Monthly Archives: December 2010

Rhem 3

I earlier wrote about my experience with Knut Müller’s Rhem 2, and I gave the third game a shot over the last few days. I came infinitesimally close to solving it without any hints. No puzzles or missing information thwarted me; I merely failed to see something in plain sight. I don’t know if my last post captured how complex the game is. Here are some notes I made while attempting to solve a problem with incomplete information:

Needless to say, all of this turned out to be wrong. I filled thirteen pages of 9 1/4″ by 11 3/4″ quadrille with increasingly esoteric sigils, irresponsible conjectures, and unconfirmable hypothetics before turning in abject despair and shame to the walkthrough, where I found that I had failed to notice a simple lever. (I should note that I had solved 95% of the game by this point, however.) As I wrote before, most of the problems come from not knowing if you have sufficient information. The puzzle I was trying to solve in the diagram above seemed to be a simple substitution cipher with symmetries that would allow it to be decrypted, but it turns out that you find the complete key (which I didn’t check for consistency with the symmetries) later.

I’ve been reading some reviews of these games published in the adventure game community, and I’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed with the negative reactions. People often criticize the graphics and apparent lack of plot. I find the graphics to be appropriately rusty and grimy for the world that they depict, and the signs and general sense of design are of consistent aesthetic interest. The plot is also appropriately absurdist; too few computer games have a Beckettian sensibility.

Anyway, having come tantalizingly close to solving Rhem 2 and Rhem 3 without consulting the walkthroughs, I have pledged to do so with the fourth game. Rhem 4 opens with a puzzle almost exactly like the one I described above, and I spent several hours trying to decrypt a code that it turned out I missed a simple key for. This is the very first puzzle in the game, by the way. I suppose I should be getting worried about my ability to learn from my mistakes. And it seems, from what I’ve seen thus far, as if this is the most complex game of the series.

I want to write something later about what I think it’s important to solve games without consulting walkthroughs, hints, etc. (Or at least to try until frustrated beyond human endurance.) Which character in No Country for Old Men would have been most likely to solve a game like Rhem without hints, for example?

Herodotus and Linguistic Essentialism

In the second book of the Histories, Herodotus tells us of the Egyptian king Psammetichos, who wanted to discover who were truly the oldest people of the Earth. He took two infants and had them raised by shepherds in isolation from human voices. When they were finally brought out of their huts, they cried “bekos,” a word that means “bread” in the Phrygian language. Thus Psammetichos concluded that the Phrygians were the oldest humans.

I haven’t investigated the matter thoroughly, but I would be interested to know how widely circulated this variety of linguistic essentialism was in Greek thought at the time. Some preliminary rummaging around on the experiment tells me that Albert Churchward’s The Origin and Evolution of the Human Race (1922) cites the Herodotean model for a similar argument about Pygmy tongues and the African origin of humans. (There’s also a great deal of ominous-looking material in this book about the exterminating stellar-mythos. . )

I’m reading the Landmark edition of Herodotus, and I noticed that while other translations tend to say something like Peisistratos did not sleep with his wife in the “usual” or “accustomed” way, this one chooses “indecent.” I should check the Greek here, but that sounds a bit more moralizing than Herodotus would tend to be.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: A Review

Both the LRB and NYRB reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom make the astute point that the long autobiographical section of the book is not sufficiently distinguished in style from the rest. Though it’s undeniably Patty’s thoughts, it’s not Patty’s writing that we’re reading. And James Lever argues that this could have been exploited in terms of the reaction that Walter and Richard have when they read it. I do wonder, though, about a comment Walter made about the manuscript after he finds it, which I didn’t actually remember from reading it (it was something about a libel on his “manhood,” about which there were many general things mentioned but nothing as specific-seeming as he seemed to mean it at this point). This could in fact indicate that the manuscript in the book is not the narrative of the manuscript we read, which would be rather sly, especially as there’s no other reason to suspect a trick like this in the broad social realism of the rest of the novel.

Franzen’s particular brand of social realism interests me quite a bit. Chip Lambert was a very broad caricature of an academic, yet many readers seemed to find him believable. Similarly, I found many parts of Freedom, while consistently grabbing, to veer wildly from my perception of the world. Franzen seems to believe that only those who’ve gone to selective liberal arts colleges can have thoughts worth expressing, or at least be able to express worthy thoughts. That he seems to regard the University of Minnesota as a provincial ag-school and Macalester as a potential intellectual breeding ground (for Minnesota) is only an instance of this. The presentation of the student culture of the University of Virginia is not far removed from Tom Wolfe (or Alexander Theroux of Darconville’s Cat, for that matter). His treatment of the rural West Virginians, particularly the encounter in the steak house, could have been reconsidered; and I don’t think anyone would confuse Linda Hoffbauer with Marilynne Robinson.

The whole plotline with Joey’s roommate Jonathan, his Podhoretzian or Kristolian father, whose absurd exoteric Straussianism Franzen couldn’t even pretend to treat seriously, and the sister Jenna, whose vacuity is only slightly more plausible than that of the average Less Than Zero (which is brainstormed as a depopulation slogan, interestingly enough) character, was poorly constructed (though, again, gripping to read. I can’t stress enough how much of my attention this novel demanded and how skillfully this was done, even as I was resisting much of what I was reading.) I did find interesting the references to Joyce’s scatological letters to Nora in the phone sex that Joey and Connie were having, and the scene where he reclaims his wedding ring seemed to want to be compared in some way to Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel.” (Perhaps it’s because I just taught Oblivion that I noticed this. One thing that was very clear, however, was the acid portrayals of people like Jessica in Wallace’s story compared to the modest disapproval of complete identification seen in Franzen’s novel.) Joey’s world was set askew by 9/11, after all. I really would have enjoyed reading more about the point where he has to go to Poland to negotiate for obsolescent truck parts.

U2’s Achtung Baby makes an appearance. At one point, Richard Katz makes an ambiguous crack about Bono Vox in an interview he’s giving in a fit of petulance or pique to the spoiled son of a titan of industry whose deck he’s putting in. (This becomes viral in the same way that Walter’s drug-induced jeremiad does. I felt that Franzen was very amused by the concept.) Anyway, here’s a scene from Joey’s adolescence: “It took him back to their earliest days as a couple on Barrier Street, in his first fall of high school. U2’s Achtung Baby, beloved to both of them but especially to Connie, had been the soundtrack of their mutual deflowering. The opening track, in which Bono avowed that he was ready for everything, ready for the push, had been their love song to each other and to capitalism” (412). For those a bit older than Joey, making out to The Joshua Tree would have produced quite different associations. The grotesque irony of the album, the “Fly” persona, and all of the rest of it would not likely have been lost on a kid as smart and perceptive as everyone agrees Joey to be (or Connie, for that matter), so I couldn’t help but wonder that this was something else sly that Franzen was doing.

What does the novel have to say about demographic management? Is there any distance between the bird-watching author and the cat-napping Walter Berklund, really? Is the deliberately obtuse presentation of Straussian* ideas not just a mordant commentary on the equally obtuse circulation of said ideas during the buildup to the Iraq war but a coded lesson to the wise to listen to everything that Berklund says, and more, about the dangers of overpopulation? (To be fair, Joey even recognizes that there are obvious commercial motivations behind the rhetoric of infinite democracy (“freedom”) being bruited about in this discourse, and Jonathan demystifies it for him later.) Who, having adequate opportunity, does not procreate in the novel? What is that telling us about the good life? One of the essays in the recent n+1 colloquium on Freedom suggested wanting to read a spin-off novel about Richard Katz’s adventures. Does limitless growth allow Richard Katzes? Does it produce them? Or should population growth be checked so as not to threaten Katzian habitats? The more obvious answer here is that Katz is a cat, so to speak, a wanton predator who eliminates one reproductive-aged female that we know of—-an instance inviting generalization.

*I would say “pseudo-,” but I think that might give the wrong impression.

The Unpredictable Evolution of Technology

George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge UP: 1988) is a fine book, filled with many illuminating examples. In a section on how fads influence technological development, however, Basalla writes:

By the mid-1980s, the home computer boom appeared to be nothing more than a short-lived and, for some computer manufacturers, expensive fad. Consumers who were expected to use these machines to maintain their financial records, educate their children, and plan for their family’s future ended up playing electronic games on them, an activity that soon lost its novelty, pleasure, and excitement. As a result, a device that was initially heralded as the forerunner of a new technological era was a spectacular failure that threatened to bankrupt the firms that had invested billions of dollars in its development. (185)

The entire chapter, with its discussion of government-funded nuclear power projects, and the preceding one, with its discussion of the role of military investment in technological development, had the makings of an epiphany about the internet. Hindsight, etc.

I do wonder what the sales figures of games specifically for personal computers would reveal here. I suspect that Basalla’s analysis was essentially correct from that vantagepoint.

Failure and Shame: Some Thoughts on Rhem 2

That’s what I am feeling after failing to solve Rhem 2 without consulting the walkthrough. What is Rhem 2 and why should anyone care whether or not I solved it without a walkthrough? Well, Rhem 2 is a self-produced (more or less) puzzle game in the tradition of Myst created by Knut Müller. I first learned of the Rhem games from reading Andrew Plotkin’s review, and I purchased the first Rhem in 2005. I worked through most of the game then, but I got frustrated a bit towards the end and consulted a walkthrough. I felt some shame about this at the time, and it made me vow to solve the sequel without a walkthrough.

I came close, but I couldn’t do it. I had more motivation from the aforementioned Plotkin’s review of the sequel, in which he pointedly notes that he solved it without hints. I had come to know of Mr. Plotkin through his work in interactive fiction, and he seemed as likely a candidate to be able to solve a game like this without hints as is to be found among the ludic tribes. Because—make no mistake—this is a hard game. And not in the twitchy or chancy way. Rhem 2 is hard because it is an elaborate knot with almost no superfluous information and many superficially similar or imbricated patterns of design (of the obstacles; the physical patterns also repeat with modifications or analogy in many different places).

Unlike many games in the genre (I am assuming for the most part, as I actually haven’t played many of them), the Rhem games do not rely overtly on the fantastic or the magical in their environment. In the first game, everything was rusty machinery and reservoirs. These machines were controlled with various sigils which might possibly give the sense of an alien environment, though the more plausible explanation is that low-language puzzles make for easier translation (especially since the majority of the market for this game has to be, I assume, in English.) The second is an elaborate mining operation in a series of caves in which all of the wiring is in need of re-routing. But in both cases, the machines exist for no other reason than the puzzles. It’s easy to forget this as you’re playing, but in retrospect it’s obviously true.

The game player might expect a world of symbol in some genres, but for the puzzles to be instantiated in an environment that great care has been taken to render realistic-looking (and -seeming in function—almost all basic physical and mechanical concepts seem to be sound in the machines that I saw, outside of their utter uselessness as anything other than a puzzle) seems novel to me. There are allegorical precedents, of course, and much closer literary parallels in the adventure genre (which seems like it would be a good idea for a paper in some ways).

Anyway, about the experience of playing and failing to solve the game: I hate not being able to finish a game (of this type) without looking at hints. I consider it a sign of weakness, and I’m usually willing to blame the game rather than myself if I what I was stuck on wasn’t a likely, logical, or pleasing solution. I have thought for some time now that there’s a correlation between literary interpretation and the experience of solving a game (where the hints and walkthroughs reside in this analogy is sometimes with critical or sub-critical literature and sometimes with “interpretive communities” more broadly speaking). To be able to solve a game like Rhem without hints, I imagine (grr) that you would have to have developed a very strong sense for how the designer’s mind works. What the rules of this creation are, and what are and are not permissible variations of them, for example.

My failure of ludic interpretation in Rhem 2 happened at one specific point (and arguably would have at another point later, but I will defer discussion of this for a bit.) At many points throughout the game, you can look down. It is necessary, in fact, to look down at three locations to see something that you’ll need for later. Unless I missed something non-necessary, there is only one point in the game where you are required to look up. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense why you would want to look up in this particular spot after you have accomplished something to change its appearance, but I do not think it would have occurred to me to do so at any point in my lifetime. In fact, unless your perspective was being forced by climbing something vertical, I did not realize that it was possible to look up in the game.

By the point I had reached this impasse, I could infer with some reliability what remained to be done and what the possible nature of the solutions to the remaining problems were. Had I been a bit more persistent with brute force attempts,* I might very well have stumbled onto the solution I describe above without ever having looked up to begin with. All of this was bad enough, believe me, but the thing that really would have killed me, I think, had my eyes not inadvertently seen and committed to memory a diagram that spoiled the next unsolved puzzle, would have been trying to solve it myself.

The problem with this one is that while most of the puzzles in the game were in fact easy to solve once you had the necessary information, finding that information was often very difficult. So this particular puzzle involved activating what I thought were transformers but which turned out in fact to be some type of crystal resonator (perhaps the least plausible of the game’s various devices). To activate these resonators, transformers, or whatever in the hell they are, you were required to associate a symbol and two numbers with each of the three devices. You find, at different locations, a map of all the twelve-segmented circle’s numbers and a map with five symbols on it. Another diagram tells you the location of the various devices and one symbol. What the solution in fact requires is a kind of pattern matching inference with the information you have, but the game has trained you up this point to look behind closed doors (in many different senses) for the complete diagram rather than trying out this pure inferential style. It punishes inference and trial-and-error ruthlessly, in fact. But not with this puzzle, which, once I saw the solution, I couldn’t forget; but when I worked through how it was to be solved, I became angry at the anticipation of how stuck I would have been because of not knowing if I needed to figure it out with the information I had or search endlessly for the missing pieces, which, I would have been perfectly justified to assume had to be out there. (This game has a very large map.)

Here’s an insightful comment** about the first Rhem:

For my money, this kind of inductive reasoning is the essence of the genre (both adventure games in general and Myst clones in particular). And it stands in contrast to the sort of reasoning needed in DROD and other rules-based puzzle games. In those, you pretty much have complete information about how all the elements work. The challenge is to figure out the consequences of what you know. It’s very mathematical. Rhem, on the other hand, is scientific: you start with incomplete information, and have to notice patterns in order to figure out how to complete it. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be reading uncommented source code: all the symbols were presumably meaningful to whoever made them.

I disagree slightly, though, about the game’s puzzle-mechanics. It is largely inductive and inferential in terms of putting the information together, but the individual puzzles almost always required having all of the information that is available in order to be able to solve them. Inference is only helpful there in determining if a sufficient quantity of the existing information is present or not.

Outside of Plotkin’s review, I read around some of the others I could find with some quick googling, and I noticed that at least two of them (perhaps one influenced by the other?) suggested that something quite different was the hardest puzzle in the game. I found this particular area frustrating to navigate, but comparatively simple (the puzzle beyond it, however, was the hardest one in the game that I did manage to solve). I own Rhem 3, and I might give it a shot. I feel like I’ve seen enough of the style that I won’t get fooled again. . .

*The puzzle I am describing here, somewhat vaguely so as not to completely spoil it for anyone who might want to succeed where I failed, involved orienting a pattern from a simulation to a pattern in a room and then entering a code corresponding to that pattern on a keypad, which would then open a compartment. It’s possible that the missing pattern on the ceiling could have been oriented correctly to the room by a thorough-going experimentalist approach.
**The whole blog is worth reading if you’re interested in computer games.