83 – Dropsy

A woman named Kim Davis, a government clerk in Kentucky, is currently in the news for her legal troubles surrounding her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples following the United States Supreme Court’s decision that people can’t be denied marriage licenses just because they’re not heterosexual. This is, of course, about as divisive a topic as you can get: Davis cites her religion as the reason for her stance, which plenty–myself included–see as simple bigotry. Davis and her supporters see her as a hero–much to the band Survivor’s dismay, “Eye of the Tiger” was used at a rally for her–who is standing up for the rights of poor, battered Christians forced to uphold immoral laws. As everyone knows, gay folks are sinners and kind of gross.

It’s hard not to treat Davis as monstrous–there’s a reason that the most popular, memetic photo of her that’s going around is of her looking particularly unattractive, looking like she’s screaming–the fat ugly bitch jokes write themselves. I’ve made a few myself. To a very real degree, she represents a strain of thought which is monstrous. If the Christian Right thinks that gay marriage will lead to dog-fucking, I can’t be blamed for thinking that her attitude leads to beating people up, tying them to fences, and leaving them to die.

In the middle of all of this, the game Dropsy the Clown was released.

The kneejerk reaction to Dropsy, as exemplified by Kotaku, is that it’s a “messed up game” about a “disturbing clown”; as of the time of this writing, the single news story in my Steam library page is a PC Gamer article with a similar sentiment. At some point, coulrophobia became trendy–and so you’ve got plenty of grown adults talking about how scary they find clowns and how scary Dropsy himself is.

A very, very slight bit of research–a simple visit to the game’s front page, frankly–is that such is the point of the game. The setup is that Dropsy’s circus burned down some years ago, that he’s been blamed for it, and that he’s looking for redemption. One of the main gimmicks in the game is a hug button, and many of the puzzles involve solving characters’ problems so that they feel comfortable enough to return the hug.

And so the main theme of Dropsy becomes fairly obvious: Dropsy may be gross, but he’s got a heart of gold underneath the distastefulness, and the game becomes about showing people love and kindness in order to earn their love.

Adam Cadre talks about what he calls the “redemption of the ludicrous“–taking a silly pulp story and treating it seriously. Citing the examples of Watchmen and the film Ed Wood, redemption of the ludicrous essentially gives dignity to characters that most people took to be jokes. Dropsy takes a similar theme, one after my own heart–it’s essentially the plot of Zest and my upcoming IFComp game–which I call “redemption of the gross”.

See, when I started following the indie scene, particularly the Twine branch of it, a few years ago, I found it inextricably latched with Jon Ronson’s shaming and callout culture. A major element of queer gaming culture that I’ve always found horrifying is its willingness to ostracize–to cite oppression as a reason to utterly dismiss people that might not necessarily be oppressive. White, heterosexual, cisgender men are synonymous with power, power is synonymous with oppression, and as long as one is queer–queer games defined facilely as “like, a game where it’s not a straight, white male doing things“, a definition which simultaneously refuses to understand both the history of queerness and the history of games–then one can never be an oppressor. What I’ve always understood queer to truly be is that it’s an attempt to break down hierarchies rather than simply flipping them. What I found in the queer Twine scene was that practice of simple flipping–rather than a blur, I see a simple “white cisgender men are bad and gross“. A refusal to explore other perspectives. A willingness to label anyone who disagreed as “gross” and shut them out of the conversation forever. A monolithic view of groups along with a brush painting them as moral or immoral.

For me, queer is a blurring of the boundaries between people, one which sees the very divisions between people as the methods in which power oppresses. Queer is very linked with that redemption of the ludicrous, redemption of the gross–it’s a method by which all people are allowed to attain dignity and understanding. I remember the big insight I had in college, which, like any insight made by a 20 year old is simplistic and not always applicable to the real world, but which I think has a little bit of merit still: Everyone’s kind of queer. “Heteronormativity”–which, sorry to say, does not simply mean “white, heterosexual, cisgender male”–is an illusion, a goal which doesn’t exist. It is an ideal that nobody quite matches with 100%. Everybody–Kim Davis included–has some sexual practice, some aspect of their gender identity, some part of their being–which deviates from the invisible ideal.

I find that, for all its obsession with empathy and understanding, the queer indie gaming scene doesn’t often have any–and given its focus on hierarchies, on its two-legs-bad-four-legs-good denigration of anyone not like it, anyone not willing to step in line with its orthodoxies, it’s not surprising that queer gaming wants to talk without listening. Believes that no one can truly understand each other.

I don’t have a high opinion of activism. A few years ago, I found myself randomly living in an Occupy house a couple years after Occupy itself ceased to be relevant and powerful and had devolved into a bunch of confused kids who were passionate and committed but not particularly organized or focused. My roommate was Cecily McMillan–a formidably smart woman who exemplified the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom stats–someone whose drive and ambition ran hot, chaotic, and ineffective instead of cold, rational, and efficient.

I remember one conversation at a party at the house–she was having an argument about feminist issues with an older guy, an African-American man who I think might have been a professor of hers. I judged him to have been a little too young to have been directly active in the civil rights movement of the 60s, but not by much–he was probably in his mid-20s at some point during the 1970s and had, based on his conversations, had direct family members involved. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” Cecily was saying.

“Maybe not directly,” he said, “but I’ve got a mother. I have sisters. I have aunts. I’ve heard their stories. I have an idea.”

“You can’t understand,” Cecily repeated. “I can’t understand what it’s like to be black in this country!”

He laughed at this. “You can. You can listen to my stories, you can compare that to your own life.”

“No,” Cecily said. “I can’t.” He gave up soon after.

Divisions between people. Boundaries. A failure of empathy. A sense that one’s personal feelings trump everything else.

It is fairly obvious, when playing Dropsy for even a few minutes, that Dropsy is cuddly and lovable, just misunderstood. Most people are picking up on that, and I’m glad of that. I’m glad that we have an indie game which is based on the redemption of the gross rather than the rejection of it; in this light, Dropsy is one of the queerest queer games to be released in a very long time. But what’s striking me about the game is that it’s not simply about Dropsy letting the world know that he’s okay–it’s about Dropsy finding the okayness in everyone else, in understanding their lives and their needs, in helping them into a state of dignity.

Dropsy, see, has no compunctions about who he interacts with–he wants to hug everybody. He wants to love and be loved by everyone he meets on the journey. No one is too gross or distasteful for him. There are people that it’s certainly easier to love in the game–the little girl mourning a dead flower, the two bored young women sitting on the steps, the cool bouncer in front of the club. But the game is about loving the freaks and the losers. One of the most touching moments in the game is a troglodytic, hungry, homeless old woman in an alleyway; her puzzle involves giving her a sandwich. Returning later, you find her asleep and content, a smiling caricature of Dropsy now graffiti’d on the wall, one of the most touching moments in the game so far. Going into the church, seats empty except for two guys who seem more interested in the free food and who are explicitly annoyed by the preaching, you find a woman ranting about the sins of the world, a fire and brimstone preacher that Kim Davis would probably love to listen to. Go to the playground at night and you see her smoking a cigarette, depressed, and worried about the lack of attendance. She may play the role of a ranting preacher by day, but at night she’s as alone and sad as anyone in the game.

See, a lot has been written about how kind of sociopathic adventure game characters are. Looking at the whole of the genre, a lot of puzzles are about tricking characters. About seeing NPCs as obstacles. As an adventure game player, I’ve poisoned guards doing their jobs, swindled money and goods from countless stores, killed animals that were simply protecting their homes. Any other game would see the preacher lady as an obstacle, as a bad person that it’s okay to trick. Dropsy sees her as a human being that’s no less deserving of love and happiness.

The other day I noticed Dropsy designer Jay Tholen tweeting about some Christian movie and about his disappointment with that genre itself–in a nutshell, he finds a lot of Christian media to be exploitative, to take the trappings of the faith but not the message. To be about Christian superiority. To be about shutting out anyone who doesn’t talk the talk. Dropsy is a subtly Christian game–there are crosses scattered here and there, not just in the church but as devotional knickknacks. There’s one in Dropsy’s tent owned by his fellow clown. After solving the puzzle of the dead flower, the little girl joyfully emotes a cross–dialogue in the game is rendered entirely in pictograms–suggesting that she believes she’s been the recipient of a tiny miracle. (Frankly, she has.) If Dropsy isn’t quite a standin for Jesus, he’s a suggestion of the hard path of Christianity. It’s not the vengeful God of Kim Davis who judges who is worthy, who is gross, but the compassionate God that recognizes that faith that can move mountains is utterly useless if I have not love. In addition to being extremely queer, Dropsy is also profoundly, deeply spiritual. It’s not preachy–it’s not Alum, which is an awesome game in its own right–and it’s not theological. But it is concerned with the here and now, in using faith as a path to love and a path to seeing the dignity in everyone.

It’s hard to love Kim Davis when she finds it so hard to love people like me,  just like it’s hard to love Dropsy and many of the people in his world. But it’s important to try at least. Before playing the game, the mentions of the dedicated “hug button” in previews made it seem to me like a meaningless thing that you could do to any character in the game no matter what–that it was just a little bit of flavor. But most of the people refuse to hug you unless you’ve solved their puzzle–unless you’ve managed to understand them and make that moment of connection. Loving and being loved is hard, Dropsy says. But god damn is it worth it.

82 – Veil of Darkness

Look, I’m not NOT proud of it, but I cheated. One puzzle was just beyond my reach. The solution in itself is clever in retrospect, but is one of those adventure game puzzles that’s just difficult to derive. There’s a man who’s been cursed to take the form of a tree. I’m running around asking every character about TREE and CURSE and no one’s giving me anything–I just can’t figure out how to uncurse him. The solution is to light the tree on fire, burning it into ashes, and taking said ashes to the monastery to get him revived back into human form. Once you have the ash pile, it’s extremely obvious what to do–the monk very specifically requests ashes rather than a corpse–but the bit about burning the tree on fire is left field (and, in fact, the man isn’t particularly grateful about the method you chose.)

Swaying me further from the solution is the fact that, in the forest area, which is sprawling and mazelike, a man tells you that the banshee “can reduce a man to ashes”, and so I’m wandering around the forest looking for a man who’s been reduced to ashes and just not finding one. I’m not even finding the banshee, and somewhere in the forest there’s a blue spinning circle that I can’t seem to interact with in any way. It turns out that the spinning circle is the banshee, and the reason that it’s not doing anything to me is that I happen to discover, hours earlier, a necklace that protects me from it. It’s a case where you’ve solved the puzzle but the game gives you no feedback that you have.

And so with the seal broken and the walkthrough consulted, I finished the rest of the game following it. I’d hit about the 3/4ths point. The rest of the game featured many more clever-in-retrospect puzzles, and maybe I would have solved some of them with more effort, but it didn’t matter.

There are tons of adventure games that people play over and over again–by the third time through Day of the Tentacle you’re not solving puzzles so much as you are performing them. Looking at a walkthrough is being handed the script as opposed to deriving the script through your own efforts, and maybe one is purer than the other, but in all cases you’re dealing with executing a series of specific actions.

And so the last bits of Veil of Darkness, the parts I played with the walkthrough, represented a shift in tone which actually matched what was happening in the game. The initial stages of the game are about investigation, about learning the world, about poking into crypts and meeting people and slowly uncovering the valley’s secrets. The endgame is about action–about your final preparations, about your showdown with the vampire.

The final showdown is a multi-level puzzle–essentially the head vampire makes a series of assaults that you need to be prepared for counter. He tries to hypnotize you, so you have to figure out how to avoid that. He tries to bite your neck, so you have to figure out how to repel him, and so on. You can methodically derive the counters to each attack, dying and restoring each time, and many of them are obvious (you’re gonna wear the garlic necklace you have, for example, because duh), but in a way it transforms the game into an interactive movie in the best of ways if you know exactly what to do. It shifts from the cerebral elements of investigation to the realm of the active. It’s almost like watching along with the final scenes of a horror movie, where the protagonist is gearing up for that final confrontation, and let’s face it, there’s times when seeing the hero die over and over again takes the fun out of it.

I think about how Ben Kingsley was in BloodRayne and admitted that he took the role out of a childish desire to run around in a cape and bite people on the neck. Veil of Darkness isn’t the deepest game I’ve ever played, it’s got its flaws, but hot damn, it was fun to be that adventuresome pilot running around Transylvania and trying to solve the mystery.

And more importantly, there’s a charm and a respect that comes from it. If Veil of Darkness is a Transylvania simulator, it’s an excellent Transylvania simulator. It’s pulp: It’s great pulp. You stake the evil vampire in a series of gorgeously-drawn panels (have I mentioned that the art is fantastic), you restore peace and sunlight to the valley, and you and the (admittedly damseled, look, it’s by the numbers) girl sail off to wherever life takes you. I mean I’ve got so much fucking angst in my life already. Do I really want to play a shooty game that yells at me for playing a shooty game?

81 – Veil of Darkness

Anatoly Shashkin tells me that Veil of Darkness–another SSI game!–is a lost gem, and dammit, he’s right: A single screenshot on his twitter convinced me that what I needed to be doing today was playing this game.

Veil is one of those adventuresome games with some RPG elements–some light RPG elements, I stress: There’s no XP (an automatic strike against full-blown RPGness in my book), and everything seems to be built more around weapon types than any particular statistics: In other words, you’re gonna use a mace to bash a skeleton, and a silver sword to fight undead. Stuff like that. Combat, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of games, is horrible and awkward, half dice rolling and half finicky placement that, in my case, requires some shifting from mouse to keyboard and dancing around while you bop whatever enemy you’re facing, but for whatever reason, the combat is coming off as endearingly horrible and awkward.

Basically, Veil of Darkness is Quest for Glory 4 without the puns. You’re an incredibly Aryan, incredibly blonde, incredibly square-jawed fellow taking your daredevilly plane over mountains of Transylvania–as you do–when the local vampire flings a few bats at the cockpit, causing you to crash–there’s a great scene where the vampire is gloating in his castle as he sees a vision of your plane. The art is gorgeous, I must add. The valley is so isolated that nobody even knows what a plane is, and you’re prophesized to save everyone from the supernatural curses. The prophecy itself serves as a neat riff on the quest journal–it’s in the form of a cryptic poem, as these things usually are, and as you decipher each line and solve the related problem, it fades away, allowing you to track your progress as you go through the steps of the prophecy.

The game is very well-paced–it opens up new areas steadily enough that the initial stages give off a sense of progress even though most of what you’re accomplishing is simply meeting characters and learning the locations. Many of the quests are in several parts–find the goblet, the ashes of someone you want to resurrect, AND three somewhat-rare silver coins is a major one. I’ve found the goblet in the course of other branches of investigation, and while I don’t need to resurrect anyone just yet, this sequence is firmly held in a balance between the satisfaction of progress and the mystery of an unsolved puzzle. And in the same location, there’s a locked door and another character who has his own curse. The quests are very intricately knotted together.

Veil, being an adventure game made in the very early 90s, is, at its heart, a gigantic puzzle which uses its narrative as its puzzle pieces. There’s a keyword dialogue system, and not every keyword is decided for you: One character requires a certain herb, and you find another character chewing on a sprig of it. She suggests you ask her son; you’ve got to remember that and type the keyword in. Which reminds me that I haven’t been taking very careful notes; I think you need to take notes. The RPG elements are just kind of there–you can warp out to a healer with a couple of clicks at any time, it seems, and get freely healed to 100%–but the challenge of the game lies in untangling the knot.

The interconnectedness of it goes a long way towards worldbuilding. If everything is General Transylvania, it’s a fairly well-realized version of it, and the story even goes out of its way to not make it a simple Dracula retelling–there’s a short story in the manual which details a fairly original backstory for the main villain, and its one which, purple as it is, goes a long way towards reinforcing the plot. The characters all know each other, and many of the situations are a nice little soap opera of so-and-so wrongfully accusing so-and-so for someone else’s murder; a witch, who’s intent on wresting a secret from the monastery, has a spell cast on the wrongfully-accused man; her grandfather, in ghost form, is guarding the mausoleum–frankly, it’s hilariously ridiculous typing it all out, we’re practically in Dark Shadows territory. When it’s revealed that a catatonic woman who knows a secret was the fiancee of another character’s previously unmentioned dead son–I mean, this shit is awesome.

80 – Thunderscape

It’s hard to tell what’s gonna click and when. The first few times I attempted Thunderscape I petered out somewhere in the second level. Where the first area is a somewhat open area filled with a couple simple puzzles, the second is a winding cavern, and a fairly awful automap made the experience a miserable one. Yesterday I gave it a whirl and ended up playing for five solid hours.

Thunderscape comes to us from the World of Aden, which was a setting that SSI really wanted to happen but, frankly, couldn’t really get off the ground. In addition to Thunderscape, they published a game called Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall as well as three novels, and what I’ve played of both games gives kind of an idea as to why the setting might have failed. It doesn’t really seem to have an identity: Both games are very different: Thunderscape is a broody first person turn based dungeon crawler where Entomorph is a third person hack and slasher set in a colorful insect laden island. I’ve only scratched the surface of Entomorph, but Thunderscape doesn’t do a great job of making the setting clear. That’s a problem too.

The backstory, and the most salient bit of lore that we get (Thunderscape’s manual has no flavor text, no short stories about the world, just a little bit of handwaving around the different possible player species) is that sometime in the recent past, something called the Darkfall happened in the peaceful world of Aden. You’ve read fantasy novels before so you can probably figure out the gist of it: During this night, demons and other monsters called Nocturnals invaded. A magical barrier called The Shield prevents their main forces from full-on destroying everything, but a small force of Nocturnals manages to disable the barrier. In Thunderscape, your party is tasked with restoring it.

Thunderscape plays like a cross between Ultima Underworld and Wizardry, and if it isn’t quite as good as either, it’s also–I wouldn’t call it casual by any means, but it is a much less tasking game. The automap, while terrible, is ultimately legible, and once that’s done the bulk of the exploration is fun enough, the puzzles generally hitting that degree where they’re all very solvable but not insulting. I gave up on Wizardry 7 because, even with the hint book, I couldn’t make head nor tail of some of the puzzles or where to go, and it’s not a bad thing to have a direction in mind.

Thunderscape simply doesn’t feel as sprawling as Wizardry can get. The starting area more or less branches in two different directions–troll caves on one side, a cave with a steampunk complex underneath on the other. The troll caves are hidden behind a password and the steampunk complex behind a key found in the troll caves. Ultimately a barrier prevents you from going further, and going further into the troll caves takes you into the area I’m in now, an area I believe will let me remove the barrier.

I’m playing with combat on easy mode, and combat is *extremely* easy–but frankly, the balance is so bizarre that I’m not sure switching to a higher difficulty would be satisfying. For one, you’re given several different types of attacks–if you’re armed with a club, for example, you can do a normal attack, hit vitals, or do a mighty blow–which I’ve found hits just about every time and does so much more damage that it’s a waste to even consider regular attacks. That fellow is doing, let’s say he averages 100 damage. My other attackers are doing about 30-40, and my magic users somewhere around 10. Magic, beyond healing, seems to be useless–casting a spell at a low level does maybe a point or two of damage, and increasing the charge of it uses so much mana that it’s not worth the tradeoff.

I’m not quite sure what I’m finding so compelling about the game but I think it might simply be fun enough and easy enough that it’s a nice relaxing experience. I don’t want *every* game to be grueling, you know.

79 – Serpent in the Staglands, Take 3

And finally it clicks. I roll up an actual party, I manage to give them some actual skills, I go to those two foxes who insisted on eating me and I give them the fight of their goddamn life, I figure out how to get a shield up and how to heal my characters, I get my 6 XP, I save my game, and I go in the opposite direction of the pack of dogs. I encounter a crop goblin–which I will forever call Crap Goblins because that’s funnier–and my team clumsily orchestrates a battle and wins it. We fight another crap goblin, and another, and two at once. We are cocky. We fight a lizard and we win.

We find a tree with a hollow in it that’s too small to enter, but The Schall casts a spell that turns him into a cat and in he goes, where he meets up with a “possessed child”; the only option is to attack, which ends badly. We reload. We avoid the tree. We kill more crap goblins, more lizards. We are drunk on our power and we find a swarm of lizards. And we fight valiantly and we defeat many but one by one, we fall, first Skrellnik, who was in the middle of things; then The Schall, who had no particular combat skills; then Pagan Joe, my healer and my only hope of survival; and finally Godot himself, the deity lost in the unforgiving Staglands.

I think I’m ready to roll up my real party now.

78 – Serpent in the Staglands, Take 2

It turns out it was not actually a pair of wolves who showed up to eat my characters the moment they walked outside–it was, more embarrassingly, a pair of foxes; and even more embarrassingly, I found it out while I met them for the second time and got eaten again.

(This time I’m putting the blame on the game–like Dark Souls, it doesn’t seem to pause when you open your inventory and so my party was getting quietly mauled while I read some scrolls.)

Third time’s the charm: With a slightly better idea of how the system works, I rolled another party, met up with the foxes, and killed them, losing only one party member and getting 6 whole XP.

Down the road, my game pauses: I’ve learned about the autopause settings and have it set for whenever an enemy is in sight, and at the edge of the screen is a single dog. I can totally take a dog. Combat is Baldur’s Gate-style real-time-with-pause, so slightly empowered by reading the manual again, I queue up some spells and set my melee fighters to take care of business, and unpause the game…

…at which point a literal dozen dogs appear from just off of screen and rip us all apart.

Now that it’s the weekend, I’m going to spend a good chunk of time trying to actually get into the system and figure the game out–it’s not that it’s so convoluted that it’s impossible to navigate menus or anything like that, but it’s very much its own beast. While the UI may be slightly too complex in certain spots, it’s not unmanageable. Probably the biggest thing of the game is navigating the spells and skills: From what I can gather, spells are more focused on buff/debuff kind of things rather than the one fireball spell, and I get the sense that the buffs and debuffs are actually useful provided you can figure out how they hit up against each other. There is a moment waiting in the wings, I can tell–a moment that’s gonna have everything click, and I’m looking forward to that very much. This game is a very particular vintage–it’s explicitly not intended for kids, so to speak–and I am so glad that we’re in this weird CRPG renaissance. It’s like the late 90s all over again!

77 – Serpent in the Staglands

Le premier est pour le chien: It’s true for crepes and CRPGs. Most old-school games, if they include enough options for different character builds, have a pre-generated party, the reason being not necessarily that you’re going to actually play these characters, but because if you’re playing with a new system, particularly one with a wide variety of skills, you’ll need at least a little guidance. So you take the starter party, which is usually a fairly decent set of well-rounded characters, and you gauge roughly how stats work in the game, how many levels you’re going to gain, and after you’ve sunk a few hours and made your beginner’s mistakes, you start over and roll a new party. That’s how I did it with Might and Magic, it’s how I did it with Wizardry 6, with Wasteland 2–and it’s how I expected to go through Serpent in the Staglands.

See, SitS is billed on how hard and old-school it is. The manual literally tells you to take out a pen and paper because you’re going to need it. There’s a subtle, friendly challenge in all of the marketing material: This game doesn’t hold your hand like all of those other games do. This is one you’ve got to figure out yourself.

And in that spirit, Serpent in the Staglands does not contain a pregenerated party, gives you only so many stat points available and so, so many types of skills you can put your points into, with their own dependencies–it is a game that quite literally begins and then throws you to the wolves, as in, I began the game, talked to a couple of people outside the first room, walked about 20 feet, and immediately got eaten by a pack of them, at which point, I put the game away, said a few prayers, and fired up Disciples: Sacred Lands, which sucked away two hours of my time and I’ll write about that later.

But it’s shit like this that’s my bread and butter. In the first area, you find a couple of scrolls, one containing a runic language you’ll have to translate, another detailing a keyword-based magic system. That’s separate from the regular magic system which you pour points to. That’s separate from a book that asks you to draw symbols in your own blood. It is a game that incarnates you, gives you hints of some of the challenges to come, and then immediately murders you.

Welcome to the Staglands!