Sunday, January 28, 2024

Timelapse (PC, 1996)

I have a "will they, won't they"-relationship with puzzle games. I love them, I want to be good at them but I just ain't. I have found the perfect place for them in my life however - as something to do with my kids. Turns out, trying to solve puzzles together is just as fun as playing any other old game together. Me and my son (now 10) have played a whole bunch so far, all through The Room 1-4, World of Goo, Trine 2 and now we played through a little gem called Timelapse, released in 1996 by GTE Entertainment (the "content creating" subdivision of GTE Corporation that later became Verizon).

I had never heard of Timelapse before it somehow ended up in my games library on GoG (I really wonder how some games end up there...). It looked a lot like Myst, which I have not played but remember watching my mom play through back in the 90's, and I thought maybe it could be a fun challenge for me and the kid to try out.

Turns out it was, I'll even go on right now and spoil my end conclusion by saying that Timelapse is a bit of a hidden gem as far as Myst-likes go. So if you don't feel like reading farther than this, just know that this is a game worth your time if you like that genre.

Don't worry too much about the story. As far as I remember it barely makes sense in Myst, and it barely makes sense in this game either. I would like to recap it, but honestly I only understood half of it so here is my best try - you're helping some sort of dude, maybe a professor, to look for Atlantis. You can travel to different eras and civilizations in time that seem to somehow be connected to Atlantis through sheer myth-building, like the old Egyptians, the Maya, Easter Island and the Anasazi. In each of these locations you need to solve puzzles to move on.

So let's not dwell more on the story, because the real star of the game has to be the puzzles. For any one not used to puzzle games it is easy to believe that there is just one way of crafting them. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are quite a few different ways you can design puzzle games, here are some off the top of my head (there are more, and there are some that mix them, like Resident Evil);

1. The "fake" puzzle games, like The Room, which actually just require you to find one item to open an item to find an item to open an item and so on. There is little puzzling and mostly searching, in these kind of puzzle games.

2. The environmental puzzling which mainly require you to manipulate the environment to get through the game, like the aforementioned Trine-series and World of Goo.

3. The "real" puzzle games which present you with puzzles that are superficially connected to the game world and/or story, but really are designed to be self-contained puzzle challenges. In this category you'll find games like Myst, Timelapse and Safecracker.

Timelapse is definitely in the latter category. While the puzzles are presented as to fit in the general esthetic of each area, the puzzles themselves don't necessarily logically connect to anything in the world. It's the classic trope of puzzle games, if you think about it too much it doesn't make sense that you would have to play game of Snakes and Ladders to be able to open a certain door. Or a game of Simon Says to be able to open a certain chest. We ignore all that, as long as the puzzles are well designed.

To my amateur eye I find the puzzles in Timelapse very well done and fun to try to puzzle through. Very few of them were so weird that I felt like I never had a chance to get it. They range from the abovementioned examples to finding patterns, assembling objects and traversing courses. At your disposal is a journal full of information and quite vital to your puzzle solving. It also contains a lot of interesting information about the civilizations you are visiting, if you're interested in that. Even if the journal, and a camera that allows you to take pictures of important clues you come across (the camera bugged in my version of the game, so I ended up never using it), I had to take so many notes of everything we saw. Quite a few puzzles require you to take not of a series of symbols in one area to be able to decipher a series of symbols in another area. 

Only once in the game is there a time limit to what you do, and if you fail you get the bad ending. Fortunately this part is right at the end, allowing you to simply try it again to see if you can manage differently.

The controls are fine, just like in Myst you move around the world with arrow keys (or WASD) through different screens. An arrow at the bottom always shows you which directional options you've got and there is a map as well. I still got lost quite a lot however, but my kid didn't so I think that is more indicative of my sense of direction than anything else. You don't have an inventory per se, so no worries that you're going to have to carry around a lot of random objects that you need to figure out where to use. You can only ever carry one item at a time, and it's only usable in the time period it was found. 

The times you have to manipulate objects on the screen you notice the age of the game. Knowing where the game wants you to place something or click on the screen to make something happen can be patience testing and time consuming for some of the puzzles. Fortunately these are rare enough to never ruin the overall experience.

To your further enjoyment, this game is of course full of extremely badly acted FMV's. Think Command & Conquer, or of course Myst itself for that matter. The sound effects and music are what you'd expect from the time, looped stock and completely unobtrusive background jingles. Nothing that you will remember fifteen minutes after you've turned the game off, neither something that will annoy you in the long run.

It took me and the kid around 10 hours to complete the game, scattered across a year roughly. We played it in bouts. Whenever we got too stuck on a puzzle we moved on to something else, but we always came back to this. We definitely had to use a walkthrough for some sections (especially the symbol deciphering), but a lot of it was possible for us to get through with mental team work. There was a fun variety of puzzles and we both really enjoyed it.

GTE Entertainment closed down just a year after Timelapse was released, so even though the end of the game teases a sequel, it sadly never came to be. It is unfortunate, because I definitely would've loved to check that out.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC, 2014)

Some times you can almost see exactly how the pitch meeting went down in a game, book or movie. You can see the checked boxes, the business research that went down and the cogs and wheels behind different choices and functions. When some thing is by the numbers, it is rarely entertaining. By the 7th and 8th book of Harry Potter, I could almost see how J.K Rowling knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and it had almost turned into a bland movie script instead of the original, charming adventure it had started out as. Or just take a look at the last couple if Disney movies to see how to not make a movie based on what you think your audience wants to experience. There is no passion, just a desire to get things done as quickly, and profitable, as possible.

With some games however, this glaring obviousness in game design doesn't always turn out to be a bad thing. Even if the thought process behind the game design of games like Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored and even Mario games is obvious at a first glance, there is a core idea and a want to pursue something fun that is missing from something that is purely created to fill some wallets. 

I am not naïve enough to think that that wasn't the main motivation for the beforementioned games as well, yet they manage to still create that ever elusive "flow", or the feeling that I as a player am in control and the game is my oyster to explore.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game with its blueprint obvious to the player. Every new skill you acquire, every new enemy you meet, the step-by-step of progression is obvious and easy to detect. But it manages to find a pacing and rhythm in the combat button-mashing that just ends up being good old, simple fun.

I've had my sights on Shadows of Mordor for a while. Ever since it came out it was one of the few Lord of the Rings games to catch my interest. I have a pretty neutral relationship with the Lotr-franchise overall. I absolutely loved the first film and enjoyed the other two. I thought the books were pretty so-so, but love the Hobbit. The Hobbit movies on the other hand are a good example of the abovementioned board meeting gone wrong. So I'm not hype with every new Lotr thing that comes out and have had close to zero interest in the new TV-series or the MMORPG.

There was something about Shadow of Mordor that seemed to make it stand out though. Gone were elves, dwarves, rangers and dragons (not that I particularly mind those). It seemed a tighter, more controlled environment where the setting was just an excuse for what was reviewed as good gameplay. It lingered in my backlog for years, as games tend to do, until I decided it was time to bash some orc skulls.

You play as Talion, a human who dies during an orc/uruk attack in the opening sequence (I won't distinguish between orcs and uruks, though I know it will probably annoy some Lotr purists. When I type "orc" or "uruk" just assume I mean one or the other). The game is thus off to an interesting start. Fortunately it doesn't end there. Talion is possessed and saved by a mysterious elven ghosts (ok, so there are some elves in the game). Finding out who this is, is part of the main story line.

You're dropped into a world which could be optimistically described as tragic, more accurately described as 50 shades of brown. You won't see any trees, butterflies or cute lite rabbits running around this place. You're in fact in the vicinity of Mordor and surrounded by orcs and their human slaves everywhere. At first it's easy to become a bit overwhelmed and think that you won't stand a chance against the sheer number of enemies. 

Fortunately Talion is exceptionally skilled at sneaking around. Unlike your protagonist in Thief or Dishonored however, Talion is also a beast when it comes to direct combat, and you quickly learn to deal with hoards of 10-20 orcs and more. 

It would be easy to pick apart the game design choices here - there are convenient bushes to hide in every 20 meters, Talion can climb pretty much any surface better than a mountain goat, the orcs behave predictably, and also stash an unhealthy amount of explosives right next to their camps and so on and so forth. But that doesn't really matter. Tetris has, after all, an extremely predictable game design. The fun comes in trying to plan your advance and attack based on the knowledge that you have on hand. Will you sneak up to a tower and jump the Orc Leader from above? Will you let loose a caragor and try to attack in the confusion? Will you pick the orcs off one by one or try to go in swords swinging?

There are many choices
and they grow as you process through the game. Where you start out pretty simple with a few ways of attacking and defending yourself, you quickly unlock an arsenal of options that allow you to handle fights in more ways. Of course the game then also presents you with new and more difficult dangers to take into account. Overall the level design and combat is very well throughout and designed, it keeps up the fun through all the 15 hours I have played the game so far.

That isn't to say it is perfect however. The game allows you to control and execute a vast array of skills in just a few button clicks, which means they are mainly context-bound. This means there will be situations where the game thinks you want to do something you don't. This is especially true for trying to interact with the environment, like climbing and jumping things. I've been stuck on small thresholds on the ground with 40 orcs around me, because the game is trying to climb something that clearly just needs running over. I have been stuck in "sneak along the wall"-mode when all I wanted was to pass the wall running. I have jumped off things the wrong side because the game can't decide which way I am looking.

But this has never been the cause of my death, just some sweaty and sweary moments. In all the abovementioned cases I can see the logic the game algorithm is trying to apply, it was just a few steps behind or ahead of my own thought process resulting in some hilarious moments where Talion is seemingly humping some wall trying to climb it while I am desperately trying to not get killed.

But overall the system has probably saved me a lot more than it has put me into trouble, and I think they've done a good job balancing your skill with the overwhelming odds that you're some times up against. It rarely feels too easy, it rarely feels unfair.

The voice acting is good. I thought I recognized Talions voice and yeah, duh, it's Troy Baker from Batman: Arkham Knight and The Last of Us fame. All the orcs sounds suitably angry/dumb like they're supposed to as well, and I actually enjoy the little cut-scene of smack talk that comes every time you encounter an uruk captain.

The story is set apart from the other things I have seen from Lotr so far, like the movies and the books. Spoiler alert, but as far as I've gotten there are no hobbits or white mages as far as the eye can see. And I like that. This is about other people having the same fight but elsewhere in this world. It actually makes the world more real, the fight more urgent. I can imagine that Frodo is working is way through some bog at the same time I am slitting throats in my corner of Middle-Earth. I could've also gotten this completely wrong and maybe Talion lives in some other time, but it doesn't matter. The story is just the frame work to get you into the action.

Playing Shadow of Mordor I can easily sink into the game world and pretend I am a badass ghost-riddled uruk-slayer, slowly chipping away at the dread that is Sauron. It's not profound, but by golly is it fun -  the same kind of fun watching a Godzilla or Jackie Chan movie gives. You know what you're going to get, but it is exactly what you want.