Sunday, April 27, 2014

Raetikon, Fract

This week I tried two different puzzle/exploration games. They were both pretty cool, but I only finished one of them. Does this mean I am going to delve into details of game design? Yes!

Oh, sure, it'll boil down to personal preference -- but details can be fun.

Secrets of Raetikon (I'll spare you the ligature) is a... somebody asked me what genre it was, and I said "Fez." "Oh," they replied, "an artsy pixel platformer." Yes, except that there are no pixels -- it's all vector art -- and there are no platforms -- you're a bird, you fly everywhere. But it's got a simple cipher alphabet that most players ignore, and doesn't that sum up Fez better than anything?

This used to be called "action-adventure", back when there were enough games-like-Soul-Reaver to be considered a genre. That is, 3D games where you jump around but it's not cartoony and you're not collecting coins. But then the 2D ones wound up called "metroidvania" -- except that term implies gaining abilities over time. (As Fez does.) Raetikon is 2D but I don't think it has the notion of gaining abilities. Maybe it does! I didn't get very far into it.

(Speaking of Soul Reaver, I hear that the license has bought up by somebody doing a team brawler game. I regard that with about as much enthusiasm as the idea of Zork as a casual MMO. I saw at least two terrific Raziel costumes at PAX this year, and this is how you repay fandom? Oh, ye classic IPs of yore...)

Sorry. Maundering. Genre amuses me.

Raetikon has a killer visual style. It does a good job of conveying some game mechanics and goals in the first few minutes of play. You're a bird; you can swoop around grabbing rocks and branches and stuff. There are dots to find. (You could reasonably call them coins...) I flew around finding dots, and secret caves, and secret caves full of dots -- until some jerk bird stooped on me and blood flew everywhere.

Okay, it's a 2D action game with enemies. That's very common; the default model of action games, even. But in this one you don't seem to have a way to attack. You have to dodge, which involved a lot more flailing than it did dexterity. I was using the keyboard, mind you, and the game recommends a gamepad. Maybe that was the problem. But from that point on my exploration was just... a lot more work than I wanted to put in.

I managed to find another one of the game's goal-objects (dodging more birds and an evil-ass lynx). Then, as I toted the object home, a full-on asshole of a bird dived on me and stole it. Seriously, I think it was Yelling Bird from Questionable Content. I flailed some more and managed to get the object back, but then Yelling Bird stole the next one I found too -- after the lynx chewed on me several more times -- and I just could not summon the energy to keep trying.

There are several negative factors that stacked up here:
  • Like I said, no gamepad.
  • Having enemies that I could not get rid of. Usually these games are about exploration, with fighting as a way to pace out the world. But that implies that you can neutralize the enemies and get back to the exploration.
  • Death sends you back to the beginning. The world isn't enormous (so far) but trekking back to where you died is not appealing. (And when you do get there, whatever killed you is still waiting.)
  • I got lost sometimes. (But see next review.)
  • Having an enemy swoop in and steal your reward for solving a puzzle. This was way more discouraging than it should have been.

Maybe these are problems to be solved, rather than strict game limitations. If so I never saw ways to attack them. Should I be throwing dead rabbits to the lynx to distract it? I don't know. The game seemed to be offering mechanics of exploration, magic-collection, and physical environment puzzles. (Rolling rocks downhill to break a tree, etc.) Animal interactions didn't occur to me.

Anyhow. This is maundering again. I bogged down in Raetikon. I'm sad about that because the puzzles and exploration seemed neat. On to the next game.

Fract (I'll spare you the all-caps) is... everybody reaches for Myst as the comparison. This is entirely fair. It's got big environmental puzzles embedded in pretty landscapes, and it's got abstract combination locks with clues that you find scattered around the world. But Fract diverges from the Myst model in some subtle ways which I think have gone unappreciated.

(Footnote: Fract is possibly titled "Fract Osc", or "Fract OSC". The game site waffles on the "OSC" part. ("Original Sound Creation"? "Original Sound Crack"?) I guess some trademark conflict appeared late in development. If nothing else it gives them room to name the sequel "FRACT REVERB" or something.)

Anyhow. The Myst series was justly famed for landscapes, but Fract does fantastically well at big landscape. It is one enormous world that you can walk across, one end to the other, and the sense of scale is palpable.

The Myst games archetypically restricted themselves to islands. Even when the series broke out into free-roaming 3D (Uru and Myst 5), the worlds had the sense of mazes -- networks of limited pathways -- or else broad but featureless spaces marked by a few interesting highlights. This is an inevitable consequence of the highly-detailed visual style of those games. The artists could only build so much interesting scenery. Recent games such as Dear Esther have followed suit. It's only the super-big-budget games (Darksiders, WoW, etc) which have been able to build truly continuous large worlds.

Fract is an indie game with a very abstract style: all flat neon colors and light. This gives the designers the freedom to build really enormous landscapes which are geometrically interesting. There are mountains, craters, abyssal chasms filled with glowing crystals. Some regions delve underground, but the passageways are never cramped; they liberally open up into vast caves or openings to the larger spaces outdoors. (Indeed the distinction between "underground" and "outdoors" is vague, conveyed more through lighting than through a lowering roof.)

So you wander around, guided by the game, but without the sense of exploring a maze. And you get lost -- at least I did.

The nice thing here is that while the space is large, it is learnable. This is again a personal balance. I spent a couple of play sessions completely disoriented, with no sense of how different parts of the landscape related to each other. That got me through about 75% of the game. Then I sat down and said "Okay, dammit, time to stop being lost." I explored with intention, paid attention to landmarks, looked out across vistas, and pretty quickly found my way to the remaining areas that I'd missed.

Contrast Raetikon, where I had the getting-lost experience, but never put in the effort to get oriented. I expect Raetikon is just as learnable -- it's 2D, but with no long-distance view, which probably balances out. I just got bogged down before I got to the learning stage.

Fract's puzzles are pretty good, but they don't overshadow the exploration aspect of the game. This may disappoint people who are playing for the puzzle-fest aspect. (It didn't bother me at all.)

I'm not saying that that the puzzles are easy. The problem (if you call it a problem) is that there are just a handful of puzzle types, iterated with increasing complexity. So the game doesn't have that Myst quality of constantly throwing new stuff at you. When you're exploring the Bass area (for example), you know that each stage will be a pipe-puzzle followed by a gate-puzzle. The last pipe-puzzle is quite difficult, in fact, but there's no surprise in discovering it.

Happily, the endgame puzzle is a complex piece built out of completely new mechanics. It's not a Mystery-Hunt style metapuzzle, but it ties together bits of the game in a pleasingly thematic way.

(For those of you who don't know metapuzzles, I mean a puzzle that ties together all the game's puzzles in a puzzly way. I finished Fract's final puzzle without noticing how all the rest of the game fit together. That only struck me afterwards. In a Hunt-style metapuzzle, I would have had to figure that out in order to solve the endgame.) (Of course, that would be a harder game structure. Too hard for the general adventure audience? Probably not, in these days of forums and walkthroughs, but it would definitely be a community solving experience for most people rather than a solo experience.)

Fract's puzzles are mostly variations on a theme, but they have some interesting qualities. For a start, they all have a musical theme. (I just murdered a pun, didn't I.) So as you solve the puzzles, the world acquires more and more beats and rhythms in various locations. The larger puzzles, of course, light up large sections of the world with power chords. It was very satisfying to plow through the endgame at 2 AM, with the lights off and the speakers turned up. oontz oontz oontz

This kind of purely sensual reward hasn't been well-exploited by the adventure genre. (The ball-ride in Myst 3 is a standout exception.) But it's not just a matter of "solve puzzle, get cool tunes." Many of the puzzles -- though not all -- have a "loose" quality. You have some leeway in how you reach the goal. This is particularly true in the big section-end puzzles and the endgame, which have mechanisms which seem entirely irrelevant to the solution. You have to turn them on, but it doesn't matter how you set them.

In the common puzzle tradition, these are red herrings, and players hate them. They distract you from the important mechanisms without adding to the puzzle. But in Fract, they have an obvious purpose: they change the tunes! You have direct control over the melody that the world-instrument plays. By the time you finish the endgame puzzle, you're surrounded by layers of notes that represent your moves. It really is kind of tempting to go back and adjust everything to sound better.

(Although you don't have to. There's a "Studio", outside the game, which gives you a direct synthesizer interface. The controls are unlocked as you solve puzzles. So I could be building a tune for you right now! But instead I'm writing this review. You're welcome.)

I should note that the looseness of the puzzles extends to the landscape. While it's open, there are some barriers that are meant to structure your progression. In a few places I managed to short-circuit them. This didn't break the game; it rather fit in with the puzzle structure. But there was one spinny-platform puzzle that I definitely solved backwards.

It's worth contrasting Fract (exploration paced with puzzles) with Raetikon (exploration and puzzles paced with combat, or at least active enemies). Almost nothing can hurt you in Fract -- the exceptions are falling into glowing "water", and one puzzle type that can mash you in a closing gate. In those cases, you snap back to the most recent of the (ubiquitous) checkpoints.

Passive dangers and frequent checkpoints are clearly a workable model for an exploration game. I'd say that Raetikon would have worked just as well with that model. I'm not sure what design process led to Yelling Bird and Bitey Lynx. Maybe the rest of the game makes that clearer. Maybe at some point I will return and try to reach the rest of the game, but at the moment I'm thinking not.

So there we are. Two games, and I finished one of them. It's all my fault, but there are reasons.

(I will vigorously resist the suggestion that I finished Fract because it's basically Tron fanfic. But I will note that Distance, a racer that got Kickstarted a while ago, is even more Tron fanfic...)

Comments imported from Gameshelf

josh (Apr 28, 2014 at 1:27 AM):

OSC stands for Open Sound Control, which is sort of an upgrade to MIDI. (More powerful, more flexible, less commonly supported though.) I believe at some point they intended to allow FRACT to actually function as an OSC and/or MIDI controller. (Might still get patched in, I think.)

Andrew Plotkin (Apr 28, 2014 at 11:09 AM):

Aha thanks.

salty-horse (May 7, 2014 at 8:52 AM):

except that term implies gaining abilities over time. (As Fez does.)

Fez didn't feel like that. You do gain the ability to rotate the world early on, but that's it. Before that, it's more of an intro than the actual game. I think you can solve anything in the game in any order assuming you collected enough cubes.

Andrew Plotkin (May 7, 2014 at 11:48 AM):

(Will rot13 for spoileriness...)

Fez has at least one phase-change which felt like a new ability to me: jura lbh tnva npprff gb gur yrire gung ybjref gur bprna yriry, tvivat npprff gb arj qbbef.

Gura gurer'f gur (hapyhrq) sylvat novyvgl, juvpu vf arire arprffnel ohg ernyyl znxrf yvsr rnfvre ba fbzr yriryf. Naq gura boivbhfyl gur fhatynffrf, juvpu tvir lbh svefg-crefba ivrj.

So that's enough to give it the metroidvania feel for me.

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