Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Thing with the Music

A few of my friends with Facebook - a shudder runs up my spine - have posted these little music quiz things. Very silly, I know. But, for the proverbial faeces and giggles, let's do it with my collection.

Le Rules:
Step 1: Put your music player on shuffle. (What better way!)
Step 2: Post the first line from the first 25 songs (WITH LYRICS)that play, no matter how embarrassing.
Step: 2.Ben: On the same line, post how many instrumental songs were in between the ones with lyrics.
Step 3: Strike through the songs when someone guesses both artist and track correctly. (Assuming I remember the tag for striking through)
Step 4: For those who are guessing -- looking the lyrics up on a search engine is CHEATING! (But you probably should anyway)
Step 5: If you like the game post your own. Especially if your collection is saner than mine.

1 - I've told you this once before - can't control me (1)
2 - Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling (8)
3 - Sound Effects Record Number 33 (7)
4 - Spy's sappin' mah dispenser... (13)
5 - Samus is under fire! (4)
6 - Now, faster! (1)
7 - Abide with me - fast falls the eventide (2)
8 - If you want me to, I can hang around with you (14)
9 - Thirsty. I need wahwah (0!)
10 - Are you still into it? 'Cause I'm still into it (8)
11 - Another tear, look what you've done to your forlorn and once beloved son (1)
12 - Sir, if you won't be needing me for a while, I'm shutting down (16)
13 - Father, where are you now, when I need you most of all? (2)
14 - Thirty days have Septober (22)
15 - You're the top - you're the Colosseum (15)
16 - Che gelida manina - se la lasci riscaldar (2)
17 - Hey, hey! She's gone away! (8)
18 - Atzma gotang lubia dobarstan no victa nunca lo (3)
19 - Here's a little bonus room, 'cause I know you've had it tough (5)
20 - System, system, system system system system (13)
21 - Spring has sprung and spring has hearts a'glowing (2)
22 - Falling. Fall of an angel - you can see the fall. (9)
23 - Darth Vader! Dark Darth Vader! Dark lord of the Sith (4)
24 - Just walkin' in the rain, getting soaking wet (9)
25 - Outside gets inside, ooh, through her skin.

Let's see, 194 songs played before I could get 25 with lyrics. I must be getting better!


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Didja know there's an election a happenin'? Crazy stuff, ne?


Friday, May 30, 2008

Deus Ex Free on Gametap

In case you haven't played the amazing experience of Deus Ex, for this upcoming month it's free on Gametap, a game service run by Time Warner. I enjoyed my run with Gametap while it lasted, and if I weren't swamped with games and books I want to experience, I'd sign right back on. Anyway, Deus Ex is currently free, so nab it at if you want to (hint: you do).


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Penny Arcade Adventures and Hothead Games yesterday released "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One". I swiftly downloaded the demo and, eager to see the rest, purchased and enjoyed the rest of the game. It certainly warrants a repeat play from me, despite its brevity, and I gained much amusement and engagement from it.

So let's start with what I didn't like. Load times were abysmal. Maybe it's the Torque engine, but even small levels took around thirty seconds for my computer to piece together. Larger ones made me wait around a minute, which I found hard to stomach. In one zone, Pelican Bay, a piece of disjointed carnival music plays during the level load, which was creepy the first time, but really annoying thereafter. After a while, I started muting my computer whenever I transfered to that zone. All the other music in the game, though, is great - that piece would have been, too, if I only had to hear it once.

I agree with other reviewers that most of the dialog was pretty lame, but I truly loved Tycho's interactions with his mad-scientist niece Anne-Claire in which the battled wits concerning the existence of paranormal entities. The language they used was both amusing and vivid, as Anne-Claire protests Tycho's undulating fear of the dark gods as it mixes with nostalgia for his days achieving his Apocalyptica degree in university. Good times.

My gameplay concerns only come in when we get to the wandering around phase of the game. In case you didn't know, RSPD is a role playing game that I suppose mostly fits under the Final Fantasy-esque umbrella. Like many RPGs, a good deal of the game involves taking your characters around the environment to have them meet NPCs, collect items, and fight things. In RSPD, unfortunately, I experienced rather shoddy pathfinding in many cases - I would click on a box for the protagonist to shatter with his nightmare landscaping implements, and he would continuously walk into the lamppost between him and this goal until I manually commanded him to go around it. It was a little embarrassing.

And now we get to the good part - what I liked!

Combat was fan-flaming-tastic. Fighting things was extraordinarily fun, once I got Gabe and Tycho on my team (very early on, and near the end of the demo). The combat is a mixture of real-time and turn-based, with the player controlling all three protagonists in skirmishes against up to (I think) seven opponents at a time. It is turn-based in that each character has a speed stat which determines how quickly their actions can be "charged up," but it's real-time
in the fact that the game doesn't pause once an action is charged, and opponents (who also have a speed statistic) will attack when they "choose" - not necessarily the moment they're ready. It's a bit hard to explain - perhaps it's best just to try it out.

The characters each have three types of moves - item usage, basic attacks, and special attacks. The last category is the interesting one. Each protagonist has a little mini-game that you play to successfully pull of a special attack with the maximum violence. Tycho's, for example, requires the player to correctly "Simon says" the WASD notifications on screen within a very short amount of time, making as few mistakes as possible. Their effects can be devastating, and pulling them off is fun. In addition, each party can attempt to block the other's moves by timing a block at the right moment. If pulled off properly, this also enables a counterattack. In short, combat was engaging throughout the game, requiring the player to manage his attention as well as the move order.

One resource I'm grateful that we didn't have to manage with much complexity was the collection of items. In games like Golden Sun and Baldur's Gate, I was always very afraid to use potions or scrolls or whatever because they were in such scarcity. By making those items able to be found only in chests or very rarely on monster drops, they discouraged "hoarding" players like me from using them. In RSPD, while acquiring the items is done in the same way, those chests (boxes and trashcans, in this game) respawned whenever the player left the area. This made the items much more disposable, and summarily more often-used in my play of the game. Managing those items during combat became about determining which effect was necessary, not about which item I felt I most likely wouldn't need in the future.

In addition, the setting was great. New Arcadia, 1922, was a fun place, and the protagonist's quips as you examine each bit of it were very enjoyable to read.

In short, try it out! There's a demo, and the game sums to $20. While I finished it in a day, I was playing rather voraciously, and I still feel it was worth it. I certainly want to see combat like this in the future!


Can be found at:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools!

The joke was, there was no April Fools! Hah!


Missteps in Logic

I can't believe the cracks between the tiles
- how much a part of things they seem!
And when I sit with my boot abreast irregular
Straight divides with scruff beneath

Words and Pictures
Provoking my invisible shame

I realize that not even my old tricks
Will serve to prove my confusion
Concerning my inability to count.

April 1, 2008

Yeah, didn't do so well on last week's logic test. Not horrible, but hearing how the problems were to be done - before even seeing my grade - was embarrassing. No wonder I was looking at the floor. April Fool's? Meh, this ain't the post for that. Maybe later? Check out xkcdQCdc.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Couple at Cape Town

In queue, with a
pair of bags housing
my portable life and my
windows turned beyond,
I wait, encapsulated by
my fellows of blood and journey.

Fluorescent, the putrid
taste of expected formality
settles upon me as I
chafe about chafing under
the tiredness of warmth,
buffeted by harsh jets of
air and ambiance.

Then apart from me
There whispers a soft wailing,
A swan's tears into the winds,
Silence and resolute exhaustion
Greeting that final realization
Of Farewell.

And as under the harsh
normalcy of stinking light
the epic of anguish unfolds,
I stare, agape and
sickeningly proud;
As beauty sunders
The Homely,
These clipp'd Wings
Illuminate the sky
- with Color,
rich and pure.

As I later ascend
into my home amidst the clouds,
I am still washed in purity

Benjamin Finkel,
March 5, 2008

That is a powerful memory, right there. We were in Cape Town, as a family, last summer. When we were at the airport heading to Windhoek waiting to go through security, Aaron and I noticed a very beautiful couple who were separating from each other, the man leaving on our flight and the woman staying behind. There was an anguish in both of them that, as you can see, still has an effect on me. The thing was, both of them were so dignified - the woman's tears were quiet, the longing, regret, and fear in her eyes so pure and powerful; the man's silence was almost comforting in its conformity to the needs of the situation, his feigned certainty so convincing. Even as I saw love - obvious, true, and undoubted love - get torn apart, I felt (beside the pity) an asymmetric comfort; to me, the situation proved that love is possible, and can exceed even my highest expectations.

Evidence like that is hard to come by. The rest of the trip was, of course, brilliant, and I expect to write about other memories at some point. But seeing as thoughts on love, relationships, and trust have been sieging my mind recently, I felt that writing this now would give me a good perspective on things. I feel it has.

What's interesting, though, is that afterwards, Aaron asked me, "So what did you think of that little soap opera back there?" My quiet rage had to be stilled as I explained to him my thoughts on the event. Even when we are so alike, out differences can be staggering.


Monday, March 3, 2008

About the Axel, Part II

In quantized continuity
The shadow passes over
The enumeration
Of deeds and falling
And the presence dwells
Over the closest, longest
Sweeping swiftly over
The far.

Ben Finkel
Wednesday, February 27

Right, so that was late. I'm noticing that my inspiration skyrockets at Theatre guild meetings. Maybe because I have chalkboard access there. Writing on paper, for some reason, isn't as solid to me - it's more of a place for scattered half-sentences regarding fact, not complete visions of patterns which form perception. Or whatever it is I write about.

Hung out with old friends - yeesh, that's weird to say - on Saturday. Saw Jumper, which is a total crap movie, but has pretty teleportation effects, then we played Nintendo games, talked about life, and watched videos on the You-Tubs. Jacob's going to Colorado next year - good for him but it still makes me a bit sad as such. Hopefully we'll still find times to hang out.

There might be a part three, a counterpoint to this part's argument. I kind of regret not doing this one as a single-thrust poem. Dividing it, while a new experience, definitely makes this ring as a set of dinky poems rather than a decent, serious one. But maybe that's part of the message. Who knows? - it's art.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stanza 1 of About the Axel

There's some glass chamber
Where time is ensnared
In vacuum, suffering unfolding
Wings of phosphorescent

Ben Finkel
February 21, 2008

Yeah, it's not much. I wrote this on the board at the theatre meeting, a place where I get rather inspired. I always work better on boards, apparently. Anyway, expect a more fleshed out version, and maybe some non-poetry posts.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stone, Paper, and Light

What is beauty?
That brush of warmth across the neck
Dispelling cotton and irritant
And releasing
In flowering Mandelbrot
Swathes of woven color

Love of life and soil
So refined and faultless
As thrones
Cast in the water's abyss
Glittering in sky.

But what is it?
It is glorious, yes, dignified
And earthly, but to
Seek some algorithm,
Some discrete path of quantity
In no small part destroys its symphony.

Beauty heralds divinity,
And only mankind can listen.

Benjamin Finkel
February 13, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Memories of an Older Home

The shudders first begin within the mind, in that cotton-mired lobe
Near the front, where sometimes elation and apprehension abide.
Alert again, the eye traces the slowly gathering flames
Along the wall
As the rumbling gropes the ear, scratching and imploring.
Again sleep flies as my mind, before the cleansing,
Stabs its first and greatest power
Toward the mess of orange and darkness that
Springs to life and identical complexity before
My young and spiraling imagination.
My imagination! A lens through which faces and buildings
Demons and otherlings,
Stories and chaos,
Bind themselves together, entangled
Driving sleep - that shelter from the fury,
The cease of instilling order to the absurd - yet farther
From me than the unrealities I spin.

And only by abating, by letting irrelevance be,
By letting be that accidental past
Which writes itself as a twirling mess of tangled branches,
Depicted as shadows illuminated by cars
(Which have illustrious histories of history themselves)
- by letting and releasing and respecting while forgetting -
I could sleep.
And I would awake, to work the consensual order once more.


Saturday, January 26, 2008


So, it looks like I will not be in a play semester, so I will likely be turning to writing to appease my creative impulses. I'm not entirely pleased by the arrangement, but my foci will be poems and a short play about the future, humanity, and teaching.

The party last night was fun, though.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 5

Five is an important number in Riven. D'ni numerals are base 25, five squared, of course, but Gehn somehow found himself with a connection to the fifth integer, one that guided his life and fittingly found itself a motif in his imprisonment in Riven. Therefore, this post will be the last in this series, and it will go into Gehn, who I submit to be the best villain ever, in any medium.

Gehn is a great person, really. He watched as his entire civilization crumbled around him in horrific terrorist assaults which were inspired by the arrival of his mother to D'ni. He suffered the loss of his wife in childbirth, a wife about whom we know little but it can be assured that their love was mutual, fierce, and tragic.

And still, fifteen years after leaving his son with his mother, Gehn found it in himself to come back for Atrus, to induct him to the Art of crafting links to Ages. This child who had destroyed the shattered bits of life he had tried to collect became his protegee, his first step in rebuilding the glorious, beautiful society of D'ni.

Gehn is a horrible person. He is prolific, but lacks talent and inspiration. He seeks to rebuild D'ni, but he fancies himself a god, last among a godlike people. He creates Ages to subjugate them, caring not for their inhabitants as people but as resources. He numbers his Ages, never names them. He never calls his prison Riven, but rather My Fifth Age, out of his eventual two hundred thirty-three. Atrus, in rebellion against this pathetic excess, trapped his father in Riven to protect other Ages from his ruthlessness, his Machievellan disregard of people in favor of causes.

But more than those, Gehn is a person - elegant, charismatic, and subtle. If you decide not to play Riven, I at least recommend reading his journals and watching the scenes in which he appears on the internet. The game, if you look hard enough, gives terrific and terrifying insights into this god-demon-man, this pathetic greatness of fallibility and aspiration.

I started writing this post in hopes that I can do the man justice - I can't. Honestly, you have to play Riven to truly see how deep, how real, how astounding this man is. There is no villain I can think of who is so believable, so dignified, and so evil in a way that is almost universally understood but in no way trite. Gehn wants his home back, but he forgets it was not a palace for his people, but for the world. D'ni, at its heart and height, is a society of awe, worship, and curiosity for possibility, beauty, and complexity. It is a shrine for the wonderment of the universe in all of its guises.

Truly, in life as in books, the Ending can never be written.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Riven Nitpicks and Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 4

Riven is elegant, beautiful, et cetera. All the previous information and the next bits still hold true. The game isn't perfect, though - no game is. I will first point out a few moments in the game that are particularly bad, and then go into some broader wishes for the game.

Actually, these instances really boil down to one goal - get inside Gehn's Riven-side office, on Book Assembly Island. There are two basic paths to that:

- The direct path. Land on Book Assembly Island in a cool wood-delivery cart (fun cutscene!) solve a little puzzle about a boiler, explore the drainage tubes, and then get stuck looking at a frog trap. This one is much more horrible, and will be discussed below.

- Hunt-the-pixel for a button on Jungle Island that a player has no reason to expect, to open a ritual shrine-statue, which leads to a mag-lev to Survey island, which leads to a mag-lev to Book Assembly Island. This one is absurd, and is in fact the reverse of what you are supposed to do. That little button is very visible as you come out of the shrine, and is a useful shortcut, but is not intended for players to find without first having seen it in action.

So, the direct path. SCENE: Indoors, afternoon. The Stranger enters a cavernous, dark room through double doors which swing open effortlessly and rest snug against the wall. He (or she) walks a short catwalk over the abyss to a small, salad-tosser-looking device. Manipulating a few buttons, he finds some pellets and a pressure plate, as well as a latch to lower the thing into the pit by chain. A clue here is found for the Rebel Symbols, and the Stranger leaves, satisfied, closing the doors on his way out.

SCENE: Elsewhere on Riven. Stranger suddenly disappears, as the player hits a roadblock in exploration.

What's the thing the player missed? Why, look at those doors! They didn't close behind you, now did they? Scrutinize the metal behemoth bastards and you realize you can close them yourself. And what does this action reveal? To otherwise entirely obscured pathways, one of which leads to a Fire Dome (probably the coolest one in the game), one of which leads to Gehn's office, from where you can depart for Survey Island and discover the "treetop zone" on Jungle Island. This "nod" of exploration is the most daft thing in the game, and many people quit playing because of it. More rational people like me instead decided to cheat and look online, but that shouldn't be necessary in any game.

Nitpick 2: Little reading content. Myst was comparatively loaded with books, holding about ten journals about the various Ages. Riven has Atrus's journal, Catherine's journal, and Gehn's two journals, which I realize is a lot, but I felt that the people of Riven were largely unexplored as a subject in those, and the Age of Riven itself was largely left mentionless. Atrus talked about his attempts to secure a connection to Riven, alluding to the events of Myst, Catherine's (the most revealing setting-wise, but most illegible) discussed the rebellion and the creation of Tay as a stronghold, Gehn's first about his fruitless attempts to escape imprisonment, and his second on his more philosophical and psychological issues. This last journal is a marvel to read.

Still, I wish there were more of it, which brings me to my third point. While exploration was limitless, there is almost nothing you can do besides hunt clues and solve puzzles. This is a failing in a lot of adventure games - I wish there was some way in there to interact with the environment in a neutral way, such as skipping stones or manipulating the infrastructure of the village (pulling looms, for example). It would be nice to have some in game diversion to observe and interact with for the sake of it, not advancing any plot or puzzle, but some way to - within the context of the game - relax to think.

Finally, Riven came from a time when a pen and paper where expected to be brought to the game environment. The notes necessary for a playthrough are copious, and there is no in-game way to store them. I kind of like Myst 4's camera/journal, but holding those passwords in a system like Deus Ex's would have been nice, too, if a bit heavy handed. Either of those systems would be welcomed, though.

Now, part 4: No inventory.

A horrible, horrible cliche in adventure games is the Use Key On Door Syndrome, as named by Ben Crowshaw. Your inventory stacks up, and you just try using everything in your inventory on every hotspot. Ugly. Myst games sidestep the issue by giving highly limited inventories, with each item having a specific, memorable, and limited purpose. Mostly, these are books. Journals, Linking Books, or sheets of Linking Book paper, these are items which either possess information for your perusal (often in the form of a journal of Atrus'), are hard-won keys to complete or continue the plot (the pages), or, rarely, the capability to go to another Age (the books, and I think that the only functioning Linking book you get is in Exile).

Even in Uru, the sparse inventory is observed. You have your Relto Book - your customizable home, panic-button, and central Node to exploring the universe - your clothes (functionless, but pretty and customizable), and your KI - a chat device, GPS, camera, and more on a wristwatch, D'ni made. That's it. Use Key On Door simply doesn't happen in Myst, which is a game about environments. This focus makes puzzles usually a lot less hokey. I'm looking at you, The Longest Journey. Even the Neverhood had a very, very limited inventory, and a system which prevented you from using everything you had on every object to see if there's a result, and if it works in the Neverhood, it's gotta work everywhere.

But more than the hokeyness factor, Riven's puzzle focus on environments captures what adventure games are about - setting, culture, characters and manipulation. It's not about the collection of stuff, even of tools, but rather about touching the world, and interacting with it in a formless way enshrined in Myst's Stranger, a perfect tabula rasa.

Still, sometimes I really wish I could take Gehn's gun. His pipe wouldn't be too bad, either:


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 3

You folk could post a bit more - I'm feeling considerably unloved. Anyway, the solution:

Take the golden symbol from each fire dome, and map it to the colors of the lights on Survey Island - the buttons that turn on the lights are adorned with those eyes. Next, find out the "grid" location of each dome by locating the beasts on the topographical maps. Finally, put each dome's associated color of marble on that dome's coordinates on the board. Then step back, push the button, and appreciate the contained explosion of directed power that fuels your teleportation betwixt worlds. The Fire Dome puzzle (also called the Waffle-Iron puzzle, which is vaguely what the grid device looks like) utilizes the player's ability to freely explore the islands, and encourages the mutual dependence each location has on another.

So, now we'll talk about that free-formliness. At some point yesterday, I had an idea. Riven, like Myst, Exile, and Revelations, is a node-based game,which is to say that the player can click on particular areas to move to them, and then turn about and see things from that node. Exile does this system best, allowing full three-dimensional spinning without clicks, but Riven's system is acceptable. Anyway, the idea was to make a map of Riven, marking each node, and listing the minimum number of clicks it would take a player to reach that point. Surprisingly, at least in my opinion, that number is low fairly universally. The island of Myst would have a low number (as the island is pretty open), but the other Ages in that game would have fairly linear progression of points until the Age's end.

Riven is an exploration dream, in a sense. Very little has to be solved to explore almost the entirety of four of Riven's five islands (Prison Island, though, requires the Fire Domes to be activated). Even the spot of the game's end can be reached in (I believe) two clicks, and with save "abuse," the game can be ended in about thirty clicks, albeit with a fairly unsatisfactory version of said ending.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the next point - this freeform nature allows for the player to screw up the canonical plot in a number of ways. What if you signal Atrus before you kill Gehn? Before you find out about Catherine's state of affairs? What if, stuck on a puzzle, you decide to pull out the Prison Book, and see for yourself what's inside? What if you did so with someone already in there? The game deals with all of these situations, providing endings that range from vaguely amusing, to chilling, to tragic. There are ten endings to the game, and in four of those you get shot. Each of the nine bad endings requires you to do something rather counter to your directives to discover, but after a first playthrough they are fun to try to "collect."

Gehn shoots you - but the game allows for no violence by players. That's always been a must for the Miller brothers, the creators of the Myst franchise, a sentiment which has lasted even
through the MMO Myst game, Uru Live (which is, by the way, great fun with a great group of people. I really need to play it again). Violence in puzzle/adventure games has always disappointed me. In The Longest Journey, they sidestepped the issue by having threats never actually harm you, which I found to be really lame. In that game's sequel, Dreamfall, the "violence" sections were like fighter games without the fun, and were tedious and out of place. In the Trilby games, only Five Days A Stranger did a good fight scene - a single affair with an autosave, a single action needed to save yourself, and a strong satisfaction for saving Trilby from harm. In later games, repeatedly running away from possessed corpses etc. got annoying as hell, especially when they cheated, teleported ahead of you, and claw you just as you're about to enter the next room, where temporary safety lies. On Myst's side lies the Neverhood, where Klayman can only die by doing the most stupid and irresistible action in the game - an hilarious ending, if I may say so.

In short, don't do violence in this sort of game, unless it's short, sweet, and the player's character is on the receiving end. I rather like the pacifist protagonist in these games, a feeling which oddly is amplified by a scarcity of NPCs. Riven has maybe fifteen NPCs in all, all but four of whom occupy but a few moments of screen time, and are there to remind you that the world you are inhabiting isn't a vacuum, but rather a home for these people. The appearances can be genuinely frightening, too, for a person who's been exploring for hours alone. I know the first time I saw the little girl I jumped in my seat.

To get back to the first point, this game's extreme nonlinearity is a great asset to the game. For any endeavors of this sort that I would work on, I would take Riven's game design as a model to follow: give an interconnected game world that they are almost never barred from re-exploring completely at their leisure; give the game's setting plenty of internal consistency and realism, finding purposes for everything and creating pieces of setting for the sole purpose of expressing atmosphere and culture; and make knowledge a primary commodity in the game, some of which is randomized per playthrough, some of which is not, to make gamers both feel challenged in later playthroughs, and rewarded for remembering obscure or complicated facts.

Final notes on that last point: there are three combination locks in the game, all of which are randomized from the game's start. This is why the twenty-click playthrough requires you to load a save: a critical code to complete it is stored about halfway through the game, and even the best players can't predict it until they find it. Because of these combinations and because of the more complex but static nature of the real puzzles, games of Riven range from several weeks to fourteen minutes and thirty one seconds. Compare to the three minutes eighteen of Myst (which is really done in a minute fifty), and I think you'll see why Riven's superior to them. All the links except for the first contain spoilers.

Next time, some nit-picking. A little spoilery, but I'm going to go over the game's worst bits as far as I remember them.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever, Part 2

The Fire Dome puzzle - oh, how I love thee. This puzzle, truly, is the hardest and most beautiful puzzle in the game. You find your first clues - which are also, in a sense, your reward for completion - way, way beforehand. The items in question: On each island, there is a dome that looks vaguely like a world globe, spinning very quickly. Embossed on each side are circles of eye motifs, with each symbol a slightly modified version of the previous, until a cycle is made. Nearby, there is a camera-like device with a button on it, and a strobe-like reading of the symbols. Here, it is illuminated that one of those symbols is golden - a unique one per island. When you push the button as the gold symbol passes, the dome opens up in a spectacular animation. Upon closer investigation, it is revealed that there are five sliders on a 25-notch path. With no further clues to go on, the player leaves.

Later, the player will discover Catherine's journal, which, amidst other great detail, includes the code to open the domes. It also tells you that the books within the domes aren't powered (a long story) and that to use them to drop a visit to Gehn, the player will have to find a way to give the domes the power to teleport him to Gehn's new Age.

Another clue is found on Survey Island: maps. One of them is a view of Riven from a bird's eye, using the Age's weird water physics to construct representations of any given island's topography. The other is a 25 by 25 grid of topographical sectors of Riven, with the fire domes highlighted (sensing a motif?). However, a player may only examine the island that the larger map is set to. At first playthrough, this seems like a curiosity, or some ridiculous puzzle.

The last clue also comes from Survey Island, in Gehn's little "aquarium." He's tied up colored lights to a control panel, to train his Wahrks (think sharks, with tusks and trapezoidish bodies) to be his little Pavlovian executioners. The symbols for the colors match the eye-like symbols.

Finally, though, the player comes full circle and finds himself staring one of the most glorious sights in the game: the Temple Dome, a huge, golden monstrosity filled with iridescent water and a nexus of pipes from around the Age - pipes which connect to the Fire Domes. And then they see this a 25x25 grid, and six marbles of different colors. And, maybe, everything comes together.

Tune in next time for the next part of the review.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why Riven is the Best Game Ever

"So you get more than one 'one.'"
"Some people are lucky. I've had a few ones."
"So how many ones can you have?"
"How many have you had?"
"Three. How many have you had?"
"Just one. Just one."
- Flight of the Conchords

At my dorm, a lot of discussion goes into "the best video game ever." Alex, following Jemaine's lead, has a set of multiple titles, each of which is the "best video game ever." Deus Ex, Nethack, the Neverhood - all of these are award winners in his book.Like in so many things in life, I am a bit more like Bret. There's only one game that compares to perfection for me, and the title of this post having already having spoiled it, I'll dispense with ado and start raving on the merits of Riven.

Riven - in addition to its beautiful imagery, unspeakably awe-inspiring music, and solid plot with well-acted characters - has simply the best game design I've ever seen. Perhaps the point-and-click interface would make some question that. Even if we ignored the fact that the interface was requisite to maintain Cyan's high art standard involving live actors and pre-rendered images, I argue that the interface does not detract from the game design. Game design is the architecture of the goals and obstacles that a player encounters on their quest through the game. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the combat sections were rife with bad game design choices (let's not even consider Warrior Within). In F.E.A.R. map design was a problem, as was combat's repetitiveness. Dreamfall, in the same genre as Riven, made such a bad game that I don't really consider it to be one, but rather a beautiful story presented in an interactive manner. Suddenly, I realize I have a lot of thoughts on that game, but I'll delve into it later.

Riven has nothing of the sort, so far as I can see. Unlike Myst, the game gives you a direction - capture Gehn, discover what has happened to Catherine. Unlike Myst, the puzzles aren't contrived - certainly not if compared to other video games. This is not to say Myst is a bad game, but Riven outpaces it in every regard except for reading material provided in-game.

The game has five puzzles. Total. They are huge, sprawling puzzles, with clues spread across the islands, but I can only think of five things in the game that are really puzzles, and not nods of exploration (some of which could be very tough) or password-entering. Enumerated:

- The Round Room
- Decyphering D'ni Numerals
- The Rebel Symbols
- Powering the Fire Domes
- Opening the Fissure

Of these, one puzzle shines out: the Fire Domes. I'll have a whole post on that one.

Looking over a walkthrough, I can see a number of other things that you could call puzzles - opening a fan, or emptying water from a boiler, or navigating a submersible tram - but those are those "nods" I was talking about. The above five have clues, controls, or consequences across the entire game. The Round Room, the first encountered puzzle, is the most straightforward, requiring only the exploration instinct that drives a player forward and simple logic to solve - but your "rewards" for the action are not immediately obvious, but satisfactory enough to prod a player onward.

Understanding D'ni numerals is a key part of the game, enough that I would call it a puzzle. This one, however, is not explicit. The best way to learn the numbers, in game, is to go to the shabby little school in the desolate village on Riven. You play a most horrible children's game of number-hangman until you have a grasp. It isn't horrible to play - in fact, it's quite fun - it is horrible in its morbidity. The game is a threat, propaganda, and a device to mold the Rivenese population to Gehn's beck and call regardless of the morality of the lessons. These numbers, in addition to being beautiful and the pride and joy of Myst fanboys and fangirls everywhere (and the love is indeed quite international), are key to the remaining puzzles. Each of them.

The Rebels' symbols is a puzzle of exploration and imagination. At some stage, you are trying to find the hideout of the people who rebel against Gehn, the Moeity, as they are called. At the very least, you are trying to find out to where a prisoner you thought you just freed disappeared. Eventually, you find yourself in a circle of stones with funny creatures on them, and, baffled, you go off to look for clues.

The thing is, everywhere the villagers have access, there is some indication of what the "password" is, each clue in some way indicating some sort of animal, and a number. The indication was intended by the Moiety to be both visual and auditory, but in true Myst fashion, part of their system broke, leaving enough information to find the answer, but not enough for it to be easy. Unlike in many games, this doesn't feel Deus Ex Machina-ish, as the sabotage is justified and realistic.

I want to wrap this up now, with the last two puzzles for later, but I want one thing above all to remain clear: each of these puzzles feels real. They each feel like something someone would do to protect people from mucking with what belongs to Gehn, to make people in awe of Gehn, or to help people oppose Gehn. The villain's presence, which on screen is very momentary, is present throughout the game. Gehn is my favorite villain in a game, with GLaDOS coming very close and Andrew Ryan behind her, if we pretended Bioshock ended where it should have, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, Riven pulls off puzzles and exploration in a way that is realistic, fun, and insanely elegant, and I think more games need to learn from its example. No more block pushing or key hunting, but dynamic searching through a world to gain an understanding of the pieces already seen.

Oh, right, did I mention that you can solve most of these puzzles at a time of your choosing, in the order that you like, exploring willy-nilly throughout Riven without so much as a hint of linearity until the very end (where it's still only a hint)? No? Well, I did now.

More thoughts tomorrow, I hope.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Suffertopia is Dead, Monark Chatroom

I just checked Nationstates, and my dear Suffertopia has finally fallen by the wayside. I've always thought that the game had too little to keep player's going for more than a month or two, and Suffertopia surprised me, but inevitably got forgotten and thus lost. Mourn for the land of the tangible smog!

In more joyous news, however, I partook in my first IRC chat today, concerning a science fiction role-playing system a few friends and I are creating, by the working title of Monark (nee Ark9). Today's discussion spanned the most recently invented feature of the game - server injection hacking attacks, as well as experience points and the in-game effects of armor specialization. Not too much got decided, but forgive us - it is currently rather late. Poem maybe due this week - I am visiting my high school, and may actually get my mind off its arse.


New purpose

As all of us (a set of pitifully low cardinality) know, this blog is slow to churn out new poetry. This is partially because I've stopped my regimen of forced inspiration, which leads to sporadic and sparse bouts of poetic creation.

I have, however, been in admiration of a great deal of fabulous art, in film, book, and video game media, and have decided to make this blog my writing base of operations. Hopefully, beautiful moments of awe and wonder will still strike me with the words to make something of worth, but from now on less refined and more frank posts will adorn this space in addition to poetry.