Firmament: design and business ruminations

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Comments: 5   (latest June 29)

Tagged: firmament, cyan, game design, game publishing, ui, adventure games, reviews, ruminations

Sheesh, I finished Firmament a week ago and I still haven't written anything up.

Firmament is an excellent little first-person adventure game. The environments are terrific. The story is, you know, it's a story. The puzzles are fine, and, look, this is a puzzle game. The story and environments are gravy.

Cyan's games have this design dichotomy which I'd sum up as "Myst or Riven". In Myst, you're pretty much going from puzzle to puzzle. Oh, there's plenty of exploration, but everything you find is a puzzle. The pacing time is orienting yourself amid the puzzles. The story is, let's face it, tiny fragments sprinkled on top.

Riven is much more of a complete world. You spend a lot of time learning about the people and the environments and the history. When you walk around, you find lots of places; some of them have puzzles, but you don't spend all your time facing puzzles.

I realize this is very subjective. (Lots of people in the 90s bought Myst and didn't solve puzzles! Which means they spent all their time exploring the environment! But that's not my experience as a Myst fan.)

If I had to slice, though, I definitely felt that Obduction and Uru were more like Riven; whereas Firmament and Myst 5 were more puzzle-fests like Myst. Cyan-style puzzle-fests, which means plenty of journals and story background... sprinkled on top of the puzzles.

That's how you should set your expectations, anyhow. Steam clocked me at 10 hours on Firmament, vs almost 24 hours on Obduction, and it's not because there are fewer puzzles. They're just more densely packed.

So the puzzles. I thought they were solidly designed and not too hard. I was only really stuck at one point, and that wasn't on a puzzle per se. I just failed to look around at a particular "dead end" in a path; I missed that it continued down a switchback.

Of course difficulty too is subjective. Several of Firmament's puzzles require good three-dimensional visualization. You're in the middle of a "maze" of carts or platforms or whatever; you need to solve a large-scale puzzle without any birds-eye view of the situation. I'm good at that, so I found everything pretty straightforward. Your mileage may vary.

Adventure puzzle styles come and go -- often because of game UI. The arrival of free movement in 3D enviroments coincided with lots of beam-shooting, line-of-sight puzzles. (See Talos Principle, Obduction, Quern. But not Myst 5 or Uru; Cyan's Plasma engine couldn't do ray-intersection calculations!)

The Room series doesn't have free movement, but it does have the idea of rotating your viewpoint around a fixed point -- because panning makes sense on a touchscreen, whereas thumbpad movement sucks. So The Room puzzles focus on visual detail: hidden catches, secret panels, alternate ways of viewing the world.

Firmament's UI is the VR hand controller. But not exclusively the hand controller, because the game has to play on flatscreen (which is how I played it). So Cyan came up with a compromise UI; a simulated hand controller that could be mapped to keyboard or gamepad or VR controller. But it still embodies the idea of "tweak controls within arm's reach", albeit with a magic extendable arm.

This is clever! (I wish The Room: Dark Matter had taken that route rather than going VR-only.) Crucially, Firmament's UI includes multi-axis control. Some widgets are simple open/shut or up/down controls, but others let you flip between several modes: left/right, up/down, grab/release. In the same widget, I mean. It's not quite as intuitive as Myst's "push a button" inspiration, but it's easy to get used to.

Why is this crucial? Because it means that Firmament puzzles are often about moving objects on a grid, or in a two-dimensional space. This is a nice state space. Lots more room for explorative solving than Myst-style button-pushing.

Not all of Firmament is this sort of puzzle. And it's not like you couldn't do them in pre-VR games. (Obduction had a swivel-mount laser on a rail-cart, which is three degrees of freedom.) But it's awkward. You wouldn't want to build your whole game around it unless it was part of the base UI. Firmament has that UI, and these puzzles feel like the majority of the game. If you're not into it, the game may feel like (in one friend's words) a world of walkthrough 15-puzzles. If you are, though, it's solidly satisfying.

And the environments really are awfully nice. Tangible, detailed, atmospheric. Cyan has that stuff down.

(I wonder whether Cyan missed one UI trick. The Adjunct, the "magic extendable hand" of the UI, can be launched to any control point in a certain radius. What if you could also launch it up, or out, to get that birds-eye view? As a tiny pop-up screen, of course, not a full-world nausea-inducing drone shot. That would make a lot of the puzzles more accessible to more kinds of solvers.)

So I recommend Firmament to all first-person adventure fans.

The obvious next question is, now what? For Cyan, I mean.

The only future project they've announced is Riven, remade as Myst was: in full 3D and VR-compatible. This just went into full production last fall, so it will certainly be a year or more before it ships. (Myst took a year-ish to remake, but, as I said above, Riven's world is far more expansive.)

Will they do another Obduction-sized, or even Firmament-sized, new game? I don't have a sense of how Firmament is selling. I haven't browsed reviews. I hear they're good-to-mixed. That may not be good enough to support a game which, even allowing for a Myst break, took two or three solid years of development.

On the other hand, if you're a fan of this sort of adventure, you're not spoiled for choice! Cyan is one of the few companies still working in this niche. Cyan may be able to sustain itself forever on that fanbase. I sure hope so.

I mean, yes, we're in a middle of a Cambrian explosion of puzzle games. Grid-style puzzles, evidence puzzles, 2D puzzle platformers, 3D puzzle platformers, first-person puzzlers.

But that's the thing about a Cambrian explosion: very little of it is exactly in Cyan's tracks. There's a reason that the puzzle market has shifted so heavily to "small world filled with puzzle levels" (Talos, Witness, and so on). That model gets you much more gameplay for your three years of development time. And today's market, like it or not, rewards that.

Even "Myst-style" games like The Room and House of Da Vinci are pretty thin on the ground. Nobody's heard from the Quern team in years. There's a steady stream of low-budget room-escape games, which often use the same puzzle ideas, but they're -- well -- low-budget. And usually not narrative-focused.

(I'd rather measure games in "story per hour" rather than "hours per dollar". You like that? Feel free to quote it. But I don't use that metric consistently either! I am, and always will be, a sucker for pretty scenery.)

So I don't know what's next. I can see why companies aren't leaping to compete with Firmament. I have no idea what that means for Cyan.

But look you: Mysterium starts in a month! The annual fan convention is always buzzing with Cyan news and announcements. I will be there, blogging away as usual. Plus, my second-ever tour of the Cyan office in Spokane!

Talk to you after that! And after NarraScope, of course, which is next week. Oh boy oh boy oh boy....