Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.9: Shout “Alamarain!” And Sit Down

Move Along Home 2

QUINT: GAMES, man. Don’t you just wish you were in them? Not just looming over them, squinting downward like a nearsighted giant, but actually inside them, surrounded on all side by game. Game in all directions. GAME UNTO VERY INFINITY.

That’s what I want, readers. So does Paulson. Right, Paulson? RIGHT, PAULSON? PAULSON, RESPOND TO MY ARGUABLY RHETORICAL INQUIRY.

PAULSON: *gulping noises*

QUINT: Paulson, set down that alpha-currant nectar. You don’t even like it!

PAULSON: It’s priceless, Quint! Pricelessness is coating my throat. PRICELESSNESS SWELLS MY BELLY. *Gulping noises*

QUINT: Give me that! We’ll dispose of it later. Ugh. Smells like unchewed tube grubs and socialism. No wonder the Wadi need so many games to keep them occupied. They have to take their mind off their lousy libations.

PAULSON: Smooth transition, Quint. This week we’ll be using our suspiciously similar digits to grasp at the Wadi’s favourite board game and drag it into the harsh light of your local solar cycle. Unless you’re nocturnal. In which case welcome, darkness lovers! You’ll find a familiar home in Quint’s shriveled Ferengi soul.

QUINT: Ouch! But YES! Yes, today we’ll be checking out Chula, the hot new game that’s erupted from the Bajoran Wormhole like a rules comet.

PAULSON: Sexy! And this is a big day for us. We couldn’t be more excited to bring you this exclusive review of the first known Gamma Quadrant game to reach our comfy quarter of the galaxy.

QUINT: Or less excited by the actual game.

PAULSON: A tad harsh there, young Quints?

QUINT: My delivery of any such tads to your faceholes is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE, Paulson. Perhaps your hoity-toity Federation principles require pretending this game is some fascinating glimpse into a unique and rich culture. I have no such qualms. Besides, not even the hoitiest of all possible toits could fail to recognise that this is a Game of Badness.

PAULSON: Your words have been assembled into an order that is wrong, and you should feel shame. I shall now highlight this shame that you should feel through the use of my own words. Words about this game, such as these ones: Chula is nothing short of a revelation. We’ve played board games. We’ve played holodeck games. Occasionally we’ve played board games inside video games, because something is very wrong with Quint and it’s easier just to humour him and play Love Letters with cards made from light than it is to tranquilise him and have him examined by medical professionals while he snores like a core breach.

Chula is something new and different. It utilises holotech, which makes it useful for clearing up late at night when you’re wobbly from all that alpha-currant nectar. But it isn’t actually in a holodeck, rather just linked to one. One player sits at the board, directing his fellows like an antisocial auteur. The other players huddle inside the holodeck, seeking to defeat riddles sent their way by their board-bound comrade. What else in our cardboardesque hobby can claim to do similar?

QUINT: That’s true enough. The problem is though that revolutionary ideas, by definition, are new ideas. And new ideas, also by definition, haven’t been around long enough for us to have figured out how to make them work. A game in which you control a holodeck from the board should be a licence to press latinum. And it will be, a few months or years from now, as other designers take the misshapen crumbly lump that is Chula and shake it through their mento-sieves. But right now, all we’ve got is a game with one big idea, and an engine assembled from pipe-cleaners and bad cheese being used to try and keep that big idea running.

It’s like those twentieth-century hu-mon coders who worked out how to use an electronic controller to move pixels on a monitor. Probably the biggest gaming breakthrough achieved by your species since you gave up tossing knuckle-bones. And what did these bright-eyed trailblazers do with this unprecedented leap in leisure technology?  They created Pong.

PAULSON: Hey! I’ve downloaded Pong onto my tricorder!

QUINT: Really? And do you enjoy playing it?

PAULSON: ….Yes.

QUINT: UNIRONICALLY?

PAULSON: …Damn.

QUINT: EXACTLY. Here’s the problem. Chula sounds brilliant as a package, but no-one actually gets to experience that package. Most of you get an already-unwrapped item that it turns out you had already, and one of you is forced to fiddle with the shreds of string and wrapping paper that were on their way to the bin. The two halves of Chula influence each other, but the half that you’re in is receiving input that’s totally incomprehensible; impossible to understand or predict. You might as well try to play cards on Tholia with a broken universal translator. You can’t understand anything anyone is saying, so all you can play is solitaire. Which after you’ve been sold a unique opportunity for interactive play comes as an unpleasant surprise. It’s like showing up for a round of strip poker only to find everyone will be playing blindfold in separate bins.

This game sells itself as more than the sum of its aggressively modest parts, but actually it’s the exact opposite. Consider the poor short straw-waving fool who has to sit down at the board. It’s a pretty board, I suppose, but it’s also uninspiring, like a supermodel reading out tax returns. At best, this player is going to find Chula a mildly diverting betting game. They’ll face different levels of difficulty, multiple choices of what path to follow with each one sellotaped to an associated level of risk, and the ability to bet at each stage. All perfectly sensible, but also rather dull, like writing a reminder to not drink too much coffee on a nearby flan. There is, admittedly, something rather clever in whether or not your bets pay off being dependent not on chance, but the competence of your friends, making Chula a sort of push-someone-else’s-luck game.

But when you get to the heart of it, the Chula board casts you in the role of a general directing a battle you can’t see, or even receive intel about beyond the increasingly depressing casualty rate. It’s your job to give your friends an entertaining challenge, and hopefully even steer them to victory, but Chula selfishly holds back all the actual information you’d need to do it well.  Even when one of your team-mates is eliminated, you’re not told who it was, so you can’t even choose from your desperately limited options based on the strength of who’s remaining.

PAULSON: That’s not a bug, Quint. Or if it is, it’s one of the tasty bugs you keep hassling the Replimat to make for you. That underlying confusion is an express ticket to post-game jollification. It lets you lounge around your quarters and giggle at how badly wrong the player at the board got things, constantly flinging you at hilariously unsuitable challenges because he thought Terry must still be in the game because there’s no way he was the idiot who went down on shap one. You can’t get around the fact that petty recriminations are a fundamental part of gaming, and Chula gives you plenty of ammunition.

QUINT: It’s true; I do enjoy a well-executed buck-pass. Still, any game relying on being fun after you’ve played it is clearly one with some issues. And that’s the best-case scenario, too. More often than not you’re losing players for reasons you can’t be expected to figure out. Sometimes it’s as capricious as having to blindly choose a player to eliminate because your dice roll took you to the wrong square. WHICH IS ANOTHER THING. The three most unforgivable gaming sins are random movement, unavoidable penalties, and player elimination. THIS COMBINES ALL THREE. How does that factor into your rose-tinted post-game gabpocalypse? “I aced every challenge the game threw at me but had to go home two hours early because someone rolled snake eyes in a different room”.

PAULSON: It’s less arbitrary than you’re making it sound, though.  You can’t avoid the chance of landing on an elimination space once you commit to a path containing one, but that’s the controlling player’s choice. You can complete the game without ever choosing such a path. These constant decisions about when to play it safe and when to risk everything are what makes the game worth playing for whoever gets tied to the board.

QUINT: It’s still poor craftmanship, though. If you want a riskier path, then design tougher challenges. Don’t just throw someone away at random like a drunk in a morgue. Especially when the easier route requires grinding through a seemingly endless sequence of aggressively dull tasks. A game that makes you choose between boredom and losing isn’t worth the playing.

PAULSON: OK, you’ve moved on now from being wrong about the board-based part of Chula to being wrong about its puzzles. So let’s talk about those. While the solo player is the one with the job of choosing tasks – generally with no clue what they’re doing – it’s everyone else’s role to get through the mysterious itinerary of physical, mental and skill-based challenges their compatriot has arranged for them. Ultimately, the player at the board is a facilitator. Unless they’re really into their betting strategies and Nash points – which some people are, and more power to them – they’re spending more time ensuring everyone else’s fun than joining in themselves.

QUINT: Wow. Even when your’e defending this game you make it sound like a boot to the earlobe.

PAULSON: Well OK, that’s not Chula’s greatest feature. But a strong, quick game can survive a single duff role, so long as everyone is willing to take their turn as director during replays.

QUINT: No-one’s going to be replaying this holographic turkey, Lieutenant. And if they did, I’m not going to risk my sterling reputation as a host by starting games night by asking “Whose turn is it to not have fun this week?”. Let us hear no more about this ridiculous concept of playing Chula a second time. This game already haunts my nightmares, like unions or sick pay.

Instead, let’s go back to talking about the team solving puzzles. Because IT SUCKS TO BE IN THAT TEAM. Firstly, the design of the gaming complex is terrible. It’s just an infinite grid of bland, featureless corridors, broken up by the occasional bland featureless room, like a web of cold spaghetti held down by cold boiled potatoes. Then there’s the doors. SO MANY DOORS, And nearly all of them are locked. It almost seems a deliberate reminder that the team has essentially no say in how they’re going to progress.  It’s not like it’s hard to figure out the game is railroading you – even if technically the tracks are being laid by a mate of yours – but refusing to let you progress until you pick the door the game will let you open just rubs salt into an already well-seasoned wound.

PAULSON: That’s hardly unique to Chula. Plenty of video games are littered with doors on strike.

QUINT: Your comparison OFFENDS ME, Paulson. Sprinkling a game environment with false doors to make that environment look convincing is perfectly reasonable, up to a point. You want your haunted starbase to look like an actual starbase. Adding locked doors to an environment with no real-world analogue, like a Narnian architect who hates his talking anteater boss, doesn’t perform the same function.

PAULSON: It isn’t trying to. There’s another function to inaccessible areas in a video game. They let you know there’s much more to the game than you can find in your first go around. These barriers to passage are more like locked menu options than locked doors. So once you’re done with your first game and the resulting highly amusing debrief, you can-

QUINT: FINE, PAULSON. We will talk about replayability. This game has no replayability. At all. Zero.

PAULSON: Have you been at the fermented tube-grubs again? Because you sound like a fool. Plus, you know, your breath smells like a fish that died a week ago from eating other fish that died a month ago. ANYWAY. Even if you take the longest route possible through the shaps, you’ll encounter a tiny fraction of all the possible challenges. I didn’t crunch the numbers during our playthrough, but at the bare minimum there are four different challenges on each shap ,over five shaps, that’s more than one thousand different combinations. Finding everything this game has to offer would take decades. What else could you possibly say that about? Chess? “Ooh, this knight is on a slightly different square than it was last week. It’s not even the same colour; it’s THE ONLY OTHER ONE.”

QUINT: You’re looking at this all wrong. Clearly it falls upon my tired shoulders to show you the TRUE MATHS. The problem Chula has is that once you’ve cracked a challenge, it stays cracked, like you’ve got beef with Humpty Dumpty and you’re working your way through his extended family. If you make it to the final shap on your first try – which is fairly likely, given the game’s lack of challenge – then less than a quarter of those thousand-plus combinations you’re waving around will be free of repetition. And if somehow you manage an entirely new second game? You’re now down to just thirty-two paths in that thousand that won’t involve repeating a puzzle you already know how to beat.

PAULSON: The avoidance of repetition is basically why we invented expansions. I’m sure the Wadi will be savvy enough to serve up a few. And in the meantime? I live in a post-scarcity society. I can afford to wait.

QUINT: I’m sure it’s lovely to live inside your bubble, Paulson. For those of us living in the real galaxy though, it would be nice if the board and the series of holodeck programmes I’ve exchanged my hard-earned latinum for were the sort that encouraged repeat business. And this doesn’t qualify. Not even just because of the lack of variation. The puzzles Chula offers are terrible, combining obvious solutions with physical discomfort for any player who fail to figure them out immediately. It’s like doing up your boots with the laces on fire – it’s only the pain that makes it anything but trivial. You could have a million of these mini-games to choose from each time you fire up the Chula board and it wouldn’t matter, so long as they’re all rubbish.

PAULSON: Yikes. Is there anything you’re going to own up to having enjoyed about Chula?

QUINT: Umm… The pieces are pretty? And pleasingly chunky too. There’s a nice weight to them as you’re moving your team around the board. You can see how big and satisfying they are if we compare them with an ordinary Reference Kaferian Apple.

Star Trek Move Along Home 3

QUINT: Thanks, Reference Kaferian Apple!

PAULSON: Whatever. Time to wrap this one up, I think. It’s not going to surprise anyone where we stand on this one. Chula is a brave and important step forward in the modern games industry. It’s also a fascinating look at a brand new culture that’s certain to be offering up fascinating innovations in our hobby for years to come.

QUINT: But as an actual gaming experience, it’s painfully tedious for one player and tedious and painful for all the others. You can recreate the Chula experience almost perfectly by finding a boring corridor and walking up and down it in pairs, alternately trying to solve a two-piece jigsaw and punching each other in the face.  If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a fun time, then I recommend waiting for someone to reverse-engineer this into something playable.

Right. That’s it for another game. Phew! That one got quite scathing. I DID SO MANY SCATHES! I need a drink. Paulson, how about you?

PAULSON: *Gulping noises*

 

 

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman)

Ordering

1. Dagger Of The Mind

2. Hide And Q

3. Once Upon A Planet

4. Move Along Home

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