Saturday, March 19, 2016

@Play 85: A Talk with Digital Eel, Makers of the Infinite Space Games

Some of the best quasi-roguelike space games out there are Digital Eel's terrific Infinite Space games: Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space and Sea of Stars: Infinite Space III.  Quick-playing, always challenging, and filled with secrets to discover.  @Play spoke with the principals of Digital Eel, Rich Carlson and Iikka Keränen, about the long-lived series.

@P: Tell me about your company -- when was it founded, about the main people and your day jobs?

Iikka Keränen: Rich and I unofficially started Digital Eel in 1999 when we both worked at Looking Glass. That's when we bought the domain name and started working on the (never released) 4X strategy game we called Infinite Space. I have been working in the game industry since 1998 when I was hired by Ion Storm in Dallas TX. For the last fifteen years, I've been at Valve.

Rich Carlson: I was a musician in Minnesota for 20 years before deciding to try to make games for a living. I met Iikk at Ion. We ended up working at four game studios together! You may recall that Ion Storm, Rogue Entertainment, Looking Glass Studios were all closing, one by one, at the time. That was hard to watch, and hard be a part of but the games turned out well. Meantime, Iikka and I became friends and decided to make some games ourselves for fun. Later, when we came to Seattle for another game job, we met artist Bill Sears working at the same studio. He turned out to be as weird as we are, with a terrific sense of humor, and so we all became fast friends too. That's when Digital Eel was "officially" founded. Bill made the splash screen for Plasmaworm and we went on from there as a trio. Henry Kropf is the newest member of the Digital Eel nuclear family. He's been programming professionally for something like 20 years, starting at Vicarious Visions in 1996. (We all started in the game biz at about the same time.) He worked on PC and PS1 projects--the hardcore space-sim, Terminus (Wikipedia), for example. Since then he's worked on a number of projects and ports, most recently for the latter Digital Eel games, as well as being the sole programmer of the fantasy word game SpellBounders (iOS App Store).

@P: That's really interesting! The SAIS games have this outsider art feel, I think at least, like they're from some alternate universe where games evolved subtly differently. For some reason it's weird to think you're embedded in the traditional game development community! I find it difficult to believe you'd have the time or energy for this if you guys worked at, for instance, EA. Are you worried that the day job might interfere with the SAIS games?

RC: It is outsider art! Although Bill worked at game studios, he came from the era of Kustom Kars, underground comix and lowbrow surrealism. If you've read Juxtapoz or Zap Comix, that's the the realm. That's what you see in Weird Worlds, and on the DE splash screens. 60's and 70's counterculture art (done only as Phosphorus can!)

IK: Sometimes it does interfere - Funny that you should mention EA, we actually worked on an EA-published game (American McGee's Alice) after we stopped working on the original Infinite Space "big game", and before we made Plasmaworm and SAIS. That was a time when we really didn't have the energy to do our own thing. Valve is much better at not interfering with life outside the office. I think it has to do with it being a more mature company - most people have families and can't be expected to work seven days a week, that sort of stuff.

RC: We have to work on our games slowly much of the time. But isn't that best if you can? Slow and steady wins the race. We plan carefully and go step by step. Looking back, 15 games in 14 years says we're finishers not flakes.

@P: How did Strange Adventures get started? What are its play inspirations? From whence came the series' unique backstory?

IK: We had run out of steam on the original 4X game, and I had realized I needed to learn proper Windows programming as my previous coding experience was DOS-based. As I taught myself DirectX, we made a simple arcade game called Plasmaworm in 2001 and then decided to make another small game using the content we had created for Infinite Space. This is what became Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. I was a big fan of Starflight, and we had also played a Star Trek boardgame that influenced the early design of Strange Adventures quite a bit. At the beginning, we were planning to have text-based mini adventures on each planet, that sort of stuff. But we soon realized that streamlining the game as much as possible was the way to go. We had written a lot of back story for the 1999 "big game" and had a very rich universe for you to explore - much more content than you'd ever see in a single session, and that kept the game lively and surprising.

RC: Other games we played that were inspiring were Frank Butterfield's Voyage of the BSM Pandora, which turned out to be a kind of proof-of-concept that a big game theme could be condensed into a small, short game yet still convey the feeling, not just the flavor, of a star spanning saga. Though the examples I'm mentioning are fantasy-themed, they played into the design concept directly. Proto-roguelike boardgames like Terrence Donelly's Sorcerer's Cave and Greg Costikyan's Deathmaze, were, like modern full-blown roguelikes like Henzell's Dungeon Crawl and NetHack, strong influences as well.

@P: Ah, you said the magic word! Starflight also came up in an interview I did some years back with Tarn Adams of Dwarf Fortress, who also cites it as an inspiration! And Starflight's lead designer Greg Johnson is also one-half of Johnson-Voorsanger, who made ToeJam & Earl, and the prime mover of the current TJ&E sequel/revision! It's starting to seem like Starflight is a secret nexus of inspiration for roguelike developers. RC: Starflight was a big deal. I remember waiting and waiting, exasperated, for the C-64 port to be released. Seemed to take forever but it was worth it. Btw, Starflight's spiritual cousin, Star Control II, strongly influenced the way music is used in Strange Adventures and Weird Worlds.

@P: All of those games you mentioned before sound really interesting, especially Greg Costikyan's entry. He's a bit of a NetHack fan himself you know.

RC: I didn't. I know he was a hardcore Civ fan. Greg has a fantastic imagination. He's tackled quite a variety of subjects. His ludography is frighteningly impressive. ("A bibliography is a list of the books you've written; a discography is a list of the music you've recorded; and a ludography is a list of the games you've designed." - GC)

@P: I'm a bit interested in that 4X game you mentioned. Is that project entirely abandoned or might it reappear someday? Or alternatively, do you feel it's important to be able to abandon a project that's no longer working, or gone in uninteresting directions?

IK: We have abandoned a few projects for various reasons. The big 4X game was one - it was just too ambitious for us to finish, too similar to some other games, like Master of Orion, and I didn't really know how to do multi-player code at the time (plus the whole MS-DOS thing!). It was a good choice to switch to smaller projects.

RC: For us it's about being caught by something. Like when you get into Game of Thrones or Magic: The Gathering. Only the special, best things capture you. That's what we wait for and pounce on when it shows up!

IK: Even if we do decide to make a 4X style game in the Infinite Space universe, it will not be the old project resurrected. But it's interesting how much "stuff" from it appears in Sea of Stars - for example, the races and most of the items etc have a direct lineage to the old 4X project.

@P: You're calling the games "space roguelikes," could you explain, or even justify, that statement?  

IK: Right, our games don't exactly look like the typical fantasy roguelike! But they do play like one in many ways. We have the procedurally generated maps, high level of randomness and the sense of being dropped in a world that's bigger than what you can experience in one play-through. There's no saving and reloading, so all your actions are permanent. There are tons of items and it's up to the player to figure out how to best use them. I'm a big fan of traditional roguelikes as well, so I know the dissimilarities too, of course. For a while, we used the moniker "Roguelike-like" but it's a bit clumsy.  
RC: Strange Adventures and the rest of the series pass the test in most cases, yet they must be termed as hybrids. I've looked at the Berlin Interpretation and have thought a lot about this. We respect the pure roguelike form very much, for all of the good reasons. We do sometimes say these games are space roguelikes--but in the same way that FTL was termed that. The primary reason is that it is the best way to describe the Infinite Space gameplay, overall, with just one word. Describing SAIS as "space strategy" or "adventure strategy" or "strategy rpg" doesn't convey the gameplay experience at all!

@P: I didn't mean to imply that your games couldn't be roguelikes, we've certainly covered enough games that blur the lines! And I agree that "roguelike-like" is a bit clumsy, as you've probably witnessed, there's a bit of confusion on the proper way to identify games that are inspired by Rogue's randomness and replayable elements but aren't strictly top-down, tactical combat, dungeon exploration.

RC: We have to remember that the first makers of roguelikes didn't invent the Berlin list. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did. A roguelike is what it is (a randomized, turn-based D&D/Tolkien themed dungeon survival sim on a grid) because early roguelike creators were emulating the features of their favorite game. So, while the venerable roguelike form can number and claim these traits, it can't really own them.

@P: Describe the basic "explore a space in a limited time" gameplay.

RC: One roguelike aspect that isn't always mentioned--I don't think it's on the Berlin list--is clocks. Food clock. Radiation exposure clock. Spell duration clocks. Thirst clock. Poison damage clock. Etc. If one of these clocks time out, your character is in trouble, which adds more tension to the game. Awesome! I think clocks are an essential part of a roguelike game. Sea of Stars, Weird Worlds and Strange Adventures use clocks too. The primary one is to return to player character's homeworld within a set period of time or suffer a reward penalty. This victory condition mirrors somewhat the idea of Star Trek's "five year mission", or Darwin's voyage, or a pirate adventure for that matter.

@P: The alien races provide a good mix of beings to interact with, each of which presenting their own personality in behavior, text and combat. Any favorites?

RC: I really like one of the new species we added to Sea of Stars, the Calatians. They're mentioned in the previous games but actually make an appearance in IS3 as a full-fledged race. They boast of their mighty ships and fearsome weaponry that appear in conbat as small and unthreatening. Are they bluffing? (Tip: If you're nice to them, you might even get rewarded with one to add to your flotilla.)

IK: The Tchorak have been my favorite for a long time, just because they are so... alien. Of course, I know much more about them than you'll see in any of our games, but I hope you'll get to know them better one of these days.

RC: I can't wait to explain the sex life of a Tchorak. Or maybe I can.

@P: Secret item features (Like "hypervision," or the Lookout Frogs & Toy Robot, or the Crystal Fish?) What inspired them? Why don't more items have these features? Is there a magic number?

IK: These items are a bit like a card that allows you to break one specific rule in a boardgame - they're limited by the number of rules that can be broken in a useful way. I do agree we should think of more, there are probably fun things that we've missed.

RC: What Iikka said. There is a sweet spot where it feels good and we sort of "call it." But it's also a matter of seeing a possibile connection that might be interesting or entertaining or, more importantly, useful. If the designer puts a ship thief in the game, she should put one or two things in to help the player prevent theft as well.

@P: One-in-eight games in the original two Infinite Space games are "mission games," where the game rules change slightly and unexpectedly in the middle of play? What inspired them?

IK: I think it was at least partly inspired by some random events in 4X games, like Master of Orion where occasionally a "space amoeba" appears and starts to wreak havoc. In Strange Adventures we just had one, and we didn't want it to happen every time because that would have made the game very repetitive, so we made it fairly rare. Now, in Sea of Stars we have five different missions (and counting...) and we can just randomly pick one.

RC: These games are intended to be like instant space opera generators, so it stands to reason that every once in a while a chance to "save the galaxy," or save your character's homeworld, etc., should be included. It also breaks the game up from session to session, enhancing replayabilty, we hope, by helping to keep things fresh and surprising.

@P: One interesting thing about Weird Worlds in particular is how frequently one can come up non-combat, or what we might call "instant win" solutions to game problems, like [SPOILERS] Mirroring enemy fleets into black holes, Vacuum Collapsing the Yellow Kawangii or using the Chromium Gong on Primordius. These solutions seems to be deprecated somewhat in Sea of Stars in favor of more traditional combat. Is there a particular reason?

IK: With the exception of the mirror, these still work :) But we have tried to balance some items to make them less game-breaking - the gong no longer has unlimited uses, the hyperdrive is not always the best choice, and so on. This is mainly done to keep the game challenging even if you find the item.

@P: On the play changes with each version. Especially the substantial formula changes in Sea of Stars (Maj. Brass prologue dropped, set sector size, no need to return home at end, all mission games, removal of popular earlier items like Aetheric Mirror and Mantle of Babulon.) Was this to fix a perceived lack in the earlier games? Is the new game's 3D starmap related to them? Will we see any of these items return in later updates?

IK: We chose not to implement the mirror for various reasons - for example, we don't want you to accidentally move Haven Station or the Klakar Nest. If we made space stations non-mirrorable like the space hulk was in Weird Worlds, then you'd keep running into situations where you get a sensor blip but can't use the mirror, and that tells you it's a homeworld. If the mirror ever does appear, it will need to have some different kind of behavior. The Mantle would be easy enough to make, but as in Weird Worlds it would end up reducing your score so it's not a great item - also, combat is fun! It would perhaps be more interesting to come up with other ways to befriend specific races.

@P: Maybe describe a bit on the use of nebulas & black holes, their role in the design as an obstacle to exploration. (Nebulas usually slow the player down greatly upon entry; Black Holes may be hidden at the start of a map, and force the player to decide to turn back to forge ahead and possibly risk losing immediately.)

IK: Since we're dealing with a time limit, adding "terrain" forces you to make plans around it and makes the game more interesting, and different each time. We originally had ideas for other kinds of obstacles, like asteroid fields, but just these two made the cut.

@P: Events — derelict ship, supernova, Esmeralda, alien rescues. Their appearance, and the timing with which they appear, has the potential to either profoundly change the game, or not really change it much at all, depending on when they turn up, it feels to me like an essential part of the Infinite Space experience. Do you agree?

IK: Oh yes, these are a big part of making each game session unique and giving you the sense that almost anything can happen in the Infinite Space universe, from the silly to the spectacular.

@P: The Infinite Space games have board and card game versions? What are they like?

RC: They're fun. Eat Electric Death! is an old school hex and turn-based tactical starship combat boardgame based on the ships, ship system, items, and the way ships manuever, in the computer game versions. Infinite Space: Explorers is essentially a starship combat card game that uses a "starmap" board to keep track of where fleets are, which stars have been explored and where card battles occur. The two Diceland Space sets based in the IS games use James Ernest's unique combat system with giant paper dice. Each die is a starship and you roll them on the table in combat. It's diceless and real time. Nobody makes games like Cheapass Games.

@P: How did James Ernst and Cheapass Games help the Strange Adventures series to get started?

RC: By generously providing a distribution point for the game. Indie game portals didn't exist then, so it was terrific to have his support. He also got CD's made of the first three or four games. Those are like collector's items now.  

@P: On mods... Where did you get the idea to make the game moddable? How easy is it, would you say, to make a mod? What are your favorite mods?

 IK: Rich and I both made mods before we started working in the game industry, so it was natural to us. I also think that the same things that make the game easy to modify, make it easier for us to create the content for it in the first place. There are a lot of cool mods, but the "Even Stranger" and "Even Weirder" series is a standout favorite for sure. Modding tends to get harder as games get more complex, but we try to make it as easy as possible. In Sea of Stars, we use standard text file format to store all the data in the game so it's possible to get started with just a text editor.

@P: Will we see the return of Major Brass?

IK: He's the face of the Terran Space Fleet :) Not sure if he's going to make a personal appearance, but anything's possible!

RC: New face; same Brass.

@P: Who was Phosphorous?

IK: Phosphorous, aka. Bill Sears was the third Eel and our main artist for over a decade. He made the splash screen art for half a dozen games, tons of Weird Worlds items and creatures, etc. We had some unforgettable times together, and multiple road trips down to IGF in California. He passed away after a heart attack in 2012. We really miss him.

RC: Bill was an amazing friend and contributor. And musician, as we later found out! But not in the traditional sense of guitars and trombones. His music was strange, handmade in his garage and surrealistic. Technically it would be called musique concrete and found sound music. You know how it is. Usually when you hear sound collages that are a bit avant garde, you say no! Turn it off! But it isn't that way at all with Bill's music. It is engrossing like falling into a mind adventure. Very special stuff.

@P: Is any of his music in the games? Do you think there might be a place for it, even if just one or two pieces, or are there rights or thematic issues? Is there a place where readers can find them on the internet?

IK: Bill created music for both Brainpipe (Steam - Desura) and Data Jammers (Steam - Desura). We shared an Independent Games Festival audio award for Brainpipe. You can listen to some of Bill's music for Data Jammers here, and mixed medleys of Brainpipe music here: Smetlov's Locus - Trippocampus - Cognative Cascade.

Thanks to Rich and Iikka for talking with me, and for putting up with my whimsical and makeshift interview process!  Which reminds me, I still have a followup interview with Tarn Adams to finish....  by the way, surprise!  This isn't from the book but is an entirely new column!  I'll probably be splitting the column between book stuff and entirely new essays for a while, so don't forget about the site even if you already have it!

Friday, March 11, 2016

7DRL Home Stretch!

The 7DRL Challenge (warning: server under heavy load right now!), a week-long orgy of coding and caffeine in which a multitude of devs both experiences and newbie try to write a playable roguelike game, is in its last day.  It is, in my opinion, both the most wonderful and Quixotic "game jam" around.

Some years ago I wrote up every finishing game they made one year.  (Those columns are not in the book, sadly -- too ephemeral.)  I sometimes contemplate doing it again, but then the rational part of my brain says get real -- it took me four whole columns to do it the first time, taking me a couple of months, and there's far more people involved these days.  But a few outstanding games, or at least seeds for games, inevitably appear each year, and it's always a good idea to watch for whatever Jeff Lait or Darren Grey make.  I'll probably do a highlights column.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

@Play 84: The Rescue of Meta-Zelda

This originally went up, all places, at Kotaku!  While there's six or so other new pieces in the book that have yet to go up on the site, for various reasons I wanted to spotlight this one again, as I think Zelda Randomizer is really something special.

So, what does it really mean to be a roguelike game?  My contention, repeated often, is that turn-based tactical combat on a grid and basic randomization are not enough, and may not even be essential, that these things, while part of the basic definition of the term, don't get to the core of what makes the genre interesting from a play or design standpoint.  My thesis is that some element of greater discovery, like item identification, is required, and that there needs to be some consequence to the player's explorations, some cost to searching.

By this measure, one of the most awesome roguelikes of recent memory?  I'll tell you.  It's called The Legend of Zelda.

(Zelda secret tune plays off-key)

Well, not just the Legend of Zelda.  There is an important modification to it, or rather, a program that systematically makes modifications.  That program is fcoughlin's Zelda Randomizer.

It was originally developed for the speedrunning community, which had to deal with an interesting problem.  Speedrunning a known computer game is not really the same thing as speedrunning a game you've never seen before.  You learn where everything is, or refer to FAQs, for the first few plays, but after that it's all about optimizing a known world.  Zelda is amazingly resistant to such optimization; the game seems almost designed around the idea that players should be able to use many different routes and approaches to completing it, to the degree that every enemy can be defeated by at least one weapon other than the player's sword until the very final boss of the game.

But despite this, and the fact that we're still not absolutely sure what the fastest way to complete Zelda is, the game is still a static thing.  The use of randomization in the original Legend of Zelda is interesting (look up, some time, the algorithm used to determine what items enemies drop, that's a rabbit hole for you), but, ultimately, each room still contains the same enemies, the dungeons are all laid out the same, and the tough rooms and treasures are distributed the same way each game.

That is where Zelda Randomizer comes in.  It is a fairly simple program, nothing more than a bunch of checkboxes really, that takes an unmodified ROM of The Legend of Zelda and, depending on what you check, scrambles it and basically makes a new quest for it.

The Legend of Zelda (Famicom/NES), described

Starring Leslie Nielsen as the Helpful Old Man

While The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming's longest-running series, not as many people these days are not actually that familiar with the game in its original form.  A brief description follows.

The Legend of Zelda (1987) is fundamentally an exploration and combat game, somewhat like Metroid in that regard, although it's an overhead view game instead of a side-scroller, and exploration takes place across a wide and deep landscape instead of in a series of cross-sectioned tunnels like a huge art farm.  The player guides an elf boy, Link, who gets his clothes by way of Pan of Neverland, through a large overworld, divided into 128 screens.  Most of the screens have challenging monsters who try to kill Link.  Scattered throughout this overworld are nine dungeons, also divided into screens, and containing even more challenging monsters.  In each dungeon is at least one item, which allow Link to increase his combat ability and exploration power.  Some important places in both the overworld and underworld cannot be reached until the necessary items have been obtained.  Also in the overworld are shops, where some additional items can be bought.  A very few items are just given to Link outright, though he may have to prove himself first.

Also in each dungeon is at least one boss, and one of the bosses in each guards a "Triforce piece."  The ultimate object of the game is to get eight Triforce pieces, which unlocks the way into the ninth and last dungeon.  In there is Ganon, the hardest boss, who guards Princess Zelda, the aim of your quest.  Defeating a dungeon's boss also awards Link a heart container, extending his maximum health by one unit.  A few heart containers can also be found in secret places in the overworld.  So, in a manner somewhat similar to Brogue, player character improvement comes from finding items instead of gaining experience points, and you don't always have to slaughter and slay to get them.  But unlike roguelikes in general, Zelda is a real-time, action game.  In fact, it's action is pretty sharp.  There are enemies (especially the so-called Darknuts and Wizzrobes) that will kill Link pretty easily no matter how strong he's become if his player isn't skilled at attacking and dodging.

The Game That Defined Nintendo Hard
When The Legend of Zelda came out, it was kind of a sensation.  Both Sega and Hudson Soft produced thinly-veiled clones of it, for the Sega Master System (Golden Axe Warrior) and PC-Engine/Turbografx 16 (Neutopia), and Compile's Golvellius, also for the SMS, has some pretty strong similarities too.  If you unfocus your eyes a bit a whole genre of Zelda-likes from around the time can be recognized, containing games ranging from Legend of Valkyrie, Crystalis, Faria, StarTropics, SoulBlazer and many more.  And of course the Zelda series itself continues to this day.

The weird thing about a game this so copied, however, is how obscure it is.  Not in the sense of being unknown, certainly not that, but in the sense of being unclear.  To modern tastes it seems undirected.  You spend a lot of time in the early going of The Legend of Zelda roaming around just looking for things.  Most of those clones I mentioned split the overworld up into smaller regions to help narrow down and direct your exploration, but The Legend of Zelda's Land of Hyrule is one humongous, homogeneous world, and you can explore 98.5% of it from the start.  Although the eight dungeons you have to find are numbered, they are not strongly ordered.  Some can be done out of order, and the only clue besides the number that one dungeon follows the other is just that, a literal clue, a cryptic message in each dungeon giving a vague area to look in for the next.  Players are just as likely to find dungeons by wandering around and looking than by going to a specified place.

This is not a good room to find with three hearts.

And finding things just by roaming the map casually is difficult, because Zelda's enemies are not trivial to overcome.  Even the weakest ones can do a number of poor Link at the start of the game, when it only takes six hits to kill him.  The original LoZ doesn't use item-based gates to ward the player from advanced areas, but enemy difficulty: if you're in an area where the enemies make you sweat, you probably shouldn't be there yet.  One class of enemy, called "Lynels" in the manual, very frequently shoot swords that do two-thirds of Link's starting health in damage in one hit, and the mountain areas that hide several later dungeons are infested with them.  Large-scale sequence breaking in Zelda is possible but requires nerves of steel, and even advanced players often leave those areas for when they've gained some power.

There is a strong sense in Zelda of being dropped in a world and told to sink or swim.  And many players sink, and sink often, and some eventually give up.  There is a tendency, among some players, to lament the weak spine of current players.  Truthfully, I am kind of like that, but when I think about it I waver in my confidence.  No one is naturally good at these kinds of games; some skills can only be acquired through practice, and I've had lots of practice.  Instead of pointing at a losing player, laughing and saying GIT GUD, I try to say: oh, you died.  Ah well, try again? 

The problem here is fear of failure, that is, thinking that lack of success at a game is a judgment against the player, and that dying just means you suck.  These players don't suck.  This happens to everyone.  I'm better than most, but what skill I have comes from practice, and even so, still, sometimes I'm awful!  And compared to roguelikes, LoZ is pretty darn forgiving: when you die you don't lose any items or money, and if you're in a dungeon you just get put back at its entrance.  The worst that happens to the player is that he comes back without much health in his meter, which can be frustrating later on, but the game gives players ways to remedy even this.

Now, about this Randomizer thingy

Some of the things that Zelda Randomizer can do:
  • Move around the contents of caves in the overworld.  The cave that contained a Heart Container may contain money, a shop, a text message, or other things.  It may even be a Door Repair Charge.  Since dungeons, where are hidden both essential items and the Triforce pieces that are the primary objects of your quest, are moved around too, you will have to do a lot of searching to find them.  The Randomizer can even be set to leave its own cryptic hints as to dungeon locations!
  • Move the enemies around in the overworld.  The same general enemy groups are in the game, but their locations are mixed up among all the regions.  The dangerous “Lynels,” the sword-throwing centaurs from the mountains, can make appearances in other places, and must be dealt with carefully if encountered early.
  • Move the rooms around each dungeon.  While each dungeon keeps its original shape, the rooms and internal layout of each dungeon are remixed.
  • It can use the game’s Second Quest (a long story) as a resource to take further dungeon layouts and enemy groups from.
  • It can even be used to construct challenge games, that take the ubiquitous Wooden Sword you’re ordinary given at the start of the game and hide it somewhere randomly around the world map, or even put it in the room before the final boss (the only enemy in the game that requires a sword to defeat it).

Under some, most or all of these, and other, mixing operations, playing through Zelda regains some portion of the wonder that it had back when people first explored the land of Hyrule, back in 1986.  More recent gamers may not understand what playing a game like the original NES Legend of Zelda was like in the days of its original release.  It was rather a deeper and more complex adventure than most were used to at that time, so hidden was its secrets.  While nothing essential is hidden without some clue of its presence (usually an old man or woman to cryptically pointing you towards it), the games produced by Zelda Randomizer expect the player to know where all the secrets are already.  Everything hidden by the Randomizer is where something had been hidden before, but when there's only around ninety such places to look, that's not as much help as it might be!

Random Zelda can be really random.  I found a Triforce piece in the third room of this dungeon!

So, Zelda Randomizer’s output is mostly an additional challenge for diehards.  Speedrunners are interested in this because it brings an aspect of the original game, the element of discovery and exploration, into play in a realm where those things are usually long vanished.  People who play games over and over to improve their times come to know their prey very well.  There is usually no aspect of them too obscure to be known.  Randomization returns to play some of that aspect of mystery.

Zelda Randomizer was inspired by an earlier tool, a ROM randomizer for Super Metroid, which also somewhat interesting.  But Zelda is an unusually resilient game when scrambled.  Since most enemies can be defeated in multiple ways, yet are still usually vulnerable to swords, the strategic implications of there being, say, the Bow, the Wand, the Red Candle or even just a lot of Bombs going forward from there are great.  Also, one of the problems with randomizing a game like this are keys, which usually requires a complex algorithm to make sure the player always has enough to open all the locked doors he finds.  All later Zelda games would require such an algorithm.  The original Zelda, however, contains more keys than are needed to win the game, and has an item that eventually makes all other keys obsolete.  Even when you're using normal keys, they aren't even dungeon-specific! They can be taken from site to site and used wherever.  You can even buy keys in stores; they are expensive, but available to help the frustrated player.

That is not to say that Zelda Randomizer doesn’t take steps to ensure the game is winnable.  A number of items (specifically, the Bow, Ladder, Raft, Recorder and sometimes the Power Bracelet) must be found during play, and the program must ensure whatever result has a solution.  It’s just that not stressing out about the location of keys makes the job of randomization easier.

But this article isn't just about the joys of randomizing a beloved game into a new experience.  Because strangely, The Legend of Zelda takes to being mixed up very well.

Random Zelda Is HARD, But Strangely Fair

Zelda's overworld was meant for getting lost in, and part of the strange joy of the game is getting lost and yet kind of getting rewarded for it anyway.  The game's secrets are set up in such a way that the player will probably find one or two accidentally during the game.  Bombs that break open secret cave are also one of the strongest weapons against monsters, the flames from candles both damage foes and burn trees, and once you discover you can push certain statues it's only a matter of time before every statue in the game has felt Link's sweaty grip.

In a properly randomized game though it's not just the secrets that have been moved around, but the monsters: you might have to spend this game tiptoeing around Lynels in central Hyrule!  And the rooms in the dungeons, and the locked doors and the keys that go to them: since keys can be bought in shops in the original LoZ, the game doesn't need to make sure you can fully explore every dungeon without buying them.  And the required items, and the shops that sell some of those items.

Only seven or so of Zelda's many items absolutely must be found to win, but certain items make the process much easier.  For instance, one of the game's many secret areas hides a guy who will give Link a letter that, if shown to the old women who hide in some of the caves, will cause them to offer to sell Medicine to Link, that will fill up all his health whenever he wants up to twice.  Finding the Letter is crucial to having a good game, but there is only one in the entire world, and the player may never find it.  It's not needed, but it's greatly desired.

Well well, what do we have here!

Another example.  Only one of the shops in the game sells an item called the Blue Ring, which cuts all the damage Link takes in half.  Again, you don't need it, but you'll be glad if you find it.  Also, in five locations in the overworld there are hidden heart containers, permanent health extensions.  You don't need any of them, but you'll want all of them.  And there are enough of these really nice bonuses to find that you'll probably find a few of these helps regardless.  They will likely not be found in the same order as the original game, but that just compounds how different the game feels when you find strange and useful things like the Recorder or the Wand in the first dungeon, or even outside of it.

The aspect here that connects this back to roguelikes is the tension between two opposed qualities, emphasizing the consequences of a player's decisions balanced with keeping those consequences balanced.

Most rooms in the original Legend of Zelda are difficult, but not impossible, to clear with three hearts and a Wooden Sword.  I've cleared rooms of Blue Darknuts with that before.  That is the outer edge of its difficulty; 99% of its rooms can be handled this way, but even skilled players would find such a run to be tiring, if they were about to do it at all.  Because of that, even if a randomized game put the player into a situation where his starting location was surrounded by Lynels, he still has a chance of breaking out of it.  The ultimate fairness of Zelda's gameplay is insurance, here, against malicious whims of the dice.

But the game also doesn't hand anything to the player on a plate.  The player still must search for items and dungeons, some of which may be hidden in incredibly obscure places, and while it's possible for all a dungeon's best things to be placed close to the entrance of each labyrinth, practically, the law of averages limits the likelihood of that occurring.  The possibility that a required mobility item (something that gives the player an ability that lets him cross formerly-impassible routes) may be hidden behind a barrier that requires it is there, but that's where the Randomizer tool comes in, giving the resulting game a solvability check and rerolling it repeatedly until it passes.

The conceptual field of probability into which Zelda Randomizer casts its dice is rich enough that the situations produced are interesting even after many attempts, challenging but different, but generally not individually overwhelming so much that the player has no way to proceed.

It takes something like the Zelda Randomizer to demonstrate how meticulously the game is instructed, really.  You only need a scant few items to complete the game, but it's challenging enough that you still want everything you can get, and yet unlike in your more traditional games, skill and practice open the door to advanced play much more readily than grinding.  If that doesn't feel essentially roguelike to you then I don't know what to tell you.

You will come to hate this guy.

If this sounds more fun to watch than necessarily to play, you're in luck!  The website Speed Runs Live hosts frequent races between players playing with the same seed and flags for your spectating enjoyment!  Also somewhat along these lines is Speedrun Bingo, available for many games.  Game randomization tools are an exciting frontier in the romhacking community — there also exist randomizers for Super Metroid, Zelda II and Dragon Quest. 

Update: next column, StoryBundle results

Still working on the Quarries of Scred column.  It's an interesting game and I don't think I understand all of the elements in it yet.  I might post something else from the book in the meantime.  I'm also waiting to put up a fairly large interview with the Digital Eel guys, makers of the several wonderful Strange Adventures in Infinite Space games.  There's a fairly ridiculous article on those in the book by the way....

The StoryBundle succeeded very well, from what I told.  A total of $2592 was raised for the Prisoners Literature Project.  The bundle sold above-average for StoryBundle, I'm told.  The @Play book can still be purchased by itself from Amazon and

I'm working towards getting it up in more places, but it turns out you can only direct-publish on Apple's iBooks if you have a recent Mac (Mavericks or later), or go through an aggregator!  And Google's Play bookstore is temporarily not accepting new submissions.