Black Mesa: all there is

I finished Black Mesa tonight– the 14 chapters that are available.  It retains its visual impressiveness throughout, but man oh man did I hate the last chapter (Lambda Core).  It’s a master class in horrible map design… though I don’t know whose, Valve’s or Black Mesa‘s.

Since I have a screenshot from a particularly annoying spot in chapter 12, let’s start there.

Now, the rest of the game taught you that blue lasers are Bad– but that you can shoot the mines from a safe distance.  Not here!  Here, doing that will kill you.  Making things you’ve seen before suddenly act differently is game designer dickery.  Change the color or something.

You HL1 fans are probably saying “I remember that room!  That was great!  It took me two hours to get through it.”  There was a similar room in HL2, and I loved/hated it too.  But that one was about three times less complex.  A little dodging and jumping and crawling to avoid death-lasers goes a long way.  Also, I’d say Valve learned in HL2 to make the required path way more discoverable.  You should have a vantage point or something to reconnoitre.  But it’s really hard to see how to get through this room.

Then there’s Lambda Core.  The basic problem is that there’s almost no guidance, and little logic.  I was following a walkthrough, and I’d have to go a couple sentences at a time, because none of it makes any sense.  Sometimes you go down, sometimes up.  There’s a million ladders and control panels and only some of them are relevant.  You eventually learn to press buttons, but there’s no immediate feedback.  Once you have to push the button, then ride a rising shutter that it releases; another button has the rising shutter but you don’t have to ride it.  It just all seemed completely baffling and arbitrary.

In some control rooms there’s a diagram, with lights that turn green as you make progress.  Great!  Only there’s no indication as to where the next red light is.  An earlier puzzle in the same game was done right– the huge laser that has to be powered up, then fired at a wall.  Its diagram is also a (simple) map of the level, so you can orient yourself and figure out where you need to go.  Plus, the power lasers are visible and lead to the main laser, also helping to orient you and give feedback.

From the walkthrough, I learned that the different sections of Lambda Core are color-coded… but this didn’t carry through to those diagrams.

Plus they were really stingy with ammo and health, which just doesn’t fit the rest of the game, nor HL2.

Then there’s the room with the teleports, with, oh god, more split-second jumps.  There was a neat idea in there, but the implementation is just hostile.  Nothing about the energy bulbs suggests teleportation (rather than, say, fiery energy death); the in and out bulbs looked too much alike; it was very hard to see the destination bulbs (and you have to see them to time your jump); the bulbs looked too much like the chamber’s ordinary lamps.

I should emphasize that 90% of the game is just fine– dead ends are short, and you can find the right way by process of elimination, if nothing else.  This chapter just should have been reworked a bit by 2012 standards.

(One thing I wonder after playing through the game… how did the scientists you intermittenly encounter survive so long?  The whole horror aspect of the game is that murderous aliens can teleport in, anywhere, at any time.  There’s no safe area; no door will protect you.  The security guards might have been very busy with their pistols, but most of the scientists seem to have no weapons.)

(And a question for people who played HL1, then HL2.  Did the first few minutes of HL2 feel like a bit of a cheat?  Gordon had traveled to Xen to defeat some ultimate boss– but what did that accomplish, since the Combine took over Earth just afterward?)


Respawning in-story

Death in real life is, so far, permanent.  Though this is comforting when it comes to, say, Hitler, permadeath is arguably a bad design decision.  It’s been emulated by a few games, as it adds a certain weightiness to your choices.  But to be frank, permadeath fans are probably really good at the game already, so it’s just an extra challenge for the jaded.  In a roguelike game like Dredmor, I think it just inhibits the player from exploring.  The thought of redoing eight levels has made me reluctant to even continue the game.

Adventure games normally just sweep death under the carpet.  The game coughs politely (or, as in the Arkham games, razzes you a bit), then pretends it didn’t happen.  No real problems there, except metaphysical ones.  A successful run through Half-Life 2 or Skyrim basically consist of spliced-together sequences each of which ended in failure.

Some game impose a penalty for death: a respawn timer (as in TF2), or a fee (as in Borderlands).  More interestingly, occasionally death can be exploited.  It’s often a good idea to die in Left for Dead if you’re weak, as you respawn with 50% health.  (More routinely, death can serve as a quick fast travel back to a safe spot.)

The most intriguing approach is to make respawning an acknowledged part of the gameworldBioshock and Borderlands have this: if you die, you’re reconstituted elsewhere as part of the in-game technology.  In terms of player experience it’s much like any other respawn, but it’s a stunning bit of conworlding, as it means that in the gameworld, death is only a setback.

However, even these games don’t really treat this consistently.  Borderlands comes close, in that enemies respawn if you leave an area for a bit, but people still give you quests where you have to kill boss X, and it’s assumed that doing so has consequences…. even though you can later return to the same spot and kill them again.

However, Borderlands 2 I think messes up the concept.  (Spoilers below; select the text to read it.)

One of the NPCs, Roland, is killed near the end of the game.  This is treated as a big bummer.  But Roland was one of the player characters in BL1.  So even if not everyone can be resurrected, he can be.  He’s registered in the New-U database.  (The database belongs to the evil megacorp, Hyperion– but they never prevent you, the player,from respawning, though you’re an even bigger threat than Roland.)  This bugs me, because they went to the trouble of making the New-U an actual part of the conworld, and then didn’t work out the consequences. 

Plus, why doesn’t Jack come back after you kill him?  He’s the frigging head of the company, you can bet he’d be backed up   Ditto for Andrew Ryan in Bioshock.  I’m not sure offhand how this could be fixed, but they should’ve come up with something to patch it over.  (“You can only respawn 1000 times, and these characters exceeded that.”)

While we’re at it, did Star Trek ever face up to the fact that its transporter technology was also immortality tech?  (A sf story that does work out at least some of the consequences is Charlie Stross’s Glasshouse.)

An interesting mechanic might be a horcrux or something that allows some but not all characters to respawn.  Naturally the PC gets one… but you might have to perform one mission without it.  (I.e., that mission must be completeed without a death.)  And some of the bosses could have a horcrux which must be demolished before you can actually permakill them.

(It might also be interesting if, say, respawning took one hour in-game.  For the PC this would normally mean little.  But killing a boss would give you an hour when he’s not around, which could be useful.)

Don’t trust the Cloud

Nothing could ever go wrong if you entrust your data to a megacorporation, right?

I have a throwaway Yahoo account for when I need another e-mail address, and someone seems to be mining it to send spam.  I went to check it out, and Yahoo wants me to validate it by having them send a message to my phone.  Now, they don’t have my phone number, and I don’t have a cel phone.  So, no e-mail access.

It’s a minor inconvenience– my real mail is on my personal computer.  But it underlines why I don’t trust The Cloud.  Data that’s not on your personal media is effectively owned by the people who host it.

Edit: I was able to reset the password, so that’s nice.  Still can’t figure out how someone spammed my contacts.  But mostly I’m boggling at Yahoo having a policy that adds no security and locks people out of their accounts.

Black Mesa

As you know if you’re a video game geek, Black Mesa came out this month, after an astonishing eight years of development.  There was some talk of a 2009 release; when that didn’t happen the release date changed to “when it’s done”, and those of us who were looking forward to it had to just go through life trying not to think about it.  But now it’s here!  And on my computer!  For free!  Just look at it!

A long way down

Ha, no, that’s the original Half-Life, a real commercial product sold for cash dollars, albeit in 1998. Here’s the same level in Black Mesa:

Where’s my Pip-Boy?

I’m sorry to say, I’m a graphics snob.  I’ve never played HL1, for the same reason I’ve never played Morrowind: I just can’t handle the old graphics; they’re too ugly and unreal.  Beyond Good & Evil is about as retro as I can handle, and that’s because it’s purposely cartoony.  (I have watched Ross Scott’s hilarious Freeman’s Mind though.) So I was looking forward to Black Mesa in order to experience HL1.

Overall reaction: mission accomplished.  It’s really really pretty.  The texturing and level design (as well as the less obvious stuff– gameplay, sounds, music, voice acting) are all really well done.  Muchos kudos to the mod team that did all this out of pure love (though maybe now they’ll all get hired by video game companies).  There’s also a great attention to detail– it’s fun to look at the whiteboards and even talk to people.  (The soldiers are a bit melodramatic, but it appears they sounded that way in HL1 as well.)

No, I don’t know that guy. Just happened to hit the screenshot key right then.

And it’s very Half-Lifey.  It’s similar to HL2, except of course that HL1 starts in complete normalcy.  Then things go to hell, and Gordon Freeman has to take a spectacularly convoluted route to the surface.  Then back down inside the Black Mesa complex, and back up, and back down, shooting enemies and solving a few puzzles along the way.

And like HL1, it occasionally suffers from some confusing level design.  The levels are mostly linear, but whenever they’re not, you can count on me to explore precisely the wrong areas and get lost, and then run around back and forth several times to find the path I missed.  No wonder Gordon was late for his resonance cascade.

I’m on chapter 12, of the 14 that have been released, and I have to say that some of the later chapters are a big sloggy.  There are sections that rely a bit too much on precisely timed jumps, or pointless thumper-stompers… if this were my first video game ever I’d happily spend an hour mastering the timing on that one horrible jump, but by now I get tired of it.  HL2 was pretty good at this– it was mostly simple physics puzzles, like the one with the concrete blocks.  Unless your game is about parkour, I don’t want the solution to your puzzle to be a frigging fractional-second-timed jump.

And then there’s that damn helicopter… A walkthrough I found says it’ll go away if it takes some damage, but emptying an attack rifle into it did nothing.  Later you get a rocket launcher, and it took eight or ten rockets to get it down– really annoying when you can take them down in HL2 with three.

Judging from Black Mesa, Valve’s storytelling has improved over time.  HL1 is great science fiction: misguided scientists bring on the Alien Apocalypse.  But it lacks humanity.  There are no characters to speak of, including Gordon Freeman.  Gordon doesn’t seem to care about any human being, and the player is given no reason to either.  HL2 by contrast had a slew of memorable people, including one of the best villains in video games– the handsome, calm-voiced Dr. Breen, who betrays the human race while sincerely thinking he’s doing it the greatest of favors.

Anyway, if you are one of the few people who liked HL2 but never played HL1, go get Black Mesa and see where it all started.

One amusing bit… there’s an extra-large monitor in the Lambda lab, with a complicated wireframe display.  I recognized it immediately– it’s a screenshot from Hammer, the HL map editor.  Possibly showing the very map you’re in.

How very meta

Borderlands 2 first impressions

Borderlands 2 just came out, so I expect the next few months will feature lots, lots, lots of late night looting and shooting with my friend Ash.  First thoughts: it’s very Borderlandsy.  It’s full of guns, clever writing, a plethora of objects to loot and grotesque aliens and humans to kill, and only just enough plot to get you moving.

Purty tundra

The next thing to notice is that Gearbox evidently had more time and money, so they’ve polished the game to a much brighter sheen.  Levels are prettier, there’s more voice acting, the characters have different heads available, the UI is revamped, and there are lots of little details that are better done.  There are ladders now.  There are maps of the entire continent that the levels fit into.  There are more animations, such as a fancy new respawn animation.

(Some spoilers for the first few levels below.)

Most strange, for Borderlands, is that there’s actual exposition now.  BL1 contented itself with text in the quest descriptions, and that was easy to miss, especially if you were helping someone else with their quests.  It’s almost odd to stand around listening to Lilith and Roland talk (especially as one thing they didn’t do was create good animations for talking characters).

An unusual design choice: there’s an all-new slate of Vault Hunters; the player characters from the first game reappear as NPCs, the leader of the resistance to the evil Handsome Jack, the antagonist.  It’s fun to see them again, but it’s also a bit jarring, because we were them.  If you’re playing Batman, say, it’s not a problem if the Bat has been having other adventures since the first game.  But in a roleplaying game you’re encouraged to think your character is you, so it’s a little strange that they suddenly have characters and personalities of their own.

One minor change I’m not sure I approve of: the game now treats you as a hero.  A Vault Hunter is something special, and you’re told that only you can defeat Handsome Jack.  That’s standard adventure game fare, but BL1 was blessedly free of it.  I admired the way the first game found a perfect match between player and character goals.  You wanted to shoot things and get loot, and that’s precisely what your character wanted too.  You were just a random adventurerer, in the right spot at the right time.

OK, it’s way late here, because I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 for hours.  If you liked BL1, it’s basically the same stuff, only more of it.  And like BL1, it’s at its best in co-op mode.  Ash and I have spent an embarrassing number of hours wandering Pandora.  Because that next chest might contain the world’s most awesome gun.  And we’re pretty good about not yoinking stuff before the other guy’s seen it.

(Still to come: a report on the legendary Black Mesa.)

Gotham City Impostors

I’ve been playing Gotham City Impostors, now available at the very attractive price of free. There’s a story, sort of: the Joker and Batman seem to be out of town, and to take their place is a whole army of imitation Bats and Jokerz. Armed with guns, shooting each other.  It’s probably best thought of as TF2 like.

Need a gas dispensah heah!

Rather than classes, there are a bunch of different weapons: assault rifles, shotguns, bow and arrow, katanas, rocket launchers, sniper rifles.  All of these operate about as you’d expect.  Plus a few wacky items, like a gun that shoots parrots.  You also choose a body type, which determines your speed and damage absorption.

You also get gadgets, though you can only have two equipped at a time.  There’s a number of traps and throwing weapons, goggles to let you find enemies, and a number of ways to get around, including roller skates, jetpacks, and grapple gun.  The latter is pretty sweet, as you can go long distances very quickly, and even slam into enemies.

You can’t get all the toys at first; you have to earn XP.  But levelling is incredibly fast, almost one per match… I’ve been playing for under a week and I’m on level 50.  So you can soon get the loadout you like.

Oh, you can also earn costume coins to dress your character.  Or undress: you can go around in your underwear– and the lingerie items are the most expensive costumes in the game.  This is kind of clever and deplorable at the same time.

1500 coins for that top!

Anyway, how does it play?  It’s frantic and, like TF2, there’s a bit of a learning curve.  I was dying constantly till I got a rocket launcher, which evened things out a bit.  (For close quarters, however, I’ve learned to switch to shotgun.)  A lot of the game consists of wandering around the maps trying to find enemies, then getting surprised by a shot in the head.  To reduce the surprise element, you can use the goggles, which reveals outlines of the enemy players to your whole team– plus you get a tasty targeting assist.

The best game mode is Fumigation, which involves capturing gasblasters, trying to saturate the map with your team’s gas.  Joker gas kills all the enemies; Bat gas brings a swarm of bats which overwhelm the Jokerz.  The fun bit is that the pubbies usually have no concept of strategy.  So I like to rack up points (and nudge toward victory) by going round the enemy position and capturing the point near their spawn, while everyone else is fighting for the middle gasblaster.

You get extra points for a whole shitload of Feats; there are some special ones daily that offer a reason to try out some of the other weapons and gadgets.  (One of them got me to switch to the shotgun.)

You may be wondering if all the players are Battettes and Jokerellas.  By no means!

Don’t you wish you could unsee that?

Connecting to servers is a frustratingly slow process sometimes (though you can access your loadout or check your feats while you wait).  However, playing with friends seems to be seriously broken.  A friend and I tried to create a party tonight (which basically just means you’ll end up in the same match), and we’d either not see each other in the friends list, or else it’d crash attempting to join a game.  Sigh.

I think I like it better than DC Universe Online, a more traditional MMORPG set in Gotham and Metropolis, which was fun for awhile but couldn’t quite hide the pointless grinding.  Impostors does better by keeping things simple– it’s basically a fun deathmatch game that uses just enough of the Bat-Joker rivalry to be interesting.

(One kind of strange design choice though: the maps are all highly realistic, and brightly lit.  After DC Universe Online and Arkham City, it just feels weird to see Gotham City in the daytime.  And I guess I expected a more stylized, scarier Gotham.)

It’s no Counterstrike; it has a lot of features designed to appeal to less twitchy players, such as an electric gun with enemy-seeking energy pulses for those who can’t aim at all.  A good sniper can cause a lot of damage– but then someone with goggles can point them out, giving the other team a good chance at taking them out.  So it’s not deep; I don’t expect to see Impostors pros.  But it’s good deathmatchy fun.

(Except when it’s frustrating deathmatchy death.  It would be nice if there was a Noobs League or something; a few really good players can dominate a game.  At least the rounds are short, under 10 minutes.)

As with TF2 now, the company hopes you’ll buy extra stuff: clothing, guns, mascots, even options to gain XP faster.  None of it is necessary; it’s just preying on impatience.

Chris Wayan’s worlds

Alert reader Alon Levy pointed me to one of Chris Wayan’s revamped Earths.  They’re really a lot of fun, and essential reading for a conworlder.


Each world starts with some simple concept, and then its geology and climate are worked out in detail. For instance:

  • Seapole (pictured above), with new axes chosen to put the poles in open ocean
  • Shiveria, with new axes that put both poles on land (producing a permanent ice age)
  • Dubia, Earth after a thousand years of global warming
  • Inversia, with land and sea reversed
  • Jaredia, another axis reboot, designed to create as many east-west continents as possible (as Jared Diamond recommends for advancing civilization)
  • Extremely large or small planets

It looks like he actually constructs these things and paints them, rather than just modelling them on the computer.

(I should perhaps note, the rest of Wayan’s site is devoted to retelling dreams, with pictures, and it’s… eccentric.  The worldbuilding is fascinating though.)

Espionage after Facebook

I suppose every sf writer worries that something is going to come along to invalidate their vision, fictional though it is.  I’ve been having some worries lately about whether the sort of espionage pictured in Against Peace and Freedom will actually be possible in an info-saturated world.

We already live in a world where multiple entities have data about you that would be the wet dream of a totalitarian.  And it’s not even the government.  Facebook knows your whole social network, and peeps on what other sites you visit.  Stores know what you buy down to the last bag of candy.  Games give feedback to developers on how they’re played.  Cel phone conversations have been externally monitored.  Google has created a wildly detailed map with annotations– where you can’t turn left, what paths are suitable only for foot traffic, where the KFCs are.

Let this system develop for fifty years.  Would it then be possible for an Agent to come into the country, evade the secret police, and meet dissidents?  I’ve suggested that externalities can be reduced by low-level monitoring– bullets know who fired them, pollution is chemically marked to show its source.  In this kind of info-rich society, a human being is like a bull blundering through a dollhouse– there’s no way to miss their trail.

Now, the first thought is to minimize the clues.  This might be barely possible today: pay cash, never use a computer, use other people’s houses and cars.  But will cash even exist in 50 years, much less 2500?  And retail is already being transformed; it may not be long before it’s strictly impossible to buy a plane ticket without going online.  Besides, a suspicious government might well slap a nanobug on every traveler to add to the data trail.

Surveillance can also look for missing data.  Fifty travelers arrived; we have 49 hotel rooms rented.  Look up the missing guy in the airline’s database.  If he’s lost, maybe periodically scan everyone in random restaurants, see which ones can’t be linked to a valid identity.

The next solution is false identities.  To be honest, my account of Okura was based on the mechanics of visiting 20th century dictatorships.  Even today, my understanding is that it’s not easy to simply wander around China as you like.  Unless you look Chinese.  I have a Chinese-American friend who did just that; she could ignore all the restrictions on foreigners.  A totalitarian government can watch its citizens because it has key bits of leverage– they need to work and live somewhere, they have children who go to school, etc.  Watching everyone all the time is a hard problem and they take shortcuts that work for most cases; but with care, these can be avoided.

Creating false identities in an info-rich world would be possible, but tedious.  Imagine creating a fake Facebook account.  It’s highly suspicious without a bunch of commenting friends– we either have to invent them too, or co-opt real people to recognize the impostor.  The very idea of Facebook is based on shallow but wide-ranging connections… the person should have family, grade school friends, co-workers, neighbors, and all these interactions have to be plausible.

A foreigner might not be in the local Facebook, of course– but espionage frequently requires passing as a local, and again we run into the problem of missing data: the person with no online connections looks odd, and oddity invites scrutiny.

I refer to this a bit in the book– the idea is that the Incatena produces multiple, complex false identities everywhere, for Agents to step into when needed– if necessary, changing their features to match.  They’re probably mostly created by AIs, and it can be assumed that all spy agencies have been engaged for centuries in an arms race of fraudulence and counter-fraudulence.

If the systems are old enough, they might be riddled with hacks.  But I don’t buy the movie version of hacking– that any bright teenager can break into a system and make it do whatever they want.  Go and get some data, fine.  Add to a database– tricky.  Serious databases are not HTML pages you can hop in and add your anarchist message to; they’re carefully constructed to control and timestamp all access, and properly updating a web of records is actually a pretty complicated task that takes coders months, not minutes.  And adding hacked bits of code… again, a good system is housed in timestamped source control systems, and changes are looked at carefully.

(And yes, I know, systems do get hacked in grandiose ways– Stuxnet, for instance.  But Stuxnet wasn’t some kid breaking in from his mom’s basement.  I’m talking about things a single Agent can do.)

As for nanobots, I threw in a kludge– the arms race of nanobottery was statemated, and as a result no one really trusted their high-end measures and countermeasures.  In effect Okura doesn’t trust its own nanobots to stay where they’re placed; it relies on human agents to sequester travelers instead.

Another possibility is that an info-saturated society drowns in the density of the data.  It might be like the human genome: we have the data, but we don’t have the tools to understand how it all works.  It takes a long time to create new tools to dive deeper into the data, and by the time they’re written the data is denser yet, plus the databases aren’t compatible and the guy who really understood the schema quit to live offgrid in a cabin.

Anyway, APAF was set on peripheral worlds with backwards technology.  I’m tempted to set the next novel in a more central world– Earth, or Euko, or Sihor– some place that would showcase the more crazy-futuristic elements of the Incatena, and maybe a higher level of espionage.


A big smoochy thank you to everyone who’s bought one of my books. The total units sold for all books just went over 4000.  The largest fraction of that is linguistics, something that always amazes my parents who think the LCK is too hard.

I’m also grateful because with the new book, royalties have risen from “hobbyist” to “poverty” level.  But that’s pretty much OK.

Part of me still feels that real writers write novels… plus I feel that Almea only fully comes alive in stories.  But with APAF still under 100 sales, I don’t feel I can concentrate on that quite yet.  And I have an idea for another nonfiction book…