Saturday, September 27, 2003

Abandonware Binge

It all started when Cathy said, "So why don't you order this Monkey Island game you've been telling me about?" There's one copy left at Amazon: it costs $154. Ok, so it comes with Monkey Island 2 & 3 as well, but still. Sticker shock. Grim Fandango costs $10, so I don't see why I should have to pay more than $20 for the first two Monkeys.

So I decide to break the law, something I normally don't do because downloading ISO files is a huge pain in the ass. (Although I've just discovered that with BitTorrent it's much easier.) I come across an abandonware site. And it feels like I've struck gold! All those games I've misplaced the CD's...or better yet, the floppies...of. I start downloading like crazy...because who knows when somebody's going to start cracking down on this stuff? I still regret the day I deleted my Bilestoad ROM for Apple II emulation...because I was never able to find it again. I'm probably never going to want to play Alone in the Dark -- the father of survival horror -- again, but it's nice to have it around, just in case.

I'd just read Chris Crawford's book, and wanted to play some of the games he worked on, and here they are.

And here's another great thing: old games I worked on are in there too, listed right alongside the greats (and losers) of yesteryear. Some of them decently regarded: Nifty. I downloaded those too. Now I can play them again without damanging the shrinkwrap on my trophy copies.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Notes on Grim Fandango

When I played Grim Fandango a few years back, I only made it halfway through and then it crashed and I never got around to downloading the patch. I've been playing it -- and watching my wife play it -- again this weekend. Cathy is not a gamer, so every time I find a game she's even somewhat interested in it's a triumph. Grim Fandango was one of those games, joining the ranks of Animal Crossing and You Don't Know Jack. At least, at first. After a while she got to puzzles she didn't find interesting, and she abandoned it. I kept playing, and when I would get past puzzles she'd hear the sound of a prerendered cutscene and she'd come back to watch and advise.
Tomo Moriwaki has a theory that a certain amount of madness is essential to good game development, both because it inspires creativity and because it gives you that feverish drive to press on during crunch time. And by madness he means things like putting a single Prodigy song on infinite repeat, listening to CD's at double speed, engaging in acts of wanton destruction in the office hallways, or simply saying a single annoying word over and over. I have a feeling that Tim Schafer and crew had the madness during Grim Fandango. Where else do you come up with stuff like that? A mixture of Mexican mythology and noir movies? As just as an example, there is a moment where Manny Calvera visits the world of the living -- our world -- but in Manny's eyes the land of the living is a fifties diner with cubist patrons. Again, how do you come up with that stuff? You have to be mad. Good thing madness on game dev teams is usually plentiful.
The puzzles in Grim Fandango almost never fall back on Fed Ex missions. Although we ocassionally fell back on trial & error to solve the puzzles, afterwards I always had the feeling that the solution made sense.
One thing the puzzles frequently rely on is functional fixedness. Some psychologists did an experiment where the subject was asked to use some string to do a task. One group had string given to them; another group didn't, but there was a sign in the office hanging from string. Most of the subjects didn't think to use the string from the sign. (The function of the string was fixated for them.) Duh. Somebody probably got a Ph. D. for that. Anyhow, you see this in Grim Fandango all the time; an item is introduced as part of the current story/environment - later you discover how to use that item for something other than its intended purpose.
I once wrote about how you can (artificially) make a game longer without much additional cost by reusing terrain. Grim Fandango does this in a couple of ways: multiple puzzles in the same area, and returning you to places you've been before later in the story. It doesn't feel totally cheap; it gives the game a feeling of unity.
It doesn't seem like people make adventure games anymore. I guess they weren't profitable enough for LucasArts to keep doing them. I think there's an opportunity here: there's a category of game with no leading brand. You could be number one. Remember when RPG's were dead and Diablo resurrected them? Okay, maybe RPG's were only in a coma. Still, I'd be scared of jumping into the genre, because of this:
The writing in Grim Fandango is excellent. It has to be, for a story-based game. One of the things that drives you on, other than the feeling of accomplishment when you solve puzzles, is to see the story unfold. I laughed my ass off in more than a few places. It's better than most of the movies and television I've seen lately. And where do you find that kind of writing talent, and would you be willing to hang your success on them?