Xploquest bills itself as “perfect for a break between two game sessions” and that’s exactly where I am right now: Regalia is very enjoyable and hitting the “tactical RPG” part of my brain, but it’s not really suited for marathon play–it’s the kind of game you chip away at for an hour or two and then put away for a few days until you feel like making a little more progress at it. Throne of Bhaal is…well, it’s crappy, and you’ll get my thoughts on that, don’t worry. I need a palate cleanser; Xploquest fit the bill.
I love RPGs–you all know that, it’s obvious going through my blog that RPGs are 90% of what I play. There’s a lot going into that love–I tend to like playing fantasy games, I like games that are a little more story focused, and I love all the numbers and shit. I fell hard for the genre back when I was about 7, when I ended up with a copy of Dragon Warrior; that it was the kind of game that the jockier kids in my class hated only sweetened the deal. Dragon Warrior was a slow game, a game with a lot of reading, a game with numbers, a game you had to think about–a game that you wouldn’t do well in if you were stupid. Now granted, I was still a little kid, I was only able to play the game with the help of the hint guide, but I was drawn to it, it was the exact game I wanted to play. It still is.
And, particularly as a kid, the trappings of RPGs were what sold me on them: I liked the idea of a large, sprawling world that the adventures took place in; Super Mario was still fun, was still a game I loved to play, but “here’s a level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level” seemed kind of shallow compared to “explore this land and figure out, or read in the hintbook, where you’re supposed to go next”. And I’ve always loved wizards, and magic, and dragons, and I loved a game that was basically reading a story about wizards, and magic, and dragons. As an adult, Dragon Warrior has relatively little text, but as a kid, that little text was all I needed in order to fill in the blanks. I remember Alefgard as this living, breathing world with people going about their days, with secrets hidden in nooks and crannies, as this large thing where I was this tiny hero. If there is one thing from childhood that I wish I were still able to tap into–that, as a writer, I try to tap into, and sometimes vaguely succeed–it is this ability to be overwhelmed by a story.
I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud in college and what’s stuck with me from that is his discussion of “the iconic” in comics. He describes a continuum with two dots and a line forming a smiley face — pure iconography — on one end and a photograph — pure realism — on the other.. The photograph represents one and only one person; the smiley face can represent just about every person. Drawings somewhere in the middle of that continuum have a weird power where they have enough details to narrow down the field a bit but they’re abstract enough to still have a wide range. This allows us, McCloud argues, to project ourselves into the comic more easily than you can with a more realistic drawing style–more people recognize themselves in Charlie Brown than Mark Trail.
But I know I don’t always project myself into a comic, even if the drawing style does lean heavily into the iconic. My enjoyment of Persepolis does not come from my identification with the Marjane Satrapi character–even as I might recognize character traits we have in common. Perhaps the iconic style helps mitigate what is a very specific, personal story–it cracks the door open a bit and makes it more accessible. But I find the iconic’s true power to be related to something else McCloud talks about. Comics are, after all, static images often broken up by panels. McCloud uses the example of a comic about someone committing an ax murder (!) — one panel of the killer holding the ax above his head, the next of a shot of the cityscape with a scream ringing out. The actual murder is not depicted–it takes place in our minds, suggested by the scene transition. We essentially animate the scenes in our heads.
And just so, drawings that take place on the more iconic end of the scale require a little more work on our end–we fill in more details in our minds. Persepolis is describing real events which happened in real places to real people–when I read it, I cannot help but use the pictures as a guide to imagine what it all “really” looked like. Comics become one of those mediums which exist in a weird sort of collaboration between the cartoonist and my imagination, and as a result, they end up becoming weirdly personal to their readers*. My impression of Persepolis or Cerebus or The Sandman will have a lot in common with yours, but they won’t be exactly the same–and, most poignantly, we won’t ever be able to access each other’s.
For me, Dragon Warrior hit that sweet spot on the iconic-realistic continuum–it was enough that it gave me the strokes of the world, but it was just sketchy enough that it encouraged me to fill in the blanks myself. Super Mario was a challenge, and a lot of fun, but Dragon Warrior? You know, when Betty Crocker introduced boxed cake mixes, they initially contained powdered eggs–it was a “just add water” thing–and the cakes still tasted as good as a boxed cake mix can taste, but people hated them until they came up with the idea to make you add your own egg in. The simple act of having people actually crack open an egg and stir it in gave a feeling of participation–just adding water wasn’t doing any work, but if you added an egg, you felt like you actually baked something. Dragon Warrior was the first game I ever played that made me feel like I baked. You could do far worse to determine a necessary facet of role-playing games. It’s right there in the name: You need to add yourself into the mix to give the game some ruach.
But Xploquest–the game I’m ostensibly writing about–is much, much further on the scale of the iconic, and I would suggest that it doesn’t invite us to add an egg, so to speak–it is a pure plotless RPG and it doesn’t need one. The game could be simple colored squares, or ASCII symbols, although the art is simple, boldly-colored, and, to my eyes, really pleasing. You’re in a generic fantasy kingdom–or maybe not even a kingdom, as there is no castle–with several towns, all alike, and some generic terrains. You can buy some generic potions or some generic spells, purchase and upgrade some generic weapons, and whap some generic monsters in order to get XP and gold. The dungeons are literally all 10 fights, all the same. There’s some caves with different layouts, but they’re not mazelike in anyway. It is as stripped down of an RPG as you can get: Try to make a set of numbers–representing monsters–go down while trying to keep a different set of numbers–representing you–up; every so often, the numbers representing you become higher and you know you’re progressing. An RPG stripped to its bare ludic bones.
And Xploquest was absolutely fascinating to me. I played for two straight hours one night, and three the next–at which point I was finished, and I don’t think I could have taken it for much longer–but it was exactly the kind of numbery exercise that I liked. See, Throne of Bhaal is wearing on me, and the whole Baldur’s Gate saga, my whole “let’s beat every Infinity Engine game again” thing, it’s a huge project and I am weary. And, as Ben Chandler pointed out in the comments (please comment, I love comments!), that weariness is part and parcel of playing epic games, and maybe even a nice bit of ludonarrative consonance–every hero is tempted to give up in the face of the enormity of the task, heroism is only meaningful if you push past it and win–but it still kind of sucks. I don’t know why I do it sometimes.
But Xploquest reminded me that sometimes I just like to see a bunch of numbers go up in order to see how much fun I’m having. I’ve said that the big joy of RPGs is going back to the early areas and wiping the floor with the monsters, and Xploquest not only gives you that, it scales encounters to your level, and even does this nice thing where it decides certain encounters are beneath you, and also lets you face them anyway if you’re feeling impish. It’s balanced excellently. It even avoids the temptation to be a roguelike–it avoids the urge to bullshit us by pretending to have “infinite replay value because everything is random”–and features one and only one overworld map. The map is the way it is out of pure challenge–easier areas are here, and the harder areas are here, and you explore everything in vaguely this order, and oh man, why don’t roguelikes understand that I’m probably not going to play their game 50 times, I’m just going to play it the once, so just figure out what the best map design is and just give me that?
Listen, Xploquest is a little free game I found on Steam, I believe it’s a port of a mobile game, it is not necessarily the kind of game that earns philosophical ramblings–but I’m still damn glad I played it, and I love RPGs, and I love talking about RPGs and all–and you know what? I said the game was iconic, meaning that I get to see a lot in it. This is, simply, what I saw when I was playing it. I baked.
* I’m flashing back to Existentialism and Literature by Jean-Paul Sartre which I read something like 10, 15 years ago and so don’t have the fluency to discuss that well, but there’s a bit where he’s talking about literature in these terms: A book is just black marks on a page without a reader to understand and interpret them, and so, this blog post you’re reading does not exist in itself unless someone is reading it–a tree does not make a sound if it falls in the forest without anyone to hear it. Contrast that to a movie–you put a movie or a TV show and you walk out of the room, it is still going to exist even if it does not have an observer. And now I’m also getting a flashback to a philosophy class I took where the professor began the very first class by asking “How do you read?”, and every single answer anyone gave–“I look at the words on the page and I understand what they mean”–lead to another question–“How do you understand them?”–and every answer to the followup lead to another followup, and half of the class dropped out the next day. I miss philosophy classes but man, am I glad I’m out of school.