Non-Review: Cydonia / Lightbringer

Written by Andrew Plotkin

I wanted to write a review, but I didn't. A review is hard enough to write when you've finished a game. I only got about halfway through Lightbringer; I doubt I'll ever see the rest of it. So no review today.

Instead, I'll take this slice of my time and your attention to talk about bits of Lightbringer. Or, in fact, to ramble a bit about bits of Lightbringer. I'm good at rambling. I can go on about anything from game design principles to the recipe for cayenne chocolate truffles, and I intend to. Warn me if I outrun your patience.

Today's ramble is entitled: "Failures of Imagination: or, Oh No Not Again: or, How Not To Think Like A Game Designer".

The first failure of imagination I must mention: fer chrissake don't imagine that you can skip QA. Don't imagine that you can ship a CD with a bug that traps the player in one area halfway through the game, making it unwinnable. Don't imagine that putting a patch on your web site is an adequate solution, because I didn't find out about it in time, and I'm certainly not starting the game over from scratch.

Enough said about that, I should hope.

The premise of Lightbringer annoys me, as the premise of Timelapse did. It's a unique form of nutbar who needs to believe that aliens built pyramids in Egypt, or on Mars, or anywhere else that the human eye has ever applied its overly aggressive pattern-matching. Though not, unfortunately and however, a rare form of nutbar. So bookstores and web pages continue to clog up with pandering, in varying degrees of self-deluded sincerity and outright greed. This pisses me off. People should be smarter.

This is not, mind you, really a flaw in Lightbringer. I doubt the designers of the game believe there's a human face on Mars. Lightbringer is fiction -- based on a modern myth instead of an ancient one. You may view it, if you like, as taking place in an alternate world where that myth is true.

And the Martian Pyramid myth has no ending. Everyone knows how the story starts: "Wow, look at this Viking probe photo! Mysterious and powerful aliens must exist." But every version goes off its own way after that. Each storyteller, whether he believes he's telling true or not, spins his own story and ending and moral. It's wide open, really.

So I don't have a problem with a computer game that picks up the myth. I do wish that Lightbringer fell a little farther from the tree. It's got a dying Earth, choked with human failings, which must be saved by alien wisdom. No surprises there, hey? But of course I haven't seen the ending. The fragments that I did see hinted at a third race, the true aliens, who taught the Martians as well as the ancient Terrans. That could turn out interesting. I can't tell from here, anyway, so I'll just let it lie.

Good sleeping doggie. Let me turn to tinier matters.

The game is about the first manned mission to Mars. Then why, why, why does your PDA have a complete dictionary and grammar for the Martian language? Did someone find the Oxford Martian Dictionary embedded in a meteorite in Antarctica? What?

Even worse -- that section in your PDA is labelled "Decryption". Have you ever learned a foreign language? Was the class called "Decrypting French"? The study of languages is called linguistics.

I am not nitpicking. Or -- I am nitpicking, to a purpose. Both of these points illuminate the problem: a game designer thinking of a game only as a game, and never as a story. Well, this puzzle is a secret code, he thinks; naturally I'll call the solution "Decryption". Right?

When we get fancy on we call this "breaking mimesis". Mimesis is the quality of a game that could be real life. Well, not necessarily real life, of course. It could be sci-fi or fantasy as well. But a game should read well as a story. Big gaping plot holes are to be avoided. Imagine you are there; what makes sense?

(Yes, of course some things have to be fudged or skipped over. But not important things! Perhaps your Martian explorers have a universal translator... but then why make a big deal out of translation puzzles? Just pop up English translations on the helmet screen, automatically.)

The Martian language is written from left to right, top to bottom. (Or sometimes top to bottom, left to right. But real writing on obelisks and such varies the same way; I'll accept that part.) Lucky that it coincides with English/Latin convention that way, yes... but what are these joined symbols, arrows above other glyphs? The grammar describes them as modifiers. Fine. But the Translation, I mean Decryption, program doesn't use joined symbols. Does that make sense, or is it merely easier on the player? What good is a translator that doesn't accept the written language it's translating? Doesn't even have a note about how to transform to the format it accepts?

Yes, these sloppinesses bug me.

Failures of imagination. Did you know the Martians have the same five platonic solids that we do? Of course they do -- that's mathematics. (I'm willing to grant that they're interested in platonic solids. Hmm, what if they weren't...)

But did you also know that Martians have the same three primary and three secondary colors? Well, no. That's biology, and it's not even the same for all Earth creatures, much less Martians. Some birds see in six primary colors, three of them green. The red/blue/yellow of your youth is pure human chauvinism, you hear me? (And so just as much is the red/green/blue of your new web-design career.)

What would a puzzle be like constructed around a non-human visual system? Would you need filters? Special lights? Digital image processing in your PDA? Would it be more interesting than yet another yellow-and-blue-make-green puzzle? Eh?

I have strayed from the topic of Lightbringer, as I promised. It had no yellow-and-blue-make-green puzzle. (The language combined the symbols of "red" and "yellow" to make "orange"... and "red" and "blue" made "purple"... but "green" was a symbol of its own. Clearly the Martians designed web pages in nursery school.)

They did, I noticed, see the solar system in the same terms we do. An interesting topic to slip, that one. How long has Saturn had rings? Anyone check? I think the Jovian Red Spot is quite recent, geologically speaking... did Martian civilization predate it? Anyone for an Oort cloud? How about them asteroids?

I love questions like this. Sci-fi novels have been playing with them for decades. I wish a sci-fi game would.

Conclusion: Melt 9 ounces of semisweet chocolate, 3/4 cup butter, and 4 teaspoons of cayenne pepper. (Melting them in the microwave works if you're careful. A double-boiler is more reliable.) Add 6 teaspoons of heavy cream and 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar. Mix well. Cover and chill overnight. Then form the mixture into small balls and roll in a mixture of powdered sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, and ginger. Store chilled.

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