Sunday, 22 May 2011

Falling deeper in love: Terraria

The reason I say Terraria is a beautiful game isn't because of the glorious pixel art; although the combination of pixel art, procedural generation, and smart use of lighting and particle systems are beautiful, but because many of the design decisions are just precisely right. For a game developed over 5 months by 4 people, it shows an incredible level of maturity.

The user interface is elegantly understated. My chief problem with Spelunky is the large number of controls needed to move through the environments: Terraria uses WASD movement but up and down are not used to start with, along with a 2 button mouse, space to jump and ESC; but this limited control set sensibly handles a huge number of interactions and permutations of objects, terrain and furnishings. (For pedants, yes there are other controls but those are strictly optional, and all just faster ways of selecting which items to use).

The ESC menu is particularly instructive: it overlays the ability to organise your inventory, drop and equip objects, craft items and buy and sell from the shop, and interact with containers, as well as save and exit the game; which you can do simultaneously from the same screen without requiring you switch modes at all. So you can craft an item, sell it to the merchant, drop equipment from your inventory to make space for another purchase, and then wear a new combination of items without having to exit out of the single menu.

Similarly, left-clicking with mouse lets you build and destroy, select items to use, attack or shoot at enemies and decorate your house - while right-clicking is only rarely needed and never in a moment of duress, for opening and closing doors, interacting with NPCs and opening containers.

I'm listing this here, because one of the few things Terraria gets wrong is that it doesn't explain the most straight forward thing you need to learn: which is that the mouse cursor is how you primarily interact with the world, limited for the most part by the requirement that your avatar be in relatively close proximity. Of course, close proximity in a game of plunging chasms, flooded caverns and spawning monsters is itself a challenge, but there is no point which so far I've felt like the control scheme has been frustrating or unresponsive.

Like Minecraft, Terraria uses its procedurally generated backdrop as a palette for you to build and dig, but that's where many of the simalarities end. Minecraft remains (as far as I am aware) a toy sandbox (once the thrill and challenge of the first 30 minutes wears off), Terraria an open ended game. I've been meaning to write an article about the importance of that key verb 'dig': because it lets you throw off the shackles of required connectivity that makes much procedural content generation so frustrating (to design and to play in) and lets you generate glorious playgrounds which ultimately may be broken, but which the player has the tools to fix. Where Angband has gone wrong is digging is slow and unrewarding, Spelunky makes the mistake of limiting the level size, but here the maps are effectively limitless in size (in reality, just really huge - use the 3rd party mapping tool - just once - to display a map you've spent 3 or 4 hours exploring to see what I mean), and for the most part well-connected enough so that it is clear where you need to dig to hollow out a pathway or bring down a cascade of sand, but still big enough to make choosing a random direction and tunnelling an exercise in patience and frustration and occasional delight (as so it should be).

Terraria makes the same smart decision that Minecraft does (and where Love goes horribly wrong) by using its pixel art assets to make it really clear what everything is: here are blocks of dirt, sand and rock, this is tree, grass and flower, and not only are they clearly delineated, but the clever crafting system makes these differences important. I say everything is differentiated: but at the same time rock, and the various ores are similar enough so that you need one next to the other to distinguish the two, forcing you to be keenly observant when you explore underground. Many times, I've paused at a rocky outcrop on the surface that I've run over tens of times, and suddenly realised that it was a valuable iron deposit.

Exploring underground is as glorious as it could be: musically, rhythmically, the deep, but survivable drops from tunnel system to tunnel system, the splashes of unseen enemies in murky pools, the lighting system which limits your exploration by the torches you bring with you (or have wood and the foresight to be able to construct on the way), the frequent rewards of pots to smash (another Zelda touch to go with the swords swishing through glass and the slime enemy design), and the glorious highs of a single hidden reward which can make a whole trip worthwhile. What has ultimately limited my descents, as well as my overland trips, is water, which a clever take on swimming prevents you from moving quite as freely as you'd have hoped, not to mention limiting your breath. What makes this especially interesting is that it is often water that I've inadvertently let lose from an aquifer higher in the dungeon, which has sunk to the bottomost depths of the level preventing me progressing.

I've begun exploring the [redacted] you can find on the surface, destroying my first [redacted] with some clever [redacted] placement, and I've found enough [redacted] that the first boss monster has noticed my presence. The surface [redacted] is enough of a challenge in its own right, taking away much of your usual toolset as well as more dangerous enemies, environment and geography; and I'm pausing for air before attempting what, given my equipment (copper and iron, and a nifty magical ranged weapon), sounds like it will be a challenge. Beyond that, I've got more bosses to fight and biomes to explore, and many more magical items to find.

But I'm worried that I may have already spoiled too much of the game for you. I strongly urge you to stay as spoiler free as possible when you play. Three things that have stood out for me as quirks, worth highlighting, plus one recommendation:

1. Once you build a room that satisfies the Guide, keep building rooms this big or bigger (use the original as a template) and make sure that you furnish and light it. I've missed valuable NPCs because my rooms weren't quite built correctly, or because I hadn't built a room at all, but had met the requirements for a new visitor.

2. Doors in particular can be fiddly, they are 3 units high, and have to have a top and bottom 'frame' of walls above and below, and remember when placing furniture you want to click on the bottomost grid that the furniture occupies (1 up from the floor).

3. Acorns have been weirdly hard to plant, for some reason. I've had to dig a hole 1 deep and a 3 wide to plant an acorn, and bizarrely had only one tree successfully grow.

4. Exploring the surface at night, once you can survive the enemies, is rewarding, and sometimes even worth it if you can't.


Jeff said...

To place acorns, cut the background grass away with a sword and click ABOVE the grass, not on it.

Tobias said...

Is the late game playable in singleplayer?

I had heard that the singleplayer mode is in fact an hidden ultra hard mode.

Andrew Doull said...

Jeff: Thanks.

Tobias: Good question. I'm just starting the mid game... will let you know once I've got a few bosses under my belt.

Zum said...

It's doable, but you've got to be quick, have potions and good gear for the bosses. Otherwise... It feels just as hard as intended. The lack of serious penalty when you die helps a lot, though.

Andrew Doull said...

Got a few bosses under my belt and getting the feeling that I'm starting to run out of fun things to do.

The spawn rates in the Underground Jungle make it less than fun to explore, which is a shame, because it is sufficiently different layout wise to be interesting. I hear the Dungeon and Hell are the same but worse...

Darren Grey said...

Hmm, and now they've announced a Hardcore mode that includes permadeath. I wonder if these guys have some RL inspiration...?

Andrew Doull said...

I suggested they implement hardcore mode yesterday, and they announced it today... I'm pretty happy with their response speed :)

Andrew Doull said...

Reading the implementation, hard core mode isn't very hard code. Since there's no character progression beyond collecting items, and in hard core mode, you can still get items from storage, there's very little lost every time you die.