The Fortress at Times-End: In Which the Balrog Tries to Take Over the Computer   8 comments

I was near the end, and got to experience a quirky trick which I haven’t experienced for this project outside The Prisoner.

Before I get going, I need to share this screen from earlier in the game I skipped mentioning. Also, this is a fun reminder that “you” are not really there in many of the games of this era, there is a literal computer narrator who is choosing what to share.

The only thing I was missing was I could MOVE CASE and push aside the bookcase I got the sword from.

I’m unclear if the wine bottle needs to be dropped off or if you could have skipped picking it up in the first place, but if you’re holding it still when you try to go in the passage it explodes.

This eventually leads up to a closet which asks for a password.

Here is the Balrog sequence in full.

Hideo Kojima, the prototype version. (That link gives a pretty good description of the Psycho Mantis fight from Metal Gear Solid, where Psycho Mantis reads the actual contents of your Playstation memory card and taunts you about how many times you saved in Castlevania; also, since he can read your mind, the only way to defeat him is to unplug your controller from slot 1 and plug it into slot 2.)

Having experienced two trap-based games in a row, I’d like to zoom in on the question: what makes a satisfying trap?

Perhaps the true answer is “none at all”, but even Monkey Island had a trap (as a gag which kept the game going). But going with the premise that we’re going to have a game with traps, then what would work–

On one end is when player agency is taken away almost entirely. In Revenge of Balrog there were a fair number of rooms where going the wrong direction was death; going >WEST sending the player off a cliff. In a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game where the choices are as neutral as “left or right door”, I’ve always found it frustrating when there are intentional arbitrary deaths, even when the deaths are well described or silly. There’s nothing quite as extreme in Times-End except for the maze which kills after enough time is spent in it, but at least there is some player movement an action amidst the slow-moving trap.

What seems to work better is a collaborative sort of death. Revenge of Balrog had a gold nugget with a dragon where a sign warned you to beware of the dragon, and being greedy taking the nugget was enough to get fried. Times-End had a chest with gold that was less-signaled but: it was clear the goal was not to collect treasures, and the similar trap in the first part of the duology was sufficient to give warning about the second. (See also: the deaths in Journey where the player hangs themselves by their own rope so to speak.)

In between is something like the exploding wine bottle. It’s not entirely a denial of agency: the player chooses to drop the wine bottle somewhere arbitrary (blowing themselves up) eat the feast with the wine (blowing themselves up) or escape the second level without placing the wine bottle (blowing themselves up) and there’s no real clue that this would happen before it happens. I could see, written on paper, how the puzzle makes sense: you need to place an item in the right place without being overcome by distraction, but I was only able to put this together after finishing the puzzle.

Of course, the function is not just in gameplay terms, but narrative. Above is another trap from Grimtooth’s, designed for Game Masters frustrated by cautious parties who constantly open chests and doors with long poles while standing back. The idea is to take something normally safe and add an element of surprise, and functions more like a narrative twist than anything fair.

I’d argue (again, assuming you’d want to include them) that truly best traps in a game have the mix of surprise and player agency. It’s the difference between telling a joke at the player’s expense, to one where they are part of it; a sort of participatory comedy, even if the general mood is entirely grim. Here’s an example outside regular adventure games entirely to finish my thoughts off —

The platformer La-Mulana has a lot of traps, infused to the point that it seems like every other screen has one. Allow PlayingBoardGames to illustrate:

Witness: the player needs to use the whip to break open the sun at the top of a temple. The walls break; the player needs to keep hitting. The sun suddenly lurches down, dangling. The player keeps hitting, and… the sun lands on their head, and crushes them.

There is plenty of ominous warning that the sun is something heavy. But still, it’s very easy to get tricked here, and it’s surprising and comical that the sun serves as a crushing weapon. In practice, this still can be frustrating, but I personally laughed, so that’s something? Additionally, the unusual trap links to the heft of the location in the narrative, as it is the gate between one world and another (and in gameplay terms, the “Holy Grail” used to teleport around the map no longer works until an additional device is found).

Posted February 8, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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8 responses to “The Fortress at Times-End: In Which the Balrog Tries to Take Over the Computer

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  1. My opinion?
    The second-best kind of trap is the kind that has subtle clues to its existence and how to avoid/escape it, so that even if you fall for it, it still feels “fair” afterwards.
    The best kind of trap is the kind that makes you burst out laughing.

    I could talk at *length* about La-Mulana and its sequel. The games are, in my opinion, the closest a Metroidvania platformer has ever gotten to an old-school adventure puzzlefest game. Some of the conundrums they throw at the player are among the most complex and satisfying puzzles I’ve had the pleasure to (eventually) solve.

    • Feel free to talk at length!

      I think a good generalization is similar to the puzzle rule of “don’t write a puzzle where someone can solve it and still be confused how it happened”. In this case, “don’t put a trap where the player who springs it has no idea how they’d learn about it other than dying, even if the chance is 98% they’d die the first time around”.

      I picked up La-Mulana 1 for Switch last month and got past the part I was stuck back when I first played, so I’ve been having sessions of varying levels of frustration. I still don’t think I’m technically that far, I only have 1/5 of the grid filled with items.

      (I already beat La-Mulana 2. Took something like 80 hours? Had an absolutely hilarious twist on the sun trap but I decided to go with the original.)

      • Excellently done! Completing either game is a terrific accomplishment. And particularly from the second game, puzzles like (descriptors/names only, rot13’d) gur pbybffny qentba’f arpx, be gur Frira Tngrf bs Uryy, be Oenuzn’f gevnyf, are all some of the puzzles I have in mind as most fulfilling.

        Absolutely agreed about both the puzzle rule and the trap rule you mention. To continue the La-Mulana comparison, many of the traps (in both games) decorate the area of the trap with the skeletons of former fallen adventurers. A savvy player quickly learns those bonepiles are warning flags! Same for puzzles necessary to complete the game – the clues are there for the attentive seeker, to piece together and ferret out the solution, without going to the level of “moon logic puzzle.” I’ve strived to do the same with puzzles I’ve crafted over time.

        If you ever feel like you need a gentle nudge as you’re working through La-Mulana the first, feel free to let me know. I had the good fortune to serve as “notetaker” for a Let’s Player completing both games – meaning, I kept a running record of all the tablets and hints he came across while playing the game, so that he would have a repository of those notes* to review off-camera and wouldn’t have to stop to take notes and ruin the flow of episodes – with the result that I am now intimately familiar with the ins and outs of both games. That said, with La-Mulana 2 under your belt, I am sure you will unlock the secrets of La-Mulana as well!

        * lrf uvf sbehz cbfgref gbbx gb pnyyvat vg gur “Ibygtybffnel”

  2. I don’t think I quite understand this “Balrog taking over” sequence. It makes it look like the computer is resetting, then runs you through the sequence of rooms you took to get there in the first place? What do you do to “break free” again?

  3. Does the Balrog ever inflict other kinds of wounds? Here it looks like the character had multiple left ears, but that could either be randomnesses happening to get the same result multiple times, or maybe the game is just reporting the same wound again like a kind of status readout?

    • Based on the source code, the “FIGHT BALROG” sequence goes like this (so long as you have the sword – if you don’t, you get an “I have nothing to fight with!” message and then the Balrog kills you):

      Roll a 7-sided die, and then:
      – If you rolled a 1 or a 5, “the Balrog is weak,” and then the Balrog cuts off your left ear, and then “He is hurt,” and then “blood is in my eyes,” and then the Balrog is dead
      – If you rolled a 2, “the Balrog is weak,” and then the Balrog cuts off your left ear, and then you cut off the Balrog’s left arm, and then “blood is in my eyes,” and then back to the command prompt
      – If you rolled a 3, “the Balrog is weak,” and then “Something is wrong,” and then “He is hurt,” and then the player dies
      – If you rolled a 4, 6, or 7, “the Balrog is weak,” and then the Balrog cuts off your left ear, and then “He is hurt,” and then “blood is in my eyes,” and then back to the command prompt

      The player has an infinite supply of left ears. The Balrog has an infinite supply of left arms.

      • I suppose Balrog (we all keep inserting a definite article out of habit, I suppose), being a monster, could semi-reasonably have a mass of many left arms but no right ones. (Cf. the Hecatoncheires, for instance.) The player is a much stranger case, to put it mildly.

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