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Wolfire Overgrowth: Review and Reflection

“At my last job, the tools had no Ctrl-Z, so I learned to be perfect on first try.” —Aubrey Serr, Wolfire Team

Set after the events of Lagaru, Overgrowth follows Turner after he defeated the alpha wolf and the corrupt monarch, Hickory, avenging the death of his family. Since then, he has wandered Lugaru seeking a new purpose. After bandits begin ravaging the island, Turner decides to investigate and help dispossessed find a new home in a mythical island in the sky. Turner reluctantly help those in need, finding himself entangled in a much deeper conflict involving slavery. Fighting his way through frigid glaciers and distant swamps, Turner is captured by the cats and proves his combat prowess in the arena, before killing off the leader of the cats. Turner eventually reaches the island and after ascending its sheer walls, reaches the top, where he kills its leaders. No longer denied homes, the rabbits aiding Turner find a new home, and Turner himself sets off, continuing to seek his purpose. This is Overgrowth‘s main campaign; clocking in at around four hours, it’s concise and accompanied by a remastered version of Lagaru, Overgrowth‘s predecessor. The game’s defining feature is that its development started around a decade ago, and in its finished form, the title very much feels like a demonstration of Wolfire’s Phoenix Engine, which is a technically impressive system; the main campaign showcases the different physics aspects available in Overgrowth, as well as a highly-evolved combat system. However, with only a pair of short campaigns and a few modes beyond this, Overgrowth comes across as being much more limited in content.

Overall, the combat and parkour system in Overgrowth are the game’s greatest strengths. The context-based fighting system is quick to learn but has a remarkably high skill ceiling: like Receiver, Overgrowth is very punishing. As Turner, players are able to hold their own on skill, but brute force will quickly result in death. Overgrowth‘s campaign rewards players who strategically make use of the environment to survive, as well as those who’ve taken the time to learn the fighting system. Consequently, every successful kill in the campaign is a satisfying one, and the game reinforces this by slowing things down on each kill. It is incredibly satisfying to survive a fight against large groups of opponents, whether they be other rabbits, rats, dogs, cats or the nigh-unstoppable wolves. Each of the different opponent types require a unique approach: Turner can stand toe-to-toe with other rabbits and rats, but cats, dogs and wolves involve strategy in order for Turner to survive. Turner can also make use of weapons to bolster his survivability in a fight, and against superior opponents, the terrain becomes an ally, as well – I’ve won most fights against wolves simply by kicking them off ledges. Similarly, Overgrowth has a particular emphasis on navigating vertical landscape features to reach a destination. While the controls are a bit challenging, once mastered, players can scale sheer walls and jump across vast distances. It is as satisfying to climb to the top of a structure as it is to survive a fight, and on both counts, Overgrowth‘s central features are well-implemented. With a narrative tying things together, it was superbly enjoyable to see the game exit the beta stage and become a full-fledged, if somewhat short, title that could form the basis for a much more content-rich game: it’s clear that the Phoenix Engine is quite powerful, and with the basics finished, I would like to see Wolfire use this engine to its full potential with a game that has a more detailed story.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • It’s been just a little less than four years since I bought Overgrowth during a Steam Sale while the game was still in its alpha stages: I experimented with the game only briefly and did not have too much to say about it, but now that Overgrowth is technically finished, with two campaigns, the game’s worth returning to, and returning for the first time since 2014, I’m impressed with the lighting effects and visuals.

  • While Overgrowth‘s textures are a bit dated and the lower polygon count is visible, the lighting effects and sense of scale in the maps have seen considerable improvements since the early days of the alpha. Missions in Overgrowth‘s campaign are usually broken up into two types: ascension and combat. Ascension missions involve parkour to reach the top of a map, and combat missions entail fighting a large number of enemy combatants.

  • As a rabbit, Turner can jump great distances, an ability that is useful for both parkour and combat as a defensive tactic; being able to escape swarms of enemies is especially important, since Overgrowth lacks a HUD: Turner will go down every quickly to large numbers of enemies, and against certain kinds of enemies, will die in a single blow. Thus, a large part of the gameplay is picking one’s engagements wisely and making use of the environment to assist in combat.

  • In conjunction with punches, kicks and blocks, Turner can silently dispatch enemies by means of stealth take downs to avoid alerting nearby enemies. The AI in Overgrowth has been meticulously designed and will begin investigating if players are not careful in their approach: once combat breaks out, all stealth goes out the window, and fighting multiple opponents simultaneously is difficult, so like most stealth games, if one can commit to not being spotted, missions in Overgrowth become much more straightforwards to complete.

  • Weapons in Overgrowth come in two varieties: two handed weapons that deal massive damage at the expense of mobility, and one-handed weapons that can be employed very quickly. Weapons can be thrown, although the AI will pick up any missed weapons and use them against Turner, block them with weapons of their own or even throw them back. When used properly, weapons can one-shot most opponents.

  • A Chinese-style junk is visible at this port city: Turner visits a vast range of locations in his travels, and while Overgrowth‘s narrative is constrained by a lack of cohesiveness, it does allow players to see a variety of locations. Wolfire only has four employees, all of whom have backgrounds in programming, development and 3D modelling: Overgrowth is by far their largest title, and so, it is understandable that Overgrowth does not have a more powerful story or voice acting.

  • Water effects in Overgrowth are impressive, but there’s no opportunity to go swimming in Overgrowth: if Turner falls into deep water, he will die instantly. Overgrowth states that rabbits cannot swim to explain this mechanic: while rabbits can in fact swim to escape dangers, this is an action they are absolutely not fond of, since they become waterlogged very quickly. The resulting cold and panic can lead to drowning, and since rabbits can be literally scared to death by a shocking change in conditions (by the way, this is the correct way of using ‘literally’ in a sentence), rabbits avoid swimming where possible.

  • With a pair of swords in hand, I effortlessly decimate all of the crew on board the junk, including the boss that comes out. Blood effects and ragdolls in Overgrowth are fun, adding satisfaction to finishing each fight. Besides swords and knives, spears and staffs are also available. Weapons can be sheathed when not in use, and there are occasions where it’s better not to have weapons drawn, since they can be knocked from one’s hands during the heat of combat.

  • Besides other rabbits and mice, Turner will also encounter dogs, cats and wolves in Overgrowth. Having weapons allows Turner to even the odds out somewhat, but Wolves, being the most powerful animal in the game, can absolutely tear Turner apart. Getting up here from the ocean was no cakewalk, involving all of my resourcefulness to find spots on the shear walls to parkour up. I ended up beating the wolf by using the jump kick, an overpowered move that propels enemies back, and kicked it off a ledge.

  • The jump kick is a fantastic move for creating space and dealing massive damage to enemies, but because it propels Turner back a large distance, as well, there are risks to using it. Wolfire has since patched Overgrowth so that AI will respond more effectively towards jump kicks by evading: it proved incredibly effective against wolves, who could be insta-killed if they were kicked over ledges and fell great distances.

  • I spent a portion of Christmas Day and Boxing Day playing Overgrowth; the cold, snowy environments perfectly capture the feel of a frigid Canadian winter, and I recall the many attempts it took to sneak past the dogs and lure them into single combat. I eventually managed to best them, and savoured the victory: if there’s anything Overgrowth excels at, it’s creating a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with each fight won.

  • Like ReceiverOvergrowth is very unforgiving with its gameplay, and this is compounded by the lack of a UI; to counteract this, Overgrowth allows for near-instant respawns that put players right back into the things. This feature allows one to experiment with different approaches towards a problem until a solution is found.

  • I recall a six-on-one fight in one of the glacier missions where the ability to instantly respawn proved to be superbly useful: guards travel in pairs in this mission, and taking one out while the other is not looking is not possible. I ended up using stealth to take one out before going loud with a weapon with the other. The combat system in Overgrowth is very complex, and while easy to learn, mastering the controls is another story.

  • Turner goes from fighting in the cold glaciers to fighting in a fetid swamp. While lacking the steep drops of the glacier missions, the swamp is a dreary place that is quite easy to get lost in, and the lack of a HUD forces players to keep an eye on visual cues in the environment in order to figure out where to go next. They can be subtle, especially under low light conditions, and so, players might be forced to backtrack and explore.

  • Fighting rats in the swamps turned out to be relatively straightforwards: rats aren’t particularly challenging as a foe. Looking back, Overgrowth‘s development timeline was probably the biggest impediment the game had during its developer cycle. People wondered if the game would ever exit the alpha stage, and while the developers were constantly pushing updates, the game remained in alpha and beta stages for a few years.

  • One aspect of Overgrowth that sees very little discussion elsewhere is the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Mikko Tarmia, the music of Overgrowth is majestic, brooding and fits the game’s setting of a post-apocalyptic world. I would absolutely love to see a soundtrack, which, unfortunately, is not available for purchase at the time of writing. I recall listening to the game’s main theme frequently while writing Objective-C code, and because of our lab’s yearly excursions to Canmore, the soundtrack also reminds me of the mountains and valleys on the way leading into Banff National Park.

  • It attests to how much time has passed, now that Objective-C is being phased out in favour of Swift; when I began my time as an undergraduate researcher seven summers ago, I was a volunteer. My initial applications for funding were unsuccessful, but I decided to stick it out, since my goal was to learn, and two months in, I managed to build a simple model of blood oxygenation and deoxygenation in the lab’s custom game engine. Impressed, my supervisor switched me over to a funded programme, and I began work on a fluid flow model using agent-based approaches.

  • The mission to climb to the top of a tree and reach that glowing bucket proved to be an exercise in patience, and like the ascent to the top of a snow-covered mountain, it was immensely rewarding to actually reach the top and finish the objective. This is probably the “sense of pride and accomplishment” that all game developers want their players to experience; while the way to the top is marked by bioluminescent fungus, Overgrowth offers few other cues and suggestions, leaving players to work out how to get to the top.

  • By my second year, I managed to win the OCSS, a small scholarship for students enrolled in the Health Sciences program to do summer research. That summer, I continued on with my flow model after implementing a selectively permeable membrane system. Work on the flow model proceeded into June, and after spending many summer days tuning it, I was surprised to see my entities moving in a convoluted vessel without being stuck in the walls. I subsequently tried the algorithm out on a nephron model that we had, and it proved successful, so I spent the remainder of the summer trying to mimic renal flow and reabsorption, making use of the selectively permeable membranes in the process.

  • The camp in the swamp is such a visually impressive level with its lighting effects, and while quite difficult to nagivate, it was worth exploring every corner of this map to find the exit after all enemies had been eliminated. During this level, the intense fighting meant that I lost my weapons, but Overgrowth‘s jump kicks are overpowered to the point where they can be used if one lacks weapons. On a map with no ledges, this tactic is not a particularly dangerous one.

  • During my third summer in my undergraduate program, I did not return to the lab until August, having been entangled with the MCAT, but once that finished, I helped get a paper submission off the ground. By my fourth year, my old work with the nephrons eventually led me to build a multi-scale renal model in our lab’s in-house game engine, and I returned to this project that summer with an NSERC USRP award, building a distributed model that allowed different computers to share information with one another. In this implementation, I had one computer handle the renal calculations and the other handle cardiac functions. As they shared data, their visualisations, run locally, would be updated.

  • As we reach the end of Overgrowth‘s campaign, the levels become much more ominous in nature, featuring lavafalls and hellish environments. I fight in an arena here against increasingly difficult opponents, until at last, wolves are introduced. Wolves are terrifyingly powerful – Turner is no match for one in a straight-up fight, so I utilised hit-and-fade techniques, making use of distance to my advantage and waiting for the right moment to jump-kick a wolf into the lava below, which is an instant death. There was an occasion where I mis-timed one of my jumps and took myself out, but in the end, I managed to secure the win.

  • Turner is tasked with retrieving something whose value I cannot quite remember, but what I do remember of this mission is that it involves ascending ever-higher. It was quite the achievement to reach the top of the map and make my way back down: the way down was actually quite tricky, and even with the bioluminiscent markers helping, there were a few occasions where I overestimated how much falling damage that Turner could take.

  • Turner is later pitted against opponents of varying difficulty in another arena, and it was here that limitations in the pathfinding for some of the AI became visible. I exploited these limitations to win all of my matches, and during one match, managed to wrench a weapon from an opponent and turned things around instantly. While the organisers of the match are impressed, Turner will have none of this and proceeds to masacre all within the arena, including the cats running the event.

  • After killing off everything in sight, Turner must escape the cat’s desert city. The streets are unusually quiet, and it’s a good idea to hold onto any weapons one may have for the upcoming fight ahead: a number of cats stand between Turner and freedom, but compared to the fight in the arena, this one is relatively straightforward in nature.

  • Unlike the Wolfire Team, who continued to develop their Phoenix Engine until its reached the level of sophistication that it’s at today, our lab slowly phased out the in-house game engine once Unity made their engine freely available. While our own engine was robust, powerful and extensible, its biggest constraint was that it was not optimised; even simple simulations only ran at around 30 FPS, and more complex simulations would drop down to 10 FPS. This coincided with the arrival of The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and when I managed to build a functional prototype within two weeks, Jay Ingram and my supervisor were impressed with the engine’s capabilities. Since then, my old lab has used both Unity and Unreal.

  • While I’ve remarked that Overgrowth reminds me of Canmore and its surroundings, one should not expect to find such a structure in Canmore. This is the legendary country in the sky that was being referred to throughout Overgrowth. This is the culmination of all of the parkour and ascension skills that players have accumulated over the course of Overgrowth, and even then, climbing up here is no walk in the park. There are long jumps and tricky catches to make: any mistake will send Turner falling many metres into the water below, resulting in an instant death.

  • With the Phoenix Engine in a good state, one wonders if the Wolfire team will hire script writers and voice actors for any titles they might choose to make in the future. Since Overgrowth, I’ve not heard any news that the Wolfire team will be moving onto new projects, and from the looks of things, they will continue improving Overgrowth. In the time since I completed this game, two patches have come out to improve the AI and game performance.

  • I stop for a few moments to admire the scenery up here before continuing on. Once reaching the top, a brief fight awaits Turner. Beating down the tower’s leaders will bring an end to Overgrowth, and while the campaign was very short lived, it was quite entertaining. The fights are easily the best aspect of Overgrowth, especially with respect to how things slow down when a zone is cleared.

  • Overall, while I cannot say I recommend Overgrowth as a game, I can say that the game is a very pleasant reminder of my days as a university student. I bought the game mainly as a token of thanks for the Wolfire team, whose efforts and updates motivated me to delve further into the world of biological visualisations. With this being said, if people do not mind the shorter campaign and somewhat unoptimised performance, and they have a greater interest in all of the map tools than I did, then Overgrowth is not a particularly bad purchase, especially if on a sale; there are a host of worse ways of spending 33 CAD.

Having been in development since 2008, Overgrowth definitely feels dated with respect to its visuals, but the Wolfire team’s efforts have resulted in a superbly mature game engine that handles Overgrowth‘s fighting and parkour system well. The campaign is quite short, and it appears that the flexibility of Overgrowth‘s game engine stems from a desire for the community to create their own content. Work on this engine is why Overgrowth‘s development has spanned the greater part of a decade: I learned of Overgrowth during my first summer as an undergraduate researcher – my old research lab had developed its own game engine in-house to provide a 3D space in which to model and visualise biological systems. The lead developer on this project drew inspiration from Overgrowth‘s map editor, especially the transformation, rotation and scaling tools, to make it easier for objects to be placed in 3D space. This in-house game engine powered my thesis, and while it’s been replaced by commercially-available game engines like Unity, it formed the basis for the work that I would end up doing for my Master’s Thesis. Consequently, while Overgrowth might not be an impressive title from an entertainment perspective, there are features in Overgrowth that directly inspired the work at our lab. Improvements to our in-house game engine’s ease-of-use and navigation eventually led me to build a visualisation of the renal system at different scales, complete with a mathematical model to depict responses of my virtual renal system to various stimuli, for my undergraduate thesis. I watched the map editor demonstration and its accompanying humour eight years ago and found it deeply inspiring for my work; I ended up buying Overgrowth in its early access stage to support the development as a bit of thanks in 2013, after I had successfully defended my undergraduate thesis.

Considerations for multiplayer in Wolfire Receiver

“Complete the mission, you’re the only one left!”

While Receiver‘s mechanics may preclude successful implementation of a multiplayer game-mode, it is nonetheless an interesting exercise to consider different aspects that could go into such a game type to keep things interesting and refreshing. Receiver has been discussed previously as an excellent weapons simulator, encapsulated in a narrative concerning cults and a clever reflection on the impact of media in everyday lives. The game’s core mechanic involves the reloading of pistols, which, compared to other first person shooters, must be executed with a sequence of carefully placed keystrokes. Receiver is a single-player title, but one must wonder how the dynamics would change if the game were a multiplayer; different modes could pit two to ten players against one another (either individually or as teams), as they strive to capture tapes ahead of everyone else, or else be focussed on eliminating other players (or killtrons). The weapon mechanics, physics and game design could lead to players adopting some interesting strategies, as there would not be regenerating health, mini-maps or even rounds left, encouraging players to plan each move carefully. Such a game would involve the need to develop a mastery of weapons reloading: although individual engagements will still depend on sure aim and firing the first shot, there are numerous factors that could make a multiplayer version of Receiver interesting. Players with a greater proficiency with their weapons will be at an advantage, being able to pick off distant opponents with a greater certainty, and increased familiarity with the maps will allow players to figure out where the best shots for ambushes are. If the one-hit-kill mechanic and permanent death mechanic is retained, players will also be forced to play tactically, making use of the maps as cover, and double-checking their corners to ensure that they do not fall victim to an ambush. To ensure a fair start, players would spawn with identical weapons and equipment in a match, with their weapons in the same initial state.

  • This post is titled “Considerations for multiplayer in Wolfire Receiver”, but all of the screenshots come from the singleplayer (i.e. the game available on Steam). The discussion was born from conversation with a friend, who wondered whether or not Receiver‘s mechanics would be conducive towards a multiplayer experience where victory would be determined by a combination of skill, strategy and reflexes.

  • If we follow through with this thought experiment, the answer appears to be “yes”: implementation would probably be the most difficult part, but the addition of other players would make for some interesting gameplay. This is the most tapes I’ve found in this unusual structure: I’ve seen screenshots where three tapes have spawned here before.

  • The main limitation about multiplayer would be map generation, since players could potentially avoid one another by running in opposite directions, and that some sections do not easily allow for vertical travel. One fix for this will be to design new maps permitting vertical travel and  opening up/closing off new areas based on the players’ positions relative to one another. Besides this and networking considerations, the other aspect will be the design of graphical assets for the players themselves.

  • The complete lack of a HUD means that players would be completely dependent on audio cues, such as gunshots and footsteps, to determine where the other players are, adding yet another level of challenge to the game. One aspect that could prove difficult to control are macro input programs, such as G-Hotkey. Countering such programs would represent the greatest challenge in implementation, and using macros could detract from the experience.

  • Having the killtrons in the environment would provide side objectives for the players and could yield some cooperation even amongst competing players. For instance, if the last remaining players in a game are eliminated by kill-trons, then the game might count that as a loss for both teams, so players would need to cooperate and shoot down the killtrons to avoid being penalised.

  • One addition to Receiver that would act as incentive includes adding different, perhaps weapon-specific, attachments for each pistol. The Model 10 might gain a red dot sight for better aiming-down-sights performance at range, while the M1911 could be given an optional suppressor to better improve a player’s stealth. The G17, with its automatic fire and large magazine capacity, would gain hipfire accuracy with a laser sight. Speed loaders might also be available in certain gametypes to emphasise the tactical aspects.

  • Since my last Receiver post back in June, I’ve accumulated an additional 14 hours over four months. The game’s randomised levels and items mean that every round is different, and sometimes, Receiver can be remarkably generous with resources: these rounds usually mean I find anywhere from six to nine tapes, although a single well-placed killtron would still kill me.

  • The aforementioned elements are absent in Receiver because the game would otherwise be too easy: it takes a degree of skill to accurately target and hit specific components on the killtrons, and after 48 hours of gameplay, I’m able to disable the killtrons (both the hover-drones and turrets) with a single round. The turrets are somewhat tougher, as shots may sometimes only disable their motors, and depending on where I need to go next, a follow-up shot is necessary to take out the camera.

  • The tension in Receiver increases as more tapes are collected, and the music intensifies. In some play-throughs I’ve seen, players begin panicking as they collect more tapes, fearing death. It is possible for one to empty out their entire magazine into a distant killtron, and consequently, my recommendation would be to fire carefully earlier on in the game, collecting and conserving ammunition to ensure that they have sufficient ammunition to survive. Here, I come close to my second victory of all time: I paused the game to sit down to dinner, and then resumed shortly after to complete this run.

  • With two completions under my belt, I merely need to beat Receiver once with the G17 and I’ll have found all eleven tapes in one run with every gun. So ends this post: I’m aware that the Wolfire team is unlikely to build or release a multiplayer version of Receiver, but it has been an amusing exercise to see what features and challenges could arise from multiplayer. Up next will be a talk on Charlotte: though I’ve not mentioned watching it, I did follow it during the Summer 2015 season and found some elements worth discussing. This should be done before Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka??‘s first episode airs, and I aim to get this particular review out as soon as practical.

From an implementation perspective, this would require a server (implemented as a script in Unity), the means of connecting to said server and spawning the players. From there, state synchronisation and remote procedure calls would be needed, such that the locations of the players and their shots, and current map are sent to all players. Player positions and shots fired will need to be interpolated or predicted to account for network latency. With players being able to consistently see one another, they can then begin interacting in the game environment: the process for creating a multiplayer version of Receiver is considered to be moderately difficult to implement. The main challenge faced for multiplayer is the possibility that some players will use macro software (like G-Hotkey) to gain an advantage, and off the top of my head, I can’t think of any fixes (except maybe to listen for the speed of the inputs and reject them if the interval between each is too short). There are doubtlessly other difficulties that must be addressed, but a multiplayer game mode could prove to be quite entertaining, as it would add the dynamic of interacting with other players into a relatively challenging game. The end result would be a first person shooter that would play out in a very life-like fashion: players would need to develop a mastery for operating their pistols, exercise caution (and perhaps use bounding overwatch patterns to move from cover to cover) and communicate with one another (to provide cover for a teammate while reloading, for instance) in order to stand victorious. Only a handful of possibilities are discussed here, and while an implementation is very improbable, it is clear that a multiplayer component would add new dimensions to Receiver; the result would be a game mode that would demand a combination of skill, tactical thinking and reflexes far surpassing that of a typical multiplayer first person shooter.

Wolfire Receiver: Immersive Gaming Done Correctly

“Failure will never overtake me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.” —Og Mandino

A little less than a year after I got Receiver with my Overgrowth preorder, I’ve finally beaten the game touted as a highly detailed gun mechanics simulator with procedurally-generated worlds and permanent death. This unique combination of elements means that Receiver is likely to be one of the most challenging games around, more so than The Impossible Game and The World’s Hardest Game. However, this difficulty arises as a consequence of its simplicity: Receiver forces players to first learn how to reload their weapons properly, and initially coming from most shooters where smashing the ‘R’ button triggers a reload animation, Receiver requires an intricate pattern of coordinated, precisely placed keystrokes to reload a weapon. It takes roughly two hours to fully master all of this; being able to reload any of the weapons from muscle memory without looking at the keyboard is immensely satisfying, but also just the beginning of the game. The next task is to focus on finding eleven tapes scattered though a procedurally generated world where starting resources, enemies and tape placement is random. Even the most skilled player may find themselves entering a room and dying in an instant because of a turret or hover-bot’s placement, forcing them to start over. This ceaseless cycle of death and failure leaves players frustrated, often to the point of rage-qutting. Players with a more open mind will persist, and through reinforcement learning, eventually develop a mastery of the weapon mechanics and a fear of the killtrons’ distinctive detection sound.

  • It might come as a surprise to some, but I’ve spent 34 hours in Receiver, which places it fourth overall in my Steam Library: owing to idling, I’ve got some 971 hours in Team Fortress 2 (and would probably have roughly 40-50 hours of actual play time), making it first. Second place belongs to Skyrim and third place is Bad Company 2, although half of that is playing through the campaign.

  • This much replay value is not bad at all for a five dollar title: a quick computation finds that the game costs 15 cents per hour to play. My personal benchmark for value is a dollar per hour, so if a game manages to cost a dollar per hour or less, then it’s money well-spent.

  • While Receiver makes use of a procedurally generated world, I’ve found that tapes tend to spawn in more or less the same areas. Consequently, there are some places that are better to explore in detail than others. Quite personally, I absolutely love the apartment assets: only furnished with the basics, these rooms feel very cozy and relaxing compared to the emptier, more intimidating and darker lower floors.

  • I understand that my posting patterns have been quite inconsistent this month: my research work’s slowed down slightly, given that I’ve needed to debug my model for minor but somewhat jarring bugs (between supervising and helping undergraduate students out). Said bugs have been fixed, and the model works alright: I’m mostly back on track at present, and soon, work can begin on the project’s virtual reality component.

2015-04-18_00002

  • Besides my thesis project, the summer’s epic food quest continues: last week, I attended a superlative Nerd Night talk on Dr. Caleb Brown’s discovery of a new horned dinosaur after enjoying a Reuben sandwich in a British-style pub. Then, on Saturday, I was out for dinner with the family, which, amongst other things, included a delicious wonton soup and pan-fried mayonaise shrimp. Monday saw another excellent steak, and as I am wont to do (ever since 2013), I do enjoy thinking about whether or not reality is a simulation before savouring said steak.

  • I’ve still yet to try a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich, but that’s on the schedule for this summer. Returning to Receiver, one must keep an eye out for tapes everywhere; there are some occasions where tapes will spawn in an apartment’s sinks. Fortunately, to make tapes, flashlights and rounds easier to spot, Wolfire’s developers had the foresight to provide a glowing effect around items to ensure they can be easily seen. While some find the tapes to be uninspired, I personally love them: one of the tapes suggests that listening to the tapes repeatedly confer supernatural powers. Cleverly, those playing the game frequently will eventually memorise the tape’s contents.

  • With enough practise, it becomes possible to accurately hit vital components on the killtrons from a considerable distance outside of their operational range. Bullet physics is accurately simulated in Receiver, so one does have to aim above their targets for distant shots, and a very nice touch is that bullets can ricochet off the environment. I’ve had several instances of a ‘missed’ round bouncing off a wall and managing to strike a killtron to disable it.

  • As vital as a cool nerves, a quick trigger finger and wits are in Receiver, sometimes, blind luck means that tapes are easily found. During one memorable game, I found two tapes right beside one another. There are some tapes with no dialogue, and just chanting. Allowing those tapes to run their course will add to the number of tapes absorbed.

  • There are some games where resources are plentiful, and on one particularly lucky match, I found most of my tapes in an endless expanse of rooftops. I soon passed my record of eight tapes absorbed to reach ten, and noticed that in an open area, there had been another tape lying in plain sight, guarded by a single killtron. I emptied my magazine into it to disable it, and moved in to claim the eleventh tape.

  • Thus, on June 14, a little less than a year after I started playing Receiver, I finally beat the game for the first time. This particularly lucky run took around 25 minutes, and with all eleven tapes collected, the game concludes. 33 hours after I started, I was both lucky and experienced enough to complete an immensely rewarding journey: Receiver is a surprisingly involved game for such a seemingly simple title, and has much more depth than most players imagine. The same might be said of most relevant skills in life: anything worth doing takes time to learn and become familiarised with.

These two seemingly simple developments lead to a degree of immersion in Receiver that even triple-A titles lack; how are these elements able to cultivate a sense of being a part of Receiver? It turns out that the lack of a health system in Receiver, and the ever-present killtrons eventually lead players to associate the killtrons’ detection sound with death. This leads players to immediately withdraw, retreat, hide or ready their weapons. However, some scenarios may lead to panic: being rushed by a hover-drone or entering a turret’s line of sight can lead to some interesting behaviours. One may empty an entire magazine at the killtron and miss every shot, or else fumble a reload while running away from a pursing killtron. Other times, death comes out of the blue, as swiftly and unexpectedly as any jump scare in a horror game. Paranoia may strike in yet other ways: how many enemies are there in the next room? Is that killtron really disabled or should several more rounds be put into it to make certain? Receiver is not even a horror game, and it can frighten players more effectively than most games of this genre. Through reinforcement, Receiver is able to effectively convey the sense that death is swift and often unexpected. This aspect contributes to the immersion in Receiver, forcing players to make full use of caution, as well as auditory and visual cues within the environment, in order to survive. The ever-present, unexpected nature of death keeps players on their toes, giving the sense that players are genuinely trapped in a building with nothing more than a weapon and their wits. This difficulty makes completing Receiver immensely rewarding, and in immersing players fully into its environment, Receiver illustrates how well-designed game mechanics can make a game far more entertaining than graphics alone.

Receiver

“You see reality painted in shades of black, but beyond your world is another, bathed in radiant light. We have reached out to you with a warning. If you are able to hear our message, then you are one of the few we can help. We call you ‘Receivers’.”

I picked up a complementary copy of Receiver up with the Wolfire Overgrowth alpha. Released in June 2012, Receiver was the finished product from the seven-day FPS challenge, featuring a procedurally-generated levels and, most significantly, portrays the operation and handling of firearms in a far more involved manner than any other FPS I’ve played. The story is revealed as players find audio tapes scattered throughout the world; the firearm players are supplied with are intended to deal with killtrons, which take the form of stationary sentry turrets or mobile hover drones that will attack the player. Initially, it was little more than a curiosity, and attempts to play the game were met with quick deaths at the hands of the killtrons. I spent a fair bit of time looking through the help menu as I fumbled around with reloading my firearm; ineptitude meant that there were several occasions where I failed to pull the slide back after reloading from empty or engage the hammer to allow the weapon to fire. However, in the time that has passed since the Steam Summer 2014 Sale, I’ve sunk in around nine hours into the game, and have finally attained a reasonable proficiency with the weapons, enough to reload and operate all of the weapons (Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolver, Colt M1911A1 semi-automatic pistol and the selective fire Glock 17) from memory alone. With this done, I began diving deeper into the universe Receiver builds, set in a vast, uninhabited building somewhere in Hong Kong following the Mind-kill. Individuals in the Receiver cult have access to the Clear-tapes, which explore more of the story as the player accumulates them.

  • Receiver is a procedurally generated game: every game is different, with a different map layout and character equipment. Some days, players are lucky and will spawn with plenty of ammunition, a flashlight and be close to some tapes, while other days, the game will give the player no flashlight, no bullets or even spawn them right behind a turret.

  • The first main challenge in Receiver is learning how to reload each gun efficiently. It took me around two hours in game to fully memorise everything, but it was well worth it. The revolver is the easiest to reload: one merely needs to open the chamber, shake out spent cartridges, insert new ones and close the chamber, then pull back the hammer. As a double action revolver, pulling back the hammer isn’t necessary, but it does make shooting a faster action.

  • Originally, the M1911 was the only weapon in the game. To reload it from empty, one must eject the magazine. Then, they may hoister the weapon and insert fresh rounds, or a new magazine, then insert it back into the M911. Releasing the slide and chambering a new round typically will follow. A similar process is observed for the G17, although both weapons have differences.

  • The M911 has a hammer and a safety, while the G17 has a fire selector, allowing it to go between semi-automatic and full automatic fire. Early on, I found myself dying because I failed to chamber a round or because I left the safety engaged, but experience is an effective instructor. Consequently, I die less frequently from carelessness at present, although Receiver is immensely unforgiving: taking a single bullet, exposure to even a second of the hover-bot’s taser or falling from a height will end the game and result in a restart.

  • Receiver has simple graphics, but its procedural level generation means that moving between some areas may lead to a bit of lag arising even on a rig as powerful as mine. This lag is only noticeable for a few moments, and the remainder of the game handles very smoothly at 1080p on the “fantastic” graphics settings. The building includes sparsely furnished apartment complexes, empty rooms, large warehouses, rooftops and open courtyards. Tapes are typically found in roughly similar areas (such as in the bedroom here), or in the corners of the larger rooms.

  • Large stairwells and corridors dominate some parts of the building, and the killtrons are usually found in predictable areas. What is not predictable will be their numbers: sometimes, killtrons appear alone and can be easily disposed of, while other times, even the most skilled of players will suffer a quick death after being fired upon by several turrets while being pursued by the hoverbots.

  • For the screenshots, I’ve deliberately increased the distance the player holds the gun away from their eyes to give a better sense of what’s happening on screen, but for most games, I have the gun a little closer so I can better aim down the sights. Even with only iron sights, I’m capable of shooting out a killtron from across a room or courtyard, or even shoot out the signalling lights at the top of a building from across the map. One of the more subtle things in the game that few will have attempted is the fact that light fixtures can be shot out. This is, naturally, not a good idea, given that ammunition in this game is exceptionally limited (some games, players start with one bullet left in the chamber).

  • Those with a careful eye may notice that the massive building in Receiver is actually set in Hong Kong: the Jardine House and  the lower half of the Hong Kong Bank of China are visible. This subtle touch, coupled with a music track that progressively intensifies as one approaches the tapes, adds to Receiver‘s atmospherics. With that said, Receiver is an excellent game that also simulates a sense of loneliness: the player is completely alone inside the building and never engages or aids any other humans.

  • The unique environment in the game allows players to devise their own stories as to what happened prior to the game’s events. In my case, I enjoy thinking that the Mind-kill was introduced by TV Tropes’ administrator and moderators, destroying self-awareness and forcing the population into a no-negativity, mindless consensus. One individual, who had arbitrarily been “Google-banned” from TV Tropes, was spared of the Mind-kill. As a Receiver, they must now must venture back into the labyrinth that is TV Tropes and retrieve the data tapes that will allow them to overcome TV Tropes’ influence, while evading TV Tropes’ ban-enforcement measures, attempting to locate the source of the issue and putting an end to it for good.

  • The most tapes I’ve ever collected so far is six, just a little above the halfway point. Some tapes, I’ve heard more frequently than others, and the mention that individuals who listen to them repeatedly may transcend humanity is a clever bit of meta-humour: those who play the game frequently will doubtlessly hear these tapes repeatedly and even memorise some of the tapes.

As I progress through the game and track down the tapes, the story starts to take shape. The recordings on the tapes produce a vague story, and a part of the joy in Receiver lies in ambiguity, leading different individuals to interpret the story differently. Wolfire intended the story to add to the immersion within Receiver and ultimately succeeds, adding depth and promoting curiosity to what would otherwise simply be the world’s most involved firearm simulator. In my case, I see Receiver as dealing with media influence over human thinking. Society’s general tendency to accept what the media presents as truth to be a problem; the media is a form of business, and as such, is concerned with profits, rather than merely giving their viewers the facts. This leads to sensationalisation, and in some cases, projection of bias, leading to stories that deviate from the truth and impart on viewers a misconception of the issue. I’m not one to blindly believe everything I’m told (in fact, this is why I never got along with individuals who were part of popular cliques), and will carefully assess something before deciding on a position, whether to align with or against something. Back in Receiver, individuals immune to the media’s effects are referred to as “Awakened”, and are tasked with collecting all of the tapes. With a basic mastery of firearms and some understanding of what the tapes entail, my journey to delve to the bottom of the mystery behind the Mind-kill continues.