Wizardry I: Architectural Surrealism

This time around, I’m really noticing just how weird the entire dungeon is, viewed as anything other than an abstraction. This is a place that just doesn’t make sense. And I’m not even just talking about the physically unrealistic aspects, like wraparound. I mean that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would build it this way, even bearing in mind that it’s a labyrinth created by a wizard.

I think of my recent experiences with Litil Divil. That was a completely artificial labyrinth, with tunnels meandering this way and that for no reason other than to be circuitous, punctuated with rooms containing challenges of various sorts. There’s a senselessness to that, but it’s a top-down senselessness, a senselessness of purpose. The details of the maze and its rooms make perfect sense as an execution of a strange and pointless intention. The dungeon in Wizardry I has rooms too, and hallways leading to rooms, and corridors with rows of doors leading to rooms on either side. What’s in these rooms? In most cases, absolutely nothing. They’re not rooms that serve a purpose. It’s as if the whole thing was built by an alien intelligence that knows that human buildings have rooms in them, but doesn’t understand why.

Alternately, I guess you could decide that the minimalism of the graphics is just hiding implied details. But that just leaves you in the position of trying to imagine details that make sense of rings of tiny rooms or cycles of one-way doors. Level 5 is particularly chaotic. I recall the short-lived Leslie Nielsen comedy series Police Squad! had a recurring gag involving a door that one character goes through while another just goes around the wall of the set it’s in. There’s a door like that near the beginning of level 5, and even worse, it’s a one-way door.

I think that when I played this game for the first time, I wasn’t really taking it seriously as a place. It was as fake as a carnival funhouse, and similarly intended solely for entertainment. You get that in a lot of older games, like how the endgame in Colossal Cave takes you through the warehouse that stocks the caves.

Litil Divil: Surfaced

After the trampoline room, I decided to keep moving forward rather than make the long trek back to the save room. There was a substantial chunk of maze on the other side, but also a great many healing items to make continued exploration feasible.

The sole challenge remaining turned out to not be the usual end-of-level bridge fight, but one last arena fight, and I found it to be the most satisfying combat scene in the whole game. It pits Mutt with a halberd against a tall fire-breathing demon with a flaming sword, and beating him is all about figuring out a combo: a thrust to the gut makes him bend double, at which point his head is low enough for you to smack it, and then follow up with a jump to evade his fire breath just before he straightens up. I suppose it’s a fairly pedestrian boss fight puzzle, really, but in this game, where the combat is generally just monotonous thrust-and-dodge stuff, it stands out.

It’s worth noting that the final maze doesn’t have a toll-taker. The final passages have loads of gold, but there’s no in-game reason to take the time to collect it, not even a high score list. Not knowing this, I of course collected it all.

The whole thing ends not with a credits roll, but with an outro animation that simply loops until you press a button. It’s an unusual choice, even for that brief period when games had cinematic endings but showing credits wasn’t yet normal, which it surely was by 1993 anyway. Recall that Mutt’s ostensible goal through this whole thing has been a pizza. The ending includes some pizza imagery, but Mutt isn’t shown actually obtaining the pizza, probably to help enable a sequel about Mutt’s adventures on the surface world. I think by now we all understand that hooks of this sort aren’t really necessary. You can provide a satisfying conclusion where the protagonist achieves all their goals, and then trivially make up new ones later without being beholden to what you left unresolved.

At any rate, now that I’ve been through this game with fresh eyes, I can definitely say that I wouldn’t recommend it to new players. For me personally, the experience was enhanced by the fact that I was coming back to something I gave up on nearly thirty years ago, with the intent of seeing it through to completion this time. That is a powerful experience, mixing triumph, relief, and nostalgia, but it’s an experience that is mine alone. Litil Divil is, however, a game that’s interesting just because of its unusual structure, sundry minigames embedded in a maze. It occupies an otherwise-unpopulated point on a continuum that I hadn’t thought about as a continuum before, with puzzles-in-a-context games like Professor Layton and Puzzle Agent at one extreme and real-time dungeon crawls at the other. Could a game like that work today? I’m not sure. You’d have to make the maze more interesting, I think, but then you’re moving it around on the continuum and might lose what makes it different.

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 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.

Litil Divil: The Bull

I found the save room in maze 5! It turns out to not far from the entrance. I think my first attempt at mapping the level covered every branch of the early part of the maze except the one leading to the save room. Ah well. At least I have it now, and being able to bank my progress in clearing challenges has accelerated things. Still no sign of the trampoline room, my white whale from olden days, though. And I’ve been through enough challenges that, if the patterns of the earlier levels still hold, I only have two remaining, one of which will be a combat arena. Maybe the trampoline room will turn out to be the very last one.

For once, the challenges I’ve been encountering have been ones I recognize — “Hey, it’s the plant room!” I say to myself, or “Oh, wow, the mechanical bull challenge. I haven’t thought about that in ages.” That mechanical bull gave me some difficulty, though — just because I recognize the problem doesn’t mean I remember the solution. Basically, it bucks and spins and you’re expected to react with the up and down buttons. A sort of bar graph made of in-game horseshoes heats up, shoe by shoe, as you fail, but cools down if you do things right. There have been other reaction mini-games like this — in particular, the arena room in level 4 is themed as a tennis match, where you’re served four types of balls and have to lunge in the correct direction with the arrow keys to hit them back. The thing that makes the mechanical bull so much harder is the lack of feedback: your button presses have no effect on Mutt’s actions, and that makes it difficult to tell if you’re doing things right. Even if you know what button to press, are you supposed to hold it down, or tap it with the right timing, or what? Eventually I realized that it wasn’t penalizing me for incorrect button presses, just for the absence of the right ones — and if Mutt isn’t playing any animations, there’s no dead time where my presses don’t register. So I could pass the challenge by just jiggling both the up and down buttons all the time, regardless of what happens.

Litil Divil: Farewell Maze 4

I’ve finally made it to the fifth maze! Only temporarily, though. As usual, I didn’t find the save room on my first visit, so the next time I play, I’m going to be retracing some ground on level 4. Fortunately, that path isn’t so bad. There are two challenges remaining on it, both far enough past the save room to make it not worth going back, but they’re both things I’ve cracked. One is a pure puzzle, with Mutt and a sort of minotaur-like bruiser taking turns stepping around on a life-sized chessboard where certain marked squares have effects on the opponent’s position. I haven’t worked out the meanings of the marks, but the board doesn’t change, and neither does the opponent’s movement algorithm, so once you’ve found a sequence that works, you can just key it in without risk.

The other is a moving platforms scene, a relative of the lava crossing I mentioned before. I’ve come to dread these things. They tend to be the hardest challenges in the game, owing not just to the difficulty of the execution but the random elements that can wreck you at the last minute. In other words, they’re the sort of thing that I try to win once, then head back to the save room so I don’t have to do it again. But this one is much closer to the level exit than to the save room, making that a harder call. Gladly, though, it turned out to be quite manageable, once I had observed it enough. The room has three rows of platforms, two rows moving right separated by a sparser left-moving row, which you have to cross to reach a couple of buttons at the room’s extremes, then cross back to reach the door they opened. Riding the platforms across the room at random are two guys with green robes and distance weapons, ready to knock you into the abyss when you’re on the same row. The key to the whole thing is noticing that the two guys have different weapons: one has a spear, the other a bow and arrow. When the spear guy throws it at you, he doesn’t get it back until he’s carried all the way off the screen. So the the first thing you need to do is jump onto his row and then off again, to make him waste his spear. The bow and arrow, meanwhile, takes three hits to knock you off, provided you don’t panic and try to dodge onto a platform that’s out of reach. So you can afford to simply let him hit you a couple of times while waiting for your stop.

This is a pretty satisfying puzzle, in large part because the tactics that make it easier are so easily articulated. If you asked me how to defeat the earlier lava sequence, or the even earlier bubble room that I haven’t mentioned before now, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. It would be a lot of “Wait until the time is right. You’ll know it after you’ve seen it happen six or seven times.”

Litil Divil’s Design Sensibility

A colleague noticed that I was playing Litil Divil — he doesn’t read this blog, but we use Discord, and my Discord account is linked to my Steam account, so he could see what I was playing that way. He remembered finding the game tremendously impressive in its day, and asked how well it holds up. I sadly had to inform him that it does not hold up well. But it’s an interesting question, because the obvious way for a 30-year-old game to age badly is in its graphics, and I really don’t feel like that’s the case here. Indie games have made pixel art fashionable again, and this game still has pretty good pixel art — I suspect a modernized version would mainly just give Mutt more frames of animation.

But the gameplay feels positively antiquated! And I struggle to articulate exactly why. It’s big on the design philosophy of “If you liked doing it once, you’ll like doing it over and over”, but that’s never really gone away — mostly the difference is that modern games more effectively make players actually want to perform repeated actions, by exploiting the mechanisms of addiction that have been called “gamification”. Litil Divil, despite being a game, isn’t particularly gamified. In some ways it’s anti-gamified. When you fail in a mini-game, you can’t just give it another try. You have to navigate to it in the maze again first. This discourages continued play.

I’ve been thinking of this game as having a coin-op arcade sensibility, but that’s not quite right. For one thing, unlike arcade games, it does have save points — it just makes them uncomfortably sparse. But also, by the time it came out, it was normal for coin-op games to let players insert another quarter to avoid losing progress. I guess the thing that stands out here is that it really is structured like a modern game, just without modern conveniences. I compared it to Dark Souls before. Dark Souls and Litil Divil really have a lot of their structure in common: you spend your time exploring a network of twisty passages with sparse save points, occasionally confronting special challenges (boss fights in the case of Dark Souls) that either block the path or grant special items useful elsewhere. But in Dark Souls, when you beat a boss, the game saves your progress. If you die, you get sent back to the last save point, but you’re not expected to fight the boss again. Litil Divil hasn’t caught up on that particular design innovation, and that’s a big part of what makes it frustrating.

Litil Divil: Load Screen

Let’s have a UI post, because the load menu is the very worst part of this game. Take a look at it! Oh, sure, it doesn’t look that bad out of context, but you have to remember one thing: This game does not support a mouse. Input is strictly through the arrow keys and two action buttons, approximately equivalent to a NES controller. NES games often have pretty good menus, based around moving focus around with the D-pad. Now look at that screenshot again and ask yourself: Where is the focus?

The menu here indicates focus by a red border around the selected element, which blinks on and off, staying in each state for about a second. A second is a long time in UI-land, and it’s an especially long time for important visual feedback to be invisible. On top of that, whenever the focus moves, it starts over from the beginning of its cycle — which would be great, if that were the part where it’s visible, but it’s not. The whole thing is set up to make you either wait for a second after each keypress, or operate blind. Neither is ideal, but it might not be so bad if the whole thing weren’t also set up to make you need to move the focus multiple times in succession: it starts in the “cancel” button at the bottom, but usually the very first thing you want to press is the up/down arrows on the right, which control which level you’re dealing with, and you have to go through multiple save slot buttons to get there, even if they’re empty and disabled. I usually find myself keying in multiple presses to move to the button I want, then waiting to confirm that I’m on the right one before pressing it.

The leftmost button is for starting the level over rather than loading into its save room. That seems like it should be useful: if you haven’t found the save room on level 4 yet, you could use it to start from the beginning of level 4 instead of the save room on level 3. But in fact it’s disabled on levels where you don’t have a save yet.

Litil Divil: Traps

I keep mentioning the traps in the maze, but I haven’t really described them. Let’s do that now.

Traps are, at root, things that hurt you a little bit if you’re in the wrong place, and play an animation of both the trap triggering and Mutt reacting to it. The most basic trap is the spike trap: a row of little holes in the floor, stretching a little less than half the width of the corridor, easy to walk around or jump over provided you notice it in time. Noticing it is less trivial than it sounds: you can only see a rather short distance ahead, and Mutt himself blocks a significant portion of your view. When exploring new areas, or areas with known traps, I inch forward a bit at a time to avoid blundering into things.

There are barred windows, from which emerge hands that punch you in the ear if you walk too close. Bow-and-arrow traps that fire if you’re too far away. Open pits, which can appear left, right, or center of the corridor, don’t merely damage you but also impede your progress: after Mutt falls into a pit, he climbs out on the near side. There are grotesque faces that appear in pairs, one on either side: one of them will emit a gout of flame when passed, forcing you to hug the opposite wall, but as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to predict which. You just have to suffer the effects once, then remember which side is the bad one, or mark it on your map, or just resign yourself to taking damage every time you pass that way. These things are then combined, in recurring patterns, like two windows on either side of the corridor and a pit in the middle. The obvious answer is to jump over the pit — but then the game introduces a monstrous hand that reaches out of some pits and grabs you when you’re overhead. (The game is fond of hands reaching out from holes in general, really.) The designers are blatantly trolling the players here. As with the faces, you have an opportunity to memorize which things are and aren’t safe. Jumping diagonally seems to help sometimes. There exist fields of massed inconveniently-placed pits where it’s basically required.

One thing that’s not quite a trap in the same sense: Every once in a long while, there will be an X chalked on the floor. Stand on it and press the action button, and it might fully heal you. This is essential for extended exploration, as there’s no other source of unlimited healing — there are bits of food to be found, but they can only be consumed once. But sometimes, instead of healing, a piano falls on you. This perfectly encapsulates the game’s attitude.

Litil Divil compared to Dark Souls

I’ve mapped out as much of maze 4 as I can currently access. There are two challenge rooms available. One involves pieces of floor disappearing in a regular pattern, and the regularity makes it predictable enough that I’ve managed to beat it. However, it opened up no new territory, instead rewarding me with a tennis racket. The other involves leaping from stone to stone as they float down a lava river, and I guess the rest of the level must be on the other side of that — the rest of the challenges, the exit, and most particularly the save room.

And not being able to access the save room is a real problem! Without it, I have to restart from the save room on level 3 every time I launch the game, and that’s a significant way back in the maze, separated from the exit by a lot of walking and a lot of traps, followed by the two bridge battles punctuating every level’s exit and entrance. I’m remembering now why my approach to this game back in the day turned from binging it to playing it once in a while, between other things. It just requires a lot of repeated activity. Very likely the trampoline room where I got stuck before had similar issues.

I’m tempted to say things like “Of course, this was how things were in the old days. In the immediate wake of the coin-op model, games didn’t really have a lot of content, and instead were designed to make you re-experience lots of it repeatedly to produce the sort of total play time that players demanded, something that’s become less of an issue in recent years due to the content glut of the indiepocalypse”. But then I think of Dark Souls. That, and games like it, also feature lots of long runs through the same passages repeatedly whenever you die. And it felt a lot more tolerable there — why? The sense of progress is a big factor, I suppose. In a soulslike, your losses from death aren’t complete. Even if you lose a huge stash of Souls, you still have any inventory you collected on the way, as well as any progress in killing non-respawning enemies or other permanent changes in world state. Litil Divil provides no such mercy. But also, I think the greater variation in the architecture makes it easier to bear Dark Souls runs. Corrodors in Litil Divil are all the same, modulo traps and the occasional skeleton. Variation, even just small changes in the slope of the ground or the texture of the walls or the degree of light, helps to make places feel like places, rather than points in a homogenous mass. And being able to look around and think “I know where this is” helps give a sense of progress to the whole thing.

I suppose the way to get through this is to adopt the meditative mindset, ritualize the passage through the maze and abandon attachment to result. That’s gotten me through games before. It’s just that it’s a frame of mind that conflicts with that produced by the challenge rooms that are the actual goal of each sally.

Litil Divil: Gold Shenanigans

I’ve made it through level 3 — it turns out this isn’t the level with the trampoline where I got stuck previously after all. In fact, it only has one challenge room at all, and no shop. I’m assuming that this is a sort of special “Oops! All Maze!” level and that I won’t see the game go to the same extreme again.

Level 3 also introduces something I wasn’t sure I’d see: optional items. There’s a dead end in the maze where you can find a key, guarded by an arm from a window like the toll-taker, except he demands a watch. You can find a watch further along in the maze, where you probably haven’t been yet when you meet the watch-taker for the first time. If you don’t have a watch, he instead takes all your gold and lets you through. The familiar toll-taker is also found near the exit, as usual.

Now, I said before that the toll-taker requires all the gold in the maze. I don’t really know if that’s strictly true. I just know that whenever I haven’t given him all the gold in the maze, he’s sent me away for more. Maybe he has a minimum acceptable amount, but takes as much as you have. Maybe he’ll accept whatever’s left over after the watch-taker takes his cut, which would make the actual watch downright useless. But even assuming that you can’t let the watch-taker have any gold and still win the level, there’s an alternative to using the watch: Just go the watch-taker’s dead end before collecting any gold.

On top of that, if I’m not mistaken, you don’t even really need the key he’s guarding anyway. Past that point there are two locked doors, and two keys you can find. Making you look for the watch at all is pure trollery. Maybe I should keep the watch — unlike gold and keys, inventory is preserved across levels, and I could see this game suddenly requiring you to have something you gave away two levels ago.

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