The Ultimate Video Game: antagonist

antagonist

I’m trying my darnedest to keep up with the challenges posed by the Ultimate Video Game, because it’s fun and gives me an outlet for creative ramblings.

March’s element is the antagonist. I’m continuing with the ideas that came out of my setting and protagonists, because I want to finish what I’ve started – but who knows, I might jump in on the main competition at some point!

The game so far

The story is set in an abandoned IT room, excavated in 2019. Our heroes are Earl, head of the IT department in 1989; and Pete, an architect sent to renovate it in 2019.

The antagonist

It turns out the antagonist is a fundamental part of the game. This element brings Earl and Pete together, uniting them across time in a bid to uncover a conspiracy and set the past right.

1989

The antagonist takes the form of a shady organisation, known as The Suits, who are hacking into Earl’s IT network, though he doesn’t know it yet. Nor do we know their master plan – that will come later for the story element (I hope there’s a story element otherwise I’ll have to come back and edit this, which will be awkward).

The Suits consist of six members, ranging in age and background. Two are father and daughter; two are acquainted from their time in the police force; one is an ex-Army sergeant; and the other is the silent one in charge, a powerful presence with an entirely erased history. None of them question him – they simply follow.

2019

The more Pete delves, the more he gets sucked into Earl’s world. At first, he relishes the simple times of the 1980s, indulging in its music, tech and video games. But as the layers peel away he stumbles upon clues left by Earl revealing something much more sinister. The IT department was not as isolated as it seemed. They were watching, and waiting.

Earl thought it was over when the last of the Suits was found dead, but in 2019, in the flicker of the monitor, Pete discovers there are ways for our consciousness to live on.

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Adventure gaming: can you take a hint?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hints and walkthroughs, and their role in adventure gaming.

I’m someone who hates being told the answer to anything. If someone throws a riddle at me and I can’t get it, I’ll happily mull over it for weeks. The same with quiz questions – if I don’t know the answer straight away I still like to think on it, and I don’t want any hints. I’m not talking about obscure sports questions where I flat-out won’t know the answer, but those that just take a bit of thought.

And I guess that’s why I’m a pretty stubborn adventure gamer. I can be stuck on a puzzle for ages (cottage, Monkey Island 2) but it just feels like cheating to ask for a hint or look up a walkthrough. I feel like I’ve invalidated my game if I get too much help along the way.

Luckily, most adventure games worth their salt encourage puzzle-solving without brute force or reading a step-by-step guide. Some have hotspots that highlight important objects; others give textual clues at the press of a key; and most utilise dialogue with other characters to nudge the player in the right direction. This is important, and I feel like few games get it right. Reveal too much, and you’ve ruined the experience and the satisfaction. Reveal too little or give clues out of order with the gameplay, and your player’s left frustrated or confused.

Monkey-Island-2-hintline
Monkey Island 2’s in-game hintline

I guess that fine balance of challenging puzzles vs keeping the player interested comes down to the golden rule of adventure games: puzzle chains must be logical. If there’s absolutely no reason why I would think to use that monkey on the water pump, I’m not likely to get there. Even if I could justify a small hint from a friend, they’d be hard pushed to give me one.

(This isn’t a monkey-wrench-bashing post by the way. I’m really not that upset about it.)

Back when I was scuffing my knees and typing commands into Space Quest II, there were none of these options if I got stuck. No internet for walkthroughs or tips, and none of my friends were even into adventure games (I know, right?!) Sure, Sierra had an extortionate overseas hintline, if I wanted to get myself grounded for a month.

They also had hint books you could order, but I had no idea at the time. Which is a shame because they were pretty good, and discreet – to read the text clearly you did so through an ‘adventure window’ card. Though there are some ‘fake’ hints – this is Sierra after all.

Space-Quest-II-hintbook
Pages from the Space Quest II hint book, published by Sierra On-Line, 1989

Perhaps if I’d started with significantly more forgiving Lucasfilm games I’d have fared better. They were also much more creative in their hint-giving – see Zak McKracken, which came with a newspaper containing subtle hints and tips in the articles. That way it feels like you’re just enjoying another element of the game, not cheating.

So anyway, the lack (or ignorance) of resources explains why I didn’t complete Space Quest II until much later, and also perhaps why I’m so resistant to help. Uh oh, here comes grandma again. Back in the day there was no help, sonny! You let that alien kiss you, you pay the price!

I realise my innate stubbornness is detrimental to my gaming sometimes – especially with puzzle-focussed games like The Witness, which is still sitting there unfinished after about two years. I did look up a few solutions, but felt I couldn’t do that with every single one. I guess I’ll resort to a walkthrough, eventually.

My obsession with ‘failure’ aside, I think it takes the enjoyment and the purpose out of puzzle-solving to have a walkthrough constantly on-hand – it’s also a symptom of poor game design (or, cough, adventure games just aren’t your forte). But it’s also a shame to abandon a game because of one relentless puzzle, and if it’s just a case of admitting defeat and moving to the next bit, who’s to judge?

So what kind of adventure gamer are you? Do you happily use hints or walkthroughs along the way, or do you torture yourself until you get it?

Sources

Space Quest II hintbook image courtesy of www.sierragamers.com/Hint-Books [accessed 03/03/19] and the painstaking efforts of SierraVault reader, Vasyl.

The Ultimate Video Game: protagonist

protagonist

I really enjoyed the challenge of devising a setting for The Ultimate Video Game as part of Later Levels’ Question of the Month in January. I thought the winning entry by Hundstrasse was amazing and I really want to visit that world.

So February’s game element is the protagonist. There are two options set by the dev team: create a protagonist to reside in the previously winning setting, or create one for the setting you came up with.

Since a) I’m not great at writing characters, b) I’m short on time, and c) I’m void of ideas for the winning setting (see a), I’m going with the second option. This option isn’t eligible to win, but I wanted to do it for fun!

The abandoned IT room

As a reminder, the setting is an excavated IT room that’s been lying dormant since 1989, dug up in 2019 by some archaeologists. Everything is perfectly in place, as if its occupants left in a hurry.

Earl, the IT guy

Earl is one half of our protagonist duo. That’s right, I’m breaking the rules and having two, ha!

Earl is head of the IT department in 1989, shortly before The Big Untimely Accident, which I’m not allowed to talk about because this is strictly about characters, not plot. (I also wasn’t going to mention that parts of the game are played in flashback, but I guess that’s obvious now.)

Earl is a rising genius in the expanding world of IT, with a mechanically astute mind and an uncanny knack for troubleshooting. Unfortunately, he is also afflicted with a debilitating sense of apathy (thanks to Thatcher) and an addiction to onion bhajis. As such he spends his days slumped in the basement fixing minor issues and drawing what little enthusiasm he has from his younger, fresh-faced team mates.

In his younger days he was a looker. Now age has puffed his features, peppered his hair and made him stout (though that may be the bhajis). He wears army regulation khaki pants because they have lots of pockets to hold tools and attachments. His T-shirt is clean but faded, and when he sits down Cheetara grimaces from the folds.

Earl has a hard time convincing upper management about the importance of good IT infrastructure and rigid processes, to the extent that he is on the brink of throwing in the towel and donning a McDonald’s hat.

Pete, the architect

Back in 2019, Pete is the architect sent to take photos of the buried IT room for restructuring purposes. His company plans to gut it and build on top of it.

Pete is ambitious, but not on a psychopath level. He’s kind, with a creative eye and a built-in bullshit detector. He carries a picture of his daughter everywhere, but his wedding finger sports nothing but a rough indent. He buries himself in his work, trying to steer his company to support and protect the city’s historic landscape, instead of replacing it with flashy eyesores.

He’s a man of admirable precision, reflected in both his work and appearance; he’s always clean shaven, dresses casually but cleanly, armed always with a notepad, measuring tools and a Brompton bike.

He rarely indulges in anything, and will persistently be off sugar or caffeine – sometimes even cutting out random foodstuffs like potato or cinnamon. If you asked his colleagues they would say he’s self-punishing for something, but what do they know.

Very little, in fact. They wouldn’t know that he goes home and plays old video games. That he devours old books and is transfixed by old films. That he’s more content in the warm hug of the past than the grim, uncertain future. If they understood that, then they might understand his obsession with protecting old buildings.

If he could find a path to the past, he would blindly take it.

Tetris Effect: my favourite game on acid

That heading makes it sound like I enjoyed it. Spoiler: I did not.

Like most kids who grew up in the 90s, Tetris has long been one of my favourite games. I first played it on the Game Boy, then religiously on my Mega Drive (before you get excited, it’s a knock-off multicart). Its simple, tile-placing format makes it the perfect game for mindless achievement – since my childhood I’ve whiled away countless hours trying to beat the current world record holder (only 813,133 points off).

Tetris-Game Boy
Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy, 1989

So when I heard about Monstars Inc/Resonair’s Tetris Effect I was cautiously excited. Cautiously, because whenever there’s a reboot or remake of anything my standard response is disappointment. The art of revamping a treasured classic while retaining what made it so great is nigh on impossible.

It’s no surprise, then, that I’m not a fan. As I suspected, the snazzy effects are all too much. I didn’t really feel nostalgic in the warmest sense – it was more like back in the 90s someone had come along and set my TV on fire in the middle of my game (‘warm’ in the wrong sense).

Tetris-3
What Tetris piece?

Sure, the visuals and music are impressive, and there are some clever subtleties – such as the music matching your movements, which is reminiscent of other rhythmic games I’ve enjoyed (She Wants Me Dead). But the pumping, club-scene overlay is far too overwhelming and detracts so much from the game (especially on higher levels). The concept is supposedly inspired by the so-called Tetris effect (or Tetris syndrome), which I find a bit ironic given that ultimately you can’t see the blocks well enough to hallucinate them later. The ‘effects’ are more like side effects from a migraine.

Tetris-2
What eyesight?

I can hear people saying ‘that’s the point – it makes it a harder game!’ And I guess that’s key – the aim of Tetris Effect is quite different from classic Tetris. It’s not just about clearing lines and maintaining technique in faster-paced levels; it’s doing those things through a filter of increasingly trippy neon animations. Some of them are pretty, but it’s almost a bit cheap – I would prefer to see variations in the actual puzzle mechanics.

EuroGamer named Tetris Effect their 2018 Game of the Year, stating ‘It makes for the perfect drug’. Perhaps, then, I’m missing the point – it’s not about nostalgia, more about transporting the player to an ‘altered state’. While that works with games like Rez (also produced by Mizuguchi), I don’t think it blends well with what people recognise from the original game. That’s overcomplicating the classic premise of Tetris.

Sure enough, Eurogamer goes on to say ‘I don’t think gaming gets any purer than this’ – and this is my issue. It’s not ‘pure’ Tetris at all – it’s quite the opposite. Tetris was successful because it used a very basic concept of slotting tiles together against the clock – it didn’t need over-styling. Why overcomplicate a game that thrived on its simplicity?

Tetris-4
I guess that’s quite nice

I accept, begrudingly, that this opinion is probably what you’d expect from a stubborn, traditionalist gamer like me. It ain’t like it used to be, yada yada, suck on a Werther’s, grandma. I know. While I’m not a fan of remakes it’s good to see developers playing with dated concepts and refreshing old game mechanics, and I bet a lot of ‘modern’ gamers would enjoy this one.

And sure, my beloved Mega Drive Tetris had dinosaurs and stone henge among its backgrounds, which could be considered distractions in themselves, though they were static and didn’t make me swirly-eyed. It also didn’t cost the equivalent of £30.

I have only played the demo, so I can’t speak for the whole game. I’ve also heard good things about the VR version, if you like that kind of immersion (it won ‘Best VR/AR game’ at the 2018 Game Critics Awards).

From what I’ve seen so far, Tetris Effect has mostly met with positive reviews, particularly with critics – but I’ve seen mixed opinions from gamers themselves.

Have you played Tetris Effect? What did you think?

The Ultimate Video Game: setting and themes

floppy

In response to Later Levels’ Question of the month, I thought I’d take a stab at this!

The question is part of The Ultimate Video Game, a collaborative 12-month project to come up with the best virtual video game based on the input of contributors from the community.

This month it’s about setting and themes, so without further ado…

What would be your ideal setting and themes for the ultimate video game?

I’m not a fan of wandering far and wide in search of some ancient scroll or elusive relative. I like everything to be contained, so all the action can take place in a microcosm flourishing with detail and full of interesting objects and things to engage with.

So naturally I’ve gone for… drum roll… an abandoned IT room.

Wait! Come back! Not just any abandoned IT room – An abandoned IT room from 1989.

Stay with me.

During an excavation in modern-day London, archaeologists unearth the basement of an old office building. Despite the rest of the tower block being torn down decades ago, this floor is preserved in all its glory thanks to some sturdy masonry and a general ignorance about IT departments.

The room is a glorious mix of old tech and 80s paraphernalia. There are boxes of early mice and keyboards, floppy disks, software packages, manuals and a half-stocked vending machine. Posters of Depeche Mode and The Cure line the walls. The desks are strewn with empty tobacco packets and stress balls. There are cupboards and drawers, some still locked.

The techs had their entertainment figured out, too. There’s a Commodore 64 rigged up in the corner in front of some beanbags and next to it is a chart scrawled with top scores. On top of one of the filing cabinets a battered walkman is popped open, revealing a mix tape (SPOILER!)

Needless to say, the setting provides plenty of scope for foraging – particularly if this ends up being an adventure game (COUGH). Just imagine the range of inventory items and puzzle chains.

Everything in the room has laid dormant for 30 years, now awoken for the first time. Among the burgeoning technology and flecks of neon, a steely dampness hangs in the air. What were they really doing down here?

Postscript: favourite video game music in 2018

The games I’ve played this year have introduced me to some great music. Here are my three favourite pieces, and why they stood out.

Maniac Mansion (DOS) – main theme (Chris Grigg and David Lawrence)

When I first heard this I was (aptly) blown away. It’s bold, exciting and pretty admirable for its time. The layering works brilliantly, building up from a basic signature tune to a really epic piece. Just when you think it’s done, that shrill refrain kicks in (0:41), perfectly timed with the chainsaw.

The rawness of the DOS version will always be my favourite rendition. The other versions are just over-produced for my liking (especially you, Nintendo).

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (SE) – Dinky Island jungle (Peter McConnell)

This is just so beautiful. I was fully engrossed in the game but when I entered the jungle area the music stopped me in my tracks. The gentle, zen-like notes breeze in softly, then some bird tweets are sprinkled over the top. So very subtly, the main theme creeps in just enough to remind you what game you’re playing, without breaking the mood.

It’s also so well placed. After the pelting action of LeChuck’s Fortress in the chapter before, the nice, calming return to nature is just perfect.

Unforeseen Incidents – hotel lobby (Tristan Berger)

In a similar way, the music in this scene takes a gentle, soulful turn. It’s very Twin Peaks, and likely a homage in keeping with other elements of the game (especially the setting). I’ve chosen a scene with the TV playing – while those sounds slightly overlap the music, I really like the neon glow it adds. The whole scene is beautifully low-lit and mysterious.

Similar to the jungle in Monkey Island, it serves as a bit of down time from the main action in the game, and the music really complements that.

What video game music have you enjoyed this year?

My 2018 in video games: a (short) review

I played a lot of video games this year. I’m not even sure how I’ve fitted them in. This probably means there’s something much more important I forgot to do.

Anyway, here’s a rundown. Sometimes reviews like this can get a bit rambly, so I’ve restricted myself to five descriptive words or phrases per game. This will be interesting.

The Cave (Double Fine, 2013)

TheCave-Monk

Expertly interwoven, multifaceted, well-built, colourful characters, smooth gameplay.

8/10

What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

Edith-Finch

Clever mechanics, engaging, sensible length, nice visuals, weak story.

7/10

Maniac Mansion (LucasFilm, 1987)

Maniac-Mansion

Classic adventuring, tricky puzzles, dark humour, fantastic theme music, mean dead-ends.

7.5/10

Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell, 2012)

Thomas-Was-Alone

Quirky, stripped back, insecure cuboids, relaxing, nice puzzles.

6.5/10

Midnight Scenes: Highway and The Goodbye Note (Octavi Navarro, 2018)

Midnight-Scenes

Moody noir, eerie, bitesize fun, simple puzzles, beautiful art.

8/10

The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990)

Monkey-Island

Laugh-out-loud humour, genius puzzles, no-die safety, great unfolding, must-play classic.

9/10

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (LucasArts, 1991)

MI2

Wet-myself humour, self-referential, ahead of its time, brilliant score, brave ending.

10/10

Inside (Playdead, 2016)

Inside

Dark humour, mysteriously dystopian, gory puzzles, oozing atmosphere, flat ending.

8/10

Little Nightmares (Tarsier Studios, 2017)

Little-Nightmares

Other-worldly horror, amazing graphics, great monsters, pulse-racing, slightly frustrating.

7/10

Hidden Folks (Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg, 2017)

Hidden-Folks

Charming, light-hearted, amusing sounds, creative, mindless fun.

8/10

A great mixture, and I enjoyed every one of them. I’m looking forward to what games 2019 brings!

Postscript: my favourite video game music in 2018