Monday, October 31, 2011

I Can't Get Started with You

How do I avoid killing this innocent child?

seems like a game I could grow to like once I get comfortable with it, but right now I'm in that angst-filled stage of gameplay where I don't know how everything works yet, and every time I leave an area, I feel like I missed something. As much as I like CRPGs, I hate this phase of playing CRPGs--when I'm just on the cusp of familiarity, yet something still seems elusive.

Baldur's Gate gave you a nice, relaxing tutorial in which the monks taught you how to use the keyboard.

I suspect many other gamers feel similarly, because a somewhat standard feature in modern games is a limited introductory area combined with a tutorial. I don't know what game offered this first, but I first encountered it in Baldur's Gate and it was brilliant. There were a series of simple quests interspersed with characters who tutored you on how to use the interface. By the time you left Candlekeep, you could focus entirely on the story and gameplay. Neverwinter Nights, Oblivion, and Dragon Age: Origins are all recent games with good opening sections that ease you into the game world and interface.

The useful Oblivion tutorial.

In the pre-tutorial era, CRPGs had several other ways to get you going smoothly. One was by simply not being that hard to begin with. Anyone who sits down with Rogue for 10 minutes and then screams, "I just can't figure this game out!" probably shouldn't be at the computer at all. Another was to adopt conventions of other games; a Wizardry player doesn't have much difficulty figuring out The Bard's Tale. Certain series maintained consistency, and of course in the 1990s, you start to see commonalities in games that use the same engine. I don't think Icewind Dale had a tutorial, but most gamers were coming from Baldur's Gate and didn't need it.

This is why it can be so comfortable to slip into a D&D-derived game. You may not know the world, the quest, or the characters, but at least you know the rules. I can't remember the last time I fired up a D&D game and said to myself, "I wonder if the 'fireball' spell is going to be useful."

Of course, many early game developers relied on manuals to do the work of tutorials, and this is perhaps the least satisfying way to get involved in a game. I love the old game manuals for back story and descriptions of the world--I really need to do a posting on this--but not for descriptions of the interface. There's not much more painful than to read a description of a game screen you haven't even encountered yet.

From the Pool of Radiance manual: Each menu command described in detail. Easier just to figure it out while playing.

Stephen King has a pretty good passage in Hearts in Atlantis in which an older character is giving advice to a kid about reading.

A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give...eventually.

He recommends that the kid read the first 20 pages or something, and if by then it's just not flowing, put it aside and try something else. This was largely the purpose behind my six-hour rule. I figured it would stop me from discarding perfectly good games that just take a while to get into. It has, for the most part. But, for some reason, in 1988, I've been allowing myself the luxury of blowing past games that confound me--BattleTech, Sentinel Worlds, Star Command--with the result that I have a whole list of games I've kicked to the end of the 1988, and I now I have to put in some serious elbow grease.

It starts with Wasteland. I haven't played it all month, so I really need to just start over with a brand new set of characters, focus, and devote the time until it starts flowing on its own. I think I'll have enough by tomorrow for at least a short posting. In the meantime, for any of you who recognized the title of this posting from an old Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke song (it's really worth downloading the Bunny Berigan and Anita O'Day versions), here's a verse I wrote just for you:

I've led the arls of Ferelden to war
A whole world calls me its avatar
With demon lords I've a-la-carted
Still I can't get started with you

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Game 65: Wasteland (1988)

United States
Interplay (developer); Electronic Arts (publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II and Commodore 64; 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 2 October 2011

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

I had little idea what to expect when starting Wasteland, other than dozens of you love the game and have all but threatened me with bodily harm should I not love it myself. As I indicated a few months ago, I'm not a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, but I can try to suppress that for good gameplay.

Having not even looked at a screen shot before yesterday, I was thus rather unprepared to find a strange hybrid between The Bard's Tale (in combat), Ultima IV/V (in dialogue and the top-down perspective), Pool of Radiance (in the use of journal entries), and perhaps Demon's Winter (in the direct application of skills and items). The latter point is something I'll have to cover in more detail below, because it confounded me for a while.

But first, the story: The game postulates an escalating arms and space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and their respective allies) between 1987 and 1998. In 1998, just as a new space station was supposed to go online, all of Earth's orbital satellites disappeared, causing the two superpowers to panic and launch "90 percent of their nuclear arsenals," destroying most of civilization.

The PCs come from an outpost in the southwestern United States that used to be a federal prison. The small civilization is made up of the remnants of a company of U.S. Army engineers, who were doing some work in the area, and some local "survivalist communities." The nascent civilization established a martial force called the Desert Rangers to make contact with other civilizations and protect the community from assorted marauders, including the convicts whom the Army expelled from the prison.

The party consists of up to four player-created characters plus NPCs you can pick up along the way. Character creation was a difficult process for me. There are a standard set of attributes--strength, speed, charisma, IQ, agility, luck, and dexterity (odd to see speed, agility, and dexterity)--rolled randomly from 3 to 18, which is no big deal, but then you select from up to 27 different skills. The game manual indicates that the selection of skills, and the number you could select, are both determined by the IQ score, so for all four characters, I shot for the highest IQ I could.

Allotting skills.

The problem was in determining what skills to assign. In all games that feature skills, you almost have to play the game once to get a sense of what skills are valuable. Games have a way of making particular skills sound valuable, then pulling the rug out from under you. For instance, Wasteland features a skill called "acrobat," which the game indicates "can get you out of a tough situation--like leaping off of bar counters while you're surrounded by a hostile crowd." This sounds potentially useful, but it may turn out that there are only four situations in the entire game in which you have to leap off a bar counter, and all of them have alternate solutions. There are several others--"demolition," "forgery," "alarm disarm," "bureaucracy"--that could either be extraordinarily useful throughout the game or utterly worthless. Only time will tell. I gave everyone at least one combat-oriented skill and made the best guesses I could from there.

In character creation, you also get to choose nationalities, including U.S., Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican. I chose one each of everyone but Chinese, wondering at the same time how to explain such a diverse group in the American southwest just before a nuclear war.

I started out in Ranger Center--the converted prison--without a lot of clues about what to do. The manual indicates that my team has been "assigned to investigate a series of disturbances in the desert" and that I need to check a town called Highpool, an agricultural center, and the camp of the Rail Nomads. At first, I thought the game had started me with no weapons or equipment, and I fought the first few battles with my bare hands, but then I realized I actually had an extensive inventory of pistols, ammunition, and goods.

That hand mirror will come in handy.

West of the Ranger Center, I found the town of Highpool, which I wandered around for a while. I like how the game's message box changes to tell me a little about the features and buildings I'm passing:

This isn't entirely useless information, I don't think, as one of my quests has to do with repairing a pump.
Wandering into a shop, I was greeted by a note that seemed to offer a sort of "quest list" for Highpool:

I wasn't sure what any of the items really meant, but in the southwest corner of town, I ran into a child--Bobby, it turned out--who offered me some hints, when prompted by certain keywords, about these quests.

NAME, JOB, and HEALTH don't produce any responses, regrettably.

At this point, I got stuck for almost an hour. Bobby had told me that the cave was hidden behind some bushes, but I wandered all over the place and didn't find it. After a long time screwing around, I realized I need to "use" my "perception" skill to find the cave, but even then it took about 30 minutes of searching every bush in the area. I then had to use a rope to climb down.

The game is unique in the way that you can directly employ skills, items, and even attributes through the "use" command. In another place, for instance, I found a locked door, but I was able to "use" my strength to force it open--I assume I could similarly have used my lock picking skill. Usually, games tell you the scenario and offer you the option of using your various skills; this is the only one I've played that really forces you to pay close attention to your surroundings and figure out what skill works best. In another location, I found a shop that indicated there was gambling going on, but I didn't take the "gambling" skill, so I assume that's why I wasn't offered the option to play a game.

To interact with some characters, you have to start an "encounter" with them. This took me a while to figure out.

After that, I really hosed things up. I entered the cave but had to kill Bobby's rabid (or mutated dog). Though I found the missing Jackie (who joined my party), when I exited the cave I was confronted by a heartbroken Bobby, who attacked me and forced me to kill him. I then got into a tussle with a bunch of local kids who laughed at me for falling into a stream and ended up essentially massacring the town. Not a great start. Now that I know a little more about how the game is played, I think I'm going to roll up some more characters and try different skills.

Shooting a kid whose dog you killed is not a great start to the adventure.

On combat, I will say that it's remarkably like The Bard's Tale II and III, which makes sense, as they are both Interplay games. Enemies start from a distance and you have various options for attacking, evading, and fleeing. After you queue up actions for each character, the game executes them--I think in order of the character's speed.

The rabid dog would not let me "hire" him.

The shops are also very Bard's Tale-ish:

$10 for a match. Nuclear apocalypses are really tough on inflation.

As I prepare to start over, I am intrigued by the various gameplay elements and innovations, and I'm beginning to see why so many people like it. But there's a lot to get used to. I'm not entirely sure how firearms and ammunition work, for instance, and I don't know how to determine which of my pistols does the most damage. There doesn't seem to be any way that I can find to "advance" across a field of combat, so I'm not sure what to do when there are 40 feet between me and the enemy and I only have melee weapons. I'm sure it will sort itself out.

In the meantime, I'll be impressed if anyone gets my opening verse without Googling it. I thought it was eerily appropriate.