Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Mirrormoon EP: Worlds in Collision

Let's have a look at Mirrormoon EP, an intriguing new game of exploration and puzzle-solving. It was released via the Steam platform on 04 September for the reasonable price of £6.92, and it's great fun. Mirrormoon is an independent game, but unlike smash indie hits such as Kirby Space Programme and Minecraft it doesn't seem to have generated much of a buzz yet; I first heard of it whilst browsing through Steam's New Release schedule. It was a finalist for some award or other last year or this year.

On a conceptual level Mirrormoon is easy to describe. You play an intangible presence, and you fly a spaceship through a galaxy of planets. Each planet has a spinny circular thing that you can only pick up once you have solved a series of puzzles, which involve touching things with your magic zapper gun. Once you pick up the spinny circular thing you get to name the planet - but only if someone else hasn't named it already, because there are other people playing the game. You never see them, but they're there. And that's Mirrormoon, but this description doesn't do the game justice because it's more than just a lot of pointing at things and moving around. It's visually striking and a sonic feast. After playing it for a while I am struck with a wave of melancholic nostalgia. There is something about its minimalist modernism that sends me back to the past.

See, one of my earliest memories is Battlezone, the classic arcade game. The local arcade had a machine, and I remember being mesmerised by the fluid 3D polygons and the sense of being free to roam around on the surface of a gigantic alien world. Of course, the playfield was actually tiny - it wrapped around, so you could travel forever in one direction without getting anywhere - and there was no way to reach the jagged mountains that ringed the horizon or the erupting volcano. In that respect it was a metaphor for life. You travel without ever getting anywhere, because you're trapped by your own limitations, and there's a hostile world out there trying to trip you up. The wonders you ogle are just square blocks, and ultimately there's no magic, everything is just a few lines of code bashed out by an overworked staffer who had to meet a deadline. Ball lightning? Spontaneous combustion? The Voynich Manuscript? They were just bugs caused by shoddy programming; a pointer that overflowed.

Battlezone. Apart from blowing up tanks and being killed by those damn missiles there wasn't much to do, but the game is still a fun blast nowadays. The visuals have style and the action is surprisingly fluid.


Over subsequent years I was drawn to games that allowed the player to explore a 3D world. They were rare in the 1980s. Home computer technology was barely capable of rendering Battlezone itself, let alone extending the concept into simulating a coherent world. But there were a few notable pioneers of what would nowadays be called sandbox games. Keeping within the realm of proper 3D, and ignoring space combat simulators - which rules out Lotus Turbo Esprit and Elite, both of which were sandbox pioneers - there was Firebird's cult classic Cholo (1987), which combined the robot-collecting gameplay of Hewson's Paradroid with a jerky but expansive 3D environment that encompassed a city centre, a military base, an airfield and an offshore island. The visuals were jerky and occasionally indecipherable, but it had ambition. Its major flaw was that it was a few years ahead of its time; it really needed a 16-bit microcomputer to do the concept justice, but as far as I can tell it was never ported for the Atari ST or Amiga. There was a modern remake a couple of years ago that finally managed to get it right, and revealed a game that might have been hailed as a stone-cold classic if only it had been faster.

Cholo, Firebird (1987). Clockwise from top-left, an office with a table - an impressive feat of realism at the time - plus some buildings, a control tower, and an aeroplane sitting on a runway.

Another game that springs to mind is Mercenary (1987), in which the player has to escape from an alien city:

Mirrormoon EP is a lot more reminiscent of Mercenary's sequel, Damocles, which gave the player freedom to explore a star system containing several planets and moons. Mirrormoon itself takes place in a galaxy of several thousand procedurally-generated worlds, which put me in mind of the surrealistic Captain Blood (1988):

Unlike Captain Blood, travel in Mindymork takes time. You can tell your spaceship to hurry up, but high-speed travel takes more fuel, and if you don't have enough fuel you're forced to coast, like the Wizards of the Coast, Wizards is the name of a film by Ralph Bakshi, Ralph 124C 41 is an early work of science fiction by Hugo Gernsback, The Grapes of Wrath, of Khan... Hugo Gernsback's original name was Hugo Gernsbacher; Miss Teschmacher was played by Valerie Perrine, which was a type of mineral water popular in the 1980s. Here's what the control panel of your spaceship looks like as you turn it on for the first time, and when I say turn it on I mean that you press buttons, I'm not suggesting that you feed it chocolates:

The game takes a back-seat approach to telling you how to play it. The control panel likewise. In the top-left there's a speed control and a fuel meter. You can see that I've selected the slowest speed, which will use up a quarter of what little fuel I have left. It's going to take me 1:03 of real time to reach my destination, 1:18 of presumably on-board relativistic time. The little polygon in the very top-left shows my heading and velocity; I'm going thataway (points towards the blog's sidebar and thence to the window and beyond). The screen in the middle is a star map - I am heading from a star to the left of the screen that I have already named to a star in the middle of the screen. In a way Moogaloo is a wolf-marking-its-territory simulator, you go around marking your territory.

The other controls? To the right of the screen is a triangle that lets me spin the display around, and above it a thing that lets me scroll around. The mouse pointer is hovering over some buttons that light up the displays - this seems to be cosmetic. To its left, a floppy disc, which has to be inserted into the drive in order to (I assume) download myself on the planet. On the planet itself you navigate with standard WASD controls and the mouse, albeit that the mouse only controls your gripper / zapper stick, e.g. you can't look up and down. It remains to be seen whether you move around the planet, or you're just standing still and it rotates beneath your feet.

Why is it called Mirrormoon? And not for example Mr Fidget's Bidet Quest? When you arrive on the planet there's a moon in the sky (called the moon). But it's no ordinary moon, it's actually a mirror-image of the planet, a kind of map hanging in the sky that you can use to navigate with. I keep saying the planet, but really it's tiny. You can traverse it in no time.

The gameplay for the most part consists of walking around the planet, touching things. Beacons fire out pulses of light that you have to follow, there are strange objects that make a noise when you walk through them - the buildings are insubstantial - and ghostly shapes that are only instantiated when night falls. The emphasis on light and shadow reminds me a bit of Tau Ceti (1985), which had possibly the first model of day/night transition in a computer game:

At night you could fire off flares, or use jerky infra-red, or just hide in a building until sunrise.

Mirrormind is complicated by the fact that you can actually grab the moon and move it around - in fact you can use it to eclipse the sun, in which case night-time falls on the planet and some of the structures change. Before you can swing the moon around you have to assemble your grippy shooty gun thing, and to make things interesting the moon occasionally drifts through the sky uncontrollably. The puzzles are generally simplistic, but the game's emphasis is on exploring lots of worlds rather than getting stuck on a few.

The edge of the galaxy is to the right - you can visit each of these stars.

Audio-wise the game has an ambient soundtrack that reminds me of Alpha Centauri-era Tangerine Dream crossed with Music for Airports-era Brian Eno, except that it's a lot more cheerful. I assume the music is procedurally-generated, just like the planets, although the sonic environment sometimes provides clues that help solve the puzzles. Even if the game was a pile of rubbish, the music would make the price worthwhile.

Mirrormoon is developed by the two-man team of Santa Ragione, who are from Italy which is a place I have visited in fact I have been to Milan which is the home of one-half of the team but then again lots of people have been to Milan, I have no special connection with the place or with them. Santa Ragione is apparently Italian for Holy Reason, but I'm sure there are subtleties that I don't understand on account of not being Italian, e.g. perhaps it's a football team, or an Italian expletive.

The game was designed by Italian people, you can tell
Is Mirrormoon any good? On an objective level neither Captain Blood nor Tau Ceti were particularly effective as entertainment, in fact they weren't really games at all, they were clever graphical demos with a slip of gameplay draped around them in order to justify their existence.* On the other hand they were experiences and of course I still remember them fondly.

* Literally so - Tau Ceti began as a 3D shape drawing demo and Captain Blood was built around a fast fractal landscape routine. You know, I never realised that Valerie Perrine was the policewoman in The Cannonball Run who pulled over Adrienne Barbeau and was immune to her mesmerising bosom - which is one of the few implausible things about that film, given that Adrienne Barbeau's bosom is universally appealing to all mammals, male or female, human or otherwise.

Mirrormoon is an experience too, but it's far more successful as a game, albeit in short bursts. The procedurally-generated puzzles feel arbitrary and occasionally the planet doesn't have a puzzle at all, but the combination of heavenly music and fantastic, distinctive visuals are enough to keep me playing. The sense of being an explorer in a mysterious galaxy is enticing, and the game is of course under active development, so it remains to be seen how it will pan out. There is a very tenuous storyline (which I admit to having completely ignored) but the game is ripe for expansion - it would be interesting to see fractal planets with subaquatic spaces and gigantic glaciers and cities in the sky. But these are whims. Mirrormoon is well worth the money even as an ambient sculpture, and it has very modest system requirements - any Core II Duo PC with a decent graphics card is enough. So far it hasn't been ported for mobile platforms but I would be surprised if any of the current generation of tablets had trouble running it.

Why EP? It stands for Extended Play. There was a demo, see, which was much smaller. Back then long time ago when the grass was green and music came on vinyl discs, a record that had more music than a two-song single but less than a forty-minute album was called an EP. Typically there were two songs per side, two sides, occasionally two discs. In the 1960s they were a popular vehicle for bands that didn't have very many good songs, or as a live showcase, in the 1980s they were the ideal indie label sampler format, more value for money than a two-track split 7". Nowadays EPs are an anachronism (and they generally aren't released on vinyl), but they're very trendy, e.g. look at the pretty girl and her beestung lips. She's from Southampton, not usually famous for having attractive people. Don't write in to complain, people of Southampton, your strengths lie in other areas.

"I've started out for God knows where /
I guess I'll know when I get there"