Sunday, April 28, 2013

Schizm: Mysterious Journey. A belated review

I mentioned Schizm: Mysterious Journey in my reflections on deceptive box art.

For everyone too lazy to click the link, back in 2002 I bought Schizm: Mysterious Journey as a way to celebrate my then-new computer. The box art featured gorgeous graphics, and I was so thrilled to have a computer that could handle them now. But when I installed the game, what I got were graphics so compressed and blocky you couldn't see a thing.

It turned out the company released two version of the game: a CD version and a DVD version. The CD version featured these awful, ugly, poorly-compressed visuals, while the DVD version contained the beautiful imagery I saw on the box. But the company used the graphics from the DVD version on the CD game's box art! Since it was 2002 and DVD drives were not standard equipment on computers back then, I was stuck. $50 I paid for what I expected to be a gorgeous game, but instead they gave me shitty graphics. One thing I was always curious about was why no one but me seemed to notice the terrible graphics. Now I have confirmation that I was not alone!

Well, I finally got the DVD version and at long last I played what I paid for.

Yes, there will be spoilers.

The premise behind the game is explorers came across a planet that was completely in tact, but deserted. No evidence of war, or desertion, or anything. The people were just... gone. An entire planet abandoned like the Mary Celeste. So scientists stayed there to learn more about it. Now they're disappearing, too. Hannah and Sam are two crewmembers on a resupply ship that crashed, and they must explore to find out where everybody is.

The graphics on the DVD version are much better, but in just the first ten minutes something becomes apparent. Something that wouldn't normally bother me too much because it's a game. Something I normally ignore because you have to be more forgiving about it in video games--but this time I couldn't help but notice the acting isn't just bad. It's atrocious.

Hannah is the first character players will listen to, so I'll talk about her. Her voice doesn't match her character's picture, and she isn't unemotional so much as she says her lines using the wrong emotions. It's so bad you have to notice. And it's not just her--it's everyone! Watch! You'll understand.

On top of that, the puzzles are not logical. They are not part of the world, the story, or the atmosphere. They are blatantly artificial and needlessly complicated. The first real puzzle you'll encounter is the tulip puzzle. Simple enough, but there is no discernible pattern to the switches. Trial and error is how everyone solves this.

The next two puzzles in the living ships segment I did figure out on my own (the lantern and the ship coordinates). Those are fine. After that, everything requires huge leaps of logic to understand. Take the gas-collector puzzle, which you can watch here. Even after reading two walkthrough solutions (1, 2) to it I didn't understand why it worked. Here's one:

Inside is a message for you and two complicated looking gas collectors. Leave them for now and go out the other passage. Outside and to the left, if you look down, is a floating something. Nothing else to do here so go back inside and experiment with the gas collectors.

The message from the scientist spoke about one of the gasses being twice as strong as the others - but which one? If you press the levers, gas is collected in the 10 bulbs. Press the central button and the indicator to the right measures the combined strength of the gas. Turn back to collector and press any lever to inflate one of the balloons in the airship (which is what you saw outside) with the gas from that collection point.

The trick here is to inflate the airship with the powerful gas - none of the other gasses are enough to keep the gasbag inflated. The problem is that there are two collectors and a mistake deflates both gasbags and changes the where the gas is collected. You can solve the problem by trial and error but there is a more elegant solution.

Press any of the levers once, its neighbour twice, the next lever three times and so on all the way round until the last (tenth) lever which needs to be pressed 10 times. This should give you a total pressure of 55 (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10). Now press the central bulb and the indicator gives the actual pressure. One notch on the outer ring is 12 units and one notch on the inner ring is 1 unit of pressure.

When I played, I had an indicated pressure of 63 (5 x 12 + 3). This meant that the powerful gas was in the 8th collection point. Pressing the 8th lever inflates one of the gasbags on the airship.
Top Tip: when you have got it right, save your game.

Now turn to the other gas collector and do the same thing again. If you have got it right, the ship will rise to the top - if not then you need to try again. Note that a failure resets both collectors, which is why you needed to save your game.

Was that supposed to be obvious?? Did anybody deduce that solution without looking at a walkthrough, or did they leave it up to trial and error? I don't get how anyone is supposed to arrive at that method on their own.

Then once you make it past that, you hit another roadblock. Prayer bells and tower height!

I understood I needed to match certain bells with certain colors to make the correct phrase that will open the trap door, but geeze, the bells are so similar they're almost impossible to tell apart, let alone draw for reference! The spoken words are so garbled and go by so quick it's damn near impossible to write them down--and fuck the sequence needed to open the trap door! The ghost says it so fast it's indecipherable!

And then you have to calculate tower heights? It's not enough to record the measurements; now you must figure out relative distance and somehow calculate it?! There is nothing that clearly indicates you need to do this, or how. The walkthrough shows a barely visible mural in the temple, but where is it stated the distance to the symbol is 10 units? How can you figure that out on your own? How can you figure out how to calculate the height of the towers on your own??!! Why would you even need to?

The symbols on the measuring device are so pixilated they're illegible even on the DVD version! How did anyone manage on the CD edition!? Why aren't the numbers here the same as the numbers on the living ships? That might've made some things clear, but no, the numbers are totally different and for no apparent reason other than to make things more complicated!

It is awful! The puzzles are completely arbitrary and obtuse. Trying too hard to be like Riven. Riven's puzzles were mean and complex, but they were also part of the world, tied to the story, so the solutions to them were discernible within that context. Schizm tries to mimic only one half of the equation, and the puzzles come across as stupid because of it. They require so many leaps to figure out I can't imagine anyone finishing this without a player's guide.

No, Schizm is not engaging, or fun, and the acting kills what little story there is, so there's no reason to be interested in what happens. I've read the game only gets worse. You then have to calculate new coordinates? I don't see how it's possible for anyone to deduce these solutions from clues in their environment.

So fuck Schizm. I'm done with it. One frustrating leap of logic after another. 50 bucks wasted either way--not only did they misrepresent the game by using the DVD-quality graphics on the CD version's box, they made a game that is nothing but a long string of frustrating, arbitrary puzzles!

It's a shining example of just how difficult it is to make a good adventure game. One person's leap of logic may be another person's insight, and it's very difficult to know which is which. Consistently striking just the right balance between the two throughout an entire game is very difficult. I think the best way to balance it out is to tie everything to the story. Puzzles will rise organically out of the environment, and within the context of an engaging story, one can find insights into what to do. That's what Schizm lacks, so the designers tried to compensate by making things really complicated. It didn't work.

The graphics are gorgeous though. Schizm was far ahead of its time in that sense. And the music is outstanding. It's the game's only redeeming quality. Really, it is.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bioshock Infinite

Since my computer won't run Bioshock Infinite, I rented it for PS3. Right away I started off with a handicap: I have never played a FPS on a console system! I've been using keyboard and mouse so long it's difficult for me to play on anything else.

Took me half the game to get proficient with the controls. Not good, just proficient. I died way more than I should have, which was frustrating because I know I could have done better if I had keyboard and mouse. But I did get better. I did learn. I did adapt. I played. And I finished the game.

And what a game. Fucking epic and incredibly well-done. The world isn't as interesting as the previous two Bioshock games. Of course it wouldn't be. I'd call it impossible, as Rapture was a very hard act to follow, and Andrew Ryan was an intelligent, fascinating man to learn about.

Columbia isn't nearly as interesting. Instead of a city under the water it's a city in the clouds, and instead of being founded on Ayn Rand's principles of unregulated capitalism, it's founded on the idea of racial superiority. It's a fitting theme to explore. This mentality was everywhere in the early 1900's, such as the belief in the Aryan Race, which the Nazis would later base their mantra on.

But that's not why Columbia exists. A man named Zachariah Comstock was pissed off America freed its slaves, and founded Columbia on the belief that inferior races needed to stay in their place. White men were naturally the rich businessmen, and everyone else are workers. It's the natural order of things.

Booker Dewitt is sent to Columbia to bring back a girl. But this isn't a normal job. Things will go badly.

I like how this city is still a thriving community when you arrive. In Rapture, everything went to shit more than a year ago, so everyone is insane and out to kill you. Columbia, however, is still a normal, active, beautiful city. There are many times in the first half where you're not fighting, but wandering the streets and nobody is shooting at you. This is very refreshing. Things don't go to hell until you show up because you see, the non-white races are tired of being tools white men use to make themselves rich. Revolution is brewing.

But this isn't even the main story. It's just background!!! The main story is about the girl you're escorting, Elizabeth. Once she's with you, it's an escort, but you don't have to protect her! Finally, an escort mission that doesn't suck! In fact, she helps you by tossing you health and ammo during combat! She's not helpless like most girls protagonists are sent to rescue.

The real story is about parallel universes and quantum possibilities. This is what happens when you start messing with it. Things get confusing.

I've written about the "no consequences for death" trend in games today. In most games, once you die, you come back to life and everything is just as you left it. Why bother including player death at all if the player is just going to respawn exactly where he left off? Normally I bitch about this dumbing down of games, but in this case I was glad for it because of my PS3 handicap. And in Bioshock Infinite, coming back to life after death is integrated into the story fairly well. It has a hinted reason to be there, and it makes sense. More sense than the vitachambers in Bioshock and Bioshock 2 did. I didn't mind it this time, though I still stand by my disdain for the practice in general.

My only real complaint is the vigors are not explained. They have no stated place in the world. No reason to exist. In Rapture, the plasmids were part of the world, and the whole ability to alter one's body to shoot fire and bees is what made the world what it is. All of that doesn't make sense on Columbia though. Why can men buy the ability to shoot fire? Why can they summon crows to attack people? What purpose would it serve on Columbia, and how would it come about? Fucking cool as that is (Murder of Crows is my favorite vigor!), it's not explained, and without the integration it wasn't justified.

It shouldn't have been called Bioshock, but it is a great game. Lives up to its hype, definitely.

I wish I had more time to replay the game, but when I do that, it will be on the PC, where I'm more comfortable. I did well enough with the PS3's controls, but I'm sure I'd die a lot less if I could play it with keyboard and mouse.

Discussion on the ending (SPOILERS)
I hear a lot of people are confused by the ending, but it does make sense if you think about it, and if you're paying attention to the audio logs and dialogue all through the game.

Comstock himself says: what if the man who is baptized moves on from his sin, while the man he left behind still exists somewhere else, sins in tact? What if, indeed. All through the game we're hit with alternate realities, jumping from one to the other, pulling things through, alternate realities merging, etc.

Booker is Comstock from a different world. Booker Dewitt is what Comstock would have become had he decided not to take the baptism and stew in guilt for his sins during the wars he fought. Comstock is what Dewitt became when he did accept it and chose religion as a way to deal with his sins during the wars. They are the same person who made two different choices.

The scientists were playing with multiple universes on Columbia. That's why everything is so messed up here. Comstock couldn't have a child of his own, but he did have a child in other universes. He took his daughter from another universe (in which he did have a daughter) to be his heir, and remake the world as he thought it should be... where savages stay in their place and never make waves--which is, according to Comstock, the reason for all war, isn't it? Blacks and Indians and Chinamen and the Irish just won't accept their status as servants of the white man and stay in their place.

He himself calls Columbia "another Noah's Ark." He intends to rescue everyone who agrees with him and destroy everyone else who does not. Comstock wants to do this in not just his universe, but all of them.

The only solution is to destroy the man at the point where both of them exist. At the baptism. This is possible because, as the scientists say, time is not a river, but an ocean. It will correct things across every universe.

It does make sense, and I enjoyed it. It should be a movie! It's a cinema-quality story with professional-grade acting in game form and it's excellent.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Went Wrong? - Star Trek Enterprise

A followup to my reflections on the Voyager finale, I want to talk about Star Trek: Enterprise.

I followed the series into its third season when it originally aired, and then I gave up on it. Since then I've looked back on many of the episodes I missed after I quit (including the series finale) and I see I didn't miss much.

The episodes were stiff and often boring. The characters stale and flat. The series had a lot more action than any other Trek series, but most of it was actually boring. The series finale? Even more rushed than Voyager's.

It seemed like such a terrible idea to make a Star Trek prequel series. It led to all the predictable problems: the "past" ended up looking more modern than the "future" in the previous Star Trek series. And for 40 years we've come to know that Kirk did this first, Picard did this first, Janeway did that first--then Enterprise comes along and says wait, no, Archer did all of that first!

Why bother? Why go backwards and retcon everything? Why not move Star Trek forward?

Well, I read an article in Star Trek Magazine just before the premier that stated Enterprise was going to feature a very loose crew. Since the series takes places before Starfleet solidified, the rank structure would be less rigid, the chain of command would be nearly nonexistent, and you're more likely to see people wandering the corridors in jeans and t-shirts.

It sounded like a good thing, and it gives some insight into why the producers chose to make a prequel series in the first place. The Trek formula was old. Four series in a row all following the same style. There needed to be a shakeup to keep it fresh. Making a series after the Dominion War wouldn't have allowed them to do that, but going back to the beginning of Starfleet would. That was the whole point of Enterprise.

What went wrong?

Well, for starters, the show had the goal of changing the Star Trek formula, but ended up following the formula even more rigidly. The rank structure was as hard and fast as any Starfleet vessel. There was no casualness among the crew. Nobody walked around in civilian clothes, and they socialized as human beings even less than on Voyager. In other words, they still did not act like normal people, but like Starfleet officers.

Captain Archer was supposed to be this loose, easygoing guy who doesn't really pay much attention to rank and makes friends with the crew like they're his drinking buddies. That's what the article promised, too.

What we got instead was an unemotional, pacing captain who spent all his time trying to be commanding. He wasn't easygoing or friendly at all. We're told he fraternizes with the crew, but we never see it, so as far as the audience was concerned it wasn't true.

As I said before, I can see why the producers picked Scott Bakula as the new captain. He is a very loose, easygoing kind of guy. If only more of Scott Bakula had ended up in the character of Jonathan Archer. If only the writers and producers had let the actors be loose, friendly and casual on the set. It might've saved the show.

Going back to before Kirk also lent itself to uncomfortable retconning. No, Captain Kirk didn't do that first; this guy Archer did it first. No, Picard wasn't the first to encounter the Borg; Archer encountered them. It didn't make sense. If Starfleet knew about the Borg, and if a cure for assimilation was that easy, why wasn't Picard's crew prepared for them?

This is the big danger of doing a prequel: not matching up with established show history. Instead of shaking up the formula, the first two seasons of Enterprise really are more of the same, but with retconning. It was unwelcome.

It seemed the only thing the producers did to shake up the formula was try to make Enterprise into an action series, like the original Star Trek. But most of the action sequences weren't interesting to watch, nor were they very exciting. It was like they were still following the Trek formula in the action, so all of it ended up being passive. And it wasn't TV limits either. Firefly, meanwhile, was doing way more exciting action. Personally, as a viewer, I think it had to do more with inexperience. The producers were so used to the Trek formula they didn't know how to break out of it, so when they tried, they were only able to go partway.

As evidence, I cite the use of transporters. The series is set before transporters became commonly used on people, so they don't use transporters to visit planets. They take shuttle pods. They stuck to this rule except when the plot needed them to board an alien vessel and get out in a hurry. Even as late as season 4 they were using transporters to pull people out of tight places. The producers were so used to transporters they couldn't figure out how to do Star Trek without them.

The end of season two saw the NX-01 entering The Expanse to save Earth from a superweapon! In any other context, it would have been cool, but I remember what I was thinking at the time: if Archer went into the Expanse and did all these things first, why isn't he remembered in the future?

Once the NX-01 went into The Expanse, the rank structure became even more rigid because now it's a military ship, complete with an entire army of red shirts! It didn't come across as an exciting development. It was so rushed and contrived it came across as a desperate attempt to save the series from cancellation. Just pump more action and sex into it; that'll do the trick!

My shark-jumping moment came when T'Pol practically stripped on camera. Star Trek resorting to sex to get ratings? What network is this? Fox?! That's when I quit.

The series did have a couple good moments though. Seeing how Starfleet met the Ferengi in "Acquisition" was fun. "Minefield" and "Dead Stop" were also outstanding. Made great use of the retro setting. A problem that would've been easy to solve in the future is pretty complicated here. But my favorite episode is "Singularity," in which radiation from a black hole causes the crew to exhibit obsessive behavior. It's funny in a very dark, dangerous way. Alas, the series never really found a stride.

The Temporal Cold War introduced in season 1 and finally concluding in season 4 was never a very interesting idea. Soldiers taking orders from their future selves...? We'd had enough time travel crap thanks to Voyager, and the idea just made no sense. Wouldn't their future selves know they're going to fail? What's the point?

The only other moment from the series I can remember that actually made good use of the retro setting was the three-part story with Brent Spiner as Dr. Soong trying to recover the embryos from the Eugenics Wars. That was a very good idea, too. We know very little about the Eugenics Wars, and it was nice to have a little more background on what they were about. There was some decent action there, but even then much of it was pretty slow-paced and passive.

Then the series finale. All that buildup to Archer's speech, and we don't get to hear it. We don't get to see what a difference Archer made and how he is basically the savior of the quadrant for founding the Federation. It would have been bold, but also awkward because Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and every other character in the future doesn't mention him once.

Enterprise was quite a gamble, but I think it was doomed from the start just for the retcon risk. It's easy to judge in retrospect, especially for somebody who wasn't involved in the production, but as a viewer and a lifelong Trek fan, this series bugs me so much.

Looking back on Star Trek: Enterprise, it was very courageous of the producers to try changing the formula. But it was clear nobody involved in the production actually knew how. They tried to pump more action into the series, but it only went halfway. Starfleet was supposed to be new and loose, but the crew sure didn't act that way. They still acted like Starfleet officers to the core.

Maybe if the formula had actually changed, things would have been different. If Archer really had been an easygoing guy more likely to share a drink with his crew than to order them around; if the crew had been loose, friendly, and not so duty- and rank-oriented; if the show hadn't retconned Archer as first to do everything we already knew Kirk or Picard did first... We might've had a good show. Instead, the series adhered to the Trek formula just the same, so all it did was retcon itself into Trek history.

Thinking about it this way, I do respect the producers for trying to change things up. I wish it had worked, but at the same time I'm glad it didn't. Star Trek needed to rest. Now if we can only convince J. J. Abrams to stop retconning Star Trek, it can rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Internet Speaks for Me 2

Allowing the internet to say things which would be unwise to use my own words to express.

Friday, April 5, 2013



Imagine going through Portal without the computer to keep you company. Imagine stripping the story from Portal, and all you're left with is a mind-bending world to explore. A world where spatial relationships don't always match up with what the eyes see. Many reviewers describe this as an M. C. Escher mindfuck, and that's probably the most succinct way to put it.

The artistic look of the game is what attracted my attention at first. The graphics are so simple and clean. They almost feel homemade. Several spots reminded me of Mike Oldfield's Music VR (Tr3s Lunas), but that's just on the surface.

Rooms shift and move all around you. Walking down a corridor may lead to a dead end, but then you walk back the way you came, and now you're in a totally different room. Walking backwards down a corridor may take you to a completely different location verses walking forwards. It's akin to being in a maze that's constantly changing, but even that isn't accurate because the world never actually changes. It's all very logical, but totally unexpected. The game is full of impossible spaces and corridors that wrap back around on themselves without curving. It really does fuck with the mind, but it's all logical, and if you learn the game's internal logic, everything does make sense.

As if that weren't enough, you're then given a device that creates and destroys cubes, so now you have to get used to manipulating those. How you manipulate cubes depends on how far you've upgraded the device (I don't want to call it a gun). More areas become open to you, and they're full of wonder.

Took me about 8 hours to finish the game, and I never needed a walkthrough. It's superbly designed, perfectly balanced, and damn near flawless in every way possible. Antichamber is the most satisfyingly mind-bending game I've ever played. Everyone who likes games that are won by problem-solving and not by trigger finger needs to play this.

(Official site)