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Riddle Me This

One of my favorite parts of Invasion of the Blobs II was Level 18: Wordlock. The hero, Melissa, must solve three clues to lower a force field and advance.

As I mentioned in that article, the inspiration for this came from another DOS game, Betrayal at Krondor. It's an RPG in which chests with riddles written on them can be found. The player must rotate tumblers and spell out the correct answer to unlock the chest and claim the treasure inside.

When you look at the two games side by side, the resemblance is obvious:

Since finishing Blobs II in 1998, I thought the wordlock concept could be expanded into its own game, perhaps with as many as 100 riddles. However, Game-Maker, the software I was using, created DOS games when just about everyone had Windows or a Mac. I had moved on to Flash as well, and the idea would lie dormant for the next fifteen years.

Don't Call It a Comeback... Okay, Maybe It Is

Things had changed over the course of the new millennium. First, the growing popularity of DOSBox no longer meant it was impossible to play DOS games.

Then there was the creation of The Game-Maker Archive. The founder of the wiki, Azurelore Korrigan, had made many great G-M games in the past. In fact, several of them were included with Game-Maker 3.0, the final version ever released. She had also stopped using the software in the late 1990's, but then...

Years later, I was a freelance writer. I mostly wrote about videogames, because that's mostly what people expected from me. On one gig I was writing about indie games, and I needed an original topic. My mind turned to Game-Maker. When had I last thought of that? There was barely a word about it on the Web. So, I began to chip away. And it turned out, quirks aside, the tools were really well-designed. I wondered, were they good enough to make a contemporary game? One last game, I thought. One last try. - Azure

This eventually led to the release of Builder, an intriguing puzzle platformer, in 2011. Another prolific user named Alan Caudel also rediscovered Game-Maker around this time. He took the opportunity to experiment with some advanced techniques. The results were very impressive, and pushed the program to its limits.

I wanted to be a part of the Game-Maker revival. So, nearly fifteen years after completing my previous game, I decided to start making Wordlock. Hey, at least two people would want to play it, right?

What Sphinxes Employ, the Players Enjoy

I first needed to collect 100 riddles. Most of them came from the source material, Betrayal at Krondor. However, I couldn't use just any riddle. Because each letter of the clue used one background tile, and the clue window only contained 84 tiles, the riddles had to be very short. I was able scrounge up enough from various sources.

Then all of the riddles needed to arranged on a map. I decided to divide the map into four sections, each a different color. This created groups of 25 riddles that need to be solved to access a key. Collecting all four keys is required to reach the ending.

Now, I'll attempt to answer to following question: How do you use Game-Maker, a program designed to make overhead and side-scrolling games, to create puzzles?

Step 1: Secure the Area

We first need to create boundaries that limit where the player (the arrow cursor) can go. The white blocks are solid, while the player can cross everything else. If the answer eludes the player, they can easily touch the white light, which is a link (L) back to the map.

The solve link can't be accessed as easily. That is because a Red X "monster" is blocking the path. Game-Maker refers to anything that isn't part of the background or the character as a monster. The letters in the combination lock and the dot the cursor "shoots" to change the letters are monsters, too. "Sprite" would be a more accurate term, but I'll continue to say monster. Because it's more fun that way.

Step 2: Change the Letters

When a monster dies, it can change into another monster. This technique is used to create a four letter loop, just like a tumbler on a lock. A loop is made for each letter in the answer. To make it easy for me to recognize which letter is correct at a glance, every fourth monster is the right choice, indicated here with green lights. An additional step is needed to let Game-Maker know which letter to accept, but I'll get to that later.

Step 3: The Dot Knows All

The white light doesn't just sit there blinking. It's also "birthing" a very important monster, shown here as a tiny yellow line. In game, this monster is black, and is invisible since it lines up with the wire and space around each letter. It moves from left to right, pausing at each letter, performing a check to see if the answer is correct. How this check is accomplished requires talking a bit about power levels.

Step 4: I Have the Power

Each monster can have its own power level. Wrong letters have a higher power level than the dot, killing it upon contact. But correct letters have the same power level as the dot, so the dot passes by without incident. If every letter is correct, the dot will reach the other side and kill the Red X, which has a lower power level than the dot.

Step 5: Count on Me

Upon its death, the Red X reveals the green arrow underneath and leaves a few pixels behind, represented here by the red area. It dies upon contact with the cursor, but not before incrementing a hidden counter that keeps track of how many wordlocks you've solved.

Game-Maker only allows for five of these counters, so I had to get creative to ensure someone couldn't get the key just by solving the same riddle 25 times. But I'll just keep that trick to myself...

The Final Word

It was great using Game-Maker once again. It makes me think that one day I might finally be able to complete an Invasion of the Blobs trilogy after all. Probably not, but maybe.

I used this unique opportunity to create animated cutscenes for the first time. This required making FLIC files, sort of like animated GIFs, but not as user friendly. These animations incorporated photographs I took as I walked around town. There is one for each color on the map: blue water, green grass, yellow sand, and red flowers.

But the best part of the process by far was asking my nephews to be playtesters. Watching them figure out these ridddles in a game I made with software created before they were born was a lot of fun.

Would you like to play "Wordlock"?

Well, you can! If you have Java installed, you can play within your web browser. Or, if you have experience using a DOS emulator such as DOSBox, you can download a ZIP archive containing all of the files needed to play the game.

Be sure to print this checklist (PDF) so you can keep track of which wordlocks you've solved.