quake 2In a sense, even Doom had rocket-jumping. You couldn’t use it to jump upward, because you couldn’t aim downward, but there was at least one map where the only way to get across a pit was to fire a rocket point-blank into a wall, propelling yourself horizontally fast enough to clear it. , where it was an unintended consequence of the physics model, and didn’t really fit the fiction; in TF2, it comes off as not just unrealistic but downright cartoony, which makes it fit in perfectly. I was recently shown a Youtube video of a Demoman using explosions to launch himself long distances like a missile. There are similar videos for other games — Halo alone seems to have dozens of “Warthog Launch” videos, where players try to get a vehicle up on top of an unnavigable cliff by detonating a piles of grenades under it — but this is the first time it’s seemed like a legitimate part of the game, and a viable tactic.

1 In TF2 CTF mode, the “flag” is a briefcase full of important documents.
2 In a sense, even Doom had rocket-jumping. You couldn’t use it to jump upward, because you couldn’t aim downward, but there was at least one map where the only way to get across a pit was to fire a rocket point-blank into a wall, propelling yourself horizontally fast enough to clear it.

TF2: Five Things

A full workweek of lunchtime TF2 (and one evening session), and no post! I really have been remiss. To make up for five missed days, here’s five paragraphs on unrelated topics that summarize my week.

I’ve achieved First Milestone with the Heavy class. I had been hovering at 9 Achievements of the required 10 for a while; the one that finally put me over was for killing five enemies in a row without spinning down my minigun. See, the Heavy’s gun takes a moment to spin up before it starts firing — it’s a manifestation of the class’s slow-but-powerful theme. What’s not obvious at first is that you can keep it spinning without firing by holding down the right mouse button. While in this mode, you can start firing instantly, but at the cost of moving even more slowly than the Heavy does normally. The notable thing about this Achievement is that it’s essentially a tutorial: it draws the player’s attention to the possibility of not spinning down, and encourages one to give it a try. By the time you’ve got the Achievement, you’ve got a good handle on why, and when, keeping your gun spun up is a good idea. There are other Achievements like this, such as the Scout’s Achievement for executing 1000 double jumps, or the Spy’s Achievements for backstabbing an Engineer and sapping his buildings (in both orders), or the various ones for killing opponents with Taunt moves.

I’m getting the hang of playing as a Demoman. As with the Medic, it’s all about the secondary weapon — the stickybombs, which can be strewn about and then detonated on your signal. At work we mostly play King of the Hill maps, which makes a Demoman partcularly powerful: there’s just one important spot, and if it’s covered in your stickies, it’s very difficult for the enemy to take control of it. An enemy facing a bestickied hill basically has two options. First, they can send one guy on a suicide mission to make you detonate your bombs, then rush it with the rest of the team to capture it before you can set up them the bomb again. This involves more coordination than most ad-hoc teams are capable of. Alternately, they can just send someone to kill you before you can detonate your bombs. There are maps where there are battlements overlooking the control point that are hard to reach from the enemy’s side — ideal for Snipers, but also, I’m realizing, for Demomen, provided they can lob the stickies to where they’re needed. Even so, given the significance of the Demoman in keeping enemies off the point, and the general difficulty of killing people at close quarters with Demoman weapons, it seems like it would be a good idea for the Demoman’s teammates to station someone more melee-capable (a Pyro, say) on the route to the battlements to protect him. Either way, there’s an opportunity here for chess-like gambits involving multiple players, but ones that the gameplay (including the Achievement system) doesn’t explicitly encourage. Consequently, the opportunity is generally wasted.

I spent a little time playing the original Half-Life recently, for reasons I won’t go into, and I was struck anew by how different the feel of TF2 is. By and large, single-player FPS games live in the wake of Doom, which is to say, they’re horror games. (Even Portal, which is about as far from a typical FPS as you can get while still viewing things in first-person and using a gun, has a strong sense of nightmare.) The dominant mood in such games is the adrenaline rush. And that’s something that’s strangely missing from TF2. The cartoony style is a factor, but a relatively minor one, in my opinion. In a game without an exploration element, the sense of of anticipation is blunted, and with it any possibility of dread. Death is swift and frequent and often comes without warning, all of which also works against dread, but more importantly, death is inconsequential. I don’t mean that the only consequence is respawning back at your base — similar things could be said of conventional FPS games, where dying just means respawning at the last save point. I mean that things don’t stop happening just because you’re temporarily tagged out. If you started capturing a control point before you got killed, there’s a good chance that one of your teammates is still there finishing the job. You can even watch it happen while you wait to respawn. As a result, death doesn’t feel final, but like just one of those things that happens. That is, it doesn’t feel like death. Which probably contributes to the sense of exaggerated slapstick I described earlier.

My latest random acquisition in the game is the Sandman, a special baseball bat that the Scout can use. Its special virtue is that, unlike normal baseball bats, it can be used to hit baseballs. Baseballs that hit an opponent leave them temporarily stunned and very likely to get killed by whoever’s nearby. This is very annoying when it happens to you — as always, unexpectedly taking control away from a player creates frustration. But I have yet to actually hit anyone with a ball, as it’s a difficult skill that has to be mastered. Difficult to pull off, annoying to others wen you do — in other words, it’s kind of like playing a Spy. It strikes me that a lot of the special items have the effect of letting one class take on attributes of another. A Pyro with the Backburner becomes more lethal when attacking from behind, like the Spy. A Spy with the Ambassador can do headshots to kill instantly from a distance, like the Sniper. A Sniper with the Hunstman can be effective in melee, like most other classes.

I complained a while ago about my inability to find documentation for this game. Well, I really should have looked for a wiki earlier than I did. Blame it on my retrogaming habits — I’m not used to playing games where the wiki is an essential feature, rather than an afterthought. (Although the ancient Spoiler Files for Nethack come close.) You can call it laziness on the part of the developers, but when you come down to it, no one documents stuff as thoroughly as fans. So, given that people were probably going to make a wiki anyway, why bother with any other docs? It would have been nice if either Steam or linked to it, but I can understand why a company, with legal obligations, would want to avoid linking to something so unaccountable. The wiki led me to the Movies page, which I really could have noticed before, considering that there’s a link to it right on top of, but it’s a link that, paradoxically, is too prominent to be noticeable: it’s part of the page’s banner image, which is something I generally ignore. At any rate, the Movies page is particularly significant, because that’s the one place where you can actually find a summary of the game’s premise. It shows something about the game that I’ve playing it for so long without missing that.

Strife: Accidental Exploit

Monsters in Doom generally start the game in a dormant state. Only when you make them aware of your presence — by walking where they can see you, or firing a weapon where they can hear you — do they start moving around and attacking. The saved games apparently don’t record information about which monsters are dormant and which are active. When you reload a saved game, all monsters reset to dormant. It’s sometimes possible to exploit this to make the game easier, but this is obviously cheap.

Now, for all I know, Strife may not share this bug. Or perhaps it did originally, but not when played under ZDoom. But maybe it does. I haven’t been exploiting it deliberately, but there’s a section where I might have triggered it accidentally. I’m just not sure.

It’s harder to tell in Strife because the rules are more complicated. If I sneak into a high-security area wearing an enemy uniform, I can generally walk past the guards unnoticed. Eventually, I encounter something that isn’t fooled by the disguise. If I fight it, save the game, die, restore, and walk past the same guards again, I don’t know for sure if they’re still docile due to the bug or if it’s just because they never got woken up.

Strife: Doom Engine

[Update: Looks like a lot of what I say in this post is false. See the comments.]

Strife is the only game on my stack that uses the Doom engine, so let’s talk a little about what that means.

Back in 1994, I spent a few months working for one of Id Software’s competitors, Looking Glass Technologies, working on their texture-mapping routines. Given the coordinates of a polygon and their corresponding positions in a texture image, we had to render the the texture onto the polygon in perspective as fast as possible. These days, this sort of operation would be handled in hardware and abstracted through a library like Direct3D or OpenGL, but we didn’t have those things. Instead, we wrote highly-optimized code to loop over the polygon, scanline by scanline, find the appropriate point in the texture, and copy the pixel color over.

Overdraw was our nemesis: each polygon was expensive enough to render that it was a big waste whenever we rendered a polygon that was covered up by something else. Even when a polygon was only partly covered-up, it was worthwhile to try to figure out how much of it was visible and only render that part.

Sometime in the middle of all this, Doom was released. It was clear that it didn’t have all the capabilities of our library — we were rendering polygons in perspective at arbitrary angles, while Doom seemed to be only capable of horizontal and vertical surfaces, and could only rotate the camera about a vertical axis (no tilting up or down). But it was really fast. Faster, in fact, than could be entirely explained by the simplification made possible by using only horizontal and vertical surfaces. Add to this the complication that they were using highly irregular map layouts: instead of using a grid of map tiles, like Wolfenstein 3D or Ultima Underworld or System Shock, the map was a collection of walls of arbitrary length at arbitrary angles, which more or less defeats the means we had been using to eliminate overdraw.

By now, the secrets are well known. They had in fact managed to completely eliminate overdraw through a single stroke of genius: they didn’t render polygons at all. They rendered the entire scene at once, in vertical scanlines. For each horizontal position, the engine goes pixel by pixel, rendering ceiling until it hits wall, then rendering wall until it hits floor. I’m glossing over a lot of details, but that’s the essence of the Doom engine right there.

This has a couple of consequences. For one thing, it’s basically impossible for a Doom-engine game to take advantage of modern 3D hardware, because modern 3D hardware is all about rendering polygons. I can imagine someone making a Direct3D version of System Shock by taking the source code and remapping all the graphics functions to Direct3D equivalents. It might not be a perfect fit, but I imagine it would be doable with a little massaging. But there’s basically nothing in the Doom engine that even vaguely resembles a Direct3D call.

Second, the fact that the view was always horizontal in Doom wasn’t just a matter of the programmers not bothering to implement it, as with jumping and crouching. It is in principle impossible for the Doom engine to tilt the camera, because that would ruin the vertical scanlines — suddenly you’d have them intersecing the edges of walls and so forth.

strife-distortionAnd yet, Strife allows the player to look up and down. It manages this by cheating: instead of tilting the camera up, all it really does is render a higher-up slice of the same horizontal view. This isn’t quite the same thing as moving the camera upward. Rather, it’s an unnaturally distorted view, more like what you’d get by taking a photograph with the camera tilted and then looking at the photograph at an oblique angle, or something like that. (I’ll try to find or make some illustrations explaining this better.)

It’s easy to interpret this distortion as mere perspective, though, unless you’re really close to something, which makes it more noticable.

Strife: Graphics

strife-pipesStrife is of course crude by modern standards, coarsely pixellated, made of broad, flat surfaces and low-res bitmaps. One of the first things you see in the game is a bunch of sewage pipes with perfectly square cross-sections, with a texture map that tries and fails to make them look round.

The game plays at a default resolution of 640×480, which is the maximum resolution in the original engine. ZDoom gives you the option of higer resolution, but I haven’t been taking advantage of it — in fact, until I checked for the purpose of this post, the sense of smoothness you get from a higher framerate had me convinced that it was in a higher resolution already. One of those tricks of visual perception, I suppose: once the flow of new data to the brain reaches a certain threshhold, the brain finds it a lot easier to interpolate details that aren’t there. So it lets you interpret the environment with less strain, which helps in unexpected ways. In some places there are doorways with a pale green border, indicating that crossing this threshhold will trigger an alarm and make the guards start shooting you. I don’t remember noticing this mechanism the last time I tried playing, but it seems very clear now, and I think this is mostly because the green border looks better-defined.

Still, the texture maps are coarse no matter how clearly you perceive them, and the enemies and other bitmap objects are even worse. Doom, it strikes me, got away with this better because most of the bitmap objects there were monsters, and for the most part you viewed them from a distance, or tried to. In Strife, you’ve got NPCs, as well as ornamentation like candles set on tables in the tavern — things you see close up and blocky.

But you know something? It still works.

strife-programmerI’ve just got through my first major boss battle, against an entity called the Programmer, one of the key figures in the Order’s hierarchy. He flies around on a little flying saucer with spikes on it and calls down small lightning storms that hurt a lot. He’s small enough and fast enough that you can easily lose track of where he is, and if you ever stop moving for even a second, he will kill you. It’s a very adrenaline-surge-inducing fight, and while it was going on, I absolutely did not care about the blockiness of the graphics. The graphics did their job.

SS2E: Weapons

ss2e-larvaAnother day, another insanely difficult boss monster. The Babylon segment of Serious Sam: The Second Encounter ends in a fight with a colossal cyborg insect larva that hangs from a track in the ceiling and moves like a rook on a chessboard, firing energy blasts and emitting small explosive offspring. It’s got enough hit points that I quickly ran out of the ammo for the best weapons while fighting it — there are some ammo packs that spawn during the fight, but getting them involves taking your attention away from the monster, which is risky. So I wound up using most of my weapons against it (with the exception of the hand-to-hand weapons, the knife and the chainsaw, which are useless here — and nearly everywhere else).

The weapons in Serious Sam mainly follow the standards laid down by Doom and followed by countless FPS games: chainsaw, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher, energy weapon. The BFG is replaced by “serious bombs”: like classical videogame smart bombs, they kill everything in the area except the player and certain boss monsters. This isn’t as useful as it sounds, because you can only carry three at once, and the toughest battles in this game have more than three waves of monsters. Add to this set the sniper rifle, the flame thrower, and the SBC cannon.

It’s strange to think that there wasn’t a sniper rifle in Doom or even Quake — today, it seems like one of the basic ubiquitous FPS weapon types, just as much as the shotgun. I wonder if there are any more basic weapon types that haven’t been discovered yet? Things that fill a genuinely new gameplay niche, I mean, and aren’t just gimmicks. It seems like there’s been less innovation there than for weapons in non-FPS games. Duke Nukem gave us bombs that you could lay as traps, and Unreal gave us projectiles that bounce off walls, but those are basically just extensions of what’s implicit in Quake‘s grenade launcher.

SS2E: Small Enclosed Spaces

ss2e-bloodbathLast time, I wrote about the Serious Sam‘s use of large spaces. This time I want to address its use of small ones. One of the tricks that this game repeats a lot is temporarily locking the player into an enclosed area, such as a courtyard, and spawning enemies along the walls, in sequence, on a timer. Only when you’ve killed them all do the doors open again. One of the level designers of Doom once described that game as “the computer equivalent of whack-a-mole”. I’d quibble about that as applied to Doom, but it’s a pretty good description of the feel of Serious Sam‘s locked-in-a-courtyard sequences. Things keep popping up, and you just have to try to keep pace with them, blasting them before they blast you.

The level I’m currently on (level 3, “The City of the Gods”) seems to specialize in sequences where you’re confined with large monsters in too small a space for comfort, and even has some new twists on the basic concept. There’s one part with an insignificant health item (one that restores 1 hit point) in a wedge-shaped area between buildings. The health item is bait; picking it up causes three missile-launching Bio-Mechanoids to appear on the tops of the walls, one after the other, in different directions. The area is so small that avoiding splash damage from their weapons is impossible. As far as I can tell, the only way to survive is to (a) sidestep a lot to make them take longer to aim at you (Bio-Mechanoids turn slowly), and (b) when they do fire, avoid getting hit directly by running under the missiles. This works only because they’re firing from above you. Or, of course, you can just refrain from picking up that trivial health item in the first place. Picking it up for the hit point is really counterproductive. But it counts as a Secret, and what kind of completist would I be if I didn’t try to get all the Secrets?

ss2e-werebullThere’s another part where picking up a bonus item at the end of a winding corridor causes a Sirian Were-Bull to immediately appear more or less on top of you. This is one of those charging monsters, a very large one that barely fits in the corridor. The usual tactics are useless here: you cannot dodge something that fills all available space. You just have to blast it twice pointblank with a double-barreled shotgun while it’s still trying to turn towards you. And when I say you have to, I mean there’s really no other weapon that works in that situation: the only other weapons capable of doing enough damage quickly enough also do splash damage, which would hurt you more than the Were-Bull would.

Come to think of it, these sequences are essentially puzzles. Perhaps this game isn’t quite as mindless as I give it credit for. Then again, they’re also both optional.

Serious Sam: The Second Encounter

Not Chichen ItzaThis time around, I was in the mood for something mindless. It’s been a while since I played a first-person shooter, so I pulled out Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, which is not to be confused with Serious Sam 2. They’re both sequels to Serious Sam: The First Encounter, but this one is older and uses approximately the same graphics engine as the original. “First, Second, Two” isn’t the best numbering scheme in the world, but I’ve seen worse. (Dark Forces/Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight/Jedi Knight 2 comes to mind, as does Heretic/Hexen/Hexen 2/Heretic 2.)

Like the original Serious Sam, this is a big, loud, dumb game that knows it’s big, loud, and dumb, and sets out to be the very best game it can be without sacrificing the bigness, loudness, and dumbness. At the time when it was released, games like Half-Life and Deus Ex were starting to turn the FPS genre into something more sophisticated, something where the action was part of a narrative set in a coherent world, where there was more to the player’s actions than shooting everything. 1In a way, this was not so much a new development as the genre returning to its roots. Ultima Underworld is a game in this more story-driven and less action-based mode, and although it’s not usually classified as a FPS, it was the inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D and thus for the FPS genre as a whole. But after the phenomenal success of Doom, this kind of design took a backseat to emphasis on graphics technology. The designers of Serious Sam consciously and deliberately rejected all that. This is a game where the thought “Should I blow that up?” is immediately followed by “Sure, why not? It couldn’t hurt.”

To the extent that Serious Sam added anything important to the genre, it’s because of its improved technology and its perspective on what’s gone before. The technology is obvious: the graphics take advantage of advanced techniques that couldn’t have been done practically in Doom. There’s even a special demo area with Utah teapots to show off what the engine can do. But the perspective on the past, while less obvious, is just as important. When Serious Sam was released, most people took one look at the guy on the box and concluded that it was a Duke Nukem clone. This is wrong: it’s an everything clone. The designers seem to have chosen a distinctive element from each major old-school FPS written up to that point. Duke Nukem 3D provided the template for the macho, wisecracking player character. Quake provided the leaping Fiends, the obvious model for the Kleer Skeletons, one of the best monsters in the game. From System Shock, we get Autobombs, remade here as Headless Kamikaze. From Rise of the Triad, the dual pistols. From Powerslave, the ancient Egyptian setting. I could go on.

The Second Encounter isn’t set in Egypt, though. It starts near a Mayan temple, which is rougly equivalent to Egypt from a level-designer’s point of view, except that the texture maps are different and the exterior scenes contain vegetation. I think this is the first FPS I’ve played in which you can actually use your Doom-style chainsaw to cut down trees. Or, of course, you can pull out your rocket launcher blow them up.

1 In a way, this was not so much a new development as the genre returning to its roots. Ultima Underworld is a game in this more story-driven and less action-based mode, and although it’s not usually classified as a FPS, it was the inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D and thus for the FPS genre as a whole. But after the phenomenal success of Doom, this kind of design took a backseat to emphasis on graphics technology.