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I wrote a review of Pit of the Condemned, a fun little number in last year’s IF Comp, on Emily Short’s blog. Check it out here.
Douglas E. Smith has died. This news was broken by people at Tozai Games, who handle the mobile platform ports of his game. The news was picked up by the copy and paste video game sites … and they added nothing to it. Kotaku, Gamasutra and Polygon could run massively moronic screeds about how much they’d awkwardly like to turn the word “gamer” into an epithet, but not a single one of them could even produce as much as a fucking photo of Smith for their articles. You can’t Cntl-V up a head shot, it seems.
All of the people behind those sites just sort of felt that the death of the creator of Lode Runner still fell into their domain, though, which is hilarious. Lode Runner has nothing to do with modern game journalism. Trying to pretend they give a shit that its creator is deceased is their laughably transparent attempt at showing cred. More, they couldn’t do the barest minimum of research on the shit they do add. The fact that these garbage urls believe that Lode Runner and what they do are in any way related is disgusting. Take what Polgyon added to the “news”:
Released in 1983 for the Apple ][ and Commodore 64, Lode Runner was a […]
Oh! The Apple “][” and the Commodore 64 got the first releases in 1983? That was it, huh. I mean, it was ported to a million different machines, but just the Apple and C64 got the ports in 1983, only those, because they specifically mentioned them and certainly not the Atari 800, as shown in this screenshot from AtariMania, and —
You lazy fucking assholes.
They couldn’t add the slightest bit to the news without fucking it up. DO YOUR FUCKING JOBS. It would have been better if they had said NOTHING rather than add rotten detritus to the over easy shit-scramble of knowledge that multi-platform software releases have become. You can’t trust Wikipedia, because Wikipedia is wholly constructed by dipshits like this. You need original sources. You need to not add to the confusion. There’s some manuals that might have the proper copyrights (I had the physical PC/PCjr manual to Lode Runner within arm’s distance when I began to write this article, but even I’ll admit that expecting that sort of thing from the cretinous bile that make up #GAMESJOURNOS might be a bit much) but not all of them have been digitized.
What we do not need, what nobody needs, is the same press looking down their noses at regular people that play games trying to be helpful and getting it wrong. Getting it all wrong, wrong, wrong. Making it worse by polluting the future evidence like the amateurs they are.
So with that in mind.
None of them had anything to say about what life was like when Lode Runner dropped. There isn’t a Digital Antiquarian article about Lode Runner, the go-to source on this sort of thing, so I’ll give it a shot. I never met the man, Doug Smith, that invented the game. I have nothing for you there. I can tell you about what it was like when the game was released, because maybe that will matter to someone playing the game years from now. It really is that good. Doug, if you’re in a better place (but one that can still get the feed of this blog): this gem you created really did capture the attention of the western world, sir.
In 1983, it was generally accepted that all the real action games were at the arcade. We’d get a sucka port for home computers… maybe. (The PCjr, which my family had, needed to have the PC port authorized, which wasn’t often and then we had to hope that the boot loader didn’t do anything that the PCjr couldn’t comprehend.) The consoles usually got a port, but almost everyone had an Atari 2600, and those ports were awful. I’m generalizing – the, hooooooah, Zaxxon port for ColecoVision, to pick a game at random – was probably alright, sure. But you had to go to a place to see the best new action games in the world. Until Lode Runner.
I cannot think of a better home computer action game that was released before Lode Runner. I’ve been struggling all night – Lode Runner was the one that blew everything else away, wasn’t it? It rocked my neighborhood’s world. Within days of getting the PCjr for Christmas in 1985, I was subscribing to every mail order PC games catalog I could find. If I couldn’t get the games, I could at least memorize their SKUs. My memory isn’t great, but I am pretty sure the first PCjr game our family purchased from those catalogs was Lode Runner. It was in all the magazines. Every review was solid. There was something iconic, even in the mid-80s, about the Lode Runner Dude on the Lode Runner Box blowing away robots with a jolly knapsack of gold at his hip, climbing ladders, wearing a Cheshire smile.
It arrived and I played it and nothing else for weeks. The keyboard was perfect for it, unlike a lot of PC ports. The use of two separate keys for “dig left” and “dig right” made it superior to the home computer versions that used a single joystick button and forced you to be pointed in the right direction. And then there was the matter of the speed…
You could change the speed on Lode Runner. Doing so sped everything up or down — this wasn’t an early cheat code, letting the player character run faster or slower than the enemies of the Bungeling Empire. I got used to the default one for the PCjr, and that speed felt truly crafted to give the best experience. I’d put the speed up and see everyone comically run around like spazzes, but keep going back to default. It’s so good. If Zork was the first game to occupy my imagination, Lode Runner was the first game to directly interface with my nervous system. It had cyan and magenta and black and white, but that’s all you needed to depict the world and the rules and the gold. The primitive graphics that didn’t let you necessarily see when an enemy grabbed a gold bar even worked to offer up intrigue. Lode Runner, as a concept, understood platform limitations and simply elevated itself past them. There are so many ports to modern systems, but the speed is never juuuuust right, and the backgrounds are always so desperately over-complicated. It doesn’t need to be anything more than this:
… because that is all you need to be perfect. We kept that disk for every IBM PC compatible computer we had. I still have it. It might be the only game with a universal approval rating. Some people have seizures because of Tetris. Civilization II is in a genre where I’m sure some Sasquatch of a war gamer go PFFFFT at playability versus realism. Ocarina of Time might be the one if something happened to kill off the world’s grown-ups. But I don’t know anybody that dislikes Lode Runner. I think it’s the only game out there that everybody loves. It was one of the best games in the world and it included a map editor on release for chrissake.
It is available on everything these days, including iOS and Android, though. The first few years I had a mobile phone, I tried rooting them, jailbreaking it and putting all manner of apps onto it. I was going to have a small tricorder that did everything. I gave that up. To play a video game requires a controller, and the tablets and phones don’t have one. There are only two I have on my phone and I will always install them. The first is the original Bard’s Tale. I’ll pay for that a hundred times on a hundred different phones, but playing it is not realistic there.
The other one is Lode Runner, and it’s the only mobile port I like. It was that good originally, and it’s that good now. In the face of the world’s most terrible gaming platforms, this game designed over 30 years ago by Douglas E. Smith still holds up. My girlfriend’s six-year old nephew tried it on a long car trip. When he asked if he could play it, I realized… well, not that I too want to have children one day, but I promised to remember how he spelled his first name. Perched high on a nanny state seat booster, he played. He ran up ladders and across the wire and dropped to the ground. He liked that you couldn’t die from falling. He ran for the lode. He loved it.
Somebody always will.
#99 – BRATACCAS (1986, Amiga, Psygnosis)
If this new list accomplishes anything, I hope that it will convince some people somewhere that Brataccas isn’t a terrible game with a terrible interface, but a great game with an interface that is "only" bad.
The premise of Brataccas is that you are a genetic engineer named Kyne. You developed a way to engineer a super breed of man. The government wants this research to create a supersoldier, but Kyne refuses. He is framed for treason, there is a reward for his capture and Kyne travels to the asteroid of Brataccas for evidence to clear his name.
You are then dropped into a self-contained world filled with characters that have their own agendas, their own cares and desires. At no point does anyone give a shit about the well-being of the player of Kyne. It’s surprising that the pages to the manual are even bound together.
Each "room" in Brataccas can have several different things going on. There are elevators, so that you can travel along the game’s y-axis. There are characters to bribe. You can start a fight with almost anyone in the game, which was waay, waaaaay ahead of its time. The cops are trying to arrest you, sure, but they don’t have omniscience. There are security cameras to disable, false leads, bartenders to get rumors from and a lone, hissing psychopath wandering around the asteroid that will try to kill you with his sword for no reason.
The room layout of Brataccas is compact and paranoid and uncomfortably put together. When you get arrested, you travel in real time behind the cop, who drops you off to the jail cell. You go through rooms that, when you start, you probably can’t get to easily, meaning that the act of getting arrested in the game is initially interesting. (Years later, the act of getting arrested in the most famous series of games, GTA, simply cuts to a black screen. Brataccas was ahead of its time.)
There is a problem with the game, however, that every review addresses. Brataccas offers gesture-based mouse controls. And they are just as terrible as you might think with systems like the Amiga, Atari ST and Macintosh that used mice with physical balls.
It’s terrible and inintuitive. This game would be famous if they didn’t screw it up! You move forward by moving the mouse to the right, but then have to stop by holding the button and moving the other way. And you have to stomp that mouse. You have to slowly press down and move it the other way. You’ll gesture to enter combat when you meant to jump. In a way, and I am admitting this is a stretch, the terrible gestures mean that you will randomly start combat with people minding their own business. Some guy that you might want to talk to might end up with a sword in the gut. It adds to the web of lunacy going on in the asteroid.
That said, when I played it on my real Amiga, I saw that the game lets you use keyboard controls. Great! I thought I would try that. And that’s when the final mystery of Brataccas revealed itself to me: the gesture-based controls that everyone savages are actually better than the keyboard controls.
Brataccas is just a game that requires time to learn its controls. It’s like Defender in that respect, it’s just that with Defender you feel like a spaceship captain and every NES game in the world mastered moving people with a gamepad. Because of the gesturing it’s a game of skill with the most wide-open sci-fi world of its time. The speech bubbles are all in caps, with bizarre punctuation. The graphics mode for the Amiga has you at 640×200, which is a very silly resolution to try to do anything in.
Brataccas is the best example that I can think of of an attempt at a simulated, uncaring world. And while I appreciate the quest arrow on Fallout 3 and BioShock, those games will always be a little less than they could be because they care about you in a way that Brataccas never will. It feels just as cold as life on an asteroid probably would be.
I guess I can also put it this way: when it comes to each game I’ve made myself, they always started in the design document phase as open-ended simulations where the player is dropped in and meant to learn and survive, just like (and even thanks to*) Brataccas. None of them have ended up that way because I haven’t been able to achieve what this extremely goofy, yet charming, little asteroid-sim did manage to successfully accomplish. A world.
(*Specifically, the fact that you can start a fight with anyone in Fallacy of Dawn, and the one "CopBot" were inspired from Brataccas, along with the fact that I set Pantomime on a moon essentially the size of an asteroid.)
#100 – PORTAL (2007, PC, Valve)
My Internet comedy partner, Pinback, and I have had long discussions about all manner of media. Video games, for sure. But also movies and television shows. One of the concepts I have floated towards Pinback is that of the "minimum we should expect."
I think that video games are an immature medium that seems to constantly fall backwards. The technology improves, sure — the most clever programmers are game programmers, and it’s sad that you hear about the long hours many of them work and the pay that doesn’t quite match what they could get for other companies. Video games have the most immature writing of any form of entertainment that I can think of.
Which leads to Portal.
Nerds did their best to ruin it like they did Monty Python and Douglas Adams. Hell, a buddy of mine bought me a "The Cake Is A Lie" shirt and I don’t think we ever had more than a couple Portal-based conversations together. It just dominated the end of 2007 and most of 2008. You couldn’t escape it if you were on the internet. and not trying to overthrow a government with social media.
The act of moving through portals is fun, and there are a few clever puzzles in there, but that’s not why this game is the 100th best ever made. Portal is so memorable because of the character of GlaDOS and the writing of Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek.
(It wouldn’t exist at all without Kim Swift. She was the lead on one of the greatest games I have ever played. I don’t want to short change the contributions of anyone who worked on Portal. I just happened to have a special, crazed, possibly unhealthy one-way relationship with Chet and Erik. The problem is with me.)
Everyone at JC knows this, but in case this gets linked elsewhere, Chet and Erik wrote for oldmanmurray.com. Without that site (and Amiga Power 2) I wouldn’t even be on the Internet. Not like this — they proved what a website could do, how it could be unique, how anyone’s voice will rise if it is funny enough. They took shots at everyone, but saved the best ones for themselves and each other. And this madcap hilarity comes through every time GlaDOS insults the player.
Telling the player that you should feel bad because you’re probably adopted isn’t just wacky for gamer dads, it’s great for everyone.
The rest of the game really is OK. It’s fine! I think that a lot of puzzle games suffer from the fact that you can sort of "see" the solution in your mind, and then it just becomes a skill test to execute. Portal is one of those games. But God, that moment where you jump off the rails and go to a very different place….
So, the minimum. Portal is the minimum we should expect from writing, plot and dialogue in a video game. Every game should have at least one character as fleshed out as GlaDOS. Most of them don’t. Most of the games that are above Portal on this list don’t, they just happen to do other things extremely well. But Portal is the minimum of what I should be getting out of a computer game if that game is going to be considered legendary. It begins our new list
Pandora: First Contact is out, by the way. Yes, it still has the worst name possible. But after three hours of gameplay, let’s take a look at my impressions!
It is very much Civilization in space (or Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri), but feels simpler and more straightforward. Which I like! As tremendous an accomplishment as I think Civ 5 is, golly there’s a lot of crap going on.
P:FC does away with most of the extra stuff, and presents you with some pretty base-line 4X action. The factions (races) are all pre-set. There is no race customization. There are five different planet sizes and three different types of planets, and that’s it. Setting up a game is fast because there’s just not that much to choose from.
Once you’re in-game, you’re comfortable right away assuming you’ve played any of these games in the last 20 years. Which I hope you have, because get this: There is NO DOCUMENTATION, other than in-game tooltips, hover boxes and popups! So that’s it, I guess. We’ve gone from 150 page printed manuals, to 50-page PDF files, to nothing.
Impressively (and because it IS so straightforward) this isn’t really a problem. You build stuff, you research stuff, you sign deals with the other guys, and you blow stuff up. That’s it. Just like always.
The graphics range from overly cartoonish to quite beautiful (some of the undersea aliens are especially striking to behold). Not on par with Civ 5, but golly, good enough. That’s probably a good way to sum up most of the game.
Extra bonus points for a clean, sleek UI that makes sense, pretty good writing, and a remarkable lack of typos and misspellings, which is becoming ever so rare.
Right now I would have to say that this is my favorite 4X game for the moment, because it’s fun, it’s fast, it doesn’t tire you or tie you down with minutiae, and it sticks to what made 4X great in the first place.
I give Pandora: First Contact an 8 out of 10! I guess? I dunno what the two points are knocked off for, as I really didn’t have any complaints. Other than the name.
Here’s what I think of the British situation comedy Red Dwarf. Just so we can all calibrate ourselves. So you know where I came from. Ahem.
I think it’s the best situation comedy ever, and one of the top-five shows in television history.
I think that the book version of Dave Lister is the most-fun character in fiction. I think the television version of Arnold J. Rimmer is one of the few genuinely fucked-up people on television who hasn’t kil– er. Well. I was gonna say, “Who hasn’t killed anyone,” sort of separating him from the murderers that television likes to depict, but there was that whole matter with the crew of the Red Dwarf itself.
I think even bad Red Dwarf is good Red Dwarf. If it were up to me, each episode would have a ten minute conversation of Lister and Rimmer bagging on each other. My expectations for this, the 10th season, was low. So far, I have been pleasantly surprised.
Season 10 Episode 01: Trojan
The exchange between Kryten and Rimmer towards the beginning was really nice. I like that hologram Rimmer still wants to be an officer, and honestly, it would be nice if some of these characters got what they wanted if this is to be the very last season. God, someone getting what they want in the world, even if they are just fictional characters, would be a change.
On paper, I think Lister being on hold for almost the entire episode was great, and it worked pretty well in the show. Season 10 is weird because the show itself started 25 years ago, and there has now been 25 years of technology updates in the real world, so being on hold for something isn’t quite as annoying now that we all have the Internet to order things from. But I don’t care — if Red Dwarf keeps with the technology of 1998 in 2012, but really 3,000,000 years in the future, then that’s unique.
(Mostly, it is unique because nobody is bringing back sci-fi situation comedies from two and a half decades ago.)
The Cat showing up for Rimmer’s exam question was a terrific character moment.
I’ve read comments that Craig Charles was a little “off” in this episode. And I can kind of see it, but I have the benefit of having seen the next two episodes. He’s fine. They all are, in fact — HDTV makes everyone look 1,000 years old, so really, they’re fine. They are regular people.
And I really enjoyed the last act of the episode. Watching this, I have ever reason to think that Red Dwarf is back. I can’t believe it’s really happening.
The Lift by Colin Capurso
More so than any other type of game, weapon pedantry is really annoying in CYOA (“OH NOES YOU CHOSE THE KNIFE WHEN YOU SHOULD HAVE CHOSEN THE CROWBAR!”). Starting off with that kind of situation was an instant fail in my book. The only nice thing I can say about this piece is that the premise recalled the Outer Limits episode “The Elevator” for me.
The Test is Now READY by Jim Warrenfeltz
(I played the first version)
Starting your game off with someone shouting “run, you magnificent bastard!” is pretty funny.
That said, I hate games that explore morality (I saw another review call it ethics and maybe that is the better term). How I play games doesn’t have enough of a correlation to how I view the world to have any kind of meaning, so you’re really only signing up to hear what the author has to say about it. Even if the author’s point is about the ambiguity of it all, again, it’s a meaningless exercise that bugs me enough that I intentionally avoid it.
Oh, yeah, I had something to say about the intro, too. I think I would have preferred the fake-prompt method to keep the intensity up, where each keypress equals one letter in the prompt, although the full-command it does here will definitely be useful if somebody plays the game on something like the ifMUD’s Floyd bot. Also, the pedant in me doesn’t like the fact that the introduction uses a command that I can’t use (“LOOK BACK”).
Response-wise, the game could use some work:
Frank says, “God, Harry, I thought we were dead for sure – I mean… well, metaphorically dead, you know, not like… well, the walking dead.”
>talk to frank
That’s not a verb I recognise.
>ask frank about dead
There is no reply.
Frank says, “God, Harry, I thought we were dead for sure – I mean… well, metaphorically dead, you know, not like… well, the walking dead.”
>talk to frank
That’s not a verb I recognise.
>ask frank about dead
There is no reply.
Between the lack of implementation and discovering that it was a morality game, I closed the book on this one after finishing the first section.
howling dogs by Porpentine
All of the slow, looping prose felt like the CYOA-equivalent of unnecessary-IF-pauses. While being far from deducing What’s Going On, I enjoyed the ideas of martyrdom/saintdom and its relation to the persecution of women and how it is injected into a futuristic setting, but the pace was far too plodding for me and I eventually threw in the towel before completion.
Kicker by Pippin Barr
By the end of a playthrough of Kicker, it’s clear that it isn’t really much of a game (nor is it trying to be). In it, you play a football (or “American football”, for non-US people) kicker. The entire game seems to be based on random outcomes. Even when it is time to kick the ball, your success seems to have no correlation to how many times you’ve >PRACTICEd, >STRETCHed, or >EXERCISEd (I couldn’t think of any other commands to improve my chances).
While not a small amount of work to code, I imagine, I can’t say Kicker is really “IF comp material” nor is it really enjoyable. It seems to me like it’d have been better done as a Textfire game or something, where it would have had the good graces to end after one quarter. Oddly enough, the Textfire games were released in the 90s, which is also the last time I really laughed at a kicker joke.
Valkyrie by Emily Forand
According to the blurb on the IF comp site, this game is a collaborative effort among community college students. I don’t think this is a successful game as it is, but I don’t want to be harsh. Technically, there are misspellings and ill-constructed sentences. After reaching a dead-end (yes, it’s a CYOA), the ‘go back to the start’ link didn’t even work.
I don’t think the tone of the writing works well as text, but I found myself imagining that it could work in some sort of audio-based CYOA system (isn’t that a thing? I thought there was a thing) where they read the passages aloud. That might force some urgency.
STAY TUNED FOR PART THREE!
Endless, Nameless by NamelessAdventurer (Adam Cadre)
Official Web Page
This write-up doesn’t aim to be a proper review. The first bit is just some hints for people who have already begun the game but are a bit stuck. The second has some thoughts about the game but doesn’t try to cover it exhaustively. I’d only recommend the second block to someone who has played most- if not all- of the game.
Read the rest of this entry »
Each day when I come into work, I am greeted by a widescreen monitor that shows how many failed regression tests exist in the program we sell. Over the last two and a half years I created thousands of tests. I feel pride and ownership in them, which is unsettling to me, because this is supposed to be my job, and not my passion or anything, right?
We hired a guy six months ago who quit last week. He was – still is! – a brilliant automation engineer. He left the tests I made in better shape than when he started. He created dozens of new tests and I would work with him again in an instant. But there was a reptilian part of my brain that wouldn’t shut its goddamn mouth every time he made something new. It objected to the very concept of stuff I didn’t myself make. This stunned me. It bugged me. I couldn’t put my finger on any of it until I read Machine Man by Max Barry. That feeling, and many others that you experience in an engineering job, are deftly captured by Max Barry here.
Machine Man is written in the first-person and gives us an often painfully accurate voyage in the mind of a brilliant and successful autistic nerd that nobody would want to spend any time with outside of work. And even that is probably pushing it, Christ. Dr. Charles Neumann (our protagonist) loses his leg in an industrial accident and figures out pretty quickly that the prosthetic industry is a bit shit. He’s inspired to develop a kind of leg that will make him bigger, stronger, faster than before. What Barry does throughout the entire book is capture the inspiration that can consume a dork when all distractions have ceased, and you can truly focus. We (apparently I will selfishly align with Dr. Neumann when it serves my purposes) understand that being in the uncanny valley creeps everyone out. Mimicking human behavior is thrown out for all manner of robotic improvement.
It’s funny without picking on autistic people, which they pretty much deserve for ruining the Wikipedia, so credit Barry there. I can’t articulate why I am able to finish his novels in a night or two, but I got into the same vibe that I had with his books Jennifer Government and Company.
There is a kind of character that Barry does extremely well. (Dr. Neumann is characterized perfectly, and I don’t remember anything like him in one of Barry’s previous works.) The character of Cassandra Cautery is an intelligent, capable woman who gets in over her head, and I was reminded of a similar gal from his previous novel, Company. (I’m going to be honest: I can’t remember her name, but she was the woman who was obsessed with working out.) (OK, I got out my hardback of Company, and her name was Holly Vale.) Everything Cassandra said felt genuine, even though most of it was horrible, because I find myself listening to car insurance ads on the radio during my commute home, and somebody without a soul is churning those out.
What’s really stopping Machine Man from being brilliant instead of just really good is that there are many other characters that don’t feel as well-developed. I thought that the character of Lola Shanks felt less fleshed-out, because we were getting to know her exclusively through the tortured prism of Dr. Neumann, who is not all that great with women. I can’t decide if, therefore, it’s pretty cool that she was filtered that way or what. Regardless, I remembered that I became slightly attracted to the woman who did my rehab when I tore up my knee many years ago, even though I swore I wouldn’t let myself be, because I knew it was extremely cliched. C’mon son. So this is another thing that felt right about Machine Man to me. I can’t completely dismiss the nagging feeling that when Barry spends as much time with his characters as he does with his (quite fun) plots, he’s going to blow up the world.
With that in mind, the ending made my skin crawl. A couple pages that were just brilliantly written, where I was, like, scratching myself to remind my own brain that I’ve got my body and didn’t lose it or abandon it. I felt sick when reading it. In the good way. Kicking the covers so I could see my own legs, I felt ill while reading text on a page, which is some of the highest praise I can give a novel. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think the last two pages of Machine Man make an argument that its genre is horror instead of sci-fi. That’s a trick I don’t think I’ve ever seen before and wish I’d thought of myself.
I reviewed the very fun little rubber monster movie, by RedLetterMedia, over on Caltrops.