Spelunky Journal Part III

Side-note: Alright, sorry for the mini-hiatus there, real life got in the way of my blogging. Yeah, yeah, I know what you are gonna say: “Excuses, I don’t want to hear your filthy excuses!”, “You’ve been procrastinating to hell and back, don’t lie to me.” and “I don’t love you anymore”. Well, yeah, that’s true, but hey! I’m back! I swear I’m not gonna leave you out in the cold. Again. For the fifth time in a row.

Oh, look at the word count, I’ve gotta go, see ya!

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Moving on, if you’ve just started reading these series then I’d recommend that you, dear reader, start with, you know, the first part. And then continue to the second part before reading this third part. Because that’s how this series was intended to be read, in order, got that? Right.

Day 5:

Best. Projectile. Ever.
Best. Projectile. Ever.

After playing (and dying) 60 times I can safely say that a princess sometimes appears in any given level. She might be buried alive which will require the use of your precious bombs and careful precision (killing her with an explosion is as easy as it sounds) or she might be just hanging out, right next to the exit door. Or she might not even show. It’s all so random you see. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you aren’t and I’m beginning to think that luck plays a major role in this game. I don’t know if it’s as big of a factor as skill, but I think I’ll be able to tell that once I’ve played this thing a couple hundred times.

Anyway, turns out that you can pick up princesses just like any other object… which means that  ….you can throw her too? YES! Yes you can! I mean, you don’t throw her with quite as much force as a rock (which is curious, since the rocks you can pick up should have double the weight of the princess…), but you can still throw her nonetheless. So, basically, the princess can act as a weapon.

This game is so awesome.

Also: It took me a really, REALLY long time to figure out that rescuing a princess will give you a heart if you make it to the next level. I don’t know, in retrospect, it makes total sense: she kisses you and a heart comes out…. let me say that again, a heart comes out. How’s that for a hint?

Naturally the princess, as any other living creature in this game, can be killed. I don’t know how many hits it takes, but let me tell you: falling on spikes kills in one hit and… that’s about it. Bats? Pfff, throw her at them. Snakes are troubling you? Just throw her already. Cavemans? Go ahead! Spiders? Be my guest.

Once the princess gets killed you can’t rescue her, but you can still pick up her corpse and use it as a weapon! And a shield! Wait, what? Yep, I discovered this just recently so… yeah, it took me while. As far as I can tell, it works with two things, but in the first levels you will encounter only one of these: traps. You see, when you pick up a dead (or simply unconscious) body, and an arrow hits you, the body you are carrying will take the hit for you. Be careful though, the body will go flying in the opposite direction.

After I realized this, yeah, it all made sense now. That was why sometimes I was carrying the princess, dropped to a lower level, activated a trap but didn’t get hit, instead the princess just flew away without much explanation. Often landing on spikes. But with time you get used to these random events. That is, until you discover the reason for each one of them, of course. Then you curse the random level design, but that’s a subject for another day.

Day 6:

It's incredible how little american and japanese idols have in common....
It's incredible how little american and japanese idols have in common...

Let’s talk about something else., shall we? Oh I know, what about those yellow faces? I call them idols since that’s what they are, but hey, it’s a free internet, you can call them by whatever name you want.

Anyway, the first time I encountered one of these things, it went pretty much like this: Oooohh, shiny! I’m gonna guess that something bad is going to happen if I pick this up, but I’m gonna die anyway, so let’s grab this sucker. Ooookaaay, there’s an earthquake, that is most definitely not good in any possible way. What the…? Killed. Squashed, actually. By a GIANT ROCK that appeared out of nowhere and started chasing me at 500mph. How the hell was I supposed to know that?? … yeah, you are supposed to get killed. And then get killed again if you didn’t get it the first time.

You know, I’m beginning to think that this game is hard. Why? No reason…

Well, turns out that the rock always follows you, and outrunning it is next to impossible so the best option I could find is to climb onto something, anything. Using a rope if necessary. The good thing is that this giant rock destroys terrain like it was nothing. Sure, it slows down and eventually stops, but it’s very cool the first 30 times you see it.

Be careful though, you don’t want to destroy a shop with it. The only thing in this universe that can’t be killed by the mighty force of the giant rock is the shopkeeper, and if you trash his place he’ll chase you down and murder you, he’ll murder you to death.

Mmmmhhh, now that I think about it, the second time I grabbed the idol I successfully dodged the rock but a few seconds later started to get chased by a ghost… and got killed while trying to run away from it. It wasn’t until 60 deaths later that I figured out that the ghost appears because you are taking too long, not because you grabbed the idol or anything along those lines.

Images from here and here.

Spelunky Journal: Part II

The Spelunky Journal is a series of posts where I describe my experiences with the game Spelunky and my game design thoughts that come out as a result. In the first post I described the ordeal that was the tutorial and what I’d do differently (it’s by far the weakest part of the game).

In this second post of the journal I describe my first playthroughs and muse about the very particular menu system that Spelunky uses.

Hey, that bat looks so friendly, I think I'm going to say Hello hiARGH WHY IS HE EATING MY FACE?
Hey, that bat looks so friendly! I think I'm gonna hug ASFKJGG WHY IS HE EATING MY FACE?

Day 3:

Once you finish the tutorial, the game starts. Just like that. No coaching, no further tutorial, no nothing. This is gonna be painful, I can smell it in the air. Let’s see… yep, got killed in the first 30 seconds by a combination of a snake, a spider, another snake and that same spider. I have the nagging feeling that I still have to get used to the whip. After all, running at a snake, unleashing the whip, then failing to hit it with said whip and getting hit myself is not in any way imaginable a showcase of perfect whip proficiency.

Anyhow, after that superb demonstration of skill on my part, I got dumped into the menu screen. Said screen could be described as being organic for the sake of being organic. Instead of selecting options from a normal menu, you have to make your character walk/run/jump to doors with the appropriate labels above them and press up to enter. So you have a door that says “Start” and another door that says “Scores”. In scores you’ll see how many times you died, your best run through the game, etc etc. To quit the game you press the Escape key to see the pause menu and then hit the F10 key (I wish I was kidding) …. or you could just climb the rope to the right and exit by normal means.

Now, rewinding back to the whole organic thing: It’s cute, and thankfully not many games stick to this philosophy of keeping everything into the game world, because otherwise I’d be sick of it. You know, it’s great game design that you can play with your character in a safe enviroment to learn the controls whenever you feel like it. Just walking and jumping around is fun, therefore the menu is fun. But after a thousand times, it gets a little old and I start to yearn for a retry key.

Day 4:

Alright, played a little and died pathetically each time but I think I’m getting used to it. I’m practically discovering new things and/or mechanics on each playthrough, and considering that each one lasts about a minute, I’d say that’s impressive. For example: There are cavemans that will run at you whenever they see you. They tend to run off cliffs and sometimes jump in the spot for no reason whatsoever. Spiders begin always upside-down hanging from a ceiling, and they won’t drop until you are exactly below them. The bats however will drop and start to fly around when you come near them, no matter the angle.

After 5 or 6 times, I finally reached the exit door at the bottom of the level. Although I have to say I was able to do this only because the level was particularly easy, but hey, a victory is a victory.

I’m greeted with a screen showing how many things I killed, the time it took me to finish the level and how much gold I acquired (4000/4000…  is it 4k out of a possible 4k? I doubt it, I didn’t get all the gold that was laying around.)

Anyway, the second level starts and at my left there’s something very peculiar. It seems like a shop and indeed, it is. An old bald guy greets me and invites me to buy something. Hey, don’t mind if I do! The items seem to be laying around and I can pick them up, whenever I do, the shopkeep starts following me, saying how much it costs. To buy, press  “P” he says, which strikes me as odd at first. I never liked having one key for only one verb, especially in situations like these where said verb won’t be used often, but then I reason that using the X key for buying might be convenient, but a lot more prone to accidents. Alright, I pick up the yellow… thingy, press P, let’s see what this is. Ooohhh, it’s a cape! I start jumping and whipping in the air to see if it does anything weird. At the third jump, the shopkeeper pulls out a shotgun and proceeds to shoot at me repeatedly in the face (where else?).

Alright, I admit that was hilarious, but I died man! I lost all the progress I made =(

I’m guessing that I accidentally whipped him and that’s why he shot me, but still, it was an accident! I swear!

it’s been a long since

Spelunky Journal Part I

Hello and welcome to another series of posts. I’ll be playing a very particular game on a daily basis, describing my experience with it, and analyzing the mechanics and overall game design that I’m able to observe as my understanding of the game grows larger with time. Sometimes I’ll focus on certain design choices, sometimes I’ll just tell you all what happened to my poor red-nosed character, and other times I’ll just make non-sequiturs because I had nothing to write.

I’ve already done this sort of thing before with the Nikopol demo, the pilot of Frayed Knights and the excruciating installation process of the Ceville demo, but here we are, a few months later with a new interesting game on our hands, so let’s get started:

As you might have guessed by the name of this series, Spelunky is the game that I’ll be playing in the next few weeks. It’s a game developed by Derek Yu and is based around procedurally generated levels where you are a spelunker in search of spelunky. Or in plain english: you are a copy of Indiana Jones and your mission is to advance to the next level while rescuing women, collecting gold and fighting nazis mean animals.

Day 1:

Ooohhh, pixely! The music is pleasant enough, although it is kind of repetitive. I guess that’s due to this game being nostalgia-based, what with the chiptune music and pixely graphics. Alright, tutorial level: signs populate the level explaining everything in text… which strikes me as unimaginative, but oh well, not everybody is Valve after all. Let’s see… jumping, crouching, picking up gold bars, whipping, opening chests, everything seems pretty standard. The controls feel kind of awkward but I guess this is the result of having to work with a keyboard rather than a standard controller. You know, the keyboard is not exactly a piece of hardware specifically designed for gaming. Anyhow, I just got killed by the first enemy. In the tutorial. No, I’m not that lame, I was supposed to hit a bat* with a rock but since this is the very first time I’ve EVER thrown anything in the game, I missed badly. This game is laaaame. Let’s see, I have to do the tutorial level all over again. What else can I do? Mmmmhhh, can I pick up the opened chest? Why, yes I can! … and I can throw it too! This game is awesome! I better quit on a high note, or otherwise I won’t play it again.

* the flying kind.

This game has a metric ton to talk about. Let's see, in this screenshot alone I can see a HUGE spider, a smaller spider but still the size of a man, a caveman, a pot, an idol, gold stuck in the walls, stairs and... well, that's pretty much it.
This game has a metric ton to talk about. Let's see, in this screenshot alone I can see a HUGE spider, a smaller spider ("only" the size of a human), a caveman, a pot, an idol, gold stuck in the walls, stairs and... well, that's pretty much it. Not counting the HUD that is.

Day 2:

I learned how to effectively kill that damned bat. It’s just a matter of trial and error until you learn the exact angle at which you throw things. After that, I’m stuck. I used one of the two ropes I had in order to advance a little more and get to a dead end. I tried going back but I wasted the other rope I had and now I can’t go back to the starting area. Oh well, I reset the tutorial aaaaand no, there wasn’t anything of importance in the starting area. Sure, there was some treasure I had left behind before but I’m quite sure that a door isn’t going to magically open for me once I have X amount of treasure. This isn’t one of those games. What’s this? A crate I didn’t notice that had two bombs inside that I could pick up? And the sign explicitly telling me about said crate? … alright, my fault, I’m an idiot. I guess I have to blow this wall over here, I guess that bombs destroy walls and I guess that the tutorial continues or ends on the other side of this wall. That’s a whole lot of guesses there, ya know? Let’s see, arm bomb aaaand place it! OH GOD OH GOD I SAID PLACE NOT THROW, RUN YOU STUPID CHARACTER, RUN. Phew, that almost killed me. Alright, it seems that I can’t just place bombs, I throw them. With great force. And they bounce back against walls. Into my face.

Moving on, I take my distance, throw my last bomb, it bounces back slightly, explodes and… victory! The wall of death was obliterated! Now I walk to the other room while making an obscene gesture to the previously omnipotent wall. Huh, there’s a hole in the form of an entrance here. I guess if I press up I will… yes, that was the exit and I just finished the tutorial. Hooray! Thank goodness I was already used to entering doors by pressing up. I wonder what would a normal person do? Flail around until they die from something totally unexpected? Probably.

Design lesson of the day: I wouldn’t have been so lost if I could see that the exit was at the other side of the wall, therefore rendering the explanation for “explode this wall” pointless. It’s the very worst example of showing, not telling that I’ve experienced in recent memory: Don’t tell me what to do at every step of the way, just tell me what’s my objective and where it might be and make it so that reaching said objective is only possible by doing the very things you want me to do. Sure, you have to put some kind of textual hints every once in a while (for controls mostly), but please when we are talking about a game this hard you have to respect your audience players a little more. We should be learning about the mechanics through play and observation rather than plain text.

Side-note:

I have somewhat of a no bullsh*t policy here, so I feel that I should probably mention that I’ve been playing Spelunky for the past two weeks and already have 18 “days” worth of material. In other words, the “days” separation I’m using here is not literal days, they are topics that have popped up in my mind or experiences I had. Though, these experiences and thoughts did happen in this order.

The funny thing is, I haven’t finished the game yet and have died 350 times already. I’m guessing that I’ve already passed the midway point but I base this only on circumstancial clues (like how many “shortcut doors” can fit in one screen (answer: three  (that is, in one screen, later it might add another room for shortcuts, and that would mean that I’m less than a third of the way through the game (anyway, aren’t nested parentheses awesome?)))).

Ceville Demo Review

He looks... tiny.
He's so evil and tiny, just look at him! It makes me want to take him home, put him in a cage and poke his stomach with a stick while giggling at his expletives and empty threats.

That’s right, this is a review, not a critique. It’s something really easy to explain you see, in a few words, I couldn’t get the damn thing to work. So sit back and enjoy my tale of bile and misery. But if you want to just go to the point of this “review”, just scroll down to the picture of a horse and take a look at my demands.

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There I was, happy with life, downloading a 500MB demo of an adventure game. Sure, it may not advance the genre, it may not do anything different, but dammit it looks cool and the protagonist is evil. Those were all the reasons I needed, I guess I’m easy to persuade.

So I installed the thing and noticed that it takes it’s sweet time. Mmmmhh, it seems to install the latest dotnetfix. Weird, I thought I had it updated. Anyways, it finally finishes and it asks me to restart before I get to play. Seriously? When was the last time that restarting was required for a videogame installation? I guess this has to do with the dotnetfix thingy, oh well. I restart, grumble a little and wait for two minutes. There, all done, let’s fire this thing up.

Heh, I don’t know why I expected something different, but the game changes the resolution to a 4:3 ratio. Typical. Is it so hard to detect current resolution? At least don’t force 4:3 in a widescreen monitor, it always looks ugly and stretched. It’s an issue only acceptable when treating with videogames more than 3 years old, anything more recent should recognize widescreen by now.

*sigh*

Oh, this is weird, I can see my cursor even though the company’s logos already started to appear. Huh. Well, right now I’m at the menu screen, all stretched out and ugly, so naturally the first thing I do is change the resolution to 1440×900. It’s my native resolution, and I don’t know yet if my PC can handle this game, but I can go back at any time I guess. Grave mistake, or rather, the developer’s mistake as we’ll see later. Oh, it says that I need to restart the game if I want the changes to take effect. Lovely, that’s just lazy programming.

So I close the thing, wait a few seconds, then execute it again. Same logos, not stretched this time, Yay! Although a solid green screen flashes between the transitions of logos. Huh. I click through them, I’ve already seen them, I’m getting a little impatient.

Aaaaaand then I get a solid green screen. Eh, this didn’t happen before. I can still see the cursor… bah, something like this always happens, I can’t change the settings without something going bad. I’ll have to change back the settings, surely there’s some registry key or ini file where the configuration is kept.

Alt+Tab does nothing and Alt+F4 seems to close the game, but I still have a green screen. Ctrl+alt+del works but I can’t see the window, all I see is green and my cursor. Bah, screw it, I hit the reset button.

Best. Game. Ever.
Best. Game. Ever.

No, scandisk, I don’t want to check anything, stop wasting my time. There, on Windows again. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to skip the logos? Let’s try again and don’t touch anything…. nope, green screen again. I hit the reset again. I sigh again.

Well, well, well, what do we have here? A config file! Let’s see… nope, the only resolution it mentions is 1024×768, which it says it’s the default. No mention of any other resolution. Huh, it must be in one of the other million files with nondescript names, let’s search inside the files with the text “1440×900”. Nothing. Then let’s search with “1440”… nothing. Bah, screw it, I’ll just uninstall it. Surely no game will keep hidden data in my pc after uninstalling. “The resolution configuration will be gone” I reassure myself just like a normal person slowly turning mad would, so I uninstall the thing. It doesn’t ask me anything about keeping save files or configuration… that can’t be good.

I install it again, still with hope. To my surprise, the thing installs the dotnetfix again, and it takes it’s sweet time doing it. Again. It asks me to reset the PC, which was expected at least. It’s those little things that count, one little bothersome detail adds to the next very easily. My patience is wearing thin, surely now it will work. Half an hour later, execute->logos->green screen. At this point I’m beginning to mumble expletives at the developers. How can they be so sloppy on configuration management? I sigh yet again. I still have a few things to try, let’s uninstall the thing. Again. Now, let’s see if it leaves some files behind after install aaaand… nope, in program files there’s nothing left.

Oh, I know, maybe it’s stored in the registry. I don’t know about you people, but I hate it when applications leave registry entries behind. So I run a few registry cleaning applications. Naturally there are loads of errors, since I haven’t done this in a while, but there are little to no mentions of Ceville.

That probably didn’t change anything, but let’s give it another chance, shall we?. I install it yet again. Another fifteen minutes lost. Boy, am I pissed. Test it again, no green screen between logos O_O Is this it? Problem solved? A few seconds pass and … nope. It’s exactly the same, but instead of a green screen, I get a black screen. At least the bug has some variety to it.

And now I… give up. I tried every method I could come up with. I installed this thing 5 to 6 times (yes, I did even more tests than what I mentioned here, but they all ended up with the same result), wasted something like 3 to 4 hours and went from happy and ful of joy to screaming for the developers blood.

Who's a good pony? Oh yes you are, yes you are. Now wait there, I have to sharpen the axe for... er, skinning cats. Yes, that's less disturbing... I think.
Who's a good pony? Oh, you are, yes you are. Now wait there Strawberry, I have to sharpen the axe for... er, skinning cats? Yes, let's go with that, it's less disturbing.

But why am I telling you dear readers about my troubles? Doesn’t everybody go through similar experiences? Yes, that’s exactly my point. This problem ends now, I’m going to do humanity a favor. I decided to take action, so please be wise and warn every developer that you know of about my demands. (Whoever takes this threat seriously shall be stoned to death, with weed or actual stone throwing, you decide)

Developers of the world, here are my demands, and if any of you shall not listen to me, don’t be surprised if someday you wake up with a horse’s decapitated head next to you:

Demand number 1: Make your games Alt+Tab friendly. The PC is a multitasking machine, that means that it does more than playing videogames. That means that at some point some players will want to do something else with their PC. Alt+Tab is a mandatory feature for any application, and that’s includes yours. Plus, if the game glitches out or crashes or freezes, etc, then the player can just alt+tab his problems away and kill your buggy application.

Demand number 2: Detect widescreen monitors. I don’t care how you’d do it, just do it. I’m frankly tired of changing the settings to widescreen every single time I install a new game.

Demand number 3: Offer your graphical configurations in both, outside and inside the game. This way, you don’t have to even worry about demand number 2, and as a bonus you will also avoid cases like mine where a particular configuration crashes the game before the main menu even appears and there’s no easy way to fix it (if you don’t know where the settings are stored).

Demand number 4: When uninstalling, ask the user if he wants to save or delete his save files and/or configuration. This is common sense really, why should the user have to delete your garbage when you can do it for them? Ask them about it before actually doing it of course, maybe they are uninstalling now but they want to re-install it later.

Demand number 5: I’m hungry, make me a sandwich. Yes, all of you developers make a sandwich. Whoever prepares the worst one will be sacrificed to the gods of gaming in a ritual of one straight week playing counter-strike against 30 cheating super-bots. That or seeing the movie of House of the Dead with your eyelids permanently open like in the Clockwork Orange.

That is all. I’ll be expecting the sandwiches by tomorrow morning, and the overall changes to your games in a few weeks. Just remember: Horse head.

PS: I think I found where the freaking game stores it’s graphics configurations. I still don’t know if the game will actually work after the main menu, so wish me luck. Or don’t, it’s entirely up to you.

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique Part IV

Alright, let’s wrap this up shall we? It’s been on my to do list for a long long time now (more than a month) but I finally glued my posterior to the chair and finished writing the fourth (and final) part of the Frayed Knights Pilot critique. I should warn you though, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.

(See also: Part I, Part II and Part III)

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After playing to completion and to death (more on that later) several times I’ve arrived at a somewhat unexpected conclusion: there’s not that much to do in this world. Being honest, this is to be expected since the whole game revolves around the “tutorial” dungeon and not much else. Content takes time, that’s a given. Besides, you don’t want to throw every single bell and whistle at the player in the first few minutes. So even if the final game starts exactly like the pilot, I don’t think too many people are going to bitch and moan about the lack of things to do in the first dungeon.

So what can we do? Well, explore, interact with some objects, participate in random and special encounters, pick up items and trigger new dialogs. But there’s something missing isn’t it? Fortunately the only one thing missing here is the one that you don’t pay much attention to in the beginning of any RPG: the leveling up mechanics. Though, once you do realise this, the random encounters become a little more annoying because they loose all their meaning. They don’t have any long term benefit, they are there to slow you down at random. Flee or fight, the game doesn’t care. You could pretty much take away the random encounters without making any impact in the rest of the game, which should be a huge worrying wake up call for the designer.

Luckily, this only applies to the Pilot, since Jay didn’t have the time to properly implement the leveling up mechanics, but I guess this goes to show how much the game suffers when there’s one of it’s main elements missing: some of the other elements can and will become meaningless.

graph
And in this graph you can see a perfect correlation taking place... Yes, I'm running out of pictures, thank you for noticing. (credit goes to Saturday Morning Breakfast)

Moving on, there’s one thing that I’ve been actively avoiding until now, and that is the Stars/”Drama points” system. For those that don’t know, this system is visualized as those three stars sitting at the top of the screen. Every time something dramatic happens the player gets a corresponding amount of drama points as a reward. Then, when the player has collected enough points he can spend them on something useful, such as reviving a party member or casting some special spells among other things. Sounds like a good idea, but there’s a catch: Your drama points are never saved. If you quit the game, they are erased.

Why the catch? Well, Jay implemented it this way to punish those gamers that don’t tolerate failure. Something bad happens? Load a previous save. Some players act this way because games like Fallout 2 and Eschalon: Book 1 actively encourage this conduct. With or without “Drama points”, if you offer random rewards and punishments then you are automatically encouraging constant quicksaving and loading.

You can’t simply apply a patch over this issue either and pretend to be done with it. The problem can’t be solved by punishing certain players and rewarding others. I know I’ve already said this but it bears to be repeated: The root of the problem lays squarely on the shoulders of the mechanics with random outcomes.

What’s more, I don’t like the drama points system because it affects everybody, not just the quickloader-happy population. It’s a system that rewards gamers for playing for extended periods of time. For people like me it’s a plus, but there are some other gamers out there that don’t have as much spare time as I do. Those people are never going to see the best rewards offered by the drama point’s system, all because some other people can’t tolerate failure. Just fantastic.

One way to kind of solve the problem is by offering the option to save only on checkpoints. But I should warn you: this solution is way worse than the problem (see: Jimmy’s story).

So, what’s the proper solution then? I don’t think there’s a perfect one. You can downsize all the random outcomes to a bare minimum, but some players are still going to abuse the saving and loading feature, even with the drama points system implemented. But! Yes, there’s a but: When only the little things are handled with random outcomes (random +-5 damage for attacks, 30-40 pieces of gold from treasure X, etc) the advantage for constantly saving and loading almost disappears. Wasn’t the point of the drama points system to level the field? To practically erase all the benefits of saving before opening a chest or disarming a trap?

I’ll leave this topic here, there are a lot of little things that can be changed in order to minimize the quick-saver benefits but I should limit myself to only suggest a general change while not expecting to see any in particular. After all, it’s not my game and Jay may see things a little differently than I do, mostly because it takes actual work to change things around. Even more so when the changes suggested are this drastic.

Still, even considering that, the Drama Points system needs to change.

Cemetery
How did I get here?

I didn’t notice it at first, but the atmosphere is getting kind of heavy. I guess it’s time to address a lighter note, don’t you think? Mmmmhhh, well then, how about humor? I think I’ve talked about it before but it bears at least mentioning again.

After all, if it weren’t for the humor, Frayed Knights wouldn’t stand out as much. I can’t simply imagine it as something other than an elaborate satire on the first person RPG genre. It’s personality is so ingrained with the humor that it’s impossible to depart from it, especially when there are oh so many things to satire. The looting of dead bodies, incomprehensible leveling up mechanics where what you gain has nothing to do with what you do (kill kitties so at level up you can boost your intelligence), level caps, auto-adjusted enemies, unbelievable market prices, shop keepers that won’t give you freebies or a discount even though the universe is about to collapse, having the last boss drop the ultimate sword of ultimate power even though the player no longer needs it, etc.

Still, apart from the satire there are those moments of pure silliness. Like when all the party members mounted their recently stolen pink ponies to fight the horde of flying ostriches from space. Ahh, that moment was only magnified when the main antagonist who wasn’t even introduced yet, came by, did the macarena, saluted and ran away chasing a swarm of butterflies. It was a sight to behold.

On an unrelated note, my left shoe is telling me that I’m going crazy and should probably take a nap before continuing with my exquisite critique, which he says he loves with all his shoelaces.

*60 hours later*

Ahhh, nothing like a good two days and a half of sleep. Now, where was I? Oh, right.

Moving on, I’ve heard some cries about the party’s speed being too slow, and all I have to say is: What the hell did they expect? Last time I checked, the party didn’t consist of 4 velociraptors. I’m still wondering what were they smoking, but to be fair, there is some legitimate claim behind this: It requires too much time to go from one place to the other. You don’t move slowly but it feels like it, because of the enormous maps filled with empty space. This isn’t much of a problem in the dungeon since the feeling of being just an ant inside an enormous castle is fantastic, but once you get to the town you start to get the feeling that everything is just too big compared to you. But before I go any further I need to explore other topics first.

  • INTERMISSION: Take 15 minutes off, go to the bathroom, eat something, rest your eyes and then get back, this is one long post. Seriously.
Texture glitch.
In this case, the grass is greyer on the other side.

Now, changing the subject, there’s one aspect of Frayed Knights that just baffles me. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I can’t even think of any suitable explanation for this other than “Jay didn’t give it much thought”. Of course I’m talking about death incapacitation. It functions pretty much like in Pokemon: the characters don’t die, they just faint. They can also participate in anything outside of battle while in this state. But there’s one difference: In Frayed Knights, if all your party members become incapacitated, you loose and, well, that’s pretty much it, the game stops dead on it’s tracks. You lost; you failed; your party became unconscious in the middle of a dungeon; how dare you! You must never do that, it’s like… written or something. Hope you saved!

Ugh.

I hope that the reason behind the way the Frayed Knight’s Pilot handles death is exactly the same reason why there are no leveling up mechanics: It’s just a Pilot, so when you are pressed for time, some things might get quickly put together without much thought or scrapped completely. Oh well, I can’t expect it to have every single mechanic fully thought out and properly implemented, can’t I? Still, I want to critique every mechanic, I want to make sure that nothing gets a free pass, even the little things with perfectly good excuses. This way I can be at ease with myself, knowing that I did everything I could to improve the design of Frayed Knights, even if only by a bit.

Having said that, the next few paragraphs are going to appear to be somewhat evil. Why? Because I know that what I’m about to critique is the most unfinished and unpolished part of the pilot and anybody with a pair of eyes can see it. Still, I have to address each and every subject, no matter the developer’s context, so here it is:

There seems to be a lack of polish (no, not the language) in how the random battles start. When a battle takes place the enemies just appear out of nowhere and so does the music at full volume. ThereAreNoTransitions! The player jumps from exploration to battling in a split-second. As it is, it feels a little like a survival horror RPG with cheap scares disguised as random battles. I don’t know if it is intentional (I will guess that no), but it doesn’t leave a very good first impression when the random battles appear out of nowhere without even a fade to black transition. This is just a minor nitpick, but what follows is not…

It’s rather noticeable that the graphics need some tweaking in the town (see image a few paragraphs above), but I suppose that this is due to Torque not being that friendly of a platform or some bizarre hardware incompatibility. Or both. But the texture problems in some patches of terrain is the least of the graphical problems. Remember when I said that everything looked huge compared to you? Well, in the dungeon this is justified, but in the town… not so much. I don’t know, maybe it is a problem of perspective management, and the actual 3D models are normal size, but something just looks off. Yes, the characters are not animated, so they stand still staring at the void even when you talk to them, but like I said before, I’ll cut the game some slack since this part was probably rushed. Still, the mayor problem is the sense of scale:

Huge desk.
Sir, what do you know about... shrinkage?

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this was intentional, maybe the evil wizard cast a spell of midget-doing on everybody. Maybe the guy just likes to have a humongous desk as a way to … compensate. Maybe he is vertically challenged. I don’t know, it could be so many things, and still, I’m going to go with “because the Pilot needed to meet the deadline, OK? Jeesh, give me a break!”.

Other than the twisted sense of scale, the town is unexpectedly full of details. Naturally there aren’t many houses/places where you can actually enter, but the attention to detail even at this early stage is well appreciated (Props for the waterfall hidden in the background). Things like the dock and the windmill give it credibility, as well as some diversity. I don’t know if one could say that “people would actually be able to live here” given the absence of such things as bathrooms and kitchens, but maybe that’s a little bit too much to ask for.

Mmmhhh, thinking about it, maybe it would be best to leave it as it is and hang a lampshade on it for giggles. It would be so much more comfortable to be in this place if the game itself acknowledged it’s shortcomings.

Anyways, things got really interesting here in the story department thanks to some intra-party friction. I won’t spoil the details to anyone, since it isn’t a part of the game design, but I have to say that it was really unexpected and a nice surprise. It hooks the player and gives him yet another reason to glue his rear to the chair and keep playing.

One would expect that the ending would be something akin to “Pilot ends here; leave feedback or I’ll murder your entire family… please?”, but that’s not the case. Instead, Jay goes the extra mile and gives us a full conversation between the characters, joking around, breaking the fourth wall and everything. It’s always the little details that make or brake the game, or in this case the pilot.

Ending
I don't know... those steps look a tiny bit too orange *gets devoured by a pack of rampant coyotes*

As a final thought, I’d like to say that I wouldn’t have written so much about Frayed Knights if I didn’t feel something strong about it’s game design. I loved it, I hated it, I laughed, I cried (okay, that one is a lie) but most of all I respected it for what it was trying to do, even if it sometimes fell short on it’s tacit promises.

Oh, and I apologize for my attempts at humor. So sorry about that… unless you enjoyed them, and in that case: your welcome.

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique Part III

(See also: Part I, Part II, and Part IV)

And here we are in part 3. I never expected to write more than a single post about this, but as I dug deeper and deeper I began to discover the inner workings of the pilot and the design philosophy behind it all. At this point I have to say that it feels… eclectic. It’s neither one thing or the other, it never stays behind one line of thinking and it always surprises me with a new layer of detail (considering it’s a pilot).

For instance, the environment seems empty at first since the rooms, hallways, stairs, etc, are all huge and filled with copious amounts of empty space. Sure, there are occasionally a few boxes laying around, a painting on the wall and a few skeletons, but nothing that really fills the places up. There’s always this huge empty space wherever you go. But upon closer look one discovers that every single room is packed with details. There is a description for almost every single object and I’m not even sure if there’s a “default” description for anything. Every single thing that you can look at has some story behind it, nothing is just random. On top of that, the architecture of the place actually matters since there’s always a raison d’être for each room. (Although where do the cultists go to the bathroom is never explained… mmmhhh, well, ignorance is bliss in this case)

speedrun
Lampshade Hanging at it's finest, but this dialog has a lot more going for it than comedy.

With so many details and dialogs to discover, I’m really glad that I’m an explorer. I always went through every corner of each map, just to see if there’s something there waiting for me. This is why in my first and second play-through I opened every door and blatantly stole borrowed everything I could take with me. But for the sake of doing something different, on my third run I just wanted to blow through the pilot, exploring only the necessary rooms. In other words, a speedrun.

Alright, let’s do this. I close every dialog that comes up, and go straight to the stairs. I open the first door, battle some cultists and get the key so now I can open the steel gate, you know, the one with the invisible keyhole. I still wonder how that key can open such a massive door. Let’s leave it at “It’s Magic” and move on. Anyways, I go upstairs to prepare for the final encounter. Yay! I’m almost there and… ah? I don’t remember seeing this dialog before.

Let’s see, the party is pointing out that they left a ton of doors untouched and that there may be a lot of enemies there. Enemies that can charge at any moment and catch us off-guard. Well, I’m trying to do this in the fastest way possible, so… what the hell, let’s try this. I just continue onwards, ignoring the warnings, and lo and behold, I was attacked from behind. Somehow I expected some kind of invisible barrier, saying that I can’t continue unless I explore everything. When those guys were dispatched I was immediately faced with the final encounter. I’m not sure, but I think they were at least a little tougher than they normally were since my party got wiped out of the face of the earth. At least I took one of those templar bastards with me.

Alright, I got my behind handed to me, I’m not a sore looser, I can take a defeat.

But I tried to speedrun again. I just had to see if it’s possible to win. Not that I need to prove my gamer cred or something… So, I tried again but this time on the final encounter I remembered to use the awesome fire staff of pure awesomeness. I just forgot about it since it’s an item with only three charges and there’s no way to replenish it. Then I remembered that this is the final battle and if I don’t use it here I won’t have any other opportunity. As yet another unexpected attention to detail, when Chloe uses the staff a different humorous dialog appears every time.

And I won! Can I get a hip hip hooray? … No? … =(

So, rewinding a little, I didn’t expect the game would take into account the different ways of play and then punish/reward accordingly. Especially after playing what seemed to be a fairly linear RPG. I was greeted with the opportunity to choose, to be different, to actually participate in the in-game story. It’s not just a toy with a set of rules carved in stone, the game will take into account my input and allow several ways to complete the same task. I can’t cheer on this enough, so here goes my opinion in one word: AWESOME.

prisoner
Speaking of awesome...

Let’s keep this good vibe going shall we? Let’s take a look at yet another design aspect that Frayed Knights hits the nail squarely on the head.

One of the common mistakes in game design in general is offering immediate feedback in games that also have quicksaving and loading. Bad idea people! If the player knows right there on the spot that he made a bad choice or had a bad dice roll (ugh), then he’ll be more than happy to load and try again. And repeat that process ad nauseum until he is satisfied with the result. This is just one of the problems of quicksaving, but I’ll get to the save system later, for now we are talking about immediate feedback.

So, why bring this up now if I’m not going to rant about the save system? Well, because apparently Jay knows how to solve some of these problems, and one way to do this is by giving consequences to player actions that take a while to surface.

Just imagine it, you made a bad choice but you don’t know that yet, so you go on and use another save just in case. Three hours later, the ramifications of your previous decisions surface and now you have a really strong urge to reload. But that would mean three hours down the toilet wouldn’t it? And you still don’t know the consequences for the other possibilities, so that could also mean even more hours down the toilet.

Most likely, the player will just go on, preferring to live with a stain on their record than to waste various hours trying to do everything perfectly. He would be taking responsibility on his actions, and facing the consequences without all the metagaming that quickloading implies.

But how does this relate to Frayed Knights? Well, there’s this one very special encounter in which the player is faced with three possible choices: Completely ignore the lower part of the dungeon, let a female prisoner out of her cell and contemplate on the problem but decide to let her rot there (I’m still wondering exactly how the Frayed Knights open the cell door…). The beauty of it is that there’s no feedback, there is no possible way that the player can tell what’s going to happen later. Again: AWESOME.

Wow, I seem so happy and pleased with the pilot. That never happened in the previous parts.

Also, in a hopefully unrelated note, I just vomited a lung along with my left kidney and a live rat (don’t look at me like that, I didn’t know it was alive!). I’m not saying it’s related to my current happy happy joy joy state, but just to be sure let’s fix that up real quick:

Random battles. Ah yes, I’m feeling much better now. They are … well, random, there’s no way to avoid them, and there’s always a fresh supply of monsters. Sometimes they can wipe out your entire party, sometimes they are just annoying cannon fodder and sometimes they disrupt the meat of the game (exploration) with mindless button mashing. Hate them. Hate them with a passion.

Alright, I know that I said that I won’t give Frayed Knights a bad rap about this precisely because a more organic approach (i.e. you see the enemies, they don’t just appear out of nowhere) is a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive. Regardless, I recently thought of one thing that can be done to improve things without much hassle:

kobolds, natures own guerrilla
Kobolds, nature's own guerrilla.

Have a limit for random encounters in every place, that way the player can choose to clear areas or blaze right through them. Of course, some kind of feedback that tells the player how many encounters there are left would be necessary. A Hint system perhaps? Something like this: A button called “search” or something similar is added to the main GUI, and when the player presses it, a message appears informing the current enemy count. It’s the best approach I can come up with apart from having the actual number on the screen as part of the GUI (or a danger gauge instead of a number). Also, this system would work like a charm with the sleep mechanic, since now it’s a lot more clear if it’s currently safe or not to rest.

And with that I conclude this third part. Verbose doesn’t really cut it isn’t it? Especially when considering I’m critiquing a Pilot and not a full game. Heh, what can I do? When something interests me I tend to write about every little detail. Thankfully there are only a few other subjects left to address, so my next part is probably going to be the last one. On the other hand, one of the mayor subjects is the save system and the other is death mechanics… so you better prepare in advance for the next part, it’s going to be a long one.

Frayed Knights Pilot Critique Part II

Alright, it took me a while to finish but here is the second part of the Frayed Knights Pilot critique.

(See also: Part IPart III, and Part IV)

In the first 30 seconds of this pilot you will find out that this game has metric tons of personality. From descriptions to dialogs to the overall narrative, it all feels perfectly woven together, with occasional bursts of comedic brilliance.

Dialogs are the primary source of this awesome creamy filling called humor. Every once in a while the player get’s to see the party members chat about something that just happened. Those moments will get a chuckle out of you at the very least, especially if you are a veteran RPG gamer. The character portraits are put to good use here, although it can get a little messy when there are something like 5 or more speech bubbles on the screen. The only problem I see with the dialogs is that a specific part of every single speech bubble has some kind of blur filter. I don’t know if it was intentional, or a necessity due to ugly pixeling, but either way this blur filter doesn’t look pretty.

asdasgfd
Snot-golems? Bah, those are nothing, I've created worse things in my kitchen. Unintentionally!

But the dialogs are not the only interesting parts. In every single other game that I’ve ever played, traps work in binary states. It’s either armed or disarmed. With the disarm mechanics working pretty much like this: player clicks on the disarm button, fails, clicks again, fails, clicks again, the trap is disarmed, hooray for the exciting world of mindless random chance. Frayed Knights takes this concept but fleshes it out to the point of actually making traps interesting. It’s certainly something I’ve never seen before, but I can’t fairly judge it yet. They seem very deep and easy to understand, but in the pilot you only get to toy around with them two or three times. I got a taste of it, I liked it, but I can’t say much more than that. It’s far more strategic than any other sad excuse for a trap system I’ve ever seen before, that’s a certain.

I’m sad to say that once again the layout is the weak point. The trap disarming screen is functional although a little disorienting at first since there’s tons of empty space while the important buttons are too small for their own good and shoved into a corner. It looks more like a prototype, a proof of concept, something that was thrown together without much (graphical) thought and with the only goal of being functional.

Moving on, let’s get to one of the mayor problems I had with the game. By far the most overcomplicated part of the Frayed Knights Pilot is the camera control and movement. I don’t understand why in certain PC games there’s this need for offering a control scheme that only uses the mouse or one that only uses the keyboard. There’s a reason why FPS games offer movement with the keyboard and camera control with the mouse: they complement each other perfectly and in this day and age it’s the standard control scheme. If we are talking about first person 3D games, there are not that many control schemes that can work as well, and Frayed Knights proves my point.

The mouse by itself offers movement and camera control while you are pressing the right button. Although it feels weird to walk around like this at first, I can see how you can get used to it. Even then it’s the most cumbersome and slow way I could find to walk and look around.

Fired chicken and donuts, a healthy god does not make.
Fried chicken & donuts, a healthy god does not make.

On the other hand, the keyboard by itself offers movement with the WASD keys and camera movement with the Q and E keys. As you might expect, the movement feels at home with the keyboard but the camera control suffers from a lack of precision. For me it rotates way too fast, for other people it may be too slow. So an added option to calibrate the speed of rotation of the camera with the Q & E keys would be a welcome addition. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The keyboard by itself is a competent control scheme, but just like the mouse-only scheme, there’s a little problem: Lack of ability to look up and down. If Frayed Knights had completely flat level design, from dungeons to towns, then this would not be such a great problem. Sure, I may miss the beautiful arquitecture of the dungeons, but nothing of too much importance right? Well, Frayed Knights doesn’t have a completely flat level design, so it can get awkward sometimes. For instance, when going up the stairs you’ll furiously look at the steps right in front of you, without knowing when this stream of steps will end. On the other hand, going downstairs means that you’ll be looking at the ceiling the whole time. It’s silly and annoying, but it’s nothing more than an inconvenience.

The third control scheme allows for full camera control, and as you’d expect from any 3D videogame, the movement is handled with the keyboard and the camera with the mouse. However offering too many control schemes that are not mutually exclusive can cause problems.

I have to wonder, why would I want to control everything with the mouse or control the camera with the keyboard? There’s this perfectly acceptable third control scheme that solves the problems of the other two. Alright, so it’s giving me a choice, the more the better right? Well, normally, yes, but the first two control schemes that I described cannibalize on the third one. I have to hold the Z key if I want to look around, but if I stop pressing it, then the screen defaults to a horizontal angle. At first I didn’t get why this happens but then it dawned on me: it wouldn’t be possible to use the other control schemes if the camera angle is not horizontal to the ground. Great. So this other inferior control schemes are interfering with the best one, making it feel more restrictive.

Murder death before murders kills you.
FK Advice: Murder death before he murders you.

So, how do we solve this? It’s pretty easy actually. Ditch the camera control with the keyboard, and the movement control with the mouse. Then instead of having to hold the Z key to look around make it so that a single press switches between modes. Now that the right click does nothing, you can use it instead of the Z key, that way you end up with a control scheme like this:

  • WASD keys: Move around.
  • Left Click: Does the same exact thing as before. That is, interact with the enviroment and GUI.
  • Right Click: Switch between View Mode and Interact Mode.
  • In View Mode the mouse controls the camera.
  • In Interact Mode the mouse controls the cursor.

That’s it. I’m not saying that it would be the best control scheme ever to be imagined, but it would certainly be an improvement over the current ones. Easier to learn and simpler to explain.

There are still a lot of things to talk about, and at around 1170 words, this entry is getting a tiny little bit too long, so I’m going to have to write yet another part. Luckily, I’ve already got half of part 3 written down, with topics ranging from the enviroment, the nature of the random battles and the stars system, so it won’t take me more than a two or three days to complete.