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Kairo, quick comments

Kairo was one of the two extremely abstract first-person puzzle adventure games that excited me at PAX this spring. (Is that an acronym yet? EAFPPAG? No? No.) (The other one was Antichamber, which I'm still looking forward to.) Kairo was just released for Mac/Win, with Linux and iOS promised later this year. I grabbed it on Sunday and jumped in.

Kairo is pleasant, but quite short; I finished it in two evening play sessions. Why evening? Because the stark architectonic worlds work better with the lights off. It's not exactly a beautiful game, not like Dear Esther or the highly-rendered graphical adventures of decades past. But the author chose his style and worked the living hell out of it. With little more than rectangles, distance fog, baked shadows, a little focus-blur, and a few concrete textures, Kairo builds an impressive range of architecture -- thematically unified but not repetitive -- and invests it with a startling sense of scale.

The puzzle structure is -- I guess "pleasant" is still the right word. Kairo is pretty easy. You have exactly one verb: walk. Walk forward, walk on switches, walk into buttons. (You can jump, but I believe nothing in the game requires jumping.)

Kairo's puzzles are self-contained; each room is a puzzle in its own right, or else a mere hallway. This means you never have to remember clues, or associate information from one part of the game to another. You will never discover a connection between two machines, or trace an interesting pipe or drive shaft through the game world.

On the one hand, this modular design is deliberate. Even if I hadn't heard the designer boast about it at PAX, I would quickly have picked it up from the game. It provides a good clean bracket for the solving experience. You never have to run around hunting for more information. (Running around can be a drag in any first-person exploration game.)

But on the other hand, the design sharply limits the kinds of challenges the game can offer. And I think the game could have done more, even within that limit. The puzzles don't make much use of the architecture. You are not challenged to find ways over, around, or through. And also: the architecture doesn't make much use of interactivity. Some areas transform, but mostly in decorative ways, or as rewards, or simply to open new passages or transporters. Impressive, to be sure; just not interactively impressive. Nor does the game do Rhem's trick (really I should credit it all the way back to Riven) of providing puzzle architecture, areas that move and transform in complex ways which must be understood and manipulated.

So, as I said, I got through the game in two evenings. I solved three or four puzzles purely by accident. In two of those, I don't understand what I did; I just hit switches (or a switch) until the right thing happened. Of the rest, a couple really made me think; the majority were fairly straightforward.

And then there were a couple of secret extras that I didn't work out -- rooms with no obvious purpose, hidden doors that I didn't open. Potentially nifty, but I haven't gone back to solve them.

None of this should register as a complaint. Kairo is being sold for a casual-game price -- eight bucks -- midway between a free-to-play twenty-minute Flash escape game, and an old-school full-price weekend-killing story adventure. The challenge is in line with that; I got my money's worth. And I'll never turn down a couple of nights' worth of charismatic megalithons.

If I were to level a charge, it would be that the game world never really coheres, beyond the visual level. An adventure can set up its narrative drive through discovered texts and journals (old gag though that is). Or it can build a narrative out of its artistic details, the discovered connections and implications hidden in the visual world. Or this structure can come from the gameplay itself -- the connections you discover between the puzzles and mechanisms that make up the game. By solving, you learn what it's for.

Kairo disavows each of these strategies: it chooses minimalist artwork, (nearly) textless presentation, and modular puzzles. They're separate design decisions, but together they more or less rule out the sense of a coherent narrative world. It's not a flaw in the game, but a missed opportunity, I guess.

I'll be interested to see how other, upcoming new-style adventure games handle this stuff.

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Aliens built the pyramids and all I got was this lovely translation puzzle

In early 1995, when I was a tiny ickle thing and had only written one major interactive game (not a text adventure), I played a web game.

...That sentence requires a respectful pause, because, you remember 1995? Vas you dere, Charlie? Were there games on the toddler World Wide Web?

Okay -- there were; quite a few by then. Not so many that a person couldn't play all of them, or try. I gathered some young fame as the maintainer of Zarf's List of Interactive Games on the Web, and if you were a Mosaic user in those early years, you remember me. Hi!

1995 was the last year of The List, because that summer is when everything went zoom and there were more web sites, and web games, than any human being could shake a stick at. But one of my favorite additions of that January -- really, of the whole list -- was David Levine's Contact Project.

Because he posted it on, which became, the original Contact Project web site is still available. Kai the historians!

The format was straightforward. A message was posted -- notionally a sequence of musical tones received from Tau Ceti. (The creator politely transcribed them into letters for us, but no other hints were provided.) The challenge: translate the alien message. As players made progress, more messages appeared, with more symbols (tones) to translate.

So, to begin with -- if you enjoy a translation puzzle challenge, go look at the messages. It's completely fair, and both creative and clever in its use of familiarity (the aliens want their message to be translated, like our golden tablet) and foreignness (they are aliens nonetheless).

Levine set up a web forum (undoubted the first web forum I ever used!) for players to post messages and share information. Looking back on it now, I startle myself: I had completely forgotten how involved I was! I posted frequently, contributed some source code for decoding tools, and maintained a web page of all the information we discovered. (My page is unfortunately lost, but you can reconstruct everything by reading through the archived posts.)

I was also more of a tone-deaf Internet jerk back then. Heya, youth.

That's not what this song is about.

A couple of days ago, David Levine posted a long article about the Contact Project, its origins, and its consequences.

At the end of March 2010, I found out that I was apparently a central figure in a conspiracy theory regarding aliens and a government cover up. This is perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to me.

-- from I am a one-man conspiracy, apparently, David Levine

He works his way around from "bible codes" and hidden-message crackpots, to conspiracy theories, to alien messages in fiction and then in puzzle games. It's a slow build, so I hope he's not offended if I jump to the cool (or frightening) part:

I also firmly believe that people like Wes Bateman, Rod Davis, and Jerry Pippin probably cannot be convinced that their supposed conspiracies are not real. No matter how often I could say that I really created these messages myself for fun; no matter how often I explain whatever inconsistencies they question; no matter how often I could say that I'm simply not involved in other matters they think are connected - won't they just say "of course you would say that - you don't want us to know the truth!"?

In short, some folks out there insisted, for several years, that Levine was lying about having invented the messages -- that he actually received them from Tau Ceti. They claimed proof of this, in the form of better translations -- unrelated to the stuff we puzzle-solvers came up with. Their translations were based on the "mathematics" of the Great Pyramid, crop circles, and the Face on Mars. Also, there were UFO sightings.

Ever hear the phrase "You can't make this stuff up"? You can't make this up: people thought David Levine couldn't possibly have made that stuff up.

I won't reiterate the story; you should read Levine's whole article. He (and I, and presumably all of us erstwhile solvers) were entirely ignorant that this conspiracy theory was evolving; he only stumbled across it a couple of months ago.

But imagine you're Leonardo Da Vinci -- and you wake up one morning to discover that Dan Brown has been living down the street for the past decade. Writing his books, and plastering his walls with angry demands that you admit the truth about Jesus's love-life.

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System's Twilight turns fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, I released my first full-scale original game: System's Twilight.

And when I say "released", I mean "I uploaded it to the Info-Mac FTP archive at SUMEX-AIM." I set up a web page for the game, but I didn't publicize the URL much, because what was a URL? Everyone used FTP.

(I think Info-Mac had a web server too, by that point. But HTTP was merely an alternate way to access the files. It wasn't a web site.)

For fun, here's the announcement I posted to Usenet. (Thanks to Google Groups for preserving it; no thanks for making it really hard to find.)

  From: "Andrew C. Plotkin" 
  Subject: NEW: System's Twilight 1.00
  Date: Sun,  9 Oct 1994 13:36:56 -0400

  I just sent this out to the archives yesterday; it's on the faster
  mirrors already. It's in ./game/systems-twilight-100.hqx on Info-Mac. It
  should appeal to the Cliff Johnson / Heaven&Earth fans that have been
  talking recently...


  System's Twilight: An Abstract Fairy Tale

  This game is a story and a puzzle. The story is made up of several
  parts, not all of which may be obvious. The puzzle is made up of
  many puzzles, some of which aren't obvious at all.

  That's all I'll tell you. The rest you get to figure out yourself. Have

I haven't pasted in the whole thing, but check it out for historic amusement. Bang paths! Compatible with System 6.0.7 and System 7!

Trawling through the Usenet group for the era has been a blast. What were people talking about? Wolf3D. The Seventh Guest. Marathon. Myst, lots and lots of Myst. Doom (it will be ported to the Mac by Christmas! ...but only PPC Macs, not 68k.) And hey, there's a question about Zork (the mainframe Dungeon version, there, although there are also Return to Zork comments).

And some lesser-remembered classics, or "classics". FA-18 Hornet. An RPG called Prince of Destruction (which I seem to have written a detailed review of, and then forgot the existence of). An overhyped Lode Runner remake. Oxyd.

I see that nobody commented on System's Twilight for several weeks. That must have been frustrating. But some hint requests turned up in early November.

I spent a year writing System's Twilight. Was it worth it? It paid for my second Macintosh, I believe. (The PowerMac 9500! No, I neer bought Doom.) It was great resume fodder for my brief stint as a Mac programmer at Magnet Interactive. (Then Magnet tried to turn me into a Win95 programmer. Whoo-ee, did that ever not work. Ah, licensed "Highlander" video game, how poorly you worked out for Magnet.)

And then, just last week, I get this email:

  I'd like to register System's Twilight v1.0.5. Is the address provided in
  the readme ([...]) still valid?

The elided address was that of the shareware company that handled fulfilment from 1997 to 2000. So, no, it's not still valid -- please play my game for free! But I didn't ask where the querent had found version 1.0.5. Maybe one of those shareware-shovelware companies that used to orbit the Mac universe, Nemesis-like, raining down comets of questionable CD-ROMs.

Conclusion: people still like my game! That's really cool.

And now, the porting question. Every couple of years, somebody asks me if I've ever considered porting System's Twilight to Windows, or OSX, or Flash, or Java, or iPhone, or wherever the hot locus of gamerdom is. (Okay, Java was never hot.)

Answer: sure I've considered it. I haven't done it because it would be, probably, another year of work. The art is sized for a 320x512 pixel display; the code is built on the old Mac toolbox. Even the puzzle data files are formatted in Rez source code, for the Mac resource manager. So, basically, starting over. I've always had other projects that seemed more rewarding than re-releasing an old game.

(Plus, I've never been sure what would stay the hot locus of gamerdom. Mac has swapped architectures twice since 1994, and emulators are legally hairy. Java is aggressively portable, but ugly; Javascript is aggressively ported, but slippery as an eel. Flash? Ask me again in ten years. The iPhone? Ask me again in three. Maybe I'm spoiled by the IF world, where games stay playable for twenty or thirty years in a row.)

It's harder when somebody asks if they can port the game. For free, honest... but there's no such thing. I'd want the interface to be done right, which isn't necessarily the way I did it the first time. I'd want to test all the puzzle mechanics. I'd want, in short, to stick my finger in the soup all the time. Likely to be infuriating to the hapless volunteer -- and it would wind up eating months of my time anyway.

So, for now, no ports. Don't come asking. The future may hold options. We'll see.

(In the meantime, the legally hairy emulators do let you play the game.)

I leave you with this lovely map:

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How to destroy hope

Around New Year's Eve, Cliff Johnson posted a note on his web site saying that he had tried to get out a playable demo of his upcoming game, but hadn't quite made it. Soon, he said, the teaser/demo would be out soon.

The "upcoming game", of course, is The Fool and his Money -- Johnson's long, long, long-delayed sequel to The Fool's Errand. As in, I pre-ordered the thing in December 2002. If you go to Johnson's pre-order thank-you page, you'll see my name scroll by in the first minute. The original ship date was April Fool's Day, 2003.

That didn't quite happen.

Skip past six years of countdown clocks and disappointment. It was a month ago that Johnson first mentioned the teaser release. A week ago I saw this:

January 26, 2009: This week, I will release a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles.

And then on Monday:

February 2, 2009: Last week, I almost released a teaser of the game containing the Prologue and eleven puzzles. Today, I’ll be ironing out one last pesky bug and then I’ll be releasing it. Stay tuned.

And, you know, I was with him that far. Month, week, day -- that's a convergent series. If he'd posted at midnight saying "It'll be up in one hour!" I would have stood up and cheered.


February 3, 2009: I have my fingers crossed that the current WIN and MAC versions of the teaser are indeed the final versions. I eagerly await news from my beta-testers. Stay tuned.

(Jmac's comment was on the order of "Oh, so now it's the beta-testers' fault." Frankly that didn't even occur to me. The beta-testers never promised me anything.)

The sad, or perhaps the pitiable or risible part: on Monday, I wrote a blog post saying "The demo is out! Download it now!" Yes, before the fact. Counting my chickens before I'd even seen the egg. I wanted to have the post ready to slap up here at a moment's notice.

Tuesday, I updated the post a little. Today... I wrote this one instead. I can't go that far out on the limb, and then pretend it never happened.

Sorry, Cliff Johnson. I don't hate you. I'm still checking your web site. I want to play your game teaser. Maybe you'll put it up ten minutes after I post this.

But for a week I had hope, and I invested in that hope, just a little -- just enough to write a blog post, just enough to be optimistic and not cynical. Just enough that now I feel like a sucker. My mistake, I know.

(For what it's worth, I can promise that the day a demo -- or the full game -- lands in my hands, I will forget all past disappointments. It's not that I'm a particularly forgiving person. I just have a minuscule attenOO SHINY!)

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One more past blast: Enigma

The Oxyd games, by Meinolf Schneider, were one of the great puzzle-game series of the early 90s. They originated in the Atari world; I played them on Mac. I played them for hours, because they were big, big and evil and full of puzzle goodness. I still have the Per.Oxyd shareware code book.

Now -- or rather, two years ago -- an open-source implementation of the game appeared: Enigma. This means you have to play it. Now. Available for Mac/Win/Linux.

(It is not, I admit, a well-chosen name. There must be dozens of puzzle games called "Enigma", not to mention Enigmo, etc. But who cares?)

Oxyd is a physics puzzler, in the Marble Madness line. You roll a black ball around by nudging your mouse. When you hit certain blocks, they open, revealing a color. Then you play Concentration. Hit two blocks of the same color, and they're done. When all the color-blocks on a level are done, the level is solved.

Simple! Of course! Not. You'll see walls and mazes. You'll fall into water and drown. You'll fall into quicksand and drown slowly (if you don't struggle out in time). You'll hit switches to open and close doors. You'll blow up bricks with dynamite. You'll find slopes, gravity, crates, one-way doors, timed doors, springs to jump walls, lasers, pipes, deathtraps, and mailboxes (evil, trust me). There are regions of high friction, low friction, and no friction. It's very tactile -- the mouse interface practically lets you feel the wood, carpet, or metal that you traverse.

In some levels, you have to steer many marbles at once. In others, you can switch back and forth between two marbles, essentially controlling two cooperating "characters". There is, in short, a hell of a lot of variety, packed into what looks like a simple tile-based game.

Enigma is a startlingly faithful reconstruction of Oxyd, considering that 640x480 was a giant-sized screen when it first appeared. The graphics have been scaled up without losing the original style. All the levels from the original Oxyd games are included; and then a big batch of new levels. And then, since it's open-source, a steady stream of user-contributed levels. The game engine is capable of emulating Sokoban, and so a set of Sokoban levels is included. Stuff like that.

I could easily spend the rest of the holiday season playing through this thing. I won't, honest -- too many other games to play. (I've barely even started Mirror's Edge!) But I could.

Note that Enigma is a fan recreation of Oxyd. I don't know how the original author feels about it; the web site doesn't say, except to thank him for the inspiration. There is a recent game which is an official descendant of the Oxyd line -- Oxyd Extra 2.0. (Free but not open-source.) I haven't looked at it.

(I would have included this in my Forerunner Foray post if I'd known about it at the time... but I didn't. Thanks to jayisgames for tipping me off.)

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Review of EXIT DS (NDS)

EXIT was first released as a game exclusively for the PSP. While trailers appeared online and had some coverage on game review shows on television, like most puzzle games, never became “critically acclaimed”; regardless, it was still a unique and fun game which mixes both puzzle and platform aspects beautifully.

In 2007, it was ported to Xbox Live Arcade, and Nintendo DS which was released only in Japan. With the technical differences between the DS and PSP, EXIT moved from a 2.5D perspective to a pure 2D sidescroller with additional touch screen controls; the player can revert to the traditional +Control Pad if the stylus controls weren’t responsive enough. In addition to DS-exclusive controls, EXIT DS made some use of the Nintendo WiFi Connection; the only thing that can be done online is compare your stage completion times with others who have also connected to Nintendo’s WFC; for example, for Stage 2, the fastest time recorded was 10’40”93 and my completion time was 34’23”54 ranked at #943, so I’m not necessarily the slowest person in this game.

With the Japanese language in the tutorial, I wasn’t boggled by the instructions; through trail and error, I learned that I need to tap a character first, then an object or empty space to make it move; the +Control Pad was used to move the camera to see other parts of the level. The only problem I had with the stylus controls was guiding people upstairs since I have to tap the top of the stairs while the character was standing directly in front of the stairs. There are some English captions such as the main menu and top screen during gameplay which displays a map of the level, and explains what each symbol in the map mean.

The stages in EXIT are referred to as “situations” which represent different types of buildings that are on fire, covered with ice and even earthquakes. There are 10 situations, each containing 10 levels, with a total of 100 levels, and gradually increases in difficulty with every level. The objective of each level remains the same: Remove obstacles such as fire or ice that blocks the path to the exit at the end of the level, and guide the trapped individuals to the exit under the pre-determined time limit.

Each individual has different perks: Children can’t jump high or climb high and can easily crawl under obstacles too small for Mr. ESC; obese people are stronger and can push heavy objects; average fit people are similar to Mr. ESC but without the enhancements such as jumping, and can help Mr. ESC push certain blocks when an obese person isn’t around; dogs can crawl under obstacles and can jump incredibly far; injured people are unable to move and must be carried to the exit. With these perks, it creates the idea of teamwork with these individuals to finish the level, and can sometimes force the player to save people in a specific order.

Mr. ESC will do many things from extinguishing fires, to breaking ice barriers, riding elevators, and moving blocks to jump over pits to the exit. With the combination of jumping, climbing, pushing blocks, and guiding individuals to safety, this is one puzzle platform game on the DS that is worth buying if it should ever be released in North America. Unlike the PSP and Xbox Live Arcade versions, there are no downloadable levels, so there will only be 100 playable levels and it will take a while to finish all of them before you consider downloading more.
EXIT DS Gameplay

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