Saturday, August 28, 2010

Deaf, Dumb, and Blind: Challenging and Unfair Adventure Game Puzzles

Riven is considered a good game with
some very hard puzzles that contain both
good and bad elements.
This blog post is about challenging puzzles in adventure games. Everyone likes a challenge and most games need at least some challenge to make them enjoyable. But when does a challenge become unfair? And are unfair puzzles necessarily completely bad?

Some puzzles just do not make any logical sense; Others lack any type of understandable clues to give the player a chance of understanding what he is suppose to do; And even when the player understands the puzzle and the solution is logical it does not mean the puzzle is fair, many puzzles require the user to follow a strict path with only one possible correct solution even while they are many other perfectly logical but incorrect solutions.

Additionally, some puzzles are can be extra challenging for certain people. As both somewhat tone deaf and colour blind, I have trouble with many adventure puzzles. I do not think I have encountered a compare sounds or colours puzzle without resorting to a walkthough or randomly trying answers.

All of these "unfair" puzzles can cause player frustration and kill any fun the game might of given without these obstacles. But not everyone is against these masochistic puzzles. Some people like the challenges given by these puzzles, and deservedly derive much satisfaction from finally beating a brutally challenging game. And they do add a sort of realism; As in real life not all goals have obvious paths leading to them; People are not guarantied to be warned of impending death; And it is not always obvious what tasks are completable and which are not before setting out to accomplish them.

Zork I made unwinnable in 6 turns.
The garlic is needed to complete the game.
Some particularly frustrating, unfair and prevalent puzzle designs have even been given names and any adventure gamer should recognize them right off, with hours of frustrated gameplay burning their names into their mind. These are of course unwinnable, pixel hunt, and guess the verb/noun. Fortunately, these puzzles have become far less common in recent years.

One of the worst in my opinion is unwinnable situations, making it impossible for the player to complete the game; This situation is also called zombie, dead end, and walking dead. In most situations this comes about by the player not having access to an item needed in a puzzle. The most annoying part of this situation is that often the player has no idea this has occurred and will continue to play the game and then to bash their unknowing heads again the unwinnable puzzle. In addition, some games even become unwinnable very early in the game, without warning and with the impassable puzzle far at the end of the game.

One good example of unwinnable situations in gaming is the infamous The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, first released in 1984 by Infocom as a text based adventure. It contains many unwinnable situations, where the player has no idea he will not be able to complete the game until  much time has passed. For example, the very first scene contains two objects (the screwdriver and toothbrush) that need to be taken before the world is destroyed, as they are necessary to finish the final puzzle at the end of the game. Additionally, to avoid an unwinnable situation, a pile of junk mail  must be taken from the protagonists house as it is needed off world (who would of thought).

Another classic adventure puzzle frustration is pixel hunting; Pixel hunting is an exclusive of graphical adventure games and occurs whenever a necessary item is hard to see. In many cased these objects are quite small containing very few pixels. I know of situations where a needed object is as small as 2x2 pixels. This can cause gamers to just weave their cursor back and forth across the screen in searching patterns looking for intractable areas, or to just try clicking everything that looks like a separate object if the game does not inform players of intractable areas. With resolution now many times what it used to be, pixel hunting is has greatly decreased in games.

The third and final specific frustration I am going to talk about is guess the verb/noun. This for the most part only occurs in text adventures and is the text adventure equivalent of pixel hunting. It occurs when the player knows the solution to a puzzle, but cannot express the solution in words that the game can understand. This can even be caused by using syntax that the game simply does not understand.

But in the end while I find all of these issues extremely frustrating, others can still enjoy them. But personally I have enjoyed moderately easy adventure games more then the extremely challenging ones.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Alien Swarm

Alien Swarm is the remake/sequel to the 2004 Unreal Tournament 2004 mod of the same name make by Black Cats Games. During the development of Alien Swarm the Black Cats Team was hired by Valve, and between working on other more high profile games they managed to finish Alien Swarm. The game is completely FOSS, and can be downloaded off Steam completely free.

Both games are top down, four person coop, tactical shooters. You play as a single squad mate in a team of at most four. Each squad mate can choose one of the four classes. Every class has two variants with slightly different stats, meaning only 2 people can be any single class in one mission.

  • Officer
    • Main Advantages: Grants a passive bonus to damage and defence to all nearby squad mates.
    • Class Weapons: Vindicator Shotgun (only good shotgun in the game, and a great weapon).
    • Other Advantages: Can use more explosives then other classes.
  • Special Weapons
    • Main Advantages: Raw Damage.
    • Class Weapons:
      • Autogun, high rate of fire and ammo.
      • Minigun, higher rate of fire, but more spread and the need to spin up the chamber before firing.
  • Medic
    • Main Advantages: Ability to heal others.
    • Class Weapons:
      • Heal Beacons: temporary, deploy able, non movable, beacons that heal squad mates in a small radius around themselves.
      • Healing Gun: selectively heal team mates on the go.
  • Tech
    • Main Advantages: Able to hack panels, allowing squad to finish mission in missions that need panels hacked.
    • Class Weapons: Prototype Assault Rifle: auto aim and fires stun grenades.
    • Other Advantages:  carries a motion sensor, faster sentry gun setup and welding.

IAF Tesla Cannon (bottom) and
M868 Flamer Unit (top) in action.
Their are over 40 weapons/items in Alien Swarm, and 3 different elemental damage types over and above normal direct damage. The elemental damage types are electric, fire, and ice. Electric stuns foes, ignoring allies and passing threw shields, causing all hit to stop in their tracks and then walk slowly for little while; Fire initially stuns enemies and then causes damage over time until extinguished; Ice instantly freezes enemies, frozen enemies cannot move and suffer more damage from attacks until the status effect wears off. Some of the more useful items include: Adrenaline, gives team temporary slow motion, useful for performing hacks; Electric Armour, stuns all surrounding enemies with electricity and stops infestation;  Assorted sentry turrets.

The leveling system is a little strange and it is worth explaining it. As you level up you gain the ability to use new weapons and items. The levels span from 1 to 27; and the tiers (promotions) from none to 3rd. After every 27 level you are given the ability to go back to level 1 but go up a tier; The tiers are only visual and do not effect gameplay at all. The game seems like they have a good leveling system in place, as a players skill is pretty much guessable by their level (but a player with a high level does not have a very big advantage over someone just starting out).

Their are two main ways to play the game, rushing and slow and steady. In rushing the player(s) must never stop running and are pretty much forced to use a flamethrower and the adrenaline for hacks. The rushing strategy is to dodge and weave through enemies while setting them on fire and then to outrun the enemies. With a skilled team this method is easier in many situations then going it slow, but the dead wood tend to die off really quickly; Luckily, you should never need more then two people to pull this off correctly. This method is especially useful in the harder difficulties as their are some areas enemies continually stream out, so the sooner you leave the less monsters you have to fight. The second strategy, slow and steady, is best for less skilled players. This strategy requires a lot of ammo, and makes use of a lot more diverse items and weapons. The team must be work together; While some members pick up ammo get healed, other must cover them; While a squad mate set up a sentry or welds a door, others must make sure no enemies attack them; While one or two members push ahead, the rest must cover the back and sides.

Warning: It is a hard game until you get skilled at it, normally I play on the maximum difficulty for all games right from the start, I would recommend Normal to start off with for everyone who does not want to start on easy.

Playing Old Computer Games - DOSBox

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father
(I put some effort into figuring out how to run this,
and DOSBox seems to be the best way to go about it.)
I just got DOSBox, an dos emulator for games too old to run under windows, working and it looks great. The installation was straight forward and contained nothing unusual and it was easy to use after reading a little bit about how to use it.

DOSBox works very much like DOS used to. You start up the program and a DOS window pops up. The main difference is that it only comes with the basic DOS environment and you must mount the cdrom/floppy/hard drive from your own computer. To mount drives you use the mount command. (Note the extra syntax for cdroms and floppys, the drive will be mounted either way, but you might encounter problems if it is not used). Other then that you pretty much just need a handle on basic DOS commands.

After you get your DOSBox installation up and running you can customize it quite easily. If you are running your desktop as at any modern resolution the DOSBox window will probably look too small for you; This can easily be change by running the "DOSBox x.xx Options" shortcut and changing the windowresolution variable to anything you want (for example "windowresolution=1280x800") and changing the output variable to anything other then surface (surface does not support other resolutions). Additionally, DOSBox can be told to mounts drives, start games, or do anything else automatically when it starts by entering the commands under the autoexec header.

Note: Done using DOSBox 0.74.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Kheops Studio

Kheops Studio is a France based independent adventure game developer. They have created many great PC games since their formation in 2003. I have played several and plan to continue playing any of their games I can get my hands on, as I have enjoyed every one.

Many of their games share some defining characteristics. They all have good conventional graphics and have a first person point of view. But the truly innovative and unique attributes that are included in many of their games are many ways to solve puzzles and the large amount of items you will have in your inventory at any time (possibly even to such an extent as to require inventory management). These characteristics are linked, as the most common way used to create multiple solutions are to allow multiple different items to solve the same puzzle. For example, creating a fire might require wooden logs or you could use charcoal.

One reason that so many items are used in the game, and a staple of the studio, are the many repeatable mundane tasks. These repeatable tasks are solvable using many different items, some unique and others common (sometimes infinite) resources. These common resources will be used often and as such you will be able to carry multiple of them in your inventory at one time. But this in my opinion is not bad or boring, the puzzles since they are recognizable are more intuitive; their is no staring at the monitor in confusion wondering what this new puzzles might want you to do or blindly trying items because you have no idea what you would use to make some exotic contraption.

SafeCracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure:
SaveCracker is a puzzle game and spiritual sequel to the 1999 game SafeCracker. The plot is sparse and does not get in the way of the gameplay at all. The basic premise, you are in an eccentric millionaire's mansion and it is filled to the rafters with unique and challenging safes and you must unlock them all. This lack of plot leaves lots of room for puzzles, and SafeCracker does not disappoint. It is full of interesting and diverse mind benders.

Voyage: Inspired by Jules Verne:
Voyage (aka Journey to the Moon) is a adventure game inspired by the novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon by Jules Verne. Unlike the books the protagonist actually makes it to the moon's surface and finds life; Unfortunately, his two partners in adventure are killed during the journey and he does not remember how they came to die as he suffers from amnesia. The plot and challenges revolve around finding out what happened during the trip to the moon and returning to earth.

This game follows the Kheops formula. It has interesting puzzles, environments, plot, and a great sounds track. A very memorable game and a personal favorite.

Return to Mysterious Island & Return to Mysterious Island 2: Mina's Fate:
Another series of adventure games based off of a Jules Verne novel. This game, and its sequel, are based in the universe laid out in The Mysterious Island. Both games follow the Kheops formula quite strictly and have interesting environments to explore, intriguing multi path puzzles, and an interesting plot.

In the first game, the best one in the series in my opinion, Mina is stranded on a uninhabited island. She explores the island finding ruined buildings and technology. She learns that these were left by Captain Nemo and even visits the Nautilus in her quest for escape from the island.

In the second game Mini is back on the island. She is still trying to escape but a sickness has come to the island killing plants and animals, so she is also out to save the island if she can. In this game you also get to play as Jep the monkey, her constant companion.

Dracula 3: The Path Of The Dragon:
In Dracula 3 you play as Father Arno Moriani. Who in the 1920s has been sent by the Vatican to investigate a recently deceased potential candidate for sainthood. The candidate resides in a small village, still recovering from the devastation of WWI, in Transylvania. Just outside of the town is Vlad The Impaler's (Dracula's) Castle.

The investigation takes a unexpected (or I guess expected given the local) turn when the body of the saint is found to have the "Mark of Dracula" on it. But the church has already decided that vampires do not exist and are just a peasant superstition. What follows is Father Arno Moriani investigation into strange blood disorders, Vampire myths, and the strange happening surrounding the death of the potential saint, as he struggles with his belief that vampires do not exist.

While the game does have it faults, it has been criticized for a lack of vampires in the game and too many mundane puzzles, I really did enjoyed the game. It has a very good horror/vampiric atmosphere; I found the puzzles quite enjoyable overall; and I liked the scientific and rational way Father Arno goes about his investigation.

The Secrets of Da Vinci:
In The Secrets of Da Vinci Valdo, a young apprentice scholar, is exploring the late Leonardo's mansion. He is looking for a secrete hidden manuscript of Leonardo's. Along the way Valdo will have to decipher messages and puzzles left behind by Leonardo and repair some of his inventions.

Overall I really enjoyed this game: the graphics are good, the plot is interesting, and the puzzles are enjoyable if somewhat simple.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Memorable Games: Dungeon Keeper

Evil is Good
Dungeon Keeper is a series of innovative RTS PC games released over a decade ago. The series includes Dungeon Keeper, its expansion The Deeper Dungeons, and Dungeon Keeper 2. In addition to these released games, the series also includes the cancelled game Dungeon Keeper 3 and the currently pending MMORPG Dungeon Keeper Online.

The premise is that you are a evil dungeon overlord: You attract, care for, and train a horde of evil minions; You mine gold and create fortifications and traps;  And you wage war on and destroy the heroes and sometimes other dungeon keepers. Unlike most RTSes Dungeon Keeper focuses more on minion management and fortress creation then direct control over the battles or resource harvesting.

The game features many diverse and interesting creatures. From the kinky Dark Mistress through the industrious Bile Demon and studious Warlock to the likely core of your army Skeletons. Unlike all the other creatures Skeletons are not attracted to your dungeon, they are created from your fallen enemies. In addition to the few mentioned here their are loads more interesting and useful creatures used in the games.

Dungeon Keeper and Dark Mistress