43 - Holidays

Well, Chinese New Year was a good chance to get away from work for a while, but not a great way to get any gaming done. I had hoped to use the five day break as an opportunity to knock out a lot of Ultima Underworld. Unfortunately, you can see by my lack of updates, this was not the case at all. Much like Christmas or Thanksgiving, my wife and I spent about twelve hours each day sitting around my in-laws' house eating, watching television, or sleeping. Ultima Underworld did not fit anywhere into this schedule. Too tired to get into a long gaming session after each day, we simply hit the sack and did it all over the next. I was left with about two truly free days to clean up the house and get various things finished which amounted to roughly forty-five minutes to one hour of actual play time. Luckily, I was able to finish Level 3 and actually acquired part of one of the talismans! Thank goodness…

“We’re right in the middle of a reptile zoo!”

Consistent with my impressions given by the previous floor and those gathered from the Looking Glass podcast, each floor of the Stygian Abyss has its own particular flavor and design. Unfortunately, Level 3 is one of my most disliked tropes in games: water levels. Stepping out of the periphery of the level into its large central area, it became immediately apparent I was located in the middle of a giant swamp.

[I hope it's better than the Crawl Stone Soup swamp.]

I blame my aversion to this kind of level on the fact that it is mostly wide open and requires ages of searching nondescript areas to find a small important item but inevitably missing some. Hopefully this is not true for Level 3 because I have been swimming around the lake for quite a while and think I have found almost everything and don’t plan on doing much more of that. But, let’s not jump ahead, before exploring the dangerous waters I skirted around to discover the circumference of the shore. While looking around this area I encountered a bizarre dead end hallway that unceremoniously teleported me to an identical hallway. Reentering this same zone then proceeded to send me to yet another identical hallway on the other side of the map! This one was only a one way trip and I was forced to start exploring after being separated from any previously mapped out exits.

[Thank goodness for automapping.]

Avoiding the water because of the dangerous squid creatures in the swamp, I found what looked like an artificially excavated dungeon with several locked storage rooms and an agitated bandit. I tried to talk politely to him, but must have made a mistake and was attacked. After an awkward battle and several degraded weapons later, I was finally able to dust myself off and move beyond their hideout to return later when I found away into those rooms.

Just beyond the hideout was another complex filled with giant lizardmen. I had been warned about these creatures before and decided to treat them with as much respect as I could. This proved difficult when they were unable to speak English. They seemed to understand what I was saying, but could not respond in kind starting one of the most interesting puzzles I have encountered in the game so far.

Deviation: Old vs. New Game Expectations – An off the cuff half baked argument.

Even though, as far as I can tell, learning the language of the lizardmen is not “required” for finishing the game (talisman hints are provided by rare English speaking lizardmen), it was certainly expected by the designers. Just a little beyond the main entrance of the compound I found a prisoner. The poor guy had his tongue cut out and was unable to speak but begged me to secure his release. To do this, I had to talk to the lizardmen whose language I have no idea how to speak, write down vocabulary, go back to the prisoner, type in the word for translation, interpret his pantomime, and piece together the language myself. While performing this task I kept thinking to myself: “Would this ever happen in modern game design?”

The quick answer for me is no; absolutely not. Many modern games place similar puzzles in players’ paths to vary game play or slow progression through a story. A lot of these modern puzzles are nothing more than slight diversions that may take clues from the environment or some short amount of thought to get through so that the player will not get frustrated and quit altogether. Very few games will demand a player think outside of what is directly presented to him or her and use systems in ways not explicitly illustrated to come to these conclusions. The lizardman puzzle has several layers of work that make it a very satisfying problem. After seeing similar conversations I was able to find commonly repeated words and take them to the prisoner. Interpreting his actions, I made a short list of words including “lizardman”, “friend”, “kill”, “trade”, etc. to test out in conversations. With a few adjustments I was able to have functional interactions with these creatures in their own language. I was even able to understand the language without consulting my notes after twenty minutes or so. I felt like I had actually learned something and I fully expect to be required to make use of that knowledge further down the road.

[Negotiating the prisoner's release.]

Some games will have quick and dirty puzzles involving physics or button patterns, but that knowledge is rarely ever touched on again in my experience. It seems like a kind of slap dash diversion from the system you are supposed to be having fun with in the first place. Unlike a ham handed slider puzzle in Resident Evil, learning a language of cultures sequestered in this dungeon seems to make sense in the context of the game. I did not feel lifted out of the world but more invested in it. These lizardmen were helping me to patiently learn to communicate with them as a people. It felt like something I had accomplished.

In my opinion, game designers (mostly AAA, sorry ) do not put enough expectations on players. It seems as if any challenge falling outside of the particular feedback loop a game is presenting will instantly be left on the cutting room floor as being "not fun". I am afraid that inflated budgets and comparmentalized production systems have diluted the feeling of authorship and intimacy with a game. In order to satisfy the huge investments in game production, the product itself must appeal to a large group of consumers. In many cases this can lead to not necessarily a "dumbing down" of games, but certainly a more bland experience. I would compare my experience to that of playing Skyrim where experiences just seem to move past me like water past a rock in a river. I barely have any meaningful influence on anything and am simply letting content wash over me. In Ultima Underworld I feel as if I have interacted and learned from the systems and environment, not just consumed them. This is the kind of design I am looking for and the recent resurgence of independent developers asserting their vision has given me hope.

Back to the adventure.

After learning a new language and freeing the prisoner, I was finally able to take care of the largest piece of business in the entire floor: discovering a piece of one of the talismans. Some English speaking black lizardmen sent me to find a lost expedition in return for a reward. All I found were a few paper scraps and bones, but I also got a clue as to where the blade of the sword talisman is. The note informed me that the piece is hidden under a pond in the southeast, but how could I find it if I couldn't swim? This caused a little bit of a problem.

I had previously discovered a suspicious area with a ramp leading down to nowhere and had noticed a glitch while walking down the hall that wouldn't let me proceed when too close to the wall. I clicked the 'look' and 'use' actions on a strange piece of vine-covered wall, but nothing seemed to happen. It turns out the player is required to 'look' at the wall multiple times before the vines are removed and a secret door is revealed. This is the first bad design decision I have run accross in the game. It is not unreasonable to think that many players may click the wall, see nothing happen, then discount it much as I did. If I had not tried several times then it would never have been found. I'll let it slide, though.

[Looks normal enough...]

[...but it's not.]

Behind the secret door was a lever that drained the pool in the southeast corner of the floor allowing me to go through a sunken door. After fighting a ghost I found a shrine and the blade I was looking for. As soon as I find the hilt I think I may have a good idea who can put it together. I also hope that I can use the sword as an unbreakable weapon for the rest of the game. That would be very welcome after going through at least ten or fifteen swords and cudgels.

[Finally, one piece of one piece of the puzzle.]

Packing up my silver resurrection tree, new found blade, and knowledge of the lizardman language, I descended further into the unknown depths of the Stygian Abyss. Level four awaits me.

[My map of Level 3.]

What's next?

Besides the obvious Level 4 content, I sincerely hope to push out the next update sooner. This one was almost finished for a week, but I couldn't quite mop up the rest of the level to have enough to write for a full post. The holiday proved to be much busier than I expected and I hope to push forward a little faster. Wish me luck, and if you have any tips about some things I may have missed feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

As always, follow me on Twitter (@backlogkiller) for mini updates and news about what I'm doing. I also urge you to listen to the new Dark Souls podcast produced by friends of the blog Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield: The Bonfireside Chat. The show progresses through Dark Souls, one of the best games of the past few years, discussing gameplay, lore, and boss battles. It is one of my favorite shows that I look forward to every two weeks. Whether you are a Dark Souls expert, a new player, or someone looking to get into it, the show is great and has some good discussion and interesting guests. Give it a test run!

That's all for now. I hope to see you sooner than later for Level 4 of Ultima Underworld. Also, please get System Shock 2 from GoG.com. It's truly one of the best games I have ever played.

--Backlog Killer