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Three adventure games

I played stuff

Related imageRelatively recently, I played three adventure games that were fairly compelling and impressive, but only one really blew me away. Two of these adventure games were by, arguably, the greatest designers of the genre: Ron Gilbert and Tim Shafer, in their great return to adventure game design. One was by a rather meek newcomer: Swedish independent Natalia Figueroa. This post is about how Ms. Figueroa blew me away.

Now one could argue that my expectations were very high for Schafer and Gilbert and very low for Figueroa, and that would be true. But that’s not where their games differed. Ms. Figueroa’s game shone in a very different and much simpler way.

The three games are the following: Tim Schafer reignited the flame of adventure games and probably strongly contributed in making Kickstarter a valid platform by using it to fund the adventure game that would eventually become Broken Age. Ron Gilbert followed suit with Thimbleweed Park. Natalia Figueroa also funded her game through crowdfunding, though in her case it was through Indiegogo. She made Fran Bow. Fran Bow was released shortly after the second part of Broken Age, a year and a half before Thimbleweed Park.

Broken Age

Image result for broken age

Broken Age is meticulously designed, masterfully executed, innovative, charming and probably does not contain anything seriously wrong.

First, as one should expect from Tim Schafer, the art of Broken Age is executed in an extremely thorough way. The backgrounds are superb. The animation is simple, expressive and memorable. The voice acting is fantastic and some of the voice talent in Broken Age is performed by famous Hollywood and TV actors.

The basic premise is that, as the title indicates, the player is offered to play as either Vella, who seems to live in a idyllic fairytale-like world or Shay, who lives in a science fiction-like world. Neither world is fully coherent and both have details that just look wrong, or sometimes just elements that just don’t belong. Still, neither Vella nor Shay’s story seems to clearly connect to the other. The game is clearly divided in two parts and the implicit purpose of the first part is to figure out the connection between the two main player characters and their respective worlds. This is in addition to the general goal of the adventure game which is always to move the story forward.

This is a compelling premise. Shay and Vella seem to be separated in every conceivable way: one travels through space, one is stuck in a small area of land. One seems to live centuries after the other. Although, conceivably, Vella could be living on one of the planets Shay visits. Still, both characters are kept a distance that’s just effective enough to keep the player digging and seeking.

Shafer is no stranger to multicharacter adventure games. He’s mostly famous for Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, but I would still argue that his masterpiece is Day of the Tentacle, where the player had control of three extremely expressive characters, Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne, each separated by two hundred years in time.  The time puzzle of Day of Tentacle, which are at the core of the multicharacter aspect of the game, are one of its more memorable parts.

That is, if it works. And while the mystery of the connection between Shay and Vella does work, without a doubt in Broken Age, it’s not enough to keep the two parts connected. Not even in the second part of the game when they are connected not just through the continuous deepening mystery of how they are linked, but through specific puzzles and therefore through gameplay.

The problem with Broken Age

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And this is one of many ways in which Broken Age fails. For all of its meticulous attention to detail. For all of its exquisite art, delightful details, charming mood, stunning reversals and surprises, it feels unfinished, empty, hollow.

Not just that: it feels unfinished because it is too detailed. I know that sounds strange. Let me explain. It feels as if if more resources had been assigned into content and less into art, the game might have felt fuller, more meaty.

But it does not. Shay’s ship feels pretty small and empty. Shay, for reason that eventually become clear, never actually leaves his ship in part one of Broken Age. Vella does get to explore her land, but not very far. And she does not get to know that many people. And the people she does get to know are interesting, but she never seems to be able to interact with them that much.

Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island games, the three characters from Day of the Tentacle or April Ryan and Zoë Castillo from the Longest Journey games all seemed to be able to enter and touch much deeper, more complicated, more tangible, messier at times, fuller worlds. In comparison, the worlds of Broken Age feels like a empty template of what it could have been. It feels short. Like a thin slice of a wonderful, but overly decorated cake.

After I played it, I thought that Ron Gilbert, were he to make an adventure game, would focus less on voice and graphics and more on content. He’d give us a big, complex, deep, mysterious story with meaningful interaction. And that’s still what I expected when Thimbleweed Park was finally announced.

Thimbleweed Park

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When I saw the opening screen of Broken Age, I knew nothing about the game. I didn’t even know I’d have to begin by picking between two characters. I wanted to start playing as a complete blank slate. But when I came to Thimbleweed Park, I wanted to keep on top of things. I followed the blog. I even contributed. I made up a title for the bookstore and I wrote three books for the library.

Thimbleweed Park is also a multicharacter adventure game. It starts as a murder mystery. A body has been found in the eponymous Thimbleweed Park in 1987, an decaying city. The player controls five characters, including two FBI agents, a young game designer, her father, and a clown. The game is full of references to old games designed by Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and their colleagues and seems to target, at least in part, their long-time fans.

Just like I had hoped, Thimbleweed Park did not look too polished. Ron Gilbert seemed to be focused more on content than on presentation. Again, I do not and would never deny the importance of presentation, but I am curious about a game where most of the effort is focused on creating deep, meaningful content. Ron Gilbert’s blog entries talked a lot about storylines and about puzzles. There were a lot of posts about art too, but the art seemed to be kept efficient, and manageable.

When I remember Ron Gilbert’s main games, the Monkey Island games as well as Maniac Mansion, they were not just interactive stories, but they were worlds with strong storylines that the player could fully explore in a narrative way. Not in an RPG way. There were no monsters to kill, but you could make any joke available to any character without fear of consequence, just to see how they would react. That’s a narrative form of exploration. At the same time, the secrets of these worlds would slowly be unveiled to you. I was hoping the new game would be like that.

The problem with Thimbleweed Park

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But to me, Thimbleweed Park was not like that. That world, while intriguing, seriously lacked tension. The mysteries felt flat. The jokes were interesting references, but were not funny. I found one character truly compelling: Delores. Franklin, her father also came off as sympathetic, but mostly again because of the way he related to her. Delores was a fully-realized character. He story was interesting; he dialog was funny; her goals were easy to identify with; the mystery around her was truly puzzling. And the gameplay that came out of that was truly fun. But it also underlined how flat the other characters’ storylines felt in compasion.

Still, overall, my main objection with Thimbleweed Park was how arty it felt. Usually, I approve of artistic ambition in games, but in this case, it came at a very costly price. The game starts with an actually intriguing murder mystery. However, as the game progresses, it slips into a completely meta reflection on itself. This is daring and I’m not sure that the game pulls it off. As banal as is sounds, if we had explored the connection between each citizen of Thimbleweed Park and the murder victim, I think it might have made for a more interesting game.

I would also like to point out that I’ve played the game shortly after its release. At the time, the characters could not talk to each other and there was no hint system. Also, there arcade was closed. I have not played the game since, mostly because I did not enjoy that much the first time. But this inability, now fixed, for the characters to communicate felt terribly wrong. It made the whole world of Thimbleweed Park feel hollow.

Fran Bow

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Fran Bow follows an episode in the life of its title character, a young girl called Fran Bow, who lives in New England in the US in the fifties. In a very long intro scene, we learn has no friends, except for a pet cat. One night, a horrifying creature kills her whole family but she and her cat escape. She ends up in a mental asylum. She is certain that her cat is still alive in the forest. There, she is treated with an experimental medication that gives her terrifying visions. Realizing that, her doctor immediately stops her treatment. But Fran thinks that these pills can help her find her cat.

The game has a very simple interface. Fran can walk, look at things, use things, use dialog trees (always with two options), and swallow a pill. Under the influence of a pill, she can close the pill bottle, with will stop the pill from being effective. While the pills are in effect, she has visions. And, of course, her visions are real. But the player is quickly challenged to questioned what “real” means.

The dialog seems to be written by someone whose native language is not English. There’s an overuse of the phrase, “It’s fine.” The graphics are a bit clumsy. At first, the puzzles are fascinating, but towards the end, I’d accuse the game of puzzle-stuffing. By that, I mean that Natalia Figueroa seemed to want to tell a story but was making a game so she interrupted her story with puzzles that didn’t really need to be there. There are all details. Trifles. Overall, I would argue, that Fran Bow is a true masterpiece. More so than either Thimbleweed Park or Broken Age.

What works with Fran Bow

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Fran Bow perfectly mixes a deep, complex story with compelling gameplay. It’s hard to talk about without giving too much away but there’s one thing that I can say with confidence about Fran Bow: at every step of the way, I thought, “Oh, I know exactly where this is going” and at every step I was wrong. The game was several step away from me. This was true of both the story and the gameplay and in both cases, they were really the same thing.

This also happened for Thimbleweed Park, but not in the same direction. I’d think, “Oh, I think I know where this is going…” but it went in a different direction but I wish it had gone in the direction I had wanted. That’s less good.

Fran Bow plays with its own rules constantly, but never ignores them. For example, you think you know how the pills work, but you don’t. Even though the rules of how the pills work are as given to you, they never change. You just don’t have all the element yet to understand what those rules mean.

Also, Fran Bow is long. Every time, I thought I was near the end, I realized I was nowhere near it. And every time I thought the tone of the game had changed completely, I realized that it really had not. I was just fooled into mistaking a temporary alcove for a whole new structure.

Image result for fran bow

Fran visits deep, complex worlds. She interacts with strange, complex people. She herself is worth getting to know. Her world is fascinating and full. Fran Bow also shows strong authorship. One can clearly tell is is the work of a dedicated author with a vision. It has flaws, but its flaws make it better. It allows to hang onto it, unlike a completely smooth surface that a player or other art appreciator would just slip off of.

I have no idea what Natalia Figueroa will do next. I’d say there’s no way she’ll do something as good as this next time, but, honestly, there was almost no way she’d do something nearly as good as Fran Bow the first time, so, in all fairness, all best are off.

Final note about Thimbleweed Park

One thing about Thimbleweed Park that is probably worth noting is its engine. Based on the game’s development blog, it looks like the engine for Thimbleweed Park could be an amazing tool to make new adventure games. Ron Gilbert, who was, after all, the lead developer of the legendary SCUMM engine, put a huge amount of effort into making it. He did say he would consider releasing the engine but made no promises.

It is not unheard of that when a game splits its effort between its content and its engine, it cannot deliver as much of its content as one might hope. I’d argue that’s why the first Assassin’s Creed had much more repetitive content than the second one. For the first game, the whole rules of how the game was played, the mechanics and most likely the engine had to be built. The second game only had to build on that.

I know a lot of people loved Thimbleweed Park. I have high hopes for its engine.

Tex Murphy: Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

I played the first game in the Tex Murphy series today, Mean Streets. I didn’t expect much and that’s just what I got. I played the third and fifth of the five games way back when and I loved them. The second one had something of a good reputation, but not the first. Now, I understand why.

Many good ideas, but…

There’s actually a lot of good stuff in Mean Streets. A lot of good stuff. And that’s part of the problem. Many of the ideas are good but:

  • aren’t finished,
  • don’t work well together,
  • don’t belong in this game and
  • while not bad get in the way of gameplay rather than improve it

Still, many of these good ideas are very typical of the early days of video game design, particularly of narrative-based video game design: too much freedom was given to the player, which requires more meaningful content that can or even should be produced.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

Mean Streets had a fully-explorable 3D world in 1989

That, in itself, is impressive. It’s similar to L.A. Noire in concept: the player gets to move at will throughout a city. At specific areas, there are items to interact with. In L.A. Noire, I was impressed the by amount of work that had gone into that system, but I didn’t think it was particularly fun. In Mean Streets, the fact the developers got it to work at all is extremely impressive, but it’s a huge burden on the player and not fun at all. In the end, the player is regularly given four-digit “navigation codes” to be entered in an autopilot system that clumsily navigates through the 3D city.

This system just adds unnecessary steps to get to a destination, when just selecting them from a list would have been much more comfortable. Furthermore, the model for the city is ridiculously simple. It’s just a few shapes on a flat map with in extremely low resolution seen from a tiny viewport. Again, the concept was daring and it’s impressive that it worked technically, but the actual gameplay of it brings nothing but frustration. It takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next, and most of the time, there’s nothing to do but watch very slow movement within an environment and a few numbers changing on the screen.

In the story, the 3D world is navigated with a 3D car. It is possible to fly the car manually and go anywhere. But the controls are so awkward and complex that it is in fact almost impossible to get anywhere by doing that. A fully-polished flight simulator in a rich, detailed world might have been a fun games, but it would not have been an adventure game, at least not in 1989.

Mean Streets allows free input dialog

That’s part of the dream for adventure game developers: allow your player to have rich, detailed, subtle conversations with your characters. Mean Streets goes further and, like Maupiti Island, once a characters has answered a question, the player character, Tex Murphy and either threaten them or bribe them for more information. This is most likely suppose to give a strong sensation of freedom. But it’s not what happens in practice at all.

What actually happens is that both in the manual and in in-game dialog, the player is instructed to write everything down, with numerous repeated advice to check for spelling. The instructions to check for spelling are repeated several times in the manual, sometimes several limes per page in bold, capital letters. What this means, is that one has to write down outside of the game any name that is given and type it back exactly inside of dialog text input boxes. Any deviation will cause the characters to be confused. Bribing or threatening hardly ever worked. It actually never worked when I tried it. I can only guess that it does eventually, if not it would not be in the game.

There’s in built-in help system

It’s possible to pay an informer for hints, but Tex has limited money and there’s no way to know if the informer will have any information or how much she’ll charge for it. This makes the whole process random and frustrating.

The intent and the result

The goal of all this was obviously to hide the linearity of the game. One of the buzzwords of the time was “non-linear.” We now know that there’s nothing essentially wrong with linearity in games. Super Mario Bros. is completely linear and is still considered one of the best games of all time. This absolutely extends to narrative games: the games in the Ace Attorney series are mostly linear and are also very highly praised. The way it’s possible (although not practical) for the player to roam around and the way money can be spent on bribes and informants give the impression that one can reach the end of the game in many ways.

In order to add an action element, there are short combat sections, not unlike in the games of Quantic Dreams. I found they mostly lead to a game over and if one had not saved, a lot of gameplay is lost. But it’s not like the combat sections are announced. They can come at any time and the conclusion of a failed combat section is a game over screen. Combat is generally a bad idea in an adventure game, but unannounced combat that interrupts gameplay based on conversation that just ends the game is even worse.

The game also tried to vary mechanics, much like God of War did successfully years later. But what we got instead was what Yahtzee Croshaw would call a schizophrenic interface. There is:

  • a free-roaming 3D interface for the flying car
  • a non-interactive 3D view for autopilot in the flying car
  • a side-scrolling view for combat
  • a face-to-face view with text input for dialog, and another, equivalent one for phone calls,
  • a visual-novel-like themed interface for locations,
  • white-on black text popups for narration

and others that I might not have encountered. Many of those are not bad, again, they’re just out of place, or unfinished, or too numerous, or a combination of the above.

There’s also a huge contradiction between the views of the city in the flying car and in the side-view action sequences. It’s simply impossible that these two worlds have anything in common. Again, not bad as such, but completely incompatible. That is also true of visual-novel-like sections, which have detailed, rich graphics that don’t match either the 3D views or the combat sections.

And, as Tex spends most of his time flying, the title Mean Streets doesn’t make much sense. Tex seems to spend very little time on streets. Yes, the only time the player sees the streets in question is during combat, but that part of gameplay seems so removed from the rest that it seems odd that it would become the titular feature. It’s not like when the title of a work is an deceivingly inconsequential detail, like Slaughterhouse Five or The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It just seems that that title was given because it was a cool title, reminiscent of a cool movie.

The good stuff

There are many, many good things in Mean Streets that are worthy of praise. Many of these have been kept in future games.

First of all, Mean Streets uses technology that was definitely bleeding edge, such as 3D, video and voice. These were very much ahead of their time in 1989. The got in the way of gameplay or were frustrating, but I’m confident that the failure of Mean Streets is what made the subsequent games so good. After their first Tex Murphy game, Access had figured out what to keep and when to use it.

This game also makes me glad for having taken the class Building Virtual Worlds at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and Jesse Schell’s class on game design. These were specifically designed to avoid problems like the one in Mean Streets. I can’t honestly say I would not have done the exact same thing at the time myself.

A web server optimized for websockets

As part of my OCCO project, I made a web server that makes the use of websockets easy. I din’t make it from scratch, of course, I made it with Tornado. Tornado is a very lightweight, flexible and extensible web server written in Python. It makes the use of websockets trivial.

My whole code is on GitHub:

https://github.com/eje211/heidegger

This site is a mockup of a modification of the interface of Electronic Arts’ Origin game distribution system. My team added a panel that informs the player of their Bartle player type. My websocket feature allows me to change the player type in real time during presentations. This was really made to have a good reason to use websockets more than anything else. The Javascript part of websockets never changes. It’s the part that’s on the server that’s often problematic. In this case, I have a page with the player type chart and one or more pages with a remote controller to change it. The code to handle this is absolutely trivial:

I keep a list for each of the two types of websocket handlers and keep them updated as the sockets are connected and disconnect. And, as message come, I just pass them along to the relevant pages. That’s really all there is to it.

Tornado also requires me to deal with the delivery of files manually. That was new to me, coming from Apache, Lift and Zope. It was interesting and made me aware of many details.