Category: Video Games

The Latest Stuff

Just an update on what’s been going on.

First of all, April was lousy. No major tragedies, mind you; just of a lot of little grinding unpleasantnesses, including the joy and pleasure of getting a tooth crowned for the first time.

Some people find that they feel pretty good the day after getting a tooth crowned. Other people might find that the pain lasts for couple of months. I am not the former, alas, but also not the latter (and there was great rejoicing). And you know how toothaches seem to move around in your jaw, so that it’s not always clear which tooth is actually the culprit? I was more or less convinced for a week or so that I’d be getting a second crown immediately after the first one. This now seems not to be the case (and there was great rejoicing).

All of my hopes for Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ book Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word. I’ve been getting up early every day to spend time in study ever since Easter Tuesday (including Saturdays and Sundays!), and I’m regularly astonished by the blindingly obvious things he pulls out of each line of the text—blindingly obvious after you’ve seen them—that I had never noticed before. I’m keeping notes of my reflections; some of them may appear here in the future. (As some kind of indication of the depth of Erasmo’s writing…50 days after Easter, I’m not quite to the end of the third chapter of Matthew’s gospel.)

Finally, I’m still working George’s Saga, my RPG, in which George, a naive but promising young man of low birth and high destiny, encounters such characters as the grim Sir Fred, Hogworth the peasant, Cyneros the dark wizard, Magister Mayhem, and Princess Floribunda. The game is becoming increasingly goofy. When George applies to Magister Mayhem for quest, he is told:

Magister Mayhem looks at you sourly. “Another adventurer,” he says.
“Just what I needed. Well, at least the Sewers have been restocked.”

He harrumphs a bit more, and then says, “OK, let’s take it from the top.

“The town of Floobham is in desperate straits. I’ve not had breakfast,
and everyone knows that I get nasty when I’m hungry. So you just go
down to the sewers, and see if you can find me a Tasty Egg Maguffin
in one of the chests. Bring it back to me, and I’ll see what else I
can think of.”

He doesn’t look enthused at the prospect. As you turn to go, he adds,
“I’m sure a naive but promising young man like you will have no trouble
finding the entrance to the sewers. You can, heh, keep anything else
you find down there.”

Later, George travels the short distance to Floob Castle, where Princess Floribunda is in dire straits. George goes speedily, eager for a quest that doesn’t involve sewers.

It seems that one of her father’s guests has unleashed cosmic evil within the castle. The princess could resolve the problem easily, she says, had she her magic ring…but she dropped it, and it fell down a grating, and, well, it’s in the palace sewers:

Sewers. More dirty, stinking, filthy, rat-infested sewers. Just what you
needed. You take a deep breath, out here where the air is clear.

“Very good, your Highness. So how do I get into the sewers?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” she says, still staring at the grating.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to go through the palace.”

She turns to look at you.

“Good luck,” she says. “You’ll need it.”

George’s Saga: The Angband Connection

George Last time I wrote about how the combat system in GURPS Lite didn’t have the right characteristics for a computer RPG, or at least not for the kind of RPG I have in mind. GURPS Lite is a game in which hit points are limited, each successful hit on an opponent is a major event (and therefore successful hits are rare), and each skill increment makes a big difference (and therefore the total number of skill increments is small).

By contrast, I need a combat system in which there is a wide range of skill levels with small increments, so that a player character can grow slowly and but steadily in skill over the course of the game—and so that the monsters a PC faces can do the same. A table-top RPG might have these characteristics, but there’s no particular reason why it needs to; and so continue to look at other table-top RPGs seemed counter-productive. And as I’d noted earlier, computer RPGs are seldom well-documented, at least in my experience. To find one that is means turning to a free or open-source game; and of those the one I know best is Angband.

Angband is a massive dungeon crawl with roots that go back to the early 1980’s. I first played Angband’s immediate predecessor, Moria, on the college VAX-11/780 around 1983. (I killed an Icky White Thing, and then died of starvation.) Since then I’ve spent countless hours playing Angband or one its variants.

Classic Angband works like this. You begin in a small town, with a variety of shops and a dungeon entrance. Your mission is to work your way down to level 100, there to slay the evil Morgoth. This is extremely difficult to do, and almost never happens. You begin by designing your character, who belongs to a particular race and has a particular class; and then you begin your expeditions into the dungeon. There are many consumables that you need to survive, notably food and torches, many magic items, and of course weapons and armor. You start with basic equipment; everything else you need to find in the dungeon or buy in one of the shops.

The graphics in Angband are extremely simple, but the monster behaviors and the underlying combat model are rather complex. And it so happens that there are spoiler files available for download that go into a surprising amount of detail about how it all works. In fact, they go into much more detail than I’d realized. And it so happens that Angband has exactly the characteristics that I’m looking for. Next time, I’ll talk about them.

Lost Treasures of Infocom

If the words “plugh” and “xyzzy” mean nothing to you, you probably won’t understand why I’m thrilled that the Lost Treasures of Infocom have hit the iOS App Store.

Back when I was a lad, just getting started with computers, the neatest game around was called ADVENT. Also known as the Colossal Cave Adventure, it was the very first text adventure game, a genre now known as “interactive fiction”. Originally written in Fortran, it was eventually ported to pretty much every platform then in existence; and it can now be played on-line.

ADVENT is the remote ancestor of every adventure game now in existence. You had a large world to explore, monsters to cope with, treasures to loot, puzzles to solve, and an inventory of items to solve them with. Of course, this was 1976. The average micro-computer had no more than 64 kilobytes of RAM, and probably much less. There were no computer graphics to speak of; the game world was presented as text descriptions, and your commands were simple “verb” or “verb object” sentences parsed by the game, e.g, “GO EAST” or “GET WAND”.

The next big adventure game to come along was written at MIT, and was called DUNGEON. Set in the Great Underground Empire of Zork, it included a much more powerful parser, a much larger world, and much trickier puzzles. (You can play it on-line to, at the link given above.) It become so popular that it was commercialized by a company called Infocom, but it was too big to fit on micro-computers, so it was split into parts, now known as the Zork trilogy. Infocom went on to produce almost thirty different text adventures.

Infocom was eventually bought by Activision, and in 1991, shortly after dissolving the Infocom brand, Activision released a CD called Lost Treasures of Infocom, including all of their text adventures (except Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, due, I guess, to licensing issues).

When I was in junior high, we had ADVENT running on a HeathKit H-11 computer at our house. Later we had the Zork trilogy running on an Apple II and on a KayPro 4. It was inspiring, and for many years writing text adventures was my educational project of choice when learning a new programming language. When Lost Treasures of Infocom was released for the IBM PC, I grabbed it. (I think I still have the CD somewhere.)

Now the Lost Treasures are available on your iPhone or iPad. For free. And per the linked review, Activision managed the transition to the touch environment quite nicely.

If you’re looking for retro gaming, it doesn’t get any more retro than this. Go check it out.

Avernum HD

I’ve not posted much about books this week, because I’ve been playing Avernum: Escape from the Pit on my iPad.

As it happens, I’m a sucker for RPGs. I’ve got probably a dozen of them on my iPad, of all flavors; and none of them of really grabbed me the way Avernum has. It’s got a great big world you can roam freely (well, unless you get killed); dozens of quests of various kinds; lots of weapons and spells and magic devices to discover; interesting monsters; it’s just plain cool.

The premise is simple: having offended the emperor, you’ve been thrown down into the underground world of Avernum. There is no escape; once there, you simply have to learn to live there with the other exiles, scratching out a living. Human beings have a hardscrabble existence in Avernum, fighting for their lives against the Nephilim, the Nepharim, the Ghouls, the Ogres, the Giants, and the Slithzerikai. So you and your three companions (two fighters, a priest, and a mage, naturally) go out adventuring and helping folks out.

Your view of the world is a topdown three-dimensional view, so it looks purty. Difficulty can be set anywhere from easy to hard. Combat is turn-based: during combat, when it’s a character’s turn you move them as desired, and then combat continues. It’s surprisingly sophisticated; to survive, you have to take advantage of the terrain, or at least take it into account.

I’ve got too many hours into it already, and I suspect it’s going to last me a couple of more weeks. It’s well-worth your time, if you like that sort of thing.

The game is also available on Windows and Mac

Natural and Artificial Things

What’s the difference between stones, trees, dogs, and people on the one hand, and houses, pianos, and motorcycles on the other? According to Aristotle, the basic difference is that the things in the first group are natural things, while the things in the second are artificial things. That seems obvious, but to Aristotle, the difference goes deeper. Natural things are so called because they possess a nature that determines what they are, and how they behave. The oak tree outside my house has the nature of an oak tree. This determines how it grows, and how big it gets, and how hard the wood is. A dog has the nature of a dog, and so it barks, wags its tail, and so forth. Humans have human nature. All of these things are what they are because of something inside them.

Houses, pianos, and motorcycles, being artificial, a product of artifice, the creation of an artisan, do not have a nature. Rather, a piano is assembled from pieces; and many of these pieces are natural objects that each operate according to its own nature. Metal wire naturally vibrates and emits a tone when struck. The wood of the case naturally resonates to the tone of the wire and amplifies it. An artifact is a way of putting natural things together so that their natures all work together to achieve some desired effect.

But if artificial things don’t have a nature to call their own, they do have a property that natural things, especially living ones, generally don’t have: you can take them to pieces and reassemble them. If you take a motorcycle apart, it’s true that you no longer have a motorcycle; but if you put them back together again properly, your motorcycle is as good as new.

If you take person to pieces, on the other hand, you can’t usually reassemble them, Dr. Frankenstein not withstanding.

This distinction is often denied by the materialists among us. A human being is just atoms, they say; we can explain everything in terms of the movements of atoms. We don’t need any natures! Atoms are good enough. Given time, we’ll be able to build new people just by assembling atoms together in the right way. And yet, there’s more to being a person than just being the right set of atoms.

Narrative Causality

So I was telling my son about the RPG I’ve been playing. It seems that the advisor to the King is a demon, and he’s taken complete control of the King’s mind.

“So you’re going to have to kill the king?” asks my son.

“No,” I say, “the Queen’s ghost has asked me to free him from the curse.”

“He won’t ever be the same, though,” says my son. “That’s usually the way.”

Metroid Prime vs. Baldur’s Gate

I’ve been a video game junky this month. Just after Christmas I
went out and bought two new titles for the GameCube, Metroid
and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The former is a
first person shooter; you’re a bounty hunter in a really neat suit of
powered armor, and you’re up against the Space Pirates. No, really!
The latter is a Dungeon’s and Dragons (TM) game, the latest in the
Baldur’s Gate series. I’ve been playing them alternately.

Baldur’s Gate is a traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawl
with really nifty graphics. Playing it was a lot like playing the
other D&D-style games I’ve been playing for years (notably Angband);
and if the graphics are better the game model is considerably less
sophisticated. But it was fun; I finished it this afternoon, killing
the last nasty monster with much less trouble than I expected.

Metroid Prime shows considerably more effort and
imagination, and it’s a lot of fun. In your powered suit you’ve got
(ultimately) four different kinds of ray gun, plus missiles. In
addition, you can turn yourself into a small metal ball and roll
through tight spaces. It’s a kick. There is but one thing I
really dislike about Metroid Prime–they don’t give you nearly
enough opportunities to save your game, which is annoying in several
different ways. I’ve been stuck in the same spot for almost a week;
every time I play I do a little better, and get a little bit
farther…and then die before getting to the next save station. Ugh.
Game designers, take note–if there’s more than twenty minutes of game
play between save stations, you’re doing something seriously

Running the Gauntlet

A while back I talked about playing
GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy on our GameCube while my adoring fans, David and
James, watch in awe as I slay fierce and evil villains. There have been
new developments in the last week or so; Gauntlet is a cooperative game
for up to four players. So we got some more controllers,
and now David and James will sometimes play along. David’s getting
pretty good at it, though James idea of how to play is to run headlong
into danger, opening as many treasure chests as he can and shrieking with
glee when he picks up an object. He’s not to clear on how it all works,
so on those occasions when his character (“Green Dwarf”) survives to the
end of level he gives me a big adoring hug and says, “Daddy! You saved
me!” (James is three, by the way).

Anyway, today marks a major milestone; my original character, playing
alone, completed the last couple of levels, destroying the evil mage Garm
and purging the Realms of his evil. David was very impressed. I was
perhaps a little dismayed by the final statistics; over the last four of
five months, I’ve spent almost 48 hours getting to the conclusion. And
that doesn’t count the time spent playing with the boys. If nothing
else, I can honestly say I’ve gotten my money’s worth.

GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy

Here it is the 14th of November, and I
haven’t finished reading even one book. Part of the problem is the
Burton biography; I’m trying to finish it before going on to anything
else, and while Burton’s life was the stuff of adventure, the bio is
nothing like a novel. I sometimes wonder why I bother reading
biographies; I don’t care for tragedy, and most bios end only with the
death of the principal.

But it wouldn’t be fair to blame the whole thing on poor old Richard
Burton. A lot of blame has to be put squarely on our Nintendo GameCube.
I bought it six months or so ago; I thought the kids would enjoy it, and
I’d get to play it, too. The way it actually worked out is that I play
it and the kids watch.

“GAUNTLET: Dark Legacy” is one of the games I’ve been working my way
through. It’s surprisingly fun considering that the graphics are a
couple of generations behind the GameCube’s best output, and the user
interface is a disaster. As you go along you collect power-ups of
various kinds, and after nearly completing the game I still have no idea
how to figure out reliably what power-ups I have with me at any given

It’s your basic “dungeon crawl”. You’re playing a mean, nasty, violent,
hair-trigger, suspicious sort of person, which is a good thing because
the world is full of nasty monsters trying to kill you. I find this sort
of thing relaxing. It lets my back brain freewheel on whatever problems
it’s working on, while my conscious brain works off stress. Sometimes in
the evening I’ll tell Jane, “Jane, I’m going to go upstairs and kill
things.” She says, “Have fun, dear.”

I’ve doubtless now lost the respect of many of my long-time readers by
making this admission; ah, well. If I get to feeling anxious about it, I
know the cure.

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