Friday, August 31, 2012

A Lovely Analogy

Hooray for awesome indie games! I've "beaten" two of the great games I gratefully received from Andrew.  In both cases, there are additional endings for me to unlock should I wish to try again. Let's start with Analogue: A Hate Story! This is the sequel to the amazing free Digital: A Love Story, and while it shares some of that game's sensibilities and a few of its interface elements, the overall experience it creates is quite different. Let's consider these….

MINI SPOILERS (for Analogue; mega for Digital):

Where Digital was set about 25 years in the past, during the age of BBS's and the very birth of the Internet, Analogue is set several thousand years in the future. The exact timeline is a little unclear, and the game only gives us the barest outlines of the backstory: mankind has started colonizing new planets, and…. that's about all we know. The game is almost entirely focused on one particular spaceship from Korea which has been inert for many hundreds of years, so you're experiencing a fragment of a fragment of future-history.

The overall approach to the game has some strong similarities to Digital, in that much of your time is spent searching for information and reading messages. In Digital, this meant finding phone numbers and logins for various BBS's, reading and writing messages and posts to various people, and occasionally downloading some files (over a super-sweet 600 baud modem). In Analogue, most of the information is already compiled for you as records on the ship's computer. There's much less typing and more clicking; you browse for data rather than search for it.

The HUGE difference from Digital, though, is the inclusion of a personality that you can interact with. Well, that, and having multiple branches in the story. Digital was terrific, but there was really only one path through the game; you could sometimes do things in a different order, but there was really one outcome you could achieve. In Analogue, your interactions with the computer are mediated by an AI named *Hyun-ae. She/It acts like a guide and a confidante, showing you information, accepting instructions, and offering reactions to particularly interesting messages. She also asks you questions along the way, simple binary Yes/No types of questions, and your reactions help determine the direction of the story and your relationship.

And there is a relationship. That's the thing that's so unique about the Digital/Analogue games: they're practically the only games I know that actually present a case for meaningful emotional interaction between biological and electronic forms of intelligence.  Oh, sure, tons of games out there feature artificial intelligences, and a few even depict them as lovers (most recently Mass Effect 3), but I'm not aware of any other games that put you in the driver's seat like this and actually explore that relationship in a non-plot-focused way.

The other huge difference from Digital: there are graphics! They're kind of simple, but totally gorgeous. Digital MIGHT have had some ASCII art, but pretty much the only thing you'd see in the game was your computer screen, the computer below it (Tandy, I think?), and the text on the screen. Analogue starts with you staring at a BASH prompt (have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE these games?), but soon you are booted into a virtual environment with *Hyun-ae, and spend most of the game there. The graphics are fairly simple but gorgeous: *Hyun-ae is drawn in two dimensions, and adopts different poses and expressions based on how your conversation is going. There's no real animation, just some nice subtle color effects on the white background, but she is so expressive that I quickly found myself feeling protective of her. They also play around with the interface for some humorous effects; *Hyun-ae "speaks" by typing out letters into a speech bubble, but sometimes she'll change her mind about what she wants to say and will quickly backspace and retype something new.

The game changes after you get superuser access…..


… and you meet *Mute, the second AI of the game. *Mute is a VERY different personality from *Hyun-ae: forceful, brash, assertive, and outspoken, in contrast to *Hyun-ae's timidity, soft-spokenness, and reticence. *Mute comes right out and asks you some questions that *Hyun-ae never does: are you a man or a woman? Are you married? She also has some highly negative things to say about *Hyun-ae, and soon the parameters of the game come into focus: you are receiving two interpretations of the ship's disaster from two "survivors" of the incident, and must piece together the truth of what happened.

And that really is where the bulk of your time in the game is spent, at least if you're like me and actually enjoy reading all of the log messages. I suppose that you could just click through the messages and advance the plot, but all of the fun and flavor of the game comes from those messages. It's a bit like Rashomon, but layered through multiple levels. You'll read about an incident from the multiple perspectives of people who participated in that incident or heard about it second-hand; but those reports themselves are controlled by the AIs, who sometimes like to withhold information based on their own agendas.

I had gotten used to the leisurely pace of my investigation - clicking through messages, talking with the AI - and so I was pleasantly startled when the game shifted yet again. The ship's power systems came back online when you made contact, but after hundreds of years without maintenance, the nuclear reactor is shot, and the ship's almost out of power. The AI gives you general instructions on what you need to do, but this segment is pleasingly free of hand-holding. It's mostly just you and a BASH prompt, while an on-screen timer menacingly counts down from 20 minutes as the screen grows increasingly staticky. You essentially read man pages to try and figure out what capabilities are available to you and try to manipulate the environment to make things safe.

In a clever but cruel detail of the game design, you need to get power consumption below 20%, but certain systems (the mainframe computer and communications systems) are necessary in order to keep your session active; shutting those down will end the game. Those together consume nearly 15% of available power, and each AI consumes another 5%. So you can only afford to keep one running. What an awful choice to make! There's a warning when you try to shut one down that warns you it will degrade after 24 hours. I figured that this wouldn't be too big of a problem - I could only keep one running at a time, sure, but I could bring each up or down as necessary.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to work as well as I'd hoped. When first playing the game, I was chatting with *Mute when the power started going down. I tried to switch back to *Hyun-ae before bringing down the reactor, mostly because I wanted to check and see if there was anything I should know that *Mute was holding back. The terminal told me that *Hyun-ae was unavailable, though. Yikes! I tried copying her to another core and bringing that one online, but it didn't work either. I eventually finished the game with *Mute, but never was able to get *Hyun-ae back online.

In a second game, I got superuser access from *Hyun-ae, then talked with *Mute long enough to get her questions for *Hyun-ae, then immediately switched back to *Hyun-ae. The power started going down soon after. I still haven't figured out whether this is based on an actual timer, or the number of documents you read, or triggering certain conversations. This led to a similar problem, but in the opposite direction: I couldn't switch back to *Mute once the power started going down. That makes me think that the power fluctuation will "kill" whichever AI isn't currently enabled.

If and when I play a third time, I think I'm going to try and do the whole power switcheroo thing immediately after getting superuser access. I'm hoping that this will let me keep both of the AIs around. There's a lot of stuff that I'd really like to do, like get *Mute's reaction to the story of what actually happened to the Pale Bride before her introduction to the Emperor. I'm guessing that this will be necessary for the "Harem" ending that's listed as one of the five game endings.

Back to the game itself: it's really good, and keeps getting better. *Hyun-ae is absolutely adorable once you start talking with her about cosplay and her outfits. A lot of the content is pretty out there, and would sound incredibly melodramatic if I wrote it down, but in practice just feels really compelling.

END SPOILERS for Analogue (and Digital, too!)

So, there's that! At the end of the game you can unlock concept art based on the ending you get, which is really wonderful… I love the art in the game, and it's really cool to look at the different things they tried before coming up with their final designs.

And now, moving from a gorgeous and subtle game about love, let's move on to a deliberately ugly game about suffering! I finally managed to beat The Binding of Isaac. Gosh, that's one of the hardest games I've played in a LONG time. It requires both luck and skill to beat… if you don't get good items early on, you're pretty much doomed to fail, and even if you do get good items, just a couple of bad decisions or poor reflexes can quickly kill you later on.

MEGA SPOILERS for Binding of Isaac:

The game starts out depressing and gets more so. You're essentially traveling farther underground: you start off in your basement, then move into the Caves, and then the Depths. Along the way, you're encountering a lot of bad things - flies and worms and so forth - but the most disturbing are the things that look like you. I think one of the implications of the game is that you're not the first person who has been "sacrificed", and many of the creatures you need to "destroy" are, in some figurative or literal sense, your own brothers.

At the bottom of the Depths, you need to defeat the game's boss: Mom! Yup, that's right, the "final" fight is against your own mother. She's pretty tough, too… she'll stomp on you, and if you try to run to the door, her hand will slap you. It's pretty creepy to hear her talk to you, too. I had a hard time understanding her: she sounds really upset, but what is she saying? For a while I thought she was saying, "I saaaaaaaid…….. I SAID!" She killed me. :-( The second time, I finally realized that she was actually saying your name: "Isaaaaaaaaac…. ISAAC!"

Part of why I missed that may have been because, at the time, I wasn't actually playing as Isaac. The game has… I think five different characters you can unlock and play as. Early on I had unlocked Eve, who you get after making two "deals with the devil." She was interesting, and I got farther with her than I did with Isaac, but that's probably more because I got better at playing. I really lucked out, though, and managed to teleport to the I AM ERROR room, which was filled with Health Up pills. I gobbled up a ton, which gave me a total of, like, fourteen hearts, which unlocked Magdalene. Even with fourteen hearts, I STILL managed to die on the first level of The Depths, but I did much better with Magdalene; I think I made it to Mom on my third try with her, and defeated her on my fourth. Magdalene is a bit slower than the others, but still fast enough to evade most enemies. She starts off with a little extra health, which helps a lot for non-awesome players like me. Her special item is the "Yum Heart", which you can use once every six rooms to refill one heart. Perhaps as good or better, it seems like enemies are much more likely to drop hearts when you play as her. This has its downside - I've had some games where I haven't gotten any keys or bombs at all until I reach the Caves, which can mean missing out on some item rooms - but over the course of the game it makes things much better.

Back to Mom. I finally got the rhythm of the fight in my second attempt. As with many fights, you want to keep moving. Look for the shadow that appears under you; that means Mom's heel is coming down. You can scoot just a little up or down to avoid getting stomped, and then you'll get several seconds of good damage in. When the foot isn't down, you can move to one of the walls - far enough from the door to keep from getting slapped, then wait for her eye to appear and unload on it. Keep it up for long enough, and you win!

A few things change after winning. The start screen image changes to show Isaac standing triumphantly - and, for a change, happily - over his mother. It also warns you that "the harbingers have arrived." From now on, some of the boss fights might be replaced with one of the Horsemen - famine, pestilence, war, death. And, most importantly, Mom is no longer the end boss. After defeating her, you need to travel to - gulp - the Womb.

The Womb is super-creepy. The art design is disturbing, the music is minimal and menacing, and there are entirely new classes of enemies to fight. There don't seem to be as many helpful items, either. Fortunately for me, I had acquired the map and compass, so I was able to make a beeline for the boss. On the second level of the Womb, you fight the "real" final boss: Mom's Heart. Yikes!

Once again, it took a while for me to beat, but this time I (eventually) got it on the first try. The heart will drop down, wait for a few seconds, summon two monsters, then pull back up again. You can shoot the heart with your tears, but I had the most luck when I used my bombs - if you time it right, you can drop the bomb just before the heart drops, then the bomb will damage both summons and the heart, and keep the heart in place a while longer. After the heart drops to about 1/3 health, it will stay in place and constantly summon monsters. I found that it was easiest at this stage to just avoid the enemies and focus entirely on the heart, or just kill one and leave the other around so she won't summon fresh ones.

A message from the creator of the game had a great quote that I think perfectly sums up the weird, demented, oddly compelling appeal of this game: "Who would have thought a game about an abused child fighting off his mother with his tears could ever sell 700k copies in less than a year?" Not me. It's an ugly game, but one that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing.


Oh, yeah: and I'm also playing Skyrim. I don't seem to have anywhere near as much time for Elder Scrolls games as I have in the past: I'm currently averaging about two hours a week, and at that rate it will take me YEARS to finish.  It's gorgeous, though! I love the immense sense of freedom that these big, open-world games have. All I've done so far is finish the tutorial, visit two homes in the first town, and I'm currently partway through the first dungeon-ish environment. I'm trying to go for a fairly stealthy thief-type character, which so far is going pretty well. I'm happy by how much better the NPCs look than before - still not up to Bioware standards, but they look vaguely like humans now.

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