Friday, 28 November 2014

Many Masks.

I thought I'd write this down to give you some idea of... Well, not the "Real Me", for reasons which will become clear. But to help you understand me a little better. Not a lot better, that involves actually getting to know me. But I know there are some folks who seem interested in the writer, rather than the writings out there, so let's start with a statement that seems obvious, or nonsensical, but is very important.

I am, like you, a person of many facets. I wear many masks, many hats. The only real constants are that all of them, at some point or another, will talk about the same things.

One mask is the Big Bad Wolf. I acknowledge that I have a sensual side, that it's always, on some level, hungering for new tastes, new bodies to explore, new thrills and sights and sounds and moans and - I acknowledge that if I was always the Big Bad Wolf, I'd be a sorry individual indeed, nothing more than a rutting beast. So I'm not always the Big Bad Wolf.

Another is that of Mummy Jamie. I worry about my friends, I want to help them, care about them enough to want to care for them. But Mummy Jamie doesn't mind banging heads together, can be a bit of a shrew and a worrywart, and is, on the whole, a somewhat prudish individual. So I'm not always Mummy Jamie.

I'm the Mad Welshman. Why am I mad? Because very few people seem to understand me. They've even told me so to my face. Family members among them, no less! Madness can be a creative force, but it can be isolating. And, in the end, I might not be so mad after all, as, to quote Larry Niven's somewhat conservative Puppeteers, "The majority is always sane, Louis" (A statement that sanity is always judged as a relative matter.) So whether I'm always the Mad Welshman or not, I'm not always seen that way.

I'm the Mystic, my head in other worlds, rather than this one. I know things you don't, but it's very possible they don't apply to normal, everyday concerns, or even reality. What is reality, anyway?

I'm the Noble, I'm the Grump, I'm the Clown and the Wise Man. All of these are masks I wear, and not all of them have what you would call a "Human" perspective on the world. The Thinker calmly goes through logical scenarios, not caring that they're things like "How a terrorist could actually be effective, instead of randomly bombing yahoos" or "How many people it would take to destroy the Internet". And you may get the impression, reading this, that I have some sort of dissociative personality disorder, but no. These are all facets of the complete me.

I'm complicated, and yet simple. And I love it. Talk to me sometime, you might find you have a lot of masks too!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Experimenting with Genre: The Graphical Parser Games

Everyone who knows gaming knows that Text Adventures (or, as many know them now, Interactive Fiction) are a thing, and that Point n Click Adventures came afterward. What not so many know is that there was a middle ground that got explored quite heavily from the late 80s to the mid 90s: The Graphical Parser Games.

Why call them that instead of Graphical Adventure or the like? Because, as I noted, they're an in-between point. They had text adventure style inputs (and later early Point n Click interfaces), or collections of parser you could click on, and graphics. Here, let me show you an early example: Shadowgate. Notice the differences between that and, say, Maniac Mansion (released between this game, and the Atari STE game I'll mention next, in 1987)

Hit self: You die. Open door: You die.

While it's not the earliest example (that would be Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True, by the same company, ICOM Simulations), you can see many of the features of the prototypical graphic parse- What? You think it's an RPG? No, 'fraid not. There are no HP in this game, just a series of "You did the wrong thing and died horribly." No, really, there's a lot of that in this damn game. Going into the wrong door at the wrong time could kill you!

But we're not here to talk about the foibles of earlier designers, who often conflated "Dick move" with "Challenge" and "Replayability" because they didn't know better... So let's see... We have an EXITS doohickey we can click in the bottom left (useful, because often we can't look around), A set of verbs, an inventory, a self button, spells, and... Wait, what do we click on?

Ah, here's the "beauty" of these experiments. The items are actually on screen, and that's what you click! Shadowgate, as one of the earliest, actually suffered for this. Good example, under this carpet, or one very much like it, there is an item. The only way to tell this item is even there (and you need it) is to pixel hunt. What's that? Well, nowadays, most of the irritation is finding a small area you can click on to do a thing, mostly because of glitchy context sensitive controls in the games that have those. In older games, with a smaller screen size (Go look up EGA limits to get some idea of how big this would have been, at its best... Or perhaps CGA, for extra magenta funtimes!), the thing you could click on could be as small as... A single pixel. In among, at the time, anything up to 307,200 on the screen (or less, like Shadowgate)

Now you know why I'm a grouchy old sod about games sometimes... Because I grew up with this shit.

In any case, Shadowgate didn't have a great story, but other experiments happened around the same time as ICON's games. Here's Wonderland, as you would see it on an Atari ST.

And this screen, like others in the series, was ANIMATED too!

Pretty neat, huh? No? Well, consider that, at the time the Atari STE came out, you had... Er... GEM. Not even Windows 3.1. Fucking GEM. And these windows you're seeing? They aren't the Atari ST's Little Green Desktop (AKA Crystal, the precursor to GEM), they're a system that's part of the game itself. And all of these windows are resizable, movable, and can be closed out if need be. Of course, not every system got something this sweet. Here's Guild of Thieves on the C64.

Nary a window to be seen.

Not as cool, is it? In fact, apart from the well drawn pixel art (considering the limitations of the system), it's no different from, say... Twin Kingdom Valley, or Questprobe's Marvel graphical text adventures... Where, on most platforms they came out on, you had to specifically request the drawing, and it would look... Well...

You see a cabin in the woods. It is where you put treasure.

...About like that. But like their ICON contemporaries, the Magnetic Scrolls adventure games had a selectable parser. You could, if you were somehow in possession of an Atari ST without a working keyboard (Not completely uncommon, but relatively easy to fix), you could click on a VERB or COMMAND menu, then something either in the room, or in your inventory. It had separate windows for both, with pretty icons. In this way, the Magnetic Scrolls games beat the metaphorical tar out of their compatriots. So let's look at the final compatriot, which did one thing both ICON and the Magnetic Scrolls games didn't quite manage.

Legend Entertainment released their first game in 1990. It was... Er...

Hoo, boy... This is awkward.

...This, Spellcasting 101. If you guessed from this screenshot that the series (for lo, they made three of them!) was on par, writing and tone wise, with Leisure Suit Larry... You'd be quite right. But, regardless of my opinion of the game (Slightly embarassed it exists, thanks for asking), it nonetheless belongs to the subgenre, and Legend (With chief writer and ex-Infocom staffer Steve Meretzky at the helm most of the company's life) went on to better things. Mostly better, anyhoo. Fast forward two years, and you have their first tie-in (A thing they became famous for) ...

Know what impresses me? That item list!

...Frederik Pohl's Gateway. Based on the science fiction series of the same name (And, not oddly at all, the same author), the game was... Actually critically lambasted for feeling out of date, design wise. But suffice to say, it now has quite a cult following, as do Legend in general and Steve Meretzky. Sadly, the sequel to this game (also panned) was the last gasp of the subgenre in the mainstream, and after this, Legend went on to make first person graphical adventure games, with the mostly familiar elements you'd expect. And so history trundled on. But Legend pretty much thrived in this field, whereas ICON and the MS team... Didn't really.

Companions of Xanth: Not Legend's greatest achievement. That would be Callahan's Crosstime Saloon.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Experimenting with the Genre: "Failed" Boulderdash Games

Sometimes, experiments in a genre are missed, or aren't appreciated. I thought I'd start, in my usual "When it occurs to me" way, to take a brief look at various experiments in gaming history, starting with four "Boulderdash Clones" that were released on the BBC Micro over its shelf life: Repton Infinity, Bonecruncher, Clogger, and XOR. XOR, as we'll see, only tentatively fits this category, but some of you, no doubt, are scratching your heads and saying "Er... Bold-Her-Dash?"

Let me explain. This here, in the screenshot below, is a typical Boulderdash screen:

Boulderdash (The Amiga Version) - Prettier than the original 8-bit versions.

Now, there's quite a few things missing on this screen, but three of the absolute basic elements are here: Your hero (named Rockford), who must collect all the diamonds/eggs/whatever the hell thing he's collecting today (Believe me, it varies, but most often it's diamonds, because diamonds were easy to draw on an 8 bit game), while not getting trapped or crushed by rocks (which follow certain rules you can abuse, and later have to abuse), or killed by monsters and fungus. You also have a time limit in each level, which can, in some versions and clones, be reset or added to with a collectible. A nice, simple formula that spawned... Metric fucktons of clones.

But not every game was a lazy clone, and, while all four of the games I'm now going to talk about were moderately popular at the time, they've been relegated to the sidelines of gaming history, for the most part.

First up is Repton Infinity (1988, Superior Software). Repton was the BBC equivalent of Boulderdash, a green lizard man (Rockford's apparently human) who had three main games, a couple of standalone expansions, and Infinity. Infinity was, at its most basic level, a "Make your own Repton", and at first, it doesn't look much more fun to play with, or more powerful, than Boulderdash Construction Kit (released two years earlier than Infinity, in 1986)

But then you actually get into the thing, and you realise (mainly from the demo levels provided) that you can change the rules. Not many of them, but the templates provided allowed for more mechanics than had previously existed across the whole series. Below is one example of the modified rule and tilesets... The worst of the three.

Robbo Doesn't Want to Be Here.

Meet Robbo. Robbo, like Repton, has to collect... Things. But he has different obstacles, and they act somewhat differently to the way they would in the main Repton games: Instead of keys (Which open all diamond-holding safes), he has a computer disk... Which he has to actually put in a computer. There are things he has to hit with a wrench to make them work again. And there are things that don't fall the way you thought they would if you played much Boulderdash or Repton.

The Robbo levels were annoying as hell, but they opened up the game to ever so slightly more than just "I recolour Rockford to be Red, and make maps". I respect that. So, moving on...

Bonecruncher, also from Superior (I'm not promising, but there might be a pattern here), also experimented. It also had resources to collect, and if you could guess from the cover that it involved bones somehow, you'd win yourself an imaginary cookie: Bono, our hero, is the proud owner of a business selling soap to the monsters that surround his island castle. For reasons best left unexplored (IE - Because it's a puzzle game that wasn't actually worried about plot except as a framing device), monster soap is made from very human skeletons strewn around the castle (5 per bar of soap), and winning the level does not, in many cases, require you to grab them all... Just enough to make soap for monsters. Let's take a brief poke at a Bonecruncher screen.

Ahh, the only unhappy folks are Bono and that eggsiwhotsit.

Okay, we've got most of the game's puzzle elements on this screen, good enough (Thanks Wikipedia). Skeletons for soap: Check. Keys for doors: Check. Thing that could be a monster, but is actually your co-worker Fozzy: Check. Eggsiwhotsit that's probably a boulder: Check. But apart from Fozzy, this doesn't seem that different, does it?

Except... That arrow, and the unpictured elements, are what make this one unique. And challenging. See, even though it looks like it's side-view, it's meant to be a top-down look at a floor of Bono's Castle (Just assume I made a St. Bono U2 joke, to save us both some pain), and those eggsiwhotsits (Glooks) don't fall... But they do stampede in the direction of the most recently soaped-up monster. So, let's break down how this is more complex.

  • We have to get skeletons. Okay, that's like Boulderdash, think of them as diamonds.
  • Glooks, if they roll over us, will kill us, but will also kill anything they trap. Cool.
  • Once we have five skeletons, we find a cauldron to make soap. Okay, that's new.
  • Once we have a bar of soap, we can hit up a stairway to throw soap to a monster. This changes the Glooks' "fall" direction after a short period of time, allowing us to get to new places, and changing the layout. Ah, that requires a bit of thought...
  • We also have two kinds of monsters, like Boulderdash and Repton. Like those games, they're a wall-traveller, and a chaser. Gotcha.
  • We won't always have enough skeletons, which is a shitter, but, if we're low on skellies, we can trap chaser type monsters behind Glooks (if they can't move anywhere, they die and turn into a skeleton), or Fozzie can trap them (Don't depend on him though, his AI's a bit erratic)
  • Unfortunately, Fozzie can also get killed by being trapped or Glooks.
  • If we really want a monster gone, but don't need his sweet, sweet skeleton, there are pits, too. They'll kill anything that walks into them. Including Bono.
  • And finally, once we've taken soap to all the moat-monsters, we move on to the next level.
Whew! That was a lot of changes, and some interesting and thought provoking ones at that! Alas, the fact that they weren't always implemented well in the map design, combined with the fact that sometimes reviewers miss the point, meant that it had mixed reviews. I'd hardly call it a "merely average addition to an already jaded format", but obviously, tastes differ.

Clogger, again, is a different beast.

I think it's safe to say... MY MIND!

Clogger is a strange one. Again, the "plot" is only a framework, but collecting things (Apples, in this case) is only half the fun! There was, as an aside, a sort of unwritten rule back then that a game had to have a plot. I've already written about how you don't need plot in a game, and that sometimes it's a waste of time here , and early game devs don't get a pass for this, even if the knowledge wasn't easily disseminated.

Anyhoo, what made this game different? Screenshots don't really tell the whole story, but the two main goals are as follows:

  • Collect apples and pies.
  • Make a pretty picture by pushing the pieces into place with your shovel attachment.
Now, those of you who've played Sokoban, or any other block puzzle game, will instantly see why this is both different, and very possibly frustrating as hell. You can only push. To make life even more "fun", our poor little Clogger can't go over rough grass (It clogs him up something fierce. Oh ho ho ho ho. Ho. Ho. ho.), although he'll occasionally find a thing that can cut grass when pushed. Not to mention other puzzle elements, like gyroscopes and... Look, it was hella complex, but the goals were shown relatively organically for an early game like this. As with most early games, however, reading the fucking manual was a must. I really should write a GTtMMR about folks not reading the manual, or folks not making good manuals, because it's not fucking rocket science, and people still cock it up! [pant... pant... pant...] Okay, rant over. For now. So that's Clogger. Finally, there's the odd one out here, XOR.

Yes, it says Commodore on it. Multi platform was a thing, even back in the day!

XOR, like the other games in this article, including Repton and Boulderdash, was about finding your way through a maze, collecting all the things, and reaching the exit. But, unlike pretty much every other game in this post, it didn't have a time limit. It didn't need one, because it was a game where failure was really easy. Let's do our best to sum up how it differed from its compatriots. Screenshot, maestro?

Well, that was needlessly abstract!

What's pictured are a few of the main elements: Masks, wot you pick up. Map segments, which show where masks are (but not you, or those wibbly bits), and wibbly forcefields that, depending on the way they point, either block vertical (pointing horizontal) or horizontal (vice versa) movement through them, but get destroyed when you move through them the right way. Also, that shield is us.

Not pictured is the other shield, which is also us (We can switch between them), chickens that always fall down (and can kill you if they fall on you), fish that move sideways (and again, kill you if they hit you from more than one tile away), and these four elements provide the majority of the challenge of XOR. It's all about "How do I get all these masks without dying or getting into a Dead Man Walking scenario?" , and I think the developer was very nice (compared to peers of his time) to not give a time limit for thinking about these things (also a password system and the ability to restart a level. Say "Thank you" !)

If you'd bought the game back in the day, you'd also have been asked by the dev to try and complete the game in a minimum number of moves, for a shiny certificate (Devs liked giving out certificates and letters back then, and I'm sure those who still have their shiny certificates are happy, despite the death-stares child me is throwing them from the ether to this day.) It doesn't look fun, but... Actually, if you like logic puzzles, it straddles that fine line between dickish and engaging with aplomb.

Now, at this point in the post, I imagine some people are expecting some sort of moral, or message beyond "Hey, look at these interesting past experiments in a genre mostly made of the same game, but with different maps for ten years!"

There isn't one. I can't say whether the devs got rewarded for their experimentation, or at least felt they did. I don't think it provides anything clear on the old "Tired Sequel XVIII: The Sequeling versus The New (And Possibly Bad) Hotness" argument (Which is a purely opinion style ballyhoo anyhow.) I don't even think all of them are good (I hate Repton Infinity, for example.) But I do think there's some value in looking at these experiments if you're into game development, seeing how changes to a formula can and can't work in a game. Hell, I think that's a good learning experience overall, for any dev, reviewer, or gamer who wants to know what makes this fucking thing tick. So yeah, they're easily found and played, so give them a shot, see what you think of them, and the changes they made to a formula that, honestly, started boring the tits off me somewhere around 1989.