Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kerkerkruip release 7

In these final days of 2012, we are happy to announce the release of Kerkerkruip 7! It brings you new enemies, new and improved items, a better unlocking system, and bug fixes. Among the highlights are:

* All uninteresting or useless items have been redesigned (or, in a few cases, removed). Your enemies will no longer leave behind identical swords; flash grenades will no longer permanently blind you; and much more! Veteran players will want to examine every item anew to see whether it has changed.
* Several new cursed items have been added, including the singing sword and the fearful axe. And there are rumours that the demon lord's diadem isn't as harmless as it seems either.
* New items have been added, including the gauntlets of grip, the psychedelic cloak, and the epic periapt of prophecy.
* Level 1 and 2 monsters now have more health. This rebalances the early game, which had become a bit too easy over the last few releases.
* Three new enemies will appear: the undead mummified priest; the demonic mistress; and a new level 1 creature, the wisps of pain, which will empower you in a very peculiar way.
* Some fixes and improvements have been made to the unlocking system. Which monsters, rooms and items will appear no longer depends on the difficulty, but only on the number of victories you have won. (More complicated stuff gets unlocked as you win the game more often.) It is also possible to get access to all the goods immediately. From the title screen, go to the options menu and choose the unlock everything option -- this is recommended for Kerkerkruip veterans.

Have fun, and the Kerkerkruip team wishes you a great 2013!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vote for Roguelike of the Year

ASCII Dreams is once again organising the Roguelike of the Year competition, in which you too can vote (for as many games as you want)! And yes, Kerkerkruip is eligible, so don't forget to consider it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lapis Philosophorum #1: Tools and Toys

This is first instalment in what I hope will be a new regular (or semi-regular) feature on The Gaming Philosopher. In Lapis Philosophorum ("the philosopher's stone", something you'll undoubtedly find only on the bottom of a dungeon) I will discuss topics in the design of roleplaying games and roguelikes. The focus will be on strategic and tactical systems rather than on narrative, coding or thematic content. I expect my own game Kerkerkruip to come up regularly, but the discussions will draw from a much wider range of games. I would also like to use this feature as an excuse to read more of what other people have written about game design -- something that I am far too ignorant of!

Introduction

In this first post, I want to talk about tools and toys, two of the basic elements of RPG design. Understanding tools and toys allows us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of many games. I will be assuming that we are talking about games in which the player has a clearly defined goal which she will reach or fail to reach depending at least partly on her own strategic and tactical decisions.

Definitions of tool and toy

First, my definition of a tool:
A tool is an element of the game that the player can acquire (and/or lose), and that, when correctly used, increases the chance of success that the player has when following certain strategies.
A tool is something that you can get, and that will make your character better. In most RPGs, a new weapon will be a tool, because it makes you more effective when you hit something. Hit points would also be a tool: if you acquire more hit points, you'll be more effective in combat.

Second, my definition of a toy:
A toy is an element of the game that the player can acquire (and/or lose), that opens up new possibilities for play.
Whereas a tool makes you better at something, a toy allows you to do something that you couldn't do before. Common examples are magic spells, potions, scrolls, and so on; but also new abilities that are unlocked as you become better.

Using these two definitions, we can say that there are four types of acquirables: pure tools (which make you better but don't give you new options), pure toys (which give you new options, but options that do not help you win the game), tool-toys (which give you useful new options) and junk (which gives you no new options and isn't useful).

Why good design makes use of tool-toys

What makes this interesting from a game design perspective is that in general, you will want to design tool-toys. Neither pure toys nor pure tools are very interesting for the player. Pure toys are in a sense not part of the game; they may be fun to fool around with, but will ultimately feel empty. Pure tools, on the other hand, either don't change the game or they trivialise it. Either the challenges will progress in difficulty with the tools you find, in which case nothing changes; or the challenges remain the same, and thus become easier and easier as you get better and better tools, leading to play that becomes boring.

Hybrid tool-toys, on the other hand, are fun. They enlarge your tactical arsenal, allowing you to overcome old challenges in new ways, or to face new challenges that require new ways of thinking.

The problem with pure tools I: Dragon age versus Baldur's Gate

This seems obvious, but many games have sinned against this insight. Having too many pure toys is rare. Fable is the worst offender that comes to my mind -- all those gestures, houses, wives, and so on that have no impact on the core gameplay -- but it is easy to ignore all that and get on with the real game. Much more annoying and much more frequent are games that 'reward' the player with pure tools.

Let's talk about Dragon Age: Origins. Why did the loot in Dragon Age feel so underwhelming and just plain boring? Because most of it consisted of pure tools. Somehow the developers thought that it was a good idea to take every kind of weapon and armour in the game, and supply it in a number of levels: a level 1 sword, a level 2 sword, and so on, all the way up to level 9. So you would be spending the game first slowly finding all the level 2 items you need for your entire party; then finding all the level 3 items you need; then... and none of this had any discernible impact on the game, because all the enemies also become more difficult. This is awful design; it makes sifting through treasured feel like a chore rather than a reward.

There are some items with special properties in Dragon Age, but they are still just tools. You might for instance find a battleaxe with the following special properties: "+1 damage, +5% melee critical chance, -1 dexterity". Which just means that you'll be slightly better at hitting things, and slightly worse at sneaking around. Getting such an item does not open up any new possibilities, and this means that it is not much fun, not something to get excited about.

If we think back to an earlier big RPG, Baldur's Gate 2, we'll immediately see the difference. Remember that katana that would stun opponents, and could call down lightning from the sky once per day? Of course you remember it. It was cool. What made it cool was that it allowed your fighter character to do things he couldn't do before: stun people and call down lightning on them. Or you get into an incredibly difficult fight and then be rewarded with the Staff of the Magi: " +1 THACO (strikes as +5 weapon), +2 AC, +2 saves, Invisibility, Immunity to Charm, Prot. from Evil, area fire/elec. damage 3x/day, Spell Trap 1x/day". That's right it makes you invisble, makes you immune to charm, protects you from evil, and allows you to cast four special spells every day. That is something you'll want to find. And the game if full of this kind of stuff.


The problem with pure tools II: fighters versus wizards

Pure tools are boring. There's nothing wrong with a few pure tools in your game, but you really need tool-toys to spice things up and keep the player interested.


Why is it much more fun to play a wizard than a fighter in all D&D-like game? Precisely because fighters generally get more pure tools as they level up, while wizards get more tool-toys. What excited you more in Baldur's Gate, the fact that one of your fighter characters was ready to level up, or the fact that one of your mages was ready to level up? Exactly, the latter. Because a fighter just got more hit points and a higher attack bonus -- sure, it made him better, but it didn't open up any new possibilities. While a wizard (or a priest) got new spells, and new spells meant new avenues of play, new decisions, new tactics.

I haven't played much Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, so I don't know how good it is; but one thing I was happy to see is that the designers finally realised that this discrepancy between fighting characters and spell casting characters was bad design. In the new rules, every class gets new toys (special moves, special attacks, and so on) as they level up.

Another way of solving this problem, once you have saddled yourself with it by adopting a classic fighter/wizard paradigm, is by adding so many toys to the game that the fighter won't lack in options. This is the way that Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is designed: you'll have so many scrolls and potions and godly powers and whatnot that you won't miss the magic spells too much. Still, playing a wizard remains more interesting than playing a warrior, because the wizard has ten or twenty spells to choose from every turn, while the warrior will generally use only one or two weapons.

Conclusions

It seems to me that merely keeping the idea that tool-toys are often the most interesting parts of the game in mind, helps us design better games. For instance, every dungeon in Kerkerkruip will contain a small amount of "epic" items, which are supposed to be very good. It is tempting to just take a type of item you already have, and make it better -- e.g., we have a weapon, and now we make an epic version, which is just a better weapons: it is more accurate and does more damage. But that would be the boring decision, the "pure tool" decision.

So I've made sure to require of myself as a designer that every epic item should change the way the player will play in some meaningful way -- that is, it should not just be a very powerful tool, but also a highly interesting toy. And so as an epic weapon, we have the "glass cannon", which is highly accurate and deals a lot of damage, and is a ranged weapon to boot; but also permanently halves the player's maximum health whenever it is equipped, makes it easier for the player to be hit, and cannot be used to parry attacks (it is made of glass, so it will shatter). Equipping the glass cannon allows and requires the player to develop a new strategy: one that utilises the fact that you can deal a lot of damage very quickly, but at least at first will lean heavily on using escape options (scrolls of protection, scrolls of teleportation, portals) to not die. Having this weapon makes the game feel different.

This is example should also clarify that a toy doesn't necessarily give the player completely new actions to perform; it can also change the tactical situation in such a way that old actions can be combined into new tactics. An excellent example of this would be a ring of stealth in Brogue: you can always try to walk away from approaching monsters, avoid them, try to remain undetected -- but only once you have a nice ring of stealth does this become a full-fledged strategy, a general way of dealing with the dungeon rather than something you might desperately try to do when you're almost dead. So it opens up new options in the sense that old patterns of behaviour (walking away, and so on) take on a new tactical meaning.

Caveats

Let me end with some caveats. There can certainly be situations or systems in which pure tools can be interesting -- an obvious example would be having to choose between different tools. There can also be interesting acquirables that are hard to fit into the tool/toy scheme. Items which have both good and bad effects might be a good example, like rings in Nethack: they give some benefit, but they also increase your food consumption. They're not toys, but they are not as boring as my description of a pure tool would have you believe. And then there are unidentified items -- they can be tactically interesting even though they are pure tools or downright harmful, simply because of the fact that the player doesn't know what they'll do when used. Under what circumstances could it be worth it try this item?

So the tool/toy distinction and the claim that hybrids are the most interesting elements of a game is not presented here as something written in stone and without exceptions. But I do believe it is a useful idea, that can help us design better games.

A new look

I had plans for writing a series -- perhaps a long-running series -- of posts on RPG and roguelike design. But the thought of having to make these shiny new posts on my ugly old Gaming Philosopher blog was just too unappealing.

"Maybe I should migrate to Wordpress," I thought. "Emily Short's blog looks much better than mine. And you can post comments in the messages themselves, rather than having to go to some ugly and irritating new page. Blogger sucks!"

And then I thought that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't making use of all the best and latest features of blogger. In fact, it was years ago that I really looked into the platform. So I opened the Tools menu, and I found a big button that told me to upgrade to the new set of themes... which I did, and suddenly everything I wanted was possible.

The current theme might not be my final choice, but it is definitely better than what I had. And there now is a reply field in the messages themselves. And the replies now finally show their date as well as their time. So, happy reading and replying! And especially, for me, happy posting.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A dagger for Kerkerkruip

Erik Temple has been drawing -- or I guess I should say collaging -- some amazing art for Kerkerkruip. And he is asking for your participation! You don't need to be able to draw, as long as you can scale and rotate about ten or fifteen letters and other typographical signs so that they together form a dagger, you are good to go. It sounds like something even I could do. Check it out here, and thanks if you decide to contribute!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Project Eternity

Did you know that the long-awaited sequels to Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate 2 are in production right now?

OK, they're not. But something very much like it is, namely, Project Eternity, a game that Obsidian Entertainment is funding through Kickstarter right now. Who are on the team? Well, the guys who made the original Planescape: Torment, as well as people responsible for Fallout, Icewind Dale, and a number of other classics of the genre. So when they say that they want to make a spiritual successor to the great 2D PC RPGs of yore, it's more than an empty boast.

This game is going to be 2D. (Yes!) It will be party-based, with you actually controlling the party instead of mainly controlling one member of it. (Eat that, all too many recent games that I will not deign to mention!) There will be copious opportunities to pause. (It's a tactical RPG, my friends, not a shooter!) It will be PC-only. (No compromises with console interfaces and audiences!) There will be Mac and Linux versions. (Linux!)

And it will be made. Already, 3 million dollars of the 1.1 million needed has been funded. But that's no reason not to use these last 50 hours to support this project. More money means a bigger, better game. So, if the first sentence of my post made your heart fill with a sudden joy and hope, click that link, and buy an advanced copy. You know you want to.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

[IF Comp 2012] J'dal

The second game: J'dal by Ryan Kinsman.

A dangerous quest through a fantastic world in search of a piece of treasure: that isn't just the summary of many Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and CRPGs, but also of a substantive amount of interactive fiction. And it is not hard to see why. IF is good at exploring a world and IF is good at puzzles that can introduce challenge into such a scenario. When done well, a quest game can be extremely satisfying.

Of course, an author has to do something to make the game interesting, fresh and memorable. Puzzles of the "you can only pass the door/goblin/chasm once you've found the key/sword/rope" type are as unlikely to impress as a bunch of tunnels or cellars set in some bland fantasyland. That has all been done to death, if it was ever alive to begin with. We want something more unique. Something special.

For J'dal, that special something is the party. You won't be entering the mine alone, but with three other people: your adoptive father, who seems to be just a normal guy; Roderick, the crude fighter; and Stolas, the artificer. It turns out that they all depend on you, because you are the only one with low-light vision (D&D's infravision, anyone?), and you'll have to guide them through the dungeon. At the same time, it's clear that you couldn't succeed without their help either: your father and Roderick are needed for their brawn, while only Stolas can handle the artifact.

I like the way the party is handled. Most of the puzzles revolve about somehow working together, or compensating for their weaknesses. These people are both your greatest asset and your biggest hindrance, which is an interesting social dynamic to explore.

It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the game is not particularly strong. It is very small; the world is sparse and uninteresting; the puzzles are okay but not memorable; and there are a lot of (mostly cosmetic) failures of implementation. "Serviceable" is the word that comes to mind, and of course, that is not a word of high or even modest praise. It works, but does not impress.

And yet there are the seeds of something better here. I was somewhat impressed by the game's very first sentence:
Everyone’s staring at me, as usual - everyone else here is white.
Is this game going to be about racism?, I thought. That could be very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not, at least not in a meaningful way. Yes, there are some indications that the protagonist is looked down upon and discriminated against because she is black (and because she is female, and young -- yes, the author doesn't want us to not understand that the protagonist is part of a group with little social authority!), but these indications are no more than painted background for a story that does not explore discrimination. So a bit of a wasted opportunity there.

In general, the moments where the nature of the world and the relationships between the characters are developed are good. There are just so few of them.

J'dal inspires confidence in the abilities of the author. So I hope that Ryan Kinsman will just aim higher next time, for one feels that he can achieve greater things than he has achieved here.


Preliminary mark (might change as I play more games): 6/10.

[IF Comp 2012] Eurydice

Here we are, back for some IF Comp reviews. Topping my randomly generated list of games was Eurydice by... well, Anonymous. O, and by the way, all of my reviews will be full of spoilers. You are warned.

Interactive Fiction has a tendency for remoteness and impersonality. Not only are interactive NPCs hard to program, which has led to many uninhabited worlds, or worlds inhabited only by cyphers; but a focus on puzzles has also tended to put mechanical means-ends relations at the centre of attention, while the human meaning of things recedes to the background.

Remoteness can, of course, be avoided -- we've become pretty good at that. Or it can be turned into an aesthetic strength, as in much of the work of Andrew Plotkin (Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is a good example). But you must do either the one or the other.

This brings us to the surprisingly popular genre of "serious mythological afterlife IF". Here the protagonist dies, or one of the protagonist's loved ones dies, and the protagonist enters a mythological afterlife to do something -- for instance, judge her own life, escape from death, rescue her loved one. Now it seems to me that this genre is especially vulnerable to the problem of remoteness. For, on the one hand, you must avoid it: we are talking about the death of a specific person, the single most concrete and personal event that one could possibly think of, a source of the strongest and wildest emotions. But on the other hand, how can you possibly avoid remoteness if you put your protagonist in a world that is not the world he or she inhabited in real life, and which is instead populated by mythological types like Charon and Satan?

I'm not saying there are no solutions. You can drop the conventions of the psychological novel and turn the remoteness of your figures into a poetic and didactic strength (Dante; Striggio & Monteverdi). You can turn the mythological figures into concrete, down-to-earth persons (to a certain extent the strategy of Mentula Macanus). And there are probably other solutions. But you need to think about it and do some work, because in itself, combining concrete human sorrow with mythology leads to some problems that are especially acute for IF.

Eurydice does not solve these problems. Here we have what should by all means be an emotionally charged story about loss and grief; and then we spend most of our time not exploring the feelings or memories of the protagonist, but re-enacting the story of Orpheus, talking to Charon and Persephone, and so on. This device -- we re-enact one fictional story within another -- generates much distance and estrangement... but why? What is the artistic purpose of the device? How is the story of the protagonist and his dead friend (lover?) improved by the mythological recasting.

It seems that, on the contrary, it is weakened by it. The strongest parts of the game are those that are least mythological and most real: for instance, talking to the people in the living room. We have a set of distinct characters that feel real, we have a protagonist who is unable to relate to any of them -- the ingredients for a game full of raw emotional power are present! This response, for instance, is very promising:
You know that Jess is grieving much as you are grieving but she has tangled it up in a need to support others, and - you think - to be seen to be supporting others.  She wants people to at look her and say to themselves “she’s so brave” and then she can believe it for herself.  But you don’t want to be supported, you don’t want to be the mechanism by which others distract themselves.  Grief is not ennobling in you.  It seems to make you hard, ungracious, cold and churlish.
And then, just after the characters are established, we leave them and start on our mythological journey. Disappointing.

What doesn't help is that the game has no idea what tone it wants to strive for. There are moment of pathos, even over-the-top pathos:
You step into the wardrobe and sit down in the space, pressing your senses against the emptiness as if longing alone is enough to create something from nothing.
There are moments of humour, such as when you grab the cuddly Cthulhu doll. There are moments of pure horror, like when you see the skeletons in the hospital ward. There are moments of self-deprecating, sarcastic humour. There are moments of hard, wise social realism. But that doesn't all go together, and seems to be slapped together without a good idea of what the game wants to achieve. Does it want to be emotional? In that case, the sarcasm has to go. Does it want to be humorous? Then the pathos has to go. And so on. We need some consistency.

The deeper problem is perhaps all too apparent from the blurb of the game:
There's no way to put this without sounding like an arse, but Eurydice is a short game about grief. Yay.
If it is a short game about grief, then let it be known that you made a short game about grief. Don't hide behind that self-deprecating irony that, indeed, makes you sound like an arse. But it makes you sound like an arse because it makes you sound like someone who doesn't have the guts to be true to his/her own self and his/her own creations.

So... did I hate Eurydice? Not at all. It is a solidly programmed and solidly written game (the only bug I found was that the lyre stopped responding at the end of the game), and it has the seeds of something really good buried in it. Those people in the living room? I loved that scene. This new author seems to have all the talents needed to write good interactive fiction, and I am eager for his/her future works.

But those works need to have something that is missing from Eurydice: a clear artistic vision, and the courage to pursue it to the end.


Preliminary mark (might change as I play more games): 7/10.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The further adventures of Stiffy Makane

Herman Schudspeer has released a new game: Nemesis Macana. (Who is Herman Schudspeer? Well, let's just say that careful textual analysis of his works might reveal him to be me, although it admittedly might also reveal him to be William Shakespeare or Herman Melville.) With this game, Herman adds to the growing body of Stiffy Makane games, a genre of interactive fiction that is famous for its high-brow literary analysis and cheap pornographic jokes.

What are the critics saying?
"If Mentula Macanus was our V, and Cavity of Time our, er, Cave of Time, then surely Nemesis Macana is our Pale Fire." -- Adam Thornton
"a quick porno-loop riff" -- HanonO
"Mister Schudspeer: A+." -- Ryan Veeder
"I'm with Ryan, on the rating: Giant Red (like the tip of Stiffy's --- you know what.)" -- Jamespking
"a parable about the fundamentally neurotic nature of totalising theories" -- Sam Kabo Ashwell
Check out the IFDB page for more info.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Developing Kerkerkruip 2

I have been asked to say a little about the current development of Kerkerkruip, so I will. Once it is released, the new version will be called Kerkerkruip 2, following the version numbering conventions that have been popularised by Chrome and Firefox: it's not a new game, it's just the next version of the current game.

What has changed? My two biggest priorities have been to (a) make the code more robust by rewriting specific interactions as general interactions, and (b) to make the existing content more interesting.

The former is mostly behind-the-scenes, though it allowed me to fix some bugs. For instance, I made a specific interaction between the "striking a blow" routine and the Power of the Bomb: if someone hit you for so much damage that you died, and you had the Power of the Bomb, you would explode. But because of this, the power did not get triggered if someone killed you in another way: the tentacle squeezing you to death, for instance. There is now a general "X killed Y" event that gets triggered by all the code in which someone kills someone else, and in turn triggers stuff like the Power of the Bomb. (I hope. There are probably a lot of bugs left.)

The latter should definitely be noticeable to players. Rather than just add a lot of new content, I wanted to deepen the existing content. The hiding system, for instance, has become much more powerful. You can now perform whatever action you want while you are hidden, but some of them (like concentrating or reading a scroll) greatly increase the probability of you being detected. There are environmental features, inventory items and special properties of the player that may help the player remain hidden. You can even try to become hidden in the presence of enemies, although this is not very likely to succeed.

Some other things that have received love are the smoke system (smoke now has more effects, more items interacting with it, and you may even find a portal to the dreaded elemental plane of smoke), the undead (there are more items and environmental features that interact with them, and a new way and interesting for the player to become undead), and the teleportation system (there are now more ways for the rest of the game to interact with it, as the new "teleportation beacon" will show you).

Of course, we will also have other new content. There already are some new items and scrolls to be found, and there are now scenery objects that are randomly distributed through the dungeon and that have effects on the game (thus spicing up the various locations a bit -- for instance, by making hiding easier in that location, or by boosting the undead). Some new monsters are also planned but not yet implemented.

Stay tuned for more news.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Full results of the IF Top 50

Remember when I published the results of the IF Top 50, and said that I would soon post the full results? And then forgot about it? Well, I remembered! You can find the ODS spreadsheet here. The names of those who sent me a list by email or private message have been anonymised.

The spreadsheet should be self-explanatory: people are in columns, games in rows, and a "1" is a vote by that person for that game. Sheet 3 contains a list of all games and the number of votes they got.