Rogue of the Multiverse: Grand Theft Condor

Now it is time for Rogue of the Multiverse, authored by the esteemed and esteemable C.E.J. Pacian.  Said Rogue of the aforementioned Multiverse is written in TADS3, which immediately tells me one thing: C.E.J. Pacian is way smarter than me, because every time I’ve looked into programming with TADS3, my mind immediately starts looping the song “Hello Mah Baby” and my nose starts bleeding.

I had no foreknowledge that this game was by C.E.J. Pacian, whose work I am a huge fan of.  Like many other reviewers, I stochastically determine my next game (in my case by closing my eyes, shouting “kiai!”, and jabbing my finger into the monitor), so when I opened the TADS3 folder and saw the name “Rogue”… I immediately assumed the worst.

“Son of a bitch!” I exclaimed aloud, while adjusting my monocle. “Someone has gone and done it.  They’ve made an ascii-graphics combat game in an IF language.  This is going to be bloody terrible!”  And then I hopped in my private jet and flew to Paraguay in an attempt to escape the horrid thing.  True story.

On the way to Paraguay, I discovered that this game is a Pacian work and not in fact an IF Nethack clone, and additionally has a purdy purdy cover to boot.  So I came back and played it.  I think that’s enough spoiler text, so on with the show!

(No, seriously, there’s a lot of spoilers in here and you should play the game first.  It’s awesome.  Go play the game!)

Part One: The Playthrough

When a game comes with a feelie pdf, I like to read the feelie pdf first.  This simulates a period long ago, in the age of dinosaurs, when I used to crack open Infocom games and geek out over the weird little things that came with them.  Now, creating a good feelie is an art form: it must impart the flavor of the game you’re about to play (and perhaps even enhance said flavor) without actually telling you much about the game.  The feelie for RotM definitely gets the job done; it immediately sets the tone of the milieu without saying anything about the game’s content (of course, the feelie pdf could always be lying.  That would be an interesting authorial tactic, wouldn’t it?).

And it is good that I skimmed the feelie pdf previously, because the first room is a prison cell.  9 times out of 10, when a game starts in a prison cell, it is going to end up sucking massive balls; you will find yourself halfway through the game, giving yourself fits over how to fashion a shiv from a prison jumpsuit and a half-eaten cantaloupe, with the words “I did not understand that command” tattooed on your cerebral cortex.  HOWEVER, in this case, the feelie pdf has already settled my fears by telling me There Is More To It.  Thank you, feelie pdf.

The solid opening text and writing quality also help assuage that fear.  So thank you too, opening text and writing quality.  On with the game!

> x graffiti
A lot of it’s in languages you’ve never even seen before. You recognise some apian gang symbols, some vulgar saurian poetry, and some crude drawings of octopodes in coitu.
My initial impression from the feelie pdf (that this planet is amusingly nightmare-fueled alien shitworld) has held true, although it is nice to see that certain constants hold across the multiverse.  At least now I can say “I had a character in a game once who knew how octopodes Do It.”, which is a type of currency in the circles I run with.

Oh look, a couple of dawdling alien prisoners.  Perhaps they will be my friends!  No?  Lame.

Nightmare-fuel foreshadowing tank is reaching capacity, and we’re not even out of the intro. Apparently this place is run by Aperture Science, or at least has their attitude towards prisoners’ rights.  Crap, now I have the Portal theme stuck in my head.  Seriously though, if it wasn’t for the injection of mild humor in places, I would be real worried right about now.  Oh look, another alien.  Perhaps she will be my friend?  No?  Okay.

On being interviewed by the alien: The whole device of running through a series of ridiculous yes-or-no questions, and then throwing a possibly-important one in at the end, creating that delicious moment of pregnant thought in the reader?  I am stealing that device for a future project.  You hear me, C.E.J. Pacian?  I am stealing that device.  Also, hell no I didn’t commit no crime.

> x intercom
A simple grille in the wall. There’s a big red button beneath it. The beeping seems to be coming from the intercom
.
Oh thank god.  I genuinely thought I was the one beeping.

Hmm… matter transporter, tagging items… looks like we’ve gotten to the meat of the game.  Time to step into a Thing and go steal some Things.  I vaguely hope that those Stolen Things are not other sentient beings such as myself, because that would give me a moral quandary.

> tag banana
You see no distinct banana here.
Take that, Dr. Sliss!  These TADS parser messages weird me out.  I mean, is there an indistinct banana here?

Okay, this is a pretty cool idea.

Side-note: I’m wandering around the complex, and the directions (left, right, etc.) change based on what room I’ve just left.  While that is supremely disorienting at first, it quickly begins to give me a better spacial understanding of the space.  Like, I can picture it better because my brain is forced to figure out the actual layout.  Maybe there’s a case for not using compass directions as often.  Although on the other hand, I kind of find myself wishing that I could just type the name of a room I want to enter and go there.

> x terminal
The screen is blank. There’s a tempting button beneath it.
Tempting you say?  Is it… red?

> x button
Looks very pushable.
MUST NOT PUSH…  BUTTON.  WILL-POWER… FADING.  GNAH!!!

Holy crap, aliens get Skymall.  Oh… oh no.  There’s stuff in this catalog to customize my room with. Dang it C.E.J. Pacian, that kind of psychological reinforcement is a biological weapon outlawed by the Geneva convention.  Now I have to go back and do more missions, even though I know in my heart that it’s all part of some sinister plan.

Oh god.  The toilet bowl is talking to me.  Perhaps it will be my friend?  It does want to be my friend.  I just have to Bring It Stuff from the Skymall catalog.  The plot thickens.  Do I support the probably-evil lizard scientist who has me enslaved, or the hideous alien beast in the toilet?  Thank you IF, for presenting these choices before I have to make them in real life.

> i
You are carrying a banana, and you’re wearing a collar and an orange uniform.
If a fetish convention springs up around me, I will be READY.

I’m going to pause here to play the rest of the game in silence.  It has it’s gamey hooks in my brainflesh, and I think I’d like to Seriously Discuss It afterwards.  See you in a minute.-

-Back for a second, to say that I am currently riding a jet bike across the endless desert of a prison world, with a beautiful and morally-questionable lizard woman clinging to my waist while she provides cover fire via plasma gun.  And I’m wearing a tuxedo.  Take a memo, kids: this is what fiction is for.-

-And done.  This is a really solid game.

Part Two-Point-Oh: The Rundown

The Good:  This game.  This game is good.  Oh, specifics?  Okay.

The writing is, as usual, excellent.  There’s nary a confusing sentence in the whole place, and with the exception of one bug which I’ll send to the author, everything is examinable at least a layer down.  The prose quality itself is also excellent, I got a pretty clear picture of the feeling of the place and the people in it.  At times though it was almost too normal and recognizable, but I suspect that will actually be a benefit for people who (unlike me) do not have a strong background in Weird Science/Fantasy Fiction.

EDIT: I forgot to bring this up due to brain failure, but I found the flavor, the worldbuilding, and the action sequence pacing to be excellent (as has always been the case with Pacian works so far).  Somehow he manages to hit this “coolness sweet spot” with the nature of the content which, I suspect, is the product of many years hard labor soaking up popular culture.  And seriously, if you want to see how to create the type of dynamic action-y tension that most IF is piss-poor at, play this game.  Then go play Gunmute.  Then play this game again.

The fact that all the books had little passages you could read?  Awesome.  It’s little details like that which make me really happy.

Also, at no point was I confused about what my next move in the game should be.  Some peole might find the intro and outro portions too railroaded (and they are on rails), but I found this balanced pleasingly with the self-directed middle game.  The fact that I can actually sit here and talk about a distinct beginning, middle and end is actually quite nice in and of itself.

The characterization was good.  I wish I could have talked more with Dr. Sliss or Sola (more on that in the next part), but again I suspect this will actually be a good thing for newer players particularly.  Giving players the option to infodump themselves always seems like a tough choice: on the one hand, it can really screw with pacing.

Also falling under the header of “good for new players” was the way that device usage instructions (for things like the tag gun, the beacon, the jet bike, etc.) were slipped into conversation coming from a character.  That didn’t feel particularly forced, and I appreciated it.  It wasn’t totally explicit either; not knowing exactly how the retrieval  beacon worked gave me a nice moment of desperate panic when I was being shot at by desert raiders (hope you enjoy your stay on Prison Shitworld, assholes).

The missions themselves had a good sense of pacing.  The time limit was a good choice since you were never there long enough to be bored, and the varying flavor from mission to mission was good.  I had some nit-picky issues with the missions, but that’s for the next section.

There’s a lot of points in both implementation, mechanics and implementation to commend this game.

Part Two-Point-Five: Wherein I Nit-Pick Things That Might Not Be Flaws

It’s important to note, before I dig in, that this is a really good game.  Five years ago or so, it would have qualified as “revolutionary”, except the hard work of authors (like C.E.J. Pacian, ironically) in past years have rendered this level of quality “merely” Really Good.  But as an on-again off-again game tester, it is my holy task to tear into things which are good in order to find how they could be perfect.  And this game could definitely have been perfect, or near.

First up, I think the author could (and maybe should) have played up the moral ambiguity of what you were doing.  When I went into that first mission, I fully expected to be faced with the choice of bringing people back for the alien prison, or zoos, or whatever.  The fact that I didn’t was a relief, but I was mildly disappointed that I never faced that choice.

This extended to the Sora/Sliss conflict.  I questioned that a bit (whether Sora was lying to me, to what degree Sliss was a bad guy), but I really feel like this could have been played up as well.  I would have really enjoyed a situation with more explicit characterization of both of them between missions, so that some of the choices at the end of the game (to what degree there were choices) had more emotional weight.  A bit more conversation, maybe.  The ability to ask Sliss about Sora, or ask Sliss about anything really, perhaps on those occasions she was drinking a coffee on the railing.  I did not try showing her the book she wrote; perhaps that might have elicited a response.

The fact that (as far as I could tell in my playthrough) it wasn’t really important whether or not my character was actually a criminal also bothered me.  A little bit more characterization of the protag would have been nice, particularly set against the motivations and actions of Sora and Sliss.  I know, I know, it was meant to be self-chosen, but again this robbed potential emotional weight.

Most people won’t mind these things, but for me it created a game that was fun, but that could have been very powerful in addition to being fun.

The way the missions worked rolled into this.  I don’t know to what degree (if any) they were procedurally generated, but the (relative to the rest of the game) bland descriptions of things in the missions… I would have better enjoyed a situation where you had an Early Mission (“Oh good, I’m just stealing junk.”) followed by Middle Missions (“Hmm, now I’m stealing stuff that’s important and necessary to someone”) followed by End Missions (“And now I’m stealing people.  Gah.”) along with that characterization stuff outlined above for both the characters and player.  I know that kind of thing is hard to balance, hard to write, hard to test… and might well have robbed the game of a little of it’s simple accessibility… but again, it would have elevated the game back to Revolutionary Status.  At the least, it would’ve been nice to know whose tombs I was stealing, or had the Apians come after me when I stole their honey or something.  I wanted it to feel personal.

Oh, and this was weird:  Wounds didn’t seem to do anything.  I got bitten by an apian, shot a couple of times by desert raiders… I assume that if I hadn’t beaconed the hell out of the desert world, I would have been boned by cumulative injuries.  But the fact that x self still gave the same message, and there was no indication I was even wounded until I went to the robo-doc… that was a little odd.  Same oddness with eating/drinking/sleeping.  Much as I hate hunger/sleep daemons, I think they could have been safely employed in this one if you extended the middle a little.

Also, I wanted more.  Not sure how good the ending I got was (ended up “almost equal partners” with Sliss, on what looked like Victorian Earth of some kind).  I think I’ll be playing this game again, and seeing what I missed.

Part Three:

I really hope the author makes a sequel.  That’s a desire I’ve expressed for his other games, but man, he makes compelling worlds.  I want to know more of what happens to the main character and his lizard-lady partner.  Just like I want to be Mute again for a bit, or see what happens in the Walker & Sillouette universe.  That’s a good thing, to engender that feeling.

I also hope that more authors play around with the “mini-game middle game” layout (although I’d certainly take more Pacian games playing around with it!).  There’s been a huge advance in what makes “sticky” design over the last few years, as in things like addictive flash games.  Welding those “sticky” repeatable mechanics to a strong story is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and in this modern era it’s a way to really leverage the inherent strengths of the IF medium.  I mean hell, there’s absolutely no reason an author couldn’t adapt a clever (and sticky) tower defense design from some other game for example, and then build it into a compelling story with a grounds-eye view of the action.

So I’m grateful that Pacian is playing around with that.  The results are excellent, and I hope other authors chose to follow his example in experimentation with this medium.

EDIT: Now I need to go back and play W&S, because it’s been awhile, and I played that one while pregnant with millions of flu viruses.  So I just realized that they could have been set in the same universe and I somehow totally didn’t notice.  Dammit brain!

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5 Responses to “Rogue of the Multiverse: Grand Theft Condor”

  1. I’m pretty much in complete agreement here — it was very, very awesome, but I found myself wanting more depth. And it seems as if the guiding design principle was to make a game that never, ever slowed down the pace, and very intentionally stripped things down to the bare essentials to accomplish that effect.

    So I suppose what I *really* want is for Pacian to collaborate on some longer-form project as Action Scene Director and Worldbuilding Monkey.

    • Definitely agreed. The design principle of “pacing, really excellent pacing” did not *quite* mesh with the self-directed part/relatively sparse detail, but it was still totally awesome, and I have to admit that the tension between those two design decisions actually created something that might not have been there otherwise.

      I feel like I didn’t geek out enough over the mini-game nature of the middle, and I definitely want to go back and poke around in those some more. That can’t have been trivial to program/make work, and it’s an exciting experiment regardless of my personal preferences on choices.

      Also totally agreed about wanting to see Pacian work the long-form. Nobody does flavor or action sequences like he does, and this game was no exception. In fact, I think I’m going to go back in and add that to the review, because I managed to gloss over it somehow. Stupid lack of sleep.

      Anyhoo, thanks for the comment Sam!

  2. Dannii Willis Says:

    Someone did make a rogue clone in an IF language: http://parchment.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/parchment.html?story=http://parchment.toolness.com/if-archive/games/zcode/rogue.z5.js

    The online version is a bit buggy though. It probably plays better in a desktop terp.

  3. […] Rogue of the Multiverse by C.E.J. Pacian […]

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