Monday, June 16, 2008

The Penny Arcade game: Rain-Slick Words Words Mumble

A fascinating investigation into the difference between a web-comic's subject and its audience. By which I mean this: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1 -- and what am I supposed to call it for short, anyway? -- is a game which will frustrate most readers of Penny Arcade. Just because the comic is about hardcore gamer geeks, doesn't mean the game should be built for them.

Episodic gaming has broken through with Sam&Max, and once again everyone is trying to storm the breach. I could go on about whether that is a good idea, but instead let me clear up the misconception that snared me: OTR-SPoD (this game, I mean) is not an adventure game. It's a CRPG. A Final Fantasy style CRPG -- you walk around the screen, until bam you get into a fight, and then the two teams face each other in a tidy row and select combat options from a menu until one team is pulp.

Now, it's not quite Final Fantasy -- it's the subgenre which is real-time. (If I were a hardcore CRPG gamer geek, I would know what games to compare it to, but I'm not -- I just read about them in webcomics.) Each of your characters has a little timer that builds up, and after twenty seconds (or thirty, or whatever) he can take a punch. (Or fire a gun, or whatever.) And you can block enemy blows by hitting the spacebar at the right moment. So to fight effectively, you have to hover over your controls and react quickly. But it's still selecting combat options from a menu.

I have not yet mentioned the exploration or adventure aspects of Rain-Slick (as we may call it). This is because there aren't any. You meet characters who want items, or you find items which are used in places; but they aren't puzzles. (Except in the broadest sense of "something which requires you to interact with the game".) They're the plot tokens you get for clobbering enemies. Each part of the story is "kill ten or twenty of those monsters", either explicitly or with a plot token pasted on. It's unquestionably a Penny Arcade script -- amusingly moronic characters, ceaseless obscenity, and fruit-violating robots -- but these things are in no way integrated into what you do.

I personally prefer adventure games to CRPGs. That's not my point in this review. My point is, Sam&Max is fun for non-gamers. At least, it can be fun. Because if you get stuck in an adventure game, you find a walkthrough and then you're unstuck. If you're enjoying the jokes, you can plow on through with the hints -- you may not feel clever, but you'll appreciate the cleverness that's in the game, and you'll be engaged with the plot. Plus, you can put down the walkthrough at any time and think "Hey! I can solve this next bit myself!" Sam&Max doesn't get harder as you progress through it. (I'd argue it gets easier, as the designers get better at smooth puzzle and clue flow.)

You can't do that with Precipice (if I may call it that). The entire game is combat, which means your skill at the combat system matters. It's real-time, which means you can't go ask the Internet for help. If you aren't good at clicking, whacking the space bar, and managing your items, you just won't get very far.

I'm not saying this is a hard game. Devil May Cry 3 was hard. Penny Arcade (you know what I mean, right?) is designed for experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. That's me, and I enjoyed the fighting. I rarely felt like I was getting stomped.

However -- I bet most web comics fans aren't experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. I'm sure Gabe and Tycho are. Maybe the people who post in the forums are. But is that their audience? I have a lot of friends who would be happy to show up for the fruit robots and the bad jokes, but who would never reach the third scene of Oh I Give Up Already (better known in these pages as the Lamb).

And the other "however" -- the thing gets harder as you progress. The last monster is a colossus with 32000 hit points, or some silly number. And I don't mean a Shadow Of The colossus with hidden weaknesses and exciting paths of attack. You slug it out. And if you fail, you reload and slug it out again.

Or you don't. I got stomped the first time I tried it. And I thought, do I want to try this again? Gather twice as many combat items, and then blow another fifteen minutes seeing whether I can cope with this thing?

No, I did not. I put it down, as Alton Brown likes to say, and just walked away. The game was too hard for me. And I'm an experienced, moderately skilled action gamer.

So why should I buy On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2? Answer: I shouldn't. I'd like to read the comic of it, but the game is not for me. And the problem with an episodic series is, you have to hook your audience for the long term.

I'm sure ... has an audience, and they're probably laughing it up on the forums, mocking the rest of us. But I bet it's not the audience that the creators should have gone for.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Anthony Suarez (Jun 21, 2008 at 8:44 PM):

You're absolutely right about the walkthroughs. It helped me in Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die (Season 1, Episode 4). I also use them to get through RPGs when it gets too tedious for me.

I played the Penny Arcade Episode 1 demo, and it was fun. It didn't convince me enough to buy the game though. They creators stuck with their style and maintained funny dialog throughout which kept the humor flowing.

It's cool that they're going to be working on more sequels. Episodes are a smart way of telling the consumer that the story will change, while gameplay elements and mechanics (rules, abilities, etc.) will remain nearly the same without too much of an overhaul.

Play Games (Mar 4, 2009 at 4:27 PM):

Yea, i always wonder how come some people make enormous numbers in games. Now i know, they are just geeks that play whole day same game over and over again.

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