The Let's Play Archive


by Nakar

Part 76: Post-Mortem: The Prodigious Question Of MadMaze

Post-Mortem: The Prodigious Question of MadMaze

There is, all at once, both a lot to say about MadMaze and not much that can be said about it. Objectively speaking, this is not a landmark game even for its era. It's no DOOM, no Ultima IV, no Super Mario Bros. 3. It did not lead to a rash of maze-navigation/puzzlebook imitators, and not for lack of interest in the wander-around-and-solve-puzzles concept; just a few years later Myst would drop and revolutionize a genre. What makes it interesting, in a sense, is its uniqueness. The guys who made it are much more famous for their work in print, in the interactive pen-and-paper environment. The result is a game with some of the writing charm of Paranoia but none of what makes Paranoia so much fun: The madcap unpredictability of other people who are simultaneously working with you and against you. To compensate, many decisions were made that arguably would never be made by "proper" professional game designers of that age, decisions at least partially colored by unique circumstances of Prodigy as a platform.

Some of those decisions are neat. Some of them are cynical. And a great many of them are very, very bad.

The Mazes Aren't Mad Enough

This LP covered only in brief the overwhelming majority of the "gameplay" of MadMaze, as kw0134 points out:

kw0134 posted:

We've basically left out half the "fun" and 95% of the interactivity in that we didn't, as a thread, navigate and chart the maze itself. Arguably there is a state which is tracked and of great importance -- your actual location within the labyrinth. You may consider that filler, and certainly that is true to some extent, but mapping a dungeon is part of a time-honored tradition in gaming of this era. Around the same time you might be wandering out of Weith, you could be wandering around in Phantasy Star's first person maze, or mapping Destard in Ultima V, or the sewer in Eye of the Beholder. Even if there's no combat, the game play of being completely lost in a twisty passage, all alike (okay, not really twisty) would have been familiar and a reasonable part of a gamer's play time. You can certainly take it or leave it, but in the broader context of the time it's hardly out of place to have it make up a major element of the experience.

The act of exploration is surely something that needs to be part of the accounting of whether this was a "good" game or even a "game."
It's a good point, but one that I think downplays just how uninteresting the mazes are compared to the Places of Power, which make up the true meat of the game. Someone joked that...

Robindaybird posted:

Least this game didn't have bullshit teleporting or worse subtle rotating floors that Wizardry and co loved to use to pad out time.
...but the fact of the matter is that those sorts of innovations were present in maze-crawler RPGs even before MadMaze for a reason. Wandering around a maze and only fighting monsters occasionally is dull. Jazzing it up with puzzling geometries and complications that make mapping more difficult adds a layer of interesting gameplay to the map itself. But in MadMaze, there's nothing. There aren't even monsters, so it's even less interesting than the least interesting Wizardry game! There are no clues scrawled on the walls -- one imagines a Dark Souls style hint system of sorts would've made this game appear prescient, but we saw only one PoP that hinted at this and the idea was abandoned -- no secret passages, no confusing and illogical geometries that would have truly made this maze, well, mad. For the chaotic realm of an insane god, the MadMaze itself is remarkably dry and predictable.

Oh, and we can't leave out the elephant in the room:

TooMuchAbstraction posted:

I wonder how much money Prodigy made off of MadMaze...and how much it cost them to produce?

Zereth posted:

I notice you don't say anything about people playing it very long, which I suspect may hold the answer.

Either that or that's just the number of subscribers to Prodigy and they didn't actually track how many people specifically played MadMaze.

HardDiskD posted:

MadMaze has the dubious distinction of charging you for the minute for the privilege of getting lost in it, which is a really shitty thing to do.
One can argue that MadMaze perhaps accomplished its objective of being a moneymaker for Prodigy by sucking in the interest of fans for at least a while; most people I know who have experienced the game seem to know at least the first and part of the second level, which seems like it would represent several hours of mucking about and thus at least some money. It's impossible to know for certain just how much money the game made, but considering it remained in place on the timed section of the Prodigy service for about a decade, it probably paid for itself. How many people actually finished it is a more intriguing question. I certainly never did while it was on Prodigy; the first time I beat it was back in college on the web version. Shame we don't still have access to the ol' Scroll of Heroes.

Disconnected Design

But there's more to the game design than the mazes being boring. There's a laundry list of design problems in the game.

The mazes feel disconnected from the Places of Power at times. How does a peasant wholly enclosed by a maze even survive? Why are whole swaths of desert unenclosed for no apparent reason? How does Xavier get from his savanna to the Floating City's when they're separated my maze segments? At times the MadMaze is spoken of as though its presence is a serious nuisance or even threat to the sane world, but at other times nomadic tribes and entire cities dwell within the maze and live out their lives as though it were a minor inconvenience at worst and not even a thing at best. That the mazes themselves are, by and large, non-threatening means that it doesn't even make a lot of sense that the MadMaze would be viewed as anything more than an annoyance. People would've mapped things out ages ago, and we know there's geographic continuity because we're told so by people giving us directions, so it's not that the maze is shifting constantly.

The PoPs are highly inconsistent, especially in terms of delineating to the player what they can successfully do. There are good examples in the game, such as Valterre; by and large, from the moment the player acquires Valterre they understand that they are a match for single foes of modest size provided the enemy does not have some kind of distinct advantage like mobility, sheer size, ranged weapons, or magical powers. Killing something with Valterre might not be the right solution, but its outcome is reliable when that option is chosen. This is rarely handled well elsewhere. Options like fleeing sometimes work no questions asked, returning the player to the previous maze. Other times, retreat is instantly lethal. This would potentially be fine, if there were any way to tell the difference between safe flight and risky escape.

The Talisman might be the worst offender in terms of not making coherent sense from one PoP to another. In one instance, using Fire on a burning building allows the player to manipulate and control the element of fire, suppressing it. In another, attempting to use Cold in a cold environment is lethal to the player because the game arbitrarily decides one was attempting to summon cold instead of controlling it, even though by the game's own admission this is something the player should be able to do with the Talisman because they had the opportunity to see that in action earlier. The very first option the player has to use Time is non-representative of how the Time power works in almost every other instance, and then that particular method returns once or twice anyway despite the player coming to expect that Time stops time. Mind gives off the impression from time to time that it can be used to control minds, except it literally never works any time it's attempted until the guard on the Moon of Madness.

There's a lot of obvious experimentation in the game, with little effort paid to going back and shoring up the earlier portions of the game to make things consistent. Part of this may be due to the game being released in parts, but the fact of the matter is that the developers got better at working with the toolkit they had and these incremental improvements make some aspects of the game confusing. Even little things like being prompted which way the player wishes to leave a PoP don't crop up consistently until the third level. Pop-ups basically don't even exist for the first two levels. And then there's Iggy.

Straight White Shark posted:

Huh, I would have thought there would have been a bigger payoff for Iggy. I thought it was cool when we got a companion but he doesn't really... do anything. I guess his hints during the final confrontation are kind of useful? Oh well.
Right? What was the point of Iggy? It's not that there's anything wrong with him, but there wasn't really any reason for him to exist either. If the player had gained a companion much earlier in the game and could use them as an ersatz hint system throughout, they'd serve a much more useful narrative and gameplay function. By the time Iggy actually shows up at the tail end of the third level, the player is more than used to going the entire game without any help. Not much point in providing a hint feature 80% of the way in from a gameplay standpoint, and even less point dropping in a new character so late from a narrative standpoint. It doesn't help that Iggy is only occasionally right, without giving the player much of a way of distinguishing his good advice from his terrible advice. But I don't think the devs had even conceived of the idea until very late, and so they just threw in Iggy at the point they could get away with doing so. It seems like one of those ideas better saved for a sequel, where it could be introduced far earlier and thus actually make sense.

The lack of game state saving is probably the worst of all, however. It stabs at the heart of the game, the puzzles, and makes them utterly trivial. People you killed come back to life. Puzzles you answered incorrectly can be attempted again. Things you missed can be circled back for. Items you forgot to pick up can be yanked out of thin air as long as you can figure out their distinguishing feature. And death can be sidestepped with a single button press, which is even less meaningful than just reloading a save (speaking of saving, notice how the Cipher was just... forgotten entirely?). If you're willing to keep your hand on the Menu button, you can back-hack your way through the whole of MadMaze without even bothering to get any of the clues, or in many cases without even bothering to see most of what the game has to offer.

How bad is the cheating? On the second level, you never need to get on the River of Flame route at all, just head for the Twisted Temple and take the bypass to the final route. After the Great Stone Head on the third level, it's possible to skip every single PoP except the river crossing en route to the Prime Mother's lair. That's 30 PoPs you can completely ignore. On the Moon of Madness, you need only encounter four: The Strange Creature, the General, the Bubble Monster, and the Stuff of Madness. Everything else is skippable and anything you'd need to acquire or learn from those PoPs can simply be brute forced. You could skip most of the game by this method, easily, which leads reasonable minds to wonder...

Sum Gai posted:

Between the mazes, one-way PoPs, and suboptimal puzzle solutions I can't see too many people solving every puzzle legitimately, though. many people who "beat" MadMaze did so having never brute forced anything? Sure, I made it look pretty straightforward, but I also encountered every PoP and methodically examined every single possible option. If you're navigating a maze and coincidentally find the to-next-maze PoP first, solve it, and end up in a new maze... do you even know for sure if you missed anything at all? Suppose you missed a really critical clue? What are you supposed to do? You know you missed something somewhere, but where did you miss it? In a PoP you saw, but made the wrong choice in unknowingly? In a PoP you didn't see, and don't know exists, let alone where? The game practically encourages you to brute force it in parts if you missed anything critical.

A "Classic" That Nobody Took From

ManxomeBromide posted:

My theory for its biggest hater is that it is Costikyan himself. By the definition credited to him, MadMaze isn't a game at all, as his definition of game is that it is a participatory form of art

No tokens, no resources, and in a very real sense, no decisions. With no state tracked, MadMaze is a puzzlebook, not a game.

That seems pretty narrow—I've actually just wrapped up a replay of The Fool's Errand and 3 in Three, which are also very much in the puzzlebook vein, but some of the individual puzzles would count as games by this definition and the presentation of the game-spanning puzzles is a refreshing counterpoint to the horrifically arbitrary nature of a lot of the integrate-stuff-from-a-dozen-PoP puzzles posed here.
In an old article that's been coming up a lot recently here, Greg Costikyan had some harsh words for his own game:

Greg Costikyan posted:

MadMaze sucks. MadMaze sucks because it's a solo graphic adventure. You wander through mazes, every once in a while encountering a "Place of Power" where you must solve a logic puzzle. To win, you have to get through all the Places of Power and mazes.

Okay so far. But here's the thing; even when it was designed (1989), it sucked, because you can deliver far better graphics and a far better interface in a computer game distributed on disk. So as a graphic adventure, it is inferior to other stuff out there.

And it's solitaire! The whole point of having a network is that it allows multiple players. In MadMaze, everyone's in his own little world, nobody can talk to anybody else, nobody can help or hinder the others.

This sucks.
He hits on a number of issues that have already been mentioned. The game is dated even for its time, with less power to deliver graphics and a UI hamstrung by being tied to Prodigy's service and its specific style of interactivity. Part of the reason Myst killed is exactly what Costikyan's talking about here. In Myst, the "maze" is the island itself and the various Ages (though there is an actual maze-maze in the Selenetic Age), and the puzzles -- while not always logical in why they exist where and how they do -- are integral to the world, with no sense of separation like the maze/PoP dichotomy of MadMaze. And the world looks pretty amazing for its time, with prerendered graphics at a time where that was still impressive, animations and sound effects, all sorts of things that MadMaze couldn't or didn't do. And the interface... or perhaps lack of interface was one of the most amazing parts of Myst. Inventory was kept to a minimum (basically just carrying one limited object at a time, and then only rarely), there was no real UI, and everything worked by clicking on it in a very predictable way.

The world was ready for an innovative and immersive puzzle game. MadMaze wasn't it. I think this is the biggest hit against its long-term influence, that it was simply obsolete almost before it came out. 2D games, especially maze games, had become more innovative or complex in their gameplay since. Better 3D games came out, games that were truly 3D, games that let you wander around a space, or at least that made you feel like you were doing that. Games where the transition from hallway to puzzle were seamless; I mean, even Marathon and DOOM functionally separate the killin' hallways from the big dangerous puzzle-ish rooms where you've got lava or something. Though having said that, merely fixing that wouldn't necessarily make MadMaze particularly interesting. With Unity or the like it'd be trivial to remake this game's maze segments... but would anyone really want to navigate through them? Mazes with rudimentary physics puzzles are practically the first thing people learn to make in most modern game engines, and this game doesn't even have the latter to hold anyone's interest.

Had the game done something with its online features, maybe it could be seen as influential in some way. As Costikyan mentioned, it'd be interesting if there were some way to help or hinder other players. The game was basically a notes system away from being proto-Dark Souls, from having something unique and interesting in it to act as a pedigree for games to follow. But that didn't happen. Nothing really happened. It was a solitaire game with a leaderboard, as Costikyan mocks in that article -- except there's not even a Sierra adventure game style scoring system, so the Scroll of Heroes can't even show who completed the game better or more comprehensively or with the fewest restarts, only the people who finished. Mercifully, online games would come to embrace most of the things he complained about at the time, so in that respect we've definitely improved... but MadMaze is just kind of a sad example of squandering the promises of an age that would come not long thereafter and doom it to the dustbin of game development history.

So those factors have led MadMaze to obscurity, but there is one other: The inevitable fragility of its platform. Old arcade games survive with stuff like MAME, you can still find a working NES and cartridges if you're looking for them, and digital downloads and cracks ensure that most modern PC games will exist for about as long as anybody cares to acquire them. Prodigy was obsolete by the mid-90s and defunct by the end of the decade. If not for a fan who salvaged all the screens and rewrote the entire game in Java for web publishing, MadMaze would simply not exist anymore. It'd be gone along with the only platform that could've run it, and would exist only in vague memory as people tried to remember that maze game on Prodigy and some half-recalled PoP outcome. And even then, it almost died a second time: The host for the version I played in college broke down at some point and stopped functioning correctly about halfway through the second level, rendering the game effectively impossible to complete due to crashes. If by sheer coincidence the guy at Vintage Computing hadn't happened to receive a backup copy of the web version, he'd have been unable to rehost the game in a functioning state. And who knows how long that site will last. I do have a copy myself (which I can't distribute, but you know, in case of emergency, not that I'd know how to rehost it), but this stuff can easily get lost when so few people care about it enough to preserve it. Better-regarded games don't risk disappearing like this, and that's unfortunate, because MadMaze is certainly a charming game even if it isn't an especially good one.

So hey, worst case scenario, it'll at least exist here until Lowtax runs out of money.

So What Genre Is MadMaze, Anyway?

It's a Visual Novel. Prove me wrong.