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"We Apologize For The Inconvenience"
I was raised on graphic adventure games --they were the first video games I ever played and have profoundly influenced my approach to games ever since. I was also raised on The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, so naturally I jumped at the chance to write about the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Remake, or H2G2 Remake for short. Unfortunately, it seems you can't turn back the clock.
One of the original "transmedia IPs," there is no definitive version of the Hitchhiker's Guide story as such. It has existed in various incarnations as a radio play, a novel, a TV series, a stage play, a comic book, a feature film, and of course, a text adventure game. Released by Infocom in 1984, the text for the game was written by Douglas Adams himself -- allegedly a process Adams found frustrating, which is why the game ends abruptly near the story's midpoint.
H2G2 Remake is a lovingly executed point-and-click adaptation of the original text adventure. Credit is due to the developers for their obvious devotion and fidelity to the details of the original, but on the whole the experience left me questioning the wisdom of the game's premise, and even whether or not the adventure gaming genre is still at all viable.
Text adventures are designed to be difficult and puzzling because, gameplay-wise, that's all they've got. The joy of unraveling a text adventure comes not just from moments of insight arrived at by clever reasoning and deduction, but from the simultaneously rewarding, humorous, and annoying experience of exhausting every logical action, getting stumped, feeling like you've hit a dead end, and typing in something completely absurd that turns out to be the solution. Many of the early graphic adventures added illustrations to the process, but remained largely text-based in the sense that gameplay consisted of reading and typing responses.
Although they were often maddeningly difficult, puzzles in text-based adventures could sometimes be easier than those of later point-and-click graphic adventures, because the text was there to clue the player in to everything he or she needs to know about the current situation. If you walk into a room and the game mentions that there's a knife on the table, it probably has some significance -- otherwise, they wouldn't have mentioned it (unless it's a red herring, of course).
In point-and-click adventures, graphics have replaced text descriptions, and such previously explicit clues are no longer possible. To balance this, most point-and-click games include some sort of mouse-over feedback that lets the player know which objects in the environment can be manipulated, which eventually led to the core mechanic of systematically exploring all of the game's essential and non-essential animations by clicking. Moreover, where the player previously enjoyed apparently unlimited action options, point-and-click games simplify player choice by constraining it and abstracting all activities into standard touch / talk / look clicks. The resulting evolutions eventually brought us the sort of brainless click-through interactive storytelling adventures that dominate the genre today.
Bearing in mind the interface and format discrepancies between text adventures and point-and-clicks, does it really any make sense to port the one to the other? As a case study, H2G2 Remake seems to indicate that a radical design overhaul is necessary for such a translation to be viable. Adams' recycled one-liners here feel tired and outdated, and fail to drive the story forward. The game's word puzzles, especially the so-called "dark" sections, do not translate and handle quite awkwardly.
Alas, these are only the beginning of this game's problems. The inventory interface is clunky and counter-intuitive, and the game's instructions / help section is so badly written as to be incomprehensible. Though mostly stable, one of the game's prevalent bugs is that the cursor fails to flicker when held over certain interactable objects, an infuriating and almost game-breaking flaw. With all due respect to whoever worked very hard on the artwork, the graphics are lacking to the point of having an adverse effect on the experience -- unless the designers mean to intentionally increase the game's difficulty by, for example, depicting the crucial knife on the table as only one of several misshapen, unrecognizable blobs of pixels on screen. I wouldn't put anything past an adventure game developer.
Whether you're a bigtime Hitchhiker's Guide fan with nostalgia for the text adventure, or just curious about what it was, check out http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers. It's the BBC's better-illustrated, browser-based version of the original text adventure without any point-and-click nonsense. Just don't forget to pack your towel, and perhaps this IGN walktrhrough.
Rest in peace, Douglas Adams. We love you and miss you.
"Call of Halo: Modern Reach"
While I am by no means a Halo expert*, I do consider myself a Halo fan. I had been looking forward to Reach since it was announced and it was the only game I’ve bought on launch day all year.
I’m also quite partial to the Call Of Duty games. As shooters go, Call Of Duty is perhaps the Beatles to Halo’s Rolling Stones. Or maybe it’s the other way around... fodder for another blog post. The point is, while I certainly respect and enjoy both games, no one can love them both equally, and if I had to choose between the two, I’d pick Halo.
Aesthetically, Reach is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of visual media I’ve ever consumed. The rich detail of the environments and the artful, mature cutscenes are Avatar-ishly mind-blowing. Likewise, the sound design on Reach is jaw-dropping, from the beauty of its musical score to the marvelously-crafted foley cues. Overall, Reach is a splendidly integrated piece of entertainment, consistent, immersive, emotionally engaging, impeccably detailed, well balanced and paced (although not without a few Halo-esque difficulty spikes / missing checkpoints), and generally a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Hats off, Bungie. There need never be another Halo.
All that being said... the Modern Warfare influence is undeniable. On paper, we all knew this was coming: the loadouts (Sprinting!? In Halo!?), the multiplayer leveling and upgrades system, the emphasis on teamwork over Rambo-style lone wolf Master Chief tanking, etc.
At least we still get to keep our overshields, plasma grenades and gravity hammers, right?** Perhaps it’s just fanboy resistance to progress, but I like my Halos to be Halos and my Modern Warfares to be Modern Warfares. I understand the insecurity that pressures publishers and developers into catering to popular taste, especially on a project with the scope and box office potential of Reach’s magnitude, but... well, a guy can dream.
Personally, the most disappointing should’ve-seen-that-coming Modern Warfare-ism in Halo: Reach is the shift in the game’s overall tone. Even at its most earnest, previous Halos never forgot who they were: escapist jaunts into a hyper-realistic (physics-wise) sci-fi world that felt limitlessly fantastic. The tongue never completely left the cheek. I’ve always seen Halo as the video game equivalent of Starship Troopers. The spirit of the Halo franchise was one of derivative subject matter, delivered in a self-aware way, drawing upon familiar modern-day conventions for maximum storytelling economy.
While the storylines in Modern Warfare are arguably just as fantastic, the mood is different. More like the most recent James Bond films. Modern Warfare is badass in a serious way; Halo was always badass in an over-the-top way. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but anyone who has played through the Reach campaign must surely agree that the sense of humor is gone. Your fellow soldiers are now courageous and respectable where they were once pathetic cowards. The aliens are a legitimate threat to your home and way of life (see Modern Warfare) and no longer scream "Run away!!" in ridiculous cartoonish voices. Gone is Cortana’s endless string of witty remarks. Gone are the absurd rhyming couplets of the Gravemind. In fact, [SPOILER ALERT!] gone are the wacky, loveable zombies altogether. (Remember when "Halo" meant "half-aliens, half-zombies game"?)
What remains, for better or worse, is a straightforward story of nobility, courage and sacrifice in the face of certain defeat. Reach might even make you cry. It’s a repeat of the Star Wars prequel formula -- and the lack of public outcry might just indicate that mainstream audiences are marginally more open to tragic space operas than they were a few years ago when Lucas unveiled his misunderstood prequel triptych masterpiece.
* Although I am one of the best in the world at getting pWn’d by 12-year-olds in any given Halo multiplayer.
** Nerd-out: I love that they brought back the Combat Evolved pistol, and the new Needle Rifle is a splendid all-around with delightful long-range accuracy; but, while assassinations are cool and all, the melee is too weak for my tastes, and IMHO, the DMR is such a woefully over-nerfed Battle Rifle that it just depresses me to use it.
"Love In The Time Of Casual"
(Reprinted from http://playthisthing.com/together)
TYPE: Flash game
Link to game
Link to developer's site
To all the diehard indie snobs out there spooked by the "casual" label: Don't worry. [Together] is an art game masquerading as a casual game, so go ahead and crank your snob-meters up to 11.
Located somewhere on the emotional spectrum between Braid and Passage, [Together] casts the player as the blue Boy who emerges from a mysterious cave to take his pink Girlfriend on a majestic flight of fancy. The couple chases down a variety of evasive flying hearts while being pursued by the smoke monster from Lost (here known as "the Beast"). The creator's descriptive blurb sums up the mood: "Fly to the depths of the ocean or to the ends of the galaxy, together. As long as you have each other, there's no limit to where you can go."
Fans of pure aesthetics will delight in [Together]'s rich artwork and animation. It's a beautiful game. The environments are superbly understated. The wonderfully blissed-out soundtrack combines with precise, graceful flight mechanics to produce a truly liberating and soothing experience. From a toy-play perspective, [Together] is a real joy.
But being an art game doesn't mean you get to write off design flaws. Maneuvering by mouse position is miserable at high speeds -- the cursor tends to slip "out of bounds," resulting in a complete loss of control right when you need it most. Compound this with a major spike in difficulty on the final heart, multiply that by the lack of a pause button, and you get the perfect storm of being stuck for 20 to 30 minutes while you chase down that last stupid heart and get more and more annoyed with that repetitive (beautiful, yes, but repetitive) music.
And then there’s the whole art-game thing. (SPOILERS AHEAD! ALERT! ALERT!)
Upon collection of the final heart, the girl vanishes inexplicably. The only way to "beat" [Together] is to fly your lonely butt back into the afore-mentioned mysterious cave. It's the classic story of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy... flies into mysterious cave and the game starts over?
I don't get it. Based on my research (i.e. reading all the comments) nobody else does either. Sure, [Together] evokes an emotional tone, but it leaves too many questions unanswered: Why does the girl leave? Why are they chasing after these hearts, anyway? What's with the smoke monster?* Why is the game's title in brackets?
Kudos to [Together] for starting strong and really drawing the player into its blissful, dreamy, soaring adventure. But anti-kudos for squandering the opportunity to conclude with a meaningful statement, and instead delivering a cryptic, unsatisfying ending that leaves the player feeling cheated, disappointed and bitter. Just like all my romantic relationships... wait a minute, I think I just got it!
* Also unanswered on Lost.
SCREENWRITING: Mad Men spec
This excerpt is part of a script that was selected from a pool of thousands as a semifinalist for the WB Writers' Fellowship.
Mad Men is an hour-long drama on the AMC network, set in New York City during the early 1960s. The show chronicles a fictitious advertising firm called "Sterling Cooper."
In the following scene, Don Draper (the boss) puts his employees (especially the jealous Pete Cambell) in their place.