Game Pile: Ziggurat

This was a pleasantly surprising little gem of a game. But before we talk about it and what makes it interesting, let’s talk about philosophy engines.

With the recent news that Beyond Good And Evil 2 being announced – Again – I was struck by the notion that how what was once the domain of big publishers with big budgets is really now the kind of work best set to developers who are only just shy of the ‘indie’ scene themselves. That is, the work of generating a game that would have been a knock-your-socks-off genre leader of the 2000s is now within the grasp of small development teams, and I feel like those are the people who should be doing it. Beyond Good And Evil doesn’t need a triple-A release from the same people who were so lost as to what the game was about that they couldn’t name the game the first time around. Why am I bringing this up here, and now? It’ll make sense by the end.

I don’t think I’m surprising anyone when I tell you that I’m just about old enough to have been a child when the first golden age of First Person Shooters began. As id software released their games they created a particular play landscape that reflected the people making it, and everyone trying to follow along with id software kind of copied a lot of the style, even if they often failed to encapsulate the philosophy in some startling ways.

In Masters of Doom, David Kushner wrote about the way that the id software development crew slowly turned from a wild, multidirectional game development studio to steadily becoming people who could enable the latest technological leap from John Carmack. Their earliest games featured mazes and platforming and stealth but they were almost always about what John could squeeze from the latest thing, until the Wolfenstein engine came along, and along with it, Doom, then eventually Quake. You can chart along the line of these games the steady dissolution of the influence of some figures like Tom Hall and eventually John Romero, until you hit the Quake 3 Carmack Singularity: A game laser-focused on producing an engine that could bezier curve and blend and do the fast inverse square root all in aid of, oh, I dunno, pvp shooting I guess.

If you read Masters of Doom it’s very easy to get the impression that Carmack is some kind of monstrous space-brain that loves making computer game engines but doesn’t have much time for computer games, and part of this plays out in how deeply Carmack feels a sort of coherent purism for design. In Quake 1, you might remember these little flaming torches.

These things are the way they are because John Carmack didn’t want to put anything in the game that could be a polygonal model that wasn’t a polygonal model. John Carmack’s mindset was one of minimal emergent complexity. The level was the level; what you put into it was standardised, and the variance, the variety of fun, came from doing that interestingly.

When you design, you design with your ideology in your hand. Games are philosophy engines, they express things you value and ideas you have even if you don’t realise you’re doing it. What’s more, when you play those games, you – even unconsciously – are absorbing and responding to those ideological perspectives. You might wind up developing an entire skillset that’s there for a purpose you really don’t understand, just as a byproduct of play.

John Carmack didn’t design the levels of Doom, Wolfenstein, or Quake – I mean, he did some, but mostly he was the engine and tools guy. And when he made those engines, he did what he could to make them work the way he wanted them to. Hacking solutions was discouraged, and that meant some of the level design avoided tricks in the engine that Carmack knew they could do. You could make unbreakable glass in Quake, but he was adamant not to use it. The universal application of tools, the minimal use of single-application design quirks, that was how the Quake Engine worked.

Now, id Software didn’t make Heretic – we’re getting there – or Hexen. They didn’t make Hexen 2, either, but they did make the engine, and then left those engines to Raven software to develop and expand on them. In those games, there were developments like an inventory system, or levels being able to set flags in other levels resulting in the ‘hub’ system, but they were only able to make changes to the system that was. It was pretty obvious that Raven weren’t the same purists Carmack was – they had all sorts of cute hacks or unnecessary setpieces. They used sprites when they wanted to, they made unique models for game elements, and they did things like sticking windmills in levels for no reason but to be a thing you could look at and go ‘that’s a windmill.’

Yet at the same time, the Ravensoft id engine games were still id engine games. They were still the children of the game that created them, and still had that intentional philosophy of the engine. There were only so many ways you could push that engine, only so many hacks you could fit into it. Without changing the fundamental rules of how the engine worked, you were still making games that relied on Carmack’s philosophy – things like the idea of a sea of grey, the ‘error state’ for the 3d, or the use of polygons instead of sprites whenever possible.

This means that even when they did things like spawn in other enemies, or try to invigorate their locations with the life of wandering monsters, these ravensoft games were still working as fundamentally id engine games. You had a limit to the number of monsters you’d deal with, a limit to the resources in each level. I’ve said in the past that Doom – and games of the Doom ilk, along with most anything that id Software made at the base – are large execution puzzles:

The fundamental puzzle of every Doom level is one where the level presents you with limited resources and then presents you with ways to spend as little of them as possible.

Levels in Doom and their ilk are almost always fixed value puzzles. The amount of available health, ammunition, and monsters are all defined at the start of the game, and with a few exceptions (like the Arch-Vile and Pain Elemental), that’s it. That’s the fundamental philosophy that populated Heretic and Hexen and Hexen 2 even if it’s not the game that Ravensoft wanted to make.

Fast forward twenty years.

Ziggurat is a 2014 game developd by a small indie team in the North of Spain, and in the intervening twenty years, some parts of making a game got a lot easier. Making things look good got easier, and engines made by people without John Carmack’s zealous standards got easier. A disclaimer, though. I’m not saying that there’s none of the philosophy of the crafter of this engine in Ziggurat – I’m saying I can’t see it, in no small part because I haven’t played this game for ten years every day. But at its heart lies a lot of the design choices you could see in Heretic and Hexen, just not with the same engine constraints, the same game type as you saw in those games.

When you boot up Ziggurat to play, you get a pretty perfunctionary story and an almost non-existent tutorial mode. Here’s a bunch of instructions, the game tells you, that’s your lot, now get to it. Most of what you do after that is a learning experience at the end of which you get murdered by a massive slime. Or at least, that’s how it went for me.

Ziggurat is a roguelike first-person shooter that wants to replicate the play experience of the most hectic moments of those old id engine games, where you were playing a surprisingly short little murder-goblin ricocheting around a space slightly out of scale with you on what must have been some variety of rocket shoes.

That play experience back in the day was just a function of designing for PVP: you moved the speeds you did in id engine games because your speed was primarily being measured against your own weapons. If you moved too fast in Doom, you’d run into your own rockets, and if you moved too slow, a rocket would be basically undodgeable.There was a careful fine tuning between those to make it so escaping a rocket and its ensuing blast felt good. You were short because it was hard to make finely detailed spaces, and you didn’t really have the time to invest in all that level design when you were churning out thirty levels on a three month time scale and Tom Hall was quietly sulking off to go do something else with his life, the poor dude.

Bit Ziggurat doesn’t have the level design of those games – it’s instead, procedurally generated each time you play. You’re dropped into a room and given a bunch of blank doors, and now that’s your lot, go forth and kill things until you’re dead or they are. The play experience is very pure, and it’s very much videogame.

You get weapons that do various forms of blasty shooty and monsters drop things you can fighty looty and you zip around the levels all scooter scooty, and it’s just very pure in that regard. When I started work on this, I was genuinely wondering if I’d have anything to say at all about Ziggurat, which was a game I’d not heard of until Good Old Games decided to give it to me for nothing, which is the modern equivalent of finding it in a skip.

Ziggurat looks like Heretic dreamt of looking. Oh, sure, every room is an ugly box, and your play loop is incredibly simple. There’s none of the Doom-ish weapon system, about which I’ve waxed rhapsodic in the past. You don’t get the fun inventory or the riddling puzzles of trying to work out what the guillotine’s meant to do or where you get bones for grinding. It’s fightbox design, the kind of design I mocked Bioshock Infinite for having.

Yet in Bioshock Infinite, they’re trying to represent a real character interacting with a real world, where you at some points can climb up over things and pick locks, provided those locks are extremely specific large silver locks, and the world you’re in is given a sense of reality. In Ziggurat, you’re dealing with floating weapons and cubic rooms and inexplicably violent carrots.

When you get down to it, the id engine first person shooters were fundamentally fair games, even when the difficulty was ramped up. They operated on predicable, explicable rules, and all you had to do to beat them was know the correct ways to do things in the correct order. Things could get out of hand, massively, and that’s where your ammo and health all became the sort of error zone for how badly things got out of hand, but in the end, they were all games which set out to be fair from the start. Ziggurat’s a random dungeon generator with a shooting gallery in it. You might just get an awful buff in the first room and be unable to dodge flying enemies in the dark, or get hammered down by funguses because you can’t run – at all – in this level. There is no promise or pledge from Ziggurat that it will be fair at all. It’ll try – it’ll give you rewards and loot and it’ll give you power-ups and perks, but underneath it all, under the surface resemblance to Heretic, Ziggurat is a game of a different philosophy engine.

Is it Heretic, with its designed levels and puzzle structures and its lore that was – admittedly a bit weakly – woven into the play experience? No. Goodness no. It’s its own thing, made out of the shape and form of Heretic, taking a play experience and an aesthetic, but what you get out of it is a very different, very exciting beast.

And I think that’s really cool.

What then for Beyond Good And Evil 2?

See, I brought up The Prequel That’s Got A 2 On The End, Jesus Christ What’s Wrong With Us not just because I wanted to give a triple A studio a kicking for trying to crowdsource minimally paid labour when they themselves spent a billion dollars for the plot of Assassins Creeds 1-3. I brought it up because right now, Ubisoft are trying to convince us that Beyond Good And Evil is going to happen (again), and all we have to do to make sure it happens is believe, and contribute free labour, and they, the triple A gaming studio with all the money and resources and skills to have made it in the first place, will get around to crafting this game we’re all sure we want now, from these people.

And that’s when I’m reminded that Beyond Good And Evil was accidentally good.

Thus, we come to the lesson of Ziggurat, of engines of philosophy. I’d rather see an indie studio that gave a damn about a game trying to make something out of it than three teams across four subsidiaries crowd-funding the latest effort to drive engagement in the hopes of aspirationally actualising the design process that could hypothetically result in Beyond Good And Evil 2 like it’s some sort of digital seance.

I’m not saying Beyond Good And Evil 2 will suck – I hope it’s good. I like when games are good. I’m saying that I expect it to be bad, for the same reason Ziggurat is really good: The people who made this really cared about making this.

Verdict

You can get Ziggurat on Gog and Steam. If you pick things up at random when you get sent emails about them for free, you have Ziggurat already.

Verdict

Get it if:

  • You want something fast
  • You want something more-ish
  • Devil Daggers was too much for you
  • Doom 2016 wasn’t enough for you

Avoid it if:

  • You’re not interested in procedural content generators
  • You want the classic Heretic experience

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