75 – The Samaritan Paradox

The Samaritan Paradox is one of those backlog games that I played, got stuck on a puzzle, and moved to the “games I’ll probably never play again” category in Steam. Adventure games are a funny thing for me–I played them almost exclusively in middle school, half of my friends either design old-school-style adventure games or run podcasts on them or whatever–and yet I don’t always like to play them. (I still haven’t gotten to Part 2 of Broken Age.) I decided to give Samaritan another go, based on Ben Chandler mentioning that there was a certain twist at the end that was extremely polarizing; that Vince Twelve (developer of Resonance, which itself contains a couple of fantastic plot twists) chimed in to mention that he liked the twist settled it, and over the course of the next couple days I played and beat Samaritan–a couple of light nudges over Twitter helped me with a couple of puzzles, but I found it a mostly successful game with a really interesting story that falters in a couple of bits–some having to do with the fact that it is an adventure game and it takes on a lot of flaws with the genre.

Uh, spoilers.

The game revolves around the suicide of a writer known for political investigative journalism and potboiler detective stories; you play a down-on-his-luck cryptologist who gets involved in the search for the manuscript for the writer’s last novel. The writer has hidden the various manuscript pieces along a breadcrumb trail that begins to illuminate a deeper mystery, a conspiracy to sell weapons to third-world countries in turmoil. (The game is Swedish; I didn’t know that Sweden had a history of doing these things, but it’s nice to know that it and America have a lot more in common than you’d think!) The story is indeed interesting–the mystery is paced very well, the revelations about the conspiracy are parceled out in satisfying chunks, it’s the kind of game which answers a lingering question and then introduces a character who brings up two more questions and may or may not be untrustworthy. As you can imagine, there’s a bunch of secret codes and a couple of puzzle boxes, and thematically they fit: You’re a fan of puzzles who’s on a literal treasure hunt. When you find a section of the novel, the game shifts and you play through them; they’re a fairy tale story about a young woman fighting dragons and attempting to stop a ritual. In these sequences–and they’re some of the most visually beautiful in a game that’s lovely throughout–you have some more standard adventure game puzzles, and they fit here. Like I said, the game was very solvable–a couple of slight hints from friends were all I needed.

One puzzle seemingly falters. One of the things I’ve picked up from Andrew Plotkin’s game reviews is the question of: If you have a puzzle which clicks together in a complex and satisfying way, but where the player completely misses the clue which ties everything together and resorts to trial and error, is that a bad puzzle? One sequence in Samaritan features a locked chest; there’s an illustration of a harpy, a dial of numbers, and a blocked keyhole. The harpy refers to a series of constellations–constellations you learn from a segment of the missing manuscript and which you can view through a nearby telescope. Locating the Harpy constellation gives you a pair of coordinates, which you obiously dial in, letting you access the keyhole.

The key comes from a chessboard in the room. There are eight queens; if your Stock Puzzle Senses are keen or you found a book in the game which mentions the puzzle, you know that this is called the Eight Queens puzzle and it goes a little something like this: Can you place the eight queens in such a way that no queen threatens the other? I hate chess and I hate stock chess puzzles; I hate chess metaphors and I hate it used as shorthand; but more importantly, I hate stock puzzles. (Everybody hates Stock Puzzles; there’s a reason why everybody loves Richard Cobbett’s riff on the Towers of Hanoi in The Sunless Sea.) I don’t mind blundering through a weird Adventure Game Puzzle; but if I have to figure out Nim or Peg Solitaire or a sliding tile thing I am looking that shit up; 30 seconds on Google and I solved the chess puzzle, got the key, opened the chest, and moved on with my life.

I mentioned this bit to Chandler after the fact, and he said, oh, the clues were in the room with you, I liked how it connected to the constellations–and at that point the puzzle clicked. The Harpy constellation consists of eight stars, and if you recreate it with queens on a chessboard, you’ll see that no queen threatens any other: The Harpy constellation is the solution to the chess puzzle. In this light, it’s an excellent puzzle–everything is centered around this one constellation–and yet I just plain didn’t make that insight until after the fact, largely because I didn’t need to. Plotkin’s Maxim: I am a player, therefore I am lazy. If you put a series of riddles on a plywood door, and I’ve got an ax, I’m not gonna solve your riddles. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that there are multiple ways to arrive at the solution, but the one I used was mildly disappointing. It’s largely a question of lost faith: If I see something that looks like a stock puzzle, I’m going to assume that it’s a lazy designer padding his game–and you know, it’s really hitting me how neither player nor designer can be having a good time during a stock puzzle. They’re kind of cheating each other, or bullshitting each other, or whatever: It’s a totally bad-faith moment. And maybe players have had so many bad faith moments from lazy designers that a clever designer can’t quite do a clever variation on a stock puzzle.

And part of the problem is that there are moments where the game doesn’t justify that faith. The fairy tale segments of the game handle more adventure gamey puzzles in a better or at least more thematic way, but there are some in the real-world segment of the game that just blow up. You use a small saw to get through some drywall, timing it with a man’s snoring in order to mask the sound. You sneak into an office by setting up a series of dominoes involving a fan, some extension cords, and a stack of papers. In probably the worst moment of the game, you meet up with someone who can show you the boat that the writer drowned himself from; oh, but he’s entering a crossword puzzle contest and he’s got to solve this thing before the post office closes.

It wouldn’t–it couldn’t–you think, and for a moment, The Samaritan Paradox doesn’t let you down. “This would take an ordinary person hours to solve”, you say, at which point the screen fades to black: “FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER”–and of course, your character is a brilliant cryptologist with an omnivorous thirst for knowledge, this would be a piece of cake for him–except there’s one clue he can’t solve, one which he leaves to the player. And the clue is the name of the detective in the novels written by the writer you’re investigating. The writer is popular enough that it’s like if you had _OI__T as the answer for “Agatha Christie’s detective”, if you didn’t know it yourself you could ask someone or look it up.

But this is an adventure game, and you’ve got to solve a puzzle to do that, and it’s a puzzle I solved entirely accidentally. There are half a dozen very obvious places to look, not the least of which is the writer’s daughter, who you’re working for. Even considering that she’s estranged from her dad and actively uninterested in his writing, the game doesn’t even give you the option to ask her if she knows the name. But there aren’t any mentions of the character anywhere in his house, none of his books around anywhere. Worse, the entire game is kicked off by your discovery of a code to the writer’s daughter Sara *in one of his novels*–while your character scoffs at it as pulp detective trash and actively hasn’t read it, the book completely disappears from your apartment, taking away the option to look at the blurb on the back. You can’t even call the friend who *lent* you the book and ask him what the detective’s name is. The newspaper article about the writer’s death doesn’t mention it. Hell, the guy who gave you the crossword in the first place knew the writer personally and might even be familiar with it–you can’t even ask him if he knows the final clue on his own puzzle! I spent a good 20 minutes traipsing through the game (making several ferry trips to and from a nearby island, going across town sevearl times, the post office likely closing and reopening six times in the intervening time), asking everyone about everything, and ultimately blundered my way through when I noticed a hotspot that I hadn’t seen earlier, one which gave me an item–

–okay, I’ll get into it because the only copy of the writer’s novel that exists in the world (there are no bookstores, it seems, in Sweden) is in a bar, where a pissed off guy is reading it. I of course used everything in my inventory on him to no avail–it’s not even clear if he’s a puzzle piece or a background character. Over to the side is a “rocker” who’s fiddling with a jukebox and trying to change the song–again, unclear if he’s a piece or scenery. And finally, something I legitimately thought *was* scenery–a sofa whose hotspot is such that I didn’t even think it had one the first few times I went into the location. Clicking on it gives you three coins from under the cushions: What you need to do is give a coin to the rocker, who puts on a heavier song, disrupting the reader’s concentration and driving him from the scene, leaving the book behind for you to read the back and finally find the detective’s name. As a final, almost cruel punchline, the coins icon changes to show that you’re now holding two coins: Okay, this may not have been the best puzzle, but it was a clumsy way of forcing you to have these coins in your inventory, they’ll likely be used later on and they’re trying to avoid a dead man walking scenario. Except that’s not the case–the two coins are never used again. The sequence is *entirely unnecessary*–it’s an excuse made up by a very minor character to prevent the player from going to the next bit just yet, one which yields no insight into the world or anything, which could be solved in multiple ways, and which doesn’t really provide any other reward. It’s a bit that should have been cut: Ask to see the boat, the character takes you there without the hassle.

And yet, if that and a bunch of puzzles are based around poking at things until you find the dominoes are in place and the sequence goes in the intended way, I *did* solve the game without a walkthrough. The crossword puzzle puzzle was not one of the areas I needed a nudge on–one of the ones I did was a relatively fair puzzle where I simply didn’t realize a certain action was possible; another was a completely fair puzzle–the one I initially got stuck on–where I just needed to be reminded to read the instructions again. It’s one of the fairy tale segments: A dragon challenges you to a battle of wits in a contest involving poisons and antidotes, and I think I simply hadn’t made the right efforts towards figuring out how the mechanics of the puzzle actually worked.

As for the twist, I simultaneously liked it a lot and didn’t quite love what they did with it. The weapons conspiracy eventually leads to the writer’s son who is the lead arms dealer; you find the final piece of the manuscript in his apartment and figure, at this point, you more or less know where it’s going to end: The main character–who’s explicitly identified with Sara–defeats the bad guy (obviously modeled after her brother), and finds a home in the house of a kindly middle-aged man who’s recently lost his son: Who’s identified explicitly with the writer himself. It’s a sweet, heartwarming ending…which suddenly takes a very shocking turn when the young woman realizes the feelings of desire she has for the older man, and the two embrace–

–and suddenly you realize that the writer had molested his daughter and that the entire thing was an extended confession. The arms conspiracy was definitely a thing, and the writer had been investigating it, but it’s almost a red herring. While he was indeed murdered, it was not for what he knew or to stop him from publishing, it was a character who, realizing the writer planned to finally confess, decided to stop him before he could ruin Sara’s life. She’s got a career, she’s expecting a baby, she has a life apart from all of this–and a budding romance with the game’s protagonist–and this would crush her. It protects Sara and punishes him at once. It’s the kind of motive that’s both well-meaning and heartbreaking and completely wrong. And yet–it’s a motive that the game seems to agree with. The final action of the game involves rewriting the story’s ending. The Sara-analogue returns home, regains her memories, and is reunited with her lost lover (the son of the kindly older man who remains, thankfully, her doting father-in-law in this version), who’s obviously our protagonist writing himself in. In general, it’s a much better ending–it ties up a lot of the story’s loose ends in a way that “incest” doesn’t–and yet Sara isn’t completely fooled. She recognizes the ending’s been rewritten, but she finds it romantic and charming, and is content to dismiss the unread original version as “probably not very good”.

Listen, this woman is going through a hell of a lot of trauma at this point. Her father apparently committed suicide but was revealed to have been murdered by her mother’s nurse–a woman who’s more or less one of the family at this point. Her mother is deep into Alzheimer’s and en route to a nursing home over the course of the game. Her brother runs an illegal and immoral international arms trade and is arrested for it. A hell of a lot has happened and her life is experiencing some extreme changes, and to add “by the way, you were molested” to that is, well, yeah, it’s an additional stress. But at the same time, we’re talking about a highly-educated woman with a successful career as a chemist, who is about to have a child that Sweden’s generous childcare benefits will help out with, and she’s beginning a relationship with a more or less decent guy. If her support system isn’t as strong as it could be, it’s still there, and nowhere in the game is it even suggested that she’s a delicate flower who’ll crack at this news. There’s even suggestions that she sort of already knows–she’s estranged from her father, wants nothing to do with his writing, and seems worried about finding something very specific in the manuscript–even if she truly has consciously forgotten about or repressed the incidents, they would help her understand a lot about her feelings toward her father and towards herself.

So I guess to me it just feels wrong–it feels like hiding from someone the fact that they’re adopted, or lying to a cancer patient and telling them it isn’t terminal. It’s an old-fashioned, paternalistic attitude. Now, the game does take place in the 1980s, in Sweden, so it’s possible we’re dealing with a different attitude than an American in 2015 would have–but at the same time, the game wasn’t *written* in 1984; in general, it seems like an ending involving a housewife in Long Island in the 1950s.

But again–i think the reason the flaws are sticking out was because I did enjoy the game very much. It lasted a Friday and a Saturday evening–which is a great length for an adventure game, as far as I’m concerned–and the more satisfying puzzles *were* satisfying. I didn’t see the twist coming, and I mean that in a positive way–the game’s sense of misdirection did force my head to look at the wrong things and ignore the actual plot. And I’m really excited to see the next game. So I guess I’m glad I rescued this one from the backlog then.

25 – I Miss “Interactive Movies”

For a dude who’s been playing videogames since he was a toddler, and who’s been writing about them since he was, oh, 19 or so, I have only the vaguest idea of what NeoGAF is, exactly. It’s some sort of forum, as far as I can tell, related to videogames. I have my share of friends who hang out there and post there; all of them have told me, “Yeah, it’s kinda really hardcore in there,” and since the only game-related groups I’ve ever spent much time are 1) the forums related to AllRPG.com, where I was a staffer when I was in college and 2) the Electron Dance comments threads, where you can see me posting longwinded rants in an effort to make Joel Goodwin slowly go insane (it’s working), it hasn’t bothered me that I haven’t been posting there.

I saw this particular post on Twitter, and I find its premise extremely flawed. Essentially, “videotape” is complains that “modern games try so hard to funnel a player down the single ‘win’ condition rather than providing multiple options for success”. Of the games he lists, I’ve only played Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider; while I can speak more accurately for Infinite since I only made it a few hours into Tomb Raider before returning it, insulted, we all know the exact style of game he’s talking about. You go through a corridor, you shoot dudes, you see a cutscene, you click on a Thing to solve a “puzzle”–videogames as mindless autotuned pop.

‘tape mentions games like the original Deus Ex, games which “encouraged finding one of multiple solutions to solve the problem”; another member posts a flowchart of a single level in the game, one which shows an intricate web of possible routes through the level and which admits that it’s not even taking into account lethal vs nonlethal kills, turret hacks, and a lot of other options. Or, to put it more comparatively, this image which has been floating around on the internet for a while:


It is hard to deny that Bioshock Infinite was neither fun nor challenging because that was my extremely correct opinion on the game–and yet, to say this is a modern trend vs. old-school games which were free and open–that’s fallacious as shit, or one which at least ignores a lot of issues surrounding Gaming Today. Tomb Raider is a Rihanna song–it’s Extruded Videogame Product. It’s not intended to be interesting–it’s intended to be Pretty and Exciting. Just like, you know, Uncharted, which won many GOTYs and whose level design was decidedly NOT 1993. To suggest that Deus Ex was played by the same types of people who played Tomb Raider is to have some very silly ideas. To say that modern games are one-note is to ignore games like Dark Souls or all of those weird light Roguelikes that I’ve been playing a lot of lately (Rogue Legacy, Cargo Commander, Diehard Dungeon). Look, I know exactly why all of my friends have been suggesting I leave the console world behind for the PC world, and I love that I have. But those kinds of games are still out there.

But let’s take this from a different angle–in a comment that’s more or less ignored, “Syril” says the following: “You think that’s bad, try playing some old adventure games.”

There’s a recognized term for “funneling the player so that he/she picks the only right solution which is the only way to proceed in the game”: Guess the Verb. The term goes back to the 1980s, to the days of interactive fiction and graphical adventure games with parsers. In a parser-based game, you’re typing in your commands in. Nouns are usually a lot easier, particularly in a text adventure: Nouns are anything you can see, anything you can interact with, and as such are concretely listed in the room description (“You can see a Rope here.”) [In early graphical games, due to low resolutions and colors, guessing nouns is more common: Who knows *what* that blob of pixels was? Roberta Williams was many, many things; a great visual artist was not one of them.] Verbs are what you do to them–the possible actions you can take in a game.

Due to their well-deserved prominence, Infocom’s parser is considered the standard for text adventure/interactive fiction games; Inform, one of the most common, easiest-to-use, and most flexible Interactive Fiction languages, is a direct descendant. A standardized syntax is important: Unless you’re making some kind of artistic point, you don’t want your players wasting their time figuring out the basics of communicating with your game. You want them wrestling with your puzzles. And so there’s a general list of “accepted” verbs in IF games; type “about” upon starting nearly any one and you’ll get them listed out, or you can let Andrew Plotkin explain it. Note the note at the bottom: “Every game has slightly different commands, but they all look pretty much like these.” (bold original).

These are standard commands; there are many, many games which expand this list. Many times it’s logical: You’re in a car, you’re going to type DRIVE. Some games have special verbs as part of their general design–magic spells are common. Sometimes, a particular verb is the solution to a puzzle or riddle–here’s Jonas Kyratzes talking about this kind of puzzle in Adam Cadre’s Photopia.

It’s the last case where the term Guess the Verb is used pejoratively. I did not have a problem with the puzzle in Photopia when I first played the game because Cadre gradually sprinkles in clues, nudges, and ultimately outright suggestions about what to do. In another scene in the game, you’re tasked with giving someone CPR–with another character coaching you on exactly what to type. (And if you mess it up, that character will run in and do it for you.) But Photopia is one of the masterpieces of the form; far more common is for a lesser designer to hide a puzzle solution behind an obscure verb and ONLY that verb. You have a rope and a hook. TIE ROPE doesn’t work. USE ROPE doesn’t work. PUT ROPE ON HOOK doesn’t work. At that point you’ve exhausted your thoughts and gone to a walkthrough, if it’s available; what you were supposed to type was ATTACH ROPE. A good designer would code the game so it would accept all of those and more; and yet, designers aren’t psychic and they’re not all good. Guess the Verb is a problem–it is usually a source of unpleasant frustration for players.

The 80s came and went and everyone began to have a mouse attached to their computer. Games at the beginning of this period–King’s Quest IV is a perfect example–often used the mouse as a supplementary tool, but by the time KQ5 rolled around, point-and-click adventures featured a set of verbs–either icons, as in Sierra’s games, or words, as in many of Lucasarts’–that you would select one from and then choose an area of the world to perform that action on. The effect was to eliminate or downplay Guess the Verb. Now, players certainly had their share of ways to get stuck. In many cases, there was only one specific item or action which needed to be used or performed on one specific object; the larger the gameworld, the more likely the player will miss what to do. The efforts to alleviate player frustration were certainly successful…but not completely. Further refinements to the formula included the “do anything” cursor. I first saw this in King’s Quest 7, and I remember how furious my friend and I were at it because of the implied simplicity: In effect, this makes the game pick the default action *for* you.

Now, in practice, the “do anything” cursor has turned out to be one of the greatest innovations to the adventure game formula. Once developers got used to designing games for the innovation, we as a society found out that most of the alternate cursors were completely irrelevant. Space Quest IV features “smell” and “taste” icons, which do little more than provide jokes or flavor text–fine and funny, but also unnecessary clutter. In its current form, the standard is something like a left click to control movement and actions and a right click to examine objects.

Well, verbs and puzzles have an intimate relationship, and advances in one affect advances in the other. But adventure games have always been about story as much as they have been about puzzles. As the genre went on, developers began to want to create games which at least attempted to have deeper stories–and, in a logical conclusion, which downplayed the puzzles.

It’s the very early 90s; we’re still a sprite-based society. Computers and consoles can’t really handle polygons, or if they can it’s extremely simple and basic. But CD-ROM drives are beginning to be a Thing. Computers could handle full motion video adequately if not well, and the storage space that CDs allowed meant that grainy, oft-interlaced footage of actual actors was simply what PC games looked like. Thus, the Interactive Movie was born. But, as I’ve said, not all designers are good, and for every Gabriel Knight II we got five Double Switches. Budgets weren’t huge–and again, the tech was only adequate. The term is used almost exclusively pejoratively today–usually to imply that the game is low on interactivity and that the movie portion is poorly acted and poorly written.

I would submit that if we were to reclaim the term, the scene might make a little more sense.

“Videogame” is not a signifier of quality, much as the Twine crowd would have you believe.  It is a categorization, and I would submit that many of the games mentioned in the NeoGAF post might not *actually* be videogames. Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are much more interested in presenting their stories and their worlds than they are with giving the players interesting things to do. All of the “Press X to comfort Elizabeth” moments in Infinite are less player actions than they are cutscene triggers. The game portions are ways of pacing the storyline and opportunities to flesh out the physical world of Columbia. Bioshock Infinite is perhaps the worst videogame I have played all year.

But…if we consider it as an interactive movie? If we consider it as a storyline that we get to wander around in and participate in?

Considered as a world to explore, a set of challenges, a bunch of opportunities for action and decision–considered as a videogame–Bioshock Infinite is a horrible, arrogant mess. We are grabbed by the head as Levine shouts his brilliant plot points to us. When I play a videogame, I want that videogame to shut the fuck up and let me play. Considered as an interactive movie–a story with limited, delineated player agency–it might actually be a much stronger work.

I’m in danger of Formalism here, but I don’t think it’s wrong to categorize the entertainment that we consume if it helps us understand that entertainment better. The trick is to figure out what the most common verbs that the game gives you. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, the most common verbs in the game were “shoot” and “sit back, light a joint, and watch Elizabeth talk and do things.” For a videogame, Bioshock infinite has a lot of time where you don’t actually get to *play*.

I miss the term “Interactive Movie”. I’ve been gearing up to reclaim it for a while, and I think it’s time. We’ve got polygons and we can make these things look *actually* good. Let’s just admit that that’s what we’re making, that what we think of as “videogames” is maybe not this all-encompassing entity that we desperately want it to be, but that we’re dealing with a lot of disparate media that just happen to share the same DNA.