Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.


As I said in the previous post, Steam’s “Treasure Hunt” promotion for yesterday featured two games that I already had. The second, which I got in one of the recent Thanksgiving sale bundles, is Droplitz, which, like Obulis, is a port of an iPhone game. There’s a lot to be said about the rise of phones as gaming platforms and the imminent death of dedicated handheld gaming consoles, but other people are saying it adequately, and I’ve already done one long post today. This will be a short one.

Funny, I never noticed the disco dancer in the lower right before. I wonder if she's always there?Droplitz is essentially a relative of the hacking mini-game in Bioshock, except the tiles are hexagonal, you rotate them instead of placing them, and tiles that form complete paths from inlet to outlet are, after a while (enough time for a purple-highlighted droplet to make its way all the way through the path), deleted from play and replaced with new random tiles from the top a la Bejeweled. Also, perhaps most importantly, you don’t lose just because the fluid has reached the end of a pipe. Droplets are constantly coming in, and each one that gets lost costs you (in effect) a hit point, while each one that winds up where it’s supposed to go restores one. It’s essentially a game of splitting your attention under time pressure, trying to make paths as quickly as you can.

It’s rather Tetris-like in feel, the way that you can sometimes come close to death and then get things to mesh in a way that brings you back, but still inevitably lose. At least, that’s the way it is in “Classic” mode, which is the only mode I’ve tried so far. There are several others, and several different boards, with different numbers of inflow and outflow pipes, which you unlock via play. Unlocking all the boards in all the modes gives you an Achievement called “Completionist”, which is so apropos that I suppose it has to be my goal for removing this game from the Stack.

I probably won’t do much with it at the moment, though. I’m a bit annoyed at it, and a bit fearful of playing it, due to my problems installing and running it for the first time. My first attempt at installing it crashed shortly after the DirectX update, and my first attempt at running it produced no more than a black screen until I power-cycled the machine. Forums suggested running it in windowed mode (via a command-line incantation in the Steam settings), but then it just crashed to the desktop immediately, and, furthermore, left things in such a messed-up state that Duels of the Planeswalkers started crashing too until I rebooted. Ultimately, I had to wipe it and reinstall before it started behaving. I’d still prefer to run it full-screen, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. I assume that the iPhone version doesn’t have these problems. I wonder how many people bought it for the Steam promotion and then gave up before they got it working?

Arkham Asylum

I really should have thought to take a screenshot of the "downloading update" progress bar, because that would have been much more representative of my experience.My story today beings with annoyance. Having downloaded Batman: Arkham Asylum from Steam, I found that it wouldn’t let me play (or at least, wouldn’t let me save the game, which is pretty essential in a game like this) until I registered for a Games for Windows Live account — something I’ve managed to avoid doing so far solely through my taste in games. Once I did that, it needed to download a Games for Windows Live update. Installing the update required me to exit the game and restart it, sit through the uninterruptible logo movies (including one for nVidia, even though I have an ATI graphics card installed) and log into Games for Windows Live again (even though I had checked the “log in automatically” checkbox — I’m guessing that the update reset that), at which point I was told that I needed to install another Games for Windows Live update. I had to go through this cycle something like five times before it let me play the game. I almost gave up and hit the support forums, because there was no clear indication that it was actually making any progress. For all I knew, it might have been downloading the same update every time. At least it never went as far as to make good on its warning that it might have to restart the machine.

Since Microsoft has recently been making noises about turning Games for Windows Live into a viable iPhone-like app store that can compete with Steam, it’s worth noting how much worse this experience was than my first Steam experience. Back then, I wanted a particular game, and retail had failed me as a way to obtain it. So, Steam was my rescuer. I downloaded the latest client, and it gave me access to what I desired. Games for Windows Live, on the other hand, I first experienced as an obstacle. The only reason I sat through those updates was that it was holding my game hostage — the game I had already installed, which is not enhanced in any significant way by such a pairing. (It provides leaderboards, which I have no interest in, and achievements, which might as well be completely local for all I care.) I suppose that someone who bought the Orange Box on physical media might have a similar experience with Steam, but even then, my experience with Steam updates is that they’re much more polite than the “You must download this and restart the game now and not ask why” found here, more like “I’ve just finished downloading this. May I have permission to install it? No rush, I can do it later if you prefer. Here’s the changelog, if you want it.” Or consider the business of the “CD key”. The game is set up to require such a key the first time you run it, even though I’m playing without a CD. Steam is kind enough to provide this key, both on request and automatically when you run the game for the first time, in a nice dialog box with a button just for copying it to your clipboard, so you can just paste it in when the game requests it. And this works when the game requests it, but Game for Windows Live redundantly demanded it as well, and required me to enter it into four separate text fields, breaking copy-and-paste. At this point it seems like it’s just being ornery. Steam wants my experience to be a pleasant one; Games for Windows Live wants to throw its weight around.

Now, Arkham Asylum is a port of a console game, and one of the things I’m interested in learning from it is how it managed the translation of the controls to the PC. I’ll go into more detail later, when I’ve seen more of the game’s mechanics and can give a more complete report, but for now, let me just say that, although the game can be played fully with mouse and keyboard, it really wants a gamepad. Fortunately, I have my trusty Dualshock Controller for PS2 and third-party USB adapter! Unfortunately, the game is only willing to recognize an actual Xbox controller. This is not a matter of technical incompatibility: my controller is supported by DirectX and recognized by various other console-to-PC ports. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, it’s exactly equivalent to an Xbox controller in its capabilities, and could probably even masquerade as one with sufficient hackery. I personally don’t need to take things that far, because I have access to an Xbox controller that I can borrow for a while. But it’s still another unnecessary annoyance.

It all really seems to come down to one thing: Microsoft feels like it should have control over my machine. It was their ability to function as part of a system with open standards, an environment in which anyone could create software or even hardware, that initially gave Microsoft their dominant market position, but, having achieved such dominance, they have developed a taste for dominating. The Xbox comes a lot closer to their ideal than the PC does: a locked-down system where every title has to meet stringent certification requirements, many of which have more to do with helping Microsoft push the Xbox brand than with making the game better for the player. They must be really jealous of Apple’s ability to get away with this stuff without losing the goodwill of their customers.

Next post, I’ll talk about the game a little. But I may return to grumbling when SecuROM decides to take its turn at being a dick.

Gish attempted, failed

My first thought on reaching 2004 was to make a try at completing Gish, which I’ve left in world 3 since last December. Alas, the intermittent crashing seems to be even worse than I remembered, sometimes leaving my entire system unresponsive and forcing me to switch it off. I don’t think I’ll be continuing until I have a solution here. Every once in a while, it freezes for several seconds with a speckling of white pixels, then comes back with a notification that OpenGL had to reset the hardware. Perhaps it’s ultimately an OpenGL problem? Most of the other games I’ve been playing lately use DirectX.

1997: A New Beginning

Egypt 1156 B.C. has proved unplayable. For one thing, lines of dialogue frequently cut out prematurely — something that I’ve seen happen on other Cryo/Dreamcatcher games. The standard solution for sound problems is to turn off DirectX hardware acceleration, but that didn’t help here. Suspecting that the system speed was the problem, I also used Turbo to turn it down to 1%. This seemed to help somewhat, but there were still a lot of skipped lines.

I could probably work around sound problems in dialogue if necessary, by turning voice off and subtitles on, but that’s just the start of the problems. Opening a piece of papyrus in my inventory, I found there was no way to close it. Certain controls would blur it a little, as if it were going out of focus as part of a going-away animation, but it didn’t go away. Possibly relatedly, when I tell it to exit the game, it sits there playing music and doing nothing until I press Esc. I recall that other games by the same company behave similarly, except that instead of an empty screen, they display the credits. So it looks like there’s some sort of graphics glitch here.

Someday, I’m going to put together a bunch of obsolete hardware and install Windows 98 on it for all these recalcitrant late-1990s games. If I were smart, I would have done this already, in preparation for this stage of the chronological run-through. As it is, I wanted to play an adventure game for 1997 in the hope that I could finish it in a single week, and instead, I’ve spent a full week exhausting my supply of them without getting started.

For my next attempt, I’ve chosen Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, an educational strategy game sponsored by the Discovery Channel and designed by none other than indie game icon Greg Costikyan. After a couple of false starts — running Egypt seems to make my system forget how DirectX works until reboot — it installs and runs successfully. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I probably won’t be getting any gaming in tonight, but we’ll see how it goes. It seems to be designed more or less in the general mold of Civilization, which gives me hope that I can get in a complete session over the next few days.

1997: The Final Revelation

So, I did a sweep of my records, updating everything with its release date as reported by mobygames. 1Except Wizardry III, which I’m already committed to treating like it was released in 1986. The year listed with mobygames search results generally seems to be the date of the earliest release on any platform, so quite a few items on the Stack have been shifted back on that basis alone. But there were also quite a few outright errors in my listings, both forward and backward. There was never any good reason to list Dust as 1997, for example: even the specific edition I have isn’t a 1997 release. (Its readme gives instructions for installing it under Windows 98, which really should have made me realize this sooner.)

This done, I had two adventure games listed for 1997: Tex Murphy: Overseer, the last of a series that really epitomizes the 90’s FMV genre, and Egypt 1156 B.C.: Tomb of the Pharaoh, one of Dreamcatcher Interactive’s numerous ancient-civilization-themed pixel-hunts. I chose the former.

Overseer is unusual in that it shipped on CD-ROM and DVD together. The original packaging contained a double-width jewel case containing four CDs, and a single-width case containing a single DVD (and a fifth CD). I still haven’t removed the shrink-wrap from the double-width case, as the DVD version is just the obvious way to go here, both for the superior video quality and for simply not needing to swap discs during play. Unfortunately, it also depends on the same the lost technology as Tender Loving Care did: the MPEG2 decoder card, or at least a software driver capable of acting like one. Fortunately, unlike TLC, the Tex Murphy games have a fanbase. There are websites and message boards, some with fresh activity now that the CD version of the game is available on GOG. There were links to patches and DVD drivers, and after some looking, I eventually found ones that weren’t broken. The Overseer intro movie, if nothing else, has successfully played on my system.

But in the process of looking, I found claims that Overseer was released in 1998. Checking mobygames again, I saw that, although the search results list it as 1997, the detailed game description says March 1998. So I don’t know what’s up with that. They’re at least consistent about Egypt, so let’s try that tonight.

1 Except Wizardry III, which I’m already committed to treating like it was released in 1986.

Dust, and the continuing quest for 1997

1997 continues to elude me. I installed Dust and played it a bit — sometimes it crashes to desktop with an error immediately on launch, but once you’re in, it seems to be stable. Then, for reasons I’ve already forgotten, I checked its mobygames listing. It turns out to have actually been written in 1995. I had two more adventure games listed in my spreadsheet for 1997, and they both turned out to be from 1996. Probably at some point in the past I accidentally told Google Docs to “sort column B” instead of “sort sheet by column B”, or something along those lines. I’m going to have to scan for more errors more thoroughly at some point, but I’ve already found a genuine 1997 adventure game that was mislabeled for a different year. We’ll find out tonight if it runs.

Meanwhile, I did in fact play a couple of hours of Dust, so I suppose I should write about it. Dust is a first-person adventure set in a small frontier town called Diamondback in 1882 (as the first NPC you meet clumsily points out). Its full title is Dust: A Tale of the Wired West, although the “wired” part doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the content; rather, it’s shorthand for “It’s 1995 and we just found out that you can tell stories on computers!” The art is primitive in a way that almost looks naïvist. The sound is gratingly low-quality, and compounds the irritation of talking to characters with annoying manners of speech, which happens amazingly often — much of the dialogue is unnaturally full of colorful westernisms. It’s the sort of writing that probably reads better on the page than spoken aloud, but not by much.

In fact, sometimes the dialogue seems to go out of its way to annoy the player. At one point early on, there’s a dialogue containing a pause of a few seconds, after which the person you’re talking to says “Well, what are you waiting for? Go!” The player’s likeliest reaction to the pause is frustration that, even though nothing is happening, the game hasn’t yet given back control. To then scold the player for being on the receiving end of this mistreatment smacks of bullying, like knocking someone to the ground and then saying “Why are you lying down? Get up!”

Dialogue mode is where most of the game seems to be played. When you talk to a person, they stop being a stiff CGI model and turn into a photograph of a face, which animates in a stop-frame sort of way: it’s not quite FMV, but it clearly has FMV ambitions. Perhaps because it falls so far short, the technology here feels somehow more rustic than retro, as if this were the sort of crude computer game that the grizzled cowpokes and prospectors of Diamondback put together for their own amusement after seeing a kinetoscope in a penny arcade. Still, even the worst of the animation here works a lot better than the complete lack of animation that a lot of adventure games have during conversations. (I’m thinking in particular of The Longest Journey, which was extremely dialogue-heavy but didn’t seem to realize it.)

For all that, the game is oddly ahead of its time. While the rest of the adventure-gaming world was scrambling to imitate Myst, the designers of Dust, oblivious to context, put together a sandboxish interactive environment with multiple viable approaches to your problems. For example, one of your chief initial limitations is lack of money. You can work around this to some extent by giving people items that they want in lieu of cash, or even just being nice to them, or you can try to pick up the money you need by gambling, and even have the opportunity to cheat at poker.

With the emphasis on dialogue and the alternate approaches, it plays a lot more like an RPG than an adventure. That’s why I shelved it the first time around. When I pulled it out of the bargain bin, I had been expecting a Myst clone.

1997 Failure Follow-Up

My success in getting the shooting gallery to work is only spottily repeatable, and I still have yet to get the chase to terminate correctly. Even if I managed to get that to randomly work after repeated failures, I’d be wondering throughout the rest of the game if I was missing crucial events through the same bug. So Blade‘s a bust. It’s time for Dust.

Failing at 1997

Moving on, then. I’m already a week behind schedule, and I want to make some time to finish up the last few games, so lets go for something short. Adventure games usually qualify. It’s hard to pad things out when every interaction is a special case.

Unfortunately, we seem to have entered the danger zone, where the games are too old to run without problems on a modern system, but not old enough that I can easily get around the problem with a robust and stable emulator. The first game that I pulled out of the Stack for this week, an ill-regarded exercise in wackiness titled Armed & Delirious, consistently crashed to the desktop during the intro cutscene, with a popup reading “Unexpected Error”. No tweaking of the compatibility settings helped. Online searches turned up no patches and no record of anyone else ever having solved this problem, and precious few mentions of anyone even encountering it. Such is the doom of ill-regarded games.

After giving that up, I switched to plan B: Blade Runner, a point-and-click adventure loosely based on the movie of the same name. Blade Runner: The Game doesn’t tell the same story as the movie — or, for that matter, as the novel it was based on (again loosely) — but instead puts you in the shoes of a different cop/murderer hunting for a different set of synthetic humans. It’s more or less a sci-fi police procedural, and I’ll probably be comparing it to my recent experiences with Police Quest if I keep on playing. I have to say, it’s a pretty slick package, if low-fi and over-antialiased by today’s standards. I’m particularly impressed by how smoothly the FMV scene transitions are integrated into the action (something probably helped by the fact that I copied all four CDs to my hard drive).

Operation of the game seemed trouble-free at first, but then I hit a wall, ran out of ways to progress. The last thing I did to advance the story was chase a suspect through an abandoned building. The chase ended at a locked door in a room with no other hotspots. Lacking anything better to do, I left, then tried out the shooting gallery back at HQ, only to find that there was nothing to shoot — no targets ever appeared. Growing suspicious, I hit up the net for information. Walkthroughs confirmed that the chase scene was supposed to end with a triggered event: when I reached the locked door, the guy I was chasing was supposed to jump me from behind. I’m hoping that this is the same sort of trigger that was supposed to make the targets in the shooting gallery appear, because I’ve solved that part. An old FAQ suggested that it had problems on fast systems, and that I should use a slow-down program like Turbo to cut the system speed down to somewhere between 30% and 50%. I had to set it to 1% to get the shooting gallery working — and until that happened, I wasn’t even sure that Turbo was having any effect at all.

But I still haven’t completed the chase successfully. Going back to the locked door after having left it once has no effect. I’m probably going to have to do the chase over again — and since my only save is after that point, that means starting over from scratch. If it doesn’t work, I suppose it’s time for plan C. (Or rather, plan D. I don’t have any unfinished adventure games from 1997 beginning with C.)

Icebreaker: Getting Started

1995 was an epochal year for the PC: with the release of Windows 95, we suddenly had 32-bit addressing, true preemptive multitasking, and, most importantly for gaming, genuine hope for hardware-independent code in an increasingly unwieldy world of semi-compatibility. The installers for DOS games of the time presented to the user long lists of all the graphics, sound, and input devices they supported, and asked the user to select IRQ settings and other such arcana. 3D graphics accelerators were still a speck on the horizon, but the age of the CD-ROM multimedia extravaganza was here, and with it, long-since-forgotten extravagances like MPEG decoder cards. The new Windows Games SDK promised to simplify things by putting a layer of indirection between the software and the hardware — an indirection layer that, in a tremendous feat of denial and marketing spin, was dubbed “DirectX”. But none of this happened immediately, and PC game developers continued to primarily target DOS for a while. After all, not everyone had Windows 95 yet, and why limit your potential audience? Besides, Windows was reputedly inferior as a gaming platform — Windows 3.1 functioned as an abstraction layer too, but tended towards lowest common functionality.

So why, in 1995 of all times, would anyone release games for Windows 3.1? It seems like the worst of both worlds: limited adoption and lagging behind the cutting edge. But apparently it was a convenient platform to port things to — Myst, for example, never saw a DOS port, presumably because Windows 3.1 was a better fit to the original Macintosh code. Today’s selection, Icebreaker, was originally written for the 3DO, and, if I understand correctly, ported to both Windows and Mac simultaneously by a third party.

Installing Icebreaker on a modern system is a bit of an adventure. I’ve run it on a win32 system before, and I know from experience that it has overzealous copy protection that demands that you insert the CD even when you already did. The game’s author, Andrew Looney, has gone on record encouraging the use of a no-CD crack. Possibly related to this, I have never managed to get the game to play its intro, outro, or between-levels movies. But that’s not such a big deal: they’re not an essential part of the experience, and besides, they’re all stored as ordinary AVI files, watchable from the desktop.

A more serious obstacle is the palette requirement. Icebreaker will only run if Windows is set to 256 colors, neither more nor less. Windows apps in those days didn’t know how to change the color depth on their own — this is one of the many reasons why DOS was considered a superior gaming platform. The problem is, my current system doesn’t do 256 colors. 32-bit color it can handle without problems, but 8-bit, once the mainstay of VGA, isn’t even an option. It’s true that I’ve run other 256-color games lately, and even 16-color games, but only through an additional indirection layer — specifically, DOSBox. DOSBox is certainly capable of emulating 256-color mode on a more capable display, but unfortunately, it only runs DOS apps, not Windows 3.1 apps.

I was about ready to give up and pick a different game, when I realized that Windows 3.1 itself is a DOS app, and can be run inside DOSBox.

Thus began the second round of installation fun: locating Windows 3.1 device drivers that behave correctly under DOSBox. None of the built-in graphics drivers supported 640x480x256, but I managed to find something that worked just as well, given a little help from Vogons. It took me a few tries to find a Soundblaster driver that actually produced sound. But now, I have a convoluted-but-functional Windows 3.1 gaming system that, as an added bonus, works on my Macbook, which I really wasn’t expecting when I got started.

Tomorrow, I suppose I’ll try to describe the actual game.

[ADDENDUM] Looks like I could have just installed it under XP and checked the “Run in 256 colors” setting in the “Compatibility” tab in the shortcut properties. But that wouldn’t have helped me play it on the Macbook.

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