Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Gateway - Final Rating

Written by Reiko

I'll just say right out that I enjoyed Gateway very much, but I think nostalgia played a pretty small part in that, mostly by making the game easier because I remembered some of the plot and puzzle solutions. Gateway was consistently strong across the categories, bringing a polished and engaging experience to the player throughout. If anything, it started out a bit slow and built up to a very strong finish with the layered VR scenarios at the end. Let's break down why I found it so enjoyable and also where the game could have been a little stronger.

Puzzles and Solvability

I believe the puzzles are fair and logical, although I could see where some optional points might be easy to miss if you aren't careful about being social and polite to everyone. The trickiest parts are probably in the VR sections, but those are also the most fair because they are completely self-contained: everything you need is within the simulation, so it's just a matter of working out the right way to use what's there to break the scene.

Rolf's opinion changes depending on how you solve the local puzzles.

The game even offers multiple solutions to many of the puzzles on the fourth shield generator planet with Rolf. There's really only one "right" or ideal way to solve the puzzles and get the maximum score, but it's still possible to activate the shield generator and continue the game even if you do some pretty nasty things to poor Rolf. It's also somewhat unusual for an adventure game to offer multiple solutions with moral distinctions like that. You tend to see that more in RPGs.

Score: 7

Interface and Inventory

I'll repeat some of what I said about Timequest for this category, since Gateway uses the same Legend interface as the earlier game. Since the game is fully playable with either keyboard or mouse, the interface is very flexible. I like to play in half screen mode to increase the amount of text visible without losing the illustrations. The only trouble with that is occasionally there are items in the area that are neither visible in the illustration nor mentioned in the description, so I had to check the list occasionally.

Inventory is only a textual list, interactive-fiction style. Some items are temporarily visible in the illustrations, so those items do have graphical representations. The game might have benefited from a full graphical list, but since the full interface does include inventory items in the list of items in scope, it's still possible to use the mouse to manipulate inventory if desired, although I never bothered.

The buttons on the message system are slow to respond.

Where Gateway improves a little over Timequest is in its mechanical interfaces. The game includes several device displays with graphical buttons, usually numbered, that are also controllable with either mouse or keyboard, so they're very intuitive to use.

The only issue I had is that each click or keypress was clearly running the same kind of text adventure turn behind the scenes that a regular command would be, and then updating the graphics, so it was a lot slower than a purely graphical interface would have been. I couldn't easily page through the multiple entries in the bulletin board, for instance, because I had to pause after every click. So despite this improvement, I think I can't really give a higher score here because the nature of the improvement is primarily graphical and not interface.

Score: 6

Story and Setting

Heechee technology, commandeered for human gain.

The setting is brilliant: of course it's based on Pohl's books, so the game designers had a huge advantage over building a game world from scratch. Gateway itself, the huge alien space station, is a great place to begin an adventure in space, even though it's mostly been stripped of anything interesting by bureaucracy and rebuilt with human needs in mind. But beyond that, we gradually get tantalizing glimpses of the life and technology of the alien Heechee.

And then, as all good stories do, the game reveals a threat in the form of the Assassins, and a critical danger that only the hero can stop when activating the shield generators triggers the attention of the Assassin AI.

I think one thing the game could have done better was introduce more of a sense of urgency earlier. Until the endgame, it's almost too leisurely a romp. At the very beginning there's a sense that you need to find something worthwhile as soon as possible just so that you can survive, because you can't even afford a flight back to Earth, and you can't afford to live on the station for too long. Even so, you can wander around as much as you want, really. Aside from drinks at the bar and fines for inappropriate behavior, there's nothing that reduces your balance as far as I know.

I'm so rich...with nothing to spend it on. And the game isn't even over.

I even tried drinking away all my money just to see what would happen, and...nothing. Absolutely nothing. I think there's a missed opportunity for a death message here. I even managed to get my balance negative by incurring a fine with my balance low enough, and still the only issue I could see is that you can't buy any more drinks, which means you might not be able to get the medallion from Nubar Kamalian if you didn't already do the whole sequence with buying drinks for Thom and Nubar (which only costs $60 at most if you drink with them each time). But that's only critical for getting the tuning fork from the museum, which isn't needed until just before the endgame.

After the first small find, you have enough money to live for at least five weeks even at the crazy rate of $5k/week, which was what the game indicated the PC spent for six weeks before Part 2. After you regain control, you still have enough money for almost six years at that rate, never mind the additional huge bonuses after each shield generator and the final mission. Not that the game actually keeps deducting this even if you spend weeks in-game.

While the plot gives weight to what you need to do next, with four planets that can be solved in any order and no money worries, there's no urgency. So it would have been more interesting to have a balance deduction for each calendar day. At $5k/week, that would be about $715/night. The initial balance of $1500 would only cover two nights, then. That perhaps puts too urgent of a time limit on finding the first Heechee treasure and getting the first bonus, especially since each unsuccessful trip takes at least twelve hours and each successful trip takes at least a day. A week's worth would allow for half the time to do the missions and half the time to poke around and wait for the right times for classes and meeting up with people.

Conversational cut-scene where Worden feeds us plot.

At any rate, the plot was solid and reasonably compelling for a sci-fi story with a nebulous alien menace. At least two planets gave intriguing hints about the Heechee, although we never see them on-screen, except for the AI. The existence of the shield system that was never activated gives general characterization to the Heechee as an intelligent but cowardly race who disappeared rather than risking having to face their enemies.

Score: 7

Sound and Graphics

I tend not to pay much attention to sounds in text adventures and often play games without sound on at all, but Gateway has a cheerful 80s cyberpunk soundtrack that I rather enjoyed, although that might be partly the nostalgia talking. I wonder if the soundtrack was ever sold on CD. Certain locations had their own themes: for instance, the bar has a peppy bar tune, the beach VR has a relaxing beach tune, and so on. Each planet had its own theme too.

It's not the sort of music I'd find playing in my head later, but it is instantly recognizable if you're familiar with it. The "briefing theme" that plays when you're in a plot cut-scene gives great atmosphere for telling you that Earth is doomed unless you do the next thing. And all the music is just really fun, full of twangy synthesized beats. You can check it out on Youtube if you don't want to fire up the game.

Opening theme

A partial hole appeared in the picture after I started digging.

Graphics are somewhat limited during regular gameplay since mostly it's just the location image. But there are several factors that improve this. Many locations have some limited animation rather than just a still image. The light blinks on the terminal in the room when there's a new message; dancers gyrate back and forth in the bar; characters blink and gesture, and so on. Many images change just enough to graphically display changes in the game's state without having to use much animation. Items and people appear or disappear; holes become visible when dug, etc.

Animated cutscene of the shield generator activation.

There's also quite a lot of additional graphical enhancement outside of the gameplay. There are fully animated cutscenes, such as the flight through Tau-space to a new location, and the activation of a shield generator. A number of cut-scenes are full-screen with text descriptions over mostly-static graphics. Plus the graphical device interfaces mentioned previously under Interface.

All the graphics are generally detailed and beautiful, consistently so, especially the alien worlds and the intricate alien architecture of the Heechee. All these factors means that Gateway is much better looking than Timequest by several leaps.

Score: 6

Environment and Atmosphere

Even though we don't really see too much of it, Gateway feels like a sprawling space station. The game does a good job of hinting at the many levels and facilities that must exist but are incidental to the plot. We also get to visit several alien planets, each of which has its own atmosphere, from the mysterious and rustic Aleph, to peaceful and sleepy Dorma, to menacing Kaduna.

Peaceful Dorma feels very different...

...from crazy Kaduna, full of lethal creatures.

With the dead-end trips, we also get a sense that the ships are programmed for a great many locations, some of which are completely useless to us. But that helps to give a greater sense of space in the universe to counteract the convenience of practically-instant FTL travel. (I say practically-instant because even if the trip takes hours in game time, it still takes only seconds in real time for the player.)

Score: 7

Dialog and Acting

The text was clear and readable and described the various scenarios well. The parser was responsive to relevant commands. I didn't spend much time goofing around with irrelevant commands because the game did such a good job presenting me with useful things to do. The one time I struggled a bit with the parser was when I was wading through the Heechee technobabble to extract the actuator cell, but even that could have been somewhat deliberate, in the sense that it's supposed to feel like a tricky process.

NPCs were fairly limited in their responses. Most responded to few, if any, questions from the player, and stayed present only for a very limited time to reduce the opportunity for failed conversations. As a result, their scripted conversations were mostly infodumps, but they were written in a conversational style that characterized them well.

Rolf responds to my actions in his vicinity...

...and stands up to go with me to retrieve his cane.

The one character that was especially well done was Rolf Becker, who would answer questions about a range of relevant inputs as well as reacting to the player's actions. For a short time, he would even follow the player around in order to go on a specific adventure together.

Score: 6

Final Rating

That adds up to a final score of 7+6+7+6+7+6 = 39/60*100 = 65. Nine people made guesses ranging from 50 to 70. Nobody guessed the exact score, but Paul Franzen and Andy Panthro were each just one point off.

CAP Distribution

105 points to Reiko
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - for blogging through Gateway for our enjoyment 
  • Genre Lover Award - 5 CAPs - for linking to the new Bob Bates game, Thaumistry 
105 points to Joe Pranevich
  • Classic Blogger Award - 100 CAPs - for continuing The Great Zork Marathon with Zork II and III 
  • Math Solver Award - 3 CAPs - for pointing out the obvious solution to the equation 
  • Author Research Award - 2 CAPs - for pointing out the profile of Frederik Pohl at Tor.com 
55 points to Ilmari
  • Classic Blogger Award - 50 CAPs - for playing through Snowball for our enjoyment 
  • Dystopian Production Award - 5 CAPs - for explaining what the food mines were 
37 points to Laukku
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Zork 2 
  • Look Ma, No Hands! Award - 2 CAPs - for tip about not leaving your hand in the Gateway museum 
  • True Companion Award - 25 CAPs - for playing Gateway along with Reiko
25 points to Voltgloss
  • Zork Addict Award - 20 CAPs - for lots of Zork 2 and 3 trivia 
  • Explosives Award - 5 CAPs - for explaining that petrol bomb is a Molotov cocktail 
15 points to Laertes
  • Silent Run Award - 10 CAPs - for not playing along with Gateway, but still getting points for it due to a clerical error 
  • Cultural Awareness Award - 5 CAPs - for beginning the game of guess the actor 
15 points to Griffin
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Zork 3 
  • Culinary Zork Award - 5 CAPs - for possible explanation of the vanishing cakes 
15 points to Andy Panthro
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Gateway 
  • Creative Namer Award - 5 CAPs - for making up alternative Zork post titles 
12 points to Anonymous
  • I Died Again Award - 10 CAPs - for pointing out at least 5 missed deaths 
  • Time Waster Award - 2 CAPs - for having tested the time limit in Gateway 
10 points to Paul Franzen
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Gateway 
5 points to Rowan Lipkovits
  • Empty Room Award - 5 CAPs - for info on games with lot of empty rooms 
5 points to Dehumanizer
  • Classic Trivia Award - 5 CAPs - for info on various graphical versions of Level 9 games 
5 points to Fry
  • Zero-G Physics Award - 5 CAPs - for explaining the behaviour of spray cans in vacuum 
2 points to Corey Cole
  • Programmer Award - 2 CAPs - for explaining the difference between arithmetic and stack overflow 
2 points to Kirinn
  • SS Gateway Award - 2 CAPs - for suggesting that the station rotates 

Gateway is complete! Next I’ll be jumping right into Dune, which happens to be another game adaptation of a sci-fi book.


  1. Congratulations! You and I are getting the "licensed property" games this time around! I'm still chomping at the bit to play "Hook", "Inspector Gadget", and "Batman Returns"... But first, more Zork!

  2. Do I not get CAPs for playing along?

    1. Sure you do, you just didn't look at the CAPs list close enough...

    2. Do we give 10 or 25 CAPs for playing along? I had Laertes down as playing along too...

    3. The rules say that 25 is the maximum, which then gives some leeway for the reviewer to decide, based on the difficulty on the game and on whether the along-player required any hints etc. I guess Gateway is complex enough for maximum points.

      Also Reiko, are you sure that you just didn't confuse Laukku with Laertes, since I don't recall the latter commenting about playing along?

    4. You're right, looks like that's what I did. Laukku played along and made several comments about his progress and experience with the game, so full points for him, and Laertes only made the one comment about an actor. Sorry for the confusion, my fault!

    5. No worries, I'll just adjust the award Laertes got, since it wouldn't be fair to take away the points from him.

    6. No problem if you take away the points. Lately I am not even commenting as much I'd like, much less playing. Too many things and so little time.

      By the way, I can only write comments if I use Opera. Firefox or Chromium don't work for me (I use Linux). Anyone with the same problem?

    7. Never had that problem with Windows and Chrome/Firefox.

      I've occasionally had the problem of comments not appearing when I've hit 'Publish' while using Safari on an ipad but I'm more likely to blame my incompetence at typing on a tablet - I mainly use that just for reading.

  3. Nice one! I dig the soundtrack. There's something magical about FM...

  4. And Gateway lands straight into our top 11 games ever! Nice work for a game that was not produced by Sierra or Lucasfilm.

  5. Also, our first ever Straight is almost coming to conclusion! Currently I am in the lead with .6, but Laukku, Paul Franzen and Mr. Valdez are all close with .8. It all comes down to what Aperama will say about Eternam...

  6. Yay! I guessed the score again. I'm getting pretty good at this!

  7. And look! Hook is on the list soon. Do you think I should watch the movie first or play it without? (I saw the movie once when I was a kid, I think. I remember a very brightly colored food fight.)

    1. Good question. I'd vote for not watching it to see how it stands on it's own, but then watch it immediately after you play.

    2. I think I'd follow TBD's advice. The game and the movie focus on quite different things, I'd say, and seeing the movie earlier might affect your judgement on the game.

  8. And a game which was reviewed here a year ago has now appeared on GOG.