Oct 26, 2010

The Snakes of Avalon

Let's start with the easy bits. Snakes of Avalon is a freeware adventure game that comes with a traditional point-and-click interface and is the creation of Igor Hardy and Alex van der Wijst, who apparently employed the musical talents of Thomas Regin and the acting of Drew Wellman. It also is quite an excellent offering that happens to take place in a single room. Well, sort of, as this is where Snakes of Avalon stops being your average AGS game.

It is, you see, set in a bar named Avalon starring a hopelessly drunk, obviously unshaven, very confused and quite alcoholic character in what can only be described as a trippy (near) murder mystery. Actually, make that a deeply surreal (near) murder mystery, sporting a variety of all powerful hallucinations, ugly babies, beer, sinister wives, tons of toilet humour, a perpetually occupied toilet, dirty glasses, at least one time-machine, living posters, love, murder, obscure movie references, a Lucasarts logo and a majestic, yet sadly stuffed, talking moose. As you might imagine such an intoxicated design makes sure the game feels much bigger than your average one-room offering. Or is it actually bigger than that? Better play it and find out.

Space and even time in Snakes of Avalon is a most relative thing after all, and the protagonist's warped perception of everything makes sure the game is actually much longer and quite a bit more challenging than its excellent and confined location would imply. As for the puzzles themselves, well, they are at times taxing, enjoyable and -impressively- make sense in the demented game world.

Oh, and the thing does look delightfully odd too, with its deeply cartoon-like art, smart animation, brilliant cut-scenes and lovely background art, though admittedly the music is what will really blow you away. Provided you enjoy your Jazz, that is. And if you prefer listening to it from a dear old scratched record than say one of those mp3 thingies, you'll be in musical heaven.

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Oct 22, 2010

Desktop Dungeons Ate My Hamster

Desktop Dungeons

Okay, I haven't got a hamster and it would have probably microwaved the poor thing anyway, but what really matters is that  QCF Design's Desktop Dungeons is a sinister time sink. I mean, really. Tsk, tsk, too. Hadn't I decided to finally give the thing a try, I would have finished my review of the absolutely deranged and most brilliant Snakes of Avalon, started working on presenting you the equally excellent Games of Empire book and even done some work on a variety of other gaming/blog related projects. But no. I just sat there and explored dungeons for hours non-stop. Even failed to finish my rather important post-doctoral research proposal.

So, let's talk a bit about Desktop Dungeons then, shall we? Well, at first glance it looks like a simplified rogue-like that can be won or lost in less than ten minutes. It sports some simple yet effective sounds, oldschool graphics (complete with a variety of different tilesets), and some extremely elegant game mechanics. Click to move, click on an enemy to attack, click on a spell to cast it or a potion to consume. The unique bit comes from the fact that enemies neither move nor attack the player on their own free will, and unexplored space is the most important resource available. Exploring it regenerates your health and mana, and impressively turns Desktop Dungeons into some sort of RPG-ish puzzle game with rogue elements and absolutely no random bits.

An incredibly addictive puzzle game as you should have noticed and one you really have to try for yourselves. Or not, provided you care for your job/school/spouse/friends. Then again, this is perfect for the latest unemployed victims of modern corporate capitalism; it's absolutely free and will last you forever. All those unlockable -vastly differentiated- classes, monsters, magic items and game modes will take ages to master.

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Oct 20, 2010

Dave Barton on MMOs, Games & Zombies

Dave Barton, one of the creative people beside the recent MMO version of the Zork universe and the latest World of the Living Dead zombie MMORPG, has gone very indie indeed, and has been kind enough to discuss games, zombies and browser-based gaming with a gnome.

1.Well, David, how about introducing yourself to those troubled souls that seem to enjoy Gnome's Lair?

I'm one of two developers on a game called World of the Living Dead. I do the game design, graphics, writing and web design, or anything else that needs to be done. We decided to keep this a very small project in terms of people, although the scope of the game itself is extensive. I was the chief game designer on the Jolt/Activision game Legends of Zork, and also worked on the ill-fated NationStates 2. As a regular reader of Gnome's Lair, I'm rather troubled to hear that I'm a troubled soul...

2.And you've been working on games for how long?

I got a Fighting Fantasy gamebook (The Forest of Doom) when I was nine. I loved it and I really wanted to create my own. I wrote three full gamebooks before I was thirteen, just for the pleasure of creating my own little worlds. The first was typed up on an old Olivetti typewriter from the fifties, although I later saved up enough money to buy an electric typewriter. Working out the structure of those books would have been a lot easier on a computer. I really got into the creation of imaginary worlds came when I discovered roleplaying. I went through everything I could find: D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Rolemaster, Spacemaster, Cyberpunk 2020. There weren't too many role-players where I lived, so I mostly spent my time fleshing out detailed campaigns and maps. Like many games, they didn't survive the introduction of actual players. They were usually more interested in just killing the townsfolk or otherwise trashing the place, and usually had little interest in the extra immersion I tried to provide, in the form of carefully-aged messages or maps.

Roleplaying gave way to gaming once I got a Spectrum and then an Amiga. I started playing at the tail end of text-based games, when it started to become all about the graphics, so I never really thought I could make my own. The intervening years were spent as a consumer of games. Fast forward to a few years ago and I jumped at the chance to work on games for Jolt, first on UI and art direction then as a game designer. The skills I had learned working in print and online media seemed to come together and allow me to revive my passion for creating virtual worlds.

3.Care to reminiscence on that online Zork game you worked on?

It was a privilege to work on an actual licensed Zork game. I had a lot of fun immersing myself in the world and piecing together what could be used for a game based on the series. I was the game designer, but I also took on the role of art director and worked on the UI. The brief was very specific, so it was always going to be a certain type of online game. I know that disappointed a lot of people, but I was very careful to stay true to at least the mythology that had accrued over the various incarnations of Zork, and I tried to make use of elements like the Double Fanucci cards to keep even the game mechanics relevant to Zork. I hope that the excellent artwork created and sourced by Jim Zubkavich - who was a pleasure to work with, always enthusiastic and able to bring my descriptions to life exactly as I had imagined them - helped to make LoZ a pleasurable diversion for some Zork fans. I decided to leave Jolt very soon after the release of LoZ, so the game has developed differently from how I would have hoped.

4.So, what are your current projects?

World of the Living Dead is what we're focusing on, although we also started a micro-patronage site called Karmafan a few years ago, as we had a lot of artist friends who wanted to get support from their fans but didn't know how. The whole voluntary payments thing really took off a little later but by then I was working for Jolt and so Karmafan didn't get the attention it needed to develop. Artists still sign up from MySpace, but times are hard so there isn't much support from fans. I'm also working on a WotLD comic, but my artistic skills have atrophied over the years, so that will probably take quite some time to appear. We both have day jobs, of course.

5.Could you describe the World of the Living Dead?

I like to describe it as a survival strategy zombie sandbox MMO. Players control groups of survivors using a heavily-modified Google Maps interface. The concept is that the players are members of the fictitious National Emergency Control & Relief Agency (NECRA) who have been sealed into secure locations. They have been tasked with remotely assisting survivors via an emergency system set up when the authorities realised that centralised control and evacuation methods were futile. The government and NECRA seem to have disappeared, but these operatives have their mission, which is to ensure the survival of their own "cell" at all costs. Simulations showed that large groups would always lead to infection, so competitive survival was seen by NECRA officials as the only hope for humanity. The game is primarily about scavenging for supplies and avoiding contact with other groups of survivors or, alternatively, about finding other groups and stealing their supplies. Characters are managed by placing them in squads. The live position of any plays in the area around your squad is updated real-time - so the game is effectively a browser-based RTS, but with no Flash required.

6.But why Zombies?

I've been fascinated by the genre for a long time. Not because of the gore and horror, but the constant pressure on survivors to gather supplies and find safety. It's about the apocalypse, really, so zombies are really only one aspect of it. I recently rewatched a UK series created by the often brilliant Terry Nation in the 1970s called Survivors which I remembered enjoying in the '80s when I saw it (it was also remade recently). A virus killed over 90% of the population of the world, and the remnants of humanity are left to try and rebuild society. I find that premise fascinating, especially when rival groups form based on such basic needs as seed for planting, or a safe water supply. When zombies are involved, there's also the tension which comes from how easy it is to be turned into the enemy, to be infected and lose control or to be killed and then "come back". I think that fear taps into something deep inside us, a sense of how random death can sometimes be. Most of the good zombie/infected films get that fear exactly right. Other influences were Threads, a particularly harrowing UK docudrama about how a nuclear holocaust eventually leads to the collapse of society, or any number of the apocalyptic stories which seemed to be everywhere at the end of the last millenium.

In the zombie genre, the magnificent comic The Walking Dead deals with exactly these difficulties. The zombies just happen to be there in the background and only leading to deaths when the characters are tired or distracted, whereas it's the other survivors that you really have to worry about. I'm really looking forward to the TV version of this, which starts at the end of the month in the US. And of course there's World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide, both of which I had great pleasure in rereading repeatedly throughout the design process.

7.What would you say are its most innovative and/or unique mechanics?

I wanted the zombies to be a faceless horde, so decided that they would be represented by z-density, rather than as individual enemies. Z-density is basically a shorthand used by NECRA to determine how dense the zeds are on the ground, based on satellite tracking of their movement. We take real city blocks and work out how many actual zombies are in the block (there are over 9 million zombies moving around the LA County area we're using for beta testing - they react to player activity, including the use of firearms, over time). Based on the size of the block, we calculate the z-density as a percentage. The players have to imagine this, as z-d is represented by colours, but we might introduce more graphics once we're happy that all the mechanics are working correctly. Combat is effectively automated, with survivors using firearms or weapons if they have the skills to wield them. Every route completed can result in them putting down some zeds, or in injury and even death for the characters.

The need to consume enough food and liquids each day is something I wanted to have, although I know that it's a risky prospect for games. Characters need a certain amount of calories and volume of liquids or they will start to accumulate thirst and hunger. Once these reach maximum, the character will die the following day. It takes about four days for dehydration to result in death, and 28 days for hunger to prove fatal. Even if players find supplies, they can't just feed and water their characters back to full strength. If you neglect them for a few days, it will take a few days for them to recover, as they can only eat and drink so much each day. We decided to make consumption automatic, to avoid forcing players to feel that they had to continually tend to the characters, but it can be tough to keep a large group supplied with enough liquids. Locations do not replenish once they've been exhausted, so that means that players have to stockpile when they can, or work out a way to barter for their needs.

8.How long have you been developing it?

I first started working on the idea back in 2007, but we started working on it properly in mid-2009.

9.When will it reach the MMO masses?

I sometimes feel that we're on Valve Time, so I'll just say that we hope to be out of beta by the end of this year or the beginning of 2011. We are determined to go into open beta over the course of the next two months.

10.Any plans for the future?

Any other concepts for games have had to be consigned to my notebook while we've been developing WotLD. I hope to start working on at least one of those once WotLD is running smoothly, although we don't really plan on stopping development on the game. The list of features we have planned for WotLD is extensive, and we hope to be able to grow and develop the game so that it becomes a huge multiplayer simulation of the zombocalypse. Vehicles will be making an appearance in the relatively near future, as will a deluge of content once we go into open beta, including hundreds of items and weapons. The graphics side of the game has been limited to what I can create myself, so I'm also hoping to be able to focus more energy on that as the balancing and tweaking settle down. The period of rebuilding civilization after an apocalypse provides plenty of scope for developing the game in some interesting ways.

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Oct 18, 2010

The Blackwell Convergence Review

It has come to my deeply shocked attention that despite the recent Gnome's Lair reviews of both Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound, there are still gamers, adventure gamers even, that have yet to try a Blackwell game. How very odd. I mean, it's not everyday a fully indie, retro-styled, well written and impeccably produced adventure gets made, is it? Of course not. And The Blackwell Convergence is the latest in the Blackwell series, which, as you should have already guessed or known, is an indie, retro-styled, well written and impeccably produced series of adventure games, with Convergence being the third installment.

Convergence, just like the Blackwell games before it and -hopefully- the Blackwell games that will follow, is all about getting the restless dead (in their ghostly form) to actually rest. In New York. Interestingly, New York is as much a character as any of the protagonist duo: Rosa the psychic and Joey the 30s ghost.

Now, point-and-clickers that have already enjoyed the previous games in the series, will definitely have to also play this installment, as it feels bigger and more lush than ever, while sporting the best graphics in the series yet and a truly fascinating plot. As for the characters animated portraits, well, they make a welcome return, as does the excellent voice-acting and writing. Oh, and it's got horror bits in it too.

Newcomers to the series -the genre, even- on the other hand will appreciate the built-in tutorial and the fact that no previous Blackwell experience is required to fully enjoy the delights of Convergence. Besides, its puzzles are very simple and generally enjoyable, and the game is relatively short, clocking in at roughly 5 hours.

Verdict: Oh, come on. You must have guessed that. Blackwell Convergence really is a great adventure game.

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Oct 15, 2010

The World of the Living Dead

The World of Living Dead isn't a particularly subtle title for a MMO that features zombies, but it definitely is, well, both appropriate and evocative of George Romero's classic movies. The innovation of the game is to be found elsewhere. The World of the Living Dead, you see, will be a freeware, browser-based MMO (MMORPG actually) that will have gamers truly struggle for survival in real-life locations, in what can only be described as a particularly gritty and realistic hunt for food, shelter, and water (or any other liquid). And no ,you wont be playing as a zombie. They are a mindless, rotting, shambling, mass, they are.

You will instead be a NECRA (National Emergency Control and relief Agency) operative trying to help him- or herself and a group of survivors make it through another day. Now, as the game is still in closed beta (you could apply to help it test itself though) and constantly evolving, I wont be going into detail, but I will let you know that I thought it was brilliantly atmospheric, tense and way more strategic than I had initially imagined. Definitely a MMORPG to look out for. then Oh, and those NECRA tips should help you get the thing's mood:

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Oct 12, 2010

The People's Glorious Text Adventure

As already mentioned, the 2010 Interactive Fiction Competition is underway and over 20 mostly brilliant games have been made available. The People's Glorious Text Adventure by Taylor Vaughan is -happily, I might add- one of them and can either be downloaded here or simply played online with the help of your unmodified open-source browser. It also is the only game I've ever played to equip my in game persona with a "What Would Trotsky do?" bracelet. Fancy, that.

The People's Glorious Text Adventure, as the title not so subtly implies, is a) a rather old fashioned text adventure, b) glorious, c) funny and d) a political satire that isn't afraid to be, well, actually political in a most well-mannered yet obviously progressive and almost radical way. It also happens to be a rare game that hilariously combines the wit of Grouch and the wisdom of Karl Marx to create a pretty big game, that impressively failed to infuriate me; believe me, as much as I care for political video games, finding fault with them comes far too naturally to me. So, well done c. Taylor for an excellent satire and true text adventure for the people!

Oh, and in Soviet Russia text adventures YOU!

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Oct 11, 2010

Blackwell Unbound Review

Blackwell Unbound is the second game in the Blackwell series by Wadjet Eye Games and thus a sequel of sorts to the excellent Blackwell Legacy indie point-and-click adventure game. Then again it also happens to be an enlightening prequel to the Blackwell Legacy, taking place in a brilliantly stylized version of New York during the early 70s. This time around you wont be helping the shy Rosangela and her ghostly guide Joey solve supernatural problems, but will instead be guiding her rather outspoken and definitely more confident aunt, Lauren Blackwell, and her ghostly guide Joey solve two, obviously ghost-related, cases.

The game is thus slightly longer that Legacy and feels even more so, as the inclusion of a couple new mechanics, make for a far more taxing experience. Not that the game is difficult, mind but the ability to switch between Joey and Lauren, a few newly integrated simple inventory puzzles and looking up names and places in a directory do help mix things up. After all, making sure that a deceased jazz musician, a half-crazed ghost and an incredibly sad villain find their respective ways, shouldn't be that easy.

Great gameplay aside, Blackwell Unbound also sports the signature excellent writing quality of the series, amazing music, spot-on voice acting, interesting characters and some truly beautiful pixel-art graphics, for that authentic classic adventure feel. The only thing sadly missing are those character portraits the Blackwell games seem to do very well. A shame really, but the developer commentary and a few more extras will definitely make this up for you.

Oh, and New York and its multitude of people and cultures do get another love letter in the form of this brilliantly written and quite touching interactive story, that never fails to be funny when the situation allows.

Verdict: An excellent game and a truly rare chance to adventure in a ghost-infested version of New York in the 70s. Get the Blackwell Unbound here.

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Oct 4, 2010

Rogue of the Multiverse

The 2010 Interactive Competition has already began and you can now download over 20 brand new and mostly excellent text adventures from the compo site in order to enjoy and actually judge them. As for me, the only entry I can talk about (for now at least) is the Rogue of the Multiverse by my favourite interactive fiction author and freeware game designer Pacian.

Rogue of the Multiverse, a rather innovative text adventure created in TADS 3, is a brilliantly written and rather easy on the player sci-fi offering, that feels impressively detailed, sports interesting characters, a fantastic plot, multiple endings, some procedurally generated segments, a variety of alien races, more humour than anyone would expect, a satisfying amount of truly subtle political references and an array of interesting futuristic gadgets. It is, and I'm avoiding all plot spoilers here, a truly great game that will appeal to your literary instincts, while making sure your inner geek doesn't feel left out.

You can download Rogue of the Multiverse here, complete with its walkthrough (don't use it, no, really) and an assortment of digital feelies. In order to run the game (it's that tiny .t3 file) you could do worse than use a copy of the excellent and quite freeware Gargoyle.

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