Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Firmament demo

This morning, I got to play the demo (or "playable teaser experience") of Cyan's planned next game Firmament. This is the first time it's been demoed in public, as far as I know, and I got in within the first hour of the show. So that's some bragging rights for me!

(Nobody cares about me bragging. Okay.)

Firmament is a first-person puzzle adventure game which Cyan announced as a project three weeks ago. As I noted in my previous post, the game is not yet in production. They're hunting for funding. This demo is all that exists, aside from the teaser trailer on the web site. They brought the demo to GDC to show it off and drum up interest.

This demo is VR-only; they've got an Oculus Touch hooked up for people to play with. The game itself is marked "platform TBD", which is the only thing they can possibly say at this early stage. It's probably fair to say that they're designing it with VR in mind, but that doesn't mean it would be VR-only or even VR-first at launch time. (If it ever gets funded at all, right?)

Anyhow, I will describe the experience. I got myself wired up, figured out how to zap the "play" button, and found myself in an ice cube. Big icy cave full of ice cubes. Then a big brass mechanical fork-thing got in my face and chipped me out of the ice.

(Ryan Warzecha warned me, as the game launched, that a machine was about to make me uncomfortable. Fair enough. Is this the VR equivalent of a 3D movie snowballing you in the face? A shock experience to show off how immersive the tech is, regardless of whether the player needs to be shocked? I'm not complaining here, I'm just saying that if you start your demo by apologizing for it, it might be a sign that you should rethink matters.)

Once de-iced, you figure out how to move around (standard VR teleport) and then leave the room. The next room is a frozen dining chamber with a corpse and a polyhedral drone, which wakes up and starts hovering around your head. (The ghost character in the trailer was not visible in this demo.)

You can grab the drone and stick it into various sockets to open doors and generally activate machines. You can also point at a distant socket, and the drone will fly over and plug itself in. If you raise your hand over your head, the drone will fly back towards you from wherever it is, unplugging itself if necessary.

(The drone pathfinding was simplistic; the thing tends to get lost if you move around a corner. Early demo problems, sure.)

The bulk of the demo consisted of climbing an icy mountain, using the drone to lower bridges and so on. You also get to pull some levers. (VR hand controllers!) It pretty clearly acts as a tutorial; by the time you've unlocked the teleport pod at the end, you've demonstrated all the basic drone interactions. The pod takes you to a mechanical hub chamber (visible in the trailer video) and that's the end of the demo.

In fact, the demo cuts off after five minutes, to give the next fan a chance to play. I didn't make it to the pod myself. But I watched a few other people.

I chatted a bit with Ryan Warzecha and Karl Johnson. Items of note:

The demo represents about two months of work. Yes, Cyan laid off some people last month; they're currently at about ten developers. If they get funding for Firmament, they'll staff back up. Ryan noted that he's been laid off from Cyan three times, and he's always happy to go back when they can afford to hire him.

Yes, the PSVR port of Obduction is still going. (I think they said it was in validation at Sony, but I may be misremembering that.)

As noted on the Myst web page, Cyan has gotten agreements and funding to re-release all of the Myst games (for modern Windows machines). They don't have dates for any of this; they'll continue to make announcements throughout this year. They also have some kind of nice swag in mind, and a 25th-anniversary physical package.

That is, I think, all the news.

As for my own reaction: the Firmament demo looks great. Dusty interiors, snowy exteriors, towering machinery, swirling snowflakes. Cyan has definitely gotten the hang of the Unreal engine, and can use it to produce high-detail worlds in a pretty quick time-frame.

The demo contains only the simplest puzzles, as you'd expect from a tutorial scene. There's no sign of an overarching puzzle mechanic like Obduction's spheres. You just have the drone. I have no idea what they have planned for the game, and they aren't saying.

I am still not a VR convert. The demo was an immersive experience, but it wasn't any more immersive than Obduction or Quern or any of the other games I've played on my (non-gigantic) TV. Or I should say: for me, games on my TV are fully as immersive as VR! That's just how my brain works. I can fall into a TV screen... without getting my head all cramped and sweaty... and run to the bathroom any time I want. So that's how I will continue to play games. You play your way.

More Cyan news as it pops.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A few recent narrative and adventure games

What Isn't Saved (will be lost)

The most important lesson of this game is never put punctuation in your game titles. It leads to confusing tweets.
What Isn't Saved (will be lost) is LIVE!
What if you could resurrect the dead--by rebuilding their memories? Zoe, a neuroscientist, is trying to do just that after her girlfriend Sara's death. But her tech isn't perfect, & difficult choices must be made.
Title snark aside: WIS(wbl) is a short SF Twine piece about memory and self-definition. It's short enough that I hesitate to talk about it in any detail. But as the blurb above implies, the gameplay is reviewing and interacting with memory fragments.
You have only a few possible interactions. However, the game forces you to balance the consequences in the story (what will I do with each memory?) with the gameplay consequences (memories unlock other memories). And your actions are limited; you can neither see every option nor save every memory in a single play-through; indeed, your attempt to do either cuts against the other. This provides a nice tension and gives you reason to play through several times. It's still a short experience even with that, but it's worth doing it and seeing the range of endings.
(Interest: the author is a friend and I support her Patreon.)


Lisssn (three S's) is a new game from Knut Müller, the creator of the Rhem series. He has collaborated with music professor Robert Wolff to create a music-education adventure game.
Sadly, the combination doesn't serve either element as it deserves. I feel like both designers were holding back. Probably they thought that really difficult music puzzles would turn off adventure gamers, and really intense adventure puzzles would frustrate people interested in the music theory.
The problem is that the Rhem series is all about intense adventure puzzles; that's what Müller has going for him. You play a Rhem game by obsessively looking at everything, from every angle, and noting down everything you see. It's a uniform puzzle space: everything is a clue, and there's a clue everywhere you could possibly look. Lisssn has some of this dense clueing, but it also has long empty corridors and connections that lead nowhere. You can't skimp on the obsessive peering around, but it's not consistently rewarded either.
Similarly, the music theory is simplified almost to the point of nonexistence. You have to listen to and repeat some note sequences, which only ever span two or three pitches -- low/high or low/medium/high. And there are some rhythm sequences, which only cover short/long beats. I'm not pining for the Myst organ puzzle -- we all agree that was annoying! But when the game is about sounds, you expect a little more depth. Not difficulty, but depth.
They throw in a bit of music history and instrument recognition as well. (Entirely within the Baroque period; don't expect electric guitars or synths.) The history puzzles are the most inexplicable: you need the birth and death dates of four Baroque composers. You are supposed to search the game obsessively for these dates -- looking at tombstones, solving riddles. At one point you have to solve a puzzle to get an item to reveal a riddle which gives you partial information about Henry Purcell's lifespan.
Or you could spend fifteen seconds Googling it: 1659-1695. You can't call that a spoiler, it's like knowing Morse code. This is puzzle design in these modern times (let's say, the past 15 years); you assume that common information is a freebie. I am honestly befuddled how Lisssn missed that.
Lisssn scratched my puzzle itch, but clumsily. I will continue waiting for Rhem 5.
(I will not complain about the graphical style. If pixels can be retro-chic for years on end, surely low-poly Perlin-noise rock textures can be too. But it may not be your thing.)
(There's another whole post in me about how free-travel 3D games have out-competed fixed-node fixed-angle games like Rhem and the original Myst. Because looking around and seeing stuff in your peripheral vision is fun, whereas clanking 90-degree turns are not. But I've already gone on way too long.)

Butterfly Soup

I enjoyed this but did not fall in love with it. It is on the less-interactive end of the visual-novel spectrum; you spend most of your time clicking through dialogue, and when you do hit a choice point, it is often of a lawnmowery nature. (That is, you have N topics to mention or M places on the screen to search, and you get to run through them all. The only question is what order.)
I don't object to this sort of design, but it doesn't grab me like the more-interactive VNs I've tried. For example, Ladykiller is continually hitting you with story-significant choices and explicit plot branch options. Dream Daddy has more click-through dialogue chains, but still puts the "who do you want to date" question front and center. In contrast, after one run-through of Butterfly Soup, I don't even know whether it's possible to kiss more girls than the ending I reached.
(Note added later: pretty sure not.)
The strong point is the characters, who are wonderfully over-the-top specimens of teenage humanity without ever becoming cartoony or implausible. I can't say how well the game portrays the Asian lesbian high-school experience (I barely understand the straight white guy high-school experience) but it's all convincing, sympathetic, and frequently funny.
The game's worst problem is that "gang of fucked-up kids figuring themselves out" puts it right up against Night in the Woods, which just isn't a fair comparison. Butterfly Soup isn't trying to convey an entire town. Grownups appear rarely, and are faceless caricatures when they do. The focus is entirely on the four protagonists plus a couple of older classmates. That's fine; it's what the game is trying to do.
Really, the better comparison is Lost Memories Dot Net. In that frame, I'll happily say that Butterfly Soup has more zip and narrative tension -- you want these kids to catch hold of their natures and start smoochin'. Without losing the zany energy that's kept them squabbling and yelling at each other through the whole game. And they do that.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Open letter: Slack should not discontinue its gateways

I sent this message to today.

I saw yesterday that you are planning to discontinue your IRC and XMPP gateways. You are making a mistake. You should keep supporting the gateways.
That's the one-line summary. You want to keep reading?
The gateways are a valuable feature and they make Slack more valuable to users. Yes, I'm sure you have charts showing how few users connect through the gateways. And yes, the gateways can't keep up with your shiny new Slack features. But those of us who use the gateways, use them because we like them! They let us Slack in the ways that we get work done. If they vanish, Slack turns into a second-best service.
I don't despise the Mac Slack app. I have it running right now. But -- sometimes I shut it down. This is how I use Slack: a few high-priority channels in my XMPP client, and the Slack app for everything else. The XMPP client is always running; it has my most important chats ganged together in one tidy window. The Slack app is different; it's a busy free-for-all that I peek at when I have a few free minutes.
Today, Slack supports this. I can direct channels where I want them on my screen. It's flexible and it fits me. But you're telling me that in two months, I lose that flexibility. I won't lose access to my chats, but I'll lose the ability to read them how I want.
That's bad. It is a mistake.
Flexibility isn't the only issue. On your explanation page, you say you are "focused on making Slack accessible to all people". Good! Please keep working on that. But then you admit "these changes are just the beginning of our accessibility journey." Doesn't that mean you should keep supporting the mature technologies that people already use?
Similarly, the "creative integrations" you mention. It's great that your APIs support some users' needs. Probably even most users' needs. But that's not an argument for cutting off the standardized mechanisms that people are already using.
Honestly, I think you know this. Your explanation page is written with a tinge of defensiveness. "We're hopeful that [tech] will meet the majority of your needs..." ...but you know it won't meet all of them. Yeah. Your only actual argument for removing the gateways -- as opposed to apologies -- is "to provide a secure and high-quality experience across all platforms." Look: taking away a user's current platform doesn't improve their experience. It is a removal. It takes away the experience they want.
At this point you maybe want to bargain with me (and people like me). You want to say "We'll keep running the gateways for another six months -- or another twelve months -- until Slack's accessibility and APIs are good enough. Then we'll shut them down for real."
No. Still wrong.
There are plenty of web services which demand total control over how users use them. (Think of a little blue bird.) That's their brand; they protect it fiercely.
(Twitter may not block third-party clients, but it sure wants to discourage people from using them.)
I would like Slack to not be that way.
I would like to be able to use Slack however I need. No offense to the emoji, but I don't need emoji to get work done. Slack was valuable before the reaction tags, before the threads, before the shared channels. (I haven't even looked to see what "shared channels" are.) Slack was valuable because it was a simple stream of text messages shared between people. I still use it that way. And that's exactly the format that fits into the XMPP/IRC model!
It's also, by no coincidence, the format which is maximally accessible. A simple linear stream of text messages can be translated into any user interface and any platform -- mobile, audio, you name it. Morse Code if that's your kick. You can pile on all the extra features you like, and yes, a lot of people will use them. Sometimes I will use them. But some people -- maybe, now and then, a lot of people -- will stick to the simple linear stream, because it suits their technology and their needs.
Slack has to keep supporting that simple use pattern. For accessibility, for portability, for flexibility. And if it supports that pattern, it can support IRC/XMPP without much hassle.
That's my argument. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Cyan announces Firmament

Everyone around me just started yelling about a new Cyan game, so I have to jump off the bridge too.
Cyan has a teaser site and trailer for something called Firmament.
In their last public chat, Rand Miller said "...we're going to reveal almost nothing about it until it ships." Maybe he was kidding about that, or maybe this is all we're going to get until launch day. (No launch day is listed.) I'd be okay with that.
What we know is the blurb on the site:
The game of Firmament is a resplendent, magical, journey — a monumental voyage through four diverse and curious realms, working in concert with an ever-present, clockwork companion, and the support and instruction of a long-dead, ethereal mentor.
The trailer video shows the clockwork companion (clearly an ancestor of Bit) and the ethereal mentor. And there's some kind of realm portal. Check.
It's notable that this isn't a Kickstarter launch. And the trailer says "a new VR experience". So I'm guessing that Cyan got funding from one of their VR partners. Perhaps Sony, since Cyan posted last summer about their exciting Obduction Playstation deal with new content and so on. (I do not have a Playstation so I haven't seen this.)
They haven't said anything about platforms, or whether this will be VR-only. I'd be surprised if it weren't playable on regular displays, but funding deals can have exclusivity clauses so you never know.
Also, it looks like it's not related to either Myst or Obduction. Except stylistically.
However it comes out, it's nice to see that Cyan is still alive.

Followup with more info:
The Spokesman is a Spokane-area paper which is reliable at getting extra information out of Cyan. Their article just went up. Some quotes:
The team has developed what Miller called a working “experience,” similar to a demo, that will be shown later this month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in an attempt to garner interest and financial backing.
[...] Cyan isn’t using Kickstarter for “Firmament,” Miller said, but rather appealing to backers directly with its package of gameplay that they hope to be able to complete with financial assistance.
“We put all of our ‘Obduction’ money back into that, but ‘Obduction’ hardly pays the bills,” Miller said. “We’re using up our bank money as well, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’re out at this point.”
So the situation is less optimistic than I thought. Or rather, it's all optimism, no money in the bank. Precarious!
I'll be at GDC, so I'll have a chance to try the Firmament demo. (If I can fight through the crowds around it! It's listed as being part of the Indie Megabooth, starting Wednesday.) I doubt there will be any more financial news by then, but if I hear anything, I'll post.