Learn to Program with Scratch (Majed Marji)

Yeah, I guess in my search to find anything to write about in between World of Warcraft grinds, I'm talking about programming textbooks now.

Scratch is a programming tool where you connect pre-made blocks together to create code, primarily for games and cartoons. And man, I wanted to like this thing so much, maybe just because the mascot is a cat, but this book got torturous to work with halfway through. It's not because it's a computer science book for kids - No Starch Press' Python for Kids and JavaScript for Kids were great for dipping my toes into those languages - it's because Scratch is clunky, awkward to use, and too limited to be good for much more than teaching five-year olds how programs work without having to worry about syntax errors; Scratch doesn't even support dictionaries for crying out loud, and if you want to write an if/else statement with more than two choices you have to nest multiple if/else statements into each others' else options*. And in the time it takes to dig through the menus looking for the blocks you want, insert other blocks, and check the drop-downs needed to create a for loop, you could have just typed everything out in another language. If you're an adult, stick to Python for your entry level programming language, or get the free version of Unity if you think programming games would make things more penetrable.

And you'd think the downloadable supplement pack would have come with versions of the programs where the sprites were laid out but didn't have the code hooked up so the reader could work it themselves, but shit, that just made the book faster.

* Boy, that's got to be a confusing sentence for people who don't know programming terminology.


Deltarune - Chapter 1 (PC)

This is more of a playable teaser than a complete game, but eh, it's worth talking about.

Initially it appears to be a sequel to Undertale, but some details and one in particular (spoiler: a character who's dead in Undertale is alive and well here) muddy the water on whether this is a sequel, a prequel, an alternate timeline where the war between humans and monsters never happened, or even a reimagining with many of the same characters and themes. The connections to Undertale don't even seem to really matter, as the main cast conisists of two characters who weren't in Undertale and the inhabitants of the alternate world they get warped to at the beginning.

As with Undertale you can end the random encounters peacefully or violently, but now you have a party and can perform combination attacks with them. And the game's a bit overentusiastic about showing what it can do with its revamped system, throwing new mechanics at you only to drop them a few rooms later. At one point you have a party member that will uncontrollably attack enemies, so you have to start every battle by warning the enemies to dodge her attacks... then she leaves ten minutes later. The dialogue also feels a bit more cramped than Undertale. The antagonist for most of the game is this kid named Lancer who's not really evil just mischievous, but it get exhausting as you you go through one room, have a scene with Lancer, go through that room, have another scene with Lancer, go through that room, then have yet another scene with Lancer.

There's this one character, Rouxls Kaard (and yes I totally had to look that up), who's mentioned a few times through the game but doesn't actually appear until the very end where he shows himself to be a hybrid of Papyrus and Mettaton EX. But then he doesn't have a chance to actually do anything before you clock the final boss and end the game.

Oh, don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of cute dialogue, characters, and battles, and I can't complain too much since it's free. It's just the pacing's a bit... weird. And I guess it wouldn't be a proper Undertale successor if all the silliness and talk of love and friendship wasn't followed up with a big "well that escalated quickly" moment.


Botanicula (PC)

This might be my favorite of the three Amanita Design games I've played so far, but I wouldn't say it's a fantastic game? It's a cute enough little point and clicker about a team of plant parts carrying a magic seed down a tree that's being consumed by a dark parasite. Sometimes it feels more like a collection of playground activities than a cohesive narrative, like how one moment you're figuring out a teleporting door maze, and the next you're guiding a star out of a maze. Then it takes a turn down Fuckedup Avenue at the end, and there's a shoot-em-up section of all things.

And as far as point and clickers I played this month, it's leaps and bounds beyond...


Armikrog (PC)

In the world of retro reimaginings by the original creators gone wrong, Arkmikrog takes the cake. Literally the nicest thing I can say about this game is, well, at least it didn't replicate the fucking Hall of Records... unless you count having to retread the entire game world after you gain the ability to understand those tentacle monsters for the runes needed to solve the final puzzle.

Just like The Neverhood, most of the puzzles are based around writing down patterns and symbols and inputting them somewhere else in the game, and those are the least terrible parts. There's three doors you have to unlock by solving a sort of sliding tile puzzle in a giant +, where you move a single tile from one of the arms into the hub, spin the hub, and deposit the tile into one of the arms to eventually form a picture in one of them. I'm unusually patient with sliding block puzzles in games, but I cannot see the things being more than an irritation to most people. Oh, and an early part of the game has you spinning a wheel several times to cycle between two doors separated by a bunch of walls. Yes, Armikrog actually lifted the worst puzzle from fucking D.

And remember those sections in Neverhood where you rode a buggy along a track in the wall? You know, the worst thing about that game after the Hall of Records? Well, they're back in Armikrog and even more a pain in the ass because the buggy doesn't understand intersections. To illustrate what I mean, take this image, pretend the purple disc is solved, and imagine you're trying to get onto it. While trying to cross over, the buggy will bounce off the intersection several times before finally making the cross. And navigating that entire path means five instances of the damn thing struggling against broken programming.

Incidentally, that screen showcases another puzzle that made me want to slap somebody and yell "What is wrong with you!" To spin the discs, you have to move the buggy to another screen and into notches that spin them, then keep doing that in between driving back to the first screen to check your progress.

While working this one puzzle with these drawings on a wall that would move around as you clicked on them, and certain ones drew a line between them, I actually yelled "This game is nonsense!" out loud.

Early in the game Tommynaut finds an abandoned baby, and while I appreciate the game not delving into vomit and poop jokes, I still wanted to drop kick her. See, at various points she'll start crying, and to shut her up you have to hang a set of toys on a mobile in the correct order. And here's a tip, budding game developers: nobody wants to work out a puzzle based on putting things in the right order through trial and error while listening to a screaming baby.

The first time it comes up only three toys need to be placed on the mobile, but because the game doesn't tell you what's going on I thought you had to repeat the pattern of toys shown on the back half of the mobile and yanked them all off. Then when you press the green button to check your work, the cycle begins at the back of the mobile where the toys are fixed, so you have to wait like half a minute for the light to come around and check the toys you can actually move. And finally, the third time this happened I realized the toys are hung on the mobile in the same order each time. So after the first time it's not puzzle solving while listening to a screaming baby, it's data entry while listening to a screaming baby (or silence, if you mute your speakers).

Also, one time I was working one of these fucking things, hit the Esc key, and the game froze. So, bleh.

Let's close this out on a tidbit. During the intro movie, I thought Tommynaut sounded familiar but I couldn't place it. When I went back to the Steam listing to look for some kind of manual because the game doesn't tell you about switching to the dog (or much of anything, really), I found out he's voiced by Mike Nelson. Yeah, the guy from Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax? After learning that, I couldn't help but hear everything he said dripping in sarcasm, such as when he thanks his dog for weighing down switches.


Mole Mania (Game Boy)

Mole Mania is an action-oriented puzzle game where you guide a metal ball across a screen to break open the exit, eventually culimating in a boss fight at the end of the maze. The main gimmick is as a mole you can dig underground to get around obstacles on the surface, but be careful where you put your holes lest you cut off the route to the exit. More hazards and tools are added through the game, including but not limited to weights that can only be pushed, panels that force the ball in a certain direction, pipes that change its direction if thrown in, and barrels that can plug holes but also prevent you from digging through that spot. Puzzle balance is inconsistent, though, as I'd struggle on a screen for fifteen minutes then blow through the next three on my first try. By the way, Nintendo? Maybe you feel this is a signature "thing" you coined in Zelda and just had to put in your games at the time, but that dinging when your health is low? There is a difference between a warning and a constant irritation, and I kept having to mute the Game Boy so I could actually think about the puzzle on screen.

To get a perfect score in each world, you have to complete a minigame to throw all the cabbages on a screen into holes while a farmer tries to bash your furry skull in. But by the 6th world I found the farmer so overwhelming I couldn't get more than a couple cabbages into the holes before time ran out and stopped bothering.

So, with the 8th world in front of me, I was preparing for some truly devious puzzles. Then I found out it was a damn-blasted boss rehash. Also, the last checkpoint is after the fourth boss out of eight, and making the player repeatedly fight two easy but not exactly speedy bosses and the Sammmy Twins who can go fuck themselves only to get trashed by the final is a total dick move. It did get easier when I was reminded you can smash the pillars just by pushing the ball into them and didn't have to waste time charging a kick.


Undertale (Nintendo Switch, E10+)

Everything I said about the game when I first played it applies here, so this will be about the port job to the Switch. Incidentally, the reason I even have a Switch is because in October somebody pissed me off so badly I went out and impulse bought one so I could play this game and hate the world a little less.

From the time Undertale was announced for PS4, I was curious about how console versions would handle the meta parts, namely the neutral final boss. I thought the game was going to force close itself and kick you back to the Switch's main menu, but it appears to just auto-reset. That, or the game freezes itself and the Switch just recovers it right there.

There's an optional boss added to the Switch version that uses a unique but fiddly mechanic, though I mostly blame the JoyCons for the clunkiness. If you're wondering, it's not a superboss for hardcore Undertale fans, just a thing that uses the Switch's hardware (though any controller with two analog sticks could handle it) and in fact after I beat it, I was left with this feeling of, what, was that it?

Honestly, I'm not sure this is the ideal way to play Undertale. And not just because the game has so much black, I spent the majority of it looking at my dumb face reflected in the Switch's screen.


Return of the Obra Dinn (PC)

A word about Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, before I begin; I couldn't get into it. I found the interface so frustrating, as you scour the papers against several other documents for the tiniest inconsistency, and if something was wrong you had to pull out another document, find the page the passport conflicts with, and click the problem and what it contradicts, all in a work area more restrictive than the game's timer. Oh, I understand the feeling of oppression and claustrophobia was the point of a game about working a border checkpoint at totally-not-the-Soviet-Union, but I just found it impenetrable.

Return of the Obra Dinn is more of a deductive puzzle game than Papers, Please and lets you take your time processing information. The premise is a cargo ship called the Obra Dinn that went missing in 1803 suddenly drifts into English waters five years later without its crew, and you have to board the ship and figure out what happened. For the task you're given a book to fill out, some sketches of the crew, a list of the members with their name, country of origin, and role on the ship, and a magic pocket watch that when used over a corpse lets you witness the last few moments of their life. First you get several seconds of audio over a black screen leading up to their death, then the point of death in the form of a 3D area frozen in time you can freely walk around, but not interact with. It's sort of like Ghost Trick if there was nothing you could actually do about the deaths.

I do have two nitpicks about the UI. First, I kind of wish you could go back to a memory through the book without having to relocate the body on the ship. When I was trying to compare information in several memories, it felt cumbersome to keep leaving memories and running around the ship to find the bodies I wanted. Second, I wish in cases where Unknown A was killed by Unknown B, you could point to Unknown B in the sketch and when you finally figure out who Unknown B is it would automatically add their name to Unknown A's page.

Generally it's not too hard to identify the cause of death, though several crewmates don't have bodies for you to use the pocket watch over, others die of an injury sustained in another memory, and sometimes you have to look closely at a scene to figure out which of the multiple things happening did them in. The trickier part is identifying the crewmen, and while a handful are directly spoken to in memories, for others you'll have to use whatever information you can scrape together. There's some room for brute forcing it, as whenever you get any three name and fate sets correct the game will mark them as such. So if you can narrow a person down to one of two topmen, for example, you can start swapping names around until you get a hit.

Sometimes the challenge was trying to figure out what the heck the game wanted me to put in. I've read that if the cause of death is a little ambiguous (an early death left me puzzled whether to say the guy was crushed by a canon or the "terrible beast" throwing the canon around) the game will usually accept either answer. But once I couldn't figure out why an entry wasn't getting flagged correctly even though I was sure I got the killer and victim right, and it was because I misidentified the dithery lump the killer was using as a knife when it was a club. One of the deaths is an execution by firing line, but "executed by firing line" is not an available cause of death. Initially I wrote down they were shot by the officer who ordered the execution, but shortly after three other deaths were flagged as correct, indicating that wasn't the correct answer. I went back to the memory, noticed something about the gunfire (you can probably see it in the screenshot), and thought "Okay, I guess that's what the game wants me to put in? That's a bit unfair to that guy, though."

But that's just one example of Return of the Obra Dinn being a game about bureaucracy stripping away humanity and context. You've spent nine hours watching people die horribly, curling your toes when the audio for a death is a bunch of crunching sounds while a grown man screams, and listening to them blubbering about not being able to save their friends before their life fades, and once you've completed the book, it's all boiled down into a cold, unfeeling report.