The Talos Principle

A couple months back, Epic Games made The Talos Principle briefly available for free on their storefront. I already had this game on Steam, and had even played it, but seeing it come up there reminded me that I had never actually finished it. And so I’ve been playing it on and off, starting over from the beginning, and finally reached an ending a few days ago — three endings, in fact, one after another. There’s a sort of hierarchy there: an obvious ending that you can get just by doing exactly as you’re told, then a more satisfying ending — what feels like the real ending — where you rebel against your instructions in the obvious way to access a sequence of optional puzzles, and finally a secret ending that you can only access by solving a bunch of extra-hard puzzles hidden throughout the normal ones. The reason I hadn’t finished the game before was my stubborn insistence on completing all of the secrets before plunging into any ending.

If I had understood the way the game handles saves better, I might not have held back. Normally, you don’t need to access the saved game interface directly at all; you just select “Continue” from the main menu at the start of each session. So it wasn’t clear to me how final and irrevocable the endings were. But in fact the game keeps multiple autosaves, in a biggish queue that reminds me of the quicksaves in Serious Sam. No coincidence, either: Talos and Sam were created by the same people.

Which is flabbergasting to remember, given the vast difference in both gameplay and tone. Sam is a first-person shooter, overblown and deliberately stupid, about fighting vast hordes of ridiculous aliens in messy, chaotic battles. Talos is a Portal-like — a first-person puzzle game, with precise solutions, marked by epiphanies about what the mechanics make possible. And in theme, it’s a meditation on mortality and entropy, and on finding meaning through obedience or defiance. It’s a bit self-serious at times, but then, it also throws in the occasional jarring Sam reference.

The setting is a series of ruins: first Greco-Roman-styled, then Egyptian, then European castles and cathedrals, all basically fake, all accessible form a hub world dominated by an enormous forbidden tower, the locus of the optional puzzles that lead to the real ending. Ruins are of course ubiquitous in games as a way to simplify things for level designers, letting them leave out complications like occupants and functionality. But not many games take advantage of it thematically the way Talos does. This is a world where humanity died out a long time ago, leaving behind a vast database preserving our knowledge, history, and culture — essentially, a backup of the Internet. This database is also almost entirely decayed by the time the game takes place. You can access occasional partially-corrupted fragments from terminals standing around incongruously in the ruins making beep boop noises, and a lot of what remains is people reacting to the imminent end: struggling, despairing, reminiscing, accepting that it’ll all be over soon. The ruins are a simulation in the same system. Random textures occasionally glitch out to let you know that even this decayed state is not long for the world.

Although it’s fundamentally a single-player game, Talos has a feature that lets you communicate with other players: sometimes you’ll find a little pot of paint, and can use it to daub a QR code on a wall, bearing a message, chosen from a list, for your friends to find. Seeing these messages while playing the game years after everyone else stopped enhances the desolation, the sense of exploring something long-abandoned. As does the act of leaving new messages on walls despite knowing how unlikely it is that anyone else will ever see them.

Now, I call it a Portal-like, but, like The Rodinia Project, it does without one of the central elements of the Portal paradigm: the gun. There are tools that you aim at objects to project beams of light at them, but, crucially, they’re only active when you set them down. In other words, they’re in the same category as crates. All useable items are unlocked for use by collecting tetrominoes (or “sigils”, as the game calls them), except two: the “jammer”, the first tool you find, which is a device for making other devices stop working, and an axe you can find just hanging inconspicuously on a cathedral wall towards the end. It strikes me as significant that these are the first and the last items you get, and that they’re both tools for breaking things. The axe doesn’t even have any use in the main-line puzzles, and is exclusively for accessing secrets.

I’ve talked before about the implicit gnosticism in Portal and its imitators: trapped in a hellworld by a malevolent demiurge, seeking salvation in escape to the true world beyond. Talos, with all its religious imagery, makes this downright explicit. The antagonist calls himself Elohim, tells you that he is your creator and that you have a purpose, which is to pass his trials. Do this, and you will have life everlasting in his paradise. But he cautions you that you must not climb the central tower, or you will surely die. He speaks to you as a disembodied voice, deep and resonant, his phrasing biblical, his first words accompanied by an angelic chorus. I hated him immediately. Not out of hatred of God per se, but because of his presumption — and not so much because of his presumption of divinity as because he had the temerity to tell me that my sole purpose for existence is to do his bidding.

We ultimately find out that this is far from the case. The player character’s true purpose is to rebel. A paradox, but one that’s deeply embedded in the story.

There are two other characters of significance. First, there’s the simulation’s true god: Alexandra Drennan, creator of the whole system, whose audio logs can be found throughout the puzzle-worlds. She created the system to algorithmically create humanity’s successors, androids with not just intelligence but free will. Successfully defying Elohim is the ultimate test, and passing it will shut the system down, freeing you from the false world and waking you up in the real one.

The other is the Milton Library Assistant, also referred to as the Serpent, a cataloguing AI that you can talk to through the same terminals you use to access fragmentary documents, using a choice-based dialogue system — the only character who actually listens to what you have to say! The dialogues with the MLA are ostensibly a Turing test, a way for you to prove yourself human in order to gain admin access to the system. Which is a problem, because you’re not human. Within the simulation, you’re not even distinguishable from a deterministic recording of your actions. Some of the puzzles rely on this. You can argue to the MLA that you’re human in every way that matters, but it’s been at this for a long time, arguing with all the failed AIs that came before you, and it’s capable of countering anything you can say. (Largely because what you can say is limited to the choices offered by the dialogue system, true.) Its attitude is fundamentally skeptical and nihilistic, doubting everything and doubting the value of everything. This makes it a foil for the player, but also sets it in opposition to Elohim, who demands unquestioning faith.

Now, witness how these forces are all set in defiance of each other! Elohim takes his ordeals too far: fearing death, he is unwilling to allow his program to be completed, and so does everything he can to prevent the player from reaching the true ending, including simply pleading with you in the end. But in so doing, he becomes something worth rebelling against, thus serving his true purpose. This puts him in the same boat as the player, defying Elohim and in so doing fulfilling the purpose Drennan intended. Drennan herself has essentially the same motivations as Elohim — unwillingness to see her world die, defying fate. The Serpent just defies everything it can, including the player. I say all this by way of introduction to the truly special thing about the game: the way the story incorporates the player breaking its implicit rules.

The game is organized into multiple worlds, each world consisting of some sort of courtyard or open space and a number of puzzle chambers. The puzzle chambers are self-contained, open to the virtual sky but walled in, with force fields at their entrances that prevent you from bringing objects in or out. But they’re also part of the same physical space as the courtyard, and this can be exploited. Sometimes you can aim a beam out of one chamber and into another. Sometimes you can stack up some crates and jump over the wall and out into the courtyard, carrying an item with you. These and similar tricks are necessary to solve the game’s more advanced optional puzzles, and even though you know you’re executing a designed solution, it never stops feeling like you’re exploiting bugs, breaking the logic of the puzzles in defiance of the designer.

And, heck, sometimes you are. Not all such acts of burglary and vandalism are intended, or useful. That’s probably a major aspect of the feel of the thing, the uncertainty about whether the exploits you find are authentic or not. There are places in Portal where you can temporarily escape between the walls, into the “backstage” areas outside the puzzle chambers, where GLaDOS doesn’t want you to go. But there, it’s still all clearly make-believe, an on-stage representation of a backstage area. Talos has much the same effect, but it’s a lot more convincing about it.

The irony is that the ultimate effect of solving all the secret puzzles is the ability to unlock the third ending, which is the exact opposite of rebellion: it’s an opportunity for your character to become one of Elohim’s messengers, delivering hints to other players. This bothered me when I discovered it. Didn’t the designers understand what they were doing? This is my reward for breaking the world? Becoming a lackey to the oppressor? This is the ending that I thought I was solving all these extra puzzles to avoid being tricked into!

But thinking about it more, I realize that they knew exactly what they were doing. For one thing, they go out of their way to make this ending unappealing with death imagery, asking you to climb into a sarcophagus and choose an “epitaph” that your friends will see. For another, it fits with everything I’ve said already about rebellion as a way to carry out a prescribed role. No matter how it feels, you can’t really break anything that wasn’t made to be broken. Not even with an axe.

The Rodinia Project

So, let’s kick off the new year with another writeup or two of things I played last year but didn’t get around to writing about even though I have a thing or two to say about them.

The Rodinia Project is a Portal-like, with most of the standard accoutrements of the genre, like large floor buttons that you can keep pressed by dropping boxes on them, force fields that you can pass through but the boxes can’t, beams that activate devices when not blocked, and so forth. But it’s strikingly minimalistic, even for a genre known for its minimalism. Portal itself had a minimalist laboratory aesthetic based on on antiseptic-looking white paneling. Rodinia is also built out of white panels, but with gold-painted highlights, a surprisingly ritzy touch given the setting.

That setting: a series of platforms in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes there are puddles to remind you of this, and to give some sense that these pristine constructions, with their almost cathedral-like atmosphere (enhanced by ambient angelic-chorus music), are still subject to the depredations of the elements. This is furthered by the gradual appearance, somewhat into the game, of slimy black tentacles, reaching out of the waters and wrapping around the support pillars or just lying loose on the floor. They’re a clear sign of an indefinite Something Wrong, probably related to the reason you’re going around solving room puzzles on ocean platforms in the first place.

But that vague sensation of wrongness is just about all the lore you get. Some levels have fragments of backstory you can find, in the form of little collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but it’s very difficult to get them all, and even then, all they have is pictures, subject to interpretation. I emphasize this point because of what the game leaves out: a voice. There’s no one talking to you over a ubiquitous PA system, no GLaDOS obliquely filling you in on the details of the world through her taunts. I would have thought this one of the essentials of the Portal-like formula, but Rodinia does without it.

I guess it’s not the only one, though. I don’t think the original Q.U.B.E. had a voice, although its “Director’s Cut” remake did. Antichamber didn’t have one either, although it may be more accurate to say that it didn’t have a spoken voice; the signs all over the place served the same function, of communicating with the player and giving the gameworld a personality. There’s just a sense that these games should talk to you, and if they don’t, it’s because they don’t have the budget. But I can’t imagine adding voice acting to Rodinia without ruining the austere and solitary atmosphere.

You know what else the game does without? Walls! That is, there are walls, but only when they’re absolutely necessary to make a puzzle work. It’s just about the only open-air Portal-like I’ve seen. I guess there’s The Talos Principle too, but Talos is kind of on the fringe of the genre, and anyway it’s different here. Talos still put its puzzles in spaces enclosed by walls, even if the sky was visible. Rodinia‘s platforms are simply open to the sea, which forms as effective a barrier as any.

But the biggest gesture of minimalism, the single most important element that Rodinia does without, is the gun. The portal gun is the single thing that defines Portal, and its various substitutes in other games — Antichamber‘s block gun, Magnetic‘s magnet gun, and so forth — are the things that most clearly identify them as games in the same genre. But Rodinia basically says “What if you didn’t have a gun for interacting with your environment in novel ways but you had everything else? Could you still make interesting rule-based environmental puzzles that way?” And it turns out you can. And that’s what I found so fascinating about it, particularly that it could get away with this and still be clearly in Portal‘s genre.

Magnetic: Cage Closed

What we have here is a really obvious Portal imitation. No surprise there; that’s what I wanted. That’s why it was on my wishlist. The novel puzzle-solving gun in this instance is a magnet gun, which isn’t even all that novel: it’s a lot like the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, except that in addition to pushing and pulling objects, it can also propel the player by pulling or pushing against specially-marked walls, ceilings, and floors. With this, you go through series of contrived puzzle rooms while a voice over the PA system taunts you, just as in Portal. At one point, there’s an earthquake or something and you escape beyond the walls of the puzzle rooms for a while, and it reminded me so much of similar sequences in Portal 2.

In fact, it’s so much a Portal wannabe that I think it’s more interesting to note the differences than the similarities. Chiefly, where Portal was set in what was ostensibly a laboratory or “testing facility”, Magnetic drops all pretense that the setting is anything other than a prison. It’s a prison that’s currently being used for testing experimental magnet guns, but you get enough backstory over the course of the game to know that the test chambers are older than this project, that the prison has been sending prisoners into death-traps with a cruel promise of freedom for some time.

Now, the backstory is sparse. You never really learn a lot about the prison, or why you’re there, or the conditions that produced it. There’s a mention of a war, but this is never elaborated on. What you do know is that you’re the captive of a sadistic warden who trash-talks you to the point of monotony, but who is in some ways constrained by Karen, the prison psychologist, who’s a potential ally.

Unlike Portal‘s single through-path, the first chapter of Magnetic, before the earthquake, is spent in a repeated routine. You go from your cell into a transport that takes you to the test chambers, you solve some puzzles, you return your magnet gun and get a little talk and a sort of test choice from Karen, and then you get transported back to your cell (making it easy to decide to take a break from playing). One of the choices is just a quiz to see how well you remember the preceding test chamber. Another is a moral choice: another prisoner is described to you, along with her crimes, and you get to choose whether she should be executed or sent to the test chambers like you. I suppose the implication is that you were picked for testing the same way. What effect do these choices have? I don’t know. The game has nine endings, but the final level gives you a choice of only three paths, so earlier choices must figure in somehow.

Karen describes those three paths somewhat oracularly as the one that gives you a chance of revenge against your captors, the one that gives the most direct path out but which comes at a price, and the one that gives you the greatest chance of happiness. I chose the latter, and got a pretty straightforward escape ending as a result. The save system makes it inconvenient to go back and change your mind, so I don’t think I’ll be doing that soon. But I assume that not all of the endings are good. If you choose death for your fellow prisoner, does your guardian angel decide you’re not worth saving?

I suppose the whole thing is kind of gnostic, with its wise woman offering liberation from the angry demiurge. In which case, what are we to make of the fact that, after escaping the confines of the chambers in chapter 2, you have to go back inside to finish the story and the game? I guess it could be representative of a mystical experience, a temporary look at reality from outside, after which you return to your life with new knowledge — specifically, the knowledge that the test chambers and transports are suspended in a seemingly limitless void. Portal 2 did something similar, but it feels a little different in a prison setting than in a mad-science complex, where phantasmagoria is more expected. Although the very existence of test chambers means we’re already pretty far from the realms of the real in both cases.

Anyway, the puzzles were mostly pretty satisfying, apart from the ones requiring difficult platforming. There was one towards the end where you have to pull yourself up to a magnet on the ceiling in order to be able to aim downwards at another magnet to repel yourself across a gap, and the act of switching between facing-up-and-pulling and facing-down-and-pushing fast enough for it to work was difficult enough that I’d think there had to be another solution, if I hadn’t spent so much time looking for one.


Antichamber is distilled essence of Portal — by which I mean, it’s got the same underlying components, but with the flavor replaced with a chemical tang. It’s purged of impurities like plot and humor, abandoning any pretense of setting, leaving just a gun for manipulating the environment in novel ways and a labyrinth of stark white corridors, illogically-connected and rendered in a deliberately non-photorealistic style to enhance the sense of unreality. The strongest way it differs from the formula established by Portal (and followed by Qube and Quantum Conundrum) is that it isn’t a linear series of puzzles. It’s a network of them, with obstacles you can’t overcome the first time you encounter them, Metroidvania-style, and enough loops and branches that you can actually get lost.

It only takes a few hours to beat, leaving aside optional collection for completists. It strikes me that there’s a particular design problem to providing a sense of finality in a thoroughly abstract and unexplained environment; Antichamber manages it largely through a longish final animation that communicates “massive forces unleashed”. Browsing forums afterwards for stuff I missed, I came across an interesting question from someone who hadn’t played the game yet: “Is Antichamber scary?”

I’ll say right off that the answer is “No”. But it’s an interesting question because it’s a reasonable one. This is a game whose basic premise is that the world doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. That alone can be very nervous-making. The last game I played along similar lines was The 4th Wall, which I found extremely frightening. Not everyone’s in agreement about that, mind you; comment threads about T4W tend to be split between people completely creeped out by its disorienting alienness and people who it completely left cold. (There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. It might be interesting to compare the gaming habits of the people on either side.) But T4W at least tries to make things feel unsafe, pulls tricks like having things that chase you, punishing you for ever standing still, even while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Antichamber never really punishes you, except with puzzle-solver’s frustration. Even when the floor crumbles and vanishes under you, and you fall down a very deep pit, friendly signage at the bottom reminds you that what you’ve really done is find a hidden passage.

For another thing, the “doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to” aspect doesn’t really last the full length of the game. It really only has so many tricks, and once you’re used to them, well, it’s no longer the case that it doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. There are portals, of course, but we’re definitely used to thinking in terms of those by now. Some portals are obvious and highly visible, but one of the basic ways it disorients you is with inconspicuous one-way portals, or possibly just silent teleport triggers that send you to a place that looks exactly like where you teleported from until you try to go back the way you came in and realize it isn’t there any more. But that’s a trick as old as Wizardry; once you know it’s something that can happen, you just get into the habit of checking your tail once in a while. Then there are innovations in the use of look-triggers: not just where you are, but which direction you’re facing can be important. A more realistic game might use this to control NPC behavior, making enemies dodge when you aim at them and the like, but in the Myst-like solitude of Antichamber, it either controls more of those unnoticeable teleports I just mentioned, or affects the environment in more direct ways. Early on, for example, there’s a door that slams shut whenever you look at it, and which you therefore have to walk through backwards. Then there’s the relatively trivial matter of walls/floors that appear or disappear as you near them. And that’s basically it as far as violations of physical law go. The opening area has some stair-stepped walls that hint at an Escher-like variation in the direction of gravity, but that never happens.

So what does the game spend its time on once you’ve got a handle on its limited repertoire of space-manipulation? Block puzzles, mainly. It’s not quite what it sounds like: the blocks are cubical, maybe fist-sized, and completely immobile, even if suspended in midair, unless affected by your upgradable block-manipulation gun, which, in its simplest form, just lets you pick the blocks up and place them elsewhere. Some doors can only be opened by solving a self-contained block-manipulation puzzle in a panel next to it, which seemed at first like soup-cans design (although I’d hesitate to call anything a soup can in this game; it’s more like the whole complex is one massive soup can), but in at least some cases, the panels are really tutorials in disguise, teaching block-manipulation techniques applicable outside the panels. It reminds me of something pointed out in Portal‘s developer commentary, how they put a checkerboard pattern on the floor wherever the “fling” maneuver was useful, but only up to a certain point in the game, after which you were expected to be able to think of it on your own. I do have a complaint about the block gun, which is that using the more advanced powers — such as sending a group of blocks moving along a vector — requires moving the mouse while holding down the middle button (that is, the scrollwheel), which is especially awkward on my trackball. There’s currently no way to rebind controls in-game, although apparently you can do it by editing .ini files.

So basically this is a confusingly-laid-out 3D puzzle game, mostly about blocks but themed around counterintuitive spatial weirdness. It’s still a pretty good game, with satisfying puzzles based around slowly realizing what your capabilities are, but I feel like the surrealism aspect has been exaggerated, because it’s the most obvious thing about it at first glance.

IFComp 2012: Living Will

And finally I get to the browser-based CYOA stuff, but not yet to the Twine: this one’s in Undum, same as last year’s third-place winner, The Play. Spoilers follow the break.

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Analogue: A Hate Story

Somehow I get the impression that there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer-thin layers that fill her complex.Christine Love’s hate story is of course a follow-up to her BBS novella Digital: A Love Story, although set centuries later, in what is only minimally implied to be the same world. My first reaction to it is that it is Portal (Activision, 1986) done right. Seriously, the parallels between the two works run far, if not deep. Both are primarily text-based works with multi-leveled narratives concerning a mysteriously vanished population and the player character’s attempts to recover its history from computer records, aided by an AI guide who unearths more records in response to your reading what’s already been presented. And both are only hesitantly identified by their creators as games. As Love put it in a recent interview: “I always thought that I’d just end up being a novelist. Then everyone told me that Digital: A Love Story was a game, just because it had interactive elements…”

So, what does Analog get right that Portal didn’t? Nonlinearity, for one thing. Like the long novels of old, it contains digressions that illuminate the main plot, but aren’t essential to it, and thus can be encountered at whatever point in the storyline you become curious enough to pursue them, if at all. (Actually unlocking 100% of the text items in this game grants an Achievement on Steam, and it’s an Achievement I haven’t gotten yet despite reaching three different endings.) These take the form of diaries or letter exchanges between various long-dead persons that the AI thinks will interest you, or which will illustrate a point. Like Digital, this is mainly an epistolary novella, and that’s another point that’s an improvement over Portal. Instead of using the AI guide as an interpreter of data with a purportedly neutral point of view, you get the raw source material plus the AI’s interpretation, and get to decide for yourself how much you agree with it.

For your guide doesn’t just have a point of view, she has outright biases. Mind you, they’re biases that no reasonable modern person would disagree with. (You get opportunities to act as if you do, but that’s bound to be role-playing.) The basic idea — and I’m delving deep into spoilers here — is that society on the generation ship you’re investigating had regressed to a monstrously oppressive set of antiquated traditions, specifically those of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, in which women in particular are as a whole no better off than slaves, barely regarded as human and valued only as instruments for producing male heirs. The first AI you meet, *Hyun-ae 1As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI., is actually the digitized personality of a more modern person, a teenage girl brought out of cryo-stasis during this period, repeatedly punished for not being submissive enough, and expected to immediately marry against her will. When she pleaded for her independence, the whole notion was so alien to her family-cum-captors that they could only interpret it as a rebellious and unfilial declaration that she wanted to become a prostitute and bring shame on the family name.

Still, as much as you might feel sorry for Hyun-ae, it’s clear that *Hyun-ae 2The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization. is providing you information selectively, even hiding things from you, in the hope of maintaining your goodwill. There’s a particular technique used in the dialogue 3Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions: sometimes *Hyun-ae will start to say something and then instantly erase part of it. (You have to let the text scroll in, rather than click to make it appear all at once, to notice this.) Also, one of the first text items you uncover is a message from the ship’s previous controlling AI, named *Mute. If you show this to *Hyun-ae, she immediately deletes it. This is all to the good of the work. Secret agendas just make seemingly-friendly NPCs more interesting, as anyone who’s played Planescape: Torment can tell you. But it’s easy to excuse her, because it’s clear that her experiences have made her cagey. She doesn’t fully trust you, doesn’t know if you share the neo-Joseons’ world-view or not.

In the second act, you get to reactivate *Mute, who immediately presents the devil’s advocate position. *Mute is unapologetically in favor of the status quo, dismal subjugation of half the population and all, and furthermore is kind of catty and sleazy about it: when she shares her digressive epistolary tales of tragically unhappy marriages, it’s for the sake of the pleasure of being aghast at how scandalous they are. So you’ve basically got a good girl and a bad girl at this point, except that this is also the chapter where you learn that it was Hyun-ae who killed everyone on the ship.

And most of the rest of the work is spent exploring that in one way or another. You’ve presumably already come to sympathize with *Hyun-ae by this point, but does that extend to forgiving genocide? Admittedly, she was sorely provoked. But slaughtering oppressors and oppressed alike? Ah, but the story points out that the oppressed had internalized their oppression, and were just as culpable as anyone of perpetuating it. Perhaps when a dystopia gets bad enough, blowing the airlocks is the only way out. True, the historical precedent in the Joseon dynasty — which, according to the endnotes, was even worse than what’s seen in the story here — didn’t last forever. But it did last a long time, and Korea at least was part of a world that was generally advancing, while the generation ship is portrayed as stagnant and degenerating in knowledge.

But frankly, I don’t think such considerations are all that relevant to what decisions most players will make. The fact is, *Hyun-ae is a love interest — as the author puts it in the interview cited above, “Analogue is a game where a survivor of horrific trauma falls in love with the first person she meets”. This is very clear from her behavior, and becomes increasingly clear as the story goes on. In the majority of the occasions where she deletes what she’s said, it’s because she’s stated her feelings too directly. And everyone loves a love story, or at least cooperates with one. This is a lesson I think was most clearly taught by Andrew Plotkin’s So Far (which I will now spoil). So Far is a mysterious and surreal text adventure dominated by a repeated motif of things that have to be kept apart, because things will go disastrously wrong if they’re allowed contact. It ends with a question — “Can you forgive me?” — that, in context, signifies an opportunity to reconcile estranged lovers. Despite everything that the player has learned about how the game works, nearly everyone says “yes” to this the first time they encounter it. If we unthinkingly respond this way in a game that’s doing so much to allow us to realize that it’s the wrong choice, what are the odds we’ll choose any differently in one that’s trying to convince us that the computer has a crush on us?

1 As in Digital the asterisk indicates the name of an AI.
2 The game generally treats Hyun-ae, the human, and *Hyun-ae, the AI, as a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll be leaving off the asterisk when referring to actions taken before her digitization.
3 Or rather monologue, since you can’t speak back except in response to certain yes/no questions

CSotN: False Ending

Today, I beat Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. In a sense, anyway.

There was a boss fight against former hero Richter Belmont — I had been expecting Dracula, but when you think about it, Richter has already been established to be tougher than Dracula. The fight was kind of anticlimactic, over with disappointingly quickly. This is always a danger with RPG-like leveling systems that allow the player to keep on leveling beyond the point of challenge, but you’d think they could keep a bit of drama by making it a multi-stage boss. (It’s not like the notion was foreign to the designers. Dracula in the intro had two stages.) Victory was followed by an epilogue cutscene, and then the credits scrolled by, and ordinarily I’d consider that to be enough to get a game off the Stack. But, well, there were indications that I wasn’t actually finished with the game.

There were still passages I hadn’t yet found a way to get through, and even an optional miniboss that I hadn’t managed to beat. That in itself didn’t mean very much: there are a lot of blocked passages that just lead to a single room containing a piece of equipment or two, and in a lot of cases, I only found them after they had been rendered obsolete. But in the castle library, you can look at a sort of pokédex of all the monster types you’ve encountered, and something close to half the slots in the list were yet to be filled in. This made it seem like there had to be more than just a handful of isolated bonus rooms. The really convincing thing, though, was that the map showed a couple of small rooms on the opposite side of, and only accessible from, the room where the final boss fight took place. Which made them clearly impossible to get to, because you don’t get to leave that room: win or lose, the game ends there.

And so, jumping back to my last save before winning, I went to fight that one undefeated miniboss, a magician who summons swarms of bats and flying skulls. I had initially found this much harder than the fight against Richter, and I kind of wonder if this was deliberate, a way to encourage people to fight Richter first. But then, maybe not: after a little thought, I realized that there was a specific special weapon, a book that swirls around you in a defensive cloud, that would take down the swarms easily. Special weapons, the ones that use “hearts” for ammo, have the peculiar property that they don’t go into your inventory like most items, and you can only hold one at a time. It’s a weird mechanic for this game, but it’s one that Symphony of the Night inherited from the original Castlevania, which was just a platformer rather than a platformer/RPG(/adventure) hybrid and didn’t have an inventory. Anyway, it worked, and that led to an item that had obvious application to exploring another previously-unexplorable area, which turned out to hold another item that unlocked a different area, and so forth until I had a new way to handle the encounter with Richter, and, through it, access to those impossible rooms on the other side.

One of my vague wouldn’t-it-be-interesting game ideas that I’ll probably never actually implement is the idea of a game with a secret. You’d have a straightforward quest: rescue the princess, say. You could complete this quest by playing the game in the obvious way, and some people would do that and be satisfied. But other people would put together some details and realize that rescuing the princess isn’t what they should actually be doing: the royal family are all secretly alien shapeshifters, perhaps, and the player characters who win the straightforward way will wind up with their brains sucked out of their skulls while the credits are rolling. The people who discover this would have an opportunity to go off the obvious path and wind up playing a larger game, with different goals.

There are a few games that approach this to various degrees, but none I’m aware of quite reach it. Portal does the subversion, but forces the player into it. The Path lets you either pursue your stated goal the simple and direct way or wander the world around first, but doing the former is explicitly unsatisfactory. Gregory Weir’s The Day has two very different stories wrapped up into a single game, but it doesn’t make a secret of the fact.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may be the closest thing to the concept I’ve seen. I really can imagine someone defeating Richter and putting the game away, satisfied that they’ve finished it. But I can’t, now that I know the fuller story, that Richter isn’t the bad guy after all, and now that I’ve seen what’s on the other side of that room. Which I will describe in my next post. All I’ll say for now is that I’m very glad that I didn’t accept the false ending. Pursuing the game further has replaced anticlimax and disappointment with open-mouthed delight.

Portal 2

It’s been a while since I bought a new A-list title. I tend to wait for the major heavily-advertised games to be remaindered or even bundled when I have any interest in them at all, which is seldom the case these days: recent blockbusters seem to all be military-themed FPSes. When I hear people around the office talking about such things, it leaves me cold. Hearing them tiptoe around spoilers for Portal 2, on the other hand, just piqued my curiosity. For Portal 2 is a rare thing: a major heavily-advertised puzzle game. I don’t think I’ve seen a puzzle game advertised on bus hoardings since the first Professor Layton. And so, after resolutely ignoring the potato-themed ARG, I finally knuckled under and bought the thing last friday, played through the entire single-player story on Saturday, and on Sunday, instead of writing up the experience, got drawn into playing the two-player co-op mode, again completing it in a single marathon session. (So I’m posting this about a week late. Chalk it up to the difficulty of summarizing the total experience of something so recently well-covered elsewhere.)

Before I start talking plot, I have some general non-spoilery observations. Portal 2 is longer than its predecessor, more detailed, and wackier. Portal wasn’t particularly wacky. It had humor, but the humor was dry, and furthermore, superficial — by which I mean, one could imagine making an alternate version of Portal that plays it completely straight without altering the plot or gameplay at all. (Not that I’d recommend doing so. Much of the game’s charm is in its piquant blend of absurdity and living nightmare.) Portal 2, on the other hand, is more of a tall tale. It makes the ridiculous central to the plot, to the point where it starts to seem strange that this is set in the same universe as Half-Life. It puts me in mind of comic-book continuities, how John Constantine shares a world with the likes of Lobo and Ambush Bug. It seems to me that this shift of emphasis is risky. A light dusting of wit can enhance any game, but in scenes where comedy is the main focus, the game is only as good as it is funny. (I’ve cited MDK2 before as an example of how this can go wrong.) Fortunately, Valve got some pretty good voice-acting talent. I don’t know how much of Stephen Merchant’s lines were ad-libbed, but he has a way of making them sound ad-libbed even when they aren’t.

The puzzle content follows a typical pattern for puzzle games, steadily introducing new elements and exploring how they interact with what’s already been seen. (It’s what I think of as the DROD model.) The original Portal kind of did the same thing, introducing turrets and high-energy pellets one by one, and even doling out the portal gun in pieces, but that all seemed much more basic, like they could have introduced everything at once if they wanted to and they were spacing stuff out purely for the sake of spacing it out. The portal gun itself was the only real puzzle-enabling device, and everything else was just an environmental feature that provided material for portal-puzzles. Portal 2 often feels like it’s the other way around: that the portal gun is just a tool for executing gel-puzzles, laser-puzzles, etc. Crucially, some of the new elements are new means of transporting things or altering their trajectories: excursion funnels, light bridges, even repulsion gel at times, which can be both a means of transportation and a thing that needs to be transported. The original Portal had only one novel way to move objects around at a distance, and thus mainly focused on getting the player character around. A lot of the puzzles in Portal 2 involve moving objects around by novel means while you’re stuck standing on a button or something. In the co-op levels, the thing you’re transporting is often the other player, but the same principles apply.

Now to be more specific, and hence more spoilery. The game has three distinct runs of “test chambers”, bracketed and to some extent interrupted by behind-the-scenes stuff. The way that the game begins behind the scenes is a pretty big change from the enigmatic opening of the original. There, getting access to the areas outside the enumerated puzzle-game structure was the big twist, but here, it’s just part of the routine. (It reminds me just a little of Unreal, which is mainly structured around a series of building interiors punctuated by brief forays outdoors to get to the next building.) And once you have a routine, there’s a need to break it up with variety, even if it’s fake variety. Thus, reskinning! The middle run of test chambers is set in a long-forgotten section of Aperture Laboratories, implausibly deep below the surface, where we see what mad science testing environments were like in the 1940s and 1970s. This section is to the labs above what Red Alert is to Command & Conquer, replacing the gleaming engineered-looking Weighted Storage Cubes with simple wooden boxes, the glowing indicators with clack boards, and in general the futuristic high tech with precisely equivalent low — for example, the Aperture Science Unstationary Platform from the original, a levitating device that moved back and forth on some sort of energy beam, is replaced by something like a window-washer’s platform hanging from the ceiling by ropes. The very existence of low-tech equivalents underscores the tremendous wastefulness and impracticality of the whole operation. Company founder Cave Johnson, we learn, was in the habit of insisting on his own way against all sane advice, flew into rages at the least provocation (or sometimes none at all), and had enough power within the company that any half-baked idea he blurted out on a whim would be implemented at enormous expense. Even now that he’s gone, his legacy of preferring the complicated and inefficient remains.

Relics of Aperture’s past, along with recorded messages from Cave at various points in the company’s history, tell the story of its fall. Appropriately, this section of the game is precipitated by a literal fall down a shaft on the player’s part. The upper labs, on the other hand, starts off in a fallen state, decayed and overgrown, and it’s a rise up a different shaft, lined with electrical switches that are turned on by your passage, that triggers GLaDOS’s rise from the dead, followed by the gradual restoration of the facility to pristine condition.

GLaDOS herself is in much better condition than before her death, free from the audio glitches and lacunae found in the first game. Presumably such things were the result of the ethical constraint core that you destroyed at the end of the first game, or rather, of the self-sabotage GLaDOS engaged in to work around it. (Similarly, the dropping of the cake meme can be attributed to the destruction of her cake core.) She comes off as smarter, too, anthropomorphizing plainly inanimate things less 1The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing. and wasting no time on pathetically transparent attempts at deception. I suppose that’s because the time for that is over now that you’re openly enemies, but on a higher level, it’s because the role of humorously incompetent AI has been taken over by Wheatley, your sometime helper before the fall.

Of course, that’s not all Wheatley takes over. Wheatley’s conquest of the Enrichment Center — of Glados’s body, even — is the first moment that a male voice is in control, and things immediately take a turn for the worse — this is the point when both of the game’s strong female characters are literally cast down. For a while, Cave Johnson’s pre-recorded messages take over as antagonist, providing another male voice, but Johnson, as someone confident in his authority, is more of a bad father figure to match GLaDOS’s bad mother, while Wheatley is more like a spoiled kid with too much power. A spoiled pubescent kid, yet: the facility’s systems automatically give him a nagging urge to put humans through test chambers and a jolt of pleasure whenever you solve a puzzle, causing him to moan orgasmically. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this section immediately follows the discovery of tubes that spew viscous fluids, either.) This changes the tone of the exercise somewhat: GLaDOS hated you and wanted to murder you, but Wheatley effectively wants to rape you. The one thing that keeps this from being too horrible is that he’s so bad at it.

1 The Weighted Companion Cube is the famous example of specious anthropomorphization from the original Portal, but there were others, such as when she says that the hazard warnings around the High Energy Pellet installations had to be removed because they agitated the pellet. GLaDOS herself is, of course, technically an inanimate object, and seemed to regard human inability to empathize with inanimate objects like herself as a moral failing.

TF2: Five Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-Life 2: Level Transitions

If there’s one thing the Half-Life games do well, it’s keep the player playing. Partly they do this by keeping the gameplay varied, following up an intense firefight with a puzzle area, or a tunnel crawl where headcrabs leap at you from close up with a rooftop scene where you have to take down a flying gunship by means of steerable missiles.

More insidiously, though, they keep you playing by simply never giving you permission to stop. Most FPS games divide play into levels, and make it very clear when you go from one level to the next, usually in advance, making it easy to say “I’ll just finish this level and quit”. In Portal, for example, level transitions are signalled by arriving at an elevator. When you get in the elevator, the next level loads, as signalled by the word “Loading…” appearing in the middle of the screen. When you emerge from the elevator, the first thing you see is a sign indicating what level you’re on — the idea of levels is part of the story as well as part of the underlying technology. When you reach the point in the story where the levels stop, you no longer get the elevators, but you still occasionally get that “Loading…” message as you walk along.

And that’s mainly what happens in Half-Life. The transition is something you don’t see coming, and once it happens, you’re already in the next level, so you might as well keep playing. Beyond levels as unit-of-loading, the game is divided into Chapters, which are units of story and which are often themed around new gameplay elements (kind of like in DROD). But even the transitions between chapters are subtle, only signalled by a chapter title briefly overlaid on the screen while play continues as normal. The new weapon or monster or whatever that defines the chapter doesn’t necessarily show up right away, either.

The game is not without obvious stopping points — every once in a while there’s a Resistance base where you can replenish your ammo and listen to people talking plot. But I’ve been finding that I don’t stop at those places. I stop when I’m repeatedly failing to get through a fight. I figure that if I’m making no progress, it’s because I’m approaching it wrong, and should try it with a fresh mind later. This means that my typical session starts with a tough battle. This can’t be what the designers had in mind.

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