Wonderquest: Orion’s End

It’s been a little while since my last Wonderquest update. This is partly (but only partly) because level 15 was something of a slog, with lots of puzzles based around grueling tactical trial-and-error rather than satisfying “Aha!” moments. And on top of that, it’s essentially two levels packed into one. Most levels have had some sort of finale, a single large-scale multi-room puzzle interposed between crossing the “level clear” gate (which opens when you’ve killed all the monsters) and the actual exit. Level 15 ends in a suite of twelve independent puzzles, giving each playable character a final bow, a much more satisfying ending than the level’s first half. The reward for each of the twelve is a “relic” that permanently erases one otherwise-impassible “cursed ground” tile. The level exit is guarded by only ten cursed grounds in series, so you have a little leeway, although a completist like myself will want all twelve relics to claim two optional “secrets”.

Relics are the one resource that stays with you between rooms (although not between levels), and they basically exist just for this endgame sequence. Previous levels had a single cursed ground you could clear just before the exit, providing a shortcut that let you go hunt for secrets without having to go through the finale a second time. DROD occasionally produces the same effect with a “room clear” gate, but using relics untethers the design from monster-slaying. And the level 15 ending suite does the same for puzzles in general, showing us how relics can give us difficult goals that don’t involve monsters at all. This is an idea I’d like to see explored more. I bet there are DROD holds based on it, although Wonderquest has more mechanics suited to supporting it.

One thing that I found peculiar as I was finishing up the “Master Orion” quest: A lot of the characters have special abilities listed that they never have an opportunity to exercise. In particular, several have a “high morale” bonus that improves their weapon when the party’s resources reach a certain threshold, which you could never reach. What’s this stuff for? By now, I’ve played enough of the followup quest, “Dreams”, to know the answer. It seems to be a solution to a design problem: By the end of “Master Orion”, the author has given us all the playable characters he intends us to have. But he still wants to keep giving us new abilities over the course of “Dreams”, because that’s how he designs puzzles.

Wonderquest: Monster Inventory

I still don’t have any idea why Wonderquest‘s main hold is titled “Master Orion”, but level 14 surprised me by giving a possible explanation for the title “Wonderquest”: in a sequence of texts, the party finds a newly-hatched floating eye monster and adopts it as a pet, naming it Steve Wonder due to its severe myopia. You might think that a creature made entirely of eye should be able to see really well, but in fact all the Eyes in this game have a kind of tunnel vision, remaining dormant until you enter their direct line of sight. If they’re facing diagonally, you can skip right through their line of sight by exploiting the grid. In other words, they’re exactly like the Evil Eyes in DROD.

Let’s take that as a cue to compare the Wonderquest monster roster with that of DROD more fully. Roaches are simply roaches, although the roach queen spawn cycle is 24 turns to match the 24-hour clock, instead of the DROD-standard 30. Mimics are present, although they’re called Elementals, and come in two flavors: fire elementals that copy your movements directly and water elementals that do the exact reverse. There are puzzles where you use a fire-water pair to execute something symmetric, like simultaneously hitting orbs in opposite corners, and there are puzzles that could have perfectly well given you control of a fire elemental but use a water elemental just to make things slightly more difficult. (In one case, it actually gives you a choice, framing it as the easy way vs the hard way and asking “What kind of person are you?” — which was enough to goad me into picking the hard way, even though it’s not really significantly harder in practice.

There’s a sort of creature called a “Fluffy” that’s basically like DROD‘s Wubbas (indestructible and non-deadly but in your way a lot), except willing to slide along obstacles laterally. There’s also an aggressive variant called a “Mad Fluffy”, which, strangely enough, is equivalent to DROD Goblins (avoids your weapon and tries to circle around behind you). This respeciation puzzled me until I found that Fluffies can be turn into Mad Fluffies by holding a lit torch on them for a number of turns. I haven’t yet seen a puzzle where this is something you’d want to do, but it can be done.

More interestingly, this idea of transforming monsters by affecting their mood is also applied to snakes. Snakes have three modes. In their neutral mode, they’re basically equivalent to DROD Serpents, except that they can go over water, creating a nice sea-serpent effect when you’re out on your boat. Get them angry by luring them into explosions, and they turn red, become smarter in their movement, and can go over lava and destroy force arrows. Lure them over food, and they become happy and green, and attempt to imitate your movements when possible. This last seems to be particularly useful in puzzle design, giving us something that’s like a mimic but more awkward, that can’t move diagonally and has to be kept out of the way of its own tail. The thing is, although all three types of snake are used a lot on the level that introduces them (level 13), the transformation capability is hardly used at all. Usually they spend an entire puzzle in one mood.

There are many DROD monsters that have no Wonderquest equivalent so far: Wraithwings, Living Tar, Stone Giants. The only Wonderquest monster without a DROD equivalent is the Butterfly, which moves like a chess knight, and is mainly used to spice up roach hordes a little.

Wonderquest: The Millionaire’s Collection

And now I’m caught up to and slightly past where I left off last time. Level 9 introduces a new playable character: Rick Gates, an axe-wielding English telecommunications millionaire. His primary special ability is that he can turn 180 degrees instantly. I suppose this is a useful skill in the tech world, but on the face of it, it seems like a downgrade from Chen, who’s already facing both directions all the time. I have seen one or two situations where you actually want to leave the space behind you free, but it’s unusual, especially in the sorts of roach-horde-heavy puzzles this level throws at you.

Rick’s secondary ability, the first secondary ability to be seen, is that he can string ziplines between towers to create an above-ground version of DROD‘s tunnels: instant travel between separated points, breaking the plane’s natural connectivity and potentially making for confusing navigation. The level’s finale involves ziplining all around little islands throughout the rooms of the level, recontextualizing their content like it’s Myst 3.

Before he can connect a pair of towers, though, he has to gather enough rope. This is the game’s first use of the resource system that’s been sitting in the bottom of the UI all this time displaying a bunch of zeroes. I was wondering how this would work into the game as a whole. Would the game track resources from room to room, turning it into a big optimization puzzle like DROD RPG? No, it turns out that they’re specific to rooms. If you pick up a pile of rope and then leave the room, it all just goes away, or rather, returns to its initial location as the room resets.

The UI makes me think of the timer in DROD. There, counting turns isn’t relevant until you start encountering roach queens some ways into the game, and so in rooms without timed events, the timer isn’t displayed. (Indeed, it goes away when the last timed element in the room is eliminated.) Addlemoth takes a similar approach. But here, we get the resource counts all the time, even when it serves no purpose. Or does it? Really, it serves the purpose of letting the first-time player know that limited resources are going to be a thing. The early parts of the game are such a throwback to King Dugan’s Dungeon, covering the basics of roach and orb mechanics, that a promise of something novel later on is kind of important to keep the experienced player interested. But that’s a problem probably better solved by starting off with the novel stuff.

Wonderquest: Crumblies

It’s as true in Wonderquest as anywhere else: On your second or third pass through a portion of a game, you might as well go for 100% completion. In level 8, I was slowed down not just because the puzzles are getting harder, but because I spent so much time looking for the last of the level’s secrets.

“Secrets” in this game are collectibles in the form of little trophy icons. I don’t yet know if there’s any in-game reward for collecting them aside from the mere satisfaction of doing so, but the map screen tells you how many there are on each level (usually three or four) and how many you’ve found in total (out of a maximum of 60). Some are in plain sight but hard to reach. Some are invisible until you get very close, but these are always clued in some way. (The clue can be as subtle as “There’s no obvious reason for that alcove over there to exist”, though.) And some are in secret rooms, hidden behind crumbly walls.

Or rather, in most cases, crumbly forest tiles. Walls exist as a distinct tile type, but forest is much more common. Scale in this game is wildly inconsistent, by the way. A forest and a cockroach occupy the same amount of space. Walking the length of your sword takes an hour of game time, and so does turning 45 degrees. And that’s fine. It doesn’t break the sense of realism because nothing in this game ever produced that expectation.

Crumbly forest tiles look very similar to regular ones, but are slightly discolored — just enough for it to be noticeable if you’re looking for it, although it’s easier to see in large patches. Making secret passages just barely visible like this is a venerable tradition, going back to at least Ultima IV, where normal walls and secret doors differed by one pixel. This was noticeable because pixels were much larger in those days. And of course DROD, Wonderquest‘s immediate forebear, also had hard-to-spot crumbly walls, although it also had a much easier-to-spot version, for puzzles that use crumbly walls for something other than hiding the path to a secret, and I think the easier-to-see version was used preferentially anyway as the series came to rely less on hiding information.

Now, level 8 of Wonderquest does something novel with the idea of crumbly walls: it starts making other things crumbly. Like crumbly force arrows, or even a crumbly character-change token. At first I thought it wasn’t playing fair, just throwing on behaviors that couldn’t be discerned from the appearance of the tiles, but on looking closely, I could see a spray of grayish pixels overlaid on these objects, like a crumbliness aura. And in fact if you look more closely with an image editor, the pixels are not just gray but gray-green. It seems that this is what causes the “discolored” appearance in its more usual context, the forest tiles. So “crumbly walls” aren’t really a distinct thing in this game. There’s just walls and crumbliness existing in the same place.

Return to Wonderquest

The demo of Addlemoth was apparently enough to get me jonesing for more neodroddism. I last posted about Wonderquest in 2018; it has spent the entire time since then pinned to my taskbar, awaiting further attention. Opening it again for the first time in four years with intent to actually finish it this time, I found myself in the middle of level 9 (out of probably 20, judging by the “% Complete” stat), enmeshed in a Rube Goldberg contraption of a puzzle, with (predictably) no memory of what I was trying to do or why or how. So I started the game over from the beginning, and got as far as level 7 in a frenzied burst, although my progress is slowing down as the puzzles become more complex and difficult.

I won’t rehash what I said in my previous posts on the game. It’s still less polished than DROD (or even Addlemoth, which is still a work in progress), but worth playing, in my opinion, at least once you get past the first few levels. This is a game that thrives on complexity, building its best puzzles out of masses of moving parts, but it builds up that complexity bit by bit, so it takes a while to become interesting. Particularly if you’re an experienced DROD player and already know the basics of roach-slaying, which, in all likelihood, most of the people who have played it probably were. The only place I’ve ever seen this game even mentioned was on the official DROD forums. That’s where the author published his download links. The forums are still online, but the links are long rotted. I don’t know if there’s anywhere at all you can download it today. I really should finish it while my install is still playable.

Addlemoth (demo) Contrasted to DROD

When I saw Addlemoth mentioned on Twitter as drawing inspiration from DROD, I had to give it a look. Although unfinished, what’s there is already impressive — not just for capturing what I find appealing about DROD, but for forging its own path. I mean, the only other game I really think of as imitating DROD is Wonderquest (which I should really finish up at some point), and Wonderquest imitates DROD so closely and unquestioningly, in style and mechanics, that it made me doubt you could stray far from the DROD formula and still be noticeably DROD-like. Addlemoth proves that it can be done.

Among the ways Addlemoth deviates from the formula: It ditches the “one big contiguous space” idea; puzzles are entirely self-contained and relatively small. The goal in each puzzle is not to slay all the monsters, but to hit one or more magical crystals. (Which usually involves slaying any monsters that get in your way, but they’re obstacles, not goals.) The default weapon isn’t the equivalent of Beethro’s Really Big Sword (although you can obtain that as a power-up in some levels), but an entirely new one with no precise equivalent even in The Second Sky: you can attack instantly in any direction (without moving), or stand still to parry, which temporarily stuns one attacker. This turns out to be fairly rich puzzle fodder when coupled with enemies that know how to move around obstacles.

One touch I really like: Remember how some DROD puzzles have “Challenge Scrolls” that dare you to complete the room under some voluntary restriction, like “never turn” or “don’t move diagonally” or whatever? EVERY room in Addlemoth has this. The “Conduct” challenge has its own spot in the UI, where it only appears after you’ve beaten the puzzle once. A lot of the DROD challenges were invented after-the-fact by players and only later incorporated into the game, and as a result of being thrust upon rooms not designed for them, they were often punishingly fiddly. And to be fair, Addlemoth Conducts get fiddly too, but not to nearly the same degree. It probably helps that the rooms are smaller.

The one part that’s a bit of a letdown so far is the story: in contrast to DROD‘s vividly inventive grotesquery, Addlemoth seems to be fairly standard CRPG fare, taking its cues from D&D and Japanese visual novels. But that’s never stopped me from playing a puzzle game before. I’m looking forward to the full release.

Gemcraft: Grey Trees

I’m still playing Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows. Because the game isn’t strictly ordered, there are still multiple levels I haven’t beat — in particular, the “Vision” levels, optional strategy-puzzle challenges where you don’t have access to the skills and XP you’ve accumulated. Without the option of just bludgeoning a level to submission with superior force, the game can actually be pretty challenging.

But also, if I finish all those, there are still the Achievements. There’s a lot of them. Do I want to achieve them all? I don’t know. Maybe. It depends on how many are left after I’ve completed all the levels. But there’s one particular achievement that I definitely want to try for, and that’s because it’s a riddle. Its name is “Grey Trees” and its description, where most of the game’s Achievements give you explicit instructions on how to get it, is simply “11331791”.

Some possible leads: I’ve seen some grey trees in a level or two; there was one level in particular where all the trees were grey. The in-game Achievements page can be filtered by various keywords, such as “Gem” or “Enhancement spell” or “Destroy”, and the only keyword for Grey Trees is “Click”. Most levels display gameplay tips while they’re loading; a few instead show a row of gem shapes. Since the shape of a gem indicates its “grade”, this is a way of representing a sequence of numbers. And every one of the levels with the gem shapes also contains a mysterious compass embedded in the ground, which rotates to point in a new direction every time you click on it. The direction of the compass has no obvious effect, but the game considers them important enough that compass levels are marked with a special icon on the map screen.

I’m assuming that I’ll have to turn the compasses to some particular direction, but what? I’ll have to do some experiments, find out if the gem shapes vary from level to level and if changing the compass direction changes them. And once I get everything into the right orientation, what then? Is that the only step needed? Will it open up some extra-secret level? I don’t know.

It all reminds me of the special post-Mastery levels in the later DROD games. But DROD was already a puzzle game; adding in additional secret puzzles was far from unexpected. But then, neither is it incongruous here. It may not match the gameplay, but it fits right in with the fiction, a story of wizards facing uncertainty, fighting a shadowy foe who outsmarts them at every turn.

Wonderquest: Level 8 Reflections

I’m up to Wonderquest‘s eighth level, which I think must be just about where I stopped the first time around. One thing in particular I remember: some dialogue where someone asks Chen the Scientist whether he believes in God. This isn’t something you often see discussed in games that aren’t specifically about God, although it’s plausible that it would come up in the circumstances. You’ve got a bunch of strangers from different walks of life and different cultures thrown together and relying on each other for survival over a longish period; it makes sense that they’d want to sound each other out on matters they consider important. But it would be an uncomfortable moment, and I remember it made me a little uncomfortable even to see it in the game back then, especially when the designated scientist replies that of course be believes, the signs of a guiding mind are all around us. What I didn’t remember, however, is that it’s all just a lead-in to a joke, a wink to the audience about how the world is made of tiles and has all these puzzles built into it.

We get a major new non-DROD-based element on level 8, beam emitters that emit beams that act as obstacles, kill stuff that’s in the way, and even slowly burn their way through forest tiles. Force arrows can deflect the beams, as can Lucas the Priest’s shiny crucifix, making him a great deal more useful, at least for the duration of this level. I had been thinking of Lucas as the one real downgrade character, characterized mainly by his movement limitations, never preferred, only used when the game forces the issue. But when you think about it, the real downgrade is the one you start with, Jax. There are very few situations where Nikolay the Archer isn’t simply preferable to him.

It’s worth noting that switching characters persists from room to room. If you leave a room in control of the Archer, you’ll still be the Archer when you enter the next room. The Second Sky tried to make it look like it had a similar system for its weapons, but I’m pretty sure that it was faking — that each room simply had its own default weapon, and the game contrived to make sure you were already wielding it before you entered. Whereas in Wonderquest, there are rooms you can enter as multiple different people. Usually this just means the room is partly water, and you can sail in from an adjacent room as Berk the Sailor, and have no place to land, and have to go somewhere else to come ashore and reach the room the proper way. Anything other than that risks breaking the puzzles by coming in with the wrong powers, and so rooms where you can change who you are tend to put unbypassable change-back-to-Jax tiles at all their exits. But there are secrets to be found by exploiting the exceptions.

At any rate, by level 8, the puzzles are getting quite complex, and character-switching and beam emitters are only part of it — although it should be remembered that complexity is pretty much orthogonal to difficulty, and some of the least complex puzzles in DROD are among the most difficult ones, including some that I’m still stuck on. One of the more convoluted multi-stage puzzles on level 8 is identified by a scroll on the ground as the first complete Wonderquest room ever made, which surprised me a little. I’d expect the first puzzle made to be one that uses fewer elements, so that you wouldn’t have to implement a whole bunch of new ideas to get it working.

Game Idea: Locked Room Mystery

A recently-announced itch.io game jam is giving me ideas — ideas that are probably too vague and ambitious for the jam, so I’m going to describe them here instead. The jam is titled “No Shit Sherlock“, and it bears this mission statement:

How many times have you bought a detective game hoping to feel like Sherlock Holmes and got disappointed? I’ll tell you. Too many.

Detective games are broken, most of them at least.

These games should be about feeling like the smartest person in the room. Seeing what everybody else missed and connecting the dots. Getting to that wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on.

Why aren’t we making better detective games? Well, because it’s damn hard. We need to experiment, go wild and try out new things. And when it comes to trying out new solutions nothing beats a jam. Let’s get together as a community and fix detective games for the sake of humanity

Now, a thing about game jams: The ideas you get are going to be influenced by whatever is on your mind, which tends to be the games you’ve been playing. For example, when there was a Myst jam a couple of years ago, I was spending a lot of time playing a tower defense game, and so it occurred to me that Myst‘s “Channelwood” section, with its network of walkways, bore a superficial resemblance to a tower defense, and I wound up making a tower-defense-ish thing in that setting. Nowadays, I have DROD on the mind, and it’s in that frame of mind that I read this announcement. And… it’s a surprisingly good fit. “That wonderful moment in which everything clicks and you figure out what’s going on”? The only difference between that and the the experience of discovering the lynchpin in a good DROD puzzle is the tense, whether you’re figuring out what already happened or what has to happen.

Locked room mysteries in particular resemble DROD puzzles, or a certain style of DROD puzzle: the ones that look flatly impossible until you have the right clever idea. Finding that clever idea is often a matter of deduction — once you have eliminated the unworkable, whatever remains, however difficult, must be correct. I’m imagining (vaguely) a game that makes this shared sensibility more explicit.

You’d have a room — probably a grid of discrete tiles, just like in DROD, to keep things simple. You’d start by being shown the room in its final state, as it was when the police arrived. DROD lets you right-click on elements to get more information about them, and Wonderquest does it on mere hover; dress this feature up with a magnifying-glass-shaped cursor and it becomes thematic. This would give the player some ability to learn about how things behave and start to form theories about what must have happened before proceeding to the second stage: reproducing events. A flashback, in which you control one suspect of your choice and try to make the room match the state in which you found it. All other suspects would behave according to simple deterministic rules, as would everything else in the environment. Maybe there would be obvious approaches that almost work, but not quite — the bloodstains are one tile away from they belong, or the broken glass is on the wrong side of the window. Any such discrepancies would be highlighted, and you’d get to try again.

The key thing here would be to try to eliminate ambiguity. It seems to me that most mystery games, if they make any attempt to induce clever deductions on the player’s part, fail by relying on assumptions that the player may not share. The player gives up and reads the solution, and at a crucial point it says “The only way to the second story window was by a ladder in the garage…” and the player’s response is “What? I could climb that wall!” A droddified reconstruction stage would make it clear exactly what the mechanics of the gameworld are, and thus what is and is not possible.

Wonderquest: Characters

Character-switching is really the main thing distinguishing Wonderquest from DROD, as far as I can tell. There are two ways it can happen. First, you can step on a tile that simply transforms the character under your control to a different one. The fiction is that all the characters in your party are travelling together, so I suppose this is an abstraction of giving a different person the lead. And he’ll remain in the lead even if you walk into a different room — often rooms will prevent this by putting tiles to change you back at all of a room’s exits, but there are occasional secrets guarded by obstacles that can only be overcome by transforming in another room some distance away.

But the more interesting way to switch, puzzle-wise, is the Party Splitter tiles. In any room containing Party Splitters, some will be marked with an icon and others will be empty. Step on one with an icon, and you gain control of the corresponding party member while leaving the one you were previously controlling behind. Once you’ve done that, you can step on an empty splitter of the same color to switch back, leaving your current character dormant at that spot. It’s kind of like switching back and forth between clones or squaddies in DROD, and has some of the same uses, like ping-ponging monsters around as they keep switching who to pursue. But unlike in DROD, you can’t just do it anywhere, and the characters are not interchangeable. They all have unique abilities and limitations. This makes the act of switching more interesting and meaningful.

Here are the abilities and limitations of the characters I’ve acquired so far.

Jax, the Beggar: The initial player character. Armed with a knife. Completely equivalent to Beethro in the DROD games.

Nikolay, the Archer (or Trekker, depending on which part of the UI you pay attention to): Capable of killing at a distance of five tiles, provided they’re in a straight line in one of the eight directions you can face. Perhaps ironically for an archer, he can’t step on force arrows. He can, however, climb towers that Jax can’t, and from atop them fire arrows over obstacles.

Berk, the Sailor: Capable of traveling on water, but can’t come on land unless it’s to step on a character-change or party-splitter tile, which seriously curbs his usefulness. Unique for not being displayed on the map as a human figure; instead, he’s shown as a little boat. No offensive capabilities. Honestly, he feels more like a mode of transportation than a character, but he uses the same character-changing mechanics as everyone else.

Lucas, the Priest: At this point, we abandon all attempt at linking the character’s profession to their abilities. Lucas’ main advantage is that he’s invisible to Eyes (which act just like the ones in DROD). The game explains this as him blinding them by reflecting light from his crucifix, which is also his weapon, equivalent to Jax’s knife. At any rate, it’s a fairly minor power, only useful because the puzzles are designed around it, and doesn’t feel like it makes up for his limitations: he can’t walk on grass, which is the main terrain type in most rooms, and he can’t move diagonally (another possible irony, considering how certain other games make their clergy only capable of moving diagonally). Not being able to move diagonally lets the author use him for pure Sokoban puzzles, which may or may not be a good thing for the work.

Chen, the Scientist: Another mishmash of disparate traits that don’t have much to do with his profession. He’s armed with a bamboo pole that sticks out in two opposite directions, letting him attack monsters on both sides at once. He can’t step on mud, which is usually where the Priest is found, as if science and religion are too incompatible to share turf. But most importantly, he can swim. He has to remain within 2 tiles of shore, but unlike Berk, he can land anyplace, provided it’s not mud.

It’s a highly international group, hailing from New York, Russia, Denmark, Brazil, and China. They’re all male, though.

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