Where are you from?

This fortnight I’ve been working on getting the entire basic underpinnings of the conversation system finished; I’ve made a lot of progress, not quite enough to show off all the screenshots I’d like, so like last time, I’d rather wait until I can do a nice screenshot-heavy update, which will be next time (whenever that is!).

Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about the second thing I’ve been working on. I’ve now started developing the system by which NPCs will make judgements about you, the player, and where you come from. There are five elements to this: your clothing, your jewellery (meaning what rings and necklaces you are wearing, if any), your skin tone, your facial appearance (scarification, tattoos, headscarves, turbans, that sort of thing), and how you talk. The last one of these I’ve talked the most about in the past, but in this entry I’m going to do a little bit of an overview of how I see all of these functioning, and what it’ll do for the game. Equally, however, I now find myself faced with a big problem: what if all five elements of a player’s appearance suggest different origins or statuses? How should the NPC respond? I have a few notions, but I’m very open to suggestions.

Anyway, without further ado:

Clothing/Armour/Weapons

Other NPCs will make a range of judgements about the player based on the clothing they wear (and, later, the armour they wear, and weapon they wield). I think this will have three elements: what nation they seem to be from, their potential wealth, and whether their clothing denotes any kind of special affiliation, such as a religious order or military organisation. Most NPCs will likely treat you with more deference the more impressive the clothing you wear, but of course wearing the clothing style of a hated nation is likely to have the opposite effect no matter the wealth you’re showing off. For religious clothes, I’d like to have NPCs assume you’re a priest or a monk if you’re wearing obviously religious garb, although such garb will obviously have significant negative effects in certain areas of the game world; at the same time, though, it might encourage a particularly zealous shopkeeper to give you a discount, for instance. However, if people ask for religious advice and your character doesn’t know anything about the religion they are masquerading a priest of… that might be a little suspicious. Once armour is in the game that will also affect people and how they respond to you, probably with a little fear, a little deference, but again depending on the specific situation. Wearing unknown clothes should also elicit some kind of response depending on the nation/people; friendly and inquisitive if a very open and cosmopolitan nation, scared if isolationist, etc…

Jewellery

Jewellery will appear at some point in the near-ish future, and will consist of rings and necklaces. These will be similar to clothing: there will be cheap, middling, and pricy rings and necklaces available for each nation, and special/unique rings and necklaces for religions, religious orders, various other factors, various ranks in various organisations, and these sorts of things. Right now, I think special jewellery will be available for religions, houses/noble families, monarchs/rulers, but that’ll probably be it (and then more generally, as above, across cultures). I therefore see these as having a very similar set of relationships as clothing, but also denoting several things (such as family affiliation) which clothing does not; although most will be standard jewellery items for the culture in question.

Skin Tone

Skin tone varies very widely in URR, and is inevitably a central method by which peope might make judgements about the origin of the player character. This has only one element, which is to say a geographical assumption: NPCs will consider your skin tone, estimate how close/far from the equator you originate, and then look at their knowledge of nations and take a guess at which one you might be from. As such, there will also be some way to temporarily alter and mask your actual skin tone and make it lighter or darker as part of trying to blend in in other societies; and, of course, with some skin tones you’ll be able to “pass” for a citizen of many countries, most likely, whereas a clothing style would only allow you to pass for one. Hopefully the intersection of these (and the other elements below) will allow for some interesting combinations and strategic decisions.

Facial Appearance

Facial appearance, meanwhile, is a binary element: it denotes the overall culture someone comes from, and that’s it, although in a small number of cases it might also denote rank, slavery, and so forth. Again, if people recognise the markings they will suspect you are from the appropriate culture; if they don’t recognise the markings, the same range of responses mentioned earlier might play out. Again, I’ll be introducing ways to fake some markings (though probably not others?) as a means of further disguising yourself.

How you Talk

We’ve discussed this several times before on this blog, so I’ll keep it brief here, but the way in which you speak is going to be crucial. NPCs will make judgements about your origin based on what you say and how you say it, whilst you’ll be able to fake speaking in other dialects to a greater or lesser extent based on your knowledge of that dialect at the point you’re having the conversation. This will often be a make-or-break point for any player/player character attempting to “fake” their way into/through a particular culture or particular social situation, and is one of the aspects that’ll appear in 0.8 – NPCs won’t respond to it yet, but you will be able to change dialects, and see the results.

Summary

These are the five major elements I see as contributing to how other NPCs see the player – the first four being literally how they see the player, and the last one of course only coming into the equation if you start talking to the NPC (or the NPC starts talking to you, which is a feature that definitely needs to be implemented in the near future). I think these will give the player ample methods for crafting an image useful to them at that moment,

But what happens if 50% of your elements suggest you are person A of rank B from culture C and religion D, but the other half of your clothing suggests you are person W of rank X from culture Y and religion Z, which is the absolute opposite? Should they take an educated guess? Should they comment on how you are dressed, and that you are dressed strangely? What if they have particularly strong feelings towards/against A/B/C/D/W/X/Y/Z? Or what if 90% of your visible elements suggest X, but then you have a single element suggesting Y? Should the NPCs focus entirely on Y? Should they assume you are X and just treat Y as a strange element? Does that depend on the nature of X and Y and the context in which you are meeting another NPC? My point from all of these questions is that it’s proving very difficult and complex to decide, in essence and in one sentence, how NPCs should add up the elements of “you” they are presented with and how they should subsequently come to a judgement. This is what I’d love any and all of your thoughts on below; this system isn’t going to be implemented in 0.8, because I’m really trying to get only the core essentials of the conversation system done before release, but it’ll be a crucial element of the fast and much shorter 0.9 which will be finishing off the conversation system straight after. What do you think?

Updates

As I’ve said before, I’m crunching on finishing my first book, and about to travel for six weeks through various visiting fellowships; I am hard at work coding, but right now I’m finding fewer blog updates is really helping me with game developments, so we’ll be sticking to uncertain update schedules until my book is finished and submitted (May 31). I know this is rubbish, folks, and I wish I had some more time, and I hate how long URR 0.8 is dragging on for, but I’m doing the absolute best possible in the present situation. Next update: asap!

Questions, International Relations, Geography, PCG Alcohol, Relics

A big update this week, summarising everything from the last three weeks of coding work. Succinctly, the game now has NPCs who can reply to even more “list questions” than they were previously able to, adds in what I am calling “meanderings” into speech from time to time in order to make everything feel and read more realistically, boasts a rather more developed international relations system which NPCs can draw on when making comments to the player, and procedurally generated alcohol is now present in the game. This last one is, obviously, the most crucial of the bunch. Oh, yes, and I’ve also expanded and finished the system for generating the names of relics, although their procedurally-generated images are of course not yet present. So without further ado, read on:

More List Questions

I have now finished off almost all the “list questions” – which is to say, questions where the answer often takes the form of a list, such as “What towns are nearby?”, or “What animals are sacred to your people?”, and so forth. Here are some examples of the recent additions:

Animals and Plants

You can now ask people about the animals and plants that are local to their homeland, and whether any animals or plants are considered especially important in that homeland, as part of your conversation. They’ll now give you a list of the local flora or fauna as appropriate, which is always grammatically correct, and also lists these things in a fairly logical order. The number is never too high, either, so you never find yourself reading through a gigantic list of things. Although not currently implemented, in the very near future these animals and plants will be spawning, and should be found referenced throughout a culture, and are designed to be another clue the player can potentially use to find out about the world.

International Relations and Geography

The game can now generate appropriate and logical sets of relationships between nations, based on their ideologies, religions, proximity, and so forth. You can now ask people about their relationships with other nations, what they think about other cultures in general, what kinds of cultures are nearby, what tribes and nomads can be found nearby, and so on. The same system is then used for overall geography, so you can now ask a range of questions about things that are near to where the player and an NPC are having their conversation. For example, you can ask whether there are mountains (or mountain passes) in the proximity, and so forth. These questions then redirect to a function which chooses an appropriate area for the NPC to have knowledge of (more educated NPCs will have a wider area, and NPCs more well-disposed towards you will think about giving you a longer response). This system needs expanding to all kinds of conversations, which I will talk about more in the future, but for the time being, people can tell you quite a bit about the surrounding areas:

Laws

Also, here are the law responses from last time:

You’ll notice the first of those is rather long. This is an example with a nation with a lot of laws on violence, and talking to someone who is well-disposed to you, and is therefore willing to actually talk to you. I think I need to find some way to chop this down; for such a long potential answer, maybe even people who like you the most will tell you the top laws or bottom laws, or maybe they’ll say “Do you want to know punishments for the worst crimes or the most common crimes?”, or… something. I’m not quite sure yet. Either way, it’s pretty clear that a reply this long isn’t really workable, and is very hard to read, and will probably lose the reader’s interest part-way through.

Meanderings

Secondly, I added in a set of what I’ve now taken to calling “meanderings”. As part of making conversations as realistic as possible, I felt it was important to add in code for people thinking for a moment before they reply, or being semi-reluctant to quickly reply, and just generally having the umms, ahhs, and oks, that characteristic real speech. At the same time, of course, having too much of this would quickly get annoying. To balance this out, there are two elements. Firstly, people will only start to use these phrases if they begin to get annoyed about the conversation, and they’re starting to lose interest in you. When their full interest is on you they won’t falter in the conversation, but this might change as time goes by. Secondly, they will not use it too often; an NPC that has just used one will definitely not use it on the next sentence, and beyond that, it is randomised, but becomes more and more likely the less and less interested in the conversation the NPC becomes. If you look at the conversations above, you’ll see a few of those present here and there.

International Relations

As noted above, the game now generates appropriate relationships between each nation in the game, whether feudal, tribal, or nomadic. In essence, the game looks over the ideologies of each nation, and looks at where they match, and where they clash. In some cases a pair of ideologies could be seen as a match or a clash; for instance, two monarchies might get on well because they have the same system of leadership, maybe the families are related, and so forth; or they might hate each other and have a rivalry between their ruling families. In these cases the game chooses at random whether these are “good” commonalities or “rivalry” commonalities. Equally, some shared ideologies will always cause conflict – two theocracies or two especially religiously zealous nations which do not share religions are never going to get on, and likewise two imperialist nations – whilst others will always generate friendship, such as a shared commitment to religious tolerance, or a shared appreciation of gladiatorial combat. Then, in turn, various religious beliefs, geographical distributions, and so forth, further affect matters. These are then categorised into nations that are close allies, friendly, neutral, disliked, or firm enemies; these five categorisations then affect speech, whilst the more specific like/dislike values will play into other elements later on. This is basically akin to the kinds of systems one sees in the recent Civilization games, but somewhat more complex and with many more factors at play determining what cultures think of one another.

Along the civ.relations dictionary, there is also a civ.trade_relations dictionary. This is similar, obviously, but actually somewhat distinct. Whereas relations simply tells you what one nation thinks of the other, in the case of trade_relations, we’re talking specifically about how much trade passes between two nations. Of course, trade is not going to be passing between nations that loathe each other, but two nations that share a massive border and are somewhat friendly are likely to trade more than two nations that are the best of friends, but half the world apart (bearing in mind, of course, that we are talking about the renaissance rather than the modern day here). Trade_relations therefore tells you the volume of trade going on between each nation and each other nation, and in some stores the player will therefore be able to sometimes find the items of other nations for sale. The reverse will actually happen in black markets – if X and Y hate each other, the goods of X might secretly appear in the black markets of Y, and vice versa. In this way I’m aiming to make the potentially someone “abstract” idea of international and trade relations much more concrete; it shapes who appears in each nation, what items appear where and under what conditions, and will also – of course – affect where the player can safely go.

Alcohol

For a fun little diversion for an hour this week, I also implemented the system for procedural alcohol – I’m sure we’ll all agree, a truly vital component of any procedural world. Each nation now selects an archetype of drinks that they tend to enjoy drinking, which can be beer, spirits, or wine; these are designed so that a full world will not have a completely equal distribution, but some generations should have a high volume of beer, spirits, or wine drinkers; much as in the real world, we don’t see these equally distributed. It then generates an appropriate set of alcoholic drinks for each nation, with words drawing on the terrain and climate types enjoyed by that nation, a wide set of default words for each alcohol type, and names – a class of alcohol might be named after the particular monastery where it is brewed, a particular town where it is particularly favoured, and so forth.

The player can also now ask innkeeps about the kind of alcohol they sell, and they’ll give you an appropriate list! Taverns stock a high percentage of all the alcohols drunk by one nation, but will never stock the full collection; equally, I’ll shortly implement a system so that taverns particularly near the border with another country will (assuming that is a nation with a particular set of alcohols, so not a tribal nation) sometimes carry one of the alcohols from “across the border”. Later on I will also add actual “breweries” in the locations where the various alcohols in a nation are brewed; these will have minimal gameplay value, so I certainly won’t spend more than a few hours on that, but for the sake of completeness I think they need to go in to make the world look just that little bit more complete, more varied, and so forth.

Relics

In the last fortnight I also finished the generation system for relics, and here are some example debug logs, where “RT” means “Relic Type”. Some of these do have rather lengthy names, because the names of the people associated with the relic can be quite long. It’s a little unwieldy, but honestly, I think it’s fine. I’m extremely happy with how these work and how these look, and I don’t think I’ll make any more changes here before the 0.8 release, beyond making sure everyone in the game can speak about relics of their religion correctly.

Blog Update Speed

So, once again, this has been a fortnightly update. As such, I’m just going to stop commenting on this for now or trying to predict when the next update will be, and I’ll just say to everyone: I’ll update as soon, and as rapidly, as I can. I am developing URR actively again, as you can see from the above, but I am also changing jobs, taking up two visiting positions in two other continents, and finishing my first academic monograph… so we’ll see how it goes. See you all next wee-… er… next time!

Prologue to a Full Update

This week I’m doing something slightly unusual. A huge amount of coding has been done this week, but I’m not yet able to produce screenshots from this progress; some of it is slightly buggy, and I need to test a few new generation systems to ensure that the NPCs I want to talk to, in order to take the screenshots, correctly have the information I actually want them to have. Succinctly, though, we now have a huge set of new list questions generating, various elements such as punctuation and slight meandering to make conversations seem more human, political parties even more fully implemented, a geographical search system put in place, greetings vary massively based on the relationship between you and the NPC, and even a procedural alcohol-name generation system so that innkeepers have something to talk about, and the beginnings of systems for modifying what people will say to you based on their mood (personal), the “local” mood (what people in that area think of you), and their knowledge of the particular matter (geographical, historical, etc).

All of these are finished, on the cusp of completion, or well into development; but because I’ve just been coding like mad, I haven’t really stopped to polish everything and get things to a position where I can take screenshots. As such, I’ve decided just to put this up this week, to signify: lots of coding is happening, and there will be lots to show off soon, but I’d rather show it all off once I can implement screenshots. I know some of the recent updates have been screenshot-lite, so I really want to have a solid volume of screenshots in place once I can show things off.

As such: hopefully, we’ll have a nice set of screenshots next week!

Paper, Laws, Political Parties, List Questions

This week (well, fortnight) we have some laws, some new list questions, some political parties, overall a reasonably large entry to make up for silence last week, and a paper, so let’s get to it:

Semiotics of Roguelikes

Firstly and briefly, the paper I wrote a couple of years ago now on the semiotics of various ASCII roguelike games has moved from being published online to being published with in actual edition/volume of Games and Culture. To mark this momentous event, I’ve uploaded a pre-submission version of the paper onto my academia.edu account, so if you’re interested in reading the paper – the abstract is below here – then click here and give it a read, and do let me know what you think.

This article explores the semiotics of the “roguelike” genre. Most roguelikes reject contemporary advances in graphical technology and instead present their worlds, items, and creatures as American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) characters. This article first considers why this unusual graphical style has endured over time and argues that it is an aesthetic construction of nostalgia that positions roguelikes within a clear history of gameplay philosophies that challenge the prevailing contemporary assumptions of role-playing games. It second notes that the semantic code for understanding the ASCII characters in each and every roguelike is different and explores the construction of these codes, how players decode them, and the potential difficulties in such decodings. The article then combines these to explore how such visuals represent potential new ground in the study of game semiotics.

Violence Laws

The game now generates a full set of laws for violence in each nation. These are not done in quite the same way as the other two sets of laws. Whereas “religion” and “trade” have a set number of values and each value always create a law in every nation, not all nations will even have some of the violence laws. It depends on the ideologies of the nation in question, and what they consider to be a meaningful violent event, and how severe they think it is. The game selects a set of laws, ranks them, and then distributes punishments according to the ranking of the crime, not the crime itself. Here is the sequence by which the game selects laws for violent acts, where the ones that a nation cares about the most come first, and the less important ones come later. As a result, you’ll see some very different values at play here, and what counts as a severe punishment in one nation will be far less severe in another, because it will be much further down the crime list, as a result of the nation being more concerned by other things:

If I’ve calculated this correctly, this means the shortest set of violence laws is five, and the longest possible set is thirteen, with most nations naturally falling somewhere in the middle. In each case the top crimes merit a “Punishment 5”, which is the highest level of punishment – such as three arena battles to the death, or a lengthy imprisonment, or a severely damaging physical ordeal – and the bottom will merit a “Punishment 1”, and the others in the middle will be distributed appropriately. I’m confident this will again generate an interesting and unique set of consequences for your actions in each nation, and when coupled with the wide variation in punishments, and the kinds of punishments that your character might or might not be able to withstand depending on your build, items, etc… I think some very interested decisions will emerge from this process.

More List Questions

Parents, Siblings, Grandparents, Children

NPCs are now able to talk about their parents, siblings, grandparents and children, in a pretty wide range of ways. For instance, if you ask about parents, they might simply answer that their parents are nobody important (if they feel you’re disinterested, or of a much higher social status), or might name only one, or both; alternatively, if their parents are consequential people recorded by the game, or they are important, then they’ll probably have some more info they’ll (proudly) be willing to give out. For the longer lists, the game also takes account of the sex of the people being mentioned, so they might say “My two brothers are X and Y and my sister is Z”, or “My maternal grandparents are X and Y, my paternal grandparents are A and B”, which will also vary based on any particular bias towards either sex present in that nation; for extremely long lists, lastly, such as children or siblings, they can now reel off a full list that is always grammatically correct. These lists also include titles, too, so you might get “My mother was Queen X the 1st, Keeper of the Brass Casket, and my father was Prince Y, Consort to Her Majesty” – or whatever.

Trade, Violence, Religion Laws

We covered these briefly in a previous entry, but NPCs are now able to tell the player about everything in these categories. Some of these require different lines of code, as in the case of trade and religion laws there is a finite set of “things” that each nation will have laws on, whereas for violence, some potential violent acts simply won’t be recognised or won’t be relevant to particular nations, and therefore won’t be there. Either way, people now give you a nicely detailed list of these laws; and as with everything, how much people tell you will be modified by mood, and their knowledge of their own nation…

Nearby Things

I’ve started to implement the code for NPCs replying to questions of the sort “are there any X nearby”, where X might be cities, towns, nomads, tribal nations, mountains, coastline… you get the idea. There’s a pretty wide number, and some of them have to request information from different parts of the game’s databases, but this code is now being put into place. There are also now appropriate sentence structures here for people to word things appropriately; for instance, if there are individual things, such as towns, you’ll just get a list. By contrast, mountains do not take up individual map tiles but stretch across mountain ranges, so someone might say “There are mountains far and very far to the northwest, far to the north, and somewhat far to the northeast”, which should give the player a decent impression of what the mountain range looks like. (The same then applies to deserts and coasts and so on).

Political Parties

Returned to political parties and developed names for the parties, which will soon be matched up delegates, and we should be able to get some kind of political system actually working. The game first selects a number of parties for each nation, which is semi-random and partly influenced by several ideological factors (outside of their commitment to a democratic form of government), and then (as we discussed before) ranks the various overall trends in the nation, such as individualism or collectivism, nationalism or globalism, and so forth. It then creates parties for the dominant trends, and sometimes with a secondary ideology from lower down in that chart, and now it finally creates names. As such, we can now find NPCs who might be willing to tell you about parties such as:

The Liberal Sovereignty Party
The Party of Enlightenment
The Conservative National Party
The Devout Singular League
The One Reformist Party
The Association of Independent Selfhood

And so on and so forth. As with most things in URR, you should be able to extrapolate some reasonable guesses about the commitments of these parties from their names. In a later version I’ll connect these to delegates, and get the political system in democratic nations working properly.

Next Week

As you’ll have noticed, we’ve slipped back to a fortnightly update this time – although I’m generally back to a post every weekend, this last week has again just been absolutely jam-packed, and I had to push things back. However, hopefully, updates will resume the weekend model from next weekend moving forwards, and I promise lots of screenshots next week. I must apologise for this, but leaping back into the weekly blog posting has been quite a bit new pressure on my time, and although I thought I could go from sparse blog posts to every week: it hasn’t been quite that easy. Things are ramping back up, but maybe just a little more unevenly than I’d hoped. I am also working on finishing my first book at the moment, which is of course taking up a lot of my time, as well as planning how best to get around the world and take up three visiting positions in three countries in the coming months, so there’s a lot of admin in my brain at the moment. I’m desperately hoping to get 0.8 before April, as otherwise that’ll be a ridiculous two years between release… and that’s just too damned long, however much detail I’m putting in to this major version. Nevertheless, normality should resume again next week, with hopefully an even more significant URRpdate. See you all then!

P.T., Cryptic Puzzles, and Small Spaces

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to finally get to play the now-infamous “P.T.” – short for “Playable Teaser” – in person, rather than watching a YouTube video. The “game” had always intrigued me, but after being removed from the Playstation Store, and since it only functions if it has actually been downloaded, I needed to meet someone who had exactly this. Now this has finally happened, I spent a long evening exploring this very strange, very distinctive, and really rather good little puzzle-environmental-horror experience (with the emphasis, in my mind, clearly on the first two elements over the third). In the hope I would one day get to play it, I had remained totally unspoiled, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was about, what the puzzles were, or anything that was happening; however, in this entry I will be spoiling what takes place, so if you want to hold out in the hope of finding somebody with a downloaded copy, I suggest skipping this post and returning next week.

If you’re happy with some spoilers, however, I wanted to share some reflections on two elements of P.T., and how well they intertwine – the puzzles, and the environment – to create a very unique and very compelling game that is well worth experiencing, and does some fascinating things with a remarkably limited set of tools. The horror elements, although present, were not really at the forefront of my mind as I played through P.T.; whilst I’m sure they dominate the experience for some, I was far more interested in getting to know this unique and intricately-constructed virtual space, figuring out what I was meant to do, and trying to uncover what the core gameplay loop actually consisted of. Doing so led to an experience somewhat akin to the kind of “detective work” mental gameplay I love in games like Dark Souls, and that I want to emulate in Ultima Ratio Regum, so I’m sure long-time readers will quickly see the main reason for my strong interest in the piece.

In P.T. the player finds themselves exploring the same corridor in the same house over and over. The corridor is, at first glance, extremely spartan. The first half of the corridor contains an alarm clock, several paintings (many quite blurred and unclear), a phone off the hook, a range of tablets and alcohol bottles, and various photos of those who (presumably) inhabit this house. After turning a ninety-degree corner in the corridor, one can potentially explore a bathroom off to the side (dark, filled with cockroaches, and later with other things too), look up to a balcony, or examine several other paintings, a radio, a potted plant, a couple of extra photos, and a further selection of legal-drug paraphernalia. At the end of this second branch of the L-shaped corridor (each branch is no more than ten metres long) there is a door; entering that door leads to a staircase with only half a dozen steps, which leads to another door; passing through that door puts the player right back at the start of the corridor they just traversed. The entirety of the game takes place in this L-shaped corridor, the bathroom, and the small “lobby and staircase” area between loops of the corridor. The player also starts in a dull grey room with tallies of days (or years?) etched on the walls, and normally returns to that room later in the game, but that room is difficult to access and plays only a small role in the overall experience. The corridor is the crux of the P.T. experience, and everything revolves around what the player can do in this corridor and its minor adjoining rooms.

Firstly, it is remarkable how repeating this same area makes the player, immediately, start examining the corridor in great detail. Although there are clearly games I have played for far longer than P.T., I can think of few virtual environments that I can remember as much as this short L-shaped corridor. Once it becomes clear you are just looping the same corridor, it is apparent one has to perform some interaction with something in the corridor, and so the player starts seeking such an interaction out. The longer you go without finding anything, the closer you find yourself examining everything, and the more puzzled – and at least for me, entertained and amused – you become. I loved the feeling of being completely baffled, as so few games actually give you that experience in the present era. It never felt hopeless or arbitrary, because it was quickly clear that the entire game mechanic was figuring out what to do, and figuring out the game thinks, and what you’re actually able to interact with. I think this highlighted a core difference between games which are ordinarily transparent and then unexpectedly throw you a cryptic mystery – sometimes, even knowing that the mystery is there can be difficult. In this case, that bemusement is present from the start, and the longer it takes you to figure out the first step, the clearer and clearer it becomes that a large part of the gameplay here is simply figuring out what you’re meant to do, and what constraints that activity is within.

Before too long I discovered an incomplete picture, and that by zooming in on shreds of the painting distributed around the playing area, I could “collect” these shreds and fill the painting in. These were, to put it mildly, difficult to spot; and the more I found, and the more exhaustively I combed the corridor, the more puzzled I became about what nooks and crannies I might have missed. In hindsight, it strikes me as remarkable how much time I spent combing this corridor and how deeply I looked into every single portion of it; there were a few baffling moments when I was absolutely convinced I had checked everywhere, only to discover that I hadn’t. It is impressive how much puzzle they were able to cram into one corridor, even for something as “simple” as just finding pieces of a picture; it totally redefined how one normally looks at a level within a video game, causing me to spend an inordinate length of time checking out every possible angle and every possible part of the space, coming to discover much about the paintings, the precise colours of the alcohol bottles, the people shown on the photos, and much else that – even in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, where so much is in the visual storytelling – one tends to overlook.

From my playthrough, at least, I felt the game – up to the final puzzle, which we’ll talk about in a minute – was well-paced. There was no point when I was stuck on a particular puzzle or a particular loop of the room for so long that I became exasperated, and whenever my mood began to even creep in that direction, I knew I just needed to shift my brain into a different gear and find something new. Sure enough, I would then find another piece, or discover a new trick, or a new way to trigger a different loop in the corridor when I next passed through the door. One of the picture pieces was, admittedly, hidden in a location that I would only have guessed eventually after a very long period, but with the real emphasis on eventually – knowing how Kojima thinks, and some of the tricks in some of his games, would have helped me out a lot there. (I have never played any Kojima games before). However, especially well-timed, I thought, was when the game shifted from presenting one corridor that loops each time you go through the door at the bottom, into a red-lit corridor that loops infinitely until a puzzle element is solved. It was just the right time to shake things up and startle the player out of what had become (until then) a fairly “regular” routine of solving one puzzle and then going through the door and trying to work out the next one. This puzzle also required quite a distinctive solution unlike most of the rest, and although I didn’t realise it until I’d solved it, clues about how to solve the infinite-red-loop sequence are everywhere… but you don’t necessarily realise it until you’ve already done it. Play it, and you’ll see what I mean.

After this sequence we returned to the standard corridor, but it was clear that one was approaching the end-game; a long time now passed without me making any progress, before it became apparent that I was at the final puzzle, and that this was a puzzle that had taken the internet as a whole a substantial length of time to establish the means for solving (although a few players had, I think by chance, solved it apparently within hours of release). This final puzzle… I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I have always loved the idea of puzzles that many people around the world have to get together to solve; I think it’s a tremendously compelling idea, one that a few other games have used to excellent purpose, and once which I plan to explore in the game I have planned after URR is complete in a few years. On the other hand, this puzzle was made far more challenging because of its implementation, rather than the deduction of puzzle itself. One needed to listen to audio cues, three of which cycled, and when each one played a particular action had to be taken. In principle, I think this could have worked extremely nicely; each of the sounds connected to an area of the game world, and which sound linked to which area made a certain degree of sense, once one had some idea of the game’s narrative. Equally, how many other puzzles can you think of that use sound? It would have continued the game’s sequence of making the player re-think everything they know, and could have worked extremely well.

However, all three of the sounds seem extremely similar to my ears – even once I had given up on the puzzle and gone to the internet for assistance, and I knew what to listen for, I still couldn’t distinguish between them! This was the one element of the game that I had to take issue with; making the sounds so closely related felt, to me, to serve only as an arbitrary addition of difficulty that doesn’t make solving the puzzle harder, but only affects how difficult it is to execute even when you know exactly what to do (or have an inkling about what to do). Knowing what the sounds were meant to represent, it made some sense where to go; but being unable to even hear what these were made this puzzle more infuriating. Equally, nothing triggered once one of the three elements was complete, leaving a player uncertain whether or not they were barking up the wrong tree. On the one hand, I recognise that giving the player some “acknowledgement trigger” might serve to make the puzzle vastly simpler and reduce the intended final challenge; on the other hand, having a whole sequence of events without any confirmation the player is on the right path reduces the chance that the puzzle will be solved through deliberate action, and raises the chance that a player will simply stumble upon the solution (which I think the first solvers did). It’s a difficult and interesting game design balance, and one that I think P.T. absolutely nailed, up until the final puzzle, when it perhaps drifted a little too much towards the likelihood of people solving it through chance, not deliberation. I do wonder, however, if this could have been resolved somehow whilst keeping the overall challenge of the final puzzle intact – and honestly, I’m not quite sure.

Ultimately, what appealed to me the most about P.T. was how much gameplay and how many puzzles were crammed into such a small space, and how the experience of repeating that space – with minor variations and new objectives each time – sent the problem-solving part of my mind down some (very interesting) wrong alleys, but also made the whole experience feel quite unlike the traditional computer game. It felt, if anything, more like playing an alternate reality game, or an online game like notpron; something where meaning might be located in the most banal of elements, most often overlooked, where the player’s observation and ability to stop changing things are tested, and where the ability to all but throw away what one had learned on the previous puzzles was required in order to figure out the next thing the game required. Equally, it also meant understanding that clues were actually everywhere in the game, but I didn’t necessarily understand that these were clues until afterwards; for some, though, I’m sure the experience was that these clues pushed them towards the correct solutions. P.T. showed how well interesting logic puzzles and understanding those puzzles can contribute to a long and fulfilling experience, even in a tiny space of actual gameplay; and how playing with and subverting the notion of the core gameplay loop can keep throw the player off their expected mental models of how a game should play out, and encourage you towards finding the kinds of solutions these puzzles actually call for. It’s a great text for people interested in games that reward exploration, discovery, and what one might define as – although cliched – “thinking outside the box” problem solving, and it has definitely given me some ideas for my own game design processes going forwards.