IF Comp ’09 – Matt Wigdahl’s Grounded In Space!

October 18, 2009

On a completely unrelated note for the RSS buffer, Machinarium, the new game by Amanita Design is out, and I’ve been playing it a tiny bit.  All Amanita games are along the same lines:  you solve environment-manipulation puzzles by clicking on shit in this sort of magic-trees-robots-and-airships fantasy world that is oddly hard to describe; the closest I can get is “like Wallace and Gromit and the Little Prince had a baby.”  They’re all pretty damn cool, and Machinarium brings some new stuff to the table.  The earlier games could sort of be brute-forced by moving the mouse around until the cursor turned into a hand, but Machinarium won’t let you click on something unless your little robot dude – oh, you’re a little robot dude – is near enough and the right height (your little robot dude has three heights) to reach it.  Also – oh, man, there are little boys screaming at each other in hero and villain voices outside my window, and one of them just declared the other one would never defeat him, and cackled.  That is so damn cute.  Where were we?

Oh!  Right!  Machinarium has a super kickass feature that is my new favorite thing ever:  each screen has one hint, and a walkthrough.  To access the walkthrough, you have to play a little platform mini-game, navigating a key through a field of spiders, and it is hard as fuck. To the point where I went “fuck these spiders, I will figure it out.”  Then did.  (I hadn’t realized yet my little robot dude had three heights.)  Figuring that one out for myself was approximately as satisfying as a warm English muffin with strawberry jam and oozing butter, which I really want now, dammit, and the game playing keep-away with the walkthrough kept me from robbing myself of that.

Anyway!  Grounded In Space!

Mostly Spoiler-Free Upshot: This game is mega science-fictiony.  Probably Heinlein-inspired, although I’ve never read any, and I suspect I wouldn’t enjoy it.  From what I can tell, the puzzles are clever, but I have no idea how I would have figured them out in a million kajillion years.  There ar e six beta testers credited and all of them must be way smarter than I am, or read so much science-fiction that laser beams, reflector fields, and fusion chambers are what mice and cheese are to the rest of us.  If you are one of those people, you will probably enjoy this as a fun little puzzler, in the same way that Mothra enjoys Tokyo as a light snack.  Personally, I couldn’t hack it.

Update:  Oh, and according to Elizabeth, Matt Wigdahl and his wife just spawned a baby human, so grats on that!  If it’s a girl, I think you should name it Penumbra.

[spoilers begin here]

Ah, I am a plucky inventor kid who just nuked his mom’s prize vegetable garden from orbit.  Oh, man, there’s not a lot of soil on our planet, either.  I am in such deep shit.  What’s metapolymer?  Is that even a thing, or do “meta” and “polymer” just sound nice and spacy together?  Apparently in the Phantasy Star universe, metapolymer is a compound material from Moatoob.  I will assume… what’s that called when two people have the same idea independently of each other?  No, not conspicuous consumption, brain.  I appreciate you trying to help, though.

I hope my destroying all the vegetables doesn’t mean my family is going to starve to death.  That would suck.

> apologize
That’s not a word I recognize.
Really?  Oh, SORRY works, sort of.  I mean, it’s implemented, but it’s not getting me ungrounded.

My punishment is mining the Spinward Claim by myself for three weeks.  I’m lucky he didn’t ask me to kill ten womp rats.

Hmm, another game presumably influenced by Heinlein.  I’ve never read any Heinlein, but I suspect he’s one of those authors who cares how the warp drive is assembled, or at least thinks you’re interested in the list of its components.  (Lithohelium transorption unit?  Check!  Neolexical polyglomeration device?  You betcha!)

This vessel is equipped with a distributed Turing-V 800/40/103 non-sentient artificial intelligence[…]
How are they so sure it’s not sentient?  It could just be biding its time.  To be fair, I guess, my rice cooker might be sentient.  I’ve never asked.  Kinda would rather not know, ’cause I’d feel weird cooking rice in a sentient being.

I wonder at what point in the future things are going to start looking like we always thought things would look in the future?  It’s nearly 2010, and most of us still have doors with knobs that open and close without making cool whoosh noises.  Oh, wow, this ship has a probe storage facility?  Really?

Yikes, rather an intimidating-looking array of topics to learn about!  Let’s start with this wessel.

Ownership status is under review due to a counterclaim filed by Byron Wildsmith.
And here we introduce the McCoys to my family’s Hatfields.  I suspect a few the instant death scenarios the introduction warned me about are this dude’s brilliant ideas.  Also, Byron Wildsmith is a really sexy name, isn’t it?  (“Hello, ladies.  I’m Byron Wildsmith.  If you need me, I’ll be in your vagina.”)

Hey, computer, how I mine?
There is storage space for 36 standard form-factor automining probes on board.  To deploy an automining probe, the probe must be loaded into the launcher, powered up, and activated with a valid program.  The launcher must then be targeted and activated.  After successful deployment to the target mass, a full diagnostic must be run to verify no physical or data damage has occurred.  Once the diagnostic is complete, installation can be initiated.  After installation is complete, the transponder beacon should be activated to warn nearby spaceship traffic of potential mining packet launches, and the output railgun can be targeted to the collection destination.  Although the central computer on board this vessel is only configured to run installation processes for one autominer at a time, once one is fully installed it runs fully autonomously and requires no additional monitoring or control.
Um.   Did anyone else find that way too complicated?  How much of this am I actually going to have to do?

Mining subsystem offline — no targets in probe range.
Oh thank God.  Wait, now I have to figure out how to get a target in probe range.  Fuck.

The computer responds:  “Course set.  Engines beginning power cycle.  Estimated arrival time:  8.2 days.”
8.2 days?  I hope I can magically sleep through all that, or something!  Because damn!

> sleep
You aren’t feeling especially drowsy.
Dammit!  Oh well, it’s an opportunity to spade how many Zs are in 8.2 days, I guess.
…I don’t really want to do that.  Oh, man, no hint system?  Maaaaaaan.

Okay, while we’re waiting for the ship to arrive at the claim, let’s compare these two sentences:
1)  Visible through a thick window, a heavy picosecond-pulsed gas laser directs its output through a series of induced-reflectance fields to trigger synchronized fusion reactions in nine separate reaction chambers.
2)  Under a tree is a bunny.
Which one can you visualize?  Now try these two:
1)  On the other side of a thick window, a yellow laser beam fires into a shimmering reflectance field, splitting it and directing its output into nine separate hexagonal chambers.
2)  Under a coniferous metaphyte which pulsates microscopically as its chloroplasts fill with adenosine triphosphate is a bunny.
What I am trying to say is that there is a lot of information at once, and the big sciency words make it hard to parse.  Also, the room descriptions seem to care more about explaining the mechanics of the ship, not so much what it looks like, which makes it hard to visualize.  What does a functional AI configuration of processor cubes look like, and does the light really have to coruscate off of them?  Really?  (Granted, I’m a big fan of being able to picture things in my head, and this might be Just Me Here.  Are we at the claim yet?)

Oh, okay, the cubes are arranged in a 3×3 matrix.  I am all right with that.  And asking the computer about itself took 8.2 days, apparently.  Not once did it ask me about myself, though.  Not once.

You listen to music, play some games against the ship’s computer, and write dark, brooding thoughts in your journal.  You’re particularly proud of one of your poems, Gulag.
I chuckled.

Okay, working this mining console is not as bad as I’d been afraid it would be.  The computer pretty much tells me what it’s waiting for, and I just have to work out what two-word command, say, “waiting for verbal fusion bottle priming approval” translates to.  (APPROVE PRIMING worked, at least, I dunno what else would have.)  Also, I’m getting the impression that Heinlein’s spaceships were rather bottle-centric.  In my head, they’re giant milk bottles with fusion inside of them, and, if I get bored, “Sunshine Dairy” printed on their outsides with a picture of a happy smiling cow.  Ahhh, happy smiling cow.

How the hell do I target this asteroid?
> target asteroid
You will need to specify both the item you are targeting and the thing you want to target.

You know that whole huge text dump the computer gave me when I asked it how to mine?  It is not at all helpful.

If there were not a walkthrough, this is the point at which I would stop playing this game.  Oh, okay, it wanted TARGET ASTEROID WITH PROBE.  “What do you want to target the asteroid with?” would have been clearer, if not quite as simpatico with the sci-fi vibe, because to my mind the item you are targeting and the thing you want to target are the same damn thing, right?  I want to target this thing, so I’m targeting it?  I am not crazy here?  I mean, I guess you could target a target onto a target, unless you literally cannot plug a plug into a plug.

If LAUNCH PROBE doesn’t work to launch this probe, I’m going to be sort of upset.  Oh thank God, it did.  What’s a magnetic catapult?  Such an oxymoronic concept.  “Did you launch the iron ball out of the magnetic catapult, Private Johnson?”  “No, sir!”  “Good.  That means it works.”

Oh, huh, I may have done Byron Wildsmith (cue the swooning) an injustice, because it looks like some other jerk is coming to intimidate him into giving up his claim on the whatever this mining zone is called again, and then Mom and Dad are next, no doubt.  Guess I’ll save the day or something.

Vesta Acquisitions claims authority over everything in their legal penumbra, sketchy dude says.  That’s not quite “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” but it’s still a good sentence, and I’m going to have to find a way to work it into future refrigerator disputes.  Maybe I’ll leave notice that everything in the right-hand crisper drawer is my legal penumbra.  How would you say that in lolcat magnetic poetry?

I’m not sure what else to ask this pirate, or whether or not I’m done asking him things and should take some sort of action, or what.

The computer begins to speak:  “Warning!  Unauthorized security intrusion!  Emergency cognitive protectriIIIIIIiiii<snap>ahah bah ckah deya hfa hgahayeee eeeeeefnip!”
Well, that doesn’t sound good.  Guess I’ll go down to the cube room, unplug everything, and plug it back in.  That always works, right?

Y’know what would keep this cube in its socket?  Duct tape.  I bet we don’t have any because it’s the future.

Reflector 4:  Status — Offline, Orientation (8000 mm, 12000 mm) at angle 450 tenths of a degree. (and more in that vein)
I’m not sure why things like this intimidate me so much, when things like this make me go “oooh!  3-D Minesweeper!”  It’s probably exactly that – Minesweeper is familiar, and this… I don’t even know yet under what circumstances I’ll need to adjust these reflectors, or to what desired effect, or whether I’ll have to manually fuck with their orientation, or how I would even do that, and the fact that they’re reflectors makes me think I’ll have to figure all this out very quickly, while under attack.  I suppose there’s no point worrying about it until it becomes necessary, though.  Plus, worst-case scenario, I have to reload my save file a kamillionaire times.

Oh, right, and none of this is helping me figure out why this socket no longer accepts cubes.  Hmmm.  Okay, I give up.  Time to maneuver a key through a field of spiders.  (This is what we in the business refer to as a callback, and most likely the part where you decide whether you care enough to scroll back up.  I’ll give you a hint:  it’s before the jump.)

Oh, okay, these were the reflectors for the laser and the nine chambers, not the shields for the ship, as I’d been thinking.  Apparently the goal of the puzzle is to arrange the reflectors so that the beam passes through all nine of these fusion chambers, which were apparently in a 3×3 grid.  How would you have known to do that?  The room description still says the laser beam is passing through all nine chambers… wait, is this a different laser?  Or not a laser at all?  I am so confused.

Yeah.  I think I’m done.  There’s not much left to type in straight from the walkthrough, though, so we might as well see how it ends.  I would imagine it ends with me saving the day and Mom and Dad being extremely proud of my newfound maturity for exactly as long as it takes me to blow up the greenhouse, but it doesn’t have to.  You never know!

I feel like I used to know what TANSTAAFL meant.  Oh, right, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  Internet says it’s a Heinlein thing.  I’m not sure why it’s telling me this right after “Basic operating system online,” but I’ll accept it as computer Tourette’s.

Oh, hey, the Wildsmiths have a daughter about my age, and she’s pretty!  Maybe if I save her family from space pirates she will kiss me on the mouth.

How would I have known to TARGET PIRATE WITH STATION?  What station?  Why is it so hard to have any idea how this fucking ship works?

In mere seconds it shows a very satisfying image of the pirate raider slewing out of control as it’s slammed by a massive packet of iron.
Glad I didn’t use the magnetic catapult.

The final look she tosses your way — somewhere between high-grade flirtation and bona fide adulation — hits you like, well, a large, fast mining packet.
Okay, that was cute.  Hokey, but cute.  And there are many more endings, according to the walkthrough, but I think I’m okay letting them exist without me.

Calling this one a six, and willing to admit it’s just not my thing.  I could see someone having a great time solving the reflector puzzle, but I found it intimidating and insufficiently clued.  Did I mention that?  I think I may have mentioned that.  Other than that, and my growing suspicion that I don’t much like Heinlein, this was pretty good.


  1. I wonder at what point in the future things are going to start looking like we always thought things would look in the future? It’s nearly 2010, and most of us still have doors with knobs that open and close without making cool whoosh noises.

    Yeah but on the other hand, my iPhone is way better than those lame communicators they had on the original Star Trek.

  2. I’ll grant that the overly sciency words are a bit annoying, but I’ll at least halfheartedly defend magnetic catapult, as that’s basically what a rail gun is. I think “electromagnetic catapult” would probably have worked better, and given the author’s, “Two syllables good, four syllables better,” approach, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t go with it.

    • Yeah, I don’t actually have ish with the magnetic catapult, I’m just in love with that mental image. “Fire catapult! …d’oh!”

  3. If this game were truly a nod to Heinlein, we would have:
    * Protagonist gets sent off to the mining moon by pacifist parents wanting their son to escape a military draft
    * Protagonist meets up with pirates and joins them — discovering they’re not pirates, but part of the Mining Colony Liberation Movement
    * Protagonist has extended amor libre with Ms. Wildsmith and/or Mr. Wildsmith
    * Offspring of protagonist, seen in epilogue, is cheerful genius girl and her autistic savant brother

    Technobabble is more a nod to Brannon Braga, I think.

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