Electron Dance

Discussion: Hytale It Out Of Here

Welcome to the late late late March newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

The Hytale trailer from December now has 47 million views. I’ve shown it to my children and their reactions were halfway between the Keanu Reeves ‘whoa’ and the Stargate ‘what a rush’. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll quickly get the idea if I tell you a bunch of react videos are called ‘Minecraft 2 announced!?!!???!!??!!!!!?!??!’

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  1. I fixed the Hytale trailer! (I have not seen the Hytale trailer.)

    So, in relation to another video mentioned in the newsletter that I haven’t watched, I may need someone to talk me down. I got the Witness (found out from your timeline that it was free for a bit) and… I think I hate it? I could describe where I’ve left off after not too much playtime, but I’m getting very strong FEZ vibes of “There are AMAZING SECRETS which everyone gets incredibly het up about, and the true point of the game is those AMAZING SECRETS, which tends to distract from the fact that the basic gameplay loop is kind of awful.” (In FEZ, it was that I found the platforming controls sludgy; in The Witness, the line-drawing puzzles have been pretty uninspiring so far.)

    Starseed Pilgrim did not have that issue–the main thing you do is engaging even when you don’t know why you do it–though that, perhaps necessarily, has the effect that you can trash a bunch of progress perhaps without knowing why. On the other hand I managed to have to restart the game because I left the initial area, realized there was something I wanted to try back there, and couldn’t find it again.

    And then there are things that clearly seem to be clues, and other things that clearly seem like they need clues to be worked, but have I seen the clues or do I need to explore for them? Are the clues I need even accessible or are they in the locked areas I can see, or ones I can’t see? But I don’t want to wander off and look for clues, not just because it’s kind of tedious, but because I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back to where I am. Should I be drawing a map? Should I be writing down the clues, or taking screenshots of them? Those are pretty high on the list of Not Fun Things To Do (I had to do some screenshotting for Saira, but there was an inbuilt mechanism for it which just happened not to work when I ran it in Wine, and anyway the screenshot puzzles are a big reason why Saira is less beloved than other Nifflas games).

    Early in the development stages of The Witness, Blow was talking a lot about how he was going to rethink the adventure game. The Witness is obviously very far from interactive fiction, particularly in the interaction mechanisms, but I feel a bit as though it has my least favorite aspects of some interactive fiction. The opacity of what you can interact with (be real, I know that you can draw on things that aren’t panels), the opacity of the puzzle structure (that thing about whether you should be banging your head on a particular puzzle right now or whether you just need to go somewhere else to find out what to do), the exploration that increases the cost of experimentation by making you trek across the map to try things out, the overall lack of direction–all reminds me of the part in many IF games where the map opens up and you have to wander all over the map figuring out what you ought to do and what you can do, and where I usually trail off.

    But a lot of people have clearly got a lot out of this. The question is whether I should keep trying to crack this particular coconut. And I haven’t really put much time into it (my mouse was broken for a bit, which is going to put a crimp in your Witnessing), so I’d be giving up early–the question is do I want to put more time in?

  2. Matt

    Consider yourself censured for making me click that YouTube link. We will not speak of this again.

    So, on Roguelikes–

    Okay, The Witness. I never drew a map. Sure I got lost a bit in the beginning and the island areas are not as well-connected as they should be. But I was continued to discover little areas I had missed. I wasn’t obsessed about navigating but then I was happy to spend a lot of time wandering.

    Generally most of puzzle work in The Witness is local in nature. There is no clue halfway across the island that you need to note down. If you don’t understand the symbols on a line puzzle it’s because you haven’t yet encountered the section that teaches you through them (this structure becomes apparent after a while). The village ruins in the centre of the island is meant to blow your mind.

    There are definitely teasers for other mysteries (strange locked doors; black pillars) but they are likely to fall to you by accident or not at all and you look up a walkthrough after you’ve finished. I wouldn’t worry too much about secret secret secrets – there is The Secret which everybody hits at some point – but I would focus on line puzzles unless you’re struck by sudden inspiration.

    I did make notes but usually about puzzles I had a hard job solving.

  3. Ok so I finished The Witness at the beginning of this month. I wanted to talk about it here, but before that I knew I simply had to watch Joel’s video on it first, and after I was done I felt all of the enthusiasm to start typing escaping like air from a balloon. The video was so good, so comprehensive, so thorough and successful in its negotiation of the Meaning Labyrinth that I no longer felt I had anything to contribute and also, kind of, that I was no longer interested in making a contribution.

    It reminded me of studying The Waste Land; John Blow reminds me of Eliot in general; building his towering monuments of erudition, working smartly to screen off his meaning to any but the most dedicated cognoscenti. It’s a complicated feeling because I know a lot of the resentment stems from envy at that learning and my own laziness in the face of obtaining it, resentment of the effort that went into it, the craftsmanship. But I also think that fundamentally, when you have done that work and gained the insight that comes with so much dedication and learning, it’s also deeply ungenerous to put it into works that delight in obfuscation and erecting walls around your meaning, rather than seeking ways to share your hard-won insight with others while sparing them the same burden.

    It reminds me of Deus Ex ******minor spoiler for the original Deus Ex in the following paragraph******* and JC Denton’s meeting with Morgan Everett. He talks about the great secret that lies at the heart of his secret society (you know the one) and how unremarkable it is, how the intense dedication and power the society is able to exert over its membership and beyond stems not from the secret itself but from the layers of secrecy, pomp and ritual built around it.

    Which isn’t to say that creators shouldn’t make art that rewards intense dedication and appreciation of craft, that locks itself up in layers of ever-more rarified and refined symbolism and self-reference. Those things can lead to quite remarkable work, and after all it’s very important that academics have *something* to do. I often find my opinions regarding art, when I try to set them out on the table and work them into some kind of order, often end up in a shape that resembles a strong argument for certain kinds of prescriptivism. ‘Art should be how I want it > I didn’t like this > DON’T MAKE ANY MORE THIS!’ It’s always distressing to catch myself on this path.

    Here’s something I’ll say about The Witness. The logic puzzles are great. Beginner-unfriendly, but that’s sort of the point; you’re frustrated now so that you can be more delighted (with the game? yourself?) every time the penny drops and it starts to come together. I see them as a metaphor for Blow’s major precepts: rationality, learning, experimentation, application. His scientism, in a word. I said he was ungenerous with his insights but these puzzles represent some of that wisdom translated directly into gameplay. That’s smart. That’s generous.

    What I really love is that with the grid puzzles Blow keeps the burden of implementing your solutions to a minimum (except the few times when he didn’t – you really feel it then). There is none of the onerous Sokoban, Sausage Rollean, turn-one-dick move go-back-to-the-start-ism and it REALLY MAKES THE GAME SING, VIBRATE, TRANSCEND. I can’t stress this enough which I was why I suddenly burst into caps there, sorry. I’m playing Mole Mania at the moment, and it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect of a Miyamoto-designed Sokoban: inventive, charming, delightful… but good lord the implementation alone can take upward of two minutes per screen, which really drains something from the experience. And there’s NO UNDO.

    The adventure puzzles… yeah. Less so. Less love. I was really glad that I read the Ourobous Sequence and its attendant comments prior to playing (although I skipped all Witnessy bits for fear of spoilers), because it gave me an amazing mental toolkit for thinking about this game as I played it (and this game, above all games, wants to be thought about while played). Among that was this really useful bit of terminology: ‘the riddle’. The adventure game puzzle that doesn’t teach you rules; the singular just-so moon-logic that requires you not to build on your observations, or extrapolate from prior logic, but to think as the developer is thinking in this moment, to look at the cat hair and see a moustache, or to otherwise stumble upon the solution in the environment.

    This kind of puzzle – of which there are plenty – is fundamentally divorced from all that careful, ordered and logical ness-ness, that Spockism. It felt like, much with the wan, Orientalist-tinged gesturing at Eastern philosophy, that if this game represents an exploration of the Blowvian Mind made manifest, these were the subconscious elements arrayed in resistance to all that surface rationality, trying to transcend or escape the hidden, inadmissible fear that the end point of logic is a cold, solved, dead universe. It’s Blow’s chaotic element in rebellion, his deeply-buried desire for there to be a ghost in the machine.

    The unstructured open world leads to some interesting play – I wandered into all sorts of areas out of order; that is, that were using puzzle elements for which I hadn’t visited the requisite tutorial area. It’s a problem and it isn’t. When Blow speaks of the game not wanting to ‘waste your time’ he means something very specific that has nothing to do with the shift key.

    You have to indulge him a little in the same way you might have to indulge From Software a little. It’s an example of something that works in practice but if you try to make it work on paper you get mired in a long argument filled with complicated, exceptional bits of reasoning you could never insist on as universally applicable. The village by rights should be harder to find; the apple trees harder to avoid; there are still arguments for the value in there being where they are.

    But it really *does* respect your time in that specific way it promises to. Since playing it I’ve only played a handful of new puzzle games but none of them seem to understand that when you get it, you get it: you don’t need or want to demonstrate that you get it X number of additional times. We hate padding right?

    I screenshotted quite a bit during the game. Tip: keep imgur.com open in a browser while you play. You can paste screenshots directly from your clipboard into it (that is: alt+printscreen, alt+tab, ctrl+v). It will collate a disposable album of the things (and they will be disposable: as Joel says the puzzles can be contingent but they’re almost entirely localised). By the very end of the game I was not only screenshotting but photoshopping. Sometimes it’s easier to draw than to screenshot so I would recommend a pen and paper as well.

    Okay so it turns out I did still have some things to say about it. But that video is still a million, trillion times better.

  4. What I have to say is, my cat got interested in my egg salad, walked across the keyboard, and tried to save a copy of this webpage about seven times.

  5. CA

    This is a very long comment, good work.


    It’s a good page, Matt. Save it as many times as you want.


    Fooled you, I’m not going to ignore your comment like I seem to have done to Matt’s massive Roguelike missives.

    What I will say about The Witness is that I’d said very little about the puzzle design, especially in my post-Ouroboros perspective. The Unbearable Now doesn’t talk too much about the puzzles themselves, because the game’s themes are somewhat detached from the actual act of solving puzzles. The **SECRET VIDEO** does throw a few bones but, yeah, I think The Laboratory of Logic is about the most I’ve written about The Witness (the original “Early Thoughts on The Witness” article doesn’t count).

    Going with your point about Deus Ex: I was concerned about Matt’s assumption that he was missing the “real game”, like he was just being a n00b for solving the puzzles and not seeing anything else. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a damn good game even if you don’t see anything else. If you find the game involving, you will find more in it; if you find joy in The Witness, it will reward you. It is NOT that the joy is in “all the extra stuff”. It is not about the pomp and ritual of secrecy, although you might think that.

    It’s actually a lot more straightforward than it seems – aside from a handful of deeper secrets which are not core to the experience, anyway. The real challenge is trying to figure out if it means anything at all because it can feel like such a scattershot game in terms of meaning.

    It’s interesting you bring up the “waste your time” remark as I know many railed against that suggestion because they spent a lot of time being lost in the maze of The Witness. I like The Witness for being so different to your standard puzzle game, for being extremely Game Design-ey but at the same time rejecting the usual handrails and fencing off of areas (…more or less).

    I’m wondering why you were screenshotting. It was just to draw on the puzzles? (That’s what I did, but just on paper, so I was always drawing them.)

    And one last thing: we all got stuck somewhere. I sought a walkthrough for three puzzles in the All Roads sense – I had nowhere else to go. (And I didn’t 100% the game. I stopped when I was satisfied. I was very satisfied. And I felt Jon Blow would have been good with that.)

  6. Oh, that’s right, we were supposed to be offering Matt encouragement!

    I’m in agreement that the joy isn’t in only one place. Basically I see The Witness as four games in one: there’s a logic puzzle game, a walking simulator, an adventure puzzle game, and a sort of interactive philosophical manifesto. There’s value to be found in each of them, to degrees that will vary for everyone, and before you factor in the ferreting out of secrets. Secrets manifest themselves mainly through the walking sim/adventure game aspects with puzzles and philosophy as the ‘reward’.

    I was quite bad at finding secrets but I was quite good at solving puzzles, better than I expected, which I think is testament to the quality of the design rather than my dazzling intellect. So in the end, I decided not to bother with schlepping around looking for secrets, and to call the game finished once I’d solved all the puzzles I could find (except one: and I’d love to know how you, Joel, or anyone was supposed to work out how to solve gur nygreangvir ragenapr gb gur zbhagnva).

    I was satisfied, and left with a feeling that it was a very strong game and that Blow, putting (as with Eliot) my personal hangups aside, is indeed a very clever man. (Part of what impressed me about Joel’s video was the feeling that, having read around, games criticism very nearly failed to rise to the occasion posed by such a game (there were some really terrible articles commissioned by some very respectable sites (yes THAT one included)). I was impressed to see someone picking up on all the nuances and connections I’d missed, but I didn’t feel cheated for missing them myself.)

    So! I would keep at it unless you really don’t find you’re getting anything out of the puzzles or the exploration.

    The screenshots were for when the either the puzzle moved, or I was required to. Basically any time I was required to hold one picture in my mind while looking at another (a skill I fundamentally do not have).

  7. This was in fact encouraging! Knowing that the puzzles are local helps a lot. I was even inspired to make progress where I was. (Then I put it down to play UnBrogue, which is lots of fun, but that goes in the Roguelike thread.)

    rot13ed in case there is a single person out there who is interested and still hasn’t played…

    V jnf va gur terraubhfr shyy bs pbybe chmmyrf, naq unq svtherq bhg gur barf jurer lbh unir gb ybbx guebhtu arneol genafyhprag fhesnprf naq tbg hc gb gur cbvag jurer gur fvqr bs gur ohvyqvat bcrarq jvgu gjb cnary chmmyrf. Gura gur frpbaq bs gubfr chmmyrf unf n ohapu bs fdhnerf gung ner nyy qvssrerag pbybef jura frra va qnlyvtug, naq V unq *gubhtug* gung V unq gevrq gnxvat gur fbyhgvba lbh pna frr jura gur qbbe vf fuhg naq qbvat vg jvgu gur qbbe bcra, ohg V thrff V unqa’g, orpnhfr nf fbba nf V gevrq gung vg jbexrq.

    Now I’m in the elevator, and stuck there in the obvious place, but my faith in the fairness of the game is restored.

    A couple of things about why I had lost faith:

    V fbyirq n pbzcyrk chmmyr jvgu znaqngbel frtzragf naq frcnengvat oynpx naq juvgr fdhnerf va beqre gb bcra n ohvyqvat, naq vafvqr V sbhaq n crqrfgny gung erirnyrq n urk cnggrea gung V pbhyqa’g qb nalguvat jvgu, naq vg ybbxrq yvxr n pyhr sbe fbzrjurer ryfr. Nyfb V sbhaq nabgure cneg jvgu n ohapu bs cnaryf jvgu urkntbany neenlf gung ner pbaarpgrq va fbzr sbez, naq qenjvat gur yvar frrzf gevivny, ohg V qba’g xabj jung gb qb.

    For that last one I probably haven’t found the puzzles to teach that one yet.

    OK, still some early quibbles:

    –I don’t want to leave the puzzle where I’m at now, because it seems like it’d be a pain to navigate back to. That harms the openness of the puzzle structure!
    –CA, you complained about the amount of time it takes implement solutions in Sokobans. I think of this as mapping roughly to keyboard vs. mouse controls; for a keyboard control you’re usually stepping your avatar through the world, for a mouse control you’re drawing your solution all at once. I don’t mind the time-consuming aspect in Sokobans because what you do changes the world, so you have to see it unfold (very smooth and fast undo as in Stephen’s Sausage Roll is important).
    That’s not true in line-drawing puzzles, and earlier I complained about games that implement line-drawing puzzles in keyboard-based dynamic games. So The Witness gets that right. But it still feels pretty ungenerous compared to a lot of line-drawing games where you can edit your solutions–Cosmic Express is exemplary here, in that you have to start by drawing a continuous line but you can erase parts of it. In The Witness there are some puzzles with constraints that some segments have to be filled in–not just the ones where that’s part of the rule, but segments between a black and a white square, for instance–and it’d be nice to fill those in and build the solution around them. But you can’t do that.
    –Also the individual panel puzzles don’t really spark joy yet. The “oh that’s cool” moments have come from figuring out what the puzzles are more than solving them. It’s still relatively early but it’s not that early, though I may have been spoiled by some of those games that throw you in the deep end.

  8. I’m pretty sure Blow made it that way for the romance: you have to present your argument in a single stroke, like an expert debater destroying his opponent with a single riposte, or (to use a perhaps wildly inappropriate analogy) Alexander slicing through the Gordian knot.

    I totally get what you mean about not wanting to leave the puzzle in front of you, because I felt the same way most of the time. When you do eventually wander away you realise that the island is pretty small and the straightforwardly laid out. That jog speed though. You’re no witness to fitness in this game.

  9. CA

    Evtug fb, jura lbh fnl gur nygreangvir ragenapr gb gur zbhagnva, V’z abg fher cerpvfryl jung lbh zrna ol gung. Qb lbh zrna gur uvqqra qbbe haqre orfvqr gur jngresnyy? Be qb lbh zrna ubj gb bcra gur frperg qbbe va gur obggbz bs gur zbhagnva, gur ebbz jvgu gur guvaxre ybbxvat bire n chmmyr jvgu gevnatyrf?


    Ah, so you were bamboozled by that old canard “I’m pretty sure I tried that before and it didn’t work” and magically when you try it again it works. Good luck with the elevator – I remember puzzling over the elevator for some time but it gave way eventually.

    I know exactly what you’re talking about re: hexagonal arrays (and the exact puzzle you solved). I don’t remember any particular problems here but I guess I’ll just keep quiet because it’ll probably sort itself out.

    – Pain to navigate. I wasn’t usually bothered by having to traverse the island repeatedly and I got the lay of the land down pat – I know the island like the back of my hand now – but there are a few bits which were a real pain to navigate to, although I don’t think you’ve reached the areas I’m actually thinking about. Although plenty of the land is quite open, some parts of the island become a sort of groove that is difficult to move sideways out of and you find yourself retracing steps to go to somewhere else; I did find that annoying. There are “shortcuts” which you unlock as you progress but they’re not necessarily where you want them.

    – Interesting you complain about the line-drawing. I rarely had this issue in The Witness because the standard puzzles were so quick to draw out. I guess for more complicated puzzles I just resorted to paper & pencil most of the time when I was trying to visualise solutions. This is a problem I have with Overlink which are line puzzles across a 3D surface and I often want to paint out certain parts of the solution which are fixed…

    – I really liked the panel puzzles and there is a lot of variety although there are some real fierce monsters later. I will be interested to hear what you think about some of those. The “greenhouse” puzzles you just talked about are one of my favourites, actually. Real high when I figured those out.

  10. Ubj znal qnza ragenaprf ner gurer gb guvf zbhagnva?! Gur bar jvgu gur chmmyr jvgu gur lryybj qbgf, jurer lbh frrz gb ‘eha bhg’ bs yvar ohg vg vfa’g pyrne ubj naq jung pnhfrf vg (vg’f abg n pbafvfgrag yratgu jurer lbhe cebterff trgf fgbccrq.)

  11. Fbeel, V qvqa’g zrna gung gb pbzr npebff ehqryl! V jnf gelvat gb pbairl zl fhecevfr ng yrneavat gurer ner frireny frperg qbbef jura V oneryl znantrq gb qvfpbire bar.

  12. CA – I guess you mean this one? (Matt, don’t CLICK THE LINK!!!!)

    V unq nyernql qbar zbfg bs gur flzzrgel chmmyrf naq gurer jrer chmmyrf jurer gur ersyrpgvba jnf snqvat bhg. Gur pbybhef urer zngpu gur flzzrgel chmmyrf naq V xarj gung orvat oybpxrq ol na “vaivfvoyr sbepr” zrnag V jnf uvggvat n vaivfvoyr ersyrpgvba. Vs guvf vf gur qbbe lbh’er gnyxvat nobhg gura…

    …that probably makes you quite sick if I tell you I did it in one sitting :O

  13. I’mma take another crack–I won my UnBrogue game, anyway. BUT I remain on the side of grumpiness for now. Because:
    Pain to navigate–it’s not that anything is particularly inaccessible or the controls are bad or anything, but I decided to go look for something else instead of staring at the elevator and it took what seemed like fifteen minutes to find an identifiable puzzle, or at least one that had a clue I could figure out. (Probably more like five.) I went through this ruined pavilion that had some doors I’d opened, but nothing in the inside was lit up. Then on the back there were some mazes on the fence, but I don’t know what the constraint is–I’m guessing this is one of those “The clue is in the environment” things I’ve heard about (so sue me). And then I found a gate in the back, and I crossed a river, and I went through a ruined castle, and in the back there were some mazes with panels at the end–but if the thing to do is focus on panel puzzles, why is it taking me so long to get them? You know how annoyed I was that Closure kept making me watch an animation whenever I wanted to back out of the level select.

    Line-drawing mechanics: Well, this is not a big deal really (and I should say it’s nice that I don’t have to keep the mouse clicked to draw the lines). There’s been about one puzzle where I’d like to have been able to draw lines discontinuously (the one I needed to open the building with the hexagons). Often it’s more like something I’d like to be able to do to verify that a puzzle is unsolvable in a certain configuration.

    But this is the big thing: So far, except that one big puzzle, these haven’t mostly been logic puzzles. They’ve been figure-out-the-rules puzzles, and once you know the rules drawing the line hasn’t been too hard. In this way they’re more like adventure-game riddles than Ourobourosy puzzles. But most of them don’t give you any feedback. You draw a line and it either is accepted or not. (Or there are some things like the elevator that have more complex outputs.) Your Snakebirds and SSRs and, lo, Cosmic Expresses aren’t like that–you can see what’s happening and why you’re failing. In some cases maybe the issue is that I haven’t found the part that teaches me the rules, but, whose fault is that?

    Also I think I’ve been spoiled on the ending, or at least one of them.

  14. Matt, I don’t know how to say this, but making you wander around again and again is actually… part of the point. I think this only really becomes clear at the end of the experience when you look back because I do recall there were times I was frustrated looking for areas and there was certainly a period where I was “brute forcing” through rafts of puzzles in one go, running around the island finishing things off. But, inevitably, all that walking is deliberate. We can argue about whether it’s effective or not in the context of a level select but, after I finished The Witness, I *missed* being there. Don’t mind me. I’m just chopping some onions here, that’s all.

    A lot of The Witness is discoverable systems. Some are just simple rules. The black and white squares. The stars. Others are unexpected variations that require thought to resolve. It’s almost like deciphering a language. But there is, yes, a lot of “non logic” puzzles which are about observation and interpretation. One of these, in particular, drove me ABSOLUTELY MAD and I had to use a walkthrough because I couldn’t figure out the One Special Trick (the desert ruins, if you want to know).

  15. Well… OK. I may have to see if I like the point. My status is, I started up again, tried the next maze puzzle, figured out the secret pretty quick this time, got to the next maze puzzle (this took longer than you might expect, because I tried to follow the newly powered cord and that took me out of the area–navigating this kind of virtual space is hard for me), couldn’t figure out the trick. So maybe I will just abandon things willy-nilly to wander around to find new things to abandon.

    If you mean this desert ruin (I didn’t look at the solutions there), that’s what I meant by the panels with hexagonal arrays in my rot13ed stuff above, so maybe I’m just having bad luck with the puzzles I encounter.

  16. Matt

    Ah, yes. I knew exactly which “complex puzzle” you solved but I wasn’t 100% confident what your hexagonal panels were, but I now remember :) Yes, these are the desert ruins that gave me such grief. I had a friend who thought it was dead easy yet I wasn’t able to see these puzzles in the right light until I sought help.

  17. I think the puzzles drawing lines on panels in The Witness are brilliant, by themselves one of the best puzzle games I’ve played — but only accidently. It seems clear that the primary drive behind making The Witness (at least in conception) was the parts that require a 3D island that you explore in first person. If the panel puzzles were really the main thing, I don’t think they would have spent five years making the island.

    Which I think also ties into the walking speed they decided on. It’s important that you can’t just fast travel from one puzzle to another. Even when you think you’re ready to dash through an area, you probably still need to slow down and keep looking around.

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