Puzzle Agent 2

I finally got back around to Puzzle Agent, completing the sequel that tells the other half of the story. Or most of it. The ending kind of happens without denouement.

As before, it is basically a cartoon that you watch, punctuated by puzzles you solve to unlock the next bit of story. There are things you click to get dialogue and such, but it is basically a visual novel with a series of puzzle subgames. It is pretty OK? I don’t regret the time playing, but it is not good enough that I would recommend it. It is short enough, a few hours.

The puzzles are a mixed bag, as happens. Some of them are pretty good. Some are trivial. Some are esoteric, completely incoherent unless you spot the connection to something in the real world, generally a numbering system. You look for an internal pattern, and it does not exist; it is an external reference. Either you spot it and know or you scratch your head.

The story starts odd, dodges silly, and does not end particularly coherent. The main storyline gets resolution, but nothing else, and plot holes are left unfilled. It’s fun enough, but it does not add up to much. The puzzle interface is usually better than the first game, although still appalling in a few points.

I am basically ending on a shrug. I have not enjoyed the other Telltale games, given my lack of interest in visual novels. So I think I’m done with Telltale games, unless I feel like watching a story with some quicktime events.

: Zubon

Conventions and Adaptations

I was playing the video game version of Sentinels of the Multiverse (in the current Humble Digital Tabletop Bundle), and it reminds me of the intro to Harlan Ellison’s script for I, Robot. Specifically, the intro notes that adapting a story to a different medium often calls for changes in the story or its presentation, because what works well on the page may not work well on the screen. Whether an adaptation is good, whether it is faithful to the source material, and whether it is faithful to the spirit of the source material can all be separate questions.

Sentinels of the Multiverse opens on the villain’s turn, which is when all the setup happens. In most tabletop games, you spend a while sorting out stacks of cards, putting together a board, something like that. In Sentinels, that is the villain’s first turn. The villain deploys robots, minions, powers, whatever. Other than that, setup is pretty much just putting the decks on the table.

In a tabletop game, setting up can be part of the game. Laying out your Settlers of Catan tiles is an important ritual. Building your board is building you world, with all the opportunities and threats it brings.

In a video game, that is just a long cut scene standing between you and the game. If the computer-controlled villain is the only one acting for the first minute or two of the game, you the player are just sitting there, watching it happen. You take damage, lose cards, whatever, without any chance for input. It is not the opening ritual that it is with physical cards; it is exactly the sort of thing you expect the computer to take care of and streamline when playing on a computer.

And an additional problem is that I do not know that you can streamline it away given the other mechanics. The “one at a time” nature of how the cards stack up can matter, and just throwing it all at the player in one pre-computed lump could get incoherent. Some of the villains are straightforward, but others have multiple, interacting effects, and it would be confusing just to start the game down 15% of your health and need to figure out what happened from the message log. A Settlers of Catan board could spring forth fully formed, and that is in fact what you want from a computer version.

The beauty of board and card games that start on computers, never having a physical version, is that they take advantage of what the computer has to offer. And I imagine some of those are now making physical versions that face similar problems in reverse.

And now we are getting recursive versions, where Gloomhaven and 7th Continent are physical versions of what would otherwise be computer games, and Gloomhaven at least is getting a digital adaptation. Yomi is another of those circuits: take the feel of an arcade fighting game, adapt it to a card game version of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, and then an online version was made. I cannot speak to how well any of those re-adaptations have gone.

: Zubon

Bundled Quick Reviews

Infested Planet was surprisingly enjoyable. It is a short RTS, kind of like the StarCraft Terran campaign minus the economy. Your human exploration of an alien world goes awry when you come upon an endless stream of angry, hungry bugs, guided by an adaptive overmind that wants to incorporate your human DNA. You stomp huge streams of bugs, blow up their hives, and defend your bases. There is nothing especially special here, just a straightforward game of sending your squads out to fight. You get to customize and level them in each map. The game is not very difficult at normal difficulty, and you can 100% it in about 10 hours. It is a little repetitive within that, in that the basic gameplay does not change much over the course of the game. You get access to new upgrades, and so do the aliens. The basic unit of gameplay is fun for as long as it needs to be.

Caravan is pretty bad, as far as I played. Steam reviews suggest that the first several hours are slow, repetitive, and boring, after which it becomes slow, repetitive, and interesting. This trading game is marred by long transition animations after every action, whether those are 10-second walking animations at the start and end of every journey and random encounter or a shorter dice animation six times every round of every trade or fight. Add to that random events that have a larger impact than your decisions (someone joins your party! your donkey dies! someone ambushes you and stabs you to death, so you get to redo all those transition animations since the last checkpoint!). I gave it more time and benefit of the doubt than it deserved.

: Zubon

Played Recently

Nothing I have been playing is conducive to stories.

I am still playing Slay the Spire and Disney Magic Kingdoms. I could discuss the mechanics and design decisions of DMK, but it is a social media-style game where you send characters on activities and collect the rewards. Its main appeal is the theming, rather than the mechanics.

Rather than analyze the mechanics of Slay the Spire, I should just point you towards JoINrbs.

There are idle games. After getting back into Realm Grinder for a little while, I am currently poking at NGU Idle, which is a variation on Idling to Rule the Gods. It has many subsystems to play with, although I seem to be getting bored faster than I am breaking into new subsystems. The appeal really is just throwing in as many pages and subsystems as possible and seeing what happens, including the recent “IDK Let’s Just Add More Crap” update (actual name). It reminds me a bit of Anti-Idle in that way: many many subpages.

I was playing Town of Salem again, but I just uninstalled. It is frustrating to play and not know who really is that bad and who is just playing dumb while in an evil role. The Coven expansion has some advantages over the original Mafia play, but the “classic” mode that is designed for balance seems vastly less popular than the “chaos” mode that is, as the name implies, chaotic and balanced only in the sense that randomness balances out over time. It is also frustrating that the game has so little lag tolerance, and my wifi is not being the best.

I have some other game prospects, but I’m also thinking that cleaning out closets is sounding surprisingly good against gaming, which is perhaps a bad sign for either me or the games. It’s probably me. There are millions happily gaming.

: Zubon

Ephemera

The goblin you killed will respawn in 30 seconds. The dragon you killed for those boots takes two days to respawn, and you killed it 32 times to get the boots; if you go back, it is still there, still giving out boots (rarely).

You beat the game and immediately start it over. It is a song that never ends, and you sang a verse once.

You log out of the game and never log back in. Maybe you said goodbye. Maybe some players remember you for a while. Maybe someone notices in the guild log that you have not logged in for 574 days and wonders whether to /gkick you. Maybe you will be back. The guild roster is gradually becoming a graveyard. Have we forgotten the players who left, or is it the ones left behind who are forgotten?

There are memories in your head and entries in a database somewhere. You were a great hero (+500 XP). You destroyed the enemy nexus (+2 ELO). You saved the kingdom (quest available again in 19:59:59… 19:59:58…).

Your parents tell you to be careful what you post online, because the internet is forever. Maybe some of your data is archived forever, but much of it is as lasting as a fallen leaf. It grew. It changed colors. It feel beautifully and perhaps unseen. In the spring it was dust, new mulch for new growth.

: Zubon

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

A surprise find during the current Steam sale was Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (not to be confused with Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, otherwise known as “the original version”). Through the Ages is rated #3 on Board Game Geek, and having never played, this looked attractive.

In short, Through the Ages is a streamlined version of Civilization as a card game. It is a better Civilization than most editions of Civilization. I could just stop there: if you like Civilization and are willing to trade the territorial control element for having a satisfying game in a quarter (or less) of the time, buy this.

I have not timed my solo games closely, but this does not seem far from the tabletop game’s estimate of about 1 hour per player. This seems to play more quickly than the physical car game because the computer takes care of all the bookkeeping. This is exactly what you want from a computerized version of a board game, and it goes further to have a revised ruleset intended for online play. That’s nice.

Through the Ages plays out in cards and tokens. You get so many actions per round; you can improve that with technology or changing governments. You can use those actions to increase your population; to build or upgrade your farms and mines (production); to build urban buildings that provide science, happiness, and culture; to build a military; to build wonders (like in Civ); to change leaders; and to draw cards that help you do all those things. You build a tableau through the ages, as your cards give you different types of buildings from different ages. Later age versions are better but more expensive.

That card acquisition is a drafting mechanic that is the means of indirect competition. You can spend actions to get cards. Cards become cheaper over time, just a few turns. You can spend more actions to get it now and make sure you get it before someone else does, but then you have spent your actions to do so. Maybe you are a republic that gets many actions, so that’s fine, or maybe you are toughing it out with a monarchy this game. Maybe you invested in military actions, which is another card set used for direct competition.

Through the Ages has the core Civ gameplay elements. There is a technology tree, and here you can skip around it rather than being tied into a predefined chain. There is a military race. There is bidding for colonies. The economy always feels very tight, because you always want to do more but you can only do so much given your population, actions, resources, cards, etc. You can invest to get more, but then your actions for that turn were mostly investing, while other people are cashing in on their lesser investments.

Through the Ages has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and you can play a solo game in a reasonable amount of time. I am led to believe that multiplayer takes much longer, as humans deliberate about decisions, but it should be quicker than either the physical version or actual Civ. And as I said, it is a better Civ than most versions of Civ.

: Zubon

Me-tooism Two

More than a decade ago, I posted about how online discourse structures favored argumentation over agreement. Replying with “me too” was frowned upon, and bare re-blogging of others’ posts would have been seen as pointless, tedious, or crass. News aggregators existed, but that was not what blogs and forums generally did.

That was web 1.0. Web 2.0 has been the past decade.

Technology has strongly supported a swing in the other direction. Sharing others’ content, maybe with an added sentence, is the norm in social media. It’s what you do on Tumblr, Twitter, or Pinterest. “Me too” and “+1” have been replaced with “like and share.” (The social media werewolf: lycanshare.) We still have virulent disagreement. I don’t know if the volume there has gotten louder to break through the happy bubble.

That is the other aspect of enabling healthy me-tooism. I don’t really have thoughts on social media bubbles here. I can’t imagine they are any worse than offline bubbles. People have always selected their environments and information sources. I don’t know how much research would support that it got worse, versus people online are more or more broadly informed. Even the most insular bubble will have people hate-blogging differing ideas.

Harnessing me-tooism has been great for the internet. Upvoting is a great improvement over most previous moderation systems! Upvoting also has its problems with brigading and sockpuppetry, but I again cannot say those are any worse than what came before. All tools can be abused, but not all tools can be used productively. The floor is perhaps as low as it was before, but the ceiling is higher. That’s progress, and you can always walk away from cesspools.

The rise of social media has in part come at the detriment of blogs. Some people just adapted their blogs over to social media or intermix the two productively. Obviously, I am fond of longer form writing than Twitter allows. I see people post 28-part screeds on Twitter, and I immediately assume they cannot be people of good judgment if they thought Twitter was the right place to post a 1000-word essay.

So yeah, technology and society have made significant inroads on this problem since I wrote that back in 2007. Good job, technology and society! +1 and <3

: Zubon

Genre Conventions

Asmiroth asks:

Thoughts on pre-existing scaffolding? In that a particular genre should replicate a previous model’s scaffolding, and when it doesn’t there’s a false sense of difficulty?

My thoughts here could (sadly) probably be reduced to “don’t do it badly.” That is, there are several good reasons to mess with existing conventions and several bad ones, and the badness of the bad ones often overwhelms the good. Creating a good variation on a genre is very good, adds new life, and can spawn new imitators and sub-genres. Done badly, yeah, it is more “awkward” than “difficult.”

I am immediately reminded of driving a car from the motor pool at work. Which vehicle you get is random, and each company has its own take on where the buttons and levers go for cruise control, windshield wipers, etc., and then there are variations that happen over time in the same make and model.

Good reasons include “this convention is stupid,” “there is a better way to do this convention,” and something idiosyncratic to the game that requires adaptation of a mechanic. Bad reasons include trying to pretend your game is not a clone of X by renaming the abilities, randomizing the interface, and changing the hotkeys. They are still health and mana bars, maybe hit points and energy, no matter what you have chosen to call them this game. Bonus points for games that use the standard terms for something else, say LotRO calling guilds “kinships” and then having “crafting guilds.” Consolations to games that thought they had a better way to do things but really just made it worse, or to those that made marginal improvements but got hate because it wasn’t exactly like Blizzard.

But jumping into a game that assumes you know the conventions is kind of horrible if you don’t know the conventions! Also for games that don’t mention that they are varying the conventions! Civ VI, what are you even trying to do there?

For those that have played a P&P game, swapping DMs is a heck of a learning curve.

The advice I have kept from a long-past Dragon Magazine article is to ask what sort of movie/book/etc. your DM & players are envisioning when they play. In a D&D game inspired by Conan, running through the wall of fire will singe the barbarian, who then hacks through the necromancer; pushing in either direction towards high magic or brutal realism makes a wall of fire an obvious death trap. In a modern game inspired by James Bond, walking into the enemy’s lair with a small caliber hand gun and a sense of panache is a winning plan; under a different vision, guards will shoot him dead in less than a minute.

What is “obvious” differs between people.

If I have learned to to X in a given situation, and it takes a fair amount of time for me to un-learn X and apply the correct (if re-taught) Y action instead. It’s not necessarily harder, it’s just different.

And this summarizes the previous two. In some games, the best offense is a good defense. Once you learn to stack block reliably, you can whittle down the enemies safely. In other games, the best defense is a good offense. Dead enemies deal no damage. A rare few games evenly support a variety of playstyles, but most favor a small set of options, most of which probably seemed obvious to the designer. Is this a game where you need to explore under every rock to become strong enough for the final fight, or will exploration sap your resources so you need to explore as little as possible (but enough to get X)?

Variation is good! Often what we want is exactly the same game that we just liked, but a new and different version that doesn’t change anything important, but it should still feel both new and the same. “More of the same” sequels can also be good! Change for change’s sake is usually bad.

There are more ways to do things wrong than to do them right. Any random change is probably a change for the worse. A change with good reason can be an improvement. Alas, so many of us think we have good reasons!

: Zubon

“A good library has something to offend everyone.”

Alternate title: “Boobs and shotguns for everyone!”

In a reversal from recent moves that were since walked back, Steam has announced that they plan to let just about anything sell on Steam. Valve long since gave up on curating, instead welcoming increasing masses of shovelware. This seems like the next logical step: no curation at all.

Our friend Wilhelm is not pleased. Myself, I figure we already walked off that ledge. This is acknowledging it, not changing it. One absolutely could go with Steam’s origin vision of highly curated content. I do not know if there is a market for it right now, but you could do that. Steam tries for the best of both worlds by both offering everything and having explicit curators. Pick your own experience.

I will probably be unhappy if I open Steam and it looks like the red light district, or the bad actually drives out the good, not just makes an attempt at drowning it. But I am more offended by low quality games than by purportedly offensive content, so the shovelware already hit me where Murder Simulator 5000 or Naked Anime Boobies S will not. And we are online right now, so you have access to all the murder and boobies you want.

I will count myself as having underestimated the problem if we start getting frequent pop-up advertisements for Midweek Madness featuring porn or Holocause Simulator. I will count the problem as vastly overblown if Valve goes on to release better filtering and moderation tools, like the ability to suppress large swaths of crap content.

: Zubon

Pinging

We have not had any game-inspired relationship advice in a long time. Although in this case, the relevant sense of “ping” is “pinging the server” not “pinging the minimap,” so it is more on the “online” side than strictly the “game” side. So here we go, using modern technology to improve your love life.

If you are the stereotypical gamer, you are an introverted male. You may not be verbally expressive of affection, or perhaps not understand why she needs to be reassured that she is pretty or you still love her, when you told her last week. If you are not the stereotype, adjust accordingly, but the principle applies if you are less verbally demonstrative than your partner seems to want.

This is where pinging the server comes in. It is perfectly normal for systems to ping each other occasionally (or frequently) to make sure a connection is still live or available. It says, “I am still here. We are still connected. I am still paying attention to you.” I usually belabor metaphors, but we will let that one stand as it is.

Modern technology even has easy ways for you to do this. You just need to establish an appropriate “ping.” A “<3” text can do it. Facebook Messenger lets you replace its default thumbs-up with a different one-click emoji. You can replace it with a heart. You may feel silly saying, “I love you,” twelve times a day, but you can easily click/tap an emoji button when you think of your partner.

Your relationship may differ, but I can click that button twice an hour without getting a “stop bothering me” response. “I was thinking of you and I still love you” is usually a well-received message, and you can express it with a click. If your relationship differs and your partner does not want digital hearts or flowers or whatever, they will probably say something.

: Zubon