Machinarium’s Ending Sucks

Endings are hard to do. I have an English professor who asserted once in class that ‘most endings are bad… pretty much, all endings are terrible.’ In a way, he’s right. Story endings are artificial. They’re where we choose to stop telling a tale that, in the context of the real, continuing world, has no actual end. The editorial act of forcing an end to a story’s living world can be an easy thing to mess up: many people would put this kind of blame on Harry Potter.

A puzzle! WoooooThe best ending of any kind that I can think of is possibly the ending to Casablanca, followed quickly after by the ending to Watership Down, which actually made me cry when I was in fourth grade. I can’t think of many games that have a similar sense of profound resolution. Indigo Prophecy’s ending arguably ruined the game for me; the ending to Beyond Good and Evil is a bit too baffling to be fully satisfying. Many people detest BioShock’s ending. The ending to KOTOR II was an uninspired mess. There are games out there with spectacular finales, but I’d argue that they’re the exception to the rule: Modern Warfare is one. Portal is another.* Usually, after the player has spent his or herself on a traumatically difficult boss battle, where can a game go? Can tying up the loose ends of a possibly feather-light plot compete with the excitement of climactic play? Often, no. Games have it tougher than most media when it comes to endings.

Machinarium is one of those games where you can feel the ending coming from far away. It feels very right. The action, which until the final hour or so has been spread all across a small city of robot people, begins to narrow, finally converging on a few puzzle-dense rooms stranded, lonely and hollow, high above the clouds. The music, which is frankly my favorite part of the game, becomes more resonant and contemplative, while the images become more arresting and, frankly, disturbing: the last character you meet is eerie, or at least a bit unsettling, in a way I found very compelling. (Hint: you perform crazy robot psychotherapy on it. Yeah.)

The ending also addresses a common theme that runs through the rest of the game: arcade culture. Throughout Machinarium, the player is exposed to old arcade games presented in non-traditional ways: chiefly, arcade games are presented as relics of the past, as grungy, dust-splattered, rickety, bike-powered objects, entertainments occupying a space as far as possible from the slick, bright, neon experience we normally associate with arcade games. The final encounter, or boss-fight, if you will, is also an arcade game. It’s also non-traditional: its soundtrack is jarring and unpleasant, its display elements are non-rectilinear and bereft of ‘digitalness’, and…

Well. IT HAS THE WORST CONTROLS OF ANY GAME, EVER.

The final ‘boss fight’ of Machinarium is so unpleasant that I put the game down for a whole month. Though the rest of the game is a rather calm, contemplative thing, something that can be solved easily with an old and fuzzy laptop touchpad, the final ‘puzzle’ requires a mouse and infinite patience. You must play an extremely long and badly-designed Flash game for which no rules or objectives are given. Dying pulls you out into the world again, where you must repeat a few trivial adventure-game actions in order to reenter the fight. I died countless times, mainly because my screen was wider than the game file itself (Machinarium is Flash) and every time my cursor left the game panel, I would lose control of the character and die. Furthermore, it’s a mouse-aim game with no separate controls for your avatar: you trail around after the aim cursor, able to control your own position only indirectly. I’m sure that not everyone had as huge of a problem with it as I did; nevertheless, it’s so badly designed that I doubt it would do well as stand-alone gameplay. Which is important in a game that’s partially about games. It’s not the main theme, but it’s prominent, and I expected better.

One of my favorite puzzles. It’s got the best background music.

Furthermore, I feel that it pollutes the atmosphere of the entire game: it features your robot taking down enemies with a gun. Up until this point, Machinarium is about a relatively-pacifist underdog robot who is eternally harassed by aggressive, bombastic, armed criminals. I did not expect his final triumph to involve shooting people, even digital people.

Aside from this, I enjoyed Machinarium immensely. It’s a gorgeous adventure game with awesome puzzles—something I hope to write about soon. I’m pretty sure that, art, difficulty, and puzzle-wise, it’s the best adventure game produced by anyone, ever, in several years.

But I haven’t yet played Time Gentlemen, Please, so don’t hold me to that assessment.

* Though the ending has apparently changed due to that awesome ARG– something I need to take a look at!

Sleep is Death

I preordered Sleep is Death today. Which is interesting, considering I was not an enormous fan of Passage.

I hated Passage for a pretty specific, personal reason. There was actually a lot about it I did enjoy: I liked the minimalist style, and I appreciated the player’s bleak lack of control over life and death. As a game where action equals metaphor, it works perfectly. But I had a problem with the meaning of the metaphor.

There’s a brief line in this article about every day the same dream that captures my feelings about Passage: Passage is trite, simplistic, and false. It’s too-perfect love. If that’s how Jason Rohrer thinks he’s living his life, hand in hand down a long hallway of colors, together all the time, great for him. That isn’t how most people live.

His assumption that this is life is what comes across as pretentiousness: anyone who doesn’t agree with the premise of the metaphor is going to perceive him as making art out of falsehood. During the time when I first played Passage, I was pretty lonely and was generally mildly upset with the universe; the game made me want to hunt Rohrer down and kick him in the face for being so blandly happy.Yeah, my reactions to everything he makes are totally personal and subjective– but I’d like to think that’s how he wants people to react to his games. On a personal level. On that personal level, I just wanted to kick him in the face for being happy in his stupid hallway, and for assuming that his own minor navigational problems, so to speak, were profound.

But Sleep is Death doesn’t look like anything trite at all. Where Passage was about what I see as a kind of fake idealism, Sleep is Death is going to be about actual interaction, about the problematic, fast-paced negotiation of a shared gamespace. The slideshow trailer he put up shows the kind of ambiguous, troublesome play that I appreciate in my game-metaphors about life.

Also: Storybook Weaver crossed with being a Dungeon Master. BEST. GAME. CONCEPT. EVER. I grew up on Storybook Weaver!

Good job, Mr. Rohrer: here are my dollars. I promise I won’t try to write class papers about how much I hate you anymore (something I actually tried to do last summer). I have formally erased you from my official List of Dicks. Be free, Mr. Rohrer. Show the world you know what the hell you’re doing. Again.

Hammerfight is like Omar Sharif

ATTENTION. I AM MANLY OMAR.

Or the game Omar Sharif would play. Let’s talk about it.

Like Sharif, Hammerfight is outrageously manly. Derek Yu wrote about the game’s manliness, and it was his assessment of the game—“like Charleton Heston in the Ten Commandments,” he said—that convinced me I had to own it. But I’ve come to disagree with his choice of actors. Yeah, Charleton Heston is plenty manly, but the game’s unusual style points me toward a different super-manly actor with a different cultural background and filmography.

See, Hammerfight is a game about dueling steampunk helicopter gladiators. Its setting draws equally from Dune, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and the blisteringly insane imagination of its developers, who are a pack of clever Russians. Like Omar Sharif, a man of Franco-Libyan heritage who could play both Doctor Zhivago and Sherif Ali, the game seems to straddle an East-West stylistic divide. Out of this tension it creates a kind of weird, syncretic perfection never before seen on the face of planet Earth. Look at the man. Look at the game.

I AM ALSO MANLY. BUT A GAME.

Honestly, this game is such a hodgepodge of cultural signs that it actually escapes them and becomes own thing entirely. We’ve got the middle-eastern soundtrack. We’ve got sabers and geometric patterns and other Arabic visual cues. We’ve got the quasi-Arabic character names. We’ve got the Dune references. But on the other hand, we’ve got player advancement linked up to  ultra-western World-War-One-esque army medals and some rather Teutonic player title awards, as well as flying sandworms, steampunk, Greek architecture and Roman coins, and the absurd inclusion of retro pixel-fonts on every screen in the game. Also animated smileys: If you fly in a taunting waggle while fighting, your helicopter will flash the other helicopters an animated yellow smiley face. What.

Basically, what I’m saying is that this universe that Kranx Productions invented for its helicopter brawler is fantastic. This game is the square-jawed mythic hero-figure justice lovechild of Gamal Nasser and the Queen of England. So, Omar Sharif.

CHAIN CAGE MATCH

But what about the crazy mouse-swirling combat? Well, it’s basically genius. There is not a thing like it elsewhere in the universe. But there is a drawback: playing this game too much will give you severe tendonitis in your wrist. If you can suffer that well enough, though, you’re golden.

Like World Of Goo, this game stands upon the strength of its appealing physics engine, and play consists of teasing this engine out, elaborating upon its possibilities and feeling out its limits. Moving your mouse in circles, you struggle with centrifugal force for the control of the giant hammer hanging beneath your helicopter. You then smash things with this hammer. Or you can hang a sword there, and slice your enemies instead! Or an axe! Or you can put a wooden mallet there and play a ball sport! Fighting an enemy in the slave pits? Cool. Fighting an enemy in the slave pits while the two of you are linked by a giant chain that responds realistically to momentum? COOLER. Sick of hammers? How about swinging around some guns, learning to adjust to their solid, punchy recoil? Every possible variation on the engine’s original scenario is here. World of Goo and Hammerfight share that kind of genius.

Much of your time outside these fights is spent tricking around with different loadouts, searching for the best combination of weapons. These weapons feel meaty and significant in combat, and learning each type’s playstyle is one of the central focuses of the game. Unfortunately, there is no Hammerfight wiki, but if there were, it would probably consist mainly of pages about different kinds of weapons. Someone had better get on that.

'Glory' is a statistic in this game. Awesome.

In all likelihood, though, no one will ever get on that. Very few people play this game, probably because it is outrageously difficult. The learning curve for mouse-enabled hammer-battle is quite steep, and although there is ostensibly a tutorial progression, the initial levels are pretty frustrating. In fact, the fifth level features you standing up alone to an army of giant flying-sandworm-zeppelins and a neverending stream of hovering buzzsaw robots who attack you in pairs and triples while the zeppelins fire heatseeking missiles at you. You will probably die eight or ten times, and, restarting, you will sit through the slow pre-level plotty bit eight or ten times, too. If you think you can handle it, stay on board. The real game has barely begun, and things get easier with practice.

If I ever get a time machine, I am going to do a few things with it. One of the first things I will do will be to go back to the sixties with a laptop and give Omar Sharif, then in his multicultural movieacting prime and with all his youthful hand-eye coordination still intact, the chance to play Hammerfight. Then I will come back to the present and give you all an update on what he thought about it.

If he doesn’t get tendonitis, I bet he loves it.

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By the way, here is a hilariously-grammared trailer from the developers, reminding you what this game is all about (‘HIGH ART OF FIGHT‘).

Learning Dwarf Fortress

For my first few posts, I’d like to write a few short articles about the mega-indie city-sim Dwarf Fortress. My gaming interests lie particularly in indie PC games, and I feel that Dwarf Fortress exemplifies the kind of raw, unleavened creativity that can make indie PC games particularly special. But DF, as it’s called, also exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make some indie games inaccessible. I’d like to talk about this tension. It’s a productive one.

—-

My first game of Dwarf Fortress lasted a good forty hours.

It went like this: I stumbled through the terrifyingly complex world-generation process, ran the Fortress Mode game, and embarked with a randomized initial party of dwarves. I had a vague idea about the game’s object: found and intensively micromanage an outrageously detailed underground ASCII city filled with dwarves. But the menus—the controls! The visual language of this game is so abstract and opaque that it’s practically Martian.

Dwarf Fortress. Scary as fuck.

What is going ON here?

I managed to survive for about eight minutes before discovering that half my dwarves had been killed by fire imps while I was busy mistaking my camel for a carpenter. In fifteen minutes I was sitting back at the main menu screen, fuming, listening to the solitary audio track loop endlessly and thinking this is a fundamentally flawed gaming experience.

Then I went online.

I read a good three hours of wiki. I studied up on two different tutorial series, video and written. I made myself more comfortable with the pause button. Then I went back to the game.

This was now hour six or seven. I generated another world, fixed my keymapping, sorted out my starting dwarf party, and embarked. I told my dwarves to dig, to chop down trees, and to build doors and beds. Then winter came. The river froze solid, and my dwarves, apparently too stupid to melt ice, got thirsty. One died, dehydrated. The others went insane. The announcement bar at the bottom of the screen explained that, in their despair, they were throwing tantrums. Two of them killed themselves, or were killed by their tantruming friends—I couldn’t tell which. The leftover ones went mad, ripped off all their clothes, and died of thirst. My fortress was destroyed.

My fortress dies.

In DF lingo, this is known as a 'tantrum spiral'.

I went back online. I read about the importance of digging wells before the winter hits.

I started again. The next trip-up was farms. I went back to the wiki. I went to the forums. I learned that this game has a tighter, more-entrenched community language than many MMOs do, and a body of foundational folk-history comparable in breadth to that of a minor US state. I saw what others have done with this crazy machine: I became intimate with the game’s systems, and with the possibilities those systems create. I felt out the slope of the learning curve. I peeled back the idiotic user interface, the absurd ASCII graphics, the nonsensical input-output scheme that drives the game’s guts. I played the game every moment of my free time. I started six or seven different fortresses in different locations. I read an entire sixty-page forum thread about endgame scenarios I’m unlikely to ever play myself. I was in it up to my neck.

See, Dwarf Fortress is a kind of crazy quicksand. Or maybe it’s like the military. It sucks you up and breaks you down and spits you out. Let’s metaphor nerdier: I spent my thousand years in the sarlaac of Dwarf Fortress and emerged stronger, if a bit corroded.

I started up a new fortress. It was my last fortress.

I didn’t win it. It’s not a game with win conditions. Instead, I played it just long enough that I could sit back and say to myself, Laura, you know how to play this game—then I stopped playing it. That was a week and a half ago, and I haven’t played a moment of it since. I consider that the end of my first game. A good forty hours, over maybe three weeks.

My longest-running fortress.

It's a messy fortress, but it works. 104 dwarves! Nobody tantruming!

The game of Dwarf Fortress isn’t just Dwarf Fortress the executable, Dwarf Fortress the little black ASCII window that runs behind my browser, plunking out its sad MIDI soundtrack: it’s Dwarf Fortress the process. It’s the masochistic procedure of learning to play, of learning the character and aims of the online community, learning to judge yourself against them, rate yourself by their impossible standards. It’s about learning to give yourself a purpose in a game which has no purpose beyond perpetuation. The exultation I felt when I realized that I had actually become a competent player was beyond most of the successes I had when I was ‘playing the game itself.’ As far as I’m concerned, I’ve won. It’s a real kind of winning.

So Dwarf Fortress is really more than one game, on a variety of levels. The game as it’s designed is both a city-sim (Fortress Mode) and a dungeon-crawler RPG (Adventurer Mode). But the game outside the game is there, too. I never finished Jesper Juul’s 4:32, since I refuse to uninstall Flash, but I appreciate what he was getting at. 4:32 and DF share a core similarity: it’s all about the process.

DF is, according to most modern standards, a Bad Game. It ignores the long, slow shift in focus that’s been going on since the eighties, the shift from difficulty and achievement to play experience—from NetHack to Fable II, for example. It’s a game from the before-time, so rough around the edges it hurts to touch. Bay12 Games’ current mission plan for future DF development puts UI updates and player accessibility very low on a long, long list, and it’s this crazy focus on complexity that makes DF so different, that creates the game-outside-the-game for me to win. It gives purpose and community. It gives the game a point.

Essentially, much of what makes this game so special is that it’s badly developed.

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I hope to write more about DF in the future, maybe after I take a break with something else. If you want to see some really sparky writing about DF, take a look at this.

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