Not IFComp adventure reviews

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tagged: monkey island, adventure games, telltale, sherlock holmes, frogwares, if, cursed mountain

Since it's IFComp season, I thought I'd get my ducks in a row by clearing my brain of commentary of the last few non-text adventures I played.

(Note: any linearity of ducks is strictly accidental. Use of "ducks in a row" as a metaphor does not constitute any guarantee of IFComp commentary, express or implied, now or later, leaded or decaf. Void where used in void context.)

Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

(Web site; Frogwares Studio)

Third in the weirdest adventure game series I can recall. Weird for one specific reason: each game so far has had a totally different tone. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened was Lovecraftian horror: chasing down a murderous cult across Britain, Europe, and America, with an apocalyptic (well, nigh-apocalyptic) showdown in a storm-blasted lighthouse. Flashy, full of wild occult connections, occasional chase scenes even.

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis switched antagonists entirely: from squamous Elder Things to Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief (a fictional contemporary of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories). This game took the form of a battle of wits: clues left in wry little notes and riddles, Holmes chasing the thief around London. It wasn't farce -- Lupin really was after the Crown Jewels, and he had a plan to get them. But it wasn't a cosmic struggle for the survival of humanity, either.

And now, Jack the Ripper. Another natural nemesis for the master detective; but on a completely different axis. And the game, once again, runs along completely different lines. No gentleman criminals here. The story is a murky tangle of racism, poverty, prostitution, and revenge, with plenty of syphilis and mutilation thrown in. Not the fantastical set-dressing of Lovecraft's cannibal cults; just straight-up human butchery.

The challenges, too, switch gears. You're not solving riddles, or even lining up the logic-puzzle-like suspect lists of the Lupin game. (Well, sometimes you are, but mostly not.) It's down-and-dirty police procedure. Which way did the knife cut, left or right, shallow or deep? Where did the blood splatter? Which witnesses reported a five-foot-nine shadow, and which five-foot-six? You re-enact murder scenes, dress up mannequins to test theories, and -- memorably -- hack up some hog corpses to try to figure out what kind of knife was used.

(The game isn't graphically bloody, but it doesn't skirt it by much. You are, after all, taking detailed physical evidence from human victims. The game departs from its usual realistic 3D, using stylized flat artwork for the corpses -- and for the pig heads. Nonetheless, it doesn't take much imagination to be revolted by these scenes. If you're suspectible, avoid this game.)

(The good news is, Watson finally has a walking animation. In other words, he no longer teleports from place to place when your back is turned. Forget the gore; Mysterious Teleporting Watson was absolutely the most unnerving thing about the first two games in this series.)

You run into the usual stock of evidence-collection, object-manipulation, and NPC-fetching puzzles. (And one arbitrary set of sliding blocks, sigh...) But this game also adds a large selection of evidence-collation puzzles -- again, the form of the police procedural. For example, after you've assembled a stock of information about when things happened, you enter a timeline scene: Holmes prompts you to place pins on a timeline, and then resolve inconsistencies. Locations are put together on a map; physical descriptions, as I noted, are laid out on mannequins. And all the facts you assemble go onto a big chart, with chains of conclusion leading to further deduction and, eventually, a narrowing profile of the Ripper.

All of these deduction scenes are interactive; they do a good job of pulling you into the act of tracking down a killer. Much better than cut scenes of Holmes monologuing. They follow, as far as I can tell, plausible forensic investigation. (Well, mostly. The perfume analysis bit is disappointingly and arbitrarily abstracted.) The scenes even have a depressingly realistic percentage of null results: half the time, you are tracking through a bunch of facts which turn out to exclude nothing and point to nobody.

What these interactions are not, unfortunately, are good puzzles. Most of them can be brute-forced. The deduction chart, in particular, lets you twiddle each node through its three options until the result lights up green. The designers try to make up for this with multi-stage deductions, but that just increases the number of guesses you have to make. It was always easier for me to grind through combinations of "left-handed... right-handed... taller, shorter..." than to think about the facts in the game world.

I'm not saying I have a better model here. Designing a good puzzle is hard; designing a puzzle around a realistic activity is hard. Doing both together is so hard that you can wind up tuning your entire game design to make it work once... if you're lucky. In trying to cover every aspect of an investigation, Holmes v. Ripper makes itself into more of an interactive movie interspersed with puzzles.

Mind you, there aren't enough good interactive movies out there. You should play this one, as long as you have a strong stomach.

But I have no idea what Frogwares will do with the next game. Their web site says it's in development...

Cursed Mountain

(Web site; Deep Silver Inc)

This Wii title was mentioned at a Penguicon "what games are you looking forward to?" panel. It sounded cool: survival horror with Buddhist mythology.

As it turns out, it's Fatal Frame on a mountain. Ghosts jump out at you and you kill them with your blessed pickaxe. Nothing wrong with this as a premise; I miss Fatal Frame. (The latest iteration of that series was published only in Japan.)

Sadly, Cursed Mountain is terribly thin on gameplay; it just doesn't push any boundaries at all. You search levels for keys (for locked doors) and magical symbols (dispelled with a little gesture game, to unlock doors). You smash barrels jars, all of which look the same, and which contain either nothing or health drinks health incense. And then ghosts jump out at you, so you whack them or shoot them with your magic pickaxe -- don't ask me, apparently magic pickaxes can shoot ghosts -- until you can dispel the ghosts with the same little gesture game.

Oh, and you find a lot of journals to read, for storyline.

Very occasionally you get to play a different gesture game (meditating, or balancing on a beam) but there really isn't any sense of variety. You never think "Ooh, I can try doing something else here!" The game just changes modes on you, briefly.

Yes, I could be describing plenty of different survival horror games here. It's not like Silent Hill got famous for rich gameplay. But the typical game offers some kind of changeup -- boss fights, or weapon upgrades, or bonus items. Cursed Mountain waves a hand at all of these, but they don't work. The bosses are some extra ghosts that fly, with extra magic symbols to gesture at. The weapon upgrades are tactical downgrades; I never found anything more effective than the third weapon you get, so I never switched after that. And the only bonus item is, as far as I could tell, a statue that makes your next two pickaxe blows more deadly. (You can't even decide when to use them -- zero added interactivity.)

As for the story -- your brother disappeared on the mountain. He had an evil mountain-climbing mentor. There's some Buddhist treasure somewhere. Try writing the rest yourself. Evil guy wants the treasure, evil guy disrespects the local religion, curses, ghosts, mass slaughter. The use of Tibetan Buddhism ought to be cool, but it's been pounded into a template that feels exactly like every other Japanese horror game out there: clumsy sexual innuendo (secret Tantric rituals!) and oh no human sacrifice. Resulting in monsters.

The developers are not, as it turns out, Japanese. (I believe it's a German studio.) But they sure got the tone right, or "right", and the result is more a case study in creepy cultural appropriation than in Buddhist theology.

Cursed Mountain also manages to lift the worst possible checkpoint system from Japanese action games... okay, not the worst. I don't want to know what the worst is. But this one is pretty bad: the game autosaves when you reach particular triggers, but only the first time you reach a trigger. You can never decide to save. So if you're trundling along with low health, and you reach a save point, that's your save state. If you lose a fight and die, tough -- you come back with low health. No fair running off to a health shrine and then re-saving.

I have not finished Cursed Mountain. You can't make me. I ran into a boss fight with low health, died about five times in a row, finally struggled through it, and then hit another big fight with even lower health. I just don't care enough to continue.

And to be fair, this annoys me. Not just because I'd climb a mountain of Towers of Hanoi to explore one bit of scenery I've never seen before. (Although I would.) Not just because the game is a waste of a decent horror premise (which it is), or the second horror game in a row I've given up on because the fighting wore me out. (Which it is too.)

But because Cursed Mountain is only marginally worse than all those other games I've played. Nothing about it is a raging disaster. All the pieces are kind of fun. It's just a steady stream of tolerable. The nicely-laid-out levels and intensely atmospheric environments -- see, I can say nice things -- are not quite enough to make it work. I wish they were.

Tales of Monkey Island

(Web site; Telltale Games)

I never played the original Monkey Island games. Even more heretically, now I don't want to. Telltale Games pull off their episodic contributions with the finely-honed design skills that we now all know from Sam & Max. (Wallace and Gromit was somewhat limp, which had me worried, but apparently pirate snark is sufficiently similar to private-detective snark to put their dialogue writers back on track.)

I just don't believe the older games were this well constructed.

Sure, I could be wrong. I'll cope. In the meantime, my ignorance lets me attest that the Tales episodes are fully comprehensible to newcomers. There's clearly backstory -- you're married, you have a nemesis and a voodoo ally -- but it's all cleanly introduced and it doesn't drown in the lake of dredged-up back-references that I feared. I've played two out of the promised five episodes; the first set up a story arc, and then the second carried it forward with twists, and, well -- it's well-constructed. Enough said, really.

Or not quite enough. I should lay out I mean by "well-constructed"...
  • The player always has goals, short-term and long-term.
  • Every action the player needs to take is motivated -- even (especially) the actions with surprising results.
  • Correct moves are rewarded immediately.
  • Incorrect moves are also rewarded immediately. The response explains why your attempt failed, and also reiterates what you wanted to do.
  • The game clearly distinguishes "that can't be done" from "you tried to do that wrong."
  • Also "that doesn't work" from "you can't do that yet" from "you've already tried that, and it didn't work."
  • If a puzzle requires deep experimentation, the game (usually) locks you in with it, so that you can't mistake "doing it wrong" for "need something else, come back later".
  • Funny.

Not to mention the particular virtue of the episodic adventure: repeating elements that you recognize and rely on as the series progresses.

These are all freshman-level design points, and why do I even list them? Because they are executed consistently and cleanly, so that the player's trust never fails. "Listen to what the game is telling you" is the right strategy, and is taught as the right strategy, and so the player gets through.

Sure, you get a lot of reiteration of goals, and a lot of over-explained action results. That's fine. Solving ten easy puzzles is more fun than solving nine hard ones and getting stuck on the tenth. Telltale gets that.

Also, funny.