Old Chests, Forgotten Maps, and the Frozen North — Author Joshua E. Turcotte discusses Orb: The Derelict Planet

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If you’ve been following our Game-Maker Archive series, you may recall a swell little Metroid-style adventure called Orb: The Derelict Planet. Thrown into an alien environment, you wander vast caverns, collect upgrades, and traverse hidden passages to deactivate an ancient, killer computer. As one of the better Game-Maker games, Orb has always been a mystery. It seemed to have been developed in a vacuum, and with an unusual amount of planning. It then appeared out of nowhere on the Game-Maker 3.0 CD-ROM, the only known game by its author. After a bit of detective work we managed to track down that author, the writer and illustrator Joshua Eric Turcotte.

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The Meganode

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

When I want to read Catch-22, what are the options? I can go to a library, and do it for free. While I’m there, I can browse the rest of his works or nearby, possibly similar, books. I can search by topic, author, or year of publication. If I want my own copy, I probably can find it at a nearby bookstore. Failing that, I can order it online for a pittance.

Thanks to Gutenberg, books are indexed and ageless. They may go out of print or become obscure, but one way or another you will always be able to find a copy. Then with a copy in hand, the only thing between you and their ideas is the work of digesting them.

How about if I want to watch Nosferatu — not the Werner Herzog one; the Murnau version? If I’m near an urban center, it may be showing at an indie theater or festival. If it’s October, I may track it down on a classic movie channel on cable. Or I can rent the DVD or VHS (or indeed borrow it from the library). If I go to a video store, there’s a good chance it’s in stock. Or, again, I can just hit up Amazon.

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Jam Together — Thinking Inside the Box

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

A medium goes through its phases. Generally it starts off piecemeal, little snippets of ideas that stand alone, each studying the nature of the medium. What’s possible? How do things look? How do people respond? Later the ideas coalesce into short subjects, often delivered through a reservation in some passing medium. Periodicals set aside pages for short stories. Networks set aside airtime for TV episodes.

Later, as the public becomes accustomed to format and language of the medium and as its authors start to understand its implications and potential, the ideas will get more complex and demand more room to develop. That extra room in turn demands new methods and understanding of the changed space and its implications for communicating. Thus we have long-form subjects — your novel and your Sistine Chapel and feature film and television serial.

Although videogames have been around for a few decades, they have spent about half of their active life spinning their wheels. Part of the problem, I think, is in the eagerness about twenty years ago to move on to long-form subjects before anyone really mastered the short form. If we’re to look to any model for a healthy development of what we now know about game design, that model might be the golden era of television.

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The Jagged Edge of Perception

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

In real life, the edges of perception are where everything starts to kick in. Across that threshold is where our minds and our emotions run away with themselves, struggling to fill in the missing details and so make sense of the world. This is the realm of the uncanny, where objects materialize out of blind spots and scare the wits out of us, where spirits and monsters threaten to live, where optical illusions and magic tricks make us question what we know of the world. It’s these moments that suggest to us that there’s more to life than we’ve been led to understand. How we respond to that notion depends partially on our own personalities, and partially on the context.

Likewise, even in the closed system of a videogame there is only so much that a designer can draw, and only so many variables that a designer can define. Even in the simplest games it’s tough to account for everything and simple for the player to find a thread to pick away at — say, a seam in the geometry or a weird bit of physics. And then the more possibilities that you suggest, the more that the mind will begin to drift and wonder what else is out there, what else is possible.

Technical limitations also play a role, in that they draw a certain line over which the world cannot possibly exist. When the game presses up against those limitations, as in a late-era console game — your Streets of Rage III, your Silent Hill — you get a certain crackly pressure. Subconsciously you can feel the game straining to make its case, due to the mismatch of the game’s idea of reality and the reality imposed on the game by the hardware.

The NES is a fun object lesson, as from the moment it hit US shores it was outdated, its games bending the rules all over the place just to exist. On its own the NES isn’t all that much stronger than, say, a Colecovision. Every new feature that came along — horizontal scrolling, vertical scrolling, cutscenes — meant more custom memory chips. By the early ’90s the average NES cartridge was practically a console in itself; the NES itself acted more as a copy-editor, checking to make sure the input made sense then passing it along to the TV screen. So for most of its life, just about every game for the system has an unnerving glitchiness just under the skin, threatening to break loose and disrupt its carefully argued reality. Sometimes, as in Metroid, those glitches become as much a part of the game as the intended rules, suggesting untold depths that perhaps nobody has ever explored before.

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Picking the Lock-box

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Desktop Dungeons brings with it the old discussion about unlockable content. It’s designed as a short game; Rogue by way of Minesweeper. Finish the game under the right conditions, and you get more conditions that facilitate further unlocking. The game is hard, so you’re only going to beat it some percentage of the time. As you get better — or at least get further into the unlocking process — the game gets harder, forcing the player to put in that much more effort for the next unlock.

It’s a regular progression: play, play, play until you play well enough to meet a condition; then move on and play some more. There’s always another carrot, until finally there isn’t. And look at all the time and energy you’ve invested to get there.

Since I downloaded the game, I have found myself in a feedback cycle. I imagine it’s the impulse that a compulsive gambler feels. Hey, it’s only another ten minutes; I’m on a roll now; I know I can beat that boss if I just choose the gnome and conserve my potions. And so okay, I die. But this next time I’ll make it for sure.

This isn’t healthy. By no measure on Earth is this healthy. And yet for about ten years this has been a popular way to extend the life of simple games. You might call it a sort of meta completion compulsion. Often large-environment games will riddle their worlds with stars and packages and honeycombs to collect, and unless you track down every last one you’re not playing the game right. Often hardcore skill-based games will hand out letter grades for performance, and unless you earn the highest grade in every challenge, you’re not playing the game right. In either case, you’re probably missing out on something. This unlockable business comes from the same place, but translates a little differently.

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Setting Boundaries

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Back in my review of Daniel Remar’s Hero Core, I ruminated on the game’s unusually dignified management of the player’s progress. After the first ten or fifteen minutes, nearly the whole map is available to the player; from there the player’s exploration is bound and guided only by the logistics of the terrain and natural risk assessment.

Since games have gotten complex enough to involve multiple action buttons, large persistent maps, and countless variable flags, developers have done their best to keep the player from getting too far, too fast; from wandering outside the proscribed zones where the designer has accounted for all variables, or feels that the player can safely wander without getting frustrated or confused. Part of the idea is to to pad out the play experience, allowing the designer to spin a sense of scale and scope from a relatively small amount of material. Part of it is damage limitation, either for the player’s or the developer’s ostensible benefit.

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Compelling a Complete Performance

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

So somewhere after the early ‘90s game design became affected, vertical, content to build on established concepts for their own sake and so distort them out of all the representative or practical value they might have had. This became exacerbated after the industry’s multimedia and “virtual reality” phases, and the eventual rush for polygonal majesty. Early polygonal games were expensive to make, and only so many polygons would fit on the screen. Contemporary hardware could hold only so-large an environment in memory. It took developers about seven years to figure out what that extra Z-axis meant for controls, a sense of space, and all the assumptions about design that had built up since the mid-’80s.

In the short term, developers relied on the novelties of real-time animation and 3D space. They built modest, often jury-rigged, playpens where the dodgy collision, imprecise movements, weird cameras, and minimal detail would be less likely to stand out. Either that or they went hard in the other direction and used 3D animation to glam up familiar 2D twitch-based design. Those games were, of course, struck with the same technical limitations as their free-roaming cousins.

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