ParserComp 2022: Anita’s Goodbye

Another time-travel game, fairly small and kind of underdeveloped — it would be more satisfying with more interactive detail, and some of the puzzles just outright tell you what to do instead of presenting you with the information you’d need to figure it out. A time travel device moves you through a three-day span, and also lets you send objects between the days, but it’s all a bit unconvincing: although the three periods share a layout, it’s clear that they’re essentially parallel copies of each other, not the same place at three times. You cannot, for example, leave an object in the past and see it show up in the future. Past and future have nothing to do with each other, except in certain hand-authored special cases.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say that this is a fundamentally bad game — just that it could be a lot better with some more work put into it. Satisfying time travel mechanics are fairly hard to do, and even the sleight of hand necessary to cover up their absence is kind of tricky.

The premise is that Anita (whoever that is) has died, and you’re trying to get some closure by visiting her one last time in an alternate timeline where she didn’t. This leads to an ironic ending where the Anita who survived doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. It’s an ending that could have been melancholy, but instead the author basically went for cheap shock, which would probably feel insulting in a game where the premise is better-integrated into the gameplay.

ParserComp 2022: The Impossible Stairs

At last, the randomizer pulls up the one that I had been particularly looking forward to. For one thing, it’s by Brian “Mathbrush” Rushton, who’s made quite a name for himself in the community over the last several years, and is responsible for the 2020 train heist game that I liked so much. For another, like that game, this is an authorized sequel, and the game it’s a sequel to is The Impossible Bottle.

I’ll say this right off: It is a lesser work than the one it’s based on. It satisfies, but it does not dazzle the way Bottle did. To a large extent, that’s because Bottle‘s spatial weirdness has been replaced with time travel, and that’s much more familiar ground in adventure games. The cleverest time-travel puzzles in this game are echoes of Timequest and other decades-old works.

Nonetheless, it makes good use of the premise, not for its own sake, but to show a portrait of a family and how it changes over the course of decades. The changes are largely negative ones: people age and die or move away, the house itself becomes damaged, and ultimately the place is entirely abandoned as you approach your own end. Your temporal peculiarities let you fix some things, and see change that would normally require multiple lifetimes, which brings a sense of hope to it all, but there’s still a lot that’s beyond your power to affect. You can always revisit the past, though. Nothing is ever truly lost from your perspective. The feel is comforting, cozy, in contrast to Bottle‘s sometimes disturbing bizarreness. The family here may not comprehend what you’re doing, but at least they’re never dehumanized.

A brief mention of supply chain issues reminds me of how Bottle linked everything thematically to COVID lockdowns, and I can kind of see something similar going on here, comment on how the last couple of years have distorted our perspective of time. It’s a bit of a stretch, though.

It uses the same hybrid interface as Bottle, in which hyperlinks just generate text that gets fed into the parser. The problems with such a system are noticeable in one room: the text contains a link on the word “house”, which produces a disambiguation prompt — “Did you want to examine the house or the smashed treehouse?” — even though the link you clicked on isn’t ambiguous at all.

The Second Sky: Temporal Aumtlich

In the classic Sega ninja arcade game Shinobi, the player can use a special “ninja magic” attack once per level, clearing the screen of enemies. Depending on the level, you get either a lightning storm, a whirlwind, or a “doppelganger” attack, in which duplicates of the player burst out from him and bounce around with a thundering noise. Despite being surrounded by other ninjas, the player character has exclusive access to these magics — until the final boss. He has all your spells, and uses them against you. Except, because the game is designed to be winnable, his versions are weaker than yours. His whirlwind attack is dodgeable. His lightning is localized. His doppelgangers emerge one at a time, and can be fought and overcome like any other ninja.

This was brought to mind by events in the swirling temporal maelstrom that Beethro finds himself in after jumping through a few time portals. It’s a place of chaos: precipices over a foggy void, lighting that’s dim and erratic enough that I can’t tell what color a gate is until there’s a flash of lightning, segments of floor that appear and disappear. The ever-useful clock in the UI doesn’t work properly here, sometimes moving backwards. This is the home of the Temporal Aumtlich.

In a sense, there’s only one Temporal Aumtlich, but you have to kill him over and over. That’s because he’s capable of spawning time-clones of himself — just like Beethro does when he steps on a temporal split token. This comes on the heels of several levels all about time-cloning puzzles, so this is one of those Shinobi moments, where you encounter an enemy with powers similar to yours, and it somehow doesn’t seem fair. Time-cloning is a very powerful tool, even if the puzzles are set up to make it difficult to apply correctly, and now that tool is being used against you. And unlike the Master Ninja’s knock-offs, the Temporal Aumtlich’s version is better than yours. Unlike Beethro, killing one branch doesn’t kill the others. Also, he doesn’t need a time split token; his power is intrinsic, and he can apply it anywhere, as many times as he likes, turning himself into an army.

In practice, though, his splits are predictable, linked to his movement, which is as controllable as that of any other monster. What he does is: Whenever he has a choice of two equally-direct paths towards you, he takes both. It reminds me a little of a non-deterministic Turing machine, an abstraction used in theoretical computer science that’s sometimes described as a computer that’s capable of splitting into two identical computers so it can explore two execution paths simultaneously. But the branches of a non-deterministic Turing machines aren’t capable of getting in each others’ way like the Temporal Aumtlich does.

So this is a tense set of puzzles, based around a problem that can keep getting worse, but it’s nonetheless something that you can learn to manage. Some of the more difficult puzzles actually require you to deliberately spawn new Temporal Aumtlich instances under your control.

The Second Sky: Time Mastery

Another level of those Braid-style cooperate-with-your-past-self puzzles. Let me say a little more about how this mechanism affects and is affected by DROD.

This type of puzzle is fundamentally about executing a plan without being able to see its effects. In the simplest cases, you go forth from the temporal split point and do things that will benefit you after you rewind, like standing on pressure plates to open doors for your future self to go through, taking care to anticipate how long you’ll need to stand on each plate. But your future self can do things that affect your past self, too. Suppose there’s a pressure plate that opens a door, and on the other side of that door there’s an orb that releases a dungeon roach near the pressure plate. If it kills your past self standing on the plate, you die. So your past self has to be prepared to deal with that roach, even though it can only play back a repeat of recorded actions. When you set out from the temporal split point the first time, you wave your sword in the air in the place where you know the roach will be. The actions will remain the same, but circumstances will change their meaning. This is a rich ground for puzzles.

Now, roaches are simple and predictable, and easy to plan for. But there are monsters that run on subtler and more complicated algorithms, like serpents and goblins and soldiers. My usual approach when fighting these things is to take it a turn at a time and undo a lot. I don’t have a perfect model of their behavior in my head, so I have to keep correcting my course. Temporal split tokens can make this habit unworkable. You can’t take things a turn at a time when you have to do everything in advance. Thus, puzzles using temporal split tokens have the potential to require complete mastery of the game’s increasingly complex systems in a way that other puzzles don’t.

Mercifully, the game so far hasn’t much explored this potential. I’ve seen one puzzle that pits you against future goblins, but that was in a secret room, which means it’s allowed to be unusually hard.

The Second Sky: Stuck in Time

My earlier speculation is coming true: time travel and time-rewinding powers are becoming a more and more prominent part of both puzzle and plot. There’s an entire level, the Chronometric Sanctum, based around the same sort of accretive time-rewinding single-player-co-op puzzles as that one level of Braid, or P. B. Winterbottom, or Cursor x 10. Or a lot of other imitators. But never mind that it’s been done before. Combining it with DROD gameplay makes it new. One room uses trap doors to recreate the famous Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem, impossible in real life, easy when you have the help of your past self.

I say “an entire level”, but it’s really two levels: the same location in two time periods, which you can travel between via a larger version of the time-rewind tokens you use within the puzzles. There are rooms you can reach in both time periods, but they’re pristine and new in one period and overgrown ruins in the other, with crumbling walls and collapsed walkways and rusted-shut doors. I guess it’s an application of the King Dugan’s Dungeon Floor 6 pattern, reusing layouts while completely changing the puzzles.

I spent more time than I would have liked stuck here, and stuck in a way that’s unusual for DROD. I had cleared all the rooms on the level, but there didn’t seem to be a way forward. I just didn’t know where to go or what to do. I couldn’t even escape the way I came — as in the mines, the entrance seals behind you. The secret turned out to be that one room has a pressure plate hidden under one of the temporal split tokens. It’s a room where you don’t actually have to use the token otherwise, but it makes sense that it’s there anyway because it’s part of the puzzle in the room’s other version, in the other time period. The game UI helps you find the triggers for each door by highlighting them when you click on the door, but usually I use that to answer the question “Which of the various orbs and pressure plates I can see on this level controls the door?”. This is the first time I can think of that I needed to click on a door to see the controls at all.

After completing this section, the game starts linking levels together with time portals in the form of swirling vortices in the air. The first such portal sends you to the distant past, separating you from everyone and everything you’ve become familiar with through the story so far — except for the Critic, who still inexplicably manages to find you anyway.

In the wilderness that follows, you’re switched to another new weapon, the dagger. Like the spear, the dagger is a poking weapon. Unlike the spear, you can’t push things laterally with it. It doesn’t block monsters moving into its space, with the result that you can sometimes kill two in one blow: the one in the space it’s in, and the one in the space it moves to. But the most important thing about the dagger is that it lets you move like you’re unarmed. Moving in any direction automatically pivots you to face that way, whether you want to or not. This takes some getting used to, and reduces your capabilities somewhat. For example, it makes it impossible to push powder kegs around: pushing a thing means moving towards it, which automatically makes you face it, and moving towards a keg dagger-first means attacking it, which makes it explode.

The level that introduces the dagger does a peculiar thing: it contains features that are clearly meant for someone with a different weapon. One room has a red gate, which only opens when you’ve dropped all the trap doors in the room, but, just like when you’re unarmed, you don’t weigh enough to drop trap doors when you’re using the dagger. Another has a fuse and a set of powder kegs that could be pushed into a position to blast through a wall, if you could push them. It’s possible that this is just more trolling, but I suspect that this will all lead to revisiting the same rooms with a sword later, similar to the Chronometric Sanctum. Even before the time-travel stuff, there were some paired levels like that: The Easy Way and The Hard Way consisted of two versions of the same set of rooms.

I say that having gotten through the level. While getting through it, it seemed more likely that I’d get my sword back before leaving. Partly that’s because the very last room in the level has a very clear sword-only solution, and seems impossible with a dagger. It contains a small room filled with monsters on a ring of force arrows, isolated from where you can go. A potion nearby lets you drop a mimic inside the ring, where it could spin in place and kill everything if it had a weapon with an edge. It took me a good long time to figure that one out — it relies on a specific edge case in how mimics with daggers work. And, as in the Sanctum, I spent much of that time just wandering around the level, looking for I know not what.

WoW: The Cave of Time

So, I decided on a whim to leave Outland for a while and do some more questing back in Azeroth. I picked the desert province of Tanaris for no better reason than that I hadn’t been there yet and it was right next to Thousand Needles, the last zone I had completed. By pure coincidence, it turns out that Tanaris contains the entrance to a Burning Crusade dungeon that I was an appropriate level to attempt.

This is unusual. I don’t usually access dungeons through their entrances. The Dungeon Finder makes it unnecessary. I’ve been through all of the dungeons available without expansions, and for many of them, I still have no idea what zone they’re in or what the motivating context is supposed to be. For me, the motivation was usually that I was about to become too high-level to access that dungeon through the Dungeon Finder. Perhaps this is part of why I’ve always found it difficult to get up to speed about what I’m supposed to be doing in them (although mostly that’s just because most of the people in the average pick-up group have done the dungeons before and go running off without bothering to read the quest descriptions).

Here, though, not only did I actually get the context, but the context seemed important, because it was an unusual dungeon. For one thing, it was outdoors. That’s not unprecedented — heck, it’s not even the only open-air dungeon in Tanaris. More importantly, it’s set in the past. The whole thing is set in a modified copy of the Hillsbrad zone, accessible through a magical cave, a special place where stresses on history manifest. There’s a whole order of temporal guardians living down there, willing to give a tour to any adventurers who can help them iron out their enemies’ attempts at altering history. Old Hillsbrad isn’t the only time and place where this battle is being waged, but it’s the only one accessible to me at the moment.

The attempted revision involves an orcish slave named Thrall. At the time of The Burning Crusade, Thrall is leader of the Horde, and the path to that starts here, with his escape. This is therefore one of those moments when a great deal of history hinges on a single action, and is thus vulnerable to meddling.

Now, Thrall isn’t the leader of the Horde any more: as of Cataclysm, he’s been replaced with Garrosh Hellscream. But over in Outland, which hasn’t been revised, Thrall is still in charge. There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on, really. Different places, in a sense, occur at specific points in the ongoing storylines. It used to be that taking the expansions in order would give you events in order, but Cataclysm messed that up by changing the core zones back on the original continents, giving them a new plot set in the aftermath of Wrath of the Lich King. Even within a single zone, time can get messed up, as when you talk to an NPC before you’re instructed to, and then later when you approach him in-sequence he greets you as if for the first time. There’s a whole series of events back in Silverpine Forest involving an Undead NPC named Lord Godfrey: he gets raised as Undead, accompanies you on some quests, and ultimately turns traitor and flees to a dungeon called Shadowfang Keep, where he’s the end boss. I saw the last part of that first. Confusion ensued. What I’m getting at is that there are really time portals all over the place. The only thing unusual about the Cave is that they’re openly acknowledged by NPCs.

Playing as Horde makes helping Thrall a natural thing to do, but apparently the premise and quests are the same regardless of which team you’re on: keeping the timeline sound is an overriding concern for everyone except omnicidal madmen. This must be one of the few points in the game where Alliance players get to see things from the Horde point of view, see the future Horde leader as a proud and honorable ally suffering injustice at the hands of sneering, overbearing humans. Horde players get a taste of how the other half lives, too: they spend the entire mission shape-shifted into humans so they can infiltrate the place, and if you wander off-course enough, you can talk to peaceful human villagers, and listen in on their private conversations.

Come to think of it, this reversal of perspective works well into Burning Crusade‘s overall themes. As I mentioned before, the premise of the expansion involves Horde and Alliance putting aside their differences to deal with a demon invasion. Ironic, then, that I’ve been attacked by Alliance players more often in Outland than anywhere else.

IFComp 2010: The Chronicler

Spoilers follow the break.
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In a some ways, Braid is 2008’s Portal. Like Portal, it’s a puzzle-platformer that’s a critical hit despite being completable in a matter of a few hours (and despite being a puzzle game, for that matter), but in both cases, this is because there’s so little repetition and filler. Also like Portal, it’s a game based around grasping the unintuitive consequences of one simple idea. In Braid, that idea is control of time.

In other words, it’s the same underlying concept as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But PoP:TSoT was an action game, and thus had a reason to limit the use of time-control capabilities, lest it make the action too easy. Braid is a puzzle game, and lets you rewind as much as you want. Ironically, this means that Braid can contain action sequences far more intense than any you find in PoP. There are bits toward the end where I was constantly doing fractional-second rewinds in order to get things just right. It’s crazy how fast you get used to that. But when you think about it, playing a conventional action game also involves frequent irregularities in the flow of game-time, in the form of quickloads and reversions to save points, and the player usually isn’t bothered by this. The difference here is just a matter of degree.

Mind you, PoP‘s rewind system wasn’t very well-suited for puzzles: it let you go back in time and change stuff, but only in the simplest and most consequence-free way. To make puzzles, you need variations on the theme. The first and simplest variation in Braid is that some objects aren’t affected by your rewinding, and keep on moving forward. The freakiest variation — and my favorite — is the series of levels where the flow of time for everything other than the player character is a function of your position: move rightward and time advances, move leftward and it rewinds. Notably, this really throws a monkey wrench into the ingrained habits of 2D platforming. You can’t just stand there and wait for things to get into the right position for you, and in particular, if something is in your way, you can’t wait for it to move. It won’t move until you do.

If you take away the temporal weirdification, it’s a 2D platformer with mechanics that greatly resemble Super Mario Brothers, and the game runs with that, giving us monsters blatantly modeled on goombas and piranha plants, a princess who’s eternally “in another castle”, and so forth. SMB references seem to have become to indie games what Winsor McCay references are to indie cartoons: a way for the artist to establish cred by showing an appreciation for the true classics of the medium or whatever. Braid plays around with the princess premise in its between-levels text, first making it mundane, portraying (the player character) Tim’s pursuit of the Princess as occurring in the aftermath of a failed relationship with her, but then after a while turning it into something more abstract. The Princess is the eternal and non-specific object-of-pursuit, the thing which will make everything better once you find it, and which you therefore take terrible risks to discover, despite the uncertainty of your success. (In the epilogue, this is linked to science, and the development of the atom bomb, leading some to conclude that Tim is a nuclear physicist and the whole game is his guilt trip about his work on the Manhattan project. But I think that’s an over-literal reading of one example, among many presented, of where the generalized pursuit of Princesses leads.) The strangest part is that there’s a point where the stories of the mundane and eternal princesses overlap, where Tim leaves his significant other because he feels driven to go and find the Princess. Some have interpreted this as simply indicating that the woman he leaves here isn’t the one referred to earlier as the Princess, but I think the idea that he leaves her in order to find her fits well with the time wackiness. Sometimes Tim does things backwards.

And besides, the whole thing is driven by dream logic. The text is very clear that Tim is confused and his memories are blurred (as you might expect from someone who keeps changing his own past). The backgrounds are blurry in an impressionistic way (which makes the parallax scrolling look really nice for some reason). The level-selection areas are clouds, for crying out loud. Apparently there’s been something of a backlash against the pretentiousness and vagueness of the story, but I think that’s taking it all too literally. Some people seem to resent what they see as the author forcing the audience to make up the story when that’s clearly the author’s job. But I don’t feel like I’m being forced to do any such thing, because this is not a story-driven game. The story fragments are there as a frame, and do a nice job of providing things for the gameplay elements to be metaphors for, but it’s clear that the game came first and the metaphors were chosen to fit it. The big exception is the final level, where the gameplay comes to comment on the story quite directly, turning the rescue its head. Well, we’re told in the very beginning that the Princess’ captivity is Tim’s fault, the result of a mistake that he spends the entire game trying to go back and correct.

Chrono Trigger: Time Travel

Even before you even begin playing, it’s clear that Chrono Trigger‘s chief distinguishing attribute is time travel. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even the hero is named Crono. But as distinguishing attributes go, it’s not really very distinguishing. Time travel has been present to varying degrees in CRPGs basically since their inception. The ending of Ultima 1 sends the player back in time to kill the immortal villain Mondain before he became immortal, and possibly even before he became a villain. Final Fantasy 1 did something similar, sending the heroes back in time at the end to prevent the events of the game, leaving them in an explicitly paradoxical situation in the end, the only people in the world with any memory of what happened. (The Ultima games, despite having more continuity than Final Fantasy, never address the matter of why everyone seems to remember Mondain’s reign even after you wipe it from history.)

And that’s just the start of it. Time travel is a real cliché in games, and more often than not serves as nothing more than window dressing, an excuse to put the player through diverse environments with varying levels of technology. (Consider Time Commando. Heck, consider Time Pilot.) But some games — adventures in particular — use it as a basis for puzzles. I’ve gone into some detail about this before. There are two basic variants: games where you have to clean up paradoxes by removing modifications to the past, and games where you have to deliberately introduce modifications in order to make a better future.

It strikes me that Chrono Trigger is a little unusual for adopting all of these approaches at once. When you think about it, the games that are greatly concerned with the effects of modifying the past, pro or con, seldom take much advantage of exploring the eons. Instead, you get things like Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where you can only shuttle back and forth between two time periods that are both within the protagonist’s natural lifespan, or Infocom’s Sorcerer, where the memorable paradox-avoidance puzzle involves traveling back in time a matter of only minutes. But Chrono Trigger has the time-travel-as-window-dressing aspect, with scenes ranging from cavemen-and-dinosaurs-coexisting prehistory to the post-apocalyptic future, and it also has player actions in journeys to the past affecting the future. Moreover, it has both paradox-avoidance — one of the companions accidentally puts an ancestor of hers in danger and starts to fade away like Marty McFly — and deliberate alterations — such as the attempt to prevent the summoning of Lavos, or an apparently optional trick I’ve found to turn a money-grubbing mayor, hated by even his own children, into a warm-hearted philanthropist by intervening in his family history.

The only other time-travel games I can think of offhand with this kind of range are heavy-duty historical works, like Timequest and to some extent Jigsaw. But Chrono Trigger couldn’t be farther from such things in tone. It’s a cartoon of a game, a fantasy of a cartoon. It laughs at historical accuracy.

Time Zone: Tropes

time_zone-lostOne thing, more than anything else bar the graphics, establishes Time Zone as having been written early in the history of the form: although it’s a time-travel game, it lacks the usual time-travel tropes. There are basically two tropes, with sundry variations, pioneered by Infocom in the mid-80’s and almost obligatory since then:

  • Avoiding changing the past. Taking care to clean up anachronisms and/or paradoxes, lest you rupture the space/time continuum. Sorcerer and Spellbreaker both had memorable scenes of this sort, and many time-travel games, including Timequest and Jigsaw, make it the player’s primary goal.
  • Deliberately changing the past in order to affect the future: planting acorns so you can climb oak trees a century later and suchlike. Zork III may have been the first game to play with this, but Timequest and Day of the Tentacle are whole games organized around puzzles of this sort. And on the larger scale, changing history is the player character’s chief motivation in Trinity 1Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game. and Lost New York.

Time Zone doesn’t do any of that. The time periods are effectively islands, connected only by the fact that you can carry objects between them. And you often can’t even do that: anything that would be anachronistic in the era you’re going to (such as dynamite in 1000 AD, or any manufactured item in the age of reptiles) gets vaporized in transit. So you can’t alter history by leaving ahistorical technology lying around, accidentally or deliberately. More direct alterations, such as assassinating Christopher Columbus, are prevented by the poverty of the game engine: if you try it, you’ll just an error along the lines of “I don’t understand that”.

More broadly, the tropes I speak of (or at least the second one on the the smaller scale) are reliant on non-local effects. Internally, past and future are modelled as separate rooms. For the past to affect the future, you have to have a mechanism whereby an action in one room can affect the state of another. The engine used in the Sierra High-Res Adventures might not in fact have this capability. Judging by the way that some verbs are understood in some areas and not in others, it seems like different areas are in some way treated as separate programs. It seems a little incredible, but having tinkered with the various King’s Quest engines, I can attest that they did something similar, albeit with less noticeable side effects.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the author was used to thinking in terms of local effects, because that’s how early adventure games generally worked. The whole idea of non-local effects was a major leap in sophistication for adventure games, arguably more significant than the full-sentence parser. (See the T/SAL “Phoenix” games for examples of what can be done with a two-word parser and a sophisticated world model.)

At any rate, if it’s not doing time-travel puzzles, what is the game doing with all that space? To a large extent, it’s establishing its own tropes. There are certain puzzles that are repeated with different details all over the map:

  • Dark tunnels that need a light source
  • Dangerous people or animals that, when you enter their location, you have one turn to use the right object to keep them from killing you.
  • Merchants and traders who will give you something you need in exchange for a specific other item. (In most cases, they’ll only accept one other item, but won’t tell you which.)
  • Expanses of hazardous terrain (either desert or frozen wastes) that you can’t cross without some way of getting food/water/rest/warmth.

Notably, even when two places have identical problems, they’ll have different solutions. The vaporizing of anachronisms, which seemed cheap when I first encountered it, is important to making this work: it provides a general rationale for the solution in 2082 AD not working in 50 BC. I mean, it’s still cheap to bar objects from certain areas by permanently destroying them, rather than by, say, preventing the time machine from launching until you ditch them, or just automatically leaving them behind. But at least there’s some justification to barring them at all.

1 Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game.