80 Days: The Song of Scheherezade

What kind of game is 80 Days? I’ll tell you what kind of game it is. It is the kind of game that contains song-and-dance routines.

Most of the game’s Cairo chapter is spent on a quest chain to locate Uncle Mathew’s lost patent papers. I imagine the other chapters will be similar; the patent-hunt gives the game the excuse it needs to make you stick around in each city for a while rather than immediately dashing off to the next spot on the itinerary in an effort to meet the 80-day deadline. The first patent turns out to be encased, for some reason, in a bauble of smash-proof glass. The only way to break in to retrieve it is through the resonating screeches of a cantankerous local diva, stage-named Scheherezade. Once you have the document, you have no more reason to stick around Cairo, but just before you leave, Scheherezade puts on a production number, singing a summary of what’s happened so far to a pop tune used previously in the background music, with a chorus line of random NPCs doing a campy walk-like-an-Egyptian dance in CGI unison.

At this point, I suspect that each chapter — there seem to be four — will end in a similar musical number. And I’m warming to the notion as I write this, but it was honestly a little painful to sit through the first time. I’m reminded a little of the banal doggerel scattered through The Bard’s Tale (2004) and a little of the bizarre little French music video that turns up without warning at the end of MDK. The former is cheese, the latter is camp, and 80 Days lies somewhere between them.

The Humans as Lemmings Clone

There should be a name for works that imitate another work but completely miss the point, taking the superficial details while leaving out the basis of the original’s appeal. As Sleepwalker is to Sandman, as Ai Yori Aoshi is to Love Hina, as most bad fantasy novels are to Lord of the Rings, so The Humans is to Lemmings.

To someone looking at The Humans for the first time today, it may not be clear that it’s a Lemmings imitation. It was very clear in 1992. Lemmings was in the ascendant, and would be on the mind of anyone making (or purchasing) a level-based puzzle game with a 2D side view. Add to that the “save the tribe” aspect, the control over multiple identical and undifferentiated beings, the puzzles based around sacrificing some of your guys to save the rest, the music — ye gods, the music. Lemmings had this gloriously cheesy pop music that would be embarrassing in any other context, but seemed like just part of the fun there. The Humans does something similar, but with more of a cartoon caveman style, which is to say, a boogie beat and an emphasis on simple percussion such as hand drums and xylophones (or synthesized approximations thereof). It’s odd that this style says “cartoon caveman” so strongly, especially since our most culturally prominent caveman cartoon, The Flintstones, doesn’t use it at all, but there it is.

It also plays a lot like Lemmings overall, and not just in good ways. Most of the time, your attention is on the problem of getting multiple beings from point A to point B. Doing this usually involves multiple stages, where each stage is an opportunity to screw up. When you do so, you have no choice but to start over from the beginning: there are no save points within levels. So on the tougher levels, you wind up repeating the earlier stages a lot — a common pattern in action games, but not so much in puzzle games, where the pleasure is in figuring things out. But it serves to pad out the time required to play it to completion. Even worse, both games feature time limits on levels. While this can be part of the puzzle, challenging you to figure out how to complete your objectives as efficiently as possible, mostly it’s just a way to make sure that you don’t complete a level successfully on your first try, even if you don’t do anything wrong.

One of the more overlooked innovations of Lemmings is that it was one of the first games to figure out how to take advantage of the mouse in a realtime context. There had been games that used on-screen buttons to awkwardly give the player’s avatar orders at one remove, and there had been games that used the mouse to control the player’s avatar directly as a kind of joystick substitute, but the makers of Lemmings were clever enough to realize that the very concept of “player’s avatar” was an unnecessary assumption, a by-product of joystick-centric gameplay that a mouse-based game could do without. Instead, it took an approach similar to what would later become the RTS genre. At no point in Lemmings did the player assume direct control over a lemming’s actions; you could switch them from one mode of activity to another, but they were fundamentally autonomous beings that would march ahead without instruction. The result was an active world, one where things were always happening, sometimes more things than the player could easily pay adequate attention to.

And this is the part that The Humans gets wrong. It’s still plugged into the joystick paradigm, giving you direct control of one human at a time while everyone else just stands there and waits. Actually, that’s not quite true: when you pick up a torch or a spear, you can switch to a mode where you stand there waving it to fend off enemies, and remain in this mode when you switch control to someone else. This is the most Lemmings-like of the actions you can perform, and has obvious precedent in the “Blocker” role from that game. It’s also the least-often-useful thing you can do with a spear or a torch. It’s understandable why they did it this way: they were aiming at console ports, something that Lemmings always did awkwardly, and heck, even on PCs, not everyone had a mouse back then. But the end result is the opposite of Lemmings‘ active world. It’s a passive world, one that’s reluctant to even shoot at you.


At a casual glance, Audiosurf looks a lot like an early Harmonix game, like Frequency and Amplitude: the player drives a little spaceship down a twisting multi-lane highway in an abstract environment, trying to hit colored spots in time with the music. But the similarities end there. Harmonix, even in the days before Guitar Hero, has always been about capturing the feeling of performing music. The player’s goal in their games is to add something to the soundtrack, to build up a piece of music note by note, by hitting the right buttons at the right moments. In Audiosurf, the music is there regardless of what you do, and buttons are strictly for voluntary use of special powers not directly related to the music. You don’t even necessarily want to activate all of the colored spots, like you would for a perfect performance. That’s because you’re not in any sense performing the music. You’re reacting to it.

Or, to be precise, you’re reacting to the level design, which is generated automatically from the music. Procedural generation of game content from music has been done before — Vib Ribbon, released in 1999, may be the earliest released example, but it came too soon to take advantage of ubiquitous networked digital distribution of music the way that Audiosurf does, providing built-in iTunes and Last.fm integration, as well as a small weekly roster of songs to download from the Audiosurf servers. (As I write this, it’s Jonathan Coulton week.) Not that you’re limited to this content; any song you have in a DRM-free format is useable, provided it meets certain requirements such as a minimum length.

And that’s a snag for such as me. This game is really meant for playing with your own music collection, and I don’t own a lot of music. I never went through a music-collector phase like most people; my collector instincts attached themselves to games instead. I have a handful of CDs left over from my college days, back when people still bought CDs: several They Might Be Giants albums, some Satie and Prokofiev and Philip Glass. I have a few recordings of bands that friends of mine were in. And I have the DROD soundtrack CD. This is little enough that I don’t even really consider it representative of my own musical tastes. Still, there are a bunch of songs there that I haven’t listened to in a long time, and this is as good an excuse as any to drag them out.

So, how well did it handle the music I had available? It varies. It’s probably at its best with dance music, or things resembling dance music. Playing Satie’s piano works, mainly quiet and slow things, the burbling electronic sound effects of the game itself felt very weird; I suppose I could turn them off, but then I’d lose a valuable channel of feedback. Moreover, the whole way it detects the tempo and intensity of the piece seems tuned more for the way pop music works than for classical-ish stuff. For example, in one of the Glass pieces, a very steadily-paced work throughout, the path tilted straight downward simply because a bassoon joined in. This is supposed to be what happens in more intense sections; sedate stuff has the path tilting upward. (Why not upward for rising tension? Because the slope determines how well you can see what’s ahead of you. Downward slope means limited visibility.)

Still, some of the less modern stuff works well. The “Montagues and Capulets” theme from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet — you’d probably recognize it if you heard it — made the road satisfyingly bumpty in just the right places. And sometimes even TMBG was awkward, as in the opening of Ana Ng: the speed at which you go down the road varies with the music volume, and the unnaturally sharp and echoless cut-offs here made the vehicle jerk and judder like it was having engine trouble.

audiosurf-floeI think the most satisfying ride I’ve had yet was in Floe, by Philip Glass. It’s almost like he wrote it with Audiosurf in mind. I mean, just look at that intensity graph in the upper left of the screenshot. (You’ll have to click on it to see it; it’s invisible in the thumbnail.) Most songs have spiky and irregular graphs, but here, it looks like it’s made of circular arcs. The effect on gameplay is a smooth progression from easy to difficult.

According to the leaderboards, only four other people have tried that song. Most of my songs, no one else has ever tried. But that might be misleading: there may be other people playing Prokofiev, but they wouldn’t show up as competing with me if they’re playing a different recording. (And quite right, too: different performances could vary the level design in nontrivial ways.) This is another way in which my music collection isn’t ideal for the game. But I suppose it could be worse. With the company I kept in college, I could have easily wound up a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen. In fact, I’m kind of tempted to download some of his stuff to see how well the game copes with it.

The King of Shreds and Patches: Sound

Let’s talk for a moment about this game’s use of sound. There’s one puzzle in particular where you render a Bedlamite temporarily coherent by unscrambling some dismembered music. It’s not completely essential to have sound — you get some textual feedback, but it’s subtle and requires a lot more trial-and-error if you can’t hear what you’re doing. And for a while, that’s how I tried to solve it. I had the sound turned off. I had forgotten about it. The in-game documentation said that there was occasional sound, and even warned me that there was a sound puzzle, but it also said that I’d know it when I came to it, and, well, I didn’t at first.

I don’t normally turn sound off in games. I generally want the full experience intended by the author. I do find sound in text games a little weird, though. I find that playing IF, like reading a book, essentially puts the mind into a mode disconnected from direct sensory experience — one where you’re seeing through the mind’s eye, and, similarly, hearing through the mind’s ear, filtering out the real world. Illustrations interrupt this mode, but then, so do the command prompts, and you just get used to a certain rhythm of going into and out of reading mode. 1This is why it’s considered a good idea in IF to break up long text-dumps with command prompts, even when the player can’t actually affect anything: it preserves that rhythm. I’m starting to wonder if breaking up the text with illustrations would be just as effective. Sound, on the other hand, plays while you’re reading, and conflicts with the imagined experience.

But that’s not why I had the sound off. I had it off simply because for the last month I’ve been playing IF primarily in public. (I’m spending upwards of two hours a day on a bus these days.) I have headphones I can hook up to my laptop, but digging them out and dealing with the cord (either unwinding it or untangling it, depending on how careful I was about stowing it last time) seldom seems worthwhile, especially for a game that only features occasional sound. And, my personal experiences aside, I think there’s a valid criticism to be made here: if you’re going to use sound in a game, it’s better to make it a constant presence that the player gets used to, not an occasional surprise.

1 This is why it’s considered a good idea in IF to break up long text-dumps with command prompts, even when the player can’t actually affect anything: it preserves that rhythm. I’m starting to wonder if breaking up the text with illustrations would be just as effective.

Everyday Shooter: What Is Music?

I’ve described Everyday Shooter as a music game. And certainly, shooting stuff produces musical sounds. But can we really describe the end result as music? A cat walking on a piano keyboard also produces musical sounds, but we don’t call it music. Unless, I suppose, it’s used as part of a deliberate musical composition — sampling can turn pretty much any sound into music, like the barking dogs in The Beatles’ Good Morning or the rattling of a door in They Might Be Giants’ Hearing Aid. The cat on the keyboard lacks intentionality, but by being sampled and placed into a work, it becomes at least as intentional as Duchamp’s urinal — as if that were a convincing argument.

But even with intentionality as a criterion, the sounds in Everyday Shooter occupy a middle ground: the individual sounds were deliberately chosen, but their arrangement is left up to the player’s actions, which are guided by a desire to score points and avoid death, not an intention to produce music. The player might as well be a random number generator. But random processes have been used in composition before. The only difference here is that the random component occurs after it’s left the composer’s hands. Or, to put it another way, it’s rather like windchimes. Do windchimes produce music? I honestly can’t answer that.

For that matter, perhaps intentionality isn’t all that important. Coincidentally, about a month ago, a friend emailed me with some youtube clips of the arcade games Pulsar, Qix, and Zookeeper, asserting “These games are better electronic music than most electronic music out there.” Of the first, he said “I have entire glitchcore CDs that sound like this, but not as musical” (emphasis mine). This for sounds that were created by a very similar process to the ones in Everyday Shooter, but were not intended to be musical by the player or the creator. From this point of view, the important thing is merely the way the sounds are perceived.

And that, for me, is where Everyday Shooter fails. As is usually the case when I play a game a lot, I’ve had the music going through my head when not playing. And the music that goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music. It’s possible that I would perceive them differently if the background music weren’t there, because the consistency of the background music is so much more musical (repetition being the backbone of music) that it drowns out any perceived musicality of the foreground. If so, it’s ironic, because the author clearly intends the background music to encourage us to think of the foreground sounds musically.

Everyday Shooter: Music

I’ve asserted that music is central to Everyday Shooter, but I haven’t gone into much detail. This is because I basically lack the vocabulary. I am not learned in the ways of guitar. Nonetheless, let me give it a try.

The first song, “Robot”, is fairly relaxed, with the background music mainly consisting of simple chords repeated to a rock beat. This is the one level where nothing actively tries to kill you; things made of rectangular boxes just appear at the edges of the screen and drift across, like in Asteroids. For the most part, they take one hit to kill, and produce a simple guitar twang when you do so. There is one type of thing that fires bullets, but it doesn’t actively aim at you. It’s also important to the music, because destroying it plays a six-note motif, the only real melody that this level has. The fact that this motif can come in at any moment probably explains a lot about the background music.

Song #2, “Root of the Heart”, is based around stationary, electrically-vivid blotches that shoot various things at you (fans of bullets, ships that home in on you, slow-moving clouds, etc.) The blotches are easy to hit, but require quite a lot of shooting, the precise amount varying with their size. As a result, the player spends a lot of time just dousing them with bullets. This produces notes in very rapid descending sequence, reminiscent of Indian sitar music — which the guitar has been adjusted to imitate.

The third song, “Lush Look Killer”, is the first one that has any real structure. It alternates between two phrases, one very melodic, a sort of country thumping, the other consisting of strummed chords. There’s a large and lumpy eye in the center of the screen. During the thumping sections, truck-like boxes bring stuff to the eye that makes it grow larger if you don’t stop them. (It’s a little reminiscent of Sinistar.) During the strummed sections, the boxes disappear and tiny eyes drift around the entire screen. For the duration of this level, at least, melody corresponds to purposeful action. Strangely, I don’t recall how the player’s shots affect the music here. The effect of the two phrases seems much more significant.

“Porco in the Sky” has, as you might expect, a sky-like look, with two suns drifting about, emitting flocks of dots with triangular wings that chase you. There’s a lot of echo on the music, which starts with a longish and twangy melody, repeated twice. If you focus on destroying the suns, it takes about the length of that melody to finish off each of them. Regardless of whether you do so or not, they disappear for the next section, another bit of lazily-paced strumming, during which you’re periodically attacked by a red biplane, similar to the one in Atari 2600 Combat. (Or three such planes, if you managed to kill both of the suns.) The plane is apparently the “Porco”, presumably a reference to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. After its time is up, there’s a reprise of the sun melody, accompanied by another sun. Pretty much the only sound the player generates during this entire process is that of destroying the clusters of winged dots, which emit a little two-note wail like a bird’s cry.

“Build 88” is next, based around an insistent “Kathoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-WAH-wah” motif. The music is fast, but ironically, the enemies (various sorts of tanks and tank generators) are not. Instead, they are numerous and unstoppable, which I suppose also fits the “driving beat” idea.

I’ve managed to get to the level beyond this, “Bits of Fury”, but only once. Consequently, I don’t remember the music. I remember the gameplay, though — mainly, you have to shoot red circles to make them blow up and destroy the massive quantities of stuff that’s flying through all the time and which would otherwise kill you. I suppose this shows that I was paying more attention to the action than to the music. You really need to play through a level a few times for both to register in a way that you can remember.

Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is a title I’d heard before, but didn’t know much about: I knew it was abstract, and it had received some attention around the same time as Portal, but that’s about all I could tell you. Somehow I had got the idea that it had a great many levels, each with its own rules. That’s half-right — there are only eight levels, each more elaborate than I had been led to believe. And yes, each level does work a different way. The controls stay consistently Robotron-like, but they vary in enemy mechanics, and in particular in how you create the chain reactions that clear the most enemies and potentially net the most points.

I also wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be a member of that severely underpopulated genre, the Music Shooter. Instead of zaps and explosions, your shots produce notes, or even entire riffs, played on an electric guitar. These sounds become part of the music playing though the level, always an unaccompanied guitar piece, as abstract as the shooter itself. The underlying songs are linked to the levels’ structure, and in a way that suggests that the song, rather than the level, is the dominant element. Each level lasts exactly as long as it takes to play the song, and changes in what’s going on in the game are governed by shifts in the music more than by anything the player can do. The game’s creator even refers to it on his website as an “album”. I’d almost say that it turns shooter mechanics into a kind of dance, but really, that’s something that’s always been inherent in the genre — particularly in scrolling shmups, which share Everyday Shooter‘s unstoppably flowing nature. All too often, however, those games interrupt the flow by stopping the music and the action when the player gets hit. Everyday Shooter understands what it’s doing too well to make that mistake.

It’s definitely what I’d call an art game, which is a little ironic, given its origin. According to the author’s notes, it was created to get away from the mistakes of a previous project that he describes as “a ridiculous concoction of self-indulgent, games-are-art-theory-innovation wankery” by getting back to basics. But of course the basics are art. Like those Grecian urns that Keats liked so much, it’s an art born of human requirements. Theory is all very well, but its importance can be overstated.

Battlegrounds: Final Thoughts

The final chapter of Magic: the Gathering — Battlegrounds consists mainly of fighting all the bosses from the previous chapters a second time, making a mockery of that “Thank you for setting me free” business from earlier. (Poor communication between the scenario designers and the cutscene animators, perhaps?) After that, the game dutifully executes the standard videogame plot twist and the player squares off against the final foe, Mishra.

Mishra uses a five-color deck and doesn’t seem to have a limited mana supply. Fortunately, he’s kind of stupid, and doesn’t take advantage of this by just casting Scorching Missile over and over until you fall down. Instead, he’s fond of summoning big powerful flying creatures, and counterspelling your own attempts to do likewise. A note about counterspell: For it to work, you have to cast it before the opponent finishes casting the spell you want to counter. Since the amount of time it takes to cast a spell seems to be proportional to its mana cost, it’s easier to counter strong spells than weaker ones. This seems kind of backward, but it does generate an interesting point of strategy: when facing an enemy with Counterspell, it makes sense to come up with a strategy that mainly uses weak spells. This generally means summoning fragile creatures in quantity, so that they do a notable amount of damage in total before they die in quantity. The problem is, Mishra also casts Liability, an enchantment that does a point of damage to either caster whenever one of their creatures dies.

After some false starts battling Mishra with Blue (hoping to counterspell the worst of his summons), I wound up using a pure White deck, containing both cheap flying Suntail Hawks (capable of nibbling Mishra’s demons to death, or at least of getting in their way) and various healing effects to help me survive Liability. It strikes me that this may be what the designers were going for here — triumphing with the power of Good. Or maybe not; there could be other effective strategies.

In some sense, I haven’t really finished the game. There’s a single-player Arcade Mode, apparently also winnable, in which you can use whatever colors you’ve unlocked by completing chapters in Quest Mode. (More support for the Quest-Mode-as-tutorial idea.) I’ve tried the beginnings of this, and may even try to win it if it proves easy enough, but as far as I’m concerned, finishing Quest Mode is enough to get this game off the Stack.

And honestly, if I decide I want more single-player M:tG-like experiences, I’ll probably go back to Etherlords. I know I said I was through with that, but a day or two later, I found myself wanting to try the final battle with a black deck. I haven’t really been thinking about Battlegrounds when not playing it or blogging about it, but Etherlords got a firmer grip on my mind, possibly because the realtime aspect of Battlegrounds gives it a chaos-and-confusion aspect that makes it hard for the mind to grasp it in return.

Or maybe it’s just the music. Usually, when I’ve been playing a game for a while, I have the music going through my head throughout the day. After playing Battlegrounds for a few days, I still had the music from Etherlords in my head. Here’s an example of the music from Battlegrounds:
Battlegrounds, blue arena 1
Compare this, from Etherlords:
Etherlords, blue arena 2
Now, I’m not saying that I’d buy a soundtrack CD for either game. But the the music in Etherlords is at least coherent, providing discernable melodic and harmonic structures, while the music in Battlegrounds is a bunch of musical sounds thrown into a blender. This may have been intentional, of course. It’s ambient music, “furniture music” as Satie called it, written with the goal of setting a mood without distracting from the action. And there’s certainly a case to be made for not trying to overlay music with strong patterns of tension and resolution on a game that isn’t gong to fit them. (I remember being strongly struck by the way that the music in Quake II kept on screaming “ACTION SCENE!” while I just stood there in an empty room.) Nonetheless, the end result is that the music in Battlegrounds is so forgettable that you’ve probably already forgotten it in the time it took you to listen to the Etherlords sample and read the rest of this paragraph.

Next post: IF Comp ’08.