Tag Archives: science fiction

I’m not smart enough for ERROR: Human Not Found’s computer-science puzzles

I’d like to think I’m not afraid to admit when I’m not good at something, but that’s probably not the case one hundred percent of the time. So, in that honor, here is a short list of activities and skills I can confidently say I absolutely stink at and you can silently judge me all you want from your side of the computer screen because that’s the Internet for you, all stares and snippy comments:

  • Cooking
  • Running
  • Confronting people
  • Arm wrestling a bear
  • Sports
  • Walking on snow
  • Mathematics

Now, it’s that last listed item there that plays a part in today’s blog post, which is all about ERROR: Human Not Found, a free point-and-click/visual novel adventure on Steam that examines that differences between humans and artificial intelligences. Certainly not breaking any new ground, and yet I continue to be unable to stay away from this subject matter, fascinated by the themes and characters in things like Battlestar Galactica, Ghost in the Shell, and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, to provide a few examples. I mean, as Black Mirror has rightfully and accurately predicted, we’re moving ever closer towards a technology-driven future, and it is going to be both sleek and shiny and bleak as hell. It’s best to start prepping for it now.

In ERROR: Human Not Found, you play as sassy Grace Fortran, a computer scientist stationed on the Noah Sphere, a space-based research station. There’s celebration to be had, what with the first artificial intelligence being successfully uploaded into the physical body of an android. Yahoo and wahoo. Alas, no time for cake and cheers just yet, as Grace must quickly move to clear her name in the mysterious death of this very AI who is murdered not twenty-four hours after the upload. She’ll have to work together with Ada, another AI body-bound, to search the station for clues, question suspects, and solve various computer-science related puzzles to get the job done. Grace will ultimately need to determine the fate of AIs while exploring their relationships with humans and the world at large, and it’s all pretty standard stuff, save for the hints that they might be better at running the government than the flesh-and-blood models.

This is interactive fiction, with a stronger emphasis on fiction than interactive. CelleC Games’ ERROR: Human Not Found is broken up into different chapters, and each one contains the same style of gameplay. You’ll have conversations with Ada and other members on the station, make a couple of dialogue choices, explore a limited environment (usually consisting of a couple of screens) for clues, and then take on a puzzle or two. Rinse and repeat until the story concludes, so long as you can get past the puzzles, which are, more or less, logic gates. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Now I was able to fudge my way through the bulk of them, guessing here and there, but the last one, which is based around binary code, stumped me for a bit, forcing me to walk away from the game for several nights. Then, because I can’t stand starting something and not seeing it through, I went back for one more hard, stubborn-drive swing, to finish this off.

Would you like to know how I solved the final computer science-themed puzzle? Well, for starters, I had The Descent: Part 2 on in the background, and let me tell you something…it’s a terrible sequel to a strong adventure horror film about a group of young women getting lost inside an unexplored cave and discovering a race of flesh-eating subterranean humanoids. It’s fine to listen to, but don’t waste your eyeballs on it. Instead, I had the game open in a window, as well as the notepad application, and I jotted down each successful attempt to match a number with the what-I’m-assuming is its respective binary code, because you only get so many tries. For instance, 8 is 1000 or 14 is 1110. Again, if you are currently salivating and ready to jump down my throat and call me stupid because this is so obvious to you, please remember that I started this post by being honest about the things I’m no good at, and this is one of them. The more I knew ahead of re-starting the puzzle, the further I got, and it took me ultimately six attempts to finish.

Evidently, there are three different endings to see in ERROR: Human Not Found. I’m fine with the one I got, though I can barely remember it now, some days later when typing up this post. I appreciated the game’s love for all things scientific and mathematics, with a number of nods at popular players in these fields, like Grace Hopper and Isaac Asimov. There’s even an exhaustive database full of profiles on these characters if you want to read more. However, I can neither recommend it to those looking for a story-driven game or something puzzle-y, as it doesn’t truly succeed in either of those departments.


Let loose in Prey’s luxuriously haunting sci-fi playground

It truly is surprising to me that I didn’t fall for Fallout 4 as much as I initially imagined I would, considering the hours and thoughts I put into Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. The game didn’t strike me the same way, and I’ve tried going back to it several times, only to get as far as rescuing Preston and his people and bringing them back to Sanctuary, before losing interest. Still, I love all things Fallout-related, like Fallout Shelter and cute little collectibles, and am super curious to see how the Fallout board game works, especially since it can be played solo, something I actively look for now in my tabletop games. However, this post isn’t actually about Fallout 4, it’s about Prey, the new hot thang from Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda in 2017, which is turning out to be the Fallout 4 game I wanted all along.

In Prey, the player controls Morgan Yu, either as a man or woman, exploring the space station Talos I, in orbit around Earth–Moon L2, where research into a hostile alien collective called the Typhon is underway. Unfortunately, because you know nothing can ever go right with doing science stuff in outer space, the Typhon escape confinement, and Morgan must use a variety of weapons and abilities derived from these nightmarish alien monsters to avoid getting killed while searching for a way to escape the station. It’s a haunting tale of loss and domination, told through environmental storytelling and revealing audio logs that bring to life many, many characters that are very much dead and destroyed. Or sometimes turned against you. Either way, the narrative is strong, believable.

Prey is a systems-driven adventure, playable in a number of ways. An immersive sim, if you will, in the same vein of BioShock and Dishonored, letting you make your way through levels and complete missions, but not enforcing the means by which you must get the job done. Which makes sense considering this is French developer Arkane’s bread and butter for the last eight-ish years. Still, the amount of freedom you have is almost unheard of, both in terms of playing style and exploration, especially once you get to the Talos I Lobby and have access to the no gravity area just outside its walls, which lets you travel just about anywhere you want on Talos I, so long as you’ve unlocked the right doors and can survive the trip. Early on, I suffered from choice anxiety and stuck to the main path, but I do plan to return and roam more freely next time.

Lucky for Yu–cue cymbal crash sound effect–the space station you are on was designed to also research and produce Neuromods, which go right into your eyeball to help make humans faster, stronger, and smarter. These are where you get your skill points from, to upgrade powers and unlock abilities, and you can find several around the environment, but what I found refreshing is, if you want and have the crafting resources to do so, you can make as many as you want through the Recylcer and Fabricator. It almost felt like cheating when I 3D-printed three of them in a single sitting (light spoiler detail: there will be a moment in the story where you can’t do this anymore for reasons, so strike while the iron is hot). My playstyle so far has been mostly human powers, like hacking and gaining more health from kits and food, with a light touch of aliens powers, specifically Mimic and Kinetic Blast. I like being able to repair broken turrets though they now see me as an alien threat since I’ve unlocked too many non-human perks. That was a neat surprise.

Life in Prey is harsh, tough. The might sound obvious when discussing a space station amuck with telekinetic and transforming monsters that want to eat your flesh and soul, but I thought I’d say it anyway, to justify to myself very soon that it is fine to dial down the difficulty setting. I’m currently playing on whatever the default it is, and I’m trying to play it like I would Fallout 4–stealthily, sneakily, avoiding as many fights as possible. Unfortunately, you will have to get your hands dirty eventually, and this is where I struggled with the combat. The guns don’t feel great, even after updating my silenced pistol a bunch, and they clearly want you to use the GLOO cannon to slow everything down and whack it with a wrench, but that’s easier said than done when the enemies move far more swiftly than you. Health and suit armor drops quickly, and resources, so far, are extremely limited. Occasionally, I’ve had to sneak by enemies through creative means, like throwing items for distraction or turning into a banana. Yup, you read that last part right.

I’m near the end of Morgan’s quest. Still, whenever I am done with Prey, whatever that means since I may be curious in a second playthrough on the easiest of difficulty settings to see what life is like with, say, only alien powers or doing my best to read every single e-mail I can find, I think I might need to revisit System Shock and give it a fairer shake than trying to play it when extremely sleepy during an Extra Life stream. Or System Shock 2. Or Dishonored. Or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Look, I have a lot of immersive sims on plate, so I better start feasting.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #89 – Haven: The Small World, “Episode 1”

Oxygen is low
Reduce the population
Survive through edits

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.


Waking Mars educates one about an alien planet’s ecosystem

I’ve never been to Mars and probably never will in my lifetime, but I’ve both read and seen a lot of hot takes on the red planet, such as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, The Martian by Andy Weir, and 1990’s Total Recall. I’ve even played a few games set there, like all the Red Faction joints. Chances are I wouldn’t survive long, knowing only how to make hot dog rice and a slumber party tent using two chairs and an old bedsheet, but that’s expected. Also, if hostile alien lifeforms exist, I wouldn’t know what to do to keep them from eating my Earthly flesh. Related to that, one is still trying to survive the harsh landscape in Waking Mars, but the true focus is on study and education, on discovering what makes this world alive and function.

Tiger Style put out Waking Mars in early 2012, but I only discovered it the other night in my Steam library, way at the bottom of the list. I honestly have no recollection of how it got there, but I’m going to assume it was through a Humble Bundle of sorts. Without knowing too much about the game other than some of the Achievement descriptions, I loaded it up and was surprised to discover that it is…a science-fiction adventure game with light platforming in the veins of a jetpack. Also, it’s totally about gardening. The year is 2097, and life has been discovered on Mars. Your mission of first contact takes a real bad turn, with American astronaut Liang becoming trapped by a cave-in. He must master the alien ecosystem to better survive and progress, as well as discover the secrets of the planet’s past.

Right. First off, instead of shooting your way to safety, Liang must grow a lively ecosytem to open passageways and redirect water to the areas that need it most. This was a great surprise. Much like The Swapper, combat is not the focus; instead, exploring your surroundings and puzzling out what to do next is the main mechanic fueling progression and storytelling, and that has actually made the jet-packing all the more fun because you are not trying to fire a blaster and dodge acid bombs at the same time, but rather zip around in search of places to grow some local life. Instead, you are looking for plant seeds and fertile ground, as well as scientific remnants of a co-worker that has gone missing. Each area has a Biomass rating, which you must raise to open up new areas to explore, and you do this by making life thrive. Plant seeds in the right spot, cultivate them, mix seeds with other seeds, avoid dangerous plants, and watch how everything interacts.

Waking Mars, so far, has a somewhat compelling story, but I’m more interested in the diversity of its cast, as well as the strong voice acting, which gives more meaning and urgency to the search for alien life and a way back to the headquarters. Liang is quiet and curious, but also physically alone in these Mars caves. In his ear are two support team members: Armani, an upbeat scientist, and ART, a humorous and glitch AI (think TARS from Interstellar). At different points, you’ll stop for conversation and figure out what to do next. These are linear moments, but they do reveal a lot about each character and provide hints at what is really going on here.

The gardening is fun. I generally always have fun growing digital plants, but the fact that everything interacts with each other to either raise or lower your Biomass rating is fascinating and much different than other games. Makes me feel like a scientist doing scientist-y things. You are also encouraged to get creative and research each plant fully, figuring out how it reproduces or reacts to prey. Once you know more about each respective plant, you can create a highly efficient zone, one that almost takes care of itself. It’s difficult but not impossible to reach five-star Biomass rating, and I suspect doing so will have a unique result on the current environment; alas, I’ve not been able to do this yet.

According to the Internet, Waking Mars takes about six to eight hours to complete. I’ve only put in two hours so far, which means there’s plenty of Mars left to explore and turn into my personal zoa garden. We’ll see if I have a green or red thumb.

Get it?

Y’know, because the iron oxide prevalent on the planet’s surface gives it a reddish appearance?


Having a baby in Cayne’s universe is a real life-changer


I’m a big fan of free, standalone tie-in experiences, not simply because they are free. Some examples that instantly come to mind are Lost Constellation and Longest Night for the quickly upcoming Night in the Woods, the demo for Bravely Default, which contained a side-quest not available in the full release, and the Spore Creature Creator for, well, Spore. These snippets and slices offer a chance to see what the big deal is while simultaneously providing an experience not fully found in the main game. All that setup leads us to Cayne, which is an ultra-dark journey through the dystopian world of Stasis from The Brotherhood, in preparation for the studio’s next project called Beautiful Desolation.

Here’s what I know about Cayne, and, no, I haven’t yet played Stasis though that may likely change. It begins with Hadley, a mother-to-be, waking up in a strange medical facility. Unfortunately for her, this wasn’t a routine procedure and something is severely amiss. She manages to escape the operating table before her baby can be ripped from her body, only to make things worse, causing a massive, floor-destroying explosion. Now on her own, she’ll have to explore her surroundings and find out why these people were after her child, as well as make her getaway. One big problem: there’s a deadly monster-thing-with-claws called Samantha guarding the elevator.

Obviously, Cayne has style. Or, as Jeff Gerstmann likes to say, styyyyyle. It’s drawing heavily from things like Alien, as well as sci-fi short stories from decades ago, the kind that present really large ideas in tight spaces and like to pull the rug out from under you with a big twist at the end. I’m thinking of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison and “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick and other similar tales. As you explore the Cayne facility, you’ll gain access to PDAs, computer logs, and other characters, which offer some insights into what is happening while also keeping mum about the true motives of the company. Seems like they are into growing babies, but I never understood why and for what purpose by the end, though the ending does hint that this is a major operation, not some one-off experiment. Also, a lot of the people you meet–both living and dead–are real pieces of scum, so there’s that too.

All of this style is backed up and emphasized on through great voice acting and subtle yet effective audio tones. Hadley comes across as, I hope and assume, many of us would if we woke up in a similar situation. I like that her nervousness results in badly-timed jokes. That’s something I do too. Shortly into Cayne, Hadley “meets” a man. I say “meets” because it is more that she begins to hear a voice, and her dialogue with this person makes up a large chunk of the game, revealing many tidbits and insight into these characters. Also, the FMV sequences are pretty stellar, far more cinematic than I expected.

Something Cayne does well is minimize the amount of things you need to click on by providing descriptions of everything in text off to the side when the mouse cursor is hovered over key items in a scene. Normally, you’d click on it to get this kind of information, but now you can move through the descriptions at your own pace. I like this. The cursor also changes when over something that can be interacted with, which helps. That’s not to say the puzzles are a cakewalk; in fact, many of them are quite tricky, and I won’t deny that I ended up using a guide to figure out the ID number for the Grub Habitat, as well as how to manipulate the server platform and blow up the power generator. Other puzzles were easy to figure out, though I ended up taking a good chunk of notes just in case.

Cayne‘s biggest and most glaring fault is that…like many point-and-click adventure games, there’s a lot of backtracking involved. Generally, that’s fine. That’s part of the genre. However, a lot of games have got with the times and allowed for quicker hopping to and fro, whether through a map of locations (like in Read Only Memories) or by letting the player double-click on the exit areas to jump ahead. Cayne does not do this. Throw in the fact that our protagonist is a very pregnant woman with no shoes running around a facility with fire, broken glass, and gross puddles of ooze everywhere–well, moving through the Cayne facility is a slow burn. Real slow. I found this pace to be extremely frustrating as I was deciphering puzzles, knowing that I’d have to travel across three to four rooms just to find a piece of information and then return with my solution. It’s never a good sign when I begin reaching for my phone to kill time when moving from room to room.

Thanks to Cayne, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on The Brotherhood and what’s next from the studio. I’m not one hundred percent in love with their gameplay mechanics and UI, but those things aren’t deal-breakers when it comes to a powerful story, believable characters in peril or up to no good, and audio design that can set your teeth on edge. You can grab a free copy of the game seemingly just about everywhere on the Internet; I played mine on Steam for those silent, delicious Achievements.


The future is full of cyborg diseases and neon adverts in Among Thorns

gd final impressions among thorns screenshot 01

I am weak to small games with big ambition. Like Limbo, which was a perfunctory action-puzzle platformer that attempted to tell a story of loss and uncertainty with next to no words. Or Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, what with its exploration based around different phases of the actual moon. I think we can add Among Thorns to this mental list of mine. It reminds me a bit of A Landlord’s Dream, which also came from the AGS community and was brimming with grand ideas, littered with the kind of far-reaching sci-fi concepts that flesh out a futuristic world to make it feel livable instantly. However, Matt Frith’s pixel art here is a whole lot less grainy, having that clean, sterile feel to it that can only be attained in an era of synthetic body upgrades, and the puzzles are not as obtuse.

Among Thorns was created specifically for MAGS, which is a monthly competition for all amateur adventure game makers, last month. January 2016 for those that can’t figure it out. I think voting is still going on, though I have high hopes for it doing well among its competitors. The theme was Black Death, and Among Thorns certainly covers that aspect with its Necronite disease, which only seems to affect the people in this world that have begun to augment their bodies.

Among Thorns‘ driving force is slight, but gets things going right away. You almost don’t have time to finish your noodle cup before the plot starts popping in. Anyways, you play as a young woman named Cora who ends up taking a shady job from her boss Lentii to investigate a dude named Cordell Jann, as he may or may not have a cure for Necronite. Yup, that sentenced contained a lot of science fiction-appropriate names. Now, getting to Jann’s apartment is no hop and skip over, and most of the game involves puzzling your way past roadblocks, like the cops. Once you’re inside Jann’s place, there’s more to do and discover, but I won’t spoil any of that here.

Gameplay doesn’t try to do anything wild and crazily unorthodox for the point-and-click adventuring genre. You have an inventory on the left side of the screen, can collect items, converse with people and things, and solve puzzles logically, using your brain and whatever is in your pockets. That’s fine. It’s a short little game, and, for me, this was all about seeing what was next. The more neon signs my eyes could eat up, the better. I mean, we all love Blade Runner, right? This is very much Blade Runner-inspired. There’s a small amount of pixel hunting to do, and this task can be hard to accomplish when there is so much already on the screen to gawk at. I’m still always looking for that balance of easier to find things to interactive with versus actually playing detective screen to screen.

Though Cora does complete her job by the time credits roll, the story ends in a cliffhanger-esque fashion, leaving me hungry for more and wondering what happens next. Clearly, time was an issue, and this is more a prologue than complete project. Among Thorns is certainly capable of carrying a full-fledged story and campaign, and I’d love to learn more about Cora herself and why she prefers to live off the grid and what struggles that entails. Until then, I’ll probably check out some of Matt Frith’s other work over at the AGS community.