Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Perfect CRPG: Difficulty

You can encounter these guys on Level 1...for about a second.

This is the first of a series of postings in which I want to discuss the various elements that make up my GIMLET. Not just the 10 categories that make up the GIMLET, mind you, but each of the individual elements among the categories. I want to milk this for a while.

Today's topic concerns the difficulty of the game, one of the elements I include in my final "Gameplay" category. Like many of the elements, it often feels like this factor ought to have a category of its own. A game that's too hard or too easy can ruin many of its other positive elements. But character development throws a complicated factor into the issue of difficulty: how do you make the player feel that the characters are growing more powerful without making the game too easy?

There are, to my mind, two ways to handle this paradox:

1. Make a very wide range of difficulty immediately available to the player at the beginning of the game. As the characters grow, they are able to explore areas where they had their asses handed to them a few levels ago.

2. Keep the difficulty essentially static but introduce new options (perks, skills, feats, tactics, spells) as a reward for leveling. The game never gets easier but it gets more fun as you explore these new tactical options.

A game can have both, of course, and most of them do. But usually one of them is the primary mechanism.

I prefer games that handle difficulty primarily via the first option. In my limited experience, the best exemplar of such games is the Might & Magic series (I haven't played IV or V yet, but I assume they're similar in this to I, II, VI, VII, and VIII). The moment you start the game (or shortly thereafter), you can travel to all of the game's maps. In VI, you can challenge yourself by exploring Gharik's Forge or Castle Darkmoor early in your career, or you can play it safe and come back on a higher level. Just as notable, you can return to the New Sorpigal map when you're Level 50 and wipe out an entire map's worth of goblins in about three minutes (in my recollection, all maps re-spawn roughly every 6 game months). This allows you to palpably experience the effects of character development while still keeping things difficult as you progress through the plot.

Arch-nemesis at Level 1 becomes an ant to stomp on at Level 20.

The first option is only possible, of course, in games with relatively open worlds. But they need not be sandboxes like Skyrim. Wizardry qualifies. You could charge down to Level 4 immediately upon entering the dungeon if you want, but you'd soon regret it. Earlier levels remain quite available and accessible even as you explore and map new ones. Pool of Radiance restricts you at the outset, but after a few quests, you can explore the entire game world whether you're ready or not.
Dragon Age: Origins is a good example of #2. Enemies level with you, there are a fixed number of enemies in the game, nothing respawns, there are no random encounters, and for plot reasons you can't return to many areas after clearing them. The difficulty remains essentially unchanged throughout the game, but to keep up with your enemies, you have to make effective use of the talents you choose as you level up.

I haven't been telling you, but in the midst of all of my other gaming and blogging, I've been continuing to play Skyrim on and off. I finished the main quest a few months ago, and I recently started over with a new character so I could explore the two quest lines I hadn't yet: the Dark Brotherhood, and the war from the point of view of the Stormcloaks. When you think about it, these two quest lines add the most replayability to the game. They are the only ones that offer alternatives that allow you to cut off your ability to access them: the Dark Brotherhood by killing Astrid when she first kidnaps you, and the Stormcloaks by joining the Imperial Legion instead. You're free to ignore the Thieves' Guild, the Companions, and the College of Winterhold, of course, but not if you want to end the game with an empty quest log.

During the last three Elder Scrolls games, we've watched the creators struggle to balance difficulty amidst the openness of the game world. Morrowind, though a great game, is ultimately too easy. Creatures as diverse in strength as mudcrabs and daedroths populate the game world from the outset, and it's fairly easy to wander off on the wrong path and encounter something you're nowhere near ready to face. But because creatures don't level with you, you can kill even the toughest creatures with a couple of hits well before the end of the game, even on the highest difficulty setting.

Oblivion goes too far in the other direction. To keep the player from over-leveling, the creators have nearly every enemy in the game level with you. There is no dungeon that is undefeatable from Level 1 (and indeed some fans like to win the game without leaving Level 1), nor is there any moment that you can just casually brush past goblins or bandits. As you increase in levels, enemies not only also level up but acquire absurdly advanced equipment, and it's not unusual to find some hedge bandit demanding 100 gold pieces from you while displaying enough daedric armor to buy a mansion. To counter this, most players engage in leveling strategies that keep them significantly more powerful than the foes, again rendering the game too easy.

You realize you could buy Skingrad for the price of that armor?

Skyrim, in my opinion, achieves a near-perfect balance. Encounters continue to level with the player, but not all of them do. In a dungeon where you might have found 16 regular draugrs, two "restless draugrs," and a draugr wight "boss" at Level 3, you'll find two regular dragurs, eight draugr wights, and a draugr overlord boss at Level 18. Encounters are context-specific, so a nest of skeevers doesn't suddenly turn into a nest of chauruses at Level 20, and you can enjoy firebombing them all at once. A number of wilderness encounters don't level with you at all, so you feel suitably powerful as your high-level character hacks, slashes, bashes, and shouts his way through a Stormcloak camp or Thalmor entourage. But a Forsworn Briarheart or an Arch Cryomage still might kill that same character in one hit. The game does a great job of giving you plenty of badass moments while still offering a challenge.

I'm at level 50, and these guys still haven't gotten easy.

Encounters are only one aspect of a game's difficulty. There are other two that are worth covering: difficulty settings and frequency of saves. Unfortunately, the trend has been to render both of these factors too simple, requiring some self-imposed (and thus artificial) restrictions on the part of the player.

I admit that beyond Skyrim and Dragon Age, I don't have a good grasp of the current CRPG market, but my impression is that essentially no modern games offer the same save game limitations of early CRPGs. I'm talking about games like Might & Magic, where you can only save upon return to the town, or NetHack, which destroys your saved game upon every re-load, or Wizardry, which immediately writes deaths to your character file. These limitations render even "easy" games somewhat perilous; in NetHack, you can win 98% of your battles and still never get past Level 10. Naturally, the difficulty level of a roguelike is an inseparable part of its challenge, and I wouldn't expect permadeath in Skyrim. Still, the ability to save at any point does remove a significant part of the challenge. Death should have consequences in a CRPG--it should make you fear it, and scream in frustration when it happens--and forcing the player to replay a significant part of the game is a fair consequence.

I therefore prefer the only-save-in-towns approach to Might & Magic, but I concede that this feature has been essentially lost forever. The only way to approximate it is to force yourself to only save every X minutes, or to only allow reloads from the last autosave, which is the approach I've taken since Baldur's Gate.

I may be wrong, but I don't think I've encountered a game with a "difficulty slider" on this blog. I've encountered them in the Black Isle/Bioware/Interplay D&D games (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale), Dragon Age, and the last three Elder Scrolls games, and I've only ever used them in the latter. Typically, all they adjust are aspects relating to hit points: how many your foe has, how much damage he does, and how much damage you do to him. I wish they adjusted more, like the types of foes you encounter, the likelihood of succeeding at certain tasks and, most importantly, enemy AI. I've never played a game in which the difficulty slider affected the enemy's intelligence, but it should. Imagine if instead of just giving them more hit points, a "master" setting in Skyrim made bandits chug healing and buffing potions, or made them more likely to flee. Imagine if it made dragons say "screw this" and fly off when they realize you're just going to hide and snipe at them from a tower.

"Insane" level in Baldur's Gate makes monsters do double damage.

I typically find that in games with "closed" combat systems (e.g., the Gold Box games, Dragon Age), adjusting the slider upward is an exercise more in punishment than in challenge. In games in which the combat system is more integrated with the game world--specifically, in games where you can flee, regroup, and return--the difficulty slider is more fun to play with. I've played Skyrim with it set to maximum from the very beginning. In a game that offers so many combat options--sneaking, spells, poison, sword-and-board, summoning allies, getting enemies to fight each other (I love leading dragons to giant camps), luring enemies into traps, shouting them off cliffs--putting the difficulty at max ensures that I explore all of these options.

The problem is that, as with my self-imposed restrictions on saving, I know that a difficult combat can be won by simply ratcheting the difficulty slider back down. When I played Dragon Age with Irene, she was only really interested in the dialogue and story. Because I got sick of dying, I (shamefully) put the slider at "novice" and just blazed my way through the game, missing out on most of the joy associated with mastering tactics and carefully managing inventory. I'd rather I didn't even have that temptation, and I wish games forced you to choose the difficulty at the outset rather than allowing you to continually adjust it. I think maybe one that does is Icewind Dale, where you can permanently lock "heart of fury" mode after winning the game once on a normal difficulty.

In summary, then, the "perfect" CRPG would:

  • Never get so easy you're bored or so hard that you're infuriated.
  • Make enemies of all levels of difficulty available from beginning to end, whether or not the average difficulty "levels" with the player.
  • Force limited saves (or at least allow the player to select an option for this when starting a new game), or employ some other mechanism to assign a "cost" to saving and reloading.
  • Include a difficulty slider that a) remains fixed after beginning the game; b) has more complexity to what it adjusts than simply hit points and damage.

There are plenty of CRPGs that I haven't played, so I ask you: are there any that have all three of these features?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

B.A.T.: Won!* (With Final Rating)

This is the second game in a row to just dump me onto a screen like this at the end.

Computer's Dream (Developer) / Ubi Soft (Publisher)
Olivier Cordoleani, Herve Lange
Released 1989 (Atari ST); DOS version from 1990
Date Started: 06 July 2012
Date Ended: 10 July 2012
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 28/64 (44%)

B.A.T. ought to stand for "Bait and Tswitch." The game promises to be a CRPG/adventure hybrid and almost entirely fails to deliver on the CRPG part.

I spent a lot of time--too much time--winning the game yesterday. My winning character was probably my eighth; most of the first seven died of starvation rather than experiencing "walking dead" moments. There were only a few puzzles, and the game world is fairly small. The key to winning involved doing things in a particular sequence (as is often true in adventure games) and "searching" every area and after every combat to pick up the few vital inventory items.

Failure to search after killing Merigo puts you in a "walking dead" situation.

The basic winning sequence (obviously major spoilers for anyone playing the game) was to do the following:

1. Equipped myself with one good weapon, a couple of clips of ammunition, at least one force field, and a number of units of food. Medicine was sometimes useful but I learned to flee most combats, and in my final play-through, it wasn't necessary as I only fought Merigo and Vrangor.

2. Headed to the arcade and played the "Bizzy Game" until I had about 500 more credits than I started with. Changed those credits for local currency and that lasted for the rest of the game. This might have been cheating a bit, as I used Notepad to write down the sequence of shapes for each level and then just repeated them. I think you're supposed to memorize it.

3. Went into a bar and ask a woman about Merigo. She told me that some random alien or robot was talking about him.

4. Wandered around the city until I find the right alien or robot. He told me to meet him at the museum at a particular time. Met him there and got a clue that Merigo was in the Xifo club. Bought an access pass to the club from the same NPC or wandered around until I found another NPC that had one.

Who goes to a nightclub at 6 o'clock in the morning?!

5. Visited the Xifo club at the right time, encountered Merigo, and defeated him in combat. Searched his corpse for an electronic key that would get me into the underground area in #10.

What happened to this guy? I just shot him! I didn't cut off his nose and burn him!

6. Visited the nightclub at a particular time (around 03:00), danced with Lydia, and got her to join me.

7. Visited the arcade again at a particular time (around 13:00), used the "Bizzy" machine, and met Sloan. Agreed to his challenge about who could reach the highest level. Watched him play five or six levels (the game actually makes you watch the entire thing) and then beat his level. Asked him to join me as a reward.

"Sloan" looks oddly Native American.

8. Used Sloan to get through the airlock. Talked to a guy who would rent me a "drag" for $5,900. Lydia suggested that I contact Crisa Kortakis for financial help and gave me her number.

I have no idea what he meant by "arrangements for personal cover."

9. Used the payphone on the first screen to call Kortakis, got an appointment with her, and visited her--she turned out to be a morbidly obese, emotionally unstable, unclothed woman--in her apartment. Got her to give me a bunch of extra cash. I could have skipped this step with all the money I won at the "Bizzy game," but she also gave Lydia a gem needed for #11.

10. Went into the underground and navigated a very frustrating, complicated 3D maze. I found it impossible to map, because I didn't realize that the game randomly turns you every time you exit a door. I finally buckled and looked at an online map, which is why there's an asterisk after "Won!" in the title.

This took bloody forever.

11. In the underground city on the other side of the maze, used Lydia's gem to activate a control panel and get me an Epsilon Card that showed the way to Vrangor's hiding place at Epsilon Station (needed for #13). Returned to the city, which forced me to re-navigate the maze because some of the doors I used on the way there were now locked.

I can't quite make a double entendre out of this.

12. Checked into a hotel in the city and searched the room for an access card for the technician's panel at the airlock. Visited the airlock and got the access code for Epsilon Station.

13. Paid the guy in the airlock is $5,900 for the drag. Headed out into the desert and drove around randomly until I saw a blinking light indicating where Epsilon Station was.

There wasn't much to this complicated-looking interface. Left-click to speed up, right-click to slow down, mouse to turn.

14. Entered the station, input the code from #12, went through a door, and encountered Vrangor. Defeated him in combat (he was the easiest foe in the game) and immediately got tossed into the "The End" screen at the top of this posting.

Vrangor went down so easily that I had time to take my hand off the mouse and take this screen shot.

Figuring out this sequence involved a lot of trial-and-error, of course. The first time I bought the drag, I drove it around aimlessly and found nothing. The first time I entered the maze, it was before I had Lydia's gem, so I got all the way to the underground city and couldn't finish. As you heard last time, I didn't realize that some of the events (such as meeting Lydia and Sloan) were time-sensitive, so I spent a lot of time wondering what to do next. It took me forever to figure out that the technician access card was in the hotel room; I thought the hotel room was just a place to sleep.

It actually turns out you can sleep anywhere, which was good because I used the option to wait out the time before the time-sensitive events. Time passes very slowly in the game; so much so that I was only on day 3 of my 10-day limit when I won.

I doze in a dark, dangerous alley.

Just for fun, after I won, I had a character sleep solidly for 12 days, and the world didn't end, so the 10-day limit seems to be something of a red herring.

All humans were supposed to be dead two days ago.

The puzzles exemplified many of the things that I don't like about adventure games. Too many of them required me to pick up obscure cards in obscure places. If y'all hadn't clued me in to wait around the arcade until the right time, I probably never would have met Sloan (even meeting Lydia was a fluke; I just happened to enter the club at the right time the first time I played). And then we have the issue, discussed last time, of having to click in just the right place to find the arrow to a new area. It was very late in the game that I found the path to the underground city on a screen I'd visited 500 times without noticing an alternate exit.

But it bothers me more how the game works--or doesn't work--as a CRPG. Let's move on to the GIMLET and we'll talk about that.

1. Game world. This is the first cyberpunk-influenced game that I've played, and while I'll never love the genre, I am grateful for the chance to play something other than the typical sword-and-sorcery CRPG. The game manual offers a fairly good history of the setting and describes the different alien and robot races to an extent frankly not required by the actual gameplay. The player's role and quest are fairly clear, and the game world does a good job responding to your actions. Mercilessly blast NPCs and the entire world turns against you, offering combat on every corner. Steal from shopkeepers and get caught, and no one will do business with you. There are neat little touches as you explore, such as flyers that give phone numbers for the club and the police station; you can call them from the payphone for somewhat useless information. There are a cinema and a police station that seem to be there just for atmosphere. All in all, not a bad world. It's just not very big, and they didn't do much with it. Score: 6.

Fiddling around with the phone allows you to call Ubi Soft, the game publisher.

2. Character Creation and Development. This was very disappointing. The game is offered as a CRPG and adventure hybrid, and the opening screen seems specifically designed to appeal to CRPG players, with a standard set of attributes and various skills, and with the ability to select your name. But the joke's on the CRPG player because no one ever refers to you by name, and if the attributes and skills play any role, it's very subtle. I didn't see a single place in which "electronics," "climbing," "evaluate," "mechanics," "truck," "locate," "pick locks," or many of the other skills would be used. It's possible that some of the attributes had an effect on speed and effectiveness in combat, but combat wasn't hard enough to require such tweaking. The character does gain "levels" throughout the course of play, but again, the influence of this is essentially undetectable.

Just for fun, I tried different combinations. I created a character who had no intelligence, charisma, and perception and was all force, energy, and reflexes, and I created a second character who was the opposite. The only thing notably different was the speed at which combat began and the character's effectiveness in combat. NPC interaction, use of other computer consoles, even the price charged for goods by shopkeepers, all seemed exactly the same. It feels like the creators came up with an engine that supports a CRPG/adventure hybrid but didn't come up with a scenario that actually makes use of the engine. Score: 2.

Stuff like this fools you into thinking that this is a real CRPG.

3. NPC Interaction. Admittedly better than a lot of standard CRPGs. There are a wide variety of robots and aliens to talk with, get hints from, buy things from, steal from, and attack. They just don't have much to say. Like many things in the game, the interface is better than the substance; ultimately, it is only strictly necessary to talk to two or three of them. Nonetheless, the ability to steal from and attack them gives more role-playing options than many games. Having to pick up a couple of NPCs to follow you around was vaguely interesting. Score: 4.

4. Encounters. Although there are different types of aliens in the game, they are essentially indistinguishable from each other in attitude and helpfulness, and you don't really role-play your encounters with them. Neither are there any role-playing choices in the puzzles. Not a strong part of the gameplay. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. No magic, of course, and combat is extremely basic. You click on your weapon and shield to activate them, and then click on your foe until he's dead (or you are). There are no tactics save the option to flee. Again the developers half-assed the RPG part of the game here. I can't complain that it's not an RPG, because combat effectiveness is clearly based on attributes (it's pretty much the only thing that is), but the overall combat system is still very weak.

Perhaps more egregiously, there's hardly any combat in the game. My final character had just two fights, with the two main villains. They were both considerably easier than the random encounters I occasionally had with robots before I started fleeing them. Score: 1.

6. Equipment. A non-puzzle-solving inventory is one of my criteria for a CRPG, and this game has it. You can carry around various types of weapons, shields, ammunition, medicine, food, and quest items. But while this seems to offer some kind of choice to the player, in reality every player will end up with the same one or two weapons, respective ammunition, a shield, and a couple of meals to prevent starvation. I do like that you can buy or loot some of these items from random NPCs. Score: 2.

"Steak and chips" sounded so good I had it for dinner in real life.

7. Economy. It's kind-of stupid. You start out with a moderate amount, and the only way to make more is to play the arcade game. Through the game, you end up with all the cash you'll ever need in about 30 minutes. (It would have been more along the lines of a CRPG if you got cash for killing foes.) The process of exchanging credits for local cash seemed tedious and purposeless, and aside from food and beverages, which are cheap, there's not much to buy. Score: 1.

It's no wonder the world is so depressing and grimy if this is all people have to do for money.

8. Quests. There is one clear main quest, of the simple "kill the bad guy" variety, with no side quests. There are no alternate endings or opportunities to role-play the main quest. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. As we've seen, the graphics are lovely--probably the best thing about the game, and perhaps the best graphics we've seen so far on this blog. There are no sound effects--just a series of repetitive, annoying techno tunes that I muted. The interface is all-mouse, and while I often don't like that (cf. Dungeon Master, Galdregon's Domain), it didn't work too badly here. The bigger problem is having to hover carefully over every pixel on the screen to make sure you aren't missing something vital to click on. I would have appreciated clearer highlighting of paths. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Like many adventure games of the era, B.A.T. is very linear and offers only one gameplay experience. Once you figure out its quirks and secrets, it's quite brief, and there would be no reason to replay it once you've won. It's level of challenge feels about right, even if I wish the nature of the challenges were a little more sophisticated. Score: 3.

I'm going to give the game a bonus point for the programmable computer, which I didn't really explore beyond a simple program (offered by the manual) to allow easy switching between alien and robot translation. Apparently, there was a lot more I could have done with it, including setting up automatic alerts for hunger, thirst, and alien pursuit. I've never seen anything like it in a game.

There are a lot of games for which this kind of macro would be extremely helpful.

The final rating of 29 puts the game slightly above some CRPGs that I didn't like and didn't finish. That feels right; I didn't hate the game, but I was a bit disappointed by it. Its score is notably below Beyond Zork's of 46; the latter game is really the first RPG/adventure hybrid, and even though it was non-graphical, it showed what a hybrid could really be, with statistics and equipment that mattered, complex (but logical) puzzles, and far more interesting encounters.

An ad for B.A.T. from the November 1990 Computer Gaming World.

I haven't been able to find a lot of contemporary reviews for B.A.T., but I am amused by the advertisement's promise that you can "pilot the DRAG, a genuine flight simulator shown in 3D." Some reviewers seem to have picked this up and offered it as a game "feature." The DRAG part of the game lasts about 30 seconds, and there is nothing about it that remotely approximates a flight simulator.

B.A.T.'s developer, Computer's Dream, made only one other game: a sequel called The Koshan Conspiracy (1992). It appears that they abandoned any pretense of making it a CRPG; MobyGames lists it as an adventure/strategy hybrid. The company was renamed Haiku Studios in 1993 and made one other game, an adventure game called Down in the Dumps, before it went out of business. Of the two developers, Herve Lange appears to still be active, but his credits have shifted to kids' games. Olivier Cordoleani seems to have gone into marketing and advertising. In any event, I am encountering all of them for my one and only time.

Bloodwych, of which I know absolutely nothing, is next.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

B.A.T.: High-Tech and Low-Life

The agent finds Bourbon Street.

The title comes from a quote in Wikipedia's entry on cyberpunk, a genre with which I am not terribly familiar and will probably never really love. The atmosphere reminds me unfavorably of Blade Runner, and I know I'm risking the wrath of thousands of commenters in saying that I never liked the film and the crapsack world it depicts. Cyberpunk always seems unnaturally pessimistic. Take this computer that my B.A.T. agent has lodged uncomfortably in his arm (wouldn't it catch on things?):

I've given up trying to feed and water myself during my exploration phase, but I haven't really noticed that it makes a difference.

Would I really need a cybernetic attachment to tell me that I'm hungry? All of the other stuff that this computer does, and a lot more, I could happily accomplish with the iPhone in my pocket, thanks. At first, I was going to question how I could possibly shower with this thing, but of course one of the defining characteristics of cyberpunk is that no one ever appears to bathe.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy.

I'm on the fence on the game itself. On one hand, I like the note-taking and mapping that accompanies a good adventure game. On the other, the interface is very confusing. Many times, you cannot return the a map screen using the same path that you took to leave it; for instance, the path from the pub to the astroport is north, but the path from the astroport back to the pub is west. That's fine: plenty of adventure games do this. But it's very difficult in this game to figure out what directions you can go from a screen. Certain directional arrows only appear when hovering over about four pixels of the screen--pixels that don't seem to depict a passageway or door--so it's extremely easy to overlook certain paths of movement.

It took forever to find this path (see arrow on the left) back to the starting area.

A few hours ago, I was ready to give up on the game, but I realized I'd been playing badly. I somehow expected that this game, as an early hybrid, would be very quick--almost more like a demonstration than a real game--so I got impatient fairly quickly. When I slowed down and started keeping detailed paperwork, I started to enjoy it a bit more. At this point, I've mapped 21 unique areas and 8 shops and buildings within them. It's tough to come up with a precise number because the window tends to sub-divide into sections of areas and then buildings within those sections.

A specific theater within a cinema within a quarter within a neighborhood.

I've yet to see much in the way of the RPG half of the game. Maybe a little in combat, which I will describe anon, but so far, unless it's happening in the background, I've yet to use a single skill (pick locks, climbing, mechanics, truck) that the game showed me on the character creation screen.

What are these attributes actually for?

Combat is rare in the game, but it's very deadly unless you're quick. When it starts, the game gives you a few seconds to equip your weapon and shield, and then you start blasting away, simply by clicking on the enemy's portrait. There are no tactics involved. As far as I can tell, the only benefits to defeating foes are that a) you survive, and b) you get some "experience." Then again, I've yet to see what experience actually does for me.

Thusfar, all of my combats have come in the form of random attacks by robots. I have to react too quickly to those to take screenshots, so I deliberately attacked some harmless aliens to take the shot below. I guess you could play the game "evil" and attack every alien and robot you see, but that probably has long-term consequences.

1) I didn't notice the "Escape" button until just now. That may come in handy. 2) You cannot shoot the helpless fleeing people on the side of the screen. I have tried.

Combat is made a little less deadly through shields, which I purchased at a shop in an alleyway.

After each battle, if injured, I have to head over to the doctor's office and get "surgery" to get back to normal.

This guy is going to buy a summer home on Corellia thanks to me.
This has drained my cash fairly quickly, but on another screen, there's an arcade where you can play a memory game and win some back. You then have to convert your "credits" into local cash at another machine. I'm not sure if the different types of money and conversion serve any plot purpose later.

"The bizzy game" is kind of fun, but it gets harder and harder as you play along.

The memory game isn't the only mini-game. On another memorable screen, I entered a dance club and met a woman named Lydia who asked me to dance with her. I didn't realize the dance screen was a mini-game in which you have to alternately click the right and left mouse buttons to "dance" (the image changes to show your PC busting all kinds of moves, which was moderately amusing).

I'm having flashbacks to my prom.

After failing the first time, I reloaded and danced like a pro. Lydia said she'd accompany me throughout the city, but I haven't seen a sign of her since then.

I don't know. I could never be with a woman who spaces punctuation like that.

I otherwise haven't made a lot of progress. In a bar, a woman told me that a "stickrob" (a type of robot) was talking about Merigo...

...but every stickrob I can find says he just arrived in town or offers something bland.

Yeah, that's oodles of help.

There are only a few overt mysteries that I cannot solve or places that I cannot pass. Namely:

  • There's a payphone but I don't have any idea what number to dial
  • An entrance to "Miss Kortakis's" compound is guarded by The Guardian from Ultima VII. I can't pass without an invitation.

Is that some kind of vampire peeking up at the bottom?

  • There's an exit to the planet's surface, but I need the credentials of a pilot or technician to pass.

And pick up that can!

However, there are plenty of places that seem like they ought to have more going on--including a multi-screen museum, a cinema, and a police station--so I'm partly worried that I just haven't clicked on the right places. My plan, thus, is to revisit every screen and carefully hover over every pixel and make sure I haven't missed anything. I'll also re-talk to every NPC, but so far they've been mostly worthless. Light hints of the "consider spending more time in the X area" variety are appreciated.

Given the nature of the game, you'd think there would be more to do in the police station.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Game 73: B.A.T. (1989)

A few months ago, I was musing about how role-playing games relate to the hemispheres of the brain. I suggested that pen-and-paper RPGs were curious in that they appeal to both halves: open-ended storytelling for the right side and hard statistics and probabilities for the left side. I noted that the earliest developers of computer RPGs essentially took the left-brained stuff and nothing else; all the storytelling went into adventure games--first text, then graphical. These are no less "role-playing" games than what we call CRPGs, as you definitely play a role, but they didn't get that title.

Thinking about it now, I think my reasoning was a bit flawed. While storytelling and statistical halves of tabletop RPGs definitely peeled off into two separate game genres, I'm not sure you can really call computer adventure games "right-brained," since they don't really appeal to the player's creativity. Quite the opposite: many of them require the player to progress through a series of steps in a specific order. I wouldn't necessarily call them "left-brained," either, since those steps are often nonsensical or counter-intuitive. You spend more time figuring out what the developer possibly had in mind than what your character would do in a real situation. It's probably this reason that's kept me from embracing adventure games most of my life. There have been some exceptions. I have a fondness for the Infocom text adventures because they were very well-written and had a great sense of humor. The first Myst game blew me away with its graphics, atmosphere, and complexity of the puzzles. Beyond that, though, the genre often leaves me flat. I love reading Trickster's writing at The Adventure Gamer, but I can't say I love the games.

We're entering an era now, though, in which the genres are starting to blend. Programming limitations became less of an issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it was possible for developers to include strong narratives along with flexible inventories and probability-based combats. B.A.T. is the first game to appear on both Wikipedia's chronology of computer role-playing games and its list of graphical adventure games. Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero? will soon follow. We'll have several per year throughout the 1990s. This game will demonstrate how well I ease into these hybrids. (Technically, Beyond Zork was the first hybrid, albeit non-graphical. But it's hard to take that game as a serious example of anything.)

Every secret agent needs a gun.

When I heard the name, I thought that B.A.T. might take place in a future where firearms are completely legal, but we still needed agents to investigate alcohol and tobacco. Instead, though, the initialism stands for the Bureau of Astral Troubleshooters--essentially the Secret Service of the 22nd Century. Actually, apparently in the original French version, it stood for Bureau des Affaires Temporelles ("Bureau of Temporal Affairs"), which sounds a bit cooler, although the manual doesn't suggest anything about time travel.

The B.A.T. manual (I suddenly just thought of The Tick) is clearly translated from French by someone with a limited grasp of English, but from what I can gather, it's the twenty-second century. Humanity has colonized the stars through "artificial black holes," has met up with different alien races, and has formed a Confederation of Galaxies. As a B.A.T. agent,

You will travel around various worlds, all different from each other, meeting strange or frightening characters. You will have to achieve perilous missions but you will have the fabulous chance to visit an integral world and to discover mysteries through adventures that we offer you.

My specific mission is apparently to find a terrorist named Vrangor and "blew his brains out" (the 4th Amendment clearly didn't survive transition to galactic government) within 10 days from the start of the game. The reason for this time limit became clear after the beginning of the game.

I know there's some question as to whether this is a CRPG, but it certainly starts like one. It's got a neat character creation process in which you can raise or lower six attributes--force, intelligence, charisma, perception, energy, and reflexes--and see in real-time (via a graph at the top of the screen) the corresponding effects on a selection of 13 skills, including pick locks, firing, and psychology.

I'm suppressing the part of me that's screaming, "You can't use line graphs to represent nominal data!!"

You then select a couple of weapons. The manual warns you that your choice is "crucial for the rest of the game" but doesn't offer much help. I went with something called the Hacker 30, described as "the butcher's weapon" and "beautiful weapon for you acupuncture experts!!!" plus a little "Voktrasof," that I gather is very concealable. After giving yourself a name, you are then deposited in a spaceport with a computer embedded in your arm and not much direction.

After a few futile conversations with a couple aliens and robots, I went to the only place the game would let me go: a nearby restroom. There, I encountered another B.A.T. agent, who gave me my mission: track down an escaped prisoner named Vrangor by first finding his co-escapee, Merigo. Vrangor is exerting some influence over the ruler of Selenia, who has issued a decree that every human has to leave within 10 days or face execution.

Actually, I think it might be helpful if I heard the long story.

The agent gave me a hologram of Merigo to show people and sent me off.

Although the views in the game are first-person, you can't do anything fancy like turn or rotate. Instead, you move from screen to screen and interact with the elements on the screen the same way you do in a lot of adventure games, clicking on people to talk to them, machines to use them, and so forth. Sometimes, the places you can click are non-obvious, so you need to hover over pretty much everything.

This screen has a variety of buildings I can enter and people I can talk to.

At first, every alien just responded to me in gibberish, but then I realized I had to set my computer to translate "alien" instead of "robot." When I talk to robots, I need to set it back. This is a bit tedious.

This thing looks kind of disgusting.

So far, the NPC dialogue has been a little unproductive, but the interface isn't bad. You click on the NPC and select from a list of topics. One is to show Merigo's hologram, but so far no one has recognized him.

Thusfar, I'm not seeing a lot of RPG elements, but then again, I haven't encountered any combat yet. You do have a certain number of credits, with which you can buy things like ammunition and food. (To my mind, flexible spending options are not usually a hallmark of adventure games.) This is good, because I had none of the former when I started, and my computer told me I was both hungry and thirsty.
At least I see the "next" arrow on this one.

While I was exploring and typing this entry, the game screen flashed a few times, and then showed me an image of Selenia in which humans are dead in the streets, so I guess I failed somehow. I wonder if time passes when you're just standing around. If that's the case, I probably need to adjust my CPU speed downwards in DOSBox.

I had no idea so much was on the line.

As you can see, the visuals are pretty good. Of course, this DOS version came out in 1991, two years after the original Atari ST version. We're only a couple years away from Myst at this point. On the sound, so far I haven't heard any except for a relentlessly looping techno-beat that sent me for the "mute" button on my keyboard. This is the second game in which the developers seem to have thrown up their hands and said "screw it" when adapting sound for the DOS port.

I'm not in love with the game so far, but I'm eager to finish this first RPG/adventure hybrid. One major difference between RPGs and adventure games is that you generally start RPGs only one or two times and play through with your initial party, for better or worse. With adventure games, I often restart the game numerous times to explore and try out different things, and my winning character might be my 20th (e.g., Beyond Zork, Journey: The Quest Begins). I'm curious what happens, therefore, with hybrids.

Later edit: Make sure to read the comments on this one. Helm has a brilliant bit of philosophy.