2020 is a quasi-random number.

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: More Thoughts

November 20, 2004 review

There’s one word I’ve come across a few times in more sophisticated game design reviews that never really “clicked” for me. I’d have to look up the meaning, sorta go “oh”, and then immediately forget what it meant. Repeatedly. Now that I’ve played more of A Tale in the Desert, I understand fully what this word means. Furthermore, ATitD, I believe, suffers from a conflict between concept and execution. It’s ostensibly about building a society, but is, in effect, a micro-management game.

orthogonality

In Beyond Good and Evil — which I’m using only because it was my last review — you could switch fairly seamlessly between the main story, finding pearls, or finding animals. Doing one did not necessarily benefit doing the others (although, pleasantly, it often did). These were orthogonal design elements. That’s an academic froo-froo term for “perpendicular”.

ATitD doesn’t have this.

There are seven different tracks — jobs, more or less — in Egypt. You pass an initiation and follow down that path. You’re certainly not locked in place, and can, in fact, master all seven. This is unlikely, however, unless you are the android creation of Dr. Destructo and thus need no food or sleep.

You advance through each track via a series of tests. These tests are no small feat, and at times their completion is not guaranteed. For example, the initiation into Art requires you build a sculpture that is approved by some number of citizens and, I believe, not also condemned by some other number. This isn’t so hard, as Egyptians are not terribly finicky about art and you can usually just ask people to help out as a favor. But you get the gist; these aren’t just quests involving slaying the Ancient Dragon of Argokinoth.

Thus, it’s usually preferrable that a more casual player progress in one field, and not spread out too thin, otherwise he/she will not advance far in any field. Compound this with the massive amounts of item-construction that is required. An example for producing linen, a pretty useful item for “buying” certain skills:

1) Grow flax from seeds
2) Collect flax and rot it in water
3) Process rotten flax in a hackling rake in three steps to produce lint
4) Spin lint in a distaff to produce thread
5) Use handloom to weave thread into linen

Can you imagine doing this on your own, everytime you want linen? Keep in mind each step is not at all instantaneous. You need your guild(s) to help you. This is bad for unsociable people like myself. But I illustrate this point as a non-trivial example of the tedium, the micro-management, that this game necessitates. Moving linearly through one track can be such a time-consuming task for people who cannot spend over 20 hours of play a week that “orthogonally” taking a break from this tedium for something else — likely just as tedious — is not viable.

One solution to this is to provide a richer array of short-term activities that can both provide immediate enjoyment and add to long-term goals. Another solution is abtracting certain “tedious” tasks in a way that makes them more game-like (read “fun”). Yet another solution would simply be to make things happen faster.

micro-management

ATitD, lead design Teppy states, is supposed to be a game about building a “perfect society”. Not naively, he knows this is impossible but wants to see how a community will react when faced with long-term planning problems. So this lack of short-term goals is not, necessarily, accidental.

However, I have to take issue with the conflicts between high-level societal dilemmas and low-level chores such as growing cabbage and burning it to make ash. They are not necessarily in opposition, but the balance is very delicate. Simulations usually attempt this sort of thing. SimCity is certainly about long-term planning if you are trying to build a megalopolis, but you must resolve many low-level functions such as water and power management. ATitD’s flaw, I would say, has more to do with the extreme levels of and excessive time that needs to be spent on the low-level activites.

SimCity, and other simulators, will often provide instant feedback from your input; a change in city zoning could have immediately recognizable effects on traffic and population. But ATitD is not a simulator; it can rarely provide instant feedback. There is no immediate connection between time spent on one chore and reward for your efforts. A standard RPG will almost always give you experience points and/or gold for slaying an enemy. That’s instant feedback for a few minutes of combat. Was it worth it? No? Fight something else. But how do you know that gathering the material to build a mine, then finding a partiular mining location, then spending an hour or more excavating will produce sufficient results? Certainly you don’t know how this will better your society. Was it worth it? You don’t know. But you do need that copper ore. So you can smelt it. To make copper. For the copperwire. To donate to research.

One suggestion I have is to “tier” experienced players so that working the same amount of material will produce more results. This abstracts the process without changing it, meanwhile allowing players who have “payed their dues” to be more efficient.

wrap up

ATitD was my first MMOG exactly because it allowed me to associate with other players in a non-confrontational way. I found this to be important, as I was wary of games with newbies or elitists dragging down my gameplay experience. But these issues of orthogonality and micro-management, which overlap quite a bit, have made this game hard for me. Partly because I’m simply not social — which is a personal flaw, unrelated to the game — and because I simply don’t have enough time to be a very productive player and feel my monthly fee is being spent effectively. I believe the game is responsible for this.

I understand there are counterpoints to these criticisms. People say to join more guilds, especially those specifically suited to your goals. They suggest you find something you like doing, and stick with that, then trade with others for what you need. The first idea I find unworkable for myself; I do not have the time to organize or be organized by a guild, especially several. The second, I also find, would be much more workable if one had more time to play, and thus produce one’s wares, and had a bigger network of people willing to trade.

I believe that ultimately, I don’t dislike the system per se, but I believe it needs to be severely sped up, abstracted more, and needs to gain a better variety of engaging activities; not chores. I do feel A Tale in the Desert should be applauded for not being the same-ol’-same-ol’, but when exploring uncharted ground, you may not always arrive in friendly territory.

Beyond Good and Evil: Zelda, if it weren’t Zelda

November 9, 2004 review

Before I get into my opening remarks, let me be clear: I did indeed enjoy Beyond Good and Evil. Also, this is all based on the Gamecube version. And now, my opening remarks…

In the year something-or-other, Nintendo released a game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It went on to be the best game the face of the planet ever hoped to be blemished with, according to gamerankings. Years later came The Wind Waker, and, while enjoyed, didn’t quite possess the pizazz that its prequel held.

Somewhere in there the people at Ubisoft thought “Well. Hell, Zelda is great, right? But it’s too limited, you know? No story to speak of, and that’s a shame. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll make a Zelda game that — and get this —is not Zelda.” The Zelda parts of it: large dungeon-like facilities, a sword-like weapon that powers up, heart-container-style energy, water areas navigated by vehicle, taking pictures of things, and the general puzzling ethic. Non-Zelda elements: no octoroks.

Let’s explore what Beyond does differently and similarly from Zelda. Its main difference is its story, but there are some minor differences in gameplay. But there is, as mentioned, a whole host of similarities in style. Not a bad thing for Zelda-enjoying types.

The largest difference is not related to style, but to story. It is set in a semi-futuristic world of humans and human-like animals. And animals. Instead of rescuing a princess, you are trying to rescue something much more important… the truth. Yes, it’s painfully clear the ethical position of the writers. When one music track’s only lyric is “Propaganda!”, there’s not much room for misinterpretation.

On the other side of Ico’s perceived misogyny, Beyond tries to stand as a progressive voice, with a non-oversexed female lead: Jade. She has, in fact, a very modest chest. If it weren’t for the fact that her uncle (O.K… adoptive uncle) is a squat pig, she’d feel like a very normal, nondescript person. With bright green lipstick. Interestingly enough, it has been pointed out by one person that this difference — a normal human against a world of talking animals and odd cariacatures — is what makes her stand out. I do not think this is enough to trivialize her character, however.

The biggest difference in gameplay is the introduction of mostly unhelpful, but not aggravating, teammates. There are times when they are used for puzzles, and will often help distract an enemy whilst you take on others, but for a large part of the game they are either absent or simply “there”. It is nice, however, that they do not get in your way.

The game also has moments of strong cinematic touches — especially in the first and last battles. The introductory battle is, in fact, remarkably captivating. There are also a couple of well-realized set pieces which find a pleasing middle ground between game and action movie.

So what are these traits that Beyond borrows liberally? Progression is heavily linear; one item is needed to open new areas, which in turn will unlock new items. But Jade’s arsonal is much more limited than Link’s. In fact, she only has two weapons. (And really only three active items.) Most of the “items” are related to her vehicle. Jade spends most of her dungeon time sneaking, not fighting. The puzzles are, more like Ico, mainly figuring out how to get from A to B. It’s hard to describe this: if Hyllis were instead called Hyrule, and the DomZ were instead Moblins, you’d be playing Zelda, but without the need to switch between your boomerang and hookshot and fire arrows and music instrument and floation boots with every new room you enter.

However, the control is nearly identical. You interface with the game in nearly the same way as with Zelda, both physically using the controller and in your reactions in game-space. Again, a good thing, as you explore the environment in a very fluid manner, and exploration is a key play element here.

If you just put down Ocarina or Wind Waker, you will play through Beyond with no problem. It’s a strong game that breaks the rules just enough to be applauded, but treads too lightly in other ways. Almost every minute of the game was completely enjoyable and often rewarding. But the familiarity of much of the gameplay is what prevented it from really holding its own. An interesting note, this is much of what held Wind Waker back.


Let me take an aside to discuss one of the mini-games. We’ll call it “Future Air Hockey” (or “FAH”) for now.

The differences between FAH and normal air hockey are: there are eight pucks in the play field (each player starts with four on his/her side); there is a barrier in the middle of the field with a small passage in the middle; a player wins a round by getting all the pucks into the other player’s half of the field. A cursor selects the “active” puck; you pick and angle, and you send it flying. If it goes into your opponent’s play area, the cursor selects a new puck.

The biggest flaw of FAH is that you cannot determine which puck will become active. Thus, there are times with the computer will select the sub-optimal puck for you to deal with, and you may have to toss it randomly away so that you can control the puck you wish. I can live with the small passage in the middle of the field, thought I’m not entirely sure why it is diagonal and curved.

While not an impossible game, the cursor issue makes it more of a frustrating experience than it should have been. Naughty, naughty, Ubisoft. Shoulda used the +Pad!

A Tale in the Desert, Tale 2: First Impressions

review

(Note: this was written quite early in the game’s life. It’s now about two-and-a-half months old and I’ll be — in theory — putting up a follow-up soon. If not tonight.)

If anyone here’s played (and enjoyed) Animal Crossing, then you’ll understand what starting out in A Tale in the Desert is like.

The beginning is quite task-oriented. In AC, completing a series of tasks gets you a house to live in as well as serving as a tutorial; in Desert, you acquire citizenship and start understanding the tech tree scenario ahead of you. But I can’t say that once I had citizenship, I was ready to jump headfirst into the whole game.

In AC you really start getting the sense that there is a “living”, organic community around you, as well as an interesting (if small) little burg for you to explore. You’re eager to try things out, and acquire new tools so you can accomplish more things.

Again, many similarities in Desert. Egypt is much larger than your animal village, of course, and you’re just as interested in seeing what most of it is about. And you’re still eager to acquire new tools, both to further yourself and to further your guild, if you’re in one. (And, by extension, further all of Egypt.) The difference in the community, of course, is that it is living and organic; there is no fear that after two months of play, you’ll have all of your neighbors’ dialogue memorized.

Some differences abound, naturally. Because Egypt is so large, travel is somewhat cumbersome. There are a few ways to speed up travel — and some I may not know about — but overall your avatar will travel an impressive 1/1,050,000 miles per hour. And because there’s a good chance you’ll find nothing in your exploration, it could be a lot of time lost.

Another important difference is the evolving state of the game itself; over time, Egypt becomes wiser and has more technology open to it. At the “end” of AC (which is, of course, when you stop playing), you will still be fishing, bug-hunting, and pulling weeds. But the future of Egypt promises that you’ll be learning new skills and putting them to use. I don’t know what those skills are yet.

This brings up the issue of the tech tree; you either know it or you don’t. The only resource of knowledge you have are the other players, whether by asking in-game or by reading resources online. People who have played Tale 1 and Beta will know quite a bit about the technologies coming up and what will be necessary to prepare for them; you, as a novice, have zero understanding of any of this. You end up thinking “Wow, charcoal!?” or “Wow, camels!?” Half of me feels like knowing about it is a spoiler; half feels that knowing about upcoming techs is necessary to properly plan ahead.

A rather unpleasant feature the games share is that there are periods of monotony. In AC, you typically run out of things to do on a given day. In Desert, you may find yourself spending a half hour on one thing. Click, click, wait a moment. Click, click, wait a moment.

But ultimately, Animal Crossing and A Tale in the Desert seem to share one thing in common in their early days of play: I’m compelled to go back to it again — for just a few minutes, you know — just to see what else is going on right now. And then, well, maybe after I eat I’ll run around for a few more minutes, too… And, oh, just before bed I’ll stop by that School of Thought…

Ico: Feel the Love

review

(Two notes. First, I wrote this several months ago, back in May. Second, this articles contains “hidden” spoilers. They won’t reveal themselves until you click as instructed. Otherwise, you should be able to read it without worry.)

I recently tracked down and finished Ico, the PS2’s landmark puzzle game and general game geek favorite. I’m happy I did.

In Ico, you play the titular young boy with horns who is sailed to an abandoned castle, resting atop a cliff which is jutting out the water off the shore. (Got it?) Once chained and left alone, happenstance steps in. You are freed and begin your lengthy quest to escape from the castle.

The game has two important strengths that need to be considered in this review: puzzles and light and space. Being a puzzle game, the puzzle element seems obvious. But I found myself almost equally interested, if not more so, in the way light is used in the game. I’ll also get into the negative, which is the narrative aspect of the game.

puzzles

The puzzles weren’t, in themselves, a revolution in puzzling. Pull levers, push blocks. This is pretty well-travelled territory in 3D (and, really, 2D) mind-teasers. The important element here is Yorda.

Yorda is the princess you, as Ico, discover and release from a cage early in the game. She is weak and can do little more than walk where you lead her. This brings up a tangential point I’ll get to later on. But the way this alters your progression through the castle is the significant difference of Ico.

I’m not enough of a game historian to claim this as being the first use of this mechanic, but I’m at least tentatively willing to say this is the first time its use was central to a game’s design. If The Legend of Zelda copies it (as it did in Wind Waker), you know its something worth looking into.

If Ico were by himself, the game may have been half as long. But in guiding Yorda to places he can get easily, you must generally take detours that open up secondary, simpler routes for her. This leads to moments of contemplation, frustration, and relief. It also keeps you from getting selfish, which is a remarkably rare concept in games.

But — and this is a

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

It’s not so much a problem that she slows you down, but rather that she becomes a frustrating management issue. Put her here, wait for her to climb, move her there. And I’m not entirely sure why leading her by the hand causes the spring-like bounce as Ico and Yorda run, but it was by far the most aggravating aspect of movement. This leads to a frustration that breaks gameplay enjoyment.

light and space

Once outside the castle, the sun washes over the landscape. Because of the castle’s location, you can view long into the distance at the cliffs across the water and, also significantly, at remote parts of the castle. It’s very large. It’s almost staggering to consider how the designers constructed the castle, as it is more or less a continuous and integrated setpiece, even if divided into bitesized chunks.

The entire game is low-contrast; there is bright — but not blinding — light beaming from the sun, against the middle-grays of the castle. The shadows are shown to be surprisingly lit once the game’s enemies show up. They are black, smoky spirits who stand out remarkably against the rest of the environment. They are the darkest things on the screen. And even they, I don’t believe, are 100% NTSC black.

When I mentioned that sunlight washes over the environment, I meant this somewhat literally. Its intensity bleeds into the castle, into Ico, into the horizon, and wipes away details. The effect is very dream-like. Standing atop the cliffs, looking out toward the sky, everything disappears into light. At times, you are forced to wonder if life even exists in the distance. The physical reality seems almost illusory. I loved it.

damsel in distress

I think you can tell by the heading where I’m going to go with this. And, oddly, I just read two articles (http://www.igda.org/columns/clash/clash_May04.php, http://www.gamespot.com/features/6093308/p-2.html) mentioning this. But: you’re a guy and you’re saving the helpless girl. Yea. But while I’m worried this is problematic, so far as this happens a lot in games, I’m less pessimistic about its use in Ico than these articles seem to be. Its not like males are the greater gender here — note the men who, in the beginning, lock Ico away. But also

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

In general, I think this was just a very simple parable, pared down to its most simple elements, and one character happened to be a boy and the other a girl. It could have happened the other way around but, probably because the creators were mostly male, it didn’t. It’s questionable but, I believe, fairly harmless. Less harmless than the bikini-revealing ending of Metroid, which I’ve always felt undermined the “strong woman role model” kinda thing. And less harmless than Princess Toadstool. She seriously needs her own game, and one where she isn’t playing the dumb but brave blonde.

afterthoughts

Finishing Ico — I don’t like to say I “beat” it — I actually felt content. It came to a satisfying close. I really don’t feel like there should be a sequel. I do hope the sequel’s release, if the rumors are true, brings the first to a stronger mainstream audience. But I don’t hope it’s Ico: Harder and Longer.

Besides, as I was saying about the selfishness, this game may not be for the average game player. It was good, possibly great, and should be left to the archives of gaming as an important point in history. It is a game whose narrative is forged somewhat by its lack of narrative, whose sensations were brought about by the responsibilities given to you, the player, and also by the wonderful atmosphere of the environment.

Yeah. I liked it.