67 – Zest

I’m lazy; Zest has been out for months, as part of the Interactive Fiction competition, which has been over for a few weeks now, and I’ve been able to talk about it, but I’ve just let that time go by.

Well anyway! My game Zest, which I worked on with lectronice and PaperBlurt, is now out, and you can go play it here. The reaction was as mixed as I expected; some people really got it, some didn’t, but I think it touched the people it was supposed to touch and pissed off the people it was supposed to piss off, and that’s all I feel like saying about it right now. I hope you enjoy it.

66 – Dysthymia

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Writing Zest is a little bit of a struggle, so to kind of recharge the batteries, I wrote a new game. It’s called Dysthymia. Using a computer is recommended–it does not play at all well with mobile browsers.

Dysthymia is intended to be a continuous, uninterrupted artistic experience. It contains no save state. Please set aside 40 seconds to play through the game, as well as an hour for quiet contemplation afterwards. Turning the lights off and wearing earplugs are also recommended, as is having a degree in comparative literature.

65 – Might and Magic, Wizardry 6, Ishar and mapping

There’s a term–I learned it from The CRPG Addict–called lawnmowing. We’re going to need a couple of shots of some Might and Magic maps to understand. Here’s the area surrounding the first town in Might and Magic Book 1:

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And here’s an equivalent section in Might and Magic 4:

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There’s some obvious aesthetic differences–there was something like nine months in between playing the two games, and so I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed and loose with mapping; 4 also contains an automap, and so while mapping out 1 is essential in order to complete it, hand-mapping 4 was more for the enjoyment, and so I felt freer to use bolder colors and go for look more than practicality. But what I want to draw your attention to the pencil lines all over the place in the 1 map. These are the literal walls of the game–they’re represented as mountains and trees too dense to move through. In Might and Magic, you’re ultimately able to step on every single square–every area in the game is a 16X16 square–but it takes a long time to be able to do so. The challenge lies largely in growing strong enough to fight the enemies in each area and in actually winding your way from Point A to Point B. Very late in the game you get a series of spells which allow you to bypass walls and teleport around the map, and there are some areas where you need them in order to navigate, but for the most part, when you’ve finally gotten them, you’ve probably charted most of the area anyway and they end up becoming ways of speeding up travel and creating shortcuts.

4 has no such walls. There are a lot more terrain types–in my screenshot, it’s fairly obvious what’s what: Light green is grass, dark green is forest, blue is water, brown is a dirt path, grey a road, dark brown mountains, black the edge of the world. And while you start off being unable to traverse forest, water, or mountains, you end up getting skills in order to cross them fairly quickly and cheaply. You can still step in every square, and you *should*, but since all obstacles become removed and the gameworld becomes extremely flat.

And hence the term lawnmowning: Mapping out Might and Magic games becomes a case of going down every square in one row, going to the next row and going UP every square in that, ping-ponging back and forth till you’ve revealed every square. This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw of 2-5: Exploration feels a little less immersive because of the flatness: These aren’t trees and mountains, they’re icons of trees and mountains.

Usually walls solve this problem. Here’s the first location of Wizardry 6, a game that, looking at the maps a year later, I’m shocked I beat:

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I have stepped in every square of this location–a castle–but look at the layout: it’s a maze of doors and walls. Half of those doors are locked when you begin the game, and the initial stages of the game consist on going around the various rooms and floors and slowly unlocking more areas. The challenge is in mapping out these locks, in making your way through the maze, in figuring out the layout of this place and its connection to the other regions of the game–part of my love for the game is its insistence on regularity: It features five or six different locations, all of which are distinct in their layouts, all interconnected and snapped tightly and perfectly together. Think of Dark Souls’s map made in Legos and you’ve got the idea.

And so we’ve got this very simple and slightly cheesy lesson that we can learn: Restrictions make challenge and challenge brings enjoyment. And we can all walk away from this lesson nodding our heads and drawing Gordian dungeons…

…but for the fact that right now I’m playing Ishar, and this is the first area of Ishar.

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Again, light green is grass, dark green is impassable trees, blue is water–and if you’re playing along at home that means that we’ve essentially got a gigantic sprawling field with only minor areas, mostly the borders, where we cannot walk.

And it is one of the more fascinating Mapping Experiences of my time! In many ways it’s a dungeon in reverse. With no automap, with no way of seeing the game from a bird’s eye view, you’re often cast in a void of grass having to count paces as you make your way to the next landmark, which is, like, a bush. It’s an agoraphobic method of getting lost.

But Ishar also avoids the lawnmowing problem partially by not hiding random goodies in every square. I’m hoping I don’t end up eating these words, but the game depicts everything onscreen with enough peripheral and distance that you can see the major things from a few squares away as long as you’re facing the general direction.

And so instead of mowing the lawn, you end up mapping by scouting the area. I’ve been filling out the edges of the map and the hedges and things by the old fashioned move one square, draw the walls, move one square, draw the walls method. But for the inner part of the land, I’m picking a general direction, walking, and coloring in squares in a way not too different from a fog of war reveal, veering off when I see something cool.

And while in practice, that and mowing the lawn aren’t *that* different, it changes the scale of the maps. Might and Magic is exhaustive: You need to uncover and discover what might be hiding behind every single tile in the game. Wizardry 6 is almost a tangle of wires which has you focus in on every tiny detail in order to unknot. Ishar is about the big picture. About putting large islands in your grasp. The area of the gameis huge. This is why I love these games and why I get bored with roguelikes and corridor after arena after corridor level design and why I love this shit: I love the idea of kind of communicating with a level designer who I can see cackling as I try to figure out the cartography puzzle they’ve constructed. For as pretty as Columbia is, as impressively large as Skyrim is, their terrain didn’t communicate anything to me. These old-school dungeon crawlers are all about communicating things just through their layout.

 

 

 

 

64 – Zest trailer released!

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This is exciting! As many of you know, I’ve been working on a Twine called Zest along with PaperBlurt and lectronice. We’re about a month from release–expect it to come out in late August–and in preparation, we’ve put together a short trailer, which you can find here.

Please note that the trailer contains a lot of blinking text, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, and as of now there’s some fonty macroey issues which mean that it doesn’t play nicely with the likes of Firefox and Internet Explorer–we recommend Chrome. (The browser on your iPhone will display everything fine except for the title screen at the end, if you’re on the go.)

And with that, I think Crunch Season officially begins.

 

63 – Mountain

I still have the smell of rocks in my hair and the taste of dirt in my mouth.

“You are mountain”, Mountain insists at its commencement. “You are God.”

I find this difficult to believe.

Mountain is an intuberance of crenellations, ones which have wormed their way into my mind. If Mountain weren’t well aware of the fact that mine is black and corrupt, it would attempt to connect to my soul. But it’s not. Mountain is too smart for that.

Mountain is. It is a mountain. You say mountain and God like they are one, but that’s an obvious statement. Mountain is truth.

Mountain is a videogame for iOS or the PC; I have the iOS version. It is a mountain that–unlike the mountains of old–grows and changes with time. Perhaps, one might cry, it is not a videogame but perhaps a semi-interactive screensaver. Mountain does not respond to those claims. One can play little piano notes to the mountain. The mountain does not respond. Just because a game has no controls or method of interaction does not mean that it is not a game.

One can zoom in and out and rotate the mountain. As above, so below: The top of the mountain is filled with snow, underneath is rocks and emptiness. And zooming out shows the mountain to be all alone in a void. As am I.

Mountain is a troubling manifestation of myself.

I am at a bar and I am staring at Mountain and a young woman next to me asks me, what are you gazing at? And I say, it is Mountain. It is a soul alone. It is God.

We screw.

I have a routine with Mountain and it is to open Mountain and set it spinning like a top. It is a reminder that even a mountain can be chaotic. Even a mountain can be beyond its control. Even with no method of interacting with Mountain I can interact around it. That perhaps that I cannot change the world but I can change my view of the world.

Mountain

Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

I still have the smell of dirt in my hair and the taste of rocks in my mouth.

62 – Blood and Laurels, You Were Made For Loneliness, Spellforce

–I’ve written a review of Emily Short’s new work Blood and Laurels for Storycade. Check it out. I liked it very much–some quirks with the engine but otherwise an excellently written work. Hell, it’s about intrigue and stuff in Ancient Rome–what could be better?

–How about…The Future? I’ve contributed a passage to a collaborative Twine thing called You Were Made For Loneliness. A bunch of people contributed to this Thing, and you may enjoy it! If you can guess which passage is mine, you will get a free copy of Zest when it’s done!

(Zest is, incidentally, going to be PWYW, so there was a good chance you could have gotten it for free anyway, but come on, it’s a contest, have fun with it.)

–The most experience I’ve had with RTS is a few abortive attempts at StarCraft, which while undoubtedly an excellent experience, didn’t particularly seem geared towards the novice who sucks at videogames–all right, fine, I just plain sucked at it. It wasn’t the kind of game I was into at the time anyway.

Spellforce is one of those GoG summer sale impulse purchases–a $5 bundle. I actually bought it half by mistake–I was confusing it for Sacrifice, which I’ve always had a mild interest in. Both games focus on their “hybrid RTS/RPG” nature, and since that’s where my main interest was, it wasn’t a problematic mistake at all.

I’m not sure quite why I’m so into Spellforce–the pack I bought includes the original and all expansions, as well as the second one and its first expansion and I’m playing the first. I can see some issues–the graphics aren’t always the most distinct, there’s no way of selecting units of a particular type beyond the basic worker units–you can’t select all melee units, for example–and probably plenty of other issues that hardcore fans of the genre would point out, but I think it’s pitched at exactly the right level for me.

I’m about a quarter of the way through the first campaign, playing on normal difficulty, and while it’s not a breeze I’m getting the handle of the basic techniques. It’s always a fun thing getting into a genre for the first time. There’s things that I’m finding extremely charming  about it–I really *like* that there’s a degree to which I can set my little dudes out to do whatever little resource gathering thing I need them to do, grab a cup of coffee, and come back to Progress.  I am, of course, playing on Easy Mode.

Which, that’s of course part of why I’m finding Spellforce more accessible–it’s not as dicky. One of the reasons I don’t play multiplayer stuff is because I’m actually fairly bad at most videogames. Single player modes don’t make me feel that way–I am perfectly content to run up against a wall chipping away at a level until it’s done–Spellforce has been particularly forgiving in this regard and does allow for some do-0vers–you can escape to another map, which wipes away any buildings and units you’ve created, but enemy bases stay destroyed and any gear or experience you’ve gained stay with your character. Even when I’m playing with someone with the best of intentions, I feel like I suck way too much in multiplayer to a degree that just isn’t fun.

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.