DROD RPG: Sort of complete

drod-rpg-slayerI know I just compared DROD RPG to Time Zone, but by the end, it was reminding me more of my experiences with Rhem. As I cleared paths of their obstacles, unlocking gates and killing monsters who stand in the way, the area I was playing in effectively expanded, until I was playing with the whole dungeon rather than just my immediate vicinity. As in Rhem, I spent so much time running madly from place to place to do stuff I wasn’t prepared for the first time through that I pretty much internalized the map, which led to beating the rest of the game in a manic burst rather than take a break and lose my place. When I talk about backtracking, I’m not just talking about going back for special items, although that was part of it, but also for stuff as simple as the monsters who were too tough for me initially, but who could now be easily killed for their money, which I could use to upgrade my stats, enabling me to mug even tougher monsters. At any rate, it’s a real contrast to regular DROD, where you generally leave solved areas behind and don’t look back.

Mind you, when I say that I beat the game, I’m only talking about getting to the end credits. There’s an extra boss in a secret area just off the final exit, and I suppose I won’t be fully satisfied until I do him in. Without him, the final boss is a Slayer, which would be more satisfying if I hadn’t already killed one in the secret level of chapter 1. (In particular, when you first see him, his projected damage is ridiculously astronomical, due to the combat mechanic’s nonlinear response to power differences. It’s a nice “You gotta be kidding me” moment, but you only get one of those per enemy.) But that’s what you get when you play the game out of intended order. The designers were clearly thinking in terms of players completing the game the easy way first and only afterward going back for the secrets. That’s why the new items in the secret level were unexplained; when you encounter them over the normal course of chapter 2, there’s usually a helpful guy 1That’s his name within the game engine. Helpful Guy. It says so when you click on him. nearby to describe them.

I have a pretty clear idea of what I have to do to beat this extra boss, although in order to pull it off, I’ll have to defer getting the Really Big Sword until much later in the game. That’ll make things difficult. Getting the Really Big Sword was a turning point for me, where I suddenly started being able to easily get health significantly faster than I spent it. I suppose I should have taken that as a warning. If it seems easy, you’re doing it wrong. Paradoxical though that is, it could be this game’s motto.

totsA day or two before my final push, I saw a mention on the DROD forum of Tower of the Sorcerer, a freeware game by “Oz and Kenichi” that allegedly used the same combat system as DROD RPG. Well, the similarities don’t end there. Both games are based on managing health and three different colors of keys (one of which is reserved for plot-crucial doors). I think the most striking point of resemblance is the devices for using money to raise your stats, which function nearly identically in both games, offering you a choice of health, attack power or defense power (with attack increases substantially less than defense increases), increasing the price with each use, increasing the gains as you get to remoter instances of the device (thus motivating you to hold off on upgrades until you can reach a more powerful one). Is DROD RPG a rip-off, then? Hardly. It’s based on TotS, and acknowledges this debt in the credits, but it also adds quite a bit of complexity. From what I’ve seen, TotS doesn’t seem to have anything like the percent-based damage from hot tiles and aumtlichs, and it definitely doesn’t have any way of doing stuff like trying to work your way around a goblin in a tight passage without turning your back to it (one of my favorite puzzle-like bits in DROD RPG). And anyway, I think the folks at Caravel Games earned our indulgence on this point through their indulgence of Wonderquest, which is about as direct a DROD imitation as you could hope to find (although it’s also embellished), and has a section of the official DROD forum devoted to it.

Finally, let’s talk plot a little. Chapter 1 is about Tendry’s escape from the Beneath, chapter 2 supposedly about his rescue of his countrymen who had been abducted by the Empire. We don’t actually get to see him do the latter, though, unless there’s something past the secret boss. There’s a distinct non-ending and promise of sequels, and, well, we’ll see how that turns out. On the other hand, the Empire is discussed enough that I think I’m finally starting to grasp the DROD overplot.

As I understand it, the Empire has two major factions, the Archivists and the Patrons, who split on how they approach the pursuit of knowledge. The Archivists are trying to get all the facts, whereas the Patrons are trying to get as many facts as possible. These might sound like similar goals, but they disagree when it comes to things that generate new facts — for example, foreigners. The Patrons like such things, because they’re an endless source of new things to learn, while the Archivists dislike them, because they perpetually render the Archivists’ knowledge incomplete. Thus, the Archivists want to destroy foreigners while the Patrons want to protect them. (Yes, only bad guys are completists.) It’s the Patrons who move the entire population of Tueno underground, which Tendry sees at first only as an enemy action, not realizing that they’re doing it to save them all from the Archivists’ army. The thing that hasn’t been resolved is what the Patrons intend to do with all these people. Fight a decisive battle against the Archivists and return them to their homes? Release them elsewhere, where the Archivists won’t find them immediately? Keep them in cages and study them? Tendry comments at one point about the Patrons “collecting” his people, which makes me think this isn’t supposed to be a temporary condition. The Archivists are evil, but you have to bear in mind that the Patrons are products of the same deranged system. Who knows what they’re capable of? Not me, certainly. The ending of that story has not yet been written.

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1. That’s his name within the game engine. Helpful Guy. It says so when you click on him.

Rhem: The Rest

rhem-notesMy previous Rhem sessions, taken all together, cover a minority of the game. I have just completed the rest in a single marathon session. People who do cryptograms are familiar with the moment when the code “breaks” and suddenly you’re discovering new leads faster than you can follow up on them. Rhem and other nonlinear puzzle-based adventure games have a similar tipping point. Not entirely for the same reason: here, it’s more do do with eliminating clues than finding new ones. But both forms share the property that the more you understand, the easier it is to understand more.

The chief reason for this in adventure games is that the more you see of a game, the better you understand how the author thinks. There are a few basic organizing principles in Rhem that, once grasped, make the whole game easier to think about. One is the overall structure of the map: there’s a large central area, with various drawbridges and rotating platforms and the like to make it difficult to get around, and there are various mostly-self-contained peripheral areas hanging off of it. The fact that the peripheral areas aren’t entirely self-contained, coupled with the lack of an obvious boundary between them and the central area, obscures this structure. But recognizing it is useful, not just for navigation, but because it lets you make certain assumptions — for example, that actions performed in the central area won’t affect things in the periphery. This assumption isn’t always true, but whenever there’s an exception, there’s some kind of clue indicating it.

Another very big part of the author’s style is heavy use of the close-the-door-behind-you puzzle. This is one of the basic puzzles of the Myst-like genre, because it’s one of the few puzzles, other than combination-lock variants, that you can do with a one-click interface and no inventory. 1 Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame. Here’s how it goes: A room is initially reached through a door that can be only opened and closed from the outside (typically because it’s button-operated). The contents of the room directly or indirectly grant access to an alternate route into that room. The trick is that closing the door alters the room in some desirable way — maybe there’s something written on the back of the door, maybe there’s a passageway that’s concealed by the door when it’s open, whatever. So you have to close the door from the outside, which players won’t normally do, and enter through the alternate route. Understand that I mean these words in an abstract and general way: the “room” can be a hallway or even outdoors, as long as access to it is limited, and the the “door” might be a ladder or a drawbridge or something, as long as it has two positions, one passable and one impassible, and no immediately obvious reason to return it to the impassible position. I think every single game in the Myst series uses this puzzle at some point, but Rhem really exploits it for all it’s worth, dressing it up in all kinds of guises and daisy-chaining instances of it in loops where one room’s door is another room’s alternate route. After my first session, I wrote that the game’s layout was hard to grasp, even with a map. By the end, I had pretty much internalized it, due to repeatedly running through that central area in order to get to the other side of closed doors.

In the course of solving this game, in addition to the notations on my map, I covered most of one side of a standard sheet of paper with notes that will be incomprehensible to me in a month or two. Zarf’s review mentions taking six pages of notes, which I suppose shows different habits: his notes may be more verbose, and he probably wrote things down that I didn’t. In cases where I discovered information and already knew where it was to be used, I often just temporarily committed it to memory. Consequently, the bulk of my notes were taken in the beginning, when I didn’t yet understand anything. But also, in many cases I circumvented note-taking by taking screenshots. This isn’t something I often do in adventure games, but Rhem pretty much asked for it: several points showed complicated screenfulls of data that I didn’t yet know how to filter into something simple to copy down. And, being old and written in Macromedia Director, the game switches to the background quickly and without hassle, making it easy to switch to an image viewer whenever I wanted to check on stuff. My map is based around two screenshots of partial maps found in the game, assembled in an image editor and printed out so I could write on it.

Anyway, I have to agree with what pretty much every review of Rhem says: it’s great stuff, if you like this sort of thing. It’s all a big complicated system made of rusty piping and cinderblocks, and the joy of the game is in coming to understand that system.

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1. Rhem actually has a certain amount of inventory, but it’s only used in the endgame.

Rhem: Room of Mystery

rhem-photoI seem to have solved Rhem’s second major puzzle, and in so doing gained access to the first hint of what passes for a plot in this game. (By which I mean, an excuse to assign new player objectives: I’ve been offered help escaping Rhem in exchange for finding four parts of a discarded letter.)

More importantly, the same area seems to be the motherlode of cryptic hints. A machine labeled “SIMULATION” displays shapes, which change into other shapes at the press of a button. Another machine with a keypad dispenses sheets of paper with rows of pixellated runes, some labeled with numbers. Even a portrait of two young boys seems like it’s hiding a message, if only I knew how to begin interpreting the colors. Some of this is clearly connected to things I’ve seen before, although the nature of the connection is obscure. It’s all in one small room, not like the large explorable areas outside.

The thing is, I may well be laughing at this a day or two from now, after I discover the real cryptic hint motherlode. Every time I sit down to play this game, I make substantial progress in figuring things out, but still wind up with more mysteries than I started with.

Rhem: Induction

rhem-controlsI think I’ve gotten just up to where I stopped playing Rhem the first time. My last major accomplishment was setting everything up correctly in a control center for a system of pipes, allowing water to flow where I needed it in order to gain passage to the second major section of the game. Getting the right settings involves piecing together information from four other places, information partly in the form of unexplained symbols whose meaning and significance has to be derived from context.

For my money, this kind of inductive reasoning is the essence of the genre (both adventure games in general and Myst clones in particular). And it stands in contrast to the sort of reasoning needed in DROD and other rules-based puzzle games. In those, you pretty much have complete information about how all the elements work. The challenge is to figure out the consequences of what you know. It’s very mathematical. Rhem, on the other hand, is scientific: you start with incomplete information, and have to notice patterns in order to figure out how to complete it. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be reading uncommented source code: all the symbols were presumably meaningful to whoever made them. Heck, it’s not all that different from the ad-hoc notation I’ve been using to take notes while playing the game. There are certain fixtures repeated throughout the map, comprising seven buttons arranged around a screen; press the right buttons in the right order, and you get what I can only assume is a clue for a puzzle I haven’t encountered yet. When I encounter one, I note it on the map with a special glyph, a simplified representation of its shape. I could imagine someone else finding my map and being as puzzled by these symbols as I am by the symbols in the game.

Rhem

rhem-stairsWhen I said yesterday that I wanted something more thinky, what I was planning to do was pick up a copy of Myst V: End of Ages at one of the various retailers I pass on the way home from work. But it turns out that it’s no longer on store shelves (although, for some reason, Uru: The Path of the Shell is.) I have already made other arrangements to acquire it: as a completist, I definitely want to finish the Myst series sometime, even though the series seems to have peaked at Riven. But in the short term, I’ll have to make do with the next best thing: a blatant Myst imitation. Fortunately, I have several.

Rhem is one of the better ones, and in some respects utilizes the form better than any of the actual Myst games. Andrew Plotkin’s review does a good job of explaining this. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have anything significant to add to what he says. I will note, however, that while his review talks at some length about three CDs and overcoming the need to swap disks, the game was later re-released on a single CD, apparently the result of better video compression. This is the edition I’m playing.

My history with Rhem is typical of my experience of graphic adentures. I started it, got a good way into it, got stuck, got distracted, and set it aside to finish later. Well, this is not a game that you can just abandon for a week and remember enough of to keep playing. Some time later, after some system upgrades, I tried to play it again, but hit strange technical problems. The publisher’s tech support was unable to help me, as is usually the case with games more than a year or two old. Whatever the problem was, subsequent upgrades seem to have fixed it. (I love it when that happens.) I have of course forgotten most of the game, but I have a vague recollection of what I did before that makes it a little easier to figure out what to do.

Faded familiarity does not, however, make the map easier to navigate. Talk about twisty passages — Rhem is made largely of catwalks and stairways that cross over and under each other a lot, ruining my sense of where I have and have not been already. The game provides a partial map at one point, and I’m relying on that a lot, when I can figure out where I am on it. Annotating the map with the locations of stairs helps a lot. I may wind up making a simpler map that only notes junctions, once I have a better handle on the layout. As much as the author has tried to ease navigation within the framework of a Macromedia Director adventure game, I really think this aspect of the game might be served better by a full 3D engine, where continuity of motion would make it easier to keep track of which peripheral objects are which. Or maybe not: it would slow down movement, now handled by swift mouse clicks. Besides, it’s not like the author had the time or the budget to develop such a thing. This is another of those indy efforts, sold at first exclusively through the author’s website, and I’m glad that he chose to devote his efforts towards a game rather than a new engine. But the point is, Rhem is conceived as a continuous three-dimensional object, and understanding how that object is put together is crucial to figuring out the game. I made comments to this effect about The Neverhood, but it’s even more true here.