TCB: Halph

Looking over my ten-year-old posts on The City Beneath, I’m surprised at some things I didn’t describe. I suppose I was avoiding spoilers at the time. Well, there’s less point in avoiding spoilers when the final revelation of this episode is given away by a subsequent episode’s title and cover art. So let’s talk about Halph.

I’ve mentioned how Journey to Rooted Hold hints at Halph becoming like the Neather. In TCB, this gets even more pointed. In the year between episodes that Beethro spent journeying beneath, Halph fell in with the Dungeon Architects. He’s happily assimilated into the Empire, and regards Beethro as his enemy, with all the fervor of a rebellious adolescent who’s found new friends that his family doesn’t like. And so he appears as the end boss of TCB, in a cycle of rooms organized much like the Neather’s lair, overseeing the puzzles from control chambers that you can’t reach until you’ve solved it all. The one big difference is that instead of just opening and closing doors to control the flow of monsters, Halph commands an army of Builders, who alter the contents of the dungeon at his command, erecting or tearing down walls, bridging chasms, removing the supports from bridges, and so forth. The puzzles here are about trying to control the Builders yourself — for example, by blocking off certain construction areas with monsters, forcing the Builders to work on something else. I feel like there’s a lot of potential that the level only begins to explore. More importantly, though, it puts Halph into the role of game designer even more clearly than the Neather ever was. The Neather had a role in executing puzzles, but Halph is involved in actually constructing them. And, as with the Neather, defeating Halph means breaking into his dev-only area, behind his freshly-built walls.

Not because you want to kill Halph, though. Beethro would be fine without this conflict. He just wants to get to the bottom of things, by literally getting to the bottom of things. But Halph is in his way, refusing to let him see what’s at Lowest Point. Why? Not because Halph knows what Beethro will find, but specifically because he does not. He doesn’t want to learn anything that might challenge his new-found faith. Beethro, for his part, freely calls him out on this, annoying him no end. It’s a lovely dynamic for a boss fight: villain as petulant child, hero as irritating uncle who knows how to push his buttons.

JtRH: Enter the Mud

Level 14 of Journey to Rooted Hold is the first appearance of the Awakened Mud, which is sort of like inverse Living Tar. Where tar can be cut on its edges but not on its corners, mud can be cut on its corners but not on its edges. The result is that clearing mud is fundamentally simpler. Cutting away a corner generally creates a new corner adjacent to the old one, so in the absence of walls or other obstacles, you can clear any mudshape by shaving it away in layers. Thus, to avoid being trivial, mud puzzles tend to use walls or other obstacles.

When there’s something you need to reach in the middle of a large pool of tar — usually a Tar Mother — all you need to do is reach the pool’s edge and you can slice your way through the thick of it and straight to your objective. You can’t do that with mud. The only way get to the middle of a mud pool is by removing enough mud that it isn’t the middle any more. Relatedly, if tar growth leaves you completely surrounded, you can cut your way free, but in mud, you just get stuck, immobilized by stuff you can’t damage. In short, mud behaves very differently from tar, and has a very different effect on puzzles.

JtRH takes a clever approach to illustrating this. Level 14 is basically just a selection of tar puzzles from King Dugan’s Dungeon turned upside-down and with the tar changed to mud. I don’t remember this from the first time I played through JtRH. Maybe I noticed at the time and just forgot about it, or maybe I’m only noticing this time around because I played KDD so recently. Regardless, the impact of recognition here is the one good reason I’ve seen for playing KDD before JtRH. It must be very strange to see the mud versions of these rooms first, because the conversion leaves in elements that don’t make sense, design-wise. For example, there’s one room that, in its original form, has a door that’s opened by an orb that’s very difficult to reach, because it’s in a tar-filled area that’s only exposed at its corners. In the mud version, the orb is trivial to reach, but also kind of pointless, because both sides of the door are also trivial to reach.

What really tickles me is the way the game builds story around all this. Overheard conversations and discarded memos depict a feud between the Tar Technicians and the Mud Coordinators, the latter being a recently-formed group that’s regarded by the former as upstarts peddling an inferior imitation. And the Tar Technicians have a point. Mud is inferior to tar from pretty much every perspective. As a defense, it’s more easily defeated. Because it’s so easily cleared, it has less potential for interesting puzzle design. Because you have to peel it away in layers instead of just plowing through the middle, it’s more tedious for the player. The reuse of old tar puzzles doesn’t just illustrate the differences between the two substances, it reinforces the “inferior imitation” idea, as if the Mud Coordinators didn’t have any new ideas of their own. From one overheard conversation, we learn that the reason that the rooms of Level 14 are all upside-down from the originals is that the architect was holding the blueprint the wrong way up, further emphasizing the sense of incompetence.

This is stuff we didn’t see in KDD. When tar was first introduced, it was just a new puzzle element, one of those things you find in dungeons. In JtRH, new elements have stories associated with them, with characters and conflicts and meaning. And old elements gain these things retroactively.

DROD: The Neather

Despite being basically plotless, King Dugan’s Dungeon manages to anticipate the story of the sequels in its last couple of levels. Level 24’s theme is that it’s a city of monsters, or at any rate an imitation of a city with some monsters squatting in it. It’s not the city from The City Beneath, but it’s certainly a city beneath, and may even have been intended by its creator as a substitute for the real thing.

That creator is called the “Neather”. He’s essentially KDD‘s end boss, and another big part of how the game anticipates the story to come. Before the sequels, the Neather was the only human presence in the dungeon besides the player, and the only other being with the ability to trigger the orbs that open and close doors. Throughout level 25, he uses this to manipulate the environment from inaccessible control rooms, cutting off paths you want to take and letting monsters out at inconvenient moments. In other words, he’s a symbol for the game designer. This makes it seem significant that so many of the puzzles here end with the player breaking into his control area, causing him to flee to the next room. The game is basically telling you that when you’re done with everything else, your job is to take the designer’s place — and certainly a great many DROD fans have taken that to heart, producing their own Holds.

I said before that one of DROD‘s strengths is that everything, even an enemy, is potentially useful in the right circumstances. Even the Neather? Yes. There’s one room that can only be passed as a sort of team effort, as both you and the Neather take turns letting each other through a cycle of doors. I mean, it’s still fundamentally antagonistic: there’s a choice of paths within that cycle, and the Neather tries to choose paths that will prevent you from escaping the room along with him. It amounts to a two-player mini-game.

In the end, you have to kill the Neather. The puzzle content forces it, and even at the level of story, it’s arguably a necessary part of killing everything in the dungeon to fulfill Beethro’s contract with King Dugan. And it’s an uncomfortable moment, for several reasons. First, it’s clearly murder. The current version of the game muddies the distinction between murder and monster-slaying a bit by giving some of the goblins lines of dialogue, but generally speaking, you spend this game squishing mindless bugs, not people. Secondly, there’s some implication (in a post-game epilogue, although I think it might have been mentioned in the docs in earlier versions) that the Neather is actually King Dugan’s lost son, who crawled into the dungeon as an infant and was never seen again. So Dugan is unknowingly paying you to kill his own kin. Then there’s the business of Beethro’s nephew Halph, who shows up as an NPC in the sequels. Halph has an affinity for monsters: they don’t attack him, just as they don’t attack the Neather. I haven’t yet seen where they take this in The Second Sky, but there’s a strong implication that Halph is basically becoming a new Neather over the course of the next two games. If, to Beethro, Neathers are monsters, worthy only of slaughter, what does that mean for his own kin? Finally, just in case you’re not already thinking of this killing as a matter worth stopping to think about, the game goes and pops up a confirmation prompt when you try to kill the Neather. It’s not a real choice; you can’t finish the game without killing him. It just gives you pause and maybe makes you stop and look for another way, a way that involves sparing him and bringing him back to the surface with you. In which case you have to give up, tainting your victory with defeat.

DROD: Brains

To be clear, even after King Dugan’s Dungeon establishes the pattern of theme levels, not every level is a theme level. There are still a few variety levels, where each room does something completely different. But on the levels where it goes for a theme, it goes hard. I’ve just been through a very strong example of this: floor 20, where the game introduces Brains.

I’ve mentioned Brains before. Brains don’t attack you directly, but rather, make all the other monsters on the level a little smarter, giving them access to a simple pathing algorithm that tells them how to get aorund obstacles without getting stuck. Intriguingly, it seems like Brains don’t so much tell the monsters what to do as give them a better perspective on the world. Ordinarily, roaches try to get as close to you as possible, roach queens try to get as far away from you as possible, goblins try to avoid your sword and charge you from the back or side, wraithwings try to stay 5 squares away from you until they can mob you in a group. Brains change none of this. They just change how the monsters assess distance. Without a Brain, roach queens tend to get stuck in corners, where there’s only 3 empty adjacent tiles to spawn new roaches in. With a Brain, you can wind up chasing a queen around a loop if you’re not careful. Serpents seem to be a special case, or perhaps just expose a little more of the general case than the other monsters. Ordinarily, a serpent will make a beeline for you if you’re directly in line with its head horizontally or vertically, and otherwise wiggle around according to a set of rules too complicated to describe here. Add a Brain, and the serpent seems to regard you as always directly in line with its head, and will head towards you according to the same distance rules as everything else.

The main effect of Brains is to erase some of your most useful tactics. You can’t just get a pile of roaches stuck behind a wall where you don’t have to worry about them immediately. Everything that’s awake and not completely isolated knows how to find you. Instead, your movements have to be geared towards making sure you don’t have to fend off monsters from multiple directions at once. If you can get them all lined up in front of you in a hallway, it’s really no worse than normal. In fact, the Brain can make things easier at that point, by guiding all the monsters to you so you don’t have to hunt them down.

In fact, there’s one puzzle where this is completely necessary: in one part of the room, there’s a roach in a sort of labyrinth where every passable tile is a trap door. You can’t go into this labyrinth, because the trap doors would collapse behind you and you’d have no way out, and it’s set up to be impossible to lead the roach out by the normal roach movement rules. No, you just have to wait for the Brain in the room to guide it out, which means refraining from killing the Brain. It’s kind of like refraining from killing the tar mother in that room I described in my last post. Come to think of it, we can probably generalize this to a pattern: situational advantages of things normally regarded as enemies or obstacles. There’s a whole floor devoted to using goblins to kill serpents. Even the humble roach can be used as an obstacle to keep wraithwings from fleeing out of sword-range. It strikes me that one of the big strengths of the DROD ruleset is that it’s rich enough to support situations like this. Everything has some potential use.

DROD: Repeat Play

Getting back into DROD after all this time has proved fairly easy. All the little tactical swordfighting tricks that I picked up in my first play-through are still with me: how to efficiently cut down a horde of attackers, how to manipulate a goblin or wraithwing into going where I want. A great many individual rooms are still familiar to me, too — not so much so that I’d be able to recall them from memory alone, but enough for me to recognize them when I see them, and remember the main secret to solving them.

This seems to be less the case as I go deeper, though. Floor 18 is almost entirely unfamiliar to me. I suppose this makes sense — this isn’t my first attempt at a replay. I recall playing through at least the beginning in preparation for at least one of the sequels. At one point I even started playing through the game to make notes for a Hold 1“Hold” is DROD‘s term for a set of player-made levels. I was contemplating making, a “King Dugan’s Dungeon Condensed” that would attempt to distill the essential features of each floor of the original dungeon into a single room. I never finished that; I think I gave up when I found some floors that were too heterogeneous to easily summarize. The point is, I have played the beginning of this game several more times than the ending.

Nonetheless, I’m managing to clear rooms at a pretty good clip, and never really get stuck — except on one thing. The one new, unfamiliar thing. The Challenges. I’ve gotten fairly severely stuck on those several times. Floor 16 had no less than three Challenge rooms that took me multiple sessions to solve.

The thing about the Challenges is that they’re fiddly. They involve precise positioning and optimization, often even to the point where you have to already be in the correct orientation when you enter the room, just so you don’t have to waste a turn or two turning about. Without Challenges, most of the rooms in King Dugan’s Dungeon ask no more of you than competent footwork and the ability to spot the “lynchpin”, the non-obvious idea that makes it all easy. A lot of the Challenges are specifically based on ignoring a room’s lynchpin. drod-challengeFor example, one of the rooms in floor 16 is based on using tar growth, normally an inconvenience, to your advantage. There’s a serpent in a completely inaccessible area, together with a small bit of tar. Serpents die when they get caught in dead ends, but there’s no dead end in that area. The lynchpin: You can create a dead end just by letting the tar spread all the way to the wall. To do this, you have to ignore the temptation to kill the “tar mother” (the thing that makes the tar grow) for three complete growth cycles. The Challenge for that room: Kill the tar mother before the third growth cycle. I had to learn more than I had ever before needed to know about Serpent behavior to solve that one.

I’ve been spending so much more time on Challenges than on anything else that they’re basically the dominant part of my experience by now. Now, bear in mind that Challenges are optional. I could just skip them, solve the rooms the easy way and move on. But why would I do that? I’m in no rush to reach an ending I’ve already seen, or solve more puzzles I’ve already solved. No, for a return visitor like myself, having the Challenges dominate the experience is probably a good thing.

1 “Hold” is DROD‘s term for a set of player-made levels.

DROD: the Model

There’s a pattern I’ve referred to before as “the DROD model”. In this model, each chapter of a game introduces a new element or concept, be it a monster, an environmental feature, or even just a particular combination of previously-introduced elements that interact in some interesting way. The chapter is then entirely devoted to exploiting this theme for all it’s worth, exploring the different uses that the game designer can put it to and the various ways the player can be made to deal with it. Having been thus introduced, it is added to the palette of things available for general use in later chapters with different themes.

This is a pretty common pattern in puzzle games, but I think of it as the DROD model because the DROD games exhibit it so clearly and thoroughly. So now that I’m replaying King Dugan’s Dungeon, I’m a little surprised at how long it takes to find it.

The first floor of the dungeon with an obvious theme is Floor 6. Floor 6 is based on the gimmick of reusing room layouts, keeping the walls and floors the same but varying the puzzles via placement of monsters and orbs and force arrows and the like. I wouldn’t really call this an example of the DROD model, because although this reuse is a striking feature of the floor as a whole, it doesn’t exactly factor into the individual puzzles, and isn’t particularly reusable. (The same can be said about floor 13, the infamous maze level.) Floor 7 comes closer to the ideal: it introduces serpents, and is mainly made up of serpent puzzles — but then it throws in a couple of rooms populated entirely by roaches and evil eyes. You don’t get a floor dedicated entirely to serpent puzzles until floor 12, which fails the model simply because serpents aren’t new — although I suppose you could argue that the theme of floor 12 is really long serpents. Floor 8 fits the model completely: it introduces tar, and every single room in it is all about tar. And the game seems to be mostly pretty dedicated to its theme levels from that point on, except for conspicuously backtracking on its new-found commitment in floor 10. This floor introduces spiders, and starts with a couple of dedicated spider rooms with lots of spiders in them, but then it throws in a bunch of roach rooms, even as the rooms remain thematically spidery in shape.

What I find especially intriguing is that the introduction of monsters in the first few levels follow a different commonly-seen pattern. The first time you see a wraithwing, you see only one. It’s in a room full of roaches, on a floor full of rooms full of roaches, and it’s a little while before you see any more. It’s like the game wants to get you used to wraithwings bit by bit by using them as a seasoning on top of roach puzzles before it makes them the main topic. Evil eyes get a similar treatment. This is a pattern that I mostly associate with action games and CRPGs, things based on escalating power. In those games, new enemies appear sparingly at first and become gradually more numerous because that’s how the game ramps up the difficulty. Like, you’ve shown you can beat a Biomechanoid, but can you beat two at once? Six? A whole battalion of them? OK, what if we add a Major Biomechanoid to the mix? Anyway, for the most part, DROD doesn’t really work like that. There is a significant difference between slaying one goblin and fending off three at once, due to the way that they try to flank you, but apart from that, number isn’t strongly related to difficulty. Some of the most difficult puzzles I’ve seen are ones where all you have to do is slay a single roach. The infamous maze level, for example.

DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon 2.0

It’s been quite some time since I last posted about DROD, and in that time, Caravel has released two more episodes, completing the series. They’re even on GOG and Steam now. I played the fourth episode, Gunthro and the Epic Blunder, during this blog’s hiatus, but I haven’t yet played episode 5, The Second Sky, and I’ve been thinking for some time that I should go back and blog my way through the entire series from the beginning, picking up TSS after replaying Gunthro. So now I’ve started the newest release of the first episode, King Dugan’s Dungeon, and I’m already up to Floor 13, the infamous maze level.

On Steam, the first three episodes are only available as DLC for episode 4. This may sound like a strange way to go about things, but it kind of makes sense: Gunthro is a prequel, so new players who buy it before getting its DLC would be seeing events in chronological order. It’s also a much better jumping-on point than episode 1, both because it’s easier and because it’s overall better-designed — I’ve commented before about how it took the designers a while to figure out what DROD really wanted to be. (As a dev I know recently said, “Games don’t know what they are until they ship. They don’t know what they should have been until 6 weeks after that.”) DROD has kind of the same problem as certain webcomics: because the design has noticeably improved over the course of the series, starting at the beginning means getting the worst possible first impression. In webcomics, artists have sometimes dealt with this by going back and redrawing their earlier strips. DROD does something similar: King Dugan’s Dungeon has been revamped multiple times over its history.

The version I’m playing now has some dialogue lines that I don’t remember hearing before. It’s mostly just comments from Beethro about the puzzle content, but there’s at least one bit where you overhear a couple of strangers on the other side of a wall talking about the Tar Authority, linking the mostly-plotless KDD just a little more to the story of the subsequent episodes. There’s new music, supplementing the originals so that each tune gets re-used less often. There’s something of a clash there, because although the new music is in roughly the same style as the old, it’s considerably less dorky. The graphics are of course updated, and take advantage of the colored lighting and fog effects introduced after the original. In addition to all the UI conveniences of later episodes, there’s one new one: sometimes, you can re-open doors in a previously-solved room by just pressing a button, so you don’t have to go through the motions of hitting the right orbs again every time you want to walk through it. This seems to only apply to a few of the most annoying rooms, though.

The biggest change from what I remember is the Challenges. A few rooms on each floor have them, described by scrolls on the floor and tied into the Steam Achievement system: “Clear this room without moving your sword”, say, or “Don’t move diagonally”, or “Only hit the westernmost orb once”. Mind, there’s always been a certain amount of this in DROD. The very first floor of KDD has a room that acts as a sort of tutorial in killing large numbers of roaches in corridors of increasing width, the widest and least defensible one having a small highly-defensible alcove halfway down its length. After you get through it all, there’s a scroll on the floor saying that a true sword master could clear the room without using the alcove. That’s been the case in every version I’ve played. The difference is that now, doing without the alcove is formally recognized.

Sometimes the scroll describing a Challenge is easily accessible from the entrance. Sometimes it’s on the opposite side of a green door, so that you need to solve the room once before you can read it. I suppose the idea is that that some rooms are hard enough that you really need to solve them once without the Challenge before you can start to think about solving them with it. But of course I’ve solved all the rooms once or twice already, if not recently. When I see that inaccessible scroll, I try to guess what the Challenge could be — and on the rare occasion that I guess right, and manage to pass the Challenge before reading the scroll, it’s all the sweeter for it.

Still, for all the little changes, this is basically the old familiar deadly rooms of death. I’ll have more to say about the experience of replaying them, and what I’d forgotten about them, in my next post.

DROD: User Interface

drod-doorsI’ve come to really like the improvements that have been made to the DROD user interface. Basically, each episode makes more information available.

For example, one of the basic mechanisms in DROD is orbs that open, close, or toggle gates when struck. The City Beneath also has pressure plates that do the same when trod on (which means you can trigger them from a distance by inducing monsters to walk over them). But the orbs and pressure plates are not necessarily near the gates they affect. In the original DROD, if there were multiple orbs in a room, the only way to know what they did was to try them out, which you could only do for the ones that are acessible at any moment.

Well, ever since Journey to Rooted Hold, you can click on these controls to highlight the doors they affect, in colors indicating whether it opens, closes, or toggles each door. I didn’t use this feature much when I learned about it, but it’s become a very big deal. One of the basic DROD room patterns is making the player hit a series of checkpoints in a specific order by giving each an orb that unlocks the door to the next. With the new UI, I can know in advance the order I’ll have to hit them in, and plan accordingly. Even in rooms where all the orbs are accessible from the beginning, it’s nice to not have to try them all out (and possibly render the puzzle unsolvable in the process because you let the cockroaches out too early or something).

Once they implemented this click-to-highlight system, the designers started using it in various other ways, such as clicking on an Evil Eye to show its line of sight, or (new in The City Beneath) clicking on a bomb to highlight the area that will be affected by its blast. This was never secret information. All bombs in the game have the same blast radius. So displaying that radius on demand is just a convenience. You know something? Conveniences are nice.

I actually didn’t notice most of these features in Journey to Rooted Hold, which wasn’t as aggressive about pointing them out as the new episode, but there was one enhancement that was hard to not notice: it added a clock to the screen whenever there was a timed event pending. Mainly this meant timing the spawn cycle of Roach Queens and Tar Mothers, both of which cause new stuff to appear every 30 turns. Knowing exaclty how soon that’s going to happen is often crucial, and it was easy to lose track when playing the original DROD.

The general principle here is that providing easy access to crucial information helps the player, by making the process of solving the puzzles easier, but doesn’t actually make the puzzle itself easier. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but an important one, and one that’s illuminated by my recent experiences with Roberta Williams’ Time Zone. Williams chose to make things inconvenient for the player, making you reload saves and do things over again because you used the wrong weapon or brought the wrong selection of objects into the endgame. She chose this, I think, because she was trying to create a difficult game, and the understanding of the time did not differentiate between difficulty in solving a game and difficulty in playing it.

The designers of DROD have a better idea of what their gameplay is about. It’s not about keeping secrets from the player. It’s about applying known rules in complex and novel ways.

drod-tar1It’s interesting, then, that they still choose to retain the possibility of hiding information in some ways. Let me explain: I’ve just reached the point in The City Beneath where the Living Tar makes its appearance. Living Tar, and its variant Awakened Mud, form DROD‘s version of ooze monsters. In its simplest state, tarstuff (the word applies to both forms) lies in inert pools covering multiple tiles, not crossable and only partially vulnerable to attack: Tar is invlunerable on its convex corners, while Mud is invulnerable everywhere but its corners. Either must be cleared away one tile at a time.

Now, until cleared, tarstuff conceals any terrain features in the tiles it occupies, including orbs, pressure plates, gates, and even walls. This is significant information-hiding. The original King Dugan’s Dungeon had some puzzles that relied on tarstuff’s concealing properties. For example, there was a maze completely covered in tar, which you had to cut carefully lest you wind up with an invulnerable tar corner blocking the path you needed to take. This isn’t really in the DROD style as I’ve described it above, but it’s typical for the first game in a series to have a few klunkers.

drod-tar2The City Beneath provides a way to see what’s under tarstuff, but it isn’t a user-interface feature like the other things I’ve been describing. Rather, there’s an in-game “token”, a special tile type that effectively gives Beethro X-ray vision when activated, rendering all tarstuff translucent.

I can think of three possible reasons why tarstuff visibility isn’t handled through a simple click like the other new information features. First, it could be that there will at some later point be puzzles that rely on concealing information with tarstuff. I hope this isn’t the case, because it’s difficult to imagine the result being anything more than a guessing-game, and I think the DROD designers are past that now. Second, it could be that the designers wanted to preserve the ability to play levels created in the older engines without drastically altering the play experience. I don’t know that that’s a great priority for them, though: surely some of those old levels are drastically altered by the ability to click on an orb to see what it does. Third, it could just be the difficulty of creating a user interface to deal with it reasonably. If you click on tarstuff to see under it, and you click on orbs to see what they affect, how do you see what’s affected by an orb concealed by tarstuff?

DROD: The City Beneath

drod-cityHaving played the oldest games on the Stack, it’s meet that we now continue with the newest: the first game on the Stack to be released after I started this blog. DROD: The City Beneath is a game I’ve been looking forward to.

I suppose I’ll have to explain the DROD phenomenon a little, because it’s way too indy to attract any significant media attention. Known to connoisseurs but not sold in stores. The word “cult” probably belongs in here somewhere. Originally known as Deadly Rooms of Death, it’s a turn-based puzzle game in the dungeon-crawl idiom, its gameplay somewhere between Gauntlet and Sokoban. The goal is simple: kill all the monsters. A single blow from your Really Big Sword will destroy any living thing in the square it touches. The controls are also simple: use the arrow keys to move one square in any direction, and the “Q” and “W” keys to rotate 45 degrees, swinging your Really Big Sword 1Yes, it has to be capitalized like that. Be grateful I have enough self-control to refrain from adding a trademark symbol. as you do so. It uses these two simple things to create complex puzzles. The basic way the game works, from the first episode onward, is that most levels introduce a new monster type or terrain feature and then exploit its puzzle potential in every imaginable way. When its potential is exhausted, you proceed to the next level and get a new puzzle theme to explore exhaustively.

The first game had a simple storyline involving Beethro Budkin, dungeon exterminator, being hired to clear out the levels below the castle of one King Dugan. It left one hook for future adventures: one room had a door that could only be opened from the other side. The sequel, Journey to Rooted Hold, had Beethro getting through that door and discovering to his shock and surprise that the game had a plot. It seems that the accretion of additional levels to the bottom of Dugan’s dungeon in successive versions of the original game isn’t just a natural phenomenon, but the activity of an underground empire founded in the pursuit of knowledge — a hive of secrets, seemingly pointless activity, and endless bureaucracy. NPCs were introduced, Beethro’s nephew Halph (who assisted Beethro with some of the puzzles) started acting creepy and disappeared, a voice from a vast pit muttered cryptic nonsense. The City Beneath, the new episode, picks up where that left off, with Beethro arriving at the empire’s capital. The city is a hub of pure scenery and NPC interaction where Beethro isn’t even allowed to use his sword, with puzzle areas around its periphery. In a way, this hub section reminds me of Knytt, an experimental work that’s more art object than game.

That’s the basics. More details will follow, when I’m not in a hurry to get back to playing it. This is a real 5 AM game.

1 Yes, it has to be capitalized like that. Be grateful I have enough self-control to refrain from adding a trademark symbol.