For any subjective definition of “better”

Last time, I regaled you all with the frustration I was having with my brain picking up on an old game that it was interested in remaking.

Anyway, I realised that my frustration was in no small part because I asked the wrong question.

Ever see that film, “I, Robot” with Will Smith? The scientist guy gets killed and there’s a hologram placed in his lab with some pre-defined answers for Will Smith’s character. One of the first things the recording says is: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” And at the end of the conversation, after Will Smith’s character figures out something important, “That, detective, is the right question.”

And so it was with Tower of Babel. It’s like a song that someone says a line from and then it’s stuck in your head all day and you can’t stop humming it or tapping it out, it’s stuck in my brain, and entwined with that, the question “How can I make it better?”

And that’s the wrong question, because it limits your field of response. It doesn’t matter how the question’s phrased, if it’s asking ultimately that question. E.g. it’s still equally flawed if we were to ask ‘what can I do to improve it?’

You see, the problem is we don’t have a qualification on the term “better”, so that for any subjective definition of the word ‘better’, our hands are tied. Changing any one element may make it subjectively better, but objectively we cannot know that – because we haven’t found out what is actually wrong.

There’s a thought for you: if we were to blindly change things in the name of improvement, we stand a reasonable chance of tripping over all our old friends, like solving the wrong problem (e.g. changing an aspect of the game that is carefully balanced and shouldn’t be altered, in the naive hopes of ‘improving it’) or a solution in search of a problem (nothing wrong with what we had, therefore any directional movement is potentially negative)

So, we need to flip it around. Instead of trying to push towards a ‘better’ place, we need to stand outside and look at the ‘worse’ place and figure out how to pull away from that. So instead of asking how I can make ToB better, I need to look at what’s actually wrong with it currently.

Then I start being able to make sense of the fragments of ideas I have, by asking what’s wrong. If you’re not interested by this game, or the things I’d do with it, you probably should stop reading, because there’s just a lot of talking after this that probably won’t interest you at all.

Firstly, the graphics. They’re 20 years old, and also mostly kept intentionally simple. The robots are all 3D models but look the same from each direction to keep rendering simple. It means that from any camera angle, you can’t actually tell which way a robot is facing.

So not only would I redo the graphics to look more modern, I’d also make sure that each robot was distinguishable at a glance (it is now, but only because it’s relatively abstract), and that you can also tell what direction it’s facing.

That also has an interesting gameplay twist: in the original, robots could turn near-instantly through 90 degrees. I’d probably make it more of a considered move, so that you get the panning motion as you turn, and make it slower than it was. It’d add a sense of immersion, and actually play more nicely, I think. I’d also speed up the robots’ movement, it takes about 5 seconds for them to move forward one step at present.

In fact, I’d probably go a bit further, and have it so that instead of articulated legs, it’d have two wheel runs, like a tank does, meaning it’d be able to turn on the spot, and would allow for new constructions like ramps between levels as well as using lifts as the game has currently.

Also this would affect the rotating robots: in some levels there are fixed laser and repulser robots, and some where they rotate every x seconds, but while you can tell the zapping and pushing robots apart, you can’t tell fixed vs rotating apart, and given that the game lets you look around a level with the cameras before everything begins (like before time limits kick in), that’s a fairly big thing to have to guess at.

I’d also look at revamping the sound. The original game had bland sound effects and little or no music, which gave it a fairly barren feeling, though in keeping with the game’s environment, I guess. I’d certainly add more sound effects, and probably a low volume music track in there somewhere.

But the real things to change would be gameplay related, and these would be the things to take most carefully.

The original game’s play was pretty finely tuned, but it had one interesting limitation: there were quite a diverse array of items, but not so diverse that too many permutations were possible, especially in the 8x8x4 playing field.

So, I’d definitely give more room to manuever. The main ToB remake goes for 16x16x6, while Triogical uses a 20x15x1 environment. Personally, I’m thinking there’s no reason why 32x32x16 should be avoided, provided that the robots’ movement is speeded up. Right now, crossing the landscape takes not a lot short of a minute, and that’s a bit too long, really for the size of it.

I’d also revamp the cameras, which also has gameplay considerations. In the original, the cameras were limited to viewing each robot in a first-person perspective, while most levels offered a mostly-fixed set of cameras, arranged one per each of the cardinal directions, and with a limited degree of freedom parallel to the world – the camera would move up/down/left/right in relation to its starting point, but never angle closer to the world (though you could zoom in/out)

I’d provide those cameras with the ability to rotate the world a bit more, so robots could look up or down from their current position, and that the world cameras were a bit more free-roaming. This of course has gameplay considerations because some levels rely on the fact that the cameras aren’t available or aren’t that helpful (like tower 006: “But Cameras Give The Game Away (Maze 1)”), but level design can deal with that.

I’d also adjust the storyline. The original puts your three robots as being sent by a bunch of friendly aliens who are betrayed and left to rust in the trap-filled remains of the biblical Tower of Babel, and you have to get the robots through and rescued by their owners. Instead, I’d have them as some sort of military R&D vehicles and started out in a series of training exercises, only for the military base to be attacked and the robots deployed into a ‘real’ world environment.

Lastly, I’d add a new robot type, and some new mechanics to the game. The main change would be a Puller robot. The original trio is shooter/pusher/activater-of-items, and a puller robot would mirror the Pusher but by having a tractor beam, it’d be able to solve different styles of problem. Especially if present in a level with the Pusher and a puzzle that seems like it might need the Pusher.

I’d also add conveyor belts as a mechanic. Whilst the behaviour of a conveyor can be mimicked with a fixed pusher robot (as is done quite beautifully in one of the early levels, entitled “The Magic Roundabout”, to push a block around a fixed circuit), it is trivially easy to break, if ever there are two objects in the line of one pusher. Having a conveyor would fix that.

I already mentioned having ramps, which for some levels would avoid the need of lifts, and provide a different method for intra-floor navigation, especially if there are potentially more floors to go!

Then, I’d break one of the rules about the original game, which concerned objects not being able to leave the play area. No block (or item/robot) can be pushed off an existing floor, not even on to a floor below, nor can a block (or item/robot) be pushed off the lowest level of floor. I’d like to see some circumstances where you can push an item between floors, and even off a floor entirely – right now, you cannot manipulate a lift with an item on it, so you can’t collect something from one floor and use it on another.

Lastly, and possibly most game-breakingly, I want to add a new style of level to it. Normal levels take the form of shooting targets (and remembering that the definition of ‘target’ is less rigorous than first might be assumed) and/or collecting a number of energy modules. I’d also add escort type missions, where you collect an item (could even be another robot, or other non-player actor of some kind) and escort it through the level to another place.

These changes are designed to reflect the problem with the game that, ultimately, there are only so many variations on a theme that can be used, only so many types of puzzle that can be presented with the given rules and environments.

Oh, and I’d probably give it a steampunk look and feel, just because that would make it awesome, partly because well-executed steampunk harks back to a time when form and function were not separate and opposite constraints, and it serves to differentiate from the otherwise relatively bland aesthetic form of the original.

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6 Responses to For any subjective definition of “better”

  1. Adonis says:

    One of the things I find with these types of games is that there’s a predictable level of progression with the puzzles.

    Easy puzzles with simple pieces.
    Medium puzzles with simple pieces.
    Medium puzzles with moderate pieces.
    Everything and the kitchen sink.

    What they don’t do (and I sort of see why) is having unique bits for only a handful of puzzles (doesn’t warrant the programming time) or revisiting earlier puzzles with the straightforward solution disabled (frustration, déjà vu)

    That and there’s usually a progression. Puzzle 1, Puzzle 2, Puzzle 3. I’d prefer a map with multiple routes to any particular location OR the more open-ended – solve X puzzles in any direction.

    SimAnt did the latter, where you had to take over so many tiles to drive the humans and red ants out. You could go straight for the house (hard) and later be able to attack the red on two fronts (easy), or go for the red ants first and slowly take over the whole yard (which made the house quite simple).

  2. Arantor says:

    To be honest, the predictable level of progression is there for a reason, and not only for programming constraints – it’s also to make the difficulty harder for players so that they can jump into the game and get familiar with it, but as time goes on they get better and will need more of a challenge.

    Tower of Babel wasn’t rigid in its approach to level solving, you didn’t have to solve every level in order. Specifically, you had groups of levels, arranged in 3×3 formations. Completing any 7 of 9 of a group gave you access to the next group, and you always started with the top row of 3 enabled (and completing any given tower ensured that the ones adjacent to it were available for play)

    Actually, I do have an example of your ‘revisiting earlier puzzles with the straightforward solution disabled’ – the original Lemmings game. Partly because it saved space and partly because it was an interesting way of creating puzzles.

    The first few levels, you’re given specific solutions involving only one skill for the Lemmings; the first level you have a horizontal barrier and simply need to dig. The second time it comes around, you have no diggers and have to improvise using bombers, which takes more skill in timing.

    Same deal with the second level – initially, you just have to give all the Lemmings the floater skill to get them off the high pillar, but the second time around, you have to dig down inside the last pillar, close to the right hand edge, and then make the digger into a bomber to stop him digging, and to make a hole for the rest of them.

    Incidentally, Lemmings was also an example of ‘having unique bits for only a handful of puzzles’ – on the original Amiga version at least, Psygnosis were the publishers and gave access to art assets from other Psygnosis games, so that for one level out of each skill area, the entire level was themed completely differently. (Incidentally, the games are Shadow of the Beast, Menace, Awesome and Shadow of the Beast II, though Menace was written by DMA Design themselves.)

    It was certainly unique but at the same time it also introduced a sense of players feeling both disjointed and wanting more – disjointed because you go from having 10-15 levels either side of a skill group that have the usual graphics and music, to a one-off use of them, and wanting more because in their own way the graphics and music are beautifully used.

    You’re right, it generally doesn’t warrant the programming time, but that can be minimised to a degree, depending on the effort the programmers are putting in (most notably, if elements can be added without touching the main core code, either by some internal scripting language or something else, that will generally minimise the effort required)

  3. Adonis says:

    I stand corrected. :P

    Unique – that’s not a bad example, but I was thinking something a bit more than art and music. In the ToB game (or remake), something that was a little off. Like robots that skipped over random lines of programming, so you’d have to insert a scan/correction to get them back on track. Having to interact with something that teleports or a ramp that crumbles after a certain number of uses.

    Something that isn’t used so often people get tired of it, but takes an otherwise easy level and makes it a head scratcher.

  4. Arantor says:

    Both reuse of levels in new ways, and unique elements per level don’t happen often. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s a few items in Lemmings levels that seem to be scenery but are actually traps, and only turn up on the occasional level, but the point stands pretty well.

    Actually, a good amount of ToB’s actual levels start out like that. You can stare at them with the cameras, and you’ll plot out the paths the robots have to take, and what they have to do, and it’ll seem so straightforward, then you’ll hit a gotcha, some quirk of the level’s design that trips you up.

    But in ToB’s case, it’s pure level design, rather than unique items.

    I did think about breakable floors, particularly about revisiting levels you’d already ‘solved’ but that had been damaged since you were there last.

    Speaking of teleports, there is already a teleporter device of sorts but it only works for one robot, and feels overused even though it doesn’t actually make that many appearances, probably because each time it does, it’s merely a variation on a theme in terms of the puzzle in play, rather than a different situation entirely, which is one of the greatest problems the game actually has.

    There is one thing about using rare mechanics in puzzle games: it can come across as unfair, even sometimes as a sort of puzzle game equivalent of a deus ex machina to trip you up. I’m sure I’ve seen it happen in the past, and end up being a case of “Where the hell did THAT come from?” It usually ends up being a sign of something that’s clever and imaginative but poorly thought out and crammed in at the last minute.

  5. Adonis says:

    Or it could be something from the make-your-own-level construction set that doesn’t really match the story they’re trying to tell, but can be ‘snuck in’ on a ‘not part of the story’ level. :)

  6. Arantor says:

    That reminds me of Lego Harry Potter and for all the wrong reasons. Not content with the ‘bonus levels’ that bore little resemblance to the rest of the game other than reusing assets (and some mechanics but ones that readily translate to almost any other setting you care to name), there was the horrible ‘builder’ mode where you can build simplistic levels.

    I’m not against sneaking in occasional-use material, but I’m very wary of the deus ex machina effect. If you leave the player with a “what the hell just happened” moment, it jars, and pushes them away.

    It’s not that far away from rubber-banding, because it gives the game an advantage over the player that it shouldn’t really have, especially if you’re already part way into the game, because by that point, certain expectations about the ‘rules’ have been set.

    I think a pretty good example of this is in the first Prince of Persia game. You start out escaping the palace dungeons, and the guards you fight aren’t the hardest in the world to fight. Then there’s some finding pressure plates and jumping and general figuring out what to do to get out, and more fighting.

    Then you find a potion for allowing you to fall gently so that you can survive falling from a great height, which if memory serves, you don’t do very often in the game, but after a bit more time you end up facing a unique opponent: a mirror reflection of yourself. You only face yourself once, and when it happens, it’s a jarring incident because it’s mechanically different to the rest of the time when you have to fight guards.

    I’d be willing to utilise it if there were a reason for it to be introduced earlier in the game but for whatever reason not made available to the player – so that when it does re-appear, it’s a pleasant surprise because it’s something familiar and it’s not a ‘new’ mechanic at that point.

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