Author Archives: Jake

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Disappointments: Amnesia a Machine for Pigs

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a masterpiece not only of the independent scene but of the entire games industry, succeeding brilliantly at delivering a truly terrifying experience that stuck with me long after I finished it. When the sequel, A Machine for Pigs, was announced, I preordered it as soon as I was able. Frictional’s games have only improved with each new title, and I was confident this latest release would be even better than the original.

As it turns out, that’s not the case.

A Machine for Pigs (AMFP from here on out) is developed by TheChineseRoom, best known for their experimental narrative game Dear Esther, with Frictional taking a minor role as producer and publisher. I absolutely adore Dear Esther for what it is: a beautiful dream of a game with breathtaking visuals and fantastic atmosphere. For all that, however, it’s very linear and involves no environmental interaction whatsoever, and unfortunately this design approach is carried right over into AMFP. Dear Esther was an extremely focused game; no element was included that wasn’t directly necessary to tell the story they were looking to tell, including many conventions considered standard in a first-person-perspective game, such as the ability to crouch and jump. While crouching and jumping are still in place in AMFP, it’s astonishing just how many other core systems were removed from the core Amnesia gameplay.

Simplifications in interactivity
Nearly every object in the world of Amnesia: The Dark Descent (just Amnesia from here on) could be picked up and manipulated. Books could be taken from bookshelves, bricks could be used to bash a hole in a damaged wall, and barrels could be stacked to collect out-of-reach items. AMFP limits interactivity strictly to puzzle items, doors and desk drawers. One memorable moment during my playthrough was when I came across a tubular object on the floor and picked it up, overjoyed to have found something to physically connect me to the world I was trying to immerse myself in. As it turned out, the object was a fuse that belonged to a fusebox in the next room. I plugged it in and went on my way.

object

While the lack of clutter in a level might seem like a petty complaint, the ability to interact with items in Amnesia’s environment was one of the things that really made me feel like I was inhabiting an actual space, rather than proceeding through a tightly directed tour. In AMFP, if you find an object you can pick up, make sure to take it with you, because you’ll definitely need it to solve an upcoming puzzle — or what passes for one in this game, anyway.

Disruption of Balance
Amnesia’s sanity meter has been criticized as being unrealistic and distracting, but I think it’s one of the game’s best mechanics. In a castle filled with murderous creatures and without any means of defending yourself, the obvious tactic is to skulk around in the dark to avoid detection. Amnesia made this very approach inadvisable with the simple rule that the darkness itself is your enemy too, causing hallucinations and insanity if you spent too long without coming into the light. It forced you to balance the preservation of your sanity with the knowledge that standing in the light made it possible for a monster to see you as well.

I’ll never forget one time in particular when I encountered a monster after having spent far too long in the dark. He roared as he spotted me and I sprinted away, veering madly. As I ran towards the door which would take me back to the safety of the main hall, I tried to make a minor correction in my heading and instead spun completely around to face him as he wound up for a swing. I turned again, view flailing, fumbling at the door just as his attack landed. I made it out. Barely.

In AMFP, the sanity mechanic is completely gone. You can creep around in the shadows to your heart’s content with no ill effects. In Amnesia, taking more than a quick glance at a patrolling monster was a good way to induce a noisy panic attack, but in AMFP you can stare at them with impunity, effectively removing the risk involved in learning patrol patterns and turning such segments into uninspired stealth gameplay. Far from being vulnerable and helpless, the player is just as empowered as the hero in any other sneak-em-up.

boss

At least, until you get to the boss fight against this teleporting cybernetic hogman.

Resource management
As with every other aspect of the game, resource management has been simplified to the bare minimum. The inventory has been completely removed; all puzzle elements are physical objects that you carry in your hands, laudanum is no longer available to sooth wounds, and tinderboxes have been replaced with the ability to conjure fire from your fingertips onto certain candles.

None of the above issues are really that big of a deal, but one more mechanic was removed that I can’t come up with a satisfactory justification for: the lantern no longer consumes fuel and can be used infinitely. Ultimately this decision cascades from the removal of the sanity meter and the fact that there’s no downside to being in the dark, but the tension produced by the knowledge that your fuel could run out at any time is noticeably absent. Yet another crucial element falls on the chopping block in the name of accessibility.

Direction over systems
Amnesia had its fair share of scripted events; whenever a door blew open in the wind or a monster broke into the room just after you picked up a puzzle piece, that was a scripted event firing off. For the most part, though, Amnesia was content to leave you to your devices. AMFP, on the other hand, is filled with scripted moments. You can hardly go a dozen steps without triggering a piece of expository voice-over, slow-motion walking sequence, or level-shaking earthquake. Not only do these get tedious after the first fifty or so occurrences, they always broke my immersion for a simple reason that can be applied across all types of games:

There is nothing safer than a scripted event.

When the game takes control away from me and forces me to watch as a monster shuffles through a doorway ahead of me, I know that at that moment there’s no way I’m in any danger. AMFP indulges in these moments all too often, and each time any tension that has managed to build up is dispelled. The director has called for a scene and I am to watch.

Another addition that I found strange is a new behavior of the lantern. If, while creeping around in the dark, you should happen to aim the light at a monster, it will flicker and go out briefly. While the game makes a halfhearted attempt at explaining this effect, the true reason is obvious; it exists wholly as a safety net to give me an opportunity to quickly put out the light and hide. For a horror game, AMFP is surprisingly keen on keeping me alive. Rather than designing systems that terrify, TheChineseRoom has created an experience in which I am constantly reassured that I’m completely safe.

Narrative flaws
AMFP will undoubtedly be praised for its writing, which somehow manages to be even more florid than that of Dear Esther and is the very epitome of style over substance, littered with tangentially related references to great works of literature. The protagonist, Oswald Mandus (whose own name is itself a reference), makes elaborate mementos that reek of thesaurus abuse — why say “earth” when “loam” sounds so much more profound? The two words aren’t, in fact, equivalent; one does not “descend into the loam” when taking a trip underground. This is just one example of the pseudo-intellectual language found throughout all text in the game, from dialogue to notes found in the environment.

When Oswald isn’t making tortured similes in his journal or waxing poetic in one of his frequent monologues, the environmental storytelling is just as confused. No justification is ever given, for example, of the village church’s stained glass windows featuring pig-headed saints and altar piled high with butchered swine. If the titular machine is such a well-kept secret, some explanation is necessary for this inclusion, but there is none. Tom Clancy has been quoted as saying that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense, and when studied carefully, AMFP does not make sense. Gaping plot holes, inconsistencies, and leaps of logic that strain verisimilitude are scattered all throughout, and the climax is never satisfactorily resolved.

I really, really wanted to like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but it seems as far removed from the spirit of Amnesia: The Dark Descent as is possible before losing all resemblance. TheChineseRoom might excel at creating introspective art games, but masters of horror they are not, and AMFP manages to be neither a worthy successor to Amnesia nor a compelling horror game in its own right.

inspector

I was messing around in Inkscape while listening to thunder and I had a sudden inspiration to make something noir. This was the result. The rain effect looks awesome when the particles are all animating, but obviously that’s lost in a still image. I don’t know what I want to do with this but it was fun to make and I really like the trenchcoat guy, although it’s hard to see detail from this far away.

gun

7dfps 2013: Raycaster update

Progress on my raycaster for the first few days of the 7dfps challenge was really good. The geometry renderer was a ton of fun to work on and came together nicely. I played around with shaders for the first time ever and added a cool pulsation to the saturation of the colors that felt great, and Chris made a great background track that exactly fit the fast-paced arcade-style action we were envisioning. Everything seemed to be on track.

By the final day of the competition I had spent three days struggling with the math behind adding sprite rendering so my maps could contain objects besides wall cubes, and there was no way I was going to finish the project on time. Without support in the engine for multiple wall textures or world objects, there was really no possibility of making an actual game. Despite this, I’m still happy with the way the week turned out. I didn’t even start until almost two days after the challenge began, and I got my first taste of 3d programming. It was a lot of fun, and I’ve been working on the engine on and off ever since with the idea of using it in some future game jam or next year’s 7dfps.

moreart

An interesting glitch from when I was trying to add support for multiple wall textures.

 

barrels

Early sprite rendering.

 

barrelwoah

In order to allow walls to occlude sprites, they have to be drawn one column at a time after doing a depth test to see if a wall has been drawn closer to the camera. Something went wrong here.

 

zbuffer

This is a little better; the portions of each barrel that’s shaded pink is supposed to be skipped due to being behind a wall. It’s not working quite right yet though.

 

The last image shows my current progress. There’s still a long way to go before it’s feature-complete, but I’ll be shifting my attention off of this for a while to focus on my other projects.

A brief rant about Eragon

I went on a bit of a rant on Facebook today. A friend was wondering whether Christopher Paolini’s book Eragon was worth sticking with if it hadn’t secured her attention in the first 100 pages. The following text was the result. It’s by no means a comprehensive critique, but it’s a start.

Despite my complete disdain for the whole series both from a literary and fictional perspective, I have actually read three of the four books — strictly for research, I assure you.

If you’re familiar with basic writing tropes, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Eragon is a complete Mary Sue. Early on in the first book he manages to stump two Alliance propaganda artists with a single sentence, and that trend continues throughout the book. The only mistake he ever makes (to my memory) exists only as a plot device to introduce a thoroughly uninteresting side character. No matter how foolhardy his decisions, they always work out to a positive result — oftentimes due to the sacrifices of others in order to cover for his incompetence. While this produces a reasonable amount of angst, Eragon’s character never develops as a result.

It’s pretty obvious that Paolini spent the entire time writing the books with a thesaurus in one hand. His vocabulary can seem impressive to the casual look, but in most cases the words he uses are subtly wrong for the situation. As a person who actually does have a wide vocabulary, it really ground on me whenever I would see a word out of place and know that it had been included due to a combination of ignorance and pretended intelligence. One memorable scene involves two characters arguing over which sword is better; a rapier or a flamberge — the fact that in many cases a flamberge is merely a type of rapier is not brought up.

Paolini draws liberally on established fantasy authors when creating his names and “languages”. Many names are either one letter removed from names found in the Lord of the Rings (“Isenbard”? really?), and the magic system is literally a direct copy of the “true name” doctrine in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. The languages spoken by the various peoples of Alagaesia have none of the believability or linguistic feasibility of the languages of Middle Earth, but that doesn’t stop him from including entire passages of them.

As the series progresses, the narrative becomes more and more convoluted, with new rules being introduced into the magic system (by the middle of the second book a number of the terms from the Sword of Truth books have been adopted), new characters with entire chapters devoted to their tangentially related adventures, and some of the strangest discrepancies in character development that I’ve ever found (Arya won’t eat meat because it’s cruel, but she only ever wears leather?).

I haven’t read the last book. Maybe he cleaned up his act and produced something worthwhile, but I kind of doubt it. My vote: skip it. You could be spending the time spent on those 2800 pages on much better books.

As an added bonus, you can read my very old comic strip comparing the plot of Eragon to that of the original Star wars movies.