Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Puzzle games of the year: my favorites

Yesterday I tossed up fifteen short takes on puzzle games I've played this year. Today, longer comments on the two puzzle games that most impressed me in 2020:
  • Filament
  • A Monster's Expedition


A top-down puzzle game where you wrap cables around posts. I really liked this one. The basic mechanic spins off into dozens of variations: forbidden posts, ordered posts, colored posts, gate-opening posts, pairs of posts... it goes on.
By itself that would be a perfectly fine game. But it's also embedded in an explorable environment full of secrets. I love secrets! It's a big abandoned spaceship where the computer terminals are controlled by, guess what, wire-wrapping puzzles. Terminal-activation codes are hidden all over the place. It sounds silly, but the technology makes sense in a weirdly retro-future way.
(Bonus points for the abandoned spaceship which is full of daylight and bright colors and yet, somehow, still creepily haunted.)
I could quibble about the environmental storytelling. It's mostly conveyed through punchcards containing the crew's email and log entries. That's fine, but (a) you wind up reading each email at least twice -- once on the sender's card and once on the receipient's. More for group messages. And (b) you get a card every time a new set of puzzles opens up. By the time you reach the hard sets, you've seen all of the rooms and most of the emails; there's relatively little left to unlock. (And (c) the emails feel a bit tacked on to begin with.)
In other words, the back half of the game does a crap job of rewarding you with narrative. Your reward for solving puzzles is just harder puzzles. Yes, it's a puzzle game, but it has story elements and they could have paced them better.
As I said, quibbling. The actual endgame is an (enormous, mind-expanding...) new room filled with puzzles that combine variations from earlier in the game. (Much like Sensorium!) Plus a few new ideas. You want puzzles? This game has enough puzzles for you.
I will admit that I looked at walkthroughs for some of the tough ones. It was... possibly too many puzzles in some of the sets. And the epilogue scene doesn't exactly make sense that I can tell. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it.

A Monster's Expedition

Okay, look. Last year I went apeshit about Baba Is You. Puzzle game of the year, of the decade, I told everybody who would listen that Baba would be known as a landmark of puzzle design for generations.
(Of course you don't need me to tell you that. Baba has a slew of awards and accolades to its name.)
So listen: A Monster's Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions) is going to be a landmark of puzzle design for generations. In a completely different way! AME isn't a continual explosion of semiotic fireworks. It isn't an unending landslide of new puzzle-pieces that rewrite the rules of the universe.
AME, let's be clear, is about chopping down trees and pushing logs. There are also rocks. It's a block-pushing game. Except that the blocks are cylinders, so they roll if you push them sideways. You can push a log into the water to reach the next island. That's the whole game.
What AME does is take these simple elements and unfold them into a rising symphony of new possibilities. And it does this so smoothly, with such unerring craft, that every time you say "Wait. You can do that?"
To be clear, each new possibility always existed. It just never came up before because the level design didn't lead to any position where it happened. So you didn't notice. But then it's time for you to notice, and it's right there in front of you. Over and over, you gain mastery over the elements -- the logs and rocks -- and are then presented with a new way to combine them that you didn't even realize you could have tried. And then you reach the next set of levels, and it happens some more.
In Baba, in practically every puzzle game, these new possibilities are new game elements which are introduced at specific points. Here's a teleporter. Here's a bomb. Here's the word "LEVEL". Now solve some teleporter levels or bomb levels or LEVEL levels.
AME doesn't do that. It introduces... I think two new elements. Here, I'll spoil it (without spoiling the game at all): AME starts with trees and rocks. Later it introduces taller trees (two-space logs) and shorter rocks. That's it. But these are woven into probably a dozen unique mechanics, introduced sequentially in different groups of islands. Maybe more. I didn't count.
And I'm not even getting into the way islands are connected, such that you travel from one to the next on paths that are entirely emergent and yet take you exactly where the designer wants you to go. Or the way you don't get stuck, even though the island-reset button is not inherently safe. (You can imagine situations where resetting one of a pair of islands leaves you stranded on a beach. It just never happens because the designer was careful.)
(Okay, I got stranded once. I think three islands were involved. It took effort. The game keeps multiple autosaves so I was able to recover easily.)
Also, to be clear, the puzzles are sneaky and clever and challenging and never quite impossible. Difficult, yes. I'm sure plenty of people will try the game, solve a lot of islands, bog down, and never reach the formal "you won" point. That's fine. It's still worth playing.
(This is why Baba had a "midpoint" goal -- a satisfying ending for people who are not completist puzzle fiends. AME doesn't have anything like that, and maybe it should.)
(I have not said anything about the narrative, because there basically isn't one. There's a series of funny one-line takes on modern life. It's pleasant but not a big feature of the game. I always appreciate a narrative frame -- I did in Filament -- but hey, not all games. What AME does have is a consistent tone: inviting, peaceable, unhurried, generous.)
So: AME is not splashy. It's a deft, quiet, intensely thoughtful exploration of a simple idea. Its craft is so understated that it's easy to overlook it entirely. (Compare my comments on the narrative flexibility of Heaven's Vault.)
Do not overlook it. Think about systems so dense that you don't have to introduce bombs and teleporters to change them up. Think about ways to put players in the line of discovering a new thing, and ways to have that line not open up until the time is right. Think about arrangements where the player's only option is to try something wacky; think about delightful, revelatory reactions to that wacky act.
Also, play A Monster's Expedition.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A shut-in-year's worth of puzzle games

I've been playing more games than usual -- guess why! -- but writing less about them. Furthermore, my habitual January review-blast is going to be delayed this year. The January reviews stem from IGF judging, and IGF runs at GDC, and GDC is officially "delayed until July".
(Conferences in July sound optimistic as hell, even with the recent good vaccine news. But leave that aside.)
The point is: I have been leaving you, gentle reader, in a haze of undirected game-floundering. How will you know what puzzle games are interesting without my anodyne guidance? Unless you look at the entire rest of the flippin' Internet. Okay, fine. But here's my round-up post on puzzly games, regardless.
...But not all of them. Tune in tomorrow for my top-recommended puzzle games of 2020! (So far.) Today is a lot of short takes. In this post:
  • The Pedestrian
  • Lumote
  • Etherborn
  • Arise: A Simple Story
  • Lightmatter
  • Lumina
  • Weakless
  • Phantom Path
  • Creaks
  • Relicta
  • Sensorium
  • Zof
  • Carto
  • Timelie
  • Ethereal

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Tour Bibliotekh

Today is the (revised) launch day for "If on a summer’s night a game designer...", the Calvino game jam. My entry is called Tour Bibliotekh.
("But what is the entry's name?" Shush.)
It's a rather self-indulgent piece which is set (I am dead serious) in my apartment! Specifically in my library room. I finally set up all my bookshelves the way I wanted, and then I wanted to show them off. So I took some (360ยบ) photos. Then I remembered about the Calvino jam, and realized this would be an apropos setting.
I should say that this isn't a game in the way you might expect. It's not a puzzle and there is no "winning". It's a walking simulator; or, I suppose, a browsing simulator. Poke around and see what you find.
I'll tease one bit: connect things up right and you'll find my secret history of why the Charleston Shoe Thieves are called the "Shoe Thieves". No, I'm not a serious blaseball fan, but I see enough chatter about it to keep current. And the wiki explanation of the team name really didn't satisfy me at all. Maybe you'll like this one better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Boosting some current Kickstarters

I promised to have my Calvino game jam entry up yesterday. But if you look at the jam page, you'll see that the deadline -- and therefore the release date -- has been extended to Sept 30. I like the idea of kicking another week's worth of stuff into it, so you get to wait a bit longer for that.
In the meantime, let me mention some Kickstarters that I think deserve some love.

Club Drosselmeyer is an interactive theater / puzzle / music / circus-arts event which has played for the last few years in the Boston area. I went last year for the first time and had a blast.
The theme is The Nutcracker, only it's gonzo-WW2 swingtime era, so the Nutcracker is a dancing robot and there are Nazi spies creeping around stealing blueprints. Also, live music and acrobatics! The live show was a smart construction. You could go for the puzzles, the LARP-style interactions with characters, or just to cut it up on the dance floor.
This is not the year for live theater, so the Drosselmeyer crew has planned out an interactive radio show. Again, you can go for the puzzles or just listen in on the audio broadcast. If you want to get involved, there will be some kind of call-in system -- audience interactions will shape the direction of the night's show. But you can also play on your own schedule; the event will remain playable as an interactive web site.
Note that if you have a group that wants to play as a team, you can share one Kickstarter registration. The registration only lets one phone call in, but you can set up a Zoom chat or whatever you want for audio sharing.
Drosselmeyer has been a treasure of the Boston theater-game scene since it opened in 2016. This is your chance to check it out from anywhere in the world -- well, anywhere that can make phone calls to the US. The Kickstarter has been stuck at 40% for a few weeks now and it deserves better.
Bonus: here's me looking somewhat suffused in my 1940s getup for the show. Yes, in the bathroom, that's where the big mirror is.

IndieCade is going virtual like everything else this year. They're planning a week-and-a-half slate of talks, demos, a showcase of indie games, and online community. I like this plan! (Although, hint from the trenches: nine days is a really long show. Stay hydrated.)
Furthermore, they want to keep an active community and game showcase running year-round. The Kickstarter is to fund tools, streaming, and staff to support this.
I've only been to one IndieCade, in 2015. I was invited to demo Seltani, which I did (with Carl Muckenhoupt's help -- thank you!) I also kicked around the festival and met a bunch of cool people, including Sam Barlow and Cat Manning, and generally -- not to repeat a cliche -- I had a blast.
So I would like to see what IndieCade does as a virtual entity. Consider it.

Romancelvania: Honestly I have no idea about this one. The KS page isn't up yet. But this writeup sounds hilarious: Castlevania plus The Bachelor. Honestly, I could use a game where the devs say "We were all making each other laugh hysterically."
So I have no idea if it'll be any good, but it's worth a mention.

That's all I've got on my active (or not-yet-active) KS list. Of course there's a long, long list of backed games in progress. I'm not going to count. You know how Kickstarter works. (My KS game was four years late; complaining would be extra-silly.)
But I'll have my Calvino game up next Wednesday -- promise! And you'll have all day to enjoy it before the IFComp games go live on Thursday...

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Myst VR teaser drops

I'm sure you already saw it, but I strive for completeness here, so here you go: a trailer for Myst in VR. The Steam page and GOG page are also up.
There's really not much to say about this. As Cyan's announcement says, they've been teasing this for a while now:
In fact, we suspect that some of you were onto us as far back as last summer when Rand gave his keynote at Mysterium 2019... We’ve been holding our breath ever since that video hit the internet hoping his keynote speech wouldn’t go viral, so for those of you who picked up on what we were laying down last year... Thanks for helping us keep things under wraps!
(From today's Firmament news update, one of the places where Cyan announced this.)
I take that last bit as a direct poke, since I blogged about Rand's keynote in 2019! VR possibilities and all! No, Rand didn't say "VR" -- he just called it a "definitive edition of Myst". But we all knew what he meant.
The real surprise here is that they're announcing it now. Firmament is currently on track for probably 2022, so this is looking like parallel development rather than sequential. Of course, it's impossible to know how the schedule will fall out.
The trailer and screenshots indicate that they've gotten a good ways into development. And it is very pretty.
Other tidbits:
  • The title is just Myst, no modifiers.
  • It will be VR-only and Quest-exclusive at launch, but flatscreen Windows and other VR platforms will follow.
  • The Steam page says "Built from the ground up to play in VR and flatscreen PC with new art, sound, interactions, and even optional puzzle randomization..."
  • The teaser has a slightly different opening narration in Rand's inimitable voice.
  • The D'ni text seen in the Myst book is a rather delightful easter egg for fans. See the top comment on the youtube page for a transcription.
I am of course pleased by this news, although I'll have to wait for the flatscreen release. Mind you, Firmament is still top of my wanted list.
The note about "puzzle randomization" is interesting. Many of the puzzles in Myst are entirely suitable for this. (Think about the clock tower, for example -- the required time code could be anything.) This isn't a huge expansion of the game's design, but it will be a nice change for people who want to replay it without feeling like they're following an invisible teleprompter. And it will be "optional", so detail mavens don't need to freak out.
The video and screenshots imply that they've scaled the island up a bit, and added lots of detail. But they haven't redesigned anything from scratch. It's still the classic, "noncanonical" Myst. Trap books will still be trap books. The puzzles will still be mostly nonmimetic insertions. Myst Island will not have bathrooms or living spaces.
...Or will it? Cyan could add practically anything as new bonus content; we'd cheer for it. It's really just a question of how much scope they allow themselves.
Okay, back to waiting mode, everybody.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Recent additions to my Infocom collection

Last year, after the Infocom source code dump, I posted my Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog.
This was the same data -- source code and some playable game files -- but with every version separated out and tagged. Release date, release type (alpha/beta/etc), game file version, all the information I could find.
Since 2019, people have sent me a fair number of pointers to "new" source code. Some of these were previously collected in various places; some have been dug out of MIT tape archives. I've been adding them to the page as they came in.
Want a quick tour?

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Hadean Lands: minor update

I have posted an update to Hadean Lands on Steam, Itch, and the Humble Store. This includes improvements to the UI framework only. (No changes to the game content.)
The game now supports OS dark theme. If you have your system OS theme set to "dark", all of the game windows (including the journal, map, preferences, and so on) will use a light-on-dark theme.
The story window will still be set to the color theme you last selected (Dark, Light, Sepia, Slate). You can adjust this to match in the preferences.
The preferences menu now has two system-responsive options: "Light/Dark" and "Sepia/Slate". These allow the story window to adjust if you switch your OS theme back and forth. I don't know why you would, but the game allows for it. (New players will see "Light/Dark" as the default preference.)
Other changes:
  • The Electron framework has been updated to 8.4.1. This should fix the "harfbuzz" library error that some Linux users were seeing.
  • There is a "Display Cover Art" menu option in the View menu, should you wish to bask in that.
  • The Mac version is now notarized.
Let me know if you run into any problems. Thanks!